John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

–Excerpt from The Potato Baron

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Pooler color was yellow. Everyone knew that. The farmhouse, the barns, the storage houses, the trucks—even the farm’s mailbox was painted yellow. For almost a hundred years everything at Pooler Farm had been the same color. Yet on the sunny spring morning his wife left him, Austin Pooler flipped through the color chart at Vignon’s Paint Store and told Earl he wanted ten gallons of heliotrope paint.

“Heliotrope?” Earl said. His eyes traveled up Austin’s forearm as far as the elbow, then fell back.

Austin didn’t speak. He tapped his finger, blunt as a new potato, on a square of bright purple.

“But you use custard yellow, “ Earl said.”Right here, number 2340. I sold this paint to your grandfather.”

“Just mix it up, Earl. Ten gallons. I’ll sign for it.”

Though Austin usually enjoyed going into Earl Vignon’s store, with its painty smell and worn wooden floors, everything about the place now offended him: the frayed linoleum counter, the mixing machines spattered with paint, the disarray of brushes and rollers.

Earl, who had long had a hand in the upkeep of the Poolers’ landmark yellow buildings, pouted like a five-year-old. “What can you paint with this?” he asked, staring down at the color chart.

Austin was not in the mood. “My mother-in-law,” he said. “And when I finish with her I’ll do the trees around my house.”

Just above his collar Earl’s neck began to quiver. “You know what you’re getting here?”

Austin remembered that a year ago Earl’s only son had died in a construction accident. Maybe that was why Earl looked so different. He had gone bald overnight. The skin lay over the top of his head as smooth and pink as a new scar.

“I’ll find something to paint,” Austin said. The desire to offend the old man, which had overwhelmed him upon entering the store, now vanished.

Earl grumbled behind the counter as he mixed two five-gallon cans of heliotrope paint and stirred them with an electric drill. Austin signed a receipt, hoisted the cans onto the back of his pickup and drove out of town.

He drove too fast, accelerating through the gravel curves of Pooler Road until the rear wheels of his pickup began to drift. There were no fences or livestock here, only woodlots, a pair of round ponds and dark potato fields, all recently plowed. Between the fields and the road grew rye grass, cinquefoil and yellow galinsoga—all weeds to a potato man. Austin Pooler had driven this road a thousand times, maybe ten thousand times. It bore his name.

“Goddamn,” he said, and smacked the dash with the heel of his palm. “Goddamn it to son of a bitch.” He reached into his shirt pocket and touched the letter he had found on the kitchen table earlier this morning, after flying back from Portland. He ad read the letter twice, then folded the single sheet of blue stationery into sixteenths and stuck it into his pocket.

No counselor, no minister, no psychiatrist could have comforted Austin as surely as the V-8 growl of his old Dodge Power Wagon. He had bought the truck twenty years ago, a month after getting married, and for some time it was a household joke as to which would last longer, the marriage or the Dodge. Fay said the marriage, but Austin insisted the truck was stronger than both of them. When he kicked the bucket, he told her, she could use the Dodge to carry him up to the Pooler ridgetop cemetery. “Whatever you do, keep me away from those funeral parlors. I don’t even care if there’s a coffin. Just slip me into the ground.”

“And if I go first,” Fay made him promise, “I want you to throw my ashes into the ocean. I’m serious. Don’t bury me up here in Aroostook County.”

All that had been settled years ago.

Past the ancient hemlocks at the farm gate, the nineteenth-century Pooler farmhouse looked out over the valley. The house was sturdy, but no longer entirely plumb. To the north and south of the yellow buildings wide potato fields rose from the valley floor to the top of the ridge. The luminous April morning had not yet reached ten o’clock.

Austin parked outside his equipment barn, lifted down the two cans of pump attached to the power takeoff on a small John Deere. He sucked in his cheeks, making his thin face thinner.

“That stuff better be latex,” he said. “It took me an hour to clean the gum out of this pump.”

“The last batch was latex,” Austin said.

“Hmmp.”

Though Jules had a small wiry frame, he hated to work in cramped quarters or make fine adjustments to machinery. He happily split the largest tractors in half to do transmission or hydraulic repairs, but if he had to replace the points on an old distributor, or fix a leak in the crawl space beneath his house, his hands would shake and he’d grind his molars. If his watch broke he threw it away. He preferred not to think of something that small being fixed.

He gave Austin’s yellow Dodge a critical look. “You got some rust there. You want me to touch up that truck while I’m at it?”

“Just the potato house,” Austin said.

Jules rummaged in the tractor toolbox for a pair of pliers to loosen the paint caps. Austin, who knew what was coming, stepped into the berined windowless storage house. The cool air smelled sweet; there was no hint of rot from the Kennebecs piled in back. Prices had gone up ten cents a hundred the week before, so Austin had sold. Now the house was barely a third full.

Most of Austin’s potatoes were stored behind his packing shed in the town of White Pine, in new metal houses with precise control over temperature and humidity. The crop didn’t keep quite as well in these older houses, and warm weather was approaching. All the same, Austin sold his last farm stock reluctantly. He liked to keep some potatoes close by, something he could touch. Occasionally—more times than Fay knew—he came out to the house at night and crawled gently onto the great pile of tubers. He lay back in the dark, alone, reaching about with his hands and smelling the Aroostook earth.

Sometimes he let his son, Blake, scramble over the pile as well. The Maine Anti-Bruise Campaign, of which Austin was an advisory member, would not have been pleased. But Austin didn’t believe a steamered eight-year-old boy could do any more harm to the potatoes than the rubberized belts of harvesters, graders and bin piers. Besides, an Aroostook son should have plenty of contact with potatoes.

Standing alone in the dark house, Austin jerked back his foot. It was only a cat, twining its black tail around his ankle. A second strawberry cat joined the first, and the two of them padded over the concrete floor toward the back of the house.

The cats hung around because of Fay. She was the one who set out food and water for them, and cared for them when they were sick or hurt. She particularly liked the wildest of them: the half-feral cats that disappeared into the woods all summer, returning only to mate with the domestic barn cats in a screeching series of late-night courtships.

“Hey, Austin.”

He stepped back outside to find Jules pointing with disgust at the two open cans of paint. In the direct sunlight, the color looked fierce.

Jules stood with his palms on his hips. Earl knuckled this one up good. Look at this fool paint.”

“That’s heliotrope.”

“Helio-what? It looks like a whore’s bathroom.”

“Nice and bright,” Austin said. “Something new.”

Jules laughed. “You got a mistake here, right? You got somebody else’s paint?”

Austin looked at him without speaking.

Jules’s smile faded. “You gotta be kidding. Everybody knows what color we use. You can see this house ten miles off. The whole valley can see it.”

“My grandmother had some wallpaper with this color in it,” Austin said with a shaky voice. He was already sorry he’d bought this crazy paint. All he wanted to do was go inside and read Fay’s letter again. “What do you know about whores’ bathrooms anyway?”

Jules, who was six inches shorter than Austin, stood up to his full height and clattered his pliers onto the metal bed of the pickup. “Twenty-eight years I’ve worked here,” he said. “I’ll admit, Austin, you always bring in a good crop, but sometimes you don’t know basswood from asswood about how to run a farm. I know, it’s not my position. But who in dead-dog hell would paint his storage house purple?”

“Heliotrope.” Austin said. “Latex heliotrope. Just run some water through the sprayer when you finish.”

“Jesus and Mary. You should stop going to those Potato Board meetings. Every time you come back you’ve got a new plan.”

“Like the geese.”

“Yeah, like the geese. And the jazz. That was something.”

Austin had dreamed up some fairly eccentric schemes in the past, such as turning weeder geese loose in the fields to eat the redroot pigweed, dock and lamb’s quarters. Another year he had set up an experimental plot and broadcast an endless loop of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown tapes over a patch of young potato vines, hoping to stimulate their growth. The results were indecisive.

“You going to start painting?” he asked Jules. “Or you want me to do the job?”

Jules looked at the cans as if they held raw sewage. “I don’t know as I’ve got the stomach for it.”

Austin turned away and walked to his kitchen, tapping his chest pocket to make sure the letter from Fay was still there. Crocuses and violets had come up along the edge of the lawn, and the first maple leaves, barely an inch across, trembled in the sunshine overhead. Robins hopped across the grass, and a mourning dove sauntered ahead of Austin around the side of the house.

Sometimes a cat killed a dove and ate it. Only a week before, Fay had led Austin out to the lawn and shown him a telltale pile of feathers and down. Though Fay liked birds, her eyes were bright. “I saw it happen,” she said. “It was one of those woods cats. It killed the dove, then started at the neck and ate both ways.”

Back at the potato house the John Deere came to life, followed by the wheezing sound of the compressor. Jules moved about his job stiff-backed and slow, as if he knew he was being watched. Austin sat down at the kitchen table. Shit, he thought, I don’t want a purple barn.

He took Fay’s letter out of his breast pocket, smoothed its creases and laid it on the table where he had found it earlier this morning after coming back from Portland.

Dear Austin,

I’m sorry to leave this way, sneaking off while
you’re down at the Potato Board meeting, but I
didn’t want to make a scene about going, especially
in front of Blake. I’ve found a place in town-
house-sitting at the Ledyards’—and Blake and I
will be staying there for a while.

We moved last night, and today I’m taking
him off for a long weekend. We probably won’t get
back until late Monday night. I want to put a little
distance between me and the farm, and let you get
used to the idea that I don’t live there anymore.

Next week you start planting. I guess I always
knew you’d plant this year—and maybe you’ll never
stop. May be you’ll always live on your farm, the way
you want to, and always grow potatoes. Not me. I
don’t know where I’ll be six months from now, but
it won’t be here. I’ve spent my last winter in the
County.

But don’t make out like I’m leaving you,
because I’m not. I’m leaving the farm behind, and
White Pine and a lot of friends, but not you. I never
wanted to break up our family.

I know you pretty well, Austin, so I know you
could read this letter and still think it will all blow
over. It won’t. I’m going to leave Maine and I hope
you’ll come with me. I’ve talked about this for a
couple of years and given you plenty of warning,
but I don’t think you ever believed me. Maybe this
will be enough to wake you up.

Love,

Fay

Austin pushed away the blue sheet and stared from a distance at his wife’s small handwriting. It was true. She had told him many times she wanted to go—and maybe he hadn’t listened. But what was there to listen to? To the mad notion that he should abandon the farm his great-great-grandfather had bought in 1891? That he should tag along through the trash and chaos of the modern world until Fay discovered where she wanted to go, and what she wanted to do there?

Usually his wife agreed with him about the rest of the country. She said Cleveland, where she was born, was the city where rivers burned. She said Wilmington, where she grew up, had been rubbed raw between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Austin stood up and kicked his chair against the wall. She had never said anything about taking their son.

After first reading the letter he had checked the closets and dressers upstairs. Almost all her clothes had been taken, and half of Blake’s.

He tried to imagine where she could have gone for four days. South, probably. Everyone always went south. People acted as if Portland stood at the gates of heaven.

In fact, Portland was trash, and south of Portland worse. With every mile the land became more crowded, all the way to the degraded depths of Boston. And from there, in an uninterrupted chain as far as Newport News, Virginia, the cities mounted each other like pigs in a crowded pen. Austin hated even to fly over that part of the world.

What if it was a man? The thought entered Austin’s chest like a blade. Maybe some man was behind all this talk about leaving, and Fay didn’t have the courage to tell him. Maybe it was that gallic Casanova they had met at the teachers’ conference last fall in Aaron. He had put the rush on Fay the whole weekend, showing them photos of his wife and daughter in Bordeaux even as he slid his arm around Fay’s waist.

“Quite a body on that frog,” Fay had said on the way home. She was not above teasing her husband from time to time. Austin tried to remember the guy’s name: Jean-Claude something, or Jean-Paul.

He took off the city clothes he had left Portland in this morning, tossed them on his dresser and pulled out a pair of work pants. At 6’3” and 195 pounds, Austin hadn’t lost or put on any weight since his last year in high school. He had unruly dark brown hair, blue eyes, a small cleft in his jaw and a celebrated oversized pair of ears. A patch of dark hair the size of an open hand grew on his otherwise smooth white chest. His only jewelry was a gold wedding ring that hadn’t been off his finger since the day he married. No glasses, no birthmarks, no scars of consequence, never a broken bone. He had had chicken pox once, at the age of nine, but had never stayed in a hospital and hadn’t caught a cold in ten years. Loudly, recurrently and to all who would listen, he attributed his good health to a diet rich in potatoes.

Could Fay possibly have been writing to that licorice-eyed, high-waisted Frenchman? Who else could there be?

Outside he found Jules climbing down from the bucket of a second tractor, from where he had sprayed the storage house’s wooden end wall. The hired man’s hog-nosed respirator and defiant stance made him look like a riot cop. The sun bore down on the two old balsam firs next to the potato house, and on the scandalous paint job. Jules turned off the tractor and compressor.

“It is kind of bright,” Austin admitted.

“Looks like shit.” Jules folded his arms and stared out over the valley.

Austin stuck his hands under his armpits and worked the driveway gravel with his toe. “Don’t bishops wear robes this color?” he asked. He went on scoring a little furrow into the drive. Out on Pooler Road a truck went by, kicking up dust. “Fay always liked purple. She has a purple dress.”

“Look, Austin, I just work here. I’ll paint the house any fly-high color you want, but don’t go telling me you picked out this here helio-trope because the bishop wears purple or because Fay owns some kind of dress.”
“Earl Vignon was kind of annoyed himself.”

“He sunk awful low selling you a color like this.”

“He didn’t have any choice. I made him do it.”

Jules leaned the spray gun against the tractor, pulled the respirator over his head and inspected its filter. “You know, Austin, you’re a Pooler, so I guess you can do anything you want. In this whole town there’s not much bigger or better than a Pooler. But when people see this barn they won’t need Earl Vignon to tell them you’ve gone off the deep end.”

Austin worked up his nerve. “These last couple of days,” he said, “you didn’t happen to talk to Fay, did you?”

“Nope.” Jules folded his sleeves back over his dark arms. “I had the rock picker over on the McCaslin fields. I didn’t see her.”

“She went off with Blake somewhere. I don’t know where.”

For the first time since discovering the two cans were full of purple paint, Jules looked directly at his boss. “They coming back soon?” he asked.

“Monday, she says.” Austin jammed his booted toe into the drive, two, three, four times in succession. “Sometimes I think she gets angry at me for going down to Portland. She thinks I spend too much time with the Potato Board.”

“You do. We start planting in another week. We are going to plant, aren’t we?”

“Does the governor of Maine eat potatoes? Of course we’re going to plant.”

The spring air rustled Austin’s hair, grown long over his collar, and mixed the fragrance of crocus blooms with the odor of paint. The songs of sparrows and nuthatches carried across the lawn. The two men stood side by side under the bright purple of the storage house. Owner and hired man, they had worked together since Austin was fifteen. For years they had talked about farm plans and White Pine gossip, and occasionally about a small family crisis of their own. But neither of them had ever reported that his wife wanted to leave the County. Hands deep in their pockets, the two men eased a couple of inches farther apart.