The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Because we lost so much time after the Crosby incident, I waited until the following day to journey to the hospital, leaving Jake to take over in my machine. Mama would want to know what was going on and I didn't think she'd alert Pa, until she knew the whole story. Since I wasn't prone to feeble mindedness and since she knew about Mr. Crosby, she'd likely be thinking there would be a good reason to explain why I chose to take on Mr. Crosby.
The clouds grew more foreboding as I neared town, and being away from the farm worried me, but everything worried me, so I doubt I could worry any more than I did. All the way to Des Moines I worried that Mama would find my actions of the previous day unacceptable.
"Hi, Mama, I brought your house dresses, the hat, and your flat shoes. How's Pa?"
"It's slow, Robert. He's some better today. You can go in but only for a minute. He needs his rest, but he'd like it if you looked in on him."
"You didn't tell him?"
"No, I didn't know what to say. Mr. Crosby had himself in such a state, it was difficult to understand what you'd done to the poor man."
"Well, you could say I gave him a dose of his own medicine. Mr. Crosby tried to outfox me, but the fox got outfoxed."
"Robert, all I got to say is, you're in charge and I'm not going to argue with what you decide, but a Sorenson gives his word, it's good as gold."
"Yes, ma'am, Mr. Crosby and I made an agreement and I will stand by it."
"Your Pa had a contract with the man. If you've failed to honor that, your Pa will look poorly on it."
"Mr. Crosby's agreement is with me now, Mama. Pa isn't involved. I took care of it and I'll keep my word, good as gold, Mama," I said, knowing I was skating on thin ice.
"I don't know the whole story and I won't interfere. You do what you think is best and we'll live with it. I know your heart, son, and it's a good one. We'll live by your decisions."
"Thank you, Mama," I said, kissing her cheek.
"Fine Mama, they're working like troopers. Were almost half way done with the top. We'll be on the bottoms by weeks end. If the rains hold off I think we'll be okay."
"Not with these hospital bills. I don't know how soon they insist on being paid. I'm going to help around here in the days, sew for Mrs. Wilkerson in the evenings. This way I'll be close to your Pa. You better go in now. They just changed his linens. He's probably still awake."
My father was hung up like a Christmas goose. One of his legs was up at a forty five degree angle with more wires and gadgets than looked necessary. I pulled off my hat and stood just inside the door looking for signs of life.
"Robert," he said in a raspy horse voice. "You aren't on the harvest?"
"Yeah, Pa. I had to bring Mama some things."
"Crosby?" he said in a whisper.
"He's taken care of, Pa. I told him not to come down here but you know Crosby."
"Robert, what ever you do, don't let that skinflint get the best of you. He's a clever one."
"No, sir," I said, unable to hold back my urge to laugh as I stepped next to the bed so I could hear his weak voice better. "I surely won't, Pa. We've got another day or two on top. We'll do the bottom and hope we're beating the rain. I'll save the hardest fields for last so we get as much in as quick as we're able. We've had showers but the ground's so dry they haven't slowed us a bit. I got the tractors working fifteen hours a day. The International is working twelve. We're making good time, Pa."
My father didn't have anything more to say, but he put his hand on top of mine and patted it. I don't recall Pa touching me since my last whipping, when I was ten. The distance between us over the past few years had only grown wider. For the first time in years he made me feel like I was his son and not some farmhand that was passing through. He was crippled up and couldn't get out of his bed, but his first born was taking his rightful place on the farm. The way I felt about it didn't make me feel very good. I leaned forward to kiss his forehead, never daring to do such a thing when my father was upright and healthy.
Before I knew it I was back in the field, hardly feeling like I'd even left. Jake slowed to a stop and slipped out of the machine and at the same time I climbed into the seat. The drone was too loud for any long distance conversation, but I wasn't ready to talk about my trip to town just yet.
A few hours later Jake came following the newest cleared swaths to bring us cooled tea and molasses cookies to keep up our energy in the late afternoon on the fifth day of harvest. Sven walked around in front of my machine and leaned his back against one big wheel as he drained the first glass without stopping and waited for Jake to pour more. I eased down out of my seat and walked over to the eats.
"Good stuff, Jake. Thanks," Sven said, wiping his mouth on his forearm as Jake poured his glass back to the top one more time.
"How's your Pa?" Sven asked, being too busy to talk since I'd gotten back.
I looked down into my tea and then off in the distance, having kept my mind off my father while I worked. I guess the expression on my face answered the question before I could speak.
"That's what I was worried about. I knew he didn't look good. I knew that leg was a mess. I figured he wasn't ever going to be a whole farmer again."
"He will be," I snapped. "They don't know what they're talking about. He'll be fine. My old man is tough as leather. He's strong. He'll show them," I was almost yelling to make sure I was heard. Later on I thought I must have sounded like some wide eyed kid full of more wish than fact.
"Supper in an hour. I'll hang the lantern on the gate, when it be done."
Sven finished drinking his tea and Jake walked away heading for where the four boys had gathered. They were pitching the loose ears into the corn wagon. Yelling and screaming as they surrounded the wagon, they threw more on each other than made it over the wire that kept the corn inside in spite of the size of the target. While watching them, I wondered if I ever had that much energy. I wondered if I'd ever been as happy as they seemed to be.
Sven was gone when I stopped wondering. In another minute his machine was ambling out ahead of mine. I emptied my glass and tossed it back in on the floor and went back to work.
We went in to dinner as the last light was leaving the sky. We had the trucks for twelve hours the next day and every day until we finished, and I saw no point in creating work we had to do by hand, when the trucks weren't coming and going, since the boys were clearing cut corn as fast as it hit the ground now.
The Crosby delay had been more than made up by having the extra truck. Rarely did one need to wait at the gate for long. As time passed, we moved faster and picked more corn than the day before. The trucks came fast enough that there wasn't as much corn left on the ground in the rows.
Sven came out as I stood on the back porch, watching the night set in. My bones ached, my back hurt, and my mind wouldn't stay out of the corn. We were all exhausted.
"I'm sorry I was the one to tell you," he said. "I know how you feel. None of this is easy but you're doing a fine job."
"Tell me what?" I snapped at him, sensing we were going there again.
"Your father isn't… he won't be doing any farming. He'll be fine giving orders and supervising you boys. Lots of farmers supervise and don't do the work."
"That would about kill Pa. He's got to be on the land, working it, making the corn grow. They could be wrong, you know. You could be wrong."
"You want me to agree with you to make you feel better, or do you want me to speak honest? You'll need to face the truth sooner or later. You need to be ready. The farm is your responsibility here on out."
"I don't want to hear it," I said to the fields. "I know the truth, but it's easier to hold out for the life I want. It's no crime, Sven."
"No, sir. It's no crime. We can all hope for the best."
"I know. I know. It's just not an easy transition to make. In my mind I'm still out there seeing the world. Now, I never will. I'll be stuck on this damn farm as long as I live."
"You can't run from what is. These are hard times and the only way your parents are going to stay here is if you keep them here. You can't walk away from the life you were born in to, as much as you'd like to do it."
"I know that, too, but I can dream. I might have to tend the farm but I won't give up dreaming."
"I'll stay on and help if you like. I work cheap and I like setting down roots where I'm wanted. I like your folks. I like your brothers."
"You mean you like Ralph."
"I said, I like your brothers, and I especially like you, Robert."
"You do? I don't feel that likeable right now, Sven. You know you're welcome to stay on here as long as you want. Pa'd be dead if you hadn't lifted that tractor off him. There's no way to repay what we owe you. You'll be welcome here as long as you want to stay."
"I only did what I was built for. I want to stay because you ask me to stay. I want to hear it from you and not because of your father. That was all in a day's work. This is about you and me."
"I want you to stay as much as I want anything. You make farming seem like something noble. Thanks for helping me do this. I guess I don't seem all that grateful at times. I'm always thinking about myself. Without you, Sven, I couldn't do this. I wouldn't want to do it. It's just that my dreams go back a long way and they'll be hard to forget."
"Dreams die hard, Robert. I understand. Maybe later on times'll be better. You'll be able to turn it over to Ralph and get out there for a time, but it won't be what you think. This is the only world that's real to me, hard work, good people, and a future that you make for your self.
"Out there is a lot of people looking to take advantage of naïve farm boys. Out there is disappointment. You don't know how lucky you are having a place with your family, where you can work and live your life on your own terms."
"Yeah, if the bank doesn't run us off. Well, I've got to go into town to get some fuel. That'll take an hour or more. Times a wasting."
"I'll go with you. It'll speed things up. I need a few hours away from that machine and Ralph loves driving it."
"I'd like you to come along."
"I'll drive for you, boss."
"Quit calling me that. You drove all day," I said.
"I can drive all night. It's not a hard job. Like I said, you need to delegate the work. You can't be on top of everything here, take care of your mother, and worry about your father."
"It's what I got," I said.
"Yeah, let's see if Jake needs anything. We'll be near the general store when we fuel."
We went back into the kitchen where the smell of rhubarb cobbler filled the room. We both stood sniffing at the air.
"Won't be ready and cooled for hours, so don't use boys be getting no idears," Jake said, closing the door of the oven, after checking the dessert.
"We're going to gas the truck and get fuel. You need anything from the store."
"Sugar. Coffee. Flour. We could use a passel a beans. Easy cooking beans for when I'm in the field."
"That's a tall order and they ain't going to be offering me no credit, Jake. The whole town knows Pa's in the hospital. They probably know more about his condition than we do," I said. "We've been over our credit limit all summer. I'll get what I can, but Mama's change jar is about bust."
Jake dragged a change purse out of his back pocket and dug his crooked fingers into it. His shaky hand withdrew an old crumpled five dollar bill.
"Knowd I was savin' this for some reason or other. This should cover it. Get the boys some hard candies. I'd like a mix if you please. Boys got to have their candy now and again."
I backed up a step as Jake held out his offering.
"Jake, I can't take that. You're working for us. I can't let you pay for our food."
"Tish tosh, boy. The Lord provides. We got a need. I got the means. You best take this and buy what I told you. We all gots to eat. Not much work gettin' done if we don't be eatin' to keep up our strength."
"I feel funny taking your money."
"You take it, son, and be glad I gots it. The Lord will see you through if you let him. You fight him on it and he's libel to tend to someone else's need next time."
"Yes, sir," I said, removing the bill from his hand and stuffing it into my pocket.
Sven put his hand on my back and guided me back out the door. He scooted into the driver's side of the Ford, once he arranged the fuel barrel to suit him and we headed for town.
"How are you doing?" Sven asked as he drove.
"Fine, I guess."
"Yeah, me, too, but how are you really doing?"
"Numb. I really don't know what I'm doing."
"Yeah, it's not easy when the world comes out from under you. You're doing fine. I think even your brothers are starting to believe in you."
"He'll be back. Pa won't sit for sitting around."
"You keep going back to that. He won't have much choice, Robert. I'm just saying for you not to get your hopes up."
"What do you know? Why do you say that stuff, when you don't know any more than I do? Let me have my way for a little while longer. Haven't we talked about this? I keep thinking we have. I keep wishing we're done with it."
Sven always waited for my fits of anger to pass and he never held them against me. I guess he figured I wasn't much more than a kid and kids go off and then settle back down if you let them.
"I studied anatomy. I read a few medical books. I've seen things like this on other farms. I wouldn't say what I said without having some knowledge. I'm not a man given to shooting off his mouth, while having nothing to say."
"You did what? You said you dropped out of school at what, sixteen?"
"I dropped out of school. I didn't shut down my brain. Besides, once the bank took the farm, Mama had me staying over in town at a spinster lady's house. She was a librarian by profession. She'd let me stay but I had to read books. Books! Books! More books!"
"She had a lot of them, huh?"
"Shelves filled from one end of the house to the other. She was a librarian with her own library. She told me it was her one true love, reading. She loved words and she made me love them… if I knew what was good for me. It was hard at first. I didn't like reading all that much. I missed the farm, my family."
"No, easiest time of my life. I was sixteen and turned seventeen with her. I learned more in that year than in all my years of schooling. She read to me. We'd sit in her parlor, sipping tea and eating crumpets with exotic jams, and she'd read to me. No one ever made me feel the way she made me feel. She cared. She allowed me to see the world through the pages of books. She told me about her travels, the people she met, the experiences she had."
"How's that?" I asked.
"It's hard to explain. She needed to share the words with someone, and there I was. Then, she got me and the words mixed up together. Life does provide. Those were good days. I never knew life could be that easy. It spoiled me. It make what came afterward harder on me, but I wouldn't trade a minute."
"You sound fond of her."
"She taught me things I never thought I'd know. Latin! Shakespeare! Homer! I was an empty page before Glad."
"Homer? I know Homer. He works over at the general store, you know. Eats crackers and spits tobacky juice incessantly."
"Homer was a Greek writer."
"They write over there? What will they think of next?"
"Homer lived over two thousand years ago."
"Yeah, I heard of him. The Iliad and The Odyssey, I do believe."
"Very good, Robert. You get an A in literature. You paid attention in school. I never did. I was a farmer and that was good enough for Paw and it was good enough for me."
"That's what never made sense to me. You're smart for a farm boy. How in the hell could a guy not much older an me, who dropped out of school, be so much smarter than me? Experience only accounts for so much. The librarian explains the rest."
"Not all that much smarter and not much older. In this world applied knowledge is more important than learning about great literature. In another time I might be a college professor, but it's this time and I'm a farmhand and nothing more."
"Yeah, you're a lot more. That's how you know what to do for my father? It wasn't blind luck? The tourniquet…, loosen it…, tighten it. You knew how to do it. You knew about his condition and what it meant."
"It was in Gray's Anatomy. He'd have bled to death if his body hadn't started shutting down. The tourniquet got him to the hospital. I've seen injuries like that before."
"Yeah, you saved his life. We won't soon forget it."
"I did what I knew to do is all."
"What else did you read?"
"Everything. Once I got into my first book at Miss Himple's house. I couldn't sit still to read before that. Then, she sat with me and it was easy, after that. She kept me calmed down."
"Gladys Himple. She wore glasses and looked rather stern. She wasn't at all stern. She was a kind gentle lady and she taught me about the finer things in life. She acted as if I was the most important thing to her. I guess I was at the time."
"She lived in a farm town?" I asked.
"She was born there and went off to college."
"The girl I dated left for college last fall. I was supposed to go with her but there was no way I could leave with the farm in trouble. Last year wasn't a good year."
"Gladis went to Chicago, after school. Something happened to her. I think she may have fallen in love. It didn't work out. She came home a few years later. Funny how things turn out. If not for her misery I'd never of met her. Lots of sixteen year old folks out there doing labor, after their daddy's lost their farms. Why Mama wanted me over at Miss Himple's, I don't know, but that's where she sent me."
"Maybe your Mama knew how smart you were and she wanted you to have a chance to learn something other than the farm."
"Mama thought I was smart all right. Too smart for my own good, she'd say. I got into everything. I was a handful, when I was a boy. That seems so long ago. Miss Himple settled me down and added discipline to my life."
"What happened to Miss Himple."
"Either I had to go or she did."
"Why? Sounds like she might have helped you to become something special."
"I am something special in case you haven't noticed. I'm a farmer's son and a damn good farmer myself. I knew what I was. All the books in the world can't change that. Besides, it got complicated. Then, it stopped being fun once the talk started."
"A sixteen year old boy. A lonely middle aged woman. Books that speak of love and all that can mean. A natural recipe for gossip in a small town."
"You and Miss Himple?"
We hit a silent spot for the first time. I was finally learning something about the mysterious stranger in our midst. I can't conceive of him not being there and yet, this was the first time we'd talked about his past. It warmed me talking to him about his life for a change. He'd done a lot of living in his few years and the pieces finally fit.
"I've never done anything," I said. "I've been my father's son all my life. I did as I was told. I never got in trouble and I worked hard. The day Pa found out I intended to leave the farm, he shut me out. I was no better than any hand that did farm work to him."
"Life has a way of complicating itself if you give it enough space and time. Add stimulation to a teenage boy's already fertile imagination…. We decided that my living with her wasn't all that smart an idea."
"She wanted you to leave?"
"No, I could have stayed, but the trouble it would have caused her would have eventually forced her to move out of town. Besides, she started to smoother me. I was becoming a man. She literally helped me to become a man. She was twice my age and the old biddies in that town would have torn her to pieces if they got wind of what we were up to. No, I had to go for her sake. Poor Gladys was not lucky in love. Just like who ever it was that broke her heart the first time, I came along to do it to her all over again. Not intentionally but that was the end result."
"You have lived. My brother is the closest I've come to being a man and I was on the wrong end of that deal. He's got more girls around the county than you can count."
"Yeah, Ralph can get… rude."
"Oh, that's what it's called these days. He's curious is all. He'd have fit right in at my house."
"I don't think so? Ralph don't even fit in at our house."
"You mentioned a girlfriend?"
"She was a nice girl or I was a nice boy. I don't know which. It wasn't on my mind, kids, a family. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get out there, where things are happening. I should have gone when I had the chance, after high school. I should have gone out our lane and never looked back."
"What I saw happening out there isn't worth seeing, Robert. Even freedom can get complicated and it has a cost. You have much to be grateful for right here."
"Yeah, I wish I saw it that way. I lie awake at night thinking about travel. I've only left the county a couple of times. I never even got to know a librarian. How old was she anyway?"
"I don't know, thirties, maybe forty. I never asked. She was way older than me. If I'd asked her she might have realized just how young I was and I wasn't taking the chance. You might say I have an appetite in that area and Miss Himple kept me well fed. Being without for long periods isn't good for a man like me. You think about travel and I think about love and making love and being in love."
"Wives, daughters, and sometimes farmer's sons," as I recall.
"Sounds like something I might say to a farmer's son who stares a bit longer than is customary. What did you find so interesting about me that first day?"
"I can't say," I said, returning to the vision of him walking up my driveway and how arrogantly he'd treated me on the first day.
"Can't or won't."
I pondered my first reaction to Sven.
"There was something about you. Everything about you I guess. You were big, strong, powerful looking, a real man, and yet, you moved gracefully. You were gentle with your words; gentle but crude like you'd expect from a farmhand. I was fascinated by all of it, all the things you were and I wasn't. I'm hardly a man. I wasn't much of a boy. I've never done anything of note."
"You never showed it after starting out looking like an interested farmer's son to me. I thought we were on our way to being friends. You were interested and then you became obnoxious. I'd much rather have had you stay the way you were when we met."
"That's a joke, right? The farmer's son part? I mean I got no trouble with the wives and daughters, as long as it ain't my father's wife."
"It's not all the same thing, Robert. Some times it's about being with someone you feel comfortable being with. Close friends that allow for getting to know each other so you can say what's on your mind. Sometimes there is love in that. Everyone is different. The trick is, you don't let the differences get between your sameness. There is more than one kind of love if you do it right. I love being in tune with someone."
"Like with Gladys?"
"I've never talked about Glad with anyone before. I don't know why I told you. It was a good time for me. I needed to know something about love. She was a good teacher."
"Glad? I bet she was Glad. I can't imagine you at sixteen."
"Too glad. It was all over before I knew it. Sometimes I think it never happened at all, but then I remember Whitman, Cooper, and Poe. That's what she gave me for my love. It was all in the words."
"She was your first?" I asked.
"My first was Amy Lowery. I was eleven and she was thirteen. I guess I had a thing for older women. It didn't amount to much on my part. Amy simply was hankering for a ride and there wasn't anyone else around."
"It's not important. She took advantage of my good nature and showed me hers. I lacked the ability to go where she wanted to take me but that didn't stop me from trying. It only made her more determined."
"I'm nineteen and I've danced with a girl. Not very well might I add. I can't even imagine… I didn't know which end was up…. Eleven?"
"It all comes naturally. The world is full of people because it's easy to make them. I caught on pretty quick but I lacked the skill to which my paramour had become accustomed and my reach never exceeded her grasp. She moved on to greener pastures later that day."
"What might I ask is a paramour?"
"She was going out with my brother Mike. He was an older man for her. She decided to try me out when Mike was working out in the fields. She went back to him that very afternoon and I was left wondering what it was all about.
"That's until George Palmer came to stay. George was more willing than most to explain what it was all about. Sometimes I think it was all he cared about."
"A farmer's son perhaps?" I said in jest.
"Robert, there are some things you have no need to know. You might be my boss but you aren't my priest. There's no point in going into George Palmer's influence on my life."
"No," he said before laughing. "I have no desire to confess my sins to priests or anyone else."
"Why would you say I'm not your priest?" I asked.
"Why would you even ask? It's personal business from long past. I've already told you more than you need to know about me. I don't want you thinking ill of me. My life hasn't been all Emerson and Melville."
"I would never think ill of you. You said you need to be able to be comfortable talking to a friend. I want you to feel like you can tell me anything you want."
That just about summed it up and at the same time we pulled up at the pump behind Crosby's.
After filling the drum, Sven handed me the coffee and sugar and he held onto the flour and beans as we walked up to the counter. We stood at the register after I handed over the five dollars and Sven started measuring out candy, wanting a quarter left over for gas for the Ford. We got a half dozen different varieties of sweets and Homer added some extra, once we'd calculated the proper amount. He was smiling as we left. I put the packages in the truck as Sven started pumping a quarter's worth as Homer's son sat watching us carefully, until Sven flipped him the quarter. Only then did he release us from his gaze, after biting the quarter his father had just given us in change to make sure it was real.
That's the way it was, when a stranger came to town, even when he was with a local. I thought of Gladys and realized how towns people might look poorly upon her taking in a virile teenage boy.
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