Sugar boogie

As the sap starts flowing, people drop in after thawing from a long winter

MARLBORO — Half the people on your road park their cars near the highway and walk; the other half fasten their seat belts, take a deep breath, and gun it, bucking ruts and jerking wheels as their bodies get slammed this way and that.

The kids on the school bus hold on to the seats in front of them and scream as the bus driver (your mother) presses the pedal to the floor, tightens her jaw, and keeps the bus pointed forward with bedrock determination.

Car struts get shot, the alignment goes out of whack. You step out of your car in the driveway, and your boots sink down six inches.

You track it onto the porch, and into the hall, and into the kitchen. Ten miles away, in the town with paved streets, people are wearing sundresses and sandals; you're still in jeans and the Muck Boots you've been wearing for six months straight. Around here, March and April are called “mud season.”

But there is one consolation. Mud season is also sugaring season.

Mud and sugaring go hand in hand during these cold nights, warm days. The frost under the roads settles, creating sinkholes; the sap in the maple trees runs, filling buckets.

You walk down the road with your two-year-old daughter to the sugarhouse, looking, hoping, for steam, and there it is: a thick waft of sweet, moist air billowing out of the vented roof. Inside, your parents are throwing logs into the evaporator, checking levels, pouring beautiful resin-colored syrup into the glass Mason jars neighbors have brought by.

Firelight shimmers through the cracks of the iron doors. You run across the (muddy) road with your daughter to collect sap and watch her press her lips against the metal spigot; from where you stand it looks like she is kissing the tree.

“Yum!” she exclaims, pulling away, her face smeared with sap and tree bark and moss and snot.

* * *

People drop by: a family bearing bowls of soup, a single man proffering a six-pack of beer. It's an open house, the sugar shack, and everyone knows it.

This dropping in is a way of keeping the sugar makers company - they're in here for 10 hours at a time most days - but it's also what happens to people in spring.

You begin to thaw. You want to see faces again, converse, be outside for long stretches of time. Neighbors bring in wood; you scoop scum from the back pans; your daughter pulls out empty plastic jugs for your mother to fill.

The fire hisses. The steam rises. You crack open beers. A party: “Sugar Boogie,” your dad and daughter call it.

That night you make pizzas, cooking them on the open grate of the evaporator door. You throw on red pepper, fresh mozzarella, pesto from last summer's garden. You sit on old tractor and bus seats turned into makeshift chairs and eat off your hands.

Later, someone steps through the door with a bottle of Glenlivet and cups. Last year, you all determined, after much sampling, the perfect combination of scotch and near-syrup; now you attempt to find that perfect ratio once more.

* * *

Outside, it grows dark. The room fills with hooting laughter. Once in a while, you hear a car revving up the road, gunning it through deep pockets of mud. You watch the steam, the fire, the glistening faces, and you're glad you're not in that car, out on those roads, trying to get somewhere.

You step out the back door to take a leak in the snow and look up at sparks shooting out of the rusted chimney, an ash-flecked moon rising above the trees. You could go back inside, but instead you linger for a while: pants down, grinning, grateful for this dissolution of walls and of boundaries between inside and out, for this synchronicity between what the trees do and what people do, for the fact that it's (finally) warm enough for you to be out here half-naked, knee deep in a pile of snow, not wanting to be anywhere but the very spot your boots are planted.

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