A Short Story by Michael Robert Dyet
Huck stopped to rest halfway on his trek back from the barn to let the pain in his leg subside. The pain came in waves of late each one seeming to crest higher than the one before. He squinted to look up at the sun. Coming on to two o’clock, he judged.
Sure as God made little green apples he had forgotten something. There was a buzz in his memory that would not let up. Truth be told, he couldn’t remember why he had gone to the barn in the first place, he reluctantly admitted to himself. So it wasn’t likely he could put his finger on what he had left behind.
“What the hell?”
There was something inside the hollow fence post he was leaning on. He reached inside and pulled it out.
“My fence pliers?... Right, that’s where I kept them back when I was still working the farm. The boys thought it was flat out stupid. But I always knew where to find them.”
He resumed the journey back to the house. The door to the shed was open. How many times had he told Vera to keep it shut to keep the coons out? Or was it Vera who kept telling him? Same difference either way, he decided.
Huck lit a cigar as he settled behind the wooden desk that balanced precariously on three legs. The pain flared again as he sank into his chair. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the mouse peer tentatively around a box. It surveyed the scene and seemed to take the measure of him. Satisfied that all was well, it skittered across the floor to the crackers in their usual spot.
“Huckleberry, I’ve told you a thousand times. You shouldn’t feed the mice.”
Vera’s voice startled him but resonated in his ears like a finely tuned bow string.
“I swear you make less noise than a feather in a wind storm. After 60 years you’d think I’d hear you coming.”
“Don’t go changing the subject on me. I’m wise to your wily ways.”
“Ever seen one in the house? No, because they know this is where the food is. There’s a method in my madness. And for the love of Lucifer, for 60 years you’ve called me Huck. Now out of the blessed blue I’m Huckleberry?”
“Time was you’d be tickled pink if I called you that.”
“Well, no more. I’m Huck and leave it at that.”
“You’ll always be Huckleberry to me.”
“Have it your way. I’m not of a mind to argue,” he relented, resisting the fond smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Are you of a mind to clean up this shed? Every newspaper that came into this place in the last ten years is still here. What will people think?”
Huck scanned the confines of the shed. Small motors of every size, shape and make rested on stacks of yellowing newspapers. A path barely wide enough to navigate wound from the shed door to the desk which was littered with spare parts.
“You think I don’t know what people say? Crazy, old motor man. Couple bricks short of a load. I don’t give a good goddamn. Nobody but you ever understood me, Vera. I expect that’s not likely to change.”
“Huckleberry, what am I going to do with you? I won’t be around forever, you know.”
Huck’s brow furrowed. His bad left eye, on the side where the cow kicked him many years back, drooped half shut.
“You’re always talking that way. But you’re too stubborn by half to give up the ghost.”
The sound of a pick-up truck, navigating the potholes that punctuated the long, gravel lane in from the road, blew in through the hole in the window.
“There’s a customer for you. Let them haggle for once. They won’t buy unless you do.”
“My price is my price. They buy or they don’t. It’s all the same to me.”
“Incorrigible. You’re perfectly incorrigible.”
The shed door opened with a screech like a startled cat.
“Good afternoon. Mr. Fryman?”
A barely perceptible nod was the only reply.
“Mr. Fryman, I’m Jack Willis – the new Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department. Can I call you Huck?”
Unprepared for such a dubious welcome, the fire chief paused to reconsider his tack.
Mr. Fryman, I think you know why I’m here. You’ve had warnings before and a citation if I’m not mistaken. You’ve got to clean up this shed. All these old motors lying around… I could smell the gas before I opened the door. This place is a fire trap.”
“It’s my place. I keep it how I want. It’s no business of yours.”
“It is my business. It’s my responsibility to ensure your safety.”
Huck’s eyes narrowed. The legs of his chair creaked as he leaned harder into them.
“Get out of my place, you piss ass.”
“Mr. Fryman, I can come back with the police if you don’t cooperate.”
Huck reached for the shotgun he kept under the desk. He leveled it at the intruder and closed his bad eye to sight down the barrel.
“Get the hell out of my place before I blow a hole in your holier-than-thou ass.”
The fire chief backpedaled down the narrow aisle.
“Jesus Mary, they told me you were odd. But this is way past eccentric.”
“Don’t come back. Next time I’ll shoot you on sight.”
Huck watched through the hole in the window as the fire chief’s pick-up went bouncing up the lane. He ground his cigar butt into the dirt floor with the heel of his good leg and lit a new one.
Jack Willis? He turned the name over in his mind groping for a connection. Had to be Buck Willis’ boy, he decided. Was old Buck still around? Most likely not with his bumb heart. No one that he grew up with was still above ground.
“Buck’ll be rolling over in his grave with you pointing that old relic at his son.”
“I’ll be rolling over in my grave if you don’t stop sneaking up on me. Lord woman, make some noise already – especially when I’m holding a shotgun.”
“Is the confounded thing even loaded?”
“Damn right it’s loaded. And I’ll point it anyone I damn well please.”
“And when they come for you with a posse?”
“Let ‘em come. Piss asses every one of them. Not a full set of balls between ‘em.”
“You promised me, Huckleberry. A year ago to this very day you promised me you’d stay out of trouble.”
“I don’t go looking for it. But if it finds me that’s no fault of mine.”
“Trouble finds people who want to be found. You promised me, Huckleberry.”
“Alright, alright. Enough said. Let me be for a bit. I still have work to do.”
Huck picked up the motor on the desk and began to disassemble it. His gnarled fingers fumbled over the small parts searching for a dexterity which time had stolen from them. Contentment softened his perpetual scowl.
An hour and a half passed in this fashion. From time to time he rummaged for spare parts on the desk or in wooden crates on a shelf behind him. An uncharacteristic patience guided his movements as if the ramshackle shed was a sanctuary where time held no sway.
At length another vehicle sounded in the lane kicking up a dust cloud behind it. Huck frowned at the interruption. He stood to peer out the window. A jolt of pain ricocheted up his leg which gave way under him. He toppled into the chair with a mumbled curse.
“It’s Kevin, Huckleberry. Now you be nice. He’s the only one of our three that still comes to visit.”
“In that damn Japanese car. Why he can’t buy what’s made here I don’t know.”
“Kevin says they’re built right here in Canada now.”
“Still foreign to me.”
“Be nice. Send him in to see me before he goes.”
The door to the shed creaked open. Huck crossed his arms and hunkered down in his chair.
“I swear, every time I come here this damn aisle gets narrower. Do you ever sell any of these, dad?”
“You looking to buy?”
Another wave of pain shot up Huck’s leg all the way from the ankle to the hip this time. He closed his eyes to fight it off.
“That leg gets worse every time I see you. I don’t suppose you’d let me take you to the doctor?”
“I’ve made it through 80 years without seeing a doctor. I’m not about to start now.”
“You’re 85, dad. You don’t even know how old you are.”
“You come all the way out here to tell me my memory is bad? I could have saved you the trouble.”
“Jack Willis called me. He said you pointed a shotgun at him. You can’t do stuff like that, dad.”
“Why the hell not? It’s my place.”
“You just can’t. There are laws and they apply to you just like everyone else.” Kevin’s eyes swept the shed again. “This has to end, dad. Enough is enough.”
“My place. My rules.”
“No, I’m not taking that crap anymore. I have your power of attorney, dad. Don’t make me use it.”
“Power of attorney. It means I can make your decisions for you.”
“The hell you can.”
“What do I have to do to get through to you? You can’t be on your own anymore.”
Huck took another long puff on his cigar and fixed his stare on the wall behind Kevin.
“For Christ’s sake, dad, put that cigar out. One spark and this whole place will go up.”
“Ain’t happened yet. I expect no one will much care if it does.”
“You’re not leaving me any choice. I’ll do what I have to do. I’m the only one of your sons who still cares enough to do it.”
Huck shifted his gaze to the ceiling. Kevin shook his head and started for the door.
“Go in and see your mother before you go. She’ll blame me if you don’t.”
Kevin stopped in his tracks. Sadness ebbed from his eyes as he turned to face Huck again.
“Mom’s gone, dad. She died a year ago. You know that. You didn’t say a word for a month after the funeral. She’s gone, dad.”
Consternation leaked from Huck’s eyes and spread across his grizzled face. Snatches of memory flashed like heat lightening. A hospital room in sickly white. A rattling breath, another and then silence. A church half full of grim-faced mourners.
Huck willed his memory’s eye to close. He picked up the motor on the desk in front of him and hurled it in Kevin’s general direction.
“Goddamn it, dad!” Kevin ducked away from the missile. ”You’re incorrigible. There’s no talking to you anymore. Say goodbye to this place. The next time I come it’ll be to take you to a nursing home where you belong.”
Kevin stalked through the shed door leaving Huck in a vacuum of silence. Huck waited for Vera’s voice to fill it. The silence grew thunderous as he waited and waited for the only thing he had left in this world.
“Huckleberry, my sweet, incorrigible Huckleberry. Come be with me.”
A weight fell from Huck’s shoulders as his heart rose to the long awaited invitation. He pulled the whiskey bottle down from the shelf behind him, took a long swig, then another and several more until the bottle was dry.
He waited patiently for the fog to descend to blur his senses and dull the pain. When his eyes were heavy and he could not hold them open any longer, he picked up the cigar butt from the table and flipped it onto the newspaper pile beside him.
A thin wisp of smoke rose from the newspapers and spiraled gracefully toward heaven. Huck’s eyes closed as the peace of love everlasting lulled him to sleep.