Max Lane, a short story

Michigan Barn
Michigan Barn

Notes on Charlie, sweet corn, boar's blood, Lutherans, axes and toes, his wife Helen, green beans, and a silver watch.

He came from Helsinki. Every day of his life he spent at work. Even with Helen waiting at home for him he worked. And in his pocket, he carried a silver watch. And then finally he died. And it was then when they counted them. Five toes combined. He was eighty-one.

And the hair on his head was always cropped short. He wore tight gray whiskers. One could call him pre-Beckettian. He drank boar’s blood out of a neighbor’s tin cup. On certain Saturdays, there was whiskey on his breath. My father gave me his watch soon after he died. Helen, along in the due course of things, had to die first.

He would bring to our house, early on Saturday mornings, fresh sweet corn from his garden. Dew would still be on our back-porch step. And the porch would then smell like something that had come up from someplace down deep in the ground. And on Sundays, Charlie and Helen went to church. They took communion as religiously as Lutherans could ever take communion.

Charlie’s toes were chopped off by a double-blade axe. His watch was worth fifty dollars twenty-two years ago. That was when he died. Helen died five years before him, in 1969. There is no proof they had a good life. They are both smiling at the camera in most of the old black-and-whites.

My father told us that as children they would hide from him. Their father, Charlie, could be quite mean on Saturdays. And Charlie carried metal buckets and tools around with himself everywhere he worked outside. Helen would stand before her wood cook stove stirring. She had a large porcelain washbasin. There was a metal slop bucket for the hogs.

“It is only some cheap grade of silver,” the watch smith said.

They had twenty-two acres that Charlie cut and from which he cleared out a space large enough for the family to grow into. He made all of the concrete block for the basement by hand. Poured the wet concrete into homemade wooden molds.

Charlie and Helen would take their rightful place in the vestibule for a month at a time as greeters for the Lutheran congregation. They stood in front of the one long coat rack. They greeted their fellow parishioners as each would enter the church. The church was called the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Charlie spoke broken English. He was Finnish. There was a completely ancient mystery to his voice. The watch was a P.W. Waltham. I believe he clipped them off while chopping wood for the cook stove.

Mother made me shuck all of the husks off the corn he would leave on the porch, careful to shuck the husks into a recycled A&P paper grocery bag. My dad absolutely hated any silk hair on his corn. But Dad ate his corn not unlike an old push mower. Except he always went sideways at it like a typewriter instead of straight ahead at it. Charlie did too.

Charlie and his next-door neighbor would slit the boar’s throat and then race behind the animal to catch the blood with the cup before the boar bled out and died. Grandpa’s favorite word was puska . He crushed his rust-colored Opel Cadet two-door sedan into a downtown parking meter. My father’s favorite word was also puska .

Sometimes there were green string beans inside the paper sack. When they were older, they slept in separate beds. He made his children work hard. There was no fun ever intended. He stuffed socks in the toes of his leather boots for balance. And Helen was tired when she died. Sick of something, too.

Sometimes the bag would just be there in the morning. All day around the farm a collie named Lassie followed Charlie by his side. And the garden soil was a sandy loam. And sometimes there were yellow wax beans in the bag. And he took out a total of three parking meters, and a couple of parked cars, too. Their beds made in separate rooms. They drank it straight out of the cup. And licked their lips.

They said, “Puska means shit in the Finnish language.”

He made diamond-shaped bases out of 1 x 12 pine boards so his grandchildren could play baseball when they came to visit. He even made a wooden home plate. The two-track dirt road headed out toward center field and never stopped. Home runs were scarce. All of them inside-the-park.

The watch smith said, “I fixed the watch by making new jewels for it.”—Like hell he did. He stole them.

Charlie held on to his life one more day. He would not die. One of his grandchildren is bound to keep that word alive. And the watch quit right after I brought it home from the jeweler’s. I was able to say goodbye to him in time. And in my mind, his death is still in that hospital bed. Always that straight line with nobody else. Murmurs. And yes, Helsinki.

Copyright 1997 by M Sarki

Comments 2 comments

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 6 years ago

That's a poignant and well written memoir.

mewlhouse profile image

mewlhouse 6 years ago from Louisville Author

Thank you, Ralph. And thanks for reading.

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