Richie was sitting up in the large pine tree beside the driveway next to the side porch of the house; it was a favorite spot of his when he wanted to be alone and think of something. There was a limb that came out of the trunk and curved and another that came straight out; when Richie sat on the straight one and rested his arm on the curved one in his mind it made a perfect throne. He called it his pondering throne, and this September Saturday morning he had a lot to think about. A couple of hours earlier he had milked the Guernsey cow for the last time, just hours before Mr. Puett had brought his big truck with the tall sides to pick her up. As usual the cow had “kicked the bucket” and left dried cow manure in it, and as usual Richie had picked out the waste before he took it up to the house and gave it to his mom.
“She’ll be straining it anyway,” he thought from his throne as he gazed at the old barn. The barn had been built over a hundred years before by his grandfather, his daddy’s father, a man he had never known. It was a large structure with a rusty tin roof and a drive through in the middle. The tractor drive through caused the center of the hayloft to be a couple feet higher than the sides. Richie’s dad did not bale hay like some people did, but just mowed the pasture once a year, raked it up, hauled it to the open end of the barn and pitched it up into the hayloft. One time Richie had asked his daddy why they didn’t use a baler like some people did; “ain’t enough to fool with,” his daddy had said. As Richie thought about all this he was looking at the old mowing machine. It was kept under the little shed that came off the south side of the barn; the roof had hand hewn wooden shingles on it that were in a state of disrepair. Richie had often wondered why his daddy didn’t put a new shingle roof on the enclosure but had never asked. He pondered on this as he sat on the throne and concluded that the old rusty mowing machine still worked and that the little bit of water that leaked on it through the roof apparently did not hurt it. The machine was an ancient one that was pulled behind a tractor; the steel wheels were attached to a mechanism that operated a scissor type blade that cut the meadow. The machine worked fine but somebody had to ride on the back; the seat was a metal one curved to accept the rider’s rear. It had a heavy-duty piece of steel under the seat that acted as a large spring, allowing the rider a more comfortable ride. Additionally, there was a handle adjacent to the springy seat that the rider could activate to raise the blade; this was important because of the number of stumps and obstructions in the meadow. His daddy had been a big man, every bit of 250 pounds, and Richie had a vivid memory of him riding the mower being pulled by the old Allis Chalmers tractor driven by Uncle Oscar. Uncle Oscar was driving along at a good pace and Richie’s dad was bouncing along and elevating the blade when it was needed.
Then after the hay dried they would rake it up; this was a two-man job also. The hay rake was sitting out in the meadow; it had tines about two inches apart and, just like the mower, was pulled behind the tractor. The rake had a bouncy seat similar to the mower and a lever to operate the tines. The man on the rake would wait until the hay accumulated inside the rake and raise the tines; this action piled the hay up in addition to aerating it and helping it to dry. If the cut hay got rained on the raking had to take place more than once, until it was dry enough to be carried to the hayloft. Richie had been too small to do much of this work but he had watched it a lot.
Richie gazed at the rusty hay rake and felt sad for a moment, but then realized that just like the mower, the rust did not seem to hurt the operation.
“It won’t matter after a while anyway,” he said out loud peering at the machines from the throne.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of large truck with ladders on top of it; Richie watched as three young black men piled out of the truck, followed by a man in a black suit with a dapper black hat with a red feather in it. Richie’s mom had told him that they would be coming; it was Blair House, the local undertaker, and three teenagers that helped him from time to time. Richie figgered that Blair must have a funeral later in the day. The three young men put the ladders on the roof of the barn and started pulling the nails out of the tin and passing down the tin to be loaded on the back of the truck. The week before Blair had heard that the Agriculture Center Volunteer Fire Department had asked Richie’s mom if they could practice on the dilapidated structure; she had agreed to the fire practice and Blair had got wind of it and asked permission to harvest the tin. Blair was president of the Horsemen’s Association and was collecting material to build a clubhouse up the road on some land he had acquired by adverse possession. There was an old house down below where Richie lived inhabited by a man named Ellis Clong. Ellis was unfortunate enough to have suffered a stroke some years back and Blair had managed to get his ambulance down the rutted road and to get Ellis to the hospital. A short hospital visit had culminated in Ellis being transferred to the County Home where he died after one year. Richie remembered going over there with his daddy; his dad always cut Ellis’ hair. The upshot of the situation was that Ellis died intestate and due to Blair’s having filed a lien against the estate he was able to assume the property. Richie remembered Blair telling his daddy that the requirement of adverse possession was “occupying the property openly and notoriously.” Ellis’ old house was a board and batten sided structure, and now the disassembled siding was presently under a tarpaulin up in the pasture. Richie figgered that the tin would grace the roof of the clubhouse when it was built; that certainly was better than letting it stay on the barn when it burned. He watched the disassembly and an old familiar sadness came upon him and he thought back to the past summer.
Russ awakened as it was just starting to get light; “crepuscular,” he spoke out loud. It was a new word he had learned the day before. He had been reading and had run across it and looked it up in the dictionary he had bought for his kids many years before. Russ did a lot of reading lately; it was about the only activity he could do that wouldn’t tire him out. As he lay there in bed he wished that he had stayed asleep and for a fleeting moment wished that he could control the sun so that it would leave him alone for a while; he thought about this for a few moments until he realized how crazy it sounded. “Sounds like somebody really depressed,” he thought to himself, and then realized that he indeed was and had been for several months. When the two surgeons had come into the hospital room in Chapel Hill and told him “there is no hope, the cancer has spread from the pancreas to the liver and beyond,” the profound sad feeling had begun and had never let up. It was not that he wasn’t well taken care of; his dutiful wife was very attentive. She did all she could do but there was really not much that could be done. For a while she would ask him if there were any food that she could fix for him but that had pretty much stopped. Russ remembered early on when she had made the inquiry and he had told her that some homemade bread would taste good. His wife got right to it and before long the little house was filled with the aroma of fresh bread. He remembered how he had stood over the open oven in his pajamas and robe and inhaled the great smell; then he remembered how good it had tasted topped with butter. Then he remembered how he had gotten sick and thrown it all up an hour later.
He looked up at the overalls hanging on a nail on the bedroom wall and thought about how it would take two of him to fill them up now. His wife had to go to Gastonia and buy him a new shirt and pants before she could take him to the doctor the last time. She had declined the clerk’s offer of a discount on another pair. She had a feeling that another outfit might not be needed. Of course Russ was not aware of what had happened that day in the bargain basement of Raylass Department Store but he was extremely aware of his situation. He remembered with crystal clarity the day he had asked his oldest daughter, Lois, who was a nurse at the hospital that he had to visit from time to time, about some kind of experimental treatment that one of the surgeons had mentioned and she had told him that the doctor had decided that it “would not be a good idea.” Russ understood the translation of that phrase. Sometimes things were just so overwhelming that he wanted to give up; like the day he had come home from the doctor with his new downsized pants and shirt and was walking into the house when his little eleven year old boy had asked “daddy, will you have to go back into the hospital?” That little interchange had brought tears to his eyes and he had gone into the house as quickly as he could, hoping the emotion would not be seen.
But as time went on the emotional episodes waned and the dull depression took over. The lumber company where he had worked as a salesman continued to pay him for several months but that eventually dried up as Russ knew it would. They scraped by; there was no debt, thanks to the Blue Cross insurance that he had, but he knew that some relatives were giving his wife a little money along. That’s why he felt obligated to get up and mingle every Sunday afternoon when his people would arrive; he had even taken a big dip of snuff one of those afternoons and remembered telling one of his nephews that “yes, there was a little bit of seepage going on.” Afterwards Russ had thought about how he had been parroting the doctor’s words and that “little bit of seepage” was just a euphemism for internal hemorrhaging. “Euphemism” was another new word he had stumbled across.
Lately he had been reading a lot of Charles Dickens; “quite a vocabulary builder,” he said to himself. But the Sunday afternoon company was diminishing as he declined; his wife was taking him back to Memorial Hospital that afternoon and he misted up as he thought that this might be his last trip. “The last one before the big one,” he mused; sometimes his situation seemed so surreal that he had trouble comprehending it. Then other times he amazed himself with how practical and detached he could be; like the other day when one of his friends from Sunday School class had called him. The call was from Burton, good man who could sometimes get on a “fanatical” streak. Burton had said “Russ, why don’t you come up here and we will talk all afternoon,” and Russ had replied “looks like I won’t be around too long so I better stay around here at home.”
Russ decided he needed to clear his troubled mind; he pulled on the string that turned on the bare overhead light bulb and decided to resume Oliver Twist and see what the Artful Dodger was up to.
Richie was back in the pondering throne after eating supper; oddly enough there was a kind of air of excitement around the house. The tin guys were long gone and Sarah said that the fire department would be there soon. Richie sat in the throne and wondered if the fire truck would have the siren blaring when it came, but quickly dismissed that idea. He thought back to that morning when a group of relatives had shown up and rummaged through the barn to see if there were anything that they wanted. Sarah, Richie’s mom, had alerted them; she knew that she had no use for any of the stuff. Additionally, a lot of the family had helped her out while Russ lay dying and they had no money. Initially Richie thought that they looked like marauders but after he talked to his mother and she explained how they had helped out he came to understand. He remembered how one of his cousins had pulled out the old nail bin and had found three half bottles of Bourbon De Luxe hidden under it.
“Well, ya know ol’ Russ liked to have a snort,” he had joked, and that got a laugh from the rest of them, But Richie couldn’t bring himself to laugh. His daddy had died only a few weeks previously; he remembered that it was a stormy summer afternoon when the cars pulled up and his mother and two of his sisters came in. His mother had come over to him and said “Richie, your daddy is dead.” Richie had done nothing but stand there. Then he said “I guesss I was already used to it,” and his older sister, the one who was a nurse over at the hospital, looked at him and said “you will never get used to it.”
The fire engine arrived; all of the volunteers had their fireman coats, boots, and helmets on, and they set fires in each corner of the barn. Richie watched from the pondering throne; it was late dusk, but after the fire got going it became as bright as day. Then, when it died down and the firemen started dousing the embers, he walked into the house and went into what had been his daddy’s bedroom and stared at the big set of overalls hanging from the nail on the wall.