Published in The Keene Sentinel, August 31, 1997
Where I live, everything gets quiet on the day after Labor Day. Where there was splashing at the dock, the thunk of tennis balls, and echoes of cocktail parties rising off the glassy water of later afternoon, suddenly there is only silence and space.
I myself had always been a summer person, spending the school year in New York State, and coming to Nelson for the vacations and the summer. The first year that I noticed the post Labor Day stillness was when I was 14. That year, I decided to spend the school year here and go to Keene High School. I watched as the camps shut down, and one by one the families went off in their station wagons to Newton, New York or Michigan.
It was an odd sensation, being left behind. I didn’t really know what to do with myself, and so I walked. I walked on stonewalls through the woods, and followed old roads until they disappeared. I watched the leaves turn. I watched geese fly by overhead. From time to time, I would see other young people slightly older then I, who had decided to live in their parents’ summer places for the fall, and we would blink at each other like people who missed the last bus out.
When school started, I would get up, stagger out into the semi-darkness, and wedge myself into the front of my dad’s pickup with the two other teenagers from my end of town. We listened to the traffic reports from Boston on WBZ radio, which made the city sound like some vast organism suffering alternately from constipation and flatulence.
We met the school bus in Nelson Village. A ring of boys my age were already there, scuffing, spitting and chain smoking. As a summer person, I didn’t really know the other young people in town, but I was intrigued. On the half-hour ride into Keene, everybody was cocooned in early morning privacy. Some slept or drew smiley faces on the foggy windows, a few did their homework or read or cleaned their fingernails with a jackknife. Then we were spilled into the high school, a vast web of halls and bells and gun-metal-gray lockers, virtually identical to my high school in New York State, except for the strange and somewhat artificial tension between the different towns. There always seemed to be a rumble in the offing, between the “jocks” (Keene) and the “greasers” (Nelson, Marlow and Stoddard), like a re-enactment of a ‘50s musical.
On the school-bus ride home, things were considerably more social. Our school bus should have carried a sign that read “Caution: Contents Under Pressure.” After a long day of being told to sit down, keep quiet, stay in line and stop squeaking our chairs, we were like coiled springs let loose into a small container. It was chaos, and there was just one poor soul in the driver’s seat trying to keep the whole thing going between the white line on the right and the yellow line on the left. On the first day, some boys were chewing tobacco – one actually passed out from it – and the wads they spit out the open window would fly back in, four windows down.
I was one of the last people off the bus. I usually walked home, back into the reverberating quiet of the off-season. The two-mile walk home could take hours as I looked for sheep’s nose apples in overgrown meadows and collected brilliant leaves from the roadside ditches. It wasn’t that there weren’t apples and maple leaves in New York – there were plenty – but to watch a place change, a place that had always been one thing to me – green and lush and full of boats – was an experience that was as wonderful then as it is now.