Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Book on Winter

Winter is in the books.

I don’t know all the totals and stats that describe the snow and ice and cold that abused and amused us this year. I didn’t keep a snowfall log and breathlessly announce new precipitation depths to our guests each morning. I didn’t even track my ski days, of which there were dozens, if not scores.

My books are filled not with statistics, but stories. Like the story of the front porch. One Saturday night after dinner in early February, I was out in the dark shoveling. It had been snowing hard all day, and for the first time this winter the snow was heavy and wet. The shoveling was brutal, and I was forced to take smaller bites of the mushrooming piles at my feet, for fear that my back, heart, or lungs would give out.

Saturday night snowfalls are the second best night for snow. Sunday nights are the best, because there’s no one around: everyone clears out of a ski town on Sundays in the winter, so the snowfall is uninterrupted by any traffic. Saturday nights are a close second, and that’s what I was thinking last February as I shoveled. Then I heard the sounds.

Because it was so quiet, and because it was snowing so hard--two or three inches an hour--I was contained inside my own little cone of silence. To say that sounds were muffled wasn’t exactly accurate; they were detached, as if they were traveling in their own cones, small storm systems of sound in the atmosphere. The occasional car would pass by and I would see it, but its sound would only extend out for a few feet around it, like bands of rain from a hurricane.

But the packet of sound that made me stop shoveling was different. It sounded like a sigh, the relaxing of a cork from a bottle of Champagne. I stood up straight, my back screaming, my bad shoulder aching, my good shoulder considering the same, sweat trickling down my neck and chilling my skin, and I saw it. The roof for the front porch--the porch where my sons waited for the bus every morning--was slowly twisting itself away from the house. The sound of the gentle screech of nails stripping themselves from wood reached me, and I thought I heard something splinter. Then the whole roof fell off to the side with a soft whoosh, landing in the snow. Since the snow was heavy and wet, there was no cliched cloud of white displaced. The roof simply fell. Falling snow immediately began to bury it.

The fallen roof stayed there, buried, until the stubbornly melting snows revealed it. It was rotted in many places, and it probably needed to be replaced, so I was happy the winter had brought it to the ground, making my demolition safer and easier. That’s how we rationalize things like winter destruction around here. We look for the upside.

There are lots of other stories that quantify this winter. Like the obnoxious bill for plowing. Or the flooding in the basement. Or the shredded pool cover. Or the shattered back stairs, victims of falling ice. They’re all ways of measuring winter, and they’re all going in my book.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

An Unexpected Sign of Spring

We had a brilliant idea for a fine Saturday morning: there was an estate sale down the road, and the announcement that appeared in the newspaper listed some things that we could use for the inn, a new couch for the guest living room among them. Our breakfast guests were all leaving early, and the promise of the season’s first yard would be just what we needed to make spring official.

But when we arrived--a few minutes before the stated start time of 9 a.m.--cars lined both sides of Route 100, and a line snaked out the door and around the yard. People stood with cups of coffee, waiting, and children chased each other around a gazebo. For a moment I thought I’d stumbled upon a tractor pull. But the sign out front said “estate sale.”

We’d come to the witness the final throes of a neighboring bed and breakfast, a place that opened up not too long after we became innkeepers, just down the road from us. The place had gone to the bank sometime last year, but it had been out of business longer than that, succumbing perhaps to “innkeeper’s disease,” that curious ailment that leads some to believe that this business is a nice, easy way to retire and make money.

Whatever the reason for the demise of the place, we were still shocked to see so many other people there. What could they want? They weren’t innkeepers. Didn’t they already have enough of their own crap? Or was there a bit of lurid curiosity in them, too. Like us, they’d probably driven by a thousand times, and seen the place empty. Now they smelled a deal, and they’d come to feast.

When the front doors open, all pretense of Vermont politeness was dropped, and the house was rushed. People leapt over the ropes that had been strung to herd buyers, and the frenzy was on. Every stripe of Vermonter was there: children, laughing and playing in the yard; couples, who looked like they were on their first date; the old and infirm, limping with walkers, dragging oxygen tanks behind them, trying to stay afloat amid the surging crowd; there were even a couple of bikers, smoking, jostling with old ladies for position near a breadmaker in the kitchen.

In the few minutes it took the line to slacken and admit us to the place, most everything had been claimed by buyers affixing their red buy tickets to stuff. Beds, couches, pots, pans, paintings, candlestick holders, chairs, even the rugs people were trampling--all of it was snapped up in minutes. I stood back to let the feeding continue.

I thought about the Auberge, and how this could have happened to us had we been--what? Less humble? Pound foolish? When we bought the Auberge, we knew what we were, and what we weren’t, and our vision aligned neatly with the physical realities of a roadside inn. We would never be an upscale inn that could charge three hundred dollars a night, and to try would lead to...well, maybe this. It seemed like I’d been around for too many of these fire sales, foreclosures, and broken dreams.

The crowd had a voracious appetite, buying everything that wasn’t nailed down, and even some stuff that looked permanent, like the hot tub that was built in to the back deck. They bought it all: paintings and chainsaws and chairs with peeling paint; lights and towels and soap dishes. There was no pleasing them. They pushed and they staggered around the house, some obnoxiously loud, others stunned, cowering in corners. I smelled their ashtray breath and saw the relentless glaze of survival in their eyes. They carried out their booty, staggering to their cars, without interruption, and the house began to shrink, like a time-lapse film of a carcass being reduced by ants.

We retreated without finding the one thing we’d really wanted--the couch was gone early, and I saw two burly men dragging it out. I couldn’t wait to get away, and I felt like a little kid again, when thunderstorms used to frighten me out of my wits. Back then, I’d hide in my bed and force myself to sleep, as if the thunder and lightning were just manifestations of my dreams.

Back at the Auberge, I felt a new appreciation for what we’d done over the past 11 years. And though we’re burned out from a busy winter season, we’ll spend the next few weeks detoxing and refocusing, because in this business, foreclosure sales are just one arrogant thought away.