Posts Tagged ‘farm’

Sunday Clothes, Chapter 5

October 23, 2017

The drive back to the Caswell homestead was as long as a dreaded chore, and very quiet.

Addie sat in the sulky and sobbed as the service wound to its conclusion. Zeb, of course, had stayed inside through the communion service and offering until the very end, to lead the final prayer requested of him. That suited Addie fine because she really didn’t want to have to explain to him feelings she didn’t fully understand herself.

When the congregation was finally dismissed, Zeb stepped briskly from the church door, striding toward the sulky. His expression was a mixture of embarrassment, concern, and confusion. But at that moment, Addie couldn’t bring herself to care about what he was thinking. She was too busy with trying to organize and understand her own thoughts.

They were almost halfway back to Orchard Knob before either of them spoke.

“Addie—what’s wrong?” Zeb finally blurted as they neared the one-lane bridge across Cellico Creek.

She shook her head and stared away from him, across the flats toward the Tennessee River, glittering in the noonday sun. She didn’t know how to begin to tell him what she felt. Or maybe she was afraid of what she might say if she tried.

“Honey, I— Is it something I did that upset you?” he asked in a limp voice as they clattered over the tiny wooden bridge.

She turned in her seat and stared at him, unbelieving. Could he really be in some doubt about what was bothering her? Was he that blind? Again she could summon no words suitable to her purpose, and turned away.

After another eternity, they arrived at her house. He stopped the sulky

in front of the porch steps just as Rose, still wearing her Sunday dress with a white apron tied around her waist, stepped out of the front door with a broom in her hand. As if the sulky and its occupants did not exist, she began methodically sweeping the porch.

“Well … I, uh … I wonder what’s for dinner today?” Zeb stammered into the stony silence.Goodbye

For the first time since leaving the church house, Addie found her voice. “I don’t think you’d better come in for dinner today, Zeb,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I think you might ought to go on back to Murfreesboro for awhile. I … ” Her tone wavered, then caught again. “I think it might be best if we didn’t see each other for awhile.” She placed her hand on his arm to steady herself, then caught up her skirts as she stepped down from the sulky.

“Do what?” he asked, incredulous. ‘‘Addie, why won’t you tell me what—”

But she had already gone up the steps and was crossing the porch and reaching for the front door. And then, as he stared after her, she was inside, and gone.

*******

Rose grunted softly as she placed the platter of fried chicken in the center of the table. She glanced at Mr. Caswell, then backed into the corner and bowed her head.

Jacob glanced at Addie, who sat listlessly in her chair, staring at a vacant corner of the dining room.

“Shall we pray? Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank thee for this thy bounty that we are about to receive, and for all thy many blessings. Amen.”

Reaching for a thigh piece, Jacob again glanced at his daughter. “Where’s your beau? He not joining us today?”

For a long moment he thought she hadn’t heard him. “What’s that, Papa?” she responded, finally. “Oh, Zeb … No, he’s not coming in today. He … he had to go on back to … to Murfreesboro.”

Jacob received this news with a lift of his eyebrows. He spooned a heavy dollop of mashed potatoes onto his plate and reached for the bowl of cream gravy.

“Guess maybe he decided Methodist chicken was off his menu.”

Addie stared sharply at her father, then turned away. She grabbed for the bowl of green beans and flicked a spoonful onto her plate.

Rose poured buttermilk into Jacob’s glass from a large crockery pitcher. “Rose, pass me that plate of corn while you’re here, would you?” he said. He selected an ear from the platter.

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“Still, I guess it makes sense. After all, there ain’t nothing in the Bible that says it’s all right to eat fried chicken on Sunday.”

“Papa!” Addie flung her napkin from her lap and vaulted to her feet, glaring at him.

“What? I was just making conversation, is all. Nobody else at the table seemed to much want to talk to me.”

“Neither one of you understands a thing! Not a blessed thing!” Addie whirled about and knocked over her chair as she stomped into the hallway and up the stairs.

Jacob stared after her. As Addie’s footsteps pounded up the staircase, he peered questioningly at Rose, who returned his look with a flat, judging glint in her eye.

“What did I say, Rose?” he asked. “I was just going on; she knows that, doesn’t she?”

Rose moved to Addie’s place and began removing her plate and silverware. ‘‘Ain’t what you said,” the black woman replied without looking at him. “That child beggin’ you for help, but you ain’t listenin’.”

*******

The train ride back to Murfreesboro barely registered in Zeb’s consciousness. He felt as if he were in a black, muffled box, and the sounds and sights of the outside world reached him only as vague bumps and muted murmurs.

He couldn’t believe Addie was going to call it quits with him. He just couldn’t bring himself to accept it. And the hardest part of it all was that he didn’t have the faintest notion what had set her off. The more he thought about it, the more maddening it became.

On Monday morning, he flung himself into the work of the agency: canvassing residential and commercial districts for prospects, going on appointments with junior agents, making calls on policy holders who were late with premium payments. He kept himself busy, trying to crowd out the numb place at the center of his chest.

But it was no use. When he went back to his boarding house at night, the answerless questions came rushing back to nag at him. He followed them round and round inside his head, mesmerized by the pain and confusion like a bird charmed by a snake.

Reading BibleSome of the other bachelors at the house invited him to join them at their evening roisters, but Zeb had no taste for such activity, even if his convictions had permitted it. Instead, he sat in his room and read the psalms of lament from his Bible and tortured himself with his impossible longing.

*******

The year turned the corner into May, and an unseasonable hot spell settled down onto Chattanooga like an unexpected visit from a freeloading relative. Addie spent her days searching for a cool draft and her nights tossing on sweat-dampened sheets. You expected to be hot and distracted by, say, mid–July or August. But in May you expected to be enjoying cool night breezes and days just warm enough to make a glass of lemonade taste really good. But these days, a glass of lemonade didn’t seem to do anything but emphasize the discomfort.

She sat on the front porch one morning, already worn out from fanning herself. She heard the telephone rattle, just inside the front door. It was still a new enough sound to startle her. This past spring Papa had grudgingly placed the order and had the line run out from the nearest trunk, in Orchard Knob. Addie puffed a stray lock of hair out of her face and pushed herself up out of the rocking chair.

She reached the apparatus, pulled the black earpiece from its brass hook, and stood on tiptoe to get her mouth near the mouthpiece.Victorian Telephone

“Hello? Who’s there?”

“Addie? Is that you?”

Addie thought she recognized Louisa’s voice through the static. “Yeah, Lou, it’s me. How are you?”

“Fine, honey. Can you come over this afternoon? I’m having a quilting—”

Louisa’s voice dissolved in a burst of static and electric squeals, and Addie waited patiently until the noise on the line subsided.

“—someone to watch the babies so I can get everything done,” Louisa was saying.

“When did you say you wanted me to come over?” Addie said, mentally filling in the gaps.

“Sometime this afternoon, if you can.”

“All right. I’ll see you after lunch. Bye.” She hung up the earpiece without waiting to hear Louisa’s farewell. As bad as the lines were, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

*******

Louisa and Dub had recently moved to the newly fashionable Cameron Hill neighborhood. When Addie stepped down from the horse–drawn trolley at the foot of the hill where they lived, she was already drenched in perspiration. By the time she had climbed to the top of the street, she thought she might drown standing up.

The door swung open. “Hi, Aunt Addie.”

It was Robert, her sister’s oldest. The six–year–old grabbed her around the waist in a fierce hug. Patting his back, Addie asked, “Where’s your mama?”

“She’s in the carriage house, looking for her parasol. We’re going to town! And you’re coming with us!”

Some time later, they trooped inside the open doorway of Peabody’s Dry Goods Emporium on Market Street.

“Now, Robert,” Louisa said, “you keep your hands to yourself while we’re in here. I don’t need you handling every string of licorice in the store, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The boy made a beeline for the candy counters.Emporium

Louisa shook her head as she shifted the baby from the crook of one arm to the other. “That young ‘un says all the right things, but I don’t think he listens to himself.”

Little Katherine tugged on Addie’s hand. “Aunt Addie, can we go look at the bowth and thingth?”

“Sure, honey. Just let’s keep our hands to ourselves, all right?” The four–year–old nodded solemnly.

“I hate not going to Papa’s store anymore,” Louisa said as they moved among the bolts of cloth and barrels of molasses and other staples stacked on the pine-planked floor. “But it’s just so far over there from where we— Robert Eugene Dawkins! What did I just tell you?”

Robert yanked his hand away from the lid of the jar holding the peppermint sticks. He rubbed his palm on his backside as he peered over his shoulder at his mother.

“Well, anyway,” Louisa said as she began inspecting a stack of bunting, “how’s Papa these days?”

“Oh, he’s … fine, I guess.” Addie hoisted Katherine up so she could see the satin bows on the top shelf of the glass display. “I … I don’t talk to him much these days.”

“You spoken to Zeb since last time?”

Addie shook her head.

Mr. Peabody approached. He wore black sleeve garters and sported a pencil in the band that held his eye patch in place. He had lost an eye during the siege of ‘63, and for as long as Addie could remember, there had been a persistent rumor among the children of Chattanooga that he led a secret life as a pirate. The chance of maybe seeing what really lay beneath the patch, along with his well-stocked candy cases, drew many a young boy into his establishment.

“Can we help you with some bunting today, Mrs. Dawkins?”

“How much is this a yard?”

He peered at the material. “Believe it’s twenty cents.”

“All right, let me have … five yards, I guess.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He went behind the counter to get a pair of shears.

“Well, Addie, you’re going to have to tell Zeb something before too much longer. Your wedding is announced for June, and—”

“I know, I know,” Addie said. “What else do you think I’ve been doing the last few weeks, except going round and round about all this? Oh, Lou! I don’t know what to do!”

“About Zeb, or about the church?” Louisa said. She picked up a paper sack and started shoveling navy beans into it from the bin where they now stood.

“It’s all the same thing, Lou,” Addie said. “I can’t marry Zeb unless I’m willing to join the Church of Christ. I can’t just decide on marrying the man I love—I have to marry his church too. And you know what that’ll mean. It’s just too much for me to think about. Have you … have you talked to Bob or Junior about this at all? What do they think about it?”

Louisa set the sack on the scales, noted the weight, then placed it on the counter. “Two and a half,” she said to Mr. Peabody, who waited, pad in hand. He scribbled down a figure. She turned back to her younger sister.Scale

“Well, Addie, they feel kind of the same way I do. The boys think you’ve got to make up your own mind about this and do what you think is right. Junior says you ought to pray about it.” Junior was the oldest brother, the lay minister.

“Don’t think I haven’t been,” Addie said. “And I keep waiting for God to give me an answer. But he just listens, I guess. So far, I don’t feel any closer to knowing what to do.”

“Addie, maybe he’s waiting for you to decide. Maybe he doesn’t care which way you go on this, just so you give yourself the go-ahead, one way or the other.”

“Lou! That almost sounds—blasphemous!”

“Why? Getting married is an honorable thing, and not getting married is too. Why should God care which one you do, as long as you get on with it and quit bothering him about it?”

Addie stared at her sister. “Well, Lou,” she said finally, “this is my life, and things don’t look so cut and dried from where I stand.” She whirled away and stalked to the other side of the store. “Robert,” she called in warning to her nephew who stood, fingers twitching in desire, before the toy shelves, “you better not mess with that stuff Remember what your mama said.”

Louisa made several more selections and waited for Mr. Peabody to figure the total. She signed her ticket and gave instructions for the goods to be delivered that afternoon. They were almost halfway back to the house, trudging with the children up the side of Cameron Hill, before anything else was said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Addie,” Louisa said. “I didn’t mean to sound so hard and all. I just wish you could get on with your life, either way. That’s all I meant.”

Addie took several steps before answering. “I know. You’re just trying to help. Everybody’s just trying to help, though. Well … almost everybody. That’s part of what makes it so hard—”Sisters chatting.jpg

At that moment, George Hutto came around the corner, headed straight toward them down the hill. He walked in his usual slow gait, his eyes on the ground in front of his feet, but since they were downhill from him, they came into his field of vision anyway. He glanced up at them and, seeing Addie, stopped in his tracks. After a moment, he swept his bowler from his head.

“Hello, Mrs. Dawkins,” he said. “Hello … Addie.”

“Hello, George!” Louisa said in a hearty voice. “How are you today, other than it being too hot?”

“Yes, ma’am, it is awful hot, isn’t it?” He was answering Louisa, but his eyes stayed on Addie as she bore down on him.

“Hello,” Addie said, following her words with a curt nod. She never broke stride as she drew even with him and then she was past, marching up the hill like Sherman through Georgia.

“Aunt Addie, slow down!” said Katherine, trailing along at the end of Addie’s arm like a dinghy on a tow rope.

As she strode up the hill toward her sister’s house, Addie knew what she must do. As much as she hated to admit it, Lou was right. It was time to quit mealymouthing. It was time to do something.

*******

Addie stared long at the letter she held in her hand. Then, with elaborate care, she blotted it and folded it and slid it into an envelope. She sealed the flap and carefully inscribed Zeb’s name and the address of his Murfreesboro boarding house. Before she Mailboxcould change her mind again, she walked quickly to the postal clerk’s window and purchased the two-cent stamp that would take her missive to its destination.

*******

This post is a chapter from the novel Sunday Clothes, by Thom Lemmons. Sunday Clothes will soon be available for purchase as an e-book at www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

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The Home Place — Conclusion

February 22, 2013

It was Christmas Eve, and around mid-morning, Gail took the kids to town to get some last-minute gifts to exchange with the Sloan kids, just down the road. Hal stayed in the tool shed most of the day, welding or tinkering with the machinery scattered around the yard. He gave the outward appearance of a busy farmer trying to get machinery ready for spring. But in the indrawn slump of his shoulders, the tightness around his eyes, I could tell he was just trying to hold back the helpless wail of despondency threatening to break the dam of his self-control. I watched from the house as he scurried from one chore to the next, desperately trying to outrace the bitter tide of despair.

By late afternoon, it made me sick to my stomach, and I had to get away. I backed out of the driveway and drove west, away from the house, down the narrow blacktop road, across the drainage ditches crosshatching the countryside. I found myself turning left onto a small gravel road running down the east side of the acreage we had always referred to as the Wilson Place, after the people from whom my grandfather rented and Dad subsequently purchased it. It was the first farm, after the home farm, that my family had owned. I drove slowly past the dormant fields, corn stubble pointing randomly this way and that, jutting from the dark-grey, lumpy surface. These fields were rich, fertile—and Dad had them cut to grade, so they were easy to irrigate. They could be counted on to produce, year after year. Somebody would get a bargain with the Wilson Place.

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As I looked out over the level expanse I realized that still within me there was a fragment of disbelief in the loss of the farm. How could it be that my family would not be here anymore? What would move in to occupy the place within my soul reserved for the farm? It had always been my starting point for self-definition. But someone was buying the North Pole, moving it to Venus. I felt like a salmon returning to its birth-stream, only to find a dam built across the way. And Hal, what of him? I still felt the scalding shame of his futile anger as he lashed out at me, and through me, the forces of uncaring economics that offered solutions without feelings, a life with no heartbeat, survival with nothing to live for. I was not sure my brother had the necessary emotional equipment to survive in the no-name world to which I had inured myself. It struck me that I had learned to live in such a world largely because I knew that always behind the faceless masses, above the ever-shifting heads of the crowd, beyond the manufactured, plastic skyline of my daily grind, there existed a place where people connected with each other, a place where roots ran deep and each person counted. A resting-place from the impassive onrush of the urgent. A home place.

In another moment of epiphany, it came to me that I carried this home place inside me. It had been growing there since my childhood, awaiting a day like this, and I just now realized it. It was born of my love for the farm, nurtured by the love its people shared in good times and bad, tempered by trial and disappointment, strengthened by the dogged faith in God that ran throughout, like the theme of a fugue. The home place lived within me now, separate from the geographical and legal facts about the farm, and no person, no court of law, could ever take it away from me. This place had shaped me, placed its stamp on me, and I would forever remain, for good or ill, a testament, a declaration of its influence.

The sun flickered weakly through the gray, overcast dome of the sky as it settled toward Crowley’s ridge. The air grew cooler with more than nightfall as I drove back to the house. I pulled into the driveway, and I could see, through the foggy windows, gauzy hints of the frantic activity mandatory for households with children on Christmas Eve. Packages were being wrapped for the evening’s exchanging of gifts with the Sloans. The two younger kids were hopping about like manic fleas, unable to contain their excitement.

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Gail scurried between the wrapping of gifts and the warming of leftovers in the kitchen. Only Hal sat still, staring into the fireplace in the den, a raft of loneliness adrift in a sea of activity. I went into the house, tossed my coat on the back of a chair, and squatted before the fire, warming my hands. For a long time Hal and I stayed that way; in the same room and worlds apart.

Every now and then, one of the kids would race up the stairs behind us, but they didn’t approach either their father or me. I suppose they were aware of the fragility of the bubble of good cheer surrounding them, and knew better than to risk bursting it by coming too near us.

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Finally I turned to face him and cleared my throat, just as he looked up at me and opened his mouth to speak. “Frank, I …”

“No, you go ahead.”

“Well, I was just going to say that I know I came across sort of high-and-mighty this morning, and I didn’t mean to. It’s just that … ”

“Yeah, I know … and I kind of lost it, too, there, and … and I’m sorry as hell, Frank, really I am. You didn’t deserve that load of garbage I laid on you this morning.”

I started to reply, felt my words jamming up behind the baseball in my throat, felt the hot tears spill down my cheeks. “Hal, I … you’re all the family I’ve got. Don’t give up, is all I want to say. Just don’t give up, okay?” I wanted to say more, so much more, but I couldn’t control my voice. I dropped my head, kneading my eyes uselessly as the tears spilled over my fingers. He looked away, into the fire. Still rubbing my eyes, I faced him again.

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“Hal,” I said, my lips curling uncontrollably around my words, “I think you’ve got to face the fact that, no matter how much you love the farm, no matter how much history our family has with this place, no matter how hard you’ve tried, you’re going to have to leave here.” Still staring into the fire, his chest began to heave in silent emotion. “I hope you come to the place where you can see your life as something apart from this farm. It’s been good to you, and it’s part of you, but you still have to choose between dying with it and living with your family. Do you hear what I’m trying to say?” No answer. I plunged ahead, into the minefield, not knowing what else to do. “You made some errors in judgment, and you probably took some bad advice along the way, but, Hal, none of us gets to go back. You did what you thought was best, and it didn’t work. Cut your losses. Hal,” I pleaded, “decide to live! Live for Gail, for the kids. There’s something, someone out there bigger than you and your grief. I … I just hope to God you can learn to accept that.”

Gail came to the doorway, saw us there, and hesitated, looking back and forth between us. “Everything okay in here?” she called uncertainly.

“Well, Hon,” said Hal after a long pause, “that sort of remains to be seen.” He looked at me, for the first time since I had begun speaking to him, and a wistful smile was toying with the corners of his mouth.

After several swallows and blinks, Gail managed to say, “Supper’s ready. We’d better eat so we won’t be late.”

Hal and I started toward the kitchen. I felt his rough hand on the back of my neck. I looked outside, where the first few stray snowflakes were drifting aimlessly to the ground.

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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.

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. ”

Image

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

The Home Place, Part 2

September 13, 2011


I had seen beaten men before, and it was plain that one sat beside me now.
Exactly what Hal had lost, I wasn’t sure, but it chilled me to the bone to see this anvil of a man beaten into impotent grief.

“Hey, what’s the matter? You’re not leveling with me,” I said, gripping his upper arm and trying to look him in the eye. I had not seen Hal cry half dozen times in all our growing-up years: it was scaring the hell out of me.

“I … I don’t want to go into it now, in front of the kids,” he managed to stammer in a poorly-controlled voice. Kip stood stock-still in the hall, his face a scared, stark question mark.

“Yeah … I understand. Hey, Kipper,” I said, turning to him, “do you think you could go in the den and look under the tree for a red package tied up with bright green ribbon? Get it and take it to Kris, so she can read the label and make sure your name is spelled right. Could you do that for me, partner?” Kip wandered doubtfully into the den, glancing back now and then at us as his dad and I sat beside each other, silently groping for words.

I cleared my throat. “So … maybe we should save this until after dinner?”

“Yeah, when we get the kids down for the night we’ll have some time to talk.”

“Just tell me this: is it you and Gail?”

“Oh, no, we’re … at least I think our marriage is okay.”

I felt the vise in my throat loosen a notch. I loved Gail like a sister. In fact, I guess she was the sister I had never had. She had seen me through the morass of puberty, giving big-sisterly advice about things Mom didn’t live long enough to tell me. I knew if it came down to it, I would have to put my emotional chips on my brother; I was just glad I didn’t have to make the choice.

“Okay, Hal, we’ll save it till later. But no more hedging. I want to know what’s going on. Got it?”
He nodded his head as he swiped a massive forearm across his eyes. “Yeah … it’ll be good to get it off my chest.”

We stood there for a couple of minutes while Hal got his face straight. I listened to the sounds of the household: Gail bustling in the kitchen, clanging pans and utensils; two of the kids fighting noisily about some inconsequential catastrophe; the sound of a game show on the television no one was watching. And I thought maybe I didn’t want to know whatever it was I would find out after dinner. I wasn’t sure I could deal with a tragedy striking so close to the center of what was precious to me. Hal was a sort of gravity for me. He was the farm and my childhood distilled into flesh—a human lodestone.

He sniffed and blinked rapidly, struggling to regain a façade of control. He straightened up and we walked into the den, arms around each others’ shoulders. We talked around the lumps in our throats until Gail called us to the table.

Dinner was a minuet of harmless conversation, accompanied by the uninhibited obbligato of the kids’ stream-of-consciousness jabber. Jimmy, the oldest, wanted to know how long I’d had the sports car, how fast would it run, did I get any tickets on the way here, and he made all A’s this quarter. Kris, the classic middle child, picked at her food, giggled, and got repeatedly grossed out by Kip’s clowning with his entree. Gail alternately dealt discipline and glanced back and forth between Hal and me, sensing the silences between words, feeling the presence of the invisible guest at the table.

It announced its presence in unanswered glances, in half-sighs falling feebly into silences which should have been filled by robust, chaotic, vigorous talk of family and the season and the crops. Not for the world would I broach any subject which might spill the wrenching pain of my brother’s grief out onto the table. But how could I know what raw nerve I might strike with the most innocuous reference? It was like walking on glass shards, barefooted and at night and without a flashlight.

So I answered questions, talked to the kids, and complimented the food that I barely tasted. For some reason, a line from a song kept running through my head like a litany. It was a song we used to sing in church: “Troublesome times are here / filling men’s hearts with fear … ”

With dinner eaten, and the children shooed down the hall to begin stalling bedtime, we shuttled the dishes by degrees to the side of the sink, then went into the den and sat down in the glow of a dying fire. Hal and I looked at each other with bleeding eyes until he glanced down, looked at Gail, cleared his throat and, after several false starts, hoarsely gasped, “I’m losing the farm, Frank.”

(To be continued)

Creative Commons License
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