A story by Wallace E. Knight
Alva Mason once had an opportunity to go to work in Indianapolis, but he turned the offer down after he looked at a map and saw the lines that reached from town to town. They were straight, or almost so; there was no interference from nature.
“I could have gone with the biggest rope dealer in Indianapolis,” he said. “They said. Come on, Alvie, use your thick head, and I told them that if Warren Gamaliel Harding himself said, Come on, Alvie, take the job and sell rope, I’d tell him. No Sir.”
Man needs something ungiving behind him to back him up. That’s what Alva Mason thought, and it was an idea he lived with even though he compromised with it. He worked for a wholesale hardware dealer in a town on the Ohio for forty years, living most of the time in an apartment over a grocery store. It was all right for him and Kate; the porch along the side was cool, and there was a place out back for a garden. It was enough to know that only twenty miles away was an unassailable mountain that he could get to if he ever needed to, and he could put his back up against it.
You know how time passes. They quit using wagons and bought trucks. Alva went to the bank one morning for Mr. Pemberton and it was closed; the cashier stood on the roof and shouted down to the crowd that he’d remember every damn soul who didn’t trust him. On September 1, 1939, Alva was inventorying bolts, and on Pearl Harbor Day he had come in to watch a boy load copper wire for the mines. He heard on the radio, a plastic Zenith. And Kate died during the big December snow of 1950, when there were only two ruts on River Street.
When Alva retired, the Pemberton boy had said,
“Alvie, what are you going to do out there all by yourself?”
“Well,” he had said, “I’m going to take it easy.” And that’s what Alva Mason did, in his covert way, on his eighty-five acres against Ten Pole Mountain, beginning in 1957.
He had a two-room rough-cut house, stained deep brown. The well, good most of the time, was handdug, and when it went dry, there was still a spring. Every week or so he’d walk out and get coffee, bacon, cigars, and candy, and on check weeks he’d buy a newspaper and kerosene.
Please keep in mind that Alva Mason was not alone or without friends; he never missed the Labor Day party for retirees, and whenever one of the Bingham kids from down the creek came by, Alva talked to him until he left. Once or twice the Hatchers—from the store—came out to go hunting, and Alva led them right up to the deer and pointed.
There aren’t many people who understand a frontier. Days come and brighten and glow and fade, and there is a loose rattle of limbs or the soft brushing of milkweed to listen to, as the season offers. Nothing much happens if you don’t let small things bother you, and that’s enough.
All at once Alva Mason was very old, a lean greasy man with white hair, white beard, a black ulcer growing beside his nose, and days passing in front of him with such ease that he hardly noticed.
He talked to himself. He used the battery radio only in the evening to get the news, which he’d grumble about, shaking his head. He wasn’t really surprised or even concerned about the things he heard—after all, he knew people and he knew the world. He’d shake his head because that’s what people do when they hear about plane crashes, wars, and floods.
He ate a lot of oatmeal and applesauce and greens.
He’d sing sometimes, until it bothered him to hear his own old voice quaver and the tune wander away.
All in all he was unconcerned with time and change and the seasons, as he liked the things he saw on Ten Pole Mountain and was ready for as much of it as he could get, if it came with sense and good health,
“The only thing I worry about,” Alva once told Audrill Bingham, “is that maybe I’ll get to be a bother to somebody. I’d rather be dead than trouble.”
“Alvie,” said Audrill. “you know you’re welcome as beans at our place. You can come live in our back bedroom any day in the world, long as you want. You know I’ll look up the hollow for you; you get the poorlies and I’m carrying you out of here and keeping you long as you want.”
Alva appreciated it and said so, but he wasn’t going to get sick on anybody, he vowed. He knew he had the capacity to die when he had to, right off, without clawing for time.
“Thank you, Audrill,” he said. “I’ll be no trouble to you, though.”
To assure this, Alva went to work in the spring, before the dogwood was out, even though he felt fine.
He borrowed a post-hole digger at Anderson’s store, carried it home, and dug a hole just below the slipbank, where the hill was almost perpendicular. He made it nearly two feet in diameter and eight feet deep—a terrible labor that took him a week and hurt cruelly. Four feet he dug in two days, but then he had to lie on his stomach by the hole, thrusting the digger down, catching dirt, compacting it, pulling the tool up with breathless care, dumping it. His heart pounded powerfully with each repeating of the process, and often he’d lose loose dirt back down the hole. He’d get five scoops and rest, five more and rest, feeling the earth’s dampness, desperate to finish and finally done, down to eight feet on a two-by-four he’d marked off and kept beside him.
Alva rested a week and figured what to do next. He took a day and tamped the hole until its walls were firm and the bottom was flat and solid. It was a good place, all right, dirt all the way, left there in the hollow a speck at a time over eons, soil laced with sandstone above it in the bank, often moist but never muddy. When he had finished he covered the hole with a plywood sheet so nothing would fall in.
He took his time. He was busy for a while spading the garden plot and planting tomatoes and half-runners, and June had come before he got back to the next steps.
On the bank above the hole he rigged a length of chicken wire, and lined the wire with three layers of painters’ drop cloths that had been neatly folded in the shed for years. He tied the ends with heavy rope to saplings up the hill, so that the wire and canvas hung like a hammock against the bank. Then he shoveled all the loose dirt from the hole into the hammock until it curved heavily down, and he carried rocks and added them, and wheeled in more dirt, until finally there was a pendulous burden above the plywood cover that swelled threateningly. There were tons, leaning against the hill, held back from Alva’s pit gently and precariously. He made it neat, raking away unsightly clods, and planted rye grass on it.
In the evenings, before he went to bed, Alva would walk out and inspect his handiwork. At several points he drove stakes into the bank, just below the wire netting, which settled gently and rested there as the days passed.
He went to Pemberton’s one morning, riding into town with the mailman, and waited until just a couple of the fellows were in the store.
“Alvie, Alvie,” said Boob Camper, “Alvie, I haven’t seen you in years. Lord God, Alvie, you’re looking good.”
Herb Hatcher came over from the dark corner behind the revolving nail bin. “Thought you was dead, Alvie,” he said, grinning. “Old Boob took up a collection, anyway. You get your flowers. Alvie?”
It took time to get rid of Herbie, but finally just the two of them were there, across the counter. Boob and Alva.
“I want a whole bunch of things. Boob,” Alva said hesitantly. “I’m going to clear out a place, and I need some batteries for a bell, and damned if I don’t have to have a clock, too.” He got out a list.
Six sticks of dynamite, three blasting caps, fine copper wire, a brush hook, two dry-cell batteries, alarm clock, screen-door spring, whetstone.
Boob became serious. “Now, Alvie, that’s a young man’s list,” he said. “You can’t carry all that, much less use it. You’ll break your fool back.”
“I got a boy to help me,” Alva answered, just as he had prepared to answer. “We’re going to blow out three stumps so I won’t have to climb around them anymore. I’m getting so I want things easy.”
So Boob got everything together happily, glad to help out, gave Alva a 20 percent discount, gave him a cold root beer out of the dispenser, and carried the stuff over to the newspaper office so that Alva could ride back with the routeman when the first edition was out.
“You’re a kind man, Boob. You come by and I’ll make you some corn bread.”
“I’ll do that, Alvie. I’ll hold you to that. I’ll even carry old Pemberton out and let him watch me eat.”
Odd, thought Alva, how young Pemberton had become old Pemberton. He couldn’t be over fifty.
He carried the packages from the road all the way up the hollow and up the hill in one trip, fearful to leave anything behind. When he had put everything away he went to bed and slept until the next morning was half gone.
Plans that are carefully made needn’t be hurried. Alva didn’t feel that he had to hurry, although he watched the black place on his cheek grow and felt around it gingerly, and felt his chest analytically when his heart pounded, and noted precisely how his knees pained when he walked uphill. And so he laid his garden by, and laid in food and wood and kerosene for the winter, shot rabbits from the front porch, and at Christmas drank half a bottle of old wine.
One weekend when snow was on the ground he got out the things from the store—everything but the brush hook and spring, which he really hadn’t needed—and made the exploder.
What else would you call it? Its function was to explode.
He took a board and tacked the feet of the new alarm clock onto it. He taped three sticks of dynamite to the other end of the board, which was only about two feet long, and then between the clock and dynamite pounded in two circles of finishing nails. He measured the circles with the base of a dry-cell battery; the nails made cradles in which the batteries could stand, side by side.
Alva frowned. He should have taken the glass off the clockface first. He broke it with a tack hammer and tested the hands. Everything was fine. He swept up.
Finally he arranged the copper wire, and as he did this he found himself wary and expectant. Once he was sure he heard something outside, but of course there was nothing—just the snow, unmarked except by birds and rabbits and the smoothing of the wind.
He linked the batteries, and led one wire to the dynamite and let its loose end dangle where the blasting cap would be. He took another strand and twisted it twice around the hour hand of the clock. His touch was delicate. He measured and left some to spare; the wire extended from the dynamite to the clock hand and then off, pointing with the hand, into space. He took a final strand, hooked it to a battery terminal, and let it reach out, feeling. Then he tested and twisted and balanced and presently was sure that at four o’clock, on that day when it was needed, the exploder would be rigged right, so that the hand’s descending wire would touch the waiting, reaching battery wire, and the circuit would be complete and a shock could fly across the clock and to the dynamite, an instant destructive surge. He tested the exploder again and again, with pride, and then put it away, with the caps and extra dynamite, in the warm cabinet by the fireplace. By God, thought Alva Mason, if I don’t lose my mind or get so sick I can’t crawl, I’ve done it. I’ve taken care of myself and nobody can say he had to take me off my mountain and take care of me!
That night he went out and looked up at the mountain, through the spiny hardwood black on snow toward the places where the rock outcropped and the sky met it. It was bitter and he didn’t stay out long, but he felt exuberance. This is a marvelous place to die, beyond all the lights of towns and people’s fencerows, out where I can face directly whatever there is to face, and tip my hat and disappear with nobody calling after me.
He shivered and went inside, and as he closed the door and stuffed a rug up against the crack and turned the lamp down he thought about how he had buried Kate in town and he was sorry.
The long wait bothered him this year. He got out to the store only once in February and twice in March. Instead of doing things in the afternoons he found himself dozing, occasionally until the fire went out. He’d wake up cold and eat something out of a can and go to bed. He hadn’t remembered being afraid until one black night two dogs came barking insistently onto the porch, and somehow this terrified him; it was as if he were a child again, dogs of unimaginable fierceness were at the door, scraping and nosing at it, and no one could drive them away. He wept, and then wondered at it.
He went without shaving until the place by his nose, spreading across his cheek, was half hidden, but from it he could now feel tense lines of pain. He found new hurtings in his side and under one arm. It was a winter full of things he had never known before. Spring would not start.
Finally, though, the rains began, and presently May arrived, swelling and loud.
Alva began to watch each morning carefully. This is the month, he told himself; I’m almost sure this is the month.
But May passed, and a week of June. It rained one afternoon when Alva was out in the garden. He kept hoeing until the earth was slick and sticky, and then he got down and pulled weeds from the beet rows. When he went inside he was soaked and coughing, and he sat down, wet, and coughed and cried. He ached all the way through his body. His cheek burned deep; he could feel the shape of his face from the pain. He pulled a blanket over himself and slept.
Good morning, God; this is the big day!
But nobody says that. This is the day I breathe through vomitus until I can’t; this is the day my mouth flops open and hangs open, and my eyes open and glaze. It’s time for the lake of sputum inside me to hold me under, for my heart to spit and sputter, for my bowels to spit and sputter, for hope to shut down, for ice to take my hands and feet and freeze me until I freeze all over.
Alva got up slowly and went to the cabinet and got out the board and the rest that went with it—clock.
dynamite, wire, blasting caps, batteries. He gouged into one of the dynamite sticks with an ice pick until he could force the cap into it. Then he carried the things out, the whole kit, to the hole he had dug, and sat down under the bulging net that hung above the hole and hooked the exploder up, exactly, until each part was ready, and the hour hand was armed with its pointing, gently bobbing wire. The clock was at ten; he wound it. At four its hand would reach over and close the circuit, wire to wire, set the dynamite off, sunder the screen and canvas hammock and shatter the whole impending rig so that tons of earth and stone would fall, perhaps setting off a larger slide, but even so, obliterating the hammock, the hole, and Alva in it dead. Alva had until four o’clock to die.
I’ll set my mind to it and go fast, he said, and get this pain done. I’m tired.
He took a long look around, checking off last things.
He sighed. I ought to close up, he told himself, and so he arose and walked slowly to the house. He was ready to pull the door shut and a new thought came, and then another. Damn it, he said.
Now he had to go inside and poke through the cupboard until he found a pencil and cardboard and the old candy jar with the glass top. He tore a piece of cardboard and wrote on it: “These are the remains of Alva G. Mason. I died of old age. Very truly yours, Alva G. Mason.” He put the note inside the jar and pushed the top down hard. Then, on what was left of the cardboard, he printed carefully— “Gone for a while.”
The door, when he shut it, latched satisfyingly. Alva hooked his farewell on a nailhead where the wind couldn’t reach it and then walked slowly back to the hole, carrying the candy jar.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of these things before.
I’m not going to do anything else.
He pushed back the plywood cover and let his legs dangle in the hole for a moment. He looked far down the valley and then up the hill and then at the clock on its board nestled under the hammock of earth and then back at the sky and pushed forward. He slid and skidded and fell.
Surprisingly, there was time to think about falling. Alva realized how his legs were bent and how the candy jar fell with him, from his lap; his arms were flailing awkwardly, and he tipped until his forehead touched dirt and scraped and burned. Then he hit bottom, jammed down in a gasping, fearful heap, and he was crying.
He waited. He shut his eyes and let one shoulder lean into the dirt, propping so that his legs could be tested. He did this very slowly, sobbing, tears smearing his face. Then, sternly, he became analytical, checking one leg and then the other, his arms, his scratched forehead, even the scalding wetness of his ulcerated cheek. Beneath him he noted the candy jar, unbroken.
I’m all right, Alva Mason gasped. He felt triumph. Made it!
Then, in the damp, one minute, two, three minutes in the grave, the old pains came back and terrible tiredness; Alva realized once more that he had come to die. He went to work on it.
First, I’ll pray some. He prayed, mentioning Kate and the hope of seeing her soon, and suggesting that someone be sent to get the tomatoes before the weeds choked them.
Now I’ll slow myself down. He did this by breathing slower and slower and shallower, until he felt that his lungs were no longer functioning. He found this helped quiet his heart, too; the pounding slowed to a weak plodding.
But how my legs hurt! They were bent and there was no way to ease them, no stretching or relaxing. Alva pushed his elbows out and tried to let them bear his weight. No respite came.
Death, come here and lay me down to sleep. Stop my thinking. Make my blood be still.
After a while Alva Mason dozed, and he dreamed about crawling into the niche at the back of the springhouse while his father called and called for him. He was small and angry and bitter, as he had just been whipped for leaving the chicken house door ajar all night, and he wouldn’t answer. Father drew closer and Alva crouched further back in the corner behind the milk cans, and their wetness covered him. He bent into an angry ball, expecting to be found and ready to leap out and run off ahead of Father, who now was worried and apologetic. He heard Alvie! Alvie! Alvie! and the sound of his name was hateful. He wanted to die in the springhouse and let his father find his body there, cold and wet and undefeated.
Then he woke up, and immediately he was aware that he was alive and old and the voice of his father was a phantom unheard in half a century.
Well, said Alva, damn it to hell, what am I going to do now?
He began an inventory of things and parts. Legs, painful. Heart, beating away. Arms, OK now that I’ve undoubled them. Head, scraped but that’s all. Guts—hungry.
That’s awful, Alva moaned. I didn’t ever expect to get hungry.
He waited as long as he could, and then he had to admit it. I’m just not going to die yet. He moaned again.
Would you look at that. I’m buried and I’m not going to die. Got my tombstone in a candy jar and my dust in a hole in the ground and I’m hungry. Oh, damn it.
He looked up and reached up and his fingers touched the rim of the hole he’d dug, but he couldn’t touch grass. He stretched, but he couldn’t bend his fingers and get a grip. Above he saw the sky divided; half was blue, and half was darkened by the sagging hammock of dirt he’d built, and the arc of sunlight reaching down the hole was shallow. The sun was off toward the West. What time was it?
Alva, how long was I asleep? I don’t know. Alva, have I been dead and buried and is this judgment time? No, hell no! I was asleep. How long? Perhaps an hour, maybe just a minute. Maybe it’s getting on toward four o’clock.
God, said Alva, this is no way to take an old man.
I wanted to die by myself. Don’t scare me. No tricks. He said these things despairingly.
But there was nothing for him to do now except get out, and Alva began thinking about how he’d do it. This was new; he’d only planned dying.
First he tried to dig his toes into the side of the hole so that he could inch upward, but the earth was tamped and pounded and too firm. He could take only a half-step and then fall back; he did this over and over.
Then he stopped and thought, and systematically went through his pockets hoping he’d find his knife. He had a box of matches and a pencil, nothing more. He pulled his belt off, arduously, and tried to dig a toehold with the buckle. It was thin, and after ten painful minutes he realized that he was not succeeding.
I am going to feel the weight of the explosion for only a second. Probably I’ll never hear it. I’ll get squashed down, and the earth will fall. Any second. He felt like crying again, but didn’t.
Underfoot Alva felt the candy jar, square and hard; it was between his heels, and he had been stepping around it. It was like a rock; a rock against dirt.
Bending his head forward, pulling back his body, Alva could see it, and tentatively he pushed at the jar with one foot. He turned it with a toe so that it was upright on the floor of the hole, and then he brought down his heel on the lid, as hard as he was able, grunting, forcing the beveled lid tighter into the jar. He stomped and stomped again, and on the third time the glass shattered. Alva stood with broken glass around his feet.
Now he bent as far as he could, thrusting one hand down between his knees into the narrowness of the hole, straining against its sides, feeling, and two fingers found a shard of glass and seized it. He gripped tight and pulled up and it cut his fingertips, but now he had it, and it was a large, heavy, marvelously sharp piece, a glass tool that could cut rapidly and easily.
Alva dug a groove for one foot, and above it a second one, and then a third. He cut steps, and when he had made four he pushed the raw glass into the earth in front of him so that it couldn’t fall back. Then, cautiously, he stepped and slid upward, pushing his back against dirt, prying and grunting until his head and then his arms and then half of him, to the waist, were above ground. He flopped onto the grass, puffing, and pushed on until he knew he would not fall back.
The sun was hot. Alva felt its strength. It gave him strength.
He crawled and then was free of the hole, an old dirt-streaked porcupine bleeding, heaving, a bony old man with tear stains going down into his beard. He looked at the clock. It was almost two.
Alva rolled onto his back and for a long time he looked, and his mind said nothing. The world was silent and motionless and without glare or luster, and only the clock hand crept on, minutes descending, time disappearing.
But he heard a bird, and black ants began climbing on his hand, running frantically between his fingers, and he heard the flat mechanical ticking of the clock, and he had to get up. After he had done this and his sore hands were moving easily again, Alva carefully pushed the wires of the exploder apart and eased the cap from the dynamite. He kept the kit intact and carried it, like a tray, back to the house.
I’m going to get sick if I don’t eat something. I’ll make some soup and then I’ll wash up good and go to bed.
From the end of the porch he looked up toward the top of Ten Pole Mountain.
I don’t think I could have had a better place to live, said Alva Mason, if I had searched all over the world. This place is going to be here forever.
Now he felt pretty good. □