Bill Clegg: Moments of Reprieve

6.6.2010

By Bill Clegg

It's almost summer, and in the house upstate where I spend weekends a friend is planting a vegetable garden. He started it two summers ago by digging out a wide rectangular patch of earth at the border between the lawn and field. This summer will be the third garden here. There are five of us: a straight couple (let's call them Seth and Cassie), and their baby, Penny; the friend who planted the garden (let's call him Jack); and me. We all met in New York City, where none of us is from and, now, we have known each other for years.

Jack had a girlfriend here last summer, but now they've broken up, so for the moment it's just me and him in the house and the other three in the barn. Everyone tends to mind their own business during the day -- Jack wrestles with his garden, Seth putters around the property repairing this or that, Cassie treads the surrounding fields and orchards with Penny, spotting bluebirds and finches. And I go for long walks or sit outside in the lawn reading manuscripts for work. At night we usually eat together; and afterward, we watch movies projected on a white sheet against the living room wall. Last year we watched the BBC adaptations of Little Dorrit and Bleak House; this year The Singing Detective is on deck. Jack jokes around, speaks in an atlas of accents that somehow always make us laugh, and by midnight everyone's usually asleep. All in all, it's a jolly little gang.

The little summer family is not as old and settled in its ways as it might appear. Five years ago, Cassie fished me out of an apartment choked with crack smoke and drove me to New Canaan, Conn., to rehab. I would check out minutes after she drove away and disappear into a motel in Norwalk, doing drugs and wishing for my heart to give out. I'd return to New York a week later and panic from hotel to hotel, checking in under fake names until the money ran out. Instead of facing the angry and terrified faces of my boyfriend, family, colleagues, clients, and friends, I'd try to kill myself with a wallop of crack, vodka, and sleeping pills. I'd live, and spend the next year getting sober.

Three summers ago, Cassie was pregnant. Jack had just returned from living -- lonely and frustrated -- on an island in the South Pacific. Seth was traveling back and forth from New York to Boston to help move his newly evicted, very drunk father into a state-run nursing home. And, two years sober, I was ending, finally, an almost decade-long relationship with my first boyfriend. The house that first summer was a miracle, and we were all so grateful to be there and so careful with each other. Seth had just begun clearing away an enormous empire of brush behind which he was sure (though no on else was) lay a pond. John broke ground on the garden. And Cassie read book after book about prenatal care and motherhood. I was thrashing around in notebooks, scribbling down memories of lonely nights in hotel rooms smoking crack, seeing how certain patterns of my drug use spookily mimicked long forgotten episodes from my childhood. The days were hushed, contemplative, and serious; the nights of BBC movies and Jack's accents were a relief.

This spring, Seth has begun to rebuild a destroyed stone wall at the edge of the side lawn. Like the clearing away of the pond, he can spend hour after hour'focused, serious, graceful -- moving rocks and fiddling with all the possible configurations. I watch him sometimes and am amazed at his concentration, how swift and calm his movements. From across the lawn, he looks like a man who'd never had a care in the world. When he was in college, his mother killed herself with a gun. She left a note behind that said, unknowably, Everyone knows each other for so much longer. I've thought about it a thousand times, held it up to the light and wondered what she meant. I think about it now as Seth puzzles over a tricky section of the wall.

Those notebooks I was scribbling in became a manuscript, and here -- in the yard and at the kitchen table -- it became a book. The garden is much bigger now. There are four varieties of lettuce, not two. Three kinds of basil, not one. And this year, John promises a thicket of mint twice the size as the first summer's.

It's just past noon now as I write this. I'm in the yard scribbling in a notebook. Penny races across the lawn on her newly nimble legs into Cassie's arms. Her father finds the perfect stone to lie flat across the top of his resurrected wall. Jack shouts aimlessly and to no one in a Mexican accent from behind the jerry-rigged wire-mesh garden fence, and a crow makes a racket down near the sparkling pond, where Seth has built and installed a wooden dock. I hear and see and stay for it all. We've known each other for so much longer.

Clegg's memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Little, Brown and Company), is now available in stores.

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