Nothing more needed to be said. The June recall election’s residual impact was felt over subsequent days as a hardening of hearts. Neighbors and family members knew one another’s sentiments without further discussion or elaboration. Opinions coarsened into a stony apraxia, unyielding to influence or compromise. A midsummer heat wave lingered. The Wisconsin town of Saukfield and its surrounding farmlands were experiencing drought conditions like no one could remember. As if the very clouds had been given austerity orders to cut back on the waterworks. In the end, a polarizing governor remained seated. The state legislature was nominally dinged and reconfigured, but the sense of a stalemated tug-o-war hung heavy in the already heavy air.
Jolynn Bilstead woke one morning in early July with a precise awareness that her faith had perished. A leaden partition had dropped in place between her conscious mind and her heretofore easy acceptance of a kind of grace and purpose to her life. She and her husband, Ted, sometimes joked about their depressive housepainter, Carl Rossiter, who would disappear for weeks at a time. Carl’s vanishing act was always preceded by several days of sluggish inattentiveness. Climbing scaffolds and ladders in morose slowmotion like he was heading to the gallows to be hanged. Jolynn and Ted, once their irritation had subsided (and recognizing that Carl’s pay was a pre-negotiated flat fee rather than a stalling-for-time hourly wage), thought it was hilarious.
“Dead man painting,” said Ted. And they chuckled with wicked delight.
Jolynn no longer saw Carl’s predicament—clearly the man had mental health issues—as funny.
Her pastor, Cynthia Hagen, said, “The term is kenosis, Jo. There are times when we are hollowed out.”
“That’s me,” said Jolynn.
“The Holy Spirit abhors a vacuum,” said Pastor Cyn. She was friendly and reassuring, as she so often was on Sundays and seemingly every other day of the week. Equanimous was the word, Jolynn believed, that best described her pastor’s steady disposition.
“My purpose, then, is emptiness?” asked Jolynn, sincerely perplexed.
“Your purpose is to hang in there,” said Pastor Cyn, her naturally curly hair quivering metronomically like an animated Internet GIF.
Jolynn knew that Pastor Cyn meant well. Meant for her to be well. Both in their mid-forties, they found kindred hermeneutic solace in a book club made up largely but not exclusively of church members that met once a month at Perks & Recreation coffee shop. Jolynn Bilstead was a freelance book editor. Pastor Cyn, in addition to ministering to her flock at Saukfield’s Sacred Wheat Community Church, was a serious bibliophile.
“Open your mind to mindfulness,” Pastor Cyn began her sermon the following Sunday. “Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, is a writer bursting with kinetic spiritual energy. Henry David Thoreau, less so. Thoreau required a literal pond for inspiration. Emerson internalized nature and never needed to step outside his own fecund neurology.”
On the outskirts of Saukfield, along a sloping curve of Route 18, was a modest home of 1970s vintage. Two-bedroom aluminum-sided white ranch with attached garage. Minimal to nonexistent landscaping (two stunted plum yews on either side of the front door stoop, a semen-gray slab of concrete). Built by a forgotten Saukfieldian—not entirely forgotten since it was called the Luedke House—for himself and his bride to live in after they were married.
Except the marriage never happened.
Ditched at the altar, the builder—Luedke, presumably—either from a broken heart or simple expediency chose never to live in the home. What hinted at something more, perhaps a malignant bitterness, was his apparent refusal to sell or rent the house or to allow anyone else to live there. So it sat, furnished, according to local lore, with retro appliances and paisley-cushioned furniture and shag carpeting of a bygone era. No occupants. And the current caretaker—the elusive sad-sack Carl Rossiter—absent more often than not.
Jolynn found herself driving past the Luedke House two mornings a week when transporting her daughter Sara and three of Sara’s eighth-grade friends to College for Kids summer courses at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The wealthiest of Sara’s classmates, Constance Nehme, lived in the Oak Vista subdivision—overbuilt monstrosities from the 90s housing boom—within view of the defiantly unassuming Luedke House, which sat isolated on an older undeveloped patch of Saukfield.
One morning Jolynn couldn’t help tapping the brake pedal as her Ford Explorer rounded the hillock upon which the Luedke House sat.
“Mom,” said Sara, kicking the back of her mother’s car seat. “Why are you slowing down?”
“What have I told you about not distracting the driver?” said Jolynn. Weird, she thought, to be referring to herself in the third person as if she were a video-game avatar. The Driver. Don’t mess with The Driver.
“We coulda died,” said straight-faced comic Gracie Boynton.
Unpleasant giggles exploded behind Jolynn like a surprise party of mean girls.
No question about it: Carl Rossiter was on a ladder energetically cleaning out the gutters over the garage of the Luedke place. What was this bullshit? Carl was supposed to be painting her and Ted’s dilapidated Victorian. Instead, here he was—minus the soiled baseball cap that usually hid his gleaming pattern baldness—with more enthusiasm than Jolynn had ever seen from him, rhythmically scooping billowy handfuls of dust from the gutters of an uninhabited house.
www.facebook.com/messages/ 6:43 am
There are two spiritual themes I want to share with you, Jo. First is detachment. Second is the call. Detachment is probably the easier of the two themes to appreciate conceptually, although in practice it’s a bitch. As for the call, please don’t think it’s some kind of proselytizing voice of God looking to ambush your consciousness. It’s subtler than that. Plus, the call is really only activated once you’ve grasped detachment. And believe me, professionally speaking, I haven’t attained detachment or the call with anything like sustained or even momentary success. (“Seeking” is sort of my working definition of faith; to be honest, the only things I’ve ever been 100% certain about are my sexuality and my love for Gwen.) I’ll be sharing at least one Bible verse with you. Do not be alarmed! I have in mind a deconstructive verse, which is to say it points toward a path that doesn’t require biblical exegesis to begin your journey. And make no mistake, Jo: Your journey has begun.
Remember: Your purpose is to hang in there.
The betrayal felt by Jolynn Bilstead was not due entirely to the fact that she and Ted bought pot from Carl Rossiter and reserves were dwindling. After all, their pot smoking traditionally declined in the summer months with Sara underfoot and up late. It was after eleven before Sara was in bed that night and they could safely head out to the backyard fire pit and the seclusion of the unpruned pagoda dogwood fencing their property line.
“Here’s what really pissed me off,” said Jolynn. “Rossiter was so chipper. Whistling, practically.”
“Happy as a lark, Ted.”
He took a contemplative, and, Jo thought, a somewhat belabored, drag on the joint. Ted’s responses were invariably measured, even when high, never impulsive. He worked long hours as an insurance actuary in Middleton, an hour’s drive to and from Saukfield.
Jolynn’s displeasure with Carl Rossiter had festered during the day. Pot was failing to take the edge off her mounting hostility.
“Know what I love about dogwood?” said Ted. “Drought resistant.”
Alone the following morning (Ted off to work, and Sara another mom’s carpool responsibility), Jolynn sought and failed to focus on a fast approaching book indexing deadline. She instead lost herself to a lurid 1945 Technicolor noir melodrama on cable television, Leave Her to Heaven, starring an impossibly gorgeous Gene Tierney as a combination femme fatale and self-destructive sociopath. Desiring the full attentions of her distracted husband, Tierney succumbs to murderous jealousy. (Possibly fueled by unresolved issues with her dead father, whose ashes Tierney earlier in the movie tosses ritualistically from horseback across the New Mexico desert.) She engineers the drowning death of her partially paralyzed brother-in-law. Self-induces a miscarriage by throwing herself down a flight of stairs. And finally poisons herself in order to frame her adopted sister for murder.
The “good” husband is played by Cornel Wilde. He’s a novelist attracted to Tierney’s adopted sister, played with uncomplicated charm by Jeanne Crain. It’s not that Tierney’s jealousies are unfounded or delusional. They’re magnified, outsized. Melodramatic, in other words. And since Leave Her to Heaven is a melodrama, Jolynn reasoned, who can fault Tierney for being true to her genre? Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain, both mild-mannered chumps more suited to a musical or soggy romance, were in the wrong movie.
There was no longer anyone named Luedke living in Saukfield. Jolynn wondered if the nonsense about the spurned groom and his forlorn house was an urban legend. Maybe the house was uninhabitable for other reasons. Faulty wiring or bad plumbing. Contaminated groundwater. Asbestos. Lead paint. She made a lunchtime appointment with Saukfield realtor Lori De Luca—mother of Sara’s classmate Nick De Luca, school choir standout with whom Sara last year sang a surprisingly eroticized Christmas concert duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—and asked her if she knew who might have hired Carl Rossiter as caretaker of the Luedke House.
“Could be a property management company from anywhere,” said Lori. “Don’t laugh, but a lot of foreclosed and empty houses and office buildings are owned by the Chinese.”
Jolynn woke anxious that morning knowing Lori would be fashionably dressed in “hot realtor” apparel for their lunch date at Saukfield’s Bike ’n’ Brew. Lori once confided to Jolynn that a central rule of the trade is that realtors must themselves always appear as inviting as the properties they represent. She didn’t disappoint: Lori totally rocked a yellow chiffon dress short enough to show off her lean runner’s legs. Bike ’n’ Brew was casual and trendy, catering especially to cyclists who rode the trails connecting nearby communities. Wrinkled tennis shorts and a faded Van Halen T-shirt were all Jolynn could manage. Before driving to the restaurant she swallowed two Vicodin tablets left over from Ted’s wisdom teeth removal last winter.
She laughed good and long at Lori’s remark about Chinese property owners in rural Wisconsin.
“This is fun,” said Lori.
www.facebook.com/messages/ 5:09 am
Read Meister Eckhart’s tractate on detachment, Jo. It’s a brief essay. Check Google Books online, or else I have an Eckhart collection I can lend you. Detachment is exactly what you think it is: a purposeful disengagement from desire and the self. Eckhart was condemned for heresy in the 14th century and excommunicated, so you can perhaps appreciate why he places such a premium on detachment. Simply: it’s freedom from bullshit. Freedom from abusive tyrants. Check out John 16:7 where Jesus says: “It is expedient for you that I go away.” He promised us that the Holy Spirit would intervene in his absence. But absence cannot be postulated unless it is first experienced. Hear me, Jo: Meet your loss of faith on its own terms—as absence, as nothingness—and stop trying to fill it with meaning or feelings of any kind. I know, easier said than done. But there you are. My next message to you will be about the call. The call is deep in the Gnostic weeds, where it’s sometimes mistaken for annihilating darkness, and where I probably spend too much of my time these days.
Hang in there.
“Mom, you look like shit.”
“Language, Sara,” said Jolynn, en route to picking up two of Sara’s classmates. The missing third passenger, Gracie Boynton, had bailed on College for Kids after the first week of the three-week program. “Summer homework sucks,” was the word not from Gracie but from Gracie’s overworked mom, Sheryl, who clerked full-time at the Lake Mills Walgreens and tended bar on weekends.
Late into the previous night, and out of pot, Jolynn had indexed over half of the metadata for a guidebook on national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. It was for a well-paying Boston publisher she hoped would hire her for further projects. She was aided by espresso and a box of Keebler Fudge Stripes cookies, all of which conspired to leave her with a monstrous morning headache and a sour stomach. Driving past the Luedke House (without slowing down), she noticed out of the corner of her eye that Carl Rossiter was nowhere in sight. Not even his rusted-out cargo van with the psychedelic “Got Paint?” logo and the R. Crumb-inspired caricature of Carl’s face with a drippy Day-Glo orange Groucho mustache.
After safely depositing the girls at the UW-Madison drop-off site (nicely organized, she felt, with an army of staff and parental volunteers), Jolynn found a campus Starbucks drive-through and ordered a quad-shot venti vanilla no-foam latte. In record time she was back in Saukfield and took another swing by the Luedke House. She rolled to a complete stop in the driveway. Still no Carl Rossiter. Up close for the first time, Jolynn saw there were security bars across the windows. Like the California house of her childhood friend Vicky Wendell who lived now in the L.A. suburbs where all the homes, even the least pretentious, were gated, locked, and barred to deter break-ins.
Without a second thought, Jolynn left the Explorer’s engine running and nearly stumbled on the patchy drought-burnt lawn as she sprinted to the picture window at the front of the Luedke House. She pressed her face between the black metal rods of the grating. The tip of her nose touched glass. Dust motes like Christmas glitter in a snow-globe swam in a shaft of sunlight.
The room was empty.
Working her way around the dulled aluminum-sided exterior of the house, Jolynn peeked between the bars of every window. No bean-bag chairs. No shag carpeting. The kitchen was unfinished. Capped water-pipes and gas lines sprouted from the plywood floor like petrified tree roots.
Drought Update: USDA Designates 23 Wisconsin Counties as Natural Disaster Areas
Federal officials this week declared much of southern Wisconsin as drought-stricken natural disaster areas. Heat wave temperatures in the 100-degree range continue. The federal action allows for farmers to apply for low-interest emergency loans. The governor has announced that the state will begin accepting applications for Wisconsin’s Drought Relief Guarantee Program. In addition, 11,000 acres of state-owned lands have been opened up for grazing, including wildlife areas, parks and forests.
Another night of accelerated indexing. Jolynn was uncertain whether her cold sweats were a side-effect of the 36 mgs. of nicotine she was vaping from an insanely addictive e-cigarette or the sinister photos of Nantucket shark-cage diving in the page-proofs on her iMac.
The following morning there was a message from Carl Rossiter on the kitchen telephone answering-machine: “Hello, Mrs. Bilstead. You’re not gonna find what you’re looking for by window peeping.”
It was Sara during breakfast—two Frosted Chocolate-Chip Pop-Tarts and a bowl of Kix with strawberry milk—who hit playback on the answering-machine and retrieved Carl Rossiter’s message.
“What the fuck, Mom?”
www.facebook.com/messages/ 4:49 am
Detachment, Jo, will prompt the call, which is an emanation inviting you to redirect the focus of your awareness. The call implores you to contemplate the infinitely unknowable. I would say “God,” but that which is infinitely unknowable must, perforce, also remain unnameable. You honor the unknowable not by naming it but by recognizing its calm forbearance first and foremost. Know this, Jo: Your conscious mind can be taught to reflect order and harmony. There is a path forward. There are specific steps to take. Realms to traverse. Some mornings—this very sunrise, for instance—can feel black as pitch. Dawn dawning as dark as the darkest darkness that precedes the dawn.
Hang in there.
Ted Bilstead was unhappy. He wondered, first, why Carl Rossiter had brazenly called their home phone rather than leaving a voicemail or text on one of their cells. More disturbing, he felt, was Jolynn lurking around the Luedke House.
“What were you thinking, Jo?”
It was midnight, Sara was asleep, and Ted and Jolynn were sitting restlessly in wrought-iron lawn chairs by the backyard fire pit (devoid of actual fire because of a village ban announced that day on outdoor grilling and bonfires). Without pot, Ted had reverted to Coppola Merlot and Marlboro Lights. He disdained Jolynn’s endorsement of electronic cigarettes as moronic.
“What was I thinking?” Jolynn echoed. “Don’t tell me you’ve never been curious.”
“The inside of the Luedke House.”
“No,” said Ted, stomping on a cigarette butt with manic overkill. “I’m going to bed.”
Jolynn pulled an all-nighter to catch up on Pastor Cyn’s monthly book club selection, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, a nineteenth-century American novel about seventeenth-century Indian wars and spunky pilgrim settlers. The language was archaic—ersatz Shakespearean cadences—but the characters were vivid. Especially the Pequot Indian chief’s noble daughter, Magawisca, who loses an arm (“the lopped quivering member dropped over the precipice,” ran the passage) when she selflessly leaps in the path of a hatchet-swing intended for a settler boy whom she has befriended.
“Hated it,” said Melony Schrader, a well-read social worker, when the book club met on a crowded Saturday morning at Perks & Recreation.
Only five of the eight to ten book club members were in attendance. Aside from Pastor Cyn and Jolynn—both vigorous defenders of Hope Leslie—no one liked the book. Craig Barnes, a history buff and owner of Saukfield Liquors, gave a grudging thumbs-up to the massacre depicted early in the novel, but lost interest in the convoluted romantic triangle that overtook the story. Discussion came to an awkward standstill amidst tabletop puddles of coffee and bear-claw crumbs. Pastor Cyn—seeming as sleep-deprived as Jolynn—moved to disband the meeting. The group was finalizing the upcoming month’s literary pick when Carl Rossiter walked briskly into Perks & Recreation, bypassed the front counter, and beelined for the book club table.
“I’m done with the lot of you,” he said, sweeping his arm with such force that Jolynn was reminded of Magawisca’s severed limb flying over the side of a cliff.
“We’re sort of in the middle of something here, Carl,” said Pastor Cyn.
“Pastor Sinful is it?” replied Carl.
Craig Barnes, who often shared chivalrous tales of his college career as a barroom bouncer, was up from the table. Perks & Recreation went from raucous to hushed in an instant (there was a catcalling “Screw you, Carl” from the vicinity of the men’s bathroom at the back of the coffee shop).
“Planning another recall?” said Carl, as he was being escorted outside by Craig Barnes. “Take away our guns?”
This was not a dream. Vicodin and wine at three a.m. induced dreamlike compulsions in Jolynn, but this was not a dream. Driving the Ford Explorer along Highway 18 in pitch darkness, air conditioner full-blast, headlights illuminating nothing. Taylor Swift (T-Swizzle, in Sara lingo) CD cranked and keeping the deadly hour sugarcoated and lively. Jolynn was convinced she’d forgotten to look in the garage window at the back of the Luedke House. In no time at all—this was not a dream—she was there. And when she aimed a flashlight into the gloom, Carl Rossiter’s cartoon face on the side of his cargo van was staring back at her. This was not a dream: A creeping Saukfield police car beneath the streetlights of the Oak Vista subdivision at the bottom of the hill. The Explorer’s headlights were blazing from the Luedke House driveway and T-Swizzle was warbling to the night skies from the open driver’s door. Jolynn chose a circuitous route home and couldn’t keep her eyes off the rearview mirror.
Housepainter Charged with Basement Pot Cultivation
Saukfield police along with members of the Dane County Drug Task Force executed a July 26th search warrant on an uninhabited Route 18 home known to area residents as the Luedke House. A marijuana grow operation in the basement of the house, consisting of 40 plants, was dismantled along with the seizure of processed marijuana, drug paraphernalia and multiple firearms.
Carl Allan Rossiter, 38, a self-employed Saukfield housepainter, has been charged with two felony counts of Maintaining a Drug Dwelling and Possession of THC with Intent to Deliver. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of $30,000. Rossiter, now in custody, told police that he was in negotiations to buy the Luedke House.
A representative of Golden Sun Property Management Company, Liu Hwang, told The Saukfield Sentinel that the property is not for sale and that Rossiter was hired solely as a part-time caretaker.
Jolynn was roused from a stifling August afternoon nap by a cell phone call from Pastor Cyn’s partner, Gwen Halperin, a talented watercolorist of foreboding rural landscapes. Pastor Cyn was at Fort Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Gwen was distraught: Where did Pastor Cyn obtain a stolen 9mm handgun? A pastor struggling with bipolar disorder should not own a handgun, said Gwen. Nor, she added, should a bipolar pastor give up sleep and spend hours reading The Dark Night by Saint John of the Cross.
Gwen shared a bedside message that Pastor Cyn asked to have conveyed to Jolynn: Hang in there.