There it was, the cow shaped mailbox Claude knew so well, it’s neat black letters spelling out GENTNER. His face clouded and he shook his head ruefully as he turned his silver Mercury Milan off tree-lined Blackberry Lane, and crunched up the rutted driveway to his former Indian Falls, New York home. He parked, got out of the car and stretched away the fatigue of the three-hour drive. As he expected, she was waiting on the top porch step of the rambling white farmhouse, a small woman with frizzed gray hair, cradling a coffee mug in her hands. “Thank God you’re here, Claude!” she exclaimed. “I thought you might be late, and I’d have to cancel my plans to go dump digging with Gert and Nina.” “Got things in motion, have you, Ma?” Claude hauled his week-ender out of the trunk of the car and dropped it to the ground. “Where does that leave me?” “With your father.” Elsie Gentner smiled wanly. “Now that he’s feeling better, and since he put old Tootsie down, he’s driving me whammy. I need to get out of the house. Do you mind?”
Claude climbed the uneven steps to the porch. He leaned over and kissed her wrinkled cheek. “Of course not,” he lied.
They walked together into the farmhouse kitchen, a large, old-fashioned room that featured a cast iron stove, soapstone sink, and dark, glass-fronted wall cabinets filled with gleaming Blue Willow dishes. Elsie had salvaged the china from an old dump she and her friends had mined, brought back the neglected treasure and cleaned each plate and cup until it shone. Claude closed his eyes and inhaled the mixed aromas of brewing coffee and beef stew in the Dutch oven. He went to the stove and removed the lid from the pot, dipped a spoon into the stew and tasted it. “Good as ever,” he commented, smacking his lips. “I’ve got to make this recipe for the foodies at the Rattlesnake Café. And I also want your recipe for poor man’s surf and turf.” “Roast beef and scallops? Is that for your café foodies, too?” “Yep.” “Well, the recipe’s right here,” she said, tapping her head. “So you’ll have to wait ‘til I get back, and write it down for you. What do fine diners eat, anyway?” “Dishes like rock shrimp, mushrooms and leek cannelloni for starters; Lobster bisque soup; Caesar salad with white anchovies. Oh, and pan seared organic chicken breast over baby seasoned vegetables and chestnut puree.” Elsie made a face. “My beef stew would stick to their ribs better than that fancy stuff. I’ll bet an hour later they’re all hungry as bears.” Claude spread his hands placatingly. “I’m not there to fatten them up, Ma. It’s my job to be creative with food. It’s an art.” A horn tooted in the driveway. At the same time, from somewhere in the front of the house, a wail arose along with vigorous pounding on the floor with a cane. “Elsie!” Claude nudged his mother toward the door. “Go,” he urged, “before you change your mind.” “No chance of that happenin’.” Elsie grabbed her sweatshirt from the hook by the door. “Now don’t tell Dad where I’ve gone or he’ll be ornery. Just say I went to the market to get some milk and crusty bread for supper.” She flapped her hands in the air. “And try to keep him occupied.” Through the wide kitchen window jammed with colorful bottles: an amber Hostetter’s Bitters, green Saratoga bottle, cobalt blue medicine vial, and ruby red pontil bottle, Claude watched his mother run down to the driveway like a kid let out of school. She snatched up a pile of rakes and spades and tossed them on top of the neatly stacked digging equipment in Gert Carver’s Suburu Outback. As the women sped away Claude turned toward the persistent banging and shouting. In the back room Marley Gentner’s arthritis-bent body was hunched over a card table, his chapped hands pressing against a toolbox. “Where’s yer Ma?” he snapped.
“Here, let me open that.” Claude responded gently as he walked to the table.
Marley’s hands shook a little, unwilling to give up his task. Then he shoved the box at his son, nearly pitching it to the floor.
“Relax Pop. Hoo-boy, it’s a tough one,” he said, feigning a struggle with the cover, though it opened easily. “There!” he panted, presenting the box to his father. “Done.”
Marley snatched back the offending object. “So where’s yer ma, bejezzuz?”
“Shopping at Tubb’s for country bread, ‘cause she knew you’d like it with the stew.”
“Yer not foolin’ me, boy. She’s off digging for old bottles with those two crazies, Gert and Nina.” He rubbed the side of his nose. “I saw Gert pull in the driveway and yer ma sashayin’ to the car. Saw you pull in, too, in your fancy-pants car.” His face reddened as a fit of coughing racked his frail body.
Claude sat down in a well worn easy chair across from the old man. “Is there anything you don’t miss?” Before his father could answer, he said kindly, “Tell me how you feel.”
“Come on, Pop, give me a break. Doctor Bob said your cardiac recovery is on the mark. There must be something you want to see or do while I’m here. We’ve got time.”
Marley grunted, “I’ve got too much time on my hands. I want to git back to work.”
“The farming can wait. Even though you’re doing fine, you need to stay on the rehab program. You want that old ticker of yours to mend, don’t you? Besides, you have two handymen to do chores.”
“It’s best done my way, not theirs.” Marley frowned.
“Let’s go out to the barn,” Claude suggested. “See what needs to be done and tell Pete and Huey you’re paying them to do it your way.”
“What do you know about barns and stuff?” Marley snapped.
Claude got out of the chair and went over to the window, looking out at a tractor rolling along, pulling hay. It turned left into a sunburned cornfield. “I grew up here, you know.”
“And then you took off to the city and became a cook.”
“Sous chef, with a good chance that I might have my own restaurant one day. I’d consider opening it around here if your negative attitude doesn’t change my mind first.”
“I needed ya here, Claude. Why did you leave?” Marley’s shoulders sagged. His rheumy eyes searched his son’s face for unspoken clues. “The farm’s gonna be yours one day.”
“Pop,” Claude turned around and flattened his hands on the desk. “Farming’s not for me. I feel guilty as hell letting you down, but I’m not a farmer.”
“Why?” Marley persisted.
“I’d die of boredom being a farm boy. It’s that simple.”
The kitchen door banged open. The sound of scurrying footsteps advanced down the hall. Nina Westakott burst into the room. “We need your help, Claude,” she gasped.
“Omigod, is it Ma?” Claude’s voice shook.
Nina pressed a hand to her breast. “Elsie is fine. We were scavenging for old bottles in the abandoned Kittle house and found three dogs trapped in a cistern. Your mother and Gert stayed behind to settle them down. We need a ladder and a flashlight. Oh, and your mother said to bring Tootsie’s old dog food from the pantry.”
Marley wheezed, “Better git yourself a basket. And a rope, too.” He pulled himself up and teetered into the table.
Claude’s eyes widened. “Pop, what are you doing?”
“Whatcha think I’m doing?” Marley shuffled toward the hallway in slippers cut out at the toes. “Goin’ to the Kittle property. Now, hand me my cane!”
“That’s not a good idea in your condition, Marley,” Nina scolded. “Now you sit back down where you belong; this won’t take long. Claude can help.”
“Who do you think you are, Nina, telling me what I can or cannot do?” Marley erupted. “Mind yer own dammed business!”
Nina pivoted on her heels and called over her shoulder, “What a temper. He’s all yours, Claude. See you at the Kittles.” & nbsp;
Marley, his long white hair unkempt, dressed in loose fitting workpants and a foul-smelling flannel shirt, sat in the front seat of Claude’s car, watching eagle eyed as his son guided it down winding roads and over humpbacked bridges that harkened to an earlier day.
“Turn right! Take a left!” he barked. “Go slow around the next turn, the driveway’s hidden and it comes on fast. Damn, you went too far! Turn around.” Marley’s brittle voice took over when the car’s navigation system could not find the Kittle settlement.
They bumped down the potholed driveway with high grass clinging to the underside of the car, and came upon the deserted Kittle house buried in a tangle of pine trees and shrubs. The scene was idyllic, a lure to any photographer of calendar scenes willing to endure risky driving conditions.
Claude parked behind Gert’s Outback, still ticking as it cooled. He helped Marley out of the car and inwardly fumed at Gert, Nina, and his mother. And blast Marley! The old curmudgeon could hardly walk, let alone stand. Claude had to practically carry the heaving, dead weight of the cursing old-timer to the Kittle house.
Through the partially open front door came the sound of voices deep inside. Claude cupped his hands to his mouth and called out, “We’re here!”
“In the dining room,” his mother’s voice echoed. “Follow the hall to the last room on the left. And be careful where you step. There’s broken furniture and old toys everywhere.”
Claude and Marley picked their way carefully through a dark-paneled hall where colorless landscape paintings curled out of wooden frames. In a large, quaint room near the back, Elsie, Gert and Nina stood staring down at a square hole cut into the floor. The two men edged their way to the hole and waited for their eyes to adjust to the dim light. Four gleaming eyes stared up at them.
Claude shone a flashlight inside the well as one dog gasped its final breath. A large, black retriever and a fat, spotted hound paced and bayed on either side of the stricken dog. Marley immediately took charge of the situation. “Gert, Nina…the two of you git that basket with the rope, put some food in it and lower it down to the dogs. Now!”
The two women scurried to do his bidding. When the basket struck the floor of the well, the dogs descended on it, and inhaled the food ravenously. After the bowls were licked clean, each dog looked up, whining, eyes pleading with the rescue crew for more.
Taking a new course of action, Marley directed Claude to drop a pail of water tied by a rope, into the cistern. Claude lowered it with a thud, sending water splashing and the dogs darting in opposite directions. Just as quickly they returned to slurp it up and slake their burning thirst. “That oughta calm ‘em down,” Marley said, and turned gruffly to the women. “Look around every nook and cranny for blankets, pillows, towels, linen…any padding that can be tossed into this hole.”
Gert, Nina and Elsie scattered through the house, rummaging through rooms to pick up cushions and bedding. Returning to the cistern, they tossed in whatever they had managed to scavenge. The black dog climbed with little effort onto the loose pile and awkwardly made his way upwards. Elsie and Claude worked together, gently tugging the dog’s front legs until he eased himself out. The smaller dog rolled and tossed about the bedding, looking content. After much coaxing, but with little success, the group watched helplessly as he closed his eyes and slept.
All eyes turned to Marley, who was breathing heavily and holding his side. Marley’s eyes turned to Claude. “Boy,” Marley commanded, “there’s one thing that’s got to be done and you’ll have to do it.”
Claude pursed his lips at his father’s tone of voice, an echo from his boyhood. “What do you have in mind, Pop?” He asked, feeling eleven-years-old again.
“You’ve got to climb down into that hole with the rope tied around yer middle and get that little hound.”
Claude failed to penetrate his father’s dark gaze. He lowered his eyes and said, “Me? Climb into that filthy hole for a dog?”
“Well, sure as hell the ladies ain’t goin’ down there. And I’m not goin’ anywhere in the shape I’m in. So it looks like it’s gonna be you, Son.”
Defeated, Claude fastened the rope about his waist and began his descent into the damp recess of the well. “This is just great,” he called up. “I’ll probably catch pneumonia and land in the hospital. I can forget about going into work next week.”
“Ooooo, you’ll have to stay home, Claudy, and Momsie will nurse you with hot tea and honey.” Marley imitated Elsie’s voice. His wife nudged him in his sore side. Marley clenched his jaw to stifle a cry and watched Claude maneuver himself downwards.
A snarl and low growl rose from below.
“Ouch! The damn mutt snapped at me!”
“Talk to him, Claude. Let him sniff your hand,” Elsie instructed, straining to see what was going on.
“Here poochie, good boy. He’s coming over. Ugh, he’s slopping over me. OK, into the basket you go. You up there…heave-ho…pull!”
Nina, Gert and Elsie pulled the rope. The dog in the basket was raised to the top of the well, lurched forward and dropped gently to the floor. The beagle jumped out and raced in circles with his companion. Tails wagged. Friendly barks were exchanged.
“Hey, how about some help?” came a gasp from below. “I’m struggling to climb out of this disgusting hole, while you renegades are playing with dogs.” The women applauded as he emerged, somewhat the worse for wear.
“Amazin’, Claude,” Marley praised. “I couldn’t have done better meself. When we git home, I’ll notify the dog warden and he can take care of the carcass that’s still down there.
On the way back to the car Marley chuckled, “This outing did me good. I feel better already. With my brain and your muscle, Claude, we could be a team!”
“Sorry to disappoint, but I can’t wait to get back to the city and team up with my pots and pans.” Claude brushed the lingering residue of cobwebs and dust off his clothes.
“But if you hadn’t come home today you would have missed this chance to do your part in saving these animals,” Gert said. “Look at those adorable dogs. Admit it was worth the effort.” Gert bent down to pat the black dog’s head. “This one has a collar. He’ll be easy to trace. But the beagle?”
“Elsie, since old Tootsie died, I’ve been thinking about gittin’ another dog. Let’s take the little one home and keep her.” Marley suggested.
“What shall we name her?” Elsie scratched the affectionate beagle behind the ears. “Buttons…cute as? Spotty…she is that. Doogan…we would do this again. That’s it…Doogan!”