There it was, the cow shaped mailbox Claude knew so well, it’s neat black letters spelling out GENTNER. His face clouded and he shook his head ruefully as he turned his silver Mercury Milan off tree-lined Blackberry Lane, and crunched up the rutted driveway to his former Indian Falls, New York home. He parked, got out of the car and stretched away the fatigue of the three-hour drive.
As he expected she was waiting on the top porch step of the rambling white farmhouse, a small woman with frizzed gray hair, cradling a coffee mug in her hands. “Thank god you’re here, son,” she exclaimed. “I thought you might be late, and I’d have to cancel my plans to go dump digging with Gert and Nina.”
“Got things in motion, have you, Ma?” Claude hauled his week-ender out of the trunk of the car and dropped it to the ground. “Where does that leave me?”
“With your father.” Elsie Gentner smiled wanly. “Now that he’s feeling better, and since he put old Tootsie down, he’s driving me whammy. I need to get out of the house. Do you mind?”
Claude climbed the uneven steps to the porch. He leaned over and kissed her wrinkled cheek. “Of course not,” he lied.
They walked together into the farmhouse kitchen, a large, old-fashioned room that featured a cast iron stove, soapstone sink, and dark, wooden, glass-fronted wall cabinets filled with gleaming Blue Willow dishes. Elsie had salvaged the china from an old dump she and her friends had mined, brought back the neglected treasure and cleaned each plate and cup until it shone. Claude closed his eyes and inhaled the mixed aromas of brewing coffee and beef stew in the crock pot. He went to the stove and removed the lid from the pot, dipped a spoon into the stew and tasted it.
“Good as ever,” he commented, smacking his lips. “I’ve got to make this recipe for the foodies at my Rattlesnake Café.”
“Not for your mucky-mucks at The Olde Worthington Inne?” Elsie said sarcastically, snapping a dishtowel for emphasis.
“Hell, no. And I also want your recipe for poor man’s surf and turf.”
“Roast beef and scallops? Is that for your café foodies, too?”
“Well, the recipe’s right here,” she said, tapping her head. “So you’ll have to wait ‘til I get back, and write it down for you. What do ‘fine diners’ eat, anyway?”
“Dishes like Rock shrimp, mushrooms and leek cannelloni for starters; Lobster bisque soup; Caesar salad with white anchovies. Oh, and pan seared organic chicken breast over baby seasoned vegetables and chestnut puree.”
Elsie made a face. “My beef stew would stick to their ribs better than that fancy stuff. I’ll bet an hour later they’re all hungry as bears.”
Clive spread his hands helplessly. “I’m not there to fatten them up, Ma. It’s my job to be creative with food. It’s an art.”
A horn tooted in the driveway. At the same time, from somewhere in the back of the house, a wail arose along with vigorous pounding on the floor with a cane. “Elsie!”
Claude nudged his mother toward the door. “Go,” he urged, “before you change your mind.”
“No chance of that happenin’.” Elsie grabbed her sweatshirt from the hook by the door. “Now don’t tell Dad where I’ve gone or he’ll be ornery. Just say I went to the market to get some milk and crusty bread for supper.” She flapped her hands in the air. “And try to keep him occupied.”
Through the wide kitchen window jammed with colorful bottles: an amber Hostetter’s Bitters, green Saratoga bottle, cobalt blue medicine vial, and ruby red pontil bottle, Claude watched his mother run down to the driveway like a kid let out of school. She snatched up a pile of rakes and spades and tossed them on top of neatly stacked digging equipment in Gert’ Carver’s Subaru Outback. As the women sped away Claude turned toward the persistent banging and shouting.
In the back room Marley Gentner’s arthritis-bent figure was hunched over a card table, his chapped hands pressing against a tool box. “Where’s your Ma?” he snapped.
“Here, let me open that.” Claude responded gently as he walked to the table.
Marley’s hands shook a little, unwilling to give up his task. Then he shoved the box at Claude, nearly pitching it to the floor.
“Relax pop. Hoo boy, it’s a tough son-of-a-gun,” he said, feigning a struggle with the cover, though it opened easily. “There!” he panted, presenting the box to his father. “Done.”
Marley snatched back the offending object. “So where’s your ma, bejezzuz?”
“She went shopping at Tubb’s for country bread, ‘cause she knew you’d like it with the stew.”
“Yer not foolin’ me, boy. She’s off digging for old bottles with those two crazies, Gert and Nina.” He rubbed the side of his nose. “I saw Gert pull in the driveway and yer ma sashayin’ to the car. Saw you pull in, too in your fancy-pants car.” His face reddened as a fit of coughing racked his frail body.”
Claude sat down in a rumpled easy chair across from the old man. “Is there anything you don’t miss?” Before his father could answer, he said kindly, “tell me how you feel.”
“Come on pop, give me a break. Doctor Bob said your cardiac recovery is on the mark. There must be something you want to see or do while I’m here. We’ve got time.”
Marley grunted, “I’ve got too much time on my hands. I want to git back to work.”
“The farming can wait. Even though you’re doing fine, you need to stay on the rehab program. You want that old heart of yours to mend, don’t you? Besides, you have two handymen to do chores.”
“It’s best done my way, not theirs.” Marley frowned.
“Let’s go out to the barn,” Claude suggested. “See what needs to be done. We’ll tell Pete and Huey you’re paying them to do it your way.”
“What do you know about barns and stuff?” Marley snapped.
Claude got out of the chair and went over to the window, looking out at a tractor rolling along, pulling hay. It turned left into a sunburned corn field. “I grew up here, remember?”
“And then you went to the city and became a cook.”
“Sous chef, with a good chance that I might have my own restaurant one day. In this area if your negative attitude doesn’t change my mind.”
“I needed ya here, Claude. Why did you leave?” Marley’s weathered face scrunched up. “The farm’s gonna be yours one day.”
“Pop,” Claude turned around and flattened his hands on the desk. “Farming’s not for me. I feel guilty as hell letting you down, but I’m not a farmer.”
“Why?” Marley persisted.
“I would die of boredom being a farm boy. That’s why – it’s that simple.”
The kitchen door banged open and footsteps scurried down the hall. Nina Westakott burst into the room. “We need your help, Claude,” she gasped.
“Omigod, is it Ma?” Claude’s voice shook.
Nina pressed a hand to her breast. “Elise is fine. We were scavenging for old bottles in the abandoned Kittle house and found three dogs trapped in a cistern. Your Mother and Gert stayed behind to settle them down.” She clasped her hands together. “We need a ladder, a flashlight and your Mother said to bring Tootsie’s old dog food from the pantry.”
Marley wheezed. “Better toss in a basket and a rope, too.” He pulled himself up and teetered into the table.
“Pop, what are you doing?” Claude’s eyes widened.
“What do you think I’m doing?” Marley shuffled toward the hallway in slippers cut out at the toes. “Goin’ to the Kittle property. Now, hand me my cane!”
“That’s not a good idea in your condition, Marley.” Nina raised her chin. “Sit back down where you belong; this won’t take long. Claude can help.”
“Who do you think you are, Nina – telling me what I can or cannot do!” Marley erupted. “Mind yer own dammed business.”
Nina pivoted on her heels and called over her shoulder, “my, what a temper. He’s all yours, Claude. See you at the Kittles.”
Claude drove his silver Mercury Milan down winding roads and over humpbacked bridges reminiscent of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow.
“Turn right; take a left; go slow around the next turn – the driveway’s hidden and it comes on fast. Dam, you went too far. Turn around.” Marley’s brittle voice took over when the Milan’s navigation system could not find the Kittle settlement.
They bumped down the potholed driveway with high grass clinging to the underside of the car, and came upon the deserted Kittle house buried in a tangle of pine trees and shrubs. The idyllic property would lure any photographer in search of calendar scenes willing to endure risky driving conditions.
Claude parked the Milan behind Gert’s Outback, still ticking as it cooled. He helped Marley out of the car and inwardly fumed at his mother, Gert and Nina. And blast Marley! The old curmudgeon could hardly walk, let alone stand. He had to practically carry the heaving, dead weight of the cursing old-timer to the Kittle house.
The front door was partially open and they heard voices deep inside. Claude cupped his hands to his mouth and called out, “we’re here!”
“In the dining room,” his mother’s voice echoed. “Follow the hall to the last room on the left. And be careful where you step. There’s broken furniture and old toys everywhere.”
Claude and Marley made their way carefully through a dark-paneled hall where colorless landscape paintings curled out of wooden frames. In a large, quaint room off the hall, Elise, Gert and Nina were gaping into a square hole cut into the floor.
Claude and Marley edged their way to the hole and adjusted their eyes. Four gleaming eyes stared up at them.
Claude shone a flashlight inside the well as one dog gasped its final breath. A large, black retriever and a fat, spotted hound paced and bayed on either side of the stricken dog. Just as he feared, Marley – his long white hair, unkempt, dressed in loose fitting work-pants and a foul-smelling flannel shirt, – took charge of the situation.
Flanked by Elise and Claude, Marley instructed Gert and Nina to lower food into the hole in a basket held by a rope. When it struck the floor of the well, the two dogs gulped the food.
After the bowls were licked clean, each dog looked up fondly at the group pleading with them to climb inside the basket. They barked loudly and snapped their jaws for more food.
Taking a new course of action, Marley directed Claude to drop a pail of water tied by a rope, into the cistern. Claude handled it shakily and lowered it with a thud, sending water splashing and the dogs darting in opposite directions. Then they returned to gulp the water ravenously. Marley said gruffly to the women, “look around every nook and cranny for blankets, pillows, towels, linen…any padding that can be tossed into this hole.”
Gert, Nina and Elise rummaged through the house picking up cushions and bedding, and tossed them into the well. The black dog climbed with little effort onto the loose pile and awkwardly made his way upwards. Elise and Claude worked together, gently tugging his front legs until he eased himself out. The smaller dog rolled and tossed about the bedding, looking content. After much coaxing and with little success, the group watched helplessly as he closed his eyes and slept.
Marley, holding his side, said to Claude, “Boy, there’s one thing that’s got to be done and you’ll have to do it.”
Claude’s lips puckered. The tone his father used echoed from his boyhood.
“What do you have in mind, Pop?” He asked, feeling eleven years old again.
“You’ve got to climb down into that hole with the rope tied around yer middle and get that little hound.”
Claude failed to penetrate his father’s dark gaze. He lowered his eyes and said, “Me…climb into that filthy hole for that dog?”
Marley griped, “The ladies ain’t goin’ down there, and I’m not goin’ anywhere in the shape I’m in. It looks like it’s gonna be you, son.”
With a touch of the poetic in him, Claude fastened the rope about his trim waist and dropped down into the damp recess of the well. He complained, “I’ll catch pneumonia for cripes sake and land in the hospital. Guess I’ll forget going into work next week.”
“You’ll have to stay home, Claudy, and Momsie will nurse you with hot tea and honey.” Marley imitated Elise’s voice. His wife nudged him in his sore side. Marley clenched his mouth to stifle a cry and watched Claude maneuver himself downwards.
There was a snarl and a low growl from below.
“Ouch! The dam mutt snapped at me!”
“Talk to him, Claude. Let him sniff your hand,” Elise instructed, straining her eyesight to see below.
“Here pooch, nice pooch – Ach…he’s slopping over me. Here he comes…hey, he’s a she…one, two, three…in the basket puppy dog…heave-ho…pull!”
Nina, Gert and Elise pulled the rope. The dog in the basket was raised to the top of the well. The basket lurched forward and dropped gently to the floor. The beagle jumped out and raced in circles with ‘Blackie.’ Tails wagged and the friendly dogs barked.
A shrill voice gasped, “I’m struggling to climb out of this beastly cave while you renegades are playing with dogs.”
“What a remarkable feat, Claude,” Marley praised. “I couldn’t have done better myself. When we get home, I’ll notify the dog warden and he can take care of the carcass.”
The women clapped as Claude eased out of the hole, dirty, panting and sweating.
Marley chuckled, “This outing did me good. I feel better already. With my brain and your muscle, Claude, we’re a team!”
“I can’t wait to get back to the city and team up with my pots and pans.” Claude brushed cobwebs and dust off his Macy’s sport clothes. “Hell, I didn’t even have time to change into my designer jeans for this job.”
“If you didn’t come home this week-end, you would have missed this chance to do your part in saving these animals,” Gert said. “Look at those adorable dogs. Admit it was worth the effort.” Gert bent down to pat the black dog’s head. “This one has a collar. He’ll be easy to trace. But the beagle…”
“Elise, since old Tootsie died, I’ve been thinking about getting another dog. Let’s take the little one home,” Marley suggested.
“What shall we name her?” Elise scratched the affectionate beagle behind the ears. “Buttons – cute as; Spotty – she is that; Doogan – we would do this again…that’s it…Doogan!”
© 2016, Patricia Crandall. All rights reserved.
The author has granted WritersCarnival.ca, its affiliates and syndicates non-exclusive rights to display this work.