Thursday, Jan. 23, 1987
“Anything happening today at school?”
Mom was packing my lunch as I took the last couple bites of a strawberry Pop-Tart. I finished chewing and stirred my hot chocolate.
“Nah. Just normal school stuff,” I said. “Gonna interview Zadok after, though. I saw him at the store yesterday, and we made an appointment to meet.”
“So you’re going through with it? Good. I’m glad you’re going for it.”
I gulped down the last of my cocoa and threw Mom a cock-eyed look.
“You are? I thought you didn’t want me doing it. You and Daddy both.”
My lunchbox packed, Mom closed it and placed it on the table.
“Well, I’ve done a lot of thinking about it,” she said. “I was wrong to react the way I did. We should be encouraging you to get to know different people, especial people others ignore. Why didn’t you mention the interview last night at supper?”
“I didn’t want to rile you and Daddy up, and Daddy was already pretty grumpy about something. I didn’t wanna make it worse.”
Mom shook her head.
“Work’s hard for him right now. We’re going to need to put up with his mood for a little while, La La.”
I looked out the window at the barn. Steam rolled out the vents, and frost covered the milk house windows. It was one of the coldest mornings of the winter so far.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” Mom said, running her fingers through my hair. “Just grown-up stuff. Farmer stuff. Anyway, Zadok after school … make sure you’re bundled up for the walk there and back. Want me to have a snack ready for you when you go by?”
Food. That would make a nice ice-breaker for me and Zadok.
“Yeah. That would be good. Something I can share with Zadok?”
“Good idea. Hopefully it won’t be frozen by the time you get to his place.”
We both laughed at the idea. I figured if it was cold enough to freeze food in 15 minutes, I wouldn’t be walking anywhere.
“Anything happening at the store yesterday?” Mom asked.
I smiled and nodded.
“Walden let me set up the Valentine’s stuff. I did the whole display. He said Wilson’s pretty sick, so Walden’s been behind on work. Said they might need to hire someone ‘cause it keeps getting busier. Plus he’s worried Wilson’s gonna be sick for a while.”
Mom raised her eyebrows as she sipped her coffee.
“The twins are hiring? Huh … never thought I’d see the day. I hope it’s nothing too serious with Wilson.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I had a lot of fun helping out. You should go and see my display. I bet it’d be pretty nice to have a job there.”
I gathered up my plate and mug and placed them in the kitchen sink.
“Do you think he was serious?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Walden. Do you think they’re really looking for help?”
“Dunno,” I said, shrugging. “Seemed like it. Why?”
“No reason. Just interesting.”
The school day was over before it began. All I could think about was getting to Zadok’s and getting the details on the weird stuff he’d argued with Wilson about at the store before Christmas.
By the end of the day, it was above zero out, and in the bright, blue sky, the sun was blazing away without throwing off any heat. I hurried home and grabbed the snack Mom made for Zadok and me. Macaroni and cheese loaf sandwiches on white bread with mayo, yellow mustard, and sweet pickle relish, plus some store-brand barbecue chips and two Little Debbie brownies. Mom knew the way to my stomach and heart, and hopefully to Zadok’s, too.
I was a little less than a half mile from his house when the dog started barking. As usual, the poor guy was hitched at the corner of the entryway so he could either be outside or sheltered in the ramshackle porch Zadok had created with scrap lumber, particle board, and plastic.
Cresting the hill, a sudden, bitter gust whipped across the open fields and stung me like a swarm of frozen bees. Snow, pushed across the open fields by the massive, invisible hand, scattered across my face, and I slammed my eyes closed to shut it out. As quick as it appeared, the wind was gone, and I saw Zadok’s place.
I realized I’d never been up on the hill in winter before, and the old house took on a stoic appearance it lacked in warmer weather. The tiny, brick structure Zadok called home stood starkly against the barren winter landscape that surrounded it.
Buttoned up for the season, the two-story house threw off even more mysterious vibes than it did in warmer weather. Clear plastic – the same kind Dad used to cover the insides of the windows in the heifer barn – was nailed to the outside of the windows with cedar strips, and I could see fluffy, pink insulation stuffed against the windows from inside. I imagined it did a good job keeping out the cold, but it also didn’t let any daylight in.
A big crack ran the heighth of one side of the house, right down the middle of the outside wall. A ramshackle wooden frame about seven feet square, with more plastic stretched across it, leaned up against the wall. Three old tractor tires were placed up against the bottom to hold it in place. And just as insulation was visible from inside the windows, I saw clumps of the pink material crammed into the vertical crevice.
Light gray smoke curled from the brick chimney centered on the apex of the roof. Busted slate shingles hung loose in spots and were missing from others altogether. The covering was pock-marked with uneven layers of roofing tar, and there were gaps here and there along the eaves where I’d seen bats fly out one summer night when we were haying the hilly fields.
There was a split-rail fence along the road that dead-ended at Zadok’s house. The fence was probably as old as the house, but somehow it seemed sturdier than the building. So did the big barn off to the right of the house. I guessed that the hay mow inside was at least a third empty now, with Zadok selling bales off to other farmers as his primary source of winter income, along with the Social Security money he was always complaining to Wilson about.
Zadok’s border collie was on the verge of a heart attack from barking so hard and loud, I figured, but somehow he managed to bark even harder and louder the closer I got. He pulled at the four or so feet of chain it was hitched to, hopping on his hind legs before falling over, lunging at me, hopping on his hind legs, and repeating the whole process over and over.
“GODDAMN IT, SMOKEY! SHUT YOUR MOUTH!”
I couldn’t remember a time when I’d seen Zadok greet someone when they arrived. First and foremost was yelling at the dog. Mom told me once how, since she could remember, Zadok had a border collie, and no matter the ratio of black to white, he’d always named them Smokey. The second one she knew of was almost completely white, except for a couple of small black spots on his chest. And the current one – Smokey the Fifth or Sixth by Mom’s estimation – was brown and white. Not a hair of black on him.
As soon as Zadok shouted, Smokey whined at sat down.
“Hi, Zadok,” I said. “Sorry I got Smokey all upset.”
“Nah. He’s always stirred about about something,” he said, gently tugging on Smokey’s ears before kissing him on the snout. “S’pose you wanna come in, hey?”
I smiled, pleased he was so eager to talk.
“Yeah, and I brought a snack my mother made for us,” I said, holding up the paper bag in my hand.
“Those loaf sandwiches she likes to bring your father and me during hayin’? With the relish?”
He gestured toward the door.
“Well git on on. Mind Smokey when ya pass. Don’t want her knockin’ you down with her damn fool jumpin’,” he said before looking down at the dog. “You keep your ass still now!”
I walked by quickly, knowing full well Smokey wouldn’t do much more than jump all over me and try to get the sandwiches. Entering Zadok’s living room, my eyes tried to adjust to the darker setting, which got even darker when the door closed behind me.
Zadok motioned for me to sit down in an old rocking chair by the fire place in the middle of the room, and I got my notebook and pencil out before spreading out the snack on a footstool that sat between Zadok’s chair and mine.
“So you wanna hear some hist’ry,” he said in a way that sounded more like a statement than a question.
“Yup,” I said. “I’ve got a bunch of questions I can ask, but you know more than me. Probably know better what to talk about, too. So … why don’t you just sorta tell me what you think I oughta know, and then we can figure out what else I need after that?”
He scratched the scruff on his chin.
“That sounds pretty good to me. Get yer pencil ready, ‘cos I’ve got a lot to say.”
To be continued …
THE COMFORT ROCK CHRONICLES IS AN ONGOING SERIES OF SHORT STORIES ABOUT A FICTITIOUS VERMONT TOWN, AN AMALGAM OF ALL NORTHWEST VERMONT HAS TO OFFER. COMFORT ROCK HAS BEEN GROWING IN MY HEAD FOR WELL OVER 20 YEARS. I REALLY LIKE THE FOLKS WHO CALL COMFORT ROCK HOME, AND I HOPE YOU DO TOO.