Authors: Ike Hamill
Joe lifted the lid carefully, perhaps expecting more wasps.
He pulled his hand back and regarded the contents of the trunk.
Alan joined him at his side.
“What is it?” Joe asked.
“It’s just a doll,” Alan said. He knew why Joe paused—the thing looked like it had been born in a nightmare. The doll’s porcelain head was at least a hundred years old. It lay on its back with one delicate hand near its head, as if it had swooned. The other chipped hand was draped over its belly. The head was slightly turned away from Alan and Joe. The body was hand-stitched cloth, stuffed with raw cotton that you could see through the rotting fabric. The dress was torn and chewed away. It hung to the side. The legs formed a wide V, with the feet tipped to the sides. The eyes were closed.
“Pick it up,” Alan said.
“No way,” Joe said. “I’m not touching it.”
“It’s just a doll, Joe. Go ahead.”
“You pick it up,” Joe said. He angled himself for a better look at the doll’s face. “Why is it all by itself in this trunk anyway.”
“Under that tray there’s a bunch of clothes. I picked it up earlier. It probably belonged to your great grandmother. It’s a part of history.”
“Uh huh,” Joe said.
Alan smiled. Joe looked like he was about to run.
“You want to put it in one of your mother’s drawers to scare her?”
Joe’s face lit up with a smile. Then he frowned and shook his head. “No. She’ll get mad if we move anything out here. This stuff belongs to the family.”
“Joe, this stuff belongs to us. We’re family,” Alan said. He tried to soften his anger, but he heard it right behind his words. “We bought all of this from the rest of Mom’s relatives, and they named their price. That means that we don’t owe them anything. If we wanted to, we could clear out everything and put cows back in here.”
“No, Dad,” Joe said. “It’s history. We don’t want to ruin history.”
“I know, Joe. I just don’t want you thinking that anything around here is sacrosanct, or whatever.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means pick up the doll,” Alan said. “Come on. It’s cool, I promise.”
Joe looked Alan in the eye for a couple of seconds before he moved. He wiped his hands down the front of his shirt and then reached forward carefully. He pinched the doll’s body carefully under the armpits. Joe held his breath and lifted the doll until its head was upright. Alan watched with a wide smile as the doll’s eyes rolled up to show deep crystal irises.
Joe laid the doll back down carefully. Its eyes rolled closed again and the little doll went back to sleep. When his hands were free of the cloth, Joe jumped back and waved his hands around, trying to shake the feel from his fingertips.
“Oh my god, that was the creepiest thing I ever saw,” Joe said.
“I know, right?” Alan said, laughing.
Joe started laughing too. Joe reached and tugged at the lid to the trunk, letting it slam shut over the doll.
“Come on,” Alan said. “You can do your homework later. Let’s walk down to the lake for a minute.”
“Okay,” Joe said. “You’re filthy.”
Alan looked down at his shirt and pants. He was covered in dust and cobwebs.
“Here,” Joe said. He held the broom up.
“Dust it off first,” Alan said. “Beat it on the stoop.”
They found their way outside where Joe dusted Alan’s clothes with the dirty broom. Afterwards they crossed the road and walked down the path to the lake. Before Joe started school, they’d spent the better part of a month putting the trail back in order. Weeds were mowed, rocks slid back into place, and trees cut up and stacked. They’d reclaimed the Colonel’s old trail from nature’s grip. Since school started, it seemed like they never even bothered to use the trail anymore.
Alan saw all their work with fresh eyes and was proud of the time he’d spent with his son that summer.
“Did you start soccer today?” Alan asked.
“Kinda,” Joe said. “We just ran around a lot. I didn’t even touch a soccer ball.”
Joe dropped his backpack next to a tree.
“How’d your history quiz go?”
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “We don’t get answers back until Friday.”
“But how did it feel?”
Joe picked up a stick and swiped it at ferns as they walked. They crossed the first stone bridge. It was just a big flat rock propped over a little creek, but it had taken the two of them an afternoon to wrangle it into just the right position. Joe crossed first.
“You want to try snowboarding this winter?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “Can we get a snowmobile? Some of the other guys have them. They said they go to the store on Saturday mornings.”
“By themselves?” Alan asked.
“We’ll see,” Alan said. He thought that saying, “over my dead body,” might be a little strong for a first response, but he would work his way up to it. Joe ran ahead when they saw the light reflecting off the lake. When Alan caught up, Joe was at the end of the dock, taking off his shoes and socks and rolling up his pants. He dangled his feet in the water and turned around to smile at his father.
“Come on, Dad, put your feet in,” Joe said with a big grin. “Its s-s-s-ooo wuh-wuh-warm.”
“Yeah, right,” Alan said. He lowered himself to the dock next to Joe and dangled his hand in the water. “It’s freezing! Are you trying to kill your old man?”
“It’s nuh-nuh-not so buh-buh-bad,” Joe said.
“Then why are your teeth chattering? Can you explain that?” Alan asked. He took off his shoes and socks and pulled up his pant legs. The water felt good after a few seconds. His feet sent out a ripple across the glassy surface.
“Don’t wiggle your toes,” Joe said. “The snapping turtles will think they’re worms.”
“Who told you that?”
“Oh, well it must be true then,” Alan said. “I always wondered why she only has seven toes.”
“How long are we going to live here?” Joe asked.
Alan looked at his son. The boy was looking across the water at the sinking sun.
“What do you mean?”
“Are we just going to stay a couple of years and then move someplace else?”
“Don’t you like it here? I thought we had a great time this summer.”
“No,” Joe said. “It’s not that. I like it here fine. But the kids at school say that a lot of people move here before they realize how hard the winters are.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Alan said. “Your mom has been coming here forever. Her folks have been bringing her here since she was a little baby. And I spent almost ten years in Boston. That’s not that much farther south than here. I think we know what we’re in for.”
“Okay,” Joe said.
“You’ve never seen what the leaves look like up here in the fall,” Alan said, pushing Joe’s shoulder. “You’re going to be knocked out. It’s not like down in Virginia. Up here the leaves look like they’re on fire when they change.”
“I don’t know. But once you see it, you’ll never forget.”
They settled into a rhythm of swinging their feet. The ripples emerging from their legs collided and sent interference patterns across the still water. The body of water wasn’t very wide here—it was more of a stream—but if you wound north along its twists and turns, it opened up into a big sparkling lake. On the lake, all along the shore, wooden docks reached out into the water and little cabins sat nestled in the woods. One weekend during the summer, Alan rented a boat and they’d cruised up and down the lake until dark. Alan looked upstream and wondered if the big lake was as serene and calm as their little stream.
“It’s nice here,” Joe said.
“I was just thinking that,” Alan said. “It’s very private down here on the stream. I bet you don’t get any privacy up on the big lake.”
“No, I mean it’s nice here in Maine. Even though I’m in school, it still seems like we’re on vacation.”
“I’m glad,” Alan said. “You want to go see if your mom is home?”
“Can we stay a little longer?” Joe asked.
when Liz left and he couldn’t get back to sleep. Joe wouldn’t need breakfast for another hour, but Alan dressed anyway, putting on yesterday’s clothes and shuffling out to the barn. It was cold out there. The wind came right through the siding and the morning sun hadn’t gotten much of a foothold through the trees.
Alan flicked on the lights and started working.
He shoved everything down to the far end of the cow room and then only re-stacked it back in place when the area was clean. The Colonel had stored most things in wooden trunks stenciled with Air Force lettering, but the occasional cardboard box held a treasure. These boxes, Alan stacked on top of piles. The cardboard looked like it had been peed on by a thousand mice.
He was wrapping up the cow room when Joe wandered out.
“I finished breakfast. I’m going to the bus.”
“What? I’m sorry, Joe, I was going to make you breakfast. I guess I got absorbed out here.”
“It’s okay. I had cereal.”
Alan smiled. “Have a great day.”
“Does Mom know yet?”
“Know what?” Alan asked. He looked up at Joe.
Joe was waving his arm around the room. Alan saw it with fresh eyes. It still contained the same stuff, but the room looked completely different. Everything was orderly and sterile. He’d swept away all the mystique.
“She’ll be thrilled, I’m sure,” Alan said. “Go catch your bus.”
He watched Joe until the boy reached the end of the driveway and turned left. Alan took one more look at the cow room and then ducked under the stairs to pull open the doors to the horse stalls. Horses had lived a dark and cramped life in this barn. Their room was small and in the back corner. They had their own door to the outside, but the Colonel or someone else had nailed the door shut long enough ago that the nails were spikes of rust.
Alan ran his hand along a smooth curve of wood. It had been gnawed by countless horse teeth.
In terms of clutter, this room was in decent shape. It held a few standing wardrobes—big wooden boxes that opened to reveal moldy dresses and uniforms. Under a wooden rack and a sheet, Alan found an ancient motorcycle, almost as old as he was. He pressed on the seat and the springs bounced merrily, undamped by the shocks. He put the sheet back and tugged the light chain to turn off the bulb.
Alan stopped on his way to the door and turned around again. He turned on the light. One of the vertical boxes was too small to be a wardrobe, and it didn’t have hinges along the edge. It was just a chest-high rectangle, standing in the corner like a child’s coffin. Alan pulled it away from the wall. It was heavy. On the side, someone had stenciled the Colonel’s name and his old Tennessee address.
With growing excitement, Alan jogged for the shop to get the dolly. He returned to the horse room and worked the lip under the box. The weight was manageable, but the floor of the barn had countless lips and troughs. Alan had to wrestle the box all the way to the door. Sweat trickled down his forehead as he rolled the box out into the sun of the driveway. He parked the dolly near the shed door and went inside for his toolbox.
Alan returned and set to work. He removed the final screws and pulled off the side and top of the box, already anticipating what he’d find. It was both better and worse than what he’d hoped.
It was better—enclosed in the box was a pristine, fifty-year-old outboard boat motor that looked like someone had cared for it like it was a child. It was worse—across the engine’s cover he found a single word scrawled in grease pencil by an old man’s hand. It read, “Piston.”
Alan stepped back and regarded the crate that the engine was stored in. It was obviously designed for shipping the engine, but it also doubled as a stand if you folded the top over and used the screws as a hinge. Alan set it up and then removed the cover from the engine. He found the correct socket and began to back out the nuts holding on the cylinder. One nut didn’t want to turn. He shook his can of solvent and sprayed the nut and surrounding area. While he waited, he surveyed the rest of the engine.
At the bottom of the engine’s case, Alan found a compartment with a lid. It contained a binder with the engine’s manuals inside.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Alan said. He flipped through the manual, looking at the careful instructions and diagrams. He found a section entitled, “Piston Replacement.” The page had a greasy thumbprint on the corner. Alan smiled.
He held the binder in one hand and circled the engine. He pulled the spark plug wires and set the book down so he could follow the instructions to the letter. All he had to do was remove the last cylinder nut.
Alan slipped a short length of pipe over the end of his socket wrench handle and braced his foot on the side of the engine’s box.
Movement caught his eye.
He raised a hand to the passing jogger. The jogger waved back.
“Okay,” Alan said. “Help me out, Colonel.”
He applied pressure to his cheater-bar and the nut started to turn. With slippery ease, the socket turned on the nut, stripping it and sending Alan to the pavement. He landed on his ass and turned his face to the sky. Alan let loose a stream of obscenities at the passing clouds. He began to chuckle and then laugh. He was still holding the pipe. He threw it to the asphalt. Alan laughed until a tear escaped the corner of his eye. He wiped it away with his shirtsleeve.
“You okay?” a voice asked.
Alan scrambled to his feet. It was the jogger.
“Yeah. Yes, I’m fine. I just stripped a nut,” Alan said.
“I’m Bob,” the jogger said. “We met the other day, but I forgot to introduce myself.”
Alan blinked away the remnants of his tears and got a look at the jogger.
“You’re the carpenter,” Alan said. He noticed the jogger was holding out his hand. Alan reached for it, forgetting the grease from the motor. “Sorry,” Alan said as the jogger glanced at his own hand.