The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Sven stood inside the door until Mama directed him to sit beside Pa. Ralph was bumped down a seat and sat to the right of Mama. I sat on the other side.
"You like fried chicken? Mama makes the best fried chicken this side of the Rockies."
"I surely do, son. Probably my favorite," Sven answered.
"That's where I sit," Junior complained as quick as he came into the kitchen. "Mama!"
"You boys quit fussing. Junior sit beside Robert. There's enough room at this table for ten people if need be," Mama said.
"Mama, that's my seat. Why do I have to move. Make Ralph move."
"Hush and go dry your hair, before you come back to my table. Then, sit beside Robert and hush."
"Pa, he's in my seat," Junior unwisely appealed to a higher power.
"Did you hear your mother, Junior? We'd hate for you to miss this fine meal the Lord's provided us this evening."
"Yes, sir… that's my seat," Junior said under his breath, letting the screen door bang when he went back out.
"Ralph, you could have sat beside Robert instead of taking Junior's chair," Mama said. "You knew you'd set him off. You work at causing trouble."
"I want to sit beside him. I like him."
"Don't you be bothering this man," Pa said. "He's not here for your entertainment, Ralph."
"It's time you started acting like an adult," Mama said, as she put some bowls down on the table. "Now Sven didn't come in here to listen to us squabble.
Junior came back in with his hair still wet but slicked down on his head a bit better. He plopped down in the chair beside me.
Mama said grace and Pa passed the platter of chicken directly to Sven without picking the choice piece out for himself.
"Ralph's right about the chicken," Pa said. "You'd be hard pressed to find better in this neck of the woods."
"Yeah, but he never mentioned these biscuits. Ma'am, these are the best biscuits I've had since I was home. They're prize winners."
"You miss your mama's food, Sven?" Mama asked with understanding in her voice.
"Yes, Ma'am. Maw was an artist when it came to making something out of nothing. Broke her heart to see us all sent in different directions," Sven replied.
"Hard times are sad times," Mama said.
"Eat up," Pa said, digging deep into the mashed potatoes before passing them to Sven.
"You going to keep him, Pa?" Ralph asked, taking the potatoes from Sven. "You see the size of this guy. You ought to see him naked. He's big all over."
"Ralph!" Mama said. "That's not table talk, young man. I'm not going to tell you again. Don't be bothering this man."
"Well he is. I mean he'll work hard and hold up his end. We got to hire a hand anyway. He's right here is all I'm saying, Pa. He's a keeper you ask me. I wouldn't throw this one back, no siree."
"Ralph, let the man eat in peace. I aims to try to hold onto Sven, but we got two weeks before harvest and little more than food and a roof to offer between now and then."
"Mama'll feed you like you never been fed, won't you, Mama? You're going to stay, aren't you?" Ralph asked, looking up at Sven. "He's going to stay, Pa. I can tell. I think he likes us."
"Ralph, Sven looks capable of speakin' for himself. I'm sure he appreciates your approval, but we'll talk business after supper," Pa said. "Show a little respect for your mama's meal and hush for now."
"Yes, sir," Ralph said, shoveling in some pole beans before looking over at Sven again. "Good, huh?"
"Eighteen going on eleven," Junior said between bites.
"You hush too," Pa said, aiming his fork at Junior.
After the meal was done, we left Mama to take care of the kitchen. Pa stood on the back porch as the stars began making their nightly appearance above the barn, as he lit his after dinner pipe. Sven sat on the swing and I sat down next to him, after determining the chains would probably hold us. I wanted to smooth things over with Sven. I still had the feeling I'd said too much or the wrong thing, but I knew Pa had something to say first, and I sat silent, until the business was done.
"She looks like a good crop. God has surely blessed this Sorenson farm this year. Now, if he'll hold back the rains, until the harvest is in, I think we'll be okay. If he doesn't so choose, and we can't pay you fair, I'll keep you on for the winter. You'll eat at our table. You'll have shelter as long as it suits you. I can't promise you more than that. Wish I could but I can't. I won't deceive man about where I stand."
Pa paused, taking a long pull on his pipe. I loved the smell that came from his pipe. The smoke circled out around his right ear as Sven leaned forward, folding his hands between his knees. He left no doubt how he felt.
"I'll be staying on in that case, Mr. Sorenson. I'll take my chances with the pay part. If you can't pay a fair price for my labor, then I'll expect to stay the winter. I'll do my share of the work if I do stay on. We can shake on it if you like. It sounds fair to me."
Sven stood which put him two feet from where my father stood. My father took his hand off the green railing I'd painted earlier that month, made a quarter turn toward Sven, shaking his hand, after removing the pipe from his mouth with his other hand. There was a twinkle in Pa's eyes.
"Done, then. You'll eat at the table with us. You'll sleep in the barn with Robert. Robert, put this man near the window so he has fresh air. See to it he has the proper bedding. Don't let him be coming to me needing something. You see to him. That's your job."
"Yes, sir," I said, happy to have it.
"Harvest… ten to twelve days off," Pa said, after Sven sat back down. "Fencing and mending things 'til then. We'll take our time so we're ready for what's coming."
Pa spoke softly so as not to deter the stars. I never saw a man so fascinated by the night sky. Pa puffed. Sven and I swung easily as the clanking of dishes came from the kitchen as Mama got the kitchen back in shape.
"Yes, Pa, I'll take care of it. Just let me know what you need, Sven," I said to him. "Come on. I'll get the bedding and show you where I sleep. It's comfortable and quiet out there. No annoyances," I said, biting my tongue over my offhand reference to Ralph.
"You sleep in the loft?" Sven asked surprised.
"Yeah. Like I said, quiet. I like reading out there."
"Robert!" Pa said sternly.
"Annoyances is me," Ralph said, standing inside the screen, listening to the negotiations. "Robert don't like me much. We was cut from different cloth."
"Ralph!" Pa said. "I'm not going to keep at you two."
"Well he don't. He don't like no one lately. He wants off here. You know he wants off here. Why don't he just go? We got Sven now. We don't need Robert."
"Ralph!" Pa said more than a little annoyed.
Taking his eyes out of the sky for the first time in a spell to look back over his shoulder, driving Ralph out of the screen door.
"Brothers," Sven lamented. "I was at odds with most of mine at one time or another. What I wouldn't give to be back there with them right now," he said. "You boys don't know how lucky you are to be able to stay together."
"Back where?" Ralph asked from his unseen perch beside the door.
"Ralph!" Pa objected again. "You boys leave this man alone. Robert, I told you what you need to do."
Pa rarely raised his voice but he was more than a little riled over Ralph's comments. No one spoke about that which wasn't to be spoken about. Mainly my departure from the farm. Not talking about it meant it seethed under the surface all the time. Ralph was as angry as Pa that I was going to forsake the land they loved.
None of us knew how our petty disagreements would all be forgotten in a couple of weeks. When things are the way they are, you expect them to stay that way, but there's always something waiting in the wings to make yesterdays concerns seem like no big deal. That night we were busy trying to stay busy until the harvest began.
"My boys talk more than good sense would allow. You'll have to excuse their curiosity. Ralph's too forward toward strangers, especially any young girl who crosses his path. You seem to have caught his imagination. It'll pass."
"Ralph's fine, Mr. Sorenson," Sven said. "Reminds me some of myself. I haven't been with my brothers in years. Your sons make it seem like home. It's like being with my own brothers again. I rather enjoy it."
"I hope you are as kind once you've been here a spell. Junior's a good boy. Ralph, he's the colt you can't quite break. Robert, well.., you need to ask Robert," he said, coming up short once he got to the black sheep of the Sorenson clan. "I don't know nothing about Robert any more. No sir, not a thing."
Once the bedding was carried out to the loft, Sven sat with me on the porch eating ice cream with rhubarb cobbler fresh from the oven. There was laughter coming from the kitchen as Ralph and Junior let got shed of the last of their energy. It was easier to listen from a distance than to get in the middle of whatever game they were playing tonight.
Sven settled in quietly. There was an easy acceptance that seemed to travel in both directions. Rarely were hands invited to take meals at the table with us. That was because it made them a passel more uncomfortable than it made us. Like Sven, most hands had family, somewhere.
Sven ate at our table from that first evening. He fit us like a pair of new gloves. He was polite and more intelligent than he let on. Something about him appealed to each of us. Even Pa smiled more, talked more, and laughed more loudly because of Sven's knack for saying the proper thing at the proper time.
Sven didn't have much to say that would tell us more about him. There was a sadness that came with him, as he frequently watched my brothers laugh and play a few feet away. I suspected that he might be thinking of his own family and a farm where he once lived.
In the evening I usually left him in the swing, when Mama called me in to play cards, after she'd gotten the kitchen in shape. He rarely played the games we had been playing after supper as far back as I could remember.
Pa usually spent the evening watching the stars before he secured the farm to his satisfaction before turning in. Sven accompanied him at times and while neither of them talked much, I did see them going on a few times. I wondered if my Pa reminded Sven of his.
Sven was a pleasant addition to our family, except my attempts to learn more about him never led me to what I wanted to know. I realized that swinging silently in the swing with him was about as close as I could get to the real Sven. Once I asked my first question, he was making plans to get up and make his getaway.
One evening a few days later with Junior out milking his cows, Ralph got up from the table, where he was losing badly at cards, he went out to sit in the swing beside Sven. Mama got up, calling it a night, and I watched the swing through the window.
There was no love lost between Ralph and me. Seeing him accomplish what I'd so consistently failed at didn't help much. I truly wanted to make a friend out of Sven and he kept a distance between us. As soon as Ralph sat down there were laughing and poking each other like kids. Ralph had that effect on people.
"Tell me about your brothers," Ralph said with his usual extra energy as he pulled his legs up under him while Sven swung easily, pondering Ralph's words.
"No different than you boys, Ralph. More of them. We lived on a farm together. You would be me. Junior would be Henry. Robert would be Timothy. Like you, I came between Timothy and Henry. Henry and I were buddies, though we hated each other often as not, and Timothy was more reserved, older, trying to mature, and that annoyed Henry and me. It's just like you boys."
"Which one is Junior?"
"Henry?" Sven said, "He was younger but more serious than me."
"Robert. Which one is Robert?"
"Timothy. He was one older than me… serious, like Robert. Always trying to out think everyone. Smart."
"Which one am I?" Ralph loaded the question.
Sven reached over and mussed up Ralph's wavy brown hair and Ralph returned the favor without understanding the action. They were like brothers. There was a naturalness between those two. Where I tried and failed, Ralph had succeeded.
"Me. Curious. Way more energy than called for. Maw would say. She claimed I was living with the energy of the boys that died. I was high energy. I'm growing out of it."
"You think I'll grow out of it?" Ralph asked, sounding like he knew he was living too fast for his own good.
"Sure. I was late growing up. With all those older brothers, I didn't need to grow up. They took care of the farm. Three of them took pieces of Paw's farm. They lost theirs when Paw went belly up. No holding onto any of it."
"Your brothers died?"
"Two died. I was looking forward to having more brothers to play with. They never got that old. I was seven, Henry was six, so they were four or five, I guess. Reminds you to live while you can. No telling when you'll stop."
"What happened to the farm?" Ralph asked, as if he didn't know about how banks worked.
"It stopped being ours after my great grandfather cleared it and began farming it before Abe Lincoln was president. We fed people for eighty years and couldn't afford to hold onto the land. Broke our backs for eighty years and still couldn't get the land away from the bank. That's sad."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-one and some. I'll turn in the fall after harvest."
"I'm eighteen. Just turned. You look older, Sven. The road age a man faster? I want to stay right here on this farm. I want to die here. I never want to leave. I wouldn't know where to go," Ralph said in an unusually thoughtful moment for him. "You can stay with us. We'll be your family."
Sven put his arm across Ralph's shoulder.
"You're a special boy, Ralph. I hope you're able to do just that. I feel old. I feel like I never lived with my people. I worry about them, where they are, if they're okay… eating or not, healthy or not. It's not easy losing everything."
"We'll be your family if you want. Everyone likes you. What's not to like. You do more work than any of us."
"The road's a hard place to be. I'd love nothing more than staying on somewhere, but that's not a decision you and I are going to make," Sven said, turning his head to smile at Ralph, who looked up at him with admiration in his eyes. "You do seem younger, Ralph. I don't remember ever being young as you."
"Is that a joke or something? I don't always get jokes."
"Yeah, something like that. You act younger than eighteen, but in a good way. You have the innocence of youth. I had it when my family was still together. You grow up faster once you lose everything familiar."
"I ain't all that innocent. Molly Prentice and I had a roll in the hay more 'an once. Brenda Helms and I dated all last summer. She liked to…, you know what girls like. I didn't think a girl could get the best of me, but she wore me plum out. Had to get shed a her or give up working. I'm a bachelor at heart, but I can't resist a chance to have a roll in the hay, you know. Not that innocent any more. I like girls too much to be innocent."
"Gentlemen don't tell the secrets of ladies they've bedded," Sven interrupted. "No one really needs to know."
"It's the truth. I'm not innocent is all I'm saying. I didn't want to lie to you about that."
"Innocence has little to do with where you've dallied or how often. You have experience without accumulating the wisdom that should come from it."
"They usually don't have much to say," Ralph observed. "They just want to get busy on account I don't always have a lot of time. I got to get where they are, get back home, and get enough sleep so I can work the next day. It's hard on a man."
"Ah, youth," Sven said. "I am familiar with having a big appetite and a shortage of time when facing a feast. Just remember, you don't need to have your way with all of them right away. There are always girls looking for boys."
"Yeah, you said it, brother. Hey, Junior's got cows over in the pig shed. Come on, I'll show you. He hates it when I interrupt him milking. He talks to 'em while he milks 'em. Nobody else talks to him. He'll really hate two of us watching him. Come on. He sells cream to the neighbors."
Ralph jumped up as if he were on a spring.
"Carters gave them to him on account they didn't want the bank getting their prize cows," Ralph advised as he moved swiftly toward where the cows were kept. "He tended Millie and Betsy while the Millers was first thrown off their place. They brung them here too, once they got thrown off. Junior had always helped Mr. Miller with his cows."
Without so much as a word Sven pulled himself up and followed the eager Ralph into the night. Ralph had a way of charming people into doing what he wanted them to do. He was harmless enough, but his never-ending motion got on my nerves. Ralph's life was all about having a good time.
These were the final days we'd have time for anything but work until after we brought in the corn. It was my favorite time. Mama served us up her fresh baked goods, while the days slipped away and the seasons began to change.
"Tell him about Shirley's boobs, Ralph," Junior begged, as they walked back toward the porch, where I was sitting in the swing.
"Oh, man, she's got some tits on her, Sven. Nipples, oh man, I'm going to be hard up tonight. Junior, you know better than to get me started on Shirley's boobs this time of the evening.
"She isn't too keen on nothing else, but her tits are worth the energy it takes to get over there. Melissa's are about as big but she's not so keen on having them attended to. Melissa's more fun if you can get her going. She's a good kisser," Ralph explained with his usual attention to detail.
"Ralph, you are not going to be a gentlemen," Sven said as Junior laughed.
"I certainly hope not. I'm doing my best to avoid it, but don't tell Mama. She'll give me a licking she hears about the girls I been with. She knows their mothers. I know their mothers. I wouldn't mind bedding a couple of them, but Mama would skin me she got wind of that."
"You're hopeless, Ralph," Junior assured him. "I wish I had your nerve. You can tell some stories. I'll say that for you. Every week you got a new one."
"Trust me, your mother doesn't want to know about their sons' dalliances, Ralph," Sven said.
"That's the way I figure it," Ralph said, galloping up the steps. "Mama, is there any more of that cobbler," Ralph shouted from the stairs.
The screen door banged behind him, and then it banged behind Junior, when he went inside.
"Ralph's a pistol," Sven said as he looked across at me sitting in the swing. His hands were shoved into his pockets and he looked out at the corn. "Harvest isn't far off now."
"There's plenty of room," I said, scooting to one corner of the swing, hoping he was ready for some intelligent conversation.
"No, I think I hear your Mama's cobbler calling me. If I hope to get a little more I best get inside fast."
The screen door banged behind Sven and I moved back into the middle of the swing. The breeze contained a trace of cool. This was another sure sign that the corn was close to being ready. The longer we left it in the ground the sweeter it became, until you waited too long and got caught by early rains and a muddy mess that made the machines useless, but for now there was more cobbler and fresh milk to comfort me.
Pa won the second card game, but he always won when he played. Junior was sent up to bed with his usual protest. He'd be asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Ralph jumped up to sit beside Sven as soon as Junior vacated the seat.
"Ralph, you're not to be bothering this man with your nonsense," Pa said sternly. "Robert, if Ralph bothers this man you come to me. I'll put a stop to it. It's time for you to be in bed, Ralph. You got a day of wood cutting ahead of you tomorrow. You need your rest."
"Pa! I'm a man, now. I done turned eighteen. Robert could stay up once he turned eighteen. I'm not a kid anymore."
"Robert had some sense," Mama answered. "You don't show no signs of that. You'll be asleep in five minutes, and I catch you going out of that window, and you won't be able to sit for a month of Sundays."
"Mama, quit treating me like a kid," Ralph objected.
"Ralph!" Pa said, and Ralph got up. "We'll talk some more tomorrow, Sven. I want to hear more about your…, ah, adventures," Ralph said as he disappeared into the hallway.
It was all I could do to keep my eyes open. I was well over eighteen and still couldn't put in the hours my parents did. Pa woke me in the morning and he was still going long after I was in bed most nights.
"Robert, you're falling asleep on your chair. You go to bed. You won't miss anything," Mama said, after my third consecutive yawn. "Sven, you're welcome to sit up with us for a spell if you have a mind to. When you're ready for bed, Pa'll go out with you and collect them coveralls. The material came in I was waiting for. I'll have them mended and on the ladder for you come morning.
"Grown man can't be walking around coming out of his britches and those patches I put on when you came are hardly enough to cover the holes. Next time to town we'll see to it you get a fresh pair, won't we, Pa?"
"How are we going to manage that, Mother?" Pa asked. "Mercantile isn't extending no credit these days."
"Junior's donated the money for the cream he's selling in town. I still have some change from my canning in my church money. We'll put it back after harvest."
"Junior's a good boy," Pa said. "You heard your Mama. Lots of work to be done tomorrow. Better get your rest," Pa said to me.
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Sven's got experience cutting wood. I'm putting him in the meadows with Ralph tomorrow. Junior'll be helping your Mama. That lets you free to dig fence post holes.," Pa said.
He was the boss and his mind was made up. Another argument served no purpose. Sven had almost finished the holes. I would dig the holes without complaint, no matter how much it burnt my butt to do it.
"Night," I said, heading for the barn, looking to see if Sven decided to follow me.
I decided to lie awake until Sven came along. The next thing I heard was Pa on the ladder before first light. I felt as if I'd just gone down and it was time to get up for another days work.
I could have walked off the farm that morning, but I didn't.
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