‘Birnam Wood’ by T. Coraghessan Boyle


Birnam Wood, David Farquarson, 1906

From The New Yorker:

It rained all that September, a grim, cold, bleached-out rain that found the holes in the roof and painted the corners with a black creeping mold that felt greasy to the touch. Heat would have dried it up, or at least curtailed it, but there was no heat—or insulation, either—because this was a summer rental, the price fixed for the season, Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the season was over. Long over. Back in May, when Nora was at school out West and I sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back to me, I’d described the place as a cottage. But it wasn’t a cottage. It was a shack, a converted chicken coop from a time long gone, and the landlord collected his rent in summer, then drained the pipes and shut the place down over the winter, so that everything in it froze to the point where the mold died back and the mice, disillusioned, moved on to warmer precincts.

In the summer, we’d been outside most of the time, reading and lazing in the hammock till it got dark, after which we’d either listened to records or gone out to a club or somebody’s house. We had a lot of friends—my friends, that is, people I’d grown up with—and we could just show up anytime, day or night, and get a party going. On weekends, I’d unfold the geological-survey maps of Fahnestock or Harriman Park and we’d pick out a lake in the middle of nowhere and hike in to see what it looked like in the shimmering world of color and movement. Almost always we’d have it to ourselves, and we’d swim, sunbathe, pass a joint and a bota bag of sweet red wine, and make love under the sun, while the trees swayed in the breeze and the only sound was the sound of the birds. Nora didn’t have a tan line all summer. Neither did I.

But then it was September and it was raining and I had to go back to work. I was substitute-teaching at the time, a grinding, chaotic, thankless job, but I didn’t really have a choice—we needed money to stay alive, same as anybody else. Nora could have worked—she had her degree now and she could have substituted, could have done anything—but the idea didn’t appeal to her, and so, on the three or four days a week that I was summoned to one school or another, she was at home, listening to the rain drool from the eaves and trickle into the pots we’d set out under the worst of the leaks. I sprang for a cheap TV to keep her company, and then an electric heater the size of a six-pack of beer that nonetheless managed to make the meter spin like a 45. But we weren’t paying utilities—the landlord was. I’d given him a lump sum at the end of May, and now we were getting our own back. One morning, when I was at work, he used his key to let himself in and found Nora in bed, the blankets pulled up to her neck and the TV rattling away, and he backed out the door, embarrassed, without saying a word. The next day, we got the eviction notice. The day after that, he cut off the electricity.

…Read more