“Oh, I saw! This is very nice!” Milton Geezer settled his ample bulk into a ladder-back chair at our table in the Five N/ Diner. It was late afternoon and me and Joe were having coffee after a busy morning of grouse huntin. We’d stopped into a café a few minutes before and Edna Corpulent had just slid a large basket of steaming biscuits fresh from the oven onto the table.
Milton eyed the hot biscuits with a happy sigh as Edna came over and refreshed our cups.
“Like some coffee, Milton?” she asked with a knowing grin.
The older man looked affronted. “At this hour? Do you take me for a barbarian? Tea, please… and do you have any of the…”
“Yes,” Edna’s grin widened. “I’ve still got some of that lapsang soochong, or whatever you call it, tea left from the packet you gave me. It’ll just take a few minutes.”
Milton heaved a sigh of relief as she bustled off and he immediately snared a biscuit with one gnarled hand and a butter knife with the other.
Milton Geezer was English and, although he had lived in Maine for years, he had never lost either the accent or the mannerisms of his homeland. He came over during the Korean War as part of a joint British/American planning group and when the war ended, Geezer remained in the land that so fascinated him, making his living as a defense systems advisor. On retirement, he moved to northern Maine where he had summered for many years. He lived on a pension in a tiny frame house on the banks of the East Branch of the Little Salt Pork River, devoting most of his time to a large and well-kept garden and the entire fall to grouse hunting.
“So, lads,” he said as he spread a liberal coating of butter over the two halves of his biscuit. “How was the bird hunting on this fine morning?”
“Not bad, Milton,” I replied. “We saw six. Joe got two and I got one. Did you go out this morning?”
“No, I finished turning over the garden for fall,” he said around a mouthful of biscuit. “I shall venture forth for the evening hunt. Perhaps the old road above Poultice Brook.”
The bell above the door jangled softly and I saw Harrington Gossip ease inside, his glance darting around the room. Spotting us, a satisfied look crossed his lined face and he sidled in our direction. Harrington was the liveliest busybody in town, not counting old Agnes Probe, and little occurred in the Mooseleuk region that Harrington wasn’t the first to know about.
“Have a seat an’ some coffee, Harrington,” Joe said, indicating a chair.
“Ain’t got no time,” Harrington whispered importantly. To Harrington, all his information was a dark secret, to be shared only in a hoarse whisper.
“Heard about Flat Bannum’s latest land acquisition?” He murmered.
“Oh, what now?” Milton asked in disgust. “The man is a menace. All he does is buy up northern Maine land and keep the rest of us off it. Why, that tract over against Munsungan Mountain is alive with birds, but nobody can hunt there.”
“Then, you really won’t like his latest deal,” Harrington whispered with mournful satisfaction. “He’s just bought the Leander Tract.”
I heard Joe’s fork clatter on his plate and I know my own jaw dropped. Milton Geezer’s face turned deathly pale and sweat popped out on his brow.
“But…but…but… that’s where I live!” he sputtered.
The Leander Tract was a huge parcel of land just north of Mooseleuk and sprawling across both sides of the Little Salt Pork River’s East Branch. Roscoe Leander had purchased the tract from one of the big land companies in the 1800s. His family owned the tract for generations, leasing the timber cutting rights and several camp and house lots to various people over the years.
Then, a few years ago, Wilton Leander had come back to town from his home in Framingham, Massachusetts; just long enough to sell the tract to Lute Pillage’s logging company. The lease went with the deal and Milton Geezer’s home was on one of the leases.
Having passed on his latest gossip, Harrington slid back across the room and out the door.
I was worried about Milton. His color remained chalky and his lips had a blue tinge.
“Maybe,” Joe said slowly, “maybe Bannum will let you keep the lease, Milton.”
Geezer looked at Joe as though he was a child. “For how long? You must be aware that Bannum doesn’t let anyone stay on his land for long. And, as for hunting and fishing? You know as well as I that those pursuits are gone forever on that lovely parcel of forest land. Excuse me…” He got up from the table, biscuit and tea forgotten, nearly toppling his chair. “I must, that is, I should check on my place…I…”
“We’ll go along with you, Milton.” Joe dropped a few bills on the table and we all went outside to climb into Milton’s ancient Land Rover.
The drive was about eight miles and as we pulled into the gravel drive leading to the little frame house, we noticed an expensive sedan parked to one side. A man in a dark suit turned from the porch and watched us drive up, his hand clutching some papers. He came down off the steps and strode briskly over as we climbed out.
“Mr. Geezer? My name is Alfred Oily. I represent Mr. Flatlander Bannum in his contact with leaseholders,” he smiled, “such as they are.” He didn’t offer to shake hands. Slicked-back black hair hung limply over his collar. A sharp nose overhung a lipless mouth and his dark eyes were set too close together. He held out the packet of papers.
“This is your new lease. It is good for one year. You will find many modifications that you will be held to rigidly. You’ll find the terms more than fair, I trust.” He gave a feral smirk. “Just don’t get used to the low payment. I’m sure it will rise dramatically in the next year.” Dismissing us with a glance, he climbed into the sedan and backed out swiftly with a spray of gravel.
Milton read the papers with growing concern. “Five times the cost of the old lease. Can’t sell, can’t pass on the lease, can’t make any improvements. “He stared off, the papers clutched in one hand. “This is the end.”
“You don’t know that, Milton,” Joe began. “Maybe they’s somethin’ that can be done…”
“You know better, Joe. You know the horror stories as well as I do. How Flat Bannum has kicked every leaseholder off land he has purchased. How he prevents traditional use and keeps the lands as occasional vacation spots for his wealthy non-resident and actor friends.” He sighed deeply. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone for a while. Take the Land Rover back to town. I’ll get it later.”
We watched in dismay as he tottered onto the porch and into the house.
News of the purchase spread quickly. Newspapers across the state trumpeted word of the new purchase. As usual, there were pros and cons in the papers about the acquisition. Environmental groups lauded Flat Bannum’s protection of wild lands. Sportsmen’s and outdoor recreation groups decried the loss of yet another huge parcel of land that would be restricted to the use of chosen few. In all the hubbub, no mention was made of the plight of those actually on the land itself.
Two days later me and Joe were again in the Five N’ Diner having a late breakfast. I looked up as the door opened and Milton Geezer walked in. He stopped and looked around as though in a daze. Finally spotting us, he walked over, hesitantly. I noticed that he had his venerable double-barreled shotgun under one arm.
“I say, fellows, you don’t mind if I sit down?”
“’Course not, Milton,” Joe slid out a chair with one foot. “You don’t need to ask.”
It hurt to look at him. The old man had aged 10 years in the two days since we’d seen him. Deep lines bracketed his mouth and wrinkled his brow. His hair seemed whiter and his hands shook as he laid the shotgun across his lap.
Edna came with an offer of coffee or tea, but he waved her away with a sad smile. He stared down at the table for a few moments then looked up at me and Joe, although I doubt if he saw us.
“I have decided to go back to England,” he said quietly.
“Milton!” I said quickly. “You haven’t been to England in 30 years!”
“Forty-three, actually. But I find that I cannot stay here any longer.” He looked out the window. “All my best memories of this country are tied up in my little house and my plot of land and the river running by in front. When all that is taken from me, as it surely will be, I’ll have nothing left. Nothing I want to build on.” He looked at us again.
“No, all my other good memories are in the old country. My wife is buried there. What few relatives I have left are there. It is better this way.” It seemed like we were listening to someone who was going off to die.
He looked across at Joe. “I would like to have you take Barbara.” He lifted the shotgun onto the table. Joe looked horrified.
“No, Milton, I couldn’t. I mean, Barbara’s like your right arm. I couldn’t take ‘er. You take her back to England with you.”
The old man looked at the 14-gauge Purdy shotgun affectionately. “Named her after my late wife. If it hadn’t been for you, Joe, I’d never have been able to get ammunition for her in this country. I still don’t know how you did it. She’s been a great gun and a fine companion. But, after all, what could I do with her in England? With the home country’s draconian firearms laws, she’d never see any use. And she must be used, Joe. Used by somebody who will appreciate her. Don’t turn down my only request.”
Joe swallowed. He slowly reached across and picked up the lightweight shotgun. Breaking it open to make sure it was unloaded: he laid it across his lap. I saw Milton nod in approval.
“I’ll keep her safe, Milton,” he said hoarsely. “I’ll keep her right.”
“I know you will,” he said with a sad smile. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few things to attend to.” He got up and shuffled slowly out the door.
I didn’t know what to say. Joe looked down at the shotgun in his lap for long minutes. When he raised his head, I saw a steely gleam in his eyes.
“This isn’t right.” He got up and snapped the gun closed. “I’ve got to do some checking. I’ll catch up with you later.” Gun in hand he strode outside, climbed into his Jeep, and drove off swiftly down the street.
It was nearly a week later when the meeting was called. It was the type of media circus that Flat Bannum always called to announce his latest acquisition and describe how all motorized vehicles, hunting, and trapping would be banned from his lands. He also allowed public comment and seemed to especially relish the tales of local people recounting how they and their families had enjoyed the forest and its bounty for generations and how sad they were to be excluded in the new order. The final signing of the papers for the sale would take place at the meeting, together with the handing over the deed.
I’d only seen Joe in passing during the week. He seemed always busy and in deep thought and I knew he had made at least one trip downstate.
On the evening of the meeting, we settled into seats near the front row in the Mooseleuk Meeting Hall. Chairs and a podium had been set up on the raised platform at the back of the room. Flat Bunnum sat with a lawyer on either side of him. Two seats away, Lute Pillage sat with his arms folded, a bored look on his long face.
I had confronted Lute on Main Street a few days before and asked why he had sold the tract to a man like Flat Bannum. He looked surprised.
“Money.” He said. “Bannum is paying me more for that tract than I paid for it, an’ after I cut most of the good woods off it.”
I scowled and shook my head. “Doesn’t it bother you that he’s going to keep everyone but his buddies off the land?”
“His land…he kin do what he wants.”
“I swear, Lute, you’d probably sell Maine land to Osama Bin Laden.”
“I hear he’s got money. He interested in Maine timberland?”
I walked off down the street, muttering.
As the Hall filled to capacity and beyond, I studied Flat Bannum closely. Flatlander Bannum had made a pile of money from biodegradable toilet cleansers. That the products were environmentally friendly was all that mattered to many people and sales skyrocketed. I could still remember some of the advertising slogans. ‘Give nature a clean flush with Bannum Bios!’, and ‘Bannum Bios are always flush with nature!’ The ads went downhill from there.
Bannum was a tall, narrow-shouldered man with thinning buzz-cut hair and an Armani suit. He looked out over the crowd with an air of disdain and a thinly concealed look of pleased anticipation.
Mayor Thornton Bluster called the assemblage to order and quickly turned the podium over to one of Bannum’s lawyers. As was his custom, Bannum himself refused to speak with those he was most affecting.
The lawyer read through the process of acquisition and the details of land use in a bored manner. No hunting or trapping would be allowed. No motorized vehicles. Existing roads would be closed and culverts removed. Foot traffic would be allowed with a special permit. Camps could remain for the near future under special leases. Leases would be re-evaluated yearly.
As the lawyer droned on, I notice Joe fidgeting and looking at his watch from time to time.
“What’s the matter?” I whispered.
“Nothin’.” He said noncommittally, and looked at his watch again.
The meeting was thrown open to comment and person after person took the podium to decry the injustice of the deal and berate Bannum for his insensitivity and disregard for the future of the region and its people. The comments ranged from contempt to thinly veiled threats.
“Don’t you know,” Garth Hardwood fumed, “that yore virtually destroyin’ a way of life up here?” For once, Flat Bannum chose to answer. Raising his head, he stared at Hardwood from under hooded lids.
“Frankly, I couldn’t care less.” He looked down at a fingernail.
Then, Milton Geezer asked to speak and the room grew deathly quiet as he hobbled up to the podium. Although he was from away, Geezer was highly respected in the community. He had always tried to participate in community affairs and events. Little League teams and scout troops were sponsored by him and many a town meeting was enlivened by his enthusiastic, English-accented commentary. Now, he looked like the ghost of the same man.
“Most of you know me,” he began haltingly. “I’m the old fuddy-duddy who lived over on the sawmill road.” Muted laughter circled the room.
“Best days of my life,” he muttered, then raised his head and looked out over the crowd. “Many of you have heard that I will be moving back to England.” A low moan lifted from scarred throats.
“I would like to thank you all for making me welcome here. I never felt like an outsider. Indeed, I thought I had found a little piece of Paradise, and for many delightful years it was so.” He paused.
“But all dreams must end. Just as in the original, there was a serpent in the garden of Paradise.” One of the lawyers started to rise in indignation. Milton waved him down with a big hand. “Sit, boy. You’ve had your say, now I will have mine. If you desire to sue me, the address is 10 Battersea Road, Ancton, Cornwall. A place where I can look out over the western ocean toward my old home.” His gaze wandered over the assembly.
“You have a great country here, you know. I hope you appreciate that fact. Perhaps the greatest characteristic of America is its tolerance. Not so, you say? Of course it is. Although we see acts of intolerance in the news every day, for the most part, you tolerate those who are different and who have different ideas. I am living proof of that sentiment. The exceptions make the news. The everyday acts of kindness and understanding aren’t newsworthy. There are too many of them.
“But in recent years individuals and groups have arisen whose very existence is a plea for intolerance. So many so-called environmental groups thrive on the idea of “my way or no way!” They claim to be concerned about nature, but their idea of conservation is a land without people. Or a land with only a select kind of people. In my early days, we had names for that kind of sentiment. WE called it Nazism, or fascism. The methods may be different, but the intolerance is identical. Well, I have what you Americans call a ‘news flash’ for them. People are a part of nature. Always were; always will be. And once you have denuded the landscape of people, and the elements of nature, you claim to love are in full sway, who will there be to appreciate the late afternoon sun shining through leaves the color of emeralds? Who will there be to thrill at the snort of a deer or the flush of a grouse? Who will shed a tear at a winter morning so beautiful, so fresh and sparkling, that the concept even now, makes it hard for me to breathe. Not you, I maintain.” He glanced scornfully at the assemblage on the platform. “You’ll be out looking for still more lands to claim as your sole domain.
“And what of those who have lived here for generations? Whose life is tied closely to the land? Whose idea of enjoying nature is different from yours, but every bit as valid? In a democracy, these different opinions would be aired and argued and a compromise reached, for compromise is the soul of democracy. But democracy is anathema to people like you. It would dilute your narrow, selfish, and single-minded point of view.”
He paused to look once more at the people who were his friends and neighbors for so many years. I could see the glisten of tears on his cheeks in the harsh lights.
“So, I must bid you adieu. Please believe my sincerity when I admonish you to fight the good fight. To oppose this oppression wherever it raises its ugly head. It is an uphill battle with most of the money and most of the ruthlessness on the other side. But my faith is strong in the American people, and in Maine people in particular, that injustice cannot live where tolerance and a keen sense of justice holds sway. Goodbye, and may God bless you all.”
He tottered down off the platform and, as he reached the floor, the applause started and spread rapidly to every corner of the room. Every person in the building except those left on the platform rose to their feet and continued clapping until ten long minutes had gone by. Milton sat in his seat, stunned by the ovation, while Bannum and his cronies sat and fumed in silence.
As the crowd resumed their seats the rear door opened and a medium-sized young man with broad shoulders, dressed in a conservative suit, strode down the center aisle. He stopped by us and whispered into Joe’s ear. Joe grinned slowly and gripped the man’s hand in his. Then the newcomer headed for the platform.
At the same time, Bannum’s principal lawyer took the podium.
“Well, now that all the complaints have been heard, we will have the signing of the papers and the transfer of ownership.”
“Just a moment!” The newcomer stepped up on the platform and faced the lawyer. He held a sheaf of papers in his hand.
“I’m sorry young man, but comments are closed and we are getting on with business.”
“I would suggest that you refrain from signing just now.” The newcomer said. “You’d look pretty foolish later on if you made a mistake at this point.”
Mistakes and looking foolish are the bane of every lawyer and this one moved back quickly from the microphone. The young man stepped up to the podium.
“I’ll make this short and sweet. My name is Glendon Purge and I represent a group of businessmen who have just purchased the Leander Tract.”
The room exploded in pandemonium. It was some minutes before order could be restored with the mayor banging his gave. As a relative quiet returned, Flatlander Bannum stood, his face flushed crimson.
“Are you mad?” he cried in a high-pitched voice. “I am buying that land from this man right now!” He pointed a crooked finger at Lute Pillage. “Now get out of my way!”
“Lute Pillage doesn’t own the land,” Purge said firmly. “He never did. It’s owned, or I should say was owned, by the First Northern Maine Bank of Presque Isle. Pillage mortgaged it a long time ago. WE signed the papers at the bank at 4:00 pm this afternoon. I have the deed in my hand.”
“Oh yeah…” Lute said absently. “I forgot about that.”
The meeting dissolved into chaos. It ended with the ecstatic crowd carrying both Glendon Purge and Milton Geezer out through the front door on their shoulders. Bannum and his lawyers, together with a befuddled Lute Pillage, escaped through a side door.
Two days later me and Joe met Milton on the boardwalk in front of the Five N’ Diner. The consortium represented by Joe’s longtime friend, businessman Glendon Purge of Portland, had given Milton a 99 year lease at a modest fee, with the right to extend it. The land would be managed for controlled timber harvesting and would remain open to the public for use by all.
Joe held Barbara in both hands as he looked at the older man. “Milton,” he said softly, “It pleases me more than I can say to give this gun back to you.
Geezer looked at the gun with an expression the puzzled me. It was a mixture of affection and sad resolve. The ordeal had taken its toll and Milton looked frail and old. I knew he had returned gladly to his little house and sat for long hours staring appreciatively out over the East branch.
He rubbed a hand lovingly over the ornate breech. “No, Joe, I want you to keep her,” he said quietly. Joe voiced a surprised protest but Milton just shook his head.
“The joy of the hunt has gone out of it for me,” he said sadly. “But I still have my house and my garden and the joys of the natural world around me. That’s all I want for right now.” He looked at Joe with astern gaze. “I want you to keep her. Use her well and enjoy her as I have. I want to thank you both.” He looked back and forth between us. “For your support and all you have done. It means the world to me.” He turned and walked slowly off down the street toward his Land Rover.
Joe swore, softly and bitterly. “You know,” he said in a gravel voice. “The people who do these things ain’t just doing wrong; they’re committing an evil act. No matter what some folks want to believe, there is evil in the world.” He looked at the old man shuffling slowly along and swore again. “An’ I know evil when I see it.”
“I wonder if he was named after the poet,” I muttered.
“What? What poet?”
“The Englishman, John Milton.”
“Oh, yeah… I remember. Wrote a bunch of famous poems.”
“I was thinking of one in particular.”
“Yeah? Which one was that?
I watched Milton Geezer climb slowly into his vehicle. I said softly, “Paradise Lost.”
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