The sun warm, the air pleasant, but me like a beggar lost in thoughts, I stepped up to the back door of the old farmhouse on Route 182 in Franklin, Maine. Home at last from the army was topping off my day. Coming home from military service, I’ll swear forever, is better than birthdays, weddings, or vacations.
Or should be.
The homemade back door had faded to pink from the deepest red imaginable, and checked lines were visible stripes running down the frame, like veneers ever show slightest diversions. And doors, as you know, homemade or not, glossy paint or not, front or back, always deliver some kind of message. Houses have the power to say hello if you’re listening.
A cloud’s shadow passed over the land, swooping across the back stoop with premonition speed, much like the shadow of a large bird in flight across the face of the sun. Just as quickly, the farm reclaimed its properties, and the barn, regardless of its condition, caught my eye; I knew varied birds’ retreats once and always, the ridge pole talking silently about age, the sagging sides near final implosion or burst. At one corner, faint as mist, even fainter, as though slipped from long secrecy, old whispers escaped captivity, hushed but audible, known again.
I felt my soul shifting in place, searching the properties of the farm, seeking perhaps nothing more than the warmth of a welcome, the drift of a word nearly inaudible, a soft halleluiah sifting out of a forgotten place heavy in shade. From nowhere and in no hurry, a large shadow tagged the barn with ease, and in a slow passage tagged one corner of the house where two window boxes once laden with pansies and impatiens sat empty as the broken-down truck in the rear of the yard. Again, as an adolescent youngster needing to break out of myself, I was reading the land and all the objects on it, taking measurements, finding revelations.
At first the emptiness of the house was bigger than day, filling it, spilling over. I thought I might be swallowed right off the stoop, stolen by absence. Sentry duty had been this way, looking for anything breathing, verbal, shared, getting sucked into a singular interest; trust residing only with your own senses, though one at a time; smelling fear, touching danger, hearing refuge breathing someplace local but out of sight.
A sound snapped from inside. Different. Calling for attention. But something was wrong from the usual.
I had never lived any place else. The house, my home for 23 years, was downhill from the Little League Field, across the road from acres of blueberry patches and standing wood that could warm one family with 20 years of firewood. Sometimes there had been pigs as big as all-out commotion in the pens, now and then a cow, a pony, and corn and tomatoes growing right up to the back steps, in fall replaced by stacked cords of split wood in military columns.
I reached for the doorknob, rolled it easily in my hand, and pushed the door open and waited to be pounced upon by kitchen smells I carried in my mind like rich baggage … the piccalilli promising such livid accompaniment at the table in the corner, an open jar of strawberry preserve flooding the air with dark toast right off the top of the stove, or the yearn that went scratching for recall of a beef stew so thick with potatoes, onions and carrots it needed no crackers, no bread to sop.
Every cotton-picking mouthful grown right on the farm.
Then, at another quick thought, it might be my mother turning at a task to smile at me, staying bent to her work in a sweat-stained pale blue dress, early-gray hair hanging across her face and trying to hide the smile but unable to do so. She’d never say hello, just “smile me warm into the kitchen,” and go back to her task. Her fingers had touched everything in the house; fabric, furniture, materials, hearts, dreams and toils.
Somebody had to work hereabouts, she might have said, though she rarely condemned the devil himself.
Turmoil, reality, came loose with my foot just inside the back door, as though I had carried it all away with me on deployment travels and brought it back without a single change.
The red and white checkered oil cloth still dressed the kitchen table, the curtains on the high windows, now a pale blue when they had been a pale green, still sat with their off-colored humor against the folksy wallpaper so long hung no one knew who put it up; the clock, which no one looked at, said 8:23 of a forgotten day as it had for years on end. But the dial face of a kitten was so pleasant to start the day that nobody would chuck the clock even though it carried no hope of ever working again. Mother said it was her best happy face, to contend day with, or nights too full of old haunts.
For close to two years, I had dreamed about this arrival… but this wasn’t home any more.
Such rapid revelations dig deeper than you think. But don’t ask me, I’ll tell you: On the boat coming back to the states, things started to shake loose in earnest. The sea, that chameleon Atlantic, withering calm some days, like an ogre on other days promising a bad night, the anchor chain loose for endless hours on a section of hull that happened to sit right near the head of my bunk, on that sea my mail caught up to me.
In the last letter I received in my enlistment, my sister wrote that they had sold the farm. My father had taken the easy way out. The family got a free house, way over in Vermont, from grandmother who died, then my folks sold the farm for a few bucks to Eben Gregson because I was not around to do most of the work, my brothers not old enough yet, father being at the bottle too much of the time. Once the seed was in the ground, the wood cut for the winter, he’d fall to the wayside, suffer afternoon naps, dream, find places he had forgotten. He thought life owed him a big debt, that now he could rest, shoot the breeze with like cronies, wile away the remaining best hours and days of production. My mother would not say boo to him, afraid of the night later on when the whiskey would come roaring up out of him in some horrific manner. Of every black and blue remnant on her arms, her legs, she’d say it was from a bump in the night, one of the animals, a log off the top of the woodpile when she wasn’t looking … but tell me, whose mother never looks, doesn’t worry about her kids in every single action, dares not be wary for herself and thus them?
Of course, damned few.
It had all fallen on me, gone two years in the army, back a mere day, and it all fell on me, as though my departure had yet to exact its payment, being dunned for the two years I was away.
I was furious about the sale.
Instead of going to the house where they now lived in Vermont, and most of the way up the state, past the end of Lake Champlain, so New Yorkers were next-door neighbors, I went back to Maine, all the way back home. I sidestepped the family confrontation. I was tired of fighting. Tired of waiting in line. Tired of failures. Tired of some of my recent memories.
Oh, there’d rush me some days, those memories, often the hard core of them pouring forth, hanging around until they got tired on their own.
We had come down Route 182 in the pick-up with father and us six kids looking for cheap vegetables from road stands, the best buy for the family, spending as little as possible, him saving what he could for a few drinks. Blue Hill leaned over our shoulders, Cherry Hill too. The shopping list was long, mother’s meals planned as if she was cooking for a regiment and toward a schedule while fighting for supplies. That year, for some reason, we had gone through much of what little was left of the preserves … the peas, the corn off the cob, beets darker than blood, tomatoes stewed and bottled under cap, rhubarb swimming like eels in the special way she did them, and the bins getting empty of onions, potatoes, yams, squash. Gone were the berries we spent whole days drawing up in buckets and tins to mother’s table, red and blue and green.
When father said, “That’s enough in the order,” to a woman at a roadside stand, putting the balance of money back into his pocket, I knew it was for the drinking later on. His calculations were exact. But I knew he was cheating. If I told mother, she’d rail at him, and in the morning, there’d be a new bruise, a new testimony that she had gone too far for he had gone too far.
The more he was exposed, the more she’d rail, the more he’d respond in his way, until she’d rail no more.
But we had the good days in between. There’d be a warmth in the kitchen when seed was put down, or a day spent splitting wood and stacking it against the barn first and then against the house, and the piles would leap along the yard like frogs from the pond, and in one day it would be over. He’d be measuring, calculating heat and energy and, most vivid of all, the dryness in his throat that demanded payment. He would dun himself right down to Barclay’s Tavern and would not pick up an ax or a maul until the next summer.
Once I caught mother as she looked out the window, after looking at the calendar under the clock that never moved, under her kitchen kitten, as though she was seeing when the cold days would ensue before summer was on us. For father had just planted his maul into the middle of a chopping block with a magnificent swing that nearly split the old block, the thwack of it resonating on the air; It was his statement swing; he was done for the year.
She knew that swing, most likely had seen it the last year and the year before and who knows how far back … six of us, near two years apart, had been born here in the upstairs bedroom, looking out on the yard, the fields of blueberries across the road, looking uphill where the bear had come one year, black as the old flivver in the yard, and father killed him at least ten times over with his rifle, thinking of us picking the berries sooner or later.
There were moments.
I had come back to these memories because they were not done yet, they could not be wrapped up until mother allowed it, wanted it, sat in her kitchen and smiled out the window, warming us all back in … and father in the bunch; the tender times were memorable too.
The attention-grabber in the hallway came back again as I stood with one foot inside the kitchen. Eben Gregson, open-mouthed, stared at me from the hallway, a raggedy-andy as far back as ever. Even with my father’s time off for drinking and his notorious and sudden cessations of work, he’d get more done that Gregson ever dared. The man worked on sympathy, cajolery, a sense of timing that prevented his energies being displaced, a heady control of inertia.
“My God, Paulie, is that you?” The surprise was authentic; the news was late. “Your folks don’t live here anymore.” The half-apology broke free, like he was in the confessional; “I bought the place from them.” The other news was stale, too; “They’ve gone to Vermont, to your grandmother’s old house.” More authentic surprise; “Didn’t they tell you? Haven’t you heard? My God, Paulie, I would have sent word.”
Gregson’s word didn’t own an ounce of integrity.
“How much did you pay for it?” I said, jumping right in, demanding an answer, which might not carry much with it. Much as I had studied my father, I knew the neighbors as well. Gregson was the one a few years back paid me a whole dollar for shoveling his whole driveway, paying me like it was a late Christmas gift. “I want you to spend this wisely, son, not frivolously; you worked hard for it. Real hard.”
Oh, he was a piece, I’ll tell you any time I get the chance.
“That’s my business and your pa’s,” he said in answer, probably, I was thinking, he might have recalled the dollar present. Still, he hung his head the way front-row kids did in school when they blew an answer in a class quiz. Oh, I had seen that move a dozen times, hang-dog coming up an excuse, assuming forgiveness from the transgressed.
This man was not going to get loose from me; I’d seen his fade-aways. “It’s my business too,” I said. “I worked here as hard as he did, since I was a kid, but longer in the evenings than he did. How much?” I started counting on my fingers, the way a fast teller can snap-count a pile of dollar bills.
“Four thousand dollars.” Goggle-eyed he went, facing me, facing the truth, chances being that he could have gotten 12 to 15 thousand from someone else if he’d been less thirsty, more knowledgeable.
I came apart at the seams, and was afraid I’d grab him. “You stole it at that price. You stole it from a man who wanted steady nights by the booze. A cripple he was and you sat back and waited for him to fold in on himself.”
“That’s his concern. Not mine.”
“It’s yours and mine now. I’ll buy it back. How much?”
“Hell, Paulie, I can’t pick up and move again. Marla would have my ear forever, knowing I ain’t so special with all this.” His hands spread the indifference bout the farm, measuring what little he too would get of land that needed working. That was a moment of truth with Gregson, no play-acting now.
“You do it for a quick thousand-dollar gain?” I had to be careful. I had the money, but not enough to squander on pride, or gentle bargaining.
“I don’t know, Paulie. There’s a piece of work to get done.”
“The Douglas place is for sale. It’s half a mile down the road. A simple move. A day’s work and I’ll help. I heard Les is hurting. You can steal the place. It’s better for you. Smaller, not so much to do. And you’d do Les a great favor, like you did for my father. I saw Les’s son Earl down at the store, and Les is going to move in with him, now that his wife split on him.”
“It’s a deal,” he said, his eyes lit up like dreams were alive in them. He could be out of here in the morning, everything catching up to him in three days, the whole package. A thousand dollars richer. A year’s saving in a few days, with a few signatures.
Mother would accept the return home, but father would likely want some restrictions laid bare, rules of the land, but his voice would not count now.
Once more, an older day grabbed me:
Father was at the woodpile, and the pile of logs yet to be split was daunting. From across the road, in the trees, I could read his body language, the drop of one shoulder clear as a diagnosis, his malady afoot in him, a cavernous ache, that other emptiness. It was a signal, the way he looked about, at the house searching for mother, and with a monumental decision proceeded to smash in a mighty swing the six pounds of the maul just past the edge of the chopping block; the handle shattered, the maul head bouncing on the gravel, the year of wood splitting coming to rest almost right there at his feet as smooth as a sacrifice bunt.
I was caught up in a mixture; I’d been too many strange places, known too many discomforts, making myself over again for those people I can barely remember now.
They’d better come home. I was home to stay. If he wanted to drink at night, let him, but I wouldn’t pay for it. I’d just let him be, some things are just cut out for people on their way through here.
Hell, I had a platoon commander was drunk every night and died a hero, on top of me soaking up all the shrapnel like it was made to order.
I painted the name back on the mailbox.