Poems by Amanda Pauley

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Ninety-Five Acres

by Amanda Pauley

From Canary Summer 2015

Amanda lives in the Upper Roanoke Watershed, just a few hundred yards from the North Fork of the Roanoke River.

The valley woke up early, birds first. The shade of the ridges held onto a coolness until midmorning, when the heat burst free. At a gas station where the valley met the interstate, Sylvia stood with one hand on the pump, watching the numbers on the meter spin upward while she listened to the conversation on the other side.

“I heard they offered him over a quarter of a million for that land. Can you believe it? He’s already rich. What will he do with it all?” the voice said.

Sylvia knew what it meant. They had finally made an offer big enough to get Daniel Weaver’s attention. The old man’s property was at the neck of the valley, a stop gate at the edge of a rural community, warding off industry and progress. Rumors had been going around for years now. The newspapers spoke of it often: Possible Factory Location, or, Trade Jobs Needed, Commerce on Its Way. Sylvia thought they might as well have read: Rip Apart the Nature Preserves, Flatten Those Mountains, Technology Will Overcome and Pollute the Rivers. She had seen it happen in nearby Riverton. One factory. One commercial building. Then two. Then a hotel, fast food places, and a strip mall always followed. A rural area full of flora and fauna could be on its way out the door in the span of a couple decades. She thought of the tadpoles in the pond in the summer, young birds flying out of their nests for the first time, and the snapping turtles that, if they survived their youth, could live to be sixty, maybe more. She couldn’t let that happen to her land, her home.

***

Daniel Weaver had moved away from Burkette when he was eighteen. His father paid his college tuition, and he did not come back until he had created three companies, sold two, and made more money than most of the people of Burkette had ever seen. Daniel had married, but he lost his wife to cancer when he was forty-six. The next year, Daniel’s father died, and Daniel returned to Burkette to spend part of the year and to check on his mother in a local nursing home. He disappeared often to tend to his last remaining shipping company. He began renting out the pasture around his father’s farmhouse to local farmers for their cows and horses to graze. Several locals had jobs tending the place when he was out of town. Land preservation was clearly not a primary concern; part of his riches resulted from real estate development. After Daniel’s mother passed away, only a small feeling of nostalgia, which grew smaller by the year, had kept him from selling the place at lower offers.

***

Sylvia could see part of Daniel’s property from the gas pump. It started at the edge of the parking lot, which had been there since before she was born and somehow remained the only commercial venture in the area to exist. She thought about the time some twenty years ago when, not long after his return, Daniel Weaver had driven up their driveway. Sylvia had been seventeen and standing in the garden with a hoe, not hoeing. Denim shorts and long smooth legs. Black hair in a ponytail to her waist. An only child. Chores first, then swimming, her mother had said before leaving for the store.

Daniel had pulled up in his truck. He wanted to talk to her father, who wanted to pasture some of his cows on Daniel’s property. Sylvia’s father was not home either.

At this news, Daniel had hesitated, unable to look away from her, before saying, “I’ll come back. Tell them I came by, would you?”

“Did they fix your fence?” Sylvia asked.

“My what?”

“Your fence? After those kids ran their car off the road and took down your fence. Did they get it fixed?”

They had talked for an hour on trivial things like this, anything at all to stop time. They might as well have been creatures from different planets, but there was something in the air between them. Thirty years and five feet apart, neither one looked away from the other. At forty-seven, Daniel was attractive in an unusual sort of way, Sylvia had thought. She had understood him to be wealthy, but he appeared to have held on to some humility. She had liked the sound of his voice, the genuine smile, the way he moved, but especially his eyes. At seventeen, Sylvia had been waiting for a man to look at her like that. Two squirrels fussed in a peach tree next to the garden, and a dog barked insistently in the distance. A shining crow cawed time, and Daniel’s face changed.

“Tell your dad I’ll come back about the cows,” he’d said, moving quickly to his truck.

Sylvia never forgot the feeling of that undercurrent. Now, twenty years later, she was going to bet the house that he had not forgotten either.

She had seen his car earlier that week and knew that he was in town. She did not call ahead or drive a car. She walked, as she was apt to do, down the winding rural road. August heated the tar on the road, and she popped the bubbles with her shoes. She went past barns and cattle and small graveyards, and over the bridge twice replaced because of floods. She walked whenever she had the chance, and it showed. Her hair swung behind her, though no longer at her waist, still long, and just as black.

She walked by his Mercedes in the drive, and up the porch steps. Daniel’s farmhouse looked as it always had on the outside. Sylvia had seen Daniel over the years since their first encounter, a friendly wave on the road, a brief chat from an open car windows at the gas station, and he even came to the funeral home for her parents’ viewing after their accident three years ago, as a neighbor should. Sylvia’s parents left her fifty acres and a house which she moved into, all several miles of back roads away from Daniel’s place. She had been fortunate enough to have decent employment as a legal secretary for the last ten years in Riverton, and so had managed to pay the land taxes each year.

Sylvia knocked. He answered the door with a familiar smile that now had sixty-seven years behind it.

“Have a seat, have a seat. Would you like something to drink?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you,” she said, just to see what he would bring.

He brought iced tea and whiskey, and she was relieved. They had both, and he showed less surprise at her request than she expected.

They would meet, day after tomorrow, at his place. She could park in back, out of sight of the road. They would use the guest bedroom. Sylvia wondered whether this respectful stipulation had to do with his deceased wife or the fact that this had been his parents’ home. He would have the paperwork minus the forthcoming signature. No lawyers were necessary, and each would trust the other to play their part. He asked that she wear a skirt and heels. She asked that he include all three barns and the tractor in the deal. They both agreed to give each other everything they had.

Later that evening, Sylvia sat in her kitchen with a glass of wine. She did not drink it, but looked into the redness. She was telling no one of their bargain. At first, she had thought that might be important, telling someone. If he did not hold true to his word, it might take someone else’s insistence or aggravation or warning of exposure to hold him to it. But then, he was sixty-seven now and perhaps a different man than he was twenty years ago, when his restraint was caused by what? Morals? Social opinion? The shriek of a crow? Whatever it was, it had kept him from doing something he might have regretted. This was different. After all, she had made this request.

She swirled the wine around the glass and came to the conclusion that the only way to hold him to his word would be her complete participation. She would not get away with lying still or focusing on a far away object. She was going to have to give the performance of her life. Sylvia thought of her sort-of boyfriend. She and Joe were more like good friends that occasionally wound up in bed together. There were no fireworks, and as of yet, no commitment on either part.

She walked outside onto the back porch and the humidity touched her while she looked up at a moon not yet full. She went over what she knew, what might work, what he might not expect, what he might like. She was no stranger to sex. She was a stranger to sixty-seven year-old bodies. The oldest man she had seen naked so far had been forty-three. She imagined translucent skin and brown spots, sagging parts. She took a drink.

***

At the neck of the valley, Daniel sat at a table in his farmhouse, going over his accounts and upcoming meetings. He was no stranger to sex either, but he had not performed the act in five years. He sat on his couch that evening with the newspaper in his lap, not reading. He doubted she would go through with it. Then he doubted that he could go through with it. Did he really want her that bad? To give up land worth a quarter of a million dollars? If it was a matter of sex, he knew where he could get experienced women, younger women, for well below that price. But they weren’t her.

For a moment he felt ashamed, then insulted. What kind of person makes an offer like that? What did she think of him? Did she really care that much about the land? He was not sure whether to admire her or to scoff at her concern for the valley. Did she think she was worth all that? She was beautiful and looked years younger than he knew she had to be. In fact, to him, she did not look all that different from that moment in her parents’ garden twenty years ago.

It was that moment that decided it. He realized that he had never known another moment in his life when he had wanted something so much and could not have it. Besides, she had made the request with such humility. She had seemed truly desperate and had shown him as much respect as one could show when making that kind of offer. He could give her the land for nothing, if he wanted. He laughed out loud in the quiet of the farmhouse when another option occurred to him. He could go through with it and still not give her the land. At this, he laughed until tears ran down his cheeks. The joke was on him. He wouldn’t have turned her down for anything. He supposed the joke was on her, too. Her bid had been too high. He’d have given her the world for one long embrace.

Daniel leaned back in the chair, closed his eyes and entertained the idea that maybe there was more involved than her need for the land. Did she remember the feeling between them that day so many years ago? He had never forgotten that golden hour, the way she had looked at him.

***

Sunday morning came. Sylvia woke and remembered what day it was. What day it would be. The land would be hers, and she would yoke the neck of the valley in a conservation easement as soon as the ink dried and she could take a shower, forget how it had happened, and get the papers to an attorney’s office on Monday morning.

She went through her Sunday routine. She called Joe to say she needed to get some things done today. A friend called and she declined an invitation to dinner. She did her laundry, cleaned her house. She cut out coupons. She called Daniel at seven-thirty that evening.

“Should I still come?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. He almost added, please, but didn’t.

She drove this time and parked behind his house. She walked up the back steps. He was waiting just inside. He looked at her through the screen door. She wore a short black dress and red – oh so red – high heels. He invited her inside. There on the kitchen table was an open folder with papers and a pen. No lights were on. The evening sun still reached inside with long fingers. Sylvia sat down on the on the sofa and crossed her legs, letting one shoe dangle from her foot. He watched in clear appreciation of the dress, a very little dress. Sylvia wondered if he was surprised at how relaxed she seemed. She knew she was.

He went to get them a drink and came back with a look on his face that made her say, “No guilt. My offer, remember. An exchange. It’s to be enjoyed by both of us. It won’t work if there’s regret,” she said. “Can you do it?”

He said that he could.

Sylvia had imagined what a sixty-seven year old body might look like, feel like. She had prepared for this. After two drinks, she felt the catch release, the okay from the back of her brain, and she leaned in to the lips she had stared at for one hour of her life years ago. She closed her eyes and went there, to the heat, the sunlight, the half-hoed garden. She ignored the crows and barking dogs. She felt her long hair once again touching the small of her back as she moved, and the dirt under her bare feet. She thought of how his face had looked, shaven, strong, and warm. Rolled up sleeves showed forearms, tanned and hairy. He had watched her, not looked, but watched her as she spoke. She remembered that impassible distance of thirty years that had felt exotic, and the five feet of soft soil between them, and before she knew it they were in his bedroom in the dark and she was making love for the sake of mountains and valleys and two-hundred year old oak trees and coyotes that howled from the ridge tops, and red-tailed hawks, and cedar waxwings and fat, soft otters. She was doing this for the land, for preservation, for a twenty year old crush, and she forgot her plans, what she had planned to do to him, which room they had agreed on, and she went somewhere unearthly in the moment. Daniel followed.

What was supposed to be over quickly, initially was, but there was carryover, and time in between, and three hours later they emerged from the bedroom on the creaking planks of the hardwood floor. Daniel retrieved two glasses of water for them, and then two more. Sylvia sat down on the sofa. He remained standing, downed the second glass and reached for the folder. He signed three places and showed her where to sign also. His hands shook. Her entire body relaxed. She signed the two copies, and took hers. He walked her to the door. Sylvia stood for a moment on the small back porch looking up at the moon before she turned around to Daniel.

“Goodnight,” he said.

She nodded to the face she had come to know so well in the dark. She went home, but instead of rushing to shower, she sat down on her own sofa with the papers in one hand, took off her red heels with the other, leaned back and rested in the dark, listening for the caws of the crows, the blue-black crows.

***

Perhaps it was the memory of desire from so many years ago, or the explosive exchange of power that she thought sex could sometimes be, or seem to be, or even the enormity of what was at stake and the secrecy of it all, or maybe it was just the sweetness of an official act of trust between two old acquaintances. It was doubtful, if either would ever know. The fact was it would never happen again between them. Daniel moved to a nice apartment in a complex he owned in a city two hours away where he still had a couple of old friends. He revisited their transaction every day for the rest of his life.

Sylvia got the property and soon after a conservation easement. She also made quite the gossip for a while. No one ever guessed exactly why she was suddenly the owner of Daniel’s ninety-five acres. She never regretted their agreement, despite the unexpected tradeoff it had become. She loved the land, and it was good thing she did, because she never had sex like that again. She would try over the years, with many men, in many ways, even women just in case. The act was still fun, even touching on occasion, but she never moved the mountains quite as far again from underneath the sheets. She did slow – not stop – but slow the progress and construction in the valley by almost two decades, before a factory, several restaurants, and hotels started to creep in by other means. She had bought them some time. The young otters played, and the red-tailed hawks flew high. The coyotes howled a little longer.




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