AT THE END of the summer another group of outsiders arrived in the Berkshires, sent by the WPA. They were five men in all—a children’s book author, two professors, and two newspapermen. The men had been directed to collect folklore. It was part of the Federal Writers Project, and, frankly, it was sheer luck to have any work at all. They took the train to Albany en masse, sharing some whisky and a few laughs. All five were embarrassed by their current circumstances and by their foolish task. But they were broke, without serious employment, and so they decided to make the best of it. On their journey they poked fun at one another and one-upped each other. They told New York City big fish stories while the train rumbled upstate—where they’d been published, whom they had interviewed, who’d gone to Harvard or Yale, whose byline was bigger, stronger, better. They made a bet before they got to Albany, the end of the road, where they would split up to go in different directions to collect local legends. Whoever caught the best and biggest story and found the most extraordinary life would be bought drinks at the Oak Bar at the Plaza by the rest of the gang on New Year’s Day of the following year. They shook hands on the platform, then went their separate ways.
Ben Levy, who had written for the Herald Tribune and had half a novel in his knapsack, headed out in the direction of Hightop Mountain and the towns east of Lenox. He had a map and the names of several contacts—mayors, pastors, schoolteachers. He was thirty, a city boy, but he found he enjoyed walking along the country roads. He liked the sensation of the sun beating down on him and the silence of the countryside. He had the urge to do a cartwheel, and he might have, if he’d known how. He’d spent the better part of his life in classrooms, newspaper offices, and libraries. He was smart and passionate, political by nature, but he didn’t know the first thing about the natural world. He had no idea that the white things growing in the ditches were called Queen Anne’s lace or that the berries on the bushes he passed by were gooseberries—which he actually found to be quite delicious—or that the spindly-legged dogs he spied as he was making camp were actually coyotes. He’d grown up in the Bronx, on Jerome Avenue, where there was only one kind of tree. He’d never thought to ask exactly what kind it was. Now he had a tent and a lantern and blisters on his feet. Once it rained while he was sleeping, and when he awoke in the morning, the whole world seemed blue and fresh. He felt weirdly hopeful out in the middle of nowhere, even though the whole country was crashing down around him.
As he approached Blackwell, Ben stopped at the Jack Straw Tavern. He took out his notebook so he could jot a few lines about it, then went inside. He had little enough money, but he ordered a whisky, which he savored. Some things were still the same, and just as good. Jack Straw’s was dark and smoky. There were no other customers. The tavern had managed to get through Prohibition because the town council had graciously turned a blind eye to liquor sales after 10:00 p.m. But the current economic situation had made people stay home. Plus, there’d been the somewhat suspicious fire, which had left a mess. The beams in the ceilings were charred and pitted.
“Business bad?” Ben asked the bartender, who was Joshua Kelly, a nephew of Horace the fisherman’s, and the son of Arnold, who had last owned the Jack Straw and had recently shot himself in Band’s Meadow due to his financial woes. He’d been buried two days earlier. His brother hadn’t bothered to attend. Joshua still wore a black armband on his sleeve.
“You might say so,” he said to the newcomer.
“No interesting characters around?”
“Characters?” Joshua didn’t like New Yorkers, and this fellow sounded like one. He looked like one, too. He wore glasses and a hat tipped back on his head. He had on fancy shoes even though he swore he had walked all the way from Albany and had been camping along the way. “Like Mickey Mouse? Is that what you mean?”
“Not at all.” Ben decided to order a second whisky, which meant he would have very little spending money during his time in Blackwell. But buying another whisky might make for an easier time asking questions at the bar of the Jack Straw. “People with interesting stories. Oral history project.”
“The government send you around?”
“Something like that.”
“Nope. Can’t help you out. Unless you count my uncle’s wife. She swims with eels.”
“Not exactly what I’m looking for.” Ben thanked Joshua Kelly and put his money down, gazing at it tenderly, for it would be a long time before he saw any cash. Then he set out in the direction of town. He took notes as he went along. If he didn’t find any worthwhile folklore, he’d have to invent some. He was a newspaperman, but he was a novelist as well, even though after writing half a novel he had pretty much hit a wall. It was a story about a student at Yale who felt alienated from everyone, then found his calling in political action but still couldn’t get over the fact that his older brother, the smarter, more talented of the two, had died of typhus. Ben’s own brother, Seth, had died at the age of fourteen, from an ear infection of all things. The infection had spread and in less than twenty-four hours Seth was dead. Ben couldn’t write past that moment. He was glad to be in Blackwell. To be outside himself, looking for other people’s personal histories.