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From the Dan’s Papers Literary Prize: The House by Fred Mohrmann

I awoke to a blaring room light and the loud sounds of pounding hollow metal. As my eyes adjusted and regaining consciousness, I quickly recognized the room I had fallen asleep in just a few short hours ago. I was on a bed in the corner of a kitchen in a room of a motel my father rented for the weekend. It was the same motel we rented on numerous fishing trips through the fall in Montauk. The owner of the motel was a nasty old lady that wore too much lipstick. I once witnessed her scare away a potential patron who simply asked for the price of a room. “A MILLION DOLLARS”—she yelled at him—“what do you think!?!”

We were in the same room dad always rented, the corner room in the middle of the motel. It was the biggest room in the cheapest motel in Montauk. Dad said it was closest to the boat ramp. Luckily, we didn’t need to spend much time at the motel. We were in Montauk to fish.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! My eyes immediately darted to the corner of the room where my father, standing over the stove in his briefs and a tee shirt – was kicking and slapping the defenseless oven. Was I still dreaming? Suddenly, he turns to see me sitting up watching him in disbelief. “DO YOU HEAR THAT CRICKET?” I must have misunderstood. “Cricket?” I responded? “YES, A CRICKET!” He’s now leaning over the stove to see down between it and the wall. “THERE’S A CRICKET BACK HERE!” He quickly scans the room and spots a jar full of sugar. Grabs it, opens the top and pours its entire contents down behind the stove. Within a few seconds, from below the stove, we hear … CRIC-KET…CRIC-KET! For fear of seeing what dad might do next, I rolled over covering my head with the blanket and went back to sleep.

Soon after the cricket episode dad starting talking about having our own place for mom and the kids to stay while we were fishing. I’m not sure if he actually wanted to spend more time with his family or he’s just afraid of crickets but that was the last night we spent at, what was forever referred to as, the “Cricket Motel.”

Dad found a new place for our weekend fishing jaunts—individual cottages overlooking Lake Montauk. A definite improvement, at least it appeared so. On one particular stay at the cottages, Dad received a call from the cottage manager. The Dock Master at the marina where our boat was docked called to inform us our 22’ Mako was sinking. Apparently, the winds changed direction and waves were now splashing over the rear engine compartment, filling our vessel. It was an early Sunday morning in November—cold rain and wind—typical fall weather in Montauk. We saved the boat but upon returning to the cottage, we found our luggage partially packed and sitting outside in the rain while housekeeping was preparing for the next occupants. I cautiously waited outside while Dad stormed into the office understandably infuriated. Perhaps the management was under the impression that we should have taken the time to check out while our boat sank at the dock. Apparently that was the last straw and before I knew it, we were driving around Montauk looking at properties.

My parents found a vacant lot in an area known as Ditch Plains. It was at the end of a quiet street and walking distance from the ocean beach—a perfect location.

The House was built during the winter months to be ready for summer. My younger brother, dad and I spent the weekends in the months leading up to Memorial Day finishing the House,painting, hanging cabinets, installing electric and plumbing fixtures. Finally, the House was ready. My mother, sister and two youngest brothers spent the summers in Montauk. My brother and I worked for dad and would travel out east on the weekends. It’s funny how, once residents, we no longer referred to Montauk by name. We would be headed “out East” to “the House.”

Each Friday night after work, we’d leave Nassau County and drive 90 miles east to the House. Dad was always adjusting our departure time in the fruitless attempt to avoid traffic. We once started the two-hour trip at 11 p.m. I was amazed by the late night activity through East Hampton. People were out and about like it was after noon, as opposed to after midnight. They strolled along the brick sidewalks in their casual nautical attire, window-shopping; or relaxed on the benches along the road enjoying ice cream or cappuccino.

Once we hit the long stretch of road after Amagansett, I knew we were almost there. If not already open, I’d roll down my window just to get the first taste of sea air. The salty dampness was always more refreshing than the car air conditioning. We would climbing the hill past Old Montauk Highway until a clearing through the trees appeared and there was nothing in front of us but ocean. This was, and may still be, my most favorite view.

For about ten years, we enjoyed the House as much as possible. My parents sold the House in 1985, the year after I graduated college. I remember it well, though I didn’t know it would be my last stay in the House. I planned a relaxing weekend with some college friends as the rigors of final exams were over. The summer crowds have not arrived and my parents were home, which meant no younger siblings around, a rarity when you’re the eldest of five. The House seemed like the perfect place to celebrate becoming a college graduate.

Since then, I go see the House each time I’m in Montauk. Sometimes I drive by, ever so slowly. Sometimes I park and just look at it. No matter what changes the new owners have made, I still see the same House. I still see the U-shaped pebble driveway that announced each guest and visitor by the distinct sound of the rocks mashing together under car wheels. No need for a door bell. The sound would resonate through the House and alert everyone that our guests have arrived. Without a house phone, there were no calls informing us of heavy traffic through the Hamptons. We just waited for the sound of the pebbles. I can also see our surfboards leaning against the deck and wet suits drying over the wooden railing along with the beach towels used that day. I specifically remember being called out onto that deck on a moonless night and seeing a night sky so filled with stars, it’d take a lifetime to count them all.

I remember my favorite ritual of waking early in the morning to check the surf conditions. I’d walk the side streets of Ditch Plains toward the East Deck Motel, up on the dune between the parking lot and the beach just to see how much time I’d spend on breakfast. There were days when I’d hear the pounding surf from the House. Breakfast would have to wait.

From this position on the side of the road, I can see the wild grape vines. The skin of these local grapes is very thick, not for eating. But, one year, my mother decided to make grape jam from the grapes in our yard. It was the best grape jam I have ever tasted, even to this day.

Each time I see the House, it takes me back. Back to a simpler time, a quieter time with plenty of free time—time to lie on the beach or surf or walk the shoreline and watch the birds. There was plenty of time to fly a kite and learn that when you let out 1500 feet of string, it will take two hours to reel it back in. It was a time without instant access to anyone at anytime. No internet, no cell phone or texts. No announcing your every move to the world. The 13 inch black-and-white television kept us from wasting untold hours watching sitcoms. Instead, we played cards, painted by numbers, worked on puzzles and just talked about nothing important. But, we were together, without any external distractions that are so commonplace today. All together—in the House that my brother and I helped build with our dad in Montauk—all because of a cricket.

This essay was an entry in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction. To enter your essay go to LiteraryPrize.DansPapers.com. The deadline is July 21, 2014. 

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