In those days the protocol was that you let a phone ring ten times. If your party hadn’t picked up by then he was either on the can or he didn’t want to talk to you.
I’d just listened to ring number twenty-eight and was patiently awaiting ring number twenty-nine when a harried female voice picked up and said, “’Ello?”
The lady’d managed to put everything that was wrong with the northern New England accent into those two syllables, but even so I said brightly, “Hi there! I’m calling in response to your help-wanted ad!”
“Eh?” she said.
I repeated myself, only slightly less brightly.
“I don’ know nothin’ ‘bout that,” she said. “You got to talk to Richard.”
“Great!” I said. “Put him on the line!”
“He an’t ‘ere.”
“I see,” I said. “I was planning to come up for an interview but my calendar’s extremely crowded. I suppose I could squeeze in Saturday at two…”
“I don’t know…”
“Perfect!” I said. “Where can I find you?”
“We’re right ‘ere,” she said, “in Stilton.” And she hung up.
A couple of hours of research in the map room of the library disclosed that Stilton was a tiny dot of a town way up in the top right corner of Vermont, a place they call the Northeast Kingdom.
I knew only two things about the Northeast Kingdom: (1) There were hardly any people up there, and (2) the coldest temperature ever recorded in the eastern US had happened there. I supposed those two facts were related.
I borrowed a friend’s Vespa motor scooter – I later bought it from him for $50 – and headed north. When I reached Stilton I wasn’t surprised to find that the place had only three streets, all of them bordering a triangular village commons. I went up and down each street twice but Vermont Academy wasn’t there.
The town boasted only one commercial establishment, if you don’t count the church, a place called Chet’s IGA. Chet’s was a combination grocery store, filling station, and bait shop, all in a space the size of a rich man’s living room.
When I walked in there was a girl standing behind the checkout counter avidly reading one of those newspapers that have headlines like “I HAD A MARTIAN’S BABY.” She hadn’t heard me come in, so I cleared my throat.
The girl shrieked, jumped two feet in the air and hastily stashed her semi-porn newspaper under the counter, blushing profusely. “Hi there!” I said. “I wonder if you can help me, I’m looking for Vermont Academy.”
She stared at me with very large dark eyes, then said, “What fer?”
I didn’t actually see what business of hers it was, but I needed directions so I said, “I have a meeting there.”
“What fer?” she said.
Oh, I get it, those are the only two English words she knows. I said, speaking slowly and enunciating each word, “I – have – a – job – inter-view.”
She looked horrified, pointed out the door and said, “’S jus’ up th’ road.”
I closed my eyes and counted to three to demonstrate my legendary patience, then said, “I’ve been just up the road. It isn’t there.”
“You din’ go fer enough, it’s two, three mile.”
“Two or three miles!” I exclaimed. “I was told it was right here in Stilton!”
“’Tis,” she said.
I stormed out of Chet’s cursing the girl under my breath, then roared off on the Vespa. I would later learn, though, that the girl was right – every square inch of Vermont is in some town, the towns are more like counties. But Vermont also has counties.
I quickly left behind the settled part of Stilton, seeing an occasional rundown farm but otherwise passing through nothing but forests and meadows, mountains on the west side of the road, a stream running along the east side.
But then, up ahead, I saw a house. It wasn’t terribly large but it was certainly a nice place, a Victorian thing with doodads around the roof line.
But when I got there the sign out front read, “NORTHERN LIGHTS COLONY.” What the hell? Had Vermont Academy already changed its name?
I studied the place more carefully. There was only one vehicle in the driveway, which seemed a little on the light side for a stuffy New England prep school. Also, the vehicle was an ancient VW minibus painted an alarming shade of purple and pasted all over with peace signs and flower-power symbols.
Out in the back yard there were six or eight outhouses. Somebody in there was taking a lot of dumps.
Not sure I was at the right place after all, I walked up to the door and pressed the buzzer. Eventually a small lady in her mid-thirties opened the door and smiled at me. She was wearing a smock covered with paint splatters and she had brown and gray smudges on her cheeks.
Wiping her hands on a rag, she said, “Hi, there! Are you an artist?”
“Who, me? Uh, no – what is this place?
“Why, we’re an artists’ colony! Didn’t you see the studios out in the yard?”
“Oh, is that what those are. I thought they were…, well, never mind. Actually, I’m looking for a place called Vermont Academy.”
Her eyes narrowed and she said, “What for?”
Really, I thought, what was wrong with these people? If you were going to live in the Northeast Kingdom did you first have to get yourself shot up with stupid germs? To cut to the chase, I sniffed, “I have an appointment there for a job interview.”
She looked like she might have a stroke, said, “Next house,” and slammed the door in my face.
Next up: VA, Part 3
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