The Man in the Backyard

By Robin Praytor

She knew he wouldn’t return before the dust settled back on the dirt drive out to the interstate. He’d passed her on his way to the barn that also served as the garage for his red Dodge pickup. Her arms were full of dry clothes from the line. “See you,” he’d mumbled, giving her a peck on the cheek. Fifteen minutes later, she opened the dresser drawer to put away his folded t-shirts and found it empty. His side of the closet was empty as well. While she worked in the garden earlier that morning, he must have carried everything out to the truck. Two weeks passed. She kept up the chores, read her books, and waited for him to return.

The sun rose, illuminating the tiny kitchen where she sat drinking the last of their coffee. She needed supplies. She wouldn’t starve—there was plenty of food.  There were still a couple packages of meat in the freezer, and the eggs and the chickens, of course. The root cellar was full of canned goods, and the garden was still producing. But the list of necessities for modern humans was longer than that of their forebears. While food and water still led, at some point coffee and toilet paper had made it to the top as well. The coffee was gone and only a small supply of toilet paper remained. It’d been more than a month since they’d driven the two hours to the warehouse store for supplies.

It was no surprise Wendell left. He was going through a transitional stage in life when they’d first met and married. At thirty-five, he was dealing with his parents’ deaths, the realization he was orphaned, without brothers or sisters, and the fear he’d be managing a carwash for the rest of his life. Though he never complained, she knew sometime after their first year he wasn’t happy. Looking back, the surprise was that he’d stayed two more years.

Maybe he loved her. She was fond of him. Their marriage lacked passion, but it was pleasant. They made love once a week, usually on Friday night. She even reached orgasm occasionally. They were kind to each other and rarely disagreed. When they did, they resolved their differences through reasoned discussion. They never argued.

She didn’t have a car or a phone. Wendell owned a cell phone for emergencies, but he’d taken it with him. There was no service at the house anyway. They had to drive out to the interstate to make a call. Tomorrow she would walk the three miles to the mailbox and wait. The postman wouldn’t give her a ride, but he would call the highway patrol for her. Once she was in town, she’d send an overnight letter to have her annuity deposit redirected from their joint account to her savings. Her savings held almost ten thousand dollars. She’d hid it from Wendell; she didn’t know why. She would buy a used car or truck, and supplies. Wendell wouldn’t sell the house out from under her, at least not right away. He wasn’t a bad man. It would be hard, but she’d manage.

Her father had died when she was thirty-three; the year before she met Wendell. They lived on the small annuity she inherited, and the income from the eggs and produce they sold at the farmers’ market every other Saturday. Wendell had inherited the house and land from his parents. In their early forties, Wendell’s parents purchased the land for their retirement. They’d chosen it for the well. When the time came, they built the four-room house and small barn, but lived there only two years. They died in a motel fire on an overnight visit to the state fair. Though the loss of their parents was something they had in common—perhaps the only thing—that loss had affected them differently.

The five-acre homestead was self-sustaining. The well was its mainstay. A windmill delivered an endless supply of deep spring water to the house. It arrived pure and icy with a turn of the tap. A state-of-the-art wind turbine provided electricity for the lights, a small refrigerator-freezer, a two-burner stove and oven—everything in miniature. There was enough power to keep a battery back-up charged for emergencies and provide heat on the rare cold night.

Wendell came into the funeral home where she worked to make arrangements for his parents’ cremation. He was lonely and grieving for parents he adored.  She was lonely and bored. Their third date included a drive out to check on the house and feed the chickens. It was so peaceful. They made love in his parents’ bed. Two months later she quit her job and moved in with him. Two months after that, they were married by the County Clerk.

An only child, she’d been mostly ignored by parents who screamed at each other from early morning until late at night. They swore, slammed doors, and threw china. She’d found little good except in her books. She wanted only a quiet, peaceful existence—one without drama, without anxiety, without uncertainty. The life Wendell offered suited her perfectly. Once they settled in, she decided she wanted one thing more. She wanted a dog. For some reason Wendell didn’t like dogs. They were still discussing it reasonably when he’d left.

She went to the sink to rinse out her coffee cup. If we had a dog, that strange man wouldn’t be in our backyard now, she thought, looking out the kitchen window. He was lying in the hammock strung between the cottonwood trees at the end of the garden. She couldn’t make out his features, but she guessed he was sleeping. It was ten after five in the morning, and just light.

Her stomach twisted into a cold knot. There were no weapons in the house except the kitchen knives. The ax Wendell used to chop wood was embedded in a tree stump closer to the man than to her. She shuddered as she envisioned it coming down on her head, splitting the scalp, biting deep into her skull. He would rape her first. She took up her butcher knife, but wasn’t sure she had the physical strength or courage to use it on the man.

As she watched, he got up from the hammock, went to the edge of the yard, and peed. He was tall, thin, wearing a green military-style coat. From a distance, it looked as if he had a beard. He turned, zipped up his pants, and removed his coat, tossing it on the hammock. He walked toward the house. She checked the backdoor to make sure it was locked—not that it made much difference. The door had an upper glass panel and only a thumb-turn lock. She didn’t know if the man had seen her. Other than short ruffles across the tops, neither the door nor the window above the sink had curtains. When she returned to the kitchen window the man was out of sight.

Clutching the butcher knife, she moved to the window in the living room just as the man was entering the Dutch door to the barn. Her eyes were glued to the barn door, waiting for him to reappear, when she heard a commotion in the chicken pen. She could see the pen from the house. The man was standing in the middle of it tossing feed to the chickens from a white plastic bucket kept for that purpose. When the chickens were fed, he returned to the barn.

She held the butcher knife so tight her hand was cramping. She loosened her grip, and waited for the man to come out of the barn. After what seemed long time, he reappeared carrying a waffled cardboard flat that held up to two dozen eggs. Once more, he headed toward the house. What would she do if he knocked on the door? She wasn’t about to open it to him. All she could do was stand inside with the knife and order him to go away. She stepped from the window. Her hands were sweating. Her breath came in short gasps. He was close to the house now. His footsteps crunched on the gravel path.

The man continued past the front of the house and around to the back. She returned to the kitchen in time to see him cross in front of the window and angle toward the root cellar. Though she had only a quick side view, he was unshaven with dirty black hair reaching past the collar of his plaid flannel shirt. The root cellar was out of her line of sight, but she heard the rattle and groan as the door was opened and folded back on its hinges. Minutes later, she watched from the middle of the kitchen as he approached the narrow back porch. He vaulted the three porch steps opposite the door in one leap. Her chest tightened. At the last instant, he turned away.

In seconds he reappeared, his face inches from the window. He stared directly at her. Her feet froze to the kitchen floor. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t scream. The man’s head ducked below the window for a split second, returning just as quickly. He winked at her and left the porch.

She watched as he went into the garden. He was carrying the canvas bag and the trowel she kept on the porch for weeding. As he entered the center row between the bean and tomato stakes, he bent and started hacking at the earth with the trowel, then pulled the weeds and placed them into the sack. She was becoming lightheaded. Taking deep breaths to restore oxygen to her starved lungs, she moved toward the door. Her eyes never left the man as he continued weeding down the row. The beans and tomatoes are done for the season, she thought. He should be weeding the potatoes and onions, or the squash patch.

Still watching the man through the window, she released the thumb lock on the door and pushed it open a few inches, allowing herself a quick glance down to the porch deck. Her egg basket sat next to the door, filled with eggs. She bent down and pulled the basket inside, then shut and relocked the door as quietly as she’d opened it. The man continued weeding.

Did he want her to cook for him? Could it be as simple as that? He was hungry. He was working for food. Once she fed him, he would leave. She sat the basket of eggs on the counter and took a box of Bisquick and a can of milk from the cupboard. Every few seconds she glanced at the man to make sure he was still in sight. She pulled a butcher’s-wrapped package with the last of the bacon from the refrigerator. She would make eggs, bacon, and biscuits and gravy—and sandwiches for him to take when he left. She hoped he wouldn’t be mad because she was out of coffee. She hoped he wouldn’t kill her. He would have to settle for frozen orange juice.

Thirty minutes later, she filled an oval serving platter with three fried eggs, six pieces of bacon, and two large, fluffy biscuits covered in white gravy made from the bacon grease. She added another biscuit, dripping with butter and honey, to the side of the platter for good measure. She’d kept her eye on the man while she prepared the food. He was still in sight and still weeding, now toward the back of the garden where it needed it most.

She covered the platter with a tent of tin foil and took it to the door. As fast as she could without spilling, she went out and set the platter on the top step of the porch. She ran back into the house and slammed the door loudly behind her.

His orange juice sat on the counter where she’d left it. She groaned. Looking back through the window, she saw the man coming from the garden. He veered away to the side of the porch. She guessed he was going to the side faucet to wash up. She opened the door wide enough to push the glass of orange juice out, slopping a little over the top. She relocked the door and backed away to her spot in the middle of the kitchen.

The faucet squeaked when he turned off the water. He returned to the porch. Picking up the platter, he sat down on the steps with his back to her. She clutched her head in her hands—she’d forgotten to give him a fork. She grabbed a fork from the silverware drawer, and back at the door, with a deep breath, she flung it open and threw the fork at him. She slammed the door and locked it once more, hoping she hadn’t stabbed him in the back of the neck. His sack of sandwiches sat on the kitchen table. With a sigh, she put them in the refrigerator.

Too nervous to stay in the kitchen while he ate only feet away, she moved to the living room. If he came in the back door, she would go out the front to the barn. She might make it to the pitchfork before he caught up to her. The need to pee was so bad she couldn’t contain it any longer. She closed and locked the bathroom door, wishing there was something she could drag in front of it besides the empty wicker clothes hamper. With her pants down she felt powerless. She forced the pee from her bladder as fast as it would come.

Back in the kitchen, she saw that the man had returned to his weeding. Throughout the rest of the morning and into the late afternoon she watched, following him from one window to the next as he completed chore after chore. She never put the knife down.

Finished with the weeding, he found the hand-mower and mowed the grass that bordered the garden. He cut back the tall weeds from the sides of the barn and mended the broken board on the bottom half of the Dutch door where Wendell had backed into it. Then he harvested a bushel each of potatoes, onions, and squash, hosing the soil off each vegetable before placing it in its basket.

At seven-thirty, it was dark. She added a candy bar to the bag of sandwiches and set it on the porch. A bit later she heard the side faucet running again. She turned the porch light on for him, and watched as he walked, shirtless and dripping water, out of the light back toward the hammock carrying the bag of sandwiches.

Emotionally drained, she went to bed with the butcher knife under her pillow, and the dresser pushed in front of the bedroom door. Sometime in the early morning she dozed off, unable to keep her eyes open any longer. A short time later she awoke to the sound of a familiar vehicle engine. Pulling the dresser out of the way, taking her knife, she went into the living room and watched as the man loaded vegetables and eggs into the back of Wendell’s red Dodge Ram truck. It must be market day, she thought. She hurried to the kitchen to start breakfast, slipping the butcher knife into its slot in the block.

~ ~ ∞ ~ ~

Daniel loaded the last of the produce into the back of the truck. Sitting in the cab, he read the letter he’d written one more time. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t as eloquent as he would like. Still, it explained everything: Meeting a drunken Wendell at the truck stop; Wendell’s angst-ridden confession to abandoning his wife and the home his parents had built, of which they were so proud. How miserable he was. The mistake he’d made marrying too quickly, and trying to live in such isolation. He spoke of how he couldn’t go back, but his guilt wouldn’t allow him to go forward.

The longer Wendell talked, the more Daniel realized how much he craved the life Wendell was giving up. He’d been wandering directionless for months since leaving the service. His separation pay and savings were almost gone—buying the Camaro had been foolish. He couldn’t go back to Phoenix and his parents. The week he’d spent with them before leaving on his road trip had been difficult for everyone. He wasn’t the son who left eight years earlier. He would never be that man again.

Wendell described his wife as caring and hardworking, but introverted. He’d complained of endless evenings without a word spoken while she read and he piddled around the house, trying to keep busy until it was time for bed. Daniel desperately longed for that quiet; without the obligation to make idle conversation. He needed time with his thoughts, time to come to grips with his nightmares—time to let go.

In his letter he explained how he’d exchanged vehicles and titles with Wendell. He wrote honestly about his hope that they could manage the small farm together, watch out for each other, and neither of them would be alone.

When he heard the door slam he knew she’d set out his breakfast. He folded the letter neatly, putting it in the back pocket of his jeans. He’d leave his letter for her on the back porch with the breakfast dishes. If she wasn’t here when he returned from the farmer’s market, he wasn’t sure what he would do. He hadn’t planned that far ahead.

As he walked around to the back of the house he thought, the only thing this place needs to be perfect is a dog.

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