The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
If I wanted to speak with Pa I had to journey to the pantry. He slept most of the time with plenty of pills for that purpose. I appraised him of the harvest, how many truck loads of corn, the full corn bins, and more in the barn. There weren't a lot of questions and he had a window that looked out on the main field beyond the gate and the corner of the barn.
After Sven and I returned from our daily walk in the field, I was summoned to Pa's bedside for the first time. Mama had the books open in her lap and the receipts from Crosby were laid out on the bed. I had their attention as soon as I appeared in the doorway.
"Son, Mr. Crosby called," Pa said, looking for my reaction.
I wasn't interested enough to ask if he did so in person or over the phone, but I suspected the latter because Mr. Crosby knew better than to bring his brand of trouble to my door again.
"Took him a while," I said. "Probably been counting all the money he made off our crop.
"I gave the man my word, Robert. We shook on a deal. You've got to return the money you bargained him out of. I won't have a Sorenson go back on my word once its given."
It was the first business we'd discussed. Mama held the ledger tight with both hands and stared at me, waiting for a response.
We'd had a good year and were money ahead, not counting Pa's hospital bills, which I hadn't seen, but that wasn't the point. Pa's word was as valuable as the farm to him, but I stood my ground.
"No, sir," I said, twisting my hat in my hand as my stomach churned and my brain started cussing me out for challenging Pa's order.
"What did you say?" Pa asked, and mother looked down at the ledger, fearing the worst.
Her silence said she was on my side and she wasn't going to give Pa her word on the subject, but she wouldn't speak against him.
"No, sir. With all due respect, Pa, I give him back that money and next year when it's time to strike a bargain, it's you he'll want to make the deal with. I'm here. I'm running the farm for you and I need the authority to do it without interference. I respect your wisdom and what your word means in this town. I'll consult you on anything beyond my ability, but you can't undo what Crosby did.
"He came up here pushing my help around. He wanted me to hire his hands so he could get a bigger cut of our crop. When he saw I wouldn't have it, he threatened me. The man cost me most of a day. If the rain had come early we'd have barely broke even on his account. No, sir. I won't return the money. I'll split half of it even between Sven and Jake and the second half splits even between Ralph, Junior, Jacob, and Kaleb. They earned it. They brought in the corn not asking for a dime."
"What about you, Robert?" Pa said in that stern unable to give an inch tone.
"I didn't do it for money. I'm here to keep the farm running. Plenty of satisfaction for me in that, but those men and those boys all did a man's work every day of harvest. They deserve to have something to show for it. Thanks to Crosby's arrogance, they will get something and I won't give in to that skinflint as long as I run this farm."
"How'd you know he needed us more than we needed him?" Pa asked, almost in the same words he'd said to Mama.
"A little bird told me. He thought he could come up here and take advantage of us because you were hurt. No man of any account does something like that. I can't let him think he finally found a way to push me around, Pa. He's got to know my word is the law and a Sorenson's word is gold whether for business or in just retribution."
Pa had an easy smile as he handed the invoices back to Mama. She put them away, looking straight at me.
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Yes. If he calls back I'll tell him to talk to my son," Pa said. "You did right, Robert. I never doubted you would."
"How's the leg?" I asked.
"Some better today. It's coming along."
"You need to get out of bed before you forget how to walk, Pa."
He nodded. Mama followed me out carrying the ledger.
"We had the best harvest since '32', Robert. You got a good price and we're able to get along without borrowing any this year."
"The hospital bills?" I asked reluctant to do so.
"Well, the darnest thing. I sewed for Mrs. Wilkerson in the mornings and night. I cleaned up at the hospital the rest of the day. I didn't take any pay. I told them to apply it to Pa's bill. When the bill came, everything was paid in full, except for his linen and meals. All we owe the hospital is $37.00. How do you figure that?"
"They must have liked your work," I said. "The world is full of good people, Mama. The Lord provides."
"Yes, he does. They were awfully nice people. They took good care of your Pa and never got enough of my cookies and cakes."
Things did look good that year and I suspected I'd been blessed. Each time I looked at Sven, I knew I had been. One day while walking over to the meadows, we carried sandwiches for lunch. We braved the chilly pond, but it wasn't all that bad once we got in the water. The sun was bright and the day was warmer than we had any right to expect that time of year.
We wrestled on the raft before making love. Sven was as tender as he was rugged. It was always about what he could do for me. It was never enough and our affection for one another grew as we had more time for one another. As it was once astutely observed, "These were the best of times." My life was close to perfection.
On the way back through the fields that afternoon the skies opened up and we were far from home. By the time we made it to the lone oak in the middle of the main field we were drenched. The rain subsided enough that the big bows still full of leaves gave us some cover. We stripped out of our sopping clothes and not wanting to waste our nakedness, we made love again.
It was crazy. It was wonderful. His arms being around me were my favorite thing. I was certain nothing could hurt me with Sven holding me close. He was without equal when it came to making someone feel loved.
As wonderful as it was, putting on our soaked clothes wasn't all that great. Even my boots were full of water by the time we made it back through the main gate. We ended up stripping on the back porch as Jake fetched us dry clothes and hot coffee. I was chilled to the bone and spent the afternoon next to the stove as dinner was being prepared.
It was well into November when Pa started to venture out of the pantry. Mama had to fold her bed up during the day so there was room to move, but neither of them complained. Pa's complaints were about the crutches were heard far and wide. He would sit in his chair in the parlor for a few hours in the afternoon. Mama would ply him with cookies and tea and often there was freshly prepared soup.
Pa was no longer the one hundred and eighty pound farmer he once was. He'd continued losing weight even after coming home. While his activities were increasing and his appetite returning, it was obvious he wouldn't be any good for farming. It was a struggle for him to get from one room to the next.
One day on our journey to the meadows, wearing coats and gloves, Sven went carefully through the trees and chopped off branches he liked. After returning home, he sat in the swing with a knife he'd picked out to whittle the wood with.
Over several days the first branch turned into a cane. It took three days more for him to create the second. When he kept carving, it left me baffled. As usual, Sven was well aware of what he was doing and why and I didn't.
The day after finishing the third cane, I followed Sven to Pa's room. Immediately Pa's eyes were examining suspiciously the wooden offering Sven brought with him.
"Mr. Sorenson, my uncle Ingram got blown up in the Great War. He could hardly walk, but he used two canes and he could out distance me on a flat field using them. I've whittled you up a couple. You might like 'em better than those things," he said, nodding at the crutches."
"Yes," Pa said, not necessarily agreeing to use them.
Pa wanted to be whole again. Nothing short of it was going to please him. Sven left the canes leaning against the corner of the bed and he retrieved the third cane from the porch, leaning it against Jake's chair.
"Jake, I done whittled me a couple of canes for Mister. It's going to take a hard sell to get him to use them, but they'll help him walk. Figuring on needing some other inducement, I whittled me a third cane I wish you might use in front of him. To break the ice, so to speak. I wouldn't ask ordinarily but you can see how he needs some kind of aid that's less grueling than them crutches he brought home."
Jake gave the cane a long look before offering an answer.
"I ain't no cripple, you understand?"
"Never thought you were, Jake. I wouldn't ask if I didn't think it would do some good."
"Let me think on it a spell," he concluded.
Jake was no less suspicious of the gift than Pa. He pretended he was ignoring the cane, but I kept an eye out and caught him looking at the design Sven carved in the top of the cane.
It took until Thanksgiving for Pa to eat at the table. Once again I was faced with the seating dilemma. Once Mama went into the pantry to fetch Pa, I leaned against the sink waiting for a sign. Mama had put a leaf in the table to make sure there was enough room, but much of the food was being placed on the small table against the wall.
Mama walked beside Pa as he used the canes to facilitate his movement. He was still unsure they'd support him, but it gave him much better control over his legs. Pa stopped short of the table and looked at me before Mama pulled out the chair next to her. It was still up for grabs in my mind, and I waited for Pa to sit in the chair of his choice. He sat next to Mama.
"Come on, boy. I done got myself out of bed for this here turkey. Don't make me wait to bite into this bird any longer than necessary."
"Yes, sir," I said, taking the chair that I'd never relinquish again.
It was a feast and I was surprised at Pa's appetite. Of course none of us missed any of the fixin's, except Ralph turned his nose up at the turnips.
There were two kinds of pie, cookies, and ice cream to get us to the turkey sandwiches, which I loved most of all. Mama had a way of stacking turkey, dressing, and cranberries high on thick slices of her home made bread, not long out of the oven.
I never stopped with one and worried I'd one day be so big that I wouldn't fit under the table. Farm work would prevent a thing like that, but at twenty and in love I needed to worry about something.
Come spring we turned the soil after what we were sure would be the final hard freeze. There were plenty of us for planting and that made the job relatively easy. During the afternoons and evenings, Jacob slipped away to finish "his" fence. He carefully painted each post light blue and once those dried he proceeded to paint clouds, cows, chicken, and pigs on the posts in bright yellow. He'd already painted the back porch light blue and Pa put a stop to it when he wanted to paint the swing.
It's at the swing where Pa and Jake came to a meeting of the minds. Jake had given up his resistance to the cane Sven made for him after seeing Mister navigate quite easily on his. At first he made sure no one was watching, when he reached for it and allowed it to support some of his weight. One afternoon, coming in from the field, there were the three canes leaning together against the porch railing, while Pa and Jake were eying the checker board before making careful moves.
"I got you this time, Jake. You're going to lose for a change."
"He he," Jake chuckled. "I wouldn't be so fast if I was you, Mister," and with that, click, click, click, Jake took off three of Pa's checkers. "Crown me."
"I'm going to crown you in a minute. Use a cheatin' me. There's no way anyone can beat me the way you do. These checkers is loaded."
"You just need to sharpen your game a bit," Jake said. "Another game?"
"Yeah, I'll give you one more try. You quit cheatin', you hear me?"
"He he, you ain't use to losin' is yeah, Mister? You done got yourself rusty lying up in that bed."
"I'll show you rusty," Pa said, leaning to move one of his checkers after Jake reset the board.
It was always the same. Pa accused Jake of cheating each time he lost and Jake laughed at the complaints. I'd never seen Pa seem at peace with himself. I'm sure there were regrets, disappointment, and pain, but it was rare for him to display signs of it.
As the spring took hold, you could hear Jake and Pa arguing over that checkerboard each night. The corn was once again growing in the field and the weather was perfect day after day.
Each night after supper there was a small gathering on the back porch as the cloudless sky came alive with night lights.
"What are you smoking in that pipe?" Pa asked one evening.
"Lit'l a dis. Lit'l a dat."
"Smells like something that comes out of the south end of a northbound cow."
"I smokes what I can find," Jake said, eying the checkerboard certain this was a ploy to distract him.
"Here, let me see that," Pa ordered, puffing on his own pipe and examining Jake's.
"Jake, I can't let you smoke this stuff. If it don't knock you out it might knock me out." Pa decided, banging the contents of Jake's pipe against the railing so the ashes and remnants fell into Mama's flowers. "You need to try some real tobacco in this thing. I got me a fresh bag from Des Moines. You try it and see if it isn't better than that crap."
Pa prepared the pipe, handing it to Jake before lighting a match for him to light it. They sat puffing away, losing track of the game.
"What do you think?"
"Smooth. Ain't got much bite to it," Jake observed.
No one had mentioned Jake and the boys staying on. I halfway expected Mama or Pa to mention the fact they were still here, but the subject never came up. There was someone special for each of us that year. I had Sven. Ralph had Jacob. Junior had Kaleb and both Mama and Pa had Jake.
It took Pa another week to get around to Jake's pipe, which had seen better days. Jake had been fixing it for weeks and it was once again in two pieces next to the checkerboard as they played.
"That thing ain't going to catch my checkerboard on fire, is it?" Pa asked as the pipe continued to smoke even after Jake set it aside.
"I'll get me a bucket ah water if it'll make ya feel safer."
"No, no," Pa said. "Probably best if this damn board burns anyway. You wouldn't be able to cheat me no more."
"Uh huh," Jake said, and click, click, click, his checker said.
"You distracted me with that damn pipe. I know your tricks."
"King me, please," Jake said.
"I'll king you alright. Junior, come here."
"Yeah, Pa," Junior said, poking his head outside the screen door.
"Go into the parlor into my cabinet and bring me my other pipe. This one's a burning a mite hot tonight. Bring me the tobacco."
Junior brought back the items mentioned and set them on the swing beside Pa as he studied the checkerboard.
Pa picked the pipe up and packed it full as Jake decided his move.
"Here, Jake. A man ought to have two pipes. This one's going to waste. May as well get some use out of it. You do agree a man don't need two pipes, don't you?"
"Yes, Mister, I reckon that's right," Jake said with some skepticism in his voice.
"Good. Junior throw this damn thing away so he can't distract me while he fools with it."
"Let me see some of that stuff you call tobacco," Pa said, after a few more moves.
Jake removed the little cloth bag from his shirt pocket, handing it to Pa without looking away from the board. Pa opened it and promptly dumped it out into Mama's flowers.
"What is you doin? That's all I got," Jake moaned.
Pa filled the bag with the store bought tobacco he favored and handed it back to Jake.
"There, now I ain't got to smell that stuff anymore. I keep the tobacco in the bottom of the wooden cabinet. If you don't feel comfortable taking what you need, just tell one of us you're running low."
"Yes, sir. Thank you," he said, taking a long puff on the pipe.
"Just can't take that smell of that stuff. Got to do something."
"Yes, sir," Jake said. "Mighty nice pipe you got here. Never smoked no store bought pipe afore. Mighty fine."
"Don't get so wrapped up in that pipe that you don't be a playin' me fair now. I've got my eye on you."
"Yes, sir," Jake said, smiling as he smoked.
That pretty much cemented their friendship. I'm not saying they didn't often argue over checkers, but there was an affection that grew up between the two men. This was a side of my father I didn't see before his accident.
Before long you could find them walking out into the fields with three canes allowing them a greater range than otherwise might have been possible. Pa began to put some weight back on and no longer looked sickly.
The daily exercise did wonders for his appetite and the most vulnerable person in our household recovered most of his health, after a long recuperation, but he'd never again walk without aid.
Sven and I continued our walks around the farm and often ended up under the old oak. In spite of being in the middle of a field it was one of the more private places we used. After making love and holding one another for some time, I wondered aloud about the lonely old tree that protected us from the sun.
"Why do you suppose Great Grandpa Sorenson cut down all the trees but this one?"
"Hard to figure why anyone does anything," Sven said, pulling on his coveralls.
"You'd think with it being right in the middle, he'd cut it down or grandpa would have, or even Pa. Here it stands."
"Yeah, you'd think," Sven said, walking around the tree, brushing at the bark, checking the tree for flaws.
"What are you doing?" I asked, not ready to dress yet.
"When did your great grandpa settle here?" Sven asked.
"Well, I don't remember that far back you understand. He came in 1848 or '49' I believe."
"Hows about '51'. Would his name be Peter Sorenson?"
"Yeah, how'd you know that."
"Your grandfather was Christian and he took the farm in 1883."
"About then I believe. How did you know his name anyway?"
"Your Pa's name is George and he took the farm in 1915. Named after George Washington no doubt?"
I pulled on my coveralls and walked to the other side of the tree.
"It's all right here. That's why no one cut her down."
Carved into the bark and so dark you had to look close to see it were the names of the three men who had farmed the Sorenson farm since the beginning.
Sven took out his whittling knife and up under one of the thick bows he carved, SG & RS inside a heart. I kissed his hand and I kissed him and we took our coveralls back off.
There was one thing for sure, I'd never get enough of Sven. How the rest of my life had been so mundane and everything since his appearance on our farm so grand, I'll never understand, but I didn't need to. Even if it was all a dream, it was a dream come true for me. I'd finally found out where I belonged, with him.
"Pa, that big oak tree. You all carved your names in it. You took the farm in 1915?"
"Yes, I did, Robert. I'd forgotten all about that tree. I plowed around it for so many years and didn't remember it was there for a purpose. That marks the Sorenson history on this land. I haven't taken an up-close look at that tree in years."
The very next day Jake and Pa journeyed into the field and out of sight of the house. Sven and I were doing maintenance on the equipment, running it from time to time to keep it ready to go.
"Those two make quite a pair," Sven said. "I wasn't sure about how your Pa would take to Jake."
"Me either. Funny, although I had no reason to think he wouldn't like Jake, I wasn't sure he would."
It was a couple of hours before the two men reappeared in the field. I was sitting in the combine I drove, wiping the insides out. Pa and Jake came to the gate looking quite worn. Pa never looked at me and Jake walked him to the house, where the two men disappeared.
Later, when we went inside, they were arguing over checkers as the radio blared behind them. I detected nothing out of the ordinary and we sat with coffee at the kitchen table and the radio was crystal clear in the back of the house.
"You didn't tell me everything that's been carved in that tree out there, Robert," Pa said in his sternest voice.
"Well, no, probably not. I read what I saw."
I was certain he was talking about Sven's heart with our initials inside it. I wasn't prepared for Pa's next suggestion.
"You're going to walk me out to that tree tomorrow. You'll see what I mean."
"Yes, Sir," I said, taking the first order Pa had given me since he tried to get me to give Mr. Crosby the money back.
After breakfast I was out doing chores and Pa and Jake stood at the gate, waiting for me to acknowledge their presence. Once I was finished what I was doing I walked over.
"Come on, son. Times a wastin'."
It was slow going and Sven strolled along behind. Sven showed no sign of being troubled by what we might find at the oak tree, but he didn't walk close enough to me for us to talk about what had Pa's back up.
Pa and Jake were the first ones on the other side of the tree where the old inscriptions were, but Sven was careful to put the heart on the opposite side, and it took a little looking to find it. My curiosity started to peak.
"Right there!" Pa declared. "Now, see what I'm talking about."
Freshly carved directly under where Pa's faded name was cut into the wood was "Robert Sorenson, 1937."
Pa and I'd been at such a distance for so long I was never sure which way it would go, but before I could stop myself I had my arms around him, giving him a hug. Pa stood for it for a minute and then started moving back away from the clutch. We both had tears in our eyes. Mine came from the recognition the carving indicated Pa wanted me to have. Mine came from the years of pain I'd put Pa through. I'd taken my place as the head of the farm and this made it official. The only weight I still carried had been lifted from me.
It's a funny thing about weight. Once your shed of it, you find it isn't long before a replace shows up. I was too happy to worry about such things, but the subsequent weights would prove to be of a kind that weren't easily put down. These years were deceptive and filled with promise and prosperity. They were the kind of years that makes you feel like nothing will ever again threaten you.
Being in Sven's arms every night reassured me that I'd stay safe as long as he held me. It was perfect for me. My life had meaning. I had love. Things were good.
'38' was a good year if not as good as '37' but the prices were on the rise as exports were increasing. When I went in to order the trucks for harvest, Mr. Crosby was friendly and even cordial. He had me take a seat and served Sven and me coffee and talked about how successful my first harvest had been. He asked about Mama and Pa and I had to check twice to see if it was the same disagreeable fellow I'd bested on a hunch and a prayer.
When he started talking numbers and about his climbing expenses, I set down my coffee cup and stood over his desk.
"Times a wasting," I said. "Last years deal, the one you made with me, will suit me fine. I'll expect your trucks at sunup and I'll let them loose at dark, until it's done."
"Well," Crosby said, looking at his expense page. "That deal? Well, I had in mind something closer to what your father and I agreed to."
I turned my back on him and looked at Sven. Mr. Crosby stood up not understanding my abrupt need to depart his comfortable office and the nice coffee and all. I could see the wheels turning in his head when I turned to look back once I reached the door. I'm sure he saw the confrontation from the year before running through his mind.
"That'll be fine, Robert. Mr. Sorenson. Same deal as last year. Yes, that sounds fair. Do you want to shake my hand on it?"
"Sure," I said, smiling and moving back to his desk. "You'll write that up in a contract and we can sign it together my next time in town, Mr. Crosby."
"In writing? Oh, of course I will," he said. "Next time in town."
I didn't need it in writing. I had Mr. Crosby's number by that time, but I enjoyed seeing him squirm. If I was in a good bargaining position the year before, my position was strengthened by the rising price of corn and what was a steadily growing market. Mr. Crosby couldn't afford to lose any more farmers and we both knew it.
"You have any trouble at all now, you don't hesitate calling me and I'll get her straightened out pronto. We want to keep our customers happy. Yes, siree."
That was our final tight year in that era. We brought in a fine harvest, working together even better than the year before. Both Ralph and Jacob spelled us on the big machines and Junior took up driving the International without much good will coming from Kaleb, who reminded me of myself when I heard him grumbling about slave labor. In spite of it he gave a fair measure of work and Mama and Jake kept him fed well enough that he didn't complain often.
Mama came to me one evening once the cold had started setting in. Mama always figured out logistics and what we had and what we could afford to do without, like that sports coat I once wanted at the end of a year when we hadn't been able to pay the bank in full.
"Robert, you need to get yourself back in this house and use that empty bed upstairs. Lord knows it's been going to waste for long enough. Your Pa can't make it up them stairs any more and my place is beside him. You quit the foolishness and come back in the house where it's warm."
"Mama, I can't just light out of the barn to take care of myself. I got men that work for me. I don't see it's fair I get to stay warm."
"You run a farm. Sven's seen a bed before, and if he ain't I'm just the one to introduce him to one. You get that boy and bring me in that bedding you got out there and I'll get it washed up. I've put on fresh sheets and my best comforter and that's the end of it."
It was the end of it. The first night, after Sven got into bed, he moaned about the comfort against his back. Of course we didn't get much sleep, but harvest was done and the boss wasn't going to raise any cane about some amorous goings on.
In fact the boss would have raised cane if there hadn't been such goings on. Of course the bed did raise cane and the squeaking made us laugh so hard that it interrupted some of our better nights of love making.
Once the war in Europe started, prices were steadily rising and farmers could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Making profits from other people's miseries didn't set well with me, and Mama use to warn of such things, but at least we weren't constantly worrying about losing the farm. I must say it lifted some weight off me, but if there's one thing for sure, there will be change and one weight replaces another.
It was in '39 that Ralph announced, "I'm going with Jacob to find his mama over in Georgia after harvest is done."
"Boy, that ain't much of an idea. You both aiming on getting yourself hung. No coloreds and whites is allowed to associate back there. Jacob you know better."
"Pa, I want to see Mama. Ralph wants to go. We'll be okay. I know what I's doing."
"You might think use knows but you ain't never seen no man hung on account he's wearin' a colored man's skin."
Mama forbid it. Pa wouldn't hear of it, and Ralph did what he always did in those situations. He left with Jacob shortly after harvest in late September of '39.
The tempo on the farm was reduced considerably after the two most energetic among us left. I like to think Ralph went away thinking we were friends. We hadn't talked much about it, but we managed to get along without argument for most of two years before his departure.
He came to our room before first light one morning.
"Robert… Robert… I'm going now. I wanted to tell you goodbye," he said, hugging me and then hugging Sven as we were still half asleep. "I love you guys," he said, and he was gone from my life as Sven said he one day would.
Ralph didn't say anything to Mama or Pa, but they both knew Ralph well enough not to take offense at his going against them. By that time their wishes were no more than that. Ralph was a man able to make a man's decisions as well as make a man's mistakes.
I wouldn't see my brother again, until after he was a full-grown man in late '44. He and Jacob survived Georgia and a stay in Texas, but only Ralph came home, part of him anyway.
After Europe erupted that year, we spent a lot of free time in front of the radio. Pa and Jake took to playing checkers in the parlor that winter and the radio furnished them with background music as the world went nuts.
The news was never good as the Nazis swallowed large chunks of Europe. They seemed unstoppable. There came a time when I'd heard enough, but I wasn't about to tell everyone else to stop listening.
Sven took a particular interest, mostly standing in the wide doorway, with his hands on over his head appearing to hold up the door jam. His long sorrowful looks said he didn't liked what he'd heard.
"We're going to end up in this mess sooner or later," he said, after a particularly forlorn report.
"That's a million miles away. Roosevelt says we aren't getting involved."
"The world is going to hell. We'll have to bail them out sooner or later," Sven explained. "Same as the Great War. We had to go end it."
"No we won't," I argued, hoping that was enough to hold off the insanity that had gotten loose in the world.
Sven didn't argue, but he was deep in thought much of the time. When I asked what was troubling him, he'd pretend it was nothing at all. Being as close as we were, I knew when he had nothing to say and I knew when what he had to say wasn't what I wanted to hear and was left unsaid. It was to keep me from worrying and that worried me more.
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