The Message

About a year ago my brother Donny and I inherited some land from our uncle Phil who passed away after a long illness, which was, basically, his entire adult life. Phil worked hard and played hard and drank hard and died hard when his heart burst as he crossed his kitchen floor bare foot, in boxers, carrying a bowl of rum raisin ice cream.

Not sure why he left the property to us rather than to his ex or his kids. Maybe because they were estranged. Maybe because Donny and I lived nearby when we were kids and had spent time there on summer vacations, helping Phil paint the barn and clear brush. I mean, I can’t imagine that anyone else loved swimming in that scummy pond like we did. Especially after the snapping turtle took off Phil’s big toe. Good old 9-toe Phil. I miss him.

Donny misses him more. Donny and Phil had more in common – both misfits, you know what I mean? Square pegs and all that. Donny’s ok as long as he stays on his meds, but since he moved down there – started living in the barn – I’ve been worried about him. When he stopped answering my calls and texts, I decided it was time for a visit.

The farm – we call it the farm even though it hasn’t been properly farmed in about 100 years – is in the hills an hour south of Rochester. Not a bad drive. Takes you through Bristol Valley and down the high road overlooking Canandaigua Lake. I’m glad I can remember it that way, the way it was last Saturday, boats carving white wakes across the water. Cottages full of families on vacation.

In Naples, I stopped at Bob and Ruth’s for a cup of coffee and a donut to go. I used to know some of the help, but I’d never met the middle-aged woman with dyed hair who took my order at the counter. Naomi, according to her name tag. She dressed the java the way I like it – double-double – and offered to warm up the donut. Good people in Naples. Too bad.

You can’t see much of the farm from the road, it’s so overgrown. Just a couple ruts that pass for a driveway next to a mailbox mounted on top of a rusting crankshaft. That’s where I found Donny, futzing with adhesive-backed letters, sticking them to the mailbox. I parked under the canopy of old maples and got out of the car.

It’s like I wasn’t there.

“Donny, what the hell?”

“Don’t let on you know me,” he whispered, glancing at the sky. “It would be safer for you that way.”

So I knew right away it was bad. I stood and watched, waiting for him to finish what he was doing. He stuck the last letters in place.

“Ernesto Tambourine?” I said, “Who the hell is that?”

“I’m going to ground,” he said, his eyes darting side to side.

“What does that even mean?”

“In-cog-ni-to,” he articulated, apparently in response to my thick-headedness.

It wasn’t the first time he’d had paranoid delusions. In fact, it was almost comfortingly familiar turf.

“Yeah, but ‘Ernesto Tambourine’? Really? You think anyone is going to fall for that?”

“You don’t know how my enemies think.”

“That’s for sure. Look, I brought your meds.”

“It won’t make any difference,” he said, as he turned and walked stiffly down the drive toward the barn.

“I think it might,” I said. I grabbed the bag from the car and jogged after him.

As we got closer to the barn, I could hear an engine roaring. Like he’d left the tractor running at full throttle.

“What is that, Donny?”

He slid open the big door and we were blasted with a wall of noise and a blue cloud of exhaust.

At first I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. Then my eyes adjusted: Dozens of rotary lawn mowers, bolted to racks, running full bore.

Donny moved down the rows shutting them off, one by one.

This was a new type of insanity I hadn’t seen from him before.

“Centrifuges are not the big problem they’re made out to be,” he said. “It’s the gimbals that are hard to come by. I got these from a marina supply warehouse – they’re ship compass mounts.”

When the mowers were running I hadn’t noticed the hardware hanging from the end of each blade.

“Are these beer bottles?”

“Coors long necks. Good quality – heavy glass, consistent weight. I could use some more if you have any empties.”

I moved closer to the nearest mower and peered at a bottle, which was suspended by its neck, swaying slightly. It was half full of clear liquid; at the bottle, a thin layer of brown sediment.

“Are you deconstructing beer? What’s that at the bottom – hops?

“It’s not beer,” he said. “It’s well water. That stuff at the bottom is plutonium.”

I’m not proud of things I said during the ensuing conversation. I unloaded on him, his paranoia and obsessions and anti-social behavior, the way he’d embarrassed the family for years and worried mom and dad into early graves. How he embraced his condition and, when it suited his purposes, defended it as an illness over which he had no control. I blamed him for the state of our relationship and expanded my rant to include my anger at him for taking over the farm which our dear departed uncle wished us both to enjoy.

Danny remained calm as I flew off the handle. To outward appearances, you’d think he was sane and I was the crazy one.

When I finally tired myself out and collapsed on the couch in the framed-in living space that used to be the hay loft, the sun was low over the hills. Donny handed me a Corona and quietly resumed the explanation of his irrational behavior.

“You’ve heard of West Valley? Major nuclear contamination. They’ve been trying to clean it up for over 30 years. It’s the most toxic site in New York State.”

“So?” I examined the contents of the bottle closely before taking a swig.

“West Valley drains into the Upper Cohocton aquifer.”

This just pissed me off all over again. The way he could go from nuts to reasonable without warning. Will the real Donny please stand up?

“You’re telling me our well is contaminated with nuclear waste?”

He smiled for the first time since I’d arrived, and it gave me the creeps. “It’s not waste,” he said, “if you recycle it.”

“Don’t do something stupid, Donny.”

“We have to send a message.”

“To who? What kind of message?”

“The kind that makes an impression.”

Finally, it all made sense! With lawnmowers and beer bottles, he would build a weapon that engineers with the resources of entire nations at their disposal required decades to develop. A great DIY project, except for certain death from carbon monoxide poisoning, amputation by mower blade, or perhaps total conflagration of the barn. Whatever he was doing with that sludge – whether it was plutonium or hops or most likely the iron that stained the kitchen sink and bathroom fixtures – the message I was getting was a danger to himself or othersAs Donny’s power of attorney and health care proxy, I could arrange to have him committed. No one wants to play that card, not against someone they love, but this was beyond worry and embarrassment. This called for intervention.

I finished the beer and shifted to small talk and safe subjects, told him I’d be back soon with a few cases of Corona empties. I said I’d buy him a geiger counter at the Army Surplus store so he could measure his yield. You know, he said, they track every one of those ever made. Every one. Of course, I said, stupid of me.

As I walked back to my car, I noticed the new padlock on the door of the old stone smokehouse. There were areas in the barn I hadn’t seen either. I wondered how much I was missing. I suddenly felt contaminated by his ideas, his damaged thoughts; I couldn’t wait to get home to my normal existence. A hot shower, a few hours of Netflix, maybe some Chinese takeout. And better beer.

He watched, expressionless, as I backed out into the road. His hand lifted slightly and fluttered in a feeble imitation of a wave. I waved back, and headed down to Naples.

There’s a good cell signal at Bob and Ruth’s. As I stood outside the entrance, scrolling through my contacts, Naomi slid open the service window above the outdoor counter.

“You want ice cream?” she said.

“No thanks.”

“A lot of people do, in the evening, this time of year, especially if it’s hot. They sit at those picnic tables over there under the trees or walk around the Pioneer Cemetery and read the headstones while they eat their ice cream cones. You think that’s disrespectful?”

An older couple walked up to the window.

“We’ll have some ice cream,” the guy said. “You have butterscotch?”

“Just what’s on the board,” Naomi said, pointing up.

I turned my attention back to my phone, found the number of my lawyer, and pressed send. As I waited for an answer, I heard the old woman say, “What a lovely sunset!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the old man start. His head swiveled away from the hand-painted list of ice cream flavors to the dark sky west of town, and with a growing look of puzzlement on his face, to the green and ochre glow above the hills to the south.

I should have said something, alerted the police, sounded the alarm. But I didn’t. I jumped in my car, shut the windows, and drove like hell north, through the garishly lit landscape, and wondered where I – where any of us – would go from there.

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