Afternoon Miniature 2.20.22

from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

It had been five years since she left the glass and steel landscape behind her. Five years since she threw caution to the wind, and drove up into the Colorado Rockies with Wolfgang, escaping to a wintry ghost town. Wolfy-the-rescue, the wolf-dog hybrid whose shelter days were numbered. It was not the most inventive name, but suited him well enough. It had been five years since she ponied up a wad of cash, signed the papers, and then moved into this aged structure that was never intended as a dwelling. Here she was, a pioneer like her forebears, carving out a living space in hostile territory, making a home in a two-story commercial building fabricated more than a hundred years before she found it. And well before this practice would become a lifestyle fashion in the bustling city miles away, down in the valley.

In summertime, tourists escaped here; first they’d drive past her building, with the Bull Durham Tobacco advert fading on its brick exterior, slowing their cars a little after whizzing through the meandering highway that led them to it. Climbing a bit higher, they’d pull into a parking slot at the main crossroads in the next town up, drawn into mountains laid bare and now easily navigable, by the cool air in the heat of summer. They came for an afternoon diversion on a weekend, for the themed summer festivals, or to see the historic opera house, where musicians from the symphony down in the metropolis found summer work in the off-season, and where the eminent soprano and tenor soloists came all the way from New York City.

During the day, families clogged the small town’s sidewalks and let their children run amok. They spilled out of the candy store clutching sticky hard candies flavored with sassafras or peppermint, scooped out of wood barrels and weighed inside their paper sacks. This candy store, like the other shops and venues in the historic town, had been made to look as it might have during the gold rush in the1850s. But it was a theatrical ruse, and in autumn the curtain would come down. For its part, the town was glad to put on a show just like performances the opera company mounted each season, for the gold it restored to the coffers.

The summer inhabitants lived in poorly insulated Victorian-era houses jammed precipitously into the side of the mountain and overlooking the town below; she’d had occasion to visit one that was rented summer to summer by an ageing matron in the symphony, a character with bottle red hair and a loopy demeanor. The gingerbread details on the cottage exterior retained at least some of their charm, but inside the place was a time-warped patchwork of unfortunate decisions. Mainly the house belonged in the 1950s, with several ’60s- and ’70s-vintage finishes applied here and there. It was damp and chilly, even at the height of summer, and reeked of mothballs and must.

Most of the orchestra personnel, though, made the daily commute from their homes in the city. She wondered how her life would look now were she one of them. Once she had been the quiet girl in high school who played the cello, and for an instant toyed with the notion of pursuing music in college, seeking out a school with a strong program, but finally preferred to keep company with Shakespeare and Dickens and Milton and Eliot.

The orchestra. She’d had occasion to meet and fraternize with many of them, had been invited into their living rooms to smoke pot with them after concerts, surprisingly vanilla spaces bereft of furniture or art. Musicians are artists, after all, and this struck her as an anomaly. There was always a coffee table at least, always a bong making its rounds among young men and women sitting cross-legged on the thick pile carpet, talking smack about their older, eccentric colleagues; sometimes she felt they were needlessly cruel. In the summertime, orchestra trysts came out into the open where they somehow felt safe and sanctioned in an out-of-town venue like an old silver mining town in the Rockies. Rumor had it a room on the top floor in one of the buildings here served the same purpose as the loo on a jetliner, a place to go for sex: Call it the Western ghost town version of the Mile High Club. The whole scene struck her as tiresome and juvenile.

By taking up residence down the mountain, inside the Bull Durham building, she’d effectively built walls around herself. Inside was a cathedral-like open space with wide-plank wood floors held fast by cut nails, and a central stairway leading to an unfinished loft. Downstairs, she’d cultivated a magical living area out of rubble. A small kitchen was tucked into an unwalled corner with sight lines of the first level broken only by the stairs. Light spilled in through tall west- and south-facing windows, illuminating colorful, intentionally arranged detritus everywhere—a braided wool rug with a pair of rockers and a small table (rustic flea-market furniture acquired on road trips to far reaches of the country and then refurbished lovingly by her careful hands), and cherished artwork and photography on every wall; packed bookcases stood tall between the windows, the overflow volumes wedged horizontally above uneven rows of her beloved tomes. In the remaining corner she had arranged her tall bed with its antique cast-iron frame, and covered it in a handmade crazy quilt. And in every windowsill were clean-scrubbed Mason jars filled with fresh flowers. There was nothing ordered about this space with its bare brick walls, yet it was surprisingly light, kempt, and inviting in its new guise.

Now she summoned Wolfy out onto a makeshift patio of stepping stones with tufts of fresh herbs serving as the grout between them. She tucked the Sunday paper under one arm, her hand grasping a small bowl piled high with fresh strawberries, and her other fingers clutching a Mason jar appropriated for iced tea. Tiptoeing carefully across the stones, she settled gingerly into an old ice cream parlor-style chair painted vibrant crimson, and situated her snack on the small matching table next to it. She’d consulted a DIY book in the town’s library and constructed a high wood fence on three sides of the small outdoor space, the back of the building serving as the fourth. This was her first effort at construction and an especial source of pride, but the process had been a painful one, made worse by townies who screeched past in their rusted pickups and catcalled her lewdly while she worked. Shakespearian ‘Mechanicals’ all, but still she found them intimidating.

In the near distance she could hear John Mellencamp’s raspy voice growing louder and then Doppler into another key as it sped past before disappearing entirely. Well, I was born in a small town/And I can breathe in a small town/Gonna die in a small town/Oh, and that’s probably where they’ll bury me, yeah. She glanced down at the wolf-dog who had turned his face upwards toward the sun and closed his eyes while he panted. “SING, Wolfy!” She beseeched of the creature, whereon he opened his eyes, threw back his head, and howled, first a low, throaty note, rising in a smooth crescendo to a higher register that was music to her ears. Take that, townies.

A command performance worthy of a small-town opera house, she mused. “We’re gonna die in this small town, Wolfy.” He turned his face to the sun again and closed his eyes, utterly content in the moment.

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