Archive for January, 2013

The Home Place, Part 3

January 20, 2013

I couldn’t move or speak.

“The bank … they’re foreclosing on me. They say I’m too far gone and they’re going to sell me out.”

Finally I forced some air through my throat. “I … I can’t believe … how much money do you owe?”

A dry rasp of a sarcastic laugh. “Only a couple of hundred thousand.”

Troublesome times are here

“Yeah, we had a bad year or two; couldn’t make the interest payments on our loan,” he continued in a dead voice, “and they rolled the deficit forward to the next year. Well, I guess I kept hoping I could farm my way out of it, but … ”

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This was not reality. Was it?

“Damn, Hal! How could this happen? This didn’t just creep up on you. How could you not know you were going too far in debt? And how could you not tell me? ”

He recoiled as if I had slapped him, and Gail looked at me with a round, bruised stare, echoed in the eyes of the children gathered by the hallway door. Their eyes told of their fearful confusion at this kind of behavior from the people who were supposed to be in control of everything.

I stood up, began to reach toward him. “God … Hal … I’m sorry.” I wanted to go to him, but his hurt and anger burned around him like an unholy halo, and I couldn’t touch him. I stood for a moment, my hand partially extended toward my brother, then strode out the front door, into the chilly night.

I don’t remember too much of what I did for the next hour. I walked around the mercury-lamp-lit yard, trying to come to terms with what I had just heard. Hal had never said a word, before tonight, to prepare me for this. And I suppose I had just assumed this sort of thing didn’t happen to people I knew. But it had. This land was just another statistic in a ledger; my brother was just another failed businessman.

night

Finally I went inside to go to bed, no less at sea than before, but too cold and fatigued to stay up any longer. Hal and Gail were already in their room, so I locked the door behind me, flipped out the entry light, and, for a long time, leaned limply against the doorway in the darkness of my brother’s house.

I woke up in the morning when the winter sun crawled under my eyelids through the east windows of Kris’s room. I always felt a little silly sleeping in a canopy bed festooned with pink and white Victorian lace, but when I was here, Kris bunked with the boys, and this became “Uncle Frank’s room.”

As I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, the pain of the night before rushed back into my gullet, like acid pouring down a drain. I don’t think I’d slept more than fifteen minutes at a stretch all night; I’d doze for a while then wake up, re-hash Hal’s situation about a dozen times, doze off again and wake again. I felt about as rested as an army grunt in a muddy foxhole. But, with the sun shouting through the windows and the smell of bacon and coffee in my nostrils, I decided I might as well get up.

Gail was in the kitchen, red-eyed, standing over an electric skillet and poking absently at the few strips of bacon sizzling in it.

“Did I correctly identify the smell of coffee, and if so, where the heck is it?”

“Yeah, right over there. Cups are in the cabinet over the coffee maker.” She gestured wearily in the general direction of the cabinets.

“Guess you guys didn’t rest too well last night, either.”

“Oh, that’s nothing new. I haven’t slept all night since the first of the month. That’s when Hal found out from the bank. ”

A long, sterile silence. “Gail, listen, I acted like an ass last night, and … ”

“Oh, Frank, Hal doesn’t blame you. To be honest, he doesn’t have the emotional capital to waste on being upset with you. That’s one of the scariest things … Since he found out, it’s like he’s just slowly running down. He drifts around like he’s not interested in anything. I can’t even touch him anymore. That damned bank has pulled the plug on him, and he’s … he’s just … quit, that’s all. He puts up a front, but I know. He’s dying on the inside …” Her voice trailed off as she stared blankly into the middle distance. Tears began to trail down her cheeks, and she didn’t try to wipe them off. They followed one another, unheeded, down her face and neck, as though she didn’t feel them anymore, or perhaps it was simply too much trouble to take notice of them.

filling men’s hearts with fear

“Isn’t there anyone you can talk to, Gail? Pete Sloan, or somebody … maybe somebody at church?”

She shook her head numbly. “He can’t … or he won’t. And it’s hard for them, too, because they look at him, and they know what’s going on, but talking about it is like admitting it could happen to them, too. I guess keeping it to yourself is a way of keeping it away. I don’t know … ”

“Gail is he … do you think Hal could try something crazy?”

“What’s crazy, Frank?” she demanded, staring defiantly at me. “When you’ve poured your lifeblood into something, when it’s all you’ve ever known or wanted to know, when it’s as big a part of you as this place is for him, and then it gets yanked away from you; what could be crazier than that? You know how you felt when Hal told you. Just try and imagine how he feels. This is all he’s ever wanted to do or be, Frank. This farm is him and he’s the farm. He knows every contour, every ridge on the place. When he’s out on one of the tractors, he’s himself; real and alive and in his natural element. For him to think about not doing that … he can’t think about it, that’s all. He has no way to think about it … oh, dammit!”

bacon

Blue smoke curled up from the charred strips in the skillet. As Gail hurriedly unplugged it and reached for a spatula to scrape the burned bacon out of the pan, I glanced out the window toward the tool shed.

“Is Hal already out?”

“Yeah, he left just after sunup, although what he plans to do out there this time of year, I don’t know.”

“Okay. Listen, I’m not really hungry anyway, so if you’re fixing breakfast for me, don’t bother.”

“All right.”

I began pulling on a light jacket lying across the back of a kitchen chair.

“Frank? Go and talk to him, Frank, okay? I don’t want to lose him, but I can’t reach him, you know? Please … go and … just go and talk to him.”

I drew her close, feeling the painful lump in my craw threatening to back up into my eyes. “Sure, Gail. I’ll go talk to him. I have no idea what on God’s green earth I’ll say, but I’ll go talk to him.”

I wandered out across the frost-coated grass of the yard, toward the tool shed. I could hear the crisp clank of a two-and- a-half pound hammer on steel as I approached the corrugated tin building, guarded on all sides by farm implements, tractors, odds and ends of machinery in various stages of dismantling, all awaiting the call to action in the spring. Would any of this stuff would be here in the spring?

Over there was a light tractor, the one I’d learned to drive on. The drawbar was still bent from the time I tried to pull a ten-foot cultivator through a nine-and-a-half foot gap between two trees. Dad nearly killed me, once he knew I hadn’t done the job myself. Dad and Hal somehow managed to keep piecing the old beast together, nursing it back to health over and over again. I couldn’t believe he was still using it. I wondered who would be the high bidder for that tractor.

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Hal was inside the shop, pounding the slag out of a weld he had just made in the tubular steel drawbar of a breaking plow.

“Knock, knock,” I called.

“Who’s there?” He straightened from his scrutiny of the weld, pushing the welding mask up out of his face and turning to greet me.

“Little brother.”

“Little brother who?”

“Little-brother-with-egg-on-his-face. Hey, I want to apologize for yelling at you last night in front of the kids. It was pretty classless.”

“Forget it. I didn’t even know they were there.” He popped the mask down over his face and bent down to the drawbar. I looked away as the arc welder began to crackle and flash.

“Look,” I continued when he paused to tap the slag out of the new weld, “I don’t pretend to know what you’re going through, but I think I know that acting like nothing has happened won’t help anybody. Hal, listen to me.” I laid a hand on his shoulder as he pulled the mask down again. “Gail is worried sick about you. She’s watching you dry up on the inside. You’re killing her, as well as yourself. Look, maybe it’s time for you to start making plans. Maybe you need to … maybe you need to look for something else to do.”

“Yeah, like what?” He raised the mask and stared ahead with a corpse’s eyes. “Riding a tractor around for twenty or so years doesn’t qualify me for a hell of a lot, does, it? And what kind of office could I work in where I could smell freshly-turned earth? Where would I get that, Frank?”

“Hal … you remember when Dad died, how bad that was? How we both felt lost, like somebody had jerked the rug from under the world? Is … is that sort of how this is for you?”

“No … it’s worse. See, even after Dad was gone, as bad as that hurt, I could still come out here, work, go look at the crops–and still feel a part of him … like he was looking over my shoulder, you know?

“Do you remember that song we sang in church when we were kids … let’s see, how did it go … ‘I’ve reached the land of corn and wine / and all its riches–freely mine. Here shines undimmed one blissful day / and all my night has passed away. Oh! Beulah Land! Sweet Beulah Land …’ I remember when we sang that first line, I’d get this picture of our field, with corn in it as tall as a cottonwood tree, dark green as midnight. And I’ve never lost that picture, Frank. For me, heaven is a place where the corn grows tall, without any Johnson grass or careless weeds, and once a week, at night, you get a nice, slow, one-inch rain. ”

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He stared out the shop window, across the winter-dead field behind the house. In a minute he looked back at me, gave a half-smile that never reached his eyes, blinked rapidly several times and looked down. “You know,” he mumbled at his shoes, “I used to daydream that someday Jimmy or maybe Kip might want to come back here and, take over from me. Kind of complete the cycle once more. That’s the kind of feeling I have about this place–it’s the source and destination of the cycle. Every spring we break the ground; we plant, we plow, we cultivate. In the fall we harvest, in the winter we rest, and start over in the spring.

“That’s how it was for Dad, see? Winter came for him, and he’s … he’s resting. It was my turn. But if I lose the place, it’s like–for me it’s like the sun not coming up tomorrow. It’s like spitting on Dad’s grave–like all he and Granddad did was for nothing. I’ve poured my life out on this land, Frank,” he said, his eyes rising to mine and boring in like lasers, “but there will be nothing to show I was ever here.” He held my eyes for a moment, then turned away.

“Hal, it sounds to me as if you’re saying you’re ready to kiss everything off. What about your kids; what about Gail? There’s a whole world beyond this place, and you can’t just dig a hole and lie down in it!”

He jerked around viciously to face me. “This has been my world for forty-five years! Can’t you understand that? You talk all this crap about how much you love the place, then you tell me just to toss all that in the toilet, up anchor and go on from here! Well, for me, there ain’t no ‘from here!’ I’m supposed to just walk away from it and start wearing a tie from nine to five like some rootless, faceless, exhaust-fume-sucking company man? Just … just leave me alone.” The welding mask slammed shut, and he turned away from me like the closing of an iron gate. I left the shop, the arc welder spitting angrily behind me.

(To be continued)

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

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