Platterland

Ed believed he had space aliens in his cellar. Well, I had seen them.
by Rob Hunter

Platterland

Showing respect. Ed would have liked that.

It was a real nice laying-out—tasteful. Well, maybe not so much tasteful particularly, but neat. They’d got Ed’s left arm attached to his head and not his shoulder. And they had the remaining right arm attached on the left side. To look like them, I supposed. Ed’s critters had laid him out like a guy caught in one of those exercise machines you see on late night TV, an origami fold-up man, minus the glow of health and without the pretty girl. I noticed they’d braided his nose hair. Artistic, a nice touch. His body was covered with a dusting of early frost.

The Maine Warden Service always figured sooner or later they’d be coming back with Flyin’ Ed Moholland in a body bag. I used Ed’s phone to call the wardens; they’d been looking for him for three weeks. No one expected Flyin’ Ed to actually die; he was a monument to time—closing in on eighty and keeping pretty much to himself.

I’m Phil LaPointe. Ask anyone about me: reliable, a sober—well, usually sober—citizen and what the summer people call “a local character.” I should have checked in on Ed during the weeks he was missing but it wouldn’t have mattered. I’ve been around and gotten pretty well insulated against the nasty surprises life throws at me but I scrambled up the stairs from Ed’s cellar and threw up clutching the sides of the kitchen door and bent over double. Between spasms I stumbled down the porch steps.

Down by the road a trio of crows squabbled on top of Ed’s sign: “Platterland: Thousands more inside.” Sixteen shiny hubcaps hung from the sign, all from upscale cars: Mercedes, Cadillac, Tucker, DeLorean. Flyin’ Ed kept the hubcaps shined up in case he ever got a customer. When Ed was a kid, back in the 1940s, his father’s hubcap sideline generated maybe fifty dollars a year at best. Ed’s regular business was selling and servicing vacuum cleaners.

The crows perched on the sign watched disinterestedly as I up-chucked. “Shoo!” I clapped my hands and they flew off.

*  *  *

It all started with an expired vacuum cleaner. That good old Electrolux that chugged away for years, even before I was janitor, finally gave up the ghost. Pilly Hennicott left me a note pinned to the door of the utility closet at the school: “Get the vacuum fixed. We clogged it up after the eighth grade dance. And for God’s sake, clean up the rug in the pre-K room, it’s been six months now.”

I had been janitor and bus driver at the Meddybemps Elementary going on ten years. Pillsbury Hennicott was my boss and I generally did what he said. I stripped off the vacuum’s chassis and got around the switch assembly with a pair of clip leads. Yep, the motor was fried. I set off up Meddybemps Hill after Flyin’ Ed, the Electrolux man. I figured a new motor and a beefed-up power nozzle would fluff the rug where I couldn’t get the stains out. Shirley Dilworth, our principal, suggested they were finger paint.

Anyway, I chucked the defunct vacuum cleaner in the school van and headed up to Ed’s place. He was out back of the hubcap museum tinkering with one of his flying machines. He dropped his wrench and wiped his sun-blotched forehead with an oily hand.

“Hiya, Phil. Come on around to the front porch, I got some brewskis on ice.” I was on school time, driving the school van, but I figured since it was summer vacation the beers wouldn’t count. We passed the time of day and I finally got around to the busted Electrolux. “Bring ‘er in,” said Flyin’ Ed. I lugged the vacuum plus a carton of loose parts I hadn’t bothered to put back in up the porch steps and into the cool confines of the front room that doubled as Ed’s parlor and repair shop. I plomped the disassembled vac onto his worktable. Ed sighted down the hose, gave the pile of parts the once over and looked relieved. He gestured to the refrigerator next to a large screen TV. “I got a case in there.”

Now neither Ed nor I were what you would rightly call drinking men, but summer was new and fresh with another Maine winter just behind us: reason enough. “Let’s pop a couple and socialize.”

We sat and drank, watching Ed’s TV with the sound off for fifteen, twenty minutes.

“Phil, I got things to say. Put your can back in the cooler and let’s get airborne. Then we’ll talk. It’s been lonely since I got banned from the school.” That was when I took my first and only ride with Flyin’ Ed.

*  *  *

The school’s biggest hit before Ed and his rainbow powerchute was Dinoman—a guy who made balloon dinosaurs while chatting about his adventures in the cretaceous. Each kid went home with a balloon dinosaur. At his visits to the Elementary Ed would stand before the whiteboard, a dashing figure for all his seventy-plus years: jump suit, safety helmet and goggles, ramrod straight. Flyin’ Ed brought into that safe, snug schoolroom an element of secret, forbidden things for kids who came into town once a month, when their folks went shopping for groceries at the Pick ‘N’ Pay. These were country kids. But, though not yet allowed to cross the main road unaccompanied, they had been raised on cable TV and weren’t easy believers. Ed had to promise them a ride. His trailer with the chute on board was parked out by the ball field.

In his late 50s Ed became addicted to flying powerchutes. Powerchutes are motorized parachutes as their name suggests, sort of a flying bicycle with a big sail up top. Flyin’ Ed rode the rainbow, that’s how he described it to the wide-eyed kids at the Elementary.

Word got around. The school board panicked about their insurance premiums. Pillsbury Hennicott called an executive session. Shirley Dilworth had allowed two kids to fly with Ed on the strength of a parental consent form with signatures the kids had faked themselves. The parents were steamed. Seeing as how Shirley was their teacher, I felt she should have recognized the sloppy penmanship.

It was a short meeting. Parental consent slips were not worth the paper they were written on. The school could be sued.

“Well, I think Ed Moholland is a fine law-abiding man and no threat to the children,” Shirley huffed at Pilly.

Pilly Hennicott loved an attentive audience. “We are not impugning Mr. Moholland’s character, Mrs. Dilworth, but we have considered any impact he may have with the children. He obeys the laws of gravity just like the rest of us.” If Pilly was aware that he might have made a pun, he didn’t let on.

Flyin’ Ed was grounded—stuck in Platterland with his vacuum cleaners as far as the kids were concerned.

*  *  *

Ed and I were up for about an hour on my first, last and only powerchute ride. Ed spun in to set us down, chute fluttering out behind him like neatly folded wash, and dropped the last foot or so to a landing that drove a chill right up my spine. It was a gentle hit, almost like getting out of bed but, like I said, I was not meant to fly and I was pretty shaky.

“Terra firma,” said Ed, opening the fridge and extracting two fresh cans.

We relaxed.

The telephone rang. Ed ignored it. After a couple more rings Ed’s recorded voice cut in, “Platterland, Flyin’ Ed Vacuum and Repair. Leave a message at the beep.”

Beep.

“Ed! I’ve got a thing in my vacuum and I can’t get it out. It’s dead in there.” A woman, middle-aged and desperate.

Ed chugged down his can and smiled apologetically as he went to pick up the phone. “This is Flyin’ Ed.” There was an agitated chattering that I could hear but not understand; the caller was talking fast and loud. “Yes, Molly. Yes?” More excited babble from the earpiece. Flyin’ Ed sighed and cupped his hand over the mouthpiece. “Molly Guptill.” A woman we both knew. “This is the heart of the problem,” Ed said. “Explaining.”

He removed his hand and keyed the caller in on the speakerphone so I could listen. Ed spoke in tones of calming reassurance. “Yes, Molly, this happens... occasionally.”

Full speed and full volume, Molly’s voice poured out of the tiny speaker in Flyin’ Ed’s fax-copier-answering machine. “I tried to get the thing open. To see if there was a mouse or something...? Let me tell you... remember that moose died last winter over near Ayer’s Junction? Stuck in the culvert? And no one knew until after the thaw? I mean by August you had to take a twelve mile detour.”

“Yes, Molly.”

Molly would not be pacified. “A jelly—gooey and the smell? Stinks to high heaven. Is there a way anything that big could get to the insides of a vacuum? Something that grows?”

“Suppose I come over this afternoon. OK?” Molly snorted assent. Even across the room I could feel the clunk as the phone slammed down at her end. Ed’s shoulders heaved as he slumped back into his chair. He gave a mighty sigh. “Phil, how long have we known each other—ten, fifteen years?”

I said that sounded about right.

From the determined set of his jaw this was not going to be about the lost loves and minor regrets that decorate every man’s past. I made myself comfortable. Ed started right in.

“Back from the Navy, I was; I served an eight-year hitch. That must have been ’57. Mom had died three years before. Her funeral was the only time I got home in all those years. I caught the bus from Willipaq—they do that afternoon run up Meddybemps Hill?—and there was the old homestead, the house I grew up in, all gone to hell and empty, weeds up to your ass in the dooryard.”

Ed scrunched his beer can in one huge hand as he reached for another. “Plowed ground gone fallow under last year’s rye grass and the yard overgrown. And the Electrolux vacuum cleaner.”

“What about it?” I was on my third beer and I guessed this was the hook to Ed’s tale.

“It was sitting in the middle of the driveway smack dab under my dad’s old Platterland sign and waving its hose at me. All frantic it was, like it had been waiting for me to come home. Like Lassie would, in those Lassie movies, when someone was in trouble. So I spoke to it, What’s the matter little fella? And it turned on its wheels, ran partway towards the house, waited, then ran back to me and waved its hose.

“I said Okay, little fella, I’m coming. The vacuum gave a sort of whir from its power nozzle like it understood and headed out behind the well house.”

“As it turned out, it had a companion—another Electrolux—and it was in trouble. Well really, it was dead. The poor little thing was some broken up. I sat and stroked its hose there beside the corpse until sunset thereabouts. The little one circled around—sniffed, like. Waiting for me to do some magic. When it started to stink, the dead one that is...”

“You buried it.” Here I was drinking Ed’s beer, and he believed he had space aliens on the old homestead. The beer made the story easier to accept.

“No, I put it in the freezer. Come along downstairs. And watch that first step.” I got to my feet, not as wobbly as I thought I should be about now.
“Phil? That little vacuum, the one that met me in the dooryard?” Flyin’ Ed beckoned me to follow him.

“Yes?”

“Turns out she was pregnant. Sure enough, come fall, she comes out from under the barn, tentative-like, with two little ones, just like her, in tow.”
Ed led; I followed.

It was a large cellar, some of its walls carved out of solid ledge, slate and granite, the way they did with those old Maine farmhouses. There must have been twenty freezers parked about in a circle. Ed had them on old wooden shipping pallets, the kind you see piled for burning out back of the forklift depots. Mostly Sears—the freezers that is. I asked Ed about his preference for Sears products.

“Sears minds its own business. Till they went local anyway. Sears used to deliver out of Bangor, different driver every time. No busybodies asking why I wanted a new freezer every two years without bitching about the old one.”

“And the freezers?” I had an idea where all this was heading but I wanted to hear it from Flyin’ Ed.

“Full of critters. Dead critters. They don’t have a lot of little canisters, just enough to replace themselves with a few left over to cover accidents. And they age and die. And once every year they come down cellar and visit their ancestors, like. I open the freezers and we have a silent moment together.”

“And what do you get out of all this?” I asked.

Ed turned, amazed that I hadn’t caught on. “They run the farm. And I get paid when I rent them out, sell them and fix them. I get the regular maintenance calls—a new hose, lube job, cord and switch. I sell a line of bags and attachments. They can spray paint, too, but not too well. They’re no trouble. They tend the fields—at night of course. God! If the neighbors ever got wind of that!” Ed drained his can and scrunched it. “I got a bottle somewheres,” he said hopefully.

“Bottle it is,” I replied.

We made it back, pretty well lubricated by now, to Ed’s porcelain-topped kitchen table. He retrieved a quart of J. W. Dant from the flour hopper of his late mother’s Hoosier breakfront.

“Thanks for sitting down and listening to me talk. I’ve been carrying the secret alone for way too long. I didn’t realize what a burden it was till now. Us talking and all.”

We drank and talked like two men will who are past the age of having to impress one another. This was an uncommon event—our conversation as well as Ed’s space aliens—and we paused to savor it.

“Something else I got to show you. I call it the Rug Suckers’ Ball.” He held one finger to the side of his nose, like Santa Claus in The Night Before Christmas. This was going to be top secret stuff. I tossed back what was left in my glass. Ed’s chair scraped the linoleum as he beckoned me back down the cellar steps. “I dug a tunnel out to the barn, so’s I could watch without disturbing them. This is their time, their mating time.” Ed fetched a lantern.

“Don’t rightly know how they figure their mating season. They all answer some call and come together here, probably something to do with the moon, the tides. Like the horseshoe crabs. Watch your head.” We were almost sober enough to navigate the steps.

I collided with a low ceiling beam. “Ouch!”

Ed held a finger to his lips. “I find good homes for ’em,” Ed whispered. “Their real home must be far off. I figure they’re just waiting for a lift. They wouldn’t survive long on this world; they haven’t seen all the movies we have—alien invaders, and all? ‘Take me to your leader’ and total destruction follows. I figured the best way for them was to go under cover, as themselves, or close to it. They don’t seem to mind that I sell them. They eat dirt, stuff they suck out of folk’s rugs. They don’t really require plugging in but I figure all that electricity gets ’em hopped up. They sure do love a good housecleaning. And when they need some companionship, they stop working and their owner brings them back home to me. Shhhh.”

An eerie dance was taking place. No music, but instead, a whir of pulleys and belts, servomotors from ecstatic power nozzles and an underscore of flap flap from their vacuum hoses as they twined, untwined, and stroked one another. And the light reflected from their chrome trim made things wild and passionate even with the silence.

“They come to Meddybemps Hill to make little baby Electroluxes?” I asked in a hoarse whisper. I had to ask even though I felt silly from the moment I opened my mouth.

“Yep. From all over the world—the universe for all I know. They just like me. Most of the year they’re your normal, everyday vacuum cleaners. The canister type—a lot of folks prefer those.” Ed threw an arm across my shoulder, not unlike a proud dad at his daughter’s dance recital.

The dance stopped. The assembled Electroluxes pivoted towards Ed and me. There was a long moment of what I could only call respectful silence. They then turned their backs and reformed their circle, completely ignoring us.

“We’d better go,” Ed said.

*  *  *

Ed believed he had space aliens in his cellar. Well, I had seen them. And the Electrolux community seemed to appreciate Flyin’ Ed. They ran his farm for him. Stranger things had happened in Willipaq. Well, no... maybe they hadn’t. I took another pull at my can.

Ed bent over his workbench saying, “Tsk, tsk,” as he removed a continuity checker from my old motor.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You call up with a customer’s vacuum all fixed up like new, but a different one actually goes back to the happy housewife.”

Ed installed a rebuilt motor as he talked. “You got it,” he said. “They don’t mind getting separated and they’re generally well-behaved away from home. That’s here with me, I guess.” Ed removed his Willipaq Historical Society baseball cap and wiped his speckled forehead. A trickle of sweat ran into one red-rimmed eye.

“Damn!” Ed rubbed away the salt sting. Going on eighty years in the out-of-doors had decorated his face, neck and forearms with spots, splotches and furrows.

“Have you asked about those white spots?”

“Yep. The doctor cautioned me and said it might be good if I had a biopsy. Or two. What would that change? I’d still have it. Cancer. Or not. And I’m 78 years old. Why worry?”

“But...”

“When their time comes, they die.” Ed bowed his head, a slight incline, showing respect. Ed was that sort of guy.

“That woman on the phone,” I said, “Molly.”

“Yep.”

“Molly’s old vacuum will go in one of your freezers?”

“Yep.” Ed snapped the vacuum shut and picked up a rag. He popped a blemish on the chrome polish of the donut-shaped cord winder that straddled its rear end. “Done. Good as new.” He gave my carton of leftover parts a shake. “But it has issues.” He looked thoughtful. “Now what do you think? Do you want your plain old mechanical vacuum cleaner like it came from the factory? Or would you like your very own living unit?”

He was offering the Meddybemps Elementary an organic vacuum all its very own. If Pilly Hennicott ever twigged there was a space alien living in the janitor’s closet, I was going to be in for some heavy-duty explaining. I opted for what I already had: the traditional wheels, cogs and pulley unit that plugged into a wall.

Ed reached down a factory-sealed carton with a brand new power nozzle assembly. “It’s yours. No living tissue inside, guaranteed. My gift to the school district.”

“Sorry, Ed. Got to pay you for it.” The purchase order was already made out. I handed it over.

“Bye, Phil.”

“Bye, Ed.”

It had been a full day. I had that all-over queasy feeling you get after a lot of beer and cut-rate bourbon on an empty stomach. I thought about hitting Ed up for dinner but saw his eyes were drooping. Nap time. With a man like Ed you tend to forget his age.

“Don’t forget the vac,” Ed called after me. I loaded the repaired vacuum with its brand new power nozzle in the van and drove very carefully under the Platterland sign, under its hubcaps, and down the hill. And sure enough, the Electrolux was as good as new. But I hired a commercial rug cleaner to shampoo the finger paint out of the rug in pre-K. Pilly grumped but signed the purchase order, no questions.

Summer faded into fall, and a new school session. The refurbished vacuum cleaner died yet again—Pilly had been using it to spray paint over at the fire station. I gave Ed a call but got the answering machine for three consecutive days. I figured he was off on a toodle with some of his powerchute buddies. Not wanting to take any chances with a possible dead alien in the vac, I locked it away in the closet for a few weeks. When I checked back, there was no smell. It was the genuine, factory-made variety Electrolux, gathering dust instead of sucking it.

It was Thanksgiving break, a four-day weekend and no push for immediate cleanliness at the Meddybemps Elementary, when I headed up the hill with the school van.

*  *  *

The place reeked. And no Ed in sight. On a hunch I checked the electric meter. It was locked off and sealed. The freezers had been left to melt. The stench was appalling. I got as close to the house as I could without gagging, then headed to town. Sure enough, Eastern Maine Electric Co-op had shut off the power. Non-payment of accounts, etc. The buzz at the Co-op was Ed’s powerchute had been observed hitting a power pylon in a freak upward thermal gust. The Maine Warden Service was called to pick up what was left of him. They returned empty-handed. I had the power turned back on and visited a week later when the smell was under control.

There were a few crows picking at what looked to be an Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner in the weed-clogged gravel driveway. I checked the electric meter out back behind the kitchen. The seal was removed; it was spinning at a furious pace. Service restored. I covered my face with a bandana soaked in mineral spirits and started down the cellar steps.

The smell was less powerful down among the freezers than it was upstairs. The cellar was cold and damp, the air thick with condensation. A rime of frost several inches thick spilled over the bulkheads of the open freezers. It would be a good day for the Electric Co-op’s shareholders, dividend-wise, when and if I paid the bill. I did pay the bill, by the way. Sort of a tribute to Ed.

Except for one, the freezers were empty.

I had feared what I might find down there. The reality came as a welcome relief. It was a kind of spiritual moment, if that’s what trips your trigger. It did for me and I stayed on for a while. Then I was dizzy and made for the stairs that promised warm air and sunlight. I sat on the porch to get my bearings, just a little sick—probably more from the mineral spirits than from the smell of death. The place had gone to weeds just as it had when Ed’s mother died all those years back.

I noticed an overgrown path, Ed’s route to behind the barn where he launched his powerchute up and over the tall stand of white spruce his dad had planted to celebrate his birth. Tracks criss-crossed flattened patches of chickweed and plantain. Tracks made by many tiny wheels, headed for the cow pasture where a cover crop of rye grass was on the mend from where something large and heavy had sat on it. Not long enough to obscure the rain and the sun, not long enough to kill the rye grass, but long enough to load some freight, perhaps.

I returned to the cellar to pay a final farewell to Flyin’ Ed. This time I looked closely at the frozen, reassembled corpse. The Rug Suckers had got it right, by and large. The Rug Suckers he had cared for in life and in death had returned him to their own now emptied burial freezers, one last gesture, and they’d done the best they could putting him back together.

I headed back to my truck and jumped at the creak of rusty wheel bearings close behind me. It was one of Ed’s critters and it was in trouble. It had lost its cord winder. A pair of eyes on stalks, like a snail’s, stared intently out at me. The pupils were yellow and the irises slits, more like a goat’s eyes than a cat’s if you’ve ever looked a goat in the eye. Spooky. But these were more melancholy than spooky, all rheumy and runny at the edges. Old eyes. It had been left behind, I guessed, too sickly to make the trip. It wobbled to me on off-center wheels, got stuck in a muddy rut left by my pickup and rolled half over on its side. Its eyes were clouding over; its hose lay limp in a spring rivulet of ice melt.

I carried it back into Flyin’ Ed’s cellar and placed it gently beside his body. Showing respect. Ed would have liked that.

copyright  2007, 2015 Rob Hunter

Platterland was first published in On the Premises, November 2007.

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