The shack was in the fields not far from the house. I used to ride my bike there almost every day. A tangle of streets, sidewalks, houses and lawns now layer the area so thickly, I can’t remember exactly where it stood.
We were the second or third family to move into the neighborhood, then a new tract surrounded by a vast green moat of undeveloped land. The high grass, wild shrubs and trees offered a continent of adventure for a young boy and within days after arriving, I carved a domain out of the bush. The fields became my province; my refuge. There wasn’t a far corner I didn’t investigate or a square yard left unexplored, with the exception of the shack. It was a lure, but the well-worn path leading to a misshapen, unkempt hedge, and that dim light flickering through the windows late most afternoons made me wary.
It wasn’t until I retraced my steps around the fields for a number of weeks that I approached the shack. No marked change of landscape separated the fields from this building. Grass and weeds waded under the remnants of a hedge through the yard and reached up the walls. A rusty gate, almost hidden by the growth, faced an opening in the ravel where an obscured stone path extended to the door. The shack was a moldy brownish green, this color long ago replacing a cover of paint.
I tried the front gate. When it wouldn’t open, I followed the hedge line until locating a bare spot, slipped through, and stepped to one of the windows. The wooden jalousies were cracked so slightly I could barely see the outline of a single chair, and I moved quickly around the shack trying with no luck to find a better spy hole in each window. As I spun past the last corner and headed for the gate at a gallop, I was yanked off my feet – gripped by my back collar – and held suspended, legs spinning. I twisted and turned wildly to protect my back, fought free and dropped to the ground.
Without turning around, I stumbled toward the gate, a booming voice calling after me, “You have to lift that thing to unlatch it. The catch is broken. And the next time you come visiting, knock on the door.”
I plowed through the hedge and scurried 20 yards into the field before wheeling around. An old man stood watching me, smiling broadly, his thumbs hooked in his belt. I raced to a mound of brush beyond sight of the shack, slid under a wedge of bushes and lay there, heart pounding, trying to fit the pieces together. I didn’t think I had caused any serious trouble. The old man hadn’t chased after me. And he had been smiling.
I crawled from the bush and made my way toward a thicket set some distance from the shack. Here, I perched in a tree and watched the building. All appeared quiet and undisturbed. I began to climb down when the tree shivered slightly. Below me, leaning against the trunk, arms folded comfortably across his chest, was the old man.
“Used to be you could see a good-sized pond in the other direction,” he said, without looking up, “but they filled it in to have more land to build on.” He walked around the tree to what had been the pond side. “Better come down ‘fore you fall down. Tree’s dead and it ain’t real sturdy.”
The old man was sitting at the base of the tree when I swung down. “Were a lot more trees to climb, too,” he said, his eyes focused on the middle distance. “You coulda climbed’em all. Yeah,” he shrugged, punctuating the sentence with a stream of tobacco juice, “coulda had a time.”
He grabbed his boots around the ankles and rolled forward, pulled himself upright. His faded denims were patched neatly in the back; his blue work shirt was cut into short sleeves just above the elbows. When he turned toward me, I backed away from the tree.
“Jesus, boy,” he said spitting for emphasis, “I ain’t gonna hurt you. You gotta let people know if you plan to come around is all. Sorry if I scared you.”
He was a big man, tall as well as broad. A shock of white gray hair, streaked with ribbons of dark brown, framed a long, narrow face, straight nose and thin lips. His eyes sparkled, clear green. Huge hands hung at the end of muscled arms, which he kept in constant motion while talking. And when the old man chewed on only one side of his mouth, making it possible for him to talk and chew at the same time.
“Like fishing? Could’ve fished in that pond that ain’t there now.” He pointed toward a large circle of red dirt. “You don’t talk much, do you? Your parents tell you not to talk much? Good advice,” he answered himself. “Learn more by listening.”
The old man started to walk away. I had come around from the side of the tree. He looked in the direction of the few houses on the lot. “You’d better head back,” he said. “Be dark soon.”
Over the next few days, I combed the area looking for the old man. I hoped to see him in the fields, where I felt comfortable and far removed from the embarrassment of our run-in. I even spent most of one afternoon roosting in the dead tree trying to attract his attention. But the light in the windows of his shack signaled where he would be found. Frustrated, I returned to the shack and stood uneasily on the doorstep.
“Come on in, boy,” he yelled before I had an opportunity to knock.
I struggled with the door, which scratched heavily across the floor.
“Put your weight behind the thing,” he said.
I leaned into the door with my shoulder. It slid open into a dark room. I could only make out a dull light, that flickering light, coming from the back of the room. There sat the old man in a large, threadbare upholstered chair, puffing on a pipe, a book in his lap. A candle rested in an ornate, silver holder on the arm of the chair.
“Well, you found your manners,” he said. “Welcome to my humble castle. Reach under the bed there.” He pointed with his pipe. “You’ll find a rug you can sit on.”
I unrolled the small rug in front of his chair and sat cross-legged. “Why do you live here all by yourself?” I asked.
“Oh, so you can talk,” the old man said loudly, slapping his legs and jerking forward to confront me as if he had caught me in a lie. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Alan,” I replied defensively, trying to keep my voice from quavering. “Alan de Wilde.”
“That’s quite a name. Yes,” he said, leaning back and blowing a puff of smoke toward the ceiling, “that’s quite a name.”
He returned to his book. I picked up a sign of movement under his chair. A cat emerged, then flattened to the floor. With one eye in my direction, it bellied cautiously to a bed lining the wall to the left of the chair, leaped on top and settled down in a pile. A bookcase ran the length of the wall opposite the bed. It was built of heavy, dark wood. Carved cabinets decorated the lower half, and volumes filled two rows across the top. The rest of the room was bare.
“What time you supposed to be home, Alan?” the old man asked, looking over the top of his book.
“You better work on your timing son. Last time I had to send you off, too. It’s closing in on 6:00.”
I stood and rolled up the rug. The old man stopped me. “Leave it there. You can use it next time.” He followed me to the door and swung it open easily.
“Could you please tell me your name?” I asked, stepping into the yard.
“Shane. Not as fancy as yours, but it’ll do.”
Shane and I spent a lot of time in the fields, “grubbin” as he called it. He taught me the names of trees, bushes, flowers and insects. Sometimes we’d sit hunched together, staring under a large rock or log, while he identified every bug, stick and leaf, explaining the patterns and struggles that played out.
When not in the fields, Shane was reading. He began leaving the door open so I could steal quietly into the shack until it was convenient for him to be interrupted. Shane sometimes read aloud to me, most often from Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. These books, with their tall tales and vast settings, were particular favorites of his. He acted out bits and pieces of the stories, bounding around the shack, shouting and laughing, dancing and shadow boxing. Shane brought life to these story book legends, and I grew fascinated with Bunyan’s Northwest, its huge trees, cascading rivers and towering, snow covered peaks.
The face of our neighborhood began changing, imperceptibly at first. Small piles of wood, bricks and tools appeared. Men roped off portions of the fields. In time, huge machines lumbered about, transporting mounds of earth while orange-helmeted workers erected skeletal frames of houses filling holes left by the machines. There was an excitement to this noise and bustle.
When the sound of construction began to ring out clearly across the area, Shane grew quiet. I couldn’t understand his lack of interest in the activity that surrounded us. Shane shut himself in, wouldn’t read, and often didn’t say anything for hours at a time. I sat on my rug, he in his chair, and there we’d stay.
One afternoon, Shane broke the silence. “Some men came by last week and told me they want to build houses on this land and will be tearing down my place.”
I jumped from the rug. “How can they do that? Don’t you own the shack?”
“I built it so I guess you could say I own it, but I don’t own the land. Never knew who owned it. No on ever bothered me about it before.” He shook his head slowly. “Guess I knew this was coming one day.”
I was confused. “Even if you live someplace, people can come and make you move? They can tear it down?”
“Seems strange, don’t it?” he replied. “But, I know the way things are, always have, just forgot. Ignored it, really. Guess I hoped it wouldn’t catch up with me.”
Shane eventually stopped talking altogether unless I asked him something, and even then he was detached, filtering in only what was absolutely necessary for a brief response. But he never appeared concerned and merely shrugged when I asked what he was going to do. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if he knew I was there, and I wanted to talk to him, tell him that I was sorry about things.
I wasn’t planning to visit the afternoon I found the books lying on the couch in our living room. I thought about it all day and decided Shane probably needed some time to himself. The tattered volumes of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill looked out of place resting on the soft blue of the cushion.
“Where did you get this?” I snapped at my mother, confronting her in the kitchen, waving the books in her face.
“Well, I…,” she stammered, surprised. “I found them in the mailbox this morning. They were wrapped with a rubber band and piece of paper with your name written on it. I was going to ask you where they came from.”
I bolted out of the house and ran down the block to the fields. The shack was gone. A large, level graded area stretched out like an empty table top. Men were pounding stakes in the soft, brown earth.
“Where’s Shane?” I shouted, running toward the nearest workmen.
“Hey, kid, you shouldn’t be here,” someone yelled from behind me.
I stopped and turned. “Where’s Shane?” I directed at the person who was approaching.
“What?” the man asked, grabbing my arm and leading me away from the area.
“He lived there,” I twisted, gesturing back over my shoulder. “In the shack.”
“Oh, the old man. Don’t know. He set fire to the place real early this morning, at least we think it was him, and disappeared. Saved us the trouble of ‘dozing the junk heap. Now, kid, you stay off this land, away from the construction area. You could get hurt.”
I stood on the edge of the site, staring across the flat, brown stain. I wondered how Shane would ever find another home; then wondered if he would even try.
J. David Bethel is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been published in popular consumer magazines and respected political journals. He is the author of Evil Town, a novel of political intrigue that has received high praise from Washington opinion leaders, and is one of only a few novels available through Kindle that has been rewarded with Five-Stars by all readers who provided reviews. Bethel spent 35 years in politics and government. He served in the Senior Executive Service as a political appointee where he was Senior Adviser/Director of Speechwriting for the Secretary of Commerce; directed speechwriting offices for other Cabinet officials, serving as Chief Speechwriter to the Secretary of Education; and lead speechwriter in the Department of Transportation’s Office of Policy and International Affairs. He also served as press secretary/speechwriter to members of U.S. Congress. Bethel authored the speech given by Senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nevada) nominating then-Governor Ronald Reagan as the GOP candidate for President. Bethel works as a media consultant for a number of prominent communications management firms, including Burson Marsteller and The Wade Group. He writes speeches, opinion editorials and Congressional testimony for CEOs from the nation’s largest corporations, including the Monsanto Corporation, Hilton Hotels Corporation, and Royal Caribbean Lines. His op-ed pieces have appeared in The Washington Post and other prominent newspapers around the country. Bethel graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors from Tulane University and lives in Miami, Florida.