The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Sven slept in the window each night and the stories he told upset my idea of the world. I was disturbed by the things he had to say about his life. As disturbed as I was it didn't stop me from asking the questions. Writing anything down was impossible. My mind was a jumble of thoughts that made no sense. I was left wondering if my brother might be the random offspring of a wandering lover.
Who was it that Ralph inherited his charm from?
Pa had met Mama when they were both kids and neither of them ever took up with anyone else. Junior had never had a girlfriend at all and I had taken up with Barbara Sue, but to Ralph all girls were his girlfriend and deserving of his attention if only for the few minutes it took him to get what he wanted. It was Ralph that troubled me now that Sven had come along to set loose strange ideas.
Yet another night I fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming dreams of my mother flirting with anyone and everyone. I spent one night examining the faces of everyone in town present and past, looking for one that resembled Ralph's.
By the time first light made an appearance in the wide-open window, I was exhausted as well as angry with Sven for putting the idea in my brain. Ralph and I often accused the other of being adopted but we didn't take it seriously.
Pa called from the ladder way too soon for my taste. I searched the window for some reason to think it was all a mistake. I listened for the song of the nightingale, but they only sang for Shakespeare.
"Oh cursed' sun!"
My dreams from the night before were enough to make me put away my curiosity for all time. I didn't think I would ever write down such things, where people could read about the things that ran through my mind as a young man.
Pa called us and Sven took two minutes to dress and disappear. I was never in a hurry to start another day, even when sleep called me back to its warm embrace with no better results. My mind had seized on a subject and refused to relinquish its grip.
Even without my father's encouragement, I found my way to the kitchen. It seemed like hours since Sven had left the loft. I dropped into the chair across from Sven but failed to greet anyone.
"I'll need to go in to negotiate with Crosby for the trucks for next week."
"I thought you did that," Mama said.
"He wrote me down for three trucks over the ten to twelve days. He didn't want to talk price until it was closer to harvest. You know that skinflint. He'll want every dime he can get out of us."
"I'd like to tell Mr. Crosby what I think of him," Mama said. "Since he took over for his Pa, we've paid more than what's fair for those trucks," Mama said, pouring me coffee and warming up Sven's. "You'd hardly know they were related. Old man Crosby was a good man."
"Mama, we don't get the corn to market before prices start coming down we don't make no money. We don't make no money and I can't keep you up to the standards to which you've become accustomed," Pa said, kissing Mama's cheek to end the conversation with her blush.
The food started coming and there was a minimum of conversation, thank heavens. Pa was going out the backdoor, setting down his coffee cup at the furthest corner of the counter, once the cup had been drained. I was hardly able to keep my eyes open.
"Rough night?" Sven asked, looking across the table at me.
"Yeah," I said with a bite in the word, remembering who was responsible for authoring my dreams. "Something like that."
By the time I got to my hot cakes and eggs I had both eyes open and taking it all in. Ralph came down looking like he had as bad a night as me. He slumped into one of the chairs and leaned his head down between his arms.
"Ralph, if you need more sleep go back to bed," Mama said, dropping a plate near where he sat.
"I'm fine," he mumbled, looking weakly at the food in front of him.
Pa drove Ralph and Sven to the meadows in the Ford before he drove out past me on his way to town. He'd be sour when he came home, because Crosby made him sour. Talking about money, when money was scarce, was about Pa's least favorite thing.
I was working in the driveway when Pa drove in past me. He had on his freshly ironed white shirt that he wore when doing business in town. He returned to the kitchen to discuss with Mama the arrangements he'd made. She'd write it down in the ledger as if it was a bill, even though business was done on a handshake.
I moved over to the porch to see if I could detect Pa's mood and I heard laughter as he described Crosby's affable approach to the day's business.
An hour later I was back to digging and he was opening the gate to the main field. He drove the small International straight out into the corn. He cut a lane through it as far as I could, cutting off the machine when I was expecting him to come right back. A half an hour later he came walking back, wiping his hands on a rag as he walked in that long even stride of his.
Pa always knew where he was going and you could tell by the way he walked. There was a lot of determination in his steps but no give whatsoever. I put a little more back into the next post hole, as he walked directly toward me. That was never good.
"Get the pull chain out of the barn, Robert. Put it in the back of the Farm truck. You're going to be late taking lunch to the boys. I'm going to need you to take the Ford into town to order some parts first. We can't do without the old International. We'd be two extra days without the corn wagon on the job."
"It broke?" I asked, leaning on the digger.
"Yep, and you've never fixed the hinge on that damn barn door. How long ago did I tell you to fix that?"
"I don't know, Pa. Too long."
"See to it tonight after supper dinner. All our days just got a little long."
"Yes, sir. I'll get the chain."
I'd forgotten about the hinge. It was the kind of thing Pa didn't like to tell me twice. It would only take an hour of my time, but the weight of the door made the hanging hinge a doozy of a problem for one man.
The ten minute ride to town wasn't enough. I ordered the parts and picked up what I'd need to fix the hinge. Before I knew it I was back in the driveway.
It was after two when I took lunch up to the meadows. I passed the old International we'd pulled out of the field with the farm truck. Pa had it blocked up on all four sides and the wheels leaned against the graying wood of the barn that shaded that side of the yard behind the house in the afternoon.
I looked at the upper hinge of the left door where it had come free of the wood. The screws were twisted and rusted and I had new screws in my pocket. Right after supper I'd get on it so I didn't hear about it again.
Mama told me to stay in the meadows until I brought the boys back for supper. I told her about the hinge and Pa's order and she told me she'd take care of Pa, as she always did.
The International needed the main gear for the transmission and the brake parts he'd ordered earlier had arrived. This was the kind of job that would keep him busy for a few days. That was best for everyone, because it would keep his mind occupied.
Ralph did his usual impression of a starving brother but cut it short to eat. Sven didn't complain no matter when the food arrived. I figured there had been days without food and having it delayed by an hour or two wasn't as big a tragedy as Ralph made it out to be, although Ralph was hardly patient when it came to what he wanted.
Once again they stripped after lunch with Ralph climbing onto the seat and then to the table before jumping onto Sven's back. Sven had spun round and round as Ralph laughed his crazy laugh and they disappeared down the path with Ralph's legs wrapped around Sven's waist and his arms around his neck in a familiarity that seemed a stretch for the time they'd known one another.
I'd found one more thing to be jealous about. I bit off my anger to pack things up and I went to the pond and undressed there, watching the two of them throw one another from the raft. I swam out and became caught in the maelstrom. Not having to be back until dinner gave me time to relax beside my brother and Sven on the raft that was shaded by the long reach of the trees that time of day.
The two of them had done a days work by the time lunch arrived and seemed content with that. There was no protest from me. We were taking the afternoon off and getting back early would only mean Pa's eyes would be back on me and I would feel obligated to dig more holes to satisfy him.
Ralph and Sven were back at each other after some minutes of calm. As quick as Ralph charged Sven he was flying from the raft and doing a nosedive into the pond. More often than not a modest move by Sven was enough to send Ralph on his way off the raft one more time. There were those times Ralph would mount the raft dripping wet and he'd charge Sven, bumping him closer and closer to the edge, until he finally fell in. I don't know if he let Ralph muscle him off the raft or if he allowed Ralph to think he was victorious to keep their game going.
Then, as Ralph coyly pretended to lose interest, after being thrown in for the fifth or sixth time in a row, he dog paddled innocently about, waiting for Sven to lose interest in his whereabouts. Then, Ralph eased up the ladder once he saw Sven was not watching, and he ran and jumped on Sven's back, almost knocking him from the raft.
Sven spun to regain his balance, grabbing at Ralph's head, trying to get a hold of his tormentor, and finally as he pulled him up over his head, threatening to heave him into the water, Ralph screamed and yelled in protest of his watery fate. Ralph shifted his weight onto one arm, causing Sven to let him down on his shoulders, and then Ralph tried to crawl down Sven's chest in order to slip his grip.
Ending up upside down with Sven holding him out by his legs, Ralph grabbed the only available handle to prevent being dropped into the water head first.
"Ralph!" I shouted in protest. "What are you doing?" I demanded.
"I'm trying not to get drowned," he said, still holding the evidence in one hand. "Let me go or I'll take this with me."
"You drive a hard bargain, but I'm inclined to accept your terms. You don't yank willie off and I won't drop you on your head," Sven bargained.
It was a done deal, but the impression it left was one that stayed with me. Without much ado they settled back down to rest up for the next round and I was content with the outcome, but Ralph rarely let anything lie for long.
"If I had a corker that size I'd make all the girls moan," Ralph said casually to Sven.
"If you aren't making them moan you're doing it wrong, Ralph," Sven quipped.
"I ain't never had no complaints."
"I should hope not," Sven said.
"Ralph, you talk too much," I objected. "It's time we got back for supper."
"I talk too much. You worry too much. What's got your goat this time?"
"You, grabbing hold of Sven like that. What's wrong with you?"
"Me thinking I might keep him from dropping me on my head is all. If you ain't noticed there weren't nothing else to grab by that time."
"It's only water, Ralph," I said.
"It's only a willie, Robert," he said. "It ain't no snake. Sven didn't complain and it was his willie."
"You don't grab another man's…."
"No, you don't do anything," Ralph said, laughing at my criticism. "That's why you got so much time to bitch about what I do. Why don't you get off my back?"
I dove back into the pond and swam to my clothes, putting them on without bothering to dry. A minute later Sven was wading out of the pond behind me. He started with some soft simple advice.
"Why don't you let up on Ralph? He's a good kid."
"I don't want him becoming the farmer's son you tell some other farmer's son about."
"Robert, you don't get to decide things like that and it's a rare farmer's son who thinks such a thought. I'm sorry I was honest with you if it means Ralph must apologize for being Ralph. He's done nothing wrong, except have a good time."
"Ralph's looking for mischief all the time. You merely provide him with opportunity."
"And you're going to keep him from it and me?"
"What's that mean?"
"You are angry at me because I didn't object to him grabbing my penis. It did put him in a strong bargaining position. His only thought was to get the best of me and that did the trick. It went no further than that, except in your mind."
"Why would I be angry at you?"
"Why indeed? Needless to say your brother will do all he can to keep you from telling him what to do. Why not let Ralph be Ralph and you worry more about Robert."
"What's that suppose to mean?"
"Ralph knows a hell of a lot more than you give him credit for. He knows when to be and when to let be. He doesn't take himself as seriously as you take yourself. You need to let up a little or you'll end up being one lonely lad."
I walked away as Ralph came out of the pond. We loaded the posts and drove back to the house without having anything to say to one another.
Why I was opposed to Ralph being friends with Sven is a mystery. It did make me angry to see them having fun together. I wanted to be friends with Sven but that's not how it worked out. No matter what I objected to, it was more about me not being his friend and less about how crazy my brother could act at times.
It was another example of how much I disliked being there. Had I left the year before, Sven would have come and gone and I'd never have known anything about it. Watching Ralph warm up to him and watching Sven respond was no fun for me.
"Damn near machine quality," Pa said, leaning one foot on the back of the farm truck. "No doubt you and Ralph need to keep working in the meadow."
"He uses an ax like a butter knife, Pa," Ralph bragged. "He's going to show me so the next time we do fence I can cut the posts. His grandpa was a woodcutter. That's where Sven learned."
"Fine job, son," Pa said, patting Sven on the back. "You boys unload the posts. I'm buying Sven a big glass of lemonade."
Pa walked with his hand on Sven's shoulder. They laughed as they came to the back porch. I'd never seen Pa favor a hand before. Sven realized he was getting the better part of their deal, but Pa would never come up short, when it was time to pay him. He'd keep his word as well as he could.
"Don't forget that damn barn door hinge, Robert. I don't want to need to tell you again."
"I'll do it after supper, Pa."
Dinner was fried chicken. It was my favorite and that meant we got more chicken for lunch the next day and chicken and dumplings tomorrow night. I licked my fingers and smacked my lips but so did everyone else. Sven held up each biscuit, smelling it carefully before biting into it. You could see the pleasure they gave him. I'm sure we had biscuits more often because of the fuss Sven made over them. We all liked him for different reasons.
"I'm moving out to the loft," Ralph announced over supper.
"The hell you are," I said.
"Robert!" Mama corrected.
"Watch your mouth, son," Pa said.
"Robert moved out there and no one said boo."
"I don't think it's a good idea, son," Pa said. "I don't want you bothering Sven. He needs his sleep and you need yours."
"Sven don't mind. Do you, Sven?"
"Not my place to say. You best do as your parents think best."
"I moved out there to get away from him," I blurted.
"The lofts big enough for an army," Junior said.
"Pa!" I complained.
"Did you fix that hinge?"
"You'd have more stock with me if you'd do your chores."
"Do my chores? You got me out in that driveway baking my brain every day, digging damn fence post holes. You mention a hinge on a door a week ago and I'm supposed to jump to it. I ain't a hand."
"Robert," Mama said, worrying I would upset Pa further..
"No, simply an ingrate of a son is what you are," Pa said. "I have no objections to you sleeping in the barn, but I get a hint that you aren't getting enough sleep, or if Sven mentions you bothering him, you'll move back to your room."
"Yes, sir, Pa," Ralph smirked.
I stood and my napkin slid onto the floor. No one said anything as I went out the backdoor. I was reaching the end of my rope with my father and he was pushing up the day I'd leave. What Sven said to me at the pond came to mind and I realized how inconsequential the afternoon argument had been.
Leaning the ladder up against the side of the barn, I struggled to get the hinge back into place so I could fasten it securely.
"Here, let me hold up the door so there isn't so much weight on the hinge," Sven said, steadying the door two inches off the ground, where it could swing unobstructed.
"Thanks," I said, and as quick as you please the hinge was back where it belonged doing what it was supposed to do.
"You do have a way with words, Robert," Sven said.
"Sorry you were in the middle of that. My father's been pushing at me for a long time. I'm getting fed up."
"First time I saw you put some backbone into something. You see where you do to Ralph what your Pa does to you."
"No," I snapped realizing my error even before the word stopped ringing in my ears. "Yeah, you're right. I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Maybe you need to decide where you belong. If you aren't happy being here, maybe leaving would be easier on everyone."
"They can't afford to hire anyone to replace me," I said.
"Make up your mind to that and quit wanting to be somewhere else. The more you want to be somewhere else, the harder it'll be to be here."
"How can you say that to me?"
"Say what. I'm trying to help, Robert. I got no stake in this."
"That's what I mean. A couple of hours ago you were giving me the dickens. How can you just set that aside and come out here to help me?"
"I'm a hand, Robert. It's what I do. The advice is optional. It comes from seeing other people make mistakes. Some of it comes from mistakes I've made. If you don't pass along what you learn, what good is it?"
"You think I should leave?"
"I think you need to figure out where you need to be and why. I think if you leave, you'll probably live to regret it."
"You think I should stay?"
"I think you need to make a decision and live with it. I can't tell you what it should be."
"I want to do both. I want to see what's out there in the world. I want to stay and help my folks as long as they need me."
"Sounds like a good plan."
"It's the same plan I've always had," I said.
"Maybe stop leaving, until the time when you can leave."
"He's going to drive you crazy, you know."
"No, he won't. I won't allow it. Junior's right, it's a big loft and you and your brother ought to have enough room to get over whatever is eating at you."
My feelings about Sven continued to change hourly. Since his arrival everything had become more complicated for me and now, with Ralph moving into the barn, we were embarking on another discomforting chapter. Ralph was doing all he could to get in the middle of any chance Sven and I might develop a friendship. I couldn't compete with his energy or charm.
We walked down the driveway to where the post hole digger rested. Sven seized it and following the string he'd laid a couple of days before, he dug another hole. I went to our fresh pile of fence posts, dropping one next to the hole as he proceeded to dig another. For an hour or more we continued the routine. The sun was gone from the sky and the heat of the day had passed.
"You've worked enough for one day," I said.
"We played all afternoon. I'm not tired. Ten holes a night and we'll knock this out in short order without you needing to work in the noonday sun. I'm all sweaty again."
Sven stood below the pump and started to strip out of his clothes. In a moment of childishness I started pumping once his shoes and socks were clear of the flow.
"Robert," he yelped, dodging the rushing water and dripping from his shoulders down. "This'll never dry by morning."
"Don't need to," I laughed. "Pa picked you up a new pair of overalls and a fresh shirt while he was in town today. They're on the ladder that goes to the loft."
"They can't afford to be clothing me at this point," he said.
"Pa liked them posts you cut. He wants to make sure he keeps you. He's a fair man to work for."
"Not fair to his eldest though."
"He has his reasons," I defended. "His eldest has made his share of mistakes with his pa."
"It's hard for pas to let loose of their sons after so many years. Daughters are easy. They go off to live with a man who swears to take care of them. Sons are safe as long as they're on the farm. Once they get out of sight there's no telling what can happen to them."
"There's more to it then that. I said some things. They weren't intended to hurt him but they did. He's a hard man to cross, my Pa."
"Yes, I can see that. You stood your ground tonight. It's a start. Your pa will come around in time once he realizes you're staying on for his benefit."
Sven bent to finish pulling off his dripping overalls and I pumped up another load of water that rushed into the pants that dropped down around his ankles.
"You've got a little Ralph in you after all," Sven said, and I went airborne as he kicked his clothes to one side.
We rolled around in the mud together. His laugh broke open the evening. By the time I washed the mud off my clothes and hung them out beside his, we were both worn out from a long day.
Junior was churning ice cream on the steps as we returned to the kitchen for dessert. Pa stood, watching us walk toward the house, smoking his pipe and waiting for the stars to appear. As I opened the screen door, he spoke.
"Your mama says you done dug enough out there, Robert. You go with the boys to the meadows tomorrow. Find something to do up there. You boys need to rest up some for what's coming next week," Pa said. "We'll beat the rains this year, good Lord willing."
"Yes, sir," I said, and Sven patted my back as we went inside.
Pa's words and Sven's touch made me feel like a million bucks. I'd wondered if I'd be digging fence post holes during the harvest. It was good to find out that wasn't the case.
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