This is the Forty-Fifth episode of a fiction serial, in 887 words.
For the next few weeks, I made the most of my time with Phin and the tape recorder. I had received five outright rejections from publishers, but one expressed moderate interest and asked me to send a completed manuscript in due course. As that company was reasonably well known, and in New york City, I allowed myself a moderate sense of expectation. I also bought myself a new car, a Chrysler Town and Country station wagon. That seemed like the right kind of automobile for a man of my age who lived in a suburb of Wichita.
Ann Mallory was excited to see the car when it was delivered, and wondered if it would be possible to take her into Wichita to browse the stores. Up to then, she had everything delivered, and the chance to actually look around the stores was something she had almost given up on.
I also ordered myself a new camera, the small Leica IIIf. But I had to wait a while for that to arrive from Europe.
Phin kept going at the same rate, and I got the history down right back to the day he found his mother dead in the outhouse of the farm in Virginia. When he continued the story by telling me about living with the neighbours until Jessie returned from the war, I stopped him. “What about before that, Phin? What was life like for you all before the war came along in sixty-one?” He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, and looked past my shoulder before replying.
“Nothing much, Julian. Just small farming, family, making do. I suppose you might call it a hard life, but it didn’t seem so to me when I was a boy”.
As the weather got colder that October, I started to write my article for the newspaper, determined to celebrate Phin’s remarkable one hundred years of life. How he had come from a subsistence farm in Viginia, and ended up as a wealthy businessman in Wichita. He didn’t want to read it, said he trusted me to get it right. With that responsibility, it became one of the hardest things I had ever written, and I tore up draft after draft before I was happy with it.
When I took it to the editor of the newspaper one week before Phin’s birthday in November, he skimmed it, and smiled. “It’s long, Julian. Very long.” I appreciated that, as a former newspaperman myself, but tried to make a case for including all of it.
“Yes, it is long, but look at the life he has led. How many men have lived to be one hundred in Wichita? How many came from the poorest background, little education, and made such a fortune from nothing? Phineas Fuller should be celebrated. He has lived through some of the toughest times in this country, and come out on top. That’s a real American success story, right there”.
He published the whole thing, though he was upset that Phin refused to allow a photograph to accompany it.
On the day, Phin didn’t bother to read the article. He said it was too much trouble, having to use his magnifying glass. But Mrs Mallory insisted on reading it all out to him, along with the dozens of cards and telegrams he received later. She got emotional that day, and cooked a special dinner. Brad James called in to offer his best wishes, and so did the bank manager. But ther had been no invitations sent out, under strict instructions from Phin to have no party or official celebration. There seemed to be no point in buying him any gifts either. All in all it was something of an anti-climax.
But I had a special surpise for him after his nap.
Looking around in the attic to see if I could find any solid mementoes of his past, I had come across a buckskin case, hand-sewn with fringes, and embroidered nicely on one side. It contained the Hawken Rifle, along with percussion caps, and ammunition. There was also the cleaning kit and ramrod, all good as new. I knew little about guns, so had taken it into Wichita to be looked at by a gunsmith. He cleaned, polished, and oiled it for me, telling me how he hadn’t seen one since he was a boy, and had never seen one in such good condition. When I went to collect it later, he showed me how to load and fire it, without actually letting it off.
When I walked in with it, Phin shook his head and grinned. “You found daddy’s old Hawken? I knew it was around somewheres. Let’s go outside, and I will show you how it works”. I helped him out onto the porch, and let him show me how to load it. “Do you want to shoot it, Phin? For old time’s sake?” He laughed. “That thing’s got a kick like a mule, I reckon you better do it. Just point it at the sky though, it’s got one hell of a range”. I lifted the heavy rifle to my shoulder and gently pulled the trigger. The noise of the shot was much louder than I had expected, and Phin slapped his thighs with delight.
“That there rifle saved my life, Julian”.