Old farm stands, you have seen them scattered everywhere around the rural countryside of northern New England. They are fast disappearing now. Usually there are a few scrub acres of brush that has grown in close to a set of collapsing buildings. The house may have a slate roof, the barn rusting tin, and if there is a silo, the top is off and it is leaning away from the wind. Desolate, lonely and abandoned, it sits back from the road, the buildings waiting to be torn down or restored depending on a new owner's resources.
I was in the town clerk's office looking up my ancestors who came from this area. The men of the family had left for the boat building that took place on the coast of southern New England. The men took their families with them. This happened in a rush when Hitler started to gobble up Europe. The homes and farms were sold off for pennies or just left to be returned to when the war was over.
Not many returned. A lot of the young folk left their blood on far-off shores or had it diluted by sea water as the fish consumed their remains. The older folk and women remembered the hard life on the scrabble farms and found life easier to manage in the cities. I grew up hearing about some of the good times from my grandmother and I wanted them for myself. Maybe it was pure nostalgia, but she made it come alive for me.
The kitchen dances, the taffy pulling, the sewing bees, corn husking and yes, the fresh meat after the hog was put down and the steer butchered. So here I was up in the North country (not too far north). I happened to see a tax sale listed for an eighty-seven acre farm. The description of the property and the location were noted. The amount of taxes owed for the last three years was less than a month's salary for me. The striking thing was, the owner had the same name as I did, Peter Johns.
I was trying to locate a record of one of my ancestors with this name. This great great uncle of mine I knew would be ninety-two if he was still alive. The town clerk was friendly and we had already spoken when I inquired about my grandmother and her people. I asked her if she knew anything about the man and she said yes, she knew him. He was at present living in a nursing home and hating it. She intimated that he was an irascible old bastard and she feared he would be turned out of the home. I then asked if the sale of the farm could be stopped if the taxes were paid. Right up until the last minute before the auctioneer brought it up for sale, she informed me. The auction was in two weeks, so if I was interested I had better move fast.
When I got outside, I told Patty, my wife, that I had found a surviving relative and I wanted to go see him in the nursing home. I could hear someone cussing as we walked up to the desk to inquire. There were nurses and attendants running around with red faces. I asked for Peter Johns. "You a relative?"
Not wanting to get too involved I answered, "Maybe."
"I hope so for we are discharging him this afternoon. Nobody can stand him. He has been here a week and that's long enough. He chases the women and I don't mean those that are here being taken care of either. He is after the nurses too. Out he goes. Just follow the cussing and you'll find him. Don't get too near him, he might bite. He has threatened to."
I walked into his room. He had a nurse and an aide backed into a corner with his wheelchair. I watched him for a minute and then remembered that Grandma had a nickname she used on him. "Uncle Pert, let the ladies go. You know better than to treat a woman that-a-way."
He swung around. I could see my father in him. "Who're you?"
"I'm your nephew, Peter."
"Ain't got one."
"Yes you do. I'm Mazie's son's get."
"Mazie? I remember her. How be she?"
"Figures. You going to get me outa' here and take me home?"
"You want me to?"
"Okay then I'll have them pack up your stuff. You'll have to tell me where you live."
"Don't know much do you?"
"I know enough to get you out of someplace you don't want to be."
"I guess you do, boy, and I thankee."
I pulled into the overgrown dooryard. The house was a typical New Englander, huge and definitely having seen better days. It didn't look like it had any repair for a couple of decades. It had been yellow once, but it had been so long ago it only showed under the eaves where the weather didn't hit it directly. One window was broken and there was a rag fluttering from it. The roof itself looked tight, but the ridgepole sagged from the weight of the slate roof.
"God, I'm glad I'm home where it is quiet. I don't know how people can make so much noise. Come in, come in. I hope the people that took me away didn't raid the pantry. I got tea and coffee stashed. I hope you like it black. Black is best."
There wasn't a lock on the door, just a pull string. He pushed it open and it swung closed by itself as we entered. "Shit, somebody shut the gas off. Wait right here, I'll turn it on." I followed as he hobbled along a dark hallway and out a back door where there was a single propane tank. It was good that I was with him for there wasn't enough strength in his hands to turn the valve on the tank.
When we returned to the kitchen, he found a match and went to the stove. The stove of green enamel was beautiful and Patty was running her hands over it in admiration. Wood in the front and gas burners in the back. "Don't need wood. Great thing, gas. I didn't get wood up this year. Figured I'd be dead before I needed it. Probably hot enough where I'm going, anyway." Old Peter cackled as if he had made the finest joke.
"Where do you want your wheelchair?" I had left it in the car. The nurse had insisted I bring it along when we left the home.
"Don't need the damned contraption. Always bumping into things. This house wan't made for some foolish thing like that. Takes too much room. When I get tired I'll sit in a chair like people s'posed to."
Patty made coffee and looked around for food. As the saying goes, the pantry was bare. Peter looked at me. "You got money? I got no food and no money for provisions." He looked hopefully at me.
"Sure, what do you want to eat?"
"What I'd like and what I can chaw kinda' limits me. Go down to the market and get some burger. Get the cheapest there is. That's got the most fat and the most flavor. Get some onions and if they got some bright red 'maters, I'd like one of them too. Make sure it's ripe. I don't eat half ripe like they fed me in that home. Home, hell that wasn't anymore home than shit. This is home. Ben here all my life. Born here I was. Must have been almost ninety year ago."
"You're going to be ninety-three on October second."
"How you know that?"
"I got the family bible from my Grandma Mazie."
"Oh yeh, you are family ain't you. You goin' after that food? I'm hungry. Leave this pretty little woman here when you go. I do enjoy a pretty woman. Had me four wives, I did. Some good, some bad, but they all liked to git in bed with me. I don't s'pose that's gonna' happen--you'n me, I mean." He looked at Patty.
Patty's face was red. The gall of the old bastard. "Nope, I'm taken."
"Well ifin you change your mind, we'll find time."
I left for the store chuckling to myself. This old geezer was my grandmother's uncle. The way he talked brought a lump to my throat. Gram talked like that. I wonder what plan put me in town today to find the family history collected in the body of this old cuss. It couldn't have been God's plan--maybe it was the Devil's. Whoever, I was glad I was here. Two weeks from now the old place would have been lost forever. I was going to make the old guy an offer. How could he refuse--I was family.
Old Peter stood right over Patty when she cooked his hamburg. He wanted it half raw and all the tallow that leaked out he wanted drizzled over a piece of bread. His body must have been immune to cholesterol. It did smell good, especially when he directed to fry his onions in the pan after most of the grease was poured on his bread. "Got to have my vegetables, you know. Good for you. Keeps a body goin'.
"You a drinkin' man? I got some cider jugged up, down in the cellar. Puts a man right to sleep. Don't use it mine ownself anymore. Sleep too much. Must be getting old. I sleep in that room offin the kitchen. I don't s'pose you'd want to change the sheets for me, would you, woman? Hard for me. First one side er the bed an then t'other. Ain't ben here for mor'n a week. Dampness probly got into the bed. Gives me the misery ifin it gets into me.
"You'uns kin sleep to head of the stairs. The bed rattles some ifin you pound too hard. Won't bother me none. I be sleepin."
Patty and I talked after she had put old Peter to bed. "He had tears of gratitude in his eyes when he thanked me for you finding him and bringing him home. I love the old guy. You are going to buy the place if he will sell, aren't you? Priss and Dottie will love him. I wish they were with us. I'm going to see if we can't stay here. You can do your writing and I'm going to take the summer off and listen to him ifin he'll let me." She giggled. "See I can even talk like him."
"We'll see what we can do. You want to see if this bed rattles as bad as he said it did?"
.... There is more of this story ...