The House on South Main Street
The thing that comes to mind when I think about my grandmother’s house on South Main Street is the light switch plate in the bathroom. It was a picture of Pope John Paul II with his arms up in the air, and it said “Let there be light!” Joan was the first of our family to move to eastern Long Island, back in the mid-seventies. She had just gotten divorced from my grandfather, my mother’s father, and moved from Douglaston, New York, to Hampton Bays, where the family had spent summers water skiing and ocean fishing. As teenagers, my mother and her sisters had worked at the beach stand on the bay side, and they tell many stories from those days. My mother’s favorite involves a surreptitious mattering of sunblock on her arm, a peppering of sand and an exclamation to my buttoned-up grandfather that ‘oh gross, a bird shit on my arm!’ Then she rubbed it in, to his horror. After moving East, Joan met Leigh Bergulund. Leigh was a salty good-old-boy. He hunted and fished and sailed. Almost all of his clothes were from the Cabella’s catalogue. His favorite food was ‘shit on a shingle’ – corned beef from a can mixed with white sauce slathered on white toast. The only thing that he drank was ‘panther piss’ – an iced tea powder concoction that got mixed in a big Tupperware container, had a plum color and that drove my grandmother to Technicolor profanity because she was sure it would give him cancer. My immediate family started visiting Joan and Leigh’s house when I was around five or six years-old. The approach to the house was generally peaceful: a slow pimp-roll in the rusty family vehicle through Southampton village, past attractive, relaxed people strolling the sidewalks from the Golden Pear to the brick Library on the corner of Jobs Lane. I remember that the library looked like a castle, and felt like one on the inside, smelling of antiquity, with carpeted twisting staircases, anterooms to explore and copies of Disney VHS tapes that were out of stock in our home library. After Jobs Lane we drove past the high hedges and genteel white porches of South Main Street. It was a peaceful arrival. About five houses down though, we turned into Joan and Leigh’s driveway. Revealed to me was what looked like the house that Morticia and Gomez Adams lived in. It was old, weather-beaten and the shingles were brittle around the overhangs. The color was a deep, dark red, with dark green at the trim. The roof was pointed and steep, and over on the far side of the house, shaded by the trees, was a shallow charcoaled balcony that looked like a perch for surveying small children to kidnap. The driveway ran down the near side of the house, to the back. It was gravel, and the sound of chunky blue and beige rocks popping and crunching under the tires seemed to me designed to ensure that everyone inside knew outsiders had arrived. Some of the windows on the side of the house were stained glass, large rectangles filled with little colorful boxes of purple and faded green. As I got older animals began to appear in the clear windows. They were yellow and black striped, or bright red, cut out from old street signs by Leigh and his band saw. He liked bears on their hind legs with their claws out, or dolphins ridden by a character with a long elf hat. Before reaching the back of the house someone would have to get out of the car to unhook the big swinging gate used to keep the Great Dane and other dogs inside. There was always a Great Dane, and usually another hunting dog, like a cocker spaniel. The job of the Great Dane was to lean on you and slobber, and the job of the other dog was to circle the kitchen island like a bull shark and steal food. Usually the dogs were good at their jobs. Except for a love of dogs (there were only pictures of dogs on the refrigerator, no grandkids), Leigh and Joan didn’t have that much more in common save for an existential opposition to anything formal, ceremonial, or self-important. Southampton, then, was an interesting place for them to settle. Leigh had a good excuse though because his family had lived there for generations, and so he could claim to be the victim of circumstance. He dealt with his changing environment as I expect the rest of us would. For trips into town, he would don manic, ill-fitting wigs, drive extra-slow and make lots of eye contact, during which he would take on the general disposition of a person who had heathy portions of their frontal lobe removed. He also liked to play funny games, like the one where he was out clamming and someone was speeding in their motorboat. If he was up to his thighs in water he would crouch down as if he were up to his neck. Behind the house were two red barns. A little barn and a big barn. The big barn was where all of the treasure was kept. Second to hunting, Leigh’s favorite activity was to go picking at the dump. He drove his red pickup there, and in the flatbed was the house garbage and an eight foot wooden pole with a wall bracket screwed to the end. That was his picking hook. Many times Leigh would return home with more garbage than he left with: imitation Chinese lamps, chandeliers, broken surfboards, tools, art, scrap metal, engines, flatware. Almost all of it ended up in the big red barn. After getting over the Adams-Family creeps, I grew to love trips to grandma’s house. After arriving, I would wait until Leigh had his panther piss, and then ask if I could come to the dump on his next trip. Usually, not long after he would tell me to start collecting the garbage and we were on our way. If we found something interesting and broken in the dump the next step would be to hook it, bring it back and to try and fix it, either in the big barn or in the workshop in the basement. It was in those places where I learned how an engine worked, and about what the numbers meant on the back of sandpaper. It was a great place for a young boy. It was also a great place for my sister and brother to play. The property stretched down to Agawam Lake, where there was a small dock and a row boat. Being small, I remember rowing as mostly sore shoulders and character building, but running around barefoot in the grass with the dogs was usually less work. When the weather was good Joan would pile us into her Volvo and take us to the beach, usually a beach to the west of Coopers. At night, when the house was full with family, we would all gather around the big dining room table to eat. Leigh was at the head, with Joan on his left, and everyone else sat wherever. Of Joan’s kids, my mom was the oldest, and she had two younger sisters and a younger brother who were all close in age. Then there was Kate, the youngest, who was not that much older than I, and so she was like a big sister to me. Joan’s kids were all artists in one way or another, and so dinner conversation was usually colorful and passionate. Leigh grumbled and made off-color jokes. After dinner we would take out two dictionaries. Each was the size of two phone books put together. Someone got the pens and pencils and someone else got the paper, as others prepared desert and did dishes. My father and my uncle usually ended up on the back porch where they would smoke cigarettes and swap the latest dirty jokes they had heard. Eventually the family would end up back around the table, and the game of ‘dictionary’ (or ‘balderdash’) would begin. Some played for points, but most played for laughs, and there were many. The ceremonial crowd and property taxes were good enough reasons for Joan and Leigh to depart their house on South Main Street seven years ago. They decided to settle on the North Fork, in Orient, in a big farm house that they would share with my mother and her husband. In Orient, our family traditions have found fertile ground, and dictionary and running around barefoot in the grass thankfully continue. Leigh passed last year. Before he left, from his bed, he explained to me how to make the street sign animals. I made him a surfer hanging ten. I tried to coax him out of bed to help me with the cuts, but he was too tired. I guess he had earned his rest.