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Mother and I in Burlington

03/29/02 12:00AM By Willem Lange

You may consider Burlington pretty small potatoes. But when you spend most of your time in the swamps of Etna, it's pretty exotic. Just crossing the street can kill you.

Mother and I are here at a hardware convention: an overnight party and products show, with spouses invited. Mother's the businessperson; I'm the spouse.

I feel the way Garrison Keillor did after moving to Denmark with a new wife. He didn't speak the language, so nobody expected him to know or say anything. They've given me a name tag, though, and you'd have to look sharp to tell me from somebody who actually knows something.

I stroll around as if I were considering a large order -- nodding over the paints, exclaiming about the brass hardware, tapping on the cultured marble sink tops. I've found some things I haven't seen before: a paint roller with a ten-foot-long handle; a four-foot-long collapsible T-square; and a foolproof mousetrap. But once around the ballroom is enough.

Meanwhile, I'm remembering what it is that's stimulating about cities -- people. Just to give you an idea: last night during supper, a young couple walked into the dining room. She had on a bright red dress with attention-getting contours, and her companion's hair looked as though he'd stuck his finger into a lightbulb socket. He was carrying a boom box.

They walked up to a fellow at the next table and spoke to him. Then the wild-haired character punched a button on the tape player, music began, and the woman started gyrating as if she had an angry ferret inside her clothes. After a minute or so, she started to take them off. And she didn't stop.

Mother looked at me round-eyed. "Do you see that?"

"What's that?" I asked. "Oh, that! Why, I'd hardly noticed." Which wasn't entirely true, and I think she knew it.

We've met lots of new people. We ate breakfast with a salesman who told us about his kids and his neighbor's au pair. I talked to the mouse trap salesman and got a description of his whole life since high school. We had lunch with a couple who quit a career in a Cleveland steel mill and bought a general store in northern Vermont. Next to them sat a couple who owned a hardware store in the Adirondacks. She was large and talked a lot; he was small, and smiled a lot.

Mother stopped at the mall on the way into town. I sat by the fountain, reading and watching people. A bearded drunk in logger's boots, wearing a Walkman, sat down beside me, looked over at my magazine, and hummed along with his private music.

"Vermont Life. Ver' nize mag'zine. I'm f'm Vermont, y'know." He slid down to the edge of the pool, put his feet and the Walkman into the water, lay back on the bricks, and fell asleep. You don't see that too much in Etna..

This is Willem Lange back in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

--Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.
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