The bill of sale
The expression on my fathers face reminded me of a terrible sentence written on a white sheet of paper, that horrible look in his eyes, the exclamation point. Never in my fourteen years had I seen my father look like that. He had the appearance of a man who had just suffered some great offense and was now biting back fury, he could, for perhaps only a few seconds longer contain. He had (just an instant earlier) burst through the door of our small country home and was now just standing there (his hand still on the doorknob), staring at his family as if he didn’t know who we were. In that instant I felt the same way towards him.
In her arms my mother held my 8 month old sister, baby Sarah. My name had been her first word, spoken a few weeks before this night in August of 1921. Everyone had said she was too young to speak but I knew she had said it. Baby babble they had clamed but to me it sounded like Josh.
Without a word my father turned and began towards the washroom.
“Harold?” my mother asked as she patted my sisters back. The baby had been startled when my father threw open the door and had been bawling since. “Is everything all right you look pa-…?”
I think she and I noticed the blood at the same time. It was on his hands mostly, but there was a darkening smear of scarlet on his left cheek just beside his ear. We caught just a glimpse before he disappeared into the washroom, not uttering a single word to his son or his wife.
My mother cried out his name, this time with no questioning in her voice only a desperate alarm triggered by concern. She sprang for the washroom with baby Sarah in her arms and me on her heels. Emily and Michael were my younger siblings, they were fraternal twins and at 7 years old they were quite comfortable with ruckus. They hadn’t taken any notice to the crash of the front door and the consequent cries of Sarah, they had been in the children’s room (which I still shared with them) playing as they so often did. But such cry of shrill panic was so extrinsic in our home (and unthinkable that it should come from our mother) that it brought them to immediate attention. They stood in the doorway of our room in their white cotton night gowns holding hands. They didn’t say a word and I wondered if maybe my father’s silence was caching.
We reached the door, my mother and I, in time to see my father scrubbing the blood off of his hands in the basin where my mother had, less than an hour ago given Sarah her bath. He had neglected the smear on his cheek or perhaps he just hadn’t got to it yet. It seemed wrong to me, somehow perverse that this wicked blood on my father’s hands should be dripping and sloshing in the water that moments ago cleaned my sisters little body. I was horrified by a sudden image of baby Sarah, naked as the day she was born, gurgling squeals of sweet baby laughter while sitting in a bath of rust colored congealing blood.
He stammered and struggled over the first words, “I…I… I was a-tutuh attacked”
I realized that there were tears in my father’s eyes, but it didn’t seem he was crying. As his shaking continued I realized it was as if he was freezing, as if the tears had been brought on by a frigid blast of ice cold wind. It would have seemed right for them to be frozen to his cheeks. In the aching heat of late August, as strange as things were that would have seemed right.
“Attacked?” my mother pleaded, I think more for a happy ending to this increasingly disturbing event, then simply answers.
“Attacked by whom?” she looked around, perhaps for her composure which had stepped out. “Harry, what has happened to you?”
The twins had come to the washroom door now and were still holding hands. As they watched my father I could practically feel the anxious concern emanating from them in waves like a sort of pulsating heat increasing in temperature and frequency. That was when I really understood that it was the way my father looked that was getting us all going. It wasn’t just the blood or even his silence it was that look in his eyes. That mad dog look made him a stranger in our house and it made us all afraid. There was something about his eyes that I couldn’t put my finger on until today (50 years later), which is why I decided to write this down. But at the time it just scared the hell out of me to think what he’d seen, so when my mother asked him again what had happened to him part of me just wanted to cover my ears and leave the room. I didn’t want to know.
“Vagrants in Parson’s cemetery,” the shake in his voice was down to a mild tremble. “Roughed me up some and took my money”
He shook the water off of his hands and then patted his pockets (as if to make sure) and then nodded. A sigh of relief went through all of us.
“Daddy!” Emily cried, and then she was on him. Michael was right behind her and they both hugged and held onto him.
That relief touched me too, but only in passing.
My father looked from me to my mother, put his hand on her shoulder and then down to baby Sarah, his eyes lingering a moment. My Mother put an arm around him and pulled the whole family (minus myself) together into an embrace, squeezing the baby in the middle. She didn’t mind one bit, she’d stopped crying and was now giggling and playing with a button on my father’s shirt. My Father looked at me and gave a strained smile that brightened his face below the nose and above the eyebrows. The eyes were still sour.
“I thought you were gonna be the man of the house for a minute back there, son.”
“Yes, sir” I paid his joke a little laugh that sounded breathless and insane in my ears “I’m glad you’re alright Pa.”
He nodded and pulled back from the family embrace, it looked like he was about to say something when my mother asked:
“Harold, do have your Uncle Jed’s copy of the bill of sale?”
And that’s the linchpin of this story, it covers a bunch of the how’s and why’s. For example: If the great state of Nebraska didn’t want to run that highway through our home and cornfield then my father wouldn’t need to prove to anyone that it was his land. But they do, so he does. Now, on account of the tornado that took our copy of the lease (along with half our house) and the broken axle on his truck, my father was going to have to walk to his uncle Jed’s farm some 10 miles away. Uncle Jed’s copy of the bill of sale was the only proof that the farm was ours.
The state didn’t care that we’d been paying the property tax for 12 years; they claimed that wasn’t proof enough that the farm belonged to my father and as far as they were concerned it was public domain. Well that highway was already in production and under construction and there was no way they were going to throw in their hat or make some kind of million dollar detour for the sake of a corn farming hillbilly and his kin. That highway was getting paved.
My father spoke to a lawyer in Omaha who reckoned we sure as hell couldn’t keep our farm but if we could produce undeniable proof that it was ours the state would at least have to compensate us. He was right and when my father and that lawyer spoke to the transit authority they decided that compensation would be 80 thousand dollars. All that my father needed to do was bring that bill of sale over to the town hall and they’d write him his check.
My mother was delighted. She had wanted to leave Nebraska and all it’s tornados behind and when you put the state’s compensation together with what my father had been able to save up over the past 12 harvests that was going to be no trouble at all. We were going to be New Yorkers. The whole family was excited and even though my father, who had been a corn-fed Nebraska farm boy his whole life and rolled his eyes at what we call city folk, never said so, I caught him smiling a little when Michael asked Me just how big the statue of liverty was.
So you see it was this highway and Jed’s bill of sale that set the stage for what I’ve told you so far, and the terrifying truths that I have yet to tell. It was that piece of paper that my father walked 20 miles to retrieve, 10 miles to Uncle Jed’s and 10 back. The walk would have been closer to 25 miles, but there is a short cut through Parsons Cemetery which is in a little patch of woods. My father had the paper in his satchel when he walked through Parson’s and got robbed by those vandals he told us about. Jed’s bill of sale probably got thrown into the wind like everything else in the bag when those drunkards tore through it looking for something more to steal. Or maybe it was still in the satchel when they got frustrated and threw it into the woods. So of coarse it was that paper I was looking for when I went to the cemetery that night.
There had been a brief argument about me leaving. My mother insisted that it was too dangerous, that the men could still be there. I feared the same thing myself but I kept my voice calm and jovial when I assured her they were probably halfway to Millbrook’s Tavern to drink up Dad’s money. It was a conscious lie, I didn’t believe it when I dreamt it up or after the words came out of my mouth but it didn’t matter, we’d be out on the street without that money from the state and that certainly was the truth. She said that I ought to go in the morning but that wouldn’t be any good either, we had to act fast.
I remember how my father didn’t say a word during our whole fight. He just sat there watching, while a certain type of disgust for him seemed to grow inside of me. I had loved and admired my father my whole life but the man sitting there had changed in my eyes. How could he have been so weak as to be taken by a couple of drunken bums when his whole families future was on the line and then just sit there numbly while his boy took up his place and went out.
Eventually my mother gave up. I think she knew that someone had to go for the bill of sale, but it was just hard for her to see her boy go. My mother was a strong woman and never spoiled for me the way my father did. I’ll never forget her looking at me, her eyes filled with the love and care from that sacred reservoir only mother’s can tap. I loved her in that instant and it was a love that has lasted my whole life.
‘I just wish you wouldn’t go.’ She said.
‘It’s for the best, Diane.’ My father finally added.
I blew kisses to the twins and pinched Sarah’s nose (that set her off giggling as always) before throwing on my coat and pulling the front door open. I took one last look back at my family, sitting in the warm light of the hearth and the oil lamps. There was something picturesque and at the same time frightening about that scene. The twins bounced on my fathers knees and my mother gave me her worry creased smile as she rocked Sarah in her arms. Like my fathers eyes I didn’t understand it at the time but it all adds up for me now. I closed the door behind me and set out for Parson’s Cemetery. I never saw any of them again.
It was at least a two hour walk and as I began my journey the only thought in my head was what if I can’t find the bill of sale. I imagined searching through the rows of headstones, my dismay growing as I found nothing but fallen leaves and dead flowers. What would I do if it wasn’t there? I would search over and over again until the sun came up, first combing the rows and plots and finally crawling through the woods in hopes that it had been taken by the wind and caught in the thick undergrowth that surrounded Parson’s.
I wondered how I could return home and tell my family I had failed. I knew my mother wouldn’t blame me. She’d undoubtedly shrug it off and say that we’d just have to get by on our savings, and that would some how be worse than her cursing me for my failure, to see her silently endure our family’s monumental misfortune. I prayed to God that it would be there, glowing in the moonlight like some heavenly pardon from a sentence of poverty and defeat.
As I walked on and I drew closer to the cemetery a new fear filled my thoughts. What if those men were still there? The thought had been in my mind before I had left and indeed even concerned me, but when I could see the old signpost marking the entrance of Parson’s up ahead hulking in the shadows like a deformed creature, it seemed to gain a new weight in my thoughts. I imagined myself stumbling in the dark, my eyes searching the ground when I’d be suddenly overcome by the stink of booze and one of those men would lay hands on me. There was no one around for at least a mile and any screams of mine would be heard only by the residents of Parson’s Cemetery and I certainly didn’t want them to come to my aide.
I imagined a thick ground fog, lying like a ghostly blanket across the floor of the graveyard and could almost feel the wet rotted flesh of corpse hands as they would reach up to seize my ankles in their skeletal grips. My mouth went dry and my courage ran out of me in beads of sweat as I considered turning back and just going home. I’d just tell them how sorry I was and live with the secret shame all my life. Perhaps I could go back in the morning (as my mother had suggested) and find what I had sought after. It would be reasonable that I had overlooked it in the night and that would put everything right. Or maybe I wouldn’t find anything by the light of day and the not knowing whether it had been lost due to the vandal’s treachery or my cowardice would be worse than the graveyard stroll through eerie midnight that lay before me. I pressed on.
The inside of Parson’s Cemetery was nothing like I expected. There were no ghosts or fog or even thugs as far as I could see. The fact was I could barely see anything. The cemetery was den of shadows amongst shadows. The forest which surrounded Parson’s was a wall of night and its trees obscured the moon which was low in the sky. To say I proceeded with trepidation would be an understatement of epic proportions. As well as being pitch black the place was abysmally quiet. I remember feeling disgusted with the unearthly silence and feeling the desire to cry out and break it, to lend some living element to the nagging inhuman quiet. I maintained my composure and my silence, telling myself that I wouldn’t want to wake the dead and at that, not only did the desire to scream return but with it the urge to run.
I began to scan the place with my eyes and as I did my vision slowly adjusted. The formless shadows began to distinguish themselves and from the darkness neat rows of gravestones materialized, silent sentries keeping their vigilant watch over the dead. I had been through Parson’s Cemetery countless times and always found the place to be rather beautiful. Besides the universal (no need to hang around just yet, you’ll have plenty of time to settle in) feeling of any grave yard, Parson’s wasn’t particularly eerie or foreboding at all. It was a place where humble people rested and there were no tales of wandering spirits, haunting in their restless agony. But then again I had never been there after dark, when the place cast off its pleasant façade to reveal just what exactly Parson’s Cemetery really was, hidden underneath the sunlit rustic charm; A dismal colony of isolation for those that time and misfortune have snuffed out.
I saw no paper on the ground, but a few yards to my left, near the edge where the woods begin, I saw what could have been the scene struggle. The grass which lay before the shattered remains of a tombstone (so old that it could have been the marker for the final resting place Moses) was torn up in random patches exposing the rich soil beneath. As I approached the spot I could see dirt and grass, packed down in the prints of boots. It looked like the step by step dance lesson for a lunatic tango. There were deep wild digs in the earth where perhaps hands,
had grabbed for purchase. Suddenly I felt an enormous relief release inside of me as I saw, beside the rubble of that ancient gravestone, my father’s satchel lay, its shoulder strap in wide semicircle appearing to be smiling up at me.
I dropped to my knees before the bag. I should have known something was really wrong when I saw two quarters and a half-dollar shining up at me out of the grass beside the bag, but I ignored them. I was totally overcome by the possibility that the wing and prayer I flown upon, through this spirit crushing, seemingly hopeless endeavor were actually going to land me safely on the runway of a positive outcome. Unconcerned with the money, that my father claimed had been stolen from him, bursting at the seams with a 14 year olds certainty that everything was going to be fine; I snatched up the satchel and looked inside. It was empty.
Not 5 feet away from me, coming from the tree line I heard a rustle in the underbrush and the snapping of a couple thin twigs. Along with that I was sure I heard a whine, a sort of wheezing whimper that I prayed belonged to one of God’s creatures and not something else. I looked in the direction of the sound and was refilled with the relief that had gushed out of me upon finding my father’s satchel empty but, along with that relief blew the icy breath of fear on my skin rousing Goosebumps all over my flesh. That sound scared the hell out of me. There, at the edge of the woods caught in a tangle of dead vines was Uncle Jed’s copy of the bill of sale.
I rose to my feet and proceeded forward, slowly and cautiously. That marvelous boyhood faith (which would be permanently exhausted by dawn) was momentarily stripped of me. Was it the empty satchel, the fear in my bones, all of the above? I’d say the latter was the most likely. The night had been soaked in disappointment, so when I approached the prized and elusive document I did so like a whipped dog taking the rare treat from his abusive master; with fear and caution. In the end it didn’t matter how slowly I closed the space between myself and the paper, it was a finite portion (as if there’s an infinite) and I used it up. My tension mounting as I exhausted the steps. And then I was there bending over and reaching out for it.
I don’t know what happened first: the terrible broken moan or the torn bloody hand closing around my wrist, but I do know it was my breathless and silent scream that followed. My jaw went open so wide that I think it was the only thing that kept my eyeballs from falling out of my head, and I was screaming, screaming but the sound didn’t match the picture. My scream was nothing but a shaking hiss, the sound of a cheering stadium muted down to a whisper. I’m quite sure that I lost my mind temporarily in that instant, but as my eyes followed that hand (gripped like a shackle around my wrist) up it’s arm, to it’s shoulder, and ultimately to it’s blood covered face, an ice cold bucket of shock and horrifying realization soaked me. I gasped for a breath of rational thought and the eyes of my sanity snapped open. My thoughts gathered like a storm around such a terrible (but appropriate) question that I instantly and simultaneously wanted to piss, ****, and vomit. What did I leave back there with my family? The face I was looking at was my father’s.
My father was trying to explain what happened, recant the tale of his attack and disclose the identity and nature of his attacker, but it was coming out in a babbling stream of trembling moans and banter. I lifted him to his feet, stuffed the precious piece of paper into my pocket, and began helping back home. Helping is actually a gentle way to put it. I yanked at my father, silently dragging him with all the strength I could muster. The leg of his left pant leg was torn and soaked in black ooze I assumed was his congealing blood. This thought, coupled with the excruciatingly awkward angle, of which his left foot was cocked, gave way to an all to graphic image of his mangled limb beneath.
Words were coming out of his mouth but I wasn’t really listening, all I could think of was getting back to my family as fast as humanly possible. I barely heard his cry of agony when he lost his balance and his weight came down hard on his left foot but I can now recall the sound it made: like the wet pop of chicken bones snapping in boiling water. I would never have dropped him. I would never leave my father behind, (least of all in the state he was in) but it was the single word that I caught in the hysterical salad he made of the events that led up to my discovery of him in the ditch that caused me to drop him to the ground and sprint for home. In the weeping, horrified rattle my father had adopted since I found him- amidst his frantic and unintelligible version of what happened to him- he spat the word teeth like an obscenity into the discretion of night.
The world raced past me in a blur as I ran for home. The back of my throat burned and my lungs ached as I sucked in oxygen my body would immediately burn to propel me on my course. I actually began to feel heavier and I could feel my weight increase as I landed each stride in my all or nothing dash for home. I prayed to the almighty that my family would be there- safe and unharmed, and whatever had come in wearing my fathers face would be gone. But such hopes were as fleeting as the air in my lungs.
My hopes turned to the identity of the man I had found in the ditch. His face was obscured by blood and shadow. Maybe I had gotten myself (already shaken by the desperate situation and eerie location) worked up by a babbling drunkard, perhaps one of my fathers attackers. But that didn’t fit, I knew my fathers voice and face, the feel of his arm around my shoulders. And of coarse there was his confession repeating over and over in my head like a scratched record (teeth, teeth, teeth...) stamping my hopes down, into a dark place where the certainty of death and dismay smothered them like a pillow over a child’s face- a child or an infant girl.
I rounded the curve of road just before my house and my dormant hope pushed to the surface like a diver swimming up from the depths. Through the trees I could see lights coming from the windows of my home. Nothing but a vagrant, I drunken hobo passed out in the woods, I told myself, probably so drunk he fell and bashed himself up. I came into the clearing of our front yard, and sure enough the house stood looking pleasant and peaceful as ever all the lights on and no a sign of trouble. We’ll all laugh together, we’ll laugh at scared little Josh and be together.
I reached for the doorknob and imagined myself taking the bill of sale from my pocket and handing it to my mother, her and my father would be proud and relived- that look would be out of his eyes. There was something vaguely resembling a smile on my face as I pushed open the front of our little country home and warm lantern light spilled over me and sparkled in my eyes like false expectations. The last appearance of a boyhood hope and certainty that everything would be okay, was there, written in a carefree smile across my face.
My father pulled himself together and made it home. He limped and staggered all the way on a broken leg (actually dragging himself that last couple of hundred feet) and arrived home around five hours later just after sun up. He found me (the only addition to the house since I had gotten there) sitting at the kitchen table of an empty house, folding and unfolding the bill of sale in my hand.
They did a big investigation. Neither my family, nor any answers about what happened to them were found, but my father and I understood. Not in the sense that we had any real idea as to the true nature of what came into our home and took my family away, just that it was unnatural.
We did get the money for our farm and home, and move to New York, it was little conciliation for our loss. My relationship with my father was never the same, but it wasn’t on account of that look in his eyes, after all I no longer believe that they were his eyes. It’s just too hard to see each other; it made us think about what happened back at the farm that night. I didn’t abandon him, nor did he, I. I didn’t deny him his grandchildren or my confidence when something troubled me, but as for anything more than a few hours together we avoided that kind of company whenever possible.
He passed in his sleep almost thirty years ago. The doctors said that there was no pain, and I did cry some. After all he was my father and we had both looked into the face of hell and lost everything we had that mattered, but mostly I felt relief. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to look over another Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, surrounded by my new family (the one I created with my wife) and see the man I shared that terrible knowing with, because it wasn’t a secret exactly. I’ve told my wife, and now that I’ve told you I owe it to my children to tell them, but all any of you can do is believe. It’s the knowing that my father and I shared and now it’s a burden I will carry alone.
I think about that night all the time but it’s been years (decades maybe) since I’ve thought about the look in that things eyes and wondered what it was I couldn’t put my finger on. Today I took my 6 year old granddaughter to the Bronx zoo. Her name is Elizabeth (Lizzy) and when she was a newborn she reminded me of baby Sarah. We saw the elephants and giraffes, we had ice creams and I took her to see the monkeys too, (her favorite) and then we saw the lions.
I stood in front of their cages watching them move and wait for their lunch and I squeezed little Lizzy’s hand so hard she shrieked. You see I figured out what it was about his eyes. I figured it out all these years later and I got to shaking all over because at the same time, for the first time since that night I closed my eyes and saw baby Sarah giggling and splashing in that basin full of blood. His eyes looked ravenous.