Take a Shortline bus an hour North and West of New York City and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Sterling Forest, a big old hilly wilderness full of rocks, deer, day trippers, and mosquitoes the size of quarters. In the summer there’s a Renaissance festival. In the winter there’s a small ski center. That’s it for miles and miles – oak trees, treacherous little rocky streams, and ticks full of Lyme disease.
On one side is the town of Tuxedo – a glorified stop on the Appalachian Trail consisting of a post office, an old stone bank, and a historic library. Somewhere embedded in the library’s foundations is a turn-of-the-century 10-pin bowling ally straight out of Rip Van Winkle. In the late 90’s a small deli moved next door with magazines and candy bars, and it was a BIG FUCKING DEAL.
In the midst of all this pristine dirt and poison ivy, some quirk of politics or bribery has carved out a tiny housing development up the side of Laurel Ridge, a little mountain off of Route 17A. It’s a tiny pocket of lawns and wooden shingle siding, waging a bloody battle with with the strangle vines and leaf-mold of the deep Catskills. Another quirk of politics means that it’s zoned, not for the schools in Greenwood Lake a couple mountains over, but for the distant Monroe-Woodbury district way over in the valley. Which is a good thing, because Greenwood lake was a real heroin-fest, if elementary-school rumor could be believed.
In 1985, my parents, newly back in the States so I could get an American education, moved into the most decrepit house in Laurel Ridge. For a pair of penniless hippies a good school was worth more that a reasonable residence, but the Catskills had definitely won this time. Rotted beams and carpets, gaping holes in the walls… it was huge, a ramshackle 8-bedroom monstrosity built into the side of a hill, and every ceiling was choked with spider webs. You could knit a sweater from the sheer volume of webs. No matter how many times you picked them off the ceiling fans, they’d be back again the next morning with a big fat hairy spider sitting right in the center, grinning and waving his middle finger at you.
Lenny showed up shortly afterwards. He was probably in his late 20’s, with a long nose, high cheekbones, and long dark curly hair that seemed impossibly exotic. One morning he was suddenly there, balancing on a step-stool in the second floor hallway. Lenny was the Handyman. Lenny was here to Fix The House.
In the dark hours before school I’d stand in my nightgown chewing on a frozen Eggo waffle and watch him spackle the hallway (No one can spackle like Lenny, my mom would boast to me, age 6 – she had yet to make friends in the neighborhood). He used careful zigzag strokes with his hands, up and down and back again, slowly, methodically, patching the torn shreds of the house together with white paste. When he caught me watching he would pull a mock serious face and bellow, “I’m going to spackle your nose!” and I would squeal and hide behind the couch.
The woods are so so quiet. For a place only an hour away from Manhattan, it’s completely possible to go mad from the sound of the blood singing in your own ears at night. My parents, transplanted from 10 years in the heart of Geneva, probably felt it even more. On evenings when they were home Lenny would join us at dinner, our strange little family all sitting around the dining room table together. Lenny was friendly and polite, and my parents were opinionated and lonely, and they talked long past when the last shake-n-bake chicken cutlet was gone.
Lenny was religious – not the good-deeds-and-strong-community kind of religious, the kind of religious that costs it’s practitioners a lot of money. It was a small born-again church with rules I didn’t understand, like allowing divorce but not remarriage. The sect had only a couple dozen adherents, all of whom spent every waking moment earning and donating the cash that would change their fate from Hell-bound to Saved. Out of earshot, my mother speculated that perhaps the basic duality was comforting for Lenny, whom she described, with a sigh as a ‘simple soul.’ I had no idea what she meant, but all grownups are complicated when you’re a kid.
One night he brought us a pamphlet called “I dare you to believe in Jesus” which he was very proud of having read all the way through. My parents asked him to tell us about it with honest curiosity, but he became confused and overwhelmed, and we changed the subject.
My father asked if he was planning to join his church’s board, but he said no, God had another plan for him. God would show him the way. He didn’t know what what it would be, but he was sure it would be wonderful.
In the meantime, Lenny helped out. Soon, he had moved in. His ramshackle quarters down by the train tracks had been condemned because of the the illegal dump in its backyard (years later it was proved to be a favorite mafioso spot for stashing bodies). We certainly had room for him – in fact, once he’d removed some of the terrible wood paneling it turned out that the entire basement was a complete, self-contained apartment. He even had his own entrance.
My parents spent their evenings waiting tables at the Duck Ceder Inn a couple towns over to save extra cash for home repairs and college funds, and within a couple months, Lenny had become my full-time babysitter. Each night after they drove away in their crisp black and white uniforms we’d reheat leftovers and sit across from each other at the dining room table making terrible puns until bedtime, which was always later than it was supposed to be if I promised not to tell. The next morning the culinary spoils of my parent’s evening would be on the kitchen counter: complicated little cakes or shreds of chicken with strange sauces. Or sometimes, nothing at all – “It was bad food and not enough of it!” my mother would announce.
Once Lenny asked her if he could cook for us instead. He drove to the local IGA but he quickly became overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. By the time he returned home, with a single container of mushrooms to show for his efforts, he was close to tears.
In the Fall he’d help us rake the property, an epic three day sweatathon that involved scouring the dirt of the forest floor with a variety of implements. Wire rakes snagged on roots and rocks as we herded the leaves into drifts taller than myself, mountains of leaves that ate all recognizable landmarks. It was much too thick for anything as effete as a leaf blower; sometimes we used shovels. Lenny was an expert at the wide swinging motion required to beat the dried curls out of the pachysandra. It was a ludicrous, Sisyphean activity. At night we’d all ritually dose ourselves with Advil and check our necks for ticks.
In the spring he would come to my school chorus recitals. One year we sang the folk classic “The Marvelous Toy ” with its numerous farting and splatting sounds. He really really liked it. “It went Pthhhh when it stopped” he crowed happily all the way home, sitting in the back of the minivan while I giggled.
Now that he was living rent free, why didn’t he take a class at the Community College suggested my father. With his spackling skills and some basic business savvy, he could really do things. Lenny declined.
In fact, Lenny had no education at all, and no bank account or mailing address. He had managed to survive so far, assisted by a gentle hopefulness, and the fact that he was, I now realize, outrageously good looking in an 80’s kind of way. God was guiding him, he said. God would provide. God had sent us to him just when he needed it. Its true, he admitted, he wanted his own house and a wife and family, but they would come when God was ready to give them to him.
I didn’t understand what any of it meant, but it certainly sounded important and meaningful. As puberty loomed off in the distance and I become dimly aware that not everyone lived alone on top of a stupid mountain in the middle of a stupid forest, Lenny’s philosophy was an intriguing ray of light in the stifling greenery. Surely this was freedom, freedom with no ties or baggage, wandering where the winds of fate decreed, trusting in providence and the kindness of strangers, the romance of independence.
Lenny became an inconsistent constant in and out of our lives. Sometimes he would be gone for years. Then suddenly, one morning there he would be again, rewiring a ceiling fan, clearing the vines from the roof, replacing the broken glass, as if he had never left.
At some point he acquired an ex-wife and a couple of kids down in Florida. He didn’t talk about them though.
Puberty came and went, and the old carpets were ripped up and replaced by shiny new hardwood. The rotting back porch I once fell through was replaced with a new wooden model, with a railing and screens to keep out the mosquitoes. The house was running out of bad.
My mother found a friend on the other side of the Ridge just a couple of miles away. My Father began training for the local volunteer Ski Patrol. The light at the end of the green leafy tunnel that was college slowly grew closer. Lenny left for Fort Myers. Then he’d come back with a hard luck story about a business partnership gone sour, or a job he’d turned down because he hadn’t felt ready for it. Then he’d be gone.
Sometime in late high school Lenny showed up again. It had been a long time, long enough that the occasion merited what had now become a rare formal dinner in the dining room. I took a break from SAT prep, and my Mother called in sick to New City Library. My Father left his office early, giving who-knows-what excuse to the secretaries.
We sat around the table chewing through a giant steak and asked Lenny about his travels. He said he’d been doing well. He’d turned down some more permanent jobs because he still was’t ready for them but he was sure there would be more. He had seen his kids recently. Things were hard, but he still believed that God had a path for him.
He had discovered Karaoke. On Wednesday nights a local bar had a machine, where he’d sing God Bless America. “The room goes silent every time. Just dead silent.” he told us proudly. It felt weird. A middle-aged man singing Karaoke by himself was weird. The earnestness of his emotions made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t exactly embarrassed – it was Lenny, who used to spackle my nose – but we all tried not to catch each others’ eye.
The following Fall I left for college and I never saw Lenny again. But my parents did. It was a couple of years ago, my mother called me as I walked through Union Square on my way home from the office. I remember the day because we had just finished launching a big project at work, and I was feeling pretty damn good about the world. “Guess who showed up at our door last night,” she crowed. I knew at once, before she even said his name, that it was Lenny.
This was a more difficult feat than it sounded. My parents had gotten the hell out of Laurel Ridge the second the school wasn’t needed anymore. They had sold the house for a sizable increase and resettled in southern Virginia. It was on top of another mountain, and the trees were just as thick, but the food was a lot better. Tracking them down would have been difficult, especially for a man who admitted he’d rarely touched a computer.
However he did it, he had showed up for a night, along with his new wife. My mother hadn’t asked if this meant his religion had modified its stance on remarriage. Things were already awkward enough.
Lenny was a old man now. A lifetime without health insurance had left him physically battered, his back stooped, the cheekbones hidden by sagging skin and broken veins. He looked tired, distant, bewildered by the progress of the years. A man who had spent his life waiting for his God to tell him what to do.
His new wife was tiny, silent and resentful, or maybe just distrustful, observing my parents from under her thin mousy brows over the stir fry. At any moment it seemed she might make a break for the door. They had met at church just recently; who knows what stories Lenny had told her about the wacky Jews with which he had spent a more than a decade. She was a baker, Lenny said. She had a stable job decorating cakes at their local supermarket.
That’s wonderful, said my mother! At last what you always wanted. What a great way to start out a new life together.
Well, actually, Lenny qualified, shortly before their courthouse date an acquaintance had offered him the opportunity to relocate his car for him across the country. The payment was good. But Lenny’s soon-to-be-wife didn’t have any time off at the grocery store. They had stayed up all night, praying to God for guidance, kneeling on the carpeted floor of her room. Did God want them to take the gig?
Apparently he did – in the morning they decided to leave. She had quit her position at the grocery store, and now they were on their way to deliver the car to California. Once they got there, God would tell them what they should do next.
My parents sat in uneasy silence for a few moments, rendered speechless by the perversity of the situation. Finally, my father cleared his throat. I can picture him putting on his best ‘Father voice.” Then he told this joke.
“There’s a pious man, who’s spent his whole life praying to God. And he’s caught in a flood. So he climbs up onto his roof and he starts praying: Hey God, my faith is strong. I know you won’t let me drown. Save me from the water. And his neighbor comes by in a boat saying, hey, the water’s rising, get in! And the man says, no, my faith is in God, he’s going to save me. And his son came by in a boat saying, get in! And the man says, no, God is going to save me. And the Mayor came by in a boat saying, get in! And the man says, God is going to save me. And he drowns. And he gets to heaven and stands before God. And he says, God, why didn’t you save me? And God says, what do you mean – I sent you three boats!”
Lenny laughed at the story, but he didn’t really seem to understand what my Father was trying to say. The little wife didn’t say a word.
At last the meal was over, and my Mother put them in one of the upstairs guest rooms. In a moment of privacy she slipped the woman some new lingerie she had planned to return to Macy’s. It was a gross impropriety, but she said it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It was only their second night together as man and wife, and the woman had seemed so completely bewildered and overwhelmed by it all.
Perhaps the delicate lace and bows could tie their fragile relationship together for long enough.