Not everything is as it seems. Not everyone wearing a cowboy hat in a Connecticut coffee shop is a cowboy. Not every moody, taciturn man, brooding over his latte, has a story to tell. But, sometimes things are exactly as they seem. Funny how it always surprises me when that happens.
I won’t go into detail about how the Geeky Guy bought the Epiphany Cafe. Analysis of financial transactions is a literary form that has yet to catch on. Suffice it to say that he was a single man with no children, possessing an engineering degree and a good job, living in his deceased parents’, free-and-clear home, with his sister. All that was needed was to move around some money, then the owner would present the keys to the Geeky Guy and he’d wait for the Lisping Barista to come in and pick up her check. He had already worked out what he would say. I saved your job by buying the Epiphany Cafe for you. Now, would you run the place for me? He wasn’t being too clingy or forward or stalkerish, weird, or presumptuous. It was a business proposition. Really.
I also won’t go into detail about how the Owner trained the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat to make lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, and all the other forms of coffee with fancy Italian names he couldn’t pronounce. The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat listened intently, asked appropriate questions, and even demonstrated his learning, but promptly forgot all the recipes as soon as the Owner left. All he knew how to make was plain coffee, which he renamed, Cowboy Coffee, in reference to himself. In fact, he erased the whole menu board, with all the prices that complicated the making of change. He scrawled Cowboy Coffee $2 across it, just to simplify matters.
The Therapist Emeritus was curious about this psychological specimen that had walked into and taken over the barista duties. She didn’t get too many cowboys around these parts. Therefore, in the early evening, when people feared caffeine would keep them up all night, switched to beer, wine, and hard liquors, and things got slow at the cafe, she pulled the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat away from the counter and drew his story out of him as you yank a loose thread and unravel a sweater. She was a retired shrink, after all, and had not completely abandoned her shrinkish ways.
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat did not seem all that approachable when he first stepped into the cafe the day before and rounded up the Crazy Dog Lady’s dogs. In times of crisis, he was clear, loud, and direct. In times of non-crisis, he mumbled under the brim of his Stetson; but when the Therapist Emeritus asked him what brought him to the Epiphany Cafe, he laughed, pushed his hat back, and actually made eye contact. She was that good.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Just to kill Tom.”
He said it just like that, which made me wonder if he was a gunslinger. Then it occurred to me that he had a southern accent and he was there to kill time, not Tom. That would’ve been good for anyone named Tom, if there was anyone named Tom who needed killing.
We learned that the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had been a real cowboy. Not a horse-riding, lasso-spinning, get-along-little-doggies type of cowboy, but a guy who actually worked intimately with cows, albeit in the Midwestern dairy industry, rather than ranching, traveling from farm to farm, trimming hooves. Later, after he had finished his coffee, it was my pleasure to watch him pull out a plug of tobacco, shove it in his mouth, lean back in his chair, and spit into his cup at intervals. Then I knew for certain we had the real thing.
He hadn’t trimmed any hooves for a while and there were few milk cows in Connecticut for him to ply his trade. He was going a little stir crazy where he’d been, so he thought he’d travel around a little to clear his head and stay out of a hospital. It was beginning to help, he explained. There are not many problems that seem so big when you trek back and forth across the country.
The Therapist Emeritus asked him if he had a story to tell, believing it’s best to be direct about these things. She didn’t mention that she was the kind that put stir crazy people into hospitals, for that tends to inhibit some tales and lengthen others.
He began in the way that people will do when they have a lot of time on their hands, when they have carefully constructed the story themselves and finally have someone to tell it to, and when the listener seems willing to wait for the point. He brought us into the farm kitchen of Art and Edith Gates, as if he had never left.
The Ghosts of Onion Hill
“I found the cow – mooing over her – dead calf,” gasped Art, entering the kitchen where the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat sat with his lunch bag. Edith kept him company, baking bread. Halfway through the morning, the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had taken an advance on his lunch. He’d be hungry again by two.
“She ran off – into the woods – to have her calf – He was – stillborn,” continued Art, pulling bready air into what was left of his lungs, crippled by emphysema. “Her udder was – bustin’ full.”
Edith scolded, “Whatcha doing traipsing after cows in your condition? Let Jack do it. You left the farm to him. Let him farm it.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat didn’t relish the thought of watching an old couple battle it out, but the only other choice was to sit in the barn, staring at a cow chewing her cud while she stared at him chewing a sandwich. The cow wouldn’t likely have anything interesting to say. She’d also either be resentful of the trimming he’d just done on her hooves or troubled over being driven into the squeeze chute and tipped on her side. The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had eaten too many lunches in barns already, shit underfoot, flies harassing, and dogs, indifferent to the misery of cows, slinking around, vying for hoof trimmings. No, he thought, maybe he’d stick around and get some of that bread.
“I’m always telling Father,” Edith continued, “he shouldn’t be walking a’tall with his lungs the way they are, least of all in those woods. Nothing good ever happens in those woods.”
Art plugged the hoses from his oxygen tank into his nose and mounted a defense. “If a man can’t walk – on his own two feet – he isn’t much of a man.”
“What woods you mean?” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat asked.
Edith answered, “They’re right behind the old foundation you passed up the road when you came here. You must have seen it. It’s a huge foundation. It was a beautiful house, built just like a southern mansion with the big pillars outside. It had a wide porch and, when you went inside, there was this grand staircase. Us girls used to pretend we were southern belles coming down the stairs to meet our beaux.”
“Who lived there?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. He rotated a loose linoleum tile back into place with his foot. Art and Edith’s place was originally going to be the garage when they built it years ago, but they ran out of money to build a real house and then ran out of money to keep what they had in good repair. Edith kept it filled with bread smells and scolding.
“No one,” Art replied, “A fellow – Conklin built it. Then he – passed on – Never got – to live there.”
When the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had clattered up in his truck that morning he’d passed a foundation of laid stone, supporting an enormous chimney, bedecked by unruly lilac bushes. What was left of the old Conklin place seemed more substantial than most of the dwellings around. In front was a sign saying, Onion Hill. A vandal had changed the U in Union to an O. Onion Hill rose up behind the old foundation, covered with beech and maple: the woods where nothing good happened. The children of the area turned the big, empty Conklin manor into a playhouse while living in shacks at its base.
“No one else moved in?”
“There were – legal problems,” answered Art. “So it stayed – empty for years – Then it collapsed.”
Edith erupted, “Legal problems! I’d say there were more than legal problems. Old Conklin built that house with evil money and nothing good ever came of it. People around here used to care about right and wrong, but not Father. He never would have bought the place if he did.”
“Edith’s always – been over-wrought,” the old man said.
“No one would buy the house because the house was cursed,” said Edith. “That and the woods behind it. Father thought he got a good price, but he never could make anything of this farm. There’s a curse on it. Conklin was cursed, too, ever since he…”
“Cursed with nothing more – than a bunch of jealous – superstitious neighbors – gossiping against him,” Art muttered.
“… killed his brother,” she continued.
“What happened?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
She repeated, “He killed his brother,” as Art said simultaneously, “It’s a – long story.”
“So, who wants to trim hooves?”