The 3:39 From New Iberia to Charles City: The Short Story Continues
It’s been a few weeks since we visited with William Dale and Sarah with an “h.” For those of you not familiar with this continuing saga, this is the story of ordinary people living ordinary lives. You’ll find no thriller here, nor mystery. As a writer I am fascinated by the daily struggle, and the daily victories, of ordinary people. I love our resilience, our zest and our willingness to persevere despite constant setbacks. Human beings are fascinating on the most mundane of days, don’t you think? If you don’t think so just take a ride down to Walmart.
Let’s see what’s happening with our protagonists in the wintry state of Iowa.
It was with heavy hearts that we stepped off the train in Charles City. Sarah and I had paid a visit to her Maw Maw in New Iberia, Louisiana. The purpose of the visit was to convince Maw Maw to come live with us in Iowa. She is getting along in years, lives alone and we have a big old farmhouse that could accommodate Maw Maw quite nicely….but it wasn’t meant to be.
“It’s nice of you, children,” she had told us. “But my life is in New Iberia along the banks of Bayou Teche. Here is where I was born and here is where I will die. Besides, those winters in Iowa would seep into my old bones and hurt something awful.” And then she cackled that laugh of hers, gave us a hug and the decision was final. “You take care of this granddaughter of mine, William Dale, and she’ll do the same for you. Now git, you two!”
Sarah was quiet most of the trip back home. She would occasionally tell me a story of growing up with the only real relative she had known. She told me of the love she felt in the safe arms of her Maw Maw, and she told me of the guilt she felt in leaving the old woman, but in the end, Sarah knew it was meant to be and it was right.
When we pulled into the station in Charles City on a bitterly cold December afternoon, she put on her overcoat and kissed me on the cheek. “This is my home now, Sugar. I’ve shed my last tear. Let’s get some hugs from your mother and sister. I’ll bet your Ma made dinner for us and I swear I could eat a steer right now.”
And that was that! Sarah was made of tough stock and her period of mourning was over. As we stood on the train platform I realized again how much I loved this woman. The snow clustered in her hair, the light of day was absorbed by her skin then radiated outwards, and her eyes, deep pools of intelligence, snared me and would not let me go.
At the Homestead
Ma had, indeed, made us dinner. We all sat down that night to fried chicken, mashed potatoes and, of course, corn. Apple crisp was for dessert, and after we had cleared the table and done dishes, Ma told us we needed to have a family discussion. I knew what that was all about and wasn’t looking forward to it.
“Jeannie, Sarah, William Dale, we’ve got problems. We had a good harvest this year but not good enough to get us current on the mortgage. Mister Booker down at the bank has been calling and asking about it. We need a new tractor and a thousand other little things that will cost money we don’t have. I’m not sure what we’ll do to keep this farm and that’s what this meeting is all about. I’m listening to any suggestions any of you might have. If we don’t come up with a solution I’m afraid this farm is going to the bank if we can’t sell it and I gotta tell ya, that will break my heart.”
The farm had been in our family for a long, long time. My grandfather had died on it, as had my dad. There was a lot of Dale sweat, tears and blood in those acres. Farming wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do with my life but I sure as hell didn’t want to see the land plowed under and condominiums sprout up either. Sarah and I had promised to help out and that’s by God what we would do. Unfortunately, at that moment, I didn’t have the first idea how to turn around our fortunes or luck. Farming is a dying industry for the small guys in this country. It’s all about agribusinesses now, corporations run by three-piece suits and computerized spread sheets dictating every decision. The human factor has been eliminated from farming, washed clean of emotion. Small farms either become housing developments or get swallowed up by the farming giants.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Sarah with an ‘h’.”
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea,” she said. “But at this point we should discuss anything, right?”
My mother leaned forward on the couch. “Sarah, darlin’, we are all ears. What’s this idea of yours?”
"Maw Maw always said the reason why you can't get rid of fleas is because there's just too many of them. You might kill off those on the back of a hound, but those on the belly are still having a party. I think we need to take a lesson from those fleas.
"I think we should diversify. Right now all we really do is corn. Sure, we’ve got a few cattle, but most of our efforts go into corn. I haven’t been here long but from what I understand, corn is a thing of the past for small farmers. The profit margin is just too small, and on two-hundred acres it’s impossible to grow enough corn to make it worthwhile. So we need to move some of our efforts away from corn to other products.
“I was reading in a magazine last week, while Delores was doing my hair at the “Cut and Tuck,” and there was an article about this family farm in Olympia, Washington that is doing real well. They don’t have many more acres than we have but they are hiring helpers like crazy to keep up with demand.”
Now Ma was really leaning forward. “Well keep talking, Sarah. You’ve got our attention.”
“Well, this place in Olympia turned part of their old farmhouse into a Bed & Breakfast. They revamped their old barn into a dance hall and music venue. They turned their cornfield into a corn maze in September and October. They started making cream and butter from their milk and sold it as organic dairy products. They also had a roadside vegetable stand and had an area they turned into a petting zoo for kids. I figure if they can do it we sure as hell can do it, right? What do you think?”
Ma was up now pacing the floor, nodding her head and for the first time in quite awhile, smiling.
“Sarah, what I think is my son, William Dale, has damn fine taste in women. For a southern gal you are surely smart as a whip. Jeannie, William, what do you two think? Can we do it? I wouldn’t know where to start. William, I think you and Sarah should go out to Olympia and gather information, don’t you?”
Jeannie’s answer was to walk over to Sarah and hug her. My answer was to laugh my ass off. For a wondering pilgrim who busted his ass to get off that farm as quickly as possible, it seems I keep finding reasons to return to it and keep working it. I walked over to my mother, took her face in my hands and kissed her forehead. “You’re right, Ma. Sarah is one smart Cajun. She and I will head west after the holidays for a fact-finding trip.”
The four of us celebrated Christmas with renewed hope. Snow fell on the twenty-third, and Christmas morning gleamed as the sun reflected off the white ground. On that beautiful day we did not talk of the changes coming. We spent our time remembering the past and those who once walked this journey with us. We toasted my dad with sweet melancholy, and said a prayer for Maw Maw, hoping she felt the love from a thousand miles away. We ate an early lunch, opened presents, bundled up and all went for a walk around the farm. We shared stories with Sarah of a family built on a foundation of love, and Sarah told us it was all she ever hoped for and she loved us all, and Jeannie told us of a new boyfriend who just might be the one and Ma told us all how proud she was to call us family.
And I thought of the tens of thousands of miles I had travelled after high school, footloose and yes, fancy free, in search of who knows what, but always aware that what really was important, what really mattered most in my life, was this rich Iowa soil, the weathered boards of an old farmhouse and the bond I had with the Dale family, past and present.
Let the next chapter begin, I thought.
And Perhaps There Will Be a Next Chapter
This is one of those stories I don’t want to end, simply because I relate so easily to this fictional family. Charles City, Iowa is where the Holland/O’Dowd family roots are deepest, so I suspect my stories and books will always have a taste of Iowa in them.
I also suspect William Dale and Sarah with an “h” will return soon.
2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)