730 Commercial Street

 
The writers Heidi Jon Schmidt (b 1956) and R. D. Skillings (b 1937) make their home here with their daughter, Marisa Rose Skillings (b 1994).

Roger Deering Skillings is the eloquent voice of voiceless Provincetown, of nearly invisible Provincetown; of those whose faces peer dimly at the midday world through the windows of what was once a Bermuda Triangle of fantastic despond — the Old Colony Tap, the Governor Bradford and the Fo’csle (now the Squealing Pig). “Provincetown aspires to the condition of Venice,” he writes as he opens his 1980 collection, P-town Stories (or the Meatrack). “It’ll never make it, except maybe in smells.”

With considerable affection, Skillings renders palpable the drifters and dreamers, frail and cunning and ever-shifting, who bring their odd aspirations to land’s end to die or simply to live another day and one more after that. Though nominally fiction, his writing is as vivid a guide to the Provincetown of the 1960s, 70s and 80s as Time and the Town is to the Provincetown of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. “Night Work,” for instance, offers a glimpse at the celebrated Drop-In Center, 6 Gosnold Street, through one night’s collection of catastrophe. “Spring Beauty” is the story of what happens to just about any dalliance — real or imagined — in a one-street town, where the wife can be counted on to walk by the Fo’csle when you’re inside nursing two floozies from B.U.

There is no romance for Skillings in a town whose economy has conspired against its most vulnerable citizens, “those stooped-over, little, old Portuguese ladies in the A & P buying a can of cat food for their one meal of the day.” And not for Skillings are the fishing vessels some piquant, picturesque toy souvenirs of the Old World. In “The Life,” he writes:

You’re down in the hold fillin baskets with fish, thirty tons a fish, you’re up to your knees, I didn’t even have no boots. You stickum in the basket with this gaff, then you handum up through the hatch. Some guy’s up there eatin donuts. I filled one of um too full, big fuckin fish fell out and hit me on the head. Hey! First time in my life I ever got hid on the head with a fish.

That is not to say there is no joy in his Provincetown, however. Take, for example, the pleasure of meeting Embert Pernell on the meatrack — the benches in front of Town Hall — at the beginning of Obsidian: An Epic Tale of Provincetown (2001). Embert has just been kicked out of his girlfriend’s apartment. “‘I screwed her best friend and that was sort of the last straw,’ he explained.”

He was black but otherwise white, spoke the King’s English on occasion, and might from outward air or act have been the President of Harvard’s son. He wore thrift-shop, baggy clothes, was cocky as a comely god, had attended various liberal colleges on both coasts without bothering about a degree, had lately bummed around the New York art scene, painting drizzles and splotches, circles, slashes and squares, and was now trying to become a poet, but found it hard to find the time, being a popular catalyst of bacchanals, a robust talker and toper, with formidable powers of recuperation, not to mention the mad lust for women and lack of cash that discomposed his mind.

Skillings, a native of Bath, Me., was in the first group of seven writing fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in 1969-1970, and won a second year fellowship for 1970-1971. Schmidt is a Staten Islander by birth, who won a Fine Arts Work Center fellowship in 1982-1983 after her graduation from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A second fellowship followed in 1985-1986. So did two books of stories and one novel. It wasn’t until 2010 that Schmidt first published a book set on the Outer Cape, The House on Oyster Creek. After 25 years, she said,

I’ve finally been here long enough to have a deep sense of this place and feel comfortable writing about it. My next book (tentatively titled Vita Gray [The Harbormaster’s Daughter]) is set here too. The older I get, the better I understand why writers like Austen and Hardy and Faulkner mapped out and populated their own imaginary territories, drawing on the places they knew intimately to shed light on universal truths. A small town is a lot like a novel — you see stories play out in real time, you know people’s graces and weaknesses, and just when they have entirely exasperated you, they turn around and do something so admirable and surprising, that — you can’t help writing a book.

Their house, which commands a panoramic view of Cape Cod Bay, was built in 1975, according to the assessor’s office. Schmidt and Skillings bought it in 1998 and moved here from 6 School Street when Marisa was a young girl. She is now an actor and, having graduated from Nauset Regional High School, she set off in 2012 for the performing arts conservatory of the University of Hartford, the Hartt School.

Her father’s book of poems, Memory for Marisa Rose, was begun when she was “the size of a grain of rice.” He also wrote Where the Time Goes (1999) and How Many Die (2001), a novel of AIDS. Altogether, he has had seven books published. “Finished since,” he told me in 2012, “are three collections of stories and a novella about a string quartet rehearsing for its final performance of the season, August 21, 1965, at the Art Association.”

Hey, I’ll bet that’ll sell, said one wag.
Oh, it’s got a lot of sex in it, sez I.
Maybe I’ll read it, he said.
He never read a book in his life. Hard to get anyone even to look at them.


 

 

 

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