‘Yard Work’ by David Koepp a short story that understands refusing to give up just because you’re old and alone

I’d never heard of David Koepp. Of course, now I know he’s the ninth most successful screenwriter of all time in terms of U.S. box office receipts with a total gross of over $2.3 billion, and he wrote Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, and Mission: Impossible, all of which I’ve seen, but I had to look him up to find that out. That’s how it is with screenwriters.

On the other hand, I’ve been a fan of Kevin Bacon since he outshone the rest of the cast in Diner in 1982, so when I was told he had narrated a short story on audible, I had to take a look.

My wife and I listened to the sample on audible here

By the end of the sample, I knew three things: I had to listen to the story that afternoon, Kevin Bacon is an even better narrator than I thought he would be and David Koepp was someone I wanted to read more of.

Here’s the opening of the story:

The judge had a lake house, upstate, and it was to there he eventually retired when Marie died. His wife’s passing after forty-odd years of marriage was an event that he viewed as an acute betrayal, by her, by the world and by the very natural order of things.

They’d been more or less the same age, she eighty-four when she died and the judge eighty-eight but actuarial tables being what they are, both of them had always assumed that the judge would be the first to go.

They knew his blood pressure would catch up with him. The knew the extra thirty around his midsection was a time bomb and they knew those thirty-five years of smoking Chesterfields weren’t something the Grim Reaper was likely to let slide, even if it did take him a while to collect the bill. No, few things in life were certain except for this one; his Honour Judge Herman Calvert was going to die first.

The couple had actively planned for that scenario: financially, socially, medically and in terms of decor that big house on Oakton Road where they’d raised the kids and still lived. They planned in ways that they discussed openly and those conversations were, weirdly, some of the judges fondest memories of their last few years together because Marie was the only person he knew to whom he could speak of his own death without being asked to stop or having the subject hastily changed. Nobody else was cool with it but Herman and Marie were.

We laughed when we heard that the judge and his wife had had the ‘who dies first’ conversation and made their plans. We’ve had those conversations too and know how flimsy the plans are. We also recognised how uncomfortable people become when, at an age when most of our lives are behind us, we talk about our own deaths.

So we downloaded the novella, listened to it together and thought it two hours well spent. David Koepp really understands what getting old is like and what it would be like to be old, alone and with nothing to do.

I identified with the judge’s belligerent unwillingness to accept his own limitations, his irritation at needing help with things, and his bloodyminded determination not let the forest reclaim the space where he and his wife spent their summers with their children.

The muscle of the story comes from the judges struggle to cut back and burn out an invasive, fast-growing species of creeper which is taking over the land and threatening to choke the life out of a tree he planted for his wife. The invasive species turns out to have some not entirely natural malice behind it that makes it a truly threatening and disquieting adversary. The judge’s struggle is fierce, focused and bloody and causes his daughter serious concern about his physical and mental well-being.

‘Yard Work’ well-crafted story, populated with believable people and laced with just enough supernatural threat to keep the tension up. By the end, I thought I knew the judge quiet well. I could also feel the gap left in his life and in him by the death of his wife.

‘Yard Work’ was David Koepp’s second venture into prose. In an interview he gave about ‘Yard Work’, David Koepp explained that he wrote it in the first COVID lockdown and was keen to have it as an audiobook because he had always loved radio plays.

I’m now looking forward to reading David Koepp’s first prose work, a novel called ‘Cold Storage’

Here’s the publisher’s summary:

They thought it was contained. They were wrong.

After decades underground in a forgotten sub-basement, a highly mutative organism – capable of extinction-level destruction – has found its way out. Only Pentagon bioterror operative Roberto Diaz can stop it. With the help of two unwitting security guards, he has one night to quarantine this horror, before it destroys all of humanity.

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