Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 070 - Patricia Abbott

ON PALADIN ROAD - PATRICIA ABBOTT

Donald Hauser has lived down the road from us since Eleanor and I moved here with our two boys. Our sub, on Paladin Road, was built after a local farmer, tired of turning over rocks instead of sod, sold his land to a developer. The houses are unpretentious ranches, set back a ways from the road. I've never regretted buying the place and Eleanor still refers to it as her dream house, though more for the setting than its undistinguished architecture.

Donald was already here. His three acres or so lay just beyond the parceled farmland and he couldn't be persuaded to sell. He built the house during the war when top quality building materials were scarce, and unlike our house, his sits close to the road. It snows up her, and he probably didn't want to dig himself out a dozen times each winter. Nor did he want to pour the concrete for a long driveway, or run the electrical, sewer and gas lines farther than was needed.

Donald and I became friends of sorts. I write books about antique guns and Donald collects them. Over the years, I’ve inspected many of his purchases and he’s seldom paid too much or been hoodwinked. There must be four-dozen firearms in the mahogany cases lining his front room. I wouldn't mind owning one or two myself, but I haven’t kept a gun in the house since the late seventies when Petey Burleson, a neighbor’s boy, shot his pigtailed sister with the rifle hanging over their fireplace. I had two kids of my own living here then.

Donald and I are both amateur woodworkers. Well, he may be a bit more than an amateur. His place may not be much to look at but it's lasted half a century. It's warm in the winter and tolerable in the summer. A ball will stay put where it’s set; doors stand open till you push them closed.

Donald’s eighty-five now. He's taken on the stiff, shuffling walk of those old enough to fear a fall, and he's grown forgetful. He doesn't change his clothing enough and doesn't always dress "appropriately" for the weather. Of course, eighty-five’s old by any reckoning.

Sixty-five is old, too and I can feel the changes. I grasp at names that would have leaped effortlessly from my tongue not long ago. Ideas are often lost amid the tidal wave of information flowing through my brain. It’s hard for me to look at Donald without seeing where my road leads.

A few years ago, Donald loaned me a few blades for a project. I don't like to borrow things, especially from Donald, who is particular about his tools. I don't care to lend tools either, but do so when asked, having decided long ago that people are more important than possessions.

It was a Sunday and the hardware store in town was closed. I woke up with a project in mind and couldn't wait to get started. I drove over to Donald's place where his wife led me out to his workshop. Years ago, Donald added a small building at the rear of his house and it was there that he did his carpentry. Though the building was modest, it boasted a collection of tools that rivaled any personal workshop. The steely gleam of sharpened tools, the bouquet composed of oils, wax and freshly cut wood, the familiar pitch of a blade making the first cuts into a good piece of Pennsylvania cherry, were intoxicating. Donald turned after a minute, sensing my presence in his chapel. He lowered his goggles as I explained my project, waiting impatiently while I made my selection. I was reminded of the elderly librarian in the mobile library of my youth who seemed determined to keep all her books away from my grimy fingers.

Donald stored his blades in heavily padded envelopes, each one as sharp as the day he bought it. That’s the way Donald did things, fastidious to a fault. Hurriedly, I slid the blades in and out of the envelopes until I had made my choice. Although he feigned disinterest, I was sure he could call out the manufacturer’s code on each one from across the room. I drove home, easily finishing the rough work that required Donald’s blades by dinnertime. I think it was a small pine cabinet for our good set of silverware.

Donald seemed distracted when I knocked on his door early that evening, but took the blades, nodding curtly at my thanks. He didn't ask about my project nor did he exchange a single pleasantry. The fate of his precious blades had probably gnawed at him all day.

A few days later, a hurricane blew up from the Carolinas. The early prediction was it would miss us in Connecticut, but Godfrey, a nasty storm, proved the prognosticators wrong. The electricity went off once the storm hit and several of our trees were felled.

When it was over, Eleanor was especially disheartened by the loss of a dogwood she had been nursing for years. I refrained from saying that a storm like Godfrey is nature's way of weeding out the weak. For the next few days, neighbors who rarely saw each other, came out of their houses to compare hurricane stories.

About a month later, I was in the post office when Donald stopped me. Naturally, we compared hurricane damage and he said that although his house suffered little injury, Godfrey had torn up his shed pretty badly. Some tools and a few nice pieces of wood he’d stashed away were lost or destroyed. When he finally turned to go, a hesitation in his step gave me the impression there was something more, but perhaps I only believe that in retrospect.

A year went by. I think he bought his Winchester during this period and called me over to see it. Then he phoned to ask if we would pick up his mail while he went with Nancy to see a specialist in Boston. She died a few months later and Donald settled into an even more hermetic existence.

Last fall, out of the blue, Donald stopped me outside the house and asked when I was planning to return his blades. It took me several seconds to recall the loan.

"Well, Donald, I returned them the same day I borrowed them. If I remember correctly, they were destroyed in a hurricane that fall."

Various emotions, fear among them, flitted across his face as he tried to remember. I wondered if Nancy's death precipitated some sort of cognitive dysfunction. But finally his face cleared and he grabbed my hand, pumping it vigorously.

"Of course, I remember, Martin. You’ll have to forgive an old man. You just don’t know…" his voice tailed off. Shielding my eyes from the bright autumn sun, I watched him turn and walk down Paladin Road. I put his lapse down to age and shaking my head, went into the house.

"It's a good thing you had the hurricane to anchor the memory," Eleanor said at lunch. "We should have him over to dinner."

I must have made a face because Eleanor laughed gently, saying, "Well, maybe I’ll take him over a cobbler." And I did mean to visit him . The road to hell is paved with meant instead of cement, my mother used to say.

Two weeks before Christmas. I was hanging a string of lights on the blue spruce when Donald came up behind me.

"When are you going to return those blades?" he demanded angrily, shaking the ladder a little.

I got down off the wobbling stepladder, nearly turning an ankle. "Now wait a minute, Donald. I returned those tools years ago. You lost them in that storm!"

He pulled back his arm a little, as if he were going to take a swing at me. If the situation hadn’t been so distressing, it’d have been comical to see a man of his age aching to throw a punch. Or a man of my age, worried about receiving one. But then his face cleared and he chuckled lightly. "Sorry, Martin. I guess my memory's not as good as it was." Insisting he sit down a minute, I went inside to get a glass of water. When I came back out, he was gone.

"Go after him," Eleanor called from the porch. "Could be a stroke."

"It's no stroke," I told her. "Damned near landed one on my chin though."

Eleanor shook her head, and shivering, closed the door.

This scene was eerily repeated in February, and then again in March. Each time, Donald was eventually persuaded his blades had been lost in Hurricane Godfrey. It was as if we were rehearsing a scene in a play and couldn’t get it right. I considered calling his daughter for help, but since I didn't know her, I did nothing.

Suddenly, the freakish encounters stopped, and when I saw Donald next, he waved pleasantly. I accepted the change gratefully. Still, I tried to steer clear of him. Once or twice, I dreamed about Donald grasping agitatedly at my arms or legs. In the dream, my limbs were easily removed and, in that peculiar landscape we travel in at night, I accepted their loss with equanimity. My conscious self was less sanguine, however, for I awoke shaking and tearful.

"What is it?" Eleanor asked, hugging me. But like many dreamers, I shook her off. Then I lay in the dark for hours, listening to Eleanor's faint snore.

I ran into Donald Hauser today in town. I was in the pharmacy, waiting for my order to be filled, and without thinking I stepped between him and the door.

Donald shook my hand, and I sensed reluctance in the grip. "Martin," he said. "How've you been?"

"Fine. And you?"

"Good. Good." He never once looked me in the eye.

"I've been meaning to ask," I said, "did you ever find those missing blades?"

His face collapsed, but he quickly recovered and mumbled something.

"What?"

"I said you would bring that up again. Thief!" He was nearly shouting and his face was the grimace that only the old can wear. He pushed by me, went through the door, and got into his truck. I looked around to see if anyone had heard him. The store was nearly empty, but a girl refilling the aisle with school supplies ducked her head. I was still standing there with my mouth open a moment later when the pharmacist motioned me that my prescription was ready. I could hardly hear his instructions with the beating of blood in my ear. Hauser’s harassment of me would have to stop. I was losing any respect I had earned in my years in this town.

I pulled up at Donald’s house a few minutes after him, but I could already hear the sound of his table saw. He was wearing goggles and ear protection and didn’t hear me. I looked up; there were the blades he’d been talking about hanging on the wall in front of him. The blades he had insisted I had. The beating in my ears moved into my head. He’d tortured me for years with an invented theft.

I backed out of the workshop quietly and went around to his front door, moving in almost a fugue state. The door was unlocked and I walked inside, headed for the one piece of furniture I was familiar with, breaking the glass on his guncase with an umbrella I found in the hallway. I loaded the Winchester and took it back into Donald’s workshop.

I hadn’t held a loaded gun in years; it felt good. The saw stopped suddenly and Donald turned around. I caught him with a bullet in the neck and then the chest. He dropped more quickly than his stiff knees should have allowed.

I pointed to the blades. "I don’t know why you’ve tortured me with those blades, but this is the end of it. My own wife is starting to look at me like I’m crazy. And now you tell the whole town your lie."

Donald looked up, a look of sadness on his face: such sadness. "It was Eleanor who returned them." I could hardly hear him so I moved closer. He put a hand to his neck, attempting to staunch the flow of blood. "She said you were getting forgetful." His eyes closed.

Forgetful? I put the rifle in my mouth and pulled the trigger.

BIO: Patricia Abbott has published more than fifty stories in literary and crime fiction outlets. She won a Derringer last year for her story, "My Hero." She has stories in the forthcoming "Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll" (Todd Robinson) and Between the Dark and the Daylight" (Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg). Check out more from Patti at Pattinase.

17 comments:

Al Tucher said...

Damn, Patti, you know how to let the dread build. I didn't know what was coming, but I knew it would be bad. And good.

Travis Erwin said...

Wow, Not the ending I ever would have imagined.

Chris said...

Wow. True to the adage that we like to read about people who are good at their jobs, I love the passages describing Donald's woodworking skills -- they're an excellent example of elegance in economy. And wow, did I not see that ending coming! Very well done.

Paul Brazill said...

beautiful and very sad.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I followed the adage that a gun on the mantel has to be fired before the story concludes. Or twice even. Thanks, guys.

Julie said...

Great story, Patti. Beautifully written.

David Cranmer said...

I love endings that jolt me after a good read. And what a read! "The steely gleam of sharpened tools, the bouquet composed of oils, wax and freshly cut wood, the familiar pitch of a blade making the first cuts into a good piece of Pennsylvania cherry, were intoxicating" is brilliant prose. My dad use to have such a workshop and every detail you described was perfect. Well done Patti.

ARCHAVIST said...

I very much enjoyed that and the neat twist at the end - It was Eleanor who returned them. A great story and very sad. I don't think I'll lend any more book out...well, you never know.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Just stay away from putting out money. Nobody remembers who bought the tickets or dinner anymore.

Jake Hinkson said...

Great story, Patti! I agree with Al. The story builds and builds--pulling us along. What I most admire about it is the way you don't waste those seemingly less important scenes. You create a real little world for us.

Anonymous said...

Patti: One of my favorite things about your writing is the seamless way you give real depth and detail to all elements of a story. No easy task.

A great read as always.

John McAuley

Lauren said...

What a great use of tone and setting! I wasn't expecting the ending to be like that. I loved it!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Many thanks.

sandra seamans said...

Wonderful story, Patti!

Dana King said...

That was NOT where I thought the story was going. Well done.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks to all of you. Nothing like the approval of peers to spur us onl

Cathryn Grant said...

Although I'm reading it long after the fact, great story! The sense of dread builds steadily and the ending twists nicely.