Harold and Al, All Covered in Fur
by Andrew Sarewitz
Fresh white powder blanketing a mountain meadow wide as a football field, silent and at peace. Without warning, out of the forest hysterical and elated, comes a pack of miniature furry creatures, hopping and tumbling. It could be a scene from an H.G. Wells story: a frozen planet where bunny sized terrorists explore some wonderful, undiscovered habitat. In reality, it’s a memory my sister has of seeing a dozen pint sized Shih-Tzus bounding across a New England hill into winter’s first unblemished snowfall.
I am a big dog lover. I’m referring to canine size. In my adult years, as a victim of romances with owners of small dogs, I did fall for a Dachshund, two Shelties and an English Bulldog I respectfully accuse of being a runt. As a kid, in addition to gerbils, a guinea pig and tanks full of tropical fish, our family pet was a black Labrador.
Teacup Shih Tzus became a fervor as well as a link to a friendship I would have with two adults that began when I was ten or eleven years old. Both were closer to my parents’ age. Ending without fanfare while still a teen, I sloughed off any influence they had on me. The unlikely relationship was a peripheral storyline to some tumultuous time spent with my family. My parents, specifically.
Lucy. That’s the one Shih Tzu’s name I clearly remember. Best in Show winner, sweet and immediately affectionate, she was a small, long haired strawberry blond, with a serrated blue bow on her forehead both cute and functional, keeping strands of fur out of her eyes. Not that I think the hair clip bothered her. When I first met this den of four legged manic mops, there were nine living in one house in Marlboro, Vermont, owned by two middle aged roommates.
Harold, about 45 years old, had been raised in the southern comfort of Carolina wealth. Wiry grey and black goatee, hairy, masculine looking, flamboyant and raucous, and often bobbing in his cups before noon from several Bloody Marys. For reasons to which I am not privy, Harold was not welcome back in North Carolina and was bribed handsomely by family to stay away. And Al. A northerner, close to the same age as Harold. Clean shaven, tall with straight grey hair and curly sideburns, intellectual, funny, kind, quiet but conversational and a great story teller. Harold lived year round in Marlboro. Al commuted weekly through Western Massachusetts to New Haven, Connecticut, where he taught biology at Yale. In addition to teaching, one passion Al pursued was Chiropterology. The study of bats. Another was collecting and showing Shih Tzus. That began in the early 1960’s.
Their house was bordered north and east by a black highway and the lip to Sunset Lake Road, a dirt-paved thoroughfare that began six miles up a steep mountain from bustling downtown Brattleboro. On the other corner of the dirt road stood The Spiral Shop, a single-room shingled box painted white, functioning as a gallery and souvenir store for Harold. Originally built as and called the Four Corners School House, I’ve wondered about the origin of its name since it’s planted at a three corner intersection. A grenade’s throw from the highway, is an unobtrusive brown and weather-stained building that once stabled horses. Reconstructed high and wide, this was converted into the house where Harold and Al made their home. The surrounding landscape was a fairytale’s stage of statues and ornate objects, brambles with bird houses, stone ponds and humming bird feeders, blossoming plants, cherub fountains and narrow slate paths. A few prancing toy dogs complete the vignette. If the house had been in front of the yellow brick road, it wouldn’t have been a stretch.
My parents fell into Marlboro in the late 1960s, while visiting their friend, Roma. A young widow and close friend of my mother’s since their days in Baltimore during the post war era. She had moved from her sprawling contemporary home in Westchester, New York, where she’d raised her two boys, to a tall house set behind the back woods of Harold and Al’s property. Marlboro is a gorgeous Fraser fir and white birch country town with a mixed community of lifers, recluses, artists and seasonal guests, a modern college and classical music festival. For downhill skiers, Marlboro is relatively close to three resorts; four if you count the now retired single ski lift slopes of Hogback Mountain. In autumn, the magnificent Crayola painted foliage attracts visitors rivaling winter’s packed powder. The summers are warm weather with waterfalls and swimming holes, canoes and mountain trails. Only early spring is not celebrated, due to weeks of fruitless trees and thick, gluey mud from rivers of melting snow. But for 10 months of the year, it’s a New England paradise. I hated it. I’m not asking for sympathy, but I’ll try to explain my view.
After two winters of squatting on Roma’s living room floor, my parents bought property and built a year round vacation home a mile and a half in on Sunset Lake Road. Leaving northern New Jersey after my father finished work on Friday evening, my parents would drive to Marlboro two to three weekends a month. Without traffic delays, it was a four and a half hour trip, which translates to being closer to five, if you didn’t stop for a meal. We would return Sunday, leaving Marlboro late afternoon. At that age, having entered junior high, I was discovering a new world of parties and girls (I’m gay, but that’s not the point...) and pre-adult social activities. I was too young to be left home alone and thinking about it decades later, I’m certain my father expected I would and wanted me to love Marlboro country. It had become his faultless Shangri La. He’d chop wood and build rock walls and climb the hills of his own forest acreage. He could bird watch through binoculars high in the mountains and breathe in the glorious, clear air. Across from his property, he would watch beavers paddle in a lake they created by damming a stream with gnawed branches and sapling trunks, flooding the land. He could sit in front of a fire place made of century-old bricks, burning dry logs he split himself, and embrace a meditative warmth in the upper floor of the cathedral ceilinged house built for him. I know how perfect it all sounds. For me, these were lost weekends of youth I could never recapture and I resented him for it.
As an adult, I developed a great and lasting friendship with Dad till his death. But we never discussed and I still haven’t reconciled what I consider to be his unapologetically selfish behavior. One reason I have not found peace is how undeniably selfish this makes me sound. An entitled white boy’s hideous punishment of having to spend weekends in the country. The horror! It may also explain the root of my deep seeded and unrelenting dislike for travel. Not an inherited family trait. I became a whiny, petulant little snot who did all I could to get under my parents’ skin. I still own an expensive vintage tortoise-shell lorgnette I saw in an antique store in Wilmington that my father bought for me. Anything to shut me the hell up.
I don’t recall the first time I met Harold and Al. It had to be during the times our family stayed with Roma. Harold seemed like a Cinerama screen character to me. Larger than life and far from any reality I had known. I’d cross Roma’s stone and grass driveway onto a tree-camouflaged path that led to French doors at the back of their house. The inside was filled with multinational collections from Aztec figures to African masks. The eclectic pieces of furniture were discoveries of wood and fabric not seen in the manicured houses of suburban New Jersey. Everything was a treasure. Every visit, an adventure. Knock on the door and the passel of miniature dogs began barking choruses of warning and welcome. Once invited in, I would fall to the floor giggling as I was attacked by multiple paws and wet kisses. Unable to catch my breath, Harold, in his North Carolina drawl (and a tumbler in his hand) would call off the dogs. Soon they came to recognize me. I was in love. As things became more difficult between my parents and I, Harold and Al’s house was my Vermont reprieve. There must have been some conversation between my parents and Harold asking if he minded my just showing up and plopping myself down for hours at a time.
Their house was arguably clean, considering the amount of dog hair and country dust, until you went into Al’s bedroom. The floor was wall to wall newspapers, animal toys and dog bowls. His queen sized mattress was covered with fur and dog shit. How on earth could Al possibly spend any time in there, much less sleep on that bed?
At the edge of the barn-size living area was a wrought iron staircase winding clock-wise up to a deep A-frame bedroom. This was Harold’s sanctuary. Clean and Shih Tzu free. It never occurred to me that Harold and Al slept there together.
I didn’t think about their relationship. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not as if I wasn’t drawn to boys. But I thought about boys or men I was attracted to as some private fantasy never to be explored outside of my imagination. Not to delve too deeply into my subconscious sexuality at that age, but I didn’t have an attraction to older men, let alone “daddies.” Any Freudian and Oedipal mindsets that are diagnosed as sexual impulses didn’t apply to me. In an era of rock ‘n roll androgyny and long haired hippies, I had an unbearable attraction to pretty young men, preferably Roger Daltrey-skinny with sleeveless shirts and ass hugging bell-bottom jeans.
Harold took to me quickly, and I to him. I was a great and grateful audience to his adventure tales. But it was Al who invited me on day trips to dog shows. For the important contests, he hired a professional to traipse his prized Shih Tzus around the ring. For these county parades, Al played handler. The dogs were pampered and readied like Southern beauty queens in the hangar-like wing that didn’t anchor with the charm of the rest of the house. The walls were covered in cork slabs decorated with ribbons and metals. Glass cabinets the size of bay windows stood like banal monoliths displaying the dogs’ three dimensional trophies. There were long Formica counters and large restaurant style sinks with teeming-rain faucets where Al could shampoo and prepare his dogs for competition. I was allowed to hold and help towel-dry the dogs, but the bathing and grooming was ritual between Al and his herd. In a matter of hours these tangled, long haired urchins were transformed into four legged pageant rivals ready for war. I can’t seem to access what Al and I talked about all day, but it was both mentoring and friendship, at least from my side.
There is a disconnect. At some point Al came to my school in New Jersey to present a slide show and lecture on African bats as an assembly. The first image Al projected in the dark auditorium was some frightening Dracula-like picture of bats infesting the sky. The entire student body roared and screeched and nervously laughed. He had won over a room of teens in seconds flat.
Dad’s house on Sunset Lake Road was built, start to finish, during the summer of 1971. Not quite the efficiency of raising an Amish barn, but much faster than anticipated. My father’s plan for completion had been closer to three years. Harold helmed the ship. The house was designed by him and Dad, and Harold took on the role of overseer and contractor. A contemporary house, but drafted with respect for its forest setting. At the foot of the tree-lined drive, affixed like an evergreen extension, was marbled wood signage that read Schneefern. Depending on whom you ask, the German to English translates to “Faraway Snow,” or “Fantasyland.” I incorrectly remember my father telling me Schneefern meant “Winter Wonderland.” I understand why.
My father eventually relented, sometimes letting me stay in New Jersey with my cousins or gracious friends of my parents. By the beginning of my sophomore school year, I was often allowed to stay home alone. During the in-between time, either skiing or visiting with Harold and Al was refuge. At some point my brother Dan blatantly told me Harold and Al were a couple, as if it should have been obvious to anyone with a brain. I remember confronting Harold to tell him that I knew he was gay but that I wasn’t. He didn’t roll his eyes or burst out laughing: he simply listened and said, “I know.”
As alcohol consumption often brings out venomous behavior, Harold alienated friends and neighbors without spare. I lasted longer than most. I theorize that Harold had feelings for my father and therefore took extra precautions with me. But on one Saturday afternoon before I turned 16, I became the target of Harold’s whiskey soaked attacks. I left his house dejected and hurt and walked home. I didn’t say anything to my parents but I stopped visiting. Not even the dogs could lure me back. It was Al who told my father with sad resignation that I had become a casualty of Harold’s drunken tirades. He had driven even me away. Without Harold, Al and the Shih-Tzu nation, Marlboro held no draw for me.
As an adult, I did occasionally visit Sunset Lake Road with various friends and lovers, but never while my family was there. I would point to Harold and Al’s house as a tour guide might but never crossed their threshold. Looking back, I wasn’t sad about the loss. I was just angry at Harold for his actions and typical for me, unforgiving. Youth and stupidity often go hand-in-hand.
Sometime in the early 1980’s, Harold and Al brought a young local man home to stay with them. As relayed to me, drunk and jealous one night, Harold pulled out a loaded pistol and started waving it around. A bullet was discharged, ricocheting off a hard surface and hitting the young man in the face. The boy lived, thank God, but lost an eye.
Al fled to New Haven permanently, giving Harold title to the Marlboro house and property with the understanding that he never contact Al again. Whatever legal ramifications were levied, Harold never went to jail.
My parents sold their Marlboro property in 2001, thirty years after my father had built his dream house in the mountains. I asked him if that was a difficult decision. Infirm and unable to explore the land he had cherished for three decades, he preferred letting it go. Looking out a living room window at a land he could no longer walk brought him no joy. In his words, “it’s time.”
Quoting a Brattleboro obituary from 2012: “Harold T. Makepeace, Jr., a resident of the Vermont Veterans' Home in Bennington, died on Sept. 18, at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center after several years of declining health. He was 86 years old.”
Al Novick passed away in 2005 at the age of 80. According to his obituary, by the mid 1980’s, Al left his teaching position at Yale and focused all his efforts on AIDS research and fighting the epidemic. I never knew. I may not have stretched my anger toward Harold onto Al, but I had left him behind without any thought. I wonder if he would care if I had tried to contact him. I would have liked to thank him for all he’d done fighting a plague that murdered my lover and decimated my society. But it also would have been nice to simply tell him how much he added to my young life. A father-like figure who invited me into his world of kindness, generosity, humor, and of course, Shih Tzus. Never asking for anything in return.
Recently while walking in Manhattan’s West Village toward the Hudson River, a woman wearing a camel hair coat and cowboy boots strolled by me with two small, long haired dogs on leashes. I overheard a young couple sipping coffee on a stoop agree that the dogs were Lhasa Apsos. I corrected them, saying they were Shih Tzus. Lhasas are larger and their snouts protrude. Shih Tzus tend to be smaller and their noses are flat. The couple stared at me as if to say, “who the hell asked you?” I continued walking to the river’s edge, to stare at the verdigris Lackawanna Ferry Slip and watch the tall ships sail by.
About the Author
Andrew has published several nonfiction short stories. His play, “Madame Andrèe” received 2 Honorable Mentions in 2018: Writers Digest Competition and New Works of Merit Contest as well as winning the honor of opening the series Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, Summer of 2019. Mr. Sarewitz also has authored numerous historical and critical artist essays with a primary focus on twentieth century non-conformist art from Russia.
From the Editor
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