A Storyby Jonathan A. Stableford
It all began for Edwin Kellett at the Dustcomb General Store. It was midmorning on one of those late-September days when it would be noon before the fields dried sufficiently for haying, following a summer so full of rain that his final cutting had been pushed back into fall, a time counted on for repairing his tired machines. He was killing time with a trip to the store, but when he turned the corner at the end of an aisle, he spotted a man who could have been his twin, sorting through a display of spark plugs for a match to the one he held in his hand.
Not a literal twin, but a variation on the man Kellett had been twenty years earlier, wearing creased khakis and a fine blue shirt. The apparition left him gaping for a second or two before he turned around and retreated. At the register his heart pounded as he dug into his pocket to pay for the six-pack of beer and can of tuna, and when Alva Graham handed him his change, a dime and two pennies slipped through his trembling fingers. “Too much coffee,” he mumbled as he gathered the coins, a poor night’s sleep, he reasoned to himself. At the door he glanced back into the store, but the man had vanished. Next thing, there would be elephants in the pasture with his Holsteins.
Kellett had been up since sunrise, milking and feeding, and then splitting wood while he waited to begin haying. At home he put the beer in the refrigerator, the can of tuna on the counter, and sat down at the kitchen table to think about what he had just seen. He had no twin, not even a brother. The stranger in the store looked like the man his parents hoped he would become when they sent him off to college, before he met Mary.
Dustcomb was small even for Vermont, with 626 people year-round, but the population could swell by a third at a given moment, as on the Fourth of July, with summer residents and weekenders. Kellett kept to himself, but he was good enough with faces to know when someone was new to town. Mary had an ear for gossip, sharing with him what he needed to know, but in the decade since her death Kellett had grown remote. The man at the store unsettled him, and once home Kellett saw in the bathroom mirror that he had shaved carelessly that morning, leaving stubble on his neck and dried blood on his cheek. His nails were cracked and split and lined with dirt. Turning his wrist, he saw it was time to get to his hayfields.
A week later he was in the barn, sharpening his chainsaw, when he heard the sound of tires on the gravel outside, but with just six links to go, he continued working. The door to his shop was open, the light on, and whoever it was would eventually find him. When he heard a foot on the sill, he turned to look and saw his twin standing in the doorway, haloed with sunlight.
The man came inside and offered his hand.
“James Fursten. I’m renting the Patterson house. Someone suggested I meet you.”
Kellett shook the man’s hand, his grip wary.
“What would that be for?”
“To hear what it’s like to live here because you’d know better than anyone.”
“Someone was having fun with you.”
Fursten waited a second, as if Kellett would say more, and then continued.
“Look, I can see you’re busy. Can I come by some night to talk?”
Does he not see our likeness? Fursten seemed to see nothing.
“I guess,” Kellett answered.
“Am I right thinking you drink beer?”
Kellett nodded and picked up his file.
Kellett knew that his mind had been drifting for weeks, if not months. He’d be tedding hay on a steep hillside, where he needed to pay attention, and his mind would tunnel back to a day when he was a boy with wet, parted hair at his grandfather’s funeral, discovering that mortality was an open coffin. Other days he’d hear Gregorian chants rise from the rumble of his tractor or sense in the wind the sound of a singing bowl. These are signs, he’d tell himself. Now read them.
So the vision of a double, while arresting, hadn’t been a total surprise. Now, the man backing out of his driveway in a Saab with New York plates was no spirit. Kellett had felt the firm press of his handshake and seen the fat watch on the man’s wrist. The smell of exhaust lingered in the air long after he was gone.
Some nights Kellett would lie awake in bed, feeling the gap between heartbeats grow, and think with more curiosity than panic that his own death was nearer than it had ever been. In college when he read philosophy and literature, he had worried about big questions, but later, when he turned to farming, the rising sun, the turn of the seasons, and the endless work were certainties that gave him comfort. Now almost sixty, he answered to no man, but every morning and afternoon his cows needed milking. Juniper was forever encroaching on his hillside pastures.
Now Kellett hayed the last of his fields and cleaned out his spring, and when the days were over he waited for Fursten to show up at his door. He dug up test potatoes to see if the patch was ready for harvest, and he towed his baler into the barn to rebuild at night or on a day with rain. But Fursten haunted his thoughts. As a rule Kellett avoided soft-handed, confident men who were quick with a joke, men who had more than they needed and still wanted more. But the resemblance trumped scruple. When two evenings had passed without a knock at the door, Kellett knew he was expecting something to change in his life.
Friday night Kellett sat in a parlor chair analyzing a pad of notes on the eggs his chickens had laid through the summer when he heard Fursten’s car. He got up to turn on the porch light, then opened the door when his twin reached the first step.
“Is tonight good?” Fursten leaned toward the screen and raised a six-pack of Heineken for Kellett to see.
“Good as any.” Kellett opened the screen door.
In the kitchen Kellett took two bottles from the carton as he slid it into his refrigerator and pointed to the kitchen table. They sat and sipped in silence, listening to the chirp of crickets from the yard and the bang of moths on the screen door, a comfortable silence on a warm September night. Across the table Kellett saw his own nose and jaw. When he had been Fursten’s age, he had a beard, and hair so long that it touched his shoulders. Saw his own eyes too and thought Fursten could be his son.
Kellett had a real son whose looks came from his mother and who lived a world away in New Mexico. In college his son had fallen in love with a woman whose grandmother still lived without electricity in the Acoma Pueblo. His son married and followed his wife home to a life where he would never be fully accepted, but their two children were enrolled and learning to speak Keres at their tribal school.
Fursten’s face had blurred when Kellett heard his voice from across the table.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve made a pile of money, but now I need something different.”
“Dustcomb is peaceful. I don’t have to tell you that.” Fursten’s voice rose on the final syllable as if it were a question that Kellett might want to answer.
“What did you have to do to make all that money?” Kellett said instead, the bluntness not from hostility but lack of practice. He took a deep breath. “What kind of work?”
“No, you had it right the first time. I was a Visigoth. A Mongol. We’d take over corporations by snapping up shares, and then I’d run them long enough to strip their assets. I didn’t start out to do that. I was a trader, and I made some money. Then I moved into investments. It was seductive, and I was good at it. In the end all I had was money.”
“Not anymore. For work I had to move around, live in a condo for a year or two in San Jose or Cleveland or Grand Rapids, and fly home to New York on weekends. If then. A dozen cities. I have a daughter, but my wife remarried and took her to Atlanta. I get her for two weeks in the summer. She was here in July. That’s really what I want to talk to you about.”
Kellett rose from the table and shook pretzels into a bowl. He opened the refrigerator and took out two more bottles. Fursten wanted confirmation that Dustcomb would calm his restlessness and win over his daughter’s love.
“Why this town?”
Fursten lifted the new bottle and swallowed nearly half.
“I heard of Dustcomb in a conversation at a bar in New York. It’s a name that sticks, and later I looked it up. One click led to another, and before I knew it, I had put money down on a house for the summer. Intuition. Some would say destiny, but I knew I needed to take a leave from work. I came here at the end of June, and in August I quit my job for good. The Pattersons extended my lease, so I’m staying.”
There had been no Internet in 1972, when Vermont swarmed with hippies. Kellett came to Dustcomb with his own tie-dyed band of romantics, and they camped out until they found an old farm to rent. The people of Dustcomb were more amused than wary because the newcomers were quiet as they worked to revive a farm with broken fences and tired soil. They were earnest and loved the idea of farming more than the labor, and the commune survived for two years only because new people showed up as quickly as the old ones left. Kellett was different. It had begun as a democracy, but Kellett and Mary emerged as leaders, reluctant at first and then with conviction. In the kitchen and the fields they grew tired of the transience and the sloppy work. Of the dope. They turned to their parents for money and managed to buy the farm and some adjacent acres. They kicked everyone else out and got married, and soon they were running it on their own, making a little money on hay and milk and pork, and hiring seasonal help when they needed it, an old-fashioned family farm with a little bit of everything, enough for themselves and, eventually, two children. A small surplus to pay their parents back.
Kellett realized that he had been cradling his beer in a silence lasting several minutes, lost in thought because a stranger who looked like him had stopped by to learn about Dustcomb. He sat up in his chair and began a quarter-hour monologue of his own story, a rural cliché of hard work and mortgages, of depreciating equipment and farm children who dream of escape. His tone walked the ridge between weariness and self-pity because some of the ironies were droll. One year they had planted a corner of one hayfield with two acres of pumpkins along the riverbank, a cash crop and a beautiful sight on a foggy September morning, until three days of rain flooded the field and washed the pumpkins away.
“Free pumpkins downstream for anyone with a long pole or willing to wade in, jack-o’-lanterns and pumpkin pies as an act of God.”
Kellett swallowed what remained of his third beer and plunked the bottle on the table. Fursten gathered the empties and carried them to the sink.
“May I see your farm in daylight?”
Kellett, still at the table, looked up at the younger man. Hadn’t the man heard him destroy the pastoral myth? But Fursten was serious, his brow lifted, the face Kellett saw in the mirror when he lifted his razor to shave under his nose.
“Come whenever you like, and bring a pair of gloves. I don’t give tours.”
Weeks passed. Autumn took hold, and each morning Kellett lit a small fire in the kitchen woodstove. He dug a wagonload of potatoes and towed it to the barn hose, where he washed the potatoes and measured them into bushel baskets, three for his cold cellar and the rest to sell at the farmers market in Ashton. He sold his wool and killed his chickens, all but the pullets, and packed them into a chest freezer in the barn.
One chilly morning Lazlo Blum arrived with a pig in the back of his pickup. Behind the barn Kellett’s scalding pan was already boiling. With a pail of corn they coaxed Lazlo’s pig into a makeshift pen with the two Kellett had raised. This was an annual ritual for Blum and Kellett, the only ones from the commune, along with Mary, who had stayed in Dustcomb. When Blum quit the commune to set out on his own, Kellett shook his hand and wished him well because there was no way the two independent-minded men could continue to work side by side.
They were laying out their knives when Fursten arrived. He was wearing jeans and boots and three flannel shirts, and a new pair of work gloves were tucked into his belt. Blum’s face was deadpan as he shook the stranger’s hand. When the work began, Fursten kept out of their way, waiting to be told what he could do.
At four o’clock that afternoon Kellett watched Blum climb into his pickup, his pig in the truck bed once again, but now wrapped in neat paper packages. Fursten stood in the barnyard, his boots splattered with gore and pants smeared with blood. Blum had said nothing about Kellett and Fursten looking alike, but he rarely said anything when he was working. When they broke for lunch, Blum had sat alone in the bed of his truck, his eyes fixed on the flaming maples running up a distant hillside. Blum had known Kellett when he was Fursten’s age and had to have seen the likeness.
Fursten stayed through it all. He had flinched at the first gunshot and grown pale with the shuddering of the dying pig, but after that he was impossible to read. He wasn’t much help, but each time they pulled entrails and fat from a hanging pig, he pushed the steaming wheelbarrow into the woods.
“I bet this wasn’t the day you expected when you drank your morning coffee?”
“I don’t know what I expected. Not this, for sure.”
Kellett turned to dry his knives with a rag.
“Yesterday you would have stacked firewood.”
“This was better. I know how to stack wood.”
That night his double bobbed in the tide of Kellett’s thoughts. Fursten had been living in Dustcomb for four months, and no one had said a word to Kellett about their uncanny resemblance. Had he become so remote that no one would dare? Certainly Alva Graham, always witty and familiar with customers at the register of the general store, wouldn’t miss an opportunity to tease. So it had to be in his head. But Fursten acted as if he had been sent.
Was it possible, he wondered, for an aging man with chores to turn mystic? Fursten said he had walked away from one life and wanted to learn about Kellett’s. Where in the analogue lay the truth he was supposed to see? They were nothing alike, other than a disputable resemblance, and if Fursten wanted to believe that farming was noble, surely he could see that Kellett was having trouble.
Not Kellett alone. Farming had become nearly impossible in Vermont. For decades farms had been going under, some slowly, by selling off fields and woodlots to pay their taxes, and others dramatically, with foreclosures and auctions. The causes were always the same, rising costs and falling prices. Kellett was an anomaly. Tired to the marrow, widowed, his children grown and gone, he hung on and managed to pay his bills. Mary had been dead so long that he needed a photo to remember her face, but he had never considered quitting. Never. And now Fursten, who made quitting sound easy, wanted to hang around Kellett.