When the Corn Died: Chapter Ten
Ok, Where Are We in This Story?
Well, simply put, the Harpers are in stormy waters. Peter has had to burn half the corn crop to kill off the grasshopper infestation, meaning they won’t be able to pay the mortgage, meaning they are about to lose the farm to the bank. Great Depression, bank foreclosure, tough times for millions.
But Peter’s wife Evelyn simply refuses to admit defeat. She has told the family that they are all moving to Washington State where they will become apple farmers. Simple as that!
So let’s see if it really is that simple.
Another of my short stories
What the Hell?
“Do you have any idea how many miles it is to Washington?” I asked Evelyn, unable, or unwilling, to accept her crazy idea.
She smiled at me. She knew I couldn’t resist that smile, damn her all to hell. Same smile our son, Peter Junior, has, the smile that melts my damned heart every single time.
“I know exactly how far it is, husband. According to Mrs. Lander at the library, it is one-thousand, six-hundred and seventy-four miles from Charles City to Wenatchee, Washington. I figure that’s about forty hours of driving, but add in necessary breaks and we can figure to be on the road about three days total.”
I was shaking my head while she was talking.
“And you just expect the five of us to pack all our belongings into that beat up pickup truck, climb up into it, and drive all those miles across mountains so high they seem alien in nature? There are times, Evelyn, when I don’t know for sure if that old truck will make it into town, and you want to drive it across the Great Plains in the heat of summer and then over the goddawfullest mountains known to mankind? Damn, woman, we’ll be lucky to make it to the Iowa state border before we break down on the side of the road, and then what will we do?”
Evelyn walked across the room and kissed me on the cheek. Then she smiled that damned smile again.
“Husband, I swear, you can be as fussy as an old woman. If we break down, well, then I’ll grab your hand, and you’ll grab Peter Junior’s, and he’ll grab Emma’s and she’ll grab Timothy’s, and then by God we’ll start walking west until a solution presents itself. Now enough of this jabbering. We’ve got work to do. I want you to head into town and find us a buyer for this farm and also for our cattle. Take Peter Junior with you so you men folk can cuss and fume a bit and we women won’t have to listen to you. Emma and I are going to start packing belongings and getting the things we don’t need ready for sale. Now get going, please. We all have work to do.”
Never Argue with a Determined Woman
Those were my words of advice to Peter Junior as he and I headed into town and he asked me if his Ma was serious.
“For the love of God, Pa, does she know how dangerous a trip that’s going to be? Look what happened to me and I only traveled one state south. She’s talking about halfway across the country. And what if we do make it to Wenatchee or whatever that town’s name was? We don’t have any money? We don’t know a damned thing about apples other than how to eat them. What makes her think we can just become apple farmers? You have to talk to her, Pa.”
I pulled the truck over to the side of the road under a big old oak tree. The shade felt good as the Iowa sun spiked the temperature back towards ninety and dust devils danced across the western landscape.
“Listen closely, son! Your ma is the kindest, gentlest woman I’ve ever known, but she’s also tough as nails. She don’t talk about her family much because it hurts her to do so, but let me tell you, she’s known pain. She watched her father die in a storm back in Nineteen-Eighteen. Before that her mother died of cholera and her younger sister drowned when the family crossed the Ohio heading west. Despite all that pain she believes in the good of life, and above that she believes in the power of love.
“I don’t have the heart to tell her no, son, so we’re going to Washington. Besides, that woman is determined. If she thinks we can make it then I’m real close to believing it myself. Simple as that!”
Peter Junior nodded when I was done talking. He walked down the road a good hundred feet and looked off into the west, staring at the flatness of this country but I’m sure imagining mountain peaks soaring to the heavens. He reached down, picked up a clump of dirt and threw it down the road, then slowly walked back to me.
“I reckon you’re right, Pa. Let’s go sell us a farm.”
Back at the Farm
Evelyn and Emma spent the better part of the morning sorting through boxes that were up in the attic, determining what was important and what was just plain foolishness, while young Timothy went around to the critters, lugging a grain bucket with him and feeding them best he could.
The two women were comfortable in the silence as old friends often are, seeing no need to interrupt work with mundane statements that only served to take up air space. These were serious times and neither felt the need for lighthearted banter as the sun crawled across the southern sky. Finally Evelyn wiped her hands on her skirt and looked at the young woman next to her.
“You’re sweet on my son, aren’t you, Emma?”
The young woman at first seemed not to hear the question, but finally she looked up.
“I reckon I am, Mrs. Harper. He’s a good man and I know, I’m older than he is, and maybe some think I haven’t mourned the loss of my husband properly, but there is just so much good in your son, and love, and, well, yes, Mrs. Harper, I’m sweet on your son.”
“Emma, if you call me Mrs. Harper one more time, I swear I’ll scream. Call me Ma, darlin’, and welcome to the family.” And with that she engulfed the younger woman in a hug few humans had felt, a hug that said you are accepted and loved and by God always will be.
“Let’s go see how your son is doing. This stuff will wait. At the end of any day, there are only a few things that are truly important. How did you treat other people that day? Did you tell your loved ones how important they are to you and better yet, did you show them? Did you do more good than harm? So sorting through these things really isn’t important. We could leave for Washington tomorrow with just our clothes on our backs and we’d have everything we needed that was important.”
I pulled up in front of the Charles City Savings & Loan and shut off the engine. I could taste dust on my lips as the constant wind blew more farmland to the south. It made a man wonder if things would ever be the same again.
I found Robert Stapleton, the bank manager, at his desk shuffling papers. He shook hands with Peter Junior and me and told us to have a seat. We did.
“What can I do for you, Peter?” he asked me.
He was a pasty man who found it hard to make eye-contact. I’ve known him since we were kids and I honestly can’t say I feel one way or another about him. He grew up rich. I grew up with cow shit on my boots. Enough said!
“I brought you two months of mortgage money, Robert. Evelyn’s been working part-time, and we sold off some of our cattle and hogs, so that should even us up on what we owe you. Now I want to know if you know of anyone who wants to buy our farm. We’re all moving to Washington State just as soon as we can find a buyer.”
Watching Stapleton react to my words, or to put a finer spin on it, not react, I was reminded why I didn’t particularly warm up to the man. He’d been the same way when we were kids. You could tell him it was raining outside or you could tell him the fever just killed off the town, and his reaction would be the same, namely no reaction. He always seemed detached from reality, or above all the mundane trials and tribulations normal people experience, like his mind was locked on weightier problems. I felt myself getting angry.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Harper. I truly am. That farm’s been in your family a good many years and it’s a shame to see it change hands.”
He didn’t seem sorry at all.
“I could probably be persuaded to buy that farm from you for, oh, say fifty dollars an acre. At that price, after you pay off the mortgage, you’ll clear maybe a thousand dollars. That will give you a good stake to start off with in Washington.”
No doubt about it. Now I was angry.
“That land is worth double that, Robert, and you damned well know it, even with this Depression.”
“Peter, that land is worth whatever someone will pay for it, and you damned well know that. If you can find someone willing to pay more than by all means, sell it to them. But my offer is fifty an acre. Now I really need to get back to work unless there’s something else. Please tell Evelyn I sent my regards.”
I could feel Peter Junior’s hand on my arm and his squeeze telling me no good would come from me knocking Stapleton ass over teakettle. I got up slowly, not really trusting what I would do next.
“Draw up the papers, Robert. I hope you sleep well at night. You know, Robert, I never really liked you when we were kids.”
“Peter, I can honestly say, I never really gave you any thought, good or bad, when we were children. You were just part of the scenery we passed on the way to my daddy’s bank, and the same can be said for your wife Evelyn. She was a pretty girl but my goodness she was, after all, just a farmer’s daughter and always would be.”
Peter Junior should have gripped my arm a little tighter. Before I really understood what was happening, my fist was connecting with Stapleton’s jaw and he was collapsing on the floor.
“YOU HIT HIM? Peter Harper, I swear, what in the world has gotten into you?”
Evelyn was not happy with me.
“Do you know how lucky you are he didn’t have you arrested? You can’t go around hitting people simply because they didn’t notice you as a child. For God’s sake, Peter Harper, what were you thinking?”
“He also said you were just a farmer’s daughter and always will be.”
My bride turned and looked out the kitchen window. I’m not sure what she saw out there other than the cottonwoods and fence line, but when she turned back to me she was smiling.
“He probably didn’t realize he was paying me a compliment. Well, then, you should have helped him up and hit him a second time, husband. Now who’s hungry? Emma and I fixed a banquet for the Harper men and you damned well better love it.”
To Be Continued
The stage is set for the move out west. Hopefully you’ll join the Harpers next week as they pack up and head out on a great adventure.
Until then, have a wonderful week and thank you so much for joining me.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)