Dar didn’t need to know the approximate true artificial date, but it helped. He placed the thirtieth pebble on the second sill and felt yet again the mild embarrassment of never having learned how many days belong to each month. The young man decided from the beginning of his confinement to calculate the passage of time using the rounded-off ancient Egyptian standard that only added up to 360 days per year, tacking on an extra five at the end, as they had, if he made it that long. He understood better than most how these divisions of time evolved to begin with—from prehistoric skygazing to the estimable calculations of early civilizations right on through the papal fine-tuning of the Gregorian calendar—but the allotments themselves had never been fully committed to memory.
He thought it a good thing that they weren’t uniform, and had always used simple devices to recall other schemes. He still remembered his first ever, Never Eat Slimy Worms, for the four compass directions. Roy G. Biv arced over HOMES, My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles was a harmonic planet mnemonic, and I Value Xylophones Like Cows Dig Milk helped with Roman numerals when he first got into the antiquarian book business, but something strangely niggling prevented him from being able to recall and recite one of the many versions of the standard little ditty most people employed for the duration of the months. “Thirty days hath September,” April was usually next, and then blank. Perhaps he had missed school that day back in his formative stages, or was this subjective medieval dirge on the wheels of time simply too chaotic? There was really no reason and little memorable rhyme to it, and the “hath” had always distracted him from the tathk at hand.
Starter September and probably November rather than December hath thirty days for sure. February had twenty-eight, and an extra on leap years, but how would you keep track of when that was? Did they coincide with what used to be presidential election years, and exactly when were leap years leapt once in a great while to make things come out correctly? No easy way to look stuff like that up anymore. Most of the rest had thirty-one even. April had thirty, as did either May or June. And he did remember Daffy Duck slobbering, “Thirty days hath September, April, (whatever), and Nebraska.”
That was just enough uncertainty to justify the thirty-day average. This little mental deficiency hadn’t hampered him all that much before the downfall. Back in his school days some girls even thought it cute. But now he would better himself, like an illiterate tired of hiding the truth, and there was no calendar, newspaper masthead, or working computer or device to sneak a peek at, and nobody to ask. Actually, there was a spent calendar with its next-year-at-a-glance page upstairs, but that was not among the handful of essential items grabbed on the way down.
Thus a second full month was marked in his sealed dirt-and-cinder-block cellar tomb in upstate New York. Pebbles on the shaded sill for the days, his “dim sums,” and for the months, carved into a sturdy horizontal support beam, deep “buenas notches” one could feel in the dark. A careless sleeve had accidentally swept most of the pebbles off one time, obliterating the geologic time scale, as it were. After this mishap they were relocated away from his main window on the world to the darker sill with its thick, dormant bushes just outside. Small substitute bits of shale he imagined to be distant descendants of Arcadian and Adirondack scree were less likely to roll, but certain favorite pebbles were retained to note what passed for new Saturdays. These micro-markers had to be placed in somewhat random fashion, should a powerful flashlight ever pick up this tiny clue of life within, but the likelihood of visitors seemed more remote with each passing day.
Although the recluse customarily averted his eyes from the hideous stain on the floorboards above as he turned away from the window, this time it triggered a sad mental recitation of the chain of events that led to his cave-creature existence. It all began with alarming news reports of highly lethal epidemics sweeping through an increasing number of major European and U.S. cities. A knee-jerk trust in science saving the day was quickly dashed when it was revealed that particularly nasty biological warfare–type agents were at work. Death was relatively swift. There were no reported cases of successful treatment, and no clear proof of natural immunity.
Amid the panic and evacuations, word came over the airwaves one evening that there had been a brief, bewildering exchange of nuclear weapons in the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, with scant information as to cause and effect, and not long after that things just blinked off. As this one-two sucker punch sunk in, the thin veneer of civilization peeled off in a wave of shock and violence that washed clear around the planet. Who could blame everyone for leaving their stations in the face of disaster? Humans rise to the occasion by nature, but unlike supercolonial worker ants they know when the cause is lost, and in general would rather make a last stand at home than perish on post in brainless toil for a dead queen.
Moderately steeped in the literature and lore of post-apocalyptic form and function, and enjoying certain logistical advantages of underemployment and bachelorhood—as in free to swing into action, and only one mouth to feed—Dar stocked up on provisions within a day of the first widespread virus reports. There was only one sizable grocery store within easy striking distance. He had noted faux panic in advance of one-day snowstorms, let alone possible Armageddon, anywhere he’d ever lived in the Northeast, so he thought it prudent to compose a quick shopping list and make the nearly half-hour trip to town. All seemed fairly calm there those first few days, but soon stores were closing one by one, posting advisories such as “We don’t know if and when there will be more deliveries.” People huddled in deep conversation, and true panic was in the air now. Polite looting followed, as compared to reports from other areas of the country.
Gasoline disappeared first, before food, and the other smart thing he did on that initial day of realization was to top off the tank of his van and to fill up four five-gallon containers before the quotas kicked in and the supplies ran out. There was an old metal can from the cellar with graphics good enough to sell as an antique, a dull plastic job his father had employed during the 1973 gas shortage (as had been related to him many times), and two cheap shiny Walmart numbers he’d purchased a year earlier with some remorse over not supporting the local hardware store instead.
Home was a rental cabin near the confluence of two long dirt roads on the side of a heavily wooded hill that would have been considered a de facto mountain in most states. The locals joked that their zip code was EIEIO and their longest season was Mud. Dar’s move two years earlier was a strategic retreat from living with his transplanted parents a couple of counties to the west. Decent work was scarce there, and leaving the nest was a good five years overdue anyway, as with so many Millennials. He had a vague late-twenties desire to become a master at some clean trade, like woodworking, but an apprenticeship in that field did not work out. Dar was barely meeting his bills selling books and collectibles online and renting space in antiques centers, both of which required steady investments on the supply side of the pipeline. His mother had been forced by declining health to give up her sideline of haunting every yard sale in the county for fun and profit, and most of the great stock she’d picked up years ago on the cheap and donated to his cause was now long gone.
Landlord Mel was a rather conniving lapel-puller whose single-minded daily pursuit was coming out on top in all things great and small. His ad in the Albany newspaper caught Dar’s eye, with promises of seclusion and natural surroundings, and $600 a month was quite reasonable for a house of one’s own in the woods. He was pretty much sold at first glance. From the road you mainly saw a long white extension to the left of the driveway, and as you pulled in, the slightly set back original pine-clad cabin presented itself. The windows and roof were bordered in red under cinnabar shingles. It looked trim and happy on the outside and was smallish but clean on the inside, in the overall shape of a pregnant shotgun shack. There was a tiny serviceable kitchen to the right as you entered, a relatively spacious living room with knotty pine paneling and two large windows that looked out back over a distant soggy field dotted with young trees, and a narrow hallway that extended back toward the road leading to a bare-bones bathroom on the right and two small bedrooms to the left and at the rear. A more primitive door off the living room led to enough back yard for a rope clothesline before plunging down into thickets and through the vernal fen.
The property was set into a saucer that seemed a bit unnatural, as if the sand and gravel there had been scooped out to construct this section of the road a century earlier. Even though the house was just to the left of the crossroads looking uphill, it was situated at the end of a long, half-grass and half-red-shale driveway, and shielded from traffic by a ridge that wrapped right around past the kitchen. Nearby residents had little reason to pass by, as straight up and down from points above and below was usually a quicker way in and out, so it truly was secluded.
As for being surrounded by nature, no false advertising there either. Going back the way he first arrived on what he came to call the Up Road—because the actual names of roads on this hill sometimes confusingly gapped out or gained an “Old” on certain stretches, and because he wanted to go blank slate up there anyway—it was all hardscrabble hanging to the side of the hill, with rather exceptional properties carved out here and there wherever it leveled off for a bit, half of them second homes, most on the rustic side, some featuring tannin-stained brooks with small pools, and one or two with enough sunshine for an actual vegetable garden. Go east at the top of this dirt road and you were heading for the Massachusetts border and the picturesque, trendy town of Great Barrington, with its very own functioning castle, while due west would drop you down through dairy land toward humbler Chatham, with its great old movie theater, cozy eateries, and railroad-crossing culture.
Back at the bottom of the crossroads coming down to the rental, a left on the Middle Road brought you out through high grassy fields again toward Chatham, and the land here had the look of being almost for sale, waiting only on a few crusty stewards to give up the ghost. A right past Dar’s driveway brought you 250 feet or so and then dove straight downhill again dogleg left, darker with close overhanging trees than ever. Mel’s sprawling modern home was perched above the elbow of this turn. Actually, the Middle Road did continue past his house, but it seasonally dead-ended before long just past a big, active beaver pond.
The other natural feature worth noting was a splendid stream that coursed year-round down to the Kinderhook Creek and, like everything else in these valleys, eventually out toward the Hudson River. It was only tamed once at the top, plunging through a wide underground culvert near the peak of the Down Road by Mel’s place and then past Dar’s rental, on the other side of the quiet country lane. Its smooth bluestone banks were deeply cut and invisible from above, especially when the leaves reappeared, and its leaping waterfalls and kettles and flights of cool dark water were magical in appearance. One bathing pool in particular was just right for his sturdy six-foot frame, lined with small pebbles and clean as a whistle, though he never drank of it with the beavers above. There were even some sun-dappled stretches where one could read or lie down in peace next to this proverbial babbling brook on warm stone that was softer and certainly cleaner than many mattresses. Although it was a little high up for trout, minnows and water bugs abounded, and stalwart orange-brown wood turtles flourished along the banks in terrain that was ideal for them. Once, toward sunset, when the biting and stinging insects were just getting ready for business, a fox hunting its way up the streambed came into view, stared hard for a moment at the interloper, and melted away down some contour. Most marvelous of all was a little ancient graveyard of white and gray speaking stones set down there, almost low enough to be out of sight from the road but sufficiently elevated so as not to be washed away by floods. Smart like that they were back then.
These nice summer things were not at all apparent in the dead of winter, however, and Dar had immediate misgivings upon moving in. The dwelling was cold and drafty. The ticking baseboard heaters smelled like fried dust, and he needed to keep the electric bill down. There was a small wood stove, but the landlord was being a jerk about letting him cut even dead standing wood in the middle of this gigantic forest. He could have it, but he would have to work it off.
Dar was surprised at what a difference the higher elevation made. Every time four inches of snow fell in the area, they would receive a full foot up on the hill. His van got stuck once and he had to hike nearly two miles to reach the rental. Another time he noticed the dim top register of flashing red lights over the bank at the bottom of the intersection and climbed down to find a car had slid clear through the saplings and grill-first into the creek. He expected to discover a frozen body, but footprints led off toward Mel’s house. It was farther away than Dar’s place but must have been more invitingly lit up.
The power was off for six days once, which meant huddling near the wood stove, punctuated by a few trips to town. Mel checked in with him toward the end but there were no offers of a generator hot shower or other assistance. Worst of all, he couldn’t even get the usual fairly decent antenna signals from a handful of local networks in Albany and Schenectady. Cable was said to be coming by the landlord, but the tenant learned later from the regulars at the coffee shop that this had been delayed for years now. These roads were simply too boondocky. It would not pay. Dar made notes on things that needed checking as they occurred to him, and was able to get most of his Internet work done in local cafés and libraries without too much inconvenience.
His first face-to-face meeting with Mel was rather disconcerting too. The landlord related how the previous renters were lesbians, and that he’d enjoyed watching them from up in the woods through a rifle scope, particularly at night when they showed up through the windows better. Dar hoped he was not referring to undressing and lovemaking, but this was still a most curious thing to admit to the new occupant.
Mel also shared his plans for this large neck of the woods, which he’d inherited from his father. He might be putting another rental house in the nearby field, as wet as it seemed down there, and he’d finished a sap house and sawmill up the hill a little that he hoped to turn into commercial ventures. Dar’s place then was just within sight of Mel’s house down and off to the right, especially when the leaves were gone, and barely within earshot of his new operations up the hill behind him. He gave a brief history of the rental cabin, which had started off as a hot dog stand in nearby Ghent and was hauled there decades ago for use as a small hunting shack before being expanded to its present form. It felt a little cosmic cooking franks there after that, like the joke about the Dalai Lama telling the hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”
When spring came, the charm of the spot really sunk in. A rock garden set into the shielding ridge across from the front door and extending around past the kitchen window burst into forget-me-nots and perennial herbs and flowers, and the hills were ablaze with rich pink and white rhododendrons. Even the grass up there smelled sweet, dotted with buttercups, clover, and those small red-orange sunbursts lifting off the lawn like rockets he assumed were poor second cousins to the dandelion until he discovered it was actually orange hawkweed, a noxious foreign invader. By picking his way straight up through this rock garden over the back ridge and banking left, Dar could reach the pond without any glimpse of roads, structures, or people, and he watched the muskrats putter and beavers toil by the hour. The birdlife up on this hill was highly interesting, including preternaturally scarlet scarlet tanagers he hadn’t seen in many years, and more muted denizens of the deep forest such as vireos and catbirds that were quite engaging in their own modest way.
Sitting in a faded blue shell-back lawn chair just behind the house, completely out of sight, Dar gradually trained a resident chipmunk to eat right from his hand. Reading, relaxing, and getting away from everyone telling him what to do was just what the doctor ordered. Dar calculated he could afford to pull this off for another year or so, coming out at the other end with a firm plan for his thirties. He missed Internet access at home, hundreds of TV channels, a dog, and a girlfriend, in some order that kept changing, but those things could wait a bit.
The aspiring hermit had been through the normal assortment of relationships. His first serious inamorata in high school was great in the beginning, and a natural educator, but she turned out to be kind of loco, and wanton, cheating with his best friend, and with triplet brothers—two of them anyway, and not at the same time, at least—even claiming she was pregnant during the tumultuous breakup. Since then he’d been much more selective. As Dar went through his late twenties he noticed an increasing emphasis on potential marriageability that did not fit in with his immediate plans. “Peter Pan Generation” muttered one companion disapprovingly toward the end. If that meant he wanted to enjoy life a little first, avoiding some of the common mistakes and regrets of their parents, he was guilty as charged, and the economy sucked anyway so what was the big difference? It was more than that though. If matchmaking really worked, he would have been a tough placement in the modern market. All things considered, he was a little challenging, and somewhat lacking. It would have to be just the right girl.
In the looks department, Dar was easy on the eyes, but more along the lines of the third buddy in a beer commercial, back near the pool table while the super handsome stud up front was hitting on the hottie. He had a pleasant mug, like a fresh-faced New England boatbuilder. His brown hair had been longish in the past but was now quite cropped; usually complemented by a short full beard. And although he’d been a little soft coming out of college, he had worked himself back into top shape.
In one instance Dar’s firewood barter work for Mel involved hoisting shingle bundles up a ladder to the top of a new outbuilding among the many that dotted his baronial spread. It was hot, backbreaking work, though he did get to meet the family for the first time. Mel’s wife was decidedly above her husband’s physical station, taller, with wide doe eyes, long wavy brown hair, and what his brother would have referred to without hesitation as a killer rack. She was polite enough, and even seemed to take note of his rugged good looks, but their brief conversations never rose above what one would expect to transpire between lady and servant. Mel’s mother was even more aristocratic, with the added burden of a lifetime of baggage in tow, and some apparent uneasiness in her current living arrangements on the compound.
The son and daughter looked like little hellers, with their father’s ruddy complexion, squint, and dark wiry hair. He’d seen them tearing around the dirt roads on their bikes, and beating a frog to death with sticks in a puddle once, but they did not seem like country folk. Mel didn’t either, for that matter, but there he was, terraforming the land into a series of buildings and businesses right out of an old stumps-and-smoke Currier & Ives print.
At the end of that task Dar said he would rather pay for a load of seasoned firewood out of the back of the Chatham Courier than barter for it, but Mel said don’t worry about it, whatever that meant, and he “repaid” him a couple weeks later with a face cord of over-the-hill logs and a baby food jar of homemade maple syrup. Other small, essentially one-way favors followed, like “keeping an eye” on workmen when the whole family was away, and stacking long slabs of fresh-cut pine at the sawmill.
One summer day Mel asked if he could top off Dar’s garbage can with a few items he said would not fit into his own fleet of receptacles. The only thing he added was a topless can of leftover turpentine that should not have been discarded in that manner to begin with, though Mel’s father would’ve just dumped it into the stream and chucked the can into a hollow, so there had been some progress. Naturally it spilled down the side to the bottom during pickup, permeating the black plastic with toxic fumes that were pure death thereafter, especially in the simmering heat. These were small, annoying impositions and outrages, but they were becoming common and they added up.
Ώ Ώ Ώ
In July, Mel made a proposition. One of his businesses concerned a mammoth warehouse down in Yonkers that had been converted into a storage facility. He needed somebody to watch it for one full week, spelling the regular sap. The duties would be simple. You were to guard the premises, you let people into their space if they needed access, and you had to activate some kind of systems alarm when you went to sleep. He called that process “walking the dog,” as it involved pulling a small piece of machinery on wheels by plastic jump rope from its protective housing and plugging it into something else for some reason that escaped Dar when first explained. For this week of life he would make $550 under the table—the $50 going toward gas and food—but Dar needed the dough so he agreed.
The monstrously large, stiflingly hot facility was in a bad part of the city. Mel confided that a major portion of the operation was devoted to housing the seized assets of organized crime, including cars and boats, all of which paid up to four times the going rate—our tax dollars at work. As a result, there was not much need for access and for staff, so this was a real cash cow for him, as it had been for his father.
On that first orientation day before Mel returned home an older black man and his crew showed up to remove a big pile of debris that included filthy crumbling sheets of asbestos. Mel asked what he wanted for the job on the off chance it was lower than his offer. The laborer named his price, the landlord laughed and said if they didn’t want $75 for half an hour of work he would find somebody else who did, and the poor guy knuckled under. When the truck was loaded up and Mel extended a handshake to the sweat-drenched and contaminated crew chief, he simply stared him down until the phony gesture was replaced by a nervous grin in what was the most potent “Ef you whitey!” Dar had ever witnessed in person. “I know you’ll dispose of that asbestos properly,” was Mel’s final shaft as they pulled away.
When evening fell he followed the simple closing procedures, but once the big front doors were shut he felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the closed space and its probable legions of roaches, rats, and ghosts. The little staff room in the middle of the facility was like a bomb shelter, but at least it had a small fridge, cable TV, and box of tissues.
As he made his rounds in the near dark later, voices could clearly be heard echoing through the dead air of the largest chamber on the ground floor. Creeping toward the commotion in calm terror with an iron bar for protection, Dar was relieved to find they were coming from the other side of the big roll-down doors of an obsolete loading dock. Inspecting this area on the side street the next day, he found a ratty sofa, an assortment of weather-beaten chairs, and a small rusty barbecue pit. Hypodermic needles and beer and liquor bottles were scattered among the high parched weeds. He ventured out at night once for a cold six-pack and could see about a dozen men back there whooping it up and cooking something delicious that smelled like pulled pork. Dar spent several nights on the inside of this bay listening to their colorful conversation, eavesdropping on something he could normally never be a part of. The men sitting against the door were just inches away, but the most immediate danger of detection was something like dropping his beer bottle or sneezing, and even then they would have been hard-pressed to breach that steel and concrete fortress even if they wanted to.
One night Dar was suddenly awakened by shouts and tromping feet. The TV was still on, and he jumped up in his boxers in panic and confusion, fumbling for his crude weapon, to be confronted moments later by half a dozen burly firemen squeezing into the tiny sleeping quarters. He had forgotten to “walk the dog” that night and whatever the hell it was supposed to do it didn’t, so an alarm went off. They busted his balls, and Mel called the next day and did the same, but more like a boss. Dar decided that was the last work he would ever do for this prick. He brought the topic up shortly after returning.
“Thanks again for the money, Mel.”
“You earned it,” the landlord said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “I know it was a little hot down there this week.”
“Yeah, a little, but some nights it cooled down into the nineties. Listen, I like renting this place,” Dar began, “but I was drawn to your ad because I was kind of looking for a retreat. I know I’m not working full-time right now, but I need to concentrate on what I want to do next, my parents need help back in Schoharie County, and I don’t really have time for lots of small chores and things. I know that sounds blunt, but there are probably plenty of people around who would be happy for a little work, like that guy with the truck down at the warehouse.”
Mel stiffened at the thought of paying some local yokel who would undoubtedly become too familiar with his kingdom and its booty, and then wondered if there was a dig in there somewhere. Before he could manipulate the conversation back to his advantage, Dar drove the point home.
“I’ve lived in some crowded places, and to tell you the truth I came out here to be alone. I would actually love to build a small house off the road above the beaver pond if I could ever afford it. I pictured just sending a check to the landlord once a month.”
“Why waste a stamp on that? We practically live next door to each other.”
“What I meant is I pictured the landlord living somewhere else.”
“Well . . . okay,” Mel replied, “but I’ve been renting this cabin out for about ten years now, and most of the tenants were happy to help out a little. I scratch your back and you scratch mine.”
“Right, except that isn’t how I want to do it, and that was not part of the contract.”
Mel could see the uncharacteristically agitated tenant would not bend for now, and he offered a surprisingly open justification in retreat, as if it might be his last chance to set the record straight.
“No problem, I understand. Look, I’m maybe ten years older than you, right? My dad got me started, but I work very hard for what I have, I don’t hurt anybody, and I just want to take care of my family. You’d be surprised at how quickly you can get behind and lose everything. Especially with those assholes down in the city.”
Dar contemplated this disjointed confessional later that night. It seemed impromptu but was so practiced that he felt he was getting a glimpse into the private Big Lie gyroscope at the core of his being. Mel’s father did more than just get him started, there was some hard work but most of the income rolled in by itself while he played a young Ben Cartwright, he screwed people because he liked to—not because he had to, the family scene was not all that warm, and it takes an asshole in the city to know one. Dar remembered a cowpoke’s disparaging remark from an old episode of Bonanza that went something like “To get that big you gotta stomp on somebody along the way, and that’s a fact.”
Later that week he found a note in his mailbox that read: “Hey Dar, when you have that firewood delivered, please get it dumped as far back in the driveway as possible. Make sure it’s seasoned too, as green wood is not good for the stove. Thanks, Mel.”
He saw very little of the landlord after that, with one exception. An unfortunate article appeared glossily proclaiming this very town to be one of the top ten places to live in the state due to its scenic beauty, Norman Rockwell hamlets, great schools, low crime rate, and proximity to the Berkshires, Boston, and Montreal. Above all, it was within easy striking distance of New York City. Fancy cars were cruising the Middle Road within days, and they came in droves the next few weekends. Mel smelled a rent increase when the lease ran out in December, and he just wanted to give “fair warning.”
“Do you really think you can get a thousand dollars a month or whatever for this place?” asked Dar. “Most of these people probably just want to buy empty lots and build, and this isn’t exactly in a prime location. They want vistas like you get farther toward town. I might be able to go seven hundred tops if you really need to do that, but I won’t know until then.”
Ώ Ώ Ώ
They left it at that for the time being. As the cool, moist hanging gardens of Dar’s hilltop getaway began to dry out in early August, his father suddenly succumbed to a stroke. Dar’s older brother and sister lived out of state, and it fell upon the whelp of the family to help their mother keep the house running. The trip was about eighty miles each way, so he would often stay overnight. The property was quite large, and it took hours just to mow the lawn and whack the weeds. His father’s huge garden was in full bloom too. It had been brought along enough for self-sufficiency but did need watering during dry spells. Father’s peaceful solution to pests and raiders was to overplant like hell so there was plenty for all.
Mother dutifully canned this last crop of a lifetime, and there was barely room for it all in the cool cellar of the Plain Jane but proud Federal-style house that looked out over chartreuse-spectrum fields cascading off darkly forested hills as far as the eye could see. His father had planned on sledging down the now-useless cistern wall in order to expand the cellar storage space, but that was just one of those things he never got around to. Late fall laid all that reaching garden greenery into sodden brown heaps.
Dar and his brother, who wanted to sell the house, began to squabble about what to do with Mother, who was resolved to stay out of the local nursing home. The weekly trips began to weigh on him, but the matter was suddenly settled late the following summer when she slipped on the cellar steps one day, fracturing skull and bones against the cinder-block wall and lingering for days. Before the sumacs turned crimson they buried her as well, too soon, just shy of sixty.
Dar was tiring of his housing situation, the second-year lease was almost up, and he could suddenly picture himself moving back to the twenty-acre property as master and commander, in spite of the recent shocks there. It had been a cheerful hop farm in the last century, with two large fields in back sloping gently up to wonderful woods and waters beyond. A local farmer was paying a token amount for the sweet hay they now produced.
There was a monumental boulder at the very top of the hill, like a small boat, off to the side and rather out of sight. This glacial erratic provided a sweeping panorama of the blue house and broad valley below. The entire family sat on it once in happier times, and he imagined aborigines hopping on top, for a vantage point if nothing else. Dar had buried a family dog right at the wood line there. The round border stones he used were so perfectly laid out that he calculated the plot would get dug up someday out of curiosity. His noble companion, so stiff in his arms on their final climb together! How long would the collar and tags last?
A huge, gray Yankee bank barn with massive timber framing and a foundation of uncoursed fieldstone sat not far behind the house. Smartly following the lines of the hill, it could be accessed on several different levels, though that was seldom necessary in relic status. Swooping sharp-winged barn swallows showed up around the same day every spring, bolts of steel blue with off-white underparts back from South America to nest in various corners of the old structure amid hand-hewn posts and beams, launching themselves out open windows to harvest insects all day long. There was an elevated earthen “barn bridge” on the left side that accessed the upper level. Big double doors decoratively trimmed in white paint slid open to the middle of the ground floor, directly behind the house. Every stout iron nail and old shelf or tool in this structure had a tale to tell, to those who would listen.
There was a low, secluded work area underneath the right side of the barn, with smaller livestock bays directly above, that was open to the elements at the rear. Dar chainsawed and split firewood for hours on end in this old agricultural setting, his taut body conducting vibrations down through the earth and out into the sky like a human Tesla coil. This wooden island, with its weathered barn boards, wide chopping blocks, and sawdust footing, was surrounded by a sea of tall fragrant grass that bent and whipped about on the winds, breaking at his feet like waves. The young man looked out over the bobbing seed heads during breathers and wondered where he would end up someday. Toward evening, towering white clouds became tinged with coral and orange, violet twilight gave way to showers of the brightest wheeling stars, and the dark swallows were replaced by darker bats.
Dar had once contemplated the market for locally grown hops. One might enquire with regional microbrewers regarding supply and demand, learn the venerable trade, secure funding, and come out after some years of trial and error with a great business model that could serve as the beginning of a boon for the whole region. Heck, you could even remind the barn what hop dances were like, be on the lookout for redeemable “kissing loop” vines during the harvest, and sneak off to do some sparking under the hazy moon in the Swedish summer of upstate New York, though the peak era of local hop production over a century earlier was such a flushed age of innocence, unlikely to be repeated on either score. And he wasn’t getting any younger either. He would settle for a respectable job and a happy marriage. This county was fertile, famous for serving as the “Breadbasket of the Revolution” in earlier times, and it was once bale-rich in heady hops as well. Where he lived now was soothing, but the landscape was too shady, the soil too sandy, the rocks too red, and the local politics too flinty. Perhaps it was time to come down from the evergreen heights to the rolling hills and sunny plains and college bars. Beckoning hop poles over twenty feet in length were piled along one inside wall of the massive barn, and he envisioned their triumphant re-erection after decades of dusty slumber. He remembered an old local saying that Schoharie County was noted for “raising hell, hops, and Democrats.”
This was all a bitter dream, of course, as his siblings wanted to sell as soon as possible and he was in no position to buy them out. They were already on bad terms over recriminations regarding how well their mother had been cared for, leaving Dar incensed and outspoken at the sheer effrontery of such charges. The housing market was down, and as ever if you have to sell quickly you lose even more, but between those split proceeds and two life insurance policies all three of them would gain a nice bump in their fortunes. In Dar’s case this would pay off his outstanding debts and float his present humble lifestyle for another several years, but the question remained of what to do next. Time to bust a move.
As the youngest, his wishes did not apply to other matters as well, and settling the estate became an increasingly rushed and ugly affair. Dar could not take the larger furniture he was interested in, including an enormous Dutch kas and some wonderful primitives his parents stole at auction years earlier before pieces like that got so hot. His antiques center spaces were already reduced and crammed, and there was no other practical place to store such items. His brother communicated with the realtor and a high-end antiques dealer, and Dar was left to deal with the lesser hyenas of the estate sale and clear-out trades. He made numerous trips in advance of the closing, always returning with loads of two seemingly inexhaustible commodities more valuable than he could have dreamed at the time—canned goods of all varieties from the hands of his beloved parents, and books from his father’s library—in addition to several decent guns the others also showed no interest in.
Grocery store produce department banana boxes with still-flattened and ultimately reusable U.S.P.S. 0-1097 Priority Mail boxes for sturdier bottoms were perfect for transporting the books. There were over five thousand titles to sort through, and as they were rather carefully selected by his father to begin with, there wasn’t much dreck to weed out. Nevertheless, Dar did manage to part with more than half the stock right at the house, leaving them for the clear-out crew. Two handy maxims he’d taken to heart about the used, out-of-print, and antiquarian book trade are that you have to handle and make decisions on a million or two books before you can even begin to know what you’re doing, and “Booksellers are people who help solve problems created by books.” The transported boxes filled both bedrooms of the small dwelling, they lined the hallway, and they took up a good portion of the usable space in the living room, all stacked at angles two or three high. Most of the books were not highly valuable, though he would need Internet access to check on certain titles. It might have been smarter to leave them, but his antique center bookshelves were getting bare, and these would help pay the rent there five or twenty dollars at a time.
The canned goods in all manner of smaller boxes took up much of the rest of the living room. Dar wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do with all that food, and he knew the landlord would not approve if he spied it there, but he just couldn’t bear to see it pitched into dumpsters. There was a mixture of old Mason jars with wire-clamped glass tops and somewhat smaller modern ones with screw tops, all carefully labeled by contents and date. He knew stewed and whole tomatoes were the leaders of the pack, but the inventory included beets, asparagus, peas, beans, corn, peppers, pickles, and sauerkraut. There were also apples and pears from the property, and more types of jam than you could shake a stick at. A beautiful specimen of pickled carrots with a large wand of dill pressed against the side brought him briefly to tears for the first time since the accident. Oddities included “silky apricot butter” and “chocolate raspberry sundae topper.” Rounding out the haul were a few sacks of potatoes and some cabbages. His father always hacked off colossal sunflower heads to save as a winter seed treat for the birds, thrown out on the ground or nailed up whole, and some of those were brought to the dark hill that knew no sunflowers as well.
The Schoharie house sold in short order, the monies came in, and things settled down nicely. There was an unspoken agreement between the three siblings that there would be radio silence for a while. Still, Dar was uneasy. He’d pictured himself out of the rental cabin and into a new lifestyle, but that had fallen through big-time. He had a slight prejudice against upcoming November. Dog shit on dead leaves. Looming Christmas stress. Cold winter ahead whose back would not be broken until late March at the earliest. And just then, all hell broke loose.
The Barefoot Rank
I am a lowly private,
and grateful every day
that in this vast misjudgment,
I shall have no say.
They can’t blame me for starting it,
their hate aroused my hate.
So soon we’ll rot and be forgot,
what a stupid fate.
I hope to never answer
for what’s bein’ said and done . . .
just put me in the line, boys,
and hand me up my gun.
“Pray Tell, Private Hell”: Extracts From the Confessions of a Civil War Soldier by Steven Bartel (Los Angeles, CA: Hellbound Press, 2007)