The Gravestone and the Commode

Richard Russo

Fall 2017

Twenty-five years ago, when my family moved to Waterville, Maine, we bought a house with a finished basement that was sectioned off into a laundry room and a rec room. The latter seemed like the best place for my office, so I soon interred myself there, setting up my desk and computer and half a dozen bookcases below ground in a windowless room, where it would be quiet and I wouldn’t be underfoot (though I was, of course, literally under the feet of my wife and daughters). I worked in that basement for four years, writing most of my novel Straight Man there, before finally putting in a request to come above ground. The problem was that no one in our family besides me remembered to shut the laundry- room door when the dryer was going, and after a couple loads of towels, the air down there became thick and dry. “I’m asphyxiating,” I complained. “I can feel my lungs filling up with lint.” 

As you may know, requests for exhumation are seldom granted. In all the houses we’d ever lived in during my long academic nomadship, I’d always been relegated to the basement, and this was where my then-teenaged daughters had come to believe their father belonged. My wife wasn’t thrilled, either. If I were allowed up into the light of day, I might see other things I wanted, and where would it all end? But a movie of my novel Nobody’s Fool was about to start shooting, and at long last my books were making some money, which meant that for the first time I actually had some juice in the family. Whatever the reason, I unexpectedly prevailed and was allowed to move upstairs into a room whose window looked out onto our backyard, near the center of which stood a gnarled apple tree that bore and then dropped hundreds of hard, green, worm-infested apples each August. This bitter harvest shouldn’t have surprised us. Resting against the base of the tree was a gravestone. 

Richard Russo is the author of nine novels, most recently the best-selling Everybody's Fool and That Old Cape Magic, and the memoir Elsewhere. In 2002, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls.

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