The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
I took the lantern I read by to the loft and waited for Sven to come out. I wanted to continue the conversation we had at the pond and I wasn't going to fall asleep this time.
"Reading," I said, trying not to sound like I was up to question him.
"A lantern in the loft doesn't sound like a great idea."
"I'm careful. I keep it away from the hay."
Sven was in the shadow and had his shirt off and was working on his boots as I looked over the top of my book at his shadow.
"What are you reading?"
"Moby Dick," I bragged, having read it first in ninth grade.
"Melville? "My name is Ishmael." Have you read Billy Bud?"
"Yes, it's less symbolic, which makes it easier to understand. Speaks more about the human condition."
"Preachy? Moby Dick isn't preachy," I thought out loud.
"You could add that book to the Bible. It would fit fine anywhere between Jonah and the great flood."
"That's not funny," I said, not being the least bit amused by his theory.
"It's not meant to be funny, Robert. Everything written probably comes from the Bible or Shakespeare, if you aren't going to count Twain. I'd count him."
"Twain? Twain's hardly up to the standard of the Bible or Shakespeare."
"Not moral enough for you, I suspect. Twain was down to earth. He wrote about real people."
"Morality is hardly a subject I'd consult you about?" I blurted, having lost control of yet another conversation.
"Ah, I suspected we'd return to my dallying at some point."
"A man who takes other men's wives is of questionable character at best."
"It's easy to judge another man's character from your comfortable loft," Sven observed.
"It's the same loft you're enjoying," I snapped, realizing he was insulting me without being able to put my finger on what the insult was.
"Yes, a man who judges another man's character would see it that way. Perhaps if you were out and about in the countryside, lonely, hungry, tired, you wouldn't be so quick to deny favors or accept them when offered. My association with farmers' wives has more to do with their character and less to do with mine."
"It's wrong. When a man and a woman are married, there is a trust involved. By taking the wife you're ruining the marriage."
"Hardly. I don't see it the same way. I see it as perhaps saving that marriage. The woman is searching for fulfillment. I bring it with me. They don't need to go out looking for it, where they might be found out. Few farmhands aren't faced with that situation. Lots of unhappy farmers' wives out there."
"They just come to you, begging you to give it to them," I quipped.
"Few things are so direct. They follow me with their eyes. They smile when I look in their direction. They reveal a particularly desirous part of their body. They are where I am too, often and they watch me too, long. Some of the daughters venture out to the loft late at night and I wake up to find them ready to be mounted."
"That's terrible," I said.
"No, actually, except for the loss of sleep, it's very invigorating."
"You must not have been raised very well for you to think you can take women wherever you find them."
"More like where they find me," he said boldly.
"And you've conveniently forgotten farmers' sons. I suspected you were trying to embarrass me."
"Because you are a farmers' son? No. I don't say things to shock. Farmers' sons aren't nearly as formal as their wives and daughters. They meet you in the field and are curious about your adventures. The ones you find objectionable. Excited by what they hear, they want to shake on it. They aren't bashful once the subject is sex."
"Shake on it? I'm not familiar with shaking on it."
"Use your imagination and picture two boys sitting alone and talking about the girls they've known."
"I don't understand what you'd get out of it?"
"Ah, and that's because you lie comfortable in your loft. I'm passing through it and you own it."
"My Pa owns it."
"Have it your way."
"It's not right."
"No less right than how you treat Ralph."
"Ralph? I treat Ralph fine. He gets on my nerves."
"Yes, and you get on his with your judgments."
"We really need to get our sleep. I have a long day of post cutting ahead of me," Sven said, growing silent.
Once again I'd said everything but what I wanted to say. I hadn't asked any questions about where he'd been and about his life that led him to our farm. I couldn't figure out why every time we talked, when we were alone, we ended up arguing about something that had nothing to do with what I wanted to know.
"Ralph's been with girls. Girls kept hanging around him at school, whenever we went into town too."
"Not surprising. Ralph's a bull. That's what you have against Ralph? He's not moral enough for you."
"No. I told you I don't judge folks."
"Right," Sven said like he disagreed.
"You think it's because he's a bull and I'm not?"
"A better bull perhaps, but he's a bull who knows what he wants for sure."
"Why do you say that?"
"I didn't. He did. At the pond today. You objected."
"Do you memorize everything we say?"
"No, but I hear everything you say because I listen. Putting it in context isn't nearly as easy."
"At school they called him the rutting runt my senior year. Everyone knew about his success with the girls. It was embarrassing."
"Ralph's no runt. I'd say he's persistent enough to succeed at whatever he makes up his mind to do."
"We're all late bloomers, Mama calls it. He's grown three or four inches since then. I started growing at sixteen. Junior's still a runt."
"Non-rutting type according to how you treat him."
"That's got nothing to do with how I treat Ralph. You don't know everything."
"No, I don't, but I know what I see."
"I'm older than he is. The girls never hung around me."
"Maybe you don't encourage them. Ralph's got this energy about him. Your Mama mentioned it. He's always in motion and he is bound and determined to get to the living of life. I don't see Ralph as the patient kind. You run deeper. Ralph's like a honey-bee darting from one flower to the next, tasting as much nectar as he can stand."
"We are brothers."
"You have much on your mind, Robert. Ralph has little on his. For you life is a complicated maze. He's mostly motion and energy looking for a good time. That's something people are drawn to 'cause they would like to have what he's got."
"Energy and motion are quite attractive. Girls aren't going to take him all that seriously, but he provides them a certain amount of entertainment value."
"Like me, Robert. I'm the carnival side show to the women on the farms I work. As I've told you, I lack the strength to say no. It's an affliction that haunts the lost and lonely."
"I don't know I could say no under those circumstances."
"Ralph and I fall prisoner to any lady who looks our way, but they don't take us seriously. You, on the other hand, girls will take very seriously. If you are serious all the time, well, there are girls who want to have fun without making it into something permanent, which is where Ralph and I come in."
"…And that's why I haven't been with a girl? Well that explains everything. Except it's rarely on my mind."
"Robert, maybe you haven't been with a girl because you aren't ready to be with a girl. Life isn't all that hard to figure if you aren't too demanding. In some ways Ralph has it easy. He keeps moving until he bumps into something that seems interesting and then he takes a look. You'll never bump into anything because you're too careful. Bumping into stuff isn't necessarily a bad thing. New things are sometimes like doorways."
"That's why I haven't been with a girl? I don't bump into stuff? Girls are like doorways? That certainly explains a lot."
"Morning comes early and I want to give your father a full measure of work. Good night," Sven said abruptly, rolling over to face the window and closing off the conversation.
I wanted him to like me, but I didn't think it was going all that well. He seemed to have an understanding for my brother and girls. I understood neither and now there was another mystery I wanted to know more about.
"Good night," I said, not certain I was ready to go to sleep.
As much as Ralph and I were alike and as close as we once had been, Ralph was in some ways the opposite of me; darker skinned with dark hair and not as fleshy, being mostly cut tight to the bone with small but visible amounts of muscle. I knew everything there was to know about my brothers, which couldn't have been unusual. Junior was more like me and we were both on the shy side. He had the same hair and build as me. He was quiet like me. He enjoyed having time to himself and even read at night, like I did. I knew about my uncle, long ago dead, but only had my mother's word on it. Of course, my mother's word had always been gold and that was that, or was it.
As I tried to sleep, it crossed my mind that some farmhand one day had come up the driveway and he took Mama to her bed while Pa was out laboring in the field. That's why Ralph was so dark, so bold, and easy with the ladies. His father was a vagabond.
I shook my head to get the thought out of my brain, knowing how ridiculous it was. Mama loved only my father and she had never looked at a hand twice if he wasn't sitting at our table or waiting for something she intended him to have. My conversation with Sven had my brain addled and not in a way I could appreciate, but what if Mama had…, and then I was in the driveway and there was a line of men I didn't know waiting to get into my father's bed with Mama. One after another they came and the line kept getting longer and there were more hands waiting to be with her than there were in the entire state of Iowa.
I woke up in a cold sweat, cursing Ralph for not looking like Junior and me. Why would I have such a dream?
I wrote about my feelings and my dreams in one of the notebooks from school I kept stashed under the hay out in the loft. Late at night, after the farm was quiet, I wrote about my hopes and desires, the ones I didn't dare tell anyone about.
Once I finished writing down what was on my mind, I lay in the soft hay, staring out of the open window at the high flying moon, and I was sure I heard the trains calling to me. If I didn't leave soon, I'd become my father, raising my own sons, while trying desperately to hold on to my farm.
I first realized that I might never leave the farm the day I realized I didn't know anything else. That made me all the more desperate to hear the stories, even when I was having thoughts that I would never have stories of my own to tell, and so I wrote notes to myself and in the loft I dreamed about freedom late at night.
Sven slept in the window and the stories he had to tell upset my idea of the world. I was too disturbed by the things he had to say about life that writing anything down was impossible. My mind was a jumble of thoughts that made no sense. The dreams of the night before were enough to make me put away my pen for all time. I would never let anyone know such a thing once crossed my mind.
Pa called us and Sven took two minutes to dress and disappear. I was never in a hurry to start another day, even when I could wake up, after hearing Pa's voice. While I suppose I was prepared to stay if I had to, the idea that I wasn't the one meant to tend the farm was never far from my mind.
Ralph refused to take the lead, even when I offered it to him. Ralph and I loved each other like brothers, but we went at each other like we weren't. Our hatefulness seems to have overtaken our loveliness as of late. Having Sven point it out didn't appeal to me no matter how right he was. I knew I wasn't being fair to Ralph, but I didn't know what to do about it.
Ralph wasn't quite a year younger than me. We'd long ago learned how to rub one another the wrong way and spent a lot of time at it. I was the first born, and neither of us could change that fact. It was our positioning that angered both of us most.
At sixteen I moved out of the bed we'd shared since he'd been out of diapers, moving into the loft to get away from our wrangling and Ralph's overactive adolescence. It became one more thing we held against one another. He decided I hated him and that's why I moved to the loft. I did nothing to convince him otherwise. My anger was easy to express, but other feelings were more complicated than I cared to admit.
I watched him working in the field one day after harvest. He knelled in the soil like he was in church. He dug his hands down into the black earth, running it through his fingers with reverence. He was in awe of its power to produce and reproduce. He held the soil to his nose, smelling its fragrance before tossing it in the breeze. It got caught up in the air and scattered over a wide area with Ralph all the time watching its journey.
Ralph was the farmer, but he wasn't ready for the responsibility. I couldn't escape the farm. I suppose that made me even angrier with him. I could see he felt something I would never feel. With Sven working for us, Pa, Ralph, and Junior could get through harvest without me. I wasn't going to leave yet, but if it looked like Sven was going to stay on my family could make it with only one part time hand during harvest. The only other solution was for me to find a way to feel like Ralph felt about the farm.
The land was in his blood in a way it had never found its way into mine. Ralph felt about the soil as I felt about my freedom. There was a longing in it. It called to him to stay close as my dreams called for me to leave.
I knew I was jealous of Ralph, but I didn't hate him. I wished I could be like him. When he got a reputation at school, we were further distanced by this notoriety. What Sven and him read as disapproval was more jealousy. I didn't know what stopped me from being more like Ralph.
There was no way for me to imagine us losing our farm, even when all about us were losing theirs. It's not something I would want to be around to see, but there was no escaping our future, whatever it was.
Pa once said we were married to the land and farmers' sons should never allow themselves to get far from home. I'd been watching the trains passing by the schoolyard for years by then. I always stopped what I was doing to wonder where they came from and where they were heading, even before I wanted to get on one. I don't know how such seeds got planted in someone, but they sure got planted in me.
I didn't want to be married to anything, until I lived a little. Certainly, Barbara Sue had given me ideas in that area. I suspected it had more to do with the smell of her and the feel of her skin against mine. We met at school and it was my intention to follow her to college, except we both understood I couldn't leave my family short handed in hard times. We talked of marriage, but not until we'd both done some living.
Raising babies, settling in on a farm, and struggling for the rest of your life is what most kids we knew did. Barbara Sue wanted something different and so did I, when other kids at school never had a thought of getting further from home than Des Moines or Davenport.
Pa followed in his father's footsteps and I suspected Ralph and Junior would follow in ours. I doubt they ever had any other idea about where they belonged. If we lost our farm I wondered if they'd end up like Sven, drifting through life with no place to call home. I'd never once heard either Ralph or Junior mention losing the farm. Mama and Pa were careful not to speak of our circumstances in front of us.
I found out about how desperate times were by asking for a new snazzy jacket. There was a dance at our church and I wanted to impress Barbara Sue with how worldly I was. Mama told me she'd fresh up one of Pa's old Sunday go-to-meeting jackets he'd grown out of years before. I raised a ruckus. I never asked for anything. It wasn't fair. I wanted something new so I didn't look like a farmer.
Mama sat with her hands folded in her lap, listening to my cries of injustice. Pa got up from the table and went into the parlor. He came back with what I recognized as the ledger Mama kept for the farm. Pa handed it to her and she looked alarmed.
"Show him. Show him I can't afford to buy him a new jacked, a used jacket, or any damn other thing he might think he deserves. Show him."
Mama carefully opened the book to the last page of entries. She laid it flat open on the table.
"We owe Crosby for seed. We owe the Mercantile from last year. It wasn't a very good crop and didn't have enough to pay those bills. That's why we don't buy on credit. The bank note is due and if we don't have a good crop the bank is likely to foreclose. We didn't pay all we owed the bank for last year, Robert; there is no money."
I wanted to look worldly and my entire world was likely to fall down around me if anything went wrong. Pa and I were already on the outs by then. By making such an issue over a stupid jacket I'd slapped him across the face in the worst possible way. I'd made him reveal to me that the farm might fail. If the farm failed, regardless of the causes, Pa would see it as his failure. I'd have done anything to take back what I'd said, but it was too late for that and Pa wasn't one to forget having his son insult him, and I understood why he treated me the way he did.
The worst of it was if we lost the farm my brothers would be cut adrift. I'd be free. If I hated anyone I hated myself for feeling the way I did. My biggest fear was Pa thinking I wanted the farm to fail. So, I stayed on because he needed me. I wouldn't leave until the farm was on firmer ground. Then I'd run.
I heard my father outside and I was sure he was going to come to remind me I wasn't on vacation. I still wasn't ready to write anything about Sven. I certainly wasn't going to write anything about shaming Pa or my family for being the ungrateful son who left his parents in the lurch.
That didn't stop me from dreaming about what I'd find out there, when I heard the locomotive off in the distance, heading west and gaining speed once it passed our town.
One day I'd find out where that train was heading.
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