Sunday, July 3, 2011

"The Idylls of Staff Bickerston" by Tom Sheehan (chapter 5)

Two weeks later, just before Mathy was to set the table for the evening meal, while Marco was outside with his slingshot, and Staff was sitting on the porch, knowing Marco had left two panes of glass untouched, Lowell Stratton came up the road in his car. A tall and heavy-set man in a yellow golf-shirt climbed out of Lowell’s little sports car with Lowell, as if he had been shoehorned out of the tight seat. The man nodded to Staff on the porch and looked at Marco adjusting his slingshot in the driveway. When the two men came closer, Marco turned around, adjusted his aim and fired a pellet that smashed one of the remaining panes of glass.
That’s a good shot, kid!” the man said. “Good shot! I used to be able to do that. You use pebbles or what?”
Marco smiled, slipped the slingshot into his back pocket after looking at the last pane of glass, sitting in the middle of the old chicken coop like the last target on Earth. “I get my ammunition out back.” He motioned back up the small rise mound behind the house and the quick burst of brush growing there. “It’s kinda secret.” He walked back to check out the chicken coop.
Lowell said to Staff and Mathis just coming onto the porch, “This here’s Abbot Gruden, folks. He’s from Alberton and one of those new millionaires we hear talk
about. He’s pushed me pretty hard on this and since he’s such a good customer now at the bank, I am compelled to bring him here. He has a sincere interest in this property and would like to make you an outstanding offer.” Lowell’s face, long and angular, seemed longer than usual, and redder.
Abbot Gruden jumped right in, even as he stood at the foot of the porch steps. “I gather this is or could be a might uncomfortable, folks. I don’t want it to be that way. This is a very attractive spot, I think, not for development, but for good living. A lot of things that I once couldn’t afford I now can. I’ve been passing by this place for years and always had a dream about it.” His glance went back down the driveway and then across the fields that dropped down toward the lake, the arms of the evening sun clasping the whole lake top. He smiled easily at Marco coming back from the chicken coop. His voice was partly an aside when he said, “Like Tom and Huck, I swear.”
Staff said, “Come up on the porch, you two, and have some iced coffee. The scene won’t change for about another forty minutes, then you’ll get another picture.” Opening the screen door, he put his hand out and said, “Case Lowell forgot, this is my wife Mathy and I am Staff Bickerston, who is, apparently, deeper in trouble with Lowell and the bank than I would have imagined. I always figured I’d pass back into the land right around here.”
A slight but warm smile cut the corners of Abbot Gruden’s mouth. “I’ll make it quick, Staff. No folderol and clumsy stuff and no feints and quick moves. I’ll buy this place from you, let you stay here a couple of years, on me, on the house.” His second option at a smile was a bit clumsy. “Did that sound funny?”
“Think nothing of it, Abbot,” Staff said. “The point you’re making, other than being extremely generous, is you want to become owner of record sooner than later. Is that right? Is that to secure a better buying price?”
“Well, Staff, I didn’t make my money by throwing it away.” His shoulders were squared away as if he were a military man. His jaw was square too, and his haircut, clean above the ears, was brand new. Staff noticed that Abbot Gruden did not talk with his hands, like so many men did. Abbot Gruden’s deep voice carried all his messages, and he continued. “This site represents a good investment for me. The value is never going to go down. Land is just not in production any more. Hasn’t been for a long time, far as I can see.” His gaze went back across the field, where both sun and breeze played in the tops of the high grass, at times looking like combers coming at a shoreline. When a small cloud passed over, the grass changed color and Staff and Abbot Gruden both saw and sensed the iridescence change.
Mathis, meanwhile, was looking for something in Lowell’s eyes. She took it to be pain. Her hand touched the sleeve of his suit coat.
Lowell said, “That’d be two years of free rent, folks. That’s a generosity I never heard about. That’s something I could never handle at the bank. Getting tough enough to do things the way they have to be done now.” Mathis knew he could still feel the gentle touch at his sleeve. His eyes showed it. The face of Lila Theis came at the back of her head. She shivered with a momentary chill.
Staff walked down to the end of the porch and motioned Abbot Gruden to follow him. The two men saw Marco standing in the driveway and looking back at the coop. There was a single pain of glass in the coop and the sun was a slash against that pane.
It almost came straight back at the two men. Staff said, “He loves it here. He’s just like me, coming back again even before I go under the grass. I’d love to keep the place for him, but I know I don’t have a shot at it much longer. Not now, not tonight, but we might have to talk again about this. You and I, on the side someplace. Fair enough? You’ve made a decent and generous proposal. I just might have to do what would drive my soul outward.”
He leaned to look back at the coop and the slash of sunlight falling off the last pane of glass, shifting positions and brightness. “That’s the last one, Marco. Make it a good shot.”
Marco, suddenly older, as if he had become his father, said, “Let him try. Said he used to do it when he was a kid.” He held out the slingshot to Abbot Gruden.
The initial touch of warm air Abbot Gruden had known coming on the property, came back over him. He was obviously pleased when he said, “Why not. It’s been a long time.” Then the exuberance rang in his voice. “It’s been too long!”
Staff and Abbot Gruden stepped down from the porch as Mathis and Lowell Stratton stood at the screen door. Marco handed Abbot Gruden the slingshot. Gruden hefted it in his hand, closed his fist tightly about the crude handle, closed one eye, and looked through the Y of the tines at the pane of glass. “Ammunition, please, Ammo Bearer,” he said, the voice resonant, in charge, deeper than before, an infantry officer at command. Marco dug into his leather ammo pouch and handed Abbot Gruden a small round pellet, about half an inch in diameter. The new shooter placed it into the leather seat of the slingshot and looked down as he gripped it firmly.
In later weeks, Staff would tell the story over and over again. “This kind man, this man who had made such a generous offer, looked down at the pellet, then took it out of the leather saddle and held it aloft. He did it just like I had done before, stupid me. There he was, this stranger Lowell brought over, peering at one of Marco’s pellets, shining it up on his pants, holding it up at the perfect angle to catch the sunlight glint of its polish. Wondering, I bet, just like I did, where was it from. What did it have to tell us? ‘My word’, he says, ‘where did you get this?’ Marco near jumped out of his skin. ‘Out back,’ he says, ‘in my cave, My Columbus Place.’ ‘You have any more?’ the big fellow says.’ ‘I got a whole bunch, some of them bigger than that, but they’re too big for the slingshot.’ The big fellow looks me right in the eyes and says, ‘Staff Bickerston, you might not have to sell this place after all. You got placer gold here, my man, right in your own back yard.’”
“And we rush off to Marco’s hideaway and Marco crawls inside his cave and comes out with his storage box and there’s a couple of dozen pieces there, some of them big as golf balls. A couple even bigger. And then it all breaks loose, and Abbot Gruden, millionaire in general, geologist by avocation, pronounces us probably quite comfortably rich and the mortgage a thing of the past. He’s almighty excited and almost out of breath and we have to listen to him. He tells us all that here, as the ice retreated, the Connecticut Valley was filled with a marvelous great glacial lake, Glacial Lake Hitchcock, which extended from where Middletown, Connecticut is now, to just north of where St. Johnsbury, Vermont is. There was a smaller glacial lake in the Ashuelot Valley, too, that eventually drained into Hitchcock. The Ice Sheet rumbled through here, he told us, grinding strong deep grooves, long linear striations, and cone-shaped rat-tails into the rock pointing the way, and now he was using his hands to talk, believe it or not, waving them all over the place.”

“‘Eventually,’ he said, ‘those ice sleds went on a more southwestward flow. They had Keene and Spofford in mind, I’ll bet, as the big ice melted and thinned and began to be controlled by the local topography of the mountains over past Keene on the west and the newer mountains on the east.’ He said they were pushing stuff out in front all the time, all kinds of stuff. Even while the huge glacial lake in the Ashuelot River Valley pulled and drew down the buoyant glacier front to a new position, ever sliding forward and calving itself into the lake. Ain’t that some beautiful, calving itself into the lake. My, oh my, I can see it now.”

On more than one summation, Staff ended up by saying, “Beauty of it all is Lowell was about as tickled as we were. It was the only time I ever saw him kiss Mathy, that’s for sure.”

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