Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 15 of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


Back in the tack room, I turned the heat down then sacked out flat on my back atop the sofa, covering myself with a horse blanket. As soon as I settled down, Misty jumped right on top of me, knocking the wind out of me, but I didn’t mind and found it very amusing. In fact I would have laughed if only I’d had the breath to do so. She turned two marching-in-place circles on the blanket, lightly punching her paws rhythmically down into my stomach, my groin, my ribs, and my chest as she rotated. Then she lay down to rest, sprawled across my blanket-covered torso. I snickered and patted her head.

I assumed the limo driver would pull up and honk, so I kept my sleep light with one ear listening for that honk.

I awakened to the sound of a rooster crowing. Both Misty and I popped our heads up and beheld a glorious stream of mote-laden sunlight pouring in through the tack room window. I glanced at my watch: 6:20 AM.

What the hell happened to the limo driver?

While I didn’t actually have any place I needed to be, I worried about that 24-hour diner possibly towing my van, and also about my being without a cell phone for so long -- especially with an ex-wife on the warpath and my partial-custody of Jason being tested by her. What if my son lay dying in a hospital and MK was trying to call me to come to his side? Or what if MK lay dying in a hospital and my ex-sister-in-law was trying to call me to take Jason indefinitely? While neither scenario was likely, these projected fears of mine all took place back in the age of instant phone access. Failing to be accessible to the rest of the world for more than two hours at a time was the unpardonable sin of that era.

As I fretted over these improbabilities, Misty -- still lying upon my chest -- suddenly did something that shook my mind clear of all those worries.

She stood up on top of me with a mild stiffness to her joints. Then she bowed just the front half of her body downward into a full-on morning stretch, following it with a similar stretch to the back half of her body, finishing it all off with a loud and amusing canine yawn. I again laughed.

“Good-morning, Misty,” I smiled. She replied with a cheerful bark and a tail-wagging.

“You hungry, girl?” She then licked my face.

“Let’s see if Mrs. Valera’s arrived yet. I think she’s supposed to have breakfast for you -- you and that calico cat down in the basement TV room.”

Misty excitedly jumped off me, to the floor, and scrambled for the door. Now it was my turn to stand up with stiff joints and launch into a morning stretching ritual. My thighs were sore from the Ascent up the Staircase of Hell. And I ached all over from the general stress of everything the night before. Other than that, I think I was actually happy for the first time in well over a year.

I went to the door, opened it, and with Misty at my side walked out onto the gravel. Doctor Tuxedo’s Jaguar still sat where he’d left it, its windows fogged over with morning dew. The barnyard gate was now closed because I took the time to close it myself the night before as I walked back to the tack room with Misty.

The sun had already risen over the trees off to my right. And now with actual daylight I could survey the true look of Catherine’s house. My prior assessment of it having Victorian sensibilities was only partly right. In the growing daylight it at first looked like a Tudor with its three-part medley of stone masonry, wooden clapboards, and stucco plaster accented by exposed wooden crossbeams. But on closer examination I realized it was a beautiful and well thought out mixture of English and German designs. It combined Queen Anne turrets with classic gingerbread flourishes, and I even detected what looked like a faint hint of Japanese detailing in the peaks and soffits. I don’t believe I had ever seen a house quite like it. And even though Catherine said her husband had built the house, it didn’t at all look new and was more than capable of passing itself off as a vintage house from over a century ago. And it was all very well kept with not a trace of peeling paint or un-pointed brick.

I noticed the roofing material had a peculiar texture. After squinting for a few moments I determined it was an entirely solar roof, but well disguised as a traditional roof, thus not drawing attention to itself. The number of chimneys shocked and delighted me: I counted sixteen. How many fireplaces did the house possess?

I turned around to behold the barn. It was a field stone structure covered over with plaster then painted stark white from roof to foundation: a typical German stone barn similar to hundreds found all over Pennsylvania. But this one also sported a solar roof identical to the one on the house. Solar roofing aside, these barns were a brilliant feat of engineering going back a thousand years. The key to the barn’s function was its being built into a hillside so that the cellar wasn’t completely underground. Instead one wall of the cellar enjoyed the design of a “walk-out basement.” And the positioning of the barn against the hillside was ideally arranged so that the southern wall was the one where the cellar’s walk-out doorway sat. Thus the architecture took full advantage of the wonders of passive solar heat on the southern exposure and also geo-thermal cooling on the northern foundation. And it also utilized the sun’s uncanny ability to keep the cellar relatively dry and almost mold-free, extending the lifespan of the barn by decades if not centuries.

At the moment, judging by the position of the sunrise, I stood on the north side of the barn, so the southern exposure with the walk-out basement remained hidden from my view. I was tempted to take a stroll through the dew-laden grass and down the hill to the barn’s southern side to take in the entirety of its workmanship. I was also curious to see if I could discern the remnants of the chopper pad that once stood somewhere nearby.

I remained standing on the gravel and scanned my eyes along the back acreage of the property stretching far beyond the unseen rear of the barn and its horse paddocks. Catherine’s estate had a sunken grassy meadow behind the barn that rambled on for perhaps a quarter mile of nothing but grass and paddocks toward the back of her property. And at the very backside of her estate, on its southern flank, a high cliff-like hill -- possibly an actual mountain -- rose in a steep ridge up and away from the meadow, rimming the estate in a fairly straight line. At the foot of the cliff a long narrow grove, ripe with September fruit, sat in the morning mists. And almost near the top of the cliff I saw a windmill, its blades gently turning. But it wasn’t a modern three-blade wind turbine. It was the old fashioned wooden kind of windmill with four canvas sails.

The windmill alone was intriguing enough for me to want to go exploring. But as I surveyed the sheer cliff face, I didn’t see an obvious way up it to the windmill. I kept scanning the rock wall and started to make out a series of straight vertical lines that scored the entire hillside, each line running from the very top of the cliff straight down to cliff’s base far below. It took me a moment to recall where I had seen such lines before, and then I knew what I was looking at and the full significance of it all: the tall cliff that rimmed the southern flank of the property was not a naturally occurring cliff, it was the product of a blasting crew. The entire sunken meadow used to lie beneath a solid mountain of rock that stretched all the way from the summit of that cliff clear onward to Maple Street. But it had all been blasted away, one ton at a time, probably over the course of many years. And the vertical scorings in the cliff were the remnants of the blasting operation. The blasting crew from years ago had once stood atop that former mountain and drilled the scoring lines straight down into the rock. They used their explosives and after hauling away all the debris, they left behind those long tall grooves in the side of what became the sheer cliff overlooking what was now a sunken meadow.

I suddenly heard the sound of wheels crunching over gravel -- I hoped it was the limousine. Misty started barking.

We both turned to watch a slightly grimy and well-worn pickup truck rolling from around the front of the house. It came up to the closed barnyard gate and stopped on the other side. The engine cut out. A beardless but long-haired young man in small round eyeglasses emerged. He wore faded jeans, an old U-PENN sweatshirt, and a pair of broken-in work boots of the sort that I used to call “shit-kickers,” but their correct name is “Wellington boots.” Misty looked up at me with her already madly wagging tail increasing its ferocity. She was obediently holding back a building burst of energy and she seemed to need my permission to leave my side to greet this newcomer. I patted her head and whispered:

“Heel, girl.” She obeyed and shook off the energy, settling back down again at my side.

“Hi!” the young man called out with a friendly smile. “How’s it going? I’m Kyle. Here to tend the animals.” He hopped the fence into the barnyard. Misty barked once at him.

“Hi, Kyle,” I nodded and started to walk to him. Misty walked alongside me. I reached out my hand to greet him. “My name’s Pete. I’m a plumbing and heating expert. I came last night to perform an emergency repair.”

We shook hands while Misty circled Kyle’s legs in affection. “Good to meet ya, Pete,” Kyle nodded. After he released my grip he looked down at the circling Misty. “Hey, Misty! How ya’ doin’ girl?” She barked, licked his hand, then looked to me for direction.

“Misty, heel,” I whispered. She instantly came along side me again and sat beside my right foot. I patted her.

“Wow,” Kyle marveled at the dog. “She never obeyed anyone but Colonel Warren, and only sometimes obeys Mrs. Warren. She never obeys me at all. But she sure seems to like you. I guess you have the magic touch. You have dogs of your own?”

“Uh, no,” I laughed with a shrug. “My ex-wife wouldn’t allow a dog back when we were married. And now that I’m divorced my current landlord won’t allow one either.”

“Sorry to hear that. I think next chance you get you need to get a dog. I’ve been working with animals my whole life and when it comes to animals some people got it and some don’t.” He then gave me a beaming smile. “And I think you got it.” His beaming smiled suddenly shifted to a new-found confusion. “So … where’s your work vehicle?”

“Um … that’s a long story. Meanwhile, I hate to be the one to tell ya’ this but Mrs. Warren had an accident last night -- fell and broke some ribs. She left in an ambulance some time after midnight.”

Sudden alarm overtook his face. “Is she okay?”

“Looks like she’s gonna be fine. Her doctor came and did a house call and he said she seemed like she was okay. Then he arranged to admit her to the hospital for X-rays.”

He gave an almost-whistle of relief. I continued:

“Meanwhile, she asked me to stay with Misty for a few hours and I gladly obliged. However, I was eventually supposed to get picked up by Mrs. Warren’s driver but he never showed. So I’m kinda stuck here for now and I don’t even have my cell phone. Hope my bein’ here’s not a problem.”

“Wow. That’s rough. Um … I can’t give you a ride at this very moment because if I don’t milk the animals and gather the eggs -- ”

“ -- No, no!” I interrupted him. “I’m not hinting at a ride from you! So please don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I’m just trying to let you know why I’m here and why I can’t leave. I’m sure the limo will be here any minute. I’m just apologizing for my presence.”

“It’s okay, man. You being here is fine.”

“Thanks. Oh! And another thing: Mrs. Warren called someone named Mrs. Valera last night and left a voice mail.”

“That’s the housekeeper. Nice lady.”

“She explained to Mrs. Valera in the voice mail about having to go to the hospital. And she asked Mrs. Valera to come in this morning and take care of Misty and the house cat. But Mrs. Valera isn’t here yet and I wanted to see about getting Misty something to eat.”

“Misty doesn’t usually get fed until about seven AM. So she’s fine for now. But if Mrs. Valera doesn’t show, I can probably toss Misty a couple eggs. Good for her coat.”

“I bet she’d like that,” I grinned. “Can I make ya’ a proposition? If I help you gather the eggs, can you let me feed Misty?” Misty barked once and resumed her avid tail-wagging, rubbing her head fiercely against the side of my calf.

“Damn! She DOES like you!” Kyle laughed. “Okay, sure. C’mon in the barn, I’ll show you what to do.”

With Misty trailing us, Kyle showed me around the barn, first explaining about the stable office and his need to do certain paperwork. Then he led me into the barn proper and guided me back down the central corridor with the honeycomb tiled floor on our way to the poultry pens. Misty continued to shadow us, keeping closely to my side.

We were nearing the area of the barn where the wooden elevator door hid the jumbo-sized freight elevator. In the growing daylight I scrutinized the entire wooden structure that encased the elevator shaft. It was obvious that a “room” of some kind lay behind those doors, but it was a huge room with no windows, and it soared in height up to the rafters, a full two stories tall. To the casual observer, it was an easily dismissed feature of the barn. But the truth was that the entire barn was built around that massive yet mysterious structure. It was the proverbial gorilla in the living room. While I didn’t know much about the duties of a stable hand, I was pretty sure that understanding the barn and keeping the place clean had to be part of such duties. So I had to wonder: Did Kyle know what lay behind that door?

As we went by the stables, the brown horse with the white diamond stuck his head out and grunted at Kyle. In the daylight I could see a small name plaque above the stable door that read “Apollo.”

“Woe, boy!” Kyle stopped a moment and gently patted that huge looming head with affection. “Good morning, Apollo! Apollo, this is Pete. Pete, this is Apollo.”

“Good morning, Apollo,” I said. But without intending to, I guess I made an automatic association in my mind between Misty and Apollo, assuming that talking to one animal was the same as talking to all animals. So without actual pre-meditation I adopted the same tone and pitch with Apollo as I employed with Misty.

Kyle suddenly jolted his gaze away from the horse toward me with surprise. As Kyle did that, Apollo gently swung his massive head sideways toward me and licked my face. I laughed and took one step back. But then Kyle spoke with an urgency.

“Did you know Colonel Warren?” Kyle asked, almost accusatory.

The smile on my face melted into fear.

I paused.

“What?” I asked, not sure how truthful to be with that information.

“You talk like him. Your voice. Horses can hear certain elements of the human voice, and I think Apollo agrees with me: you kinda talk like Colonel Warren did. In fact you even kinda walk like him. Were you related to him?”

“Related? Uh, no, I was definitely never related to him. If I was, believe me,” and I tossed in a laugh while looking up and around and gesturing in admiration at that magnificent barn, “I wouldn’t be … a plumber of all things.”

Kyle laughed as well, and I detected the desired reaction in him of inner embarrassment over even considering such a crazy notion.

After Kyle explained to me about the round wire baskets made of stainless steel, and after he showed me how to gather the eggs, he handed me the baskets and went off to milk the cows and goats. As he walked away, Misty instantly lay down upon her belly at my feet in a very formal Sphinx-like pose with both paws forward and her head up high. She fixed her eyes upon me in silent alertness. I smiled. Then I started pulling eggs out of each chicken cage.

I gathered about three dozen chicken eggs into two wire baskets. They all bore strange hues ranging from a pale greenish yellow to a dark speckled brown. They also ranged in sized from oval ping pong balls to oval tennis balls. Then I switched to a different basket and gathered five goose eggs. Those were a medium tan and astonishingly huge.

I picked up all three baskets and started walking with them back toward the stable office, Misty at my side. I passed by Apollo’s stable and he again stuck his head out and watched me with the same uncanny stillness and attentiveness as the night before.

After the eggs were all safely in the office fridge, in the egg crates Kyle had shown me, I washed my hands and went back into the barn with Misty at my side as usual. I headed toward the wooden doors that concealed the freight elevator.

As I strode down the honeycomb tiles, my approaching footfalls prompted Apollo to again stick his head out. This time he whinnied at me. I paused in front of him. I didn’t know much about horses, although I’d heard they could bite. In caution I reached up my hand and hovered it just below his mouth. He sniffed my hand and licked it. I smiled. I then wished I had something to give him like maybe sugar or oats or carrots. I patted the side of his head and resumed walking past the stables with Misty beside me.

I reached the wooden door. I slid it open just partway, expecting to find the vast echoing elevator shaft plummeting dangerously downward from the door’s threshold. But instead the door revealed a dark room whose wooden floor boards sat slightly higher than the tiled barn flooring -- I’d need to step up just an inch from the tiled floor to enter onto that wooden floor. Then I slid the door all the way open to let in more light. I beheld inside the room a handsome old fashioned covered carriage draped in plastic drop cloths. Through the plastic I discerned the old time gold gilt lettering printed upon the shiny black ebony paint, declaring the name of the company that manufactured it: “Wolfington Coachworks, Philadelphia, Penna.”

In mild confusion I stepped into the room. The beautiful workmanship of the carriage entranced me, but the lack of an elevator shaft dumbfounded me. I looked straight up at the vast (and wasted) expanse of empty space above: no rafters, no lofts, no crossbeams of any sort -- just two stories of an utterly empty and hollow cube of wooden walls terminating in a flat wooden ceiling two stories above. I visually estimated the height of the soaring ceiling against the height of the not-too-tall carriage, and I formed my only theory for explaining the “missing” elevator. I determined that if this wooden floor was in fact a platform that rose and fell from the comings and going of the elevator, there was enough room above to allow the carriage to rise without crashing through the ceiling. Then I looked down at the floor boards which lay tightly spaced together. I got down on my knees, prompting Misty to lick my face. I grinned and ignored her. I hovered my hand above one crack in the floorboards and held my breath: I was checking to see if I could feel a breeze of some kind coming up between them. But I felt nothing. I looked back up at the carriage and regained my feet. I stood there with my eyes fixed upon the carriage and pondered the surreal and never ending mysteries of this entire estate.

“She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” Kyle’s voice called out.

I turned in startlement to see Kyle walking from the office toward me.

“Yeah,” I nodded, trying to play cool. “How long’s it been here?”

“Since before my time here. Colonel Warren picked it up at an antique’s show years ago. Had it fully restored then just put it in storage here in the barn. He used to take it out from time to time, hitch up one of the horses and bring it for a ride around the grounds -- it’s a one-horse rig. But it’s been a while since that’s happened. Colonel Warren started getting sick, then we lost the horse that was carriage trained.”


“We used to have four horses but we had to put one down last year. Haven’t replaced him yet and we also haven’t trained any of the other horses on carriage pulling protocols. I don’t know if we’re going to see this baby hitched to another horse ever again. Truth is I’m a little worried Mrs. Warren might choose to get rid of all the animals and sell the estate, including this nice old carriage. And if she does that, I’ll not only be out of a job, but I’d really miss these guys somethin’ awful,” and he gestured backward to all three horses who were now sticking their heads out at us and eyeing us curiously. “If she does I really hope these animals find a nice home.”

“Something tells me she’s never going to sell this estate,” I smiled.

“What tells ya’ that?”

“From what I gather, her late husband started something here -- something very important to him. And she aims to carry on his work. While I can’t say for certain if his ambitions included horses and carriages, this barn all by itself was real important to him. He had it custom built, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Kyle nodded. And then he rattled off a list of buildings on the estate, half of which I didn’t even know existed: “He built the barn, the house, the still cottage, the windmill, the cider house, the spring house, the gate house, the boat house -- all of it to his liking.”

I smiled while shaking my head: “She won’t ever sell it. So your job and these horses are probably all here to stay.”

Kyle and I walked back to the office together and I showed him the eggs in the fridge. He said he appreciated my hard work. He further said that since it was after seven o’clock and neither the limo driver nor Mrs. Valera had arrived, Misty could have some eggs. So he gave me two eggs plus two plastic bowls. I broke the eggs onto one bowl, and as she lapped them up I filled the other bowl with cold water from the tack room lavatory.

After she was done, and right as I was cleaning the plastic bowls, I heard a knock on the tack room door. Misty and I looked and saw a woman standing outside waving at me with a smile. To my eye, she looked Italian. She was middle-aged, only the tiniest bit overweight, and wore a yellow button-up shirt with a pair of jeans.

I put the bowls down and answered the door, Misty again shadowing me.

“Hello?” I asked.

“Are you Mr. Valchick?” she asked with a Hispanic accent.

I smiled, not at all offended by her mispronunciation of my name.

“Yes I am. And you are?”

“I am Mrs. Valera. I’m Mrs. Warren’s housekeeper.”

“Hi, Mrs. Valera,” I nodded. “Good to meet you.”

I sensed something odd about her accent. It wasn’t Mexican. It wasn’t Puerto Rican. I was utterly unable to identify where she hailed from. I was also curious as to how she knew my name (or at least a minor variation on my name) since Catherine never mentioned me in the voice message.

“I came over this morning as soon as I got Mrs. Warren’s phone message. I hope she’s going to be all right. Such a sweet lady.”

“From what I was told, she’s going to be just fine.”

“That’s good. I prayed for her as I walked over this morning.”

“Oh, and another thing,” I added, “I met the stable hand, Kyle, when he got here. He’s a nice guy. And he and I already fed Misty breakfast. So she’s all set for now.”

“Thank you, sir.” And she took a moment to look hard at Misty who sat beside my leg, wagging her tail and switching her gaze back and forth between Mrs. Valera and me. “She let you feed her?”

“Uh, yeah. It was my pleasure.”

Mrs. Valera continued to look at the dog for several moments, and the woman seemed taken aback.

“She did not growl at you?”

“Uh, only once last night when she became very protective of Mrs. Warren. But then Mrs. Warren shushed her and Misty warmed up to me very quickly.”

“Is that so?” Mrs. Valera asked with a smile. “Misty is learning manners for a change. But I have not come here to talk about the dog. Please, Mr. Valchick, I must explain to you: I entered the house just now and I found a voice mail from the man at the limousine company, and he mentioned you in the voice mail.” My eyes widened at that in hope. But then she said: “The limo driver cannot come for you. He can’t send anyone to pick you up right now.”

“Um … did he say when he can eventually come?”

“He didn’t. Would you like to hear the voice message?”

-------------------End of Chapter 15--------------------