Mansion of Gloom

August 31, 2008

. . .  at length [I] found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.  . . . I know not how it was; but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. . . .  I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul. . . Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn . . . .
— Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849, American author
from “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839

As I approached the Firefly B&B in Lincoln, Vermont last Monday afternoon, I came upon a braided cable gate stretched across the rutted dirt lane that led up to the house. I had gotten there via a packed dirt access road I’d followed for several miles, having turned off Route 125 sixteen miles before that to follow a winding and sometimes dangerous road up the mountain from Ripton. I should have taken it as a sign.

The innkeeper came out to meet me. She showed me how to operate the spring-loaded gate handle that dropped the cable so I could drive through. I then had to get out of my car and rehang the gate. She said I would have to do this each time I left and came back (hoping that the horses — an elderly Tennessee Walker and an even older Quarter Horse, both with foot problems — hadn’t taken the opportunity to sashay down the lane).

My sojourn at the Firefly was to last three days. The day before I’d concluded my sixth annual participation in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, ten days of literary stimulation so intense and so productive that I was sorely in need of a break. For the first time I was not immediately driving the 450 miles back to Pennsylvania and the ordinary life of housekeeping and bill paying and detail managing that I’d left behind while I devoted myself to my development as a fiction writer. Lynn’s not playing field hockey anymore, and I had time this year to catch my breath, process in silence and solitude all the input I’d received, and chart my course for the next year.

I picked the Firefly the way I’ve picked almost every accommodation I’ve visited in six years of gallivanting — from pictures and description on the facility’s own web site. This place seemed right for me. It offered a peaceful, private setting, a room on the first floor, Internet access, and spectacular views.

The views were indeed spectacular.

I was allowed to drive my car up to the deck to unload. I carried in a small suitcase, the backpack with my laptop and its myriad accessories, and a basket with the writing tools and materials I was planning to work with. The innkeeper (we’ll call her Frau, since she is German and receives a German-language magazine by that name) remarked on how very much stuff I seemed to have.

The deck led to a large area that combined the living room, dining room, and kitchen. I said that I’d like to eat first before putting my things away. I set out the large chicken salad wrap sandwich and soda I’d bought at the Lincoln General Store. That’s when I found myself sitting across from the loudest ticking clock I’d ever heard. It was beating, beating like a drum, like the hideous heart in another Poe tale. It seemed to have a two-beat echo — ca-clunk, ca-clunk.

“Is there a way to disable the clock?” I asked. “That is really quite loud.”

“Absolutely not,” said Frau. “That is the only clock in the house. I don’t even notice it. You must have very keen hearing.”

I pulled out my laptop and the power cord. “Is there wireless?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Frau, “but you’ll have to use that on battery. You may plug it in only to recharge, and it must be turned off. Otherwise it uses too much electricity.” I noticed then that the clocks on the microwave, the gas stove, and the satellite tv receiver were all dark. Saving electricity, I guessed.

I ate only half the sandwich. “May I put the rest of this in the refrigerator?” I asked.

“Well, if you must,” said Frau. “The refrigerator can get quite cluttered with guests’ food.” (We should note here that I was the only guest and no others were expected until the weekend, when Frau would have a full house, “and all hell will break loose.” For someone who depends on paying guests for income, she seems quite averse to their presence.)

My room was at the top of a narrow, dimly-lit stairway, and as I climbed I tried to remember why I thought the room was on the first floor. The low ceiling of the room sloped sharply after about three feet on either side of the door. A double bed was shoved under the slope at one end. A single bed, which held a folded white blanket thick with cat hair (the cat declined to share the room with me), occupied the space at the other end of the room. There was a tiny oval rattan table with a glass top and two chairs that fit snug under it, something like an ice cream set, certainly not something suitable for writing or reading. I plugged in my laptop and climbed into bed for a nap, or what passed for a nap, since my slumber was accompanied by the muffled but still audible mad ticking of the clock.

When I awoke I sat up in bed, forgetting how low the ceiling was, and bashed my head. I went downstairs for the rest of my sandwich and to see Senator Kennedy’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention. The dirty dishes that had been in the sink when I arrived at 4:00 were still there, now joined by more, presumably Frau’s dinner dishes. (The common area for the guests is Frau’s own living area.) She came out of the back bedroom area in her robe and slippers near the end of Senator Kennedy’s appearance and remarked on how for someone who had claimed to be exhausted I was certainly up late.

I spent a fitful and uncomfortable night. I was cold because a window downstairs was open and there was an odor of mold about the place. I woke early and made coffee for myself in the small coffeemaker provided in my room. That’s when I discovered that all of the electrical outlets were controlled by the wall switch. Not only did the coffeemaker not go on until I flipped the switch, my laptop had not recharged and I had no battery power left. The little tubs of half-and-half turned out not to be the UHT variety which needs no refrigeration, but the conventional kind. The substance created curdled bits in the coffee, which tasted chalky anyway.

I tried writing for a while at the cramped table. I had to go out to my car to get my desk lamp because the lighting was inadequate in my room. When I heard Frau moving about in the kitchen I went down to have breakfast. The window beside the dining table was open. It was 45 degrees outside.

“Can we close the window?” I asked. “I’m freezing.”

Frau rolled her eyes. “Well, all right,” she said. “But this is Vermont, you know. You certainly have a lot of  demands.”

She plunked my breakfast down in front of me: two fried eggs (I’d have preferred scrambled, but she didn’t ask), underdone bacon, plain toast from a commercial brand served with unsalted butter, and a dish of chopped fresh fruit. The coffee at least was drinkable, but the incessant ticking of the clock seemed to be echoing in my head.

Upstairs in my room I tried to plan my day, and I realized that I could not be comfortable. There was no place to sit where I could read or write except the common area, where Frau would also be having her day, both of us paced by the infernal ticking clock. I would be confined to my room, hunched over the tiny table or stretched out on the bed to read, since I could not sit up in it. I felt like Pollyanna remanded to the care of her dour and difficult aunt (a story ironically set in Vermont), like Mattie Silver sent to live with Zenobia Frome, like Cinderella. I decided to leave.

I was packed and ready to go just before 11:00. The breakfast dishes had joined the previous day’s  accumulation in the sink, and the fry pan was still on the stove, a rancid bacon odor now rising up from its coagulated grease. I summoned Frau from the back of the house.

“I am leaving,” I said. “I cannot be comfortable here.”

“Well, that’s your choice,” said Frau. “I’ll have to charge you the full fee for your reservation.”

“Fine,” I said. I wasn’t going to argue with her, although it seemed she could do anything she wished. She prepared a bill, and as I wrote the check, I said, “By the way, your web site says the rooms are on the first floor. Actually they’re not, they’re on the second floor.”

“No,” she said, “that is the first floor. This is the ground floor.”

I understood at once. “That’s the European convention,” I said. “This is Vermont. We call this area the first floor and the one above the second floor.”

She sniffed at me. “You should have asked for clarification and made your peculiar needs known.”

She seemed to soften ever so slightly. “Where will you go?” she asked.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

And I was. From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast . . . [and] I found myself crossing the old causeway. I had no clear idea where I would go, and I thought briefly of just going home. But I had things I still wanted to do in the region, two appointments with writing program directors that I was looking forward to.

I followed the Lincoln Gap Road out of the Green Mountain National Forest, and at length found myself on Route 100, heading north. I remembered the Sugar Lodge in Warren, a popular ski lodge that is quiet and low-priced during a summer mid-week, where I had stayed in 2002 on my first August Gallivant, the trip that led me to decide to apply to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I turned up the Sugar Bush Access Road.

“Gimme shelter,” I said. The Sugar Lodge is a Mom & Pop operation, but Mom & Pop are a young couple who have become parents (two sons) only since I visited six years ago. Over the next three days I got the rest and recharging I wanted, visited Goddard College in Plainfield, and began planning my development as a fiction writer for the next twelve weeks.

I’m on my way to the next big things, including the most exciting and important presidential election of my life. I have a plan for finishing my novel and the confidence to follow through.

Thank you for reading, so much, so often.


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