“Is it safe?” asks Brand New Husband.
I have just driven the car up through the middle of a rocky Vermont cow pasture and have come to an abrupt halt beside a ramshackle hovel. We have traveled an hour and a half from the nearest major airport. I have told him we’re taking the back way in, to surprise my family. He is nervously needing to pee.
Peeing is not an immediate option. An artful tableau is arranged around the faded red sway-backed shack: Ma O’B has pink rollers in her hair. She’s wearing faded worn-out cast-offs and a dirty apron and is clutching a broom that’s seen better days. Pa O’B hasn’t shaved in several days. His old jeans are filthy enough to stand by themselves in the corner. Lil’ Sister O’B pats her hugely pregnant belly and smiles to show her missing tooth. Lil’ Brother O’B chews on a straw and is stuffed, shirtless, into pants that are a size or two too small for him. It’s all quite festive.
“Is it safe?” asks Brand New Husband.
I am finally able to look at him. I have not made eye contact since we hit the Vermont border and he started asking keen and penetrating questions about location (my parents live in upstate NY). “Oh, this is just the back way in,” I say. “My town’s right on the border. They’ll be watching for us from the front road. We’ll surprise them.” Brand New Husband foolishly trusts his brand new wife. He knows the depth of her absolute lack of directional sense but knows, too, that she grew up in the area. He gives her the benefit of the doubt.
I have married a man my family hasn’t yet met. They expected a different groom, later this same summer. I’ve come east by myself for a few days to assure them that I
a) am not pregnant
b) have not fallen prey to some pimp
c) have not fallen prey to some cult-like religion (Catholicism excluded)
d) have not fallen prey to some playboy out for my money or body (as if I ever had either).
New Husband is to join us after I lay the necessary reassuring groundwork. It seems like a good idea at the time.
“Is it safe?” ask the people of Windsor, VT, after a 120-cubic-yard pile of goat manure bursts into spontaneous flame last week. A dairymaid on her way to do the milking at the 800-goat Oak Knoll farm discovers the fire at 3:00 AM. She waters down the flames, but the pile continues to smolder, casting a dawning pall over town. Vermont often seems like heaven – but that morning in Windsor it must seem like hell. Fire and brimstone can surely smell no worse than the thick heavy stench of burning goat shit heaped 20 feet tall.
I do know that the word “dairymaid” is a hopeless anachronism. But it’s so sweet and pastoral – when else in my life am I likely to be able to use a term straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel? I also know that the dairymaids at Oak Knoll farm are more likely to wear heavy jeans and rubber boots than bonnets and voluminous skirts, more’s the pity. And rather than mooning demurely over the handsome goatherd, they are more likely to be sexting that goat Anthony Weiner.
Weiner has announced that he is “100% NOT sexting” anyone anymore. Now, I know that I myself am also a hopeless anachronism. It has always been my impression that NOT doing something means that you are – well — NOT doing it. Period. We can cite percentages, now? I might say, for instance, that “I am (75%) NOT being unfaithful to Husband anymore,” and get away with it? I might declare, “I am (50%) NOT getting drunk anymore??” Or, “I am (25%) NOT eating huge mounds of Cheetos anymore?”
“Is it safe?” Even a Cheeto devotee like me would ask that, presented with the latest in Japanese snacking. The people who are making radioactive tea of the sea have now come up with Pepsi-flavored Cheetos. “In these snacks, the cheese powder has been replaced with a cola powder that is disturbingly not brown,” writes a trend-setting taste-tester. He adds that the puffy little snacks “even fizz a little” when you chew.
Violent extremists need to eat more Cheetos (known as “Chee-tos” until 1998, when for various clandestine reasons the Frito-Lay folks deleted the dash). You eat more Cheetos, you get too fat and complacent and lazy and unhealthy to be a violent extremist anymore. Eating lots of Cheetos is the key to world peace. It has worked in America.
It could work elsewhere. Scientists in Syria waste their talents on chemical weaponry when they might better be inventing roasted-goat-flavored Cheetos (Syrians eat a lot of roasted goat). They could even offer a smoked-goat-shit flavored variety to the cognoscenti. Satisfied Syrians would lick their fingers happily and forget all about waging raging civil war.
“Is it safe?” ask Damascus grandmothers, wondering what to feed their families. Damascus fathers and brothers and sons are all off killing goats and each other, leaving the problems of living for the women to solve. Days after a poison gas attack killed hundreds of people in crop-growing suburbs, residents of the Syrian capital are afraid that their food and water supplies are contaminated.
I’d be afraid, too. Western countries believe that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces recently carried out the worst chemical weapons attack since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
They think they’ve got it bad? Our own President wants to provide everyone with affordable health care: the horror, the horror.
“Is it safe?” I ask, standing at the farmer’s market buying a 25-pound box of Colorado western slope peaches.
The lovely young farmer (wholesome as a dairymaid) hands me a sample, explaining that the fruit is organic, picked just the day before. The peach is heavy in my hand and bigger than my fist. When I bite into it, juice runs down both sides of my chin. The essence of summer is distilled into that peach; it is manna from Palisade.
How should it be that I am gorging on perfect pesticide-free peaches while the women of Damascus scrounge for sarin-laced foodstuffs? How should it be that my Japanese counterpart pauses between Pepsi-flavored Cheetos and strawberry-frosted ones (another horrible Asian truth), agonizing over her crunchy snacking choices, while the desperate women of Damascus are afraid to give their children water? How is this fair? How is this God’s Good Plan? Clean thoughts and pure living have not earned me this position of privilege (please see theoretical behavioral percentages, above).
It’s all such a crapshoot – sometimes the shot lands you in a pile of goat manure and ignites it, and sometimes the shot lands you in peaches and cream. I made eighteen jars of peach jam this morning. In the dreary dark of February, I will spread my morning toast with jam that tastes like sunshine and find in the jar this preserved summer’s day. Why am I so lucky?
Husband is lucky, too. His marital crapshoot lands him in a Vermont pasture, surrounded by a mob of ersatz hillbillies. No goat shit anywhere — just plenty of cow dung.
It’s all Husband’s fault. “They’ll think I’m a hick,” says he, a shy Denver boy fretting about meeting his doubtlessly sophisticated new New York family. Husband resolves to swagger off the plane wearing fancy cowboy boots and a fringy rodeo shirt and a big-ass Stetson, ready to tell them all what a fine filly they done raised.
I relay this plan to my family a night or two before Husband is to arrive. It is after dinner. We are drinking wine. We are feeling peachy. My family likes this plan. But, “we’re the ones who’ll seem like real hicks to someone who grew up in Denver,” says Mother. Sister disappears, like the Cheetos dash. We discuss the nature of hick-dom. We drink more wine.
Sister returns to the dining room. She has blacked out a tooth with eyebrow pencil. She has donned an old flannel shirt and stuffed a pillow beneath it – she waddles with pseudo-pregnancy. “I reckon if he wants hicks, we kin give him hicks,” says she. A lively planning session ensues: I am to drive to the airport while the rest of the family gets into ice-breaking costumed position.
“But you can’t bring him up to this house,” says Father. “He’ll know it’s all a fake as soon as you round the corner. If we’re going to do this up right, you need to take him over to Deer Camp.”
And so, family history is made. Brand New Husband, baptized by fire, is immediately accepted into the O’Brien ranks. We all laugh, loudly and at length, and then don’t have to spend the rest of the week awkwardly discussing the weather. It is brilliant.
But, “is it safe?” asks Husband. It’s been 29 years, and I still don’t have an answer for him.[subscribe2]