The Farm Hand

Written by Rick Beck

Edited by: Gardner Rust

Chapter 4

Table Talk

Sven stood beside the door until Mama directed him to sit beside Pa. As soon as Ralph came in he immediately plopped down beside Sven.

"You like fried chicken? Mama makes the best fried chicken this side of the Rockies."

"I surely do, son. Probably my favorite," Sven answered.

"That's where I sit," Junior complained as quick as he came into the kitchen. "Mama!"

"You boys quit fussing. Junior sit beside Robert. There's enough room at this table for ten people."

"Mama, that's my seat."

"Hush and go dry your hair, before you come back to my table. Then, sit beside Robert."

"Pa, he's in my seat," Junior unwisely appealed.

"Did you hear your mother?"

"Yes, sir... that's my seat," Junior said under his breath, letting the screen door bang when he went back out.

"Ralph, you could have sat beside Robert instead of taking Junior's chair," Mama said.

"I want to sit beside him. I like him."

"Don't you be bothering this man," Pa said.

"You could start acting more like an adult," Mama said, as she put some bowls down on the table.

Junior came back in with his hair still wet but slicked down on to his head. He plopped down in the chair beside me. Mama said grace and Pa passed the platter of chicken to Sven.

"Ralph's right about the chicken," Pa said. You'd be hard pressed to find better in this neck of the woods."

"Yeah, but he never mentioned these biscuits. Ma'am, these are the best biscuits I've had since I was home."

"Your mother's a good cook, Sven?" Mama asked.

"Yes, Ma'am. Maw was an artist when it came to making something out of nothing."

"Eat up," Pa said, digging deep into the mashed potatoes before passing them to Sven.

"You going to keep him, Pa?" Ralph asked, taking the potatoes. "You see the size of this guy. You ought to see him naked. He's big all over."

"Ralph!" Mama said. "That's not table talk, young man."

"He is. I mean he'll work hard and hold up his end. We got to hire a hand anyway. He's right here is all I'm saying, Pa. He's a keeper you ask me. I wouldn't throw this one back, no siree."

"Ralph, let the man eat in peace. I aims to try to hold onto Sven, but we got two weeks before harvest and little more than food and a good roof to offer 'tween now and then."

"Mama'll feed you like you never been fed, won't you, Mama.. You're going to stay, aren't you?" Ralph asked, looking up at Sven. "He's going to stay, Pa. I can tell."

"Ralph, Sven looks capable of speakin' for himself. I'm sure he appreciates your approval, but we'll talk business after supper," Pa said. "Show a little respect for your mother's meal."

"Yes, sir," Ralph said, shoveling in some pole beans before looking over at Sven again. "Good, huh?"

After the meal was done we left Mama to take care of the kitchen. Pa lit his pipe and stood on the back porch as the stars began making their nightly appearance above the barn. Sven sat on the swing and I sat down next to him, after determining the chains would hold us. I wanted to smooth things over with Sven, but I knew Pa had something to say first, so I sat silent.

"She looks like a good crop. God has surely blessed this farm this year. Now, if he'll only hold back the rains, until the harvest is in, I think we'll be okay. If he doesn't so choose, and we can't pay you fair, I'll keep you on for the winter. You'll eat at our table. You'll have shelter as long as it suits you."

Pa paused, taking a long pull on his pipe. The smoke circled out around his right ear as Sven leaned forward, folding his hands between his knees.

"I'll be staying on in that case, Mr. Sorenson. I'll take my chances with the pay part. If you can't pay a fair price for my labor, then I'll expect to stay the winter. I'll do my share of the work if I do stay on. We can shake on it if you like."

Sven stood. My father took his hand off the green railing I'd painted earlier that month. He made a quarter turn, shaking Sven's hand, after removing the pipe from his mouth with his other hand.

"Done, then. You'll eat at the table with us. You'll sleep in the barn with Robert. Robert, put this man near the window so he has fresh air. See to it he has the proper bedding. Don't let him be coming to me needing something. You see to him."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"Harvest... ten to twelve days off. Fencing and repairs 'til then."

Pa spoke softly so as not to deter the stars. I never saw a man so fascinated by the night sky. Pa puffed. Sven and I swung easily as the clanking of dishes came from the kitchen.

"Robert!"

"Yes, Pa, I'll take care of it. Just let me know what you need, Sven," I said to him. "Come on. I'll get the bedding and show you where I sleep. It's comfortable and quiet out there. No annoyances."

"You sleep in the loft?" Sven asked, surprised.

"Yeah. Like I said, quiet."

"Robert!" Pa said sternly.

"Annoyances is me," Ralph said, standing inside the screen, listening to the negotiations. "Robert don't like me much."

"Ralph!" Pa said. "I'm not going to keep at you two."

"Well he don't. He don't like no one lately. He wants off here. You know he wants off here."

"Ralph!" Pa said more stern, taking his eyes out of the sky for the first time in awhile to look back over his shoulder.

"Brothers," Sven lamented. "I was at odds with most of mine at one time or another. What I wouldn't give to be back there with them right now," he said. "You boys don't know how lucky you are."

"Back where?" Ralph asked.

"Ralph!" Pa objected again, turning to stare him out of the doorway.

"My boys talk more than reason would allow. You'll have to excuse their curiosity. Ralph's too forward toward strangers, especially any young girl who crosses his path."

"Ralph's fine, Mr. Sorenson," Sven said. "Reminds me some of myself. I haven't been with my brothers in years. Your sons make it seem more like home."

"I hope you are as kind once you been here a spell. Junior's a good boy. Ralph, he's the colt you can't quite tame. Robert, well.., you need to ask Robert," he said, coming up short once he got to me. "I don't know nothing about Robert."

Once the bedding was carried out to the loft, Sven sat with me on the porch eating ice cream with rhubarb cobbler fresh from the oven. There was laughter coming from the kitchen as Ralph and Junior let off the rest of their energy. It was easier to listen from a distance than to get in the middle of it.

Sven settled in quietly. There was an easy acceptance that seemed to travel in both directions. Rarely were hands invited to take meals at the table with us. That was because it made them a passel more uncomfortable than it made us. Sven ate at our table from that first evening. He fit us like a new glove. He was polite and more intelligent than any hand we'd had. Something about him appealed to each of us. Even Pa smiled more, talked more, and laughed more because of Sven's knack for saying the proper thing at the proper time.

Sven didn't have much to say that would tell us more about him. There was a sadness that came with him, as he frequently watched my brothers laugh and play a few feet away. I suspected that he might be thinking of his own family and a farm where he once lived. In the evening I usually left him in the swing, when Mama called me in to play cards. He rarely played the games we had been playing after supper as far back as I could remember.

Pa usually spent the evening watching the stars before he secured the farm to his satisfaction before turning in. Sven accompanied him at times and while neither of them talked much, I did see them going on a few times.

Sven was a pleasant addition to our family, except my attempts to learn more about him never led me to what I wanted to know. I realized that swinging silent in the swing with him was about as close as I got to learning anything about him of substance.

One evening a few days later with Junior out milking his cows, Ralph got up from the table, where he was losing badly at cards once again, and he went out to sit in the swing beside Sven. Mama got up, calling it a night, and I watched them through the window. There was no love lost between me and Ralph. Seeing him accomplish what I'd so consistently failed at didn't help much.

"Tell me about your brothers," Ralph said with his usual extra energy as he pulled his legs up under him while Sven swung easily pondering Ralph's words.

"No different than you boys, Ralph. More of them. We lived on a farm together."

"Which one is Junior?"

"Pardon?" Sven said.

"You said no different 'an us. Which one matched up to Junior?"

"Michael. Michael was industrious. That boy could turn a dollar."

"Robert. Which one was Robert?"

"John. He was the oldest... serious. John didn't know how to bend. He saw things as black or white."

"Which on' am I?"

Sven reached over and mussed up Ralph's wavy brown hair and Ralph returned the favor without understanding the action.

"Me. Curious. Way more energy than called for. Maw use to say I was living for my two brothers that died."

"Your brothers died?"

"Two died. I was looking forward to not being the youngest anymore. I was three or four, I guess. I never did have younger brothers. I had to run to keep up with my older brothers."

"What happened?"

"Next thing I knew the farm went bust. Here I am."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-one and some."

"I'm eighteen. Just turned. You look older, Sven. The road must be hard on a man. I want to stay right here on this farm. I want to die here. I never want to leave. I wouldn't know where to go," Ralph said in an unusually thoughtful moment.

"I hope you're able to do that, Ralph. I surely do. I feel old. I feel like I never lived with my people. I worry about them, where they are, if they're okay... eating or not."

"We'll be your family if you want. Everyone likes you."

"The road's a hard place to be. I'd love nothing more than staying on somewhere, but that's not a decision you and I are going to make," Sven said, turning his head to smile at Ralph, who looked up at him with admiration in his eyes. "You do seem younger, Ralph."

"Is that a joke or something?"

"Yeah, something like that. You act younger than eighteen, but in a good way. You have the innocence of youth. I had it when my family was still together. You grow up faster once you lose everything familiar."

"I ain't all that innocent. Molly Prentice and I had a roll in the hay more 'an once. Brenda Helms and I dated all last summer. She liked to..., you know what girls like. I didn't think a girl could get the best of me, but by-God she wore me plum out. Had to get shed a her. I'm a bachelor at heart, but I can't resist a chance to have a roll in the hay."

"Gentlemen don't tell the secrets of ladies they've bedded," Sven interrupted.

"It's the truth. I'm not innocent is all I'm saying."

"Innocence has little to do with where you've dallied or how often. You have experience without accumulating the wisdom that should come from it."

"They usually don't have much to say," Ralph observed. "They just want to get busy on account I don't always have a lot of time."

"Ah, youth," Sven said. "I am familiar with having a big appetite and a shortage of time when facing a feast."

"Yeah, you said it, brother. Hey, Junior's got cows over in the pig shed. Come on, I'll show you. He hates it when I interrupt him milking. He talks to 'em while he milks 'em. Nobody else talks to him. He'll really hate two of us watching him. Come on."

Ralph jumped up as if he were on a spring.

"Carters gave them to him on account they didn't want the bank gettin' 'em," Ralph advised as he moved swiftly toward where the cows were kept. "He tended Millie and Betsy while the Millers was first thrown off their place. They brung them here once they got a chance."

Without so much as a word Sven pulled himself up and followed the eager Ralph into the night. Ralph had a way of charming people into doing what he wanted them to do. He was harmless enough, but his never-ending motion got on my nerves. Ralph's life was all about having a good time.

These were the final days we'd have time for anything but work until after we brought in the corn. It was my favorite time of all. Mama served us up her fresh baked goods, while the day slipped away.

"Tell him about Shirley's boobs, Ralph," Junior said, as they walked back toward the porch where I'd sat in the swing to enjoy the evening.

"Oh, man, she's got some tits on her, Sven. Nipples, oh man, I'm going to be hard up tonight. Junior, you know better than to get me started on Shirley's boobs. She isn't too keen on nothing else, but her tits are worth the energy it takes to get her going. Melissa's are almost as big, but she don't got no nipples the size of silver dollars. Melissa's swell something fierce while we're kissing. You lick them all over and she's yours," Ralph explained with excitement in his words.

"Ralph, you are not going to be a gentlemen," Sven said as Junior laughed.

"I certainly hope not. I'm doing my best to avoid it, but don't tell Mama. She'll take a piece out of my hide she knows the girls I been with."

"Trust me, your mother doesn't want to know, Ralph," Sven said.

"That's the way I figure it," Ralph said, galloping up the steps. "Mama, is there any more of that cobbler," Ralph shouted from the stairs.

The screen door banged behind him, and then it banged again when junior went inside.

"Ralph's a pistol," Sven said as he looked across at me sitting in the swing. His hands were shoved into his pockets and he looked out at the corn. "Harvest isn't far off now."

"There's plenty of room," I said, scooting to one corner of the swing, hoping he was ready for some intelligent conversation.

"No, I think I hear your Mama's cobbler callin' me. If I hope to get a little more I best get inside fast."

The screen door banged behind Sven and I moved back into the middle of the swing. The breeze contained a trace of cool. This was another sure sign that the corn was close to being ready. The longer we left it in the ground the sweeter it became, until you waited too long and got caught by early rains and a muddy mess that made the machines useless, but for now there was more cobbler and fresh milk to comfort me.

Pa won the second card game, but he always won when he played. Junior was sent up to bed with his usual protest. Ralph jumped up to sit beside Sven as soon as Junior vacated the seat.

"Ralph, you're not to be bothering this man with your nonsense," Pa said sternly. "Robert, if Ralph bothers this man you come to me. I'll put a stop to it. It's time for you to be in bed. You got a day of wood chopping ahead of you."

"Pa! I'm a man, now. I done turned eighteen. Robert could stay up once he turned eighteen. I'm not a kid anymore."

"Robert had some sense," Mama answered. "You don't show no signs of that. You'll be asleep in five minutes."

"Mama, quit treating me like a kid," Ralph objected.

"Ralph!" Pa said, and Ralph got up. "We'll talk some more tomorrow, Sven. I want to hear more about your..., ah, adventures," Ralph said as he disappeared into the hallway.

It was all I could do to keep my eyes open. I was well over eighteen and still couldn't put in the hours my parents did.

"Robert, you're falling asleep on your chair. You go to bed," Mama said, after my third consecutive yawn. "Sven, you're welcome to sit up with us for a spell if you have a mind to. When you're ready for bed, Pa'll go out with you and collect them coveralls. I'll have them mended by and by. They'll be on the ladder for you come morning. Grown man can't be walking around coming out of his britches. Next time to town we'll see to it you get a fresh pair, won't we, Pa?"

"How are we going to manage that?" Pa asked. "Mercantile isn't extending no credit these days."

"Junior's donated the money for the cream he's selling in town. I still have some change from my canning."

"Junior's a good boy," Pa said. "You heard your Mama. Lots a holes to be dug tomorrow. Better get your rest," Pa said.

"Holes? I thought...," except it was best not to think around Pa, because he always had other ideas.

"Sven's got experience cutting wood. I'm putting him in the meadows with Ralph tomorrow. Junior'll help your Mama. That lets you free to dig fence postholes," Pa said.

He was the boss and his mind was made up. Another argument, ending with him pointing out what a disappointment I had become wasn't necessary. I would dig the holes without complaint.

"Night," I said, heading for the barn, looking to see if Sven followed me.

I decided to lie awake until Sven came along. The next thing I heard was Pa on the ladder before first light.

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