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Nellis Gray

By

Rick Stiller

Mama Louise, plump black cook for the Spratlin family, stepped through the kitchen door onto crumbling gray pavers in the courtyard and called to the children in a voice that melded mandates into melody, “Come here, girls, I’ve got something for you.”

She handed each sister a sack lunch and hugged them in turn, “It’s such a beautiful morning, I’m absolutely positive that you’re going to have a fine first day at school and I’ll have cold milk and warm chocolate-chip cookies, fresh out of the oven, when you get home.”

Sissy, a little blond sprite with fawning green eyes, squeezed her third mother’s hand, whining, “I don’t want to go to the public school and why can’t Mr. Charles drive us?”

Louise leaned to whisper, “You’re starting third grade, so you’re old enough to walk to school. It ain’t that far and Mr. Charles has other things to attend to, besides driving you girls all over tarnation. He’s puttin’ on the auction this afternoon and he still has to chauffeur your father down to the plant. Now go on or you’ll be late.”

Samantha took her younger sister’s hand to walk down the drive from the stately manor past the pool house on the left. The open doors of the garages on the right revealed a baby blue VW bug and a chopped Harley-Davidson straddling either side of a lustrous black Fleetwood Cadillac. Purple martins chirped at the girls and soared from stacked houses on long poles, protected by the eves of the red barn that was home for a dozen prized horses and ponies until last spring.

They turned down a lane under an allée of immense pecan trees, heavy with nuts, between open fields golden with a second planting of feed corn ready for harvest in a few weeks. “We can cut across the bridge over the creek and sneak through the Gray property.”

“Why don’t we just walk around? I’m scared of that old man and all those dogs barking and yelping like wolves.”

“Ah, don’t be a scaredy-cat. We can save ten or fifteen minutes instead of walking all the way around to the bridge on the highway. Besides, the traffic scares me more than the dogs.”

“Alright, but I’m not likin’ anything about today.”

Samantha stopped and knelt down, brushing waves of auburn from glistening dark eyes, “Look, Father’s having a hard time and I don’t think he can afford to send us to the Academy anymore. He told me that, when things get straightened out at the plant, we can go back, if we want.”

“I don’t understand,” whined Sissy.

“He doesn’t have the money to pay for the tuition and books and uniforms and all the rest.”

“Is that why they’re selling all the furniture that was in storage?”

“Probably.”

“I wonder what he’s going to sell next?”

“He said they’re only going to sell things that aren’t being used anymore. It’s not like they’re selling the dining room table or our beds,” laughed Sam. “I’m actually looking forward to going to the new school and meeting new people, who don’t look down their noses when you don’t wear the latest clothes or have the coolest stuff. I’d like to get to know some normal kids, who do normal things.”

“I guess,” said Sissy, following reluctantly, as Sam cut through the woods down to the old red footbridge over Crow Creek, a lazy brook trickling through a winding channel of rough sandstone blocks under majestic old sycamores, oaks, and cottonwoods.

Sam started across but Sissy stopped before she touched the rail, “I’m scared of those dogs.”

Her elder sister grabbed her hand, “If we’re really quiet and run real fast, we’ll be through the fence before they even know we’ve been there. Are you ready?”

“I guess.”

“Okay, let’s be sneaky.”

Sissy stared straight ahead, afraid to even glance down at the running stream, and scurried across the worn planking to duck behind the vegetable gardens. Long rows, lush with corn, squash, tomatoes, and peppers, surrounded fallow areas glowing with the lime green sprouts of new plantings that would provide fresh produce well into winter. They peered around the corner of the old gray barn and charged through a thicket of chickens, that squawked and scattered in a flurry of feathers, raising the dogs, who barked and howled from the porch of the weathered farmhouse across the yard.

The girls squeaked through a gap between fence posts, just wide enough for fox or possum to enter or escape, and charged down the lane, as old man Gray yelled, “You damned kids get off my property!”

Nellis settled into his rocking chair, snickering to himself. At his age, being cantankerous and rude, with a pack of noisy dogs, a cranky potbellied pig named Chester, a countrified accent, and a rusty cockeyed ‘No Trespassing’ sign hanging on a locked steel gate kept strangers and inquisitive neighbors at bay. The original homestead had been whittled down through the years to pay the hospital bills and a funeral for his wife, Nanny, then, his daughter Ashley’s tuition and a wedding. There was still twenty acres of pecan groves bounded by another forty of sparse forest and open meadows that he rented out to Chuck Stern for grazing a small herd of cattle.

He spent most of his years out there on the road and found, too late, that the real purpose of his life was right here in this old farmhouse all along. He finally came home to look after two teenagers, who hardly knew their father, after Nanny succumbed to a lonely battle with cancer and died in the back bedroom. She concealed her disease, during his brief visits, until it was too late.

Her ghost haunted the house to this day, turning lights on and off, opening and closing doors, and moving things around during the night. In fact, he was fairly sure that she was sitting close by, chastising him for being so unkind to those little girls. He snickered and rocked, reaching for a smoke and hearing her voice in his head, “Will you stop smoking those damned things before they kill you?”

“I know you’re right but maybe they’ll bring us together that much sooner. Besides, I still don’t smoke inside the house, because you hated it so much.”

Blue jays raised a ruckus in the big elm behind the house, a sure sign that the red-tailed hawk was trying to thieve eggs from a nest. The huge bird passed over the farm every morning, sometimes alone but more often with his mate or young, feeding on squirrels, rabbits, rodents, or a water snake from the creek. Whether desperate or lazy, he occasionally foraged through the canopies of the huge trees for eggs and the local birds fought back with loud desperate dives to drive him away.

Nellis scanned the headline in the newspaper reporting another lame remark by a newly nominated vice-presidential candidate, whose only skill or talent seemed to be fitting a size-eleven wingtip in his mouth every time he faced the press. “How is it possible that they nominate complete morons to run for any public office?”

He stroked the warm ears of his old Irish setter, Brandy, and wiped his brow with a red handkerchief. “It sure is humid this morning and we both know it’s gonna get worse.”

There was also Mamasan - the German shepherd matriarch of the pack, ChaCha - the Chow who maintained an aloof aristocratic independence, and young Gracie – an overcharged mix of sass and playfulness. A shaggy black stray appeared a few weeks back and settled right in as playmate for Gracie. He named her Cody and only had to chase her down once, when she went after some noisy teenagers, before she picked up on the game of bark on command…but do not leave the porch.

He took a sip of lukewarm tea and a puff on his Winston, when an advertisement caught his eye concerning an auction of antique furniture at two o’clock this afternoon on the grounds of Spratlin House, the estate just north of the homestead. Spratlin ran Stanton Enterprises, as his father before him, distilling oil derivatives in a sprawling complex on the other side of the river. Surely the oil crisis and recession had not brought ruin to an enduring business that employed half the town and a family known for generous philanthropy in the community?

“I’d best run by there to see what they’re sellin’,” he mused.

~

Nellis noticed a downed section of fencing in need of mending, along the far end of the lane out to the main road, as the old Ford pickup slowed at the stop. He engaged the brake and hopped out to inspect a strand of barbed wire, cut clean with shears. Two sets of motorcycle tracks meandered across the meadow, matched by a pair leading back out onto the road. “Damned kids,” mumbled the old man, shielding his eyes to scan the pasture, pondering the intentions of a pair of beer-swilling teenagers. “Ain’t much out there ‘cept cows, a couple of horses, and my privacy.”

The city was slowly swallowing the countryside, a puddle of rancid syrup oozing around the last of the farms and ranches. A few stubborn natives would stay until the end but the city was growing relentlessly and open pastureland was cleared, contoured, and ready for construction.

A new development of identical houses stretched a mile along the south fence line and bulldozers were clearing a portion of the Jenkins’ place of every tree and shrub in sight. Rich fertile farmland was being transformed into a desert hiding under winding strips of asphalt and uninterrupted acres of Bermuda lawns. He shook his head in disgust, checked the highway, and turned north, muttering, “Sure gonna be a lot of critters looking for new homes. Progress ain’t pretty.”

A flurry of shadows rippled across the windshield, as a wedge of geese honked their way into a damp southerly gale to spend a warm afternoon feeding in the marsh around a little lake on the Perryman property. The sun was high in the sky but the previous night’s horse feathers pointed due west, where frothy white thunderheads were bubbling up along the horizon. “There’s weather comin’.”

He braked for a young fox trotting along the shoulder of the road at the junction with Maple Ridge Boulevard, a meandering country lane that snaked along the crest of the hills, past secluded mansions and manor houses before dropping into Cameron in the valley below.

The town was named after an aging Scottish escaped convict, Ben Cameron, who hopped a train, after clearing Ellis Island with forged papers, and headed west. Within a year he struck oil, started a company, made a fortune, and built the town to accommodate his workers. After he died, his kids sold out the production to Gulf Oil and old man Stanton bought the plant. His son-in-law took over, after his death, and his son succeeded him.

A large sign at the gate of the Spratlin property proclaimed, ‘ANTIQUES SALE, 2 – 4 PM’, and a procession of cars lined the lane into the property. Nellis pulled off the pavement, across from the entrance, and wandered beneath a massive arch, bearing a large burgundy crest with an ornate ‘S’ sculpted between a pair of noble lions embossed in gold, then along the winding drive through a thicket of yews and rhododendrons that screened the house from the street.

He spotted a few serious buyers, amid a stream of curious bargain hunters, and stumbled over a buckle in the pavement, as the manor came into view. A few tiles were missing from a slate roof draping the stately Country French villa surrounded by azaleas, dogwoods, and Japanese maples under huge oaks, sycamores, and maples offering the first tinges of autumn gold and crimson.

He passed under a portico into a large courtyard, opening to the back of the house. Paint was flaking from the soffits and window frames, pavers were cracked and in need of replacement, and, where, once, mums might have bloomed in profusion, there was only a smattering of yellow pansies that would struggle through the winter to show first color in the spring. A white curtain fluttered in a window on the second story and tortured eyes in a pallid face stared, for a long moment, then vanished like a wisp of smoke in the gentle breeze.

A crowd of more than one hundred browsed through a houseful of large furniture pieces arranged with lamps, pottery, bookcases, figurines, paintings, leather-bound books, and a treasure-trove of accessories from the far corners of the Earth.

Nellis studied many subjects, during his years on the road, to satiate a lifelong curiosity that itched incessantly inside his brain. While his bandmates recovered from hangovers, he padded through museums, galleries, and antique shops. He always considered a piece of art or furniture or a musical composition in relation to the events, occurring in the world at the time, that might have spawned or inspired their inception. Overly ornate Louis XIV pieces looked garish and frilly next to an elegantly simple English cabinet or a rustic desk crafted before the American Revolution, yet each represented the finest craftsmanship of their periods.

A full set of Britannica Encyclopedias caught his eye but the publication date was 1965. A stout black man, in dark suit and bow tie, leaned over with a smile, “They’re completely up to date.”

Nellis looked up, “But it’s published in sixty-five.”

“They publish updates every year and I, personally, inserted every one, every year, so these youngsters couldn’t claim they’d been misinformed.”

The old man held out his hand, “Nellis Gray.”

“They call me Mr. Charles. I’ve been Head of Household since the Spratlins got married almost thirty years ago.” He tipped his driver’s cap, “Say, you’re not the Grays who live across the creek are you?”

Nellis smiled sadly, “I guess I’m about the last of us but, yeah, I’m still keeping the place up.”

Charles clapped him on the back, “Well, I’m pleased to finally meet you, neighbor. Is there anything you’re looking for in particular? The auction’s gonna start in the little while but I’d be happy to show our next door neighbor around.”

Nellis scanned the furniture, “I’m not really looking for anything in particular, probably can’t afford it anyway, but I live in a small house, so whatever it is would have to be on a smaller scale than most of these pieces.”

Mr. Charles’ teeth glowed like the Cheshire Cat’s, “Do you play games?”

“What kind of games?”

“Chess, backgammon, cards…games like that.”

“I used to play chess and backgammon with my children on occasion…when they were young.”

“Let me show you my favorite piece in this whole collection.” He walked across the drive to a small, simple table with a green felt top that lifted off to reveal a chessboard on the reverse and a backgammon board inside. A traverse drawer opened on each side, for game pieces and chips, and slender legs tapered into brass sabots. The boards and details were tastefully inlaid with contrasting strips and panels. “Mr. Spratlin’s father told me that this table is actually a late Louis XVI piece made of walnut and tulipwood, with these tiny strips of ebony. I taught each of the children to play these games on this table, so I’ve always been fond of it.”

Nellis ran his fingers across the chessboard, “It’s beautiful and so…restrained. This must have been made as the French were ramping into social revolution. Ostentation was an invitation to the guillotine.”

Mr. Charles grinned, “I thought you were just lookin’?”

“Actually, I don’t have anyone to play with but I’d hate to see something this fine end up where it isn’t appreciated. How much you want for it?”

The houseman crossed his arms and leaned back, stroking his chin thoughtfully, “Tell you what, you’d be my first sale, so how ‘bout one-hundred dollars?”

“You could get more than that in the auction.”

“I could but I wouldn’t know that it would be well-loved and cared for, as something this fine should be. I only use lemon oil on it, twice a year on every surface except the felt.”

“I think I could afford that,” said Nellis, reaching into his pocket to produce a small wad of twenties. He peeled off five bills and handed them to Mr. Charles. “Thanks, I promise to look after it.”

“You want some help carrying it out?”

“No, thanks, I can see that you’ve got plenty to do,” replied the weathered man, gazing around at the crowd. “Things kinda tough in the oil patch?”

“We’re just clearing space in the garages. We’ve got one son, Brad – the veteran, living in the pool house and another, Bruce, has installed an art studio in the loft over the barn, so, rather than the family shrinking, they seem to be expanding into every available space on the property.”

Nellis nodded knowingly, “I guess we live in different worlds, don’t we?”

“Different realities, maybe?”

“And obligations,” said Nellis, reaching to shake the man’s hand. “I sure appreciate your generosity.”

“Just bein’ neighborly, brother. You take good care of her for me.”

Nellis hoisted the little table and started through the crowd, glancing up to the curtain billowing from the empty window, before toting it back down the long sweeping drive to the pickup.

~

A deafening clap of thunder sent a terrified Sissy running for shelter under a sprawling elm, as a brilliant flash of lightning exploded in the upper branches of a giant sycamore, spewing flaming torches tumbling to the ground. The storm broke to a momentary calm under towering thunderheads roiling eerie green overhead. In the distance, a wall of dust roared across the fields, flinging debris from construction sites and wrenching enormous trees to the ground.

Sam grabbed Sissy’s hand, dragging her along the gravel track leading into the Gray property. “C’mon, we can make it home, if we run fast!”

Huge droplets splattered in the mud, followed by the clatter of hailstones hammering the path. The girls raced along the drive, through the gap in the fence, around the barn to the little red bridge over a raging creek. Rushing rapids lapped at the planks and the whole frame shuddered violently. A tangle of blue lightning snapped across the treetops, traced by a staggering boom rumbling up the channel. Samantha grabbed the trembling handrail and stepped onto the strut, as a huge branch surged over the bridge, shattering the planking and twisting the steel banister. Sissy screamed, her plea barely audible in the torrent, “Stop, it’s too dangerous!”

A calloused hand grabbed Sam’s shoulder to pull her back and a grizzled face leaned close, “There’s no bridge to cross, darlin’. C’mon, there’s shelter in the barn!”

He wrapped the girls under his slicker and trotted to the door through a knot of squawking chickens, a small herd of goats, five dogs prancing around the girls, with Chester the pig nuzzling in for a pet, and countless cats peering down from the rafters, amid a flutter of doves and pigeons. Nellis heaved the heavy door closed and shook off his tattered hat and parka. Wind and rain battered the old barn and a salvo of hail hammered the metal roof. He offered a dry horse blanket, shouting above the racket, “Sorry, I don’t have any towels out here.”

Sissy hid behind her sister, as Sam dried her face and hair with the rough cloth, “It’s okay, you don’t have to hide.”

“Are you sure?”

Little rivulets of water dripped from curly waves of salt and pepper hair down the old man’s craggy cheeks and prominent nose. His scruffy flannel shirt and dirty jeans were soaking wet, sagging around his lean frame, but Nellis cracked up, “Do I really look that scary?”

Sissy peaked out, considering the ragged straggle of gray hair and several days’ worth of stubble on his worn and weathered face, “Yes.”

Nellis’s blue eyes crinkling into merry slits, as he laughed and laughed, “Who are you girls?”

“I’m Sam and this is my sister, Sissy. We’re Spratlins.”

The old man held out a rough hand, “Pleased to meet ya’, I’m Nellis Gray but most folk, young and old, call me Nellis.”

“Thanks for giving us shelter from the storm,” said Sam.

“That’s what neighbors are for,” said Nellis, reaching to flip the switch of an old dusty radio on a shelf.

The speaker crackled but announcer’s voice was urgent, “Residents living south of Cameron should be on the lookout for tornadoes. Several wall clouds have been spotted to the southwest and they’re headed our way. Take shelter immediately in the northeast corner on the lowest level of a sturdy structure. Should a tornado approach, leave your vehicle and take shelter in a ditch or low-lying area until the storm passes. This is a tornado warning, take precautions now!”

The farmer scratched his head, “Well, if the creek don’t overflow, we might be okay in the tack room. Grab some blankets and let’s get settled.”

The girls dragged several blankets from the stack and followed him to a closet crowded with saddles, bridles, and harnesses. Nellis hauled in a pile of hay bales and stacked them into a cave with a small breach close to the north wall. “Crawl in there and cover yourself with those blankets.”

Vicious thunder chased crackling fits of lightning and a raging southwesterly gale rattled the rafters of the old barn. The old man peeked through a crack between the wallboards to find the creek boiling over its banks but the surging tide rushed downhill through a ditch along the back of the vegetable garden.

The wind died and the rain slowed to a drizzle but the damp momentary hush reverberated with a low rumble approaching from a distance, the menacing growl growing louder.

Nellis called his pot-bellied pig, Chester, and the dogs and slid into the gap in the bales, pulling them closed, “Let’s just settle in here for a few minutes and see whether this monster might just pass us by.”

Chester honked and the dogs snuggled into the tiny cave but Sissy whined, “I’m scared.”

“It’s okay to be scared, I am too,” said Nellis, gathering the girls close and grabbing the strapping on the bales over their heads. “You just hold on tight and don’t let go, no matter what.”

A massive roar, churning like a locomotive, rattled the barn from the weathervane to the foundation.  A barrage of debris, Mother Nature’s artillery shells, crashed through the old wallboards and splintered hundred-year-old oak beams like a sharp ax through kindling.

The overwhelming racket drowned out the girls’ screams, as timbers tumbled onto the frail wooden storeroom, which collapsed around the pile of hay bales inside. After two minutes of howling frenzy, the sisters’ cries suddenly seemed shrill in the silence that followed the receding storm.

The dogs sat up, sniffing, and Nellis hugged his two young charges, “Are you alright?”

“Is it over?” whimpered Sissy, trembling with fear.

“Yeah, it’s gone,” said Samantha.

Chester honked and cuddled against Sissy.

“Let’s see how bad it is?” said the old man, pushing on bales, wedged in place under the pile of shattered timber, until one moved. He crawled through the breach and heaved some jagged planks out of the way. “You can come out now but be careful, there’s busted boards, twisted metal, and rusty nails everywhere.”

Sissy and Sam followed a snorting Chester and sniffing dogs through the gap to find the south and west walls of the barn piled up around the tack room, half the corrugated roof peeled back, and the rest completely gone. Cats, goats, and chickens appeared one-by-one, baaing and clucking in dazed confusion.

The youngest started crying, “Your barn’s gone.”

Nellis guided the girls outside and knelt down to console Sissy, “We’re alive, that’s all that counts. I can build a new barn but I can’t build new lives.” He hugged the two girls and stood up to watch whirling clouds charging off to the east, trailing a wake of rubble and destruction, shimmering in a streak of blazing sunlight peeking under the back of the storm to the west.

A long black Cadillac pulled up to the steel gate and Mr. Charles stepped out, took off his driver’s hat, and shook his head in disbelief, surveying the devastation and the three survivors, surrounded by a herd of dogs, cats, goats, chickens, and a stout pig next to the remnants of a once sturdy barn.

Nellis unlatched the gate and the girls ran into his arms, “I was so worried about you and I’m sorry I didn’t get to you in time. I was going to pick you up at school but I got delayed with the auction. Are you okay?”

Sissy looked up at him, “Nellis saved us from the storm.”

“Yeah, but his barn got blown away,” added Sam.

Mr. Charles walked over to shake Nellis’ hand, “I…we could never thank you enough.”

“As you said, that’s what neighbors are for,” said the old man, looking around. “The house’s okay and my two horses are out to pasture in the south forty, so they probably survived.”

“Yeah, but this is a mess.”

“Ah, I helped rebuild it when I was a teenager, I can certainly do it again.”

“Anything I can do for you, before I take these children home? I ‘spect the family’s a might anxious.”

“You go on, they’ve been through enough for the first day of school.”

“I’ll say,” smiled the black man. “Thanks again.”

“No problem,” said Nellis, as Mr. Charles held the door and the girls climbed into the back seat of the car.

Chester and the dogs gathered around Nellis to rub against his legs until he leaned down to pet each in turn. “I’m real proud of all of you for protecting those little girls. The barn’s a mess, let’s go see what else got ruined.”

They moved through a maze of rubble into the vegetable gardens. The tall crops - corn, pole beans, and climbing tomatoes - were all flattened, their stalks pointing southwest. The ground crops were damaged by gravel and debris from the runoff but the broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, onions, and carrots would survive to produce.

The herd trudged over the little ridge to survey acres of sunflowers in the west field, which was nestled in a hollow surrounded by ancient gnarled oaks and statuesque sycamores. A triangle of flattened stocks pointed northeast but the rest of the field was undamaged. He pulled off his old hat and brushed his hair back, “That damned storm went right between this field and the house…but it surely took straight aim at the barn. Someone’s lookin’ out for us, guess we should be thankin’ Nanny.”

He burrowed into a row between the standing flowers to inspect a well-disguised grove of bushy green marijuana that was ready for harvest. The old man pulled a loupe from his pocket to peer at a glistening red fibers on a fat bud. “Damn, you’re ready and I’ve got no barn to hang you to cure. Ain’t that the pits?”

The plants were interspersed between rows along the northern edge of the field and appeared undamaged. “Guess we’ll have to figure out some alternative…and quick.”

~

At eight o’clock the next morning a large flatbed truck, marked with ‘B&B Lumber’ on the doors, pulled up to the gate and the driver honked.

The dogs barked ferociously but Nellis calmed them and ambled over to the truck, “Can I help you?”

“You Mr. Gray?” asked the heavyset driver, leaning out the window.

“Yeah, that’s me, what’s it to you?”

“I got a load of lumber for you.”

“I didn’t order no lumber.”

“Hey mister, it says on the delivery to bring it to this address, signed by my supervisor. If you don’t want it, I’ll take it back.”

Nellis scratched the stubble on his chin, unlocked the gate, and walked around to the back of the truck to inspect the load. The driver pulled out the form, “You got two stacks of twenty-four foot 12 X 12’s and four bundles of 4 X 12’s and it looks like there’s 2 X 12’s, roof trusses, and shingles coming later.”

“Who sent this?”

“I have no idea,” replied the stout courier. “I just deliver it where they tell me.”

Nellis pointed, “Over there by that heap of trash that used to be a barn.”

“Looks like you’ll have all the materials you need to put it right.”

“Maybe so.”

The driver off-loaded the beams and boards and drove away.

At ten o’clock another truck pulled up to the gate, followed by a small crane and two flatbeds heavy with materials. Nellis walked over to unlatch the gate as an athletic young man in a Stanton-blue uniform climbed out of the cab.

“You Mr. Gray?”

“Yeah, who’re you?”

“I’m Anthony Higgins, maintenance foreman down at Stanton. Mr. Spratlin sent us along to give you a hand getting your barn back in shape. I guess it’s his way of saying thank you for saving his daughters.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

“You may be but, if you want some help, I’ve got a crew who know what they’re doin’ and a crane to place those beams.”

“Bring ‘em on in,” yelled Nellis, rolling the gate out of the drive.

By the time the black Cadillac pulled in at three-thirty, the crew had hauled most of the debris away and new beams and struts were being installed with assembly-line efficiency.

The girls jumped out of the car and ran to hug Nellis. The old man took off his floppy hat and knelt, “I never expected…anything…let alone all of this…”

Samantha pursed her lips, “We would have died out here, if you hadn’t saved us.”

“That’s what’s important,” said Nellis.

“And so’s this,” said Sissy pointing to the barn. “It’s important to you.”

Mr. Charles opened the rear door and a tall man in a dark tailored suit strode confidently into the yard. He had broad shoulders that drooped slightly, perhaps under the weight of his station, a mane of white hair, and a slight grimace etched into handsome, aristocratic features.

Nellis stood to greet him, removing his hat and offering a calloused hand, “You’d be Mr. Spratlin?”

“That I am,” said the man with weary dark eyes and a small grateful grin. “And I am most pleased to have the pleasure of your acquaintance, so I might thank you, personally, for saving my daughters during the storm. My children are everything to me.” He gazed around at the construction, “I’m very sorry you lost your barn.”

“Well, your daughters didn’t have anything to do with that part of it. It fell down without any help from them,” joked Nellis. “I don’t really know how to thank you for the materials and this crew of guys. They’re crackerjack!”

“They’re my best men, they only do things one way…the right way.” The industrialist looked around at the tattered ruins of expansive vegetable gardens behind the barn, bounded by curving beds full of flowering shrubs and perennials shielding a tired gray farmhouse nestled under enormous black walnuts, red oaks, and maples. Rows of pecan trees marched across a meadow to the south. “How much land do you have?”

“Oh, there’s ‘bout sixty acres left but it’s startin’ to feel like suburbia all around.”

“Do you have family?”

Nellis shook his head, “No, my wife died of cancer, a few years back, and my children moved away.”

“So, you’re lookin’ after sixty-acres all by yourself?”

The old man cackled, “There’s one thing to be said for working for yourself.”

Spratlin leaned expectantly and Nellis grinned, “You can’t blame no one else, if things don’t go the way you planned.”

“Amen to that. I know exactly what you mean, except, when I make a decision, it affects thousands of people.”

“Same problem, bigger scale.”

Spratlin extended his business card, “Again, my sincere thanks for saving Samantha and Sissy. If there’s anything I can do for you, please do not hesitate to call. This is my direct line.”

“With the help of your crew, we’ll have this buttoned up before the next system rolls through.”

“Let’s hope for rain without the pyrotechnics,” said Spratlin. He turned to Mr. Charles, “Will you collect our young ladies? I have to be back at the office shortly.”

“Yes, Sir, Mr. Spratlin.” Mr. Charles marched around the side of the barn to find the girls standing in the outline of the demolished tack room with Chester.

Sissy looked up from petting the pig between the ears, “This is where we were hiding under a straw fort!”

The driver lifted his hat to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief, “You’re lucky Mr. Gray is a wise man. Now come along, your Papa needs to get back to the plant.”

“Alright,” whined Sissy, grabbing Sam’s hand to trot around the barn. The girls hugged Nellis and climbed into the Cadillac.

 

Chapter Two

John Malcolm and Fred Jameson rose with Mr. Spratlin, as the union representatives, Dobie Johnson, Roy Nelson, and Mitch Walker, were shown into the conference room by Katherine Kennedy, Spratlin’s personal secretary.

Spratlin walked around the huge table to shake hands, “Dobie, Roy, Mitch, I appreciate your time, won’t you have a seat?”

The men settled into comfortable leather chairs and Mitch asked, “What’s this about?”

John Malcolm, treasurer for Stanton Enterprises, cleared his throat gruffly, “Gentlemen, we have a problem and we need your help to find a solution.”

“What problem’s that?” inquired Roy.

Fred Johnson, Vice President, interrupted, “Workers and management have been partners in this enterprise for more than one-hundred years…”

Before he could continue, Dobie broke in, “That’s management talk, give it to us straight.”

Spratlin stood, “Gentlemen, the pension fund, along with a substantial portion of my personal holdings, were heavily invested in the stock market. As you know, the market turned south on us during the crash last fall and the value of our principal investments declined dramatically.”

Roy jumped up and slammed his fist on the mahogany table, “That’s our money, you bastards! Who’s responsible for this?”

Malcolm raised his hand, “You’d have to blame me, for I was the one who was trying to grow your investments into something more substantial.”

“Hell, I’d be satisfied just to get back the money I put in,” said Mitch. “How much is left?”

Stanton raised his hand for silence. “We’re working on a plan to invest the balance in more secure vehicles for the short term and the company will dedicate a fair portion of any profits to compensating the fund until it’s balanced.” He paused, “I understand your anger and frustration but there only seem to be two choices here. The first is that we work together, you hire or appoint an accountant and an attorney to represent your interests and to work with John to make sure that every person who is retiring over the next few years gets full benefits, while we rebuild the fund.”

Dobie, Roy, and Mitch stared at the president of the company with anger and suspicion. Mitch snapped, “And the second option is that we go on strike, until you find a way to make up the difference!”

Malcolm responded, “I’m afraid that a major strike, at this moment, would doom not only your pensions but the future of the company.”

“That’s blackmail,” shouted Dobie. “You bastards are living fat off our backs. The men aren’t going to stand for this!”

“Mr. Johnson,” replied Spratlin, “if we do not find a solution to this dilemma, there will be no Stanton Enterprises and we can all stand in line at the soup-kitchen together. Those are the choices.”

“So, now, you’re sayin’ the company might go under?” roared Walker.

“I’m saying that I am divesting myself of all extraneous assets and expenditures to support this company through a very trying time. We borrowed heavily to expand the plant two years ago and, you know as well as any of us, with the recession, diminished demand for our products is dragging the bottom line. The company will go into forfeiture, if we do not meet our obligations.”

He scanned from one to the next, “You all know me. We grew up together. Your fathers and many of their fathers, before them, worked for my father and grandfather. We grew this town together and I hope to pass my obligation to all of you on to the next generation.” He paused, “We’ve been through tough times before and we pulled together to overcome the ravages of floods and tornadoes, the hardships of wars and recessions, and the personal losses that every family in the community has shared. We can solve this problem if we stick together.”

The three men glanced at each other, before Dobie asked, “What do you want from us?”

John Malcolm replied, “Help us save all our jobs and the future of this city. Simple as that.”

“What do you want from us now?” asked Nelson.

“Let’s get the union to hire an accountant and an attorney you can trust,” said Fred Jamison. “I’d suggest Jules Schreiber. He’s an CPA, and an attorney, and a union man from way back. I bet he’d come out of retirement to lend a hand.”

“Is that Ethan’s grandfather?” asked Dobie.

“Yeah, check him out. He’s been through countless union battles, so you know he’s sympathetic to your cause. On the other hand, he knows his stuff and he’s a realist, who can guide you to the best course of action or inaction, as it may be,” said Malcolm.

“He’s a solution guy not a rabble-rouser,” added Jamison. “What do you say?”

“I’m not lookin’ forward presenting this to the men,” said Mitch, shaking his head solemnly. “No, they’re not going to like any of this.”

“I’ll call a general meeting, if that would help,” said Spratlin.

“No, this screw-up needs to be handled right or you’ll have riots at the gates,” said Nelson. “Give us a couple of days to sort this out among ourselves and get in touch with Ethan’s granddaddy.”

“Fine,” said Jamison. “We’ll meet again on Monday.”

The union men rose and sauntered out of the room, grumbling to each other.

“That went better than I expected,” said Malcolm.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Jamison. “They haven’t agreed to anything.”

“I’m afraid they hold the future of the company in their calloused hands,” said Stanton Spratlin, as he gathered his papers and strode from the room.

~

Sibble Savage, a tiny ageless waif, who nannied this generation and Stanton and his sister, Ruth, before them, trudged up the wooden stairs to the loft above the barn and knocked gently on the door at the top. “Master Bruce, are you decent?”

The door opened a crack, “It’s ten o’clock in the morning, what could you possibly want at this hour? And, no, I haven’t been decent since I was twelve years old.”

“Is that any way to treat your second mother?” demanded the little black woman in a gray uniform with a spotless white apron. “D’you think these ol’ bones need to be standing out here in the cold on these stairs.”

The door eased open and Bruce stepped back to allow her to enter a long studio, glowing with north light from a skylight cut across the roof. Enormous gloomy canvases, portraying the most base and vile human excesses, leaned against the walls but, opposite the windows, an unfinished white square surrounded a solid red ball with an iridescent green eyeball staring out from the center.

Sibble glanced around the room, “I don’t pretend to understand art…”

Bruce grinned, rubbing a two-day growth of beard, “I don’t pretend to understand what I’m doing either. It’s just what comes out of the brush.”

“No, it comes out of your mind,” scolded his nanny, “and I’m not sure who put what in there, while I wasn’t lookin’?”

“None of us could have asked for more love or affection than you gave us.”

“You always were quick with the sweet response but I know you better than that!”

“Can’t argue there. What’d you want anyway?”

“Oh, Missus Spratlin asked if you’d stop in to see her, after Dr. Selfridge leaves?”

“She won’t be conscious after he gets through with her.”

“That’s no way to talk of a doctor,” said Sibble. “You should show some respect young man. He’s only trying to help her get better.”

“He’s a quack and we both know it. He’s pumping her full of Lithium and Valium and topping it off with white crosses to keep her from going into a coma!”

“Now, now, she’s a sick woman.”

“She’s a hypochondriac.”

“She’s also your mother. So get yourself cleaned up and go see her, before I bring her lunch up at noon, or I’ll go find a switch to lash your skinny butt, just like I did when you were a scrawny kid.”

“I’ll do it for you, not her.”

“Just do it. Things are hard enough for everyone around here,” said Sibble, opening the door to clutch the rail as her block heels thumped down the stairs, one at a time.

Bruce knocked gently on his Mother’s bedroom door and peaked in to find her propped up in bed, surrounded by plump pillows and crisp linen sheets embroidered with pink floral bouquets. She wore a Chinese silk gown, open to reveal more than a glimpse of cleavage, and flicked on the lamp, which made her blond hair and porcelain complexion glow in the darkened room, but makeup and lighting could not conceal her torment. “I’m so glad you came to see me. I get so lonely.”

“I came by a couple of days ago, remember?”

“Oh, yes.” Her words were slurred but she smiled, reaching to take his hand, “You know I never get enough of my favorite son.”

Bruce stepped closer and stared for a moment. She had been a beautiful woman in her youth, before pills and liquor drained the color from her skin, the life from her bloodshot eyes, and the spirit from her soul. His father loved her with all his heart but, after Sissy was born, she retired to this bedroom, never venturing into the rest of house or the grounds again. As far as he knew, they had not slept together since. “How are you feeling?”

“Better, now that the doctor refilled my medications.”

“Between the quack doctor and the good Reverend Billy Joe Hardman saving your soul, you should be all set.”

“They’re both fine men, just like you,” snapped Marjorie.

“I’m a faggot because you trained me, remember?”

Her lips pouted, “You’re my beautiful boy, would you help me feel better? Please?”

“Mother, do we have to?”

“I need the human touch and yours is so gentle.” She pulled back the sheet and took his hand, “Please?”

His fingers found the heat between her legs and massaged gently, as she unzipped his jeans to fondle him, whimpering, “I produced this beautiful organ and I want to put it back where it belongs.”

“No! Besides, you made sure that I’ll never fuck a woman again.”

“We’ll not talk of that.”

“It’s no secret!”

“She’s my sin, not yours.”

“Miraculous conception.”

“I’ve seen your models, they’re all beautiful young men. Don’t you paint women too?”

Bruce smirked, “I’d rather play with boys.”

“Don’t share this with anyone else, it’s mine,” moaned the woman, as violent waves of ecstasy exploded through her body.

Bruce backed away and tucked himself in, as she dabbed at her lipstick with an embroidered hanky. A knock at the door interrupted and Sibble swept into the room with a bed tray, “Here’s your lunch, Mrs. Spratlin. Can I get you anything else?”

“No, I’m sure Mama Louise has supplied far more than ten men could consume.”

Sibble nodded, “That’s probably true but you eat what you can to build your strength, now, and I’ll be back for the tray in a little while.”

She turned to Bruce, as she left the room, “There’s a turkey sandwich waiting for you in the kitchen.”

“Why, thank you,” replied Bruce, blushing.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” said Marjorie. “I so enjoy your visits.”

“I know you do,” said her son, kissing her forehead and turning to leave.

“Come back soon.”

He did not reply but closed the door quietly.

~

Nellis shielded his eyes to watch a young peregrine falcon hovering on a southerly breeze, sharp eyes scanning for a foolish rodent out in the open or any bird that might take flight. Frustrated, he tilted the tips of his wings and soared a hundred feet straight up to bank hard right, circling the yard four times before he disappeared over the pecan grove.

He sauntered up the path to the house, “That’s just pure magic, that is. Sad part is that his huntin’ ground is being gobbled up by tract housing lined up on an endless green lawn with nary a tree or a shrub in sight. Maybe he’ll take a likin’ to the ol’ homestead.”

He was just settling in with a cup of hot tea, when the dogs perked up, as Sissy squeaked through the gap in the fence and skipped across the gravel drive to the house. She stopped on the step, as Chester and the dogs crowded around to lick and sniff, pointing to the game table that Nellis had set up on the porch, “I’m so glad you got that table. It’s very special to all of us.”

“It’s a story within a story, isn’t it?” replied Nellis pointing to the chair opposite. “Checkers?”

“Sure.”

“Red or black?”

“Red, of course!”

“Where’s Sam?”

“Oh, she went to check on my brother Brad. He’s a mess.” Sissy looked up, as they laid out the pieces, “Two questions.”

“Okay.”

“Why did you bring the table out here?”

“Because it doesn’t look right for a grownup man to have an unescorted young lady in his house,” replied Nellis, carefully.

“Why?”

“Because people always think the worst of everyone else, first, and ask questions later. Let’s just say that I like the breeze and Chester and the dogs would get hurt feelings if they couldn’t hang out with you. What’s the other question?”

“Oh, you said the table is a story within a story. What did you mean?

Nellis smiled, rubbing rough fingers across the intricate banding inlaid in the board, “Do you have any idea of where this came from?”

“I think Mr. Charles said it came from France,” replied Sissy.

“Very good but from what part of history?”

“It seems very old. I don’t know, a hundred years?”

Nellis smiled, “I’m guessing that it was made around the time of the French Revolution in 1789. Before that, the furnishings were lush and gaudy, covered with gold leaf as a note of ostentation. As the revolt approached, cabinetmakers refined their styles to produce wonderfully understated pieces like this. The craftsmanship is superb. How do suppose they cut each of these little rectangles and interlaced this tiny strip of ebony in between each joint?”

“That is fairly amazing. They must have had good eyes,” laughed Sissy.

“A steady hand and great patience.”

“But you said there’s a story inside the story.”

“Well, let’s imagine that a cabinetmaker spent the better part of a year making this little table. He had to find exactly the right woods for these slender legs and the delicate top, with strong straight grains to support the heavy leanings of inebriated games-players.”

“What’s inebriated?”

“Drunk,” laughed Nellis, moving a black chip to counter Sissy’s move. “And that’s the beginning of the rest of the story, isn’t it? Think about all the people, probably influential people of their times, who sat at this table of an evening, imbibing on a stout brandy, while they played cards or backgammon and discussed the political future or the latest social gossip or, maybe, they traded contacts to expand their fortunes. Needless to say, this table didn’t reside in a house like mine, more like yours probably.”

“So they would have been rich people?”

“Yes, most certainly. No commoner could afford a fine piece of frivolous furniture like this, that’s what brought about the revolution. Society was divided between the Bourgeois, the wealthy merchants and industrialists, along with the nobility and the leaders of the Church, and the little people, who resented the gentry getting rich while the workers starved. The crops failed and the peasants couldn’t feed themselves, while the privileged hosted grand parties for thousands of guests, serving endless courses of foods and wines from all over the world, certainly flaunting their wealth and extravagance.”

“Do you think that people plotted the overthrow of the King over this table?” asked Sissy.

“Could very well have happened,” said Nellis, jumping two of her pieces in one turn. “You might wanna pay attention to the game, girlie.”

She jumped three of his men and landed on his side, “King me!”

“Yes, Ma’am!”

“So, I wonder where it went from there?”

“And how’d it get here?”

“If only it could tell us.”

“Well, we do have some clues.”

“Like what?” asked the little blond.

“Well, for one thing there are two labels on the bottom of the table.”

Sissy took two more of his pieces and leaned under the table, “Really?”

“Really. One is a weathered shipping label addressed to Sir Cyril Ritchard, at an address in London. The other is a price tag from a gallery in New York that looks like it might have been printed in the teens or twenties.”

“Who’s Cyril Ritchard?”

“Sir Cyril Ritchard was a famous Australian actor who is most celebrated for his part as Captain Hook in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan. He is a ‘Sir’ because he was knighted by the Queen.”

“I saw the film of that on television. He was really funny,” laughed Sissy. “I wonder what conversations he had over this table?”

“I’d love to have been a fly on the wall, he was a very gifted man.”

“That’s the first clue, maybe we could find out its secrets somehow.”

“Worthy of a little research,” mused Nellis, inspecting the sparse collection of black pieces surrounded by red kings. He jumped two stacks to get his crown.

“You don’t give up easy, do you?” smirked the young sprout, jumping two more of his pieces. “It sure is nice having the bridge up again.”

“Yeah, Tony Higgins brought in a couple of his welders, who put that together in an afternoon. Talented guys.”

“Looks like the barn is almost done.”

“Yup, finish up a few details and whitewash her and she’ll be better than new. I sure do appreciate all the help from your daddy and his guys.”

“I think you saved his daughters and he found some joy in repaying your kindness.”

“Sounds like things might not be going so well over at your place,” said Nellis quietly.

Sissy’s grin vanished, “Oh, it’s not so bad.”

“Which means it’s not as good as it was.”

“Well, Sam told me that Father doesn’t have the money to send us to the Academy this year and Mother’s been sick in bed since I was born. Then there’s my brother, Brad, who got wounded in Vietnam, so he’s drunk and crazy mad all the time, and Bruce, who’s decided he’s an artist, so he can act as weird as he wants.”

“And how’s Sissy coping with all of this?”

The little girl looked up, tears welling in her eyes, “I wake up every morning hoping that it’s all just a bad dream and bright sunshine will make it all better.”

The old man leaned back in his chair, “Sometimes, life isn’t kind…or fair, for that matter. You are not responsible for fixing these problems or making your family members better. Each of them has to overcome their own demons and heal in their own ways and all you can do is do your best to be who you are...a charming little imp with an enchanting and devious smile.”

“What’s devious?”

“Sneaky!” laughed Nellis.


© rick stiller 2017