SLICE OF LIFE
The whining sedan did bumps and grinds up the gravel road, then skidded to a stop. A dapper young man climbed out, gave his suit sleeves a couple of quick brushes.
He opened the gate, then hurried up the path toward a weathered house where an older man sat on the front porch, whittling on a stick. A hound sleeping by the well raised its head and managed two gruff woofs.
Stick whittler had tufts of white hair that blossomed around a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball cap, well-worn overalls stopped two inches above work shoes.
Young man stuck out his hand. Whittler ignored the gesture and continued to whittle. The visitor sat on the top step, placed his briefcase on his lap. “Cyrus Sloan?”
Squint out of the corner of an eye. “Could be.”
“Name’s Bill Mason.”
Sloan stopped whittling and looked at the stranger, then fished around in his left nostril with a broken-knuckled finger and deposited the find on his pants leg with a slow swipe.
“Mighty warm today, Mister Sloan — mind if I take off my coat?”
Mason stood, removed his coat, folded it. “Noticed a fine stand of ash trees up behind the house. That your property?”
“How many acres?”
“Mind if I call you Cy?”
“Cyrus, are you willing to sell those trees if the price is right?”
Blackbirds in the distance and Cyrus’s knife scrapes were the only sounds. Mason sighed, fidgeted and scanned the valley.
“Watch much baseball these days?”
“Down at Hiller’s Tavern.”
“Notice all the broken bats in games today?”
Mason spread out his arms. “Man, splintered wood’s flyin’ around like shrapnel. Know what causes it?”
Mason leaned on an elbow. “Wood is so bad the major league owners might change over to aluminum bats. Metal bats: ‘Poink!’ Just imagine sittin’ in a big league stadium and hearing that. You wanna watch the Cardinals and hear that terrible sound, ‘Poink!’ ? Bottom of the ninth, score tied, Yad Molina is up — ‘Poink!’ That what you wanna hear?”
Mason stared at Cyrus to see if the message got across. No sign.
“How about our kids? We have an obligation to protect them from poinks.”
Cyrus snorted: “WE — you gotta horse apple in yer pocket?”
Mason grimaced, looked at the bottom step. “Truth is, Cyrus, the Louisville Slugger Company is fresh out of old-growth ash trees for bats.”
Cyrus glared down at Mason. “Sonny, I remember my grand-daddy tellin’ me he could shinny up a tree an’ walk to the capitol buildin’ in Lexin’ton on the tops of ash trees.”
“Gone now,” Mason said.
“You should know.”
“Yer company cut ’em down.”
“Sure, we cut our share–”
“Yer share,” Cyrus curled his lip. “How many new trees did yer company plant after they butchered the woods?”
Mason glanced at his briefcase. “I don’t have the exact figures with me.”
“None. Knock ’em down, boys — there’s more over the next ridge.”
Mason memorized the tops of his shoes. Cyrus went on whittling.
“How many trees do you figure you have in an acre, Cyrus?”
Mason’s eyes swept across the wooded valley. “There’s probably thirty or forty ash trees to the acre.”
“You own approximately a thousand trees.”
Cyrus leaned forward and spit tobacco juice over the porch railing, ran the brown-stained back of a hand over his chin. “My ol’ daddy once told me, ‘Don’t you ever trust them goddam flat-landers.”
“Tell you what, Cyrus, you cruise the trees and mark one or two old-growth per acre. I’m able to offer you five hundred dollars a tree. Thousands of dollars!”
Mason frowned, picked at a splinter on the step. “Somebody, someday, is gonna buy those trees.”
Mason’s brow glistened; he dragged a shirt cuff over his forehead. “Tell you what, I’ll have our lawyers draw up some legal papers. Either you or your kinfolk will have the final say.”
“I’ll think on it.”
“Five-fifty a tree and we’ll throw in a big TV — one of those HD models. What say?”
“Dammit — I’M thinkin’ on it.”
Cyrus shaved a long strand off the stick. A plane buzzed overhead, heading west. He gazed back at Mason for a long minute. “Love the game of baseball. Loved to play it and now I love to watch it.”
He leaned forward and spit again, studied the wisp of a cloud on the other side of the valley, turned with narrowed eyes. “Bring them legal papers back on up here, go to the tavern an’ ask for Rags Ragsdale. He’s jus’ a plain ol’ country lawyer — I ain’t about to trust no damn flat-land lawyers.”
Mason stood on the top step and grinned. “Tomorrow I’ll bring a contract and a new television set up for your trouble today.”
“Okay, William. Rags gets to the tavern ‘bout one o’clock. Drop that TV off there, too. I need my daily walk.”
Mason rolled down his shirt sleeves and stuck out his hand. “Cyrus, it has been a pleasure.”
“Nope. Up here a handshake is a contract. You bring those papers on up here tomorrow to Rags. And show Miz Hiller how to turn on that TV set.”
Bill Mason did a shuffle down the steps and bounced across the yard with a light step. He stopped; “Tell me, what changed your mind?”
“My mind? The only thing I changed today is underwear.”
Mason gave a quick wave and flittered down the path.
Cyrus turned toward the well and winked. “Roamer, it looks like we got the tavern new high-dollar TV.”