by Rick Beck
We'd never used the front door. That hadn't changed.. The gray soil covered the first step completely and was working it's way up to the second step. I rolled the car even with the back porch before shutting off the engine.
Dad's pickup truck was parked behind the house next to the back porch. I'd be leaving before he would, so I was content blocking his driveway for the duration of my stay.
I wondered why Uncle Junior or Uncle Ralph hadn't given my father a hand? They'd been born and raised here too. Junior was getting the farm. It was old and falling down, but he'd join the Sorenson land together again. Dad gave Junior the land for his dairy farm.
Junior and Kaleb came to help my father at planting time, when I was a boy and they returned again to help with the harvest. It was the same every year, but not this year. Maybe Uncle Junior wasn't well. He was only a little younger than my father.
I walked up the three stairs onto the back porch. The old swing was in the corner leaning against the house. The chains that once held it were rusty ornaments hanging useless, one chain three feet shorter than the other.
My mother and I would swing together every night after supper before she went to clean away the dishes. It was a powerful memory held me there for a few minutes. I was able to smile.
The swing was always clean and freshly painted, even after my mother died, but it too had fallen on hard times. I never saw my father sit on the swing but he treated the swing like it was special to him.
The wind blew in gusts, carrying what was left of the soil away. The strongest smell was no longer sweet corn but rich Iowa soil blowing in the wind.
The machinery and my father's truck collected what blew their way with no corn in the field to hold the soil in place. I didn't know why the empty field made me feel sad.
No one had been there to rescue my father after he worked his farm for fifty years to feed a hungry nation. There was no thank you, no kiss my ass. His was a wasted life.
Did he intend to die out here alone?
I never understood my father or his devotion to this land.
I didn't have any idea how long Sorensons had lived here, but with Dad dying and Junior almost as old, the Sorenson hold on this land was coming to an end.
I built a life in a different world, my world now. I was successful. The farm wasn't in my blood. It killed my mother and my grandfather, but the memories weren't as bad as I imagined they would be. Time and distance hadn't tanking the sting out of the life I lived here.
I remembered the days my mother went with me into the field to pick up loose corn during harvest. We could here the machines in the bottoms or near the meadow.
It was hot and humid at harvest. After an hour or two, depending on the heat, we'd go in for fresh lemonade, and I'd read to Mama while she fixed supper.
I liked reading to Mama. It how I learned about the world I'd report on one day. Reading to her prepared me for my profession as a news caster. We never know which things will come in handy when it comes time to earn a living.
Each time we were finishing a book, she'd bring another one from the library. I knew I'd read that book next.
If anyone saw me standing on my father's back porch smiling, they'd have thought I lost my mind. I couldn't turn off the memories.
Even when my grandmother came to live with us, when I went to the field to continue what Mama and I did, in little more than an hour, Grandma called me in to read to her while she fixed supper. She liked for me to read to her. She told me my father had once read to her while she cooked.
As I looked out beyond the still machines, I remembered how my father walked aimlessly in the fields each winter. To me he looked like a man who lost something and he was sure if he looked long enough, he'd find it.
He was a solitary man of mystery to me, especially once Mama died. He left me to pick my own path in life. It was like I wasn't expected to be like the other farmers' sons.
When I was eight and nine, I didn't understand. He was a farmer. I was a farmer's son. As far as I could tell, he was a devoted farmer, but he didn't want me to be one.
I leaned on the back porch railing, looking out at the farm, unable to curb the flood of memories. I didn't know what I was going to say to him.
"You going to stand out there until the cows come home, Bobby?"
"No, sir, just reminiscing. Thinking about the good old days," I said, trying to mask the sarcasm.
"Mama," I said more precisely.
"Well, come on in and sit a spell. I just made a fresh pot of coffee. I figured you'd need it. Hasn't been twenty-four hours since I first called out there. You didn't waste much time."
"Coffee would be good."
He held the door open for me to go into the kitchen.
"We have things to talk over. I don't want you feeling obligated to come back out here. I did feel it was only fair for you to get what you want from the house.
"There isn't much, mind you, but I left your room alone, once you left. There may be things in there and there's the trunk in the attic where your mama kept her keepsakes. There are things I know she'd want you to have, Bobby."
He sat at the head of the table, where he always sat. He looked thinner. He was an old man.
"Why don't you sit and drink some coffee, son? I need a cup if I want to stay up this time of day."
After all those years I didn't have anything to say. I ran my hands through my hair and looked at the table with the chrome legs and red and white speckled Formica top. It was the same table as when I was a boy.
There were fresh coffee cup rings by his hands.
I sat on the far side of the table where my mother once sat. I felt awkward no matter where I sat.
I was home.
"Cream and sugar? Junior still brings cream twice a week. He says it's good for me. The doctor says it's bad for me. I've known Junior a lot longer and I enjoy having cream in my coffee."
"Just cream for me, Dad. Is Uncle Junior well?"
"He's got arthritis pretty bad but nothing slows Junior down for long."
He looked me over as he filled my cup from the huge red coffee pot I remembered from when I lived there. It could have been new. The general store once had shelves full of red coffee pots. They came in all sizes.
What do you say to your father after twenty-five years?
I forced my brain into action but the mouth I made my living with failed me. The coffee was surprisingly good and the cream set off the hearty flavor.
I remembered Dad liked his strong. I put in cream and sugar until it was closer to the color of cream. Even then my father watched me like I might not be all there. Now, I liked it strong with a dollop of cream. I appreciated good coffee.
"Coffee's good," I said, leaning on my forearms.
"Thanks," he said. "It's something I can taste."
I couldn't tell if he was sick, but he was thinner. He wasn't as tall as I remembered. I didn't fear my father as a boy. Even as a kid I didn't know what to say to him.
When I left home, I wondered if he'd come to my room the night before to ask me to stay. As was my habit, I pretended he wasn't there.
He stirred the cream into his cup while he stood next to the stove. He walked his cup to the table and sat down.
"It hasn't changed much, " I said.
"Your mama wouldn't let you near coffee, as I recall," he remembered.
"No, she wouldn't. I was only nine when she died. Grandma always let me have coffee. Half cream and half sugar and the rest coffee."
My father smiled.
"Me too. Pa wouldn't let me get near his coffee. Mama would pour a little in a cup, stir in sugar, and fill it with cream."
"Yes, that's how I got my coffee in those days," I said. "I couldn't fix it because I couldn't life that pot."
My father laughed.
"I learned to make it from Jake. He was a hand that lived here. The man could make coffee. He died before you were born."
"Jake's out there with Grandpa Sorenson. Mama showed me. Grandma and I use to picnic out there.""Your grandma kept this farm running for a lot of years. She knew how to feed a passel of hands."
"Yeah, she did," I said.
It was a safe topic.
"Doctor claims its bad for my blood pressure. I wouldn't have a blood pressure without my coffee."
"This stuff might kill what ails you," I said, getting up to add a little more cream.
"I'm giving Uncle Junior the farm," he said. "It seems right. He's been pushed up against my fence for long enough. He's worked it every year during planting and at harvest," he said, pausing to drink coffee and watch me.
"He offered to plant this year. I wasn't able. Couldn't let him do the work for me. Kaleb is always willing to help, but I won't see any more corn on this farm. The Dairy is easier to handle and Kaleb can do it alone when Junior's down."
"Sounds fair to me," I agreed.
"Crosby's been letting him graze on one of his pastures for a spell each year. Grass fed makes for sweeter milk. My land will give him other options. Not good to impose too much on people outside the family.
"Junior hasn't asked for my land and I wanted to tell you what I decided first. If you want something for what you feel like belongs to you, being my only son, Junior would be fair, Bobby. I won't say more on it. I've said how I see it."
"It's your farm. You say Junior should have it, that's that. I have no claim to the Sorenson land, Dad."
"Looks strange without corn. Can I get more coffee, Dad?"
"Go ahead," he said, not looking at me.
"What do the doctors say? If you don't mind me asking?"
"No, I don't mind. They had me on those cancer treatments. They tell me coffee's bad for me. My hair fell out. I was sick all the time. I told the doctor to put that crap where the sun don't shine. Coffee doesn't do any of that to me."
"Wouldn't they keep you alive, Dad?"
"They'd keep me alive for s ix months to a year. I wasn't living, Bobby. Just alive. Hell of a thing. I'd rather have my coffee and let the cards fall where they may."
That was a conversation stopper. I agreed with him but I'd never heard it put in those terms by someone who was in his shoes. I didn't want to be kept alive just to be alive.
"This is all I know, Bobby. You didn't want this for yourself and I could appreciate that. I didn't need you to work in the fields. The farm was doing good. I could hire help. Your mama agreed. We didn't want you chained to this farm."
"Why didn't you tell me that?" I asked, anger rising. "I thought I was to lame to be of any help to you. You made me feel useless, Daddy."
"Your mama died. It just didn't get said is all. Like so much, Bobby, the farm took everything I had. It also kept me alive at times when I really didn't care if I lived or not."
"Uncle Ralph?" I asked, moving beyond the sore spot.
"Your Uncle Ralph has more money than God, Bobby. He doesn't expect to be given anything at this late date. He's from Omaha and comes by on my birthday and at Christmas."
"Aunt Lula and the kids?" I asked.
"They separated some years back. He takes care of her. His kids are mostly older than you."
"Uncle Ralph may have been grumpy as hell, but he sure kept Lula pregnant a lot. How many kids did they have?"
"Seven. Four were born before you. The other three were born a couple of years apart, after you were born. When your Uncle Ralph was fifteen, he'd sneak out at night to bed the local farm girls, who'd wait for him in their barns. On his lucky nights, he was back in bed before Pa checked on us. On the unlucky nights, he'd get the strap until he cried."
"Your Pa was a piece of work," I said.
"Yea, as Pa's go, you got one pretty far down on the asshole's chain. I don't claim to have done right by you, but I wanted you to have a better life than me, Bobby."
"That's ancient history, Dad," I said without trying to sell it.
"Everyone knew Ralph would end up with a passel of kids and not all of them with his wife. After the second or third child came, Lula was confronted by Ralph's girlfriend. The girlfriend was with child. Lula packed up and left him the first of many many times."
"Now his kids are scattered from Kansas City to Indianapolis. The point is, Ralph has more than he needs. He left this farm long before you were born. If he was interested in a share of the farm, he could of demanded it a long time ago. He doesn't need the headache."
"It's fair, Dad. I was never cut out for farming and it's good Junior can use the extra land. It should stay in the family."
"I am your father and you needed to hear these things from me. You can have what you want from the house. They'll knock it down once I'm dead. It has no value. It's old like me."
"I talked to Uncle Ralph. He never said Aunt Lula left him. He's quiet like you. He always sounds like I just stepped on his foot and he's waiting for an apology."
"That's Ralph. He wasn't always that way. Lula n ever divorced him and they had more kids together. They live close to each other and Ralph takes care of her. He had no interest in the farm after the war."
My father's momentum slowed between sentences. He showed no sign of having gone around the bend. I didn't recall exchanging so many words with him. I listened respectfully, but I did have an evening plane to catch.
How long could it take to go through a trunk and my room?
"… And you took the farm?"
"Wasn't much taking involved. I was the oldest son. My father made it clear that the farm was my responsibility. After he'd been crippled, the corn had to get grown. I wanted Ralph to take the farm. He was the farmer among the three of us," my father explained.
"The war ruined your Uncle Ralph. For farming anyway. Junior wanted to build a dairy. I grew the corn. I was the first born. I was no farmer. I had dreams. Now Junior can keep what he wants and sell the rest. Might fetch a handsome price. Keep him in business a while longer."
"You don't care if they sell it? Why the hell did you stay out here all these years? It never made sense you staying out here alone," I blurted, never wanting that discussion.
"That's a long story and I'm sure you want to get busy. We'll save that for your next trip home," he said, knowing as well as I did, there would be no next trip home .
"You stayed on this godforsaken place all this time, and you say, 'It doesn't matter what they do with it?'"
I was unable to stop myself.
"If that doesn't takes the cake."
There was raw emotion just below the surface. I reminded myself it was only for a couple of hours. I wasn't getting upset with him. He was sick and old and I wasn't going to be disrespectful. I was going to do what I came to do and go.
"Son, there are probably a couple of things you don't know. I didn't understand my father. I lived my entire life with him. I cried over his grave. I knew two things about my father. He was the boss. Then he was a cripple. He never left his farm. He's buried in the meadows.
"We haven't known each other for years. I'm sick. I'm old. I'm just making conversation. The truth is, when all is said and done, I'll be dead and it don't mean a damn thing. We're here, healthy, alive, doing what we do, then we're dead."
"That's harsh," I said.
"I did what I knew how to do at a time when it was too hard to do anything else. Doing keeps your mind off hurting. You were too young to understand at the time and I was too stupid to sit down and explain it to you before you left. There's no reason to relive it now, but if you have questions, I'll do my best to offer you what you need now, Bobby."
My father as a philosopher was a surprise. I never thought that he was in pain after Mama died. He could have been trying to work himself to death. For whatever reason, we didn't talk and I did leave the farm. He didn't do anything to keep me there. It was like he wanted me to go.
The more I knew the less I understood. I was not a fan of confusion or mysteries that had no solution.
"I was mad at the world, after I lost your mama. I was angry with God. I was angry with myself for not making her take you into town to live. I was angry about being left alone. My life has mostly been about being alone. At first it scares the hell out of you, and then you embrace it.
"I asked your grandmother to finish raising you so you wouldn't grow up cursed with this farm. She'd raised a passel of kids. I was the one who dreamed of leaving the farm to see the world. Mama encouraged me.
"Ralph and Junior were content; not me. They both left and here I am. I'm like the rest of the old men down at the diner, I've never been far from Iowa. It's all I've ever known.
"I wanted what was best for you. Your mother knew what to do for you. She was a wonderful mother, Bobby. Your grandmother knew how to keep your mind on your school work. I wouldn't have done as well. The farm was all I knew. I never wanted you to know it. That's why I did what I did."
I felt sick at my stomach. I didn't want to know this. I didn't want to feel sympathetic toward my father.
"I wasn't much of a father but I wasn't going to stand in the way of your dreams like my father stood in the way of mine. I vowed not to chain you to this land.
"You've done pretty well, Bobby. Have a good life. Be happy, Son. Give me a little credit for not standing in your way. I wasn't as heartless as it may have seemed."
This left me with questions that went unasked. He wanted to drop it and I hadn't intended to let him take me there. It was my ancient past. I put it behind me. I made a good life for myself and I was happy.
Seeing my father reminded me of the void where my mother and father should have been. Only he could fill that void, but what was the point? I was a grown man now.
I had a plane to catch and a trunk to look into first.
"How are you feeling," I said, figuring that was safe enough.
"Fine. How are you feeling?" he asked.
"OK. I'm not sick. What do the doctors say? What's the prognosis? What can they do for you? Are you comfortable? Can I get you anything before I go back?"
"What do they say? I should be dead. They're hoping I'll be considerate enough to die soon. It's a credibility thing and I told them I'd work on it. I've become quite agreeable, except I keep on living."
"Is the cancer in remission?" I asked, wanting some facts.
"They just aren't sure why I haven't croaked. Prove a doctor wrong once and he stops predicting your demise. I guess I'm on my own. I planned on doing it quietly but they've left me with time. One day I went to the attic. I was looking for something. When I saw the trunk, I thought of you right off. That's when I called. What I decided was, I'm still alive because I haven't finished here. You needed to come for me to finally be finish here."
"Where there's life there's hope," I said.
"Yeah, well, I'd just as soon be on my way. I've been packed for some time. By the time I get to heaven my pants will have lost their crease. What will the Lord think?"
"You want some more coffee? You're getting low," I said, getting up to get the pot off the stove.
"And you didn't come out here to chat," he said, watching me fill his cup, remembering why he called me.
"I never heard much of what you said before, Dad."
"No one had to tell me that you were your father's son, Bobby. I use to stand on the porch and listen to you read to your grandmother. Moby Dick was one of my favorite books. Hearing you read it made me smile. I'd read it to your grandmother when I was a boy. She'd fix dinner and have me read to her," he said in an abrupt change of direction that caught me off guard. "Your grandmother could see it in you the way she saw it in me. We were never meant to be confined to a farm in Iowa. We had dreams.
"Times were hard back then. Depression! I stayed because my father couldn't afford hands. When he got hurt, it was up to me to get in the corn. When the smoke cleared, I was the only man left standing. With nowhere to go. I stayed. If it hadn't been in my blood before, it was by the time I met your mama. I was a farmer through and through."
"Why didn't you tell me instead of letting me walk away?"
"I couldn't take the chance you'd look up to me and want to be like me. You might have stayed because we had a hard year or two, and one morning you'd wake up and face the same life I faced. I didn't want that for you.
"You could have told me. I was your son," I said as I sat back down at the table. "You should have let me chose."
"It wouldn't have been a choice. That's what I'm telling you. You would have stayed because it's what was expected.
"I didn't know how to talk to you once you were growing up. I could feel your anger with me. It was something else I felt bad about, but you didn't feel obligated to stay. You did what I dreamed of doing. I felt good about it. I thought you'd find a good life and you did."
"You should have told me something," I argued.
"Your grandma told me, after you were gone, how much you reminded her of me. She said she was sorry I didn't get off here. I didn't get to follow my dreams."
"I should have known," I protested. "It seemed like you loved this place. I don't get it, Daddy. I don't understand. I'd like to, but I don't."
"Some times dreams come true but mostly they get eaten up by something or other you don't see coming. It's what happens. I wasn't meant to leave. You were. I dreamed of seeing the world and you're seeing it. I've never been farther than Davenport and Omaha. The only reason I went to Omaha was to see your Uncle Ralph. He was such a pain in the ass, I never went back.
"There's no way to explain it, except it happens the way it happens and it's best to accept it and not struggle so much. For reasons you'll never know, the farm was my sanctuary."
"I never saw you as a dreamer, Dad," I said, looking for something I might have missed. "You never got east of Davenport or west of Omaha?"
"Nope! I had to take care of the farm. I have seen you on the television, Bobby. That plane crash you covered a few years back. Your Uncle Junior called me. He was so excited he couldn't talk. Hell, I thought someone died. 'Bobby's on the television' he said. Uncle Junior hooked me up to that cable thing. He told me the channel where you were.
"Hah! There's my kid big as you please, telling the story of that plane crashing right next to the airport. I'm not one for television, mind you, but I left the set on until you stopped appearing to explain where the investigation stood, once the mucky mucks got off the screen each afternoon.
"I was proud as a peacock. I surely was. It was twenty years since I'd seen you, but I could pick you out of a crowd. Uncle Junior knew it was you in an instant.
"You made something of yourself. Your mother would be proud, Bobby. She surely would. You've done well. It's how I knew where to call you once I saw that trunk. I don't remember what I'm looking for half the time, but I remembered the station you were reporting for.
"I've seen you a couple of times since. You were covering stories for your station but you made it to cable. No way to know what's going on out there without the cable."
"I didn't consider that people in Nodaway might see my broadcasts," I said.
"So, t hat's when I knew you were okay. I wondered about you. The fact you didn't come home meant something. Your Uncle Ralph said you called from time to time. That meant something. Do you still write for the papers?"
"I do both, Dad. The local paper publishes my editorials. News casting is my profession. Mostly I do local stories for television. The plane crash was my first international coverage. I was traveling back from a story on the Mississippi flooding that year. As we approached the airport, the plane in front of us crashed. We didn't know it but as we set down the plane is burning off to the west about a mile. They diverted flights after we landed. We were lucky to get on the ground," I said, recalling the events.
"Speaking of a story dropping into my lap," I said with joy. "Only officials got into that airport for the next week, and me the only newsman in fifty miles.
"This was my story!" I asserted.
My father sat smiling, as I retold the tale.
"I got a phone hookup to my station in Portland and a local television company provided me with cameras. My broadcast was carried live on networks nightly news every night for a week.
"My career took off after that. I go out on stories of interest in Portland, but mostly it's local. When my station wants to comer an international story, they send me."
"You wanted to leave the farm?" I asked, connecting to something he said and I didn't listen to that closely.
"Yeah, I had my bag packed after graduation too. I was waiting for a chance to make a break for it. It was the Depression. I couldn't just leave while losing the farm was still a possibility.
"Pa got crippled. It was up to me to get in the corn. One season led to the next, and here I am. It's complicated. No point in getting started on that. I didn't leave. I never left."
"I didn't think about how it was for you," I said.
"Wasn't your place to know. Your job was to grow up. If I was more like my Pa, you'd be tending the corn right now. I doubt that would be nearly as satisfactory as the life of a big time television newsman."
"That would be accurate. It hurt to leave but the farm was all I knew. I was scared at first."
"It's a constant struggle. They keep the price of corn low and you need to borrow to plant each year. You need to buy machines, work as hard as a man can work, and you hardly make enough to survive and pay off the note. The banker is waiting for the year the crop fails. You can't pay the note and the bank takes the farm.
"It's not a depression, but farms are going under like it is. You can't work hard enough to break the hold the bank has on you. With only me here, I plant this main field. I don't need to borrow against the harvest to do that. Our farm is among a few lucky ones to survive. It's all over now."
"There's corn in all the fields. I didn't see any houses."
"Aren't any houses. They bring in trailers during planting and for the harvest. They've got it down to a science. It doesn't require farmers any longer; just laborers. One company owns most of the corn you saw."
"I couldn't have stayed if I wanted to. I was no farmer," I said. "I didn't want you to ask for my when I was older but when you didn't ask, it made me mad."
"We make quite a pair, Bobby. We survived. We all find a way to deal with what's done to us and we survive, and that trunk is still waiting for you. Times a wasting. We'll have another cup of coffee before you leave, son."
"Okay, Dad," I said, feeling as if I missed a chance to ask the right question during an interview.
"If you see something you can't take on the plane, let me know. I can have it shipped to you. Don't be bashful, Bobby. Whatever you don't take will probably go to the dump and no one will know I was ever here."
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