by John Whittier Treat
Alan died on a hot day, but it had been hot all summer. Steve wasn’t there when the long fart followed the long moan and Alan exited the room. There was a cold compress on his forehead, placed there by some Mary Magdalene of a friend because the window air conditioner was losing its battle against the central Pennsylvania heat and humidity. Someone removed the now tepid damp towel to make way for a cool dry sheet. Calls went out immediately, but first to the undertaker’s, considering how poorly corpses keep in August.
When Steve enlisted in the brigade of Alan’s Philadelphia buddies to go clean out the farmhouse, it had been uninhabited for two weeks. First through the door after fumbling with the key left them under a rock, Steve was met with a wall of heat as well as old Alan-smells that had somehow distilled in his absence. It wasn’t just summer, it was the fault of whoever had left a burner on the kitchen stove on high. Had one of Alan’s relatives wanted the house to burn down?
Steve’s assignment was to triage the kitchen, the hottest room of all because of that burner, upon which he would soon inadvertently rest his hand while reaching with the other for a plate on the highest shelf in the adjacent cupboard. He ran his seared flesh under the faucet. He’d live.
All dishes, glasses, silverware, pots, pans, and utensils were to be divvied up into Appropriate, Donate or Toss. Steve put the large stockpot aside for himself. The weekend Steve had visited after Alan inherited the farm but before he got sick, Steve commandeered the stockpot to steam live lobsters he’d brought from the city in an ice cooler. He listened to the sound of lobsters wrestling each other to escape, their clashes subsiding as the water came to a boil. He had no idea where the pot would fit in his apartment’s kitchen.
It took two days to empty the farmhouse, after which Alan’s team used pickup trucks and two rented U-Hauls to redistribute, give away or discard all of Alan’s possessions save the farmhouse and its seventy acres. The land had once been a dairy farm but had begun to reforest itself long ago. On previous visits Steve walked the property. This weekend, though, Steve and the others strayed no farther than the picnic table, where they ate burgers cooked on a gas grill with loads of fancy features none of them could figure out.
Steve rode back to Philadelphia with Chris in his pickup truck.
“Where do you keep this in the city?”
“I don’t. It stays at my parents’ in Chester. I take the train out there when I need it.”
The highway was deserted late on a Sunday night.
“What’s that stuff in the back? In the bags?”
Chris looked into his rear-view mirror, as if something were on his trail. Steve turned his head around but saw nothing.
“I took Alan’s shoes. We’re the same size.”
“Did you use to date him?”
“I wouldn’t say date.”
Chris dropped Steve off at his place on Spruce Street.
“Are we going out there again?” Chris asked as Steve started to slam the truck door.
“To the farm? Don’t see why we would.”
Steve wore his backpack and used both arms to carry the stockpot up to his apartment. He dropped everything by the door once he was in. The apartment was hot, but when Steve finally fell asleep, he dreamt of tiny people in a pot desperate to survive as the water at the bottom got hotter.
* * *
Steve returned to the farmhouse at the end of Indian Summer. He was back in Chris’s truck, but Chris wasn’t driving. Chris’s older brother Chuck was.
“You know the way, right?”
“Sort of,” Steve answered.
Alan’s family in California had contacted Steve and his friends to tell them the property had sold. The new owners wanted the picnic table and grill gone, they said—Could some of you take care of it? Chris was under the weather at the last moment, and sent his brother to pick up Steve and go do the job.
“That’s it. Turn down that road.”
Chuck had a crowbar and a rented chainsaw in the back of the truck.
“I’ll dismantle the table We’ll load it on half on the flatbed. Someone will want the wood. I’ll need your help with the grill, but you’re off the hook until then.”
The sun was high and it was hot.
Steve meandered down the overgrown path that led to the far end of the property. He passed the rusted remains of an abandoned plow. The small vegetable garden that Alan had started was now just tomato stakes hardly taller than the wild grasses that now usurped the plot. Steve turned at a stand of birch trees and saw the small pond Alan had put in after he discovered there was a small spring nearby. Steve knew thick plastic lined its bottom, but somehow reeds had poked through and were choking everything. In the middle of the pond a small hill rose gently above the surface, as if a volcano was forming. But as Steve approached, he recognized half of a horse’s head adjacent to the hill. The eye socket had no eye in it, and the carcass’s coat of hair now had a slick, metallic sheen. One thin vine grew out of the pond and snaked its way to the top of the bloated mound.
Steve walked around the pond. The horse had been a small one, and it was not Alan’s. Alan had no horse. Maybe a neighbor’s had jumped the fence. Steve stopped near the beast’s hindquarters. Some animal had ripped a chunk of flesh from them. The sun was fierce on the back of Steve’s neck. He was starting to cast a short shadow on the pond. The horse will cook in this water, Steve thought. It will stew away and feed the weeds. If not by this winter, then in spring once the ice thawed.
Back at the truck, Chuck had neatly piled the disassembled wood in it. Half the bed was left for the grill, which he and Steve rolled up on two planks Chuck had put aside for this purpose. They secured the load with ropes and left. Steve said nothing about the horse, which he decided had tumbled out of a scorching sky, like Icarus, into Alan’s little pond.
“Our folks will appreciate the grill. Lot better than what they got now.”
Steve waved good-bye when he was dropped off. The weather was suddenly much cooler. His apartment was almost chilly when he walked through the door. He had left windows open when he left and now he closed them. He turned around and looked back at the stockpot on the floor. It hadn’t moved since that weekend Steve burnt his hand on a hot burner because no one turned it off. He put a blanket on his bed for the first time that autumn. When he fell asleep he dreamt of the world spinning out of orbit and, descending into cold, terrified at the certainty of a winter without end.
John Whittier Treat was born in New Haven but has spent most of his adult life in the Pacific Northwest. His novel about the early years of the AIDS epidemic in Seattle, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, was a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award. His current project, First Consonants, is the story of a stutterer who saves the world.
Winner of the Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction, 2018