Robert James Russell
Alone and quiet in my garden-view apartment on my bachelor black leather couch in a no-name nothing country suburb in Michigan, I’m researching the Shakers, their architecture and design and spirited devotional states. I marvel: the Shakers were the first to sell papered seed packets (turnip, lettuces, squash, cabbage, peas, beans), invented the modern clothespin, revolutionized waterproof and wrinkle-free clothes, created the flat broom. They reformed agriculture and the notion of equality (women and men were equal in Shaker society). But they were hard—it was a hard life.
Earlier, I had been watching the Ken Burns documentary The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God. It chronicles the Shakers’ rise, their history, their eventual fall. Celibacy was their undoing. Many could not sustain their faith, what was asked of them, but ultimately, yes, the celibacy was what did them in—they couldn’t keep their numbers up, they could no longer find joy in these daily rituals. In one Shaker community called Pleasant Hill, in Kentucky, an eighteen-year-old named Polly committed suicide by hanging on September 13, 1815. The narrator recounts the impassive words of the community elders that had been written down about her death: that Polly killed herself above the kitchen in the sister’s shop. That she was naturally agreeable and good, but that she spoiled it all.
And yet, Shakers, prone to feverish dancing, singing, were not entirely suppressed. They believed that dancing, specifically, brought them closer to God. But each night, after a day of hard work, manual labor and supplication, of hearty meals and communal preservation, they were told to rest in the fear of God. They were told to rest.
I read there are only three Shakers left. (In 2017, many years later, in an utterly different world, Sister Frances Carr would die, leaving only two.) Out my front window that overlooks brambled hedges, I hear a car honk, someone shout. I have the lights off in my apartment, letting the April sunlight laze in. I’ve let my beard grow long, my hair, too. I haven’t seen anyone in nearing a week, no friends outside of work, no dates.
Outside, the car honks again. I clear my throat, go back to my websites, my history books. This celibacy is a sticking point for me. I try to wrap my mind around it, how they could expect numbers to grow without bearing children into their lifestyle, their beliefs. They loved marriage, though, and they loved children. Marriage, they said, begets children. Without that, there would be no Shakers at all. They had to hope that people would find them, however people do, and wish to join. They could only wait in faith. I admire that, I think. I admire that reticence.
My dog, Chewie, is in a dream state. I look over, him on his back, legs kicked up, making tiny squeaks, growls. I read on. Discipline the body, feed the spirit, Shakers say. They eschew modernity to continue living a simple lifestyle with clear goals, daily prayer groups and bible studies, passion for faith first, for community next, devotion to the cause. They are full of customs, peculiar mannerisms (like stepping first on the right foot when going up the stairs, a ladder, or cutting their meat and bread squarely, never diagonally). Their buildings were—are—considered masterpieces of simplicity, form and function combined and not overthought.
I think about that, their design aesthetic, an aesthetic that guides all they do, sitting in my dusty apartment with its soiled carpet and uneven window framing, the sloppy vanilla paint slapped on the walls in patchy swabs prior to my moving in. I study my bookshelves in the dining room, an array of units picked up from garage and estate sales, the books stacked carelessly, my mismatched furniture. I feel the pressure of the room in that moment, the pressure of my life folding in on me, the isolation. The Shakers, too, were isolated. They were stuck with no way forward, and their movement was nearing extinction.
I breathe out loudly into a hiss and I say to Chewie, “Let’s go to the woods.” He wakes, alerts. I say, “Let’s go for a hike.”
Nearly thirty minutes later, we’re on a trail in Proud Lake Recreation Area, a 4,700-acre wealth of woods and lakes and streams. Chewie and I are on the move, about a mile in, a slow but consistent jog over the uneven ground until we’re both out of breath. He pants, his tongue wagged out.
We stop at a brackish-looking creek, some tributary from the nearby Huron River. My dog drinks a moment before I pull him back. I’m afraid, a dog who’s never known nature like this, what he may pick up in the water and how it may affect him–some threat I can’t protect him from. He tugs on the leash, wishes to go back. I pull out my water bottle, drip it out, and he laps it best he can. For now, it will suffice.
I sit next to a tattered oak. Chewie sits next to me panting, eyes reddening. I pet him, I catch my breath. The forest is full of oak and maple, chestnut and butternut, some pine, some birch. The woods are quiet around us now. The only sign of life we’d seen on the trail were fresh horse droppings—people are allowed to ride through the trail, and did, leaving these behind in great quantities. But, here against the oak, feeling Chewie’s ruddy fur on my hand, we are alone. Some crickets chirp, we can hear the bubbled creek. A bird calls out, what I know as a red-winged blackbird, and again. Chewie sits up, ears back, closes his mouth. He’s heard something. He gets up, I follow, and I let him lead me back toward the creek until he stops, sniffs. I see what he’s looking at: a small painted turtle scurrying out from the water and into the undergrowth. With my free hand, I pick it up. I flip it over and admire the coloration of its shell, its powerful legs, its open mouth and bugged eyes studying me.
I’ve been alone now for a long time—by choice, I remind myself. Wanting to focus on writing, on my work. And while I cherish these times in the woods, the times at home, me and Chewie existing together, just us, it has become, then, right then, too much to bear, not having someone to share it with.
I smile at the turtle as if it may understand my intention here. In return, it pisses on me, all over my hands. I put it back down in the brush and clean myself in the creek. Chewie and I continue on, loop around the miles of the trail until we’re back at the car, piling in, tired, out of water, alone in the parking lot.
Back at my apartment complex, in the building next to mine, a scene: spread out on the drying, browned lawn in front of the unit, a trove of things. At the front, a couple who I’ve seen before, but never talked to, pacing and screaming. A small cadre of people formed in the parking lot, looking on. Then, a man exits the building with a lamp—an ugly, fake-brass table lamp with rounded humps as if small tires piled atop of one another. For a moment, the lamp reminds me of all the fake-brass things my parents had in our house when I was a kid: a straight-necked table lamp, a gazelle statue, a gravy boat meant to sit on a dresser and to not pour gravy.
The man, one of the apartment complex employees who facilitates evictions, sets the lamp gently on the grass. The man who lives there, I see now, angry-eyed, has a bat in his hands. He lifts it up, yells. I can’t hear what he’s saying. The mover seems nonplussed. He goes back inside.
The woman is glassy-eyed, red-faced—I can see that much from my car. And then, yes, I know: They’re being kicked out for not paying rent. I’d only seen it once before, but that first time, they’d done it when the tenants were at work. Bystanders came by, told me what was happening. They began, with no shame, taking things from the piles on the grass. Leaving with what they could get their hands on, not hiding their prizes, but walking slowly, ambling with them proudly, it seemed.
Here, though, this couple is keeping watch, guarding. Those looking on do so with apathy: hands behind their backs or on their hips, talking to one another, taking photos with their phones—laughing, too, giggling and conferring, planning.
The man with the bat paces. I step out of my car and stand there, watching. He sees me and stops. All I can do is bite my lip, nod in his direction. What else can I do? With his free hand he wipes his eyes, his face. He doesn’t nod back, but instead turns around, goes back to pacing. I don’t know what I expected.
Chewie barks in the car, so I let him out and keep him at my side. He, too, notices the crowd, watches them with me. The woman, his girlfriend or wife or partner or whatever, puts her hands on the man’s shoulder. She is sobbing, but she’s trying to comfort him. She places her hands then on his forearm, lowers it, the bat. The mover comes back out, still not making eyes with the tenants. I wonder what they’ll do next—if they have any sort of contingency plan or if this is it. In that moment, I again think of the Shakers: When their communities were depleted, their homes and barns and workshops turned into museums and historic markers, what part of them—the individuals themselves and not merely the scaffolding of them—lives on?
This couple I’m watching have been here longer than me, going on two years, an eternity for a run-down complex like this. When they leave, what part of them is imprinted on this place? I scan the crowd again, watching the drama unfold. How is this—what I and this crowd are doing together here now—different from visiting a museum a hundred years in the future, reading plaques and watching a recreation of this or some other human drama? In the grand scheme, what is the actual difference here?
Chewie tugs on this leash. I find it impossible to not think about my own legacy then, or lack of one—at what point does escape from bad break-ups, from family bullshit, retreating into isolation, become a point of no return? At what point have I spoiled it all?
My attention is pulled back to the scene: The man with the bat says something, and the woman at his side pulls on him, cries out. He follows the moving man back in the building, hollering and swinging. The woman gasps, but the crowd is silent. They are waiting to see what this means for them.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is the founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.