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John Longbottom

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Chapter 21

Marigolds and Beans

Outwardly, Lynn was calm, compassionate and caring during the phone call with Charlie. Inwardly, she was concerned, anxious and a little confused. Unconsciously she was able to separate her conflicting feelings. This was one of her biggest strengths, to be able to show sympathy and understanding without a hint of her own inner fears or doubt. Her gift or knack was not a product of her profession but was born years before as a means of surviving in the abusive and sometimes violent world in which she grew up.

After she had hung up the phone from talking with Charlie, the analytical side of Lynn’s mind kicked in, the side that had been developed and honed by her work. Examine the issues; assess the options, was her work mantra. The trouble was, she didn’t have all the facts, such as the inheritance issue, the value of the land and Charlie’s finances in general, but her primary concern was caring for her uncle’s physical well-being and how to maintain his property.

She quickly made three decisions. First, he would have to find someone to check on Charlie, without him knowing what they were doing. Second, she would have to go back down there and sort out some of the practical issues. And lastly, while there she would have to get Charlie to trust her enough to talk about his financial status and the future. This last would be the hardest task because, not only was she a virtual stranger and as such she had no business butting into his affairs but also, she instinctively knew that an old farmer like Charlie valued his privacy, especially regarding his finances. Lynn admitted to herself that she too would be reticent about divulging her finances to anyone except her financial adviser.

By the next morning Lynn had figured out that she couldn’t get down to Charlie’s this weekend but would be able to get away for a few days the following weekend. In the meantime, she had decided to call the sheriff and ask him to look in on Charlie once in a while, or if he knew someone who could, and later that morning, Lynn was able to get sheriff Watkins on the phone and she explained her concerns about Charlie. He was very friendly and accommodating and told Lynn of the stop sign incident, which reinforced Lynn’s resolve to get some care for Charlie. The sheriff politely pointed out that checking on the elderly was not one of his many duties, “But,” he said, “Charlie and Ellie were good to my folks, helped them out when they were going through some hard times, quite a few years ago. I owe him for that. He’s never brought it up or bragged about it to anyone else.”

Sheriff Watkins said that yes, he would check on Charlie and also try to get some of his buddies at the diner to go out there once in a while. Lynn thanked him profusely, said she would be there in about ten days’ time and if there was anything she could do for the sheriff, please let her know. Happy that the ball was rolling, Lynn hung up and turned her attention to work.

While Lynn was stuffing her concerns about her uncle’s welfare into her mental compartment for Charlie, he was doing his own mental sorting as he was setting up Wilbur’s food bowl in the barn.

“Why does everything happen all at once?” he asked Wilbur who was watching Charlie’s every move with his food. “Nature has its own steady order as it follows the seasons, but people just have to complicate everything with their minds and their money.” Wilbur gave a little yelp, not in agreement but out of frustration. Charlie, absorbed in his thoughts about man and nature, had paused in his food preparation and Wilbur was hungry. “Don’t you start pushing me to do things too,” Charlie said, gingerly bending over to give Wilbur his food.

After his own breakfast Charlie decided to go for a walk. He was getting used to the effects of the medications and they seemed to be working, the pain was lessening, and it was becoming easier to move about. The day was overcast with grey clouds which didn’t look like rain clouds to Charlie, but he thought the day was going to be hot and muggy, so the sooner he got his walk in the better. The air was very still and strangely silent, the normally chattering birds were quiet and nowhere to be seen, like the calm before a storm.

As they walked along the well-worn path, even Wilbur was walking slowly, his limp more pronounced. “I see your old bones can forecast the weather as well,” said Charlie. “Maybe we should go on TV as the local weathermen. We’d be just as good as some of those over-dressed city folk they have on there now.” Charlie chuckled at the thought and then, in his best announcer’s voice said, “And now, folks, here’s Wilbur and Charlie with your local forecast. I reckon we could be a hit. Might even put us on the Weather Channel. Whaddya think, old boy?” Wilbur was not amused and continued limping along ignoring Charlie’s ramblings so, ignored by his dog and with nothing special in the surrounding natural world to distract him, Charlie started thinking about the land, his land. 

From a very early age his father had impressed upon him that owning your own land was very important. “A man is nothing without his own land,” he had said many times when they were working the fields together. “You don’t need a lot of it, just enough to know that the ground you stand on is yours and you are beholden to no one except God, your family and your country. This was ancient law,” his father had said. “This will be your land someday, to own, to care for and to pass along to your son when the time comes.”

Charlie was now leaning against his favorite tree watching the river flow placidly by, Wilbur lying at his feet. Except for the sound of a solitary fish breaking the surface of the water and the ripples lapping on the riverbank, it was peaceful. Charlie loved his land, his farm and his family house but he loved this place most of all.

“What are we going to do, Wilbur?” he asked. “We’re the end of the line. There’s no one to pass it on to, like my daddy wanted.” Wilbur gave him the one-eyed look and a single “whump” of his tail. “All those cousins and such, don’t love the land. They won’t care for it. They’ll just sell it to the likes of Baldy and his cronies and take the money. I guess God has a plan, but I wish he’d hurry up and let me know what is afore it’s too late.” Charlie looked up to the heavens through the staggered branches, each one marking a different generation in the life of the ancient tree. “Give me a sign,” he asked and then pushed himself upright and started back towards the house, Wilbur dutifully at his side.

Walking back to the house, his eyes wandering over his pastures now lying fallow, he realized they needed attending to as did the grass around the house. He got on his lawn tractor but twenty feet out from the shed he became acutely aware that bouncing along on the little machine was not doing his back any good at all. He decided to heed Lynn’s advice and to take it easy for a day or so. Returning the grass cutter to the pole barn, he gave a wistful glance at his tractor and decided his pastures would have to wait as well.

Unlike his companion Wilbur, who could snooze at the drop of a hat, Charlie was never one who could sit still and do nothing. Lost and without a purpose, Charlie was trudging back to the house when Wilbur announced the imminent arrival of someone or thing. That something turned out to be the sheriff in his patrol car. 

“Morning Charlie,” said the sheriff.

“Morning Tom,” replied Charlie. “This is getting to be a habit, running into you. What brings you here?”

The sheriff reached into his car and pulled out a brown paper bag which he handed to Charlie. “I was just at the diner…”

“Having your free coffee and donut,” Charlie cut in jokingly.

“Ha ha,” said the sheriff sarcastically. “Like I said, I was just at the diner and Trixie said she’s heard about your back, so she asked me to bring you this for your dinner or supper.”

Charlie looked in the bag and saw a white Styrofoam food container. Taking a quick sniff, he deduced it was the meatloaf special, one of his favorites, next to chicken-fried steak.

“Well, that’s mighty kind and thoughtful of you and Trixie both,” said Charlie. “Thank you. Wanna come in and set for a while?”

“You’re welcome and I’d better be going. You managing okay Charlie, with your back an’ all?” Tom asked.

Charlie replied that he was fine, just trying to take it easy as the doctor had advised. “Grass needs mowing, but it can wait.”

Sheriff Watkins nodded and said that if he needed his grass cutting, Bert Johnson’s son was looking to earn a few extra dollars. Charlie said, “Thank you, I’ll bear that in mind and thanks for bringing out the food. I’ll go in and thank Trixie tomorrow.”

The sheriff said, “Take it easy,” and left. 

“At least he didn’t tell me I wasn’t getting any younger,” said Charlie to Wilbur who was sniffing a little too closely to the bag. Charlie hurried, as best he could, into the house to enjoy his surprise dinner.

When Charlie sat down to eat, his mind was jumping from one thought to the next like a flea at a dog show. He had to make a serious effort to concentrate on his food, otherwise it would be gone without him being aware of its great taste. After dinner he popped two more pills and went to sit in the rocking chair on the porch intending to have a serious think about his plans for the future and for the property. Wilbur came to join him on the porch and within five minutes they were both sound asleep.

The phone ringing woke them both up at two-thirty. Charlie, expecting it to be Lynn checking on him, was disappointed and surprised when he heard a male voice say, “Hello Charlie.” It was Clete from the diner, one of his coffee buddies. Clete talked in short, clipped sentences. It was like listening to a telegram being read aloud. 

“Heard about your back. Miss you at the diner. Just called to check on you. You okay?” Clete paused in his staccato speech.

“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks,” replied Charlie.

“Good. Take it easy then. Ain’t none of us getting any younger. See ya.” And Clete hung up.

“Dammit,” said Charlie to no one. “What did you have to go and say that for?” and he slammed the phone down on its base.

He spent the rest of the afternoon in an unsuccessful search for his will. He thought he’d done a new one after Ellie had passed on but maybe it was just one of those intentions that was never carried out, leaving you thinking you had already done it. He was about to go outside and talk with Wilbur when he noticed it was raining. it was one of those soft rains that you don’t hear, you only see it on the window or a concrete path.

“Ha,” he said. “I was wrong.” He was silently complimenting himself for admitting being wrong when the phone rang again. This time it was Lynn checking on his recovery and “Not checking up on you,” she emphasized. Charlie launched into a brief report about his daily activity and mentioned that the sheriff had dropped by.

“Oh, that was nice of him,” said Lynn as innocently as possible.

“Yeah, and Trixie sent me some dinner with a jelly donut for dessert. What do you think about that?” said Charlie provocatively.

“Hussy,” said Lynn and they both laughed. “Well, it’s good to hear you sounding better,” she continued. They talked about the mowing and the pastures and Charlie admitted he might need some help. Even though they had only known each for a few days, Lynn knew that it was not easy for Charlie to admit to needing help, so she said nothing.

There was a long pause and then Charlie said. “I’ve been thinking…I need to…Dammit, I’ll just say it. I need some help sorting out a few things and I don’t know who to trust. You seem like a smart gal, er woman, and…” Charlie trailed off.

Straining to maintain a neutral tone, Lynn said “Of course I will help you, Uncle Charlie. In fact, I should be able to come down to see you next weekend. Would that be okay with you?”

“Yes, that would be fine.” Having slipped and shown a little vulnerability, Charlie was now reverting to his old, self-reliant, independent, macho self. “Can you get off work?” Charlie asked.

“No problem,” replied Lynn. “I’ll be there next Saturday but I’ll still call to see how you’re doing in the meantime. Bye uncle Charlie, I’ve gotta go now.”

“Bye, Lynn,” said Charlie and breathed a sigh of relief as he hung up the phone.

Lynn was so relieved that after she had hung up the phone, she yelled,” Yes.” And pumped her fist in the air. She was let off the hook. He was asking so she wouldn’t be thought of as prying or interfering.

Chapter 22

Stony Ground

Charlie felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted from his shoulders. He was amazed at how simply biting the bullet and seeking help had lifted his spirits. He was also grateful for Lynn’s presence in his life. He got to church a little early on Sunday morning and knelt in silent prayer, thanking God for sending Lynn into his life and for all his friends like Tom, Clete and Trixie. He thanked God for sending his answer and asked forgiveness for doubting Him. 

The preacher saw him in early prayer and nodded approvingly, later surprising Charlie, yet again, with his sermon based on a quote from Proverbs, Chapter 6 concerning gossip and false witness. From where he was seated, Charlie couldn’t see Potty and Thelma-Zoo, but he hoped they were paying heed to the preacher’s words. 

At the social following the service, Charlie spotted the two of them off in a corner. They were hard to miss. Thelma-Zoo was wearing a shiny summer dress with huge flowers printed all over it, making her look twice as large and Potty was wearing a severe, dark green full-length dress that made her look like a beanstalk. Marigolds and Beans, the garden elves, thought Charlie, and chuckled to himself. They were isolated, no one was talking to them and for a moment or two, Charlie felt sorry for them. Fortunately, the preacher saved him from himself by putting his arm around Charlie’s shoulders and asking, “Did you like the sermon, Charlie?”

“Yes sir, I did, but I wonder if it reached the ears of those two over there,” said Charlie nodding in the direction of Potty and Thelma-Zoo.

“I fear I may have been sowing my seeds on stony ground, as far as those two are concerned. I saw you praying earlier before the service. I do hope you weren’t seeking forgiveness for some alleged sins.”

“I was seeking forgiveness in a way, preacher,” said Charlie. “Forgiveness for doubting His ways, not for any other sins. I asked for an answer, and He gave it to me, in His own fashion. I was giving thanks, too.” The preacher smiled, briefly squeezed Charlie’s shoulder and went off to greet another parishioner.

Before Charlie left, he had one other mission to accomplish so he sought out Bert Johnson. Yesterday, when he’d been looking at his grass that was not getting any shorter. Charlie thought, why not get Bert’s kid to cut the grass? He needs the money, and I can afford it. Let’s give back a little. He found Bert with his son Zack. At five-ten, Bert was just shorter than Charlie. He was rather stout with a bald head surrounded by a ring of short red hair and for some inexplicable reason, Charlie thought he looked like he could be a bully. His son Zack was huge, about six-foot three and about two hundred and fifty pounds and probably solid muscle, Charlie thought. At seventeen, with a full head of red hair and already showing the stubble of a red beard, he looked twenty-five.

Charlie introduced himself and said that he’d heard that Zack was looking to earn some money. Bert interjected that Zack was saving up for college. Ignoring Bert, Charlie asked Zack if he could work a lawn tractor.

“Yes sir,” said Zack.

They settled on a fair price for the work which Charlie said he would pay for in cash with no record for the IRS to find if they came sneaking around. Zack said he could be there late Monday afternoon. They shook hands and that was that. Charlie left feeling that the road ahead was slowly being cleared of all the roadblocks he’d imagined three days before.

The following morning, before venturing into the diner, Charlie went into the bank to get some cash, mostly to pay Zack for his mowing. “Dammit,” he said, under his breath as Baldy Beasley spotted him and invited Charlie into his office along with the offer of a cup of coffee which Charlie declined. The office walls were hung with photographs of Baldy with people Charlie had never seen before, all at various golf courses. Charlie thought that golfing must be one of the requirements for the job of bank manager. This was obviously Baldy’s domain, and he was king of the castle making Charlie feel like a peasant asking for favors, so he got straight to the point.

“Brad, do you have a copy of my will?” Charlie asked. The mention of a will got Brad’s full attention. Charlie might be leaving his property to someone and that would change the whole picture as far as Brad was concerned.

“I don’t believe so Charlie, but I’ll have a look,” said Brad cautiously.

“While you’re at it,” continued Charlie, “Could you get me a run-down on my finances? You know, a report like.”

Now Baldy was really concerned. He needed to think about this, so he tried to stall for time. With his best toothy smile he said, “Sure Charlie, but it’s going to take some time to get everything together for you.”

Charlie nodded, stood up and said, “I’ll need it by Thursday, thanks Brad.” And he left Baldy’s throne room.

When he finally got home from a rather raucous but fun hour at the diner, Wilbur was looking a little forlorn and neglected. Charlie’s back was getting steadily better, and he was able to sit on the steps and have some hands-on time with Wilbur who was a bit surly at first until Charlie went and got him a couple of treats. Just like a child bribed with candy, Wilbur’s mood immediately brightened. Watching Wilbur’s reaction, Charlie said, “Ha, the way to a dog’s heart is through his mouth.” Wilbur nodded his head and nuzzled Charlie’s hand looking for more treats. When Charlie told him that Lynn would be coming on Friday, Wilbur actually sat down and cocked his head to the side. “Dammit Wilbur, sometimes I think you know what I’m saying.” Charlie rubbed Wilbur’s head and slowly got up off the steps which he looked at remembering the afternoon that he and Lynn had worked on them. “Better get these painted before Friday else there’ll be all hell to pay,” said Charlie chuckling to himself.

Later that afternoon an old, black GMC pickup pulled into the yard. The model was old, but the truck had been lovingly restored, with a brand new, shiny paint job and an engine that purred when idling. Charlie was impressed, as was Wilbur who had switched from his defensive guard-dog bark to a toned down more welcoming yap. Young Zack got out of the cab, making a big fuss of Wilbur who was already treating him like a long-lost friend. Charlie was impressed again. Wilbur was an excellent judge of a person and if he liked this boy, chances are Charlie would too.

“Afternoon, Mr. Stone,” said Zack respectfully.

“Hello Zack. Nice truck,” said Charlie nodding towards the vehicle.

“Thanks,” replied Zack.

“Must have cost a pretty penny,” said Charlie who was wondering why the boy needed more money if he could afford a truck like that.

“It was my dad’s old truck and I’ve been fixing her up,” replied Zack.

“You do all this yourself, engine an’ all?” asked Charlie, even more impressed.

“Yes sir, Mr. Stone,” said Zack looking around the yard.

“Hmm,” said Charlie approvingly. “C’mon, let’s get you started.” Charlie took him to the shed where the lawn tractor was kept and watched as Zack methodically checked where all the controls were. After he had told the kid where and what to cut, Zack was off. Charlie watched him for a few minutes and was assured that the kid knew what he was doing then went inside. He knew that nobody liked to work and be watched by somebody who was doing nothing.

After about an hour Charlie came out with a Gatorade for Zack. When he was in the diner earlier that morning, he’d asked Trixie what teenagers liked to drink. After he had explained about Zack coming out to mow, Trixie had suggested Gatorade and Charlie had bought a six-pack at the grocery store on his way home. He had never drunk the stuff himself and there were so many different colors to choose from he just grabbed the closet ones, which happened to be blue.

Charlie handed one to Zack and they sat down on the steps. He had brought out a bottle for himself to try, but he didn’t much like it, and wished he brought himself an iced tea instead. Zack, on the other hand, gulped his down as if it were water. Wilbur. who had quickly disappeared when the noisy mower started up, reappeared and joined them at the steps. Charlie, who was not used to being around teenagers, and was not the best conversationalist at the best of times, didn’t know what to say to Zack. The boy just sat quietly drinking his drink and staring off into space. Charlie had heard that teenagers could be difficult and surly, and he remembered when he and Ellie had gone through a few tough years with William, their son, when he was that age. Zack was quiet, but he didn’t seem surly, he was respectful, and he didn’t appear to be shy. In Charlie’s opinion, the kid had all the qualities a father could wish for, but this was only first impressions and they could turn around and bite you in the butt. The getting-to-know-you two-step was in full swing again.

In answer to Charlie’s questions about school, Zack said he was hoping to study computer sciences, which threw Charlie as he was expecting the boy to say engineering and he said so.

“No sir, I just work on the truck for fun. I figure computers is where the work is going to be, especially when the cars go all electric,” said Zack. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to get back to work. I can’t stay too late. I have homework waiting back at the house. Thanks for the Gatorade.” He got up and started to trim the edges with a weed-wacker. 

There are times when one single word can tell you more about a person and their situation than a whole day’s worth of conversation. Charlie noticed Zack’s use of the word “house,” instead of “home” and wondered if that meant anything. He shrugged it off and when Zack had finished Charlie paid him. As Zack was getting into his truck Charlie, who had been mulling a few things over, asked him if he could work a big farm tractor.

“Yes sir,” was Zack’s simple reply.

Then Charlie asked how much work Zack was looking for, “Because…” but Charlie couldn’t get the rest of the words out. If pride had not stolen his voice away, he would have said, “I’m gonna need some help around here.”  Instead, Charlie asked Zack to come out over the weekend because he wanted Lynn to meet him and give her opinion. Zack drove off carefully down the dirt road, leaving the sound of those twin growler pipes hanging in the early evening air.

“I wonder if I can pay him to fix a couple of things on my truck?” Charlie said to Wilbur who was patiently waiting by his side. It was, after all, supper time.

Chapter 23

On the Bench

Charlie had a thing about weather forecasters. Some of them, he had heard from his coffee buddies, made enormous amounts of money to predict what was largely, in his opinion, unpredictable. They were paid to guess and guess they did, selling their guesswork to the unsuspecting public. Charlie noticed, too, that they never apologized if they were wrong, and they were often wrong. Charlie reckoned he and Wilbur both could tell more about the weather with their eyes, nose and aching bones than any weatherman or woman could with all their fancy charts and balloons. As far as he was concerned, weather forecasters and politicians were all in the same boat together and he wished that boat would hurry up and sink. 

By the time Thursday rolled around, the rain predicted by the overpaid guessers had held off and Charlie had been able to get a couple of coats of paint on the back steps. He was feeling good. The back pain had almost disappeared, and he no longer had to take the Woozy Pills, as he liked to call them. He got a lot accomplished around the house and with Lynn’s expected arrival on Friday he had revived his ideas for a bench seat down by the river. With Zack’s help, he could get one of those concrete benches from Lowe’s and set it down in his favorite spot, as a surprise for Lynn. Zack was due to meet him at the store later that afternoon.

Before all this would happen, Charlie had an appointment with Baldy Beasley at the bank at ten o’clock. He thought he should look business-like for this meeting so he put on his second-best suit of clothes, his next-to-Sunday-best outfit, which would get him a wolf whistle from Trixie when he later walked into the diner. Giving Wilbur a treat before he left, Charlie warned his friend that he would be getting a B. A. T. H. bright and early tomorrow morning.”

At the bank, Brad Beasley, had lost the smarmy, smiley customer service approach and was all brusque and businesslike which immediately raised alarms in Charlie’s head. 

“I didn’t find a will, Charlie,” began Baldy, “So you’ll have to make a new one. Before you do, however…”

“What about my financial report?” asked Charlie.

“Yes, it’s all here,” said Brad, pushing a professional looking portfolio across the desk to Charlie. “I didn’t have time to do a full, in-depth report, but this will give you what I think you are looking for.” Brad leaned over the desk and opened a few pages of the portfolio. “These are your investments, here are your assets, the property etc. On this page you will see your income, these are your known expenses and here are my best projections for your future income,” explained the bank manager/financial adviser/accountant.

Charlie noticed how Baldy was claiming he did all the work when Charlie knew that some underpaid employee had done all the tedious work on the numbers. He was putting bankers in the same boat with the weather people and politicians when Baldy began speaking again.

“As you can see, given that the economy stays stable, you will be quite financially secure until you, well, no longer need it. It would be best if you wrote your will and assigned a beneficiary otherwise all our good work would go to waste.” Brad finished his little presentation, sat back down and began his practiced sales pitch, the smile was back along with a softer tone of voice.

Yup, a weatherman. I knew it, thought Charlie who then said, “Forget the sales pitch, how much are we talking about here?”

Baldy tried to be cute by asking, “About what?”

Charlie shot him a menacing look and Baldy scribbled something on a notepad and showed it to Charlie. The figure was astoundingly high, and Charlie whistled, putting the piece of paper in his pocket to show Lynn later. Then he asked, “Is that for all one hundred and sixty acres?”

Brad was encouraged by Charlie’s question, confusing inquisitiveness with acquiescence and started back with the pitch, “Yes, but we could probably do even better if we split up the land and sold it in parcels.” 

Before he could get any further, Charlie, who had heard the fatal words, “Split up the land,” stood up, grabbed the portfolio and said, “Thank you Brad,” and started to walk out the door. He stopped, turned and asked, “Any idea what they are planning to do with my land?”

“Oh, they have some amazing ideas for a wonderful rustic resort and conference center, based around the river with some cottages for people to rent or buy. It will mean a lot of revenue for the town and the county. Everyone is quite excited by the project,” explained Brad enthusiastically.

“A resort, out here in the middle of nowhere?” Charlie was incredulous.

“Rustic and rural is all quite the rage right now,” Brad said. “And with the river, it’s an ideal spot. Just imagine, all those nice city folks coming here and spending their money. It will completely revitalize the town.”

“I can see whose pockets will be vitalized,” said Charlie looking pointedly at Brad’s jacket, “but it will kill the town. You may as well just reopen the Sunset Inn and bring all those nice city folks back.” Charlie turned and walked out the door. Brad Beasley was left speechless which is how many people, including his wife, preferred him.

Charlie did not stay long at the diner; his mind was on overload again. He said nothing to his buddies about what he had learned from Brad. Hell, they probably know more about it than I do, the way this town is, thought Charlie. Claiming he had some projects to do at home, Charlie had one coffee and started to leave. The truth was, he wanted to get home and look at his land; to protect it. He felt that he was under attack and, so far, he had no defense. 

As he was walking by the counter on the way out, Trixie said, “So long stud muffin.”

 A couple eating at the counter chuckled, Charlie blushed and hurried for the door where he stopped, turned around and came back to Trixie to thank her for the meatloaf and donut she had sent with the sheriff. He offered to pay for the meal but Trixie said, “My treat, Charlie,” and turned to deal with another customer.

The business with Brad Beasley was on his mind all the way home, so much so that he caught himself just in time and stopped, half-way over the line at the second stop sign. He breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled into his backyard. His fingers were gripping the steering wheel so tightly that they ached. The truck did its normal glad-to-be-home-shudder as the engine took it’s time to stop running, and Charlie slowly got out of the cab and greeted the always-happy-to-see-you, tail wagging Wilbur.

As his eyes swept over his land, he said, “Let’s go for a walk, old friend.” Wilbur gave a happy yap, twirled around twice and then adjusted his direction as Charlie set off on a different path. There was a path, not much used any more, that led directly from the yard, between two pastures to the river. The path was a little overgrown and Charlie made a mental note to have Zack clear it out one day. He chuckled to himself about the mental note, wondering how long it would take for him to forget it. “Dammit Wilbur.” said Charlie to the dog’s rump as he trotted ahead of him. “I’m as good at remembering mental notes as you are at remembering where you buried a bone.”  Wilbur, engrossed in a whole new smorgasbord of smells, forged happily ahead.

When they got to the river, Charlie looked over at the two fields on the other side. These were his as well. He tried to imagine the fields full of modern houses, all looking alike, with cars in the driveways, all looking alike, and it made him sad and angry. Try as he might, he just could not see a way out of it, right now. Wilbur, who had either seen something in the water or had decided to avoid tomorrow’s promised B. A. T. H. by bathing himself, was swimming in the river. “Dammit Wilbur,” Charlie said when the dog came out of the water and shook himself. “Why’d you have to come right by me to do that? Now you’ve gone and dirtied my second-best pair of pants.” Charlie had forgotten he was wearing his next-to-Sunday-best outfit. Wilbur just looked at him, shook again as the shudder ran the full length of his body and down to the very tip of his tail, like some animated cartoon character. 

“Big changes are coming, Wilbur.” Charlie said as they headed back to the house. “I know it’s progress and you cain’t stop it and you cain’t stop change but I’d hate to see ‘em turn this beautiful piece of nature into a playground for rich folks who have no respect for the land. Trouble is, I don’t know what to do.”

After lunch Charlie and Zack picked up the concrete bench. Charlie, unlike some he had heard of, was not a shopper and definitely was not subject to impulse buying but today was different. When Zack picked up one of the seats to load it onto a cart, Charlie noticed that the kid’s width took up over three-quarters of the seat, so on a whim he decided to buy two of the benches which were smaller than he originally thought. Watching the ease with which Zeke picked up and set the benches Charlie grew more grateful for the help. His attitude slid from being both defensive about his waning strength and resentful about Zack’s youth to, at the end of the day, a comfortable acceptance of his role as supervisor. 

It helped that Zack was easy to work with. Some people never stopped talking, some rushed and were careless, some were too slow, always getting in the way and many were just plain lazy. Zack, however, was quiet, only speaking when he had a valid suggestion, he worked hard and steadily until the job was done. As they were sitting on the benches after they were set, Zack looked around and said, “This is a beautiful place.”

“Yeah, this is our favorite spot, isn’t it Wilbur?” Charlie said as the dog lay down at his feet.

“I didn’t mean just this place right here, I meant the whole farm, the pastures, the house, the river. Especially how the river does a kind of U-turn around the house.”

Charlie was impressed again. Here was a boy, almost a young man, who appreciated the land. Charlie thought for a while and then took a chance. “What would you do with the place, Zack, if it were yours?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Mr. Stone. I’d fix up the house and the barn and then I’d farm the land, maybe get some horses. I don’t know nothing about farming, but it seems right for this place.” As he was talking, Zack stood up and turned around in a full circle looking at the land.

Charlie debated about telling him that some people wanted him to sell the place and then put up houses and make it a fancy resort but something told him to keep his mouth shut. They went back to the house and Charlie offered Zack a Gatorade, but the kid said, “I’d rather have a glass of water, if you don’t mind, Mr. Stone.”

Charlie brought him his water and tea for himself. Zack downed half the glass in one gulp and said, “Mm. that’s good.”

Charlie said, “I thought all you kids liked Gatorade.” 

“To tell you the truth, Mr. Stone, I don’t really like Gatorade,” said Zack.

“But you drank all yours the last time you were here,” said Charlie, already knowing what Zack’s answer was going to be.

“Well sir, I didn’t want to be rude.”

“He’s a rare one, that one. I didn’t think they made ‘em like that anymore,” Charlie said to Wilbur as the kid’s truck disappeared down the dirt road. “Dammit, I forgot to ask him about fixing my truck.” Wilbur looked at Charlie and studiously scratched a spot behind his left ear.

© John Longbottom 2021

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