Philip Cox + Noble Winthrop
A Note from the author:
I wanted to revisit the world of the Homestead Act story again. As I sit here looking out my basement apartment window, the lawn is at eye level and I swear the grass is growing as fast as I write.
Liberty IN, 1864
Philip Cox wasn't out front in his woven Quaker chair, but by the sound of stone grinding steel I could tell he was home. Knocking the dirt of my shoes on his single step I walked right in. The old man was bent over his kitchen table, which he often used for a work bench. Today he had clamped a scythe blade to the edge of the table, and was carefully grinding off the burr.
"Afternoon Noble, how you keepin' up with the Rs?"
"Reckoning is far and away my
Philip smiled without looking up, "By how well you fancy reading and writing, I'm not surprised."
"You know..." I began, but Philip smiled knowingly and shook his head, "What?"
He stopped grinding. "Beg your pardon, you were about to tell me about some way my life could improve."
How could he have known?
"I wasn't. I... ahh... your scythe blade there reminded me of something I read in the Herald..."
"About four years ago they opened a great big menagerie in New York city in Central Park, and they bought these things called reel mowers to cut the grass around the cages. Apparently it's this machine that spins some kind of wheel of blades while you push it from behind."
Philip went back to grinding. "Sound about as safe as blindfolded boxing in your pa's tool shed. You want to know what cuts grass better than any steel contraption?"
I frowned at him for talking about my father like that, but then again, my father
asked me to clean it this past weekend, so I kept my mouth shut and shouldered the responsibility. "No. I want to know how you knew what I was going to say." I folded my arms across my chest.
"I told you I was a time traveler."
He had. Back when I first met Philip he told me about how he was a delivery man for some freight company, and how riding out from the big cities was like traveling back in time.
Philip tested the edge with his thumb and the sound resonated loudly off the face of the table. He loosened the wooden clamp and it complained with a loud squeak. "You have this habit, every time you're about to tell me something you think I ought to know, you say, 'You know'. Now, hold this steady while I tighten the nut." He said, fitting the scythe blade into the dark brown metal band that wrapped around the end of the curvy wooden handle. Bearing down on the square nut that tightened the band he said, "Don't be so embarrassed. It's like that feller in the Future World you're always writing about..." He waited for me to provide the name. Ander. "That's the one. He's always getting himself in trouble 'cause he's seen enough to know where those primitive folks' headed." He stood, straightening his back slowly until he was upright. He handed me the scythe and headed outside. "That's just like you and me. I've been around longer and seen the way things shape up time and again, but you're greener than a grasshopper's turd, and every time you have a new thought you think it's the first time it's ever been had."
Philip found a perverse entertainment in getting me riled up, said it was like watching a dog chase its own tail; just plain entertaining. Though I was boiling inside I refused to give him the satisfaction. Instead I tried to prove him wrong, "Speaking of Future World, Shiloh and I figured out–"
"Hold up a minute there grasshopper." He settled down in his Quaker chair, but when I tried to hand him the scythe, he pointed to the corner of his lawn and said, "Start at that corner and work your way around the side." As I walked across his yard he asked, "This the same Shiloh had imprints of your peach-fuzz on his knuckles?"
"Yeah... no. He only hit me that one time. I avoided him for a while, but a few months after you got my journal back he started following me after school. This town's too damn small–"
"No, need to curse. Don't pull it, you ain't shaving the lawn; Twist at your hips."
"Sorry. This town's too small to lose him and he ended up finding out where I lived. I figured I was safe as long as I was indoors, but one weekend he had the guts to come right up and knock on the front door. He gave my mother this stack of papers tied together with some twine. Each one was a corkboard notice or advert, he must have taken from out front O'Hara's general store."
"What'd he figured you wanted them for?"
"Couldn't figure it out at first, but then I turned it over: He'd written a story on the back of each notice, labeled each one with a page number in case I got them mixed up. The spelling wasn't that good, but it was set in my Future World."
Philip slapped his knee, "Ain't that the way?"
I'd finished half of his front yard when he went inside. I could hear his squeaky pump pulling water up from his well. Something about it reminded me that what I was going to tell him before I got distracted. He came back a while later with some sweet lemon water in two tin cups, and handed me one, which I drank right then and there.
"Earlier you were about to tell me something you and Shiloh figured."
I nodded, handed him back the cup, and went back to cutting the grass. "In Future World there are so many telegraph lines running to everyone's house that the sky has been darkened, Shiloh came up with the idea that they're made of glass, so light can still pass through."
Philip thought about it for a while and I started in on the second half of his lawn. Eventually he said, "That reel mower must make a heck of a noise. I wonder if it's better or worse than the snicker-snack your jaws make?"
When I turned around he threw a small whetstone at me, "It's past time to sharpen your cutting edge. I've been waiting for you to complain about it, but you just been working twice as hard to make up for that dull edge."
I caught it reflexively, but nearly didn't hang on to it. As Philip talked me through how to sharpen the scythe with just a few well-angled strokes, I wondered why he hadn't commented on the glass wires.
Maybe this was his comment?
"Are you calling me dull?"
He smiled, "Have you ever noticed those glass bobbins on the telegraph poles?"
the glass retards electricity!
"But... what if in the future they figure out how to make glass carry an electrical signal?"
"Nonsense. What if in they make an automobile that can cut the grass while it drives around? I promise when it breaks it will take more than a rock and a wrench to fix."
"Then what if there's another machine that can fix the automatic grass cutter?" I stopped paying attention for a moment, and slit a shallow gash in my thumb.
"That's exactly my point; you're only creating more problems the more you try to fix them. You know what cut's grass better than steel?" he asked again.
Around the thumb in my mouth I said, "Wha'?"
"A goat." He considered it for a moment and said, "Although I'm afraid if we bashed heads as much and you and I, he'd come out ahead far more often than you do."