By Andrew Sharp
Tom Lee stood in front of his cabin and looked out over his homestead. The late morning sun took the chill out of the spring breeze, and the dandelions and clover soaked up the warmth. A couple of cows tore up new grass nearby, next to a carefully built, simple barn. A thick hedge of carefully planted wild roses kept the cows from venturing across the lane to try the short green corn spikes that poked out through the dark soil. At Tom’s feet, a small flock of hens pecked and scratched among the new green weeds.
He did not seem to be pleased with the view. He was frowning as he stared out his muddy lane. Out where it joined the main road, two black horses pulling a gleaming carriage were turning in. The driver was carefully navigating through the water-filled ruts. Tom waited with his hands on his hips as the carriage drew up to him and stopped. His banker did not come out this far from town for small talk.
The man in the carriage, dressed in a clean, carefully pressed suit, looked down at the barnyard and appeared to decide, on second thought, not to step down.
“Well, Tom, it’s a fine day,” he said, overdoing the joviality.
“Well Ed?” Tom said shortly. He did not play conversational games, and he waited for the banker to get to the point.
The banker looked around at the clearing distastefully. He saw a ramshackle barn made of scrap wood, a couple of skinny cows feeding on brambles, and muddy chickens making deposits that would give his shoes the wrong kind of shine. “You know why I’m here, Tom,” Ed Reese said.
“You said you would give me more time,” Tom said.
To Reese, time was a calculation on paper, part of a formula that factored in percentages, yields. Tom’s farm was a disappointing part of this equation. He knew the farm had just been forest a few years ago, of course, and he knew that Tom had needed a hefty loan to purchase it. For the banker the first harvests had been feeble failures that failed to pay anything toward his loan. But he could not remember the thousands of days of painfully sore shoulders and blistered palms, the countless ax strokes, hours nursing sick livestock. For Tom, those meager harvests had been proud first fruits.
The banker had probably forgotten, if he ever cared enough to know, that before all this labor, many months of meager salary as a hired hand for a local farmer had gained Tom enough to get a loan.
“I gave you more time than I should have,” Reese said, like a benevolent uncle regretfully realizing he has been spoiling his nephew.
Tom’s expressionless face reflected the numbness that now replaced weeks of desperate worry. What could he say? He bent and picked up a pebble and turned it mechanically in his fingers. It was a strange shape, and he looked at it more closely. A small stone arrowhead. He threw it away.
He swallowed hard. “My crop is just coming up. Can you give me a little more time?”
The banker scoffed. “That sounds familiar. Should I wait until you’ve lost even the wormy livestock you have? Even now I’m taking a big loss.”
“The next couple harvests will cover most of it,” Tom said stubbornly. If it rains, he did not add—unlike last year.
The banker smiled pityingly. “Of course, of course.” Then he coughed. “You have until Saturday.”
“If you think you are going to ruin everything I have done here…”Tom began angrily.
“Don’t be a fool, Tom,” the banker interrupted. “I don’t want this to get ugly, but you know I’ll bring as many lawmen as I need to. Don’t get yourself killed. What would your little woman do then?” Ed Reese drew heavily from dime novel dialogue when he needed to get tough.
Tom did not say anything, but the banker got the uneasy feeling that Tom was pondering smashing his head in with a nearby fence railing. He wasn’t far off; Tom was pondering doing it with just his fist. Instead he held it up and shook it at the banker. “This land is still mine. Get off it before I do something I regret.”
The banker shrugged. “Have it your way, Tom.” He paused. “I’ll be back tomorrow. With help.” He ordered his driver to head out.
“Go to hell,” Tom suggested earnestly to the disappearing carriage.
Stanley Harris gulped his lukewarm beer, leaning his elbows on the rough wood surface of the bar. His shoulders were hunched, not just because he was tired from a long day, but because he was so tall he had to lean down to the counter. The premature wrinkles on his face were darkened by coal grime that had defied his quick wash after work. He didn’t look strong enough to mine coal.
He was not enjoying his beer as much as he should have been after an exhausting day. He stared out the dirty window. He reflected, not for the first time, that he had been here at the bar too much these last few months. And when his wife had confronted him about it, he had scowled at her and withdrawn into silence. That hadn’t been their only point of friction either. As a husband, he had the uneasy feeling, he had been weighed in the balances and found wanting. He tilted his mug back and swallowed the beer quickly, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, paid his tab, and hurried out onto the street.
He leapt up onto his sagging porch, but did not cross the forbidden threshold. He took a seat on a battered bench instead. He breathed in deeply, then out slowly. The thin walls of the house, insulated only with flaking paint, let the sound of his wife’s moans out clearly. He also heard the midwife’s urgent voice. Stanley sat looking out at the quiet street, unconsciously rocking back and forth.
Eliza had wanted to leave this little coal town a long time ago. But Stanley was afraid they would go hungry, would end up without a home, or…something would happen. He had no skills, really, except drinking beer and wearing himself out harvesting coal for the use of others, and he made enough at that to keep them alive. They had to save some money first, and then they could think about going. Now that the little one was coming, Eliza would be more unhappy here than ever. He began to rehearse the whole fight in his head—she accusing him of lacking backbone, he protesting her unfairness, then…he shook his head. No point arguing ahead of time.
Stanley really did badly want to give her—them—a better life. He shivered in his thin cotton shirt as the chilly fall light dimmed. From the sounds of the shouts in the distance, the baseball game was racing against the twilight out on the field on the edge of town. Children ran around the ramshackle houses and shacks playing their own games.
A scream came out of the house and Stanley jumped an inch off the bench.
Eddie Stewart coughed. It was his 45th cough in 20 minutes, according to his mother. Unwilling to be overprotective, she had waited to start counting after the fourth cough. She blamed this sudden mysterious ailment on their recent visit to “that filthy farm” where his cousins lived, well outside town on a rutted dirt road. Eddie strenuously denied this, as repeating the visit in the near future was high on his list of goals. When it came time to leave he and his cousins had been desperately defending their covered wagons against a vicious Indian attack, when their mothers came up and insisted that the attack was over. Also, Eddie suspected that the dam they had built across the creek would need some maintenance soon.
His mother was not opposed to farms at all, as long as they were the kind that featured thoroughbred horses grazing in clean pastures, with servants trimming the grass and bringing cold tea when needed. She therefore had firm opinions about her husband’s family’s farm, defaced as it was with dirty animals, their leavings, and worse, being very much lacking in servants with cold tea. She had been opposed to ever repeating their week at the farm, even before the Eddie’s coughing spree began, and now Eddie’s hope was at a low ebb. He had a slight advantage in that his father had warm memories of escaping town life as a boy for farm visits. But his father was very busy, and this trip had been the first time he had taken a week off since Eddie had been very small.
Eddie had only a very faint idea of what kept his father so busy, although his father had tried to explain in that adult way that assumes children won’t understand technical terms like “commute” or “wages.” It appeared his father owned a lot of companies, or parts of them, but not content with this, was always selling and buying more.
He did make enough money to afford the best doctors. After the infamous 45th cough Eddie’s mother insisted on taking him to one of these, despite Eddie’s intricately argued case that would have done a veteran lawyer credit. The judge was not paying attention and hauled him off to Dr. Stover. As it happened, Eddie wished very much he had won the debate because the doctor looked very serious and whispered in another room with his mother, who started crying. That was troubling enough, but the worst was that Eddie, to his horror, was restricted to little activity, lots of bed rest, and hardly any time outside. For someone who had only recently been carrying his rifle west with a covered wagon, this was galling.
He suspected his mother of constructing an elaborate scheme to keep him away from farms, a scheme all the more outrageous because it also prevented him from going outside on these wonderful summer nights when there were fireflies to catch and games of Kick the Can and tag with the neighborhood kids.
Eddie made somewhat of a commotion about his house arrest, with the
result that his parents had to promise to take him to see the moving picture that had come out a few months ago, In Old Arizona. Some of the kids had already seen it and everyone else wanted to. There was talking in it! Eddie couldn’t imagine what this would be like.
He was too excited to sleep that day, and also it was only four in the afternoon. The late day sun moved across the wallpaper, washing out the blue flowers in yellow-orange light, blazing across the photo of his parents after their wedding, then over a calendar with a picture of an old mill. A fly zipped up to the sun patch, crawled around, then flew down to the bed. Out in the living room, the grandfather clock chimed the half hour. Eddie groaned.
He tried to distract himself by imagining the talkie, with the sounds of voices and horses and gunshots instead of tinny piano music. It would be like being there! And there would be no need to guess what the people were saying, and then argue about it later with his friends.
He was almost afraid that he would feel better before the night the moving picture was showing, which was Friday. That was two days away. If he felt better, his parents might reconsider; it was after all, mostly a picture for adults. And his father might get too busy again, like usual. He had to cough just then, but it seemed a trifle weak to his anxious ears, so he added another more hearty one on purpose in case anyone were listening.
Earl F. Lee leaned on the rail of the troop transport ship and stared down at the choppy gray Pacific waves. Honolulu was somewhere out there, slowly getting closer. After that would be New York City, and then somehow he needed to get home. Getting home finally seemed somewhat likely, after months of tiptoeing through mine fields in Korea in air that was a little too dense with exploding shells to breath very freely. The Korean War was history now and no one would remember all the small events that happened because of it, like this ocean voyage—or the theft of two years of his life, Earl reflected bitterly. He was 20 when the war started and was working his way up quickly in management at the steel mill in town when he lost the draft lottery. For some, that career would have been a soul-killing dead end. But it was all Earl had asked out of life. His world was his small town, and in that reality, upper management at the steel mill was an elite position. He was on his way to riches in that small world.
They had promised to keep his job for him, but he had just found out that a recent economic slump had eliminated any available jobs. The company was regretful. Most of his friends who had stayed home had managed to hang on to their positions and were doing well for themselves. But there was nothing left for Earl. Thanks to the government’s obsession with keeping the Korean peninsula out of the hands of the commies, he was returning to nothing, to life in the unemployment line.
At least he was coming back. His best friend from the army, a guy from Chicago, wasn’t. But Earl didn’t have some heartrending tale about how one second Richard was standing there, and the next second he was gone. He was still standing there, back in Korea, refusing to come home. He had sent Earl word from the prison camp, after the end of the war, that he had decided to stay with the commies. He claimed there were dozens of other men doing the same thing. Earl would have rather Richard had stepped on a mine. Anger at having to go fight was one thing, but going over to the enemy was something else entirely. Earl was no traitor.
He was going to show Richard he was wrong. He was going to take back everything the government had stolen from him, and then some more.
It was almost lunchtime and I was crunching through crispy leaves back to my car. I had parked it in the frosty dark that morning and made my way into the woods to see if I could intercept a deer cruising back to a thicket to bed down. Probably there had been dozens of deer going to such thickets, but I had never been in this woods before and had selected the wrong thicket. Now I was in a hurry to get back into town and comfort myself with some hot lunch.
Ahead of me was a grassy hilltop crowned with two solitary spruce trees that towered high up over the surrounding landscape like signal towers. They could be seen for miles. As I walked up over the top of the hill I found myself standing suddenly among a small group of grave stones, some leaning over and stained with moss. The daylight prevented the cold prickling I would have felt on my neck if I had stumbled through here in the dark and caught the stones in the cold white flashlight beam. Under the warm sun, I was curious and knelt down to peer at the eroded script on one of the stones.
In Loving Memory
Born September 1919
Died December 1929
I wandered around looking at the inscriptions. There were a few other Stewarts here, some Smiths, Lees, and Harris’, with a smattering of others. Unknown loved ones had rationed only a few sentences to tell me about the people whose last traces lay a few feet under my feet, a lifetime condensed into the most important facts: the day they started breathing, the day they stopped breathing, and sometimes extravagant additions like whether they were married or had children.
My stomach reminded me that exploring old cemeteries had its charms, but was no competition for the chili at Mama Gina’s Café. I went to get some lunch.