A sofa appeared in the cornfield on Pulvers soon after harvest. Nubby beige, a two-seater, it faced roadside and, when the afternoon sun set the field on fire, stood apart, refusing to glow. Among the rows of cut stalks that give these late autumn fields their singular color and texture, the sofa was a surrealist absurdity, but by my third or fourth drive-by, I started thinking of it as the plausible contents of a Hopper farmhouse done in somber blues and blacks. A request for something noir had arrived in my inbox and I was in search of plot, though I was living in the countryside where little happens.
A week passed. The sofa stayed put. Meaning the Pulvers who farmed this land were leaving it there, to offend the perpetrator with the daily confrontation of their worst self, I guessed. Would shame serve as corrective, force a return to the crime scene for clean up? I was pretty sure the kind of rage that motivates such an act belonged to a local, someone aware of the extreme inequity of the haves and have-nots in the area, angry enough to flaunt their hatred one way or another, to spew extra carbon as they accelerated past weekenders bicycling or running to stay fit, or to fly the Confederate flag. Though I didn’t have names, I had some candidates in mind, people I identified by their vehicles: the rusting pick-up screaming metallic, the unbalanced Dodge that veered crazy close past people on foot along the winding country roads. The lockdown in March kept weekenders up here full time, further enraging locals. Living around such rage, I imagined, would feel unsafe, especially if you were a child or a woman.
Thanksgiving came and went. Hunters walked the fields. One late afternoon, I saw two in full camo lean back on the sofa, as if sunning, then suddenly leap up and move off. The cushions were probably soaked. Winter arrived the following week and Pulver Corner, situated at the peak of this Taconic Ridge, was shrouded in thick mist, why we call it Dracula Hill. I’ve experienced a few heartstopping winter drives up here, when I couldn’t tell where the road ended and the field began, and I wasn’t the only one, because the town finally got around to painting lines to provide some illumination. They help.
Days before Christmas, an artificial tree showed up beside the sofa. Someone’s idea of a joke? At the metal base of the tree, some squarish white things that, from a distance, appeared as boxed gifts. I pulled over to get a better look. Was that electric wire? I got out of the car, walked a few yards into the field, and confirmed that in addition to the tree, several dirty electric kitchen appliances sprawled.
I looked around uneasily, wished I’d thought to bring work gloves, lifted a soaked cushion anyway and found the usual detritus: pennies and nickels, a paper clip, strands of long blonde hair, a receipt from the local Agway for Purina cat food. From under the second cushion, I retrieved a photo printed on card stock and a leather riding glove. In the print, a woman in her twenties, lips puckered around a cigarette, with the faraway eyes smokers get, seeing no one.
The sofa was stained, its arms clawed. In addition to the blonde, cats had lived in its household. The smell of cat pee was powerful even out here, in the open. I also discerned a perfume, something recognizable, though I couldn’t name it. I moved away to clear my nose, then stepped back. Maybe just a bad freshener or upholstery cleaner, nasty enough I didn’t want to stick around.
At home, after unloading the groceries, I put the receipt and glove on a brown paper bag. I pocketed the photo. Someone might recognize her.
On my way back from the train station on Sunday afternoon, I saw a car parked beside the field. We were entering into the second winter of the pandemic, and people were eager to emerge, desperate to do things, to get out and live, despite warnings. Vaccinations were becoming available, and a sort of Darwinist jostling for first in line had begun. Some people still wore masks, others threw them off, eating in crowded places at crowded times. This driver was on foot in the field, alone with a camera, filming a little black bear. I pulled over to watch. The bear approached the sofa cautiously, startled and took off in the opposite direction, then approached again. I rolled my window down for sound, but there was none. What can creatures of the wild understand about human transgression?
In truth, it seems near impossible not to sin against nature. Fencing the vegetables we grow causes suffering, trapping and maiming rabbits. Birds fly into the netting surrounding the blueberries so often we finally just let them at it. Harvesting a handful or two for my own breakfast makes it a good enough season. In the fall, the electric wire that keeps the horses safe snared a great horned owl. With the help of Audubon volunteers who know how to handle wild birds, we were able to rehab and release him. Early evenings, on my way back from barn chores, his happy hooting tells me he’s well.
The following Saturday, on my weekly run to Agway, I showed the photo to John, rather than to Kristen, because he likes talking to people. I’ve watched him for years now. His strategy is to distract customers with chit chat so he can get away with a bit of grifting: incomplete change if it’s cash. He has done this to me more than once, shorting me a ten or a twenty, so now I’ve become watchful, asking for a receipt, and counting my change. Oh, here you go, he will say casually, handing me the missing bill. Grifting seems to be a thing around here. The elderly woman behind the counter at the local wine store also engages in this kind of petty crime. Do you want a receipt, she asks when I pay in cash. I’m using my credit card more.
John took the photo from me and studied the face. I’ve seen her, he said. Horse girl. Comes in dressed for riding. Tall boots.
Know where she lives?
Bean River, where she worked, until she met someone and moved in with him.
More pieces started showing up in the field. An armchair and coffee table, set up living room style. A tall lamp, too, between the sofa and the chair.
A dining set appeared about a week later. I drove up the mountain the next day to confirm that I hadn’t imagined it, and there in the field, as if in an adjacent room, were a bed and dresser.
The furniture was of a heavy type, traditional pieces you could pick up for almost nothing at the old Johnson & Johnson, before it became North Elm, a makeover that didn’t improve things aesthetically. What had kept me going back to walk the cavernous aisles of the old J&J was the occasional modernist find: After spending too much on a mid-century sofa in the meatpacking district of New York, I bought my coffee table for $50. I also paid $250 for a Cherner bedroom suite complete with signature rounded corners. Even the interiors of the drawers were meticulously curved. When I researched Cherner’s work online, I learned that one of his desks had sold at a Chicago auction for more than $2200. I went back to J&J, and leaning against a wall were the heavy round mirrors that went with the dresser and dressing table, mounting hardware still attached.
The pieces in the field were not Cherners. Still, they were made of wood finished in oil or wax, not intended for the elements. Someone considered them dispensable and was having some fun. Did they all emerge from the same house? And what was motivating this installation exactly? Maybe performance art was the better term for this, a sort of Fluxus event started on a whim, without a plan, valuing process over finished product. How would it end? I wondered.
In the late 1980s, I attended a performance at a Fluxus gallery in lower Manhattan: The artist mixed clay with water, threw a pot on a wheel in front of the audience, none of which was exactly exciting, but then, when the pot was finished, she smashed it to the ground and distributed the pieces to those attending, asking everyone to return to the gallery a year later, to reconstruct the pot and fire it. I understood the performance as an adaptation of the Kabbalah metaphor, gathering the shards of a broken vessel to engage in world repair. Was this installation on Pulvers such an event? After so much careless consumption and carnage, repair and reparation were indeed overdue.
Some years ago, the elder Pulvers had a wind turbine installed beside the barn, allowing them to go off grid. At the top of this Taconic Ridge, the wind keeps the thing going most days, producing enough energy to return some for credit. Clean energy, a step toward world repair.
Waking the following morning, I had an idea that in the next plot move, a structure to house these furnishings would appear, but when I drove past the field, nothing had changed. In the afternoon, I ran into Linda Pulver and her daughter at Tractor Supply and asked them about the furniture.
We get one of these obnoxious dumps every year, Linda said. Jeff likes to leave it there for a while, until spring usually, for everyone to see. But that Christmas tree before Christmas was extra special, she laughed.
I liked her light spirit and laughed with her, grateful for this moment of levity, for the normality of a lighthearted social exchange. We were at Tractor Supply without masks and stayed almost six feet apart as we spoke.
It snowed and the furniture temporarily disappeared, an unintended natural event that also became part of the performance. A friend was in town for a week and we met at the Ancram Bar, a local dive she’d always wanted to try.
We caught up on our lives and our animals over cheap red wine. She was interviewing, desperate to get away from the compliance firm where only men were promoted.
What are you working on these days? she asked.
I told her about the furnished field, the only eventful thing around here.
Dumping old furniture is a thing around here, she said. Definitely awful.
I guess it costs something to dispose of bulky items at the town dump, I said.
We paused to look around. A couple of men at the bar. Kermit behind it, keeping conversation going, serving as needed. This local establishment has been in his family forever. At the pool table, a large burly guy in his twenties, amusing himself. The Cconfederate flag on the pick-up parked outside belonged to him: a man with an ax to grind. I’d seen this flag flier before, driving too fast, scowling at the twee guy in argyle socks pumping gas at the Cumberland. He struck me as someone who could easily lose it and start shooting. I also knew where he lived, a property perennially under construction, a retaining wall around the driveway, repair of the front steps, the porch.
The bell above the door chimed and another stocky late twenty-something strutted in, heading straight for the pool table. They high-fived, and soon he too wielded a bottle and a cue. I tuned in to hear their conversation:
Heard from ? he asked. I didn’t catch the name.
Nothing, the flag flier said. Up and left with no goodbye, no call. Not even on Christmas. Probably moved back home. It was always about family for her. Her family and her horses. Nothing else mattered. I definitely didn’t.
Well, you’re not hitched, his friend said.
They clinked bottles. Hit some balls. The flag flier paused to chalk his tip.
I was always cleaning up after her, but even after she was gone, I could smell her. I purged. I dumped her shit, that dirty sofa she moved in with. I wasn’t going to pay to get rid of it.
Bingo, my friend mouthed.
Getting into her truck, she paused. Let’s have a look. I have a flashlight.
She followed my car past the general store, post office, and church, the triumvirate that makes up the tiny town of Ancramdale, up Route 8 to Pulvers Corner, where we pulled over and stepped into the night.
My friend trudged into the field fearlessly and illuminated the dirty wet sofa, the Christmas tree beside it, the appliances beneath. But that’s all there was. The rest, the kitchen, bedroom, and dining rooms were missing! Erased. I closed and opened my eyes, to see again.
Hauling all the pieces in and out, and arranging them, she pointed out, would require major effort. Who would do it? And why?
A prank? I offered.
A very imaginative prank, she said, looking at me.
Half an hour later, I was in bed, sipping water before turning out the light, seeing the furniture in my room afresh, imperfect, with the side of one dresser damaged by direct sunlight, the bed frame missing bits of veneer. But once in use, I hardly noticed the imperfections. Now in its second or third life, in this farmhouse with no closets, the dressers serve well, providing much needed storage. Full bedroom suites, I know, are mostly a thing of the past, too many pieces for streamlined modern tastes, too matching perhaps, but they have the advantage of presenting as finished, a fully furnished room, a habitable home.
Complete, they make meaning.