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.

My new above-ground work space had formerly been a family room. The previous owners had a hot tub in there, and they must’ve enjoyed it because they took it with them, leaving behind only its octagonal outline in the carpet. We didn’t aspire to a hot tub ourselves, nor did we wish to be reminded of theirs, so we immediately tore up the old soiled carpet and replaced it with a thick beige one of my wife’s choosing. “Let’s do something about the bathroom while we’re at it,” she suggested. Since its few square feet of linoleum flooring was in bad shape, we had put some leftover beige carpet in there.

Only afterward did I begin to notice that other people’s bathrooms are almost never carpeted—for reasons that are fairly obvious, if you think about it. Bathrooms tend to get wet, with soapy water splashing out of sinks and tubs, while middle-aged men (I don’t wish to be indelicate here) invariably lose some of their youthful precision. In a matter of months this wasn’t the sort of place we wanted dinner guests to visit between the pasta and main courses. Also, the carpet in my new office was too thick for me to roll around on in my chair, so we decided to cut our losses, tear out the carpet, and replace it with tile.

In order to lay the tile, the workers had to remove the commode. They took ours outside and set it out of the way on the back deck while they finished the job. Every time I passed the window, the sight of it cracked me up, planted out there in the open air like an invitation to come clean about things we prefer to keep private. We’d brought in the deck furniture the week before, and the commode hadn’t so much as a folding aluminum chair for company. The nearest object of note was thirty feet away—that 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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