Time and Place
As usual, the day had gotten away from her, and as usual, my mother had no idea how. She had risen at the crack of ten, as always, and followed her morning routine, which consisted largely of winding the dozen or so clocks she kept scattered around the house. There were cuckoo clocks and elaborate mechanical clocks that chirped or warbled or chimed, and all needed to be wound and set by hand. She kept the key to the first clock atop her alarm clock, and she set the first cuckoo clock to the time flashing digitally on the alarm clock, which generally was more or less the correct time. She would then palm the key to the next clockshe kept the second key atop the first clockand make her way to set that second clock. But along the way she would invariably get distracted.
Eventually, she'd remember that she was clutching a clock key in her hand. She'd make it to the second clock and set that to precisely the same time she had set the first, and then she would do exactly the same thing at the next clock after some more aimless wandering. The result was that it took her virtually all day to set all the clocks in the house, and no two were set to the same time. The house was a constant cacophony of seemingly random bells and birdcalls and tunes from old movies played on the perforated tin drums of music boxes. Most visitors found it maddening, but my mother would always cheerily dismiss them. "It's a big house," she'd say. "Different time zones."
It was autumn. The first frost hadn't yet hit, and so the dirtor what passes for dirt in that rocky corner of northeastern Pennsylvaniawas still pliable enough for my mother to get next spring's bulbs in. And she had even set her floppy straw hat and paisley gardening gloves on the old blue rocker on the back porch the night before so she could be ready to go bright and early. But by the time she had donned them and made it out of the house, the sun was already slipping behind the old hemlocks that ringed the west side of the house.
She didn't really mind. On late falls days like this, her rambling old house with its green gables and ivory-colored clapboard siding, its weathered wood granary and the brooding barn, all looked like a photograph in one of the albums she keeps in her cedar chest, along with her wedding dress. That garden and this house were the only things that had kept her in this remote corner of northeastern Pennsylvania after my father died. It had been nine years. The pancreatic cancer had been a hell of a shock for a guy who had never smoked a cigarette or taken a drink in his life, and he blamed the oil for his disease.
From the moment my parents bought the place in 1970, my father had been at war with the woodchucks. He hated the little critters, not just because they looked like obese rats, but also because their unsightly burrows pockmarked his fields, offending my father's sense of order. Moreover, he had convinced himself that the insidious beasts were laying traps, that it was only a matter of time before a cow or horse stepped into one of those holes and snapped its leg. But my father, a crack shot with his .22 when it came to plinking soda cans off fenceposts, didn't have the heart to dispatch the chucks the old-fashioned way. He preferred a more asymmetrical warfare. When he changed the oil in his cars or tractor, he would carry the used oil to the nearest chuck hole and dump it in. Thing was, the woodchucks didn't seem to mind it. The periodic oil baths did nothing to reduce their population. But as my father, who had never been a particularly superstitious man, drew closer to death, he got it into his head that his disease was some kind of karmic punishment for poisoning the earth.
My mother was only a few spadefuls into the job when a rusted old import with bad shocks came rattling up her driveway, a young womancouldn't have been more than twenty-threeat the wheel. Though my mother had never seen her before, she recognized the young woman at once. Maybe it was the trim brown leather jacketrumor had it that she started wearing it after realizing that the local farmers were paying no attention to her spiel and were instead focused entirely on her tattoos. Maybe it was the sheaf of papers she carried. More than likely, though, it was the little gold nose ring, which now glittered in the sun. That nose ring had become pretty famous around Ellsworth Hill that autumn of 2007. They didn't see much of those around there.
The young woman, an agent for New Penn Exploration LLC, one of the gas companies that had sprouted up all over the region, had turned up at just about every farm on and around the hill over the past couple of weeks. In a voice that dripped with the honeyed twang of Texas, she'd been trying to sweet-talk farmers into signing leases to give the drilling company she represented access to their land so it could poke and probe and explore the Marcellus shale, a deeply buried stratum of rock a mile down that was believed to hold a large deposit of natural gas. She spoke in only general terms about the gas and the process of extracting it, which the farmers took as an indication that perhaps this young woman was not all that schooled in the ways of the gas industry. Either that, they thought, or she was being coy.
My mother summoned all her lace-curtain-Irish breeding and greeted the young woman with effusive cordiality as she guided her to the front porch, offering her a seat on one of the old rattan chairs my father had painted barn red before he died and sitting down beside her. The young woman didn't offer much in the way of small talk, and didn't even mention my mother's gardenan omission my mother considered an unpardonable breach of etiquette. Instead, she immediately launched into an explanation for the visit, apparently unaware of her growing fame in the neighborhood. Her voice was soft and a little breathless, as if she were letting my mother in on a very special secret. My mother played along, interjecting the occasional "Oh!" and "My!" at what she deemed to be appropriate intervals, or whenever she felt that the woman might be running out of steam.
The way the young woman explained it, there was something almost charmingly mechanical and industrious about the way these guys would go about their business. "You might see a few trucks on the road," she told my mother, "and a rig or two"not mentioning that a single rig has a footprint as wide as a barn and at least as high as a church steeple"and they might thump the ground and listen in with something like sonar." Or they might plant little depth charges in the ground"sort of like firecrackers," she explainedto see whether there was enough natural gas to make it worth their trouble. There was always the chance that they'd turn up nothing, and if not, they'd be on their way, and my mother would be a few thousand dollars richer. But if there was gas there, well, they'd bring in a few more rigs, dig a few holes in the ground, and if they struck gas, well, then, who knows what might happen, she said. She never came right out and dangled vast riches in front of my mother, but she did mention, offhandedly, that in Texas, and Arkansas, and Louisiana, and other places where shale gas had been found, she'd heard stories about people who became millionaires overnight. "Oh, just like the Beverly Hillbillies," my mother said sweetly.
The young woman smiled back at her. "And how many acres do you have?" she asked. "One hundred," my mother replied. "Would you want to lease it all?"
The young woman nodded. It wasn't as if the company would take over the whole place, of course. In fact, at first, the disruptions to my mother's life would be minimal, nothing more than a few of those seismic tests, and my mother would hardly even know they were there. If the tests didn't pan out, that would be the end of it. But even if the tests indicated that there was enough gas beneath my mother's place to justify the effort, they'd only need to disturb a few acres, maybe three, maybe five, not much more than that, to get to it. And once they were done, the whole place would return to normal, except for the fact that my mother would have an almost guaranteed incomethousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands of dollars, who knows, maybe even more, not just for the rest of her life but perhaps for a generation or more beyond it.
"We can go as high as a hundred and fifty dollars an acre. Tell you the truth, that's probably the most you're ever gonna see. But you've got to move soon."
My mother leaned back in her chair. It was a tempting offer, she allowed. And indeed, the prospect of $15,000 in free money was enticing, even if she never saw another penny after that. After all, that was more than half what she and my father had paid for the land forty years earlier, and the truth was, although she was collecting a decent income from her teacher's pension and the investments she and my father had made over the yearsdecent at least by local standards, where roughly 7 percent of the local population lived below the poverty linethere had been troubling signs that the nation in general, and my mother's fortunes in particular, were heading toward a rocky patch. Her pharmaceutical stockswhere the bulk of her money washad taken a real beating. My sister and I had been urging her to sell them off and stanch her losses, but among my father's final instructions to her before his death had been to hold on to those stocks at all costs. And she would do just that. But in the meantime, her costs were rising along with everybody else's.
The price of oil, for one thing, was starting to spike. It had reached $87 a barrel on the New York Commodities Exchange that month, and there was every indication that it would head even higher, affecting heating prices, transportation, foodeverything. As hard as that was on her, it was even tougher on her neighbors. Those few who were still farmingmost, unable to make ends meet on the government's set price of $20 per hundred pounds of milk, had given it up and either retired or taken whatever subsistence jobs the sagging local economy offeredfound themselves deeper in debt with each passing month. Pretty soon, there wouldn't be a single working farm left on the road that led past my mother's place. For those people, the promise of a few hundred dollars an acre up front, with the possibility of far greater richesperhaps millions of dollarsdown the road, was a godsend.
My mother was still gnawing on that reality when the momentary silence on the porch was broken by the preparatory whirring of one of her many clocks before it struck what it believed was the hour.
"You said a hundred and fifty dollars is as high as you can go?" my mother asked, as suddenly, from somewhere inside, a clock began hammering out a tinny version of "Lara's Theme" from Dr. Zhivago.
"That's right," the girl responded.
"You know, I have some friends over near Nicholson, and they've been offered two-fifty."
My mother lives for small victories like this, but she didn't rub it in. As the woman stammered that she might find a way to match the $250, she just smiled and nodded, accepting a sheaf of papers and cheerfully agreeing to review them. As the clocks inside the house continued to chirp and chime and warble at random, she assured the young woman, now clearly unnerved, that she understood that in this matter, time really was of the essence.
"I've just spoken with your sister," my mother blurted into the phone before I even had the chance to say hello. "The two of you need to sit down and discuss this."
It was a little before nine on a Thursday evening. My mother always began her conversations in the middle, and over the years I had become pretty adept at figuring out what she was talking about. But this time, I had no idea.
"What, Mother? Discuss what?"
She stopped and sighed heavily, her voice taking on that tone of pity and frustration that I had last heard when she was trying to tutor me in high school French.
"The gas," she said. "I'm talking about the gas."
"Ah," I said. "The gas." I began to rifle through my mental file to find some contextthe house had oil heat, so it couldn't be that, and her stove was electric, which didn't matter anyway since its primary use was as a hiding place for her jewelry on the rare occasions that she left the house. Finally, I gave up. "What gas?"
"You're not listening to me," she said. "You're just like your sister. She doesn't listen either. We need to decide what we're going to do about the gas."
The proposed contract, as my mother read it to me over the phone, poured out in one long rushing torrent of ten-dollar words, a few hundred thousand dollars' worth, all translated from the jargon of the oil and gas industry into the impenetrable tongue of the legal profession. Yet my mother was struggling to squeeze some sense of out them. She tried to compensate for herand myutter lack of comprehension by reading the words with a little more feeling. But phrases like "utilization and pooling" and "conversion to storage" didn't become any easier to understand when they were declaimed. I jumped in whenever I was able to make anything out.
"It sounds like they're saying they'll give you a lump sum of fifteen thousand dollars up front and then give you an eighth of whatever they take if they find something, minus their expenses, of course."
"Well, how much would that be?" she asked.
I had no idea.