The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
"Robert, I put your sandwiches in with the boys. You take your time and don't rush back. You've been out in the sun for long enough today. There's cheese in the bottom for Ralph."
"Yes, ma'am," I answered, knowing which of my brothers got what.
The empty farm truck bounced mightily against the pasture as I headed toward the last substantial stand of trees on our farm. We'd been nursing those trees since I was a boy, after previous generations had cleared all but a few small stands of trees from the rest of the land, as if they stood in the way of the plow. This made my trips to the meadows all the more enjoyable.
Only because of the pond and the fact these trees furnished shade appreciated during family outings over the years did they remain untouched. Thinning out the woods periodically for things like porches and fence posts was being smart caretakers according to Pa.
Our farm was well managed. We did no more harm to the land than necessary. Each time I thought about it, I loved it, but being tied to it didn't appeal to me. Being responsible for it wasn't what I wanted out of my life.
To me leaving didn't mean not coming back, but each time I got in the truck, I had the urge to keep driving until I was far away. Watching the horizon, I found myself looking back to when the thought of leaving the farm first came to me. I tried to nail down that moment when leaving was more appealing in my mind than staying, but I knew how it all started.
I remembered Jose from when I was twelve. He was one of the youngest hands Pa hired, seventeen he said. I never saw Jose as a hand. He told me tales of his life on the road, after he left Mexico when he was younger than I was then. I no longer remembered Jose's face but his stories still stirred my imagination. Jose road the rails to get where he wanted to go. No matter where he went, there was work.
Jose left me with a curiosity about what lay beyond our farm and our piece of Iowa. That's the first time I considered traveling to see the world for myself. Pa didn't share my enthusiasm for the rest of the world.
I remembered the year Mama had Richard Lee. She stayed in the hospital over in Des Moines. After church one Sunday, Pa took us the hour's drive to see her. My eyes could hardly take in everything I saw. That set the stage for Jose's arrival several years later.
We returned to take Mama home later on but they'd buried Richard Lee beside the church without any of us boys being there. We were told Richard Lee had gone to live with God. For a long time after that, when I prayed, I told God to have his own babies and leave my Mama's alone. I was seven and I'd seen what was beyond our farm.
I returned to Des Moines and the same hospital the year I was thirteen, after breaking my leg. The day they put the cast on I lay in the back of the truck on a pile of hay Pa'd put there for me. As we drove toward home, I watched the western sky as the sun boiled low on the horizon.
I wanted to go to where the sun set. I suppose my yearning grew from there, especially at school where we read about exotic places. I stood in our fields wondering which way I needed to look to see the Great Pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China.
Pa and I traveled back to Des Moines two years later. That's the year we came closest to losing the farm. He took the money from the harvest there rather than wait for Wednesday, when the banker came to our town.
That was back when Pa and I still got along. As the eldest son, I got to go with him to Des Moines. I held the money in my lap inside a canvas sack. Even when there were no hard feelings between us, we rarely spoke much. It was then I saw how tenuously we clung to our land.
Pa told me if we waited the two extra days to pay the banker when he came to town, the bank could take the farm. Not because we didn't have the money, but because they could and then they'd take the money too, because that's all bankers care about.
I didn't like the sound of it. I didn't want my life to hang on some man wanting what I had and using any means possible to take it away from me. My dreams of leaving the farm intensified after that visit to Des Moines.
A year later Pa returned to Des Moines with the money for the mortgage but without me. We were on the outs by then and Pa traveled alone. Ralph was only a year younger than me. If anyone loved the soil more than Pa it was Ralph. My father wouldn't take him because he wasn't his eldest and the eldest took the farm from his father.
I rarely left the farm once Pa found out I intended to leave the farm. Funny how my desire to travel led me to my staying put. When Mama ran short of something, she always sent me into town to the General Mercantile Emporium and Grocery, which took all of fifteen minutes each way if I dawdled, which I did. Even when I dawdled, it didn't take as long as driving to the meadows.
When Pa ran short of something and couldn't make the trip himself, he sent Ralph to get whatever it was and Junior to keep an eye on Ralph. If Ralph loved anything as much as he loved the farm, it was girls. Any time he got a chance, he'd woo a girl all afternoon if he got the chance. Having his little brother with him didn't give him that chance.
I should have kept leaving the farm to myself but I didn't know any better. I always told my parents what was on my mind. This particular thing didn't set well with Pa, and I had become an outsider on my own farm.
Now, I heard about the world from the radio in the parlor after supper, from books I carried home from school, and from hands that weren't too shy to talk. It wasn't their lives that interested me but where their lives had taken them and how they came to be on our farm.
Sven wasn't the least bit shy, but I didn't get the responses I expected. He wasn't like other hands. Sven made me feel like a boy and his answers created more questions. Sven was like no one I'd ever met.
I couldn't just up and leave. The farm was in trouble and I owed my family that. I loved the farm. It's difficult to explain how my feelings troubled me. Pa's reaction, when he found out I intended to leave, was like a hard man turning cold. He shut me out that day and that's how it was.
His long hard looks and disapproving head-shakes reminded me of where I stood with Pa. Only when telling me what he wanted me to do or when we were in the house in front of Mama did he speak directly to me. Mama knew our relationship was strained. She loved her husband. She loved her son. She did the best she could to keep the peace.
There was no mention of me leaving after I graduated high school, but Pa wasn't one to forget. His life was the farm, Mama, his sons, and everything that involved. Having his eldest reject the life he'd chosen didn't set well with Pa. The strain between us only grew over the years. It was the sports jacket affair that finished us off, but it could have been anything..
I would have changed it if I could, but I couldn't. I see now how disrespectful I'd been to Pa, but I didn't see it then. I had no hard feelings for Pa and I was sure sorry he had such hard feelings toward me. I stayed because he needed me and it was the honorable thing for a son to do.
My mind moved from one topic to another, spurred on by the new hand, who woke my mind to life beyond the farm again. Before I knew it I was sitting in the truck, engine running, sitting in front of the picnic table. I looked around to see if my reverie had been noticed. I didn't want this coming up at the dinner table.
'Roberts lost his mind, you know,' Ralph would announce to anyone in earshot.
I shut off the engine, leaning on the steering wheel to watch Ralph emerge dragging his ax behind him. The bib on his overalls was down and the tip of the straps dragged along the ground.
At eighteen Ralph was busy becoming a man. His shoulders were widening, while his biceps and chest showed deepening muscles from the constant work my brother did. He was still thinly built but growing out of his boy's body in a way I hadn't done. I still had my baby fat. It didn't flatter me but I was never the bundle of energy Ralph was.
Ralph had brown hair and green eyes with skin that was always tan, while Junior and I had blond hair, blue eyes, light skin, and bodies that refused to display muscularity. Mama claimed Ralph took after her brother Frank, who drowned at seventeen up near Fort Dodge.
Ralph cast a dirty look in my direction, leaned his ax against the end of the table, collapsing at one end, leaning his head on his arms, waiting for me to deliver him food. Junior stopped shaping the fence posts to come to the door of the truck.
"Do you know how hungry we are, Robert? I told Ralph to quit 'til he ate, but he keeps cutting trees like he's a maniac. You know how he gets when he don't eat."
"I'm sorry. I was tied up, Junior. I got here as quick as I could," I said.
"Yeah, you sat there five minutes. Ralph's been complaining for an hour. You know how he gets."
"What's new?" I asked. "He was complaining when I left you off this morning."
"Anything I can carry, Robert? Let's don't argue. I get enough of that from Ralph. He argues about everything. He thinks he's Pa when we're out here alone."
"Yeah, take the lemonade and glasses. Pour him a glass and maybe he'll feel better. We got us a new hand. I've been tending to him."
"Bugging him with questions I bet," Junior said, knowing my habits as well as I did.
"Yeah, he's big. Hard worker," I said.
"Bet he don't last 'til dinner. Pa ain't keeping no hand on for a weeks when we ain't got that much to do 'til harvest."
"We'll see," I said, opening the door and following Junior to the table with the grocery bag full of goodies. There was always pie and other favorites for lunch. That would be the first thing Ralph looked for.
"Hi yea, Ralphie. How's tricks," I said in my most cheerful voice that Ralph hated.
"Do you know what time it is?" Ralph barked, looking at his arm where a watch would be if he had one.
"No. I doubt you do either, but it's lunchtime now."
"Yeah, well I know my stomach's been eating on my backbone for a couple of hours. A man's got to eat if he's going to work," he complained.
"Shut up and eat," I said, pushing the bag over in front of him. "We got a new hand. I been tending him."
"We do? I bet he got fed on time," Ralph complained. "Where's the cheese. Mama knows I got to have cheese on my ham."
Ralph rummaged in the bag, pulling out items as he searched. When he found the cheese he was disappointed. He'd have to find something else to complain about, but that wouldn't take long.
"It's on the bottom, Ralph. Right were it always is when Mama sends ham."
"You can have mine," Junior said, finishing off one sandwich and reaching for another. "Hand me one of those bowls of potato salad while your not busy, Ralph."
I sat down with a sandwich and enjoyed the shade. The lemonade was still cool and refreshing. Before long we were all busy chomping away. We may have been dirt poor farmers, but we ate good.
"Where's he from?" Ralph asked, leaning on his elbows as he chewed on his sandwich.
"How would I know?" I replied.
"Because you been down there talking to him. I know you, Robert. You know everything about him by now."
"Over Muscatine way, but closer to the river."
"Pa gonna keep him?" Ralph continued, giving it some thought.
"Don't know. He's making up his mind and told Sven he'll tell him at supper tonight."
"He eating with us at the table?" Ralph asked after a spell.
"Yep," I answered, knowing what Ralph would say.
"He's staying on," Ralph said.
"Is not. It's two weeks to harvest. Pa ain't keeping no hand on for two weeks just to have him around for harvest," Junior deduced. "We don't got any money, Ralph."
"Is to. If he eats at our table he'll stay. You listen to what I'm telling you, little brother. Ralph knows."
"Is not. It's two weeks until harvest."
"You haven't seen him, Junior. I think Pa's going to try to keep him if he can. It'll be up to Sven," I said.
"Sven? He's one of us, huh? See him? What's see him got to do with it?" Junior asked.
"Wait 'til you see him. You'll see."
"Good grief, a hands a hand, Robert," Junior said.
"Are not," Ralph said.
"You been swimming?" I asked.
"No, he kept saying we'd wait until after lunch. We didn't know we'd get lunch at supper time," Junior complained. "You coming in? The water is perfect."
"I don't know," I said, not enjoying the pond as much as I once did.
When Ralph was finished eating, he stood up and pushed down his overalls and underwear, leaving them behind his seat. He headed down the path toward the pond, having recovered some from being starved for a half hour more than usual. I walked down the path with Junior, standing to watch Ralph throw himself off the wooden raft over and over again.
"You think our brother's a mite touched?" Junior asked.
"No, I think he has more energy than he knows what to do with," I replied.
"You'd never know how he was dragging an hour ago. Complaining about how hungry he was."
"All that's in the past. Ralph isn't one to stick with a thought longer than necessary."
"Do you think he's related to us, Robert? Look at him. There ain't an ounce of fat on the boy. Look at us. I heard about those traveling salesman," Junior said.
"Junior, you saying our mother slept with someone besides Pa?"
"On most days, I'd say no way, but when I look at Ralph, he don't look like no one in our family."
"Mama's brother Uncle Frank," I said.
"You ever see Uncle Frank?" Junior inquired.
"He drowned before we were born," I explained.
"Likely story if you ask me. Awful convenient if you want to explain a son no one can explain," Junior continued.
"Oh shut up. Ralph's our brother. We're stuck with him."
"You know he's been sneaking out at night?" Junior asked.
"No, when did that start?" I asked, needing anything I could get on Ralph.
"When he met that girl moved in to the Tyler farm."
"Ralph's got a girlfriend? Who'd put up with him?" I asked.
"No one. He's been visiting three different farms since he started at Tyler place."
"Boys a Casanova," Junior said. "What do girls see in him?"
"Ralph?" I laughed.
"Better them than me. I sleep with the boy. I wake up and he's tangled around me. His underwear is poking out in a way I don't want to discuss. I'm going to tell Mama to put him out with the pigs," Junior said.
"Pigs. Out with the pigs? What's that mean?" I asked, thinking it was sounding familiar.
"That Jerry Stemhouser kid I went to grade school with was sleeping with his pet pig. You didn't hear nothing about that? I thought everyone knew. Boy was having relations with his pig," Junior said, shaking his head. "I don't even want to know what that means."
"That's a joke," I said.
"Well I ain't aiming on becoming Ralph's pet pig. He can sleep in the barn he don't quit. I swear he ain't related to me, Robert. Uncle Frank must have been a randy man."
"Maybe your right. Ain't legal having relations with your brother. Maybe he isn't related to you," I said, laughing at Junior's seriousness on the subject.
"You hush. There ain't no relations. He tried and it's not funny, Robert. I aim on being virgin when I get married."
"No you didn't say that but it's good knowledge to have. If he's getting sweet on you, he might go for a pig."
"You hush. I should have known better than to tell you anything personal. You're as bad as he is."
Junior sat down to pull off his boots before stripping to go in the pond. He handed me his folded clothes and let me take his boots in my free hand.
"Junior, I don't think they'll fit me. You're three inches shorter than I am and twenty pounds lighter," I joked.
"Leave them on my seat at the table. I should be able to make it that far without him getting any ideas."
"Why didn't you just undress there?"
"I'm not like Ralph, Robert. I don't parade around buck naked. I may not have much dignity but I got that much."
"You say you're worried about his intentions concerning you and you swim naked together. You're going to be naked going back to the table. Plenty of time for Ralph to get ideas," I said, enjoying it when Junior squirmed.
"He don't think that fast and I dry off on the way back to the picnic table. That way I get right into my clothes."
I suppose it made sense to Junior. Ralph didn't mind being naked and would probably go to town that way if Mama wasn't around to stop him. Junior was more modest than Ralph but he didn't mind swimming naked. He didn't want an audience was all.
I was on the modest side. Even when I swam, I left my clothes at the water's edge, getting back into them as quick as I came out of the water. They always dried sooner or later and when they were dry, so was I.
My brother Ralph was contrary to Junior and me in most ways. He'd always been odd in noticeable ways, except he didn't notice or care. Ralph had his own train of thought and it often carried him into trouble. His lack of modesty fit in with his frequent derailments.
On a harvest or any other job, if I got to pick who I wanted to work with, it was Ralph. He hardly noticed he did twice the work of everyone else. Maybe he did and just didn't know any other way. That made his odd ways a lot easier to take.
I watched as Ralph and Junior tossed each other from the raft. They still acted like kids at times. I lost the ability years ago, taking life more serious than it really was.
Ralph had only just turned eighteen. Junior was a solid two years behind him, although Junior was the more mature and responsible between the two. I guess Junior was more like me. I didn't know who Ralph was like.
I'd lost interest in the pond once the Carters moved off their place. The Carter boys built the raft when I was still little, and I was best friends with their little brother, Paul. Once the bank threw them off their place, I worried about what became of them. Seeing the pond reminded me of happier times, but not so happy it could keep my mind off Paul and his family leaving for parts unknown.
I dropped Junior's clothes on the table before loading the fence posts. The ride back to the house was easier on my backside. Sven quit what he was doing to help unload the posts as quick as I stopped the truck. I offered to move them down the drive so he could take them off where they needed to be, but he put one on each shoulder and said it was a lot more efficient walking them there.
I didn't know what he meant.
Pa returned from a trip into town for tractor parts shortly after the posts were spread out down the driveway. He stopped in front of the house and leaned on the back of the old Ford truck to talk to Sven. I suspected the subject of payment for his work came up and Pa mainly talked while Sven mainly listened.
I couldn't tell how the conversation was going. I knew Pa would be worried about Sven doing too much work. He'd talk about how there would be no money until after harvest, and then it would mostly go to pay the bills to keep us on the farm another year. That was how it was done.
I suspected Sven knew that farmers rarely had much money just before harvest time. Sven was a worker and when there was work to be done, he did it. You didn't need to point him at it or explain it to him. He was in no hurry the day he came to our farm, but Pa wanted to be fair to him.
I watched for clues as I added oil to the engine of the farm truck, making sure the water and such were full to the top. I knew better than to let Pa find the oil or water lacking. He'd walk halfway across the farm to tell me my latest mistake.
Pa had some chores for me to do as he busied himself in the barn again. Our tractors were old and if we were going to get another year out of them, they needed to be coaxed, coddled, and pampered. I think Pa liked that. It was precise and the results were predictable.
Mama came out to tell us what time supper would be on the table. We ate just before dark each night, when the light was at its worst. Most farm accidents happen just before sunset and right after dawn. It's a good time to be at the table.
Pa decided he'd go up after my brothers and supervise them in selecting better trees for the purpose of making fence posts. It was later I learned the shape of the fence posts were what Pa and Sven were speaking about. Sven could whittle them into shape, if they were stout enough. Pay hadn't come up and my worries were for naught.
Sven stayed busy digging holes and leaving a post leaning in each one. Mama had me moving canned goods into the root cellar, since the pantry was full from a summer of rich tasty vegetables.
Mama's gardens were overflowing with vegetables and her afternoons were spent canning, while she made preparations for the evening meal. We always got the freshest of everything and when we couldn't eat any more, she canned the rest.
When Pa did come back with Ralph and Junior, Sven went to the back of the truck to unload more freshly cut posts. There weren't as many because it hadn't been but a few hours since I returned with a load.
I always left a dozen in case Pa went to get my brothers. That way he didn't ask why there wasn't more. This time Sven stacked them all at the top corner of the driveway. Junior stood next to the door of the truck and watched.
Ralph matched Sven post for post, putting one on each should like the bigger man did. His mouth going a dozen miles a minutes, as he told stories to Sven that had them both laughing. Ralph would have walk and half back up as they went back for more post, so he could look at Sven while he talked to him.
"You're big," Ralph said loud enough for me to hear.
"The girls tell me that too," Sven said in words I'd heard before.
For the first time in my life, in Ralph's life, he blushed. I never thought I'd see the day. Ralph didn't try to explain himself. That would have been impossible, but I was amused by a man as quick as Sven was with words. I liked him.
Pa went directly into the house. As soon as the last post hit the ground, Ralph and Junior were back in the truck, racing toward the barn with the engine revving. Ralph shifted through the gears as quick as he could so he would hit them all in the hundred feet it took to get to the end of the line.
He slammed on the brakes at the last instant, sliding the truck sideways as it came to rest a foot from the corner of the barn. Junior would have his usual difficulty getting the passenger side door open far enough for him to squeeze out. At times Junior had to slide across and get out of the driver's door as the dust was rising up around the vehicle.
By this time Pa would step out on the back porch, glaring in Ralph's direction, as Ralph kept his eyes to himself.
"What have I told you about racing that engine like that?" Pa yelled, standing with hands on hips and his pipe clenched between his teeth.
"Yes, sir," Ralph said with conviction. "I forgot."
Then Ralph was racing toward the back of the barn to be the first one at the pump where we clean up before dinner. Junior would be chasing him as he cussed him for not playing fair, but Ralph never played fair by design. There was no point in taking chances if you could stack the deck in your favor. Ralph was a deck stacker from way back and Junior never seemed to catch on to the game.
It had always been the same as far back as I could remember. Junior was still trying to keep up with Ralph, but it was Ralph's game and no one knew what came next but him. Junior was the only one who still tried to figure out how to best Ralph, but he still ran second most of the time.
Nothing changed. Pa would not mention the incident again because Ralph was now his golden child, who loved the farm and farming it. Because I didn't take advantage of the natural progression, I'd become invisible. Pa pretty much let Ralph do as he pleased, only reining him in if he was abusing something like the farm truck or Junior. The admonishments were swift and painless.
"He'd drive that truck from one side of the driveway to the other if he got a chance," I observed, as Sven came toward me as he put his shirt back on.
"He's a boy," Sven said. "It's what they do."
"You staying on?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. He'll speak with your Mama about me."
"What did Pa say?"
"We'll talk it over at supper. Your father is more worried about money than me. I've already lost a farm. The money isn't as important these days."
"You boys clean up now. Supper's ready when you are," Mama yelled from the back door.
That meant time was a wasting and hunger pangs hit me as the screen door was closing.
"Come on. I'll get you a towel. I don't hurry because my brothers make such a mess when they clean up. I've got to clean up before we can wash up."
"You sound as though you might never have been a boy," Sven observed, as we walked.
"I was always the oldest," I said. "I grew up faster."
"Oh, that means you were never a boy?"
"You have any brothers?" I asked him, suddenly curious.
Sven laughed boldly and seemed amused by the question.
"More than I can count. You're Robert, right?"
"Yes, I'm Robert," I said, knowing he knew my name.
"I was the sixth son," Sven said proudly.
"Sixth? There were girls too?"
"Four and four more boys after me, but two died back in 19 or 20. That flu epidemic took 'em. They were right young. I was only four or five myself."
"I'm sorry," I said, as Sven's tragedies began to add up.
"Long time ago," he said without hesitation. "Lots of hardship in this life. It's why you've got to be tough."
He had a gentle voice for being such a big man. He thought about what he had to say in a way I wasn't accustomed. My family was filled with reactionaries. We more reacted than thought things out.
I collected two towels from where I kept mine in the barn and gave one to Sven. He folded it over his arm as we walked down toward the pump.
"You're a hard worker," I said as we walked together.
"Give a man a good days work and you might work tomorrow. There is no trick to hard work," he said.
"The corn will be coming in soon. We'll need you," I said. "I think Pa hired you with that in mind. We'll need at least one more hand if we can afford one. Times are tight."
"We'll see," Sven said. "Best not get your cart in front of your horse. It only confuses him."
"My father almost always hires on two hands for harvest. I'm sure we can't afford two this year. One maybe."
"I'll do the work of two if need be," he said with confidence. "I usually find a farm for the harvest. It's the best time to be working."
Ralph and Junior were busy throwing soap balls at one another when we rounded the corner. They were laughing and having so much fun they didn't notice us. Ralph got Junior in a headlock and rubbed his knuckles hard against his soapy scalp. As Junior struggled to escape, they tripped in on the soapy mud and fell down into the mud they'd made with the excess water they'd pumped.
Ralph was bigger than Junior. He was two years older and stronger as an ox, but in tight situations, Junior could come out on top, which Ralph hated.
"Maybe you boys ought to let the men clean up and then return to your play afterward," Sven said with authority, leaving no doubt he expected to be obeyed.
Ralph stopped laughing long enough to look up at Sven as Junior slipped the grip he had on him only to stumble backward into the mud, and the soap that covered his body got muddy.
"I'm Ralph," Ralph said, stepping forward to offer Sven a muddy hand.
"I don't know what you have in mind for me to shake, but we don't know each other that well," Sven said with a smirk.
Ralph rinsed his arm and offered the hand again.
"I'm Ralph," he said firmly.
"I'm Sven," Sven said, shaking the offered hand this time.
"Damn, you're a big one," Junior blurted from a seated position in the muck.
"And a hungry one. I'd appreciate a wash up before sitting down at your mama's table. You boys can play after we're done."
"Yes, sir," Ralph said, stepping to one side as Sven stripped down, folding his clothes and setting them to one side with care.
"Damn," Ralph said. "Now I know what those girls were talking about."
"Yes, it's true, but a boy shouldn't let the fact he notices such things become public," Sven advised.
For the second time in a few minutes, Ralph blushed. I was beginning to become fond of Sven.
"I guess you're right," Ralph stammered. "You got a hell of a chest too. I'd like to have a chest like that."
"Yeah, well, I'd appreciate the compliment more if you were wearing britches, boy. Something about a man admiring my chest, after getting shed of his pants, that's a mite worrisome."
"It's hard to wash up with your clothes on," Ralph replied.
"Likely to be harder when you're playing like you're washing up," Sven said. "But boys will be boys."
Sven reached for the handle of the pump that was placed on a small rise to elevate it so the water would swish out over our heads as we pumped. Ralph jumped up to pump the handle as Sven stood under the water's flow.
"I'll get that," Ralph said. "Here's some fresh soap I brung down. This way it's easier to soap up."
Sven nodded approval and took the soap. Ralph pumped, let Sven later up, pumped some more, and never took his eyes off Sven.
Junior stood off to one side trying to slide out of the mud and the soap he'd collected with Ralph's help.
After Ralph pumped out a dozen gushing waterfalls in a minute or two, Sven stepped back and I handed him his towel.
"A family operation I see," Sven said. "I've never felt quite so well taken care of. Thank you boys. I'll return the favor."
"Nah," Ralph said, still squatting beside the pump. "We'll just get you messy again. Glad to lend a hand. I can tell we'll be working together a lot."
When I stepped up to the pump Ralph deserted the handle, leaving me to pump for myself, but Sven moved up the slope to seize the handle, draping his towel over his shoulder, he pumped away as I enjoyed my refreshing bath.
"Brothers," Sven said, shaking his head and glaring at Ralph. "You leave a job in the middle and you won't be working with me, boy."
"Here," Ralph said as soon as Sven let go of the pump handle, handing him his T-shirt. "It's damp. I hope we didn't get it wet."
"Thank you, Ralph," Sven said with my brother's name slipping easily from his lips. "That's sweat from earlier today."
"I'd lend you one of mine," Ralph said. "But it would only be good for half of that chest."
Sven laughed and shook his head, falling victim to Ralph's charm.
When I was drying up, Ralph stood watching Sven putting on his shirt. Junior jumped under the pump and rinsed off the drying mud. Sven got back into his overalls as Ralph stood next to him, handing him his shoes.
"You're staring, boy," Sven said to Ralph.
"Oh, yeah, I've just never seen a chest like yours. You don't know how I'd love to have your body."
"Once again, if we're going to talk about my body, putting your britches on would be the polite way to do it."
"How'd you get built like that anyhow?" Ralph asked, undaunted by Sven's concern.
"Takes hard work and good food," Sven said.
"You think I could get big as you?" Ralph asked with an unusual seriousness. "Ladies like muscles."
"Ralph!" Junior said, sounding alarmed. "I hope you're referring to the man's chest," Junior giggled.
"Shut up, Junior," Ralph snapped. "Us men know what I'm talking about, little brother."
"Well, boy, maybe you been looking at the wrong chests," Sven said. "There was a lady on the last farm I worked. Now, she had a chest on her. That was admirable."
We all laughed without Ralph finding humor in the comment.
"I think I know her," Ralph answered.
"Why am I not surprised," Sven said.
"I just asked if mine might get like that one day."
"Well, boy, I wasn't much bigger an you when I was your age. What, you about fourteen?"
"Fourteen! Fourteen? I'm eighteen. I don't look fourteen," Ralph protested to both Junior and me.
We were laughing too hard to be of any help to his wounded pride.
"I was going by the way you act," Sven said casually, as he finished tying his boots and stood up. "You could pass for sixteen if you stopped talking."
"Sixteen!" Ralph objected, not catching the hint. "I'm eighteen. Eighteen."
"You'd probably look more mature with your britches on," Sven said, smiling impishly as he placed the towel over his forearm, strolling toward the house, whistling as he walked.
Ralph stood, hands on hips, staring after him. Junior lay back down in the mud, laughing. I finished dressing and caught Sven as he was hanging the towel on some wire near the barn door.
"Sorry about Ralph," I said. "He can be obnoxious. He doesn't mean any harm."
"Sorry? Why would you find it necessary to apologize for your brother?"
"He does act immature. I didn't want you to get the wrong idea," I explained as he started toward the back door.
"Robert, I assure you I didn't get the wrong idea. Being around your brothers reminded me of a time when my own brothers had their laughs at my expense. Ralph reminds me a little of myself when I was still a boy. I was just as full of myself then as he is now. I like him."
It didn't matter what I said to Sven, it seemed to evoke the same kind of response. I decided to take him in for dinner without any more comments. I didn't understand my anger with Sven. I didn't understand my anger at all. I'd never felt so twisted up inside as the day Sven came.
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