by William Michaelian
When Leo first told me there was a man living in the barn on the Nash place, I laughed at him and told him to shut up. It was just like him to come up with a big phony-baloney story like that, especially when we had just gone to bed and the light was out. He possessed a real gift for putting strange pictures in my mind when I was about to fall asleep. He knew I�d have to wrestle with them all night, while he slept the sleep of the dead.
That was back in 1933, when our dream was to own a big white horse and ride it down Road 404 to Grandpa�s place. Leo was thirteen, I was ten.
It was June, school was out, and we were dying for something new to happen. We�d already had our fill of pulling weeds in the vineyard, and our hands were a green that wouldn�t wash off, no matter how hard we tried.
It was the first really hot night of the year, and neither one of us had on any covers. Our window was open, and we could hear the frogs and crickets singing in the ditch behind the house.
I was already about to fall asleep when Leo started in.
�When you were helping Papa in the garden,� he said, �I snuck back over to Nash�s barn.�
�Huh?� I said.
�Nash�s barn,� Leo whispered. �I went over there today � and I saw somebody inside.�
�Damn right, I did.�
�Does Papa know?�
�Shut up. Of course he doesn�t know.�
The only thing on the Nash place was the barn, and it was surrounded on three sides by a great big open field. Our vineyard ran along the south side. There never was a house on the land, and the place had gone back to the bank when the owner, Jackson Nash, couldn�t keep up his payments. Papa had told us both more than once that we shouldn�t go over there.
�What�re you laughing at?�
�You didn�t see anybody.�
�I�m telling you, I saw a man in Nash�s barn. He was asleep.�
�Shut up,� I said.
�All right, I won�t tell you about it.�
The room got quiet. I could hear Leo breathing. I figured it had to be just another one of his stories, but, then again, what if it wasn�t? That was the thing about my brother � he always kept you guessing.
Before long, the silence became unbearable.
�You said he was asleep?� I said.
�The man,� I said.
�What man?� Leo said.
�The man in the barn.�
�Shh! I don�t want Papa to hear. Do you have to be so loud?�
�Well, you won�t tell me.�
�I tried to, but you weren�t interested.�
�Okay. I�m interested now, so tell me.�
�Well, it�s nothing much,� Leo said, trying to sound casual. �He�s kind of an old guy. He has a beard. I think he�s living in there.�
�Living in Nash�s barn?�
�And he was sleeping?�
�Uh-huh. He was sound asleep. When I first went in there, I didn�t even see him. He was way back in the corner, where it�s all shadowy. It took a minute for my eyes to get used to the light. He was stretched out on a blanket, in some old straw.�
�Leo, you�re trying to give me nightmares.�
�I�m not. I�ll take you over there and show you.�
This time Leo�s voice had an edge to it, so I knew he wasn�t trying to fool me. I think he was even a little scared. I know I was.
�When?� I said.
Leo lay in the dark, thinking. �Well,� he said, �maybe we could go tonight after Mama and Papa go to sleep.�
�Tonight? How will we see?�
�You�re right,� Leo said. �He might see us before we see him.�
�He might kill us.�
�Oh, shut up. Nobody�s going to kill us. He just needs a place to stay, that�s all.�
�Do you think he has a fire?� I said.
�Probably. Probably does. There�s junk to burn in there. If he�s still alive.�
�I�m going to tell Papa,� I said.
�Boys? You having trouble going to sleep tonight?�
�No, Papa,� Leo said. �At least I�m not. But Albert says it�s too hot.�
I could see Papa�s outline in the doorway. You could tell he had his shirt off, and that he was still wearing his work pants.
�Albert?� he said. �You want a glass of water?�
�No, Papa,� I said.
�If you do, I�ll go out and get you one.�
I tasted the inside of my mouth. A glass of cold water sounded good. I thought if I got up, then Papa might even let me pump it myself. But I didn�t want Leo to get any madder at me than he already was, so I said no.
�Okay,� Papa said. �I know it�s hot tonight. Just take it easy and try to get some sleep. Your mother�s tired. She put in a long day.�
�Okay, Papa,� Leo said. �Good night.�
�Good night, boys. See you in the morning.�
We were alone again.
�What an idiot you are,� Leo said.
�Sorry,� I said. �I got scared.�
�Well, never mind. Anyway, I�ve got it figured out. We�ll go in the morning.�
�Real early?� I said.
�Yeah. Just before it gets light. Before Papa�s up. But if he does get up, we�ll have to know what to tell him if he sees us.�
Other than the truth, I hadn�t the slightest idea what to tell Papa. That was always Leo�s department.
�Okay, here it is,� he said, about thirty seconds later. �We�ll tell him we were looking for rabbits.�
�Rabbits?� I said.
�Sure. Didn�t you know rabbits like to go out and eat early in the morning?�
�Well, they do. Anyway, it�ll be real hot tomorrow. We�ll tell Papa we didn�t want to stay in bed anymore because we wanted to look around while it was still cool. That�ll make sense to him.�
�Okay,� I said, letting out a big yawn. �Can we go to sleep now?�
�Go ahead,� Leo said. �I�ve got some more thinking to do. I�ll wake you up in the morning.�
By the time Leo shook me awake a few hours later, I had forgotten all about Nash�s barn. When I opened my eyes, my brother was standing right over me, holding his finger to his lips and wearing a stern look to keep me from talking.
I got out of bed, and then went over by the window. It was still dark outside, but not black anymore. It looked like the night was beginning to let go a little bit.
Leo already had his clothes on. Still in a daze, I got dressed as fast as I could, trying not to make any noise. The house was quiet, except for Papa�s snoring coming from his and Mama�s room.
We tiptoed out of the house and onto the back porch. Leo ran his fingers around the edge of the spout on the hand pump, and then dabbed the moisture at the corners of his eyes. I did the same. We jumped into the yard, bypassing the wooden steps so they wouldn�t creak.
�We won�t go by the road,� Leo said when we were far enough away from the house.
I followed him back by our barn.
�Hey, there�s ol� Bill,� Leo said. �I forgot about him.�
Bill was our dog, an oversized big-headed beast we got as a pup the summer before from one of the neighbors on Road 66.
Bill was sitting under Papa�s walnut tree when he saw us. Right away he got up and stretched, his furry blond tail wagging at the same time.
�What�re we going to do with you?� Leo said, petting the dog. �Take you with us? Huh? You like that idea, Bill?�
�Is Bill going with us?� I asked Leo. Even though our dog didn�t bite, having a little protection along sounded like a good idea to me.
�I don�t think we have any choice,� Leo said. �Look at him.�
Bill was wagging his tail so hard that the whole back half of him was moving with it.
To calm him down, Leo gave the dog a good rubdown, and told me to do the same. Then we crawled under the first row of vines and started walking toward the back of the vineyard to the ditch. When we got to the ditch, which was less than a quarter of a mile away, we walked along the end of the field until we got to the last row of vines, where our place ran up against Nash�s.
�Okay, here goes,� Leo said.
We turned and started walking back between the last two rows.
There was just a hint of color in the east, up over the Sierras. It would be awhile yet before it really started to get light, but I had already given up hope of getting back before Papa was awake.
The air was nice and cool, and already had a sweet, grassy smell to it. It almost felt like the vineyard was breathing. Little puffs of dust rose up from our shoes, and I could hear the dirt crunching underneath. Bill sniffed around under the vines, looking for rabbits.
We were about twenty vines away from the barn. We stopped to gather our wits, and to give Bill another quick going-over. By now Leo knew he didn�t have to tell me to keep quiet. With a nod, he motioned me to follow him.
The barn was completely quiet. The thought that there might be someone inside, though, had my heart pounding away. I was scared to death. The unpainted one-by-twelves that made up the barn�s south wall didn�t look strong enough to hold back a grown man who didn�t like kids snooping around.
We crawled under the last row of vines and walked as quietly as we could over to the barn. Bill sniffed around at the boards, but he didn�t find anything that bothered him.
There were weeds growing around the base of the barn, scraps of wood lying here and there, and even a section of mangled chicken wire sitting in a heap at one corner of the building. During the day, we would have been able to find lizards and horned toads, and there would have been pigeons fluttering around inside. But now it almost felt like we were walking in a cemetery.
We crept around to the west side of the barn. The door was just an open spot in the middle, but it was big enough to drive a truck through. Keeping our hands on the wall, we edged our way toward the opening, Leo in front, then me, then Bill.
We looked inside.
Except for a little patch of dawn showing through a hole in the roof, it was dark, too dark to see.
And then we heard somebody snoring.
Leo was right. There was a man in Nash�s barn. He was over in the corner, sound asleep. All we had to do was sneeze, I thought, and he would wake up and shoot us.
I wanted to run, but Leo had already taken a step inside. I followed him, almost stepping on his shoes in the process. Bill was wide awake and sniffing the air. If we could hear the snoring, I knew he could too. But it was obvious he felt the same about the dark as we did.
We went in a little further, keeping our eyes peeled in the direction of the snoring. I thought I could see the man lying in the straw � in fact, I was absolutely certain of it. I even pointed at him, but Leo pushed my hand away.
We stopped. While Leo tried to think of what we should do next, the man snorted and rolled over. Then the dog barked and the man woke up.
�Who is it?� he said. �Let me alone!� His voice was high and sounded kind of rickety, like it must have belonged to an old man.
Bill barked again, but it wasn�t a mean bark. I think he was more curious than anything else.
�My name�s Leo,� Leo said into the darkness. �I�ve got my brother here, and this is our dog, Bill.�
The man grunted something to himself, then we heard him crunching around in the straw. He lit a match and held it up, away from his face. We could see his blanket, a pair of shoes, and a book. I thought the book might be a bible. Then the match went out, and he lit another one.
�Up early, are we?� he said to Leo. �Let me get my shoes. Hello, pup. Smell good, don�t they? Hey, I � ow!�
The man fumbled for his matches again.
�Awfully early,� he repeated, but this time, before we could say Boo! the man had walked over to us, and we were looking each other right in the eye.
The man threw his last match on the ground and walked over to the door. He leaned up against the side of the building and began pulling his shoes on.
�Half a mind to throw you boys out,� he grunted. �Unless this barn happens to belong to your old man. That�d be different. I respect my elders, always have. Had a dad myself, once. Blue eyes, pretty as a pond. Either one of you ever seen a pond?�
Leo nodded. I shook my head.
�Stage fright, eh?� the man said. �Well, you damn well oughta. You were fools doing what you did, but I would�ve done the same thing if I were in your shoes. A guy can go bugs always trying to do the right thing. Whatever that is.�
He straightened himself up, and right away started coughing so hard I thought his insides would come out.
�Damn,� he said. �Damn.�
�How long you been living here?� Leo asked the man once he�d finally caught his breath.
�Here?� the man said. �In this particular barn? Oh, I�d say about a week now.�
�Do you like it?�
�Let�s see. Do I like it, he says. Well, to be honest with you, this is one of the best barns I ever stayed in. It�s cozy. Soon as I get some curtains up in the kitchen, I just might bake a cake and have a little party. Would you like to come?�
�Sure,� Leo said, laughing.
When I heard Leo laugh, I started to relax. Bill sat down, pushing half his bulk up against my leg, making it hard for me to stand in one spot.
�Yep,� the man said. He cleared his throat and was just about to spit, but at the last second he turned his back so we couldn�t watch. It made a horrible sound.
�Yep,� he said again. �I�d shake your hand, Leo, and your brother�s here, but I�d better not, just in case I�m contagious.�
�You sick?� Leo said.
�Don�t know. Probably. Should be, anyway. Sleeping in barns has its down side, I guess.�
�You should sleep at our house,� I said.
�Albert, just mind your own business,� Leo said.
�A nice thought, young man. A real nice thought. But I don�t think it�s in the cards.�
The man started coughing again. This time, he walked around the corner of the barn, out of sight. We could hear him clearing his throat and spitting, over and over again.
�What�re we going to do?� I asked Leo.
�I don�t know,� Leo said. �I don�t know. Maybe we shouldn�t have come.�
�Did you see all that junk in his beard?� I said.
�Yeah, I saw it. I think I smelled it when I first set foot in the barn.�
�What�re we going to do?� I asked him again. �Tell Papa?�
Leo turned toward me and put his hands on my shoulders. �No,� he said. �No, we�re not going to tell him. He�ll kill us. He won�t ever let us out of the house again.�
�But what about the man?� I said.
Leo let go of me. �That reminds me,� he said. �We don�t even know his name.�
I stared at my brother. I didn�t even know my name for sure.
�Should we ask him?� I said.
�Why not? Here he comes now.�
The man half-staggered back in our direction. He was buttoning up his pants.
�Haven�t peed that good in a week,� he said with a satisfied smile. �I�ll be damned.�
�Say, we were wondering,� Leo said.
�I�ll bet you were at that,� the man said.
�Could you tell us your name?�
The man ran his fingers through his shaggy gray hair and then tugged at his beard. I think Leo and I were both ready to run in case something jumped out.
�Well, I don�t know,� he said, squinting first at Leo, then at me.
�We won�t tell anybody,� Leo said.
The man grew silent while he considered Leo�s offer.
�Okay,� he said, finally. �Sounds fair enough to me. Not that it amounts to a hill of beans. But a guy deserves some privacy in this world, I figure.�
Leo nodded. �Sure,� he said.
We both waited.
�Long as you don�t ask me any more questions,� the man added as an afterthought.
�We won�t,� Leo said, which I knew was a big fat lie.
�After this, I don�t know you, and you don�t know me,� the man said. �Fair enough?�
�Fair enough,� Leo said.
�And we each go our separate ways.�
�That�s right,� Leo said.
The man looked down at his feet and picked up the first stick he could find. Then he drew two lines in the dirt. �I take the high road, you take the low road,� he said, pointing at the ground. �And never the twain shall meet.�
Leo and I looked obediently at the man�s imaginary roads. But I couldn�t tell which was the high one and which was the low one.
�Still want to know my name?� he said.
We looked up. Leo smiled and nodded.
The man tossed the stick back over his shoulder. �Okay, then� he said. But before he could tell us, his eyes started to water. His breathing got rough, and it looked like he would go into another one of his coughing spells.
He struggled quietly for a few seconds. He caught his breath, and then steadied himself. I got the idea he wanted to pronounce his name clearly, not only to us, but to the whole world.
�Well,� he said, wiping the corners of his eyes, �this might come as a surprise, boys, but my name�s Abraham Lincoln.�
We both stared at the man.
�Abraham Lincoln?� Leo said.
�That�s right,� the man said. �That�s what my mother named me. And do you know when that was?�
�Eighteen sixty-eight,� he said, proudly.
Slowly, and with great effort, Abraham Lincoln drew himself up to his full height. He wasn�t a bit like the Abraham Lincoln our teacher had told us about in school. That Abraham Lincoln was tall, and this one wasn�t much bigger than Leo, though he was thicker. Even Papa was taller.
�Now, I�ll tell you boys what,� this new, short Abraham Lincoln said. �You know my name, right? So why don�t you run on home. I�ll bet your old man has something for you to do. Heck, you probably came out here before your breakfast, didn�t you?�
�Breakfast!� Leo yelled.
Bill and I both jumped.
Abraham Lincoln smiled.
Leo�s brown eyes were as big as a dollar. Right up until that moment, neither of us had noticed how light it was. But now the sun was almost up � and Papa too, no doubt.
Leo grabbed my arm. �We�ve got to get back � now,� he said.
He almost dragged me back over to the first row of vines. We crawled underneath, with Bill at our heels, and started running back the way we had come, back in the direction of the approaching sunrise.
Behind us, the man who called himself Abraham Lincoln was laughing hard enough to wake up the entire neighborhood. Then he started another coughing spree.
Running, we could see the sharp, purple outline of the mountains, and behind it the bright light where the sun was about to come up.
It only took us a minute to reach the ditch. When we stopped on the ditch bank to catch our breath, Bill kept on going and jumped in.
�Look at that dumb dog,� Leo puffed. �He thinks it�s just a game.�
We ran across the end of the field until we were even with the house. Without thinking, I turned down the row directly behind our barn and kept on running. But then Leo caught up with me and stopped me.
�What�re you trying to do,� he scolded. �We�ve got to catch our breath or Papa will think something�s wrong.�
I leaned forward and put my hands on my knees. �Something is wrong,� I said.
�Oh, shut up,� Leo said. �You�ll mess everything up.�
�Me?� I said. �What�ll Papa do to us? You said � �
�Never mind,� Leo said. �Just catch your breath. You�ve got to think, remember? We can�t go running into the yard like a ghost is chasing us.�
�Maybe he is a ghost,� I said.
�Don�t be ridiculous. He�s just a sick old man, that�s all. He�s nothing to be afraid of.�
�Abraham Lincoln?� I said.
�No, the man in the moon. You really are an idiot, aren�t you?�
�Well, you�re the one who yelled breakfast and started running, not me.�
�Oh, never mind,� Leo said. He turned around. �Great, there�s Bill. Better watch out.�
We jumped out of the way just as Bill ran up to us and started to shake water in all directions.
It took a couple of minutes, but once the dog was settled down, and after Leo had reminded me about our rabbit story, we started walking back toward the house. A few minutes later, our composure mostly restored, we slipped quietly into the yard.
Everything was calm, just as if we had never been gone. We dusted off our pants again for good measure, then walked up the back steps, forgetting all about the creaking boards.
Inside, Papa had just gotten up. He was standing in the kitchen, shirtless and shoeless, and looking out the window at the early morning sky.
�Morning, Papa,� Leo said.
�Morning, boys. Up early today?�
�Yeah,� Leo said. �We were out looking for rabbits.�
�Rabbits, huh? Did you see any?�
�Only a couple,� Leo lied.
�That�s good,� Papa said, turning back to the window. �Well, I guess I�ll get some coffee on. Your mother�ll be up in a few minutes. You hungry?�
�In awhile, Papa,� Leo said.
We left Papa in the kitchen and went on ahead to our room. Inside, I let myself fall face-first onto my bed.
It might have been a few minutes, and I might have fallen asleep, but when I finally turned over to look at Leo, I found him not on his bed, but standing over by the window.
He was crying.
William Michaelian�s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian�s other books and links to this site�s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.