“Happy birthday to ya, happy birthday to ya, happy, happy birthday, Harlan Medlam,” the old man said, smiling at his wrinkled nut-brown face in the rear-view mirror of the old black pickup truck.
Ah, the luckiest day of the year. Ah, to be alive at 86 on the luckiest day of the year, and to have lived long enough with enough experiences to be sure that your birthday was the luckiest day of the year. You could call it what you wanted, Harlan Medlam’s expectations or the excitement of birthdays going clear back to boyhood. But Harlan Medlam knew it was just the correct alignment of everything on his birthday, faith, lucky stars, craftiness, the years of one beautiful spring day after another. Yes, the world always just lined up to give him opportunity on his birthday.
Even when his father had given him a whipping for selling his mother’s broom to a neighbor years ago on his birthday, he had found where the old man had dropped a nickel on the ground afterwards, hadn’t he? Plus that, the neighbor had felt so badly that she told him to keep a penny. Then he sold it 40 years later for $5.00 to someone collecting Indianhead pennies—not bad, not bad at all. You just couldn’t beat Harlan Medlam luck when it gathered all its force on a birthday.
He laid his teeth on the truck dash in front of him, and popped the cigar stub into his mouth to chew with the moist spring breeze blowing through the open wing vent into his face while he grinned. Even Florence Medlam was happy to send him away from home to while away the day on his birthday. She could hardly hide the eagerness in her pale blue eyes to send him down the road. No point keeping Harlan Medlam home to work on his birthday while all the luck in the world was waiting on him for some kind of treasure that he could bring home. He even had an extra nickel in his pocket for another cigar at the co-op oil store.
Why, Florence even figured to have most of the milk cows bred, and dried up, so they didn’t freshen until right after his birthday. That was done even if she had to milk a few by herself, or get someone in for a day to help with the milking. There could be no interference with the happy, lucky birthday. Last year’s birthday he had made a great swap for a deep freeze that seemed like it might work forever, then got a crippled hog free to fill it.
Yes, Florence Medlam would make him a yellow cake with white cream and sugar frosting, but only heaven knew what kind of spoils Harlan Medlam might bring home on such a day.
The new green leaves were shooting out on the tree branches, the redwing blackbirds were trilling spring song from tree-filled gullies, and it was Harlan Medlam’s lucky, lucky birthday. “Happy birthday to ya, happy birthday to ya,” he sang lifting his red greasy ball cap from his full head of gray-black hair.
By the time Harlan Medlam drove onto the farmers cooperative oil store lot, he was nearly jubilant with a tight smile and the cigar stub chew wadded up in one cheek, but his eyes were already set in careful study looking at all the trucks and other vehicles to see who else might be inside. You didn’t necessarily have to make your luck or seek it out, but you had to be able to recognize it. Luck was a God-given fact of life that you needed the perspective to seize on to when it came. He knew that such luck comes to everybody. But, he figured nobody was better at seizing God-given luck than Harlan Medlam.
There was a small group of men pulled in a circle under the big slow-moving over-head fan that blew a mild draft of new spring air down on them. They were laughing boisterously in great community, “hee, yahay , ahaw,” so somebody must have told a joke. Judging by his posture, it must have been Dick Heineckan because he stood with one hand at hip, and the other in the air holding his smoking pipe. It must have been a hum dinger too because Deacon Cozno , called Deacon precisely because he was the opposite, was slapping the knee of his striped coveralls one more time. Even that new smoothie in the community, Eddy Jones, had a wide-spread, thin-lipped grin on his face, sitting there stolidly with a hand on each leg.
“Well, Harlan Medlam, you old coyote,” said Dick, and Harlan smiled because everybody liked Dick, and being noticed by him.
“How’d you get away from the poor farm? Florence sick or dead? Or, did you just run away from home at naptime.”
“It’s my birthday, Dick. I don’t even get sleepy on my birthday, but then, I don’t work much that day. I just get lucky.”
“Oh, sweet lord, stay away from me you old devil. I remember horse trading with you on your birthday. How is that team of mares anyway? What are they—30 years old now. They probably can’t even die when you own them, you’re so darn lucky.”
“Why, they’re fine, Dick. They still pull real good, but we use a tractor a lot of the time these days. Guess they was kind of a bargain.”
“Bargain you bet. You about stole them you old devil, and if I remember right, I even threw in some fryin’ chickens besides.”
“Guess I was kind of lucky, but it was my birthday.”
“Well, you’ve probably met your match here today, Harlan. Doesn’t anybody get much luckier than Eddy here. He just got back from Vegas with enough winnings to pay for the trip plus give him a thousand dollars to boot.”
Harlan looked at the younger man, smoothly olive tanned with slicked down brown hair touched with blonde highlights, looking as though he had just left a beauty parlor. Aah, it was as though a light was coming on in the room. This was the guy, the God-given moment, his lucky, lucky birthday coming true before his eyes in the person of Eddy Jones. He grinned as broadly as he could exposing his bare gums because his teeth were out when he chewed cigars. “Lucky, huh? Well, I guess a thousand dollars is powerful lucky. It’s just that you can’t be as lucky as me when it’s my birthday.”
“You probably got that right you old coyote. So, Harlan give me some of your old man’s wisdom here before I have to go back to work,” Dick said. “Tell us where the price of wheat is gonna go this year? Eddy here’s always lucky, ain’t you, Eddy. So, Eddy planted more wheat last fall on the land he got from his Great Aunt. Does that mean the price will be up, Harlan?”
“Why, God bless, Dick, it don’t mean anything who planted it. The price of wheat is up now, and it will be down by the time you cut it. Everybody knows that. It's always up to get us to plant it, then down when it’s time to sell it. That’s the way the world wants it, and that’s the way it’s gonna be, just like I’m always lucky on my birthday,” said Harlan looking deliberately at Eddy with a smile.
Eddy tried to smile thinly back at Harlan, but a narrowing of his dark eyes that sparkled with inward arrogance was almost all he could accomplish. This was such a dirty, nasty old man. Look at him there with a drool of cigar tobacco beginning at a corner of the mouth before he licked it away. Detestable, that contemptuous, nasty smile. What a pleasure it would be if he could somehow bet a thousand dollars off this old man.
“I tell you what, Harlan Medlam,” said Eddy, his smile deliberately widening in a challenge, “why don’t you come spend the rest of the day with me on the farm. I’m mostly puttering around today with the wet weather we’ve had. I’m going to be burning some brush I had pushed out around the farm buildings. Maybe we can stand around, watch it burn, and some of that birthday luck can rub off on me. I can always use a little more luck.”
“Well, I never knew of it to rub off on anyone else, but I do like to see fires burn while I smoke a good cigar, and enjoy a little talk. Guess’n this would be real neighborly fun with’ya.”
“I don’t know if you realize what you’re getting into here, Eddy,” said Dick as they walked to their trucks. “Harlan Medlam’s a dangerous man to be around on his birthday.”
“Don’t you worry about me, Dick,” said Eddy. “You just come on old Harlan. Climb in that old black truck of yours, and follow me.
Harlan Medlam broke out in jubilant song once more as the two trucks turned down the last gravel road slinging chunks of brown mud from the tires, “Happy birthday to ya, happy birthday to ya, happy birthday to ya old coyote best friend Lucky Eddy will ever have.”
But then, Harlan Medlam became a little somber as they pulled into the driveway of the old farmstead Eddy had inherited that had been familiar to Harlan since he was a boy. He called out to Eddy as they climbed from the trucks, “Eddy, what’s happened. Where are the spirea rows, the lilacs, the fruit trees, all the big trees that used to between here and the house. And, there was a long hedgerow over there.” Then he saw it himself, a huge pile of wilted leaved branches and logs shoved tightly together southwest of the barn.”
“I had them all shoved out with a bulldozer. Sure makes the place clean, doesn’t it? It’s a lot easier to mow. I’ll probably hire someone to mow it. I hate doing it, and I can afford the help. No sense doing everything yourself, right Harlan.”
“Wouldn’t know about that. I always did everything for myself, and if I didn’t think of doin’ it that way, it's for sure Florence Medlam would. Why, you don’t have any good shade left, no fruit, and where’s the rabbits and birds gonna go with all your shrubs gone. This place is darn near naked. And, now, you’re gonna burn your barn down.”
“Burn my barn down? What are you talking about, old man. I have no intention of burning my barn down.”
“Yer lighten’ a brush pile southwest of the barn. Anybody’d know yer gonna burn the barn down with a fire southwest of it. That’s the way things are in this part of the world.”
“Look, Harlan. I’m just going to throw a couple of cans of diesel fuel on this brush pile, and light it up with some old paper feed sacks to get it going good. It’s more than a thousand feet away from the barn, there’s no wind today, and even if there were, the ground’s bare and muddy between here and the barn.”
“Well, I’m tellin’ you for your own good, all luck aside, that yer about to burn your own barn down.”
“You are a pain in the behind, Harlan Medlam. No wonder Dick doesn’t want you around on your birthday, or maybe for any other day for that matter. We’ve only been here 10 minutes, and all you can talk about is how I’m going to burn my barn down. No, ‘my how you’ve cleaned the place up,’ or, ‘you must enjoy living here.’ What a dirty old bore you are. I don’t know why I asked you to come along.”
“Well, ya don’t have any horses in the barn, do ya? I’m not one to stand around with horses in a fire.”
“No, I don’t have any horses in there. It’s mainly full of hay. There might be 2,000 bales in there. I guess there might be a few pieces of old harness if you’re interested in horses.”
Harlan Medlam pursed his lips to blow some air through them in disapproval. “Ya know, 2,000 bales is worth a lot of money. That’s going to be a powerful loss in a fire.”
“That barn isn’t going to burn, old man. See, we’re southwest of the barn. With the spring cool front that came through giving us this pleasant weather, the slight breeze we do have is northerly. Even the sparks will go away from the barn to the south if they could travel a whole thousand feet.”
“Yer gonna burn your barn down. Care if I look at the harness?”
“Sure, go ahead. Look at the harness.”
“Why, that’s good harness, still pliable. And look at the sets of reins, no rot or breaks in them. All you’d need to do is soak them all for a while in some neatsfoot oil, and they're good leather. What a waste to see them all burn.”
“There isn’t anything going to burn in the barn here, Harlan.”
Harlan Medlam narrowed his shining black eyes to look at Eddy, who was brushing back the blonde-brown hair with a carefully manicured hand, very unlike Harlan’s big, boney hands with the dirt under the nails. “Well then, do ya care if I rescue all this horse stuff from the fire in advance? Supposin’ there’s a fire, can I just keep it then.”
“You’re not going to set my barn on fire, Harlan.”
“No, no, no, I’d never do a thing like that, Eddy. I might be lucky, but I’m honest. I’ll tell you straight forward that I’ve been dealin’ with you, no gimmicks.”
“OK, I’ll tell you what then. You can take anything you might want out of this barn then, and put it in your truck except for the hay. You can keep it if the barn burns down. But if there’s no fire, you have to put it all back in the barn just the way it was, and I’m not going to help you even if you’re falling down dead from the strain. I don’t want any hay pulled out because I don’t think I want to wait on you to get it all put back.”
“Deal then, I’ll do that,” said Harlan Medlam, ah the God-given moment of birthday luck. A fire southwest of a barn was sure to burn a barn down. It was a rule of life.
“There’s one condition though,” said Eddy, narrowing his eyes a little in his turn.
“What might that be?” asked Harlan.
“I have $1,000 cash in my pocket from Vegas right now. See, here it is all neatly stacked in $20’s. Let’s have a cash side bet. I’ll bet $1,000 cash against $1,000 cash from you that this barn doesn’t burn down. I’m betting you are wrong.”
“And I still get to rescue anything from the barn for myself that I want?”
“That’s right. But where’s your thousand dollars.”
“Turn yer back.”
“Turn yer back gul durn it, Eddy. I ain’ta gonna show anybody where I might keep a thousand bucks.”
Eddy slowly turned his back as Harlan watched him on the way to his truck. He reached up under the seat on the passenger side, and twisted an oil can down out of the springs. Then he took the rubber bands off a roll of cash in the can, counted $1,000 from the roll, and returned the rest up under the seat where he’d found it.
“Now, ya ain’t gonna knock me in the head for my money or anything are you, Eddy?”
“No, no, no, I’d never do a thing like that, Harlan. I might be lucky, but I’m honest. I’ll tell you straight forward that I’ve been dealing with you, no gimmicks. I’m just surprised you had that kind of money with you.”
“Well, Eddy, the government doesn’t mess much with cows, and I don’t mess much with banks. We each do what we do best. It keeps us happy.”
“I see, I think.”
“Ok then, if yer abound to, get your fire going while I get stuff from the barn.”
Eddy was splashing the first five-gallon can of diesel over the brush to spread its effect when Harlan called from the barn, “Criminy, but isn’t this a motor boat on a trailer back here in a stall, Eddy?”
“Yes it is, and it’s fair game on the deal if an old coot like you wants a motor boat.”
“Can you help me hook it up to my truck.”
“No deal, Harlan. Just back your truck in there, and hook it up yourself. I don’t help you. That’s the deal.. And, remember, you have to put it all back by yourself too when there’s no fire.”
Eddy could hear the old man grunting, and the sounds of items being put into the truck bed as he put the second can of diesel on the brush pile. “What are you finding, old man,” he called out.
“Well, there’s hay hooks, lots of buckets, a near full sack of oats, a couple of corn shucking gloves, log chains, wrenches, a couple of old milk cans, a mirror that ain’t even broke, three corn knives, the hood of I’d say about a ’35 Chevrolet…….why, the place is a treasure chest.”
“I’m about to light the fire, Harlan. And, the breeze is just the same."
“That’s alright. The truck and the boat are clear full. I’ll be out to watch her burn. Ah, here’s some near full buckets of red paint. Paint’s expensive, Eddy. There’s some brown bottles of stuff with it.”
“Come on, Harlan, if you want to see the pile burn. I’d say you just about have everything in there anyway.”
“Ima comin’, Ima comin’, but it does seem a terrible waste to leave all that hay. It’s bad enough just to lose the barn.”
“The barn and the hay are going to be fine, you greedy old man. Just come on so we can watch me win my bet together. It’s going to take a lot of work for you to get all that stuff back in there. It will take time for the pile to burn, and then for you to do that.”
There was a jumbling sound of junk jumping and falling into place as Harlan drove the old black truck pulling the shining red motorboat passed Eddy and a little ways up the exit driveway. Then Harlan came shuffling back carrying one of the brown bottles.
“Why did you park way up there?”
“I wanted to be out of the way when the barn starts burning.”
“That barn isn’t going to burn, Harlan.”
“Whatever you say, Eddy. Let me see what’s in this bottle while you strike your match.”
Harlan Medlam used his pocket knife to pull a cork from the bottle while Eddy lit the feed sacks on one side, and then lit them on the other side of the pile as the diesel began to burn. Harlan Medlam was drinking a long draw from the bottle as he came back around the 30-foot radius.
“What is it, Harlan?”
“Tastes like peach brandy to me.”
Eddy hesitated for a moment as he watched Harlan Medlam lick his repulsive pink lips. Then he decided a drink might be too good to pass up. “Here, give me a swig of that. Must be the last of Auntie’s peach brandy. There never will be any more of it since I shoved her peach trees into this pile, no more trees, no more Auntie. You can bet I'm not going to buy peaches or make brandy myself either one.”
Eddy took a long draw from the bottle. Harlan took a long draw from the bottle. Then Eddy drank again, and Harlan drank again. They smiled at each other as they backed away with the flames roaring over their heads, the wood popping as it caught fire from the tremendous heat.
The two men were already beginning to wobble when Harlan saw him. A cottontail rabbit was running circles bobbing around here and there out on the bare ground where the spirea bushes once had been.
“Look there, Eddy, see there. The poor rabbit’s lost because you shoved his brush out.”
“Let him find someplace else, just let him find someplace else,” Eddy nearly gurgled as his face turned brandy-singed red.
It was then the rabbit made a straight-a-way fast hopping run right into the brush pile that was burning.
“He’s committing suicide,” said Eddy.
“He’s confused,” said Harlan.
Then the rabbit burst from the brushpile, a running, burning ball of fire going straight for the barn.”
“No, he can’t,” said Eddy.
“Yes, he can,” said Harlan, “runnin’ right in to burrow into that hay to try to get away from the fire. Poor little bunny. He had to try to go home on my lucky, lucky birthday.”
As the flames went up through the roof of the barn, Eddy handed Harlan his thousand dollars, his mouth gaping in shocked amazement as Harlan sang, “Happy birthday ta ya, happy birthday ta ya, happy, happy
lucky birthday ta ya, Harlan Medlam.
The truck and boat did a little weaving as they came into Harlan Medlam’s driveway.
Florence Medlam looked through the open window, and sniffed. “Why, you’ve been drinking, Harlan Medlam. Never knew you to take part in the expense of alcoholic beverage before,” she said looking at his silly attempt to grin.
“Look here, Florence, we got a boat.”
“I know, let me go in, and get an ad into the newspaper for the silly thing before they close for tomorrow’s issue. Here, lean on me while we try to decide what it’s worth. Then you can show me the rest of the stuff. I swear, Harlan Medlam, it’s like fishing in a barrel for 20-pound catfish sending you out on your lucky, lucky birthday. Where’d you put the money. I know you must have gotten a little cash too if you got this much other stuff.
“Then we’ll get your cake, and we’ll eat it too.”
Copyright 2008, Jerry W. Engler