Multiple-award winning, MWA Grand Master of suspense
ANDY BUCKLEY SAID, "Jesus Christ," and braked the Cadillac to a stop. I looked up and there was the deer, perhaps a dozen yards away from us in the middle of our lane of traffic. He was unquestionably a deer caught in the headlights, but he didn't have that stunned look the expression is intended to convey. He was lordly, and very much in command.
"C'mon," Andy said. "Move your ass, Mister Deer."
"Move up on him," Mick said. "But slowly."
'You don't want a freezer full of venison, huh?" Andy eased up on the brake and allowed the car to creep forward. The deer let us get surprisingly close before, with one great bound, he was off the road and out of sight in the darkened fields at the roadside.
WE'D COME NORTH on the Palisades Parkway, northwest on Route 17, north-east on 209. We were on an unnumbered road when we stopped for the deer, and a few miles farther we turned left onto the winding gravel road that led to Mick Ballou's farm. It was past midnight when we left, and close to two by the time we got there. There was no traffic, so we could have gone faster, but Andy kept us a few miles an hour under the speed limit, braked for yellow lights, and yielded at intersections. Mick and I sat in back, Andy drove, and the miles passed in silence.
"You've been here before," Mick said, as the old two-story farmhouse came into view.
"Once after that business in Maspeth," he remembered. "You drove that night, Andy."
"I remember, Mick."
"And we'd Tom Heaney with us as well. I feared we might lose Tom. He was hurt bad, but scarcely made a sound. Well, he's from the North. They're a closemouthed lot."
He meant the North of Ireland.
"But you were here a second time? When was that?"
"A couple of years ago. We made a night of it, and you drove me up to see the animals, and have a look at the place in daylight. And you sent me home with a dozen eggs."
"Now I remember. And I'll bet you never had a better egg."
"They were good eggs."
"Big yolks the color of a Spanish orange. It's a great economy, keeping chickens and getting your own eggs. My best calculation is that those eggs cost me twenty dollars."
"Twenty dollars a dozen?"
"More like twenty dollars an egg. Though when herself cooks me a dish of them, I'd swear it was worth that and more."
Herself was Mrs. O'Gara, and she and her husband were the farm's official owners. In the same fashion, there was somebody else's name on the Cadillac's title and registration, and on the deed and license for Grogan's Open House, the saloon he owned on the comer of Fiftieth and Tenth. He had some real estate holdings around town, and some business interests, but you wouldn't find his name on any official documents. He owned, he'd told me, the clothes on his back, and if put to it he couldn't even prove those were legally his. What you don't own, he'd said, they can't easily take away from you.
Andy parked alongside the farmhouse. He got out of the car and lit a cigarette, lagging behind to smoke it while Mick and I climbed a few steps to the back porch. There was a light on in the kitchen, and Mr. O'Gara was waiting for us at the round oak table. Mick had phoned earlier to warn O'Gara that we were coming. "You said not to wait up," he said now, "but I wanted to make sure you had everything you'd need. I made a fresh pot of coffee."
"All's well here. Last week's rain did us no harm. The apples should be good this year, and the pears even better."
"The summer's heat was no harm, then."
"None as wasn't mended," O'Gara said. "Thanks be to God. She's sleeping, and I'll turn in now myself, if that's all right. But you've only to shout for me if you need anything."
"We're fine," Mick assured him. "We'll be out back, and we'll try not to disturb you."
"Sure, we're sound sleepers," O'Gara said. "Ye'd wake the dead before ye'd wake us."
O'Gara took his cup of coffee upstairs with him. Mick filled a thermos with coffee, capped it, then found a bottle of Jameson in the cupboard and topped up the silver flask he'd been nipping from all night. He returned it to his hip pocket, got two six-packs of O'Keefe's Extra Old Stock ale from the refrigerator, gave them to Andy, and grabbed up the thermos jar and a coffee mug. We got back into the Cadillac and headed farther up the drive, past the fenced chicken yard, past the hogpen, past the barns, and into the old orchard. Andy parked the car, and Mick told us to wait while he walked back to what looked like an old fashioned outhouse straight out of Li'l Abner, but was evidently a tool shed. He came back carrying a shovel.
He picked a spot and took the first turn, sinking the shovel into the earth, adding his weight to bury the blade to the hilt. Last week's rain had done no harm. He bent, lifted, tossed a shovelful of earth aside.
I uncapped the thermos and poured myself some coffee. Andy lit a cigarette and cracked a can of ale. Mick went on digging. We took turns, Mick and Andy and 1, opening a deep oblong hole in the earth alongside the pear and apple orchard. There were a few cherry trees as well, Mick said, but they were sour cherries, good only for pies, and it was easier to let the birds have them than to go to the trouble of picking them, taking into account that the birds would get most of them whatever you did.
I'd been wearing a light windbreaker, and Andy a leather jacket, but we'd shucked them as we took our turns with the shovel. Mick hadn't been wearing anything over his sport shirt. Cold didn't seem to bother him much, or heat either.
During Andy's second turn, Mick followed a sip of whiskey with a long drink of ale and sighed deeply. "I should get out here more," he said. "You'd need more than moonlight to see the full beauty of it, but you can feel the peace of it, can't you?"
He sniffed the wind. "You can smell it, too. Hogs and chickens. A rank stench when you're close to it, but at this distance it's not so bad, is it?"
"It's not bad at all."
"It makes a change from automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke and all the stinks you meet with in a city. Still, I might mind this more if I smelled it every day. But if I smelled it every day I suppose I'd cease to notice it."
"They say that's how it works. Otherwise people couldn't live in towns with paper mills."
"Jesus, that's the worst smell in the world, a paper mill."
"It's pretty bad. They say a tannery's even worse."
"It must be all in the process," he said, "because the end product's spared. Leather has a pleasant smell to it, and paper's got no smell at all. And there's no smell kinder to the senses than bacon frying in a pan, and doesn't it come out of the same hogpen that's even now assaulting our nostrils? That reminds me."
"My gift to you the Christmas before last. A ham from one of my very own hogs."
"It was very generous."
"And what could be a more suitable gift for a Jewish vegetarian?"
He shook his head at the memory. "And what a gracious woman she is. She thanked me so warmly that it was hours before it struck me what an inappropriate gift I'd brought her. Did she cook it for you?"
She would have, if I'd wanted, but why should Elaine cook something she's not going to eat? I eat enough meat when I'm away from the house. Home or away, though, I might have had trouble with that ham. The first time Mick and I met, I was looking for a girl who'd disappeared. It turned out she'd been killed by her lover, a young man who worked for Mick. He'd disposed of her corpse by feeding it to the hogs. Mick, outraged when he found out, had dispensed poetic justice, and the hogs had dined a second time. The ham he'd brought us was from a different generation of swine, and had no doubt been fattened on grain and table scraps, but I was just as happy to give it to Jim Faber, whose enjoyment of it was uncomplicated by a knowledge of its history.
"A friend of mine had it for Christmas," I said. "Said it was the best ham he ever tasted."
"Sweet and tender."
"So he said."
Andy Buckley threw down the shovel, climbed up out of the hole, and drank most of a can of ale in a single long swallow. "Christ," he said, "that's thirsty work."
"Twenty-dollar eggs and thousand-dollar hams," Mick said. "It's a grand career for a man, agriculture. However could a man fail at it?"
I grabbed the shovel and went to work.
I TOOK MY turn and Mick took his. Halfway through it he leaned on his shovel and sighed. "I'll feel this tomorrow," he said. "All this work. But it's a good feeling for all that."
"It's little enough of it I get in the ordinary course of things. How about yourself?"
"I do a lot of walking."
"That's the best exercise of all, or so they say."
"That and pushing yourself away from the table."
"Ah, that's the hardest, and gets no easier with age."
"Elaine goes to the gym," I said. "Three times a week. I tried, but it bores me to death."
"But you walk."
He dug out his flask, and moonlight glinted off the silver. He took a drink and put it away, took up the shovel again. He said, "I should come here more. I take long walks when I'm here, you know. And do chores, though I suspect O'Gara has to do them over again once I've left. I've no talent for farming."
"But you enjoy being here."
"I do, and yet I'm never here. And if I enjoy it so, why am I always itching to get back to the city?"
"You miss the action," Andy suggested.
"Do I? I didn't miss it so much when I was with the brothers."
"The monks," I said.
He nodded. "The Thessalonian Brothers. In Staten Island, just a ferryboat ride from Manhattan, but you'd think you were a world away."
"When were you there last? It was just this spring, wasn't it?"
"The last two weeks of May. June, July, August, September. Four months ago, close enough. Next time you'll have to come with me."
"And why not?"
"Mick, I'm not even Catholic."
"Who's to say what you are or aren't? You've come to Mass with me."
"That's for twenty minutes, not two weeks. I'd feel out of place."
"You wouldn't. It's a retreat. Have you never done a retreat?"
I shook my head. "A friend of mine goes sometimes," I said.
"To the Thessalonians?"
"To the Zen Buddhists. They're not that far from here, now that I
think of it. Is there a town near here called Livingston Manor?"
"Indeed there is, and 'tis not far at all."
"Well, the monastery's near there. He's been three or four times."
"Is he a Buddhist, then?"
"He was brought up Catholic, but he's been away from the church for ages."
"And so he goes to the Buddhists for retreat. Have I met him, this friend of yours?"
"I don't think so. But he and his wife ate that ham you gave me."
"And pronounced it good, I believe you said."
"The best he ever tasted."
"High praise from a Zen Buddhist. Ah, Jesus, it's a strange old world, isn't it?" He clambered out of the hole. "Have one more go at it," he said, handing the shovel to Andy. "I think it's good enough as it is, but no harm if you even it up a bit."
Andy took his turn. I was feeling a chill now. I picked up my windbreaker from where I'd tossed it, put it on. The wind blew a cloud in front of the moon, and we lost a little of our light. The cloud passed and the moonlight came back. It was a waxing moon, and in a couple of days it would be full.
Gibbous-that's the word for the moon when there's more than half of it showing. It's Elaine's word. Well, Webster's, I suppose, but I learned it from her. And she was the one who told me that, if you fill a barrel in Iowa with seawater, the moon will cause tides in that water. And that blood's chemical makeup is very close to that of seawater, and the moon's tidal pull works in our veins.
Just some thoughts I had, under a gibbous moon ...
"That'll do," Mick said, and Andy tossed the shovel and Mick gave him a hand out of the hole, and Andy got a flashlight from the glove compartment and aimed its beam down into the hole, and we all looked at it and pronounced it acceptable. And then we went to the c
For an instant I had the thought that it would be empty. There'd be the spare, of course, and a jack and a lug wrench, and maybe an old blanket and a couple of rags. But other than that it would be empty.
Just a passing thought, blowing across my mind like the cloud across moon. I didn't really expect the trunk to be empty.
And of course it wasn't.
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