Chapter One: Barnstorm
The barn was scheduled to come down that afternoon. The demo team had arrived early, however, and worked with efficiency and skill. Caroline watched them fill a dump truck for the third time in two hours and reverse back out to the road; the driver steered with caution. The monstrous truck bleated as though it were as small and vulnerable as a lamb, as if it wouldn’t easily crush any comers that dared to cross its path, even at this slow speed. Caroline sipped a cup of coffee at the kitchen sink, shifting her gaze from the truck to the new empty space now in front of her, noting how the barn’s footprint seemed so much larger, ironically, without it.
It had come down without a fuss, without any protests or resistance. It hadn’t been a lightning storm, or a Nor’easter, or termites that had done it in—though those had all taken their toll, of course. Rather, it had been the gradual soft rains of the past hundred and three years, the sea-salty air that exfoliated the barn’s support beams, the heavy snows that weighed the roof down like a pressure cooker. When the bulldozer came, it took only two hits for the entire structure to crumble like a wad of paper. Rick, the foreman, raised the crane to the roof and tapped, then raked the shovel across the shingles like a comb untangling a strand of knots. The barn’s north and west walls bowed to the ground. Rick pivoted the truck on its base and extended the shovel toward the southeast corner, as graceful as a lion going in for its last wound before a kill. A swift puncture to the base and the barn collapsed in on itself, the old timbers groaning as they fell; a moderate dust cloud rose as the boards settled onto the earth.
Caroline swirled the last sip of coffee in her mug, then rinsed it in the sink. She debated whether to call the real-estate agent right away or wait a day or two. Now that the barn was demolished, there was no impediment to selling the place.
Caroline crossed the kitchen to the patio, where Rick was waiting with a large glass jug. “We found this in the barn, buried under one of the old horse stalls.” He extended it out to her, its surface almost lavender with caked-on earth and dust accumulated over the past century. “And this, if you want to keep it, even without its mate.” He removed a single earring from his jeans pocket, a strand of dull metal with a topaz gem dangling from its base.
The earring was light in her palm. “Where was this?” Caroline asked.
“On top of one of the interior window frames, back in the rear,” Rick said. “When Jim was removing the glass he found it.”
“I’m surprised my father never found it,” Caroline said. “He was always going on treasure hunts around the property.”
Rick nodded, then looked back at the diminishing pile in the yard. “You know, we probably only have about one more truckload to go over to the dump, and then we’ll be ready to start the landscaping. I’m thinking we’ll be finished about an hour ahead of schedule. I take it that works on your end?”
“Good, good.” Rick started to walk back to the demo site. “You must be excited to finally be moving along with this.”
“Yes,” Caroline called back, but she didn’t sound, or feel, as enthusiastic as she had expected. Why was it, she thought, that for some events anticipation was the key—Christmas morning, the first day of a vacation, moving ahead with selling this place—while the actual happenings never seemed to measure up?
She retrieved her cell phone from her purse and pressed the speed dial for George. She knew he would be right in the middle of his 11:15 class, but she could leave a message.
“You’ve reached George Newman, Professor of Sociology at Syracuse University,” Caroline mouthed along with his recording. “I can’t get to my phone at the moment, but leave a message and I’ll return your call in as timely a manner as possible. Have a good day.”
“Hi, honey, it’s me,” Caroline said, then was surprised to find her words choked up with a sob. “The barn is down. Oh, honey, it’s down already! I thought I was going to have the morning to look at it, maybe take a few final photographs or something, but it came down as if it couldn’t wait to just flop over and be done with it. And of course this is the one time the contractors were super speedy. How long did we wait for the cable guy that one time? Five hours? Five hours just to get a stupid TV hookup. This was the final farewell to the old homestead, and it happened in a matter of minutes.”
Her voice had risen to a wail, she realized, and with the open kitchen door and windows she was within earshot of any contractors who might have been walking by. Quickly she moved to the living room at the other end of the house.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t be leaving this on your voicemail, I just didn’t think it would affect me the way it did. I’ll pull myself together, and then I’ll call the realtor, probably in a little while. Maybe after the guys leave. Anyway. Love you. Call me after your class. Give the girls a hug for me. See you in a few days.”
She hung up, then tossed the phone onto the couch cushions as if it were hot to the touch. Her head was starting to ache, a dull throbbing that laced itself behind her eyes and across the bridge of her nose.
A shower, she thought. A shower, and then she would call the real-estate agency.
From the upstairs landing, in her grandmother’s rocking chair, she could see that the workers had spread sod and grass seed, covering the brown patch of earth with flecks of color. They had also strategically placed sprinklers around the plot of land, and the sheets of water danced around each other in graceful arcs, like ballerinas at a barre, dipping and swaying. Caroline wondered what the eventual new owners would do with that space. A vegetable garden, perhaps. A swimming pool, for the days when they didn’t feel like taking the ten-minute walk to the beach. Another barn, or a guest house. The new buyers would have a family, that was for certain. The house could sleep ten comfortably and, if a guest house were added, up to five more. The yard was large, the patio ideal for cookouts and cocktail parties.
She and George had been well established in Syracuse when the house came into Caroline’s possession six years ago, and the place had been an afterthought until Ruth, the elderly neighbor and house’s caretaker, passed away. Perhaps twice a year Caroline thought of it, when paying the taxes and the flood insurance. She had had grand plans upon first receiving the house from her grandmother’s trust, wanting to make summers at the Cape an annual tradition—but, like many of her good intentions, they had never made it happen. Not once. Blame the seven-hour drive, or more with the area’s god-awful traffic. Blame their daughters, Cynthia and Marilee, who had surprised them both with their arrivals, five and two years ago respectively. Blame George’s work schedule, which had included teaching several summer courses until he received tenure two years ago.
After Ruth’s passing, two things had happened that had made it impossible for Caroline to ignore the Cape house any longer: Ruth’s family put her home up for sale, and the barn on Caroline’s property was condemned. No caretaker available, no other in-family takers. No other in-family anything, actually. Respecting the ties of nostalgia and sentiment, George told Caroline that it was up to her to do what she wanted with it. The thing was that Caroline wasn’t sentimental. The proceeds from selling the house, even after capital-gains taxes, would be too good to pass up. Yet she still didn’t want to call the realtor. She just couldn’t explain why she was hanging onto it.
The milk jug rested at her feet. She picked it up and brought it to the bathroom, where she knelt next to the tub and lathered it up. The dirt was caked on thick; only after several scrubbings did it start to flake off enough for she to see the glass. Robertson Dairy, read the stamp, 1955.
“Go ahead,” her father had said. “They want to hear you sing.”
Caroline sat up on a stool, much higher than the chairs she usually sat upon, a radio microphone dangling in front of her. The radio station manager, Smith, and two other gentlemen sat behind a glass partition.
The stool was wobbly, and Caroline didn’t like being so high off the ground. She had the strange sensation of floating backward, as if she might tip back with just the slightest movement. She pressed her hands on top of the stool for balance and contemplated the microphone. She had practiced at home for the audition. “Robertson Dairy, good for growing boys and girls. The best of the Cape to you.” Yet she couldn’t even say the words there, in that place, much less sing them. Singing at home for her parents was one thing; her grandmother was an acceptable audience too. But the studio was cold, and she didn’t like the way Smith, not her father, had lifted her to her seat, or the cloak of cigar smoke that lingered in the room.
“Caroline.” Her father’s voice was even, yet she detected the slightest edge to it. “Don’t let these nice men think we wasted their time. Remember what we discussed on the way over here.”
What they had discussed on the way over was that, if Caroline did well at this audition, she could have an ice-cream cone each day for the rest of the summer. She didn’t know how they would afford it, given what their meals had consisted of lately: navy beans, rice, sweet potatoes. Even milk was becoming a luxury. How could they afford ice cream, and as much as one cone per day? She glowered at her father. She might have been only eight years old, but she wasn’t stupid.
Smith moved out from behind the glass partition and came into the doorway of the little room where Caroline sat with her father. The other men didn’t move; they remained just faint outlines to Caroline. “How long are you in town this summer? All of July?” the manager asked her father.
“Just three weeks this time.” Her father turned away to chat with Smith, and Caroline relaxed a little. Maybe, without everyone’s eyes on her, she could work up her courage to sing.
“Business and pleasure, or just business?” The manager lit another cigar. The fresh smoke tickled Caroline’s nostrils.
“Just business this time around, although my wife does enjoy the beach, so she never complains when we head out this way. And the seafood.”
“Her very favorite. Even shucks ’em herself.” Her father laughed, a strange guttural ha that Caroline had never heard from him before. Smith matched it, and she laughed too, even though she wasn’t sure what was so funny.
Earlier that week her father had taken her to a matinee, “Curly Top,” starring Shirley Temple. “Do you see that little girl?” he’d asked. “You’d like to sing like that, wouldn’t you?” She had shrugged. Later on he had heard her singing at home and showed her the advertisement in the newspaper seeking out child singers.
“But I’m not a singer,” Caroline had protested. “I’m just playing around.”
Her mother had been stretched out on the divan in the living room, the shades drawn to block the heat of the day. She called to her daughter, “Your playing around could help your father out. So be a doll and try. For me and for him.”
“And ice cream every day this summer. When was the last time you had an ice-cream cone?” her father asked.
Caroline couldn’t say. She crossed her arms and pouted. “I don’t want to.”
Her father’s nostrils flared, ever so slightly. “The meeting’s already been set up, Car. So you better want to by Thursday morning.” He stomped out to the porch, the screen door banging behind him.
Her mother folded an arm over her eyes, and Caroline could see her chest rise and fall in short, fluttery breaths. “You better run along now,” she said, barely a whisper. “Don’t anger him, Caroline. This is important to him. Thursday will be fine. Pretend you’re singing for me, or for your paper dolls.”
The microphone dangled on a cord in front of her. It seemed as if she could easily reach out and yank it down, or take a pair of scissors and, snip-snip-snip, cut it to the floor. Her father still had his back to her, deep in discussion with Smith. She heard a few figures being tossed around, a payment schedule.
She looked down to the floor. She could jump it, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she reached out for the microphone, swung herself out like Tarzan and Jane, and leapt toward the ground. Her father turned at the screech of the microphone, the thump of her landing, and lunged. She rolled away from his reach, then heard the thwock as the swinging microphone hit him in the head. She didn’t turn to find out the damage; instead she sprinted past Smith toward the exit. She didn’t care how much ice cream was in the bargain; she wasn’t spending one more minute in that creepy, smoky place.
She spent the afternoon at the beach, avoiding the areas her mother frequented. That night, when she finally came home, her father was waiting on the porch, belt in hand. She spent a sleepless night, the sheets like steel plates against her welted skin, heat oozing from her shoulder blades down to her buttocks.
Caroline took the clean milk jug and went down to the empty plot. She turned off the sprinklers and stood before the earthen square, trying to conjure the barn’s interior in her mind. Rick had said the jug was under one of the horse stalls, and she walked the perimeter a few times, trying to determine where the stalls would have been. Making her best guess, she stepped onto the moist soil and knelt to scoop up some dirt in her bare hands, her palms getting coated with grass seed, hay, and mud. When she had dug out a good hole, she pressed the jug back into its former place. Once the hole was refilled, she smoothed the top with more hay and grass seed, so that she couldn’t tell where she had disturbed the soil.
Then she went back into the house and dialed the realtor’s number, not bothering to wash the mud off her hands.
A few years ago, I attended a reading for an anthology about parenting as a decision. The featured authors included writers who had struggled with fertility and writers who had opted not to have children. Author Lauren Slater read from her essay “Second Time Around,” and the following quote struck me, and stuck with me: “So, we set up a will. I was eight months pregnant and the lawyer peered at me suspiciously from his desk chair. ‘Who will be the guardian?’ he said. We thought and thought about that. At last, we decided on our babysitter.”
I mulled over this passage for weeks afterward. Not being a parent, I had never contemplated a decision of such magnitude. And Slater’s story was thought-provoking: Why the babysitter? Where was the extended family? If I were a parent, to whom would I entrust my hypothetical children?
And wouldn’t this be a good premise for a novel?
From this introspection came Beneficiaries, my 58,000-word novel studying our relationships with the material world. Going beyond those initial parenting questions from the Slater reading, I thought about other relationships: When we think of what we love most, what actually comes to mind? Is it material, physical, relational, ethereal? Once the cherished are identified, how do we communicate this love for them in a way that’s meaningful?
“Barnstorm” is the opening chapter from Beneficiaries, which is structured as a series of interconnected short stories. As a whole, the novel looks at how things large (like a home) to small (like a cigarette) can shape—and even control—us and our relationships. Conversely, it also observes the strange occurrences when human beings are perceived as objects (for example, children needing caretakers in a last will and testament, or an individual taking part in voluntary medical research). What happens when the body becomes an object? What happens to our relationships when the body changes?
Beneficiaries follows three characters—George and Caroline, a married couple in Syracuse, New York, and Erin, their nanny—during key moments of change and impermanence in their lives. Through their stories, the novel addresses how different stages of life can affect the importance of (or one’s ambivalence toward) certain entities and relationships, and how those statuses can change over the arc of one’s life. In doing so, Beneficiaries asks the reader to examine one’s own relationships, both personal and material, and how those too may change in the years to come. The questions return: What do we love most? How do we make that love tangible? Will we continue to feel this way? And what legacy will we leave to those we love?
Sarah Pascarella is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Quotable, Gravel, Travelers’ Tales, The Boston Globe, and USA Today, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College.
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017