For better or worse, I see myself as Lisa Douglas, Eva Gabor’s character in Green Acres. The Hungarian bride of Oliver Wendell Douglas (a New York City attorney, played by Eddie Albert, who decides he needs to follow his dream to be a farmer), Lisa is having a hard time adjusting to life in the country. Like her, I love New York. Like her, I feel a bit helpless away from the city. Like her, I have no idea how to make living things rise up from the dirt. But unlike her, it was my idea to come out here from our last place just minutes from Washington DC, with DC being the last big city we lived in. That I and not my wife Heather am the one who now feels completely ill equipped for life here in Front Royal is one area where reality has diverged from this particular piece of TV fiction from the 60s. And though I’m not sure what Lisa may have done for a living, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a poet. Which is what I am. And, mind you, I’m not saying I’m making a living as a poet. I have to do other things for that. But just like the waiter serving you your meal at a restaurant in New York City might be a formidable actor, when I upload a document to some website, add a new acronym to a list of a hundred other acronyms, or perform some clerical task too mundane to even mention, I am a poet. And, I like to think, a formidable one at that.
Now I’m not going to lie. Poetry doesn’t prepare me for much of what goes on in the real world—or at any rate it’s not what most people consider preparation. And one of the first instances since moving out to my personal Hooterville where I found myself so ill-prepared and out of place was at a birthday party my then five-year old daughter Maggie was invited to at Loch Linden just outside of town. This time, though, it wasn’t so much my Lisa Douglas syndrome that had me on the verge of freaking out—and yes, my particular affliction means I have a tendency to freak out over things other people don’t even think twice about, or even once, or at all. And what had me on edge was that this was the first birthday party that I’d be taking Maggie to alone.
Usually, both my wife Heather and I take Maggie whenever she’s invited to a birthday party here. Even though the parties are never far away, they’re usually at these homes that are halfway up some mountain. Finding them means you’ll have to make a series of hairpin turns while keeping an eye out for some gravel—or, worse, dirt road—that’s suddenly supposed to be visible when you get to a clearing in the woods. I’ve found that it helps to have Heather navigate while Maggie looks out for those spots where the vegetation looks like it’s thinning out, because that means we may be getting close to whatever hidden road we’re supposed to take.
This time, though, Heather had a meeting with her writers’ group in Winchester at the same time as the party, which meant that, after dropping Heather off with her group, just Maggie and I would be going. Still, getting to the party wasn’t what I thought would be the hardest thing I had to do that afternoon. The hardest part, I thought, was my being at the party. Even after five years of being a parent, children’s birthday parties are still something that fall way outside my so-called comfort zone. But it’s not the kids that I find difficult to be around—in fact, I’m actually pretty good at doing those goofy sorts of things that kids find entertaining. Indeed, what I find difficult, if not frightening, about children’s birthday’s parties are the parents.
Invariably—and this was true even when we were still close to DC—there will be some parent, usually another dad, who will either look at me in a funny way, or else be blatantly hostile toward me. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to people being wary of me, either because of my long, unruly hair or because I don’t look like a proper American. After being and feeling like an outsider in the country I was born in, I’ve learned how to deal with that kind of shit. The problem with being at a kids’ party, though, is that I can’t sneer back at whoever is giving me the evil eye, and I certainly can’t give him the finger or else tell him to go fuck himself. After all, I’m trying to set some kind of example for Maggie—and, perhaps, any other kids who may be there.
At this party, I knew the parents who were hosting it—one of them had even been to our house several times—so I knew that they were cool. But I had no idea who else would be there. So, after finally making it to Loch Linden—after making it over one of those frightening low-water bridges and following one of those winding dirt roads up some mountain I don’t know the name of—we found that comforting clearing in the woods that meant (surprise) we’d actually made it. And we were pretty much on time.
As usually happens at these parties, Maggie immediately ran off to be with her friends. That I’m used to, but usually I have Heather to talk to once that happens. This time, though, I was on my own. Fortunately, there weren’t too many people there yet, just the birthday girl’s parents and a few other parents from Maggie’s school with whom I at least had a nodding acquaintance. So far, so good. After a few minutes I started to think, “shit, I can do this.”
That’s when I heard the first gunshot in the distance. In the city, the sound of gunshots is usually good reason to take cover, because you have no idea exactly where the shots are coming from, who they’re intended for, and where the bullets are eventually going to end up. In the country, you actually have some idea of where the shots are, who they’re intended for, and where they’ll eventually end up because you assume the shots came from a hunter, and that the hunter knows what he or she is doing. At least that’s what you’re supposed to assume. But to me, even if it is a hunter, I still don’t see why I should trust a guy dressed in orange who has a loaded gun on his shoulder any more than I should trust a guy wearing a ski mask who’s got a gun hanging inside his belt.
So, there were some questions I wanted to ask. Questions like, Just because we’re in the country, how do I know that these gun shots aren’t the sound of someone who’s out hunting humans? And Is orange one of those calming colors? I don’t believe it is. And, finally, Why isn’t everyone panicking right now?
The next thing I heard was something that was completely new to me, something which—at least as far as I could tell—had no equivalent in the city. It was one of the most unworldly sounds I’d ever heard. Wounded and forlorn, it sounded like some insane banshee to me at first, until I realized the sound wasn’t human in any way—it was animal. That’s when I heard one of the parents refer to the sound as that of “mountain dogs.”
Yeah, mountain dogs. That, to me, sounded like some clever rural euphemism. I wondered if a more accurate term would have been “wild dog” or “coyote” or “wolf.” After hearing that sound, all I could think of was that old short story by Saki, “The Interlopers,” where rival landowners Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym, who are trapped in the woods by a fallen tree, talk things over and actually reconcile. That’s when they think they hear the sound of their men approaching to come to their aid. But, as the sound gets closer and closer, and they can finally see what’s approaching, they see it’s not men, but wolves. That’s where the story ends, with the horrible assumption being that when the wolves get to them, Ulrich and Georg get their landowning asses eaten up.
It had been decades since I’d thought about that short story, but now it was all coming back to me, along with the fear I felt at the end of it. Of course, no one else at the party seemed to react at all to either the sound of gunfire or to the wolves which I knew, in the back of my mind, were about to set upon us.
It was, certainly, a Lisa Douglas/Green Acres moment for me, and where Lisa Douglas would have said in her thick Hungarian accent, “Oliver, perhaps we should get back in our car immediately,” I was ready to ask “Am I the only one who hears this shit?”
As it turned out, the party at Loch Linden wasn’t too bad once I got used to the sound of gunfire and the howls of the wild dogs. A few other parents from Maggie’s school arrived—parents with whom I’d chatted before at school events and who were quite pleasant—though, as usual at gatherings like these, there was one parent who for whatever reason decided that I wasn’t the sort of person he should be socializing with. And, when I looked over to him, nodded, and said hello, he looked at me blankly before turning away without even a perfunctory “hello” or begrudged nod in return.
When I was a kid I always felt bad when this sort of thing happened—when people ignored me because I was different or else told me to go back to my own country. I’d wish that I weren’t such a freak, or weirdo. I’d wish that I weren’t born an outsider. That somehow I could fit in. That I could feel, for once, like an American.
But that wasn’t going to happen, and I’m not that same quiet kid I was then. Later—it probably wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties—when someone would stare at me with that where-the-fuck-are-you-from look, instead of just feeling bad, I’d stare right back. Stare as I think, What the fuck are you looking at you dumb-ass goon? And, in those cases where they would turn away before I could give the look back at them, I’d go ahead and speak.
This is where my skills as a poet came in handy. What the fuck are you looking at? I’d say. Or Go fuck yourself! Well, OK, maybe it’s hard to wax poetic when someone’s been sneering at you like you’re some savage unworthy of sharing the same restaurant, grocery store, or park with him. For me, the poetry always came later. When these things happened, I behaved more like Lisa Douglas would behave if Green Acres were being produced today on some cable network—and directed by some asshole Quentin Tarrantino wannabe.
Of course, now that I’m a parent, I can’t say the things I used to say to people—not even a simple Fuck you, then to that one parent at the Loch Linden party. But maybe that’s OK. Now, that I’m older, I need to pick my fights better, and accept those occasions when communication of any kind is futile.
After a few hours at Loch Linden, I got Maggie, said goodbye to our hosts, and headed out to pick up Heather. Carefully trying to follow the directions in reverse order down the mountain, I found the low-water bridge again. But somewhere along the way we got lost, and when I finally got to a place I recognized, we were twenty miles east of Winchester. I phoned Heather to tell her we were going to be a little late picking her up.
“Oh that’s fine,” she said. “I’m just sitting here with my coffee, so I’m good.” What she didn’t say—and what she’d hadn’t said in a while—was that she was just glad I wasn’t getting into worse trouble. And something I realized soon after moving to Front Royal—something I wasn’t expecting after leaving the much more densely populated confines of the city—was that trouble was always a possibility here and that sometimes it was a possibility that involved me, while other times it was just around me. But either way, it was always there. lingering on these slow, small town streets and carried aloft in the fresh country air.