The Middle of Catskill-Nowhere
We drive through a world made white by high vaporous mist and fog that hang atop the hills like a meringue. It switches between rain and snow all morning, and the further east we drive, the heavier the crust of ice and snow becomes at the edge of the road. The four-lane remains deserted. We pass road signs posted deep in gullies that say things like, “Welcome to the Western Catskills.” The abandoned summer camps with their over-grown ghost cabins look anything but welcoming.
Like most of rural New York, poverty clings to the soil at the bottom of these gullies, and the detritus of their former jobs sit smoldering and rotting just a few miles down the road.
I don’t think much of it, though. You don’t think of it much when you grow up around it.
My boyfriend and I talk of other more profound things— the real crux of a solution for humanity: whether Twitter was, in fact, an over-blown employer and if they’ll fall apart without all those employees. I mean, it’s the heart of the issue for the shanty-dwellers in the depths of the hollers, right?
I’m avoiding thinking of a lot today, like are we headed to a Stewart Shops in the middle of Catskill-nowhere to be murdered? Or will we buy a Subaru Forester from a guy? Should I have given up my Saturday to do this or stayed home to work on my writing? I don’t think about them because my boyfriend and I so seldomly get to talk to each other on our road trips. Usually, we’re on a motorcycle.
“Oh, crap!” my boyfriend says mid-sentence when we’re only a half hour away from the middle of Catskill-nowhere.
“What?” I sit straighter in my seat, thinking something’s wrong with my car.
“I forgot the plates— I was gonna bring my plates to put on just to get us home— hopefully— without being stopped.”
“Oh… Well— what do we do now?”
My boyfriend shrugs, grimacing. “Hope he lets us take it with the plates, and we’ll mail them back.”
“Do you think he will?”
“I mean, some people do— It just depends on the guy, I guess.”
A moment of silence passes.
“Oh, crap!” repeats my boyfriend.
“I forgot the bill of sale form, too!”
“Maybe the Stewart Shops has a printer…”
About a half hour later, we pull into a much-diminished Stewart Shops parking lot. Great curls of ice and snow eat up half the parking spaces; they remind me of butter shaved from the block. The rain/snow has started again, and we race inside to find a bathroom. We predictably forget to ask about a printer and the bill of sale form. Instead, we waste time rearranging my car in the parking lot.
We just get it situated when I see a dark gray Forester pull around and back into the space beside the air pump.
“Is that them?” I nod toward the Forester. A tall man dressed in white T-shirt and black sweatpants emerges from one side, and a teenage boy pops from the other.
“Looks like it.” A hint of excitement creeps into my boyfriend’s voice.
“It doesn’t look like anyone else drove here with them…”
My boyfriend squints at the pair again. “That doesn’t seem promising.”
It doesn’t look like they’re even prepared for this to be a long transaction; neither wears a coat. The man’s T-shirt (his name is Buck) stretches over a ripe-round belly, and it looks like he’s wearing slippers. The boy has on a hoody but is wearing shorts, and his legs look sunburnt already in the damp cold.
“You___?” says Buck as we approach.
“Yeah.” My boyfriend shakes his hand from around the bundle of coveralls he carries trapped beneath his elbow.
“There she is—” Buck motions toward the idling Forester. The door sits open, collecting plops of raindrops and snow chunks— a fat wad of keys swings from the ignition.
My gut sinks at the sight of those keys— like the Forester isn’t prepared for existence without Buck.
“Were you not expecting me to take it home today?” my boyfriend asks.
“Yeah, well— you know— I just get effed around by these dipshits who get here and wanna offer 4 for it— like, no man. I know what it’s worth. I’m already selling it at a loss.”
“Yeah— I noticed you posted it before. I messaged you about it last year, and you never got back to me.” My boyfriend struggles into his coveralls as he talks.
“Well, that’s it, man. I was getting fucked over by all these smart asses— and finally, I just said, ‘Nah, I’ll just keep it. If you ain’t going my price, I’ll just keep it.’”
“Why are you selling it, if you don’t mind my asking?” my boyfriend speaks from the ground where he’s inspecting the undercarriage.
“So, like, I bought it for my wife, right? But she don’t drive stick, and I don’t think she wants to learn. Like, she keeps saying, ‘I will. I will,’ but then she don’t. And this is like my fourth vehicle. Like I got too many fucking cars.”
Buck talks fast; his facts and family tidbits trip over each other on their way out, and his conjunctions all seem to be joined by “fuck.” But he rounds the car with my boyfriend and points out the dents and bruises. He says the tires are all seasons, but they have the least aggressive tread I’ve ever seen on all seasons. He says it’s been a good car; he just can’t justify keeping it if his wife won’t learn manual.
The initial inspection done, Buck says, “You can test drive it if you want. We can jump in the back.”
“So if I’m sold on it, you just— like— want me to drive you home?”
Buck’s brows flex. “Oh yeah, man. No problem. No problem. We could do that.”
We begin to pile in the car. Buck lets my boyfriend put his coveralls in the trunk since it’s becoming apparent he’s buying the vehicle. Just as we’re getting situated, my boyfriend says: “Oh, yeah, the money.” He trots across the parking lot to my car, leaving me completely alone with Buck and his son. My mind flashes to all the True Crime tales of internet transaction predators, and I try to keep my heart rate steady.
I make inane remarks about the weather to distract myself from being alone with strangers, but I feel a lot better when my boyfriend climbs into the driver’s seat beside me. When we start, though, I can’t shake the unease that situation gave me.
We drive up through a brightening landscape. The sun struggles to appear through the high, white haze, and the rain/snow shower tapers to a fine mist. We climb past well-kept houses and shacks, some abandoned properties with caved-in rooves, and a few farms with far-away silos. Buck directs us where to turn and gives us a brief history of the car as he knows it. An old guy owned it before him. He did some work for this guy, and he saw the Forester was a manual, and he just had to have it.
“He babied it, man— I baby it. Like, I’m too old for that race car driver shit. I gotta take care of my vehicles.”
“What is it you do?” my boyfriend asks. “You said you did work for the guy. What kind of work?”
“I’m a contractor.”
“What kind of contracting?”
“Oh, everything— Everything except electrical.” Buck laughs.
“Why not electrical?”
“I don’t like getting shocked! Haha! Plus, all my friends are fucking electricians. Like I need someone for a job, I just call Steve, you know.”
We twist and turn further into the gullies between the mountains. The contrast between the houses grows vaster the further into the heart of the tall, spindly trees that we drive. We pass one that looks like a millionaire CEO threw it up yesterday, and then the next one is practically made of clapboard with dogs churning up the yard behind a rusted chainlink fence.
My boyfriend explains the problem with the bill of sale and the license plates. Buck assures us the plates aren’t a problem, but the bill of sale may be trickier. They have a printer at home, but he doesn’t know how to use it. His son says he’s sure his sister knows how to use it.
The roads narrow as we get closer to his house, and the low-fuel light dings on just after the final turn.
“Oh yeah, you’ll make it back on that,” says Buck. “It’s only like 13 miles from my house to the Stewart Shops.”
My feeling of unease makes me shift in my seat.
We squeeze our way into a drive, switching back as we turn. A homemade plankboard sign hangs from a tree trunk. Usually, in this setting, these signs say, “No trespassing” or “Fuck Joe Biden.” This one says, “Black Lives Matter.” I chuckle. It’s like we’ve left rural New York and have teleported to Vermont.
We pull to a stop at the crest of the lane; Buck’s driveway dips down toward his house. The road that continues past is seasonal use, and what we can see of it was plowed by Buck with the work truck sitting at the top of his drive. A homemade metalwork peace sign hangs from the tree at the fork, and Buck’s tiny house sits nestled against the hillside. His yard is full of tools, equipment, and kids’ toys, and I wonder that he owns a printer.
We get out and wait in his driveway for him to retrieve the title, check the printer, and bring back a bag to clean the rest of his stuff from the consoles. It begins to snow again as we wait— fluffy, wet flakes cascade toward us through the tree trunks. From the top of the drive, I look out over the gully, over the trailer’s roof below, and even though there’s not much of a view, the place feels open and bright. This probably changes in summer. The sun struggles through the haze again— just a pale ball of bleached yellow. The chunky snowflakes splash against my cheeks and catch in my eyelashes.
Buck stays gone for a long time. A very long time.
My feet start to go numb. I didn’t wear thick enough socks to stand still on cold, wet ground for this long. I stomp around to stay moving and study the star-shaped imprint left by the sole of my boot. My boyfriend stalks around the car, and we both try hard not to look toward the house often.
Finally, we crawl back into the Forester, too cold to stand in the mud.
“Maybe they can’t get the printer working,” my boyfriend says.
“Maybe…” but the peace of the snow shower has left me. Now, I can only think of how rural and secluded this place is— the last house, off the final turn, on a hillside above I-don’t-remember-where.
“It feels weird sitting in his car,” I say. “Like— you haven’t given him the money yet.”
Suddenly, Buck appears in the doorway. He struggles up the steep drive carrying a piece of paper, a child’s multichoice pen, and a cigarette.
My boyfriend and I step back out into the snow shower.
“Listen, man,” Buck says around the unlit cigarette. “I got bad news about the plates. She doesn’t want me to send you with ‘em. You know— like, the car’s in her name, and she’s worried about the insurance and registration and all that— like, I’m real sorry, man… You think you’ll be able to get back without plates?”
My boyfriend’s expression flexes, and I know it’s his we-gotta-do-what-we-gotta-do look. “I mean, I’d prefer not to, but we should be okay with the bill of sale. We shouldn’t get a ticket if I explain.”
“Well, that’s the other thing— the bill of sale.” Buck waves the now limp and splotchy piece of paper. “This is all we could get to print off.” He holds it up, and I see more wet blossoms on the nearly blank sheet.
“Well, I do need that— I can’t get it registered without the bill of sale.”
“Oh, I know. I know. We’re gonna get one and get it filled out. I’m gonna put it priority mail first thing Monday.”
Ironically, his wife won’t trust us with her plates, but now we need to trust her husband with the bill of sale.
“You should take a picture of the plates,” Buck says. “And I’ll write you up something— just in case you get stopped. I gotta get the title from her. She’s signing it now.”
He stomps back down the driveway, the unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth and the computer paper disintegrating in his fist. I wonder how long he’ll be gone this time and climb back into the Forester.
Mercifully, we only wait about a minute. Buck returns with an envelope, notebook, and the same pen. This time I stay in the car. By now, the car belongs to my boyfriend (pretty much), and my feet feel like blocks of ice.
“I just need your address,” says Buck, again from around the unlit cigarette.
My boyfriend tries two different color inks from the multichoice pen. Finally, one works. Buck hands him the half-ripped envelope. “That’s the title and what I’ve written out in place of the bill of sale.”
My boyfriend inspects both.
“And I’ll mail everything you need for registration on Monday.”
“Okay…” my boyfriend nods and reaches into his Carhart pocket for his envelope full of hundreds. He hands this to Buck.
“It’s a good car, you know,” Buck says, taking the money. “It’ll be a good ride for you.” He steps away a foot or two and pulls a lighter from his pocket instead of counting the money. He uses the envelope stuffed with hundred-dollar bills to shield the flame from the wind. I watch the spark catch twice centimeters from the bills before his cigarette lights.
Visions of burning C-notes float through my mind.
Cigarette glowing merrily, Bucks peels back the edge of the envelope and counts the straps. His lips turn up ever so slightly around his smoke, and he raises his hand toward my boyfriend.
“Pleasure doing business with you, man,” Buck says. “I’ll keep you updated on the paperwork.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Let me know if you get stopped.” Buck’s eyes crinkle when he chuckles.
“Sure thing, man.” My boyfriend settles into the driver’s seat, and Buck disappears down his muddy driveway one last time.
What I feel backing down the lane is more than just elation at having bought a car— I feel relief. For some reason, that pressure I felt about internet killers and shady people had grown oppressive looking down at the mud and clutter surrounding Buck’s house. He seemed all right, but I was overjoyed, quite honestly, to be away from him.
It doesn’t even bother me that now I must drive three hours west stuck to my boyfriend’s bumper— hoping we don’t get pulled over. These are the small prices I pay for adventure.
About the Author
Katie Baker lives in beautiful upstate New York, is an avid runner, and gets inspiration for her stories by getting outside and observing the people and landscape around her. Her work has been published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, TWJ Magazine, and Torrid Literature Journal. You can find her writing workshop on Seekingprose.com.