Remembering Paul

by Richard Gilbert This appeared originally in Memoir (and) I walk the gravel driveway to the barn and wonder what happened to September, a month I’ve learned to savor. “Any fool can admire October,” I told my son Tom just last year, “but September is subtle.” Here in southern Ohio the tulip poplars and black locusts drop leaves. Yellow petals flutter across the road. Brown fronds tumble after cars, rasp on the blacktop and curl in the parched ditches. The roadside trees are dusty, their heavy foliage sags, but the hayfields take on a sheen as the worst of the heat lifts. Rains are sparse but moisture lingers, and the grasses use every drop. Summer has spent itself and fall hasn’t arrived. September hangs in the balance, a mellow retrospective on the struggle that’s now history, another growing season’s savage extremes. What a dry year. Or, Sure got flooded. But somehow this year I missed September, and the frost is late—I can’t believe it’s October. The leaves have changed, though, and big wolf spiders again startle us by occupying our house for the winter. They creep, regard us like crabs in a sideways dodge, make a chitinous crunch underfoot. This morning is cool and clear. A breeze stirs southeast. I’m wearing a fleece work shirt and a knit cap, dressed for my mission of clearing the barn’s central aisle so that tonight I can tow in a trailer loaded with bales of hay and stack them inside, safe from the low November sky that I’m certain is coming. For years I kept the barn’s center clear so trucks could enter the front door

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and leave out the rear. When towing a trailer it’s best to avoid backing, so I respected that travel lane and didn’t let clutter encroach. But last spring I converted it into a temporary sheep pen. Now it’s time to reclaim the area; there’s a new urgency in the air. I drag apart my makeshift corral and lean sections against the walls. Suddenly I think of Paul. I picture my hired hand bustling across the barn on his bowed legs, moving fast, his pink face shining in the barn’s gloom. We always reconfigured the barn together. He seemed to like the spring-cleaning aspect, and it pleased me to make a transition at last into a new season. Paul’s death is what happened to September. He died three months before his seventieth birthday. We worked together for five years, until he got sick two years ago. Paul and I built fences, drenched and weighed sheep, cut brush, pitch-forked manure. I hadn’t been thinking of him and now, in the barn without him for the first time, I’m lonely. I realize the underlying reason for my expansion into the barn’s travel lane was that, without Paul’s help, the sheep stalls on the north side haven’t been cleaned in three years. There’s a hard hump of melded manure and hay more than two feet thick over there, and to avoid deepening the pack I started the new enclosure. Paul would nag each fall about cleaning out the barn until eventually we did it. We’d start the project together, then he’d work during the week while I was at the office. He’d mound my sixteen-foot trailer with manure, one heaped pitchfork at a time. On Fridays and Saturdays, my farming days, we’d work side by side. Whenever I reentered the farm from my digital world, nothing seemed more impossibly slow and exhausting than cleaning the barn by hand. Paul kept doggedly at the task. He’d done such chores all his life, and he loved using pitchforks—to polish off a big job he’d use his fork like a rake, gathering tidy piles of debris until the barn floor looked swept.

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The chickens notice me stirring the dirt, and the birds come running. This free-range component of our flock is getting out of control. With my daughter at college, my son is responsible for chicken chores. Tom has thrown fowl out of the henhouse for various reasons, or allowed them to escape, adding to the handful of females I approved as consorts for a few colorful roosters that decorate the barnyard. The result is a population explosion. Chicks—rather young for this late in the year—are running underfoot. Hens hurry with their broods into the barn to scratch in fresh spots I’ve uncovered. A hen, her plumage spangled white and red, flies with her equally flashy chicks, the size of quail, onto a metal gate I’ve leaned against the wall. The birds now have a perch to survey my activity, but they upset the gate and it crashes. The hen shrieks and flees with her offspring. I lift the gate and a chick pops from beneath and scurries away hunched, a wing drooping. Heaps of old hay molder atop pallets in a corner I need to clear. I realize I’m going to uncover rats beneath the mess and should fetch our terrier, Jack. The rats are the result of feeding sheep and chickens in the barn. They’re also benefiting from the manure pack, where they’ve nested in voids and done some tunneling. The rodents, and their infestation, upset me when I discovered them last winter. The former owner had a bad rat problem on the farm when he stored corn here. I thought I had gotten rid of the rats with him and his grain bins, and maybe I had, but they’re back with a vengeance. I’ve been forced to accept that big, fat Norway rats are living in the barn. Jack and I keep pressure on the vermin, but real farms have rats. And the rats give Jack a purpose in life. He’s a busy little dog, white with brown ears, and a docked tail. He’s eighteen pounds of muscle and bone, and his broad chest and bulging shoulders give him a Mighty Mouse look. He’s a Jack Russell, named after an English parson and bred for three hundred years to hate fur. The terriers are death to coons and skunks, and in packs they take

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turns digging into groundhogs’ dens. When unsupervised, Jack is tied on our porch because I’m afraid he’ll get eviscerated attacking a big groundhog alone deep in a burrow. As I walk to the house to get him, I glimpse the year’s surviving guinea fowl hatch running across the lawn. I try to count the keets but fail. As the months pass, Tom and I watch the broods dwindle. Having evolved on the dusty, trampled plains of Africa, guinea fowl, unlike chicken hens, make no allowance for morning dew and drag their young through the wet grass. The downy keets, toddling on orange toothpick legs, become sodden and chilled, get left behind and die—a snack the size of a dandelion’s puffball for other creatures. Even in Africa, the guineas’ purpose is to supply these protein morsels; nature, after all, needs a cock and hen only to replace themselves before they’re killed. Otherwise screaming guineas would overrun the world. Jack knows what’s up the instant I free him from his tether. He races ahead. “Get those rats, Jack!” I yell. He’s a white streak, quartering through the barn. He shoves his nostrils into corners, takes a whiff, bends to dig. His butt sticks up and his abbreviated tail wags furiously. I lift some pallets and rats scatter. Jack bites one, which squeals. He jerks his head and the rat goes limp. I search frantically for where I propped the pitchfork. Big rats, trophy-sized, are getting away. Jack’s got his nose in a hole and rats are running past him. “Jack!” I shout, but he ignores me, intent on a rat that’s out of reach in the pallets. I grab the pitchfork and do the rat dance: holding the fork at waist level, I stagger over wads of hay and uneven pallets toward an exposed rat. It runs at me, I sidestep, but as I start to spear, it changes direction. I stop the thrust and poke in a different direction but stab the ground uselessly. More rats dodge and weave past me. I must look like a drunken man with palsy, reeling in a corner and shaking a pitchfork’s tines at floor and walls. Meanwhile, Jack kills about four rats. At least a dozen escape. Even though he’s killed and I

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haven’t, I’m frustrated by his inefficiency. Yet he must consider me inept. Each of us has his limitations: I can see the rats but can’t move nimbly enough to kill them; and Jack is fast but keeps his nose to the ground when he should use his eyes. He never pauses to see the big picture from above the fray. Jack isn’t an ambush predator like a cat but goes directly after prey, his front feet a blur as he digs. He uses his mouth, too, impatiently biting clods, roots, rocks, logs. He’s broken his teeth. Often he barks in frustration: Come out so I can kill you! He exhausts himself, then cools off in the chickens’ water pan. He returns to work wet and gets filthy in the dust and manure. The bridge of his nose bleeds. His snout never heals—it’s always crusty with scabs or the tender pink of new skin. At night Jack collapses on the couch and gives us dirty looks, as if to say I’m tired after working so hard, but you’re all fresh as daisies. “He’s going to die of cancer of the nose,” I tell Tom. Now I’m hot, sweating, and I head to the house to change my shirt. Paul would be removing his twill work jacket about now. He would dust off a spot and neatly fold the garment, an antique bluish green that matched his creased work trousers. Paul was a neatnik and abhorred messes. “Dirty, filthy things,” Paul would say of groundhogs, blackbirds, and even svelte deer—anything that threatened his orderly lawn and garden or disturbed his peace of mind as he watched his bird feeder. I’d hear gunshots from his house across the road as another varmint bit the dust.

Outside the barn it’s becoming a perfect blue-sky fall day. The two hickories across from our house have changed colors. In summer they’re a pair, the tips of their branches touching, identical dark green ovals on our hilltop. Now one tree is golden brown and its sister is yellow with green highlights. The hill falls away beneath the trees and meets our wet northern pasture.

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This narrow green slice contrasts with the overgrown hill that rises beyond it, a neighbor’s field. He has relinquished his land to swaths of goldenrod, now bright yellow; red sumac thickets and saplings, tattered as battle flags, hug the steeper slopes. Every few years he drags a huge mower behind his thrumming tractor and shreds the brush. Looking at this scene from our hilltop, my eye is drawn into the distance by Marshfield Road that runs below. The gray ribbon curves away to the right to avoid another brushy hill, and disappears around the bend into trees. On the rise above the road, husks of vehicles and discarded farm equipment cinnamon with rust sink into the weeds. A galvanized silo with an orange-streaked roof marks the point where the line vanishes. I love this northern view. The fields, in limbo between farm and forest, are simply beautiful. I feel more like a painter than a farmer as I look at this scene, and wonder which I find more intriguing, the visual contrasts or the decay of human intent. Every fall, when the air hazes and the far hills turn purple, I pause and look down from our hilltop at the green grass, brown and yellow weeds, scarlet slashes of sumac, pewter silo, and country lane snaking under autumnal foliage. The curving road is a never-ending story: what’s next? One summer I saw a big red-tailed hawk flying across this tableau, carrying a writhing black snake in its talons. The flesh-eating bird and the ground-hugging serpent, flown aloft to its death, materialized like an Aztec icon in the sky. That memory haunts this common stretch, perhaps keeps me searching for meaning in a derelict landscape. Paul had a phobia of snakes and would try to kill any we came across, over my protests. I finally told him that God put snakes here for some reason, and though we might not understand that purpose we should respect His wishes. I invoked the deity to frame my argument in a way

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Paul would find compelling. I’m sure it didn’t work. He was confident his purpose involved smiting any creature he defined as a scourge—the rats would have really troubled him. Out of deference, he remained silent about the poultry droppings spattering most surfaces in the barn. This bothers me, so I know he was disgusted. He’d have been apoplectic over my idea of turning a rat snake loose in the barn. This plan is a fantasy, because recently I had the opportunity to catch such a snake and carry it home but couldn’t do it. I’d stood a few feet from the reptile, a glossy three-footer lying motionless on a trail, and thought I could grab it without getting bitten. But as I imagined carrying it to my truck, and then driving home with it thrashing in my lap and curling around my arm, I balked. I have my own snake issues and don’t like to handle them. Of course, I never confessed this fear to Paul because it would have reinforced his merciless practice. A few days after I encountered the snake on my hike, a farmer delivering round bales of hay to our barnyard told me there was a big snake at the foot of our driveway. Reptiles must have been on the move with the change in the weather. I ran down there, thinking I could swallow my repugnance and carry it the short distance to the barn. But the snake already was dead, a driver having turned his tires to squash the creature.

I return to the barn wearing a fresh shirt, a thin denim jacket, and gloves to protect my hands while lifting pallets. It’s after ten o’clock, and I think I may weary before I finish today. But I must, because I’ve already lined up a friend and Tom to help me fetch hay tonight. Jack’s still working. He looks at me expectantly, and the slow wag of his tail signals he’s waiting for help. I lift a pallet, but he’s not interested. By looking, he indicates he wants me to pull a sheet of tin away from the base of the wall. I lean over and see that two pieces are wedged

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together, and the vee formed where their tops lean away from each other is crawling with vermin. Jack has treed countless rodents in this steel valley. I pull apart the refuge and rats scatter. Jack kills two while I yell. But two fat monsters disappear in the melee; the big ones are slower but must be smarter, because they escape more often. Jack seems to take the different sizes as they come. Apparently he enjoys the feel of any size rat body against his gums. He should favor the junior sizes, because they’re too small to curl upward and bite his nose before they die. Jack cries when a rat bites his nose but doesn’t turn it loose. I lay pallets in a spot where Jack and I had a satisfying rat hunt last spring. Pallets keep the bottom layer of hay from rotting, but I’m acutely aware I’m creating a new rat paradise. I leave Jack a space between the pallets and the barn’s wall, so at least he can circle the rodents’ metropolis and bark his angry bark in their ears. As I work, I yell encouragements—“Get it, Jack!” and “Is there a rat there, buddy?” Jack buzzes around. I see the chickens scratching in the old hay and realize I must fork salvageable bales into a manger before the birds scatter them across the dirt floor. That hay cost two dollars a bale. The price galled me, cheap as it was, because the fodder was cut too late and the field hadn’t been fertilized. Leafy, young plants bursting with protein make good hay, but men with haying equipment are swamped with work when weather stabilizes enough to dry forage. The grasses by then have put their energy into seeds and have the feed value of cardboard. The hay I’ll load tonight comes off land that’s well tended, but the dairy farmer who harvests it for the landowner cuts in July after he’s baled his own fields. As I stab last year’s reedy hay I wonder how people can be so ignorant as to make and sell this stuff as if it had value. I’d call them sad, but they’d probably say they did the best they could, there was plenty of other work, and that the cattle would survive until spring with something in their bellies. With my pitchfork I heave a pile of worthless fodder toward the

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manger. Then I remember that there is a response generations of farmers in this backwater have distilled to defend their lousy hay against ambition—a phrase Paul repeated with a snap of his chin whenever I fretted about my winter feed: “It’s better than eating snowballs.”

After lunch I walk toward the barn and think things have a way of getting done. As far as I know, this is true. The sorriest rural hovel is kept from complete disorder, saved from the encroaching forest, by human activity, both aimless and fitfully purposeful. The shrubs from K-Mart engulf the front stoop, but eventually someone gets pissed and hacks yew branches off the concrete steps with a dull machete, chops at the offending greenery with a rusty sling blade. People walk to the house and kick aside plastic grocery bags, aluminum trays the hound has licked clean, and paper sacks that held chicken feed. The dog escapes its chain often enough to keep possums from nesting under the porch. Someone takes half a can of Raid to the hornets’ nest under the eaves. With Paul, as pertinacious as Jack after a rat, tasks got done. Even without him, I see that the gravel driveway has once again reached the end of the season without complete takeover by weeds, thanks to drought, vehicles, and Roundup. I waged a focused campaign with the herbicide against the grass in our parking area across from the house, fought some skirmishes with a lusty stand of creeping Charlie in front of the barn, and took vengeful retribution on a few hapless plantains caught unawares in between. It’s now obvious I shouldn’t have been stressed-out by the disappearing driveway. Some things become invisible the more we see them, and some don’t. Sooner or later, the lawn will get mowed. The driveway, its borders blurred by vegetation will be kept reasonably navigable. This belief that the imperatives will be accomplished without an agenda, or in the collapse of successive to-do lists, is an attempt to comfort myself. I have so

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much to do with winter coming on. The sprayer is out of commission. I ordered a repair kit at the end of summer and lost track of it. Surely I would have placed it beside the broken device, but it wasn’t there when I went into the garage and stared at the sprayer. It took effort to remember I’d ordered the parts. Later I discovered an unopened cardboard shipping box on top of my dresser, invisible where I’d placed it. The fight for the driveway was over for the year, after all. I knew this, even as I tried to lash myself to do the right thing and fix the sprayer before I needed it again. Paul once borrowed the backpack sprayer, which holds five heavy gallons, and helped wear it out during several days of spraying his lawn. I can’t imagine how many gallons he ran through it. A man who never complained of aches and pains, Paul admitted he was sore after that marathon session. When Paul got sick, his wife, Maxine, said she thought his rare cancer was triggered by the poisons he used around his homestead. I find this believable, given my own sensitivity. I break out in hives from catching a scent of some sprays on the breeze and try to limit my own chemical use to relatively innocuous Roundup. But Paul was hardier than I. He was almost never sick (he was a big baby when he did catch a cold) and came from long-lived stock. His mother survived into her nineties and his father spent a long lifetime farming and running the feed mill in town. Paul grew up on a classic diversified farm with workhorses for power in the fields; he tended milk cows, hogs, chickens, even a flock of sheep. But sheep were for income, not home consumption. Paul’s palate was conservative; he’d never eaten a lamb chop in his life. Based on his genetics alone, I thought Paul would outlive me, celebrating his hundredth birthday in a nursing home, gumming his birthday cake, his mind long gone. I would picture this vividly: Paul unsure of the cause for celebration but his blue eyes bright with pleasure, a shiny

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pointed hat clamped atop his flossy white hair, his neatly trimmed bristle of mustache matching the cake’s frosting. Yet he’s gone.

My makeshift corral had obscured the barn’s sagging back gate. I must have rehung it three times, but it always droops. It would be nice to raise the gate, so that tonight I can swing it open easily and drive my truck and trailer right through. This is an excuse to get to something that’s been bugging me, one of those small improvements that makes a person feel unreasonably good while being ancillary to the actual job at hand. I suspect darkly that such optional tasks are always my real motivation, my favoring dessert over the main course. I really should finish the barn’s new configuration before messing with the gate. But I justify the fun job as my reward for the tiring and ephemeral cleanup. I’ve decided to use a trick Paul showed me and defeat gravity once and for all. I kneel with elaborate middle-aged effort and drill a hole into the wooden doorway for a steel peg I’ll use as a rest for the gate. If I place the peg just right, I’ll be able to lift the gate’s foot stub of hollow pipe over it. I recall how proud Paul was the day that he insisted we use this embellishment for a sixteen-foot gate into the south pasture. That gate has never sagged. And the peg acts as a strong, simple latch, so the gate seldom needs to be chained. Paul had seen the idea at a friend’s farm. As I work it occurs to me that I didn’t thank Paul sufficiently for the innovation. At the time, he probably seemed excessively pleased with himself and annoyed me. He got his methods from things people pointed out to him. “A guy told me,’’ Paul would begin. He attributed the longevity of his work boots to the used motor oil he slathered on them, though I doubted that was an approved technique—surely it over-softened the

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leather. I used an expensive mink-oil dressing, but it seemed I had to buy new boots every other year and listen to Paul brag about how his had carried him through another season. I relied on expert sources. I’d read in books the way to fence a field. I’d ponder New Zealand innovations in supply catalogs, search the Internet for the latest technologies. Paul couldn’t relate to my research any more than I took seriously his folklore. I doubted anything a yokel told Paul had much to teach me, and Paul didn’t read or seem to value disembodied printed information. Eventually I realized that techniques tested in someone’s sweat were worth hearing about, even if some of Paul’s news about the larger world—such as the revelation that hummingbirds migrate by hitching rides on geese—seemed dubious. Paul trusted a man who took the trouble to show one small thing he knew to do better. Something a man told you that he’d learned the hard way was reliable. You could take his measure, estimate the strength of his conviction. Why did I withhold from Paul my full appreciation? Then, still on my knees, I think This is just guilt. How can we ever appreciate each other enough in the face of death? I had fussed over him, I recall, even though I was unsure about his latest enthusiasm. A few weeks ago, at Paul’s funeral service, a retired teacher told me Paul talked often during their card games about our working together and the interesting things I was doing. I suppose he spoke of my work as a grazier, controlling the wandering of sheep and harvesting grass efficiently, although I can’t recall ever telling him the theories upon which I deployed our efforts. The fine print didn’t matter to Paul. He liked to work, and I was another guy who showed him something. His oral culture and subsistence heritage valued the traditional rhythms of life that arose from tending plants and animals. The lost world that produced Paul had known hunger and was tied to the land. Perhaps one of the reasons he never questioned me was that he understood what I was doing better than I did. Farming and the desire to do it didn’t puzzle him.

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Paul lived and worked his whole life within a few miles of where he grew up, a farm on Fox Lake Road that’s scarcely a mile from his trim clapboard house on the road below our farm. He was terrified during World War II when it appeared he might be drafted and sent away. He was able to stay and farm, though like most men in this region he hadn’t been able to earn much money from his modest acreage and eventually sold the place. He’d worked for thirty-four years as a deliveryman. The cruelties Paul saw in the news made him angry, as did the arbitrary way the world worked. Whenever some small detail of our day’s tasks went just right, he’d say it never would have fallen together that way in a million years if we’d tried for that outcome. Injustice was embodied in the pine seedlings, planted by a lazy neighbor, that thrived even though the man never watered them once all summer. “Why, if you or I would have done that, every tree would have burned up!” he’d cry. Paul often took a sly, teasing air, which clashed with his basic sincerity and could come off as pointed and judgmental. “I’m just horsin’ ya,” he’d say, not noticing the resentment of his victims. I imagine the teasing was Paul’s armor, adopted to be like other people, those who played jokes on him and took advantage of his gullible nature. He was jumpy, and friends, family, and coworkers startled and goosed him to see his oversized reactions. Paul’s teasing was gentle with me, often no more than an overly cheerful greeting: “Hi, Richard. How’s Richard doing today?” I usually refused to acknowledge his third-person address, already irritated by his habit of showing up early, before I was ready. Paul was excitable and plunged into work too eagerly. He’d start nailing down boards before squaring up corners or carefully measuring. He’d assemble a plumbing fixture improperly and then over tighten and strip the threads. He once flattened an expensive rear tire on my tractor by

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heedlessly smashing the machine, in reverse, into thorny brush on our pond’s dam. I left Paul alone once to stretch a section of fence wire, and he pulled it so tight that the posts would have ripped from the soil in winter’s contractions. I had to pry out staples to lessen the strain and add extra wooden braces to the corners. By far the worst thing Paul ever did was to nearly make me his executioner. We had just finished fencing a new pasture around our house and I got the chain saw to even up the tops of the posts. The cosmetic flourish for the farm’s only board fence was another unnecessary job. I assumed Paul would stand by. But as I cut off the top of the second post he reached in beside me in the direction of the saw’s arc and grabbed the toppling piece. I suppose he wanted to save us the trouble of collecting chunks of wood from both sides of the fence. But his action was pointless given the danger—in fact it was insane. The chain was whipping jagged teeth around the bar at two hundred times a second. I slowed down, disconcerted. I should have stopped the saw and shooed him away, as I’d done several years before when we were cleaning up downed timber and he’d grabbed branches only inches from the saw. But this was a small job and I wanted to finish. On the eighth post, Paul swept past me as the saw chewed through the wood and emerged. The blade blurred toward his neck. His arm came up and the saw bit his forearm. Paul staggered backward, his bowed legs sagging into a stunned O, his head wobbling as if he’d taken a knockout punch to his chin. Bright blood pulsed from his arm. “Paul!” I yelled. “It’s not your fault,” he said, holding his arm. “We’ve got to get you to the emergency room,” I said. “Come on, get in the truck.” “No,” he said, “I’ll have Maxine take me.”

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I was afraid to look closely at his wound, which would take a dozen stitches. We wrapped his forearm in one of my undershirts and he drove himself home. I didn’t envy him Maxine’s wrath, for he’d tell her the truth. She’d given him terrible grief over flattening my tire. Paul and I never discussed the incident. We moved on to other jobs when he returned in a couple weeks. To this day, the fence posts remain ragged.

Now the gate hangs high, swings freely, and latches on its new support. I’m tired and plod to the house for a break. I lie in my recliner, where I could remain for the rest of the afternoon. Already it is three o’clock. With difficulty I shove off, walk to the barn to complete clearing the aisle. Afterwards I rest again in the house. My feet are sore. But daily chores await, and today the ewes need water in their leaky trough. I must hook the trailer to the truck for tonight’s trip, pump air in every tire. I wish we weren’t getting the hay until tomorrow. Most of all, it appalls me that an entire day has gone into the barn. Paul worked like this every day and ended up making work for himself around his house and acreage. I’d see him in his driveway washing his car after almost every excursion. Although the chain saw incident was a bad moment, we were a good team. He was twenty years older but could work me into the ground. I always wanted a longer lunch break than he. Paul kept me working when I wanted to quit, and he did more than his share of the hardest labor, while never second-guessing my plan. His endurance in the glacial, gut-wrenching labor of farming was endlessly humbling. At Paul’s funeral, I stood at the pulpit in my blue suit, huge screens on the wall behind me for projecting Christian rock lyrics and PowerPoint sermons. The mourners faced me in rows of

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chairs on plush carpeting. “Paul was a Christian,” I said. “As much as anyone can truly be such a difficult thing, Paul was. He was a man of faith, he kept the Sabbath, and he tried to love his neighbor. He tried not to trespass upon others, and he tried to forgive trespasses. He was naturally a good man, and his faith made him a better man.” I didn’t mention that, unlike me, he was always cheerful. Or that I was grateful he didn’t seem to judge me. I cited loving one’s neighbors and forgiving trespasses, my favorite Biblical precepts—to me, their near-impossibility proved their wisdom—because I thought Maxine and the congregation would appreciate it, though Paul held grudges and criticized lazy neighbors harshly. And of course when we were working together I lamented his observance of the Sabbath —a whole day lost to farm projects. But Paul’s refusal to work on Sunday resulted in my family seeing me more and did put our human toil into perspective, as intended. “Paul was an inspiration to me,” I ended. “He was my friend, and I’ll miss him.” I realized as I spoke that these things were true. Paul’s minister, a deeply tanned man with a pompador of brown hair, mounted the pulpit with a downcast grimace at me. “We’ve just heard about acts. Good deeds,” he said. “But no man can enter the kingdom of heaven unless he has witnessed and been saved. Paul and I discussed this. He didn’t tell me the details, but I could tell he had been saved.” So he’d defended church dogma against my liberal ways. Surely legions of old ladies, after a lifetime of good deeds, were frying in hell because they’d forgotten to profess their faith or been baptized. I should have known better, after my boyhood in the Baptist church, than to poach on his turf, make the Bible mine. His rebuke stung my pride; but I knew Paul and also was amused: Paul had let the preacher think what he wanted, but was far too shy to publicly testify as an adult or undergo the trauma of getting dunked. Paul was surely fudging a bit, figuring God

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would give him credit for being in his seat every Sunday. When Paul used to show up on my porch for work, as I went to answer the door I’d see him fidgeting. He’d be early and holding a plastic sack of zucchini from his garden, a foil packet of cornmeal mush he’d made me, and a hambone for Jack. With dew still on the grass, he’d have stretched over his boots low-cut black rubber galoshes—probably the real secret of his everlasting leather. I’d make him visit with me, dragging out the day’s start. But he’d want to get busy and soon would utter my favorite of his expressions, an Appalachian retort to my demons and a reminder that perfection is beyond us. “Let’s do something even if it is wrong,” Paul would say. Then we’d step into the sunlight together, happier than we knew.