The Farm Hand
Written by Rick Beck
Edited by: Gardner Rust
The Hands Are Home
"Robert, I put your sandwiches in with the boys. You take your time and don't rush back. You've been out in the sun for long enough today. There's cheese in the bottom for Ralph."
"Yes, ma'am," I answered, digging one of the sandwiches out so I could hand it to Sven before leaving.
The empty farm truck bounced mightily against the pasture as I headed toward the last substantial stand of trees on the property. We'd been nursing it since I was a boy, after previous generations had cleared all but a few small stands of trees from the rest of the land. Only because of the pond and the fact these trees furnished shade that was appreciated during family outings over the years did they remain pretty much untouched. Thinning out the woods periodically for things like porches and fence posts was being smart caretakers according to Pa.
Our farm was well managed. We did no more harm to the land than necessary and made repairs when required. Each time I thought about it, I loved it, but being tied to it didn't appeal to me. Leaving didn't mean not coming back, but each time I got in the truck, I had the urge to keep driving until I was far away. Watching the horizon, I found myself looking back to when the thought of leaving the farm first came to me. I tried to nail down that moment when leaving was more appealing than staying, but I knew how it all started.
I remembered Jose from when I was twelve. He was one of the youngest hands Pa hired, seventeen. I never saw Jose as a hand. He told me tales of his life on the road, after he left Mexico when he was younger than I was then. I no longer remembered Jose's face but his stories still stirred my imagination.
He left me with a curiosity about what lay beyond our farm and our little piece of Iowa. That's the first time I considered travel to see things for myself as an option in my life. Pa didn't quite share my enthusiasm for the unknown.
I remembered the year Mama had Richard Lee. She stayed in the hospital over in Des Moines. After church one Sunday, Pa took us the hour's drive to see her. My eyes could hardly take in everything I saw. We returned to take Mama home later on but they'd buried Richard Lee beside the church without any of us boys being there. We were told Richard Lee had gone to live with God. For a long time after that, when I prayed, I told God to have his own babies and leave my Mama's alone. I was seven and I'd seen what was beyond our farm for the first time.
I returned to Des Moines and the same hospital the year I was thirteen, after breaking my leg. The day they put the cast on I lay in the back of the truck on a pile of hay Pa'd put there for me. As we drove toward home, I watched the western sky as the sun boiled low on the horizon. I wanted to go to where the sun set. I suppose my yearning grew from there, especially at school where we read about exotic places. I stood in our fields wondering which way I needed to look to see the Egyptian pyramids or the Great Wall of China.
Pa and I traveled back to Des Moines two years later. That's the year we came closest to losing the farm. He took the money from the harvest there rather than wait for Wednesday, when the banker came to our town. That was back when Pa and I still got along, and as the eldest son, I got to go with him. Even when there were no hard feelings between us we rarely spoke much.
A year later Pa returned to Des Moines with the money for the mortgage but without me. We were on the outs by then and Pa traveled alone. I rarely left the farm once Pa found out I intended to leave the farm. Funny how my desire to travel led me to my staying within a few miles of the farm once it was known. When Mama ran short of something she always sent me into town to the General Mercantile Emporium, which was all of six miles, but that wasn't even as far as the school house.
When Pa ran short of something and couldn't make the trip himself, he sent Ralph to get it and Junior to keep an eye on Ralph. It was his way of letting me know where I stood.
Now, I heard about the world from the radio in the evening after supper, from books I carried home from school, and from hands that weren't too shy to talk. It wasn't their lives that interested me but where their lives had taken them and how they came to be on our farm. Sven wasn't the least bit shy, but I didn't get the responses I wanted out of him. He wasn't like other hands. Sven made me feel like a boy and each of his answers created more questions.
While I hated the fact I couldn't just up and leave, I loved the farm. It's difficult to explain how my feelings troubled me. Pa's reaction, when he found out I intended to leave, was like a hard man turning cold. He shut me out that day. His long hard looks and disapproving headshakes reminded me of where I stood with him. Only when telling me what he wanted me to do or when we were at the dinner table in front of Mama did he speak directly to me.
There was no mention of me leaving after I graduated high school, but Pa wasn't one to forget. His life was the farm, Mama, his sons, and everything they involved. Having his eldest reject the life he'd chosen didn't set well with him. The strain between us only grew over the years with the sports jacket affair pretty much finished us off.
I would have changed it if I could, but I couldn't. I see now how disrespectful I'd been to Pa, but I didn't see it then. I had no hard feelings for Pa and I was sure sorry he had such hard feelings toward me, but I stayed because he needed me and it was the honorable thing to do.
As my mind moved from one topic to another, I found myself a few feet from the picnic table set back in the shade of the trees. Shutting off the truck, I leaned on the steering wheel to watch Ralph emerge dragging his axe behind him. The bib on his overalls was down and the tip of the straps dragged along the ground. At eighteen Ralph was busy becoming a man. His shoulders were starting to bulge, while his biceps and chest showed deepening muscles. He was still thinly built but growing out of his boy's body.
Ralph had brown hair and green eyes with skin that was always tan, while Junior and I had blond hair, blue eyes, light skin, and bodies that refused to display muscularity. Mama claimed Ralph took after her brother Frank, who drowned at seventeen.
Ralph cast a dirty look in my direction, leaned his axe against the end of the table, collapsing at one end, leaned on his arms and waited for me to move. Junior had stopped shaping the fence posts to come to the door of the truck.
"Do you know how hungry we are, Robert?"
"I'm sorry. I was tied up, Junior. I got here as quick as I could."
"Yeah, you sat there for five minutes before you drove up. Ralph's been complaining for an hour."
"What's new?" I asked.
"Anything I can carry?"
"Yeah, take the lemonade and glasses. Pour him a glass and maybe he'll feel better. We got us a new hand."
"Yeah, bet he don't last 'til dinner. Pa ain't keepin' no one on for a couple of weeks, when we ain't got all that much to do 'til harvest."
"We'll see," I said, opening the door and following Junior to the table with the grocery bag full of goodies.
"Do you know what time it is?" Ralph barked.
"No. I doubt you do either."
"Yeah, well I know my stomach's been eating on my backbone for a couple of hours."
"Shut up and eat," I said, pushing the bag over in front of him. "We got a new hand."
"We do? I bet he got fed on time," Ralph complained. "Where's the cheese. Mama knows I got to have cheese on my ham."
Ralph rummaged in the bag, pulling out items as he searched.
"It's on the bottom, Ralph. Right were it always is when Mama sends ham."
"You can have mine," Junior said, finishing off one sandwich and reaching for another. "Hand me one of those bowls of potato salad while your not busy, Ralph."
I sat down with a sandwich and enjoyed the shade. The lemonade was still cool and refreshing. Before long we were all busy chomping away.
"Where's he from?" Ralph asked, leaning on his elbows as he chewed on his sandwich.
"How would I know?" I replied.
"Because you been down there talking to him. I know you, Robert. You know everything about him by now."
"Over Muscatine way, but closer to the river."
"Pa gonna keep him?" Ralph continued.
"Don't know. He's making up his mind and told Sven he'll tell him at supper tonight."
"He eatin' with us at the table?"
"Yep," I answered.
"He's staying on," Ralph said.
"Is not. It's two weeks to harvest. Pa ain't keepin' no hand on for two weeks just to have him around for harvest," Junior deduced.
"Is to. If he eats at our table he'll stay. You listen to what I'm telling you little brother."
"You haven't seen him, Junior. I think Pa's going to try to keep him."
"See him? What's see him got to do with it?" Junior asked.
"Wait 'til you see him. You'll see."
"You been swimming?" I asked.
"No, he kept saying we'd wait until after lunch. We didn't know we'd get lunch at supper time," Junior complained. "You coming in?"
"I don't know," I said, not enjoying the pond as much as I once did.
When Ralph was finished eating, he stood up and pushed down his overalls and underwear, leaving them behind his seat. He headed down the path toward the pond, having recovered some from being starved a half hour more than usual. I walked down the path with Junior, standing to watch Ralph throw himself off the wooden raft over and over again.
"You think our brother's a mite touched?"
"No, I think he has more energy than he knows what to do with," I replied.
"You'd never know how he was dragging an hour ago. Complaining about how hungry he was."
"All that's in the past. Ralph isn't one to stick with a thought longer than necessary."
Junior sat down to pull off his boots before undressing. He handed me his folded clothes and let me take his boots in my free hand.
"Leave them on my seat at the table."
"Why didn't you just undress there?"
"I'm not like Ralph, Robert. I don't parade around buck naked."
"You're going to be naked going back to the table."
"I dry off on the way there."
I suppose it made sense to Junior. Ralph didn't mind being naked and would probably go to town that way if Mama wasn't around to stop him. Junior was more modest than Ralph and didn't mind swimming naked, but he didn't want an audience. I was very modest. Even when I swam, I left my clothes at the water's edge, getting back into them as quick as I came out of the water.
My brother Ralph was contrary to Junior and me in most ways. He'd always been odd in noticeable ways, except he didn't notice or care. Ralph had his own train of thought and it often carried him into trouble.
I stood watching as Ralph and Junior were tossing each other from the raft. They still acted like kids at times. I lost the ability years ago, taking life more serious than it deserved. Ralph had only just turned eighteen and Junior was a solid two years behind him, although Junior was the more mature and responsible of the two.
I'd lost interest in the pond once the Carters moved off their place. The Carter boys build the raft, and I was best friends with the middle brother, Paul. Once the bank threw them off, I worried about what became of them. Seeing the pond and the raft was a reminder of happier times, but not so happy it could keep my mind off Paul and his family leaving.
I dropped Junior's clothes on the table before loading the fence posts. The ride back to the house was easier on my backside. Sven quit what he was doing to help unload the posts as quick as I stopped the truck. I offered to move them down the drive so he could take them off where they needed to be, but he put one on each shoulder and said it was a lot more efficient walking them there.
Pa returned shortly after the posts were spread out down the driveway. He stopped in front of the house and leaned on the back of the old Ford truck to talk to Sven. I suspected the subject of payment for his work came up and Pa mainly talked while Sven mainly listened. I couldn't tell how the conversation was going, but I watched for clues as I added oil to the engine of the farm truck, making sure the water and such were full to the top. I knew better than to let Pa find the oil or water lacking.
Pa had some chores for me to do as he busied himself in the barn, readying the other tractors for harvest. Mama came out to tell us what time supper would be on the table.
Pa decided he'd go up after my brothers and supervise them in selecting better trees for the purpose of making fence posts. It was later I learned the shape of the fence posts were what Pa and Sven were speaking about.
Sven stayed busy digging holes and leaving a post leaning in each one. Mama had me moving canned goods into the root cellar, since the pantry was full from a summer of rich tasty vegetables.
When Pa did come back with Ralph and Junior, Sven went to the back of the truck to unload more freshly cut posts. There weren't as many because it hadn't been but a few hours since I returned with a load. This time he stacked them all at the corner of the driveway, while Ralph and Junior stood next to the door of the truck to watch.
Pa went directly into the house and as soon as the last post had hit the ground Ralph and Junior were back in the truck, racing toward the barn with the engine revving. Ralph shifted through the gears as quick as he could so he would hit them all in the hundred feet it took to get to the end of the line. He slammed on the brakes at the last instant, sliding the truck sideways as it came to rest a foot from the corner of the barn. Junior would have his usual difficulty getting the passenger side door open far enough for him to squeeze out in the space Ralph left for him to exit. At times Junior had to slide across and get out of the driver's door as the dust was rising up around the vehicle.
By this time Pa was stepping out on the back porch, glaring in Ralph's direction.
"What have I told you about racing that engine like that?" Pa yelled, standing with hands on hips and his pipe clenched between his teeth.
"Yes, sir," Ralph said with conviction. "I forgot."
Shortly afterward, Ralph was racing toward the back of the barn to be the first one at the pump where they'd clean up. Junior would be chasing him as he cussed him for not playing fair, but Ralph never played fair by design. There was no point in taking chances if you could stack the deck in your favor.
It had always been the same as far back as I could remember. Junior was still trying to keep up with Ralph, but it was Ralph's game and no one knew what game it was or what the rules were. Junior was the only one who still tried to figure out how to best Ralph, but he still ran second most of the time.
Nothing changed. Pa would not mention the incident again because Ralph was now his golden child, who loved the farm and farming. Because I didn't take advantage of the natural progression, I'd become invisible. Pa pretty much let Ralph do as he pleased, only reining him in if he was abusing something like the farm truck.
"He'd drive that truck from one side of the driveway to the other if he got a chance," I observed, as Sven came toward me putting his shirt back on.
"He's a boy," Sven said. "It's what they do."
"You staying on?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. He'll speak with your Mama."
"What did Pa say?"
"We'll talk it over at supper."
"You boys clean up now. Supper's ready when you are," Mama yelled from the back door and that meant time was a wasting.
"Come on. I'll get you a towel. I don't hurry because my brothers make such a mess when they clean up."
"You sound as though you might never have been a boy," Sven observed, as we walked.
"I was always the oldest," I said. "I grew up faster."
"Oh, that means you were never a boy?"
"You have any brothers?"
Sven laughed boldly and seemed amused by the question.
"More than I can count. You're Robert, right?"
"Yes, I'm Robert," I said, knowing he knew my name.
"I was the sixth son," Sven said.
"Sixth? There were girls too?"
"Four and four more boys but two died back in 19 or 20. That flu epidemic took 'em. They were right young. I was only four or five myself."
"Long time ago," he said without hesitation.
He had a gentle voice for being such a big man. He thought about what he had to say in a way I wasn't accustomed. My family was filled with reactionaries. We more reacted than pondered things.
I collected two towels from where I kept mine in the barn and gave one to Sven. He folded it over his arm as we walked down toward the pump.
"You're a hard worker," I said as we walked together.
"Give a man a good days work and you might work tomorrow. There is no trick to hard work."
"The corn will be coming in soon. We'll need you," I said. "I think Pa hired you with that in mind. We'll need at least one more hand if we can afford one. Times are tight."
"We'll see," Sven said. "Best not get your cart in front of your horse."
"My father almost always hires on two hands for harvest. I'm sure we can't afford two this year."
"I'll do the work of two if need be," he said with confidence in his voice. "I usually find a farm for the harvest. It's the best time to be looking."
Ralph and Junior were busy throwing soap balls at one another when we rounded the corner. They were laughing and having so much fun they didn't notice us. Ralph got Junior in a headlock and rubbed his knuckles hard against his soapy scalp at which time they fell down into the mud they'd made with the excess water they'd pumped. Ralph was only a little bit bigger than Junior, but he was two years older and stronger by a ways.
"Maybe you boys ought to let the men clean up and then return to your play," Sven said with authority, leaving no doubt he expected to be obeyed.
Ralph stopped laughing long enough to look up at Sven as Junior slipped the grip he had on him only to stumble backward into the mud.
"I'm Ralph," Ralph said, stepping forward to off Sven a muddy hand.
"Sven," Sven said, shaking the offered hand.
"Damn, you're a big one," Junior blurted from a seated position in the muck.
"And a hungry one. I'd appreciate a wash up before sitting down at your mama's table. You boys can play after we're done."
"Yes, sir," Ralph said, stepping to one side as Sven stripped down, folding his clothes and setting them to one side.
"Now I see why those posts look the way they do. You boys play up there where you cut them?" Sven asked.
"No, sir," Ralph said. "You got a hell of a chest. I'd like to have a chest like that."
"Yeah, well, I'd appreciate the compliment more if you were wearing britches, boy. Something about a man admiring my chest, after getting shed of his pants, that's a mite worrisome."
"It's hard to wash up with your clothes on," Ralph replied.
"If that's washing up, I can understand how hard it is," Sven said.
Sven reached for the handle of the pump that was placed on a small rise to elevate it so the water would swish out over our heads. Ralph jumped up to pump the handle as Sven stood under the water, using one of the dozen bars of soap from the top of the wooden frame that held the pump in place. After Ralph pumped out a dozen gushing waterfalls in a minute or two, Sven stepped back and I handed him his towel.
When I stepped up to the pump Ralph deserted the handle, leaving me to pump for myself, but Sven moved up the slope to seize the handle, pumping away as I took to cleaning up.
"Brothers," Sven said, shaking his head and glaring at Ralph.
"Here," Ralph said as soon as Sven let go of the pump handle, handing him his T-shirt.
"Thank you, Ralph," Sven said with my brother's name slipping easily from his lips.
When I was drying up, Ralph stood watching Sven putting on his shirt. Junior jumped under the pump and rinsed off the drying mud. Sven got back into his overalls as Ralph stood next to him.
"You're staring, boy," Sven said to Ralph.
"Oh, yeah, I've just never seen a chest like yours. You don't know how I'd love to have your body."
"Once again, if you're going to talk about my body, putting on your britches would be the polite way to go about it."
"How'd you get built like that anyhow?" Ralph said, undaunted by anything he disregarded as unimportant.
"Takes hard work and good food," Sven said like an expert.
"You think I could get big as you?" Ralph asked with an unusual seriousness in his words.
"Ralph!" Junior said, sounding alarmed. "I hope you're referring to the man's chest," Junior giggled at his inference.
"Shut up, Junior," Ralph snapped. "Us men know what I'm talking about, little brother."
"Well, boy, maybe you been looking at the wrong chests," Sven said. "There was a lady on the last farm I worked. Now, she had a chest on her."
We all laughed without Ralph finding humor in the comment.
"I think I know her," Ralph answered.
"Why am I not surprised," Sven said.
"I just asked if mine might get like that one day."
"Well, boy, I wasn't much bigger an you when I was your age. What, you about fourteen?"
"Fourteen! Fourteen? I'm eighteen. I don't look fourteen," Ralph protested to both Junior and me.
We were laughing too hard to be of any help to his wounded pride.
"I was going by the way you act," Sven said casually, as he finished tying his boots and stood up. "You could maybe pass for sixteen."
"Sixteen!" Ralph objected. "I'm eighteen. Eighteen."
"You'd probably look more mature with your britches on," Sven said, smiling impishly as he placed the towel over his forearm, strolling toward the house, whistling as he walked.
Ralph stood, hands on hips, staring after him. Junior lay back down in the mud, laughing. I finished dressing and caught Sven as he was hanging the towel near the barn door.
"Sorry about Ralph," I said. "He can be obnoxious."
"Sorry? Why would you find it necessary to apologize for your brother?"
"He does act immature. I didn't want you to get the wrong idea," I explained as he started toward the back door.
"Robert, I assure you I didn't get the wrong idea. Being around your brothers reminded me of a time when my own brothers had their laughs at my expense. Ralph reminds me a little of myself when I was still a boy."
It didn't matter what I said to Sven, it seemed to evoke the same response. I decided to take him in for dinner without any more comments.
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