Henry Feir finished his steak and mopped up the last of the runny eggs with a bit of burnt toast. He liked burnt toast and had to ask for it specifically every morning. Clyde, the well-intentioned cook insisted on feeding his boss only the best he had to offer. Yet, Henry insisted that his toast be blackened and crisp.
“Just like my mother used to make it,” Henry would say with a smile and Clyde would shake his head and walk back into the kitchen.
Henry peered back into the past with relish. Back when we lived by the river in a converted wagon, turned palace. Well, Henry called it a palace long before it was a reality, but his mother Maura always called it a shack fit for a lunatic. That lunatic, Lucien, Henry’s father. He vanished one cold December night a week before Christmas. Henry heard tall tales of a man running naked through a town out West. Or lumberjacks being mauled by a hairless bear. Henry knew it was his father, drunk on nothing more than his own memories of war and sorrow, and maybe some whiskey.
Alone with only themselves, Henry and Maura made do in that shack by the river. Maura always said that no good louse gave her two gifts, in which she’d be eternally grateful. One was Henry of course, and the second was the plot of land the shack sat on. How that maniac managed to buy this property for the price he did, I’ll never know because he never told a soul. how it came. Maura would often say as she sat but the slow-moving river watching the deer in the evening drink from the cool sweet water.
“Maura’s Plot”, as the townsfolk came to know it, was a coy play on words. Firstly, because it was hers of course, but secondly her ingenious ideas on managing the property and built an empire Henry enjoyed to this day; like eating steak, eggs, and burnt toast every morning.
“Do you need anything else Sir?” Clyde asked.
Henry sipped the last drop of coffee from a battered wooden mug and placed it on the table. He said that’ll be all and rose from the table, buttoned his jacket. Clyde disappeared into the kitchen carrying away the dirty dishes and cutlery. Henry pulled out his pocket watch, his reflection from the crystal glass stared back, emotionless. How much longer until this is over? He asked himself without a word. When does it end? This emptiness that reaches down into the gut and gnaws away like a swarm of termites on freshly hewn timber. It weakens a man. Destroys him even. Clyde returned.
“Henry… are you alright?” Clyde said.
Henry put the watch back into his pocket and said, “Never felt better. In fact, I could fight a bear right now. Just like my father used to boast about before he—”
The words caught in the back of his throat. His father never boasted about fighting bears. Lucien was the bear in form and demeanor. A hulking beast of a man; the opposite of the short and scrawny Henry. Maura said it was due to malnutrition when he was an infant. Lucien was off fighting in the war, and she was only able to feed young Henry once a day if they were lucky.
Clyde waited for his employer to pull himself together. This happened more often than they cared to admit. Henrys near breakdowns in the mornings had become more frequent since his wife and child died in childbirth last year. Clyde wished Henry could snap out of it. Sorrow is a part of life. To grow stronger, one must force down the bad and dwell in the light, like Clyde had done all his life.
“Henry, could I ask one question?” Clyde asked.
Henry took out his pocket watch but didn’t flip open the case. He stared at the intricate carvings on the cover. A bear standing upright with its mouth open on one side, and a mountain on the other.
“You can ask me as many questions as you need my friend,” Henry said. He didn’t bother checking the time. He just ran his thumb along the carving on the watch.
Clyde wanted to know why Henry kept him on staff. He only ate burnt bread for breakfast, and coffee for lunch. He also suspected Henry added a healthy portion of whiskey into the coffee, but Clyde didn’t snoop on the matter. No matter what was prepared for dinner, it often was just moved around on the plate and then given to one of the mangy dogs wandering the estate. No matter how much he pleaded to kill the dogs, Henry kept them around. None of them had names of course, and they never went inside. But Henry ate dinner on the covered porch no matter the weather and the dogs made sure to attend every night.
“Why do you keep me around? Why do you keep any of us around?” Clyde asked.
William was the only worker the estate needed. He kept the horses fed and the stables clean. At least he had something to do. Ruth kept the house clean, but she rarely had much to do since Henry insisted only, he go in the bedroom. She dusted and shooed the dogs when they tried to sneak into the kitchen.
“That’s two questions,” Henry said.
He leaned back in his chair. It creaked from the humid air so typical of August by the river. Henry wanted to tell Clyde everything, but why make a fuss about it. He was just an old man far before his time. A widower with nothing to show for his time on Earth. The successful lumber mill he owned meant nothing. Not in the grand scheme of things. The sooner he left this place the better everyone else would be. Especially young Clyde and the rest of his workers.
“Maybe I just like having you around,” Henry said.
Henry stood up and shook Clyde’s hand. He stared deep into the young man’s eyes. The eyes tell more than words ever should. He left the house around eight.
Clyde took a shot of whiskey. Lately, he thought a lot about Henry Feir’s last words to him. After shaking hands, Henry went out to the riverbank. He sat inside the remnants of the shack’s foundation. Once Maura’s lumber business took off, she demolished the shack, but some of the foundation stones were left behind, at Henry’s request. Clyde sat exactly where Henry years earlier, put a gun in his mouth and killed himself.
It’s strange how time seems to move so quickly yet stand still at the same time. In Clyde’s mind Henry had only died moments ago. He heard the gunshot, and rushed out to find his boss, and friend sprawled inside the foundation stones. Like some ancient sacrifice demanded from the pagan gods we thought left this land. Clyde placed his hand on the bare earth, thinking maybe Henry’s soul had simply moved from his body to the ground. He came here often to talk to his old friend.
“I didn’t understand at the time. I wasn’t ready to understand. I was blinded by youth. I envied you Henry. I hated you for everything you had and was. You were just some rich bastard, who couldn’t enjoy what he had. But I understand now.”
Henry left a note in his pocket. Clyde never showed it to anyone. Not even Ruth, who he married a month after Henry’s death. He and Henry kept their secret. Their pact. The note asked Clyde one thing. The letter said everything would go to his workers. The lumberyard would be split into shares and each worker received a certain amount. Clyde, Ruth, and William received the lions share. Clyde and Ruth married and became majority shareholders in a way. William took his inheritance and went out West. He took several horses and made a name for himself in California.
Ruth died a decade earlier. The doctors said blood poisoning, but Clyde suspected the arsenic creams she used. Clyde didn’t miss her; they hadn’t married for love. It was just good business and love complicates that.
The sun moved toward the hills, its last rays bouncing off the slow river. Clyde pulled out a clothe from an inside pocket. He unwrapped a burnt piece of toast and munched on it while the sun slid behind the trees.
“Just like your mother used to make,” Clyde said.
Once twilight passed and the stars lit up the sky, Clyde shot himself down by the river.