The Last Season
At the southern edge of the parking lot behind Storey’s Garden Market a tall pile of dirt and torn-up asphalt rose from the night-blanketed earth. Weeds caped the slope that faced the woods and brooks that coursed the undeveloped wetlands like veins but on the side overlooking the squatted greenhouses sat two gardeners, bottles of beer glistening in their hands in the dull orange light blooming from a tall, three-bulbed street lamp. Its gaze illumined the whole lot and the two gardeners, Jake and Steve, lifted the bottles to their lips.
Do you have a light? Steve asked.
Sure, here, Jake replied, passing a small red plastic lighter to his friend. Dude this brew turned out great, well done.
Thank you. Steve took a long swig, holding the bottle out in front of his face and grinning at his blurred reflection in the glass. I still think that cherry wheat was better but you were right, this light approach is more up my alley.
You just can’t be trusted with cocoa. You made two people sick, dude.
No one said the art was easy, my young friend. His fingers moved, unwatched, beneath his forty seven-year-old face, turning a rolling paper in his hands. Soon a cigarette hung from his lips, its end blackening from the gas-flame’s touch. You see the one in red today?
Of course. With the kid?
Yup. She’s been in here before, never with the kid though.
Think it’s hers?
Probably. He looked retarded so maybe she works with him or something.
No, she seemed pretty protective.
Either way, a bright spot in an otherwise tame day. No good stories from the front.
How are Jenn and Sarah doing?
No shots fired but who knows, the night is young and my home-brew is potent.
Is Sarah coming?
Why do you ask?
No reason, well, because if–
–if she’s here she might come out back to the rubble pile with you tonight.
Fuck you, man.
Hey, just saying, Storey’s has a long and storied history of having an incestuous staff.
I have been on this hallowed ground.
How many customers?
Steve rose the hand grasping his beer bottle and extended three fingers. His free hand flicked the filter out into the darkness, its dying orange glow disappearing amidst the night-moist weeds that grew on the backside of the pile.
Okay, technically two, the third wasn’t necessarily on the grounds.
How would you pull that off, you work in the front?
The first I was really proud of, though to be fair, she basically put it out there for me to grab. It was a slow Sunday, hardly any business at the end of the day, and she started commented about the irrigation pipes out back and how she’d love to see them, I offered a tour and well, lots of broken down trucks back there with unlocked doors–
Jesus, man, you’re lucky you didn’t get fucked by a swarm of bees.
Second was in the bathroom. That was a rainy day, again, real slow, very few staff on. Third was technically because she invited me to her house. Kind of sad one, actually.
What do you mean?
Steve spat out toward the lot, and he grinned when he heard a distant splat from below.
That one, my young apprentice, Steve began. He reached into the left cargo pocket on his shorts, pulled out his tobacco pouch. That story is for another time. He began to roll another one. Can I ask you a question?
Only if you roll me one.
Steve passed him a cigarette and the lighter. When you graduated last month, did you have a plan for what you were gonna do?
Not really. I couldn’t get any of the internships I wanted so I figured I’d just come home. If Storey’s hadn’t hired me I would’ve been fucked.
Yeah, Steve said, his voice trailing off. The cigarette he smoked was half-burnt away, its tip a roaring glow while the filter wetted in his lips.
I kinda want to do grad school but I’m not really sure what I’d do.
Yeah, that shit’s tough.
What did you do?
Well when I went to college it wasn’t like today, you didn’t have to borrow against every bone in your body to go to a class. When I graduated–shit, I don’t even remember what my bachelor’s was in. English I think? I had been here working summers, was thinking about teaching at the high school but i never got around to applying. Steve ran a wrinkled hand through his grey-black hair, which hung sweaty and loose against his shoulders, the faded orange T-short he wore. For a moment, he fell a soreness clouding his bottom jaw. You’ll be okay, though.
What about the stuff they talked about at the meeting today?
That, Steve started to say, letting the final consonant linger in his mouth like a wad of spit and mucus, as if he was unsure of where to let it drop. That I do not know.
Aren’t you one of the old gods here?
Sure, but…I mean, the new co-owners aren’t really as friendly or generous as Jacob Storey or his sons were. The house we all live in, Jacob built it, what, sixty years ago?
This place is that old?
When did the co-owners come in?
Five seasons back. John died in 2014 and Jim couldn’t keep up with the bills, so…
Are things better now?
It looks like itThe owners do landscaping, which helps when the timing is right. That’s why we have all that shit. Steve pointed out toward the lot, toward the glistening fleet of trucks, tractors, trailers and mowers. They huddled in the space beside the two greenhouses and the orange light from the street lamp made them look like a field of embers from the mound of rubble.
Damn. Nobody ever told me this stuff.
Who would want to? I feel like shit talking about it already, and I’m an old man. Jake could see the wrinkles on Steve’s face more clearly now, even though the darkness lapped at their bodies from behind like an unseen ocean and the only light they had didn’t seem to notice them, watching from across the lot. He opened his mouth but then shut it, instead picking up a small rock and turning it in his hand. Then he heard the rustle of plastic as Steve took a long rolled cigar from his pocket.
All of this sentimental chitchat and we forgot to smoke this fucking blunt, Steve declared, grinning rows of yellowed teeth. Then, we’re getting hammered.
At the eastern edge of Storey’s Garden Market an ivory-painted fence rose, ivy curled like children’s fingers around the tops of the posts. Behind it, sprawled out in grass that rose and curled up in just-curled grass, a young man and a young woman nestled closer to one another.
Where’s my beer? the girl asked, sitting up. Her blonde hair spilled down from her head, brushing against the young man’s chest like a curtain.
Here, he said, reaching behind him and grasping a tall can. He felt the can’s condensation cool his palms. Holy shit.
How are you feeling?
Ridiculous, he said through a laugh that begin with a single twitch and grew until his whole body was quaking. The girl, Jenn, had taken the can and was tipping it back, letting its cool, frothy innards pour down her throat. She felt warmer now, more emboldened. She looked down at the man she saw as a boy, David, and smiled warmly.
That shit is going to rot your brain out.
You can never have enough miracle in your life.
Too many miracles and you’ll stop believing they’re anything but ordinary.
That’s pretty poetic of you.
Gotta put the MFA to work somehow.
You should read to me tonight.
We’ll see. Were you planning on sleeping here?
In the grass? Absolutely. David let his left hand fall from the small of Jenn’s back and into the grass. His hand suddenly felt alive with every molecule of water as if each one were trying to push their way into his skin. Yeah, I mean, I doubt I would have an uneventful night’s sleep.
Wouldn’t be the first time somehow found you naked in the toolshed, David.
The leaf blower bought the first drink, I swear.
Jenn ran a tanned hand through her hair, feeling the clumps and knots pass beneath her fingertips. She turned her head, looked at the staff house, its siding covered in chipped paint that shone pale green in the moonlight, and heard loud voices and heavy footsteps resonating from within.
How fucked up are you right now? she asked, looking down at him through her draped, golden hair.
This many, he said, holding up both hands and extending all of his fingers. Jenn noticed the callouses, the quiet strength that kept them steady in the darkness behind the staff house. Although an argument could be made for modestly.
I don’t even think your eyes are white anymore.
I’m pretty sure I’m seeing light that hasn’t hit the Earth yet. David watched her pull her tanned legs closer to her body. His eyes drifted down to the pale blue faded denim shorts, to the hem that clung just tight enough to her thighs, along each white outspread fray. Have we eaten recently?
You absorbed two burgers an hour ago. Thanks for remembering that I brought them to you.
Oh, I remember those. I distinctly recall kneeling to give my thanks. He paused at this, remembering how the juice felt in his mouth, as if some meat-constructed dam had broke. I could eat everything.
If that’s not a bet, I don’t know what is.
I’m in no position to gamble. We’re getting paid tomorrow, remember?
You ever get paid on a Saturday before?
David sat up. His brown hair, long and tangled and sweat-dried, fell knotted toward his shoulders but not quite long enough to reach. He took a deep breath, feeling each inch of his lungs swell with cold, invigorating purpose.
Nope. I mean, I think John paid us once in cash, but that was on a Friday night at worse. That was what, eight years ago?
Worried about gas money? There’s plenty here to siphon. Steve and I do it all the time.
No, it’s just–never mind. You’re too fucked up to talk about this.
Most likely, David laughed, grabbing one of the thick black boots that sat beside him and pulling it onto his foot. His bare feet felt warmed by the closeness of the leather. This feeling blossomed when he put on the other, so he took his time tying each one.
Jim lifted the shot glass of whiskey to his nose and drew in its aromatic history. John Storey had given him the bottle eight years ago, itself having been bottled thirty-two years before then. Its oaken taste lingered on his taste buds, the last sparks of alcohol dancing on his tongue. He stared at the bottle; a slender brown with a faded label, it sat on the desk in the office and gleamed in the low light cast by a short desk lamp. His left hand, sun-bleached and veiny, rested on a pile of documents before him. He thought about the numbers they contained. The black-ink print and curved signatures in front of him were his works, but they seemed like they were written in another language by a stranger’s hand. His spine felt warm, strained but warm hunched over in the cracked leather chair. The room seemed so quiet his heart beat sounded as if it were traveling through the wires in the walls.
Then he was back again as the pain crawled up like vines through his shoulders and down into his arms, resting in the cracks beneath his skin around his joints and knuckles. He felt less of the world around him and more of that within; the pain that grew like unwanted trees within him grasping each stem of sunlight that appeared over the horizon. Somewhere in the desk a bottle of pills lurked in the darkness but now he only thought of the whiskey, its age and the way the liquid gave way to a light froth when he shook it front of his eyes to see the lamp’s light dance within the brown and gold.
Someone knocked at the door. It opened slightly and he saw a pale face ringed with auburn locks.
Sarah, come on in, you don’t need to knock, he called in a husky baritone, his voice softened and stretched by the alcohol.
Sorry–it’s just, everyone was looking for you. I thought I would come and get you. Jim watched her lithe frame slip through the door without opening it all the way. He saw how the dark T-shirt and faded capris clung to her thinning, thirty-three year old body, how sleeplessness pooled beneath her eyes and around her cheeks. He noticed all of these things yet kept his mouth shut and walled behind a white smile.
No, no, he started, I should be the sorry one. I’ve just been in here finishing up some stuff. I’ll meet up with you guys in a little while.
Wait, wait, wait–something is up.
What do you mean?
What do you mean, what do I mean? You’re willingly giving up making the bonfire? As in the start of the season bonfire? Are you high?
I won’t plead the Fifth.
Sarah laughed, deep with a rising sonority. Something is up. What aren’t you telling me, Jim? Come on, we’ve both been here long enough. You look like you have secrets.
Maybe I do. I’m the last Storey standing, don’t I get to keep a few of my own?
The family gold doesn’t count.
It’s out there. I’ll find it.
Steve spent the entire season four years ago looking for it, remember?
Pretty sure he found Peter’s old liquor stash, I don’t remember advancing him that much of his salary.
Sarah’s eyes drifted up to the photographs hanging on the walls. She stopped on one; a sepia print of Jacob, John and Peter Storey standing in front of a greenhouse with bouquets of flowers in their hands and wide grins on their faces.
Jacob seemed like a really nice guy. A good dad.
He really was.
Jim leaned back in his chair, his gaze passing between the photographs. One at the top was a view from the swamp behind the gardening center but from a high vantage point. In the foreground he saw gardens and greenhouses while behind them loomed the smokestacks of mills in Lowell. Sarah stood up to get a closer look at the photo.
Where was that one taken? The view is incredible.
There are a few pines out in the swamp that are enormous. Steve knows which tree, he’s tried to get me to climb it before. As you can imagine I tactfully declined. Another shot passed over his tongue, more roughly now and a small splash of liquid rose up again to smolder in the back of his throat.
Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you? Sarah asked.
I don’t want you to worry.
This is beyond worry. I’m your assistant manager, you’re supposed to tell me these things.
Jim bit his lip. Well–it’s just, money has been really tight around here and–I get stressed out about it. Bills and all. We can’t afford to replace the solar panels until–until next year, and, well, it’s going to be a tough season. So I’m worried.
Tougher than last season?
Jim laughed harshly. I fucking hope not. Another shot. It’s not fungus, so, I think that we’ll be okay.
Sarah stared past Jim, through the window pane and out into the night. She could see the plastic tops of the greenhouses glister in the moonlight. She felt a sudden need for fresh air.
You sure you don’t want to start the bonfire? she asked, looking back to him. He was spinning the small shot glass between his fingers. Jim picked up the bottle, unscrewed the cap and tipped the bottle back between his lips. After a long gulp he coughed, a heat rising through his chest and into his shoulders. The aching in his bones felt blurred, almost forgettable.
I’ve had a change of heart. Besides, I can’t let you children mess it all up. Come on. Jim stood, picked up the bottle and moved toward the door, brushing his hip against Sarah’s and pushing her against the desk. She giggled and followed closely behind him.
A youngish-looking man stood on the side of the road, stroking the brown-red bristles beneath his chin and breathing in the warm summer air of the night as his free hand dug deep into his shorts pocket. There were lines on his face, as if he were slowly drying out, but his eyes sparkled in the bathed glow of the street lamp above him. Pulling out an ecig he popped it into his mouth and watched its tip emit a bluish glow. Smith Road, which ran alongside the east side of Storey’s Garden Market, was deserted. A radio’s scratchy voice rose above voices growing behind him, the occasional collision of glass from somewhere outside the staff house.
He heard the sound of a weary exhaust behind him. A faded red station wagon had pulled up along the side of the road, its headlights staring past him as if it were a drunk that had lost his way.
Hey asshole, we’re not getting any younger, a voice from inside called. Eric could see Ezra sitting behind the wheel, smoke rising from the darkness in front of his face. As Eric climbed into the passenger seat Ezra watched him, sucking loudly at the thin-filtered cigarette perched between his lips. You know, I can feed my addictions with plenty of other fine people, Eric.
Ezra, without me, your addiction would have no class.
You’re a cretin, Eric.
I thought we had something special as syllable-brothers.
We’re not blood-related, I owe you nothing. The car had begun to move again, climbing up the winding slop of Smith Road past tall dark houses, their wide facades bristling with multi-sized windows. Some were built on hillocks risen during the last construction boom in Montford, others dug into the earth to accommodate huge garages that loomed above empty driveways. A few gathered mulched gardens at their edges filled with unknown, night-darkened flowers. Eric watched them pass by before turning back to watch the green lights of the dashboard quiver in the passing smoke.
So tell me again what we’re buying? he asked quietly.
Quest, Ezra replied.
What the hell is that shit?
It’s the poetry of opiates. Total time and space collapse. It’s really something else, you don’t even feel like you’re alive. But you don’t feel dead. You just…exist. It’s hard to explain. But I guess some people have felt like they went on–well, you call it “going on a quest” when you do it. There’s this community built around it, it’s actually kind of crazy.
Have you gone anywhere?
Apart from my roof, naked, at three a.m.? Not much farther than that. Shit’s wild.
I’ll take your word for it. As long as my muscles don’t feel like liquid again.
Better than what happened to Murphy last weekend.
No shit, you still see Murphy?
Sometimes. He’s in Boston now, living between the Common and Cambridge. But he was in town last weekend to see Jeff. Didn’t seem like he was in good shape to begin with.
Dude just couldn’t handle it. Started off strong with whiskey and when that ran out he went on a quest and just shut down. We thought his fucking heart had stopped so we took him to the hospital but he was alive. Just not really there. I haven’t seen him since.
Have you talked to his family?
Wouldn’t know where to find them.
Ezra’s steering had taken them into a cul-de-sac. Several ranch-style homes huddled in the darkness around them, their porch lights casting dim glows onto the night-wet grass. Ezra yanked the e-brake upward as he parked. Eric climbed out and let the door shut quietly behind him, watching Ezra lift a smartphone out of his pocket and begin stroking its blue-lit face.
Should we wait around back?
No, Jeff hasn’t been really in a good spot lately so I’ve been trying to keep my distance. His car got robbed last week.
Are you serious?
Shh, it’s not well-known. He’s fucking pissed.
Does he know who?
Yes. Ezra’s mouth stayed open to continue speaking but the phone in his hand suddenly shook and his gaze fell downward, the conversation falling away like loose dust from his eyes. Eric heard tiny clicks as his friend’s fingers sped over the screen. Come on.
The two moved into the backyard. Their feet swished against the wet grass and their bodies cast towering shadows into the lit parts of the lawn. Around back a low wooden porch hugged the side of the house. A man wide around the hips and gut stood on the porch, wearing black sweatpants, a white T-shirt and smoking a long cigar.
Jeff, my good man, how the hell are you? Ezra asked, extending his hand. Eric noticed Jeff’s height, how he rose over Ezra from the top step of a small wooden staircase.
Can’t complain. Eric, good to see you. Still teaching? Eric reached out, took his hand and felt its warm moisture as they shook.
Some guitar. Not as much as I’d like to.
You still play? That album you made in high school was a hell of a thing.
Mostly at home. I kind of fell out of the open mic scene, you know?
Yeah, that shit’s tough. You guys want something to drink? Jeff motioned to a small white plastic cooler. Silver beers cans bobbed and bumped against one another, alongside the rim of the container. Ezra reached down, grabbed two and passed one up to Eric, who cracked his open and held it out as the pressure forced beer and bubbles out into the hot world.
I was telling our friend here about quest, Jeff.
Oh yeah? You a journeyman, Eric?
Beats any pill or dust I’ve ever had.
Once. But I hadn’t eaten in like a day and a half, and I’m diabetic, so you can’t really use me as an example.
Should you be dumping that shit inside you if you’re diabetic?
Sure. A life as shortened as mine is deserving of modulation. Right, Ezra?
Don’t ask me, I’m only a doctor. But if I was your lawyer I’d strongly suggest we step inside.
Can’t. My mom is asleep and I don’t know where my dad is. Do we have a car?
Nothing better than a smoke ride than a needle ride, Ezra chimed in.
You aren’t planning on driving if you’re questing tonight, right? Jeff asked, looking away from Eric to Ezra, whose lean, pale frame was leaned up against the deck.
No–no, I’ll do it in honor of my good friend Eric here. I’ll stay the sober judge tonight. Unless you want to, Jeff.
Are you kidding? I’m not driving home tonight. Any parties tonight?
Nope, Ezra said. He scratched at the center of the washed-out green T-shirt he wore, his fingers curled around the white outline of a fruit-laden tree. We reached out to you with the explicit purpose of being the only party in Montford.
The three walked out into the cul-de-sac. Eric let the ecig hang from his lips again, taking in small nicotine breaths and holding them in the back of his mouth. The vaporized smoke climbed briefly before his eyes before fading into nothing. He looked over, watched Jeff take a small bag of brown-gold powder from his bag and removing a small pinch. Jeff sprinkled it onto a small silver spoon while Ezra stood there, holding a brightly glowing smartphone in one hand and a long syringe in the other. Eric moved closer and could see that the powder had turned a glowing bronze. Ezra let the needle’s tip hang over the edge of the spoon, slowly drawing in some of the solution.
Now the fun part. Come over here, Eric.
Anyone got a belt?
No belt. None of that sketchy heroin shit. This is much easier.
What do you mean?
Just give me your hand.
Eric held his arm out. Jeff’s own hands, thick and beefy, wrapped around his wrist and pulled it slightly closer. With the other hand, he gingerly accepted the offered syringe from Ezra. A small bronze globule quivering at its tip dripped down and made a small splash as the needle fell, plunging into the skin of Eric’s forearm.
Light entered his eyes from all around him, as if he stood in a dome of windows and all of them were suddenly thrown open. The ground beneath him felt deeper, more brittle, and Eric gripped the door of the station wagon, his fingers sweat-drenched and slipping against the metal.
Shit, I think he likes it, came a voice–Ezra’s, rising from the glare that surrounded him.
Just give him time — he’ll come to hate it like the rest of us. How’s the quest, Eric?
It’s fucking tall out here. Jeff and Ezra both burst into laughter, but Eric heard it like they were standing at the end of a drainage pipe and shouting in the opposite direction. He began to wonder if the cul-de-sac–if the entire world–was spinning beneath him. After a few moments he realized he was alone, that the faded red station wagon’s wheels were slowly sliding into the asphalt and its surface, once solid, had begun to mold and shape around his fingers. When he pushed himself back he bumped into Ezra, who was laughing and steadying him by grasping his shoulders tight.
Dude, Eric, we leave you alone for thirty seconds and you already start screaming? Get in the car dude, he managed between suppressed outbursts. Eric looked across the cul-de-sac, watched a lamp suddenly burst to life behind a curtained window. He swore he heard its voice, a brass tenor, calling out into the night. Then a door slammed and he was wearing a seatbelt. Movement beneath him seemed to push him upward, so he let his head hit the rest behind it, feeling it melt into the soft plush cushion.
The edges of the fire-pit in front of the staff house formed a nearly perfect circle. Jim hung down over its edge, arranging the split logs into a rough pyramid as he pushed small bits of newspaper and spruce twigs around the base. Sweat dribbled off his forehead, trickling into the old ashes and cindered chunks of wood.
If he could see into the past, watched how the fire-pit had been built, he would have first noticed Jacob’s careful approach to the project, how he gathered every tool before he dug or spaded or laid. He was the sort of man who felt the sun rise while he still dreamed, and answered the day when it first brushed his eyelids with gravity.
The morning he finished digging the pit he had reached to the other side of the bed and felt the cold cloth beneath his wrinkled, dirt-lined. The absence of Wendy’s weight and smell drove him from the bed and through the door.
Before he reached the staff house he stopped in the middle of the small dirt lot. He could see a few workers moving around in the greenhouse on the western side of the lot. Jacob watched bursts of water unfurl against the thick plaster, smiled at the knowledge that his words were being followed. He turned and walked up the rock-layered path to the staff house. A short, round-bellied man with spongy brown hair was waiting in the front yard of the staff house, staring at the freshly painted white fence that blocked the view of Smith Road and packing some tobacco into a curbed wooden pipe.
This is a great fence, Jacob, but I think you got gypped on the paint.
Didn’t matter, George, a bucket of paint is worth a quarter of a damn tire divot. That last one was too damn long.
You think about spiking the road?
If the town’d let me, I sure as hell would.
Jacob squatted, staring down into the two-foot deep circle had carved. It was nearly perfect, but even in the bright Saturday light he could tell it was off.
Can I make a suggestion? George asked.
By all means, head gardener.
You probably shouldn’t play around with it too much.
Well, you can’t fill it in, because you’ll never get as good a wall again. Second, the soil’ll be more liable to collapse unless you were planning on putting stones in there–
–which I was–
–which you were, but even so, you don’t want this thing falling apart after ten years. It’s a fine fire-pit, Jacob. You got lucky with the last refilling, I wouldn’t chance it again.
Maybe. Jacob sat down on the edge, let his legs touch the bed of the pit. It felt firm, almost polished beneath his feet. He thought of the stones piled in the south of the lot, imagined carrying each one up the small path. Looking up at George, he scratched at the thick beard that hung from his chin and grinned. Let’s go grab those rocks.
Jake and Steve walked into the front yard of the staff house. Several of the other gardeners were sitting in the thin grass around it. Jim stood above the pit, tossing split logs down into the rising flames. Jake noticed Sarah sitting on the front step of the staff house, her long legs hidden by dark patched jeans, then felt an elbow jab from Steve as they made their way to the fire.
Is this everyone? Jim asked as they approached.
I haven’t seen Ezra and Eric in a little while, Steve said. Jim squatted down by the fire pit and wordlessly watched its intertwining evolutions. Steve continued walking and, with Jake in tow, settled down next to David and Jenn, who were huddled close together with their backs close to a wide oak tree.
Good thing the show didn’t sell out, Steve offered as he sat down. Is anyone else feeling a distinct chill in the air?
That’s the alcohol in your blood, Jenn replied. You’ve gone so numb to the heat you’ve come out on the other side. Congratulations.
Years of practice.
The group heard two doors slamming shut. After a few second Eric and Ezra emerged from around the edge of the fence that stopped at the paved driveway. Jake noticed that Ezra’s arm was around Eric’s shoulders, his brother’s fingers gripping tight against his shirt.
Don’t mind us, just stumbling back into the community, Ezra called. As they approached the fire, Jim stood, and Jake watched the form of his boss rise like a sun-ringed silhouette against the flame. For a moment, Jake thought he saw fear pass over Eric’s face as he approached the fire, and his body looked held back as if he were ready to throw himself away and into the grass. Ezra guided Eric over to a grassy patch next to Jake, settling down with their legs crossed. Jake watched his brother pull a bottle of beer out of his shorts pocket and crack it open between his teeth.
Now that we’re all settled in, Jim said, looking around at the group. I just wanted to thank you all for the prep we did this week. West House hasn’t looked cleaner and East House is set to be open by the end of the month. David and his crew have set up an irrigation system that’s probably the most inventive thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s going to save us a lot of money in the end. Front-end people have been engaging the customers in just the right way and our Independence Day sale looks like it’s going to be the best in years. So, thank you, everyone.
A few of the gardeners began to clap. Others grinned at Jim and took swigs of their drinks, puffs on their cigarettes. Jake brought his hands together a few times and noticed David staring up at the stars, a motionless smile carved into his face as if he were made of stone.
There’s something else, Jim began again. Jake noticed more hesitation, a small catch in his voice that slowed down whatever speech came next. I’ve decided that this will be my last season here at Storey’s. I’ve been–I’ve been doing this a long time, but, I think that, when you start to get up there it’s important to look ahead to what’s next for whatever it is you built. I know Jacob, John and Peter all felt this way, and so do I.
But I’m not selling the place. Actually, I want one of you to take over. So, this summer, I’m going to be watching each and every one of you to see how you perform. Everyone is eligible…I just want to see you all work your hardest and prove that you deserve to take over the family business. We’re all a family here, which is why I wanted to be up front and honest about this.
Why are you doing this? Ezra asked. Jake saw a more reserved expression had come across his brother’s face, one he saw rarely and always noticed. Why now?
It’s just–when you get older, you start to realize you aren’t, you know, moving as quick or thinking as quick. I feel like I need time away from the day to day stuff. I’ll still be around, you know, owning the property, but this is more for management.
Jake looked across the fire and made eye contact with Sarah. He could see the darkness in her eyes, even through the flames, and she looked more slouched than she had before. Then he began to wonder–shouldn’t the job have been hers?
I realize this is going to be a tough transition for everyone, but I know we can do this. The summer of 2019 is going to be the best Storey’s has seen. And in the mean time–Jim turned toward the house. Behind Sarah, on the landing outside the front door, a large silver keg glowed orange in the firelight–I’m pretty sure we have a season party to finish. Enjoy!
Applause rang through the small yard. Jake stayed sitting while those around him stood and ambled toward the fire. Sarah was still watching him, her tanned arms crossed over her legs, a smile growing up the sides her sunburnt face. Jake held the gaze, grinning as he thought of which words he was going to say first.
An hot wind wound its way through the trees as Steve moved down the path, his boots pivoting atop each root and stump he crossed. Sweat webbed its way down every exposed part of his body. He looked out to the east, watched the breeze bend the tall grass that grew up from the swamp. Blinking away the sweat in his eyes he turned away and headed deeper into the forest.
The tight path opened up in a large circle, at the center of which an enormous pine tree rose. On the ground beside the vast trunk a metal ladder caught the few snatches of sunlight seeping through the treeline and shone toward him. Smiling, Steve walked up to the ladder and picked it up. Though he heard its metal bones creak as it lifted, he thought it seemed okay to use. Steve stood it up and then rested it against the tree, its top settling into place a few feet below the pine’s first branches. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a silver flask and popped its cap open. A tiny sliver of whiskey ran down his cheek and his took a swig, his insides roiling with warmth and sudden energy. Then he removed his shoes, tucked them against the trunk with his socks rolled up inside them.
His climb was slow but focused, with each foot pausing on the rungs as if to test their weight, to see what the next moment held for the ladder’s strength. Half-way up, Steve could feel the feet shifting at the base, like a child too eager to stand still. He remembered the time the fly fell back, sending him rocketing toward the ground. Too drunk to grab hold, he toppled from the ladder and hit the dirt hard only a few inches away from a broad, smooth stone you couldn’t see through the leafy forest floor. Steve gripped the side rails hard as he moved upward.
Placing his foot on the top rung, Steve reached his arms up and grabbed hold of the two branches that pointed outward like a diving rod. He pulled and his body lifted from the ladder, then lifted his right leg up and curled his foot around a branch. The pine’s sap felt warm and viscous against his skin as he rose.
Steve sat on the branch, staring out at the leaves and the world through them for a moment, each breath ballooning in his tired, burning lungs. The bark beneath him felt planed by a thousand moments just like that. He then reached up and grabbed the next branch above him, letting his bare feet curve on the branch.
Pain curled up through his ankles and into his calves but his hands held him steady above. Turning his body slowly, Steve lifted each foot and twisted them slowly, working out the. Once the soreness subsided he placed one foot onto a small knot on the side of the trunk and began to pull himself up. After ten feet the branches he grasped grew closer together, so that after a while it was like weaving through a jungle gym. His fingers stuck to the trunk, spread out wide and slick with sap.
Steve pushed through the last thick canopy, rising up to to where the branches thinned out and the wind felt stronger. He looked out, saw the swamp brook coursing through the tall grass and the dragonflies zipping over the tall yellow-green blades and the sparkling brown water. Beyond it he could see the two bumps of the west and east greenhouses glistening in the morning sun. Past the strung-together power lines the faint silvery outline of a trestle bridge hung in the distance.
He stopped on a wide branch that extended out toward the swamp. His back against the trunk, Steve looked up. A brown-gray hawk clung to one of the topmost branches, its sharp beak aimed out toward Storey’s. No sooner had he begun to wonder what it saw, the hawk pushed itself off the branch, its wings whirling and hurtling into flight. The steady wind carried it into higher currents and soon he couldn’t see it through the branches.
The back of his neck felt hot from the bright white sun beating down. It was one of those days when the sky is overcast but the whole world glows from the bright light illuminating the cloud cover. After scratching an itch behind a sweat-speckled ear Steve reached into his shorts pocket, withdrew the flask again and took a long swig. The whiskey inside had warmed since he first started the hike and the flask had been cooling in the staff house fridge yet it still quieted the aches that echoed through his bones and muscles every morning. Though he knew that he would eventually have to return to the greenhouse, to sweat in the glass-magnified heat, he let his head fall back slightly against the trunk and his eyes drift shut while the wind pushed the tree gently back and forth.
David watched the splash of cream blossom in the cup of coffee, turning the black swirl a cheerful brown while around him, the diner bustled with comings and goings. The plate in front of him was nearly clean, though a few swipes of egg yolk and bread crumbs remained to be considered, picked at and swallowed before the bill came. Jenn sat on the other side of the table, her fingers curved around a steaming mug of her own.
This place is pretty busy, she said. Didn’t expect to see so many people.
We aren’t the only ones nursing wounds, David replied, pointing a fork toward a hunched-over group a few tables away. Jenn turned to see three males around their age coughing into their coffees, their faces haggard with a sleepless night spent shaking or shouting for something. One looked up to make eye contact with her, flash a grin yellowed by one too many cigarettes.
No one said being twenty-eight was easy, she remarked after a warm swig. It takes commitment to stay away at this age.
Speak for yourself — I’m a robust thirty-one.
You aren’t getting any younger.
Since when are you so aware of your age?
Since today. I got another day older, didn’t I?
Wait, what did you write once? Writers are like houses–
–they either get famous or foreclosed. Has nothing to do with age, David. Hey, listen…
Here’s my thing. Why aren’t we celebrating the spirit of survival? We’re staying alive longer, not getting older.
She let her last word spin between them, like it was a coin flicked onto the table. After a few moments a tired-looking waitress appeared at the table, her blonde hair hanging like vines over their coffee-mugs as they were refilled. Jenn took a sip without adding sugar or cream and felt its energy course its way into the cracks and strains in her bones. Looking up, she watched David’s face crack into a wide grin.
You look beautiful in this lighting. Have you considered modeling for restaurants.
I can’t live off free meals alone. They can’t afford my rates.
You’ve got a billboard body. One that looks good by a highway.
I’ll sit for a shoot once you write your book on courting women.
My secrets can’t be boiled down to words, Jenn. You of all people should recognize that.
Your propensity for bullshitting?
It’s a nuanced art form, but if we’re throwing compliments between us, you’re the laureate.
Jenn grinned. She glugged down the rest of her coffee and then sipped idly at the glass of ice-water in front of her. Her eyes felt dry, itchy from days of wearing contacts without removal.
Do you want to get out of here? Go for a walk maybe? David was chugging his glass of water, and Jenn could hear the ice cubes clink against his teeth, each other.
Jesus, I’m dehydrated. Yeah, let’s go.
At the front desk they handed the waitress a handful of wrinkled bills and some coins, dropping them into her outstretched hands. When the waitress held out the change Jenn pushed her hand back and smiled, shaking her head. The two watched the waitress’ face bloom beneath the occasionally flickering lights of the diner before leaving.
As they approached David’s car, a green pick-up with wheel wells spiraled by rust, Jenn tucked her hands into his palms and moved closer.
Can you drive? I have a headache.
Your wish is my command.
Route 26 rose and fell among hills and assorted trees. The road was clear for long stretches but occasionally a dust-covered pickup would hurtle by, ladders and tools rattling in its bed. Jenn let her arm whip in the wind through the open window, taking in the rushing air in large gulps. She turned her head and watched David’s eyes focus on the road, a cigarette perched between his lips and spreading smoke in front of his face.
We should go walk somewhere, Jenn suggested. How about Caldwell Forest?
Okay. I heard it might rain, though.
We don’t have to go for that long.
A few turns took them into a cloistered neighborhood, with the homes huddled close together with narrow side-yards that yellowed from the lack of sunlight. A few homes had solar panels set up in front of them, aimed toward the bleary sky. Jenn noticed that some of the panels were cracked and blackened at the edges. Their car rolled on, past homes with half-finished additions bulging off their sides and pane-less windows staring out like blind eyes.
David pulled the car into a cul-de-sac and parked at the far end, where the neighborhood gave way to a small path that wound past oaks and pines. He climbed out and rapped his fingers on the roof as he waited for Jenn. Birdsong chimed in the air and David could see finches and robins hopping between the branches. The path beneath their feet was well-worn and several candy wrappers and potato chip bags were buried shallow beneath the leaves, pine needles and cones.
When they came to a long wooden bridge slung over a wide but shallow stream, the two stopped to lean against the railings and stare out into the wilderness. Neither of them spoke until David stuck a cigarette between his lips.
You’d better carry out that filter, Jess remarked, moving closer and sticking one of her hands into his shorts pocket.
Wouldn’t dream of littering — what kind of lead gardener would I be?
Someone’s proud of their corporate sponsorship.
Wouldn’t you be proud if a Boston private equity fund representative thought you were “dynamic” and worthy of promotion?
Oh, absolutely. Every artist craves corporate patronage.
One day, my love.
With the day shining from directly above and down through the tree line they could see the outlines of each rock beneath the wave. A few tiny fish coursed within he currents while a crawfish worked its way along the streambed. Further down the waterway dipped, with a small waterfall curling over the rocks with a sound as if it were humming.
David, would you change the course of your life for me? Jenn asked. She turned her head away from the stream to look at David, his beard, the tiny flecks of dirt that always seemed to cling to his face after years of digging and planting.
Would you change it for us?
What do you mean?
I’m pregnant, David.
David opened his mouth to say something, then he closed it. The first hints of a smile flickered on his face, and when Jenn saw it, warmed flushed from the top of her head down to the toes and the dirt beneath her sandals.
Take-home kit tested, doctor approved.
Jesus–what did your mom say?
She was less than thrilled.
Another reminder that I’m never leaving. Doesn’t sound so bad, if you ask me.
Promise you aren’t freaked out?
Of course not. An heir to my throne? Sign me up.
Jenn threw her arms around his chest, pulling him close and wafting in the mixed scent of sweat and earth that always clung to him. She felt her insides shift, as they had for weeks now, a peaceful movement whenever David was around.
Jenn, I want to do this right. I’m not bullshitting you, I swear.
I know you wouldn’t.
And–not to get crazy here–but if one of us owns Storey’s, we’d have a foundation to build on, you know?
And then you could go to school, I could run the place, keep the crowd around. I know how to deal with those banker people from Boston. We just need to really wow Jim. Jenn watched David’s face blush with excitement and his eyes sparkle with a newfound intensity. We’ll have to move out of the staff–
Easy, easy, Jenn laughed, taking both his hands and pulling them around her waist. She looked up past the trees to see a jetliner carve a thin white line through one of the few patches of blue that passed above them. Then she reached up and pulled David’s face close to hers, pressing her lips to his and feeling tears splash onto his face as she laughed again.
Jake took a large bite out of the onion-topped bagel and let it drop onto his plate, crumbs jumping as one and scattering toward and over the plate’s paper edges. The insides of his heads buzzed with the incremental drip of time echoing from a circular wall clock ticking on the far wall of the kitchen, just before the staircase leading up to the family room. The edges of his bones felt cracked and slow to bend, and he wondered whether the rippling aches began with the fall from the uneven pile of loam or the contorted body of sleep that began at 6 a.m.
The stairs began to creak and Ezra descended, carrying with him a thick stack of books between his tanned, calloused fingers. He set these on the counter in front of Jake and picked up one of the bagels, sinking his teeth into the whipped butter and crust.
Last call on my books, take what you want, he said between thick chews.
Does that include the Beatles lyrics?
Nope, you can take that. Here’s War and Peace, you still haven’t finished it yet, either.
I’m working on it.
What time did you get in last night?
This morning around 5.
Jesus. Dad see you?
I’m like a cat, I can sleep wherever and I slide through doors without a sound. What about you, how are you all energetic this morning?
This afternoon, Jaxon. Some of us have been awake for quite some time. I got in around 3 a.m., had to drive Eric home before i came back here.
How was he doing?
Not bad. Still pointing at nonexistent objects and saying a lot of stuff, but not to the point where he’d be a danger to anyone. As he spoke, Ezra was feeling his way through the cabinet of coffee mugs. He picked up a rounded, lime green one and set it down on the counter. Staring out the wide glass pane behind the sink, Ezra watched the twisted green expanse of bushes and vines that obscured the woods behind the home he grew up in catch the day’s yellow hue. Somewhere in there, he thought, the path of my childhood is still drawn in a rough line of stone and dirt.
What time does your flight leave? Jake yawned. His smartphone vibrated on the counter, and he lifted his head and its veil of mussy brown hair to see the name scrawled across its screen: SARAH.
3 a.m. tomorrow. Pete and I are shooting to see the sunrise in Colorado when we land.
That’ll be one hell of a flight. Send me some pics if you take any.
If I’m up. Oh, that reminds me. Ezra flicked open his cell phone and pressed a few buttons. Then, he took out a pen and a piece of paper from his shorts pocket and wrote down a phone number.
This is Jeff’s number. In case you need anything, he’ll take care of you. I don’t want my kid brother going weedless in these troubled times.
Dude, seriously? Thanks, Jake breathed, laughing. He’s that guy with the bed, right?
That’s the one. Just don’t fuck around on the phone, he doesn’t like talking about stuff. Hang on, go to his house, nothing specific over text or line, you know?
And don’t soil my good name at Storey’s, either. But, Ezra added, seeing the light fade slightly from his brother’s eyes.You’ve been doing good in the greenhouse, but you gotta water evenly, not on each individual plant, okay?
You know what? Just take all these books. I don’t think I have room for them in my bags.
Damn, thanks Ezra.
No problem. You should read more.
Give the Whitman a try. I think you’ll like him.
Ezra had collected a plate, a few forks, knives and spoons, two beer glasses and a small measuring cup from the cupboards above the counter. Wrapping each one in a piece of newspaper taken from his backpack, he packed them carefully back inside the bag and zipped it shut.
Jake stood up and walked over to a closet beside the refrigerator. He removed a cereal box and placed it on the counter, then took a jug of milk from inside the fridge. Standing there, lifting spoonfuls of almonds and bran to his mouth, he watched his brother stare around the kitchen, searching for things to take.
You could stop by the gift shop on your way out, he offered, lifting up his smartphone again. He opened the message from Sarah: she was looking for weed. Ezra had left the room, and his footsteps were creaking up the stairs to the second floor as Jake typed in Jeff’s number. After typing a quick message he set the phone down and continued to eat.
Jake’s phone hummed, the sound filling the kitchen as an organ does an empty church hall. The words Come on by stretched across the screen, and Jake quickly typed a message back, followed by another to Sarah. HE waited, staring at the inactive smartphone’s face. On the floor above him something was being dragged, sending echoes and creaks throughout the house. The flatscreen was on in the family room, its speakers quaking beneath the dulled roar of a half-volume action movie. A mechanism shifted behind the door of the dishwasher, and Jake heard water sleuce into a pocket of air somewhere inside the inert machine.
Great! flashed onto he screen, and Jake imagined the dark sheen of her hair splashed across her tanned skin. He felt warmth bubbling through him and the clock on the wall grew louder.
He went into the bathroom, splashed cold water onto his dry face and rubbed for a few moments with his hands. Jake walked out the front door and descended the small stone staircase, coming alongside his parent’s blue sedan. Once inside, he thumbed through a few scratched CDs before sliding one into the disc player. It spat it out after a few seconds. Jake took it, rubbed away the smudge marks with the front of his T-shirt and pushed it back inside. The speakers scratched to life as he pulled back the shifter and the car rolled down the driveway.
When he reached Jeff’s house, he let the car hug the edge of the cul-de-sac where a grouping of pine trees ganged around a telephone pole, its wires obscured by the reach of dark branches. He typed a message onto his smartphone and then reached into his back pocket to pull out his black leather wallet. Jake took out a few twenty dollar bills and tucked them into his shorts pocket, sliding his wallet into the center console. Jeff’s response flickered on the screen, inviting Jake to the backyard.
Jake found him resting on a garden chair on the back porch, fingering a joint between his hands. Jeff grinned and held out a thick hand, which Jake took and shook happily. Then he took a seat across from the large-gutted friend of his brothers, feeling nervously into his pocket and flicking at the edge of the bills with his fingertips.
Your brother leave town yet?
I don’t think so. He was packing up when I left the house.
Bastard. He had better stop in to see me before he leaves.
You guys are pretty close, huh?
Like brothers. You don’t get expelled from a summer camp with someone without getting like that. I’d do anything for him, including hook you up. What do you need?
Bag of weed?
Sure. How about an eighth for 40? My supplies are kind of low, but I’ll have more next time. Jeff took out a small rolled-up bag and Jake could see dark green nuggets obscured by the plastic. Passing it over to him, Jeff then pulled an orange lighter from out of his shorts pocket and lit up the joint he held. After a few plumes of smoke rose from his mouth, he held it out to Jake.
For the road?
Sure, Jake said, taking the joint and drawing in deeply. He exhaled once his lungs began to buckle under the burning pressure, eliciting a laugh from Jeff.
Good form. Hey listen, if you need anything more potent just ask me, okay? A brother of my brother is my brother, too, so hit me up if you need anything. I’m usually out here.
The two rose, and Jake gripped Jeff’s hand firmly in farewell. Once back in his car Jake felt the plastic bag in his hands, running his fingers over the buds. He wondered how the high would feel; whether his blood would feel like electrical currents were coursing through or if quiet vents emptiness were steaming somewhere within his mind. He typed a quick message to Sarah before turning the key and bringing his car to life.
Sarah lived in a one-story ranch strung out on one branch of a series of side streets near central Montford. When Jake’s car curved down the street and pulled up alongside her lawn, he let the engine run for a few moments as he watched a family making their way past. A cigarette burned in the mother’s lips while the father stared into the smartphone hanging at the end of one of his long arms. The child inside the carriage slurped at the stem of a plastic bottle and stared up at its parents, its eyes wide and blue and darkened by the cloudy sky above.
A thick wall of morning glories rose up the front wall of the ranch, climbing up white-painted lattice and peeking up over the gutters. Wide bluestone led the path to her front door, and Jake reached out and pressed the door bell. Muted chimes replied and the doorstep was quiet, save for the howls of a lawnmower somewhere over the lines of houses as it chewed its way through the grass.
Footsteps resounded on hardwood behind the door before it opened, where Sarah’s tanned, dark hair-rung face was grinning. She pushed open the metal screen door and waved an arm to guide him inside.
Shoes off, I just got the carpet cleaned, she warmly intoned, and Jake kicked off his sneakers and wondered how swampy with sweat his socks were. The entrance was tucked in the corner of a walk-in living room, where a long white couch cut a right angle in front of an unlit fireplace. Jake followed Sarah down a hallway, past two doors with polished brass knobs and onto the cool linoleum of the kitchen floor. A coffee-maker hummed on the counter. Beside it, a white-colored laptop and a small stack of papers waited to be scooped up and held close by Sarah, who then let them rest on a small, polished wood table.
Would you like some coffee? she asked, turning to Jake, smiling when she watched his face flush as his mind sought an answer. I always make too much and this is the last chance to get some energy before it’s dark. Check out the cabinet to the right of the sink, I’ve got plenty of mugs.
Jake opened the cabinet, ran his eyes along the rows of curved handles. Some were green, some were red, one was gold with a photograph of three smiling women, one of them Sarah but younger and bathed in sun while an ocean surged behind them. He took it out, held its weight in his hand and wondered about the memory he held.
Where was this from? he asked, looking back to her as she removed the coffee pot and let a silken black stream pour from its spout while steam rose in quick branches.
Truro. My ex-husband and I used to travel with his family down there every summer. That year we stayed three weeks extra and a bunch of our friends came down from Boston. I must have been twenty-five when that pic was taken. She took the mug from his hands. Jake’s arm felt warm and electrified when her fingers brushed against his. Sarah smiled down at the photograph before setting it on the counter and filled it with coffee. She then led him down another hallway, past another brass-knobbed door–My roommate’s room, she whispered conspiratorially back to Jake–and into another door.
Sarah’s bedroom was painted a gray-blue, with by wide-pane glass windows framed by gauzy white curtains overlooking a grassy backyard. On the walls between the windows were nailed-up paintings, each sharing her flourished signature at its base. One depicted a suburban neighborhood, its perspective facing a house, with a truck in the driveway that had its hood up while two people reached their arms inside. A woman’s face seemed to hang suspended in air within the glass window. In the bright green yard, a long green hose reached into the depths of a wide puddle. Jake stood in front of the painting, his eyes flickering between its edges.
This is awesome. When did you make this?
2009. That was a good year. I was in a really small workshop in Allston and they told us to do something out of our element. So I drove out to Wellesley and walked around for a few hours with my notebook. It’s amazing how quickly you can fill up on ideas.
Jake looked around at the others. He stopped and asked about one that showed a close-up view of the deck of a fishing vessel. Three men clung to a net that held a long steel boiler, though its sides were stuck with fins, a mouth of metal tooth had been torn open, and two eyes, flames roiling at their center, were wide and panicked.
Did you ever do anything commercial? he asked. He becomes suddenly aware that his hands had been held stiffly at his sides, so he pushed them into his pants so his fingers could flick and shift coins and pocket lint.
I worked a little while in an image marketing firm back in 2015, but I got sucked into that big unemployment wave and I wasn’t able to find anything to follow up on. You’re lucky you missed all that.
I guess so.
They had sat down on a brown couch. Behind them, Sarah’s bed, its surface covered with jeans, multi-colored socks and assorted T-shirts, lay below the dim red light of strung-up Christmas bulbs. A small flatscreen hung on the wall before him. As Jake set his mug down on the small black coffee table down in front of him, Sarah was sorting through a stack of small discs.
What do you wanna watch?
What do you have?
I mean, do you like sci-fi or comedy? I’m a little light on everything else.
They went with the sci-fi. Jake couldn’t remember if it was a sequel to something or not, but he felt a small thrill when a gray-white, triangular space ship looked into existence from above, chasing its prey hundreds of miles above a gold-brown expanse of planet. When it ended, he watched the blue credits streak down the screen and wondered if he should move closer.
Holy shit, Sarah said loudly, sitting up quickly. We fucked up.
What do you mean?
My weed! You forgot it!
What? Oh, no, it’s here–
Well, you forgot to tell me about it. We just watched an entire movie and could have been stoned.
Giggling, Jake pulled out the plastic bag and passed it to her. She took it and opened it closer to her nose, her eyes slipping shut while she audibly inhaled through her nose.
This smells pretty good.
Here, pack it up.
Sarah handed him a small glass pipe, a blue-green twisted streak of glass that ended with a deep, round bowl. He packed some buds in and passed it back, his face growing warm again when she noticed him staring at her through the flame and smoke in front of her face. She placed the bowl into his hand and edged closer on the couch.
Can I ask you a personal question?
Sure, he said, lifting the pipe to his mouth and inhaling.
Are you seeing anyone?
Jake coughed, sending a rough plume of smoke out toward the flatscreen.
Tell me, Sarah pressed.This is important.
And why is that?
Well, clearly you didn’t come over here to just sell me weed.
Maybe I did, I’m a pretty friendly guy.
Fair. But I don’t know many drug dealers who drink my coffee and come into my bedroom with their shoes off.
I’m not exactly a dealer.
You’re feeling awkward that I’m asking.
I never said that.
It’s okay if you don’t want to answer, you’re still a boy.
You don’t have to be a bully about it.
Sarah leaned back in her seat, running her hands through her dark hair while a smile vined up the sides of her face.
Tell me something.
What do you want to know?
I don’t know. What’s your favorite book?
I’m not sure. I don’t think I really have a favorite, I like a bunch, I guess.
So you don’t read very often?
I never said that.
Are you reading anything now?
Well, here, Sarah said, shifting around to rest on her knees and reach over the back of the couch. She came back with a small blue hardcover book. On its cover was a black-and-white photograph from a stage from behind a drum-set, overlooking a large crowd in a small bar.
The Holes in the Drum by William Foster. Any good?
It’s fabulous. It’s a bunch of short stories that weave together. The author is from Montford, actually, it was published a couple of years ago.
I’ll give it a whirl.
You don’t have to if you don’t want to.
No, really, I look forward to it. I’m glad I have someone who can expose me to some good books.
Read one of the stories to me.
Jake laughed. Are you serious?
Of course. I get bored of movies when I’m stoned, and you owe me for the cup of coffee I graciously offered.
I brought you weed and you haven’t even paid me.
Don’t worry, you’ll be taken care of on the way out. Read.
Jake opened the book, flicking through the paperback’s pages and watching the page numbers count upward. He stopped on a story called “The Magnet” and began to read. It was about a young singer-songwriter who alternated nights between singing at open mics in Somerville and breaking into derelict buildings throughout Boston to tear copper piping out of crumbling walls and toss them quickly into the back of a windowless van. It ended with the narrator winding up in a basement, staring up through the thin floorboards, waiting for the footsteps and flashlights to find the staircase he hid below.
When he finished, Jake noticed that Sarah had moved closer to him, her head resting on his shoulder. Her hot breath unfolded against his shirt, and after a few seconds of quiet she opened her eyes and grinned widely.
That was incredible. Seriously, I promise I was totally dreaming what you were saying.
I’m not reading another one.
That’s fine. I’ll quiz you on the rest next week.
You’re assuming I’ll come back.
Oh-ho, I think I can guarantee it.
Oh yeah? How so?
Her lips tasted like a mixture of peaches and ash. Sarah’s arms slipped around his neck, her fingers sliding down to the crook of his back while her left leg slipped over his lap. A giggle bubbled between them and Jake’s hand rested just below the curve of her breast.
I’m still holding the pipe, he said, holding it up. Sarah took it, drew in a deep hit and titled her head back, releasing a long, thick stack of smoke that mushroomed apart when it hit the ceiling. She let it clatter against the top of the coffee table before letting her weight throw back onto the couch, seizing the front of Jake’s shirt and pulling him close.
The air conditioner hanging out of the window of Eric’s room was inert, save for the occasional creak as the metal insides grew hot in the late afternoon. Sometime during the morning it had turned itself off, and the air inside the room had grown thick and stale from its occupant’s heavy and fast-paced breathing.
He opened one eye first, taking a deep breath, tasting salt and dried blood. Rolling over, he swung his legs out and tried to stand. His feet fell unevenly on his jeans, his toes resting on a bulge in the pocket. Eric reached down and pulled out a long strand of keys and keychains. Relief splashed through him, knowing that his morning would begin with one less search for the things he may have lost the night before.
Eric stared blearily at his smartphone for a few minutes, trying to divine the messages he had sent, before letting it settle on the rumbled seats and moving toward the door. He descended the staircase, the steps creaking under the weight of his quick footfalls, and moved into the kitchen. The refrigerator was mostly empty, save for a few eggs, a block of cheese and a container of fat-free milk. He took a swig of the mil and pulled out an egg, setting it on the counter as he felt around beneath the sink of a frying pan.
A few minutes later he stood at the window, scooping up slices of egg white and yolk into his mouth and staring out into the street. His apartment was on the second floor, overlooking the central intersection of Montford. At 5 p.m. the street was beginning to fill with commuters using the town’s backroads to bypass the more congested veins of the highway. A few walkers were moving between the shops and the gas station a few yards up the street from his building had SUVs hooked up in every lane. After he had finished eating, he noticed that whatever beast it was that lived inside him, that every morning scraped and clawed at the lining of his stomach, had fallen asleep.
His living room led into a dining room. A table with no chairs stood covered with sheet music, pens and ashtrays. A dusty acoustic guitar rose up from an open case in the corner, as if it were some wilted plant still clinging to whatever moisture it was given each day. Eric picked up an old glass of water and took a long swig, setting it down and fingering one of the empty pieces of sheet music. Something, he thought, something needs to go down today.
A door led to a small balcony behind his apartment, where coffee can held a blossom of cigarette butts damp from weeks of collected rainwater. He leaned against the black metal railing, staring out a parking lot that held a few pick-up trucks and sedans. A green dumpster lay in the back, its hood open and revealing a cluster of clear plastic bags. Smirking, he wondered if he should write a song about trash.
My trash is your love song, he murmured. My trash–is your love–song, he said again, the syncopation brewing between quick clicks of his teeth. Eric stopped, lighting a cigarette and tapping some ashes down toward the pavement, before thinking through those words another time in his head. What direction they could take seemed uncertain. There as no story, no emotion to drive them along.
Just more bullshit, he muttered. He sang out a few scales, his baritenor voice bouncing around in the narrow lot, before flicking the filter into the can and slipping back inside.
He picked up the guitar and settled on the couch in the living room, his eyes settling on the spot where his flatscreen had been. The spot was occupied by a number of white and red candles, their sides bumpy and uneven and their wicks bent to the sides.
Eric began to play a song he had written in college, about a young man who staggers between a few parties one night. Each verse was the narrator calling out to someone they had loved, someone they see dancing from across the crowded drunk room. He had always loved the lyrics, how they grew from a central rhyming scheme that settled back on the phrase moon-struck night. It ended with the narrator running through a crowded party, the room alive with music, chasing a girl made of light that disappears when he hits the cold night air outside.
When the song was finished he set the guitar down on the flattened cushion of the couch. Eric stood, walking to the window and pulling it open. The day exhaled warm air into the room. Smiling, Eric turned looked back to the guitar.
The sky’s golden hue hung across Ezra’s sweat-drenched face, his body bent over the eight-foot long solar array that rose up behind the greenhouses. Both hands curled around the edges of one of the panels as he held himself there, searching for cracks. Standing pack up, he ran his fingers through his thinning brown hair and looked up, watching the end-of-day light blossoming in the clouds above. It was the wiring, he thought, it had to be. Kneeling down, Ezra felt around for the thick cable that held the wires and pulled it out from under the array. He followed it along the side of the greenhouse until he reached the combiner box. Opening it, he ran his fingers against the fuses and wondered if any had been replaced since the fire.
This is all fucked, he murmured. Ezra bent backward, balling his hands together and pushing it in against the base of his spine. A few cracklings answered. Then he coughed, leaned forward and, catching himself with a step forward, Ezra stood up straight and turned his face to the main building. It was a low, single-level farmhouse, its sides painted a sky blue faded by decades of direct sunlight. Behind it he could see the open air garden glimmering in the sunlight, the rays casting a gold veil over the green stalks rising from the earth. Somewhere past the east greenhouse he heard a truck’s engine rumbling, probably returned from a day feeding tending the demands of the flower beds, hedges and lawns from Village Green or downtown Montford.
Turning out onto the west road Ezra approached the farmhouse. He came up alongside the main customer lot, noticing that the last car was slipping out onto Winter Street and cruising up along Route 26, its wheels churning up a curling light brown cloud of dirt. Ezra squinted one last time in the fading daylight, its brilliance hiding the imperfections in the farmhouse paint, before opening the staff entrance door by the front lot tool shed and slipping inside.
It was cooler indoors, though the air in the back hallway had never been fresh as the windows were too old to be either opened or replaced without damage. Ezra eased past rows of shovels, picks and spades, a leaning stack of buckets and discarded gas canisters piled up half-way to the ceiling. He reached a glass-paned door and knocked several times. Through the glass he could hear soft clicks, the occasional throat-clearing that echoed from within.
Come on in, Jim’s voice called. Ezra opened the door and slid inside, letting it click shut behind him. How’d everything go?
I think the panel’s fucked. There weren’t any cracks deep enough to actually damage the cells to the point where they wouldn’t generate any electricity. There’s something in the wiring.
I didn’t see any bite marks.
What about the heat? It was dry as hell last season, could that have done something?
I need to hire an inspector.
You need to rent a dumpster. Those panels wouldn’t produce enough at this point to meet their costs.
Well, thank you for looking at it, Ezra. You didn’t have to.
Last day at Storey’s, what kind of staff would I be if I walked away?
Decide which greenhouse to sign your name in yet?
I’m thinking the west. I’ve always been more of a sunset guy, myself.
Lots of good names in that one.
Didn’t Doogle use that one?
He left his mark in more ways than I’d rather know.
Ezra chuckled as he pulled back the low leather-backed chair in front of Jim’s desk, relaxing against the cool material, feeling his muscles loosen, bend.
Would you like a drink?
Sure. Ezra reached out to take the offered tumbler of whiskey from Jim, raising it to clink against its twin before a long, quiet sip. How old is this?
Forty years. I’ve been working my way through Peter’s liquor supply since I inherited it. It’s amazing how much he kept here.
This place has so much history. It’s kind of strange to walk away from.
You’ve been a part of it. That won’t change when you leave.
It’s good to know that it’ll be in safe hands when I’m gone. Any idea who you’ll pick.
Well, I mean, Sarah would be the obvious choice. She’s technically my assistant.
She didn’t look happy last night.
If she wanted it, she would have had it. But her heart’s in that studio idea of hers and I don’t want to throw this her way.
You know, if you give it to me right now, I’ll take it.
I’m sure Reach Capital would have my ass for it.
What about Montford Grass & Lawn?
They’d be too drunk to notice. But what about you, are all your arrangements in place?
Ha, arrangements? The ticket to Colorado? Yeah, it’s set.
No greater commitment than that to a friend’s couch. No job yet, but I’ll be fine — I’ve been quietly stealing money from the registers since I started here and stashing it out back. Ezra leaned back in his chair, staring up at the photos that ran up the side of the wall beside Jim’s desk. You think Jacob’d mind all the private investment stuff? I never knew him personally, obviously, but from what I remember as a child he didn’t seem to like the Boston types that lived here.
At 87 it’s tough to love anyone who talks too fast.
Ezra leaned forward, his arms resting on his legs as he cracked his knuckles against one another. He continued staring at the photographs, their surfaces glossy in the dull light of the office. Jim finished his drink and poured another one immediately. Ezra’s eyes turned to him for a moment in time to see Jim picking at a short stack of pages on the desk and sloshing the tumbler’s brown-gold contents in his hand.
Are you okay, Jim? Ezra asked slowly. Jim looked up to meet his gaze, as if whatever troubles he held in his mind were spread out like diagrams on the desk for anxious consideration. He opened his mouth, let it hang slack for a moment, and closed his eyes.
Absolutely, Jim said, pushing himself back in his chair.
Jim, I’ve dug beds for you for four seasons. I saw you right after the swamp flooded and gutted out half of the east greenhouse and that night you weren’t screaming, but hovering nearby and trying to look calm. But you had the same eyes as you do now. Don’t bullshit me, Jim, I’m not Sarah and always on the verge of collapse. What’s going on?
Have you ever lost control?
Like with your life? Sure.
No, I mean really lose control — like every door leads into the same room you’re trying to exit. The kind of loss that you don’t get back. There’s no transition in this one.
What’s going on?
You’ve noticed how Storey’s hasn’t done so well, right? Since a couple of years ago?
I knew the place was in financial trouble. Nobody else really put it together but why else have two new co-owners in a years? But yes, sales were down. Sarah’s been talking about it for the last few–
I shouldn’t tell you this.
Keep going, Jim. Here, Ezra said, lifting up the bottle of whiskey and tilting its innards into Jim’s glass, then watching Jim raise it to his lips and slowly drain the liquor into his mouth. The room was quiet for a few moments, the silence punctuated only by the soft whirring of a window fan up in the corner of the room.
We lost a lot of money after the fire. To be honest, that’s what killed John. The stress, the work, the borrowing–one doctor said the stress caused cancer to come back and he went two years after the fire. Between those bills and the debt payments we were about to go under. John didn’t have any kids, so when I became the owner in 2013 all I had was Sarah and my cousin George. That first year after John passed it was only the three of us, because I couldn’t afford seasonal hands. I talked to a lawyer who said bankruptcy would protect me, but I had a friend in Boston who was connected to some people who invest around Massachusetts and they came out, took a look around, the property, our set up. Went through just about every paper in this room–actually, there used to be about three times as more. Jacob didn’t like computers and his son’s were the same, earth people I guess. But yeah, they boxed up all these documents and crunched numbers and decided they wanted to invest. So we got new loans, new interest rates, everything seemed good until our sales took a real dip when the economy went south again. Our gardens were full in 2015 but nobody came to buy them. Even in the fall nobody came out to buy pumpkins — I must’ve eaten so much fucking pumpkin pie that season, Jim broke off, laughing huskily into his glass as he lifted it to his face again. Ezra was leaning back in his chair, watching Jim and breathing quietly through his open lips.
You were there! But you and the other seasonals, we didn’t want you to trouble you with all this — that’s not what Storey’s, what Jacob wanted this place to be about. When I was a kid this was a place where you learned responsibility and a trade that you could always work. Even though most of us went on to college after the summer, you took that ethic with you, like, the knowledge that instead of drinking your mind to pieces you could do and make things with your hands. But yeah, so we were on our asses again. Reach Capital, our wonderful partners, found a local company that had been doing well but needed expansion capacity. So they use our land and some of our gear, and in return we get a slice of their income that goes into running the place. Our slow but steady scale-down that you’ve so eloquently remarked upon at meeting? That’s a calibrated plan to make the numbers go up. You should have met the turd who came up with it, little guy no more than 25 with a crater on top of his head. Told me that growing corn wasn’t an option anymore. Telling me about the numbers I have to produce when he doesn’t know what the hell I grow!
So we had another owner. And yeah, the bills have been getting paid, but my word? Doesn’t move the wheels as much these days. I’ve had to cart my ass out to Boston every week to meet with Reach and come up with “objectives” that we’ll be hitting. Christ, they don’t even know who our customers are, the kinds of flowers and plants they like to buy during the season. Throughout the season. Trying to tell me about micro-efficiency and other bullshit–
So what, they’re breathing down your next extra hard?
No, they want me out.
They’re firing you?
No–it’s more like I’m being retired. Sometime later in the season, most likely, unless I deliver.
They’ve said it to my face.
How can they do that? Your’e the–
–minority owner in a struggling local business. Here, look, Jim said, lifting up the stack of papers that sat before them and passing them over to Ezra, who took them and began to shuffle through. Ezra saw charts and graphs with metrics that made no sense to him but all seemed to point toward the floor.
What the hell is Growth Efficiency Potential?
Something that I can’t deliver, I guess. So they’re looking to shake things up.
And they want you to pick a new owner? Ezra sat up as Jim opened his mouth but didn’t speak. Jim, who is choosing the new owner?
It hasn’t been decided yet.
What do you mean? You told everyone last night you were looking for–
Reach has said that my input is going to matter, but the truth is that–
–you’re a goddamn liar. Jim, everyone thinks you’re passing on this place.
To a bunch of investors–
–who are taking my life away! Jim had stood, and as he rose a mouthful of whiskey had surged over the side of the glass, staining the pencil and eraser-scratched day planner that lay on the desk. I’m being stripped of my life and my identity and there’s nothing I can do about it! You think I want to tell people that? Something I don’t know for certain? Do you know what it’s like to have total uncertainty? You might think that moving out West is mysterious and new, Ezra, but what you’re heading to is a lot more in control than where I’m going.They told me I might have to close the staff house before the end of July, how the hell do you think I feel about that?
You have to fight it. Tell them no, go to the town–
That–that is actually the last hope.
What do you mean?
I spoke with Scott Ferguson last week. He’s only one member of the Planning Commission, but he’s the vice-chair and they’d need to sign off if they made any changes to the property, which Reach might look into.
I don’t know. Probably a bigger lot, I would think. They seem to think we’re going have a really busy season.
It’s been okay so far.
Well, they want me to beat our numbers from three years ago and I, well, I don’t know if we can do that, people aren’t coming in nearly as often, even the regulars you normally see.
It’s still early.
Not early enough, Ezra. Jim shut his mouth and stared down at the desk. Ezra could see the veins in his neck pulsing strongly in slow, rising beats. Here, this is for you, Jim began, taking a check out from inside the center desk drawer. He jammed the drawer back shut with a push and then passed the slip of paper to Ezra, who took and it held it up in the low light.
Jim, I can’t take this much.
I want you to. You’ve done good here and I wanted to thank you. Spend it on plants in Colorado.
Alright. Ezra stood up. Suddenly he felt very tall, tired in the room, as if the air was forcing him down to the ground where, even then, no rest could be found. The corners of his eyes felt like sand had gotten stuck and begun to gather moisture. Jim, I’m so sorry. Do you want me to stay? I can probably push my plans out a few months, stay on for this season.
No. I’ll be okay. I’m heading into Boston this week to talk about things and I think I have an idea that will appease them for another year. If I can do that long enough, we’ll turn the place around.
I hope so.
The two embraced. Ezra smelled the dirt and sweat emanating from the old man, felt the involuntary bend of his back. When they broke apart, Ezra flashed a last smile before heading to the door. The air in the hallway felt hot and enclosed as he moved out toward the staff exit. Outdoors, the atmosphere had cooled, with the sun a fading memory of blue patches against the wider stretch of the star-laden sky. Ezra took out his phone and began to flip through the messages, though he didn’t process the words or their meaning. Instead he slowly drifted down the east road, past a clear plot of land where they used to plant pines for Christmas. He felt each divot, each hole as he walked, making his way to through the creaky screen door of the west greenhouse.
Ezra let the door tap shut behind him, moving down a narrow walk-way past long rows of red, pink and yellow carnations. He turned his head upward, to the wooden cross-beams above him. Even in the darkness he could see the rough scrawls, the deep cuts and swirling flourishes from every hand that had passed through Storey’s gardens. When he reached the end, Ezra grabbed a short wooden stool and, balancing himself on one foot, raised himself up against one of the beams. He pulled out a thin pocketknife from his shorts and flicked it open. The blade gleamed in what little lamp-light from the back lot steamed through the greenhouse roof.
For a moment he stood there, testing his weight against the beam. He wondered if Jacob himself had lifted into place, where on the lot it had been carved and why this place had never been given its own name. A smile quickly sprung up the sides of Ezra’s face as he held the knife out and drew the first cut–a short, downward stroke–into the beam.