Robert Wallace Paolinelli
705 Vallejo St. NO.6
San Francisco, CA 94133
A Stranger Came to the Farm
Robert Wallace Paolinelli
The blank page stared up at him. He stared back at it in agony. His fingers held his pen so tightly that a slow, dull ache reached all the way up to his shoulder. The paper was fine bond. He only bought and used the best. In a small, cloisonne' vase, decorated with geometric patterns, were a half dozen assorted pencils and pens and a long, thin–bladed letter opener.
On the table, near his elbow, a package of cigarettes and a box of small wooden matches. The ashtray was filled with cigarette butts and disfigured, burnt matches. A glass of juice, days old, stood just under the table lamp; a dead moth floated on the surface of the juice surrounded by dust particles which had settled on the forgotten juice.
He sat staring at the blank page. Had he been able to drift his vision away to the large mirror opposite the writing table, he would have seen himself mute and rigid, more a statue than living flesh. The lack of proper ventilation and the hovering cigarette smoke irritated his eyes, which were bloodshot; the left eye watered. His back ached from sitting so long on the hard chair. In his apartment he had other chairs, far more comfortable than the one in his writing studio; yet he chose this Spartan chair for his seat.
Despair over the blank page is the bane of every writer. When the fount of inspiration had dried, when the muse has flown back to Hippocrene, there is only the blank page to contend with, and no greater enemy does a writer have than the blank page. In the quiet of the eleven o'clock night, Peter understood this far too well.
Where had all the words gone? He'd had so many before. Peter laid his gray, German fountain pen down and, with the smoldering inch of cigarette in his hand, lit a fresh one. He'd been chain smoking for many hours. There was a story he'd wanted to write. For days it had worked its way out of his subconscious. Late at night, as he lay fully dressed in a half sleep on his couch, he awoke with a start; for as he dozed, the story, all written, flashed through his head. He had jumped from his supine position and, in almost marionette–like–stumbling steps, went to his desk and picked up his pen. The story, every word, every punctuation mark, even the layout of the sentences and paragraphs were clear in his mind; and as his pen point touched the paper, the vision vanished.
In all his years of writing this had never happend to him. Yet, try as he did, nothing brought the story back. Staying awake till dawn, drinking cup after cup of coffee did nothing. A walk and a short run only hastened to expend the little energy he had left. Upon arriving back home, Peter threw himself back on the couch in his studio and fell into a deep and troubled sleep; and in this sleep he dreamed:––
Three young boys sat on a fence. Each held a mirror and was reflecting a bright sun off each one, directing the beams of light onto Peter's sleeping face. He awoke and walked over a carpet of clover and spoke to the boys in a gentle tone of voice asking them to please not disturb his rest as he had to save his strength for a great task. The boys slowly dissolved before him, and, as they dissolved, their three mirrors became one, and seeming to hang in space this new mirror's beam of light was so strong that he could feel its heat. His clothes started to smoulder. A breeze sprang up; his clothes burst into flame. He started to scream, but, of a sudden, he realized he was not in pain.
A woman appeared, She embraced his burning body. Together they lay in the clover, their passion had no end until the woman suddenly disappeared and Peter awakened pushing his body back and forth and he realized his dream had ended and that he had ejaculated. His body hurt all over; his eyes burned; he smelled; his clothes stuck to his body and he could feel the sticky discharge on his skin. He rolled onto his back. The sun was shining directly into his eyes; and then the dream came back to him. He yearned to be clean.
The hot water from the shower soothed his weary body and relaxed his taut muscles. A change of clothes and some breakfast did not help him much, though. The fatigue was overwhelming, and soon he was in his bedroom pulling down the bedclothes
His own fresh change of clothes he hung on the back of a chair. A fire engine's siren around the corner was the last sound he heard that day, for sleep came upon him instantly.
The story which his subconscious slipped out before, now leaked out again, and came to life. In his profound sleep, Peter was aware that the dream he was dreaming was the story which had eluded him; and in his sleep he was content that now it had returned and he would not forget it.
While he slept, he gloried in the mirth of his masterpiece. His dream repeated itself until Peter stirred once again to consciousness and the longing to write. Like a cat springing on an unsuspecting prey, he sprang from his bed. Naked, he went to his writing desk. His hands grabbed for pen and paper; the story was yet clear. Peter was soaring; his still warm body sat on the cold, hard chair, but he felt nothing. The pen point reached the paper; the point formed a black dot. The story vanished. Not a thought came to him; his mind was a void.
A long time passed before Peter was aware of being aware. His body felt cold; his nakedness seemed so odd, and, for a moment, he could not recall how he had come to his desk. The pen in his hand seemed alien. He Stared at it, and, as he did, the image of a monkey he had once seen at the zoo holding a plastic fruit some practical joker had thrown into the monkey's cage, came to him. The confused simian sensed it was something familiar, but, at the same time, however, understood by its weight, lack of smell and texture that it was something alien. Peter now felt like that monkey. He brought the pen close to his face; he stared at it; he smelled it and it was alien. He did not even remember what the instrument he now held in his hand was, nor did he know what it was for.
The black dot on the blank page seemed magnified; he stared at it. The dot kept his eyes fixed to its tiny circumference. Deeper and deeper he stared. Like an iris of a camera, the dot kept opening and opening, wider and wider, until Peter knew not the difference between himself and what his eyes were staring at. A complete unity of viewer and thing viewed prevailed. He was in this state for more than an hour or more.
When at last the mystical oneness of the dot had receded, Peter found his body once again cold and, without another thought as to what had just happened, he arose from his desk, returned to his bed, covered his now shivering body, closed his eyes and slept and dreamed:––
A cage full of monkeys all sitting at writing desks, each writing furiously with pens. Papers fly in the air and float to the floor of the cage. Peter sees himself among the simians just sitting and staring peacefully past the chattering, writing monkeys and through the bars his vision comes to rest on the face of the onlookers, among whom is his agent, exhorting him to take up his pen and write. But Peter just sits and smiles.
His dream ebbed away slowly, transmuting the cage and its inhabitants to a high mountain meadow. Spring. Bright, redolent flowers covered this meadow as far as the eye could see. Here Peter walked in his nakedness, bending now and them to smell or gaze admiringly at a flower. No insects bit him; no thorn or burr scratched him.
In the late afternoon when he awoke, he felt refreshed. He sat up in his bed and looked about his room. Yes, everything was familiar enough; but he felt he was, somehow, different.
Having showered and dressed, he entered his studio. All was as he had left it. He looked at the blank page with the single dot. A great peace filled him; all his muscles were relaxed. The dot, that single dot of ink was the greatest story he had ever written, the condensation of years of writing, the story which had eluded him was now in minuscule. Peals of laughter burst forth from his throat. He slapped his thighs and laughed with gusto.
"My masterpiece!" he managed to say between laughs.
His agent's secretary could hardly understand what he was saying over the telephone. "And you say he can find it on your writing desk?" she asked in a voice lacking trust in what she'd just heard.
"Yes, on my desk. I'm going away."
"Where will Mr. McKenzie be able to reach you, sir?"
"Reach me?" Her question made him roar with guffaws. "Every where and no where. Now I must go. Goodbye, Susie."
With just fifty cents in his pockets and not a care or attachment in the world, he left his apartment, never more to return to it. His thumb got him a ride past the city limits. For many miles he walked and walked until sundown found him near an old, abandoned barn in which he took shelter from the night.
There is a time in every man's life when the illusions of life, wealth, material gain, prestige, power, all become meaningless; and, by means of this knowledge, one is freed from all worldly attachments save for food and water for sustenance, clothing for the sake of modesty, and a simple shelter, if available, from the elements. Peter had arrived at this knowledge. On the barn's floor was an old and broken bale of hay. Peter spread it evenly and thereupon he rested. He was not hungry, not thirsty; only his feet and legs ached from so much walking. Through a hole in the roof, he could see the stars. A crescent moon showed itself for a while. Crickets chirped all about him. No thought of tomorrow worried him; he was on his back looking at the moon and stars; crickets sang for him: here and now, here and now. That was Peter's alpha and omega. Soon sleep, blessed sleep descended on him.
A low morning mist covered the ground. The sun was ascending the distant hills spreading light and warmth and dissipating the mist. For many miles the land was calm.
Peter's body ached, his stomach grumbled for food; he thirsted. The smell of his hay bed made him think of the simple diet of animals. "Were I a bull, all I'd need to do is eat this hay. Ha! What a silly thing to think of. I'll find something to eat. Lots of farms in this area," so ran his thoughts.
The sun was to his left. The asphalt road was narrow. Many birds flew about. Onward he walked. To his former life, his few friends and his agent, all of his goods back in his apartment and his money in two banks and all the books he had written, he gave a few moments thought, then, cast them aside as he rounded a curve in the road and saw a mailbox, a patina of many years of oxidation and dents showed clearly, but he could read the faint, but legible name, written in large, hand–lettered script: MAGNUSON.
A deeply rutted dirt road leading up and over a small rise was just to the right of the mailbox. Peter followed it. Both sides of the road were lined with tall elm tress; they seemed very old; and wild blackberry bushes, which had sent out their thorny vines covered the bases of the trees and had (also) climbed high on the rough gray bark of the old elms. Many seasons had passed since anyone had cut away the climbing blackberry vines.
The land sloped, then, levelled. Peter could see a house, a barn and another small structure off to the side some distance from the house and barn. He stopped. Off in the distant he could see an orchard, and there were chickens pecking the ground near the front porch of the house. He mounted the porch and knocked on the door, but no one answered. He walked towards the barn from which came a long, deep moo of a cow and the rattle of something metallic.
"Hello, anyone here?" he called.
Peter stepped closer to open the barn door wider. He could see two figures. One turned.
"Who's there? What do you want?" The voice was that of a man. Peter boldly walked into the barn. Sitting at the udders of two, fat milk cows was a man and a woman. The man turned without stopping his milking.
"Yes, what do you want? Who are you?" said the man a bit gruffly.
"My name is Peter, and I'm hungry."
"That means nothing to me. Have you come to rob me?"
Peter felt the man's suspicion; but his hunger gave him courage.
"No, I've not come to rob you. I'll gladly work for you, though, if you'll feed me, sir."
The man stopped his milking. The pail was full. He stood up. He was a short old man, broad–shouldered, with long, hairy arms. His nose was humped in the middle and made him seem grotesque. The woman's pail was now full and she, too, rose. She was young, in her thirties; her face was freckled; she wore overalls and big rubber boots. Her long red hair was tied with a piece of leather thong. she looked at Peter, then, quickly averted her eyes and tended to her milk pail.
"So, you're hungry, want to eat, eh? Where'd you come from? You're not from around here."
"You're right, I'm not from around here. I'm from the city."
"Your car break down?"
"No; I hitchhiked and walked here."
"From the city?" he said almost incredulously.
"All the way."
"Well, what do you want from us? Why don't you go back to the city? Them clothes you're wearing aren't fit for any work around here."
All of a sudden Peter became aware of his clothes: gray cotton slacks, sports coat and a blue dress shirt. His shoes, soft leather saddle shoes seemed so out of place in this rustic setting.The conversation, he realized, was getting nowhere.
"I know my arrival may seem strange to you, but believe me when I say my intentions are good. I've left the city and my home, for a good number of reasons. I can't say exactly where I'm going, and I happend to see your road and followed it. All I'm asking for is some bread, coffee," he looked at the full pails of milk, "milk––anything. But I'm willing to give you my services in return."
Peter's calm tone of voice and matter–of–factness lessened the farmer's suspicion. The stranger who stood before him was no ordinary wanderer. His clothes and manner of speaking told him that.
"Are you running from the law?"
"No, Mr. Magnuson, not running from the law."
"How'd you know my name?" he said with a raise in the tone of his voice.
"I saw it on the mailbox."
"Oh," was all he said.
"Let him stay, Carlisle. There's plenty of work to do," said the woman, who had taken pity of the stranger.
"You trust him, Eva?" he asked, turning to her.
"He seems harmless. When did you last eat?" she asked.
"Yesterday," said Peter taking a good look at his supporter.
"Guess you're not fit to work on an empty stomach," then," she said with a slight smile.
"Okay," said Carlisle, "com'n, we'll feed you, and after breakfast, you can help me. What's your name?"
"Volpe, Peter Volpe."
Peter's belly was soon full of eggs and home–cured ham. He sat at the kitchen table drinking a second cup of coffee and munching on a piece of bread covered with butter, also homemade. Never, he thought, had he eaten such good food.
Eva and Carlisle were silent throughout the meal. But there was no tension, and peter felt quite at home.
"Well, better hurry up and finish your breakfast; lots of work to be done. Eva, get those old boots from the closet and give them to him, and a pair of work pants.
With that, Carlisle got up from the table and went out to the porch and sat on an old, weathered bench.
The boots were a little too big for Peter; but Eva gave him a pair of thick, woolen socks to fill up the largeness. The overalls were old, faded and patched, but clean, and they smelled good.
Magnuson handed Peter a shovel. By noon Peter's back and arms ached as they had never ached before. He had shoveled manure, pulled weeds and helped carry long, heavy timbers to the barn, and, with the aid of blocks and ropes, hoisted the timbers to the barn's loft, where they would be used to replace older, rotted roof beams which Magnuson said they would begin to replace after lunch.
Peter sat on the porch. He could smell the cooking food and hear the rattle of plates. He was exhausted, but hungry; he did not think, however, he could muster the strength to raise himself from the porch. His body, after years of sedentary work, was not used to hard, strenuous labor.
"Are ya com'n in to eat?" yelled Magnuson through the open door.
Eva stepped out onto the porch. "You feeling okay?" she asked, a look of genuine concern on her face. He noticed she had changed into a simple cotton dress which reached just below her knees. The dress outlined her well–formed body; her hair was now hanging straight down past her shoulders; he surveyed her and looked into her pretty face.
"I'm all right; just sore all over."
"Come in and eat; hot food'll make you feel better." Her voice was reassuring.
With a great deal of effort, he raised up and walked into the house. Lunch was on the table. Peter washed and sat. Carlisle was already eating and did not even look up when Peter sat down to eat. Eva had made a stew and a large bowl of salad and some cooked vegetables, all from the large kitchen garden on the other side of the house. Peter ate slowly. Though his body was in torment, his spirit was not. He was happy for his aches and pains. Not since the time of his youth, working in summer forestry camps, had he worked so hard; and he was glad that old Magnuson had pushed him.
Carlisle finished eating. Eva took his dish away and brought him a cup of coffee and some freshly baked cookies. He ate the cookies and drank his coffee with loud slurps.
"Better rub his shoulders and back with some liniment before he goes back to work, Eva," said Magnuson, pointing to Peter with his upraised coffee cup. Carlisle finished his coffee, got up land walked out of the kitchen into one of the rooms down the hall. Peter heard a door close.
Eva brought coffee and cookies for the both of them. Together they drank their coffee and munched the tasty cookies in silence.
"Take off your shirt," said Eva, as she got up and took away the coffee cups, then disappeared down the hall, returning with a large bottle of liniment.
Her hands were not soft as the hands of other women Peter had known. Hard they were from farm work and deeply tanned by the sun. As she applied the liniment to his neck, back and shoulders, he could feel the rough callouses of her palms and fingers. She massaged with extreme gentleness, in spite of her coarse hands. As she massaged, he could feel the penetrating warmth of the liniment and felt better.
The afternoon work went slowly. Before the old beams could be removed, the roof had to be shored up, and it was getting dark, and the two men had not yet completed the task.
"Time to knock off," said Magnuson. "If you're willing to stay on another day and help, I'll pay you a small wage. You're kind of slow, but you're a good worker––I'll say that for you. I could use another man around here."
The offer caught Peter completely by surprise. He had not given any thought as to what he was going to do after this day's labor.
"Sure, I'll stay. Thank you, Mr. Magnuson."
The old farmer simply nodded his head and grunted. They collected their tools land put them away.
"Eva, he'll be staying the night. Fix up the extra room."
She nodded, accepting the news calmly. "Your bath is ready, Carlisle," was her only response.
"Let him bathe first. I'm going to walk down to the creek."
Eva showed Peter to the bath. "Here, you can wear this," she said, handing him a terry cloth robe, and closed the door. He undressed immediately and stretched out, full–length, in the tub and soaked his weary body.
With eyes closed, he recounted the day and concluded he was the most fortunate of men. With a soaped cloth, he washed his body. He pulled the drain plug and stepped out of the tub, and, with a large, fluffy towel, which had that same fresh, sun and wind–dried smell as had his overalls, he dried himself and put on the robe. He looked into the bath tub; a dark ring stood out against the white porcelain.
He heard a knocking on the door and Eva's voice. "Are you dressed?"
"Yes, just washing the tub."
She opened the door. "That's very kind of you, but you needn't bother; I'll do it. Come, your room is ready.
Peter went to gather up his overalls and socks. "Just leave them. I'll take care of everything."
Almost embarrassed, Peter let them lie nd followed her down the hall to a well–lighted room. On the bed he saw his blue shirt, trousers, underwear and socks all neatly laid out.
"I washed and ironed them this afternoon. Hope those slacks didn't shrink. Your shoes are under the bed. We'll be eating around seven." With that, she left, closing the door softly behind her.
He lay propped up on the pillows on the rather comfortable bed and looked around the room. By the window, a small table and chair; inside of a large, walk–in closet without a door, was a chest of drawers; beside the bed, a nightstand, on top of which was an old brass lamp. That was the extent of the furniture. The room was spotlessly clean, and had a fresh smell about it.
His thoughts turned to Carlisle and Eva. He was much older then she; both were taciturn, and she seemed to do his bidding with devoted acquiescence. And while he thought, a drowsiness swept over him. He slept.
When Peter woke up it was dark and he could hear crickets and, oddly enough, the sound of a guitar. He switched on the light. He had no idea what the time was. He felt rested and was very hungry. He dressed, opened the door quietly and walked down the dark hallway, stopping just short of the kitchen.
Carlisle was sitting at the window seat looking out the window and smoking a long–stemmed pipe. Eva sat on a large floor pillow nearby and was playing on a guitar and humming very softly. They did not hear him. He stood in the darkened hallway and watched this tranquil scene. The simplicity and naturalness of their actions touched him deeply. Though there was nothing inherently special about what they were doing, the atmosphere was filled with a serenity he'd never experienced before.
Having stood for some time in the dark hall watching, he felt as if he were spying. Quietly, he tiptoed back to his room, opened the door and closed it, making just enough noise for it to be heard in the front room. His re–entry was greeted by a smile from Eva and a double nod from Carlisle's hoary head.
"We knocked on your door at dinner time, but you were sleeping so soundly we just let you be. I've got your dinner in the oven. Hungry?"
"Good. It'll be ready in a minute."
Carlisle sat with his head turned toward the outside.
"Do you play chess?" he asked, his voice muted because of the closeness of his lips to the window pane.
"Yes, I do."
"Good. After you eat we can play. Eva don't care much for it. I'm not very good; but I surely enjoy playing." said Carlisle, and looking forward to playing with Peter.
"That's fine with me. But let me warn you: I'm not a very good chess player, either."
"We'll see," was all he said.
Eva summoned him to the table. Two thick, breaded pork chops and a small bowl of leftover stew from lunch were set before him, along with salad, bread and butter.
"Would you like a bottle of beer"? she asked, "it's homemade."
"I've never had a home brew. Yes, please, and thank you."
"Carlisle, want a beer?"
"Give me a warm one."
Magnuson got up from his window seat and sat across from Peter. Eva set the beers before the two men, then returned to the large floor pillow, picked up her guitar and began to strum and hum the song Peter had heard while he had stood in the hall. Carlisle sipped his beer slowly and stared at Peter's hands.
"Tell me, Mr.Volpe, what did you do for a living before you decided to go awandering?"
Peter finished chewing, took a sip of beer, wiped his mouth with his napkin and answered: "I was a writer."
"What'd you write?" Eva heard his response and stopped playing and listened to the conversation.
"Novels, short stories. I was a newspaper reporter for a few years; but in the main, I wrote fiction."
"And why aren't you writing anymore?"
"Mister Magnuson, it finally occurred to me that there wasn't a damn thing worth writing about anymore. Words, just a lot of words, and , and..." Peter stumbled. How could he fully explain what had happened to him? He, who for many years had commanded any word by voice or pen, now found himself lost for any further explanation.
Magnuson tactfully changed the subject. "Got any family?"
"No, though I was married once, a long, long timer ago; but we divorced. No children."
"I'm sorry," said Carlisle, "if I sound like I'm prying; but we don't get many visitors, least of all folks who just drop in off the road like you done. Eat your dinner. I won't bother you any more," and he made to get up.
"Please, I didn't feel you were prying. Anyway, you've got a right to know something about me. As you said, I just dropped in. The other night I had a strange experience––it's even difficult for me to explain what happened. But it really struck home to me the futility of being a writer. All at once I saw that it didn't matter one fig if I ever wrote another word. The very idea of writing is so alien to me now, so distant..." And he grew reflective, almost solemnly so and Magnuson put up his hand. "You needn't tell me any details. A man's got a right to change if he wants. My curiosity is satisfied. You're a good worker, and that's all I care to know. Why you left––well––each man makes his own decisions––right ones, wrong ones...who knows? If you want another beer, there's plenty more. Made it myself. Here's to ya," he said, lifting his bottle to Peter in salute. Peter lifted his and reciprocated the toast.
Peter liked Magnuson; his rough, abrupt ways appealed to him. "Sure, another beer would be fine."
The two men played chess. Magnuson's plays were well made, and Peter struggled, more than once, to get himself out of the cunning checks Carlisle had placed him in. Each won a game; the third was a draw, each having taken an equal number of men. leaving both only kings, a queen each and a bishop.
"You're a good opponent, Mr. Volpe," said Magnuson, as he took a long, well–deserved stretch.
"You're not so bad yourself," said Peter, offering his hand across the board. Carlisle took Peter's hand and gave it a firm squeeze.
"I'm turning in, got to get up early for the milking. No need for you to get up as early as me, Pete. You sleep in until breakfast. Installing them beams is going to take all your energy. Have a good sleep. G'night, Eva," he said, and putting up the chess set and board, he went to bed.
"Guess I'll turn in, too," said Eva. "It tends to get a little chilly up here at night. If you want another blanket, you'll find some extras in the chest of drawers in your closet. I'll leave a pair of overalls for tomorrow outside your door. Good night."
"Good night, and thank you for everything, Eva. I really appreciate what you and Carlisle have done for me," said Peter.
She just looked at him and smiled and simply said, "You're welcome," and he watched her walk down the hall. She did not, however, enter the same room Carlisle had, but opened the door at the end of the hall. He wondered about this arrangement; but it was none of his business and so put it out of his mind. He stepped out onto the porch; the air was cool; stars gleamed. He sat on the top step and let his mind become void of all thoughts until he re–experienced the oneness of the dot.
The next morning Peter found overalls and a shirt outside of his door. He washed and went to the kitchen. The sun was already filling the barnyard. The smell of fresh coffee hung in the air. He breathed deeply and felt happy.
Right after breakfast, the two men returned to the barn's loft and began work. The time flew. The new beams were all installed by the time they heard Eva's voice from the house announce it was one o'clock, and that lunch was ready. Happily, the men descended and headed towards the house. The sun was hot; a stillness hung in the air, and far off in the western hills grey storm clouds gathered. Carlisle looked to the west and nodded his head.
In the middle of lunch Eva casually mentioned that she'd heard on the radio news that the police were looking for Peter. His agent had gone to the police. Carlisle looked up from his salad.
"A man's got a right to disappear if he wants. No one knows you're here, and if we don't say anything, no one will ever know."
"Thank you," Peter said, and returned to his food.
Eva was just clearing off the table when they heard the far off sound of muted thunder.
"It'll be raining soon. Com'n, Pete, got to round up the animals lest they be struck by lightning and put them in the barn. Chickens don't have a lick of sense. Eva, you get the tarps and start covering the hay. Soon as we finish, we'll give you a hand."
The wind was bringing the rain clouds very quickly. The chickens were the most difficult to catch. In their stupidity, they ran helter–skelter into the most inaccessible places. When the last chicken was finally coaxed from its retreat and placed in the coop, the tarpaulins were tied down over the hay. Magnuson made sure all the barns' doors were closed.
The three of them reached the porch overhang just as the drenching storm clouds and accompanying lightning and thunder, swept across the farm;in the air was the sharp crack of the heavenly cannonade, releasing into the atmosphere the pungent smell of nitrogen; and the reverberations of the storm awakened every creature with its booming voice across the countryside, filling the space with the bass voice of the thunder, passing over the farm house, and the barn, as the three tired people looked up in heightened anticipation of the next fulmination.
A fire was made in the kitchen's fireplace. Eva made some tea, and for a while they sat around the stone fireplace in silence listening to the sounds of the storm.
"Well, there's not much we can do until the storm blows over," said Carlisle, "and I don't often get a chance to take a long nap in the day time, and I'm certainly going to take advantage of this storm. Eva, wake me up for supper." And getting up he turned toward his room.
Eva set up an ironing board, and from a closet pulled out a bushel of clothes and began to iron them. Peter sat in front of the fire.
"Tell me something about yourself, Eva." he asked.
"What is it you'd like to know?" she answered, in a quiet voice without stopping her work.
"How is it that you live here?
She stopped, looked up. "Are you really interested, or, do you just want to idle away the storm in conversation?"
"A little of both, I guess."
She stood a long time staring out the window as if trying to make up her mind about something. She turned to Peter and spoke: In a way you and me are here for the same reason, refuge. Six years ago I was married to Carlisle's nephew. Carlisle raised him, right on this farm, but Danny never liked the farm, so he left and went to live in the city. I met him at a dance and a year later we were married. It was only after we were married that I discovered he was selling drugs and using them, too. I was pretty naive. I thought I could get him to quit. Oh, he made a lot of promises which I believed––but he never quit and he lost his job; but I was working, making pretty good money; but he began to demand more and more of our money that it seemed I was only working to keep him in his habit. Even when I got the courage to speak up and threaten to leave him, he still didn't believe me. Well, I left him and found a little room for myself but he found me and sweet–talked me back to him and like the young fool I was, went back. But he went right back to his old ways. In fact, it got worse and he started to beat me when I re used to give him any more money. He became completely irrational and ugly, so I left him a second time and came here to the farm to see if Carlisle could talk to him and help him to see what he'd done with his life. Eventually we knew he would come to the farm looking for me and that's when we thought it would be a good time to speak to him." She picked out a shirt from the bushel and began to iron it.
"What happened to your husband?"
He came up here a couple of times mostly asking for money. Carlisle tried, but Danny was too far gone to be reasoned with, and eventually his uncle would have nothing to do with him. Finally Danny was arrested for armed robbery to get money. He's doing time in prison for the robbery." land she continued ironing the shirt and was silent.
"Is there any more?" he asked in piqued curiosity.
"No," she said softly, "that's all. Nothing spectacular; all very plain and sad. I guess being a writer you expected something more intriguing."
"Nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I'd made no guesses at all."
"He's been good to me, that man. I'll tell you truthfully, I don't think I'd have made it if he hadn't been so kind land considerate. When we received word of Danny's arrest, I just broke done. I even thought of killing myself...Oh I know it sounds stupid now; but I was different back then––and for days I sat in this house not eating, not caring about anything. Carlisle's rough in his ways, but underneath he's kind and gentle. He'd sit by me, hold my hand and talk to me saying how everything would turn out okay. I was like a child. He fed me, took me for long walks. Why no one had ever cared for me the way he did. After a while I snapped lout of my depression and realized what a beautiful person he was. I even offered to be his woman, but he said he couldn't being that I was his nephew's wife. There was no love left in me for Danny, so I got a divorce." She stopped talking. Tears came to her eyes; taking a handkerchief out of her pocket she wiped her eyes.
"Here, sit down," said Peter, his voice almost drowned out by a clap of thunder. "I'm sorry my questions upset you," he said contritely
"No, no, Peter, it wasn't your questions, it's just..." her voice became a whisper, and she broke into heavy sobbing.
He put his arm around her shoulder and consoled Eva as best he could. She calmed down. He brought her a glass of water which she drank.
"You still want to know about me and Carlisle?"
"Haven't you told me all there is to know already?"
She shook her head.
"Then tell me if it will make you feel better."
She took a deep drink from the lass of water and breathed in and began: "For a while we slept together. I think I threw myself at him. I know you may think that strange seeing that he's much older––but he was happy and I was happy, and we worked together on the farm. And when I found out I was pregnant––would you believe we danced lin the kitchen?" she managed a smile in recognition of that happy celebration.
"And what...what of the child?" he asked, asked almost hesitantly for fear that more of her revisited tragedy would cause her more pain. And she answered him, nonetheless:
"Carlisle took good care of me during my pregnancy; but our joy was short–lived. The baby was stillborn. I so wanted that baby, not so much for me, but for Carlisle. Danny was the only kin he had and a son or daughter would have had him on top of the world. And I wanted him there because he's such a good man. He was so unhappy. You can't imagine. He cried for weeks afterwards. I was willing to try again, and when I said so he sat me down and talked to me a long time. He said it was God's way of showing him his wrongdoing that our child had been born dead. I tried to tell him there was no sin in what we had done––but he's stubborn, he is."
And now you sleep in separate rooms?"
"Yes; he said it would be better. I respect his wishes. AT first it was hard. I was convinced I loved him. After a while, however, I realized I wasn't. But I still wanted to stay on the farm. But it's been lonely for me. But I made the choice. If only the baby had lived; it would have been such a wonderful..." her face wrinkled in pain, but she controlled the spasm of sorrow, breathed deeply through her nose and got up from her chair. "Got to finish the ironing; lots of mending to do, too. You're very kind for listening to me. I'm a little embarrassed. I never told anyone this before...I wonder why I told you?"
Eva washed her face in the kitchen sink and returned to her work. Peter sat quietly for the rest of the afternoon and reflected on the sorrows of life. There were so many barbs that reached out and wounded; yet there was nothing else to do but bind up the wounds and continue to live one's life.
The storm lasted until way past dinner. The land was drenched and the dishes were washed and put away, Eva excused herself and went to her room. Peter suggested a game of chess; but Carlisle wasn't in the mood, saying electrical storms always confused his thinking, an,d so saying, went himself back to bed, and Peter sat at the window seat and stared reflectively across the room into the fire.
The days passed into weeks and the weeks into months. With Peter's help, the old barn was completely re–enforced and repainted. Magnuson taught Peter how to milk a cow, to tend to animals and to make cheese and churn butter which were sold to a county farmer's cooperative. The summer passed into early autumn. Peter had not once left the farm; he had no desire to; but one morning he awoke with a toothache, which caused him no end of pain and discomfort.
"You drive him to the dentist, Eva, and while you're in town, you can pick up a few things," said Carlisle.
Peter's tooth was drilled and filled. He felt better. With the money he had earned, he paid the dentist, then took Eva to a woman's shop, telling her to pick out any dress she wanted. She was hesitant, but with a little flattery and coaxing, she chose a navy blue wool dress which the clerk assured her was the latest fashion. At a men's store Peter purchased some clothes for himself and a winter jacket for Carlisle. They put their purchases in the truck and walked down the main street shopping for things for the farm. Peter and Eva had grown very close during the summer and more than once he'd been tempted to go to her room; and she, too, would have wanted it so; but in deference to Carlisle, they kept apart.
Their shopping done, they headed back to the truck. On the way, however, Peter saw a hand–carved, Mexican onyx chess set in a shop window. "Let's go in here," he said. The price was reasonable. Peter knew Carlisle would appreciate the chess set. He had learned a great deal about giving and sharing from the old man.
Peter, now recovered from his dental work, drove. After a few miles on the road Eva moved closer to him and put her hand on his knee, and each turned to the other and smile. Peter slowed the truck and pulled over to the shoulder and stopped the truck. Both had been ready for this moment. They kissed and embraced for the first time and declared their long–held affection for the other.
"Eva, I know how devoted you are to Carlisle, and I've grown to love that man, too, and I don't wish to hurt him. But tonight we should tell him. I was never one to do things behind people's back, and I don't want to start anything in his house."
"You're right, I know; but he'll be so terribly hurt."
"We don't know that; but he'd e even more hurt if you and I carried on––and don't think for one minute he wouldn't know."
Eva stared into Peter's eyes. He was right. He understood Carlisle.
"Yes, we'll tell him tonight. But let us be gentle," she said.
"He'll understand, you'll see. I think he's gotten over what happened between you two, and, I think he knows about us, already, too."
"Peter, there's one thing, though."
"I'll be yours and love you and take care of you, but I won't leave the farm."
He took her hands and held them tenderly between his. "I don't wish to leave, either," he said.
The evening was serene. A big orange moon shone in the sky. FRogs from the creek croaked their bass harmonies, and a pair of owls hooted back and forth from the trees just beyond the barn. Crickets chirped. Eva, Peter and Carlisle sat on the porch sipping homemade beer and listening to the music of the night. Peter felt in harmony with all the sounds. In his heart he felt peace and love. Carlisle had been pleased by th gifts, and in his rough ways let Peter know he had been touched by the presents, especially the Mexican chess set. The time was ripe. Peter took a long drink from his beer and addressed Carlisle, telling him, from his heart his feelings for Eva, but also, but briefly, let him know that he knew some of their story. Carlisle heard him out, now and then nodding his head.
"You're a good man, Pete; you've brought no scandal to my house, and if you and Eva feel the way you do about each other, don't let anything that may have happened between us get in your way. It wasn't meant for her and me." He turned to Eva. "Eva, I saw this coming. I'm only surprised you both took so long to realize it yourselves. I only wish you happiness, you know that. This house, this farm––it's all I've got––and if you two want to stay and make it your home, you know I'd be pleased." He tried to fight his tears, but his emotions overwhelmed him, and he cried openly before they newly declared lovers. They both went to him; but he, in his rough way, pushed them aside.
"Just an old man's tears. Nothing to worry about. Get some more beer, Eva. This is a celebration!"
All was well; and, for many hours, the threesome sat on the porch. Eva played her guitar; and they, by now in their cups, sang in unison with the frogs, the crickets and the owls.
Autumn passed. Winter's first snows arrived and the farm settled down for the slow pace of the season.
Peter Volpe's mysterious departure from the world of letters was still the talk of literary and publishing circles. His agent, Arthur McKenzie, had heard (from his secretary) Peter's strange message. Together they had gone to Peter's apartment. Arthur knew where the secret key was kept. On Peter's desk they found the blank page with the dot.
"Masterpiece! Whew, Peter must have really gone off the deep end," said Mckenzie, sitting down in Peter's chair and fingering the page while he shook his head.
"Do you think he was drunk?" asked the secretary.
"Drunk? No; not Peter. I've known him for years and never saw him drink anything to excess."
"Maybe he was taking drugs."
"Could be––but I don't think so. Still, I can't figure him out. What earthly reason could he have for just going off? I had him lined up for a new contract with Hellman Publishers––and what about all of his things––the furniture, the clothes, his books. He must have gone completely insane!" exclaimed the frustrated agent.
"Why don't we call the police," suggested the secretary, "maybe he's been picked up."
"If that's so then he's probably in a padded cell by now," said Arthur, as he headed for the phone in the next room.
But the police had no record of him, and a thorough check of all the hospitals in the city and the county showed no record of any Peter Volpe or any John Does who fit his description. Arthur phone all the newspapers. Maybe if they ran a picture of the well–known author, someone might have seen him. The wire services, of course, picked up the story and in a couple of days the story of Peter Volpe's disappearance was known from coast to coast. With the passage of time, however, more current and pressing events and issues pushed the story further and further into the back pages until it was no longer considered newsworthy.
McKenzie, with the aid of an attorney, took care of Peter's personal effects,. Arthur had Peter's last publication reprinted, and it sold out immediately, thereby swelling the special trust in which the court had placed the missing man's assets––which man had no need of the swelling funds.
Among the model prisoners to receive Christmas pardon was Daniel Magnuson. A week before Christmas he was released,. He had one thought in his mind as he walked out of the prison's gates: Eva. How he hated her for having abandoned him by divorcing him. He could not see beyond his own selfish needs and had not considered her patience and goodness towards him. All he cared to remember was the divorce papers he had signed in his prison cell. He had a hunch she would still be at the farm and he would start his search for her there.
Among the model prisoners to receive Christmas pardon was Daniel Magnuson. A week before Christmas he was relea–
sed. And notwithstanding his model comportment as a prisoner of the state, he had one thought in his mind as he walked out of the prison's gates: Eva, and revenge! He hated her for having abandoned him, or––so he thought. He could not see beyond his own selfish needs and had not considered the havoc he had caused, nor was he able to see how she had been good and patient and decent toward him. All he cared,howev– er, to remember was the divorce papers he had signed in his prison cell. The return address on the legal papers he had been given, had his uncle's post office box address as place of residence. He had an obvious first place to look: his uncle's farm. He would start his search there, for her.
Peter and Eva were married on Christmas Eve in a small ceremony at the farm. Carlisle invited his neighbors, and a minister from town performed the ceremony. The house was warmed by a big fire and decorated with holly boughs; and next to the window seat was a tall spruce Peter had felled. The tree gave off a delightful aroma which blended in with the smell of spiced cider. The small wedding party ate and drank and sang carols until midnight.
Carlisle, still stimulated by the excitement, stayed up after Peter and Eva had gone to their honeymoon bed. This was the happiest Christmas he had seen in many years, he thought, as he placed gifts around the base of the tree. The spirit of the wedding party still hung in the air, and mingled with the grandeur of the celebration of the birth of baby Jesus, he could not sleep, for he was filled with the spirit of the wedding and the Christmas tide sentiments. The excitement kept him awake all the night tending the fire and looking deeply into the ruby coals, until just before daybreak he, at last, fell asleep sitting in front of the fireplace, asleep in the heavenly peace of the season.
Danny looked through the kitchen window. Behind him were the deep impressions of his tracks in the dawn snow. He saw the gay, yuletide decorations. The big oaken log in the fireplace burned a deep, rich almost crimson glow; he also saw his uncle peacefully asleep in the big chair he liked so much, and he could not help but to see the peace in his face. The door, he knew, would not be locked. He entered quietly. The warmth of the heath felt good; he was very cold.
He poked his uncle with his still gloved hand. Carlisle awoke with a start.
"Where's Eva?" asked Danny in a gruff voice.
Through his focusing eyes he saw his nephew. And all at once the joy he had felt the whole night through, left him; and he felt a little shocked when he asked, "What are you doing here Daniel?"
"Aren't you going to wish me a Merry Christmas, Uncle Carlisle?"
"How did you get out, escape?"
"Escape? Ha, not from that hell hole. Nope, all perfectly legal: A Christmas present from the Governor. I was pardoned, for good behavior, a week ago, and I'm looking for Eva. Is she here?"
Carlisle could hear menace in his nephew's voice and see anger in his eyes, and the last thing Carlisle wanted was trouble.
"Would you like some coffee, nephew?"
"Well that's more like it," said Danny, taking off his gloves and coat and cap and dropping them in front of the fireplace. "But you didn't answer me, Uncle Carlisle––where is she, sleeping?"
"Daniel, don't forget whose house this is," said Carlisle, sternly. "I'm telling you––and you listen and listen good––there was a lot of heartache because of you and there's been lots of changes since you went to prison, so don't be getting so damn possessive about Eva. She's not your wife anymore. If you want to be welcome here, you'd better get that into your head right now, otherwise, put your coat back on and keep moving." The tone of his voice was serious, protectively patriarchal.
Danny, in spite of the years and his mean disposition, still feared his uncle. "Okay, okay, no need for you to get hot under the collar. How about that coffee," he said in an almost conciliatory voice.
Carlisle got up from his chair and brewed a fresh pot.
"Looks like you had a party," said Danny, upon seeing several wine bottles in the garbage can,"that's not like you, Uncle," he said with a hint of wanting to be told in his voice, which did not go unnoticed by the astute Carlisle, who said: "I'll not keep anything from you. There was a wedding here last night."
"Eva?" shot back a startled Danny.
"And who'd she marry? Hey, Uncle, don't tell me you and Eva...ha, ha, ha!" he mocked.
"You irreverent worm––no, not me, but a fine man, a good and decent man who'll make her a sight happier than she ever was with you. You listen to me, Nephew: You drink your coffee and I'll make you some breakfast, and as soon as you finish, you go away and don't come back."
"Wait a minute. You can't send me away like that. I've waited five years to see Eva!"
"Don't tell me what I can't do! And as far as I'm concerned, you can wait another five years before she sees the likes of you!"
Their voices were loud.
"I'll let Eva decide that," he said to his uncle contemptuously.
"You'll not let anyone decide anything. Don't push me, Nephew. I'm being kinder to you than you deserve."
Danny's face flushed. He doubled his fists and glared at his uncle. "I i came here to see Eva, and I'm not leaving until I do! You hear me, old man?"
The hall door opened. The loud voices had roused the newlyweds. Eva recognized Danny's voice; she told her new husband she would talk to him, and Peter, said he would be right beside her.
"There's no need for you to shout at Carlisle, Danny," said Eva, as she and Peter walked into the room. :"When did you get out?" she asked.
"A week ago––got a Christmas pardon. I got papers," papers he said, all the time sizing up Peter. "Well, aren't you going to introduce me to your new husband, Eva? Carlisle told me you got married...Mrs...."
"Mrs. Volpe, and this is my husband, Peter," she said proudly, as she took Peter's arm and tugged him to her side.
Danny saw how straight and confident she stood; this was not the Eva he remembered.
"Well, well, so you've won my wife's heart away from me." he directed his question directly at Peter in a not so friendly voice.
But Peter was not intimidated by him. Peter stepped forward and looked Danny squarely in the face. "She isn't your wife anymore. A lot of things have changed around here, and I want you to understand that clearly." And he stepped back to his wife and took her arm and together they stood a bulwark against the bully.
"You sound like my uncle. Peter Volpe, eh. That name sure sounds familiar. I remember reading that name in the newspaper. But, naw, couldn't be you, this Volpe was an artist, ya, a writer, just up and left one day––never could find him. Hmm, why not? Hey, Mr. Volpe, tell me: are you the famous writer people have been wondering about?"
And without hesitation Peter answered: "I was."
"Never mind about my past. What business do you have here?"
"I came to see Eva."
"Well, you've seen her."
"Eva I got a score to settle with you," he said, completely ignoring Peter.
Peter stepped in front of Danny. He had no fear. "You've no score to settle with anyone. This is a peaceful house and will remain so. If you've got anything to say to Eva, say it, and leave."
"Hey, easy. Everyone but Eva's been telling me to go; anyway, I was promised some breakfast," he said.
"Danny," interjected Eva, "I know you are bitter about my divorcing you, but you don't seem to understand I've a new life now, and you aren't part of my life. You haven't been for a long time. I know you're angry, but you seen to have forgotten what you and I went through. I gave you my all. You promised land promised you would stop––but you didn't. And those beatings––I have a long memory, too, Danny. It wasn't easy for me watching you trying to kill yourself and become a petty criminal in the process. We have a good life here on the farm; you never liked it here. Well, it's my home, our home now and you...you are not part of this home. I'm sorry you came here. I really don't know what you expected of me. And even if I wasn't married, I wouldn't, couldn't go back to you." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. All the time she was speaking she felt herself trembling. But by the time she was finished she was gentle strong in her person and character.
While Eva was talking, Carlisle quietly left the room. From inside his bedroom closet, he took a revolver from its hiding place and put it into his back pocket and returned to the kitchen.
"Eva," Danny was saying as Carlisle rejoined them, I want you to go away with me."
"That's foolish talk. You really don't mean it, Danny, so why do you say it? You don't love me. What are you trying to provoke," she said with concern in her voice.
"Why don't we all sit down and have some coffee," said Peter, "and you start some breakfast, Eva."
"That's the best thing I've heard all morning," exclaimed Carlisle, sitting down at the table with his usual gusto.
Peter took cups from the shelf and set them on the table and poured coffee. Eva started cooking. As she cracked eggs into a bowl her hands trembled once more. Carlisle felt a little easier now that he was armed. His nephew's unexpected presence was very disturbing to the old farmer, who liked a peaceful life. But it was Danny's anger and bitterness which really worried Carlisle. In silence the three men sat at the table drinking coffee. Breakfast was also eaten in silence, and the tension had not eased
Peter had been thinking all during the meal on how best to convince Danny to leave. He did not like this man, and, the sooner they were rid of him, the better.
"How much money do you have, Danny?" asked Peter.
"How much money do you have?"
"Not much, less than two hundred dollars."
How would you like two thousand dollars?"
Daniel Magnuson stared him coldly in the eye. "What's your game, Volpe?"
"No game. I"m willing to give you two thousand dollars if you'll promise to leave and never come back."
"Two thousand dollars, eh. Well, I bet you've got more than two grand. It's Christmas, Mr.Volpe, why don't you be a little more generous. Now if you really want me to leave..."
"Name your price," said Peter, calmly.
"That's more like it.But first tell me: why'd you just walk away from your career? It's all coming back to me now; there wasn't much else to do in prison except read the newspapers and do crossword puzzles."
"That doesn't matter. The issue here is money, not my personal life. Name your price."
"No need to rush into these matters, is there? After all, Santa Claus is asking me what I want for Christmas; and I just might take all day to decide."
Carlisle's hand slowly reached around to his back pocket. He gripped the revolver and slid his finger onto the trigger.
"You may be my own dead brother's flesh, buy you are a swine! A no good swine! You come here disturbing folks on Christmas as if you life was the only one that counted. No, damn it, not in my house. Peter has made you an offer," he pulled the gun out, cocked the hammer land pointed it at his nephew. "If I was Pete, I wouldn't offer you a dime––but it
's his money. Now I'm going to make you a proposition: I'm going to give you five minutes to make up your mind," he looked at his watch. It's twenty–five past eight. At eight thirty, if you aren't on your way out of this house, I will pull this trigger and when th sheriff comes I'll gladly give myself p to him––and I'm not bluffing."
"Carlisle, put that gun away. Don't worry, he'll go," said Peter. He turned to Danny. "How much?"
"Okay, Uncle, if that's the way you want it," he said with trembling lips, "five thousand dollars."
"Eva, bring me some paper and a pen, please. I'll give you a letter to my agent and a statement to my bank authorizing them to pay you the money."
"No deal. I want cash, want it now," he said greedily.
"Sorry, I don't have it. It's my way or no money. It's that simply––and it's up to you."
"You've got three minutes, Nephew," said Carlisle.
"Carlisle, please put up that gun," asked Eva, and, turning to Danny: "Danny, I beg you, please go, Danny, please. I never asked you for anything, but I'm asking you to once just do something good in your life. Go. Leave us in peace."
"Two minutes, Nephew."
"All right, all right, I'll go; but first you have that uncle of mine stop pointing that gun at me."
"Carlisle, please––put it down," said Peter.
Carlisle lowered the revolver and put it on the table––but with his hand close by.
"You'd better say something to convince your agent and your bank that you're alive.Don't forget the papers said you might be either dead or gone crazy, and don't forget, I'm an ex–con. I don't want anything to happen that will land me back in the slammer."
"Be assured that this letter will clear the way for you." Peter wrote the letters and was about to hand them to Danny when Eva reached across the table and tore them from her husband's hand.
"No! I'll not let you do it. You've left your other life and this will just expose you once again. Furthermore, he doesn't deserve it. What did he do to earn it? Peter, I love you very much and I know that what you are doing is for my sake. Danny, your uncle threatened to shoot you," Eva, with a swift movement picked up the gun, "now I'm the one who's threatening you. Get up!" She was speaking in a trembling voice. "How dare you come back here and ruin our first married day, our beautiful Christmas. We work hard on this farm; you can't appreciate that; and I'll not try to make you understand. Put on your coat. Carlisle, start up the truck. We'll take him to the bus depot and buy him a one way ticket to wherever he wants to go––and I'll be holding onto this gun until the bus leaves."
Peter tried to intervene.
"My good husband, you don't know this man; I do. let me handle it my way.
There was no convincing her otherwise.
On the way back from the bus depot, Eva broke down and cried all the way back to the farm.
They all sat in front of the fireplace mournfully so. The joy which had permeated the farm house the night before was gone. The silence was broken by the ringing of the phone. Carlisle got up and answered.
"Hello." He listened and his face brightened. "Well Merry Christmas to you, too. Yes, we're fine, just sitting around the fireplace. New Year's eve, at your place? Don't see anything to stop us. Thanks a lot for the invitation, Oliver. Oh, sure, I'll be seeing you before that.Fine. Okay. Bye." He hung up. "That was Oliver Quimby, Eva, he invited us to his place for a new year's party. Hey, look at us, just look at us. Why it's Christmas day and you'd think buy the looks on our faces we'd just come back from a wake. And, look, the presents under the tree; no one's even noticed. Com'n now, you two––and me, too––Merry Christmas, a wonderful Merry Christmas. We can't let Danny's visit ruin our day. Eva, there's that green wrapped one for you; and, Pete, the big box is yours."
Eva and Peter looked to Carlisle. His face was smiling, and they were filled with his joy.
"Oh, yes, Merry Christmas, Peter, Merry Christmas, Carlisle," she said, and she took Peter by the hand and took Carlisle's hand and pulled them to her and kissed them tenderly on their cheeks.
The new year arrived and went on its inexorable way.
February was very cold, and everyone at the farm, in one way or another, suffered from that cold, cold month. But with the end of March the air warmed, some birds returned, the snow was melting, nd green was to be seen all over and Eva was pregnant.
Daniel Magnuson had arrived in the city and bided his time. Going to the public library and going through old newspapers he was able to read all the stories on Peter's disappearance; and finding information about Arthur Mckenzie, he then sent a post card to his residence––which address was not hard to find, which red: "If you want to know where Peter Volpe is, call 555–9000 on Wednesday, 6:00 P.M. Ask for Danny."
Arthur read the card with much skepticism. He'd received many such written messages, telephone calls, too.Ensconced in his house, sipping a glass of wine he, nevertheless, waited for six o'clock.
"Hello," said a voice on the other end. "I want to speak to Danny," said Arthur.
"This is Danny. You McKenzie?"
"Yes. What Information have you about Peter Volpe?"
"Not so fast, man, not so fast. You're in too much of a hurry."
"Look here, I'
m in no mood to play games. If you know where he is, speak up."
"How much is it worth to you?"
"Oh, I see, up front money. Well, sir, you can go to hell!" he said indignantly. I know your scheme: pay but your information is false. I've dealt with your kind before. I learned my lesson. So long, chum," and he was about to hang up when Danny said, "No, wait! It's the truth. I spoke to him and his wife."
"Wife? Now I know you're a liar. Peter isn't married."
"He is now," said Danny, screaming into the telephone––"he's married to my ex–old lady."
"If there was, indeed, a marriage, there must be a public record of it––shouldn't be too hard to track it down, myself."
Danny, desperately, "But I can lead you right to him. I know where he's living––please––believe me," he added, urged on by his avarice and his vengeance.
Arthur sensed something different about this man; and even if he didn't like the man's voice, there was something in the tone of his voice which made Arthur relent and to give the caller a chance; he had nothing to lose; still his common sense told him not to trust this Danny too much nor meet him in any private place. "I"ll tell you what: Do you know the Starlight Hotel?"
"Very well, you meet me in the bar, say in about half
"Sure, if you're ready to talk business."
"Of course, business,. What do you look like so I can recognize you?" asked Arthur.
"Don't worry about that, Mr. McKenzie; I'll spot you. I seen your picture in a lot of papers and magazines. See ya in a half hour." And he hung up.
Danny had no trouble spotting Arthur McKenzie, and he approached him at the bar, and together they moved to a booth and ordered drinks.
"Is Peter okay––I mean he's not crazy or anything," the anxious Arthur asked of the swarmy man sitting across from him.
"Crazy? Like a fox, ha, ha, ha."
Arthur, not appreciating the attempt at humor, made ready to leave.
"Wait," said Danny, catching Arthur's sleeve, "you can stand a little joke, can't you? Com'n, loosen up."
"Listen, Danny, if that's really your name, I've been worried sick about that man, not knowing whether he was alive or dead––so skip the funny talk and get down to the facts: What do you know?"
"Okay, okay; but first we settle on a price. How much is it worth to you?"
"What's your price?"
"That's a lot of money."
Danny knew he had the upper hand, so he took a chance. "That's my price; take it or leave it."
"How do you know you're telling me the truth."
"You don't; so you've got to trust me. Believe me––with my own eyes––I saw him. I spoke to him. I'm telling it straight. He's married to my ex–wife, and he's living with her on my uncle's farm––not far from here."
Arthur cast an even more suspicious glance at the tall, thin man sitting across from him; but he had to know about Peter."Okay, if what you say is true, then take me to him. I've got my car outside."
"Uh, uh; can't do that. You see, I'm not exactly welcome there."
"Then what proof do you have, other than your word?"
"That's all you've got––my word."
McKenzie could see the merry–go–round of conversation. "Very well, Danny, I'll make a deal with you––five thousand. Twenty–five hundred good faith money, and the remainder after I've spoken to Peter––person to person––got it?"
"Will you put that in writing?"
"If it will satisfy you, yes, in writing––even notarized."
"Remember, it's a contract––I know a little bit about the law myself," he said boastfully, trying to impress McKenzie who was not impressed by this petty extortionist. "All right, it's a deal."
They concluded with time and place and the following afternoon Arthur Mckenzie and his secretary, Susan Floyd, met Danny at Arthur's bank and paid him half the money as agreed. In the back of Arthur's car Danny greedily counted the money twice and put the signed "contract" in his inside pocket and gave out little hoots as the hundreds kept piling up.As soon as I see Peter with my own eyes, you get the other twenty–five hundred. Now which way do we go?"
"Take the expressway east to the last exit."
The sky was turquoise blue, the air was clear, the hills of the surrounding countryside stood out sharply green as they drove toward the farm.
"I won't be able to go right up to the front door, so maybe you can pay me just before we turn off."
"Nothing doing. First I see Peter, then you get your money. Anyway, what are you afraid of? Did you do something wrong?"
"Who, me? Why I'm as innocent as a newborn. My uncle and ex–wife wanted to kill me––and on Christmas day––can you beat that?"
"What kind of people has Peter taken up with?" asked Susan.
"They're not too friendly. Mr. McKenzie, sir, maybe you better pay me now and remember: don't tell them how you found out."
"I have every intention of telling Peter or anyone else. Just what are you afraid of? I'm beginning to have my doubts about you, Danny boy."
Danny panicked; he wanted his money. "You got no reason to doubt me. I told you, he's there. Believe me!"
"All right. But no more talk about money and don't argue with me, and don't try to change anything about our bargain. Is that understood?"
A humbled Danny shut up and sat back sulking. Several miles after the last exit, on a winding country road, Danny said to Arthur, "Slow down, we got to take a sharp right turn past this next curve," instructed Danny. "now turn here. Look, Mr. Mckenzie, I don't want any trouble from those folks, so just let me out here. I'll wait for you. I've got no choice; you've got the rest of my money."
Arthur stopped the car. Danny got out. "I'll wait for you back at the mailbox."
Arthur hung on tightly to the steering wheel. He was not used to driving on bumpy country roads. As his car i came out of the woods, he saw Eva crossing from the barn; she stopped near some feeding chickens and waited for the car to come to a full stop.
"Good afternoon," said Arthur, in a friendly."
"Eva's heart beat very quickly. This man's presence did not forbode well.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" asked Eva in a tremulous voice, which was not lost on Arthur who immediately responded, "I'm Peter's agent, Art McKenzie––he's the only one who calls me Art––tell him that. I'd like to see him. Please don't tell me he's not here. My sources assured me he is here. Please take this to him," and from his pocket he produced a business card. "Give this to him."
She took the card and read it; for a long while she struggled with the idea of denying Peter's being on the farm––then released the struggle. "Wait here."
"Then he is here, Susan," he said, sotto voce turning to his companion, "the guy was right!"
But Eva overheard his remark. She did not have to be told who had lead them to the farm; it could only have been Danny––and for a price, too, she was sure. Eva did not speak to Peter, she simply handed him the card. He looked at it. He stared at the name, address and phone number as if he had never seen them before. He looked up to Eva. "Is he alone?"
"No; he's with a woman named Susan. Do you want to see them? I'll tell them to go––only tell me, darling."
"Yes, I'll see them. Take them into the house. Make them feel at home, Eva. I'll be with them as soon as I finish the milking. When"s Carlisle coming back from town?"
"He should be back anytime now."
"Good; I'd like us all to have dinner together. It should prove to be interesting."
Eva nodded her head and quickly turned to go. Peter got up from his milking stool. "Wait, dear," he called to Eva, who turned around. He gathered her into his arms. "The past is behind. This is my life, our life. I saw that look on your face. Were you afraid they'd talk me into going back to my old life?"
Tears were welling up in her eyes, "Yes, a little bit, I guess," she said in a low voice.
"You silly," he said lightly. "What if I did go back: Do you think I'd leave you and the baby behind? Oh, my dear, sweet wife, I'd take you to the moon if I had a notion to go there. Rest easy, darling. I've got work to do, and you left those folks standing in the middle of the yard. That's not being friendly," he said, hugging her to him again and giving her a long kiss on the cheek.
"I'm sorry I doubted you...I'm sorry...she said feeling good about he'd kissed her and was holding her so reassuredly––"just a moment of insecurity, I guess. Another thing," she said more matter–of–factly, "Peter, Danny told them you were here."
"How do you know?"
"I heard them say something about some guy being right about you being here."
"You may be right. We'll soon find out––but it won't change anything that he brought them here."
Peter was in no hurry. The milking had to be finished. There was no rushing it; he had learned that through the months, under Carlisle's rustic tutelage. Arthur and Susan would never understand his reasons for giving up his career, the career Arthur helped Peter create; ten years they had worked together, Peter writing day and night, and Arthur taking his works around, going from one publisher to the next until one work was accepted, then another and still another. Together they shared the profits, meagre at first and enjoyed the prestige––even the heartaches. Their lives revolved around writers and people in the publishing business. They made the rounds of parties, dinners and weekend trips. It seemed Arthur never tired of that life; neither did Jane, Peter's ex–wife. She gloried in the whirlwind of entertainments while Peter, on the other hand, wearied of them, finally withdrawing from the social side of his career to concentrate on his writing. But it was shortly after his divorce that he started having doubts about spending the rest of his life with a pen in his hand.
The milk pail was almost full. He knew the routine well. Carlisle was a good teacher, and had taught him how to milk and care for cows; how to pasteurize milk and to make butter and cheese; how to slaughter a hog and cure meat and given the rudiments of agriculture and poultry raising. No; Eva had nothing. Peter was finished milking one. His focus of purpose was very clear, and he started on the other.
Carlisle was turning off the main road when he saw Danny sitting on a tree stump near the mailbox. He stopped the truck and stared at him for a long time before he rolled down the window and spoke to him.
"What"re you doing here? Thought we told you not to ever come back here."
"Don't get your blood pressure up, Uncle. I'm just waiting for some friends of your precious Mr. Volpe. No harm in waiting, is there?"
"Friends? What are you talking about, friend? Whom'd you bring here?"
"His agent," he said brashly.
"Have you no respect for a person's life. Are you so perverse, nephew. You are more of a serpent than I thought you were. I should've put a bullet through you when I had the chance. Get off my property! If you want to wait, wait out on the public road. Now get moving, or so help me, I'll beat you within an inch of your miserable life!"
"You can't talk to me that way."
"I just did." Carlisle was not afraid; but his anger had got the better of him.
"How about if I rented sitting space on this stump for a while, Uncle? How much rent do you want for this stump, Uncle," he said contemptuously? said Danny. He reached into his inside pocket and pulled out the thick envelope filled with money and boldly showed it to Carlisle, fanning the bills with his thumb.
"Where'd you get that?"
"My fee as guide, you might say."
"So you got that agent to pay you for telling where Peter was. There isn't a spark of decency in you. You haven't got enough money to rent an inch of my property––and the things attached thereto, so get your corrupt body off my land and down to the road!"
Danny did not move.
Carlisle put the truck in reverse and backed away, stopped, pushed the gear to forward, and steered the truck toward Danny. Danny jumped back, he eyed a large stone, he picked it up and hurled it with all of his might and anger through the windshield of the truck. The rock crashed through the glass, hitting Carlisle just above the left eye, knocking him instantly unconscious, and the truck went out of control, smashing into the very stomp Danny had been sitting on.
Danny was suddenly filled with fear. Opening the truck's door, he felt Carlisle faint pulse. He lifted the injured man out of the truck and laid him on the ground. Carlisle moaned; blood came rushing out of his nose and mouth. He died. Danny was in a state of panic. He had thrown the rock in self–defense, he told himself. But who would believe him? McKenzie knew he'd been waiting at the mailbox; the sheriff would be called; he would be charged with murder! Everyone at the farm knew, by now, that it was Danny waiting for ARthur; there was only one thing to do. He took Carlisle's body and lifted it into the bed of the truck. The engine started with difficulty; steering was a problem; but by driving slowly, he soon reached the farm. He drove past McKenzie's car right up to the porch.
Carlisle had been expected long before now; and it was lEva who went to the door expecting to greet him only to find Danny running up the porch with a tire iron in his hand. Before she knew what was happening, he had her by the throat and was pushing her back inside the house. Susan, Arthur and Peter were sitting at the table. When Peter saw Danny, he jumped up, but Danny raised the tire iron above his head and swung it in a menacing circle. "You just sit back down at the table and no one will get hurt!" he rasped in a harsh, high–pitched, fear–filled voice.
Slowly Peter back away and sat.
"Don't any of you get any funny ideas or else she gets it!" Danny dragged Eva down the hall to Carlisle's room. He was going for his uncle's revolver; he knew where it was kept. His hand reached up onto the closet shelf and took the gun. It was loaded. He felt , now, more secure. He dropped the tire iron, pointed the gun at Eva, and ordered her back down the hall.
McKenzie's life, up until now, had been void of any kind of violence or threats to his person; he'd lived a rather sheltered life; but now before him was a man with a gun, who a few moments before was threatening them with a tire iron. ARthur McKenzie was terrified. His mouth and throat were dry; his stomach muscles were tight; he felt nauseated; his face flushed. Susan was equally frightened, but maintained a semblance of composure, strained as it was. Peter's mind was clear, his spirit calm. He was waiting all he had to do was wait. He had nothing but time. Waiting. On the farm he had learned to wait; sitting long hours in silence with Carlisle, working slowly, not rushing. Patient. There was no fear in him. Danny now released Eva and pushed her towards the others.
"Where's Carlisle?" asked Peter. "I see his truck."
"Carlisle is dead."
Eva's face drained of all color. A low, hollow moan escaped from her throat; she hugged her belly as if in protection, and bent over and wept. "Oh, Carlisle, oh, Carlisle, dead, dead, dead. You must have murdered him." She lifted her torso. "Murderer!" she screamed.
"I didn't murder nobody. It was self–defense! He tried to kill me––run me over with the truck."
"No, no; that's not like Carlisle. You murdered him," she reiterated. He's dead by your hand" and once again she hugged her belly and wept mournfully for the loss of Carlisle.
Peter sat up straighter in his chair. For a moment he felt limp, as if he would fall from his chair. But he recovered and in a solid voice asked, "How did it happen?"
With rapid, stuttering sentences, Danny explained all; he did not leave out anything.
"If you had time to pick up and hurl a rock, you had time to run for the trees. There was no self–defense. You coward, you bloody, miserable coward," said Peter in a strong, moderate voice."
"You shut up, hear me! Just shut up! I've got to move and move fast. You, McKenzie, give me my money and your car keys.
ARthur was frozen. His body was half paralyzed. He could see Danny, he heard land understood his words, but he could not move his limbs.
give me that money! I earned it. Our agreement is complete. You've seen him in the flesh, now pony up!"
Arthur made to speak; but his voice would not come. His lips quivered. Peter discerned his friend's behavior.
"Susan," asked Peter, "where's the rest of the money?"
"In his inside pocket."
Peter got up, walked to the end of the table, reached inside Arthur's coat and found the envelope, extracted it, and put it in his own back pocket, then returned to his seat.
"Why'd ya do that? Give me that money, or I'll take it from your dead body."
"Don't you think one killing is enough? If you kill me, then you have to kill all of us. Do you have the guts, Danny? Do you think you could shoot us all? And if you did, how far do you think you'd get? I'll make a deal with you."
"I don't make deals with anyone, least of all, you."
"Let's step outside and negotiate." Peter turned to Eva:––
"Eva, snap out of it. There's a dinner to cook, we've got guests and they're hungry. Look at Art; he's so hungry he can't move. Susie, you hungry?"
Susan turned full face to Peter, a quizzical look on her face. "I...I don't understand."
"Nothing to understand. Either you're hungry or you're not. Yes or no?"
"Good, then help Eva. Arthur, get out of that chair, march to the back porch and bring us some bottles of Carlisle's homebrew. You'll find it easy enough."
There was such an assurance in Peter's voice, so much command, that Arthur came alive land found the strength and co–ordination to move; and, without fear, got up and walked to the back porch as Peter had directed him, in spite of Danny's screaming for him to sit down.
"You can't move! I didn't tell you to get up; back, all of you. No beer, no dinner!"
"Ladies, what are you waiting for? There are hungry people in this house."
Eva looked at Peter."Yes, Peter, hungry people. Come, Susan, we must prepare dinner."
"You sit right back down!" yelled Danny, pointing the gun first at Eva, then, at Susan. But they ignored him.
"This is my home, Daniel," said Peter, "and in my home I do as I damn well please, so don't go shouting in my home. A member of our family was killed today; we are a house in morning. Have you no respect for the dead, your own flesh and blood?"
"You must be kidding, Volpe. You've gone off your rocker. Now I know why your pal here asked me if you was nuts Now tell me you're kidding."
"I've never been more serious in all my life." Peter rose from his chair and walked up to Danny. Danny backed away.
"Don't do...don't you come any closer. I'll shoot."
"Go ahead; pull the trigger; you'll get caught. I'm giving you a way out, Danny, a chance to wipe the slate clean."
"What are you talking about?"
"As I said before: let's step outside land negotiate."
Danny looked at the women calmly washing vegetables; Arthur was brining in the beer. There was no hurry; it was as if he, Danny were not there. Peter, ignoring him completely, walked around him to the front door, opened it and stepped out into the porch and walked down the stairs. He looked into the twilight sky. The stars were just visible. He breathed deeply. There was just enough light to make out the sprawled body of Carlisle in the bed of the truck. Tears came to Peter's eyes. He reached out and touched the body. When he turned, he saw Danny standing on the bottom step, his gun arm hanging, the revolver pointing harmlessly to the ground. Peter knew he had won. But there was no pride in this victory. He took the gun from Danny and put it in his own belt. A length of cord bound Danny's feet and hands. He lay whimpering next to Carlisle favorite place: the window seat.
The sheriff came for Danny and took him away, and the coroner took Carlisle's body away.
Afterwards, the dinner was served. The couple's sat. Peter asked that they join hands.
"Today, a good man died, and it is in his memory that we eat this meal. He was our friend, a good farmer who loved his land and loved and lived life deeply. May his soul rest in peace."
Eva and Peter hugged each other in the dark of their room that night and wept for the man whom they had both loved.
Carlisle was buried on his land down by the creek where he'd often gone to walk, and over his grave Peter and Eva planted a cherry tree.
A stranger Came To The Farm was strange to you, but believe me when I say my intentions a