The Scarecows in the Garden of Eden
You don’t need fifty-one weeks of the year. They are excess, filler, and you load them with the bare essentials: classrooms and cafeteria food, long subway rides and sleepy mornings. But for that one special week, you muster enough strength to shoulder your way through the rest of the year, because it means you’ll be that much closer to your seven days in upstate New York. Surrounded by rundown houses and steep hills that simulate a rollercoaster track, the Ranch is the only place for miles that doesn’t look like it needs a paint job. That’s a relatively new improvement, though. Five years prior, the place looked like a dump. But looks aren’t everything, you know.
Take the playground for example. Ten years ago, during your first stay, you stood transfixed at the wooden castle of winding slides and ladders. Off to the side, three sets of green planks of wood balanced on triangular bases and a monster-sized tire dangled from a tree branch by a rope thicker than your waist. Trees as old as your grandfather’s father offered sweet shade during the hottest hours of the day. That said, the playground would have been the Hallowed Ground, had it not been for its deplorable location: the bottom of the hill that housed the horse stables. In August, the oppressive heat made the horse dung stink all the way down the hill. Not that you minded. So what if your nose had to suffer a bit? It wasn’t anywhere near bad enough to keep you from huddling in that black rubber shell, watching the green of the lawn and the blue of the sky blend, blend, blend as you spun, spun, spun.
They redid the playground a couple of years back. It’s all shiny, painted metal now. Seesaws apparently attracted too many lawsuits, so they got rid of them. The tire swing isn’t there anymore, either. There was nothing to hang it from, since they cut down all the trees in the immediate vicinity. In the summer, all that metal and shadeless ground make for oven-like conditions. You can handle the stench of horse dung, but what’s the point in putting up with the smell if you’re going to get a first degree burn when you’re supposed to be frolicking? It seems that everyone else is thinking along the same lines, because the playground is barren every time you happen to pass by.
The Ranch has made a lot of such “improvements” in recent years: the addition of the bright orange and yellow indoor waterslide, that eyesore; the rock climbing wall they erected that requires you to wear sneakers to climb it, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because everyone wanders around in flip flops and bare feet, anyway; the bouncing castle, trampolines, and rental bicycles, all of which likewise baffle you. People don’t go to the Ranch for bikes and rock climbing walls. They go for the lake and the horses.
You were there the summer they tried to wean the guests – some of whom had come to the Ranch religiously for thirty-plus years – off of the horses. Reducing the six daily horseback rides to four was as good as heresy. Irate riders, you and your father included, stormed into the lobby when the news became public.
“I don’t think you understand,” one pink-faced, portly man said, pressing his hands against the check-in counter and his face in the Ranch clerk’s. “The only reason I come is to ride. That’s all I do. When I get back in from a ride, I get off and jump right back on. Every day, six rides. You’re telling me that you want to take away 33 percent of the rides. You know what? Fine. Then give me 33 percent of my money back.”
The madness reached such a precipice that Steve, the Ranch owner, finally had to make an appearance. He was a young guy, probably mid-forties, who had inherited the place from his father. Coming to meet you all, Steve knew that he’d made a big boo-boo. For many of you, the Ranch raced through your bloodstreams, providing a common pulse. Meanwhile, he was new to the place, had no clue which artery would bleed you all out if he cut it.
It didn’t take much persuasion for him to let you keep the six rides.
After that disaster, Steve had a chat with those of you who had long been faithful to the establishment. He learned two things: do not touch the horses, and do not touch the lake.
The lake is in the shape of a giant oval, the perimeter of which is lined with flat boulders. You used to sit on them, swinging your legs over the green water with a simple bamboo fishing rod clutched tightly between both hands. You rented the fishing rod from the shack on the dock. Beside the shack, the weeping willow hunches over the edge of the dock, long vines brushing the lake water. Your mother told you that first year that you would never catch anything with that dinky rod, but you invoked your infamous obstinacy and ignored her. Three years later, you yanked that two-footer from cool water into hot air. Triumph quickly gave way to panic; the stupid hook would not come out of the fish’s upper lip. Maybe it was because your hands were shaking so badly. How much longer would the fish last out of water? Fearing for the fish’s life, you threw both the fish and the rod into the lake, and that was the end of your fishing career. You moved on to other lake activities, like paddle boating and kayaking and waterskiing.
It’s lucky that you perfected your stubbornness during those first three years, because you needed it to learn other lake skills – namely, waterskiing. You quickly discovered that, to waterski successfully, you need either strength or a good balance. You possess neither. So while you continue to struggle year after year to remain upright for even a quarter of the lake’s perimeter, five-year-olds are zigzagging in and out of the speedboat’s wakes. Go figure.
Sometimes, when you stretch out on the sagging dock, breathless from your attempts at waterskiing and dazed from the sun, you lift your head just enough to look around. The lake itself remains as it was during your fishing days, but all around it are Steve’s personal touches, the scarecrows in the Garden of Eden. Rock climbing wall! Bouncing castle! Trampolines! You let your head drop back to the dock.
Way back when, your kindergarten teacher gave you a picture book, in which a bear crafted new body parts to imitate his friends’ best features: the ears of an elephant, the tail of a lion, the spots of a giraffe, the horns of a deer. It wasn’t until a fellow bear declared, “You look funny,” that the poor bear disassembled himself and embraced who he truly was.
You have a recurring fantasy where you don a bulky red life vest, board a kayak, and propel yourself to the middle of the lake with practiced strokes of your oar. Once there, you shout, “You look funny!” The air trembles with the force of the words. For one heartbeat, two heartbeats, all is still. Then, in answer, the Ranch casts off all its recent “improvements”: the slide, the rock climbing wall, and all its kin collapse in on themselves, crumbling to the ground in clouds of dust.
You never row your kayak to the middle of the lake to make the accusation. You’re too afraid of what the Ranch will do. And won’t do.