Cara Bayles
Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.

Inman Square, April 19th, 2013

The Bradford pears in bloom on Cambridge Street shed perfect white petals that flit down to the sidewalk and across the hoods of Humvees and police cruisers. In two weeks, the trees will rot and smell like yeast, but not yet. The bars, the convenience stores, the diner, and the cobbler’s closet-sized shop, are all shut up and dark. The streets usually echo with the sound of shuddering trucks delivering milk and crates of eggs or kegs of beer to the restaurants; on the sidewalks, there is typically laughter and shrieks, clacking heels and thwapping sneakers and the radio wafting out of the sushi place, or barking dogs and drunken arguments and the murmurs of the old men in high-waisted pants and nice shoes who watch everyone and comment to one another in Portuguese from the concrete ledge outside their apartment complex. But now, the streets are empty.

In one apartment, Mommy and Daddy say it’s like a springtime snow day, and we’ll all be okay, but we have to stay inside. Jenny is not allowed to watch the TV. Mommy and Daddy take turns watching it.

One block away, a woman is trying to write a research paper on Victorian literature at her desk in her underwear while the radio drones on, giving a brief history of Chechnya. She stops to answer text messages, emails, and phone calls asking if she is okay. “Fine. Just bored.”

On the floor above her, the newlyweds drink beer on their couch and watch TV news until they can’t listen to constant updates about what possibly might but isn’t actually happening, about what a resilient city Boston is, about acts of valor and people scattering and then running back toward the finish line, about the raid of an apartment on Norfolk Street. If they leaned out their window, they would see the same cruisers and Humvees. But they don’t look out the window.


Cigar Store, Connecticut

Everything can be traced back to its origins in the smoke shop: the walls (hewed from oaks of the Naugatauk Forest), the owner’s suit (fine Italian wool), and the patrons, even the ones who only spend five minutes browsing before returning to their homes (farmhouses in Norwalk, converted in the 1920s). The fug of tobacco clings to it all, seeps into the wood grain and the fabric and the pores and hair.

The leaves are from plantations in Nicaragua, where it grew in willowy stalks from the dark earth. But the seeds originated in Cuba, were packed and smuggled and distributed across a foreign soil to be harvested and torn up and sealed in brittle paper in New England.

Miguel, sitting in the corner in a Panama hat, rolls brown wraps around the sticky hairs of tobacco. He is a master. His brain no longer keeps track of what his thumbs do, and he can think about Pipi, a dog he owned as a boy in Havana, that would follow him everywhere and lick his ankles pensively, its tongue lingering mid-stroke as though the mutt was lost in deep philosophy. Miguel sits in his new home, thinking of the pensive dog, his fingers artful and mechanical in their chore, pure muscle memory, as natural and rhythmic as breathing: cut the sheet in a strip, roll it, seal it, cut it in la máquina, cap it with pectin.

His sinews are strung tightly, as on a finely-tuned instrument. They are mesmerizing to watch. Miguel’s eyes flick up and his lip might tug into a smile every time a new customer stands over him and watches his work, but his hands never stop.

“Don’t inhale, now,” he says, whenever someone leaves the cashier’s desk with a bag or a box. And then the bell on the door will ring as they leave, and his fingers won’t notice a thing.


Sugar Shack, New Hampshire

The proprietor and tour guide wears a leather jacket with a sheepskin collar and a green hunting hat with its flaps down. He leads the New York family through the sugar shack, or sap house, or syrup shanty, telling them any of those terms are correct and that they can choose their pick.

In the old wooden cabin, a vent smokes a sweet cotton steam with a strong flavor of smoke and sap and the clouds look so thick, a little boy on the tour thinks he could reach out and grasp it, lean on it, eat it, but the vapor swims between his fingers.

He keeps interrupting the proprietor’s hypothetical questions:

“And do you know which grade is the best?”

“I do,” says the boy, yanking the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and pulling at the drawstrings, so his face is framed by a pucker of blue cotton. He is visiting his grandmother, who clutches his hand because she doesn’t get to often enough.

The sugar farmer shows them a wooden tray with four vials. The blond liquid called “Grade A Light Amber” is considered the best, but the darkest and richest is called Grade B.

The boy’s mother prefers dark syrup. She thinks: You can categorize your reality into small portions based on translucence, you can memorize the distinctions perfectly, you can know all there is to know, and still know nothing.

The old man is explaining that sap flows through the maple trees like a bloodstream. In the winter, he tromps into the woods and nails spouts into the trunks. The juice drains into metal buckets with a tin flap that keeps the animals from gorging or drowning themselves.


First Snowfall of the Year, Cambridge St., 3 a.m.

The winter in New England runs from November to April, and during the bleakest months, no one leaves home unless they must. People trudge through their kitchens and bedrooms donning blankets as capes. Outside, they wear coats that resemble sleeping bags. The heaters in the old houses clang and sputter, but they don’t emit enough warmth to toast a room. The hot water only works for half a shower before it surrenders. Field mice wander in from the chill, congregate under beds, and gnaw at cardboard boxes. Human hibernation involves very little sleep, though the sky turns black before supper.

The air is dry and cold. It makes noses leak mucus as thin as water. Skin puckers and wrinkles like dead poultry’s. Lips desiccate and crack. The wind is so thin, it can permeate skin, crawl in between muscle fibers, and blow into bone marrow.

In the morning, school buses, sleek hybrid cars, and old junkers with no heat will clog the intersections in Cambridge. The air, too, will be congested with the sounds of playground shrieking and car horns. Hammers might tap at the renovation project on Somerville Ave., where the carpenters have been joining and pouring and roofing and smoking for two months. Troops of children will bustle two-by-two down the sidewalk, clinging to a rope so as not to lose the urgency of their formation. A door will open, and two grade schoolers will run to a bus stop, the mittens clipped to their coat sleeves bouncing with their gait, their sneakers slapping the sidewalk. Just before the door slams shut behind them, you might catch a whiff of drip coffee and cinnamon oatmeal.


Suffolk Downs Racetrack, East Boston

Logan Airport sits on the water’s edge, and the planes departing north and west glide low over East Boston. They loom, casting bird-shaped shadows as they screech above Broad Sound and across the Atlantic. They slip above the streets and the townhouses; over Revere Beach, where brazen seagulls steal roast beef sandwiches from the fingers of sunburned locals; above the thirty-five-foot-tall Madonna perched atop Orient Heights; above the pizzerias and taquerias; and above the skeletal horses orbiting the racetrack.

At Suffolk Downs, the turnstiles are pointless, because admission is free. You walk through them and into an echoing room with stadium seating where light filters through the long windows in rays. No one sits there. It would feel like a library, if it weren’t for the bugle call and the announcer crackling through the loudspeaker.

Outside, spectators sit at picnic tables. The hooves clap the dirt. The horses kick up dust as they heave by, their knees and ankles and haunches and lungs all beating the same rhythm. Their manes are cropped short and some wear war masks to limit distractions and intimidate their rivals. The ones who have been traded many times want to win, crave victory like a hunger. When the start gun pops, they focus on the horizon, as if that will bring it to them faster. They stare ahead, as if they could ride off in a straight line instead of a loop, as if today fate will reward them, and they will jump the fence and swim in the ocean. As if their hooves could flatten into flippers and they could try gliding. As if they could stop kicking and give in to the current.


Wellfleet Oyster Fest

You celebrate and consume us. You wear images of us on your shirts and wave banners with our name over your streets. You devote one day to us. You honor us.

We are a mighty clan of Atlantic bivalves, cousins of the pearl makers and of the ancient spiked spondylus. We pump colorless blood. We build ourselves up with lime salt, growing out in a fan. The tide is our cradle and it rocks us; ebb crash, ebb crash, ebb crash. Our bed is made up of our multitude, and when we sleep, we have one dream. When we beat our cilia to breathe. The tiny hairs of our lungs hum in one voice over the ebb and crash. The song is so quiet you can’t hear it, you can only feel it if you are very still and relax all your muscles.

We were born when our mothers and fathers released their seeds into the Atlantic, clouding the water. We huddled together in a cluster and hummed. We trapped debris in the mucus of our gills and digested it. We filtered the water we lived in. We grew out of ourselves, building our own skulls as the brain of us, our internal goop and collective consciousness, grew and grew.

When you release seeds, it is a messy secret. When you eat, you toss papers and plates across the street. You do not filter your air. As you grow, you tick off your progress on the wall in the kitchen.


Serbian Festival, Somerville, MA

Inside the tent, the crowd’s murmur roars in tune with the ocean that separates them from the continent where their grandparents are buried. There is laughter and gossip and declarations of disapproval and the smell of coffee as thick as wet dirt.

The first dancers take the stage. A line of children jumps in interweaving rows. The girls wear tunics and skirts, their black aprons embroidered with flowers and patterns in angular cross-stitching. The audience claps. Mothers crane their necks. Camera flashes temporarily blind.

The ladies at the food table have been awake since dawn. One of them is wondering if she will be able to duck out and have a cigarette before the day is over. Their faces are bleary from exhaustion as they dump food onto paper plates. They serve sausage, lamb, coleslaw, rice, and a cheese pie made from brittle petals of dough. The bar serves strictly American delicacies: Sam Adams and Sutter Home.

The church parking lot is full of smoke from the barbeque. Across the tent, the dancers can smell cooked meats and onions. They jangle tiny bells. One girl smiles broadly, revealing all of her teeth. She leaps back and forth, concentrating on the steps. During one of the rehearsals in the church basement, the dance teacher, her voice thick with a Baltic accent, reminded them, “Smile, children!” The girl took this advice very seriously, and flexes her cheeks as she flexes her feet to the rhythm: onetwothreefourfivesix—one… two three four. She is wearing lipstick for the first time. It tastes waxy, feels heavy, like a second layer of skin. She bows deeply when it is all over and runs to her mother.


Apple Orchard, Harvard, MA

At the orchard, the trees twist into gnarled poses. They seem feral and stubborn, yet they sit in perfect formation, organized by name and breed: Royal Gala, Fuji, Jonagold, Crispin/Mutsu, Honeycrisp, Paula Red, Rome Beauty, Baldwin. Some are for baking, some are destined to be cider, or mashed into a butter spread. Most are eaten raw. People who come to pick their own pecks and half-bushels chew their harvest, and suck juice from their fingers as they walk between rows, appraising.

The grove’s owner drives a tractor-led hayride back and forth between the entrance and the middle of the property. He’s a loping man with white hair like brush bristles. The top half of him, clad in denim, is thicker and wider than the bottom half of him, also dressed in denim, and if you visit the orchard, you will admire the disproportion of his dimensions.

In the pumpkin patch, the buds bloom into petals and the flowers grow into lantern shapes—ripe orange and verdant, twisted and round. The children of New England have always bought the gourds in October, carved around their stems with steak knives, fished out fistfuls of goop, and salted and baked their seeds. But even when they first observe fruit growing on the snaking stalks, it will seem like the strangest thing they have ever seen.

The apples grow in unfamiliar ways, too. They hang atop the canopy in clusters, so the plants appear to slouch or shrug, or are hidden in the tangle of branches underneath the leaves. Others dangle like earrings. Some trees are past their prime, surrounded by the fallen, stacked like cannonballs around the trunks.


Cape Cod National Seashore, MA

If you can make a fist to flex your bicep, you have a map of Cape Cod.

The Snail Trail leads to the most secluded beach, on the flat part of your hand, just below your knuckles. To get there, you must drive along the vein from your elbow to your wrist. You park beside the highway and walk for one mile through bramble and dunes, up and down the wave-shaped sands, before you hear the ocean inhale and sigh, inhale and sigh.

You pass a deep-cut crater of sand that you name the Sugar Bowl, and a ridge reamed with beach grass you dub The Green Upper Lip, and you can see that the only honest part of an explorer’s job was writing tiny poems on hand-drawn maps. When you reach the crest of the dune, you look out to the fog of the Atlantic, and search for a horizon that doesn’t exist. The sea is one great sky. The sky crashes above and below you, breathing slowly like a failing lung.

Three young girls run down the beach, each streaming a long tangle of hair. Their father, trailing behind them, sucks at the plastic umbilical on his CamelBak, then untangles himself from it. His daughters splash into the water and shout, “Oh, it is heavenly!” A little further down the shore, you hear this and go in up to your knees, until the chill shrinks your cartilage and wears at your joints. You retreat, noting that little girls think heaven is an ice palace.


Estabrook Woods

When I say “New England,” you know what I mean.

You think of the states’ names, maybe. But half of them are gestures to people who were forced from their home (Connecticut, Massachusetts) or reflect a longing for a land left behind (New Hampshire). They are only a fraction of what I mean. Maybe you think of lighthouses and fall foliage and other brochure-ready niceties. But the shorthand is too great for five tiny states crammed with woods and farmland and cities and bogs and shoreline and ports. And not just fall foliage, but dead chill winters and wet springs and humid summers.

So maybe you do not know what I mean at all.


Wonderlust

Braintree was just a bedroom community, home to the big movie theater and the southernmost stop on the Red Line, but when I was a kid, its name evoked a sense of wonder. I envisioned an enormous oak with a canopy of marbled grey matter.

When I started to take public transportation into the city for high school, and then covered Boston’s neighborhoods as a reporter a decade later, these names started to lose their mystery, because I heard them every day. I could recite the stops on the Red Line in one breath without thinking, like a catechism, and heard the conductor say, “This is a Brrrraintree train, Braintree” so often, it didn’t conjure anything in me anymore. Some days, that commute felt long and endless, like I would be riding Red Line trains until the end of days. I rode the subway so much, I felt like Charlie.