Mr. Haredge had only been raking for about ten minutes, relieved that the leaves were only a little damp, when a crowded, decrepit station wagon pulled into the driveway behind his truck and died with a clanking noise that made it sound like the car would probably never start again. Mr. Haredge leaned on his rake, sweating under his collar despite the cold, as a short man with thick glasses and a brown sweater got out of the car and came towards him with his hand extended.
“Sir, do you know who I can talk to about renting this house?”
“I own the property,” said Mr. Haredge, extending his hand to the man who promptly grabbed it with both hands and pumped it up and down twice before releasing it.
“I’m Francis Bivette,” said the man. “And that’s my family.” He turned and pointed at the car. In the front passenger’s seat, Francis’s wife waved weakly, but the kids in the back just sat staring out, hunched and morose. Mr. Haredge couldn’t tell how many there were. At least five.
“You’re really interested in renting?” asked Mr. Haredge. “I don’t know how you’d all fit in there.”
Francis looked at the trailer with a tired smile. “It’s much bigger than the last place we lived. We’ll be fine.”
“Bigger than your last place? Really? Where are you from, Francis?”
Francis shuffled his feet in the leaves. “We lived in a little commune on the coast. Grew our own food, made our own clothes, never went outside the fences. That kind of thing.” He looked off over the roof of the trailer at nothing. “But we had to leave. Things went sour.”
“Mmm,” said Mr. Haredge. “What kinds of things?” The trailer had been empty for months and he was eager to have someone in it again, but he didn’t want tenants who were going to cause problems in the community.
“Oh, we don’t cause trouble,” said Francis. “We just had some differences with the leadership. We were sick of devoting so much time to making pottery. The commune already had more pottery than it knew what to do with, but the law insisted that we keep producing it. When they started making us erect more sheds to hold all the extra pottery instead of expanding our own dwellings, I knew it was time to take my family and leave.”
Mr. Haredge nodded. “Sometimes you just have to recognize when something’s over.”
“Sir, said Francis. “I have to tell you, we don’t have much of anything right now. Just a few crates of vegetables we brought with us from the commune. I wouldn’t be able to pay you right away, but if you let us live here, we’ll take care of the place and pay as soon as we can.”
Mr. Haredge looked again at the sad, nervous Bivettes in the car and Francis’s earnest expression. “It’s a deal.”
Mr. Bivette’s face lit up. “Thank you,” he said as he shook Mr. Haredge’s hand with both of his again. “This means so much.”
As Mr. Haredge fished the key to the trailer out of his pocket, Francis turned to the car and gave his family a thumbs up. The doors to the car, rust falling off in flakes, creaked open and the Bivettes climbed wearily out, all of them with shaggy hair and wearing hand-knitted sweaters so that it was hard to tell the boys from the girls. They looked exhausted, especially Mrs. Bivette who Francis supported with an arm around her waist as he led her and the children, some of them lugging the crates of vegetables, up the metal steps and into the trailer.
Francis stood in the doorway and said, “Again, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Mr. Haredge. “I’m just happy to have someone inside the place. I hope it works out for you.”
Francis gave one last wave and closed the door to attend to his family.
Mr. Haredge felt strange continuing to rake the yard with the Bivettes inside, so he leaned the rake against the porch as a hint, got in his truck, maneuvered it around the station wagon, and drove home to feed his snake and watch the day’s thin light go out.
Mr. Haredge went out of town for the next few days to see about purchasing a pair of antique pool tables at an estate sale, but when he got back, he stopped by the trailer to see how the Bivettes were doing. They were not doing well.
Mr. Haredge found Francis and three of the kids, all of them wearing the same clothes he’d first seen them in, around the back side of the trailer forming lumps of clay into misshapen pottery.
“We’re so hungry,” said Mr. Bivette. “The vegetables we brought with us are gone or spoiled and there’s no point in planting anything this late in the year. We were hoping some of our neighbors might trade us some beans or potatoes for pottery.”
“I thought you hated making pottery,” said Mr. Haredge. He felt like he was missing something.
“I do hate it! You think I’d be making it if my family’s survival didn’t depend on it?” Francis shook the still-soft pot in his hand in anguish which caused it bend out of shape. He threw the ruined pot to the ground as his children looked on, their pots looking little better than their father’s where it lay in the dirt. “My family will die and it’s all my fault for bringing them here,” said Francis. “Why didn’t we just stay in the commune and make pots? Was making pots really so bad? And now look at us, starving and freezing and still making pots but with nothing to show for it.”
“You don’t have enough money to get food from the store?” asked Mr. Haredge. “I can loan you some if need be.”
“The store,” said Mr. Haredge. He reached into his pocket and peeled two fifty dollar bills out of his money clip. “Here, take this and go get your family some food.”
“This is money?” Francis held the bills close to his face. “We didn’t use money in the commune. How does it work?”
“I’ll drive you to the store and show you,” said Mr. Haredge. “We’ll take my truck.” He realized that there was a very good chance that Francis had no idea what a driver’s license was either.
“Smash those pots,” said Francis to his children, holding the fifty dollar bills aloft, one in each hand. “Tonight we eat store food!”
A week later, after a run down to the southern end of the state to help a friend of his get a good price for a stuffed and mounted calf with six legs, Mr. Haredge stopped by the trailer again in a steady gray snowfall to find Francis and a few other Bivettes again out back making pottery, shivering and pausing every few seconds to shake warmth into their stiff fingers.
“Why?” asked Mr. Haredge. “Why are you making pottery again?”
“We’re starving!” said Francis. “We ran out of store food and since we have no money for more store food, we’re making pottery to sell for money so I can buy some more store food with that money. Maybe some fruit roll-ups or kettle cooked vinegar flavored potato chips.”
“No one wants your pottery, Francis! OK? Have you looked for a job?”
“A job. So you can earn your own money and buy food for yourself.”
Francis said nothing.
Mr. Haredge fought the urge to shove him. Francis would probably just tip right over. “Do you know how to mop floors?”
“Of course,” said Francis. “I mopped the floors in the commune’s arsenal every night.”
Mr. Haredge didn’t even want to know what that meant. “Fine. I have a friend at the courthouse who says their night custodian got fired for painting over the Bountiful Harvest mural without authorization. If you want the job, I’m sure you can have it. The courthouse is close enough that you can walk if you want.”
Overcome with excitement, Francis drop-kicked the half finished pot in his hands onto the roof of the trailer. “Did you hear that, kids? Your dad’s going to earn his own job money for store food!”
“I’ll talk to the courthouse about giving you an advance on your salary,” said Mr. Haredge. “But here’s fifty bucks for the next few days.”
“Thank you so so so much,” said Francis. “The car’s dead, but I’m sure I’ll find a way to get store food for this money somehow.”
“I’ll drive you,” said Mr. Haredge. He only hoped that Francis would be quicker about his frozen pizza selections this time. Much quicker.
Mr. Haredge’s next two weeks were consumed with brokering a complicated land exchange deal three counties to the west. The parties involved were sensitive, skittish men with guilty consciences and itchy trigger fingers and Mr. Haredge had to put in long hours to make sure everything went off without a hitch.
On the day that the deal was finally concluded, Mr. Haredge came home to find a message from Francis Bivette on his answering machine.
“Mr. Haredge, it’s me, Francis Bivette. I’m calling you from a phone at the courthouse. My job is going splendidly! They paid me in advance for my first paycheck so I could purchase store food for my family just like you said. And they love my mopping here. You’ve done so much for us since we arrived: giving us a place to stay, giving us store food, helping us learn how to get our own store food, getting me a job. It’s been wonderful. Anyway, the reason I’m calling is to invite you over to our house for a feast tomorrow afternoon. We would all be so thrilled if you’d come share our store food with us. It’s our way of expressing to you how grateful we are for everything. Hope to see you there!”
Since Francis hadn’t told him a specific time to arrive and there was no way to call him back, Mr. Haredge drove over to the trailer a little before one o’clock. A dry wind blew a skiff of snow around the frozen blades of grass in the yard as Mr. Haredge pulled into the driveway behind the station wagon that didn’t appear to have moved since he’d seen the Bivettes pull up in it that first day.
When Francis opened the door and the assembled Bivettes saw Mr. Haredge standing on the porch, Francis cued them with a stab of his finger and they all said, “Thank you for saving us, Mr. Haredge” in unison, their eyes bright with gratitude. Mr. Haredge choked up as he stepped inside and tried to say, “You’re welcome.” He thought that he should probably learn the kids’ names. At least a few of them. And definitely Mrs. Bivette’s name.
The Bivettes had made a table out of one of the bedroom doors that they had taken off of its hinges and laid across the backs of four chairs from the kitchen. It took up most of the living room and there was nowhere to sit, really, but the table was covered with immense quantities of store food. “I bought it all myself!” said Francis with a huge grin. “With my job money!” There were tubs of French onion dip, corn chips shaped like scoops, honey buns, individual serving chicken pot pies, miniature boxes of raisin bran, two gallons of lime sherbet, a pyramid of microwave burritos steaming on a paper plate. And around the table stood the Bivettes, beaming at Mr. Haredge.
“They all want to mop the courthouse just like their dad when they get older,” said Francis, touselling the floppy hair of one of his sons or daughters. “There’s not an aspiring potter among them.”
Then, as the biting wind outside tried in vain cut its way into the warm, crowded trailer, the Bivettes and Mr. Haredge feasted.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Doctor Nixfold, standing over Mr. Haredge as he lay shivering in his bed under a pile of blankets. “The symptoms just don’t add up to anything that I recognize.”
Mr. Haredge said nothing, afraid that if he opened his mouth he’d start moaning about the pain in his feet again and be unable to stop.
“I can’t figure out where you could have contracted something like this,” said Doctor Nixfold. “I know you travel a lot, but you rarely even leave the state, right?”
Mr. Haredge shook his head from side to side. It felt like there were two cups of sludge swishing around in his skull.
“There’s something foreign about whatever you’ve got, Mr. Haredge. Something exotic. Your immune system was totally unprepared for it.”
Mr. Haredge closed his eyes, his breathing a stuttering wheeze. Doctor Nixfold’s voice flew up and away from him, bumping against the ceiling in the corner of the room like a desperate moth. Mr. Haredge wondered how long it would take for the Bivettes to realize that it was their time, that the town was theirs. He wondered if their gratitude would remain when he was gone. Perhaps they’d eat a yogurt cup in his honor. Perhaps they’d lower themselves enough to make one last pot for his ashes.