“Anybody ta’ home?” The old man with a high voice shouted from the front door of the old barn.
Otto Becker looked up slowly from his workbench built against the wall of the open area of the old barn and shook his grizzled head in frustration. “Hells bells. You can’t get anything done around here, dammit,” he said in his low gravelly voice.
“Otto! You in there?” It was Delbert. Well, hell, it must be Saturday again. It’d somehow slipped Otto’s mind, like he cared. Every damn Saturday, Delbert Simmons went to town to shop and spent the day drinking other people’s coffee and snooping around in other people’s business, Then, on his way back to his fancy apartment, he’d stop off at innocent folk’s houses with all the stories and gossip he’d picked up in town. He was better than the local newspaper, except Otto didn’t give a damn about the news and didn’t take that stupid rag of a local newspaper. As a matter of fact, the last time the paper guy had come –.”
“Otto!” Delbert again, “Are you out here in --,”
“Stop your caterwaulin', Delbert. Of course, I’m out here. Where the hell else would I be? Jesus!” Otto couldn’t take it anymore. If the man would just walk into the barn and look, he’d seen me standing here, wouldn’t he? But, no, he’s gotta --.
“Oh, Otto. Good to see you, old man. How you been?” Del walked on back into the darkened interior and found Otto standing by the bench working by the light of a bare 60-watt bulb that dangled above his head and just carried right on, happy as hell. He’d always been that way. That was just one of the things that had bugged Otto about Delbert Simmons since they met in grammar school sixty-odd years before. That kid could eat a dogshit sandwich for lunch and then brag about the bread.
“I been busy, Delbert. That’s what I was before you started calling back the dead here.” Otto gave him a quick glance and a one-eyed frown then turned back to setting the teeth of the ancient Henry Disston crosscut handsaw he’d inherited from his dad, Old Bert. He worked on clamping the long flat blade into his big vice between a couple pieces of white oak to protect the blade from the jaws. Otto was in his work clothes, long-johns with a pair of heavily patched Oshkosh bib overalls that had been on their last legs for 15 years and work boots.
Delbert laughed. “Busy, huh? What’s an old retired poop like you got to be busy about?” Then Del cradled his right elbow in his left hand while he thoughtfully stroked his chin with his stubby right fingers. “You do know that they make electric saws nowadays, right?” Del thought that was a good one and bent over laughing at his own joke. Otto just shook his head and sighed.
“Jesus, I ain’t got money to throw after a ‘lectric saw that’ll break after a day’s work. Old Bert used this saw to build this here barn 80 year ago and it’d build another one today if I asked it to. Hell, it’ll last another two hundurd years, if it’s taken care of. You can’t just throw things out, ya know? We don’t all live in condumtins, ya know. We ain’t all rich like you, Delbert Simmons.”
“Oh, my. Same old Otto. Lord, you just don’t change, do you? Besides, it’s called a condominium, and maybe you ought to move into one yourself. I don’t even have to mow the lawn. I just relax, and lord knows, I deserve it.” Delbert had his going-to-town clothes on, and he was a sight to see in all that pastel polyester and Romeos.
Otto stopped and with the sawset in his hand he turned to Delbert. “Now just what in the hell did you do to deserve the Life of Riley? You got some past of good works we’re all unaware of, Del?”
“Oh Mercy! Otto. You just beat all, you know that? You just beat all. I’m talking about my service during the war, of course. I was decorated. You know that. That, and the way I raised my kids to be good citizens and volunteering at the church. You know all about that. A good life takes it out of ya, Otto. It takes it right out of ya.” Del looked up to the rafters for a witness to the truth of his words.
Otto rolled his eyes and said, “I remember those stories you told about being in the Army during the war. You remember I was in there somewhere too? In Italy, with the 91st Infantry Division fighting the hun at Arno river and Po Valley, in ’44 and ‘45. I seem to remember you were back in the rear echelons in Operations. London, wasn’t it?” Otto cleared his throat and went back to work with the sawset clamp, angling the individual teeth in opposite directions to make a uniform kerf in the cut.
Del wouldn’t let it go, it wasn’t his way. “And God know how many lives we saved back there in G3. I don’t like to talk about it now but they were dark times, Otto. Dark times. Of course, some of it’s still classified so I’m not at liberty to tell the whole story, yet.” Del said as he looked around for some place to sit down and finding none leaned carefully against a barrel full of scrap steel.
“Bullshit!” Otto said and shook his head. It was no use talking to Del. He lived in his own little happy-land. “Must have been another World War Two I was thinkin’ of,” Otto said without looking up from the saw. He was taking his time. That was the key to sharpening a saw that could cut through near anything.
“Say Otto, where’s your brother at? I need to talk to him about something.” Jeez, Del could change subjects like a hungry bee at apple blossom time.
“Couldn’t say.” Otto finished setting one side and went to the opposite end of the saw and started back down the other side.
“Well. I thought I’d see him in town. Frank usually goes to the Central Café on Saturday and we were talking last week about maybe going fishing upstate weekend after next,” Delbert said looking around on the floor. There was a funky smell in here. All these places had rats.
“You don’t say.” Otto liked working on tools like this, it was relaxing. It would be a lot more relaxing once Delbert moved on.
“He said maybe we could use your old boat,” Del said. Ah, so that was what this visit was about. Otto figured it was something like that.
“He did, did he?” He kept moving down the line of teeth.
“Yeah. Did he mention that to you? Did Frank ask if we could use your boat?”
“Let me think.” It occurred to Otto that if he put a 100-watt bulb in this socket, he’d get a lot more light to work by. “He may have said something about it, maybe.”
“Well. What did you tell him? About the boat, I mean.” To his credit, Delbert didn’t show the least sign of impatience and he didn’t give up.
“I told him I didn’t think so.” But ya know, he wasn’t sure that old wire that the light hung by could take the draw of that much more wattage. He sure didn’t need a fire out here. On the other hand…
“So we can’t use your boat?” Delbert said.
“Right, you can’t use my boat,” Otto said back. It was important to use the same amount of pressure, steady, easy pressure. That made the best cutting kerf.
“Is he coming back around here soon? Do you think?” Del knew that Otto rarely volunteered information.
“He didn’t say.” That was the truth, he hadn’t. He was coming up on the last tooth but Otto didn’t hurry with it.
“OK, I’ll just keep a watch out for him. I wish you two would get into this century and get cell phones. It’d be a lot easier to find you.” Del harped on this subject a lot.
“Don’t need a cell phone. Barely need a real phone.” Otto finished with the sawset and stood up, stretching his back and then he bent over and looked down the length of the blade. It looked perfect. He wished Old Bert could be here to see it. Maybe Old Bert was looking down from heaven watching him now. Ooh! Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. No, he’d rather Old Bert just minded his own taters.
“It’d be safer for you. What if you was out here alone and had a accident? If you had a cell phone you could call for help. Ya see?” Del held his feet up one at a time and looked at the soles to see if he’d stepped in dog poop coming across the yard.
“Yeah, he said something like that too. About having an accident and being up on crap creek.” Now was the part Otto loved, the actual sharpening. He reached over to an ancient coffee can with a faded picture of a rooster on the label that was sitting on the backside of the bench and picked out a small file with a triangular profile.
“What’d you say?” Del shrugged and then thought maybe Otto hadn’t cleaned himself well. Old bachelors often let themselves go a bit. It wasn’t uncommon.
“I told him when it’s your time, it’s your time.” Otto began making slow even strokes on the sawteeth, one at a time, at just the right angles.
“Well, not nowadays. You just call for help.” Del was trying to be helpful.
“He said that too. But I showed him how it didn’t always work.” Nice and even, and then move to the next tooth.
“Huh. Well, I better get goin’. I need to stop by Jensen’s down the road. Milly Jensen makes pie on Saturday morning, and they have really good coffee. I think it’s that foreign stuff you have to grind up.” Del had to stop and swallow the spit that came into his mouth just talking about the pie and coffee.
“Lucky you.” A can of Butternut ground coffee worked just fine for Otto. He was making good progress on the teeth now. It was just a matter of paying attention. He was already working on the other row.
“You want to come?” Delbert asked, just to be polite, which Otto thought was foolishness.
“No, thanks. I got stuff to take care of.” Nice and even.
“Suit yourself. Remember to tell Frank, Del says Hi and ask him about fishing. OK?”
“Uh huh,” Otto just kept working the little triangular file down the row of teeth, one stroke for each tooth pointing to the right, same pressure, same speed, at the same angles. Just like Old Bert showed him.
“OK. Well, I better go.” Del said with longing.
“Yep, you better.” Jesus, another long goodbye, just go, will ya?
“Alright then, you take care Otto and I’ll see you next week.”
“Right.” Otto thought he could rebuild the hydraulic pump on his tractor waiting for Del to actually leave.
“It was good seeing ya.” Del said and he still hadn’t made a single motion to leave.
“Right.” Otto said. What the hell? Did Del think he was going to go bake him a bundt cake if he stayed around long enough? Jesus, be gone already. There, he finished the last tooth.
Otto was almost surprised when he looked up and saw Del leaving. Will wonders never cease?
He shook his head at how that man could carry on. If they’da put Delbert Simmons on the line back in Italy, it woulda taken the damn pressure off everybody else. He’da been the only one they’da shot at.
Otto released the vice and took the finished saw out and held it up under the light bulb admiring his work. Probably a hundurd years old and watch how it’ll cut like it was new. He reached over and picked up the hatchet that he’d filed to an edge and the kitchen knife he’d touched up before working on the saw. The last thing he picked up was a chunk of broomstick 11 inches long he could use to quickly measure size. These were all he’d need for the job.
He walked along the old bench toward the back of the barn, to the rough sawn door Old Bert had made to close off the corn crib. He opened the door and went into the dark room and for a moment he swung his hand around over his head to find the chain for the light bulb hanging from a wire.
After a couple seconds his hand hit the old beaded chain and he grabbed it and gave it a little yank. The old bare bulb over his head lit up with a glare and he let go allowing it to swing back and forth a little. Its movements cast glaring shadows around the little room that gradually subsided as the bulb settled down.
There was old straw all over the plank floor and just off to the side there lay the body of an old man in bib overalls who looked a little like Otto except that one side of his head was knocked in.
Otto looked down at the body. “Del says Hi and he wants to know about fishing.” Otto waited for a few seconds and in his rough voice said, “Don’t worry. I’ll think of somethin to tell him.”
He had some work cut out for him. He needed to fit the pieces down the 12-inch casing of the dry well on the hill behind the barn. But like Old Bert had told him many times, the job ain’t so bad when you got the right tools.