I was surprised to see he had no front teeth. He smiled thinly while beckoning me to enter his cluttered dining room. Musty and dank, it was a museum of lifetime accumulation. Stacks of yellowed paper, stuffed owls, clocks, a brass American bald eagle affixed to the wall. A worn checkered cloth covered a small square wooden table with spindle legs. Mr. Pulda pulled out a chair and motioned with his beefy hand for me to take a seat. His eyes narrowed. He wasn’t the type of man who entertained guests. He didn’t like outsiders. Not even those who proclaimed they would help him save his farm. Mr. Pulda wanted was to be left alone to feed his cows, to tend his soybeans and corn.
He’d managed to live in isolation on a 67-acre farm all his life. He had six siblings but they weren’t interested in perpetuating a way of life his parents and grandparents knew. The 1920s paint-peeled farmhouse was his and his alone. Mr. Pulda never took a wife nor had children. He was 72, still sturdy enough to ride a tractor and nudge a stubborn cow.
Nobody in the suburb that grew around Mr. Pulda’s farm paid much attention to the old man. Toothless and grizzled, he scared kids when he occasionally went to the strip mall. That wasn’t too often. Mr. Pulda lived in a world that no longer existed. As long as he had his acreage to demarcate his life, it made sense to him. He was completely shocked when I told him town officials were trying to buy his farm right out from under him, without his permission. The mayor and his cronies were up to mischief. This would make a great newspaper story. My editors agreed. It had the elements editors love: A David and Goliath conflict with the lore of a farmer in suburbia. The intricacies of town law and how it can be exploited to undermine the unsuspecting.
Finding the obscure documents at town hall made my cheeks burn hot. I remember rifling through the papers, slowly, then faster and faster, breaking into a cold, sweet sweat as the details were revealed. Like lake lily pads opening to the morning sun, the sordid information fed new life into my deadened soul. I had a place for my anger. How could town officials take Mr. Pulda’s land and convert it into a park without his consent or knowledge? How can my seven-year marriage be collapsing? I will save the day for Mr. Pulda!
A light rain subsided. Mr. Pulda whittled a piece of wood with his large, weathered hands. His nails were dirty and chipped. Nobody had ever spent a moment caring for him. I bent down to stroke one of the two dogs coiled around his ankles. “I have a dog like this,” I said. Mr. Pulda shifted in his chair. The sweet smell of burning wood crackling in his cast-iron stove curled through the room. It was chilly for early May.
“How did this happen?” I asked, looking straight into the old man’s Dutch-blue eyes. He lowered a hanging copper lamp down over the table as if to illuminate his thoughts.
“I told them from the beginning the farm was not for sale. I guess they didn’t hear me.”
I assured Mr. Pulda a front-page newspaper story would expose the attempted land-grab, and the good people of this South Jersey town would come out and support him. We spoke for an hour. Then he asked me if I wanted to meet his cows. We walked together through the wet grass to a splintered red barn. We stood in silence. A damp cow hung her head over a wooden fence, offering me her pink nose for rubbing. I obliged her and smiled at Mr. Pulda. He smiled his toothless smile back at me.
That day I left the newsroom after dark. Traffic crawled on the turnpike. The windshield wipers beat back and forth hypnotically, like a metronome. I felt dread, first in my chest, rising toward my throat. My temples throbbed. I tried to shake the malaise by thinking about Mr. Pulda’s mustard-yellow acres, how they were getting ready to wake up from a long winter. Nature reminds us how tough it is to come back to life after dormancy. “I’m going to save that man’s farm,” I whispered to myself over the prattle on the radio. When I pulled into the parking lot, I pressed my arms onto the steering wheel and took a deep breath. I summoned whatever strength I had to get out of the car and walk around the corner to my apartment. I knew he wouldn’t be at home. At least there’d be no fighting tonight. The confounding thoughts of how a marriage can go fallow drained me every time I walked through the door. An apartment turns into a gravesite where only ghosts live.
Standing in the kitchen spooning cereal from a bowl at 10 pm I peer over at the phone machine. He doesn’t even bother to leave a message anymore when he’s away on business in India. Just as well. I can barely hear him over the crackle. Even on a perfectly clear phone line, we don’t talk anymore. There’s nothing that hasn’t already been said. We’re at an impasse. Too scared to move in one direction or another. Inert. Powerless. A dead thing that needs a burial but it’s too complicated to make the arrangements. We wait. He travels on business. I find meaning in the lives of strangers. I write about them. I change their fate. It offers hope.
The relationship started as a transatlantic romance. It was exhilarating to be wooed by a Brit. He convinced me to come and live with him in London, which I did for a few years. Then we returned to New York together and married. Our love was young, hopeful. We shared the desire to travel around the world; we had no ability to settle down. Ten years on, we had the same furniture, no kids and photo albums filled with exotic adventures. We never put down roots. Like Dorian Grey, the relationship never got older, wiser, or deeper. Even our love-making, which had by now stopped, was static.
By 10 am the phones in the newsroom were ringing. William Pulda’s story was causing a stir. Town officials knew they had a mess on their hands. Like a bloated turkey seeking female attention, the mayor puffed himself up and made it clear to me he didn’t appreciate the “inaccurate” coverage. I knew I was on firm ground. This made the confrontation all the more intoxicating because Mr. Mayor-a man so accustomed to having his way-held no sway over me. The truth protected me from his harsh words. I told him we were running a follow-up story. “No comment,” he said.
The days and weeks that followed were ecstatic. I’d worked on urgent, breaking news stories before but Mr. Pulda’s farm stoked my energy daily. I relished being alive. I was acutely aware of how it contrasted with time spent when I wasn’t busy being a reporter. The story grew legs, as they say in the news business. Citizens mobbed public meetings; they signed petitions expressing outrage at town officials. Local officials did some fancy tap-dancing to proclaim their innocence, saying Mr. Pulda was a willing seller. I felt powerful for orchestrating this combustion. Had the plot not been exposed, town officials would have eventually resorted to the dirty tactic of eminent domain to get his land.
Bringing Mr. Pulda to life reminded people that the town was once a patchwork of farms, a way of life most Americans idealize. Readers responded to his purity. He became a symbol to all of us who feel thwarted in our dreams. Bringing Mr. Pulda to life threw me a lifeline, too.
Eventually preservation groups stepped in to save his land by offering to put it in a conservation trust. Town officials backed off. Mr. Pulda could go back to tending his soybeans and corn.
After the harvest, color disappeared. I’d drive past the farm and smile, hoping to catch a glimpse of the farmer. I never did. Once I stopped at the end of his dirt driveway. A light snow began to fall. I wanted to go inside and sit in his little house again and breathe in that sweet smell of wood burning. I wiped hot tears from my cheeks. Happy tears for saving a man’s life and his dignity.
That winter, over the holidays, my husband and I went skiing. The raw beauty of snow-covered mountains and twinkling Christmas lights finally tore my heart in half. At the airport on the way home, we were in a newspaper shop. He pulled out a calendar for the brand new year, and flipped through its pages. I looked at him hard. He was a stranger. I tried to stop myself from trembling. I was afraid I’d open my mouth and nothing would come out. “You have to move out when we get home.” He lowered his eyes and put the calendar back on the rack.