(Part I, Part II, and Part III)
My morning routine takes me to the post office, cup of coffee and newspaper in hand. It’s been like that for years now, since I quit my job at the hardware store and started to write full time. My wife used to make the coffee, but when she passed away I stuck the French press into the closet. Now I get my coffee at the general store—it’s weak and watery, but it’s gotten to the point where just the smell makes me more alert and I rarely drink the whole cup. By the time I walk down the road to check my mail, the cup is half empty. I dump the rest into the snow and toss the paper cup into the recycling bin just inside the door. My box is straight ahead. I beeline to it, holding the small, brass key out in front of me. Before I can slip it into the lock, a flash of motion and a giggle grab my attention. Sarah and Lucy trundle in, smiling, frost heavy on the collars of their Mackinaws where breath has been condensing and freezing in the still chilly morning air. They both wear grey wool hats and gloves, but their cheeks are rosy red and most of Sarah’s brilliant blond hair is spilling out from under her watchcap.
“Hiya Paul!” says Lucy, unbuttoning her jacket and grinning. Sarah does the same and puts her arm around my sagging shoulders.
“Any mail?” She’s practically shouting with happiness.
“Why are you two in such a good mood?” I ask.
“Jim is letting us use his horses on Friday to pull trees out. We’re going to cut all day and tomorrow and haul everything then. You know Jim? He lives up the mountain road? We saw him at the general store.”
“Yes, I know him. Can I help you both on Friday?”
“Sure Paul,” says Lucy. “That would be great!”
They’re bubbling over with excitement and it is contagious. We angle towards our separate mailboxes, pull out some junk mail, and head back towards the front door. Sarah slips their pile into the recycling—two weeks worth of fliers and coupons. I drop my Pennysaver in also, and we three push through the door into the winter sun. My project has just become more urgent, so I hurry off with barely a goodbye.
I bypass the house and pull open the door of the barn when I return home. It hasn’t housed animals in years, but the smell of cow and horse smacks into me when I step inside. I breathe deep and slow, remembering when we were busy here. It’s hard to travel with animals though. I could never find anyone around who was willing to babysit three ornery dairy cows and two foolish horses while I traveled alone for months at a time, looking for subjects, looking for stories. I gave them away easily enough, and sometimes the beneficiaries bring me a quart of still-warm milk or let me take a short ride through the woods on Tonto. All the stalls still have hay in them, most of it rotting and damp. The snow blows through cracks and piles on the rafters and drifts into corners. My workshop is a little tighter—years ago I nailed tarpaper over the gaps in the wide pine boards to keep out the damp.
Here are my tools, all still working, albeit begrudgingly. They’re split into sections. One corner holds hammers, miter saws, chisels, pliers, and screwdrivers. In another is a pile of irrigation pipe, plastic sugar hose, wrenches, valves, miscellaneous rolls of plumbers tape. The third holds rakes and hoes, spades and shovels, an ancient scythe, rusty as can be. The fourth is where I look now: my double-bit axe, gleaming in the sunlight that cuts through the dusty panes above. Two mauls, a neat stack of splitting wedges, and my newest acquisition, a chainsaw. I haven’t used it in three years—when I sold the animals, I also got a furnace so the pipes in the house didn’t freeze while I was away. The woodstove, disconnected and rusting, sits among weeds behind the barn.
I pick up the saw and place it on the bench. By hand, I pull the chain slowly back and forth along the bar, making sure time has not stuck it in place. It moves a bit stiffly, so I unscrew the cap of the bar oil reservoir and top it off. The gas, what little is left in the tiny tank, has been sitting for years. I root around in the pipe area, dig out a siphon, and suck out the spoiled fuel. I feel each tooth of the chain, testing for weakness, probing for dullness. In a few places, I drag the round file firmly across a bedraggled tooth, pulling it back into shape and giving a new, clean edge. When it feels sharp and ready, I splash some fresh gas into the tank, tighten the chain tension, set the kickback lock with a bump of my wrist, and yard on the pull-cord. After three yanks, it fires to life. I rev it high for a few seconds, and then set it on the dirt floor to idle happily.
Outside, I have a stack of old cordwood. Most of it is gnarled oak and sugar maple. I grab the top piece, a length of oak, and lean it against the pile. With one smooth stoke, the saw slices through, writhing like a snake in my hands, hungry for sawdust. Everything satisfactory, I plop it and some plastic wedges into the bed of my truck and drive up the road to the cabin.