If you read the first installment of this series (Thank You, Padre Pio), you know how I met my husband-to-be David, the secret of his Art Garfunkel hair, and that he paid cheap rent for an old farmhouse in Pennsylvania.
This century-old house had been dubbed Cedar Hill. In 1978, as soon as he was sure I’d say yes, he invited me to move in with him. Apparently his lease did not prohibit subletting, so
David rented out rooms—defraying the cost of the rent and actually profiting from the deal. This made Cedar Hill a commune of sorts. Never had I, at age 22, lived in such a place. And I haven't since had such an enriching experience.
“The Amazon Women who live on the third floor will be moving out,” David explained, but to be polite he took me upstairs to meet them. Each of these blazing-eyed blondes stood nearly six feet tall, about a foot higher than the EZ-Wider dispenser installed on their wall. Sinewed arms, muscular legs and voices several decibels louder than necessary left no doubt how they got their warrior nicknames.
I never saw the Amazon Women again, but a young family moved into their space: Joel, Pearl, and their baby daughter. Joel was a dark-bearded man with round, wire-rimmed glasses. He regularly rode his bicycle 25 miles into Philadelphia, where he studied for a doctorate in Hebrew Linguistics. He didn’t believe in cars and didn’t have a driver’s license. Neither did he believe in dishwashing liquid or any other form of soap, power tools, oil heat, or milk that came in plastic jugs. In the evenings in their third-floor quarters, Joel would don large headphones, tune the radio to static, and write epic poetry. His wife Pearl, a strawberry blonde, drove a Volvo on the family’s behalf. She also washed with soap, taught school, made bread from scratch, and brought moonshine from Memphis, where she was raised.
The other tenant of Cedar Hill was Roger, a carpenter who drove a pickup truck and was often drunk. His primary hobby was picking up women, but he sheepishly revealed that he also wrote poetry.
I was by far the youngest of the bunch, barely out of college and working my first full-time job job as a hospital social worker.
No one used the front door to Cedar Hill because it was stuck shut. We came in through the rickety back door to the large, eat-in kitchen. Like all the rooms, it had tall ceilings and rattly windows whose panes needed re-glazing. In the living room toward the front of the house sat a large, barrel-shaped Jotul wood stove, which was the only source of heat that Joel deemed ethical. In a friendly battle, we’d sometimes sneak over and dial the thermostat for the oil heat up to 60. But Joel would turn it back down with a forceful swipe of his hand as soon as the temperature became tolerable. Either way, that Jotul required dump-truck loads of hardwood to heat the drafty old house.
David had cut and framed a square opening in the ceiling over the wood stove. He’d installed a metal register to cover the hole yet allow heat to flow up into his bedroom above. Though still slightly scandalous in 1978, that bedroom became mine, too. It had green shag carpet and an en suite bathroom—the only full bath on the second floor, so Roger tromped through after work every day to take a shower.
In order for anyone to get to that bathroom, you had to step across the gaping hole in the floor at the end of the bed, where the heat rose from the wood stove below. I complained to David that he really needed to install a register there as well, but he insisted that if anyone accidentally stepped into the hole, the metal register below would hold. No one knew for sure whether it would.
Wood for the Jotul needed to be cut and stacked. David or Roger gladly took a chainsaw to large logs, but Joel thought he’d lose the hair on his chest if he resorted to such technology. He’d recruit one of the guys to take the other end of a cross-cut saw and sing sea shanties as they drew it back and forth across the log. It would take several songs to get through a single cut. There was plenty of other work to be done at Cedar Hill. David patched and painted old plaster walls and re-decked the rotting floor of the back porch. We tilled and planted a garden and harvested vegetables. Pearl and I cooked them, thumbing recipes from the Moosewood Cookbook and spattering its pages with tomato sauce and drops of safflower oil.
For fun, we had Poetry Nights around the kitchen table, typically with a big bottle of Lambrusco. Joel would hold forth with his epic poetry—long, lyrical, and heroic. Roger would slur through verses he’d written, each one throbbing with heartache and bringing him to tears. And I would proudly read some sappy piece I’d written.
On Music Nights, Joel would bang out tunes on the ancient upright piano in the front room, pounding his feet on the pedals as Pearl blew amazing sounds from her harmonica. David would strum along to their bluegrass with his antique Martin guitar. Every now and then, Pearl would swig moonshine from the heavy old jug kept atop the piano for exactly such occasions. Joel would swig next, with the same expert jug-over-the-shoulder technique. Roger just swigged it straight and howled afterwards.
After all this frolicking, Joel and Pearl would go up to their third-floor apartment, David and I would retire to our room with the hole in the floor, and Roger would go out drinking. We never knew until the next morning whether he’d come home.
One night in the wee hours, we were awakened by the voice of a woman asking, “The bathroom’s in here?” The door to our bedroom opened, emitting a bit of dim light from Roger’s room across the hall. As we emerged from the fog of sleep, we made out the pale shape of a plump, nude woman making her way toward our bathroom. Before we could react, we heard a thump and a yelp as the shape disappeared.
“Oh dammit, I dunno what I did,” came the soft, slurred voice at the end of our bed.
David had roused, and I reached for the bedside light. “No!” he protested, just a moment too late. He, also nude and now fully on display, was pulling long-johns from the nearest drawer to cover himself so he could pull the unknown victim out of the hole.
“Dammit,” the drunken woman repeated softly, apparently unaware.
She sat on the carpet with one leg folded beneath her in the hole—a nearly impossible position to rise from without help, even for a sober person.
“You’re not the same guy,” she said to David, as he lifted her out.
“Right, I’m David. You’re with Roger.”
“I dunno what his name was, but he’s not you,” she said, wobbling toward the bathroom.
After a few more dammits and various sounds of running liquid, she finally emerged, and Dave navigated her safely back to the other bedroom, where Roger was passed out.
“I told ya that thing would hold!” David exclaimed. He peeled off his long johns and returned to bed with glee.
Stay tuned for the next installment of our 35-year adventure.