The Alarm Clock

Beaver’s Pick
Nancy Hoffmann


Boone Tippen reached out his arm and hit the lever on the back of the clock. It was an old-style alarm clock. Two bells on top, a hammer racing between them. He hated the glowing numbers on those clock radios, hated waking up to a DJ yacking away. He wound the clock every night, the crank bending flat against its back when he was done. Darby gave it to him for his birthday several years ago. She had to go to ten stores to find it. She didn’t tell him that to complain. She told him so they could laugh about how difficult it was to find such a simple thing.

Darby was up at the barn already. He could tell from the absence of her weight in the bed, the absence of the cat, who slept purring on her pillow, and the absence of the heavy breath from the two brown mutts who followed her everywhere.

They used to spend the morning together. She always rose more easily than him so she’d lie there awake, waiting for the alarm. And in the darkness, a few touches, a kiss. Then he would doze a while longer until she sent the dogs to get him. But several months had passed since the dogs came running back up the stairs to dig at him as he lay hidden under the blankets.

He dressed without showering—a clean thermal undershirt, jeans and sweatshirt from yesterday. The jeans and sweatshirt smelled lightly of pine shavings and horse manure, odors Boone was comfortable with. In the kitchen, steam rose from the coffee pot. They hadn’t turned the heat on yet, relying as long as they could on the woodburning stove. A ridiculous effort to save money. Darby hadn’t stoked the fire and neither did he. It was early October, there’d be warmth in the morning sun.

Up at the barn, a light shone from the feed room window. Darby worked the whole barn using that one light. She refused to startle the horses with the human need for clarity. They both loved to feed the horses. It was the one chore they never complained about. He’d like to be up there with her, but he sat at the kitchen table with his coffee that he lightened with milk to a benign beige.

Boone figured that Darby had fed the barn cats by now and the horses were complaining about the slow service. Cheyenne liked to toss his head up and down, up and down, Cody smacked his lips, Taffy kicked her stall door, Dakota pawed the ground, Ameera always peed, Murphy nickered. Each had a trick to hurry Darby down the aisle with the buckets of sweet feed—wheat middlings, flaked corn, crimped barley, cane molasses. Boone thought of the weight of the feed and how the grains, coated with molasses that thickened in the cold, sounded like pebbles striking the plastic feed pans. Sometimes, but not so much lately, Darby doled out half a scoop of feed to the empty stall. Boone checked the stall every day and threw the grains in the woods for the birds. He never put it back in the feed room. Just asking for more bad luck.

Boone finished his coffee and waited for the metallic blub, blubbering of the pick up’s diesel engine. Last night, after dinner, he offered to drop the bales from the loft into the truck, but Darby said it was no problem for her in the morning. “Gives me something to do while they eat,” she said.

He met Darby at the gate to the back pasture. The morning blackness was turning gray and Boone could have seen her in the cab of the truck, seen that maybe she had waved, nodded her head, or even smiled. The gesture might have been worth something if she didn’t shoot him right between the eyes. That’s what Boone called the way Darby stared at him, dead center of his forehead. It had taken him a while to figure out. She looked at him, yet, at the same time, didn’t look. When he finally realized the insult, he went behind the shed and split wood until he couldn’t lift the sledgehammer any more. Then he drove to the next farm over and borrowed the old man’s gas-powered log splitter. A humming motor and shattering wood to quiet the thought that maybe she wasn’t just insulting him, maybe she was leaving him.

So Boone kept his head down and climbed into the bed of the truck with the dogs and the hay. Using a pocketknife, he cut the orange twine from around the bales, which broke into small flakes. Summer drought and already they were feeding hay. Darby drove slowly over the brown grass and Boone took his time throwing the flakes out alternating sides of the truck. Cody, the ranking horse, would pin his ears and chase the others from the hay. With the flakes spread over the shallow hill, the gelding would be able to claim only his rightful share.

“That’s it,” Boone yelled as he threw out the last flake. He sat down on the tailgate, his feet dangling, and Darby turned the truck toward the barn.

“Better head over to the house,” Boone called to her. “You’re gonna be late.” And he knew Darby was thinking that she should have gotten up earlier, that she could have had the morning feeding done and the horses turned out before he came to help if she’d just gotten up half an hour earlier. Tomorrow, that’s what she’d do.

When Darby pulled up to the house, the dogs jumped down from the bed of the truck to follow her inside. Boone stayed seated on the tailgate to watch the sun rise above the pines and the first light touch their farm. Thirty-two acres in timothy hay. Seventeen acres of pasture. Five overgrown, wooded acres he’d never clear because some things should be left alone. Blue Moon Farm he and Darby had named it. Such a life doesn’t come along very often.

 

It was only nine acres the first time Darby drove up to his barn.

Her truck was brand new back then. A Chevy diesel, extended cab, long bed. A good farm truck, Boone thought, except it was pulling a rusted red trailer and a lame horse.

“You’re not gonna ride that horse,” Boone said, “not on my farm you’re not. I won’t take him.”

“Relax, cowboy, Scotch is retired,” Darby said and started walking toward the barn. The chestnut gelding followed her, swaying heavily to his left side with every step.

“Stall number eight,” Boone said. After all, he kind of liked being called cowboy.

 

Boone was still sitting on the tailgate when Darby came back outside. She hadn’t bothered to dry her hair. She’d drive with the windows open, the heater on high, and, by time she pulled into the school parking lot, her hair would be its usual jumble of curls.

This term she was teaching mostly plays—Hamlet, Oedipus, No Exit, The Merchant of Venice, Cyrano DeBergerac, Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Raisin in the Sun. The books were stacked on her nightstand. Boone wondered if her students liked her. Some would, of course. But he figured it was all the smart kids. Gifted and talented is what they were called today.

“I have a few stops on my way home,” Darby said. “We’re getting low on feed so I’ll swing by the mill and we could use—”

“I’ll wait for you to bring the horses in,” Boone said.

Darby nodded, climbed into the truck, and drove off.

Boone walked up to the barn and, two at time, led the horses to the back pasture. He turned them loose and each pair trot up the hill to the hay. Just beyond the crest of the hill, near the fence line, rose a mound of dry, cracked dirt. With the drought, it wouldn’t settle. It had been like digging into concrete with the backhoe.

“The black walnut tree came down,” Darby had said. “Scotch must’ve eaten the wilted leaves. It looked like a lightning strike, but maybe it could’ve been the wind too.” It was the only time she accused Boone of not doing what he had promised.

The storm came up during the night. Just a summer thunderstorm. More wind and lightning than rain. In the morning, Boone said he’d walk the pastures and Darby left for school. But the old man called. His fences were down. Cows were in the road. Boone figured he’d be old soon enough and need more help than he wanted to ask for so he drove over there and spent the day chasing cows and mending fence.

From the road, Boone could see the horses in the pasture dozing in the sun. He didn’t see Scotch. That lame horse was a loner anyway.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Boone called the horses to eat that night. Scotch never came to the gate.

When Darby found him, the blisters on his white stockings and muzzle had already swollen and burst. That’s where the poison showed itself. Above his hooves, his legs bulged with fluid. The horse shifted his weight, looking for comfort. Then he lay down. Boone called the vet.

Darby stayed in the pasture all night to keep the coyotes away. At first light, Boone started digging.

 

Darby was late getting home and Boone waited for her to feed the horses. After dinner, she took a flashlight and the dogs to walk the farm. She used to groom Scotch in the evenings. Boone would sweep out the barn and pretend not to watch. She’d start at his head, the soft-bristled brush tracing the rigid contours of his face. Down his neck, across his chest, over his withers, and along his back. At the end of each stroke, Darby flicked her wrist and a puff of dust rose from Scotch’s hide. She never talked to the horse. The rhythm of the brush was enough for Scotch.

When the grooming was done, she massaged his shoulder, forcing warmth into the arthritic joint. Boone liked to lean on his broom and stare at Darby and her horse.

“You’re spying,” Darby always said.

“I’m jealous,” Boone would answer.

“I love you more,” she’d say.

“I know.”

Boone thought that the farm work, performed in the same pattern and with the same motion every day, made them susceptible to a repetitive sort of affection—Darby waiting for the alarm to wake him, Darby sending the dogs to dig at him under the covers, Boone coaxing Darby into saying she loved him more. More than the farm, more than the dogs? More than one unfilled promise that had killed her horse?

Now Darby walked the farm with the dogs. They’d already checked that the gates were latched so Boone went upstairs to their bedroom. He wound the alarm clock, bending the crank flat against its back when he was done. Then he moved the narrow dial for the alarm back half an hour. Tomorrow morning, he’d be waiting for Darby at the gate to the pasture. She’d stop the truck and he’d climb into the back with the dogs and the hay.

pencil

“I live on a horse farm and also work as a research attorney. (Yes, just another attorney bored with the law.) Running a farm seems to give me an endless supply of story ideas and a limited amount of time to explore them. But I figure that’s better than the reverse.” E-mail: 36Legs[at]comcast.net.