Read an Excerpt
By Herbert Lieberman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Herbert Lieberman
All rights reserved.
I live on a rural road in a northern suburb. My nearest neighbor lives in a farmhouse two miles south of me. My name is Graves. If I speak in haste, it's out of a desire to say what has to be said as quickly as possible, then having said it never to mention it again. For to restate things is to relive them and to relive them is to suffer anew. All I hope for now is to purge old demons and in doing so to reach a tiny island of quiet within myself where I can spend whatever time remains me untroubled by memories and inaccessible to prying people. In nearly sixty years of living, what a pitiable thing it is to say that all I've learned is that we are all mostly men of good will and no resolve. But forgive me if I've sounded cryptic; I've seen what I've seen and I know what I know. Give me fifteen minutes of your time and I shall make you loathe me.
I came here two years ago at the suggestion of my doctor, a certain cardiologist by the name of Palermo with a vast number of letters beside his name. I'd suffered my second heart attack and so the firm for which I'd worked some twenty-odd years decided in their infinite charity to award me a small but adequate pension and send me away. Dr. Palermo's sole prescription to me was to live quietly for the rest of my days. Presumably, I'd reached a state, in his august opinion, where instructions as to medication and daily diet seemed scarcely germane.
Being by instinct and temperament an urbane creature, I made the transition to rural life with surprisingly little difficulty. My life here up until the time of which I now speak has been pleasant. I rented a house—the old Quigley place—out on the Bog Road. It's a good house, as houses go. What real estate ladies like to call "Your typical Georgian Colonial"—white stone, black shutters and trim. Nothing remarkable.
The house dates back to 1782; it sits on a tidy parcel of land surrounded by crumbling stone walls which used to define the meets and bounds of the first homesteads in this part of the country. The pastures and meadows of the old farms of centuries ago are now forest—full of deer, fox, and partridge. When you read the deeds to these old places—full of names like Mosher, Bullock, Starbuck, and Macy—all vanished folk, you get an eerie feeling. I'm even told our house has a ghost. If so, a not particularly amiable one. I've not seen hide nor hair of him since we arrived here.
There's grass all around the house, and a good many trees. All along the border of the front lawn is a line of ancient oaks with their rough, deeply lined trunks like the worn, wrinkled faces of benign old men. To one side of the front door stands a holly, to the other a dogwood. The lawn winds round the house and sweeps out the back—a rolling, rock-spattered thing—and in its irregularity, very pleasing to the eye.
Additional trees are scattered here and there about the place—a huge tulip tree, several copper beeches, a shagbark hickory, an ash and maple joined at the hip and seeming to spring from the same root, a scattering of apple trees, an enfeebled birch, some evergreens and a dying catalpa.
The lawn reaches back a hundred yards or so to where the forest begins. To the right of the house is a clover meadow. Behind the house is a copse. Here sleek, black crows rise heavily out of the branches and go squawking off through the trees. At night, with the window open, you can hear the wind singing like a lyre through those trees.
Beyond the copse is a bog. The only way to reach it is directly through the copse. I've been back there several times. It's a forlorn and dismal place. All the trees are dead. The ground is always wet. It's an area of heavy drainage, and over the years the earth has become a black, tarlike ooze that sucks and gurgles at your feet. I've always entertained the private and amusing notion that beneath the bog lies a graveyard full of the bones of prehistoric monsters who trod the earth millions of years ago. But the only signs of life back there today are the sleepy dragonflies dreaming on the stalks of cattails and the bullfrogs intoning all night long.
My wife Alice's single passion is her garden. It's a genuine pleasure to see her in those seasons when the garden is in full cry, bent to the soil, a great, floppy sunbonnet on her head, inching her way through a blaze of blooms—the Dutch irises, the sweet peas, the dwarf carnations, the violas, the Gloriosa daisies, the Madcap hollyhocks, the blood-red de Caen poppies, and the dazzling array of hybrid dahlias.
When Alice handles a bulb or a corm, it's the way some women handle an infant—with infinite tenderness and a kind of pity. As if she saw in their vulnerability and the brevity of their lives a mission for herself.
She has, too, a vegetable garden that yields for us each summer a bounty of Prize Head lettuce and Red Cherry tomatoes. In late summer the tomatoes look like clusters of rubies on the bush. After the rain the heady breath of basil, dill, sage, sweet marjoram, and thyme comes wafting up on the evening breeze, enters our windows and screen doors, and fills our house.
Our life here is simple. It all has a kind of deadly regularity. And yet, it's not unpleasant. The last thing a man in my condition needs is surprises. We have no children. Our wants are few. Each Sunday we go unfailingly to church. In the day we walk in the forest outside the door and pick blackberries and apples. We enjoy identifying wild birds from our Peterson and wild flowers that we stumble on in the woods. It's oddly pathetic to think what a triumph one feels in spotting a bit of henbane or pauper's grass, or in being able to identify a titmouse or some such foolish thing.
Our only visitors to the house are the possums and skunks who come at night to bump around the trashcans and in the day the innumerable wild birds who flock to our feeders. During the cold weather we spread seeds and crumbs and hang suet balls. We have a special affection for the sparrows, the slate juncos, and the blackcap chickadees who live out in the icy blasts all winter. We have no feelings at all for the birds who fly south.
At night we take comfort in our fire, the logs sizzling and crackling on the grate, and enjoy the sense of security one feels around a bright warm spot while in the middle of an encroaching darkness.
One day several weeks ago the oil man came to us. He was an amiable young man. He wore a suit with a shirt and tie and drove an automobile with the name of the fuel company painted on it in a bright red shield in the shape of a heart. It was his job to come and read the fuel gauge, to instruct us in the proper use of the furnace, and to keep us as clients, cozy and content. His name, he said, was Richard Atlee.
We rarely ever had visitors out there, and so I fear we made a bit of a fuss over him. When you're alone as long as we'd been and normally used to a rather busy social life, even the appearance of an oil man can touch off a flurry of excitement.
It was unusually warm that day and as he puttered over the pipes and gauges down below in the basement, I offered him something cold to drink.
"Would you like a glass of lemonade?" I called down the steps. "It's freshly made."
He came smiling to the foot of the stair, a gash of grease struck down the center of his forehead. "That'd be nice." His voice was very soft.
He tinkered long in the basement, and when he finished and reappeared upstairs, it was late dusk and near the supper hour. My wife had set the table. When the oil man came up from the basement he appeared tired. He gazed wistfully at the plates and silver, the small napkins in their rings. To my surprise, my wife asked him if he would join us. "It's a long time since I've cooked for anyone," she said.
He smiled a shy, twisted little smile and glanced back and forth, as if he were taking the measure of each of us, one by one. It was a "Now let's see about you two" sort of glance.
"Would it be all right?" he asked in his soft, shy voice. It had a poignant quality about it.
Alice had made a small roast, surely enough for two or three—even four in a pinch. Whenever she offered the oil man an additional serving he accepted it, each time holding his plate up to her and staring straight ahead. He accepted up until the point where she and I through swift glances and a tacit understanding took no extra portion for ourselves so that we might be spared the embarrassment of not having enough meat to feed the oil man.
As he ate I had an opportunity to study his face. It had an almost primitive look about it—the hair clipped short, the forehead broad, the nose somewhat flat, the lips quite full, and the eyes penetrating and very blue. I suppose you might say it was a brutal face, and yet it had an oddly beautiful quality—rather religious, in some indefinable way—like an Eastern Saint.
When he finished his supper he lingered long at the table, talking little and listening to my wife and me chat aimlessly. He appeared to be studying us intently. Several times we attempted to engage him in conversation, but with very little success. I poured him three or four glasses of wine and hoped that he would go.
When indeed he actually made ready to go, I led him out through the library. He stopped there and looked at the books, his eyes roaming up and down the length of the shelves. There was an expression of wonder in his face.
"You read 'em all, Mistuh?"
"Most of them," I said.
"At one time or another."
"How long it take to read 'em all?"
I laughed. His wonder flattered me. "Quite some time."
"You know all the stuff in 'em?"
"Hardly," I said, laughing, and in a curious way I found myself wanting to boast.
I watched his hand reach tentatively for the shelves and creep upwards to one of the volumes, his bony, nervous index finger lingering caressingly over its spine. His voice dropped to a whisper. "What's this one?" It was as if he'd entered a holy place.
"That's an early edition of the poems of a man by the name of Blake." I took it down and handed it to him so that he might examine it.
"What's it about?" he asked.
"About a lot of things. Love, Fear, Death. God."
There was a keen excitement in his face. "Kin I take it?"
In his shy, oblique way, he was amazingly direct.
The book he'd asked for was a very old edition and quite rare. It had been given to me by my father on the occasion of my graduation from college. Naturally, I didn't want to let it out of the house. Moreover, I've always considered it an impertinence for a person to ask to borrow anything as intimate as a book.
Still I didn't say no. It wasn't that he'd flattered me. He had, but I'm not a foolish man. Nor am I a timid man. I wasn't afraid to say no. Nevertheless, to my surprise, I heard my voice, as if at a very great distance, say, "You promise to bring it back?"
Alice's astonished glance flashed at me from across the room.
He nodded, holding the book between two fingers of large, rough hands, as if he feared to contaminate it by his touch. "Sure." We all laughed a little nervously. Then he was gone.
Later that night as we undressed for bed, Alice said, "Why did you give it to him?"
"I don't know. I'm sure he'll never bring it back." I started to laugh rather foolishly.
We didn't see the oil man for several weeks. When he came again we didn't even hear him drive up. I'm not entirely sure he did drive. It's possible that the second time he came on foot, although when you think of the distance he'd have to cover to get out there from town, it seems a bit improbable. Still, as I recall now, we saw no car.
We were outdoors separating the irises and covering them, for we'd had a frost the night before. It was my wife who saw him first. She looked up and there he was standing at the bottom of the garden. No sound preceded him.
I didn't see him at all. At least, not at first. What I saw instead was Alice's movements come abruptly to a halt. I didn't actually see that, either; I felt it, or sensed it. When I looked up she was leaning motionless against her rake—staring at something across the garden. Still I didn't see him. Instead I followed the line of her gaze a hundred yards or so, the way you find a kite by following the string—until I saw, at last, a small yet distinct shape standing just beside the dying catalpa at the bottom of the garden.
My legs wobbled, and even before my mind grasped the identity of that shape, I could feel the thump of my heart accelerate in my chest. The next moment I was smiling and waving to Richard Atlee, signaling him to join us.
Coming toward us shyly like a wary animal, he said he'd come again to look at the gauges. There was something he wanted to check, he said, and there was that wry, secretive smile on his face as if something only he had just seen had amused him. It never occurred to me to ask why he had come from such an unexpected direction—that of the bog.
Once again he descended into the basement and remained there for the rest of the afternoon. It seemed odd, his remaining down there so long. Several times during the afternoon we heard the faint, light tinkle of his wrench and hammers striking against the pipes, I played with the idea of going down there. Surprising him at his work. Not for a moment did I believe that he was doing anything. He was just playing at doing something, and stalling for time. But still I didn't go down.
When he finally emerged from the basement, it was once again the supper hour. This time we were not anxious to invite him. But he sat in the parlor and then lingered so long in the library that it became awkward. My wife and I exchanged glances.
He stared fixedly at the table as if he were admiring the plates and glasses, the neat, tasteful symmetry of crockery, silver, and white linen. It was an oddly childish sort of thing—so naked and undisguised. In the next moment, to my amazement Alice once again invited him to stay.
"By all means," I said. He had looked to me to see if it was all right. "It would please us." My voice was wavery and a bit too high.
He went directly to the table and sat down. It was as if he knew he was to be invited; as if the thing had been decreed elsewhere, independent of us, and all he awaited was some small signal or gesture that was guaranteed to come.
I stood there stunned while he sat quietly at the table, hands folded in lap, eyes lowered, waiting for us to join him.
As soon as a plate was set before him, he fell ravenously on the food. All the while he ate, we watched him with the food untouched on our own plates, and I kept thinking about my Blake and mourning its irretrievable loss.
There was no conversation, and Alice—to fill in the gaps—kept thrusting bowls and plates of food at me, a look of desperation on her face and I suppose one of perplexity on mine. At the end of the meal I was still mourning my Blake, and not a little edgy. Finally I spoke, "How've you been getting on with the book?"
"The one you borrowed several weeks back."
He looked at me as if I'd spoken in a foreign tongue. Then his face brightened. "Oh, that."
"Yes. The Blake. Have you finished it yet?" I looked at him with a vague hope that he might ask me questions.
"Haven't started it." He spoke with a full mouth and as he did so his fork reached across the table and speared another chunk of lamb. I felt anger rising in me. "Well, if you're not going to read it, I'd appreciate it back."
"Sure." He smiled, not looking at me. He was busy replenishing his plate.
When he left again, it was well on to midnight. He took several additional books with him.
For a while my wife and I didn't speak. We were too confused and flustered. Instead we busied ourselves with the task of carrying soiled dishes from the table to the sink. The place where the oil man had sat was in a ruin. It was as if a large animal had pastured there. A good deal of food that had been on his plate was now on the table as well as under it. From an overturned wine goblet leaked a languid trickle of burgundy, creeping its way across the table and blooming suddenly into a large purple blossom.
I looked at Alice peering dreamily into a sinkful of dishes. "Why did you invite him again?" I asked.
She turned the taps on and watched the water rise in the basin and the soap bubbling into suds. "I don't know. He seemed so alone. So hungry."
Excerpted from Crawlspace by Herbert Lieberman. Copyright © 1971 Herbert Lieberman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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