The Last Laugh: Taking Land For Free

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One man buys a home only to find exaggerated living conditions...

Well sir, summer’s a-shakin’ her tail feathers an’ fixin’ to settle in on Plumtree Crossin’. An’ the advent of warm weather has brung the members of the Truth an’ Veracity League out from the back of the Gen’ral Store an’ onto the split an’ silvered wooden bench thet graces the front of the establishment.
It weren’t more’n a week back thet the old fellers were enthusiastically breakin’ in their places on thet piece of furniture (they was still so fresh outa their heavy winter duds thet they all looked a little sheared-sheep awkward) when this rattletrap of a jitney pulled up to the store’s lone gas pump.

The driver cut off the ignition (causin’ the jalopy to shudder like a beached fish afore goin’ quiet) an’ — leapin’ from the vehicle all wide-eyed an’ trembly — asked if someone would be kind enough to give him $10 worth of fuel. Always eager to be obligin’, young Billy Parsons set to the task, whilst Ott Bartlett engaged the newcomer in conversation.

“Young feller, you look to be scramblin’ uphill with hell comin’ hot behind you. If you don’t mind my askin’, jist what are you in such an all-fired hurry fer?”

Well, on hearin’ thet, the stranger smiled — sheepish-like — an’ leaned back agin’ the storefront.

“Oh man,” he sighed, closin’ his eyes fer a moment. “I guess I am actin’ on the frantic side. But I’ll tell you, after all I been through these past 12 months, I jist cain’t wait to git shut of this part of the country.”

Now ol’ Ott’s a fierce one when it comes to civic pride (though he’s the first to complain when ennything of a local nature — be it the placement of the town’s first street light or the weather — ain’t jist how he’d like), so you could hear his back gittin’ up when he replied, “Persackly what sorta misfortune were it what turned you agin Barren County?”

“Oh, I ain’t got nothin’ agin yer county,” the man were quick to assert. “Fact is, this is the first time I’ve even passed through here. But this partic’lar piece of two-lane looked to be the fastest route away from Scrug Flats.”

“I think I’m beginnin’ to git the drift of this,” Newt Blanchard chimed in. “Have a sip of ‘shine, young feller, an’ tell us how in tarnation you ever ended up in that godforsaken wasteland in the first place!”

The stranger took a tolerable good pull on the proffered demijohn, give a shiver of satisfaction, an’ set to talkin’.

“I bought myself a little place there ’bout a year back. Was fool enough to put down money on the strength of a blurry Polaroid snapshot an’ a realtor’s promise, too. Ennyhow, once I’d packed my van an’ drove down there — excited as a schoolboy on Christmas mornin’ — I found thet my ’10 tillable acres’ was made up of even parts of a played-out gravel pit an’ a swamp thet even the frogs stayed shy of. The ‘passive solar home’ were a worse shock yet. Oh, it surely did ‘soak up the sunlight’, jist like the realtor said, but the better part of thet illumination was comin’ in through the holes in the roof!

“I guess I’m a quarter stubborn an’ three parts fool, though, ’cause I decided to stay on an’ try to make a go of it. But there come a thunderstorm my first night there, an’ I woke up next mornin’ soaked to the skin an’ wonderin’ if I’d made the right decision. Then I walked out the front door an’ discovered thet the only tree on the whole 10 acres had fallen durin’ the storm, an’ left my van lookin’ like a fist-crushed beer can. An’ from thet point on things commenced to go bad.

“I didn’t have enny choice but to hang on, o’course, bein’ pretty much broke an’ without a vehicle. I tried to put in a garden, but most of my seeds wouldn’t even bother to sprout in thet thin soil, an’ those what did come up were so warped an’ stunted even the bugs wouldn’t touch ’em.

“Fact of the matter is I likely would’ve starved thet summer if the grasshoppers hadn’t felt sorry fer me an’ took to bringin’ me greens from someone else’s plot.

“Now I knew I’d be in fer a bad time if I couldn’t at least plug up the biggest holes in thet house afore winter set in, so I took to tear-in’ down this skeleton of a barn what were standin’ (barely) on the property an’ usin’ the old boards to patch ‘er up. I wasn’t near finished when the weather turned terrible cold, though . . . an’ — seein’ as how there weren’t any timber on the place — I had to start burnin’ some of them barn boards in the fireplace jist to slow my shiverin’ down so’s I could drive nails! It were pretty clear thet I was in a race . . . tryin’ to finish closin’ in the house afore I burned up all the lumber.

“My fireplace won. I tossed the last plank on the fire about the third week in February an’ spent the followin’ month an’ a half wearin’ ev’ry piece of clothin’ I own an’ huddlin’ in the one corner of the house thet didn’t let the wind in much.

“I don’t quite know how I lasted till spring, but I did … an’ thet’s when I first learned thet the acreage neighborin’ mine had been turned into one of them toxic waste dumps.

“Well, I don’t mind tellin’ you I was feelin’ pretty low about then. But jist two days ago a feller drove up an’ offered to trade me this here car an’ $50 cash even up fer one acre at the back of my place.”

“An’ you’da been a fool not to take him up on it,” Ott asserted, “but I still don’t understand where you’re off to in such a dad-blamed hurry now.”

The stranger sighed, took another swig of corn squeezin’s, an’ allowed hisselfa guilty little grin.

“You see, when we went to fill out the property transfer papers, I waited till he weren’t lookin’ an’ deeded thet poor man the whole 10 acres … an’ I been drivin’ like the devil to git as far away as I can afore he finds out!”