BARN STRIPPING by Andrew Olson

The sun was just rising in West Central Minnesota, brazing the horizon a magenta color as upkicked dust lilted behind a Chevrolet truck that rumbled down the long gravel driveway.

The truck pulled onto a paved county road that reached out for miles on an even plain. The only signs of civilization outside of Jay’s passenger side window were the railroad tracks running parallel to the road and the high-voltage power lines off in the distance--giants standing above the wheat and corn and beets. Tyler, Jay’s cousin and a year his junior, flipped on the radio. Classic rock scratched through the tinny speakers. Jay remembered their Grandpa telling them that those huge conveyors of power stretched across the country. This knowledge had brought security to Jay as a young child. In a region where the sight of a water tower indicated civilization, Jay had believed that if he was in San Francisco orWashington D.C. he could follow the giants back to his grandparents, and from there find Tyler’s or his parents house--not far away.

With the sun poised strongly over the horizon now, Jay rolled down his window and let the smell of the dewy wheat and fecund soil permeate his lungs. The fields of crop, spotted by ageless trees huddled together with a silo or two standing as sentries next to them, seemed to extend forever. Jay leaned back and hoisted a boot onto the dash and looked over to Tyler.

Their grandfather’s giants had been called into question. Tyler’s mother had tried to find a source for his sickness, attributing it to everything but God--he was too young, 24--meaning there had to be a logical reason. The high-power lines, the pesticides in the crops, the hormones in the milk. She had even found a small study that had suggested that a chemical found in wild game when it was smoked and then consumed in large quantities could be cancer causing, and so even hunting became preparatory to Tyler’s sickness.
He didn’t look sick, although the doctors, from what Jay had heard, called it metastatic cancer. On Monday he’d go down to the cities to begin his first treatment at the Mayo. Tyler had called Jay to get away, although what he ran from was within him, it was the outward attention that frightened him--the family’s that came over bearing hotdishes covered in tinfoil, the soft empathetic looks at community events and high school games. It was the attention and concern that tied Tyler to a sinking energy--one that was pulling him under before he had a chance to swim.

With the window open Jay’s seat belt snapped loudly--like plastic whipping in the wind--so he looped it around the headrest and turned the radio up.

The acreage began to decline and the houses started to appear within half miles of each other as they approached town. Tyler stopped at the only four way in town, the truck idled.

Jay looked to Tyler, “You alright?"

“Yeah." He palmed the top of the steering wheel and turned right, the few townspeople who were out waved as they passed. The K-1 2 school parking lot was full, the tri-ball diamonds holding the regional summer recreation tournaments. On either end of the football field, white squares dotted the red zones where the tossball teams played. The truck continued out of town as Tyler watched the small figures scurry after a ball, the whole defense trying to run to the plate with the last batter fiercely running the bases. Tyler smiled thinking of games played against Jay and the post-game cool down at the family lake cabin.

They crawled out of town. Jay watched the telephone lines swoop down and then up, his gaze fixated on their metronomic rise and fall. He remembered watching them for miles in this way
as a child. We are in the dying business, Jay thought as he watched the rows of corn flicker past.

The first time he saw an abandoned barn was as a child's sense of uneasy apprehension and curious longing had welled up within him at its sight. A stranded and slanted barn, washed-out grey--echoing Sutpen’s hundred--darkened by years of exposure, standing among golden ditch grass. We find these forgotten souls left among the land to collect wildlife and sag in old age only to pilfer their flesh and leave their skeletons in our wake.
Where the family founded farms once necessitated the growth of a town, they were now being abandoned as men moved to cities to build machines that would do the work of other men or to sit in cubicles to stare at glaring screens. Families began to leave the land behind, and abandon the relics of their ancestors. Jay and Tyler stripped the sites of their wood, selling it to flooring and cabinet manufacturers and suppliers.

Tyler and Jay pulled up to the site--weeds and grass had overtaken the ditches and spaces between buildings--shrubbery grew among the rusted debris ofmachinery set against the leaning walls. They hopped out of the truck, lowered the tailgate and checked the chainsaws. Jay doublechecked the tension, topped the oil, greased the guide bar, and then pulled on his gloves.

“Is she live?" Jay asked Tyler.

“Nope. Owners said they cut the power years ago."

Jay scanned the area, the sheds, granary, and barn all looked to be in relatively good shape.

“What you figure?" he asked Tyler.

“I’m thinking she could have some real nice wood in there," Tyler responded, pointing his chainsaw in the direction of the granary--where streaks of faded red paint still clung to themexterior. “You?"

Jay pointed to a decent sized shed off to the right. “Think I’ll clear this one and get started on her." Jay looked over to Tyler who appeared strong--gripping the chainsaw, wearing a sleeveless shirt. “Are you alright--you ok to tackle the granary alone?"

Tyler looked to Jay and tugged the chainsaw to life. “I’m fine, let’s go to work."

Grabbing the weedwacker, Jay headed towards the shed where he tipped rusty debris away from the shed’s outer walls. After he had cleared the immediate exterior he walked to the front and jerked the sliding door open far enough that he could squirm into the darkness.

Inside, swallows’ wings beat in exploded bursts, and the humid air had an oily smell. Jay walked to the east wall in the darkness and hand-felt for a stud. A tug brought the chainsaw to life; it pulled with a guttural rasping.
The chainsaw wailed into a growl as it ate through the aged siding.

Pulling the chainsaw out and raising it above his head again, Jay forced the tip of the chainsaw to bite into the wood again along the inside of the next stud -- the siding fell away and light fought through the billowing dust and dirt. Jay set a hammer flush along the studs and ran it down their sides, extracting any metal--nails, tin, copper wiring, mesh.

Jay hefted the saw again, it felt good in his hands, and it was cutting through the wood with ease. He cut as close to the studs as possibl3--pieces of wood between a foot and fifteen inches hauled in a quarter, six inches to a foot brought in a dime--money was made in inches when barn stripping. The longer the pieces the easier it was to construct cabinets, tables,
chairs, and even flooring for re-sale. With the siding falling away, the interior of the shed was revealed--nests and bird shit covered the exposed joists above, small tracks trailed through the dirt floor, cobwebs hung everywhere--speckled with dust--long abandoned.

The chainsaw’s vibration loosened J’s arms and made his chest tingle. The muscles running down from J’s shoulder and along his ribs and back quivered lightly. They had striped barns since they were in high school, when during the summer months they would go to a site and strip a barn after their respective afternoon football practices and summer camps. There was something that instinctually rose within them, a desire, to sweat and grunt outside and watch the progress of their work. Walls disappeared and the sheds and barns were transformed, their forms being erased by gnarling chainsaws.

Tired, Jay took a step back and let the chainsaw dangle from each arm in an attempt to stretch his shoulders. The dust, grime, and wood particles coated his hair and bare arms.

Finally, the last smaller sized wall was left. Jay counted the six remaining studs to the corner.

The chain hung flaccidly from the bottom of the guide bar, but it still ran smoothly, so Jay shook his arms and raised the tip to the siding--it skipped away, and Jay bore down and pressed harder as his arms shook until the tip cut through the siding. He started to guide the chainsaw down alongside the stud--sparks flew, the saw kicked, barked and died as the chain struck backward at Jay, bending over the kickback guard and nipping his arm.

Jay cussed and placed the chainsaw on the ground, looking up at the shorn silver nail gleaming from the stud. Blood rose slowly to the skin and trickled in rivulets through the dust covering his arm. It was a minor knick and Jay dismissed it, checking the chain for any damage. Blood dripped from the webbing of his fingers. Jay stepped outside and figured it must be around noon. Taking off his shirt, he ripped off a sleeve, then tore it in half lengthwise and tied it his forearm. He could hear the high whine of a circular saw in the granary. Wading through the wild knee high grass, Jay stepped into the granary. Tyler stood perhaps twelve feet above him. He had cut out the back wall of the top storage room and was now leaning over the open hallway between bare studs cutting the wall opposite with one hand.
Wide, almost square chunks ofwood fell to cement floor below.

Jay yelled up and Tyler killed the circular saw.

“I can’t do this." Tyler said, and limply tossed the circular saw towards Jay. It tumbled slowly; J switched his catching position, side stepped and caught the saw by its handle as it passed by his midsection. “Help." Tyler’s arm was beginning to shake badly; he switched his weight and rested on his right arm.

Jay found the old ladder constructed of two by fours and tested the rungs before he climbed up.

“Hurry." Tyler had both arms extended against the opposite wall now and his entire back was shaking. Jay ran up and collected the back ofTyler’s shirt and wrapped his hand around it.

“On three, push off. One . . . two . . . three." Jay caught and embraced Tyler as he fell backward in exhaustion. Tyler lay on his back with his knees up and feet planted on the floor, soft whimpers emanated from under the hands that covered his face.

“Oh God . . . oh . . . shit . . ."

Jay stood silent for a while, then walked over, grabbed Tyler’s hand and hefted him up to a sitting position.

“I’m sick. I couldn’t do anything but that puny wall. I knew I was only going to be able to do a few rows of that wall. I can’t believe I got stuck. I just feel exhausted."

Jay looked down at the floor and brushed at the dust with his boot. He stopped, then squattedon his haunches and ran his fingertips along the
smooth floor.

“Wow, look at this." Jay said.

Tyler wiped at his eyes and looked at the floor--then spun around on his backside and looked at the rest of the floor, “I didn’t notice it right away because it was so dark when I started cutting earlier."

The wood floor had been polished and bleached from years of pummeling grain. What was extraordinary, however, was the fact that there didn’t seem to be a single leak from the roof--the wood was in pristine condition. The long floorboards meant that the wood could be re-sold as flooring, and in this condition it would bring in good money.

“Beautiful, isn’t she." Tyler said.

“Whaddya think? Pull or pry?" Jay asked.

Tyler stood and stomped on the floor in various places. “She’s tight. Damn. I’d say we pry her with the crowbars, flip'em and pound the nails out."

“Should we cut 'em down to size?" Jay asked, looking up at Tyler.

“Well, we don’t have room, but we could come back with the trailer tomorrow then take 'em away whole. What we need to worry about is the nails--don’t wanna split the wood trying to get 'em out if she has a good hold of 'em.

Jay looked at a nail embedded in the floor. “I could come back," he said looking up.


“I said, I could come back. You should probably take it easy -- get some rest before you go down to the cities."

Tyler waved a hand dismissively at Jay. “If this is my last . . . if all I have is hospital stays and . . . I don’t want to spend my last day in pity. Sometimes I feel like people look at me like I’m already dead --they look at me like their tryin’ to memorize me, but where are my memories? It’s my life . . . and I don’t want to be around people who . . . who surround me tryin’ to create a good last memory of me for their own lives."

“Your Mom ain’t goin’ to like it."

“She’s not goin’ to like Monday or any day after that either unless its one where I don’t have cancer." Tyler said.

Jay looked down. “Yeah, alright, I guess your right. Well, I s’pose that we could tear her up today and sling the floorboards down to the hall there with the other wood."

Tyler smiled, and as he walked past Jay he patted him on the shoulder, and then started to climb down the ladder. Jay followed him outside, and then stepped through the bare walls of the shed to retrieve the chainsaw. The siding lay all around the perimeter of the naked shed.

Jay set the chainsaw down in the bed and opened the cooler, pulling out two beers and two sandwiches. Jay held a beer can to his shoulder as he handed the other one to Tyler.

“You burnin’?" Tyler asked.

“Not so bad now." Jay said while rolling his shoulders and plopped down onto the lowered tailgate. His arms and chest still tingled in miniscule vibratory frissons. Jay cracked his beer, the head foamed out and spilt over the can, Jay slicked it offwith a dirty finger. He titled the can back taking long purposeful pulls, letting the dust and debris from his moustache and lips swill down his throat with the cold beer. Tyler swished his beer around his mouth and spit it out, darkening the dirt at his feet.

“You alright?" Jay asked.

“Yeah, I don’t got a stomach for much right now, but it feels good to get my mouth wet."

Tyler took a reticent bite out of the sandwich and chewed it slowly. He set the sandwich down and looked around as Jay hungrily ate his own. “You think there is . . . you know, something beyond this?" Tyler asked.

“Hey," Jay gripped Tyler’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes, “you’re strong as a bull, you’re going to get through this."

Tyler shrugged, “Yeah, but what do you think?"

“I don’t know honestly . . . "

“Maybe it isn’t such a different place than this."

Jay looked around. The sun was warm on his skin--the breeze cooled his sweat-covered skin. He could smell his own musk mixed with the scent of the land. In the east a group of trees served as a windbreak, swaying and creaking in the wind, the leaves at the top chattered among themselves. To the north a golden field of wheat rolled and swirled, and to the west,
just visible on the horizon across many beet fields stood the giant high voltage lines.

“Yeah, could be." Jay agreed with him. “You know, a lot of people talk about seeing everyone you love and everyone who loved you. Living and being together. I don’t know if that’s necessarily bad, up in the clouds like
you thought about it as a kid in Sunday school. But I don’t know if it’d be so bad out in a place like this--alone."

Jay watched Tyler, who was looking off somewhere in the distance.

“In the heart of the heart of the country." Tyler said, “that don’t sound too bad does it?" He looked over at Jay.

“No," Jay said, “no it don’t."


All Rights Reserved--2007-2024