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Original Short Story - Okie 1958
The sun had just risen to the east, its rays shined over the fence line, casting shadows on the edges of the wheat. It had rained a little bit during the night and I could smell it in the air, the musky feeling of wet grain brought a slight smile to my lips. I was pleased when it rained like that, every bit of water counted these days.
This was my farm. My little bit of paradise. It was a modest parcel, maybe about two hundred acres. On the east field I grew wheat, the west and north corn, and the south I’d rotate between alfalfa and beans.
My house was a three room house located on the edge of the west field, facing the direction towards town. We weren’t to terribly close to town but we were close enough to make a trip or two during the day if we had to. The railway was just out of hearing distance, between the farm and the town. I liked it that way. We would take our crops to the railway to be shipped, so we didn’t have to go through town or bother them high and mighty folks and their allergies.
I’d put up new fences last year. I had decided to use cedar posts that I brought in from out west. They held real sturdy in the ground, and so far all I’d had to fix in the past year had been the barbed wire strung between the posts, every post had made it through winter.
It was harvest time, the labors of fall were upon me. The old tractor was waiting for me in the barn behind the house, ready to go. I had fueled it and checked it for mechanical problems the day before so I could get right to it this morning. I loved the hard work of farming and I loved this life.
But I shouldn’t be running this farm, not yet at least. This land had been my pa’s and a few years back I had left the farm to make it on my own. I even tried to get educated, I attended a college where I had started out pretty good. But after the first year I got news that a bad storm had hit the farm. My pa told me that all the crops were gone and that the old barn had collapsed entirely. The worst of it was that my ma had been in the barn when it came down. I had tried to rush home to see her but she passed on before I got there.
After losing my ma it was too painful to return to my studies, and pa needed help getting the farm back together so I moved back home. Every night after I came home I heard my father gently weeping in his bedroom. He loved ma more than anything and the loss was tearing him up inside. I was hurting too, but my remedy was to throw myself into the labors of the farm. We both missed her, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk about her; it just hurt too much. Every now and then though, while I was making the rounds on the tractor, I’d think of her out working the fields with us. For as long as I could remember she had worked right alongside my pa. The image that always came to my mind when I thought of her was an image of her after she’d just finished a hard day’s work; her sweat would be falling from her chin and her hair would be matted with dirt. But she was smiling, she was always smiling. Her smile reminded me of when the sun would send a couple rays of light down through the midst of storm clouds, reminding you that it was still there. In my heart my ma was still there.
My pa was a different story all together. From the day that my ma died I never ever saw a spark of hope in my pa’s eyes again, only despair. It started with a few beers at night to drown out his hurt and then he started into whiskey and then moonshine. Eventually he got so consistently drunk he stopped helping on the farm and started drinking hard and often.
Watching my pa fall apart and become a complete drunkard was the saddest thing I ever saw. It wasn’t long until he was nothing but a shadow of who he used to be. My pa had always tried to stay neat despite his hard life. His hair had always been kept short and nicely done and his suspenders, though worn, were always kept patched and starched. Now his hair grew long and his beard was shaggy. His suspenders were full of holes and smelled of whiskey and tobacco. He almost never washed, and when he did it was because I forced him too.
But despite my father’s complete come apart I made out alright. I had some friends I could count on to help at harvest time, and with a little faith and hard work the soil produced what I put in it. I was able to start building up savings and I was starting to think I’d make an okay living with my life. I even was about to start courting a girl who had caught my eye in town. But it all came apart three years ago on a hot Oklahoma summer night.
My father, unbeknownst to me, had gotten into gambling along with his usual activities. He was too drunk to win anything, but I think the other players offered him free booze to get him to wager. They essentially picked his pockets through the cards. One night he bet everything he owned, the farm and all, on three aces. My Uncle Jeb was playing that night as well, and he beat my pa with a straight flush. That night I answered the door of my house to find my booze blind pa held up by my Uncle Jeb who proceeded to inform me that the farm was now his and that he expected a share of the profits if we were to stay on the land.
Just like that I lost my land, my independence, and my manhood. A man without land was nothing. I never did try to court that woman in town, I was too ashamed, and she got married to some other farmer soon after.
The next few years didn’t fair any better. Last year we got hit by a hail storm that destroyed half my crops. To make ends meet I sold all the crops and couldn’t keep any of it for seed. Then this year prices for seed went up, and I had had to go into town and work at a diner for a month to have enough money to plant the fields. The seed I got wasn’t very good, and planting late in the season made me nervous.
Now it’s September, and the crops are not looking as good as I’d like them too. All I can do is go out and get it done. But I don’t know if I’ll harvest enough to make a profit and still pay a good enough share to my uncle.
As I sat on the tractor and made the rounds across the farm, I thought a lot about my life. Usually I was content to focus on the labors and not worry about much of anything else. But today my mind seemed to wander a lot. I wondered if I’d ever get married or if I’d ever own my own land again. A man without land isn’t really a man, and how could I expect a girl to marry someone who wasn’t a man. But I didn’t want to just up and leave this farm. Even though I didn’t own it, it still felt like my farm. It was where I had been raised, it was where my ma was buried, and I loved this little farm.
As I was pondering all this I suddenly noticed a cloud of dust coming from the direction of town. I watched for a bit and concluded it was definitely heading my way. I kept watching to see if it would stop at the rail yard. When it didn’t, I had a pretty good feeling it was coming to the farm. I looked out over my modest crops and suddenly grew weary that it was my Uncle Jeb coming to look over things. What would he think when he saw all this.
I was waiting by the front gate of my home when the car pulled up and parked. I had been right, it was my uncle. Uncle Jeb was a mean old cuss. He’d fought in the war and won him a medal or two, but the stories that were told about him didn’t talk about any heroic stands or brave action, they only talked about the Germans he’d killed in cold blood and the loot he’d brought back with him. He was known as a swindler and a cheat, and he had built himself a modest fortune by doing just those things. I had learned the hard way to never talk back to him.
He got out of his car and walked toward me. No hand was outstretched by either of us. “How’s the field looking Patrick?” he asked me as he came to stand in front of me.
“I ain’t gonna lie to ya Uncle Jeb,” I replied, “If I had another month of growth it’d turn out alright, but planting the seed so late’s making it look mighty scanty.”
“Fool boy,” replied Uncle Jeb in disgust, “Guess I’ll have to take a look.”
That he did. His eyes got meaner, and his face showed more disgust the more he saw. Finally he turned me and pointed a finger, “In the house now!”
I did as he instructed and went up to the door of my house. I looked in and saw that my pa was passed out on the couch. A bottle was dangling from his hand and his beard was still wet from the whiskey he had spilled on it. I went to him and tried to wake him so I could get him moved out of the main room. He mumbled but didn’t wake.
“Leave him where he lays!” shouted Uncle Jeb.
I stopped trying to wake my pa and moved over to the table where Uncle Jeb liked to discuss “his” business with me. I resented this table.
Uncle Jeb sat down across from me and pulled some documents out of his coat. He laid them down on the table along with a pencil and began writing figures on the paper.
“You see these papers,” Uncle Jeb said, “These papers show my profits and losses.”
He pointed his finger harshly at the bottom of one the papers, “And this is the biggest loss of everything right here – your farm!”
He angrily swept all the papers off the table and pointed at me, “You have a week to get off this farm! I’m selling this waste of time and space to the highest bidder!”
I stood up in shock, of all the things that I had expected to hear that wasn’t one of them.
“But we’re your kin!” I cried out, “You have to give us another chance.”
Uncle Jeb stood up angrily, “Your momma was my sister, and she went and made the fool choice to marry that piece of filth over there,” he said as he pointed at my passed out pa.
I looked at my pa helplessly, I couldn’t lose this farm. Uncle Jeb’s angry voice brought me back to reality.
“You’re just as much a waste of time as your pa is,” he shouted at me, “The only difference between the two of you, is you still think your worth something!”
“Give me another year Jeb,” I begged, “I can make it good here with one more year, do it for my mother.”
“Your mother ain’t no kin of mine!” yelled Uncle Jeb, “The wench lost any of my blood when she married your pa!”
All of a sudden I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. My pa had risen in an angry drunken stupor. He moved violently towards Uncle Jeb and shouted, “Don’t talk about my Sandra like that Jeb!”
My pa tried to hit Uncle Jeb but missed entirely. I saw Uncle Jeb grit his teeth and clench his fist. He steadied himself and got ready to give my pa a blow that could kill him. At the last moment I stepped in the way and received the full force of the blow. My head was knocked into my pa’s and we both stumbled to the ground in a big bloody mess.
“Like I said,” hollered Uncle Jeb, “You’ve got one week, if you’re both still here, I’ll kill you!”
Despite the hard blow to my head and the blood dripping of my nose I continued to work the farm that day. All day long I worked and didn’t even think about Uncle Jeb’s ultimatum. I worked and I worked until even my hard callused hands started to blister. Still I worked, until the blisters popped and blood soaked my hands. I saw the sun start going down and I headed towards my house. My hands were rubbed raw, nearly to the bone.
I came in the house and went to wash my hands. As I turned on the water I noticed that my pa had turned on the radio set we kept in the main room. As I scrubbed my destroyed hands I heard Johnny Cash’s tune “Folsom Prison Blues” floating through the house. The song had a jumpy runaway freight train rhythm to it and I usually tapped my toes along with the song. I had never really related with the lyrics though. I personally never planned to go to prison, and I definitely couldn’t hear a lonesome whistle from way out here in this farm. But there was a line that Cash sang that caught my ear this time, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” I started thinking to myself that I knew a man who I’d like to watch die, and I wouldn’t “hang my head and cry” after either.
I grabbed a towel to dry my wet hands. They were still the color of the soil and the skin was peeling, but there’s only so much scrubbing soap and salt can do when the soil and skin is your life. I looked around the house and discovered my father had disappeared again. That meant that pretty soon I’d have to fire up the truck and head into town to pick him up from the bar. I had taken the keys from him hoping to deter him from going back to town. But of all things for his muddled mind to remember, it had to be how to hot-wire a car. Maybe I should just sell the old car so he couldn’t do that either. The truck was usually out in the fields with me so he wouldn’t be able take it. Oh well, I figured I’d worry about that later.
I started heading for the door as the last bass chords blew Johnny Cash’s blues away. I guess I’d be hearing that lonesome whistle after all, since the railway was between my farm and the town. Too bad I couldn’t sit in a fancy dining car and drink coffee, listening to that whistle blowing my blues away. Ain’t no use in dreaming a ploughboys blues are only drowned temporarily by booze, and I wouldn’t touch the stuff, my father had enough for the both us. I didn’t know what I’d do, but I sure wouldn’t become like my pa.
I always hated driving to town. Even though it was a small town I still felt congested. Within a few minutes I missed the open spaces of my farm. I pulled into the parking lot by the bar; it was always the first place to check for my pa. If he wasn’t in there I had to start searching the alleys and hope I didn’t find him dead.
I got out of my truck and was about to head towards the bar when I looked left and noticed movement down an alleyway. I figured it might be my pa so I decided to check that alleyway before going into the bar. But then I saw what was making the movement. It wasn’t my pa, it was my Uncle Jeb. I looked closer and realized he was drunk and stumbling down the alley.
My palms got sweaty. My fingers nervously itched as I watched that hated man continue to move. My hands moved back towards the truck door. I almost didn’t realize what they were doing until I found my hands gripping the cold handle of the pistol I kept in there. The thoughts I had had earlier were creeping back into my head. I looked around and there was no one around. I began taking steps toward the alleyway.
When I reached the alley I noticed Uncle Jeb had stopped and was taking another swig from his bottle. I decided to move a little closer so I wouldn’t miss. First twenty yards and then ten and I finally stopped. My hands, which had been shaking terribly, suddenly relaxed and remained steady. And then something strange happened. It was almost like I detached myself from my body. I watched myself raise the pistol and take aim. My breathing steadied and, as I exhaled, I slowly pulled the trigger.
I watched and waited for the pistol to fire, but then, suddenly, I was gripped by a terrible panic. I was about to shoot a man in the back! I was gonna end Uncle Jeb’s life in cold blood! If I did this I would forever be a coward. All this time I thought my manhood was in my land and in my labor. Suddenly as I watched my eyes aim down the sights I realized my manhood was in my pride as a human being. If I did this that would forever be lost.
It was almost in slow motion, I moved my hand slightly, taking my aim off of Uncle Jeb as the flames licked out from the barrel, the bullet went flying towards him but missed just high. Uncle Jeb, though completely drunk, seemed to still have reflexes from the war and hit the ground seeking cover behind a trash can. Then everything sped up like a freight train. I turned and ran to my truck before Uncle Jeb or anyone had seen me.
I got to the truck and fired it up. The wheels skidded and smoked as I pressed down hard on the gas and drove out of town the fastest I’d ever driven in my life. When I crossed the railroad tracks my truck literally flew over them, landing with a loud bang. I was lucky I didn’t break an axle but I didn’t ponder on it very long. Finally I reached my farm. I ran past the house and headed back towards the grove of trees where my ma was buried.
As I came to the tombstone I finally settled myself and allowed myself to breathe. I kneeled down and looked at the letters etched in the stone. As I looked at my ma’s name I started crying and I touched the stone. I vowed then and there that I’d never be a coward again. That no matter what happened in my life I would always stand as the man that my ma had raised me to be.
I got up and turned towards my farm. It was beautiful. The moon was just starting to rise, shining its pale grey shadows over the fence line. I remembered the cedar posts and how they had stood through the winter. The wire hadn’t lasted but the fence posts had.
I breathed in the smell of the wheat and corn. All the crops were dry now, but they smelled good and ready to harvest.
This was still my farm, because it’s where I had been raised to be a man. But I had learned today that this farm did not define who I was. Farming was just what I did. Whatever the sunrise the next day brought for me, I would face it as a man.