Buck Eller's Lake

The cigarette butt sailed in a smooth arc over the low bush into Buck Eller's reservoir. Daniel's eyes followed it to the water and stared at the small ripples it made. But his thoughts never got near it. Somehow, he had not found what he had expected when he came home and he was trying to figure out what it was that he had expected.

He sat looking at the small grove of pine trees that nested against the opposite bank. It had been a hiding place when he was a child here. The dense outer growth obscured the outside world; the sparser inner branches allowing room for a child, and even a lanky adolescent, to sit. There was nearly four feet of open air now between the tree's lowest branches and the ground. He had thought to sit in the grove again and bury some of the ghosts that seemed in his mind to still reside there. The tears and fears of a once lonely child and an angry teen-ager. He had come close to dying in that grove once, but no one now living knew it. The one person who had known, and who had forced him to continue living, had died before those painful high school years had ended. But he couldn't sit in it now. He had realized when he first saw the bare trunks from across the water that the place he had laid down to die in didn't exist any more. The tomb had been closed on the ghosts for years and he had not even known it.

Daniel stuffed his hands in the pockets of his Jean jacket and headed around the lake to see Buella Perry. The whole morning had been rather trying and he was now thankful that his father hadn't been home when he had arrived. It wasn't that anything had been different then he had expected. Maybe it was just that. That he had hoped to find it something other then he knew he would.

He walked past the remnants of the old barn, lighting yet another cigarette as he did. He had been aware that it had fallen down in the wind two years ago, but there was something disquieting about seeing it laying there, a pile of old black wood.

Who wrote the script for this? He wondered. Everything was too intense to be real. It had stormed heavily the night before. He had spent the night listening to the thunder thorough he thin walls of Ron Burrel's trailer, remembering similar storms when he was a child. He and his two brothers would get out of bed and drink hot chocolate and huddle together, listening to the thunder.

This morning the pale streaks of sun came through the shadows of clouds onto the misty mountains. He sat on the remains of the '52 Chevy truck his father had driven in college and watched the steam rising off of the wet black wood that had once been the barn. One corner was still mostly standing and some of the farm equipment had been moved under it. But most of it still sat where it had always been, as if the barn still sheltered it instead of laying on top.

When it had first fallen his father had talked of having a barn raising. He had gone on quite at length about the party it would be and it would be talked about for years and about the stout beautiful structure they would build. He talked of how wonderful a barn raising was as if he had grown up with them. But Daniel knew that the closest his father ever got to a barn raising was hearing his Grandmother talk about it. Daniel had known from the start it would never happen.

But seeing the rubble still laying where it had fallen disturbed him. It occurred to him as he sat on the old truck that his father probably didn't fully realize that the barn wasn't standing. The old man probably had spent so many nights drinking home made cider and dreaming of the barn raising that he didn't know anymore - that it had never happened.

He was sure his father didn't see the rest of the deterioration of the farm either. Four junk cars and various neglected farm equipment and a disassembled motorcycle gave the place a junkyard appearance. The trees should have been pruned by now, and they were barely started. Part of the bank had slid into the creek and the water had simply cut a new path through the apples and over the top of the well. It seemed unlikely to Daniel that the well was in good enough repair to keep the silt out. He knew his father was still capable of clearing the creek bed. He simply hadn't.

Daniel smashed the butt out on the fender of the truck and started across the yard with his hands deep in his pockets. He had gone in the house when he arrived, and it was in no better shape then the rest of the ranch. The rug had been pulled up, but not replaced and now most of the floor was bare plywood. He had found the rug rolled up in the back room, burned by the fire place and chewed by the dog. He was pretty sure the last time the dishes had been cleaned was in the pre-Christian era and he speculated that some of the containers in the refrigerator were on the verge of discovering agriculture.

He opened the door of the greenhouse to find it full of the small equipment that had been orphaned by the fallen barn. It was a sensible thing for his father to do. Daniel was a little surprised and very pleased that his father had done it and he didn't really understand why it bothered him to see the Troy Built sitting under the transplanting table and extra hydraulic lines on the benches.

The greenhouse had been built for his mother when he was, what - maybe thirteen. Originally it had been a frame of curved pipe covered by plastic. It had looked like a giant loaf of bread and his mother had always joked about painting "Langendorf" on the side of it. It had been replace a few years later with 2X4's and fiberglass panels. Then, the next year, when his mother went to visit her family, he and his brothers and his father took down one wall and tripled the size of it in the two days she was gone. She had walked almost all the way past it before she noticed.

So now the small wood stove that had been put in for winter warmth was rusted and the flue had separated from it and baby's tears crept up from under tools and chainsaws. It was very sensible, but for reasons he couldn't fathom, he found it depressing and he wished he hadn't opened the door.

As he headed into Beulla's orchard he thought about the last time he had been here. It had been four months earlier for Matthew Perry's funeral, and somehow he had not noticed the extent things had deteriorated.

The three of them had gone down the street to a bar during the services. They didn't feel comfortable going into the ancient catholic church. They had drunk a toast to the old man that had been an old man and a neighbor for as long as they could remember. They talked about how frail and unreal the body had looked in the immense oak and brass casket, and the practiced smiles of the funeral attendants, and how it seemed to all of them that a portion of their lives had somehow ended with the loss of the feisty old man.

Buella had looked so weak and lost. They all wondered if she would last a year without Matthew to argue over feeding stray cats and how much sugar to put in canned peaches.

His father had stayed at the Perry's house to prepare for the reception and Daniel and his brothers wondered if it was more because he knew that their mother would be there with her new husband or if it was that his father couldn't face wondering what he was going to do without Matthew needing him to help.

At the reception everyone commented that his father was sober. Surprising in light of the circumstances. Toby worried that everyone had enough to eat and drink and everyone worked hard not to be sad because they knew Matthew would have wanted it that way. His brother Mark ran back to the house to get his father's fiddle and Pete brought out his squeeze box and everyone got very loud and Daniel and his brothers had felt very young and out of place and were glad they had to leave early for jobs the next day hundreds of miles away.

He put out the cigarette he hadn't even realized he had lit as he walked up to Buella's door. He was caught off guard by the unfamiliar face that answered the door and found himself stumbling for words when the woman challenged him. He mumbled something about being one of Joseph's boys and how was Buella? The woman had been hired by Toby to take care of the old woman, and Daniel wasn't sure if he liked the protective attitude or not. Buella didn't know where his father was and he assured her that there was nothing wrong. He hadn't given his father warning of his arrival, and there was no reason that he should have been home.

He talked with her for a while about important trivial stuff, sensing her feeling of loneliness. But he felt uncomfortable with the quiet pale woman who had used to be loud and ribald enough to embarrass three teen-aged boys. (Not, he had come to realize, that it was difficult for an old woman to embarrass teen-aged boys.)

The feeling he and his brothers had gotten at the funeral came back to him as he descended the perry's hill. He sat down on a stump in the gully and looked for a long time at the top of the pump poking out of 20" of water. The stump had been a large white oak last time he was down in the gully and its absence, along with the clogged creek bed made the place look like someplace else. He supposed the tree had been cut for firewood and he knew that was quite rational, but he found it disturbed him in the same odd way the greenhouse had. His childhood hiding place wasn't the only thing that had disappeared. The place he had grown up in no longer existed.

He knew it hadn't disappeared overnight and he tried to figure out when it had. It had only been nine years since he had lived here. It had still been there when he came home for summer breaks. He didn't see it sliding away when he came home for Christmases.

He thought about the last time he had been home for Christmas. Five years ago. It had been the last one that his parents were together. Everything had been so tense, as if they were trying to make a show of Christmas. And he supposed they were. A tree was bought out of a yard where each one was tagged and lined in neat rows. Getting the tree before had always been a major event for the boys and their dad. Even when they were young their father had no more say in which tree was cut (though no less) then any of them. They all had to agree. It was always a whole day affair, as they debated the attributes of several widely spaced candidates.

But that year Daniel and his older brother Tom just took the truck to town to buy one while Mark stacked fire wood. And no one felt it wasn't fair that they went to get the tree while Mark worked because it was just a chore like the wood.

They went down the first row until they found one that would fit and, without the traditional debate over long or short needles, it was loaded into the truck and decorated with the same attitude that Mark had stacked wood.

Money had been tight that year and it seemed to invade everything that wasn't already infested with his parents fighting. And both his parents were drinking so much, especially his dad. Joseph had staggered off to bed, falling into the wall and claiming that he wasn't drunk. Daniel had stayed up with his mother while she cried over all the problems they were having.

"Do you know what it is like," she had said "to go to bed with someone who doesn't go to sleep, but passes out every night?"

He sat quiet, listening to her. He didn't know what to say. He was surprised to find that she was aware of how much she was drinking and that she knew that much of the reason why was that she had become tired of fighting Joseph. It was just easier. And it didn't hurt so much.

"All we do anymore is drink and fight," she said over and over, "drink and fight."

That Christmas was when the home he had grown up in must have started to erode. His parents were separated by the following Christmas and Daniel had not gone home for it. He had found some place else to be on every Christmas since.

It had, in fact, been his father's Christmas visit to Tom that year that had compelled Daniel to be here now. He and Mark had given up on their father years prior. They had poured all the time, effort, and emotional energy they could into trying to change him, or help him, or even to just deal with him. After a while, there just wasn't anymore to give. Tom had been the last hold out. Probably because of the kids. But this Christmas, with his father's drinking and lying and refusal to live in any semblance of the real world or even to bother to wash his clothes had finally angered Tom beyond a willingness to keep trying.

Tom's description of the deterioration of the house and farm, and Joseph himself, had not surprised Daniel. It even followed right along with the predictions Mark had made a few years ago. But for reasons he didn't know, Daniel just had to come up and see.

Some part of him hoping he would find different then he knew he had to.

He felt so incredibly weary as he maneuvered the car around the abandoned vehicles in the driveway to leave.

"Dad's already dead," Mark had said, "He just doesn't have enough courtesy to fall down."

He drove the rented Impala at its limit down the mountain. He and his brothers used to race down the road, sometimes in over-loaded harvest trucks. He was looking for a little piece of something lost as he wove through the still remembered curves. He pushed the pedal down a little farther and gripped the wheel a little harder, knowing as he did, that it wasn't there to be found.



By Suli Marr