Upper Main Street in the village of North Bath, just above the town's two-block-long business district, was quietly residential for three more blocks, then became even more quietly rural along old Route 27A, a serpentine two-lane blacktop that snaked its way through the Adirondacks of northern New York, with their tiny, down-at-the-heels resort towns, all the way to Montreal and prosperity. The houses that bordered Upper Main, as the locals referred to it-although Main, from its "lower" end by the IGA and Tastee Freez through its upper end at the Sans Souci, was less than a quarter mile-were mostly dinosaurs, big, aging clapboard Victorians and sprawling Greek Revivals that would have been worth some money if they were across the border in Vermont and if they had not been built as, or converted into, two- and occasionally three-family dwellings and rented out, over several decades, as slowly deteriorating flats. The most impressive feature of Upper Main was not its houses, however, but the regiment of ancient elms, whose upper limbs arched over the steeply pitched roofs of these elderly houses, as well as the street below, to green cathedral effect, bathing the street in breeze-blown shadows that masked the peeling paint and rendered the sloping porches and crooked caves of the houses quaint in their decay. City people on their way north, getting off the interstate in search of food and fuel, often slowed as they drove through the village and peered nostalgically out their windows at the old houses, wondering idly what they cost and what they must be like inside and what it would be like to live in them and walk to the village in the shade. Surely this would be a better life. On their way back to the city after the long weekend, some of the most powerfully affected briefly considered getting off the interstate again to repeat the experience, perhaps even look into the real estate market. But then they remembered how the exit had been tricky, how North Bath hadn't been all that close to the highway, how they were getting back to the city later than they planned as it was, and how difficult it would be to articulate to the kids in the backseat why they would even want to make such a detour for the privilege of driving up a tree-lined street for all of three blocks, before turning around and heading back to the interstate. Such towns were pretty, green graves, they knew, and so the impulse to take a second look died unarticulated and the cars flew by the North Bath exit without slowing down.
Perhaps they were wise, for what attracted them most about the three-block stretch of Upper Main, the long arch of giant elms, was largely a deceit, as those who lived beneath them could testify. For a long time the trees had been the pride of the neighborhood, having miraculously escaped the blight of Dutch elm disease. Only recently, without warning, the elms had turned sinister. The winter of 1979 brought a terrible ice storm, and the following summer the leaves on almost half of the elms strangled on their branches, turning sickly yellow and falling during the dog days of August instead of mid-October. Experts were summoned, and they arrived in three separate vans, each of which sported a happy tree logo, and the young men who climbed out of these vans wore white coats, as if they imagined themselves doctors. They sauntered in circles around each tree, picked at its bark, tapped its trunk with hammers as if the trees were suspected of harboring secret chambers, picked up swatches of decomposing leaves from the gutters and held them up to the fading afternoon light.
One white-coated man drilled a hole into the elm on Beryl Peoples' front terrace, stuck his gloved index finger into the tree, then tasted, making a face. Mrs. Peoples, a retired eighth-grade teacher who had been watching the man from behind the blinds of her front room since the vans arrived, snorted. "What did he expect it to taste like?" she said out loud. "Strawberry shortcake?" Beryl Peoples, "Miss Beryl" as she was known to nearly everyone in North Bath, had been living alone long enough to have grown accustomed to the sound of her own voice and did not always distinguish between the voice she heard in her ears when she spoke and the one she heard in her mind when she thought. It was the same person, to her way of thinking, and she was no more embarrassed to talk to herself than she was to think to herself. She was pretty sure she couldn't stifle one voice without stifling the other, something she had no intention of doing while she still had so much to say, even if she was the only one listening.
For instance, she would have liked to tell the young man who tasted his glove and made a face that she considered him to be entirely typical of this deluded era. If there was a recurring motif in today's world, a world Miss Beryl, at age eighty, was no longer sure she was in perfect step with, it was cavalier open-mindedness. "How do you know what it's like if you don't try it?" was the way so many young people put it. To Miss Beryl's way of thinking-and she prided herself on being something of a free-thinker-you often could tell, at least if you were paying attention, and the man who'd just tasted the inside of the tree and made a face had no more reason to be disappointed than her friend Mrs. Gruber, who'd announced in a loud voice in the main dining room of the Northwoods Motor Inn that she didn't care very much for either the taste or the texture of the snail she'd just spit into her napkin. Miss Beryl had been unmoved by her friend's grimace. "What was there about the way it looked that made you think it would be good?"
Mrs. Gruber had not responded to this question. Having spit the snail into the napkin, she'd become deeply involved with the problem of what to do with the napkin.
"It was gray and slimy and nasty looking," Miss Beryl reminded her friend.
Mrs. Gruber admitted this was true, but went on to explain that it wasn't so much the snail itself that had attracted her as the name. "They got their own name in French," she reminded Miss Beryl, stealthily exchanging her soiled cloth napkin for a fresh one at an adjacent table. "Escargot."
There's also a word in English, Miss Beryl had pointed out. Snail. Probably horse doo had a name in French also, but that didn't mean God intended for you to eat it.
Still, she was privately proud of her friend for trying the snail, and she had to acknowledge that Mrs. Gruber was more adventurous than most people, including two named Clive, one of whom she'd been married to, the other of whom she'd brought into the world. Where was the middle ground between a sense of adventure and just plain sense? Now there was a human question.
The man who tasted the inside of the elm must have been an even bigger fool than Mrs. Gruber, Miss Beryl decided, for he'd no sooner made the face than he took off his work glove, put his finger back into the hole and tasted again, probably to ascertain whether the foul flavor had its origin in the tree or the glove. To judge from his expression, it must have been the tree.
After a few minutes the white-coated men collected their tools and reloaded the happy tree vans. Miss Beryl, curious, went out onto the porch and stared at them maliciously until one of the men came over and said, "Howdy."
"Doody," Miss Beryl said.
The young man looked blank.
"What's the verdict?" she asked.
The young man shrugged, bent back at the waist and looked up into the grid of black branches. "They're just old, is all," he explained, returning his attention to Miss Beryl, with whom he was approximately eye level, despite the fact that he was standing on the bottom step of her front porch while she stood at the top. "Hell, this one here"-he pointed at Miss Beryl's elm-"if it was a person, would be about eighty."
The young man made this observation without apparent misgiving, though the tiny woman to whom he imparted the information, whose back was shaped like an elbow, was clearly the tree's contemporary in terms of his own analogy. "We could maybe juice her up a little with some vitamins," he went on, "but-" He let the sentence dangle meaningfully, apparently confident that Miss Beryl possessed sufficient intellect to follow his drift. "You have a nice day," he said, before returning to his happy tree van and driving away.
If the "juicing up" had any effect, so far as Miss Beryl could tell, it was deleterious. That same winter a huge limb off Mrs. Boddicker's elm, under the weight of accumulated snow and sleet, had snapped like a brittle bone and come crashing down, not onto Mrs. Boddicker's roof but onto the roof of her neighbor, Mrs. Merriweather, swatting the Merriweather brick chimney clean off. When the chimney descended, it reduced to rubble the stone birdbath of Mrs. Gruber, the same Mrs. Gruber who had been disappointed by the snail. Since that first incident, each winter had yielded some calamity, and lately, when the residents of Upper Main peered up into the canopy of overarching limbs, they did so with fear instead of their customary religious affection, as if God Himself had turned on them. Scanning the maze of black limbs, the residents of Upper Main identified particularly dangerous-looking branches in their neighbors' trees and recommended costly pruning. In truth, the trees were so mature, their upper branches so high, so distant from the elderly eyes that peered up at them, that it was anybody's guess as to which tree a given limb belonged, whose fault it would be if it descended.
The business with the trees was just more bad luck, and, as the residents of North Bath were fond of saying, if it weren't for bad luck they wouldn't have any at all. This was not strictly true, for the community owed its very existence to geological good fortune in the form of several excellent mineral springs, and in colonial days the village had been a summer resort, perhaps the first in North America, and had attracted visitors from as far away as Europe. By the year 1800 an enterprising businessman named Jedediah Halsey had built a huge resort hotel with nearly three hundred guest rooms and named it the Sans Souci, though the locals had referred to it as Jedediah's Folly, since everyone knew you couldn't fill three hundred guest rooms in the middle of what had so recently been wilderness. But fill them Jedediah Halsey did, and by the 1820s several other lesser hostelries had sprung up to deal with the overflow, and the dirt roads of the village were gridlocked with the fancy carriages of people come to take the waters of Bath (for that was the village's name then, just Bath, the "North" having been added a century later to distinguish it from another larger town of the same name in the western part of the state though the residents of North Bath had stubbornly refused the prefix). And it was not just the healing mineral waters that people came to take, either, for when Jedediah Halsey, a religious man, sold the Sans Souci, the new owner cornered the market in distilled waters as well, and during long summer evenings the ballroom and drawing rooms of the Sans Souci were full of revelers. Bath had become so prosperous that no one noticed when several other excellent mineral springs were discovered a few miles north near a tiny community that would become Schuyler Springs, Bath's eventual rival for healing waters. The owners of the Sans Souci and the residents of Bath remained literally without care until 1868, when the unthinkable began to happen and the various mineral springs, one by one, without warning or apparent reason, began, like luck, to dry up, and with them the town's wealth and future.
As luck (what else would you call it?) would have it, the upstart Schuyler Springs was the immediate beneficiary of Bath's demise. Even though their origin was the same fault line as the Bath mineral springs', the Schuyler springs continued to flow merrily, and so the visitors whose fancy carriages had for so long pulled into the long circular drive before the front entrance of the Sans Souci now stayed on the road another few miles and puffed into the even larger and more elegant hotel in Schuyler Springs that had been completed (talk about luck!) the very year that the springs in Bath ran dry. Well, maybe it wasn't exactly luck. For years the town of Schuyler Springs had been making inroads, its downstate investors and local businessmen promoting other attractions than those offered by the Sans Souci. In Schuyler Springs there were prizefights held throughout the summer season, as well as gambling, and, most exciting of all, a track was under construction for racing Thoroughbred horses. The citizens of Bath had been aware of these enterprises, of course, and had been watching, gleefully at first, and waiting for them to fail, for the schemes of the Schuyler Springs group struck them as even more foolish than the Sans Souci with its three hundred rooms had been. There was certainly no need for two resorts, two grand hotels, within so small a geographical context. Which meant that Schuyler Springs was doomed. There were limits to folly. True, Jedediah Halsey's Sans Souci hadn't been so much foolish as "visionary," which, as everyone knew, was what you called a foolish idea that worked anyway. And, people were quick to point out after the springs ran dry and the visitors moved on, the Sans Souci hadn't so much worked as it had enjoyed temporary success. The vast majority of its nearly five hundred rooms (for the hotel had expanded on a very grand scale, not three years before the springs went dry) were now empty, just as everyone had originally predicted they would be. And so people began to congratulate themselves on their original wisdom, and the residents of the once lucky, now tragically unlucky, community of Bath sat back and waited for their luck to change again. It did not.
By 1900 Schuyler Springs had swept the field of its competitors. The Sans Souci fire of 1903 was the symbolic finish, but of course the battle had long been lost, and most everyone agreed that you couldn't really count the Sans Souci fire as bad luck, since the blaze had almost certainly been started by the hotel's owner in order to collect the insurance. The man had died in the blaze, apparently trying to get it started again after it became clear that the wind had shifted and that only the old original wooden structure, not the newer, grander addition, was going to burn unless he did something creative. There is always the problem of defining luck as it applies to humans and human endeavors. The wind changing when you don't want it to could be construed as bad luck, but what of a man frantically rolling a drum of fuel too close to the flames he himself has set? Is he unlucky when a spark sends him to eternity?
Copyright © 1994 by Richard Russo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.