The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat spit tobacco juice into his cup. Even though he was the official barista, I went behind the counter to get a new cup of coffee for him, just to keep his tongue loose, and one of those dinner-plate-sized cookies, for the Therapist Emeritus, just to keep her mouth shut. You don’t want someone interrupting a good storyteller with too many questions when he’s in the zone, even when you’re not supposed to be listening.
“Thank you, rightly, Sir,” he said to me. A moment later he had us back in the bready kitchen of Art and Edith Gates, somewhere where the second knuckle of the frostbitten middle finger would be on the mittened hand of Michigan.
Art, skirmishing his emphysema, began his story.
“They say – years ago – the two brothers – were out – hunting deer.”
“Poaching deer,” Edith said from the refrigerator, pulling out the butter.
“Well, a fellow’s got to eat, I guess,” said the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, getting hungry again, even though he’d just finished lunch.
“The State’s – got no right,” said Art, “telling a man – he can’t shoot deer – when they’ve been eating – his crops all year.”
“What did Conklin do,” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, “shoot his brother?”
“His brother – shot a deer – but only – drew blood – so they had – to track it.”
Edith broke in, “Don’t forget it started snowing to beat the band. It was snowing so hard the younger brother gave up and headed for home.”
“Wouldn’t the snow would make the deer easier to track?” the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat asked. Blood on snow is easy to spot.
“No, it was snowing too hard for that. This was a blizzard, you see. That older brother was just too bullheaded to quit. Just like Father, smoking away for years while I kept telling him to quit, till finally he gets emphysema. Now he goes chasing after runaway cows when he can hardly breath.”
“He had to have his deer, huh?”
Art said, “Oh – we don’t know – all we know is – what Conklin said – after it – was all done.”
“And be prepared to hear a lie,” said Edith.
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat could see, behind the refrigerator, layers of cardboard nailed to the wall. Some of these old farmers lined their rooms with flattened boxes to keep out the cold in the winter time.
Edith continued, “The younger brother was just a kid, really. A young fool who thought he knew better than his elders. They’d just inherited their father’s farm and were always arguing about how to run it. We think the younger brother just wanted things his own way and thought of a way to put an end to it.”
Art said, “You think that way – I don’t.”
“So, he saw his chance to get rid of his brother,” said the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. “That’s pretty extreme, but if he really felt strongly and thought he could get away with it, he might.”
Edith reproached him, “No God-fearing person would even think of such a thing.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat feared he would not get any bread.
“You thought of it,” said Art.
Art turned toward to the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat and said, “She’s all mixed up – she never thinks – long enough – to know what she’s saying – she just says – whatever hits her – She’s just like – Conklin – He wouldn’t have – gotten in trouble – if he ever thought – about what – he was doing.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat said, “It sounds like he had a lot of sense to me. He went home, instead of running after a deer in the middle of a blizzard.”
“It was a blizzard, all right,” said Edith, approving of the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat’s statement. “It was the biggest blizzard here in a hundred years. The snow just about buried the cabin the brothers lived in. It came down fast, like out of a big dump truck. The young Conklin went home and piled wood on the fire. It got dark, with the snow in the air and all. The drifts covered the windows till it was just as dark as night. He kept piling that wood on the fire, but it was so cold it didn’t make much difference.”
In the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat’s first year up in Michigan he was just beginning to renovate his place and he hadn’t put siding up yet. You could throw a cat through the walls sideways. He’d wake up in the morning with a pile of snow in the kitchen and the water frozen. He’d go out and the air would be so cold it would reach right in and sting you in the lungs. On days like that you could spend all day just surviving, like Art straining for his next breath. All you could do was find someplace warm and sit and wait for it to get better. It’s not so bad when you have someone to stay warm with, but women get tired of that kind of living pretty fast. Then you’re by yourself and there’s nothing you can do. All you can do is sit and think.
“Did I say the wind was blowing?” added Edith. “It was a regular blizzard. The wind got caught in the trees around the cabin and made an unholy racket with howling and such.”
Art continued, “That Conklin – he sat there – he started thinking – the wind howling – was a ghost.”
“I don’t doubt it,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat said, knowing what he was talking about. “When a person starts to think, he’s likely to think anything.”
Edith said, “After a while, the older brother found his way back. The good Lord helped him find the cabin. He had to dig through the snow to get to the door, though. He knew his brother was in there from the smoke coming out the chimney, so he started calling his name to let him in.”
“That fool – Conklin,” said Art, “sitting there – listening to ghosts – he thought his brother – was a ghost – calling his name – trying to get in.”
“That’s what he told everyone, anyway,” said Edith. “He got up and took a hammer and nails and nailed the door shut. He had to have a cold heart to sit there in the cabin by the fire all night and listen to his own brother right outside the door, crying to be let in. He never lifted a finger to help, so filled with foolish pride. In the morning he got up, pulled the nails out, and opened the door. His brother fell in, frozen like a ham you take out of the freezer.”
“What did he do then,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat asked, his face twisted into a wry smile, “cut him up and have him for supper? He wouldn’t need to be shooting deer out of season, then, would he?”
“He was tried – for murder,” said Art, solemnly. “They said – not guilty.”
“That’s what they said. But the Lord has His own justice,” said Edith. “Conklin never slept a night after that and no one decent would have anything to do with him. So finally, he went away.”
The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat could easily imagine Conklin lying awake at night and hearing ghosts. He’d go to sleep just long enough to dream about opening a door and, when the frozen body hit the floor, he’d sit up wide awake, covered with sweat as cold as that blizzard.
“So, that’s the end of it?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. “That’s why the woods are cursed? Wait, who built the big house?”
Art said, “Conklin made – good money – while he was away – came back – with a wife.”
“So, he made out all right,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat said. “Sometimes it pays not to think too much about things.”
Edith hoisted herself up from the kitchen table and, armed with oven mitts, began to take out the bread.
“I don’t know,” said Art. “It seemed he – had something good – all that money – and a wife – He built a big house – But he was so – tied up – with the ghosts – in his head – he couldn’t see – the woman loved him.”
“You had to feel sorry for the wife,” added Edith. “She thought the universe turned on that man. She hardly knew she had married a monster, just like I didn’t know I was marrying a stubborn fool. He kept on talking about hearing things all the while they were building that house. It was built for her, you know. She came from the South, just like you, and he built it like that so it would remind her of home. He started talking about the ghost so much she started to hear it, too, so she left. I guess she knew she was better off without him. He went back in those woods Father likes to tramp around in when he can hardly breathe. He took a shotgun with him and blew his brains out. The poor girl never even came back up for the funeral.”
The three of them examined the bread coming out of the oven. None of them had risen properly.
“Maybe the yeast was too old or the flour was too heavy,” The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat offered.
Edith drove them out of the kitchen. Art and the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat walked to the barn. The cows, thinking they might get some ensilage, penned easily in an aisle. One at a time they twisted their tails till they entered a chute. Then the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat would hit the hydraulics and the chute would squeeze the cow immobile and rotate her till she lay on her side. Art sat and smoked while the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat picked the shit from under their nails and trimmed them up.
Art’s son Jack came by and watched. Jack said, “I’m hoping you’ll be done by tonight. The trimming is stressing the cows and their milk production dropped.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll work here till I’m done, even if it takes all night. I don’t have anything better to do.”
“That’ll be good,” said Jack. “I saw you having lunch in the old place. You didn’t need to do that, you could’ve come to the house. I’ve been meaning to tear it down ever since my parents died. ”
“You say they died?” asked the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
“Yea, my mother surprised everyone by dying before my father. They’re both dead now and I can’t figure out what to do with the old place. My wife would never live in there, herself. She’s got to have everything new.”
Art fell into a fit of knee slapping laughter. You’d never think a man with emphysema could laugh so hard. You’d never think a dead man could laugh, either.
As soon as Jack left, the Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat packed up his rig and departed Onion Hill. He didn’t care to trim any more hooves at that place or any place, ever. The Weather-Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat sold his business to a kid with more money than sense and took off. He wasn’t going to spend one more night talking with the old couple, smelling bread he’d never eat, tending the fire as the wind played on his lonely house. He set out to find a place where Art and Edith could never find him.