Sandwich Township Barn

Driving back to the farm from the old man’s funeral he had only one thing left to do to wind everything up—and he had very mixed feelings about it.

 He was relieved when he pulled into the drive to see the new owners weren’t there—he remembered gratefully they had said something about being out of the  state for a few weeks.

 Turning off the engine he sat in the silence, looking around the farm yard—the area beside the main barn, in front of the house. No chickens to be seen, that was a little unusual but fitting to his mood. He wanted to be completely alone for this last trip home.

 Getting out of the car he stretched his back—it had been bothering him in recent years whenever he drove for very long—“One of the first signs of ageing,” he thought raising his arms and doing a few twists.

 Jenny had taken the kids to the beach—they’d be busy and having fun all afternoon so he wouldn’t have to think about them.

 He stood looking around in a self-conscious, deliberate manner—taking it all in one last time. The house to his right, in need of paint as it almost always had been. Next to it under the big oak, the swing set from childhood—rusty and defeated. In the lower branches of the oak, several boards from the old tree house were still hanging by a few nails.

 And ah yes—the main barn—solemn, ageless, indifferent—and the big lintel beginning to sag across the front entrance. He knew exactly where the two by twelves resting on the posts, needed to be hammered back into position to correct that. Though he hadn’t lived here for over 12 years he nevertheless felt relieved, sad and a bit guilty—that he wouldn’t be taking care of that.  It felt weird, uncomfortable, unreal to think the barn—the whole farm—was no longer in the family. For a moment he was swept with feelings of guilt, regret, self-pity, sadness, disbelief. He just couldn’t get his mind completely around it. His home—his world growing up—belonged to someone else.

 Stepping inside the hall barn—built by his father after his return from the Second World War—the smell of hay was strong—a slight smell of manure still lingered. The cows  were long gone—sold several years ago when dad had his first stroke. Wrens fluttered and glided between the rafters and stringers, flitting in and out of sunshine and shadow exactly as they did when he was a five year-old looking up at them in enchanted wonder. Dad always had him to wait until after the young birds had flown away before having him clean away the nests.

 He could remember on rainy days when he was little, his father tossing a ball to him in here—carefully and patiently—over and over—teaching him to catch and throw so he could play Little  League. He nodded and muttered to himself, “Thanks dad.”

 The milking stools and stainless steel pails were still hung on the long beams above the stalls—each pail on its own hook. As hard as he tried, he could not remember a morning as a kid, that he got to sleep until the sun came up. The cows had to be milked first thing—then breakfast.

 He noticed one hook was empty.  Looking around he spotted the errant pail lying inside a stall. Without a thought he picked it up and hung it in its place. He felt his throat tightening and tears filling his eyes, streaming down his cheeks. He took down one of the stools—he knew it well—his favorite as a kid—his name scrawled in a 7 year-old’s awkward writing across the underside of the seat.  He remembered his father penciling in the letters then holding the stool firmly while he slowly wrote out each letter of his name with a black marker. In the dim light filtering through dirty windows he studied the letters for a moment—he could see no pencil marks. He sat down and gave in to his weeping.

His weeping became sobbing. He hadn’t showed much emotion at the funeral home, nor did he last Thursday when Jenny called him at work with the news.

“Yeah—it’s appropriate to say goodbye to the old man here,” he thought, sitting on his milking stool hugging himself. The withered, gaunt, made-up corpse he stood by as people filed past earlier wasn’t his father. At best it was a fading echo of who he once was.

 Dad was here—raking out the stalls, tightening up the stanchion connections, washing pails, hunting for eggs the chickens had laid here rather than in the hen house.

 The boom box he bought for his father a few years after he left home was no where around. Mom told him how pleased dad had been when it arrived—how he always had it on when working in the barn.

 Anger suddenly pushed away the sadness, “You just couldn’t say thanks for anything I did, could you you sonofabitch?”

“And admit you were wrong about something?”—my God—they could chop off your head and the heads of everybody in the family and you still couldn’t pull it out of yourself, could you?—you incredible fucking bastard.”

He found himself making the internal speech he’d made a thousand times since about age 17.

“You think that hard-nose, stoic, don’t-show-any-feelings, don’t-admit-any-short-comings attitude is strength don’t you? The way a real man conducts himself—right?—you simple-minded asshole.”

 The anger faded a bit.

 “Well—the old bastard got what he wanted I guess. An entire life-time lived without ever making a single mistake and never showing the slightest sign of emotion except anger. Yeah you piece of shit—that’s OK isn’t it?—a real man would never say thanks to his kid but can damn sure whip him with a strap until his ass nearly bleeds.”

He stood and took a deep, slightly shaky breath—letting it out with relief—the tears and anger now under control.

Something came back to him he hadn’t thought about in decades. On a number of occasions, when he was much younger, he did tell his father about things that were on his mind. On those occasions his father listened respectfully, silently, nodding thoughtfully until he was finished. Then always said the same thing—“It’ll work out.” As he grew into manhood he stopped telling his father anything personal.

“You just couldn’t share any of who you really were with me. It probably never occurred to you to let me learn from your lifetime, from all that stuff you kept inside—you ignorant jerk.  I always knew it was there.

 All you were good for was the canned basics—work your ass off, never talk unless you absolutely have to and then never say any more than 5 words. Never complain, never explain, tell the truth, pay your bills—anybody gives you shit, walk away—if he touches you, beat the crap out of him.”

 “My God dad—there’s more to a man than that World War Two, John Wayne shit.” Who the hell were you dad?”

 “Guess in some ways I’m not much better,” he reflected. “I never did have the balls to tell you how I felt about you—the things I loved about you—the things I hated. I had to pay a shrink to pull it out of me so it didn’t eat me alive.”

 “Guess you win again Dad. Lived your whole life—86 years—and never let anybody—especially your son—know who the hell you were. Nobody’s Goddamn business was it?”

Looking up at the faded, galvanized metal roofing, he noticed a pin hole of light shining through the darkness between the rafters. “Got to get up there and patch that,” he thought before he could catch himself.

Standing from his stool he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. He looked around at the silent stalls, the dusty sunlight streaming through the windows, the straw lying on the concrete floor, shining gold, where the sunlight struck it.

 ”Dead.”

 “86 years in this world–work your ass off every day of them then die.

What does it all come down to—what’s the legacy?” he wondered, peering down the middle of the barn at the patch of sky outside—like the truth might come fluttering in with the wrens.

 “A barn—with a hole in the roof. A house that needs painting, 26 acres of land that never did grow much except burdock and goldenrod. And a grown son standing in the barn alone, talking to himself about crap that’ll never be worked out.”

He spoke out loud–to the sunlight shining in–to the waiting shadows—his words striking the silent stalls. 

“That’s what it all comes down to, doesn’t it dad?”

 For a brief moment the memory of his father’s listening, noncommittal silence, flitted like the wrens, once more across his awareness.

 He stood–picking up his stool–carried it with him—and placed it carefully on the back seat of his car with his name facing up. Looking now at the letters in the bright sunlight—there—in back of his name—he could just make out his father’s guiding pencil marks.

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