• The Heirloom

    Megan Mayhew Bergman

    Fall 2021

    Keenan pushed open the door to the underground bunker, a cloud of sickeningly hot Arizona air following him. His white T-shirt was streaked with red dust, and grease coated his fingers. He’d been fixing the excavator before the next round of guests arrived at the ranch.

    “Close the door,” Regan said, grimacing from where she was sitting cross-legged on the bed, enjoying the subterranean cool. It was dark inside, and simply furnished with a desk, kitchenette, a table, and chairs. Her mother’s art—made of stark white bones—was the only decoration. The white walls brought light. There were a few rooms in the above-ground portion of the Earth House, but they were hot, and better in winter.

    “They’re ready for you,” Keenan said. “A van full of hedge fund guys.”

    Regan nodded. In truth, the hedge funders were her favorite customers. They were clueless about how to operate a bucket loader, and her authority became absolute in minutes. It was delicious to feel the power dynamics turn when she buckled men into the bright orange heavy machinery and turned them loose on their childhood fantasies.

    Keenan cleaned his glasses with the bottom of his shirt. He was tall and wiry, and he came closer to the bed and stood over her.

    “Are you heading into town?” she asked, closing her computer. She’d been fumbling through the quarter’s accounting, wondering if she’d been withholding enough for taxes. She hadn’t.

    “Thought I’d close my eyes for a few,” he said. He kicked off his boots and flopped onto the bed next to her.

    She cringed, thinking of how dirty he was. She wanted him to shower, but they had to watch their water usage. Water was trucked onto the ranch once a week. Regan had a solar shower installed behind the barn, a small sack of spare water you could use to rinse yourself clean.

    “As long as you get the new cars by tonight.”

    “I’ll get the cars.” Keenan was already fading. In a final act, he pulled his visor free from his curly auburn hair and threw it to the floor. His breathing slowed.

    Must be nice, she thought. To sleep so easily, so soundly.

    Every week, Keenan was in charge of selecting eight cars from the DUI crash lot and getting them back to the ranch. Regan didn’t like fooling with the men at the lot, so she sent Keenan, who was getting better at picking out cars that still had some life left. Cars that felt satisfying to crunch with an excavator.

    She patted Keenan’s leg—a year before she might have kissed him or rolled on top of him momentarily—pulled her hair up into a quick bun, ran a sunscreen stick over her cheeks and nose, and left the bunker.

    As soon as she stepped outside, the heat bore down on her. She’d installed a shade system –a network of triangular cuts of sailcloth artfully pulled over the path between the Earth House and the Big Dig Arena—but sailcloth was no match for the 110-degree day.

    She waved to the hedge fund team, four men in crisp shorts (who ironed shorts?) with their arms folded over their chests, expectant in their power poses. She liked when they started this way, confident and put out. It gave her something to work with. Something to break down.

    The men stood in a line, gazing in awe at the circular, fenced-in arena where five large machines were parked in various stations. There were piles of dirt, stacks of giant tires, and obstacle courses set up.

    “Grab a Gatorade from the cooler,” Regan barked. “Water won’t cut it out here in the sun.”

    The men turned and crouched to fish through the tin cooler.

    When Regan had first started the business on the ranch, she realized she was too nice. She felt as though the men didn’t listen to her, and everyone was at risk using heavy equipment when they didn’t listen. She’d finally taken an online power dynamics course with a dominatrix and learned how to wield her power. Weird, maybe, but it worked.

    Everyone is still caught up in their mommy and daddy issues, the dominatrix said. You have to play one or the other.

    Regan now knew to take up space with a wide stance. To keep her words slow and minimal. She never started out with warmth, or provided personal information about herself.

    “There are four stations,” she said, beginning her talk, pointing to each station as she went. “You can stack tires with the skid steer. You can dig a hole with the mini excavator. Or you can choose the bulldozer course. If that’s not enough, for eight hundred dollars you can crush a car with the big excavator.”

    The men looked at each other. Eight hundred dollars was nothing to them. It was a lot to her. It meant fuel for the machines, salaries for three staff, Gatorade in the cooler, food in the cupboard.

    “What’s crushing a car like, you ask?” she said, putting a hand on her hip. “It’s better than therapy. Some say it’s better than sex, but I think that depends on your level of skill.”

    She let the ambiguity hang in the dry air. The men shifted, and she wondered what their eyes looked like behind their expensive sunglasses. She could hear the cactus wren calling from the brush; it sounded like an engine trying to turn over.

    “Now I want to talk to you about safety.” Regan walked over to the bucket loader and climbed in. She flipped the ignition and the machine came to life. She swung the big yellow arm around in a dramatic arc, flipped up a beach ball from the ground, and landed it in the center of a tire.

    She slid out of the driver’s seat and walked back toward the men whose faces had slackened a little. She had their attention. One man—the tallest—clapped.

    “This is a place where you can work out your feelings. You can break things. You can feel the primal power of a big machine at your fingertips. But you must be precise, and you must be safe. Otherwise you’re out. Understand?”

    The men nodded.

    “I will pull you from the machine if I think you’re a danger to yourself or others.”

    She was playing Mommy now.

    They clapped each other on the back. “Let’s do this!” one said.

    “You’ll watch a ten-minute safety video inside the gift shop,” Regan said, slowly and in a low voice. “Sam will get you started.”

    Sam was a two-hundred-fifty-pound former tight end who drank a lot of tequila and was uncanny with machines. He wore gas station aviator glasses, and his sweaty, muscular arms shone when he worked outside in the sun. He kept his blond hair shaved.

    He was deferential to her, sweeter than he looked. Sam played piano—mostly Elton John covers—and had a small, fawn-colored chihuahua named Lucy Diamonds who rode shotgun in his turquoise pickup.

    “Let me establish power first in the introductions,” she’d told him early on.

    “Got it, boss,” he’d said, and he had. Regan knew if she didn’t talk first, the men naturally turned their attention to Sam. Somehow, despite her initial suspicions, Sam was one of the few men who really seemed to understand her need for authority. He stayed out of the picture until the safety video, and she silently thanked him for it.

    The “gift shop” was a bright-orange shipping container with spotty air conditioning, a composting toilet, and one rack of T-shirts that read: “ASK ME ABOUT MY BIG DIG.” Regan wasn’t proud of those, but they sold well. Lucy Diamonds slept in a small fleece bed underneath the counter, the tip of her pink tongue hanging out. As long as she was asleep, she couldn’t see anyone, and if she couldn’t see anyone, she wouldn’t bark. She had faith that Sam would come for her at the end of each day, scooping her up in the safety of his big arms.

    While the men sat on the wooden bench watching the video, Regan took them in. Always better to watch than be watched, especially when you were a five-foot-two, twenty-nine-year-old woman trying to launch a business geared toward thwarted little boys with a man’s disposable income.

    Regan worked to identify her victim, the one on whom she’d force the family heirloom ploy. Either she or Keenan would toss in a faded bronze war medal into one of the holes-in-progress and stop everything, only to pretend that the customer had found the long-lost treasure.

    The family heirloom was an old war medal she’d purchased on eBay.

    She didn’t feel that bad about the deception. Her clients were Basic Rich Men. Golfers, just short of six feet tall, with the same clean-cut hair, who wore Brooks Brothers shorts and a Rolex or a Breitling. She liked the look of the tall one who’d applauded her party trick with the bucket loader, the one whose knee was bouncing as he watched the video. He seemed vulnerable, responsive, almost emotionally available. He probably had daughters at home, or had done some therapy.

    “What’s your name?” one of them turned to ask her.

    The dominatrix taught Regan one essential rule of power: always answer a question with a question.

    “Why do you need to know?”

    He shrugged his shoulders.

    “Regan,” she said, offering her hand. “Regan Love.” She squeezed his hand as hard as she could and he let go first. Just right.

    “Regan Love?” he asked, incredulous. He was clearly too stupid or lazy to think about all the times she’d endured the joke. “Was your mom a diehard Republican?”

    She didn’t answer him. That was another trick she’d learned from the dominatrix. You simply stop responding to a conversation you no longer want to have.

    Plus, her mother had been far from a diehard Republican. She was a second-wave feminist, the Betty Friedan kind, with a lot of purple sweat suits and no bra on the weekends, suspicious of men but nervous about extremism of any kind. “Can’t we just all get along and drink a glass of Zinfandel?” she liked to say.

    When the video finished, Regan had the finance guys sign their waivers, listened to their clichéd jokes about needing their lawyers to read it over first, and let Sam lead the men to their different stations.

    She waved to Keenan in the distance, and he waved back, the dry hills and low, scrubby brush behind him. He was walking to the Jeep, en route to select the impounded cars. He shoved his hands back into his pockets, and his gait was long and goofy. He always seemed so young compared to these other men.

    What she needed in a man right now was different from what she wanted. Or did everyone go to bed feeling that way?

    Everything was so stilted now, so heavy with work and the world.

    Her mother, Molly Love, had willed Regan the ranch with beautiful intentions. A single mother, Molly had found her best self out here, building an Earth Home in a community of environmentally minded ranches owned by single women, who gathered to drink mezcal on the flagstone patio on the weekends.

    Megan Mayhew Bergman is a journalist, visiting professor at Middlebury, and the Director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference. She is the author of three books, including How Strange a Season (March 2022). She is currently at work on a nonfiction book about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

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