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GENERATIONS: Hank Slotnick: Natalia’s Ghost

Ernie parked his pickup in front of a small, neat house. “I’ll be right back,” he said as he walked up the driveway and into the backyard. He returned shortly with a ragged blue tarp that he dropped in the bed of the truck.

Hank Slotnick“The house belongs to Manuel Garcia,” he said, “and I do his yard work for him. His wife died two years ago -- her name was Natalia -- and I knew her, too. I been working for them a long time.”

We then headed to another house just outside the Thatcher, Ariz., city limits -- and so the family that lived there could keep horses. And it was the horses, indirectly, that interested us: Our errand was to fill the bed of Ernie’s truck with manure.

“Manuel left to visit his daughter two months ago,” Ernie continued. “Before he left, he called and told me there was a bucket of paint behind the house, and I should paint a part of the house with it.

“I told him, ‘sure,’ but when I opened the paint, it wasn’t the same color as the rest of the house.

“So I called him, and I said ‘It’s not the right color, and it looks bad.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he told me. ‘Just paint the whole house that color.’ “I told him that would cost a lot more cash, and he said that was OK. Just buy more paint and he’d pay me back when he got back to town. So I started.”

The manure was on an incline from the front to the back of the stall we cleaned out. Ernie said this was because the horses were fed at the front of the pen and so that’s where they deposited the manure while they ate. This meant that each time we filled the 30 gallon plastic garbage can he brought along, we had to haul it a little ways uphill so we could get it out of the stall and dump it into the truck. It was a nuisance more because the garbage can was cumbersome than because the manure was heavy.

“So I was painting, and this man come up to me,” Ernie explained. “He said Natalia was his sister, and she don’t like this color.”

“‘I know,” Ernie told him, “but she is dead and this is what Manuel wants.’ The man went away and I kept painting.”

We soon had the manure thing down to a routine. Ernie broke up the packed manure with a rake and I shoveled it into the garbage can. It didn’t take too many shovelfuls to fill the can, and then I’d drag it up to the truck, hoist its lip over the side, and dump it in.

“Then, one day, I opened the front door so that fresh air could go through the house while I was working. I opened the back door, too. And I was working in back.

“I heard the front door slam, and I thought it must have blown shut. But when I walked around to the front, it was wide open, just the way I left it. So I went back to painting in the back.

“Then I heard someone coughing inside the house, and I heard kitchen cabinet doors opening and closing.” Ernie put up his rake and stopped to look at me. I stopped filling the garbage can and listened.

“I didn’t go into the house,” he continued. “I just painted some more. Then I closed the doors and I went home.”

It wasn’t too long before the truck's bed was filled with manure and Ernie stretched the tarp over the top. He tied the tarp down because he didn’t want anything to blow out of the truck as he drove through Thatcher, through Safford, and up onto the mesa where my family lived. I can’t say as I blame him, either; people in town would think it was like following horses down the street in a parade without benefit of seeing the horses.

As we started unloading the manure onto our lawn, Ernie said he told his wife, Angie, about what had happened. “Angie told me, ‘You know, that was Natialia’s spirit in the house because she didn’t like the color of the paint.’ ‘I know,’ Ernie told her. ‘But she’s dead and Manuel wants it that color.’”

It took a lot less time to spread the manure on the lawn than it did to load it into the truck.

Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who winters in Pima, Ariz., and, with his wife, summers in Debs.