Roots

Jeremy pointed into the hole.

“See that?” he asked, looking up. “Roots.”

The men crouched over the dirt and peered at the opening.

“I can’t see anything,” Jack mumbled.

Jeremy took a stick and shoved it into the darkness. “Right there. Full of roots.”

Brad stood up and scanned the area, taking in the recent excavation. Surrounding a patch of bare dirt, filled with claw marks from the excavator’s steel bucket, were several gigantic trees, including a maple tree with a twisted, swollen trunk. “How much would it cost to fix the system?” he asked. “I mean everything. The pipes, the leech field, the tank.”

Jeremy stood up and dropped the stick in the hole. Brad’s face was in the shade. The sun was behind him. Jeremy squinted in the bright light.

“Six thousand dollars.”

Jack glanced at Jeremy, then at Brad. He took another branch and prodded around inside the tank, trying to feel the obstruction. Then, he too stood up. His short greasy hair reflected the sunlight. He appeared frail, like a whipped cur, or some other kind of animal that had received the short end of the stick for the majority of its life. Jeremy walked over to the maple tree and patted the trunk.

“It’s this thing, you know. She loves that tank.”

Jeremy was a stout man, with a round face, missing a tooth in front. He wore suspender overalls stained with mud. His hands were remarkably pale, the fingers slightly bloated, almost feminine. He enjoyed talking about septic tanks.

Several other trees could also be culprits. Two sugar pines shot up from the earth on the other side of the leech field. Maybe they had also nosed their way into the concrete cistern. Jeremy glanced at them with suspicion. He turned to the two men and pointed at the pine trees.

“Could be those two trees, as well,” he said.

The sun floated toward the top of a clear chilly sky. In the distance, mountains flecked with snow surrounded the valley. Jack wanted to hear more about the area.

“How long you been here?” he asked Jeremy.

“My whole life,” came the reply. “The family settled here in 1827.”

“Damn!” Brad exclaimed, “they must have been fighting the Indians!”

Jeremy’s eyes lit up. As the men walked toward the barn, he regaled them with information.

“Oh, you got that right. The tribe’s still a nuisance.” He paused, brought his pale swollen fingers up to his baseball cap and rearranged it, combing his hair back with his other hand as he did so.

“Got in a firefight with the bastards last year.”

Random events had brought the three of them together. Jack was the one who had originally found the parcel. Three weeks ago, desperate to purchase something before turning into an old man, he drove four hundred miles north and toured nearly a half a dozen properties with Janice, the local real estate agent. Janice explained the different parts of the valley to him as they drove around in her SUV. Jack tried to act interested in what she had to say. On a whim, as a last-ditch effort to locate something suitable, Janice brought him to this one, an abandoned twenty-acre homestead, located next to a massive alfalfa farm. Jack instantly liked it. So he called his friend Brad, and the next week they hopped in Brad’s car and drove north. Now, a local veteran, who had done three tours of duty in Iraq, who came from one of the original families in the area, and who installed and maintained cavernous concrete containers that collected people’s shit, showed them what was wrong with the property’s septic system. The homestead was three hours removed from any big city. It was part of a valley that had been home to two Indian tribes since before Jesus Christ. Quaint whitewashed churches dotted the landscape. Several safe houses for domestic violence victims were located in the small farming community to the northeast.

“Six thousand dollars, huh?” Jack asked, in order to confirm the bad news.

“At least,” Jeremy confirmed. “Could be more.”

Jack looked at Brad. “What do you think?”

Brad knew the routine. Jack was unwilling to process bad information. As soon as something negative appeared on the horizon, Jack moved to ignore it.

“That’s a lot of money,” Brad replied. “It’ll have to be negotiated into the offer.”

Jack didn’t hear him. He had a bad habit of losing his train of thought after asking a question. Why listen, if you don’t want to hear the answer in the first place? He and Brad had been friends for decades. The only reason why Brad was walking around a root-infested cistern, was because Jack thought that as a partner in the purchase, he could take advantage of Brad’s money and labor. For Jack, a friend meant a resource. Brad knew that. He didn’t care. He still liked Jack, enjoyed hearing his complaints, his terrible stories about the first wife, who turned out to be a vicious monster who had nearly destroyed Jack, the difficult circumstances related to his second wife, who recently began expressing thoughts of dissolution, the bankruptcy, the other disasters that seemed to stick to Jack like metal filings to a magnet.

Every friendship is transactional. This one was no different.

In the barn, the men discussed problems associated with having a septic system on higher ground. It meant that shit would have to be pumped by a machine through the sewage line, if ever a bathroom was to be installed under the barn’s corrugated metal roof. There was no house. A prefabricated plastic home that had once stood on the property had recently been demolished and hauled away, like a noxious weed. The abandoned homestead consisted of a large fallow field, filled with rocky dirt, a septic system filled with roots, and a barn that whistled in the wind. If anyone was to live on the property, the barn would need to be illegally converted into some sort of a domicile, at least in the short term.

Jeremy’s truck rolled to the front gate, an acre’s distance away. He pushed the gate open, drove the truck to the road, and shut the gate behind him. Brad and Jack watched him turn right, in the direction of the reservation, fading into a tiny white dot on the floor of the valley.

“What do you want to do?” Jack asked, pacing the floor of the barn.

“I don’t know,” Brad replied.

“Six grand’s expensive, don’tcha think?”

“Yes.”

Jack walked through the barn entrance and gazed out at the mountains in the distance. He wanted the property. Wanted it bad. He was nearly sixty years old. Time was running away from him. Truth be told, he had no idea where the last thirty years went. The life he had lived felt like a series of missed opportunities, a cracked pitcher, with the precious contents leaking out inexorably into the drain. His greasy hair was turning grey. The skin around his beady eyes was tightening, revealing brittle cheekbones. His hands looked scaly, bony, weak, the opposite of Jeremy’s. Thankfully, his narcissism provided him with a short-term buffer from a lifetime of lies that, like malignant vines snuffing the lifeblood from a withered sapling, slowly suffocated his spirit. He put his hands in his pockets, wondering whether Brad was still on board with the purchase.

Brad no longer felt bothered by the many problems bedeviling the property. This second visit confirmed his reservations about moving forward. Too many issues. Not only would it be a job for Hercules to build a house from scratch in the middle of nowhere, but trying to turn an abandoned homestead into a working farm would be a nightmare, even for an expert. Neither men had any experience with crops.

Not to mention the collaboration. Jack was already dropping the guise of friendly partner. On the drive up here, yesterday afternoon, he made it clear that he was the one who had located the property, he was the one who had found a real estate agent, he had figured out how to generate the land loan they would both be paying off.

“Shouldn’t you be grateful for all the work I’m doing?” he complained. “What have you done? You’re a mooch, Brad, a parasite!”

They had argued. At one point, it got ugly. At a gas station, Jack upbraided Brad for taking too long to put his seatbelt on.

“Come on,” he said curtly, “I don’t have all day.”

Brad looked at him from behind the steering wheel. He wanted to ball his hand into a fist and smash Jack in the nose. Instead, he jumped out of the car and walked around the gas pump, collecting his thoughts. What an impatient asshole, he thought. Eventually, he got in the car and they drove the rest of the way to the valley.

Imagine sharing a property with this prick, is what he thought, as he glanced out the front of the barn at his friend. Jack must have felt Brad’s eyes boring holes in his back. He abruptly turned around.

“Let’s check the perimeter,” he shouted.

“What’s that?” Brad shouted back.

“We need to check the property boundaries again. Make sure we understand the topography.”

“Why? Isn’t the surveyor going to do that for us?”

Jack didn’t hear him. He walked west, away from the road. Brad came out of the barn and watched him slowly climb the hill into the stand of trees along the fence.

“You’re making an enormous mistake,” he whispered to himself.

A hawk sat perched at the top of a towering Sugar Pine. It screamed into the chilly atmosphere. Brad looked at it. It watched him. Nearby, in the branches, sticks had been woven into a great raptor’s nest. Brad sensed that the hawk was screaming at them, two strangers, two uninvited land speculators from the city. He felt no business intruding on the magnificent animal’s hunting grounds. A moment later, the hawk sprung off its perch, spread its wings, and banked to the right, drifting through the air high above him.

“Hey! What are you doing?” Jack demanded, approaching him.

“Did you see that hawk?”

Jack couldn’t be bothered. He looked at him with his hands in his pockets.

“Yes.”

“Look at that nest!”

Jack lost his patience. “Come on, Brad. We need to check out the perimeter.”

“No, we don’t. That’s the surveyor’s job.”

“Of course we do,” Jack replied, indicating the obvious necessity of the task. “We need to see how deep it goes. Let’s walk it, from one side to the other.”

He turned around and set off for the barbed wire fence behind the trees. Out of the corner of his eye, Brad noticed something by the front gate. He turned to see a blue car stop at the side of the road. A woman got out, pushed the gate open, then drove through. He didn’t recognize her. Jack continued walking away from him, eventually disappearing behind the trees.

At the turnout, next to the excavated septic tank, the car rolled to a stop. The driver got out, looked at her phone, shook her head, then looked over at Brad. Brad walked toward her.

“You must be Jack’s business partner,” she said.

“Brad. Nice to meet you,” he answered, holding out his hand. She shook it.

“Janice. Nice to meet you.”

Janice was a big woman. She tried to hide her bigness under a black stretch sweater that dropped to her knees. She instinctively pulled the sweater around her torso. The sweater rebelled. It stretched back to her sides. Janice’s hair was prematurely grey. Her small lips looked out of place on such a hefty figure. Her eyes twinkled with warmth. She glanced at the bucket marks scarring the dirt next to the septic tank.

“Wow. They did a number on that,” Janice chuckled, pointing to the ground. Without waiting for a reply, she checked her phone, then looked at Brad.

“Is Jack here?” she asked.

“Yeah.” Brad pointed to the trees. “He’s walking the property line up the hill.”

“Okay.” Janice scowled. “He bounced a check. I just heard about it from the title company.” Janice was irritated. She leaned on one foot, then on the other. “I get bad buyers bouncing checks, who come up here and tie up properties without any intention of buying them.” Brad watched her. She glanced at him as if he was guilty by association. He shrugged and turned away. Not his problem.

A moment later, Janice asked him a question. “You’re buying it with him?” She wanted to hear for herself whether this fellow Jack had told her about was serious about purchasing the property.

“That’s the plan.”

Janice put her phone in her pocket. She walked over to the hole in the ground. “Was Jeremy out here?” she asked, reaching down and rubbing the cement.

“Yeah. He just left.”

“How did the inspection go?”

Brad looked on as she tried to see inside the tank. It was pitch-black. She couldn’t see anything.

“He said it was full of roots.”

Janice stood up. “Really? Did he tell you what it costs to clean it out?”

“Six grand.”

“What?” Janice exclaimed. “That much?” She pulled her sweater forward. It stretched back.

At that moment, Jack came out of the trees. He sped up as soon as he saw her.

“Hi Janice,” he said, striding down the hill.

“Hello Jack. How are you?” she replied.

“Just fine,” he said exuberantly. “You met Brad?”

“Sure did. Listen, your check bounced.”

For a split second, Jack appeared shocked. His shock turned to embarrassment. “I know, sorry Janice. I saw it on the way up, yesterday.”

Brad was confused. Jack hadn’t told him anything was amiss.

“It’s fine, it happens,” Janice answered. “When can we get the money?”

Jack was irritated at the demand. “Soon as I get home, I’ll have another check overnighted to you.”

Janice crossed her arms under her gigantic breasts. Jack’s frail outline looked like it would get swallowed up by Janice, the way a particle of food gets swallowed by an amoeba.

“Good,” Janice said. She meandered over to the blue car, parked next to the enormous maple tree. From the back seat, she pulled a folder of papers out and fished some documents from it. “These are the water sample results.” She handed both of them a sheet of paper. “They look great. You’re sitting over an aquifer. Some of the best water in the state. And plenty of it. Seventy gallons a minute.” She pointed at the well near the barn.

Jack took the paper and folded it in half. He appeared lost in thought. Brad looked the document over. Various minerals and chemical residues were listed on a graph. It was hard to make any sense of the information, unless you knew something about water, which Brad didn’t. Janice noticed him reading the results and walked over to where he stood. At the same time, Jack paced around angrily.

“You sure it bounced?” he asked, out of the blue. Janice and Brad glanced over.

“I’m sure,” Janice chuckled.

“You just told us you saw it yesterday,” Brad added.

Jack gave Brad the hairy eyeball. He didn’t need any editorializing from the silent partner. Why do you think they call them silent partners? Because they’re not supposed to say anything. Janice pointed at the graph in Brad’s hands.

“You got trace amounts of calcium…look there…magnesium, iron, zinc…”

“Great,” Brad said. He looked her in the eyes. “I guess.”

Jack grew agitated. He didn’t come all the way up here so Brad and Janice could cluck and coo over some stupid water results from the laboratory in Medford. He turned in the direction of the trees.

Brad walked over to the hole in the ground. Jack’s presence made him nauseous.

“I’ll be right back, Janice,” Jack declared. “I was walking the property line.” He pointed up at the trees. “Do you mind?”

Janice waved him off. “Of course not!”

Jack marched back into the trees, leaving her alone with Brad. She approached him at the septic clean-out.

“We added you to the paperwork. It’s official,” she said. Her eyes sparkled in the bright morning light. “We just need your signature.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

Brad didn’t seem all that happy about the news. Far from it. Every day that passed brought with it some new confirmation that the proposition was a mistake. He had driven up here in order to dispel his doubts about the partnership. The opposite was happening. If anything, the idea of buying property four hundred miles from San Francisco, with a man who couldn’t be trusted to write a proper check to the escrow account, was beginning to feel ridiculous. What he realized, of course, was that he shouldn’t have expected anything different. He had known Jack now for over thirty years. He personally witnessed Jack’s panic attacks. He had been there when Jack had had his worst meltdown, after finding out his wife was pregnant. During one episode, he was in such bad shape, Brad had to drive him to the hospital. Another time, several years previously, after a mutual funds swindle cost Jack thirty thousand dollars, another panic attack had morphed into a shouting match, followed by six months of silence between the two friends. Over the years, the two men had learned to distrust each other. Their long friendship had devolved into a relationship of convenience. Brad had alienated most of the people in his life. Jack’s companionship alleviated the loneliness. Conversely, Brad had done well for himself. Jack wanted some of his money.

But that was yesterday. Today, on a crisp clear morning, in a valley surrounded by snow-flecked mountains, Brad woke up hoping that Jack’s invitation to purchase an abandoned homestead with him would turn out to be a good idea. Maybe even an opportunity to recalibrate their friendship. Why not? What else was he doing with himself? Watching porn back in the city? He smiled at Janice. Janice glanced at her phone.

“The surveyor can get over here on Friday,” she said, after a pause.

“That’s what Jack mentioned.”

Janice kicked some tree roots that had been torn up by the excavator. As she did so, Brad caught sight of something shiny in the dirt, next to her feet. Janice noticed a strange expression on his face. She backed up, wondering what he was looking at. Brad caught himself. He quickly distracted her, waving the water report around in his hands.

“You have more appointments today?” he asked, walking toward her car. She followed him, laughing.

“Ha ha ha! Always. I’m running around the valley like a chicken with its head cut off!”

A well-fed chicken with its head cut off, Jack nearly replied. He caught himself, instead saying:

“Well, there’s no reason to wait here, with us, for Jeremy. He’s already done.”

Janice appreciated his consideration. The septic inspection was complete.

“That’s true.”

She turned to the car door. “You coming by the office tomorrow to sign the paperwork?”

Brad needed her gone. He had trouble concentrating on what she was saying. “Yes, Ma’am,” he answered.

As soon as Janice had pulled the gate closed behind her, Brad spun around. Jack was nowhere to be seen. Brad slowly walked back to the bare patch of dirt surrounding the septic tank. The earth had been mauled by Jeremy’s backhoe. He crouched down near some severed tree roots and pushed them aside. There, in the mud, was a shiny chunk of metal. His heart started to pound in his chest. He rubbed the dirt from around the edges.

“Holy shit!” he muttered, picking it up. He turned to the hill dotted with sugar pines. No sign of Jack. In his hand was a gold nugget, flecked by pieces of quartz. As he lifted it out of the depression, he caught sight of another piece of quartz. The ground was compacted. He pulled a folding knife from his belt, opened it, and dug around the quartz, loosening it. Then he wiggled it back and forth, extricating it from the soil. Another gold nugget, even bigger than the first one.

“Hey!” he heard, from the tree line. He glanced up at the forest. Jack was skipping down the hill toward him. He shoved what he was holding into the ground, then furiously scraped some mud over the gold. A moment later, Jack hovered over him.

“Now what are you doing?” Jack asked, with a mixture of condescension and curiosity. He looked at the severed tree roots, the soil, and the lines of tooth marks from the excavator bucket, shredding the earth in parallel strokes near the gigantic maple tree.

Brad stood up, straightening his back. “You done walking the property?” he asked, moving from side to side, cracking his vertebrae.

Jack scanned the ground, wondering why Brad was inspecting mud. “Find some treasure?” he joked.

Brad stayed where he was. He lifted his knife in the air. “Dropped this.”

Jack couldn’t be bothered with an answer.

“I can’t believe I bounced that check,” he said, after a pause.

At the hotel room that evening, the two friends discussed the homestead. Neither was a farmer. Both were torn. Both struggled over whether it would be wise to partner on the project. Both men could be stubborn and uncooperative.

But Brad knew something about the place that Jack didn’t. Jeremy had struck paydirt. Excavating the old septic tank unearthed gold. Lots of gold. In the few seconds Brad was alone, he had noticed more quartz wedged under several more tree roots. It was a deposit. Jack had found the property and had brought him up here to look at it. Now, what should he do? Tell him what he had seen? Jack would most likely put an immediate halt to partnership. After all, Janice was working for him. At the moment, she was preparing title documents. Once he found out what Brad had discovered, Brad’s signature wouldn’t be on anything.

Jack sat on his bed, on the other side of the nightstand, reviewing the water report. He turned to Brad.

“You understand any of this?”

Brad shook his head. “Not really.”

Jack looked at the graph. Then he tossed it on the nightstand. Any minute now, he was expecting Brad to mention another problem. Something else about the property that wasn’t right. Because that was what Brad did. Ever since he had called him about it, Brad had poured cold water on the proposition. Too impractical. Too much work. Too small for two people. Too cold…blah blah blah, on and on, and so forth. Always something wrong.

“You wanna drive five hours from the city to park your ass in the country for the weekend?” That was the first sentence out of Brad’s mouth. On the telephone. Sight unseen.

“Why get twenty acres next to the main road?” That was the second sentence.

After he saw it the first time, a week ago, Brad bitched about the alfalfa farm across the street.

“What about all the shit they use to kill the weeds? Do you know anything about that?” he had asked.

Jack didn’t. And he didn’t care. Jesus Christ. You’re worried about a little weed killer? You’re paranoid! One thing after another. Brad worked to sabotage the purchase. Now, a day away from signing off on the contingencies and moving forward with the sale, together, roots in a septic tank were all that stood between them and the property. Maybe it was a mistake calling Brad. From his bed, Jack stared up at the ceiling. I can still do this by myself, he thought. Tell Janice I’ll be the only one on title. Why not call her, first thing in the morning, while Brad’s still sleeping, and cancel the meeting with the notary public, at the office? I’ll bullshit Brad and tell him Janice couldn’t make it. Then, once we’re back in the city, I’ll close it myself. Fuck Brad. I don’t need his negativity.

Oddly, Brad had clammed up. He wasn’t talking. Instead, he was chewing gum and watching some silly program on diamonds, on the jewelry channel. Jack glanced at him. What a headstrong sonofabitch. The expert’s nasally voice coming out of the television speakers was getting under his skin. After a few minutes, he lost his patience.

“Turn that shit off,” he ordered.

Brad looked over at his bed. Jack was staring at the ceiling.

“Huh?”

Jack grabbed the water report off the nightstand. “Turn the TV off. I can’t think,” he whined.

Brad was incensed. The night before, he had slept horribly. A foul odor in the hotel room had kept him up. Maybe it was the formaldehyde in the carpet. Or the ammonia used to clean the shower stall. The air was poisonous.

Except now, he should be careful. He could tell that Jack was having second thoughts. What he wanted to do, as soon as possible, was figure out a way to run back to the parcel, without Jack, and retrieve the two gold nuggets laying in the dirt. Who knows? Somebody could sneak onto the property tonight and find it themselves. There could be half a million dollars sitting up there, in the ground. Easy.

Jack stared at him. “Did you hear what I said?”

“Quit barking!” Brad snapped.

Jack reached for the remote, on the nightstand. Brad beat him to it. He tossed the remote on the other side of his bed, away from Jack. Jack chuckled.

“Come on, turn it off. Why are you watching the jewelry channel? That’s for old ladies.” He held the water report up. “We got work to do.”

Brad muted the TV. “What work?”

Jack rubbed his greasy hair. “I can’t believe I bounced the escrow check.”

“No shit,” Brad replied. “You still want to go through with it?”

“The property?” Here we go again, Jack mused. More cold water.

“Yeah.”

“Of course. With or without you, my friend.” Here, Jack paused. He got up and walked over to a jar of soup next to the television.

“As a matter of fact, it seems like maybe it would be a good idea if I bought the property by myself.”

Jack unscrewed the lid from the soup jar and inserted it into the microwave. Brad was in a bind. After two weeks of objections, he couldn’t very well suddenly start gushing about the parcel now. That wouldn’t sound right. Perhaps Jack already discovered the gold. If that’s the case, it would make perfect sense to cut him out. Brad studied Jack’s profile. Nothing indicated he had seen anything. The glass jar spun round and round behind the oven window.

“You know?” Jack pressed the lever and the door opened. He pulled the jar out. “Ouch!” he exclaimed, dropping it on the counter. “Shit!” He grabbed a little white towel and nudged the jar across the countertop. Steam wafted out of the opening.

“You’re awfully quiet, all of a sudden,” he said. “Ever since we got back to the hotel…” After taking a plastic spoon out of a paper bag and dipping it in the soup, he blew on it several times, grimaced, and snapped his teeth over the food, like a rat, trying to keep his lips away from the hot liquid.

The jewelry expert handled several gold nuggets. On a pedestal in full view of the camera was a pile of gold coins, glistening under the lights. It appeared he was explaining how gold was melted down into currency. His hands moved this way and that, like spiders, now picking up one of the coins, now caressing one of the nuggets. Behind the treasure, his striped blue and pink tie dropped from the top of the screen to the bottom, like a cubist waterfall. Brad watched in fascination.

“Dude. Turn that thing off!” Jack growled, his mouth full of hot soup.

Brad ignored him. Not because he was offended at the order, but because he couldn’t appear to be too cooperative. Jack needed reassurance that Brad was as stubborn and negative as ever. Brad laid into him.

“Yeah? You wanna do this by yourself? You can’t even write a check for the good faith deposit!”

Jack looked at him, mouth open, inhaling and exhaling and trying to cool down the mouthful of food. Brad continued.

“You should have heard Janice. She’s pissed.”

“Really? What did she say?”

“She said that bad buyers, flakes like yourself, who have no intention of following through on the offer, come up here and waste her time tying up property. That’s what she said.”

Jack swallowed. He grimaced, as the soup slid down his gullet.

“No shit?” he responded, tapping his chest in discomfort.

“You asked.”

Jack steered the plastic spoon through the opening of the jar.

“You know, Brad, I couldn’t care less what that bitch said. I am serious. She knows I’m serious, and I know I’m serious.”

Brad looked at the pile of gold coins on the screen. Jack ate.

“Listen to yourself, man. You’re so fucking negative all the time. How does your wife put up with it?”

“At least she’s my first wife,” Brad responded, “not my third.”

The two men argued for the next forty five minutes, back and forth, Brad doing his best to seem skeptical. He wanted Jack to somehow fall asleep, so he could jump in the car, right now, and drive the eleven miles north from the hotel to the property. Eventually, tired of the bickering, Jack nodded off. Brad waited. Where were the keys? Brad searched around the TV, lifting clothes and papers. He looked on the nightstand. No keys. Suddenly, he remembered that Jack was the one who had driven them back to the hotel. He had put the keys somewhere. If the keys were in Jack’s pocket, he wouldn’t be going anywhere. Brad went to the bathroom. He gazed in the mirror. Lack of sleep made him look like a devil. He threw some cold water on his face.

As he exited the bathroom, he noticed Jack’s ski jacket hanging on a white plastic coat hanger, underneath the wall heater.

“Maybe there!” he whispered. He checked the pocket. They were there.

Jack had turned away from the reading light, toward the wall. Brad walked over to his bed and lay down. He tapped his fingers on the comforter in order to stay awake. Eventually, he reached over to the switch on the wall between the beds and turned off the reading light. Disturbed, Jack grumbled, turned around, then turned back toward the wall. Brad waited. He watched the digital clock on the nightstand. Every minute felt like ten minutes. Eventually, Jack breathed like a sleeping man. His nostrils flared open and closed, carbon dioxide rattling in his throat. Brad got up, put his shoes on, grabbed his wallet and phone, and walked to the door. Behind him, still facing the wall, Jack slumbered.

It was 11:30. Brad gently opened the hotel room door, walked outside, and carefully shut it behind him. Already, a thin layer of frost dusted the windshield of the car. With a turn of the key, Brad started the engine. He looked back at the door to the room. It was shut. The window was dark. The light was out. He pulled the seatbelt strap over his chest, shoved it into the buckle, then swiftly disengaged the parking brake and rolled the car backward. Another guest at the hotel had parked a trailer against the neighbor’s fence, along the far side of the gravel lot. Brad needed to be careful not to hit it on his way out. He craned his neck, assessing the position of the trailer in the darkness.

“Brad!” a voice shouted. Brad spun around. Jack was staring at him through the window, a look of consternation and surprise on his face. Fuck. Brad put the car in ‘park’ and rolled the window down.

“What are you doing?” Jack asked.

“I can’t sleep,” Brad answered.

Back in the hotel room, Brad sheepishly hung his jacket up next to Jack’s. Then he untied his shoes and pried them off his feet. Jack was upset. Brad was acting weird. If they couldn’t get along together for two days, how in the world would they be able to get along for two years? Or longer? One more reason to do this himself. He climbed onto his bed and stared at the ceiling, like a mannequin.

In the morning, the men stopped at a coffee shop around the corner from the motel, took some coffee and breakfast to go, and headed the eleven miles back to the homestead. Brad grabbed a donut, while Jack chose a ham and cheese croissant. As soon as they were on the road, things went south. Brad could hardly think straight. He had rolled around on the bed, all night, like a slug sprinkled with salt. At three in the morning, unable to sleep, he had turned the TV back on. Jack woke up, momentarily, then acted like he went back to sleep. Brad watched grown men drive trucks with huge wheels over hay bales and other obstacles. Some of the wheels were taller than the men driving the trucks. By the time the sun was up, he had napped for an hour. That morning, Jack took one look at him, and exclaimed:

“You look like shit!”

Now, on the drive over, Jack castigated him for his choice of breakfast.

“A donut?”

Brad sipped his coffee. He was in no mood for a critique.

“You got a problem with that?”

Jack snickered. “You can’t function on donuts, bro. You should know that.”

Brad lost his temper.

“Fuck you,” he said.

Jack slowed down. “We can’t do this,” he replied.

“Suit yourself,” Brad muttered.

“What’s that?” Jack asked, “I can’t hear you.”

Brad looked into Jack’s eyes. Jack’s eyebrows were raised. His greasy hair was messed up. He wrinkled his forehead. His little face looked like a carnival clown mask.

“Don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t eat, asshole. Okay? Do you hear me complaining about your croissant?”

Jack smirked, then sped up. But he couldn’t let go. A few minutes later, he sniped:

“I’m just trying to tell you sugar and coffee’s no way to start the day…” He wanted to continue, but Brad cut him off.

“Shut up.”

After an awkward ten minutes of silence, the abandoned homestead came into view. Immediately, Brad felt his heart jump in his chest. As Jack turned into the driveway, Brad got out to open the gate. Jack pulled in, and, after waiting for a moment, sped on up to the barn without him.

“Shit,” Brad whispered. He nearly ran the thousand yards from the road to the turn-out. Jack had parked, but instead of getting out, he looked down at his lap. He was busy with his phone.

“Good,” Brad muttered, catching up to him. He was out of breath. A cloud of steam floated around his face. He didn’t want to go to the clogged septic tank, or the severed roots of the maple tree. On the contrary. He needed to lure Jack away from there. Jack didn’t notice, however. He was too busy responding to the morning’s texts. Brad hovered around, pretending to take in the line of snow-covered mountains surrounding the valley. Eventually Jack got out of the car and joined him.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

Brad looked at him. “Sorry about what?”

“Your donut, earlier. I don’t know, man, I get stressed. I’m stressed out.”

“No worries,” Brad answered.

Jack looked worried.

“I lash out, brother, I can’t help it…” He paced around, looking at the ground. “It’s lame.”

Brad understood.

“Come on, Jack. Don’t worry about it,” he said, trying not to sound mushy.

Jack looked at him. Brad averted his eyes, instead gazing at the mountains in the distance. He tried to change the subject.

“You know, Jack, you’re right.”

Jack turned to him. “About what?”

“Those.”

Brad pointed to the mountains. Then, he slowly turned to the left and the right, taking in the landscape, recalling Jack’s comment that the parcel was located in one of the most spectacular places in the country. Jack was right.

“What a beautiful valley,” Brad muttered.

The two men stood side by side, each debating a different problem. Behind them, from the top of a sugar pine located halfway up the hill, yesterday’s hawk shrieked into the chilly morning air. Jack broke the silence.

“That was a text from Janice.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You need to get down to her office and sign the paperwork for the offer. The seller looked at your finances and wants to make you party to the purchase. Without you, we can’t get it.”

“Oh, okay,” Brad replied. Was this another one of Jack’s games? He started walking toward the barn. Jack called him back.

“Did you hear what Jeremy said about the maple tree?”

Brad faced him. “What did Jeremy say?”

Jack began walking toward the maple, which was near the cistern. Brad hurried to catch up with him.

“What did Jeremy say?” he asked a second time. Jack continued walking, until he stood next to the tree’s grey trunk, which was filled with woodpecker holes. He put his hand on the bark, then looked at the roots, some of which had been severed by the backhoe. Flecks of quartz dotted the ground. Brad joined him. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the nugget of gold submerged in the mud.

Jack tapped the trunk. “It’s this thing,” he said, indicating the source of the tank’s obstruction.

Brad watched, as Jack knelt down, and picked up one of the severed roots. He turned it around in his hand, trying to imagine how badly the leach field had been compromised.

Gold lay nearby, submerged beneath a quarter inch of mud.

Jack let the root slip from his hand and skid toward the open hole in the ground.

Brad wasn’t sure what to do. At this point, not being on the paperwork, he was Jack’s advisor, not partner. And he never would be his partner, that much he was confident of, if Jack happened to grow more perceptive of his surroundings.

“You know, man, I got a good feeling about this place,” Jack said, after a few seconds of silence. He lifted himself up straight and smiled at Brad. Brad realized that Jack was suddenly nervous about losing the property. Janice’s text scared him. Yesterday’s bounced check had made the seller angry. Without Brad, there would be no homestead in the valley. Hence Jack’s sudden warmth. It rubbed him the wrong way. He walked away from the tree, but to his consternation, Jack didn’t follow. On the contrary. He turned and hovered over the concrete opening, gazing with consternation into the dark interior of the septic tank.

“Six thousand dollars to scrape a tank?” he exclaimed. He turned around. “Jeremy’s ripping us off.”

Brad walked over and joined him at the lip of the opening. Jack was suspicious. He was convinced the world was trying to rip him off, which meant that Jeremy was trying to rip him off. He looked up at Brad, hoping for confirmation about his suspicions. Brad was having trouble concentrating on the root problem. Two nights of sleep deprivation made it difficult to worry about root removal.

“Six grand?” Jack repeated, pointing into the cavern. Brad watched, as Jack’s traditional sense of entitlement percolated to the surface. He grew increasingly frustrated at the prospect of receiving the short end of Jeremy’s deal.

“I don’t know, Jack. I’ve never scraped a septic tank,” Brad retorted.

Jack rolled his eyes. “The seller won’t pay. We have to.”

Brad couldn’t care less. But he shrugged his shoulders, doing his best to act otherwise.

“How do you know?”

Jack pointed at Brad’s car, where he had left his phone. “Janice texted me, right now. She told the seller about the root problem yesterday. The seller’s not budging. Property sold as is. Period. Roots or no roots.” He abruptly stood up. “It’s our problem.”

Brad didn’t know what to say. If it hadn’t been for the maple tree, Jeremy never would have started digging around in the mud with his backhoe, in the first place. Now, at a minimum, they needed to meet at Janice’s office, as soon as possible, so that Brad could sign the paperwork for his fifty percent interest. Unfortunately, the meeting wasn’t for several hours. Several hours during which he would need to listen to his friend’s interminable whining. He tried to remain calm.

“You understand what I said?” Jack bitched.

Brad grew flustered. Proximity to the precious metal, combined with Jack’s tone of voice, made him incensed. “So what?” he snapped. “Are we going to let a few roots ruin the deal?”

Jack cut him off. He didn’t want to hear from his friend. Brad’s the silent partner, remember? He’s supposed to agree, not object. Jack kicked some clumps of dirt over the lip of the opening.

“Pisses me off,” he growled. “How’s that fair? The seller’s unreasonable.”

Brad watched him. Same old snake. Suddenly, Jack dropped to the ground and stuck his head over the opening. He knelt lower and stared into the abyss.

“Where are those roots?” he asked, his voice filling the subterranean chamber.

Brad walked up behind him. A sudden surge of energy made his hands tingle. In front of him, on the ground, Jack tried desperately to see something in the abandoned septic tank. Brad spread his feet apart in order to center his weight. Then, his arms coursing with adrenalin, he grabbed Jack by the armpits.

“Oh!” Jack blurted, losing his balance. Brad shoved Jack headfirst down into the hole. Instinctively, he tried to grab the lip of concrete, but the push was too sudden. Brad watched his friend’s shoes disappear into the darkness. From inside, he heard a voice.

“Brad!”

Brad rushed over to the cement plug and dragged it toward the opening.

“God!” Jack shrieked.

The cistern must not have been too deep, or perhaps it really was full of roots. Jack’s spidery fingers appeared at the edge of the opening. Furiously, Brad scraped and pulled the circular cement disc over the dirt, toward the hole. It slid across Jack’s fingers, shredding them. As he plugged the opening, he caught a glimpse of Jack’s face, staring up at him in horror. A split second later, the lid fell into place, sealing the hole.

Brad jumped up, shocked at his strength. He heard muffled sounds coming from beneath the concrete, followed by thuds. The lid moved slightly. Brad looked around. He located several small boulders and dragged them through the mud. As he did so, he dislodged a salamander’s nest. The amphibians jumped around, their wet bodies glistening in the sun. They wiggled and danced and twisted and turned. Two of them squirmed forward, finding the circular seam at the edge of the concrete plug. The slippery little creatures squeezed into the seam, protecting themselves from the bright sunlight. Brad slid the boulders over the top of the plug, weighing it down. He was so sleep-deprived, he couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Ha ha ha ha ha,” he roared, springing away from the concrete.

Steam wafted over the newly planted field of alfalfa on the other side of the road. In the distance, a man on a tractor drove along the edge of the river. He was dragging something wide and sharp behind enormous wheels. It was impossible to tell what it was. Dust followed the tractor.

Jack was right to choose such a beautiful spot. The valley was one of the most picturesque landscapes he had ever seen. Exhausted, Brad wandered over to a set of deep gashes in the dirt near the maple tree. He knelt down and stuck his finger in the mud. Then, he collapsed onto the ground and gazed at the stand of sugar pines dotting the hillside.

Later that morning, he drove over to Janice’s office.

“Where’s Jack?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “He was talking about going to see another property.”

Janice got mad. “Really? With another agent?”

Brad shrugged.

“He has to sign this stuff, or he’s not on the deed,” she grumbled, glancing at a young man seated at a desk near the window. Must be the notary, Brad reasoned. In front of the young man was an open ledger.

“Call him,” Brad said, “maybe you’ll have better luck reaching him than I did.”

Janice put the documents on the table and for the next half an hour, carefully explained the terms. The loan was a ten-year note, at six percent. Seemed a bit high, but not enough for Brad to complain about. He signed the paperwork and left. Six hours later, the new property owner arrived back in San Francisco in time for dinner with his wife and daughter. Afterwards, he took a shower, before climbing straight into bed. His hands felt sore. He gently massaged them. One of the knuckles was skinned.

Thirty seconds later, he was fast asleep.

Cedric Wentworth writes fiction in a small yellow house, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His writing features a panoply of everyday individuals who take umbrage at their banal circumstances in ways that are both ludicrous and terrifying. Once written down, the characters in Cedric’s stories keep him company, aiding in alleviating the writer’s loneliness, which can sometimes occur from living in such an isolated environment.

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