The mid-morning sun stood high above the cottonwoods when Jimmy pulled into the drive leading up to the Weise’s farm. He drove around the yard until he found Amos, hard at work, cleaning out the feedlot. Amos stopped long enough to point Jimmy in the direction of the grain bin in need of fixing, and then climbed back into his tractor and left him alone.
Jimmy wasn’t so lucky with Amos’s wife, Lois. Every move he made, she trailed a half a step behind him, asking a string of never-ending questions about his father’s funeral, his mom, Kylie, the business, the wedding that still hadn’t happened. He tried to be as evasive as possible with his answers, but Lois was relentless. Living in a small town could be a double-edged sword. Knowing everyone in a twenty-mile radius on a first name basis came in handy at the bar, or while bartering, or when your house was burning down, but it also meant every intimate detail of your life was common knowledge, and fair game for gossip.
When he finally closed the lid to his father’s old toolbox, Lois tried to coerce him inside for a late breakfast. He declined repeatedly as he loaded his truck, insisting he wasn’t hungry. Not to be dissuaded, she ran into the house and came back with a plateful of homemade brownies, loaded heavy with walnuts. She shoved the Saran-wrapped Corelle plate into his hands, refusing his refusal. He thanked her by knocking twenty percent off his standard labor charge.
He popped another handful of Tylenol, headed west, and spent the next hour measuring, calculating and haggling over a deck estimate. He then drove even farther west and did the same with a kitchen expansion. His return trip into Allman Falls took him around the backside of Chelsea Lake, past the Malek property. Slowing to a crawl, he studied the house with the brutal honesty of the morning sun shining down upon it. Brent was right. It was a piece of shit. It stood straight, and looked solid beneath the surface rot, but he knew without going inside it would have to be stripped to the studs and rebuilt from the inside out.
Renovations that extensive would be a waste of time and a colossal waste of money. He knew exactly what his father would say if he could still ask his opinion, “Buy it for the land, and then wait for a blizzard and burn the damn thing down.”
James had his first stroke in a house exactly like the Malek house, a historic five-bedroom Queen Anne on Pioneer Street, just off the downtown square. One of the original houses of Allman Falls, it had been architecturally solid, gorgeous in its intricacies, and Rogan and Sons Construction had been hired to destroy it.
The house had been owned by Moses Sullivan, who, among many other professions, had been the mayor of Allman Falls for twenty-eight years, until the city voted to instill term limits and brought his reign to an end. When he died, a greasy, weasel of a man named Stu Beasley somehow managed to swindle Moses’ eighty-four-year-old widow out of the house for pennies on the dollar. Stu owned two other apartment buildings in Allman Falls, both of which were in terrible disrepair. Instead of investing his money in fixing them up, he had purchased the historic beauty and hired Rogan and Sons Construction to chop it up into four, two-bedroom, government-subsidized apartments.
Jimmy had been only twenty-four at the time, but he knew a bad decision when he saw one. He had argued with his father not to take the job, but work was scarce in winter. Money was money, and James had accepted it. There was no way in hell Jimmy would take part in destroying not only an architectural gem but also a piece of Allman Falls’ history. On the day they were supposed to start the demolition, he refused to go.
Instead of giving Jimmy something else to do, James had fired him. Stubborn and bullheaded, James had threatened to fire Jimmy a hundred different times for a hundred different reasons since Jimmy started working for him full-time when he turned sixteen, but it was the first time James had actually done it.
Furious, Jimmy had told James to go to hell. The very same day, he took a third-shift job at the meat packing plant in Juliette. They didn’t speak a word to each other for over a month, not even “pass the pepper” at Sunday dinner. Brent was stuck in the middle, living with Jimmy and working with James. After the second week of stony silence from Jimmy, he officially sided with their father. After the fifth week of silence, Mary Ann had called Jimmy, demanding he put the nonsense behind him and apologize to James. For her, and only for her, he did.
On one of those cold, rainy days in March that felt more like late-January than early spring, Jimmy had returned to work. To this day, Jimmy is convinced James would have fared better if he had never apologized. Because of Jimmy’s return to work, and the resulting tension in the air, Brent took off on a supply run to Juliette. If Jimmy hadn’t come back to work, Brent would have been ripping out plaster alongside James that day. They would have been working side-by-side, joking, laughing, bullshitting with each other. Brent would have noticed James’s change in speech, his confusion, his inability to swing the sledge.
The way it played out, Jimmy had been clear on the other side of the house from James, ignoring him, and hadn’t know anything was seriously wrong until he’d heard his father collapse. By then the damage had already been done. And there was nothing anyone could do to reverse it.
Jimmy took one last look at the Malek house, at the ravages of a lifetime of neglect, and said, “Fuck it.” With a heavy foot on the accelerator, he left stupidity, and his dreams, in the rear view mirror.