This story originally appeared in Hemingway Shorts, Volume 7, which is now available for purchase on Amazon and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park website.
The old woman kept telling him but Walt was never one to listen. They lived in a small cabin heated only by a log fireplace, deep in an Appalachian holler. Walt chopped wood in the summers, burned it in the winters. The winters were short, yet periodically brutal.
Walt hated the cold. Felt smothered by its iciness. The cluttered cabin turned his world microscopic. Walt was a doer. Years ago, when he was still young, he’d started a handyman business. He loved to build things. Fix things. Be in the sun. Every year, when the weather began to break, Walt would stay outside all day long. Pulling weeds. Mending fences. Keeping busy.
This year, Walt wanted to tear down an old barn. It’d been standing on his property for over a century. Unstable now. One strong gust of wind through the holler could probably blow it down. There was good wood on it, though. Rare wood. Wormy chestnut. A species all but extinct thanks to the chestnut blight. It’s terrible, Walt thought, the way humans chew up the world wherever they go. Gnashing through the Earth like one big chomping mouth. During warm days outside, he often thought about the failings of mankind. His pounding heart and busy hands dulled acidic thoughts as they surfaced. The sweat baptizing him for humanity’s sins.
Walt figured he could use the salvaged wood for a few projects he had in mind. A better shed out back. Decor inside a guest house he planned to fix up and rent on AirBnB (which he mispronounced “R-BnB”). He and Martha could use the side cash. He and Martha could always use the side cash.
Whatever wood he didn’t use, he could sell. His neighbor, John, a woodworker, had offered him two bucks per square foot. Walt took rough measurements one warm February afternoon. Three thousand, two hundred, thirty-one square feet. Give or take. He tried to do the math in his head, couldn’t, then picked up a dusty calculator lying on the kitchen table. Six thousand, four hundred, sixty-two dollars. When the number flashed on the screen, Walt realized he could’ve easily done that math without the help of technology. Just doubled the square footage. He never missed stuff like that. Not normally, at least.
Sixty-five hundred dollars, though. Real money. Not life-changing, but still. As soon as the weather warmed, he’d bring that old son-of-a-bitch down. Piece-by-piece. Before it collapsed and all that good wood was ruined. All that real money, gone.
“Now Walt,” Martha said, between coughs. “You’re not 35 anymore.”
It was late March and they were sitting in the cluttered kitchen drinking watery coffee. Martha, at 82, was four years younger than Walt. Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. Cancer did that. In remission now, thank goodness, but this cough had been hanging on for months. Like mold on rotten meat.
“Why don’t you ask that young man at the top of the mountain to help?” she said. “He’s a firefighter, isn’t he? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
Walt looked out a large picture window at the ridgeline in the distance. Redbuds were popping on skeletal trees, foreshadowing the bloom. He gulped his coffee, stood up and placed the cracked mug in the sink.
“I don’t want to pay anyone for something I can do myself,” he said, rubbing Martha’s shoulders. “Do you know how much John offered me?”
Walt told her.
“That is quite a bit.”
“Once it’s down, we could use some of it to get the R-BnB up and running.”
Martha coughed, sighed. The wind made the barn door whine. They could hear it in the kitchen. There was no latch on it anymore. Every time the wind picked up it creaked open and shut, open and shut. Moved by an unseen hand.
“You know how I feel about you being on a ladder against that old wobbly thing,” she said.
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “Just let me think about it.”
The weather finally turned in early April. It’d been warm for a week straight when Walt pulled a crowbar and a ladder from his old shed and walked down to the barn. It was early morning and he was so euphoric about the sun he’d absentmindedly skipped breakfast. And coffee. He was wearing a dirty white shirt and holy jeans. Jeans that once fit him snugly but now hung loose on his bony frame. His white hair blew wildly in the breeze.
He started at the bottom. Prying old gray boards and popping off the nails. He snapped the first few clean in half. These boards were older than the Titanic. Older than World War II.
World War II.
Walt shook his head. Another shameful episode in human history. He’d been born one year after its conclusion. One year after the hollow bodies, the death camps. Maybe 50 years after these chestnuts were felled.
Walt thought about sinking ships, Goebbels, dying trees. Kept prying. His heart pounded harder as sweat returned. It felt good, being under the sun in the middle of nowhere. Absolving humanity of its sins.
It didn’t take long for Walt to master the technique. Now whole boards popped off. Walt tossed them into a pile near a rusty piece of farming equipment. He threw the nails in a milk jug he’d scissored in half. Pry and toss. Pry and toss. The repetition soothed him.
Before long, he’d removed most of the lower boards. He stepped back, hands on hips, admiring his work. Old man’s still got it, he thought. And of course Martha was in there worrying about nothing. She was always worrying, worrying about something. Most of the time it really was nothing. All that worrying wasn’t good for her health. Or his, for that matter.
His old joints were already sore. Gazing at the sun he suddenly felt lightheaded. Tingly inside. Unable to remember what he’d done that morning or why he was in the woods at all. Soon the haze passed and he remembered. It was the barn. Of course. He was taking down the barn. How silly of him to forget. He was becoming such a goofy man sometimes nowadays.
The ladder leaned up against the barn. It was time to go higher. The wind blew and the old door creaked open and shut, letting ghosts in and out. A crow floated against the blue sky. Black feathers and wide wings. Walt grabbed the crowbar and stepped onto the first rung. Easy peezy. He’d done this hundreds of times before. Nothing scary about a ladder. A man with his pedigree shouldn’t be scared of heights.
Pedigree. A strange word. It made him giggle.
Up he went. Second rung. Sixth rung. Ninth. Around the tenth, he felt metal pressing into his arches. What the hell, he thought. He looked down and noticed his bare feet. Silly man. Forgetting shoes like that. You’ve really done it this morning, haven’t you? Ah, but keep climbing, old fool. This barn won’t bring itself down.
He reached the top of the ladder and leaned against the tin roof, cold metal on his forearms. There was much beauty in the distance. A cabin puffing smoke through gray trees with redbud tips. Cows mooing. The smell of manure. Somewhere, way off, a dog barking. Howling and snarling, and that crow sailing through the sky like it was suspended in water.
Walt’s vision wobbled. It was strange, because he never expected to see it, but now chestnut trees were sprouting out of the tin roof. Growing from saplings to hundred-year-old giants in a snap. Naked malnourished men with sunken eyes and stars on their foreheads sat on the thick branches, swinging twiggy legs, whispering for Walt to join them. What a strange thing for them to be out here on a spring morning. What a strange thing for them to be anywhere at all.
It happened fast. Walt clutched his heart and leaned back, expecting Martha to catch him. Martha always caught him. But there was nothing back there but air. Nothing back there but thousands of transparent arms incapable of softening the blow. And there was Walt, tumbling through the invisible branches of a chestnut tree, an apparition already gone from this world.
Martha coughed phlegm thick as oatmeal. When her husband didn’t come in for lunch she knew something was very wrong.
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