First, the powers-to-be, as Ransom Kegler called city hall and its tight-fingered allies, the politicians and the developers, had squeezed a piece of land out of him and were going to make money on it. They had cut him out of the profits when, post-sale, they had engineered a zoning change. The profits of the change promised to be immense. He had come alert too late, but it was better to come up breathing than not breathing at all.
Now, on top of this damn thievery, he was put on the spot by, of all persons, his youngest grandson Talbot with a barrage of questions, so simple coming and so complex moving on.
Kegler tried not being an angry man to begin with, but something in him kept saying, “They stole from me! They stole from me!” as if it were a volcanic spring wound up in his gut. And another idea came along in the same manner, the stupid thought that everybody would end up calling him, Kool Ade Ransom Kegler. Everybody he knew! The whole town! This gross cartoon he put aside momentarily, though he could picture himself seated, his bony old knees banging on a caricatured little sidewalk table. There he’d be, with the grass trim, the gutter neat, and the flag out. That would be the final derision. And with it there would be an oversized glass container on the table shaking its green lemonade or orange juice. It would be as real as pimples or acne or one gross freckle, wholly laughable.
The giggle he tried to bring up wouldn’t surface. Only a grimace was evident, but it was one good stab at a livid snarl.
He affirmed it by saying, under his breath, “The body ends up in the mind, and not the other way around.” He said it a number of times, swearing he could almost see the inversion.
He was proof of it, proof indeed!
His mind this day had taken him to an uncomfortable darkness. Seventy-five-year-old Kegler felt the stranglehold of it, the strong fingers in soft suede gloves squeezing him. Night was hawking itself, or eternity, or dread. He was never sure when his mind was invaded. But it was the way with him.
His imagination was rampant, and he could feel all of irony coming at him. The once massive shoulders now sloped, the corded arms settled back at ease, and a paunch pushed slightly at his belt. Yet steady blue eyes looked at him from the mirror in a belief of all he understood. He knew he hurt, but it was not a physical pain, but an ache nevertheless. There were ways he could fight the good fight. And other days he needed more ammunition to wage the battle.
This was such a day.
“I am alive, but I pain. I hurt, therefore I am.” The stupid chuckles he sought were not coming back to him today, not as yet. The control of the day was pitched at an angle.
Now, Talbot was at him.
He pictured his assets. The house he lived in was his and he owned another small piece of hilly property, one with rocky outcroppings the politicians had not yet looked at. And he had his collection of stamps and coins, not huge but fairly selective, where he once spent solemn hours. His life at times, the rare doubting times, was bound by stamps and coins, or the lack of them. Seventy-five years kept counting itself out in an expression that said he was not really thinking about age or the passage of time. Some of his dinky little invaluable stamps and coins were over a hundred years old. Older than he was.
Time and energy were relative. But not retribution. Nor embarrassment.
This latest political theft had rammed into his life like a runaway car. Hatred had been foreign to his general feeling about people. But the ideas of retribution thereafter followed in unhappy sequence; there came dreams, incantations, conclusions his mind had whipped into and out of, the imagination reckless and relentless. There were times he did not like himself anymore.
“I am what I am. I am what I am.” Abed he’d be, the argument echoing time and again in the back of his skull. “It is a place I own, but do not own.” He said this to himself about his own person and felt a controlling muse working again.
He was on fixed income and squeezed all his assets. The need to raise $5000 for grandson Ransom Talbot was a quick, hard blow to him. And there, always in the background, was the old ticker of his, lingering doubts about that old organ giving him some occasional drama, or the promise of drama. Cash was difficult. He was averse to touching his assets, fearing more loss than benefit would come his way.
Initially he didn’t believe the pressures would mount upon him anymore. “Hell,” he’d said to Miranda his wife, “I’ve paid my dues over and over again; two wars worth, a car crash, and a boat I found myself under on a fishing trip, two friends gone. Loss has had its cold reality. Now, like some alien intrusion, here’s another hot spot in this long life. Old firefights suddenly rekindle their flames, go on about me, puffing and puffing. All of them I’ve survived in a way, and none have been more frustrating than this one. Perhaps,” he ventured in a moment of pausing mirth, “I’d have to start collecting returnable cans with a basket on the handlebars of my bike or selling Kool Ade from a sidewalk stand. That’ll do the trick.” Kool Ade Ransom Kegler sang itself again.
Oh, the laugh came then. “There’s nothing else I can do; bagging at the market or retrieving shopping carts at the mall I couldn’t handle emotionally.” Damn! He was old, and he was tired and he admitted not all of his aches were illusions or mentally generated.
Kegler’s next-door neighbor, Taggart Halter, liked to gab with the mailman, Otto Mulkerrin. “What’s with old man Kegler, Otto?” he said. “Think Alzheimer’s setting in? Looks like he’s got his mind set on something spooky. How old’s he anyway, maybe a hundred and ten?”
“You should be so good so long, Tag, when you get where he is. His wife told my wife one of the grandsons needs a few extra bucks and old Rank doesn’t have it. He runs his life to the penny, has to, how he’s given everything away all his life, or had it taken. And him getting screwed on this latest deal to boot.”
Halter ignored the reference to the big deal; old man should have known better. “The kid needs a lot of dough? In trouble? What’s cooking with him? One of ‘em I know was a pain for a while, you know the scene.”
“You saying you got kids and grandkids what ain’t been a pain once in a while. You that lucky, Tag?”
“No, not that lucky, but lucky enough. What’s the old geezer gonna do? You hear anything from over there?”
“Nothing he does will surprise me. Hell, he ‘bout gave away all he had or had it stole. No surprises with Kegler. None at all.”
Miranda Kegler sat across the breakfast table from her husband, his brows knotted as if curses were held inside. “I know they did us wrong, Ransom, and I know your mind works its strange ways, but Talbot’s the important one now. School’s his one out. He’ got to have that chance and neither Carl nor Marguerite has a dime to spare. What’s to be done?”
She was the roundness in his life, the balm and the salve, even at questions.
“We promise the money. We’ll pay it in due time,” he said. “We’ll be responsible for it. You tell that to Talbot and his parents. One way or another, we will take care of it,” and in the dark recesses of his mind he heard his own voice saying, in a different tone, in a different rush of words, “And I will take care of those thieves, so help me God!” A cold rod had shot up his backbone; he remembered the temperature of the water under the capsized boat a few years back, and now it touched his neck.
And so in night’s darkness, where doubts regale so many souls and then dump on them, the whole vision played out like a movie for him. Deep in the night, noting his restlessness for long dark moments, Miranda felt his weight leave her side, heard him soft-shoe his way down the hall and out onto the porch, his thinking room, his place under the moon, beneath the stars. He’d once told her that’s where he could find himself in the custody of silence and the threat of miracle.
In the softness of her bed she said, You, whoever you are, should not get that man angry. She closed her eyes. In minutes she was asleep.
It was the first of her admonitions that others ought to heed. It was not her fault that her words were not heard. She had uttered them in all good faith; that had to count for something.
At high noon the next day, Kegler drove the short distance from his home to the hilly and rocky piece of property he owned at the other end of town. Years earlier he had bought it as tax land, paying mere dollars for a plot far from the center of town. He waited at the site for an hour, before a truck brought an odd lot of supplies; a roll of fencing, a pick and shovel, two lanterns, and some boxes of assorted gear. Two men unloaded the equipment and supplies near a brush line on the hill, after minor difficulties of getting the stake truck up the property incline.
For the better part of a week old man Kegler worked at the site, much of the time in or near a cave entrance on the property, the cave a severe indentation in the outcrop of the hill, an Earth-squeezed, slab-sided formation where the ice sleds of past eons had slid huge slabs of rock against each other. At the end of the third day, he had a fence erected around the cave opening. Leaving each evening, he locked a gate in the fence with a heavy padlock. It was a gesture he had spent time thinking about, after having spent much of the day inside the cave. Each day, sitting at the entrance at high noon, he ate the lunch Miranda had packed for him.
“What the hell is the old man Kegler up to now?” Halter said to the mailman. “Goes off every day like he was working. Goes up to that hill he owns out there in Scrabbletown like he’s trying to develop it? Can’t figure that man out.” He noted the grass at Kegler’s house a bit longer than usual, and the trash not out yet for the collectors. “He’s been ignoring some things. I never could get close to that man. Never let much get away from the barn he keeps things hidden in.”
Mulkerrin nodded an assent, with a minor reserve in his manner. Questions that were not posed as questions were part of his understanding of people like Halter. He held out a letter and a package for Halter. “I said before, he has his own calling to things. I’d lay nothing as odd that he does, ‘cept it comes after some thinking. Man is programmed that way and not for us to try figuring it out. I wouldn’t want him angry at me. Said he was a fire eater in his soldiering days, the kind you want on your side.”
“Ah,” Halter replied, “stories like that always get blown out of proportion. He’s just an old man nearing the end. It’s like a legend needs to come along once in a while in every neighborhood and every generation or so. Kegler’s this century’s legend hereabouts. Been that way since I moved in here, him still aloof, different from the others.”
There was a noticeable point of measurement in his voice, in his face. “Not that I’m liking him or disliking him, just saying he’s hard to figure out. Yes, sir, hard to figure out.”
From a chance encounter in the past, he remembered Miranda Kegler, a green-eyed, gray-haired woman of kindly mien, at the edge of her neat lawn and in conversation with another neighbor, saying, as if to that neighbor but more to the world at large, as the green of her eyes changed, “You ought to pay that man some mind.” No doubt she had been talking about her husband.
Two weeks later, in a town about thirty miles away, where he was not known, Kegler dropped into a small shop. It was a goldsmith’s shop. Onto the scales he placed a gold nugget almost big as golf ball. There was little dickering when he sold it. A week later he was back with another nugget and some gold dust in a plastic pouch. There was a small mixture of sand and useless gravel in the pouch, which the assayer scaled off with water and the sale was completed.
Three days later, when Kegler came out of the cave and locked the site up for the night, a strange automobile was parked down the road. He could make out a figure of a man in the car when other cars passed by. The car was there morning and evening for the better part of a week, alternately moving its location along the road. “They’d be a lot more careful than that,” he said, “if they knew they were dealing with an old man not likely taken twice to the cleaners.”
Later that night Kegler went to work again in his cellar, an intermittent blue haze glowing from the depths. Though there were curtains over the cellar windows, only the glow of a lamp could be seen well past midnight. Once a week the late activity went on, and Miranda slept in the bed overhead, smiling herself off into the late evening, accepting the drowsiness, nodding at the small hum rising from the cellar.
They should have known better, she might have thought or muttered.
At other times in the kitchen above his work area her words floated into the soft corners of the room. Images flooded her mind: the grandson located in a new school, his parents expressing thanks for the provident funds, the man she loved for fifty years out and about his imagination. Oh, that man could always tingle her blood. You might put other knocks on her man, but you couldn’t put that knock on him. She’d laughed at that a lot on her own.
In the fourth week of his new activities on the hill, and four trips to other gold shops, Kegler knew the site had been broken into, the fence climbed, bent over, tools in disarray, a choice nugget taken from a tray. And the assayer in the first shop he had gone to now wore a different expression on his face, a new greeting. He told Miranda about it, voicing his concerns.
At pie the next morning, she rolled dough out on an old board. The barb is bent likewise rolled across the room as if it were a log tossed out for the rolling. Smiling, she went next to a bowl of red apples. The tingle of her blood and cinnamon’s quick aroma in the kitchen seemed synonymous with all her awakened senses.
The offer was a monumental one for the likes of the small landowner, and the same organized group that had stolen the first piece of land had come at him for the purchase of this property. Ransom Talbot, the grandson, was placed in school; Kegler’s hatred subsided, and Miranda stopped talking to nobody in particular and the whole world in general.
Shortly thereafter, when all kinds of hell should have broken loose, none of that fated combine said a word to the old man, too embarrassed, never knowing that his cherished gold coin collection had gone down the drain and found odd new shapes, as though they were the very salt of the earth.
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