Dilapidated stone markers crowded the corner of the small prairie. There were around two dozen of these; a closer look at the markers revealed a name and a date, the place where an otherwise forgotten body lay below.
“And what treasures do you hold down there?” a man asked. “A gold tooth, silver buttons, possibly an antique brass buckle?” The man crouched down and rubbed the edge of a gravestone. Like great slabs of bleu cheese, the stones had been burrowed by time bringing out the blue-grey rock underneath. Bits of rock crumbled at his touch, leaving a chalky residue on his fingertips. Tilted backwards, the stone façade was severely weathered. Only the last number, year of death, could be made out: 1838. “You’re the last marker to be placed in this cemetery. I checked all the others. You’ve stood guard one hundred and fifty years.”
The man straightened up and eyed the sun through gathering clouds. It was morning. Red flannel shirt sleeves were rolled up snug against his forearms. Across his shoulder hung an antique seed spreader –the kind with a leather strap, a canvas sack, and crank that spins the fan-like mechanism that scattered the seed. The three-acre prairie was good farmland, though oddly shaped, and shared a corner with gravestones.
Bidding farewell to the markers, the man left the prairie. Wooden fence posts, with barbed-wire remains rusted around them, ran along a simple country road: Moulton-New Knoxville. Down the road, he approached a mailbox. The morning paper, along with a new phonebook and bills, had been stuffed inside. He pulled the paper out, issued the 1st of April, 1988. Glancing over the news, he walked up the long gravel lane that led to a farmstead.
Near the windbreak of conifers, a rustle caught his attention. “Captain, you under there?” the man called. An Australian shepherd with dull eyes poked his head out from under a pine branch near the lane.
“Listen to this headline, Cap’n,” the man said to the dog, “Agricultural Crisis: Farm Mortgage Foreclosures Reach New High.” The man frowned. “That’s a bit on the nose for April Fool’s Day don’t you think?” he asked as he rolled the paper up and put it in his pants pocket. “Tell me news I don’t already know,” he muttered. Captain stared at him for a moment and then disappeared beneath the pines. “Alright Cap’n, I’ll catch up with you later.”
As he came into the farmyard, a young boy called to him, “Rain’s coming, Dad!” He was playing a game of catch with an older boy under the two large catalpa trees that shaded the lawn. The lawn was the center of the farm, with the house and summer kitchen on the west side, and barns on the east side. The lane circled around the lawn and branched off to the northeast. It passed the farrowing barn and ran all the way down to the woods.
The older boy asked the man, “Are we headed to the woods or not?”
“This afternoon. Your mother and I have errands to run this morning.”
“That’s what I meant,” continued the boy, “this afternoon.”
“I left a chore list on the fridge,” the man said.
He set the seed spreader on the front porch and went inside. Faux-wood paneling lined the interior walls of the entry and hallway. A small alcove to the left of the front door served as the mudroom. Beyond the alcove, a telephone was mounted on the wall. To the right was the kitchen.
“How was your walk, dear?” a woman called from the kitchen.
He entered the room, tossed the newspaper on the kitchen table, and slumped into a chair. He rubbed his face with both hands and pulled at his short, trimmed beard. “I seeded the prairie,” he said to her.
She stopped what she was doing and eyed him. “Did you decide on anything?” she asked. He appeared to have not heard and picked a callous on his palm.
“Noah?” she said.
“Did you decide whether or not to sell the Wood-Mizer?”
He sat up in the chair, folding his hands neatly on the table and said, “Do you ever wonder about what’s in those graves?”
She gave him a confused look.
“At the prairie,” Noah said. “Those sites are well over a’ hundred years old. Do you suppose they were like us?”
“Poor? German? Christian? Farmers? What do you mean?”
Noah sat back in his chair, sighing. “Yes, poor German Christian farmers.”
“What made you think of that?”
“I don’t know,” Noah said, waving the matter aside, “and I haven’t decided whether to part with Dad’s sawmill.”
She rubbed his shoulder. “We’ll figure it out,” she said, rubbing a little harder, “won’t we?”
She added, “And you should tell Jonah if we decide to sell the Wood-Mizer.” There was a pause and more shoulder rubbing, “Right?”
“Yes, Eleanor, yes,” he said.
“I’m going to get ready. Coffee’s on the counter,” Eleanor said, leaving the room.
While Noah poured a mug of coffee, the boys came in. “What time is service tonight?” the younger son asked.
“Seven,” Noah answered, resuming his seat at the table.
“I told you Jonah! Today’s Good Friday.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Jonah went to the fridge and released a slip of paper from a magnet. After looking at it, he said, “Dad, I think it’s gunna rain today.”
“It’s not forecasted to rain till tonight. Just ask your grandma,” Noah said.
“But if it does, do you still want us to attach the loader and hitch the wagon?” Jonah said, pointing to the task on the slip of paper.
“Are you and Reinhardt able to do that on your own?” Noah asked.
“Of course!” Jonah said.
Noah took a long drink of coffee, then turned to look out the window which overlooked the porch. He could see the clouds gathering in the sky. Jonah stuffed the list in the pocket of his flannel and took a seat at the table. Dark blue eyes roamed the table’s surface, his young hands –already rough with signs of labor— began to fidget with the edge of the morning newspaper. The father and son sitting at the table looked like the same people: one just younger, smaller, and less hairy than the other.
“Dad, remember how I wanted to make some money?”
“Yes, a worthy endeavor.”
“What about sawing wood? I know that’s not something you would do, but I could.”
“If that’s something you wanted to do when you are older, that’s fine with me.”
Jonah scooted the newspaper around on the kitchen table. “Yeah, that’s the problem. I’m not old enough yet, but if I had a mo-ped…”
“At the moment neither of us could buy a mo-ped. You could find work at a nearby farm; you could ride your bicycle. Then you can save up for a mo-ped, or keep saving until you’re sixteen and buy a car. That’s what I would do. And the Wood-Mizer may not—”
“Noah, have you seen my umbrella?” His wife called from another room.
“It’s not going to rain today, Ella.”
She came into the kitchen. “Thanks, dear, but that doesn’t help me find it. I don’t feel completely comfortable with the idea of a mo-ped, Jonah.” She went to the counter and prepped a coffee to go. “Did you already get a cup?”
“Yeah,” Noah said. “No worries, Ella. Jonah can save up for a car.” He gave a confirming nod to Jonah.
“Really?” She looked to Jonah, a smile and sigh escaped her. “Two more years. Why are you boys growing up so fast?” She came to Jonah and gave him a squeeze around his shoulders from where he sat in the chair.
“Less than two years, Mom,” Jonah corrected.
She just smiled. “Noah, are we all set?”
“Minus an umbrella, we’re good to go,” he said, standing up to leave. “Jonah,” he turned his attention back to his son, “if it starts raining, don’t worry about the loader and wagon.”
“I think it’s gonna rain,” Jonah said.
Creamy white and buttery yellow, the colors of Noah’s 76’ Chevy C30 –with just a little rust –faded down the road. After watching the truck leave, the two boys set to work on the morning chores. First, they tended to the new litters of Berkshires: “Hey Reinhardt, rock, paper, scissors; loser spreads bedding,” Jonah said. Reinhardt’s scissors lost to Jonah’s rock.
“Best two out of three?” Reinhardt asked.
“Hmm, not today.”
Next, they fed the Barred Rocks and Black Giants. Collecting the eggs, they took them to Grandma in the summer kitchen. Grandma made the boys “Eggs in a Basket,” and they asked her about the weather.
“It’ll rain, but later tonight,” she said.
After finishing their second breakfast, they thanked Grandma and went outside –their morning mostly spent.
“Okay Reinhardt, I’ve been stalling,” Jonah said, “We’ve only one thing left on the list, and I saved the most difficult thing for last.” Jonah led his younger brother to the shed.
One end of the shed roof was sagging, but it had endured enough winter storms, wind, hail, freezing rain and sleet to give everyone confidence it would continue to stand until the end of time. Housed underneath was a genuine circus wagon.
Years ago, their granddad had purchased it at an auction, “They had absolutely no idea what they were selling!” He exclaimed, “I got it for pennies on the dollar.” Painted in forest green with golden trim, it was one of the prettiest pieces of farm equipment. Next to the wagon was the less lovely Ford 861 tractor. Though originally painted in burnt orange with tan accents, decades of rust and touchups left the tractor looking dumpy.
“Do we need the loader at all?” Reinhardt asked.
“Don’t you listen at all?”
“Uh, sorry I forgot.”
Jonah climbed into the pilot seat. He labored the clutch down with his left foot, right foot on the brake pedals, pulled the choke all the way, and turned the key. The tractor cranked to life.
Hitching the wagon took several attempts. They had to back the tractor up close enough to leverage the wagon tongue into alignment with the hitch. Reinhardt held the tongue up and complained, “Jonah, this is getting pretty heavy.” He had to yell over the rattle of the tractor.
“Will you calm down? I’ve almost got it.” And eventually he did, and the wagon was hitched.
“Crap,” Jonah said once he pulled the wagon out and around the side of the shed.
“We should have connected the loader first, then the wagon.”
Reinhardt whistled a low note.
“As if you had any idea,” Jonah rolled his eyes. “Just help me line the bracket up.” Aligning the tractor bracket and loader required precision and strength. Jonah failed to be precise with the tractor. He climbed down and tested his strength by trying to shove the loader into position.
“Why don’t we just unhitch the wagon?” Reinhardt asked.
“Because you suck at helping. I’m not doing that over again.” Jonah continued pushing on the loader attachment. Reinhardt stood still. “Are you going to help me or what?”
“I just don’t like when you’re being mean.”
“Really, Reiner? Or should I say Whiner? You’re such a weakling.”
“You’re doing it again, calling me a whiner, saying I’m a lousy helper. Don’t take your frustrations out on me.”
“Oh, you think I’m taking my frustrations out? This is what that looks like.” He punched Reinhardt in the arm. Reinhardt started to tear up. “See?” said Jonah, “Weakling.” Reinhardt turned without another word and marched off. “I don’t need your help!” Jonah yelled. “Better off without you.”
The old “Diamond Savings and Loan” name could still be seen outside the “Home Savings Bank’s” doors. Two men—one in a suit-and-tie and the other in a denim uniform speckled with paint—argued about the old letters’ visibility.
“It’s all really too bad,” Noah said when they walked in. “That painter didn’t want to see Diamond’s go either.” They sat in front of a new desk, much broader than the one before the bank’s recent acquisition. A glossy name plaque read “Mr. Don Schreiber.”
“I really don’t like this ‘Mr. Schreiber’s’ desk,” Noah said.
“I definitely don’t like seeing it twice in one week,” Eleanor said.
The new banker walked down the hall. In front of a hallway mirror he paused to tighten his loose neck tie and practice a smile. He entered the office bringing the smell of Stetson cologne with him. At the desk he folded his hands and wore his rehearsed smile.
“Good morning, Mr. and Mrs.…” the banker glanced at papers on his desk, “Brandtmeyer. I’ve looked over the promissory note.” He spread his hands over the papers. “It was this kind of, er, partnering Diamond Savings and Loan was loved for, but look at them now.” He held his hands up like a magician revealing that the card had disappeared. His smile vanished also. He furrowed his brow and said, “The unfortunate truth is, it’s been ninety days and there can be no further extensions.” With face muscles strained, he continued, “I’m sorry to say this, Mr. Brandmeyer, but this is the last month before we’re forced to… to pursue our legal remedies.”
Noah breathed deep and leaned back in his chair. His wife at his side gripped his hand. “I have a little cash coming my way soon. I can keep up on the payments; it’s just taking a bit of time. I wanted to ask if we could renegotiate monthly payments or –with a little freed up cash— refinance for a better interest rate.”
“Options, yes. Interest rates continue to be abysmal, but better than your current one. If you have the money to refinance,” the man leaned forward in his chair, “and we make some other adjustments I’ve previously alluded to, we can reduce the monthly payment. But, Mr. Brandtmeyer, with respect, in your situation, will you honestly be able to make even a reduced monthly payment?”
“Depends on how reduced.” Noah’s gaze had fallen at the mention of other adjustments previously alluded to.
The man behind the desk looked down at his papers, began to frame a word in his mouth, reconsidered, cleared his throat and then said, “A credit life insurance policy on a loan can be dropped at any time. By dropping your father’s credit life insurance, the payment—”
“I don’t want to go over all that again,” Noah interrupted, rubbing his temples with his fingers. Eleanor placed her hand on his thigh and stared at the floor. The combination of Xerox, warm printed paper, Stetson’s cologne and fresh paint in the air were beginning to make her eyes red and watery.
“Options Mr. and Mrs. Brandtmeyer. That, along with a new interest rate would represent a considerable decrease in the monthly payment. So sorry to bring up a sensitive point, but in this case, it bears directly on the matter at hand.” he cleared his throat again and pulled at his neck tie, “Is there any hope of finding your father?” Then he lowered his voice, “Or if he is indeed deceased?”
“I’ll be able to make another few months’ payments starting soon,” Noah said firmly. “If I can’t make the payments, what am I up against, what do I need to know?”
The banker loosened his neck tie. He sat up straight and said, “Unfortunately, Mr. Brandtmeyer, the only remaining remedy to us is repossession: the house, barns, machinery, woodlands, even the crops planted in the fields. In a word: Foreclosure.” He exhaled and folded his hands together. “I’m very glad to hear about your coming windfall, but the bank’s position is very clear.”
“Yes,” Noah said, “and to be clear, the credit life insurance policy remains. You said thirty days for the first payment? I’ll have it next week, take that in good faith.” Noah stood up. “Come on Eleanor, we have all we need to know. Good day, Mr. Schreiber. I’ll have a check here next week.”
They didn’t wait to hear Mr. Schreiber make any parting farewells. Once in the parking lot Eleanor asked, “So, going into that I didn’t know we had one-hundred percent decided to sell your father’s Wood-Mizer?”
“What a tax collector, what an unrepentant tax collecting…” Noah’s rant stalled out. “Sorry Eleanor, what did you say?” She repeated herself and Noah said, “I wasn’t sure going into it, but realistically, do you see any other options?”
She looked down. “Can’t the bank just understand and make the extension?” She was choking up, “Can’t the credit life insurance agency advance us money?”
Noah opened the door to the cab, “I can’t change the fine print. I can’t make Dad reappear, dead or alive! What do you want me to do? Hire a lawyer? Pay him with bacon?”
She slumped into the passenger seat; her head fell into her hands. “It’s just so unfair!” and she began to cry.
Noah put his hand on Eleanor. For a few minutes Noah stayed like that, leaning against the truck with his hand on Eleanor as they mellowed. She blew her nose into a handkerchief and sat limp in the passenger’s seat like a deflated air bag.
The sun shone through a small part in the clouds. The town was dry; it had not rained as of yet. Saint Mary’s Main Street was lined with brick stores, each sharing a wall with its neighbors.
“Let’s walk down the street,” Noah offered.
An old canal separated a section of the stores’ masonry, and a bridge spanned the waterway. Standing on the bridge gave them a beautiful view of the town park: full of grass, trees, and park benches. There was also an historical replica canal boat in the water accompanied by a plaster donkey standing on the tow path. Next to the donkey was a large plaque which read: Miami & Erie Canal. A wrought iron stairway attached to the bridge gave pedestrians access to the park grounds.
“I’d like to head down to the park,” Eleanor said. The sun and fresh air had brought her relief.
“Okay, I have some interest in that store up ahead,” Noah pointed across the bridge. “I’ll meet you in the park in a few?”
The storefront had panoramic windows spanning their front wall. A three-dimensional sign supported a steam engine that looked like it was coming out of the building. ‘Traders Co.’ was written in large red letters. Noah entered the store. Floor to ceiling were shelves cluttered with secondhand goods and novelties seemingly arranged by a tornado. A woman worked the cash register and behind her a young boy sat on the floor building a LEGO set.
Noah approached the woman at the cash register. “Do you buy as well as sell?”
“Can I see your I.D.?” She asked, “It’s policy.”
“Sure,” Noah gave the woman his driver’s license.
“One moment, please.”
Behind her was a stairway descending down. Across the entrance was a rope with a sign attached reading “No Admittance.” She stepped over the rope and descended, taking Noah’s license with her. He tapped his fingers on the glass countertop. Inside were old trinkets: silver spoons, tarnished broaches, pendants, and rings. He looked at these for a minute; then to a clock mounted behind the cash register. Another minute passed. The rustling of LEGO’s drew Noah’s attention to the small boy.
“Is that a pirate set?” Noah asked.
The boy darted a shy glance at Noah.
“I have a young son who would like that,” Noah said.
The child smiled and held up a knight minifigure, “It’s my Black Falcon’s Fortress.” Noah smiled back at him.
The woman returned up the stairs, “Al will see you.” She gave Noah his license and pointed down the stairs. Noah came around the counter, eyeing the dark stairwell, and then the woman. “You can step over it.” She waved him on.
Moth balls and cigarettes scented the basement. Table upon table filled the floor space. By the light from the stairway, Noah could see boxes filled with indexed coins from various nations and ages.
Across the room was a small office space. The door was open and an old man was sitting inside. He had thick-rimmed glasses and wore a tweed jacket. As he smoked a cigarette, he worked on a model train by the light of a green-shaded lamp. Mounted on the wall behind him a long metal apparatus hung. Looking up from his work, the man motioned for Noah to come.
“Guten tag, Mr. Brandtmeyer,” the man said. He ground the butt of his cigarette in an ashtray and reached to give Noah a firm handshake.
“You can call me Al. Please, take a seat.” Al resumed his work on the model train. Tiny bits littered the desk. He attached a little piece of railing to a train car. “Do you like trains, Mr. Brandtmeyer?”
“I love trains. I used to operate them in the old country.”
“You have a lovely sign of one out front,” Noah said.
Noah was eyeing the item mounted on the wall. Now that he was closer, he saw it was some sort of military weapon similar to a Bazooka.
Al looked up from his work with a smile. “You like my Panzerfäust, yaw?”
He pointed to the item mounted above him, “Panzerfäust. All the goot little boys trained with them in the old country. Do you know these things?”
“My ancestors immigrated in the eighteen hundred’s.”
“Ah, goot. Goot.” Al frowned. He resumed his work on the model train. “Though others would say it’s a shame. Sprechen sie Deutsch?”
“No hard feelings. What do you do for a living?”
“How is that going for you?”
Al’s hands hovered over the miniature train construction. “Das leben ist kein Ponyhof [The life isn’t a pony farm],” he said then looked up from his work, “Sorry to hear that Mr. Brandtmeyer. My daughter tells me you have items for sale?”
“Heirlooms: bits and pieces of gold, silver buttons, antiquities and the like.”
“I see no parcels.” Al held his hands open as if ready to receive the heirlooms.
“Oh sorry, it was more speculative. I didn’t even know if selling was possible here.”
“You have not brought them?”
“Not with me, no.”
“We hold a ‘Traders Fair’ last Thursday of the month, just had one yesterday.” Al pointed out the office window. “You saw those boxes coming in, with the coins? That’s part of the trading guild. Best time to sell your wares.”
Noah shuffled and shook his head. “Sorry, that won’t do.” He swallowed a lump building in his throat, “I can’t wait till the end of the month.”
“You need cash now?”
Al leaned back in his chair. From a pocket inside his jacket, he brought out a pack of cigarettes. “Cigarette? Imported from the Fatherland.” He held the pack out. Noah declined. Al lit up and took a long contemplative draw.
“How interesting, Mr. Brandtmeyer burnt on farming. Is it a big farm?”
“Just down old 33, South of Moulton?”
“Uh, yes.” Noah frowned.
“Don’t look so incredulous, Mr. Brandtmeyer. My daughter showed me your license.”
“Oh, right.” Noah glanced at the Panzerfäust, the model train, a filing cabinet in the corner, and the smoke curling around the green lampshade. His hands were getting clammy.
Al continued thinking on his cigarette. He opened the desk drawer and brought out a belt buckle. “Gott mit uns[God with us].” Al said holding the buckle up offering Noah a full view of the relic; the words Al had spoken were written within an embossed circle above an eagle perched on a swastika. “You look displeased, Mr. Brandtmeyer. You are not the first man to offer me heirlooms.”
“Oh, right of course.”
“Pieces from this era fetch high prices. Are your heirlooms such as these?”
Al winked and returned the belt buckle to the drawer. “I want to help you, Mr. Brandtmeyer. I like you. But truthfully, I don’t have cash on hand myself.”
He rose from his seat and went to the filing cabinet in the corner of the room. From a ring of keys on his belt, Al unlocked the filing cabinet and fingered through the manila folders. After a minute he closed the filling drawer and re-locked it. “How many years have you been farming? You’ve got strong right hand, calloused. Let me see them.”
“My hands?” Noah questioned.
“Please, raise them.”
Noah proffered his hands. Al eyed them.
“I have it,” Al beamed. The green light of the lamp reflected off his glasses. “I’ll hold your wares as collateral and I’ll hire you, just to make a delivery. Once the job is done, I share profits with you, yaw?”
“I would need to know more about the job.”
“It’s a goot job, requires strength,” here he slapped Noah’s shoulders, “Which you have, yet also sensitivity and wisdom,” here he pointed to Noah’s head, “And I can tell you have that too. You are perfect for the job. Allow me to check my dates. And make a few phone calls. I will send you a message soon. The job would be completed by the end of next week; can you wait that long for cash in hand?”
“Would it be in hand by Friday?”
“Of course,” Al smiled and waved his cigarette.
“Okay,” Noah said.
“Wunderbar, Mr. Brandtmeyer. This may be the beginnings of a great partnership.”
“Do you want my phone number to reach me?”
“No need.” Al wore a wry smile and extended his right hand. Noah shook it. “Auf wiedersehen, Mr. Brandtmeyer.”
Noah climbed back up the stairs. Hands burrowed deep in his pockets and lines furrowed deeper still on his forehead. “What am I doing?” he muttered to himself.
He lost himself in a maze of cluttered shelves, when, nestled between wicker-baskets and picture frames, a lantern caught his eye. The lantern was quite small. And the clever shutter mechanism appealed to Noah; the light could be narrowed or fanned by turning a knob. He bought it, and before finding his wife in the park, he stashed his purchase under the seat in his truck.