Quarry Farm’s only year-round resident, Caretaker Steve Webb, provides us with occasional, not altogether reliable, updates from the premises. To paraphrase the friendly ghost with whom he shares his home, Mr. Webb’s dispatches include eminently plausible fictions, mildly exaggerated truths, and an exhaustless mine of stupendous lies.
The breeze pushed through the window screen just hard enough to float the curtains away from the wall and split them a few inches to reveal the blue sky. There was a trace of cool to the air that had arrived just before sunrise and would be gone in minutes. July had been relentless with its sticky, dogged heat. The news all around was that we desperately needed rain. I even set aside my selfish desire for burnt grass, which didn’t require mowing, and hoped for rain too.
It wasn’t the drought or the blink of a cool breeze that woke me that morning though. It was the silence. And it was the silence that got me up and quickly out of bed. If I’d heard footsteps over there in the big part of the house, the repeated thwack of the screen door, the patterned creaks of the trips packing people make up and down stairs, I’d have felt much easier. I would have closed my eyes and hoped for rain even while I slept a little longer; I’m that helpful.
I knew they had to be down south, somewhere in southern Pennsylvania, to pick up their cat, Sam Clemens, by noon. I knew it took three hours, and I knew that the cat, who meowed with a southern drawl, meant the world to them because that’s what they told me. If they didn’t pick him up by noon on Saturday he’d have to stay at the place where he was being boarded until Monday and Sam Clemens wouldn’t have it. It’s a known fact that cats hate Mondays (Davis). The only thing worse than a Monday for a cat is waking up in jail on a Monday when you were supposed to be sprung on Saturday.
Five days before, while I was dragging the carcass of a deer than someone somewhere shot and didn’t collect into the woods to be buried, the fit, salt and peppered scholar caught up to me. His eyes were wide with childlike wonder, in disbelief that he was walking the very same grounds where Twain wrote his greatest works. “A foretaste of heaven!” he proclaimed—which is how Twain himself described Quarry Farm. We took a moment together, in silence, to gaze over the rolling front lawn and off into the distant blue hills of Pennsylvania. A yellow Swallowtail butterfly flitted against the azure sky and lured my gaze to the Tiger Lilies where it selected the perfect flower, amongst a patch of at least a thousand, to stop and rest and drink the summer nectar. The carcass hadn’t been out in the sun long enough to bloat and smell. I, too, found myself drinking in the wonder of it all.
He went on to explain that he was going to donate a substantial amount of money to the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira upon his departure from God’s green Earth. I was grateful for the decision that he and his wife had made, assuring that the scholarship at Quarry Farm would be carried into the distant future. However, it didn’t change the way I treated him and his wife because I’m nice and they’re nice.
It was the least I could do to make sure they didn’t oversleep. I crept, as good caretakers do, around the outside of the house and peaked through the windows for signs of life. Nothing. A garbage truck roared through the eerie serenity, and I cringed at the beast as it lumbered to a stop out in front and shook the quiet, wooded road. Two men hopped down from the elephant and picked up the cans that I left out yesterday, because yesterday was trash day. As they worked, they grumbled like I wasn’t even there. I felt a little wave of pride go through me. I had mastered my caretaker creep. I was nearly invisible.
I had to get down to business. These kind people needed to leave by nine to spring Sam Clemens from the big house, and it was already 9:12. Their car is still in the driveway, they haven’t packed it, and there is no sign of life anywhere downstairs. I’ve learned that it’s impossible for a person upstairs to hear a knock on the kitchen door; it’s just too far away in this maze of a house. I ran to the barn to fetch a tall ladder. My outlook was increasingly dark.
First of all: This particular couple was definitely a morning team. I’d heard them clumping around early every day all coffee’d up and chattering. I said this with a little attitude in the keep-myself-company-voice, not quite inaudible, but not comprehensible either. I’m the guy who forgets when he goes to the grocery store that he should probably stop talking to himself.
Second of all: They were definitely the responsible type. The gentleman tucked his shirt in all the time! There’s no way they wouldn’t have had the car packed and ready for a departure at nine o’clock sharp. The ladder butted up against the stucco wall right next to the upstairs bedroom window at the exact same moment the word “sharp” punched militantly from my mouth.
Thirdly: What about Sam Clemens!? I muttered loudly enough to draw attention if I was in the grocery store. They had said that Sam Clemens meant the world them. Is it possible that they were referring to the actual man? They drove all the way here to visit his grave and stay at his house. No, it’s the cat; it’s definitely the cat. I said in a decisive staccato.
At this point it was obvious, without question, they were dead.
I ascended the ladder slowly at first. Not only was I afraid of what I was about to see but this was my first time on the tall ladder since my little accident last fall. I had been about thirty feet up cleaning the sludge from the troughs after the beautiful fall foliage turned brown and coagulated in the gutters. Added to the soppy stew was a red squirrel that had consumed a few too many walnuts and got himself wedged in the downspout at least a few weeks prior. I could tell it had been a while because his tail had lost all its puffy, soft cedar glow and came to resemble a slimy black rat tail. I pulled on the tail, gently at first, then with increasing force until I was yanking on the little vermin. He popped free and I heard the satisfying sound of rushing water. I smiled for a very brief second and forgot I was holding a soggy dead squirrel. Then, as a reaction to the great force I applied to the rodent’s hindquarters, the ladder began to slide along the gutter in the opposite direction. I chucked the squirrel and started grasping for something—anything! The speed increased, the train was off the rails, and I was speeding toward the earth. (Insert some suspenseful music here, then a sudden stop. Pause for effect. Picture darkness.)
I opened my eyes shivering in the middle of the late-fall night. I sat up, checked my appendages and shook my head. I struggled to my knees then to my feet and did a hunched over, ninety-eight-year-old shuffle into my house and went straight to bed. When I woke up two days later I was completely fine, one hundred percent normal and ready for action. I do have the slightest fear of ladders now. And I tend to mix up my times. Oh, and I talk to myself excessively, in italics. But besides a couple of the most miniscule blips I couldn’t be more normal and less traumatized by that horrific, terrifying fall.
Back on the ladder for the first time in months my little phobia grew into a fear of what I was about see, then it morphed into sorrow, and finally into full blown panic. I was frozen midway up. Now staring distantly, through the rungs of the ladder, through the wall, through the house, through the movie of my mind I recalled the conversation…
The reality of this situation was too much for me to swallow all at once. Not only had I lost my first two scholars but also I was sure to be blamed for their murder. My own voice broke the hypnotic trance I was in and I took another step up the ladder. Like a mantra I began to say: I’m not a murderer, I’m not a murderer; they’ll believe me. I’m not a murderer. I leaned over to the left to look in the bedroom window. It was a long lean. My right leg lifted to balance me and I put a hand against the wall to try and steady myself. It was an awkward flail but I was able to keep my comforting mantra going. I’m not a murderer; I’m not a murderer; they’ll believe me. I peaked in their bedroom window and saw nothing but a neatly made bed.
I my mantra gleefully as a reaction to the corpseless room. I turned my head to descend the ladder and saw four running sneakers at the bottom, connected to four legs, connected to two Mark Twain scholars—sweaty from a run—with four very wide eyes.
I was so ecstatic I hopped halfway down the ladder and said, perhaps too closely, because they seemed a little skittish: I’m so happy to see you guys–I knew I wasn’t a murderer! They looked at me like they didn’t know what I was talking about. But I’ve grown accustomed to these academic types, more brains than common sense, if you know what I mean. So I didn’t take it personally when they turned and ran. It was obvious that they just wanted a strong finish to their workout.
I went inside and hopped in the shower—I figured it’d be relaxing after such a stressful morning. I felt so blessed that, besides a deer and a squirrel, nobody had to die and productive, inspired scholarship could continue, for yet another day, here at Quarry Farm. The water began to run cool, and I turned the knob off with a little squeak.
I got out, pressed the towel to my face, and looked out the window in time to see the back end of their car tearing out of the driveway, a cloud dust billowing behind them. Off they went, the socially awkward academics, in a big fat hurry. It’s the cat. I said to keep myself company. It’s definitely the cat.