The Northwest Corner

Jack had just sat down to dinner when he heard the light knock, so light he wondered if he imagined it. He was in his late sixties, hair gone sheep's wool, and sounds had started to play tricks on him. Not that he'd admit that to anyone, although the folks in town suspected from the way he asked the waitress at Shirley's to repeat herself during the breakfast rush.

Town was what they called it, although a couple of buildings clustering together as if for warmth deserved the title less than anywhere else he’d seen. Granted, he’d not been many places. Jack wasn’t a traveler. There’d been a time when all he’d thought about was getting away from the county, leaving it and the farm behind; however, he’d given up on that part of his life. Now, he had roots in the soil, deep gnarled things that wouldn’t easily be pulled up.

As he worked his way to the door, taking care to avoid the carefully stacked newspapers, he wondered why a stranger had come calling. County folk didn't knock. There was no mistaking them. They rapped, or pounded. There was something about living so far from your neighbors that discouraged shyness when you finally came to call on them. Even the children – especially the children – knocked like a charging bull.

Everything about the place was familiar to him. This was the house he was raised in, and it had become his when his mother had passed, same thing with the land around it. Jack had never saw the point in marrying, so the house looked much the same as it did when his parents were alive. When something broke he replaced it, but that was the extent of the changes. No, he thought of himself as a caretaker. He’d see to the house, and to the land. The land required special looking after.

His parents had been farmers, and that was the life he’d been brought up to. He’d gotten to eighth grade, and that was all the school for him. Classes and homework and other “foolishness” got in the way of planting and harvest. Even when the family scraped together enough to buy some of the newer machines, his father still wouldn’t let him finish his schooling. Part of him still hated the old man for that, but mostly he’d come around.

To the right of the door sat an umbrella and an ash wood baseball bat in a battered copper urn. Jack grabbed the latter as he pulled the door open. Through the screen, he could see a man in canvas pants and a denim jacket on his porch. His hair was a dark brown, and parted on the side. Under the jacket, he had on a chambray shirt with pens in the pocket. On his left wrist was a silver watch - Jack’s mind tried to come up with the name of the brand, and failed - and in his right hand was a battered briefcase.

Jack looked the man up and down, trying to place him. He didn’t have a memory for faces, but folks got offended when you forgot them. He gave up. "Who are you?" he asked, still peering closely at the man in the fading October light.

"Good evening, sir," the man said. "I'm Stanley Ferro of Danton Agricultural Concerns. Are you Mr. Jack Price?"

"Yeah," Jack said. "What are you selling?"

"I'm not selling anything, Mr. Price. In fact, I'm buying. Land. And I'm paying well for it, too."

Like most folk in the area, Jack had heard of men like this. They came when crops were failing, or market prices were low, or a new factory farm was opening up down the road. That's why he was puzzled - it wasn't a great year, but it was a good one; there hadn’t been any talk of big business coming this way; and besides, he had taken his retirement from the plant two counties over about five years ago. He farmed to pass the time, that was all, and maybe because it was in his blood.

Jack made a noise in the back of his throat. It could have been dismissal; it could have been consideration. The point of the noise was to let a man hang himself with what he thought it was.

Ferro appeared to take the bait. "Now, you're barely using your land. Hardly even getting the real value of it,” he said. “And it looks to me like you're the fishing sort. Nothing beats a hot day and a cold beer on the lake, am I right?"

One day, when he was about seven, Jack's uncle T.J. – his mother’s brother – had taken him fishing. He had come by one morning so early the moon had still hung in the sky like a white eye. His mother had loaded him half-asleep into the passenger seat of his uncle’s red Chevy, fishing poles and tackle boxes in the back seat. The two of them rode in silence to the old lake, headlights burning a path through the morning mists. It felt a little like an adventure, something that was lacking in young Jack’s life.

When they got to the lake, T.J. had set up six poles before Jack had untangled his own line. After that, his uncle had gotten out a cooler as big as Jack's own body. His stomach had rumbled at the sight, since his mother had told him T.J. would give him a big breakfast lakeside, and they'd eat the fish they caught for lunch like real pioneers. Instead, the only thing he could see in the cooler was cans of beer.

T.J. had popped one and then another open with a clever little metal key. The man had finished six off before settling his hat down over his eyes, covering them just as the sun broke through the fog. Jack had played with the worms for a while, and then built a fort out of sticks. When he couldn't think of anything else to do, he had stared out over the water for hours, watching the sunlight glint off the mirrored surface of the lake. His uncle would periodically rouse himself to check the lines. When he did, he'd smile at Jack as if to say, "We're having fun kid! Ain't we just?"

Jack probably spent eight or nine hours in the summer sun with nothing to eat or drink before his stomach disgorged a yellowish water onto his bare feet. His uncle dropped the catfish he was holding when he saw Jack. The boy was pale now, a noise like gasping coming from his open mouth. His uncle had rushed him home, cussing him the whole way for ruining a fine day of fishing. With his head against the cool window of T.J.’s coupe, all he could see was the catfish lying on the bank where his uncle had left it, its white mouth soundlessly flopping open and shut.

His mother had given T.J. hell for not feeding him, and Jack had hated fishing - and beer - ever since. "Not much for fishing," Jack said. His hand tightened on the bat's smooth grip, but he didn't pull it from its hiding place.

"Not for everybody," Ferro said. "Hey! Maybe what you want is a trip. Somewhere warm, where the girls wear them tiny g-string bikinis and everybody’s drink's got an umbrella in it? You could take a long vacation with what we'd pay for that land, long as a summer day is hot."

The man smiled at him, his teeth every bit as bright as the sunshine he was trying to bottle and sell. He radiated good cheer, but something about it was off. Jack was reminded of Mrs. Calloway, one of the women at the post office. Her smile was bright and white, but you didn’t get too close when she talked - her teeth all had veneers, and behind them they were rotting.

It was the shoes, Jack thought. This Mr. Ferro was trying for folksy charm, talking to him like he had dirt under his nails. And he did, Jack noticed. And on his briefcase too, which looked like it had been dragged behind a truck. But somewhere along the line, Stanley Ferro had forgotten to change out of his shoes. Jack guessed they were what you'd call loafers. They didn't sparkle, but put against the rest of Ferro's carefully pulled together country bumpkin outfit, they were as sore a thumb as you could expect to find.

Jack felt the slow beat of his heart in the side of his neck. The doctor had warned him about it, and had made it clear that a similar problem was what had finally sent Jack's father to the hereafter. His temper - and correspondingly, his blood pressure – wouldn't be so bad but damn people had a way of getting under his skin.

He figured Ferro wasn't lying about the money; that part sounded true enough. However, the man was lying about who he was. Something about that made his hand itch to pull the bat out and knock the briefcase out of Ferro's lying hand. Jack wanted to watch him run in his nice shoes all the way to the rusted Ford pickup he had glimpsed around his gravel driveway's first bend. The man would inevitably trip, at least once, and then scramble to his feet.

"Get off my porch," Jack told him, pushing the screen door open. He left the bat where it was, though, as it had been too easy to picture Ferro running in his mind. As he came out of the house, Stanley Ferro took a step back. To Jack's relief and chagrin, Ferro didn't fall down. If the man had fallen down, it would have been like running from wolves – whether they wanted to or not, they had to chase their prey down. Ferro was oddly self-possessed, even with one foot off the porch.

"Hear me out," he said, and Jack was relieved to hear that Ferro's voice was less nasal. He had dropped whatever county imitation he had been doing. They both held their liminal positions, halfway between one thing and another.

Jack paused. His hands hung at his sides in fists he was working to loosen. The right one, his bar brawl hand, wasn’t coming unstuck. It still longed to grasp at Mr. Ferro and teach him a lesson about lying without words. “What’s your game?” he growled, feeling his heartbeat steadily thudding away. The doctor's warning was faintly repeating on a loop, as was his Uncle's voice cursing at him on the way back from the lake. Each whispered for him to do the opposite thing, effectively canceling one another out. A third voice wondered if any of the strain was showing to Ferro.

The man continued as if it wasn't. "We did an aerial surveillance of this whole area a few months ago. A camera on a small plane, probably looked like a crop duster?"

Jacks' neighbors were still in the farm business proper, and they hired men to spray their fields with pesticides and insecticides from the air. Aerial application was the technical term for it, but hardly anybody called it that. He nodded at the man, trying to breath steadily.

"We had other sensors on the plane. The standard package. But when we got the data, we noticed an irregularity in your northwest corner."

The vein in his neck wasn’t pounding anymore. His pulse had dropped so precipitously that it was a wonder he was still standing. There was that weekend he didn’t quite remember, and hadn’t he been out in the corner then? In a life that was as varied as a bowl of leftover oatmeal, the three days Jack had lost to the corner were a standout.

He’d went out there to run a bush hog, just like he had for more than twenty years now. Nothing grew there but scrub grass and some rickety tress that hardly budded in the spring. Not stunted, but what his mother would have called anemic. That might have earned her a slap from his father; Jonathan Price wasn't keen on his woman using words in front of him that he didn't know.

"It'd be easier if I could come inside and show you," Ferro said, hefting the briefcase. "I've got some glossies in here."

Jack was surprised the briefcase had anything in it other than a bill of sale. He flicked the porch light on and stepped outside, satisfied at the way Ferro jumped a little when the screen door slammed shut. Jack pointed with his chin at the two wooden chairs sitting in front of the picture window. A small circular table sat between them, slightly tilted.

"Alright," Ferro said, and Jack could tell he was disappointed. He probably wanted to peer in the house of what he imagined was a mad man. Folks left him alone, but they talked. The thing that really got his blood boiling was that they thought he couldn't hear because the waitress mumbled like a whore and he had to ask her to repeat the order so she didn't ruin it.

They sat down, and the other man opened the briefcase. Inside, Jack glimpsed stacks of paper. Ferro quickly pulled a manila folder out with some letters and numbers written on it in black Sharpie. From that he extracted a glossy photograph in muted dark green, with some dark brown flecks. A clean line ran through the upper left.

"This," he said, "is part of your land, according to the property valuation office. The northwest corner I told you about earlier. Is that right?"

Although he'd never seen it from the air, he recognized it instantly. He knew the line was the rickety fence Carl Borden had put up ten years back. Him and Carl liked each other, as long as they never talked.

"That's mine," Jack said.

"Good," Ferro said, mostly to himself. "Now this picture, this was taken with a high def camera. You know high def, right?”

Jack gave him a withering gaze, but Ferro was absorbed with the papers he had in his hands. After a moment of angry silence, Jack nodded.

Okay. Well I could blow this picture up to the size of a billboard and it'd be so clear we could pick out individual blades of grass. But that's not the interesting part. What’s interesting are the pressure readings."

Ferro pulled out a piece of plastic. It had a few swirled lines on it with some numbers, which were concentrated on one point. He turned it one way, then another. Finally, he laid it over the picture of Jack’s land.

"Like I said, the plane measured pressure. Highs and lows, weather stuff. The entire county was normal, with the exception of this one point on your land." He pointed at the center of the swirled lines. "Right there, we measured a pressure of about 4,100 hectopascals." The man said this like it meant something. Jack looked at him, waiting.

"Okay, that didn't mean anything to me at first, either. Then, one of our guys in meteorology told us that was more than four times the world record for a high pressure system. Four! Nowhere else on Earth has ever had a system like that. But here's the thing - it's not a system. It's one tiny spot."

Ferro pointed to a nearby patch of grass on the photograph. "That's ten feet away, and the reading is 1,029 hectopascals. That difference should have caused hurricane force winds because of the pressure gradient.”

The older man leaned back in his chair, considering. What he knew about weather happened in the five minutes before he would head down to Shirley’s diner in the morning. However, he believed that Ferro believed in all this stuff about – what did he call them, hectopascals? If the man was lying to him, he didn’t know it. Jack knew all about lying without knowing it. You just spat out what people told you, cause you thought it was gospel truth.

However, under his veneer of cynicism – so like the veneer of the woman at the Post, with her rotting brown smile – he felt a taproot of something cold shoot through the middle of him. Hadn't his daddy always told him to be careful out in the corner? What was it he had said the night when he'd had too much to drink, and mama went to bed crying?

Let it lie,” he'd said, with bleary eyes. “Jess let it lie.” Jack had never understood what his father meant, but he'd avoided the corner all the same. He did all his upkeep out there in the day, bright and shining. Except for the lost weekend of course, but he tried not to think about that.

What else?” Jack asked. He could tell by the way Ferro kept one hand inside the briefcase that he had another toy he wanted to play with.

Ferro smiled. This wasn’t his salesman guise anymore; he was all carnival barker, and from the look of it, he was buying into his own pitch. “We sent the plane back to your northwest corner, same surveillance payload. Know what we found?”

Jack shook his head.

Nothing,” Ferro said. “1,029 hectopascals, plus or minus three all around.” He pulled out another plastic overlay. This one was less dramatic, fewer swirls. “At that point, everyone said it was a malfunction. What else could it be? But our engineer said the sensors were fine. That’s an engineer, right? It’s not the machine that’s wrong, it’s the world.”

The western sky had gone red, like the sun had bled out into the horizon. There’d be no Indian summer this year, that much Jack did know about the weather. He envied Ferro’s jacket in the chill of the autumn twilight. Something about the way they were talking kept him in his chair, though. There was something to what this man was saying. And was that taproot of ice in his heart sending out little runners that crept into the most of him? Perhaps.

So Frank, that’s his name, he tells us to send the plane out one more time. Says he’s got a hunch, but we’ve got to do it exactly when he tells us. We do it, because we like him and his reputation is on the line.” Ferro gave a harsh laugh. “Okay, maybe that's bullshit. We did it because we were told to, orders from the top.”

Ferro pulled out another plastic sheet. “And bingo, he was right.” The third sheet was identical to the first. “Look in the lower right hand corner, at the date.” Jack looked at it. It said “09/12/11 – 21:13:54”

Now look at this one again,” Ferro said, bringing out the first sheet. Jack noted that this one said “08/13/11 – 21:13:54”.

They’re about a month apart,” he observed, looking at Ferro’s face.

Close,” Ferro said, grinning. “They’re exactly a month apart, just not how we count months.”

Jack squinted at him.

Those are the dates of the full moon. Frank had worked it out with some help from our meteorology department. Atmospheric pressure can be affected by the moon, just like the tides. In fact, they call it the atmospheric tides. He figured there was a surge that we picked up, a freak of chance.”

Jack had decided to ignore the parts of it he didn’t understand for now. However, not all of him felt that way. Part of him had imagined a full moon rising over the lake he had visited when he was seven. This moon was huge and bloated, filling the entire sky. Its silvery bulk glinted off the surface of the water. Among the craters was a catfish, its mouth flopping open and shut. “Ain’t we havin’ fun, Jack?” it asked in his uncle’s drunken voice. “Ain’t we just?”

In the here and now, his stomach flopped. He felt the pot roast start to rise it his throat. “You all want to buy my land so you can run more tests,” he said to Ferro, coughing to hide his discomfort.

That’s not it at all, Mr. Price.”

Jack looked up from the spot he was staring at on the porch. He was drawing deep breaths through pursed lips, an old trick to calm himself. It wasn't working.

He remembered the lost weekend had started out with a hard day at the plant. He hadn't gotten out to the corner until dark. There was something eerie about it, but he'd cursed himself for a coward and started into the briar patch that wouldn't quit no matter how many times he ripped it out by the root. Jack reached for a pair of gloves tucked in his back pocket, and then he was waking up in the grass, sprawled and aching. It was light out, maybe mid-morning by the sun, and the briars were right where he had left them.

Frank was sure of his hypothesis, so he snuck some more surveillance packages on. These weren’t standard issue, but we had access to them. By the end of it, that thing could detect magnetic fields, electric fields, radio waves, radar, laser, radiation, just about anything you can think of.”

Like any good carnival man, Ferro let the silence do his work for him. “We don’t need to run any more tests, Mr. Price. We need to dig. And the sooner, the better.”

Ferro pointed to the plastic overlays, the ones from August and September. “The first reading was 4,096 hectopascals; the second was over 5,000. It’s getting stronger, probably has been all along.”

His uncle's face in the moon had been replaced with his father's, drunk and crying. Had he cried that night? Jack wasn't sure, because if he let himself think about it, he'd come back around to the fact that there were large parts of his childhood in the house he couldn't remember. That was why he'd kept all the newspapers - every one of them was an anchor he had tossed down in a vain effort to keep himself moored in time.

But weren't there some papers missing? There should be more. His father cried in the moon, and told his son, “Just let it lie, boy, goddamn it just LET IT LIE.” And it wasn't his father any longer, it was the catfish, but that wasn't right either. It was somehow between them, though the eyes weren't big enough. Tears as black as pitch boiled over lidless white eyes as a pale, toothless mouth opened and opened with a sound like rushing wind.

Through a swirl of newsprint, something clicked in Jack’s mind. “You couldn’t just buy the northwest corner. You’d need enough to get to the road. That’s…”

Pretty much all of it, Mr. Price. When I said a long vacation, I meant it. A permanent vacation. The Danton Agricultural Concern will buy this entire property from you, including the house, at better than competitive rates. We’ll pay you a relocation fee, and hire movers. Wherever you decide to go, we’ll purchase you a residence within a certain price range.”

Ferro made sure he had Jack’s eyes before he continued. “We want your land and your discretion. My job is to get you to agree, and to show you the pictures if I had to. It was preferable if I didn’t.” At this, he kicked up his heels, showing off his loafers. “But it looks like I screwed the pooch.” He let them drop on the porch, and the sound echoed. It was Jack’s turn to jump.

Who’d really be buying my land?” he asked, hating the way his voice shook.

The checks would say Danton on them, and they’d all cash. That’s what’s important.”

Jack nodded. “I’ll have to think about it,” he said. His guts were trembling and he felt tears of his own prick the corners of his eyes. He willed his hand to wipe them, but they stayed on his knees. A cold certainty was filling him up to the brim, a certainty that said sometimes when he went out to mow the grass, it was longer than it should be. Almost as if it hadn't been touched in weeks.

Of course,” Ferro said, standing up. He grabbed the photograph and the plastic overlays from where they lay on the table. To Jack’s eyes, the swirls of the lines looked like they were ripples on a lake. As Ferro shoved them into the briefcase, they seemed to undulate. Jack's hands moves then, gripping both arms of the chair, squeezing until he felt splinters in his palms.

I appreciate your time,” Ferro said, checking his watch. “Here’s my card. When you have a decision, call me, day or night."

Jack wrenched his hand from the chair, taking the small white card. On it was a seven digit number, nothing more. Ferro kept his hand extended. Jack looked at it, then up at the man. Ferro just shrugged and thrust it into his pocket. He took the steps, whistling lightly as he did. He paused at the bottom, head stretched up.

Would you look at that moon! I’d say it’s a full one, wouldn’t you, Mr. Price?”

The pale mouth went open and shut. The white eye.

And after nine o’clock! I’d better be getting home.”

The man walked away into the half-gloom of the night, leaving Jack in the little circle of light on the porch. He turned to look at the northwest corner.

A faint breeze stirred the air.