The Big Front Yard and Other Stories

BOOK: The Big Front Yard and Other Stories
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The Big Front Yard
And Other Stories
The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Two
Introduction by David W. Wixon

Clifford D. Simak: Learning All the Words

“I'm looking for an alien, too. All of us, I think, are looking for your alien.”

—Clifford D. Simak, in “So Bright the Vision”

Clifford Donald Simak was born on August 3, 1904, on a ridge-top farm a few miles from the village of Millville in Grant County, Wisconsin – a farm that belonged to his mother's parents. Cliff's grandfather, Edward “Ned” Wiseman, had been a member of the Second Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War, taking part in the battles at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and Cliff eventually became the proud possessor of Ned's cavalry saber. Cliff's grandmother, Ellen Wiseman (née Parker), seems to have had a special place in Cliff's heart, to judge by his clear use of her as his model for Ellen Forbes in “Over the River and Through the Woods” and his frequent uses of the names “Parker” and “Ellen.” (Cliff also named his daughter after her.)

The Wiseman farm was located atop the broad, tall bluffs on the south side of the Wisconsin River; from just a little farther along the ridge, one can easily see, off to the west, the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers.

Cliff's parents were John Lewis Simak and Margaret “Maggie” Olivia Wiseman Simak. The two met when John, who had emigrated at age twelve from a small town near Prague in the area that would become the Czech Republic, came to work for Ned Wiseman. John would eventually clear some land for himself and build a log cabin just to the east of the Wiseman farm to be a home for the small family, which would later come to include a younger son, Carson.

As was not uncommon in the early part of the twentieth century, Cliff, having been born on a farm, never had a birth certificate. And he never missed it, he told me, except on one occasion, in the fifties, when his newspaper wanted to send him out of the country on assignment. He could not get a passport until he got his mother to attest that she had indeed given birth to him in the United States.

Cliff started his education at what was known as a “country school,” located a mile and a half from his home – a distance he walked every day. It was one of those stereotypical old-time schools in which students of all ages sat in a single room, to be taught by the same teacher. When finished in the little school, Cliff went to high school a few miles to the south, in the town of Patch Grove. To get there he rode a horse – an ornery gray mare, as he described her; he would say that although he loved her, and although he was sure she loved him, those feelings did not keep her from trying to kick him if she could.

The Wiseman and Simak farms were surrounded by woods where game abounded, cut by streams filled with fish, and the young Cliff Simak had the time of his life there. His boyhood, he would later say in an interview, was a sort of “Tom Sawyer existence” filled with hunting, fishing, and coon hunts, with horses and coon dogs – when the farm chores were done for the day. Later he would comment that although it was the twentieth century, life in that rural setting was much like living in pioneer days: He swam in exactly the kind of creeks he would later describe in stories, he rose before dawn to help with the morning chores, he went barefoot in the summers …

So how did he go on to become both a high-level newspaperman and a writer of award-winning fiction? It must have been built into him – he remembered that by the age of five, he knew he wanted to be a newspaperman, having been told by his mother that newspapers print all the news from all over the world, and that they print the truth. His family had a tradition of gathering around while one of the parents read aloud from a book or newspaper.

Cliff would later tell me that by the age of eight, he had developed a goal to learn all the words there were, and it may be no coincidence that the Simak family stone in the little cemetery between Bridgeport and Patch Grove depicts an open book – a Bible, no doubt, but still …

Finishing second in his high school class, Cliff took a two-year teacher-training program and then taught school, over the course of the next three years, at a number of small towns in the area. Already an avid reader of Verne, Wells, and Burroughs, when he chanced on a copy of
Amazing Stories
in 1927, he became a regular reader of the science fiction magazines.

It was while teaching in Cassville, a very small town, that Cliff, attending the local movie theater, met a young woman from the nearby town of Glen Haven. She was Agnes Kuchenberg, known always as Kay, and she would later become his wife.

In 1927 or 1928 the Simak family removed to Madison, the state capital, where Cliff attended the University of Wisconsin (studying journalism), Carson went to high school, and John went into carpentry and masonry. The new occupation did not work out well for John, and when Kay and Cliff got married in April of 1929 and decided that he would drop out of the university to take a job working for a newspaper in Michigan, the rest of the family returned to the ridge.

Cliff started as a reporter at the
Iron River
Reporter
. He quickly got a column of his own, called “Driftwood,” and within a few years had moved up to be editor. It was during this period that he began to try his hand at writing fiction.

He had already sold a number of stories when, in August 1932, the couple left Iron River for Spencer, Iowa, where Cliff became editor of the
Spencer
Reporter
, and in July 1934 he moved on to North Dakota to become editor of the
Dickinson Press
.

At about that time, the Spencer newspaper was purchased by a Kansas City newspaper company, which persuaded Cliff to return to Spencer and convert the paper from a semiweekly to a daily. This went well, and the company made him a sort of troubleshooter, transferring him first to Excelsior Springs, Missouri, then to Worthington, Minnesota, and finally to Brainerd, Minnesota.

In 1939 Cliff took a job at the copy desk of the
Minneapolis
Star,
and within a few years he became chief of the copy desk. Years later, he could still remember that the day he started to work for the
Star
was June 16. In 1949 he would become the paper's news editor, and he stayed with the
Star
and its successors in various capacities until his retirement in 1976.

It's hard to know just when Cliff started writing stories himself. He kept a series of journals in which he recorded some of his submissions and sales – and occasionally other events – but he was sporadic, at best, in his data entry, and it appears that some of his journals did not survive. And although one of the surviving volumes contains a notation that a story entitled “Mutiny on Mercury” was submitted to a magazine at the end of 1930, there's no way to tell if that was his first attempt to write or submit fiction. The story was initially rejected, but Cliff's first sale came soon after, in 1931.

There was, however, one period during which Cliff left the
Star
. Early in World War II he accepted a job working for an intelligence agency of the US government. The nature of the job is not known, but it required Cliff and Kay to pack up their car and drive to Seattle … a trip that was probably torturous, since there were no freeways in those days – in fact, Kay recorded in her diary that it wasn't too long before they repacked the car, put it on a train to Seattle, and took another train themselves.

The stay in Seattle was short, though, and they returned to Minnesota before the end of 1942 – the newspaper was eager to have Cliff back.

That began a period during which Cliff churned out short stories in a number of genres, all the while working full time at the paper. In 1947 the Simak family had a son, Richard Scott, and in 1951 a daughter, Shelley Ellen.

In the fifties, Cliff began moving into the writing of novels – although he would always keep his hand in the short story field. And it was during this period too that he began to win awards for his fiction – awards that had not even existed in his first two decades in the field.

Clifford D. Simak retired from the
Minneapolis Tribune
(the
Star
's successor) in 1976. He would continue writing, publishing his last novel,
Highway to Eternity
, in 1986. Predeceased by his beloved Kay, he died in Minneapolis in 1988.

David W. Wixon

The Big Front Yard

“The Big Front Yard,” which started out identified in Cliff's notes as “Rats in the House,” then “Errand Boy,” and then “A Mouse in the House,” before reaching its final name, may be the most lauded of the author's short fiction, even beyond the fact that it won the Hugo Award. I say this because it's a story that people often mention when speaking of Clifford D. Simak. And few stories have a submission history like this one: the story was sent to
Galaxy Magazine
on April 2, 1958, only to be rejected and returned on the fourteenth; it was sent to Astounding on the following day and accepted there on the twenty-eighth – all this action, including two submissions, occurred in less than a month.

The exotic and unusual is most effectively seen when positioned next to the commonplace.

—dww

Hiram Taine came awake and sat up in his bed.

Towser was barking and scratching at the floor.

“Shut up,” Taine told the dog.

Towser cocked quizzical ears at him and then resumed the barking and scratching at the floor.

Taine rubbed his eyes. He ran a hand through his rat's-nest head of hair. He considered lying down again and pulling up the covers.

But not with Towser barking.

“What's the matter with you, anyhow?” he asked of Towser, with not a little wrath.


Whuff,”
said Towser, industriously proceeding with his scratching at the floor.

“If you want out,” said Taine, “all you got to do is open the screen door. You know how it is done. You do it all the time.”

Towser quit his barking and sat down heavily, watching his master getting out of bed.

Taine put on his shirt and pulled on his trousers, but didn't bother with his shoes.

Towser ambled over to a corner, put his nose down to the baseboard and snuffled moistly.

“You got a mouse?” asked Taine.


Whuff,”
said Towser, most emphatically.

“I can't ever remember you making such a row about a mouse,” Taine said, slightly puzzled. “You must be off your rocker.”

It was a beautiful summer morning. Sunlight was pouring through the open window.

Good day for fishing, Taine told himself, then remembered that there'd be no fishing, for he had to go out and look up that old four-poster maple bed that he had heard about up Woodman way. More than likely, he thought, they'd want twice as much as it was worth. It was getting so, he told himself, that a man couldn't make an honest dollar. Everyone was getting smart about antiques.

He got up off the bed and headed for the living room.

“Come on,” he said to Towser.

Towser came along, pausing now and then to snuffle into corners and to whuffle at the floor.

“You got it bad,” said Taine.

Maybe it's a rat, he thought. The house was getting old.

He opened the screen door and Towser went outside.

“Leave that woodchuck be today,” Taine advised him. “It's a losing battle. You'll never dig him out.”

Towser went around the corner of the house.

Taine noticed that something had happened to the sign that hung on the post beside the driveway. One of the chains had become unhooked and the sign was dangling.

He padded out across the driveway slab and the grass, still wet with dew, to fix the sign. There was nothing wrong with it – just the unhooked chain. Might have been the wind, he thought, or some passing urchin. Although probably not an urchin. He got along with kids. They never bothered him, like they did some others in the village. Banker Stevens, for example. They were always pestering Stevens.

He stood back a ways to be sure the sign was straight.

It read, in big letters:

HANDY MAN

And under that, in smaller lettering:

I fix anything

And under that:

ANTIQUES FOR SALE
What have you got to trade?

Maybe, he told himself, he'd ought to have two signs, one for his fix-it shop and one for antiques and trading. Some day, when he had the time, he thought, he'd paint a couple of new ones. One for each side of the driveway. It would look neat that way.

He turned around and looked across the road at Turner's Woods. It was a pretty sight, he thought. A sizable piece of woods like that right at the edge of town. It was a place for birds and rabbits and woodchucks and squirrels and it was full of forts built through generations by the boys of Willow Bend.

Some day, of course, some smart operator would buy it up and start a housing development or something equally objectionable and when that happened a big slice of his own boyhood would be cut out of his life.

Towser came around the corner of the house. He was sidling along, sniffing at the lowest row of siding and his ears were cocked with interest.

“That dog is nuts,” said Taine, and went inside.

He went into the kitchen, his bare feet slapping on the floor.

He filled the tea kettle, set it on the stove and turned the burner on underneath the kettle.

He turned on the radio, forgetting that it was out of kilter.

When it didn't make a sound, he remembered and, disgusted, snapped it off. That was the way it went, he thought. He fixed other people's stuff, but never got around to fixing any of his own.

He went into the bedroom and put on his shoes. He threw the bed together.

Back in the kitchen the stove had failed to work again. The burner beneath the kettle still was cold.

Taine hauled off and kicked the stove. He lifted the kettle and held his palm above the burner. In a few seconds he could detect some heat.

“Worked again,” he told himself.

Some day, he knew, kicking the stove would fail to work. When that happened, he'd have to get to work on it. Probably wasn't more than a loose connection.

He put the kettle back onto the stove.

There was a clatter out in front and Taine went out to see what was going on.

Beasly, the Horton's yardboy-chauffeur-gardener-et cetera was backing a rickety old truck up the driveway. Beside him sat Abbie Horton, the wife of H. Henry Horton, the village's most important citizen. In the back of the truck, lashed on with ropes and half-protected by a garish red and purple quilt, stood a mammoth television set. Taine recognized it from of old. It was a good ten years out of date and still, by any standard, it was the most expensive set ever to grace any home in Willow Bend.

Abbie hopped out of the truck. She was an energetic, bustling, bossy woman.

“Good morning, Hiram,” she said. “Can you fix this set again?”

“Never saw anything that I couldn't fix,” said Taine, but nevertheless he eyed the set with something like dismay. It was not the first time he had tangled with it and he knew what was ahead.

“It might cost you more than it's worth,” he warned her. “What you really need is a new one. This set is getting old and –”

“That's just what Henry said,” Abbie told him, tartly. “Henry wants to get one of the color sets. But I won't part with this one. It's not just TV, you know. It's a combination with radio and a record player and the wood and style are just right for the other furniture, and, besides –”

“Yes, I know,” said Taine, who'd heard it all before.

Poor old Henry, he thought. What a life the man must lead. Up at that computer plant all day long, shooting off his face and bossing everyone, then coming home to a life of petty tyranny.

“Beasly,” said Abbie, in her best drill-sergeant voice, “you get right up there and get that thing untied.”

“Yes'm,” Beasly said. He was a gangling, loose-jointed man who didn't look too bright.

“And see you be careful with it. I don't want it all scratched up.”

“Yes'm,” said Beasly.

“I'll help,” Taine offered.

The two climbed into the truck and began unlashing the old monstrosity.

“It's heavy,” Abbie warned. “You two be careful of it.”

“Yes'm,” said Beasly.

It was heavy and it was an awkward thing to boot, but Beasly and Taine horsed it around to the back of the house and up the stoop and through the back door and down the basement stairs, with Abbie following eagle-eyed behind them, alert to the slightest scratch.

The basement was Taine's combination workshop and display room for antiques. One end of it was filled with benches and with tools and machinery and boxes full of odds and ends and piles of just plain junk were scattered everywhere. The other end housed a collection of rickety chairs, sagging bedposts, ancient highboys, equally ancient lowboys, old coal scuttles painted gold, heavy iron fireplace screens and a lot or other stuff that he had collected from far and wide for as little as he could possibly pay for it.

He and Beasly set the TV down carefully on the floor. Abbie watched them narrowly from the stairs.

“Why, Hiram,” she said, excited, “you put a ceiling in the basement. It looks a whole lot better.”

“Huh?” asked Taine.

“The ceiling. I said you put in a ceiling.”

Taine jerked his head up and what she said was true. There was a ceiling there, but he'd never put it in.

He gulped a little and lowered his head, then jerked it quickly up and had another look. The ceiling still was there.

“It's not that block stuff,” said Abbie with open admiration. “You can't see any joints at all. How did you manage it?”

Taine gulped again and got back his voice. “Something I thought up,” he told her weakly.

“You'll have to come over and do it to our basement. Our basement is a sight. Beasly put the ceiling in the amusement room, but Beasly is all thumbs.”

“Yes'm,” Beasly said contritely.

“When I get the time,” Taine promised, ready to promise anything to get them out of there.

“You'd have a lot more time,” Abbie told him acidly, “if you weren't gadding around all over the country buying up that broken-down old furniture that you call antiques. Maybe you can fool the city folks when they come driving out here, but you can't fool me.”

“I make a lot of money out of some of it,” Taine told her calmly.

“And lose your shirt on the rest of it,” she said.

“I got some old china that is just the kind of stuff you are looking for,” said Taine. “Picked it up just a day or two ago. Made a good buy on it. I can let you have it cheap.”

“I'm not interested,” she said and clamped her mouth tight shut.

She turned around and went back up the stairs.

“She's on the prod today,” Beasly said to Taine. “It will be a bad day. It always is when she starts early in the morning.”

“Don't pay attention to her,” Taine advised.

“I try not to, but it ain't possible. You sure you don't need a man? I'd work for you cheap.”

“Sorry, Beasly. Tell you what – come over some night soon and we'll play some checkers.”

“I'll do that, Hiram. You're the only one who ever asks me over. All the others ever do is laugh at me or shout.”

Abbie's voice came bellowing down the stairs. “Beasly, are you coming? Don't go standing there all day. I have rugs to beat.”

“Yes'm,” said Beasly, starting up the stairs.

At the truck, Abbie turned on Taine with determination: “You'll get that set fixed right away? I'm lost without it.”

“Immediately,” said Taine.

He stood and watched them off, then looked around for Towser, but the dog had disappeared. More than likely he was at the woodchuck hole again, in the woods across the road. Gone off, thought Taine, without his breakfast, too.

The teakettle was boiling furiously when Taine got back to the kitchen. He put coffee in the maker and poured in the water. Then he went downstairs.

The ceiling was still there.

He turned on all the lights and walked around the basement, staring up at it.

It was a dazzling white material and it appeared to be translucent – up to a point, that is. One could see into it, but he could not see through it. And there were no signs of seams. It was fitted neatly and tightly around the water pipes and the ceiling lights.

Taine stood on a chair and rapped his knuckles against it sharply. It gave out a bell-like sound, almost exactly as if he'd rapped a fingernail against a thinly blown goblet.

He got down off the chair and stood there, shaking his head. The whole thing was beyond him. He had spent part of the evening repairing Banker Stevens' lawn mower and there'd been no ceiling then.

He rummaged in a box and found a drill. He dug out one of the smaller bits and fitted it in the drill. He plugged in the cord and climbed on the chair again and tried the bit against the ceiling. The whirling steel slid wildly back and forth. It didn't make a scratch. He switched off the drill and looked closely at the ceiling. There was not a mark upon it. He tried again, pressing against the drill with all his strength. The bit went
ping
and the broken end flew across the basement and hit the wall.

Taine stepped down off the chair. He found another bit and fitted it in the drill and went slowly up the stairs, trying to think. But he was too confused to think. That ceiling should not be up there, but there it was. And unless he went stark, staring crazy and forgetful as well, he had not put it there.

In the living room, he folded back one corner of the worn and faded carpeting and plugged in the drill. He knelt and started drilling in the floor. The bit went smoothly through the old oak flooring, then stopped. He put on more pressure and the drill spun without getting any bite.

And there wasn't supposed to be anything underneath that wood! Nothing to stop a drill. Once through the flooring, it should have dropped into the space between the joists.

Taine disengaged the drill and laid it to one side.

He went into the kitchen and the coffee now was ready. But before he poured it, he pawed through a cabinet drawer and found a pencil flashlight. Back in the living room he shined the light into the hole that the drill had made.

BOOK: The Big Front Yard and Other Stories
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