Weekend Fiction: Hub-Cap Farm
West Ontario somewhere - April
I got a short lift up the road this morning to what the driver called, The Hub Cap farm. I asked what they farmed, and he said, you’ll see when you get there. It isn’t near anywhere but it will be a good place to get a lift from.
He was right - the barn is covered in hubcaps. Apparently it shines so bright that aviator’s use it as a guide. There must be hundreds and hundreds of them. Not all of them so shiny. Nearly every one of them has a story attached or a photo booth photo with a carefully written note that has run in the rain from when the condensation has got inside the plastic envelope. I saw at least one with a dog tag and another with the date of birth, and death punched out on those blue plastic strips that are like a telegram. You know the tool you dial around then punch out the letter or number. It must have taken ages to get it right. I wonder how many goes they had - now it’s there forever.
The guy who gave me a lift told me this all started when the farmer’s daughter was hit by a hub cap that bounced off a truck and hit her on the head. His little Delphina was killed outright. The Farmer nailed the hub-cap to the tree near where it happened. A few weeks later he was passing by the spot and he saw other hubcaps propped up beside the tree. Some with names on some with little notes. After a while he collected them up and pinned them on the side of his barn. Over the months and years they kept coming. Folks had started taking detours, taking their photo and leaving, but some turned up and left a hub-cap behind. It grew - there isn’t a lot to look at around these parts.
He finished off what he had to say as we pulled up just past the driveway into the farm buildings. I asked him if he ever went in? He said, ‘No, no, I don’t want people seeing me drive out of there. They will think I’ve had a loss and not told them. I’m not sure it’s a good thing to look at killer hub-caps but you’ll get a lift from here, where ever you’re heading, no problem. Good luck and good day.’
The farmer himself was tall angular and slow in his moves and in the way he talked. Considered I suppose. He looked to have a lot of knuckles - real working hands. He was wearing a heavy, sandy coloured boiler suit with a hood pushed back. It looked like the one piece of clothing he ever wore. Like an extra loose skin. He came over to me when I was dropped off by his pull in, and said, ‘Cafes not going to open for a while but I can make you a cup if you would like one.’ Before I could say yes, thank you, he said, ‘Course, you get a lift in the meantime, you won’t be needing it.’ Then he turned and walked off.
The road was really quiet. By the time he got back with the coffee I think maybe just three vehicles passed and I guess I wasn't looking at the road.
He handed me a cheese toasty, almost too hot to handle, and then nodded towards the picnic benches. - ‘I, we, never planned any of this - of course who would plan to have their daughter killed by a hub-cap? ... I just saw that there were too many piling up on the side of the road and decided to pin them on the barn wall. A simple enough of an idea at the time. - In the early days there were only a few... I used to read all the notes, sometimes over and over. They didn’t mean anything to me by way of names. I knew the towns of some. Some folk leave a lot of information - some leave only a name. Name and place with age is the most popular. A trickle at first - now it looks like a flood.’
While he was talking, I noticed that the ground was unevenly worn in places. There was some blackish grit padded down into hollows, so it looked like the farmer must have been around with a shovel a few days ago to fill in the dips. I rolled my foot in to one of them. A little water oozed out then subsided again as I lifted my foot. The farmer noticed. He said - ‘My wife calls these, The Favoured spots.’
I must have looked like I didn’t understand even though I probably said yes or something like, as he continued to explain. ‘These are the favoured spots to stand - folks come, stand, and stare. They’ve worn the ground out with their staring.’
I tried to work out which hubcaps were getting most people’s attention. They were all sad, I suppose. I could have taken the name off one and put it with another hub-cap; it wouldn’t have made it any less sad. These were the marks, not of the dead, but of memory. The dead were all gone miles from here, some of them years ago. As I understand it, some folk return to stand in the same hollowed out ground again and again. It seems a shame that the farmer has ever filled them in. Almost as if he and his shovel of black grit are an erasure rubbing out the moments. Then I spied one hub-cap that had a story made out in small punch dents.
AUNT LIZZIE - WALKED OUT ON HER OWN WEDDING.
THE BEST AND WORST THING SHE COULD HAVE DONE.
RUN OVER AND KILLED BY A LATE COMER.
FROM HIS SIDE OF THE FAMILY.
The farmer walked off to leave me staring at the neat lettering done with a punch. His wife arrived and stood beside me. I didn’t hear her approach even though I did hear the farmer’s boots crunching on the old asphalt on his way to the house. - ‘You know,’ she said. ‘He comes out here of an evening, sometimes late in the night and just stares at these hubcaps.’ She pulled her long mackintosh close in around her but didn’t do the belt or buttons so I figured she wasn't going to stay out . It wasn't that cold but they dressed for it. - ‘I came out here one night -nearer to dawn, and found him laughing. Holding his sides and biting his hand – just laughing. He would stop for a while - I’d watch him from a distance - then he would start up again. Sometimes pointing at one of the hubcaps. Something tickled him and he couldn’t stop. I did ask him to, but it didn’t make any difference. He would point and try to speak but nothing of any use came out. If I could have worked out which one he was pointing at, I would have taken it down. That may seem like an unfeeling thing to do but you can’t have a man laughing at memorial hub-caps in the middle of the night. Not if he’s your husband.’
I looked along the rows of hub-caps again, then down at the ground. Her yellow gumboots fit perfectly in to the hollows. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if in years to come someone found this site with four boot sized hollows side by side. No barn wall covered in hub-cap testimonials, just the hollowed out ground. What will the future make of our need to remember?
‘I will bring you out a piece of lemon cake to see you on your way if you like. I may not open the stall today. It’s in danger of becoming expected. We never planned for food. Someone suggested we open a Hub-cap cafe and send our photo to some travel paper. I think they didn’t understand. My husband and me are just farmers who just happened to lose our daughter to a hub-cap she knew nothing about... I’ll go bring you some cake.’
I’d just gone along a row reading labels when I heard the crunch of the farmers footsteps. I tried to rush read. No idea why -
'Bobby,' drove his car into a bridge with all he had left.
Picking flowers on the road side
flowers grow taller now she is gone.
First car August 1919, Budapest. Fleeing the White Terror
Last car- September 09, 1989 Penticton BC.
Hit an apple truck avoiding stray dog.
She had travelled more than miles can measure.
‘ You want to see something really sad? He said - He paused for a while to locate what he was looking for as if someone had been and done a stock take and moved things along. He pushed back his cap, pulled it forward and then took two long steps. He lifted an olive green wheel hung by bale wire off its nail; turned it over and over in his hands as if trying to get a sense of it. He rubbed the damp off the weathered bone-white solid tyre that had cracked in places then pushed his finger through one of the four holes on the hub. It looked so small in his hands. He seemed to have forgotten I was there.
‘Why would you travel all the way out here with a child’s toy car wheel and no label? No name.’ He hung it back on its nail so carefully that it didn’t wobble when he let go. - ‘It will be time for this to come to an end soon. It’s a pity I can’t post them all back to where they came from...’
‘... sometimes I hear a truck slow down in the night and I wonder if the driver has passed by wondering if this was all his doing. One seed.’
‘Lemon cake.’ Again, the wife had arrived without a sound.
The farmer turned part way towards me - ‘I have a fallen tree to cut up and a fence to mend. Good luck with your journey.’ At that he held, out his hand and was on his way almost before I had shook his hand. His wife handed me the cake. It was like the weirdest award ceremony I’ve ever witnessed.
Her arms went back to wrapping herself up. That is when I noticed her wrist. Where someone who used to wear a wristwatch might have paler skin from where the sun hadn’t reached, she had a dark bar of flesh. I bit into my cake while I watched her finger run back over and over again the same spot on her outer wrist. Rub rub tap tap. Rub rub tap tap. As if she was checking her long gone timepiece was working.
‘What would we say to him? That man with his truck? That we have been planting this wall for over 21 years now. That we are in some ones holiday slide-show? ’
I finished my coffee and cake. She took my cup and plate - I could feel my feet nestling into the hollows.
Tomas Fox is from West Cumbria. Hitchhiking was his Internet. Hubcap Farm is an extract from Passenger - a road trip novel set in Canada.
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