Reuben: Sliced Corned Beef, Russian Dressing, Kraut, Swiss, Marbled Rye
One of the reasons we moved to Hillsborough was that it has a small, tightly controlled historic district. If you were lucky enough to find a home within this district, you are pretty much assured you can walk to the “downtown” area. One of my prime directives to our real estate agent when we were looking for a house was that I could walk to the several excellent bars and restaurants on the main street and crawl home after having a couple or more drinks. For the last thirty-plus years, living in Maryland, I put up with the possibility of getting nailed with a DWI on the drive home after having a drink or two. This happened to several of my friends, and the result is costly in many different ways. For years I have carried the business card of a DWI lawyer in my wallet in case the police ever picked me up. I have never used it, but it was always a comfort to know that Lenny the DWI lawyer was only a phone call away.
Understand, I am not in favor of drunk driving. Understand, I have little sympathy with those who drink beyond the legal limit and climb into their cars and drive home. Understand, there have been times I have had too much to drink and was probably legally drunk and have driven, and I was just lucky that nothing untoward happened. Lucky, lucky, lucky. There but for the grace of God go I.
So I walked down to the Penny.
My route takes me right by the Ashburn School historic property, and as I passed I looked up the hill to the gardens, searching for the mysterious Rafe. I couldn’t see anyone, so rather than loiter I continued on. I soloed at the Penny for an afternoon drink. Elsewhere I have noted that drinking alone in the afternoon is probably not a good idea, but as long as one doesn’t make it a habit I think I’ll be all right. I believe the kids call this Day Drinking. The Big Guy behind the bar recommended a shot of Mellow Corn, which he explained was their house whiskey, 100 proof. It sounded ok to me. If it’s on the list, it sounds ok to me.
While waiting for the drink to arrive, I Googled “Mellow Corn” because I had never heard of it before. It turns out it’s a corn whiskey, a lesser label from Heavenly Hill, the distillery that also makes the brands Elijah Craig and Pikesville Rye. Corn whiskey is not a commonly known distilling process. The whiskey must contain at least 80% corn in its mash and must be aged at least two years. These scant requirements do not usually lead to a well-regarded whiskey. Mellow Corn, according to the Heavenly Hill website, is extra-aged to four years in used oak barrels that have previously held the distillery’s more expensive, more highly regarded labels. I checked a few other sites and found that the bottle sports a garish yellow label and an economical $12 price tag, which is probably the reason it’s the house whiskey here at the Penny. Most people don’t drink their whiskey straight, so once you mix it with pretty much anything else who’s going to notice the quality?
The Big Guy put a shot glass with a generous pour on the battle-scarred table in front of me. I tasted it. To my uncultured palette, it tasted like a perfectly respectable example of the bourbon genre. A bit harsh, yes, but that’s the way I like my liquor as often as not. In fact, if you blindfolded me I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Mellow Corn and many of the other examples I’ve tasted over the last months. Actually, I probably could tell the difference, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. A few more hits and it still went down just fine. I’ve never seen it in a liquor store, but if I do I’m going to pick up a couple of bottles. You sure as hell can’t beat the price.
I finished up my drink, made sure the Big Guy had initialed Mellow Corn on my list of 69 drinks, and moseyed back up the hill toward home.
As noted earlier, the Ashburn School residence is directly on my route, situated atop a long grassy hill easily visible from the street. The local garden club, of which my wife Sherry is a proud member, has placed a very nice wrought-iron bench in front of the residence at the bottom of the hill where stumblebums like me can stop and rest while making their trek home from the Penny. So it didn’t look odd for me to be sitting on the bench, casually gazing up the hill at the school property.
After about an hour, just when I was about to fall asleep, I noticed someone working in the garden at the side of the house. Since the worker looked to be male, I knew it wasn’t Betty, and could only assume this was Rafe of whom Betty had spoken. I walked up Union Street and cut over behind the Ashburn residence. A pleasant-looking African American fellow of maybe early middle-aged years looked up from where he was digging and smiled at me.
I introduced myself and he said, “You live in the house over on Orange Street that was built around the original schoolhouse.” Mildly surprised, I said that indeed I did, and that I was interested in the history of the house and that Betty had said he was something of an expert on the Ashburn House and its early origins.
“If I’m an expert it’s only because I’ve worked here for a couple of years. I’m interested in history and slavery days in Hillsborough, focusing on the period right before the Civil War. And this is as good a place as any to get a feel for the way it was. Because the Ashburn School was well-known, then and now, there are materials that exist that give evidence that might have been lost otherwise.”
He was dressed in kind of a uniform, in that he was wearing a matching shirt and pants, chino in color, the sort of outfit that a guy wielding a professional weed whacker might be sporting. With the logo of his company and the name Joe stitched under it. Or in this case, Rafe, except there was no name patch. He was soft-spoken and had a scholarly demeanor. When he spoke, you could tell there was more to him than appeared on the surface. I liked him.
“Do you know where my inner house was built?” I asked. “When it was part of the school, on this property?” He nodded and motioned me to walk with him. He put down his spade and we walked around the far side of the house, the side that faces Union Street. The Ashburn residence was large, much larger than my house. It was essentially rectangular; the width in the front looked from the outside to be about as wide as a large sitting room, a hall, and a dining room, side by side. Rafe gestured to the exterior wall of the house in front of where we were standing.
“This is an addition,” he said. “They expanded the original house in the early 1850’s. At that time the original two-room schoolhouse, your schoolhouse, was right here where we’re standing, with just a walkway between the main house and the entrance to the school house. I don’t know why they sold the house and moved it, but it was bought by a man named Lemuel Lynch, a well-respected silversmith. He was also the Mayor of Hillsborough at one time and was well known for restoring the clock in the tower of the town hall. That’s the general wisdom on the origin of your house.” He frowned. “Except I’m not sure that’s the way it went, at least not exactly. I believe the schoolhouse was given to the architect/builder who did the renovations, a local man named John Berry, maybe to settle part of the cost of doing the renovations. Then he sold it to Lemual Lynch.”
I asked him how he knew this. Ted the top man at the Ashburn School hadn’t bothered to tell me any of it.
“I Googled your address. I used a computer at the library. There’s a book of historical plats, deeds that have been registered over the years, it goes way back to the early 1800s. Lemuel Lynch’s name is the first one to show up on the property that is now your address.”
I was about to ask him more about the original structure when we heard a rapping on the window from inside the house. It was Ted Jackson. He was pointing at Rafe and gesturing for him to come inside.
“Ah, good old Ted,” I said. “He’s probably pissed that I’ve taken you away from your work.”
Rafe gave a little laugh and shook his head. “I’ll go see what he wants.”
“Could you come over to the house?” I asked. “Maybe you could tell me more if you could see it inside. Can I get your cell number?”
“Sure. But I don’t have a cell phone. I can’t do it today, but just come by. If I’m here I’ll come over.”
“If Ted approves,” I said.
“Mr. Ted’s not so bad. There’s been worse here.” He wasn’t laughing now. He gave me a long look, as if he were measuring something in me. “There’s been men here who were terrible. Who did terrible things.”
He went up the steps to the porch and inside.
I walked home, thinking about what Rafe had said. His parting words: Men who did terrible things. So far I’ve been pretty successful at compartmentalizing the several aspects of my house: the interesting historical pieces on the one hand and the falling, animated rag dolls on the other. I certainly wasn’t going to tell Rafe my story of nightly lights, nocturnal digging, the falling doll, the doll hiding in the shed, the doll who spoke to me through sewed-up lips. He’d think I was crazy.
I wouldn’t blame him. It sounded crazy. I wondered, not for the first time, if this is what crazy feels like, trying to keep two disparate realities together in your head at the same time: the real and the unreal. I feel like if I try to justify the two, force them together, believe them both equally, I will, well, you know. Drive myself crazy.