Preview of “The Salvage Man”
Dan drove out the long straight stretch of Main, past the courthouse square, the bank drive-thrus and tire shop parking lots, then the Victorian homes and their multicolored front porches, and finally past the ’50s and ’60s era ranches until he reached what was once considered the edge of town.
It was a warm, dry day. Sunlight shone bright in bleached splatters across the asphalt beneath trees that crowded the road. His black hair, slashed with slender ribbons of gray was tousled by the breeze from the open window.
From the dashboard speakers pulsed the staccato hammer of power chords strung together by a looping lead guitar. The cell phone rested in the console cup holder, plugged to a cigarette lighter adapter that fed his Spotify alt-county playlist to the truck radio. Wilco’s cranking guitars settled into an easy rhythm. His hand rocked on the steering wheel, the outstretched thumb tapping to the beat. At random points the bass overtook a blown door speaker, distorting the song with ragged, breathy jolts.
“Outta site, outta mind, indeed,” Dan grumbled to the scene beyond his dirty windshield.
This place felt more like countryside in his youth, on a bicycle on a day not unlike this one. Amid the old houses with huge yards that sat sprinkled along the mile of countryside for over a century, little prefab ranches, Levittown like boxes built by National Homes had cropped up just before and after Dan’s birth. Since then, slowly, a trailer park grew, partially hidden behind a big old house on a slope to the river. Now newer houses clad in drab vinyl colors, grouped on clean, monotonous well-tended culs-de-sac, gobbled up entire fields. Instead of seeming expansive and solid, as it had in his youth, the street felt claustrophobic and temporary, just like his own life. Because the street transformed in small pieces over forty years, he’d gotten used to it as it was. Still, on a day like today his mind wandered back to his boyhood and he remembered the fields that once dotted the landscape.
Dan clearly recalled the soft hissing of a breeze coming across the tassels of corn, looking like a yellow wave on an ocean, rising and falling gently. Dogs, some friendly, some mean, would dart off the big porches and run alongside his bike. He’d stop to pet one or pedal like hell to get away from another, his head tucked low between the handlebars, straining against the wind.
When he got lost in such memories he was momentarily taken off guard by the town’s changes, feeling he’d taken a wrong turn and landed in a foreign town, not his town. And the surrounding countryside was like that no matter which direction you drove. This all felt personal. How is your life any different? was a question his train of thought usually found its way to when he started cursing growth and how it had turned his town into a near-foreign landscape.
“Hell, your own life is a stranger,” he mumbled, adjusting the rearview mirror. These angry, embittering thoughts had come to consume his inner voice over the past decade. He’d seen a poster on the wall in the local coffee shop with a quote attributed to Buddha, “What you think, you become.” He was just barely introspective enough, sensing at the edge of awareness that this is how once proud, hopeful young men become grumpy, angry old men—curmudgeons. A montage of mental video clips rolled through his mind when he wasn’t on task; his ex-wife, his old job at the piston works, the house where he grew up, his life after the kids went off to college, and every argument, failure, insult, or dark moment he’d ever had in life, they increasingly just ran in a constant loop in him mind. Hell, sometimes he unwillingly found himself imagining disputes and confrontations that hadn’t even happened.
“What you think, you become.” It was happening to him. He was doing it to himself. And he sensed it, but couldn’t stop.
He steered the truck with his right hand and rested his left arm along the open window. The sleeve of his thick, white, cotton T-shirt fluttered in the breeze across his tanned, tight bicep.
A black BMW rushed toward him in the rearview mirror and passed quickly on a double yellow, like he was standing still. Dan grunted and shook his head, “Racing to a red light. The whole fuckin’ world is racing to a red light.” His truck lumbered up behind the BMW and stopped. When the light turned green the black car shot forward, darting left, out of turn, ahead of oncoming traffic.
Dan sighed heavily, proceeding on his way, to yet one more thing he didn’t really want to do. He neared the right-hand curve where the river begins to converge with the road beyond a line of trees. There, a shallow, wedge-shaped, two-hundred-acre expanse to the west, perhaps the last bit of land in cultivation between this side of the river and town, came into view. “Bein’ in the flood plain will keep you safe from developers a bit longer,” Dan mumbled to the land and the corn.
As he eased into the big, gently banked turn to the east, the gable end of the Ballard farmhouse came into view above the trees. The gaping windows hung dark and empty. The deep eaves cast harsh shadows along the length of the house. Tangled branches of long neglected trees surrounded the red brick house and seemed to tether it to the ground. He slowed and swung into the driveway.
On both sides of the gravel drive, grass left uncut for a couple years rose up two feet. Here and there renegade maple and poplar trees sprouted. Beyond the entrance to the drive, yellowed grass was matted down to dirt by tire tracks. Between the garage and the barn, perhaps three hundred yards away, Dan could see yellow, earthmoving equipment grinding away at fields that grew corn just last year. A few trucks and cars, the vehicles of the heavy equipment operators, were parked about. Dan parked and got out.
His truck had been impressive once, eight years ago when he bought it new—four wheel drive with an extended cab, bed liner, CD player, two-tone paint job, the works. But now the tires were nearly bald, the snap-down vinyl bed cover had ripped to shreds and been discarded, and there was a whale of a dent in the driver-side door. Dan had stared down a loud-mouth punk in Syd’s Bar a couple years ago, thinking he’d scared the kid out of starting a fight, but when he went out to his truck and found the big dent with a dusty boot print at its center, he realized what the kid had meant by, “You’ll be sorry, old man.”
He scanned the side of the old brick farmhouse. This place was familiar. Though he’d never been in the house or any of the out buildings, as a kid he’d played in the woods that lay thick to the east of the barn. There, the trees crowded a ravine running down to a stream that spilled into the river some hundred yards to the north. He and his friends had made forts among fallen trees by the stream and played army.
He turned back to the house. There were large brackets, or ‘corbels’ as the antique dealers called them, nestled in the eaves. They would bring some money. There was a simple side porch with turned posts that were worth a little and a front porch with a bit of gingerbread that someone had kept well painted. He could get several hundred bucks for the stuff on the outside alone. The side door wasn’t worth taking but the front door had heavy appliqué trim that arched to frame two glass panels. He would take it.
Women considered Dan a handsome man. Not like a model or athlete, but like a man of hard work and purpose; lithe, yet muscular, tanned, weathered, and more fit than most men half his age. He didn’t work out. He worked. He walked about the buildings, examining the barn, garage, and grain bin, moving in purposeful, determined strides as if he intended to do something important when he got there. His female contemporaries often whispered to one another, “It ain’t fair that a man his age can look so damn good.”
From behind him a gleaming black Hummer lurched around the side of the barn, bending the tall grass down before entering the matted parking area. It stopped right beside Dan’s truck. A short man in a sport coat and jeans, cowboy boots, and a waistline that spilled over his belt hopped out and walked toward Dan.
“Hey, Tom, how ya doin’?” Dan asked. He wedged his hands in his pockets, trading glances between his shabby truck and the Hummer.
Tom strode up confidently and stuck out his hand. Dan fumbled to pull his hand from his pocket and took Tom’s palm awkwardly, noting how unnecessarily firm Tom’s grip was.
Tom smiled a big toothy, Teddy Roosevelt grin from behind a pair of sunglasses and a thin black mustache. “Know what I was thinkin’ ’bout as I came around that barn, knowin’ that I was meetin’ you here? I was thinkin’ of all the times we used to ride our bikes out here when we were kids and played down there in the woods. Boy, the Japs and the Germans didn’t stand a chance against us,” he laughed.
Dan smiled and looked down at the ground.
“Boy, that was a long time ago,” Tom squinted.
“Another life ago,” Dan put in.
“Ain’t that right.” Tom rocked back and forth on his heels in a moment of awkward silence.
“Well, what do you think of her?” Tom finally asked, leading the way toward the house. “Think there’s anything here worth a dollar?”
“Don’t know. We’ll have to take a look inside.”
Tom produced a handful of keys and they went in.
They wandered the rooms of the house, their footsteps echoing off old plank floors and falling silent on aging green shag carpet. The downstairs was empty but for a few random items left behind by the last tenant.
Dan was not prone to mysticism. Still, he got feelings about the houses he stripped. Some of them reached out to him like a warm caress and he’d feel guilty for stripping them, knowing they’d be torn down soon. Others filled him with a sense of dread as he came through the door. “Something bad happened here,” he once found himself mumbling. He worked at salvage that day with a tingling at his spine, adrenaline goosing him as he worked. He’d drive away from those chilling places avoiding eye contact with the darkened windows, afraid he’d find a ghostly face glaring out at him and shaking a fist.
But this place was hard to peg. As they moved from room to room the vibe of this once graceful, now tattered house veered from welcome to foreboding. Bright rooms with their ceilings reaching skyward, and tall, hopeful windows drawing in sunlight promised that fresh paint and refinished floors was all this place needed. But in the darkened shadows of stairwells, rank bathrooms, and the tiny twentieth-century closets cobbled into the corners of nineteenth-century rooms, a coldness overtook Dan and left him feeling hollow and unwelcome and wanting nothing more than to tell Tom he wasn’t interested and leave.
But he couldn’t leave. He needed the job.
Dan stopped to run his hand along an elegant, turned walnut newel post. The rest of the woodwork was unpainted and made of an assortment of hardwoods. He knew he could get money for the artificially grained doors, the balustrade, and the spindles, but showed no emotion. Tom tried and failed to make small talk with his old friend as Dan inspected hardware and floor grates with silent care.
The stair landing split in two directions; five steps going up toward the front of the house and its original two bedrooms, and five steps leading in the opposite direction into the 1870s addition.
A shadowed, cavernous, second-story room made up the addition to the back of the house. It was entered by one door to the north, and a back staircase to the kitchen at the south end. There, a disturbing sight stopped them. A foam mattress lay on the floor in one corner, covered with a dirty, unzipped sleeping bag. Beside the mattress sat a water bong with an inch of dirty water at its base. Sixteen-ounce cans of PBR were scattered about. Dan nudged one can with the steel toe of his boot and found it was full. Never opened. “Too stoned to realize they had one more left?” he mused.
“See why I need to get this place leveled?” Tom said. “Kids keep getting in and partying. Something bad’s gonna happen if we don’t just wash our hands of this place ASAP.”
Yellowed wallpaper had released from the walls in full, intact sheets, gathered like ribbons of fallen pasta at the base of one wall. On the exposed bare plaster, the anarchy symbol had been spray painted, its circle reaching from baseboard to ceiling, with long narrow drips of black paint running down the horizontal slash of the letter A at its center. Two spray paint cans lay on the floor amid wads of paper toweling, each with a fat dot of dried spray paint in the middle. Dan kicked a bundle of stiffened paper towel with his foot.
Tom shook his head. “They’ve been huffing. And smoking weed. And drinking beer. Scares ya, don’t it? I worry about running into one of those kids, all jacked up on that shit.”
“Smells like a gas station men’s room in here.” Dan shook his head and walked toward the back staircase. He stopped to shake his head yet again at the sight of a used condom on the floor. “Jeeezus. It’s a sad ol’ world,” he mumbled.
Back outside, he walked around the house, noticing that shutter hooks were still in place on every window; something he seldom saw.
“Is this stuff worth anything?” Tom asked. Dan thought Tom was digging to settle on a price for salvage rights. He offered his usual story.
“Well, it’s worth money, but not to most people. Ya see, if it was all sitting here on the ground with the nails pulled and the hardware separated and all cleaned and everything, then you’d really have something. But to get to that point you have to do some hard work, have to get dirty and spend days on ladders and loading and hauling. Once you figure in your hours spent getting it to where you could sell it, well then it ain’t worth so much … in its current state … if you see what I mean.”
Tom was impatient. “The labor it takes to salvage it accounts for much of its value,” he said.
“Yeah,” Dan agreed quickly, “that’s a good way to put it.”
“Do you want the stuff?”
“Well sure, Tom, but we’ve got to agree on a price first.”
“No price,” Tom said. “Just take it. It’s yours. If you don’t take it, it’ll go to the dump.”
“Well, thanks, Tom,” Dan smiled, now freely offering his hand to shake on the deal. The mood was suddenly relaxed.
“Saw Sue the other day eatin’ popcorn shrimp at Applebee’s,” Tom said, changing the subject. “She waved and said howdy.”
Dan’s upbeat mood evaporated. He looked at the ground and shook his head. “We’ve been divorced three years now and still everybody tells me what’s goin’ on in her life.” He looked away and bit the back of his lip. “You’d think we’d gone for a walk and lost each other in the woods or somethin’.”
“I’m sorry,” Tom said, shaking his head. “I think of you—I think of her.”
Dan shook his head, too, and smiled insincerely, waving off the apology, mumbling, “Aw, hell, how are you s’posed to know how I feel about it when I don’t even know?”
Tom pulled a phone from his pocket to check the time, then shot quick glances beyond the barn through the narrow opening of trees to the earthmoving equipment working in the distance. “I got another appointment. Gotta run.”
“Well, thanks again, Tom.”
“Hey, I’m just glad I could help you,” Tom said with a broad smile, slapping Dan on the back. He got in the Hummer and shot across the grass, toward the workmen and the clouds of dust their machines were raising to the south.
As the car disappeared, Dan mulled over those words, ‘glad I could help you.’
He saw now that Tom had never intended to conduct a business transaction. He meant to do charity, to give him a handout. Even if Tom was trying to do him a favor, it wasn’t any less embarrassing for people to know he needed one.
Could it have been Sue? Was she the one who asked Tom to help me? Aw, hell, he thought to himself, who cares.
Dan looked back at the house, the two-car garage, the little brick shed behind the house, a board and batten shed between the garage and the barn, and then the barn itself. He could make some money from this old stuff all right, but he needed money now—today. Rent was due tomorrow. He had that money, but he needed some groceries, too, and didn’t have enough for both. He had to find something he could pick up and take now. Something that wouldn’t take a lot of time to remove and clean up.
He looked in the little brick shed behind the house. Originally a milk house, it had only a few old paint cans on the floor. He peered into the garage. Garbage was scattered around. Nothing of value. He didn’t even bother with the shed next to the garage, but went on to the barn instead.
Straining with the full weight of his body, the sixteen-foot-tall door, lashed together by metal supports in a Z, gave way. It dragged on the ground but he got it open enough to wedge himself through. It was musty and dark inside. He found a metal post on the ground and gouged it into the dirt several times, digging a long seam beneath the door. Finally, he managed to open it fully. Light streamed into the massive space, casting long shadows beyond trash and old lumber. He picked about in the pile of wood, old planks, and fence posts. Buried among the debris he found three, turned, matching, Victorian-era porch posts, all in decent condition. He quickly pulled them out and dropped them in the thick grass outside.
He climbed the ladder to the hayloft. A few birds scattered overhead, lighting on the hulking, hand-hewn beams above him. He had been in these dank places before and they always made him uneasy. Underfoot were planks that were low-grade lumber when new. A hundred to a hundred and fifty years later they were rotted, some were missing, and many he couldn’t see because of the hay and straw scattered about.
There was a stack of some sort in the corner to his left. Doors perhaps? He scanned the light coming up between the cracks of the planks, looking for the beams below so he could step on firm structure. He flipped open his cell phone for a bit of light and walked closer.
He hated these places, these barns with nesting birds and rats and mice and reptiles, with the smells of old rotting manure and hay and earth saturated with decades-old gasoline and oil and livestock urine. He stepped forward, keeping close to the shadowed line of a beam below. Nearing the stacks the shapes became clear in the cell phone light. Shutters.
Kneeling before two neat stacks of shutters, he strained to lift one up for examination, but it wouldn’t move. A finger run along the length of each stack revealed both were bound with bailing wire. Reflexively he reached for the leather tool pouch looped to his belt, unsnapped its cover, and pulled out the all-in-one tool. He’d used the plier-shaped tool so many times, lack of light was no impediment. With automatic precision the bailing wire was wedged into the crotch of the pliers and cut easily.
The shutters were old, probably made well over a hundred years ago. The good ones were stacked gently before him, the bad ones he tossed carelessly aside. They shattered on the loft floor with a loud crash, sending dust rising.
They must have been put there long ago, for exterior shutters had a short life. The wood joints and moving parts did not fare well in driving rain, summer humidity, and winter snow and ice. Dan figured they had likely spent more years sheltered in the barn than they’d spent on the house, because most were intact. A few had broken louvers and all had badly peeling, dark green paint. Bird droppings covered everything he touched. He just wanted to get the good ones out and head to Indy. Another with tattered louvers was tossed in the waste pile and splintered, sounding like a tree branch wrenching loose in a storm.
Suddenly, something moved near Dan. He caught a glimpse of it in his peripheral vision—an arm and a head coming at him. He stood in one jerking motion and swung around to face it. His right foot plunged through a rotted floorboard and down he went.
His ass hit the loft floor and he slammed into the planks, flat on his back, one leg dangling below. He shot defensive glances about with his arms raised to protect his face.
Nothing. Echoing silence.
Dan looked about the loft. It was as big as a small basketball gym. But there was no one there, just him, alone.
“You fool,” he mumbled aloud. “You nervous and jerky fool.” He momentarily searched the rafters for whatever it was that had scared him, perhaps a pigeon or squirrel. Nothing.
Back to his feet, he brushed off his jeans.
An hour and a half later he was leaving the antique salvage shop with two hundred and fifty bucks in his pocket, cruising north on Delaware, eager as always to leave Indianapolis behind him. His hands on the steering wheel were still dirty, his hair peppered with cobwebs.
As he swung onto Fall Creek, making his way toward the interstate, Junior Brown’s black-tar, retro-country baritone crooned from the dashboard speakers, a steel guitar crying for lost love.