the fixed point of Asa Zook/paul pietsch -- copyright 1996 by Paul Pietsch

chapter 5 Zook Ways

Most of the Zook farm had been Loretta Overfield's dowry. Elwood's savings paid for extra pastures and a cuff of woods on the south and east of the property. The threshold over which Elwood carried Loretta on their wedding day crossed into a second- cut lumber shack, the only building that came with the land, and which eventually became a smoke house, but which, at the time, confirmed Mrs. Overfield's expressed worries to her daughter, husband, half the woman in the church, and even to her future son- in- law: a wide gap existed between the two ways of life. Did they both really know what they were actually getting themselves into?

At first, even Loretta was unclear about her husband's plans. From the size of the foundation he was digging, she speculated to her father, that Elwood's first major project was the main barn. Then around two on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of July, she had just stepped outside on her way to the garden when, as she told her father, "I thought the circus had made a wrong turn into our driveway." A caravan of chin- whiskered men were dismounting, stretching and yawning as though from a long and cramping drive, embracing and kissing Elwood, sizing up the foundation and inspecting piles of lumber beside it. By nightfall, Loretta knew the project was no barn. And within a few short days, she was being carried across another threshold. Then Elwood, by himself, embarked on, in Loretta's own words, "The creation of the interior of the house, every bit with hand tools.," Except for her piano and a few random gifts, he also "nurtured into existence every stick of furniture we own." And by the following summer, "I am the mistress of a palace of wood." And her father, running a huge, soft hand along the carved mantelpiece or raising or lowering a sash was declaring, "Inspired, utterly inspired." By then, and without having explicitly to inquire, Loretta could honestly tell either parent precisely what her husband's immediate plans were. For: "My wishes, even unstated, become my Elwood's highest priorities."

For his part, Elwood designed the farm "in the manner of my people." Which meant that, when necessary, their own lands could furnish all the Zooks ate, most of what they burned and much of what they wore. And in Thirty- two and Thirty- three the farm "prin'near just about did."

Elwood found the soil most suitable for truck crops. He planted beyond his own family's needs "when the market justifies the effort." But he earned their negotiable assets through "the traditional trade work of the Zooks": cabinet making, carpentry and, occasionally, steeple jacking, the latter an offshoot of specialized horse- powered rigging techniques employed principally for roofing and silo construction. But his trade work, Elwood regarded as an avocation, as his "particular" contribution to a community. The Zook vocation was always the land.

In Asa's early recollections cash, as such, had been in chronic short supply. His father's trade work was literally that: a hardwood kitchen floor for a valve job on the Ford truck; a new cap on the silo for indoor plumbing; a dormer window in your daughter's bedroom for a load of "bobwire." When Elwood's forecasts of the supply and demand of produce missed the mark, what the Zooks could not barter, add to the tithe, recycle through the pigs and chickens, they'd just plain give away. Often, even after more cash did become available, the better bargain existed in direct exchanges with fishermen, barbers, tailors, doctors, shoemakers, dentists.

Elwood owned a truck because the business demanded it. But he admitted an unease around "the machine," his generic expression for all motor driven vehicles or electrically powered equipment. He could fix a flat, grease an axle, crank an engine. But, "Its innards confuse me." He did not own a tractor until "after Loretta went." And even then, he kept a team of Clydesdale geldings, in part to operate block- and- tackle rigging or drag timber from the woods; but, in truth, because "The world don't seem right without the smell of horse."

He knew animals, and they readily accepted his presence. He treated them "according to their intelligence and their needs." The whip, he instructed his sons, was for making sound, not pain. He never "carried" one himself, using the snap of his leathery fingers to achieve the purpose. A good team of horses'd "prin'near work the fields by themselves." No living creature, he insisted, can thrive without "respect and affection." He shod his own horses, mended the leather "they're obliged to wear," practiced his own veterinary medicine and addressed each horse by name.

After Loretta went, Mrs. Overfield suggested that Raymond and Asa live at the parsonage, "At least while school's in session."

"No." Elwood closed his jaw firmly and finally on that subject. When cash was available, he hired what day help he could. When it was not, he did the bulk of the housework himself, Asa helping out with cockeyed slabs of cheese, sqwushed- down tomatoes or too- thick slices of bread; and Raymond with half- filled glasses of milk and the table set without forks. Once -- just once -- after the trade worked picked up regular, and at his father- in- law's recommendation, Elwood tried a live- in housekeeper. But when "Believe- you- me..." and "What them boys needs is..." Elwood quickly and quietly dismissed her.

On holidays or her birthday -- or when any of the three felt the need for it -- they'd visit Loretta's grave. Asa'd taught Raymond about the solemn kiss. And after each laid his own tribute against the headstone, and they took a silent moment each unto himself, the three would kiss one and other. Then Asa and Raymond would go down to the truck and wait for him: "Without oncest bein' ast ."

What his sons willing absorbed, Elwood taught them about the land and about his trade. But "Loretta and me didn't bring children into the world to make our own life easy." He absolutely refused, even to his sons, to factor their labors into Zook economics. As the war in Europe began to infuse more and more cash money into the community, Elwood found more and more demand for his trade work. And when truck crops became increasingly profitable and decreasingly speculative, Elwood insisted that the yield from Asa's and eventually Raymond's work be put aside. When Asa started to object, Elwood declared that they'd move into town, "if your work amounts to more than enough to build a strong body and give you a sense of independence."

The Zooks continued to keep pigs and chickens. Something practical had to be done with wet garbage and unmarketable produce. They planted a green garden to satisfy discriminating tastes. They tended Loretta's fruit trees. But more and more of what they ate came from town. Canned food replaced winter supplies put up in mason jars. The ice truck made the ice house obsolete; eventually the electric refrigerator replaced the ice truck. Fish and shellfish not caught or collected for sport was paid for from the billfold, not the smoke house or the chicken coop. A route man now delivered fresh bread wrapped in red and white wax paper and looking as though it'd been baked sliced. Milk came in bottles; the rinds of cheeses said Wisconsin and Vermont; butter materialized already churned; rock salt for the ice cream maker stood unsacked in the unused potato barn.

State motor vehicle codes did make allowances for farm children. (Although Asa, and eventually Raymond, did get drivers' permits, it wouldn't have mattered to Elwood. For, when necessary, the licenses of more than one government had been ignored by generations of Zooks.) When the time and necessity arose, Asa's bicycle gave way to a used green Chevrolet pickup truck.

Two things had forced Elwood Zook to leave home, one very plain to him, the other vague and uncertain until after Loretta came into his life. The first had to do with "The other cheek," which he knew he could never turn if the first belonged to someone he loved. Because he feared that someday he'd violate the most sacred of his people's ways, Elwood felt unworthy of their love. And he couldn't bear to be around them.

His second reason had to do with the meaning behind the ways. Or, more precisely, his own living of them, which he'd have gone to his grave puzzling over except for Loretta. As practiced by Elwood, the ways had seemed like a flat piece of ground. But when Loretta took them up, they gained volume and quickly filled up with the beauty and cheer she brought to everything she touched. With her by him, Elwood no longer shunned the machine. He loved animals too much to replace them. With her in his life, he did not scorn the steel nail in place of the wooden peg. It was just that he respected an article of more gentle holding force. He did not oppose efficiency. But work and life were inseparable. And if you cherished the one, how could you hurry up to get the other over and done with? With Loretta the living of the ways transformed from a blind sacrifice to, as she put it herself, "a glorifying tribute to the magnificence about us."

Elwood knew he lacked Loretta's intelligence. By- god, he sure did know that. And he knew that without her, the ways would have collapsed back into the flat world of his own youth. Soon his home would have become a place of bondage for their sons. After Loretta died, and for precisely the reason she had insisted on taking them up and giving them purpose, Elwood surrendered the ways one by one, until his own life became detached and unfamiliar to him.

One sacrifice Elwood could not make was remarrying. He honestly reasoned that no other woman could fit into their lives. The housekeeper confirmed his belief. But no matter. Even allow as how he could find the perfect woman for his boys -- and even for himself -- taking another wife was a concession he could not make. Not for Raymond. Not for Asa. Not for the both put together. Not for any combination of forces or circumstances. Not even for Loretta if she could speak to him right now. Not even in compliance with his own will.


Elwood's memories of Loretta remained fresh and vivid as the years passed. It was as though she was just in the next room; or about to appear in the doorway; or there in the bed beside him. He was not superstitious, had no notion of her as a ghost or spirit. He'd given up the hereafter nonsense even before he'd left Pennsylvania. And in the factual sense, in the manner of a tenpenny nail in a board or a rope working through a block and tackle, he knew he'd never again see or hear or touch his Loretta.

Maybe a broke-off chunk of soul was down there somewhere inside him. Maybe a part of his mind tore itself lose from the rest of his faculties, hid itself and kept his memory of her activated and wouldn't let his recollections just settle down and fade away, as at first, he expected they would. And as, probably, they ought to have done. But never did. Maybe his memory was a kind of substitute for the insanity his mind must have wanted when he lost her. Maybe it was just plain madness that he himself couldn't see. Allow whatever he would, and in ways he knew he'd never understand, Loretta seemed alive inside him. He didn't dare tamper with the process. Not even for his boys. And remarrying remained out of the question.


Back in Thirty- two, a dying hurricane had swept over Sandy Hook and reached the Monmouth shore with just enough force remaining to upend a few outhouses and scatter siding and shingles around the countryside like a spit- out mouthful of so many carpet tacks. Particularly hard hit, Reverend Overfield said, was a row of beach rentals owned by Mr. Fergus MacDuff. Now that would be Mean Man MacDuff, you'd be informed if you inquired down at the Port Monmouth general store or over at the marina at Shoal Harbor Creek.

Except for the heavy rains, which delayed spring plowing, the storm had not penetrated far enough inland to affect the Zooks. But with time on his hands, Elwood drove up to Port Monmouth to see if he might be of any use, what with summer rentals just about the only source of cash for some of the families up along the bay.

Elwood had never met Mr. MacDuff, nor had any prior knowledge of the bullwhip scars borne on the backs and buttocks of the MacDuff sons. But he was promptly thus apprised when he inquired into the whereabouts of Mr. Fegus MacDuff. Elwood winced as he listened, partly out of sympathy for the MacDuff children, but he felt a moment of fiery anger, like a suddenly broken tooth. When he left Pennsylvania, he knew he could commit violence against just such a man as Mr. MacDuff. The anger momentarily revived the guilt he'd lived with before Loretta came into his life. But the spasm quickly passed. Nowadays, he thought as he continued to listen, why he'd just wrestle such a man to the ground, relieve him of his whip and splash him with a basin of cold water. (Loretta'd also taught him how to laugh.) And, of course, the more Elwood listened, the more knew he'd have to seek out and offer Mr. MacDuff his help. Because, as he instructed Asa (and later Raymond), "For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?"

And Elwood Zook sought out Mr. Fergus MacDuff to practice the ways.

Charity! Mr. MacDuff protested. Owe him? That was even worse. Scots, Elwood Zook discovered, also had their ways. In exchange for three resurrected bungalows, the Zook's acquired the renewable 99- year lease on a stretch of beach along the Atlantic coast.

Thirty miles from the farm, several hundred yards from the road, the building "wouldn't keep our chickens comfortable," Elwood'd told Loretta. Inquiring around, Elwood learned that the owner before MacDuff, a magazine publisher from up in New York City, had made the fatal mistake of going in for a morning dip. Some speculated that the sharks got him; and they were getting pretty bad off the Jersey coast. But (and what made the tract commercially worthless) the undertow was strong enough to drown a bull whale. The Zooks had little reason or occasion to do more than stop by every two or three years just to see if the place was still there.

But in the truck going home on the night of that business with Max Rouelle's daughter, Elwood broke the silence. "Asa, it's about time we fixed up that there place on the beach. Think you can handle it by yourself?"

Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved.
May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.

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