T

hrough the open kitchen window he hears the whine and growl of the chain saw. Tim Collins: taking down the small barn. Last winter, after part of the barn roof had caved in under a snow load, the building inspector for the town came. “It’s all gotta come down,” he said. “Sorry, Dr. Lieb. You know I don’t want to lay an expense on you, but just suppose a kid plays in there and a beam falls down on him, hey, you know how you’d feel. And you’d get sued besides, and I’d be held as negligent. No question. It’s all gotta come down.”

Daniel Lieb had known, when he and Susan bought the old place as their “retirement palace,” that the outbuildings would probably have to be demolished. The small farmhouse itself is in fine shape. It had been restored lovingly a decade earlier by a professor in the art department of the university. Only a hundred yards away, the barn and silo are a menace. Still, he hates to tear them down, and not just because of the expense. They add something, something like soul, to the property. On a sunny day like today he used to enter the barn, stroke the hickory beams, feel the cool. Not so cool today—most of the roofing, most of the exterior vertical boards, are gone.

He walks through the barn, climbing over fallen boards and into the freestanding wooden hoop silo. Once used for storing feed for cattle in the winter, it now has no function. But it’s strangely beautiful inside. Sunlight filters through the spaces where boards are missing. Slivers of light like theatrical spots catch dust motes whirling. The vines, climbing the walls, are what hold them up. He remembers the line from Andrew Marvell: “a green thought in a green shade.”

He wonders if with Tim’s help he can save the silo. Tim Collins, starting to build a small house for his family nearby, has been tearing down the barn all month—partly for pay, partly in exchange for boards, hickory beams, and posts for his own post-and-beam house. A few days this month he’s brought a friend to help. First, they had to peel the old metal roofing, which got taken for scrap. Then, without help of scaffolding, they laddered up and sawed away roof beams and roofing boards.

Today Tim’s working alone. A humid, hot day in June. Dan knows that the work would go a lot faster if they didn’t care about using the wood, but he does care—cares that Tim is building with it. Through this barn the agricultural past of the Connecticut Valley will become part of a house for a good young family. They’ll carry it forward into the next generation.

The whine of the chainsaw has stopped. Dan comes over. Tim, sitting on a bench he nailed together out of raw boards, is sharpening the cutters of the chain with an oiled file. He looks up. “It’s going to rain later on,” Tim says. “Localized storms.”

“I’ve heard.”

“So here’s my plan. I’ll load the truck with beams and boards, stack and cover them at the building site. Then come back, cover the rest of the pile with a tarp. I want to keep the wood dry.”

“You think it’ll be that bad, the rain?”

“No. But I’d feel better doing it.”

“You work too hard, Tim. On too many things.”

Tim laughs, shrugs. “I know, I know.”

Lieb himself once worked construction; there was a time he could have shared in Tim’s work. Even a few years ago he was in pretty good shape. But now Daniel Lieb is seventy-five. When he carries out to Tim a thermos of iced coffee, he catches himself walking more stiffly than he really has to, one hand cradling his back, as if to prove to himself—or to Tim?—that he’s not lazy, just old.

“Coffee, Tim. Take a break.”

“Sure. Thanks, Dr. Lieb. Dan.” Still uncomfortable using his first name. Tim waves, wipes his forehead with a bandana, flashes him a grin, stops work, takes a sip, goes back to dragging a beam to the stacked pile. Tim Collins is a big man, heavy in the shoulders, blond hair tied back in a ponytail. He’s been looking a little scruffy these past weeks—letting his beard grow, coming to work a little bleary-eyed. The toddler, Ruth, has been sleeping irregularly. Tim and Meredith take turns waking up to soothe her.

For six months Tim has done carpentry for the Liebs. He’s finishing his masters at the university in construction technology. Once he’s got his degree, he’ll easily find a good position analyzing and managing construction for large projects. Meantime, he has taken small carpentry jobs to pay the rent, pay back student loans, and buy materials for the new house.

Tim has become like a favored nephew. Both Liebs have taken on the whole Collins family. Dan’s wife, Susan, worked for years as an editor for the university press; now she freelances at home, so her days are flexible. Sometimes she watches Ruth, the toddler, so Meredith Collins can work as a substitute history teacher.

Lately, Dan has been worrying about Tim. Has been watchful. He sees Tim stop in the middle of what he’s doing and take in a series of heavy breaths. He looks ragged; his eyes are bloodshot. He’s not a drinker, Dan is sure. What’s going on? Is it Meredith?

A week ago Tim and Meredith invited them for a barbecue at their run-down rented ranch house. “Don’t expect anything fancy,” Tim said. “This place is all we could afford.”

No need to be Sherlock Holmes to see its actual rental history. Before Tim, Meredith, and toddler moved in, this was a student flophouse. The landlord got tired of complaints from the neighbors and got rid of the students. He rented it to the Collins family for less money on the understanding that he’d fix nothing.

Ruts had been gouged into the weedy front lawn where scores of students had parked their cars year after year. An ugly orange carpet, patched and beer-stained, was stapled onto the plywood floors. Plasterboard walls were warped and cracked, and linoleum was peeling in the kitchen.

During the barbecue Meredith made sure the Liebs mostly stayed in the backyard. But Dan saw enough. No wonder they want to build a house. But why can’t Tim wait until he graduates? Why now? Does he feel degraded by the house? Is he loading himself with more than he can handle out of some inner drama? Out of some need to be valorous?

Dan felt the tension between Meredith and Tim at the barbecue. Meredith: “Don’t you want to heat the grill?” Tim: “God! I never would have remembered without you reminding me.” Snip, snip, snip, and Meredith flashing a look: Remember, no fighting in front of the guests. Thank God for Ruthie. Two years old, she again and again made her parents laugh and smile at each other and pick her up and hug.



A

h, Hell with my back! Dan sees Tim lower the tailgate and lug twelve-foot boards; he lifts the wood onto the bed of the pickup. “Wait, Tim. Let me help.” Bending his knees, Dan lifts one end of a fourteen-foot beam. Stiffness, but no pain. Tim takes the other end. Again and again, Lieb helps lug half a dozen beams and a dozen boards to the truck before raising his hands in surrender.

“You really shouldn’t knock yourself out, Dr. Lieb.” Tim allows himself a break, wipes his hands on his jeans, takes another sip of coffee.

“It brings me back. I was never much good at doing what you do, but I worked construction. I could work hard those days.” Lieb winces, silently laughs at himself, knows he’s seeking Tim’s approval. When the hell am I going to grow up?

“You’re still pretty strong.”

“Yeah, for an old guy.”

Tim goes it alone again, stacking beams, carrying boards to the bed of his pickup. The roof is gone. Most of the frame is stripped of boards. Now he’ll begin to pull it down. Dan’s uneasy. “You be careful, Tim. Make sure to stand clear.”

Tim nods and laughs. He attaches the cable, at one end of the come-along, to the fat trunk of an old apple tree; the other end he attaches to a barn post. Tim pumps and pumps, the tree holds firm, and, section by section, down she comes, part by part, each time with a thump and a crack and a clatter.

“Dan! Dan?” Susan calls from the kitchen door. “What’s that crash! Are you okay?”

“We’re fine, we’re fine,” Lieb calls back.

A lot still to do; another few days part time for Tim and his buddy, and then Lieb wants the debris cleared away, brought to the dump.

Tim collects his tools, stores them under a tarp in the silo. Dan follows Tim, sits cross-legged on an ancient, gray bale of hay. Tim, breathing deeply, sits across on another bale and wipes away his sweat on his red bandana. “I’ll be back in an hour. The load’s as heavy as the pickup can handle. I’ll drop the load and be right back.” He looks up at the roof of vines. “Hard to believe it’s going to rain—it’s a beautiful day.”

They both look up to the roof of gold and green. “Don’t worry,” Tim says. “We can make it safe. This silo is too beautiful to lose.” Tim waves his hand, a magician, a priest offering a blessing. He looks up. The air glows with dust kicked up by the barn razing, dust turned into a golden glow by the sun. “It’s like some kind of spirit lives in this place. Or in the light.”

Funny, Lieb thinks. He’s a Jew who never goes to synagogue, Tim’s a lapsed Catholic, and still the two of them are feeling a presence in a broken-down silo. Dan stays silent to not ruin the moment. Flapping of birds’ wings above. A car passing on the road. Birds again. Crows.

“Are you okay, Tim?”

Tim clears his throat. He nods. Finally says, “Don’t I seem okay? I guess I don’t. Paying back student loans, building the house. I take jobs so I can pay for materials and hire help, but then I don’t have for the house. When it’s finished, I can stop throwing out money for rent on that place you saw. But can I get there? Can I keep going? Can I become whole?” He takes a deep breath. “Sorry. I can’t believe I’m talking to you like this. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t mind. Not at all.” Dan wonders whether Tim’s asking for financial help. He doesn’t want Tim to be embarrassed. “Listen,” he says. “If you need to borrow beyond what the bank lends you, money for materials, you can count on us. We’re not rich, but we can help. I really have faith in you.”

Tim says, “Thanks a lot, Dan. I’d rather not borrow.”

So it’s something deeper Tim wants to speak about. Dan waits. “I’ve been feeling lately,” Tim says, “it’s all too much for me. I feel broken up into many pieces. The courses. The jobs. The baby. Hard to be a father. Hard to be a husband. Sometimes, to tell the truth…”—he lowers his voice, though of course no one can hear—“I feel like sending Meredith and Ruth back to Meredith’s family for awhile. But I can just hear the bad-mouthing if I did that. Like I’m a bum.”

“A bum? The way you work, Tim? No. The way you are.”

“Sometimes I want to run and hide, that’s the God’s honest truth. Sometimes I want to forget the degree, forget the house, forget the wife and kid—go up to Alaska, make some decent money. Then maybe come back with money.” He thinks about this, nods, then adds, “Maybe. What d’you think?”

“What do you think?”

“I love Meredith. We quarrel, but she’ll stick it out. I don’t know if I can.”

“I wish I had wisdom for you, Tim. I don’t. I’m no rabbi. I’m no priest.”

“Glad you’re no priest!” Tim laughs. “I grew up around priests. They’re mostly about sin. But you, you are a therapist. At least, you were. You advised people all the time.”

“Not really. As a therapist, I held back from offering advice. I know no quick fixes. I believe in long-term change. I listened. I asked questions.”

“Suppose I was your patient.”

“I’d ask, ‘How did you get so hard on yourself?’ And I’d say, ‘I see how much you want to be a good man.’ And,” Dan says, “you are. A good man. You’re so much stronger and steadier than I was at your age. But it costs, being so responsible. Do you really have to lug such a heavy load? Are you putting a bigger load on yourself than you have to?”

Tim gets up, shakes his head, brushes himself off. “I see what you’re getting at. I do. Well. Thanks for listening.” That’s all. They go out to the truck. Tim checks and stabilizes the load in his pickup. Covers it with a tarp and ties it down. The boards stick way out past the end of the tailgate. He ties his red bandana to the end of the load. “Thanks. Don’t mind me. I’m just kind of bummed out. See you later on, Dr. Dan.”



S

usan has made a light lunch—a salad, toast. “I’ve been talking to Tim,” Dan says. “He’s exhausted.”

“I can imagine,” Susan says.

“He’s talking about running off to Alaska, leaving everything.”

“But he won’t,” she says. “He’s a very responsible young man.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re right. I hope so. He’s such a good guy. Listen—I’d be proud if he were my son. You know, if it were just money for materials—windows, building wrap, electrical work—well, couldn’t we help out?”

She nods. But she’s puzzled. “Why do you care so much?”

“I don’t know. I just feel for the guy. In his twenties, to have to be so responsible. No wonder he thinks of running off to Alaska. I’m glad he said it out loud.” Dan pauses, wants to say it right: “Susan. Will you feel okay about our offering him a loan?”

“A few thousand, interest-free? Yes,” Susan says. “But will he take it?”

“I’m not sure.” He taps his chest, as if to make his words come alive. “It’s not just money we’d be lending him. You remember when I was his age? A little older. For no good reason you had faith in me. For no good reason at all.”

“Well! And wasn’t I right?”

“Plain damn lucky you were,” he says. “A couple of years earlier, it might have been a different story.”

“No, my dear.” She looks up. “I knew who you really were.”

“Well, I won’t argue,” he says, and laughs.



W

hen he was Tim’s age, a little older, Dan, with a carpenter, was rebuilding a leaking shack he’d been left in his uncle’s will—a shack for summers on a lake in New Hampshire an hour from Boston. Tim struggles, but Danny Lieb had already given in to scatteredness. With his life fallen apart, he coped by being a bum—and put the blame on his ex, Sandra. Look what you’ve done to me.

Divorced after meaningless fighting, guilty, he felt sorry for his poor self, worked sober but drank too much every damn night, called it medicating, looked to get laid, and got laid plenty. He played the sincere, feeling charmer who opened himself to women, and actually believed the role—he was that much of a fool! Those were the years he was a true bum. Self-hating, but no less a bum.

A bum. When he was in high school, when he was in college, his father called him that. You bum! A failure himself, a middle manager for a beauty-products firm in Newark, his father had been the object of contempt in his own house. Dan’s mother taught Dan the signs of his father’s weakness.

Imagine, Dan thinks, how Dad must have felt—getting nowhere at work, treated like a nothing at home, enacting the role she layed on him. His father would come home depressed, angry. Jaw tight. A headache coming on. He needed a place to deposit his anger.

“You! Why d’you let your hair grow like a fag?” He’d sneer at Dan for doing—or not doing—something, anything.

Dan’s mother would snap, “Oh, you big shot. Why talk like that to him? You, you’re some class act. You know style. You wear an expensive suit and pretend you’re an executive. I love it!”

Then, say at the dinner table, he’d turn on Dan: “You see, you little bum? If it weren’t for you, your mother and I would never fight. See how she sticks up for you against me?”

Later, when Dan was in his late twenties and separated from Sandra, his father had something real to attack. “I knew you couldn’t stick it,” the old man said. “What the hell did you get married for? Listen, Danny—tell me the truth. You want to be a bum all your life?”

He didn’t want that. But he wanted to be more alive than his father could imagine; being wild, being seen—seeing himself—as wild; breaking rules. His marriage down the tube, he was without restraint, without the moral structures that would have helped him grow into manhood. He tripped on mescaline, ranted on street corners against the war in Vietnam, spoke against systems of oppression—which at the time practically meant all systems.

At that time he was in the middle of his doctoral work in clinical psych—though if they, the department, had known how much of a mess he was, they’d have canned him. Who was he to be anyone’s therapist? As an MSW, during the school year, he did intake and counseling sessions for Boston University’s Mental Health Services. Herr Doctor-to-be Lieb. Yah, und vhat’s coming to der surface for you today, Miss X?

That summer, first summer after the divorce, he was writing his dissertation daytimes in the rebuilt shack on the lake and hung out, evenings, at a roadhouse. Played pool, drank beer, picked up women who worked in restaurants or shops that catered to summer people. What had he been after? What had he been looking for? Actually, beyond the craziness, hadn’t it been some kind of wholeness? Something good, preserved in him, was looking in the wrong places to be able to grow. Beauty—he was inflamed by beauty all right, but he thought of beauty as something life-giving in the eyes of a woman who offered an image of some kind of transcendence. The women he went for—say, at a party or the roadhouse—were usually lean, even-featured. But it wasn’t their features or shape, that wasn’t it, for he was open to the beauty of women who weren’t conventionally pretty. It was in their eyes, that’s what made the difference between a woman he just hung out with and a woman he hungered for. What was it? Rather, what did he put there? An invitation to a mystery? Or her reassurance that he was powerful, desirable? Strength, surely—a strong self shining in her eyes—but also a softness, a vulnerability, that made him want to comfort, to heal. Ah! Such beauty was like a spiritual drug; but as with a drug, after a while he’d crash, and the woman would become…ordinary. The adventure over. She became someone to avoid.

He didn’t come on to women as tough, wild, dangerous, a rebel. But as thoughtful, tender, though arrogant, confident—even deep, though God knows he wasn’t. Sometimes he could convince himself. Women, believing his sweet stuff, sometimes got hurt. The only things he had going were 1) he really didn’t want to be a bum all his life, and 2) he loved his doctoral research and his work as therapist. He felt he learned from his patients. By seeing their self-deceit, he could better see his own.

It wasn’t pretty.

But in the summer, every day alone, taking notes on Freud, Guntrip, Winnicott, Erikson, spending some days in Cambridge doing research at the Widener or the BU library, living without family, he wept over the bum he had become. He wept for his daughter, the loss of his daughter. No, not just the loss—the impact of the divorce on her. Nina lived with her mother, but summers, when she was eight, nine, ten, she spent a month with him at the lake. Back in Cambridge, he saw Nina after school and every other weekend. He was always apologizing to her that she had to live this way. Instead of father comforting child, it was she who comforted him. It’s okay, Daddy.

You bum, he said into the mirror, my father’s right, that’s what you are. A bum. A good-for-nothing. It’s as if his father wrote the script and he, Dan, played the role. Then, when Nina wasn’t around, he got down on himself, so down that once, driving into Cambridge, he punched himself in the jaw and blacked out for an instant. Luckily, he wasn’t strong enough to knock himself out for longer. He kept control of the car.

After the first year of divorce, the drinking lessened—a beer or two a day. Sandra, who quickly remarried, didn’t squeeze Dan for money. But he paid her more child support than a court would have forced him to pay. To make the payments, while he finished his Ph.D., he began working summers doing construction and landscaping. And after a day mowing and raking or taping drywall, he was too tired to hunt for the beautiful, soulful woman with tender eyes of sorrow. Maybe keeping away was part of the point of doing all that physical labor.

He finished his Ph.D. and found work at a clinic; later, he added a private practice. He met Susan through friends; two years later, they married.

But how did he stop being what his father said he was? Even worse than his father said he was? The story he’s been telling himself is that love changed him. Susan’s love for him, her belief in him; his love for her, his love for his daughter Nina, and later his love for his children with Susan, Alex and Sylvia. Now he sees himself as a fairly decent man, a pretty successful father. But that story misses the harder question, the question he would have put to a patient: How did you become a good man, a man able to love? How did he open himself to being opened? Was it his father’s death? Maybe only when his father’s eyes stopped seeing could Dan cast off the role his father had written for him.

No. Even in death, even now, a half century later, his father’s eyes are still part of his audience. But his father has lost his box seat.

It was a slow process, that’s the truth. It was years of therapy. It was Susan’s faith in him. It was his own desire to be a good man, his growing belief that being a good man wasn’t acquiescence but was a worthy ambition. Engaging every day in family life, he wrote himself a new script for a new audience—though still he’s haunted by the old script.

Unlike the confused mess Dan let himself be back then, Tim seems noble—already responsible, a good man.



T

im’s pickup rattles over the gravel driveway. It pulls up at the stacked boards. Dan waves from the door.

Tim calls through cupped hands: “Can you give me a hand with the tarp?”

“Sure. Be right there.” He puts his boots on and joins Tim.

“Rain coming. No time to take another load.”

The wind picks up. The sky grows hazy. Tim and Dan cover the stacked boards with a big blue tarp. They tie the corner grommets to the ends of boards and put down cement blocks so the tarp won’t blow away.

Suddenly the sky darkens. Gusts of wind now. Susan is on the porch, waving at them to come in. “Come on inside,” Dan says.

All three stand in the living room looking out at the strange sky. Half a mile, a mile, away, there’s a pocket of glowing white surrounded by a copper-green patch, as if this were a portent of an alien invasion in a sci-fi movie.

The dark comes fast over the next hill, and now the rain starts. Just a rain, just a steadily increasing wind. And then it hits. The trees are swirling, shaking, the leaves spinning—green leaves, brown leaves from last year. “Better get back from the window,” Tim says. They retreat—but they’re all mesmerized. As the white and green grow closer, the sky opens up as if what was there before was nothing, a drizzle. There is no sky. There is only water and wild, pulsing wind. This is a torrent, an ocean wave; you feel you’d be unable to breathe if you were caught inside.

Never has Lieb seen rain like this. Almost horizontal—so thick a wall of water you can’t quite see the mailbox on the other side of the road. The apple tree is leaning, leaning, branches dancing. A main limb snaps off and tumbles across the yard and out onto the road. Gone from sight. Branches scatter, and the stacked boards go flying—the tarp and cement blocks are nothing next to this force. Dan feels caught up in the wildness.

A porch wicker chair lifts, floats for an instant, wobbles midair, then hits and shatters the living-room window; the glass cracks, fragments spill across the floor. Susan cries out; Dan pulls her back against him.

Tim beckons, leads them to the kitchen and closes the door behind them. Through the kitchen window they watch the silo bend, buckle, shiver—until the top half snaps off on one side, the vertical wall boards pop out and fly as if some huge hand were ripping at them, tossing them.

What’s left of the barn frame leans, shivers, goes nowhere. The house itself vibrates but stands its ground. Then the buckled silo rips away from its foundation and tumbles against a pine and a line of bushes at the edge of the woods. What was a circle has become several twisted arcs; what was single is now broken into scattered fragments.

There is no silo.

The fierce core of the storm lasts a very few minutes; then, ordinary rain.

They go out on the side porch and look around. Hardly any wind. So much to pick up. Tree branches, a roll of roofing, a screen door, debris. But the house is fine, thank God, except for the one window. “Oh, we’re so lucky!” Susan says. Back inside they sweep up, pick up shards of glass. What’s happened to the silo hits him in waves—the loss, loss of the light. More work and expense, the clean-up, and at the end there’ll be nothing. Nothing.



T

he sky clears to full sun. Mist rises as moisture lifts. Lieb forgets about his back. In work gloves he and Tim collect scattered boards, whole and broken. Slow work, for some boards are caught in the bushes and others are hundreds of yards down the road. They stack them on the pickup’s bed.

They take a break and, as if by design, walk past the barn to stand in the circle where the silo had stood. The tarp over the tools is missing, but the tools are okay.

The circle of concrete that served, maybe a century ago, as a foundation, is still there—and rusted, twisted sections of hoops and rotted boards have tumbled against one another like a giant’s pickup sticks.

The foundation and the earth that was the floor of the silo imply the silo’s shape. Broken-off roots of vines, patches of old, gray hay remain. Instinctively they both look up, as if the silo were still there but invisible. Lieb holds out his arms as if reaching for the missing walls—cups his hands, turns a slow circle, creates a circle. “You see?”

“You mean,” Tim says, “standing here, it’s like, what, you’re imagining a silo?”

“Something like that,” Dan says. “This is a magic circle. Maybe the invisible walls make it even better. Look—the place is unbounded now. Sunlight is everywhere. Not just up, up to the heavens, you know? But out and out. It’s like God is still in this place, but the ‘place’ is everywhere.”

Tim is silent. Dan tries to feel the connection, out and out. From this center to everywhere. But as soon as he tries, ah, it’s gone. I’m trying to talk myself into recompense. He can still describe, explain, what he was feeling. But he can’t bring back the experience. Now it’s just a floor of earth in a circle of concrete.

Still, his heart feels open, and as they walk back to the house, he brings up the interest-free loan. “Susan and I agree about this. Are you willing?”

“If it’s because I talked about leaving, that was just wild talk. I get pretty upset. It was good to talk, to know what I was feeling. I can’t leave, Dr. Dan. See, if I left, even if I left alone, I’d be taking the load with me. No. I’m here.”

“We were sure of that. But listen: We want to help you get your house built.”

“Thanks.” Tim doesn’t speak about the loan, but this time he hasn’t refused. He says, “I’ll rustle up a couple of guys to get rid of the mess the storm made. We’ll need to rent a big truck, take loads to the dump.”

“Great.”

Tim says, “I just felt overwhelmed—you know?”

“I know.”

“I do have it pretty good. I’ve been blessed. My folks used to say that all the time when I was growing up. You’ve been blessed. Well, right now I feel it.” They walk to the pickup; Tim takes out his keys. “See you tomorrow,” he says.

“You asked for advice? Here’s some advice. You should take a break. Hang out with Meredith and Ruthie. Or go work on your house for a few days. This mess isn’t going anywhere.”

“What a storm!”

“I know. We’re very lucky.”

“Blessed,” Tim says.

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