by Charles C. Cole
With a final look back at his empty apartment, Alden Gerhardt tossed the key on the counter and closed the door. He dragged his old college futon to the dumpster and tossed it in. Then he left, hours before sunrise, making the long drive up to Bawdy Farm, near Isleboro.
After turning off the state highway, the last 3 miles became a private one-lane gravel road. At the end of the journey, a stenciled sign wired to a closed metal gate proclaimed: “Help Yourself.” Alden slid the gate over the steel cattle guard and drove through.
Up by the main house, Bumpus Willoughby, 60ish, lean farmer in an unbuttoned barn jacket, red plaid shirt and worn overalls, was busy grading over potholes with his tractor. He nodded cordially and killed the power, climbing down to meet his guest.
“Can I help?’
“I’m a bit early.”
“You must be Alden Gerhardt.”
“I am. You’re the caretaker?”
“I answer to a lot of titles around here, but that’s the one used most. Of course, you can call me Bumpus if you’d rather.”
“I have cash for the balance, if you want to count it.”
“No need,” said Bumpus. “Don’t suppose you drove all this way without double-checking the details. I’m sure it’s all there. Ready?”
“I will be when the time comes,” said Alden.
“You’ll find it’s pretty much as advertised on the website. Can I interest you in some hearty breakfast before your departure? It’s on the house.”
“Seems somehow counterintuitive. I’ll pass.”
“It’s comfort food, the way I see it. Puts you in a relaxing mood. For some it’s a bit like revisiting childhood, where life started. Everything comes from right here on the farm. But have it your way.”
“I guess we should just get to it,” said Alden, “if it’s all right with you.”
“Suit yourself, young fella. My time is your dime. Stand behind me on the tractor and hold on. I’ll taxi you up the hill for a look-see.”
The tractor vibrated pleasantly, not nearly as rough as Alden had feared. The higher they went up the grassy knoll beyond the barn, the brighter the cool fall morning became, as if they were rising to meet the dawn halfway. Alden closed his eyes and felt the first rays of morning on his face.
“According to some government folk, Cadillac Mountain gets the first sunrise in these parts, officially. We like to think we get the first sunrise for this type of business.”
At the site, Bumpus hushed the motor.
“I can see why you live here,” said Alden, looking about. The Atlantic Ocean stretched wide north, south and east to the distant horizon.
“For being all exposed out here on the slope, it’s about as quiet as a root cellar,” said Bumpus. “Winters are a bit of a downer, though, not that you’ll notice.”
Alden walked over to the site, freshly unearthed, with an etched shiny pink-marble headstone already in place with his name.
“Guess I’m the only missing ingredient.”
“We’ll add the ‘end date’ later, after it’s come to pass.”
“It’s so lovely!” said Alden, a tremble catching his sigh.
“Some say it’s worth dying for,” said Bumpus proudly. “I should introduce you to your neighbors. To your left is a retired fourth-grade teacher from Newtonville, outside of Boston, a lovely gal, Ms. Erline Quarlestone. Only joined us last year. Just up the hill is Corky Lefebre, the former flinty mayor of New Marblehead, a village about forty minutes away. How do you feel about combative socialists?”
“I don’t have as many strong allegiances as I used to,” said Alden. “I’m sure we’ll get along well enough.”
“Your custom-made box is in the barn: sturdy pine, timbered and assembled here in town. Rusty, my brother-in-law, gave it a warm cherry stain. The pillow is probably of the softest collection of downy feathers you’ve ever experienced. My wife did the needlepoint on the pillow case: either an indomitable sunrise or sentimental sunset depending on your viewpoint. I myself choose to follow Benjamin Franklin’s more optimistic outlook.”
Alden sat on the damp earth and tenderly brushed the grass near him as if bonding with an old family cat.
“After all your preparations, I’m not as ready to go as I thought I would be.”
“Few are,” said Bumpus.
“I mean, it’s not my time. I wanted it to be, or maybe I just wanted a sneak peek of the rest that awaits me, but I’ve got more to do, college loans to pay and a girlfriend to make amends with.”
“In that case,” said Bumpus, “we’ll still be here when you’re ready.”
“You can keep the money. It’s worth every penny. Save me this spot and this view, and I promise to lie here one day, with no complaints.”
Bumpus squinted toward the gathering day and reached in his barn jacket for his black Meerschaum pipe and apple tobacco, lighting it.
“Never had someone drive himself before. Should have taken that as a sign. Guess I thought you were like Mark Twain; you just knew when your time was at hand.”
“I moved out. Sold everything I owned. I was going to sign my car over to you, and that would be the last of my worldly possessions. But it’s so beautiful here. I didn’t expect it to exceed my expectations. I’m in no hurry to leave. Is that a contradiction?”
“As it happens, we’ve got an in-law cabin with electricity and a fireplace, but no indoor plumbing. You’re welcome to stay the week to sort things out, but I might call on you for some chores, taking advantage of the extra manpower.”
“I’m a little short of work clothes.”
“We’ve got some one-size-fits-all overalls that’ll do the trick. But, Alden, we’re not accustomed to live guests; we’re not a vacation resort.”
“Right now, I don’t know what the future holds for me, but at least I know where it will end. That’s reassuring. Maybe that’s enough.”
Copyright © 2015 by Charles C. Cole