Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.
The grass is green with light brown wisps and corduroy stripes from the mower. Cloudlike groups of wild Phlox flowers, light purple and white, float amongst the thick hedgerow. The trees are robust and line the open grassy area creating a kaleidoscopic wall as the leaves shift and flutter in the breeze. There is quite a cacophony of birds and insects, yet the noise somehow suggests peace and quiet. There’s a lightning rod on the little house out back. It has been there for years and is fresh and white and ready. The sun is shining. Today probably wont be the day. The dog softly snores in the corner. A fly occasionally tries for an escape but only bounces across the screen.
I am mindless and staring and trying not to scroll, to go for an escape, to bounce across the screen myself. I am searching for motivation. I wonder what Mark Twain did on Saturdays.
If I was more motivated I’d look it up (there is a copy of Mark Twain Day By Day upstairs, after all), but instead I’ll just sit here and consider taking up cigars. The thought of filling the room with the thick blue smoke makes me a little queasy though.
Years ago, maybe six, we were walking through the forest here that surrounds Quarry Farm. Tim, the previous caretaker, was telling me stories about the place, about John T. Lewis, about trees and animals and the whole Clemens family. He’d developed a real affinity for smoking and collecting cigars while working here so we were each smoking a Gurkha. He explained to me that they were “special-edition” stogies that he’d been saving for the perfect occasion. We were celebrating the changing of the guards as I was to begin my stint as Caretaker and he was excited about starting a new job out West.
I’d never smoked a cigar before but was enjoying the hell out of it and considering adopting the habit full time in my new job. We smoked and walked and a euphoric buzzy feeling took over my body. My cheeks started to cramp from smiling. What’s in this thing? I thought as I slowly rotated it in my hand examining the structure. The smoke spiraled like an ascending spirit into the canopy above.
“See that chimney over there?” asked Tim. I assumed he was talking about me but when I looked up from my cigar I saw a stone chimney standing lonely amongst the trees off to the left of the trail. There was moss in the cracks and mortar working its way around the rocks like it had been slowly pulling on a costume, over the past hundred or so years, in an attempt to assimilate with its woodland home.
“Yeah.” I exhaled trying to act like my feet were still on the ground.
“We believe that was the home of John T. Lewis…” I was fixated on how Tim always said “we” when he was talking about Twain scholar stuff. I wondered if I’d say we all the time too when I became the scholarly caretaker. I missed Tim’s whole explanation. We walked on. I was hoping there wouldn’t be a test.
The trails seemed endless and winding and I wondered how he knew where we were. Now I know: a few years of trail walking and you figure it out. It becomes smaller. There’s an open field about a mile out. And since people like to use football fields to measure things I’d say that the field is at least five football fields (I haven’t been to a football game since ninth grade so “give-er-take.”) We stood on the edge of the forest looking out onto the huge expanse of tall grass and wild flowers, purple and yellow and baby blue, and all I could think was: Is this legal? Our cigars were about half their original size by then and if we made it back alive a celebration would definitely be in order—another cigar! I took a big affectatious puff. I’ve got this Twain stuff down, I thought.
“You know you’re not supposed to actually inhale right?”
“Oh. Yeah. Totally.” Uh oh…
We made our way back through the woods. Tim kept talking and I kept trying to act normal but I could feel that my timing was off: laughing when there wasn’t a joke, joking when there wasn’t a laugh and a general sense that maybe I didn’t have what it takes to be a scholarly caretaker after all. My cigar had burned out. I was unconsciously squeezing the remaining third between my thumb and pointer finger like I was trying to pop the head off a chicken.
Tim and I were old friends. We met in high school and were then college roommates. He recommended me for the job. Tim is a very smart man. He was a perfect fit for the job and is still legendary in the Twain community. Because we’d known each other so long I could tell he was lookin’ at me funny. I think he started to notice that my eyes were no longer in communication with each other. I tried to control them but they’d gone chameleon and were googling all over the place. I may have gone green too.
“You okay man?”
“Yeah.” My voice came out an octave higher than normal. The breeze made the sweat on my forehead feel cold. My posture had rounded over and I could see both Tim and Mark Twain shaking their heads in disappointment.
“You should probably give that thing a rest.” He looked down at the corpse of a cigar in my hand.
“Yeah,” I said again but in more of a whisper this time. All I could think to do was to let go. The “special-edition” Gurkha fell in slow motion and hit the ground in the shade of Tim’s palpable cringe.
I stumbled off the trail through crackling sticks and dead leaves to spackle the forest floor with what remained of breakfast and the entirety of lunch. I imagined Tim giving a tour to the new Caretaker: “We believe that to be the remains of the guy we thought was good enough to be the next Caretaker.” The two would look at each other with mock seriousness, burst out in laughter, and walk on, leaving me like an old stump in the trail of their “special-edition” Gurkha smoke.
I pulled myself together and made my way back to the trail. With puppy-that-got-into-the-trash shame I looked at Tim. His smirk had bushwhacked completely through his big biker beard.
“You okay there sport?”
“Yeah” came out like a sigh.
We started back toward the house. He put his hand on my back like an encouraging baseball dad.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it, kid.”
“Yeah.” I exhaled, resigned and still a little green.
Now that I think about it, I’m going to let that “special-edition” Gurkha be my first and last Cigar and figure out something else to do on this beautiful Saturday. We believe that Twian enjoyed lots of things when he didn’t feel like working: reading, walking, whiskey, talking, inventing games for his daughters to play. I imagine if I sit here long enough lightning will strike.