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As a young man in high school Jody would get up early
on spring mornings to work the farm with his dad and the hired men. When he had a choice Jody always asked to work the west quarter where his imagination helped him visualize an otherwise imperceptible tilt of the North American continent toward the Mississippi. He further imagined the view clear back east to the ocean as he imagined it having only seen a few pictures. But he could see both his parents and grandparents houses and the place midway where he would build his own home someday. Now, more than twenty years later sitting in the captain’s chair secure inside his tractor he turned off the stereo, removed his protective earphones, switched the heater fan off, took the engine out of gear and looked out of the transparent bubble at the world as it must have looked on the morning of Creation. Hearing the roar he imagined the smell of diesel exhaust as his father and grandfather once used in their machines to work the first square of land purchased by his family after leaving Germany at the beginning of the 19th century. Now as a man piloting his own tractor he felt the same as he did when he was a child riding on his dad’s lap on the old Mitsubishi. He felt awe for the vistas that still took his breath away, and the generations of his family who now lived once more through him and in his flesh, he felt secure in a peaceful understanding that like the generations of fathers before him if he took care of the land, the land would take care of his family and him. He felt the same way as a child and now as a father himself. He always stopped the tractor in this spot where the view was the most inspiring, his family’s land met the sky along an unbroken line. He lifted the container from its holder and twisted open the lid and the bubble filled with the sharp smell of the coffee that his mother taught his wife to make. Cheddar coffee as Martha called it, unspeakably strong, a double measure of grinds mixed with crushed egg shells and cayenne pepper. It was something special the women only made twice a year, during planting and harvest.
His father was likely taking his coffee break at this same moment on the other side of their farm. The big rhythm of the seasons mixed with the little rhythm of the day. It was something he knew as well as he knew where every tool in the garage was hung and the name of every farmer for a thirty mile radius. The knowledge lifted his heart and filled him with a sense of security mixed with endless possibilities. Just like the same thrill and love he had for his wife of almost twenty years, he learned not to speak of those deep feeling because others did not always understand and some were not as lucky as he and his family had been. But those feelings were always there and near the surface making him a happy yet humble man. Jody counted among his blessings that his wife understood his feelings and his mind, she was the smartest woman he ever met and she was never jealous of the farm. She was a part of him during the most difficult and trying times of the year, the days that turned him into just another wheel on the tractor for eighteen hours a day weeks on end. That Martha brewed the secret family blend told him every year, at a time that broke up other farm marriages, when he was most stressed, that she is on his side. Riding along in the tractor bubble, looking across the unchanged horizon, Jody felt a little guilty and somewhat circumscribe for the belief that everything was perfect. As close as he ever came to feeling drunk. He had to stop his day dreaming, time was tight, it was the middle of the month and so far this month only gave him three days dry enough for planting. His tractor floated across the muck on the latest inflatable self scouring bands. He remembered when his dad’s tractors had rubber tires and would get bogged in the rich muck. Despite the hardship of the past those seemed like better days. He looked to the sky as it suddenly filled with another black barrel of rain. The premature rain of his torment had fallen half the night. Other farmers planted so he must but it seemed too soon. It perplexed him and he had discussed it with his Dad, planting was done a month earlier now than when he was a boy. It
seemed wrong but just like the tire companies had come out with new tread to float easily over muck, geneticists produced seed hybrids to take advantage of the wet frost free conditions and the hotter than ever summer nights. A satellite signal from space came down to earth and the sensor in his tractor so that he could plant perfectly parallel and contoured rows of corn. He paid a fee to receive that signal, like satellite television. Because of genetic engineering he could spray the world’s strongest weed killer without having to look out for his crop. Enough chemical weed killer to kill the farmer applicator himself and the drift alone could kill his family before it wilted the genetically enhanced crop. The potency of this newest and most improved top secret corn seed was to grow plants with multiple shoots and as many as a dozen ears and a density of leaves that were impossible to see through with stands twenty feet tall in spots. During harvest especially he relied on the signal to position his tractor, if plants got piled up him the tractor could tip. Rumor was that the latest hybrid was a fusion of tundra grasses and the original wild Central American stock. The best of both worlds. Rain once more washed out newlt planted rows, Jody pulled most of the bubble into the tractor barn, the planting rig was too large and stayed out to be washed by the rain. Jody shouldered the heavy wire bringing it along side the tractor and plugged it in to top off the charge, hopeful the 36 hours of nonstop planting that was still needed was just around the corner. The charging generator slowed with the new load, it belched alcohol exhaust that came down as grey soot with the rain. Jody could hear the generator whine as it ran faster. Downed power lines were not repaired out here until after the cities. The decentralized grid left rural cities down longest. Jody experienced the satisfaction of knowing he had every system he and his family needed up and running. His job was to monitor the systems and watch out for vehicles when he had to take the tractor on the road to make a u-
turn. The day was almost here when a farmer could sleep late while the equipment ran without him and his only chore was figuring out how to pay all the bills “Why didn’t you wake me up?” “I thought I would let you sleep and give you a ride to school. Usually your mother can never wake you up.” “You just don’t want me to be with my friends on the bus. Don‘t you have farm stuff to do?” “It’s raining …” “And Mom wants you out of the house. Right?” The kid might not have known the weather outside but he was well aware of the atmosphere at home. “Go take your shower. Maybe we can catch up with the bus.” Jody of course new who his son’s friends were. Down the south end of the road was a settlement where a hundred years ago was the beginnings of a small town populated by trades people, a barrel maker, a smith, a wheelwright all working from shops below or adjacent to their homes but after another competing town grew elsewhere and drew more business traffic this town was given up, buildings were sold or abandoned. Now the buildings are poor homes where the county placed families who were on Public Assistance. Some nights Jody could clearly hear distinct sounds, the riotous screams, laughter and the of loud talking which carried for miles to his ear. The old town was the remotest spot and the first stop the school bus made in the morning. Jody had the sad and fearful suspicion that his son had friends and possibly a girl down there. John was no help trying to catch the bus, he had no sense of which direction the bus went after picking him up. “You’ve been taking that bus for most of your life, how could you not know?” Jody asked in frustration. “I live in your house but do you know who my favorite band is?” John voice carried the same tone of resentment for the last five years since he turned thirteen. “I’m just going to take you to school and if we cross paths with your bus I’ll let you off. Tomorrow you get up the
regular time. Let’s pray this rain stops.” “I thought you like rain?” John had lowered the seat and closed his eyes, his voice for once calm. “Timely rain. After planting and before spraying then at least a week after the first spray.” “Do you spray a lot?” How could this sleeping baby, this suffering red faced teenager have done the things the principal accused him of? This was no gang leader sleeping beside him. Although his son said he never felt like part of the family Jody could not feel totally responsible for that, some of it had to have come from within the child, by his own nature. “We’re here, pal.” With a zipping noise John pulled the seat upright and he was out of the car before it stopped. Jody choked up for his boy’s safety, he watched his son as the door slammed in his face. Idle kids, boys in black boots and girls wearing dark makeup circled around and cheered John. Jody watched until the deep blast of a bus horn moved him on. Jody could not disapprove of his son’s life, it was a life he had never known. Jody had always been a part of the farm and the family, the bond to any outside friendship was very secondary for him. His son was the center of a group of friends and he drew his strength from them. Jody had his wife, his parents, his son and the farm to draw his strength from. John held off lighting the cigarette he was offered until he saw with a side glance his father drive away. It was not that he was afraid if his father saw him smoking, it was out of respect. Grandma and Grandpa’s house had that unmentioned old people smell, but it mixed well with the chemical odor of wood polish liberally applied to festive knotty pine. The place was old but scrubbed. What especially made it cozy was possibly psychological, that horse barn smell brought to mind by Grandma’s riding mementos covering walls, filling
display cases and on the mantel of the no longer used fireplace. Over grandma’s head a framed enlarge photograph, an action shot of her riding rodeo style in boots, jeans and a plaid shirt with the horses head and legs a blur and a few girls in black velvet outfits clustered to one side. Grandpa’s Wyoming wild flower was today wearing the same outfit less the boots, nursing a bourbon and water in front of the TV. She had not ridden in a dozen years. When asked John claimed he remembered the farm had horses but he really didn’t. “Give your Grandma a kiss, Johnnie.” She could barely move except to raise a glass or put the cigarette to her lips, arthritis, bursitis, rheumatism, and being thrown from too many horses multiplied her pain. Johnnie’s visit had delayed going home long enough and now he had to leave. He watched Grandpa help Grandma from her chair, he planted himself toe to toe with her, held her by her forearms and with all his weight leaned back. She straightened with a groan. “Want a ride to the house?” Grandpa asked holding Grandma’s hand. Johnnie stepped out the door and paused to kick a stone free of the frozen mud, “I’ll just walk.” He waited polite and impatient. The energy of youth raced through him. His grandparents working together descended the two steps from the short porch on their house. John’s dad grew up there, John heard the boring stories so many times. Yet he liked stopping by this house and hated going home. John could not figure out the difference except his parents were so bossy and always on him about something. Eat your carrots, do your homework, that was all they ever said, they never got out there and lived. At least his grandparents did stuff. “Win a bunch of money.” John called as they were about to get in that old car, it‘s paid for, Grandpa always said. “We’ll try.” Grandma called back and Grandpa waved. Supposedly it was spring, it was still cold and the sun
was slicing across the sky turning the white garage wall orange, in a few minutes it would be black. John ran onto the field, he could see glints of the old car headed toward the Indian Gambling Lodge. John ran and waved, not that he thought his grandparents would see him. No one would, it was not likely another car or truck would pass this way until they came home late tonight and John would probably see their lights then. At least it was warm in the boring house that was just coming into sight as he ran across the field. He stopped and stood completely still. He could hear voices, laughter. If he came out late on some nights he might hear singing. Was it someone’s radio or television, the ghost of Indians? “John’s home.” He heard his mother say. “Hi John. How was school?” “All right I suppose.” It did not matter what he said, it seemed to him that no one was listening. “Wash your hands and sit down.” “John, what do you think I was doing today?” Dad was always so happy when he came to the dinner table. “I don’t know, stuff I guess.” Now John mumbled. If he did not force himself he would not make a sound. He clearly talked himself out with his grandfather. “Yes, but guess.” His father had become so uninteresting lately. “Don’t you notice the weather changing?” At least he had fun with his friends in school but they lived so far away, school was the only place he saw them. His parents made trips to town but they did not like John going there alone and John was stalled in a time that he did not want to ask any favors of his parents or to be seen with them. “What do you think I’m doing?” His parents did whatever boring thing they wanted but they didn’t have to go to boring school. “I’m starting to put in the corn.” John continued eating, not looking up. “When I was your age I was already driving a tractor
and not a small one, a big one, and I had my own little square of land to farm.” How could grandpa be so cool and grandpa’s son be so pathetic? “Did Grandpa let you stay home from school to do farming?” “No.” “John,” His mother broke in, “ ‘to farm’ , is the proper phrase, not ‘do farming’.” “Oh brother. May I be excused?” John could not help but do well in school his home was school all over again. He tore into his backpack but fumed for a while hearing his parents downstairs talk about him. He put on music to drown them out and started his homework. As was current in child raising Jody and Martha were protective and controlling parents. The small house had only one television and a single phone, they believed children should not be exposed to the world without parental guidance nearby. This approach was a reaction to urban violence, drugs and the freedom formerly handed children resulting in the lost generation of Jody and Martha’s peers. Martha was not from rural Iowa but was raised in a privileged enclave in the center of the East Coast, the second most depraved urban area of the country after the West Coast. She understood John’s rebellion but did not know how to deal with it. She had spent several years estranged from her own parents. Martha’s parenting strategy was to not be like her own mother, that was how she approached all situations. Martha and Jody met in college and called it their luck to be in the same classes but it was really an inevitability like an arranged marriage that would have satisfied Martha’s mother had her mother taken the time to know Jody, but that never happened and after twenty years she had not tired of railing against Jody and predicting a tragic future for Martha. Their attraction was based on elements of mutual fascination for things that were in stark contrast. Jody was a farmer descended from generations of farmers while Martha
despite her pedigree struggled to throw off her upbringing. Martha’s mother tried to put her in the cultural shackles required to achieve female financial independence, the plan was to established a marriage with a man of suitable means and-or income potential and maintain that economic station by survivorship, inheritance and control of his will. Martha went to the wrong college for nay of that and drove her mother to despair when she said she want to be a vet. Jody radiated prosperity and security with no cash reserves, stocks or bonds and little in the way of savings. What he offered was the protential of a large measure of under used land that was still in his parents’ name and a lot of work ahead for which agricultural college was preparing him. Martha was brought up to feel as a woman she must act confident when most desperate and marry well or else hit bottom. Despite that she married Jody. Jody was more nervous the first time he was with Martha at the bank to sign for their first production loan in his own name than he had been when he asked Martha to marry him. They were a lucky pair of newlyweds as both had grown up around horses and as a result they were both confident that they would understand all the processes when it was time to make a baby. Their son John was not so understanding of the sacrifices every member of a farm family has to make. As John got into his teenage years he became more of a mixed blessing to his parents. Jody was an only child and so was John but sometime it seemed a mistake not to have had another baby right away. Martha had had cancer when she was thirty and although her health was restored she could no longer have that second child she and Jody sometimes talked about. The tax penalty for a second child would have been no problem, Martha had her personal fortune which she refused to touch on the principle that she and Jody had not earned it. It might have started a new trend because neither Jody or
Martha knew anyone with more than one child. The doctor told her not to worry, he said he did hundreds of hysterectomies a year. Martha was suspicious about the number, he was an old doctor, at that rate the entire county must be populated by sterilized women. She made a inquiry of it and learned the doctor was not just trying to make her comfortable. One answer for why the high number was that farm wives are more conscientious about getting checked. Unscientific medical folklore was that farm husbands are home more when the kids were at school and the constant friction of use was wearing the wives out. That stereotype about farmers was certainly untrue. Often she was told she would live longer with the potential cancer producing site removed. ‘And you already have a child’ was given as the ultimate answer to shut her up. Martha felt something in Iowa had given her the cancer. She remembered being new and how ill it made her to breath so much unfiltered air with its many uncomfortable smells and all of the farm chemicals in it. In the days both before and after the surgery it seemed an intelligence was actual attempting to remove her piece by piece. After the surgery she changed into a less happy person, it made her cynical in a community where she hoped to escape all cynicism. It hung over her head that a hysterectomy was probably unnecessary but like rural dentistry things were frequently removed instead of repaired. Some of the sponsors of this hospital were Bandwich Stomach Bands, Powerhouse Anti-biotic Gel and Alka-Seltzer, it was laughable to see Moon Pies sponsoring diabetes screening. There was little hope in this hospital for serious illness with no major company to sponsor surgery or long term care. Most of the women Martha knew had received the same treatment and Jody, like most men did not know anything about women’s healthy which was reinforced by the medical staff who only spoke of those things by innuendo when a man was present. Laid to rest was that difficult conversation of how John would handle the rejection implicit in having a sibling.
Grandma tried to tell Jody and Martha that growing up Jody was a handful too but his grandpa who always setting the record straight with his beefy intolerance for sentimentality, petty indulgences or not calling a thing what it was, said that Jody never had any trouble with academics and was always a good boy. John on the other hand was very bratty as a toddler and before school fretted over separation and once in school followed through by getting in trouble. Jody did 4-H after school as a boy in school, John did detention. Even when there was another visit with guidance and the principal it could not diminish the connection Jody felt to his child. The earth and even the sun which was at last fully in the sky and illuminating the endless brush strokes that painted the fresh horizon and lighting the day that was bound to bring something new with planting finally underway. “Your mother and I do not need this.” High school was almost an hour drive. “Well don’t worry about it, I‘m over 18, sign the papers and liberate me.” John shouted above the music playing through the buds in his ears. “Where does he get this from?” Jody expected Martha to have all the domestic answer. She did have the answer to this one. “Some abused child of alcoholics living in squalor a few counties over was ’liberated’ by his parents to get him out of that environment.” Her tone made it evident what a personal offense she felt by her son’s attitude and demeanor. “Mom, do you have to talk to people?” They had not been able to give John a haircut in years and she could no longer stomach looking at him. Jody parked in the Visitors parking area below the flag which he could hear snapping in front of the long, two level
high school building. The building was almost new when Jody attended school there, at the time it was unmarred, a proud addition to the town. He automatically looked to the flag as a weather predictor, a strong wind was blowing to the northwest. Rain, again. But it might not reach his farm but it no longer mattered today because planting had to be halted for this. The graffiti and general condition of the school was been unimaginable from Martha’s experience. Her school back east in Virginia was a well preserved structure in the mighty and confident style of government buildings built between the World Wars. Her high school was revitalized into a private academy which still spoke of strength in isolation and continuity and was a snub at modernism with a measure of elitism. This Iowa school must have looked like a potential victim to vandals when it was new. The plain expanses of sheet metal like billboards calling for messages and vulgarity, intermixed with dark glass to entice rock throwers. The first time Martha saw the high school Jody voiced the opinion that it was the children of townies who did all the damage. Compared to Jody she too was a townie, her family lived on a farm and owned farms but most of them were fenced in and densely hedged patches of land in urban counties. The natural world was restricted. As a child Martha’s mother discouraged her from picking the flowers in their yard so as not to disturb the gardeners work. The closest her family got to having dirt on their hands would be if a pen broke or after art class and then they would be admonished if they came in the house that way.
“Did I ask to be born? You have your farm but what do I have?” He rolled his eyes and looked up at the ceiling as his mother responded. “You are so fortunate to have been born. You still have
so much going for yourself. Just last year you were doing well in school. We used to study together. Remember?” “Mom, that was like two years ago.” By his sense of it, having lived so long in tension and constant change having gone through so much the physiological effect in that time, two years, was the experience of several lifetimes. What is more, she should have known that. That his mother who was as old as shale remembered something was proof that it was long ago, any embarrassing cute thing that she remembered had to be something he out grew, his ancient self who in the present turmoil he would not be able to recognize, or want to. John only knew how he felt now. Day after day he lied when he told her he had no homework in high school. He hid his failing grades just to create his own situation for which he wanted the private space at home where he could manage his personal problems from school. When he was a freshman his recurring nightmare was his mother bringing cookies to high school, sitting in the back of the classroom and volunteering for every classroom parent chore. John was embarrassed by his parents whose big claim was that they cared about him. It was impossible to keep any but the most intimate secrets at home, in close quarters for three people. Anything spoken between parents might as well be broadcast. John had developed a permanent cringe. They thought if they whispered about their demons their child would be too involved in his own world to hear. He observed and listened to them. He heard his mother’s loathing of her own mother and his father who constantly whined about Grandpa. John was too embarrassed to laugh with his friends about his home life like they did about theirs. He wished his grandfather was his father. As the lowest and most defeated member of the family John told his parents not to blame themselves, he said he was making every effort he could to be a loser. He knew his family were rich farmers because his friends told him and later his reasoning confirmed it as all of the farms nearby had closed. That made him different when the most
important thing was to be like everyone, John decided to make a fool of himself so that he might better fit in. He wanted to be away from his mother who did everything for him and had always been so close the air seemed to taste of her. She believed her job was to guide him as well as house, feed and protect. Guidance was her most important job since no matter what the outside circumstances were it was her guiding hand over which she had the most control.
He had been drilled from birth with all of the school skills his mother thought he would need. She told what she remembered from her pleated skirt and blue blazer days at middle school. John was proud to be a leader, answering all of the teacher’s questions, sitting straight at his desk with his hands folded until his knuckles turned white. He was a kindergarten child when he first felt the eyes of others turning to him for answers. His mother’s heritage of social responsibility, likewise her own altruistic qualities and a sense of moral responsibility surfaced in John. At ten he was a speech maker while the other children snorted like little hogs. A detached point of view made him feel set apart as he judged the world and offering it direction. He expressed the values learned at the kitchen table. Things got rough for John in middle school where they began separating boys and girls. He learned to keep the value judgments that his mother was impressing on him to himself after being beaten enough times by the kids who he called unwashed and inbred. His school mates were the owner class of the town. A farmer rarely went to high school. What he learned most from middle school was that he is the product of two distinctly different but similar dirt clods. In high school John was a different dirt clod himself. The difference being he knew it. The jocks and motor heads in high school were only vaguely aware of anything at
anytime, and at some point the herd gaze fell on John. It was his own decision that he would rather have a few friends in school and live than to be the futurist and social engineer his mother was shaping him to be under the spiked boot of 300 lb football players. John was a mild bad boy in an elite school of the smartest and richest Now a radical Jeffersonian farmer. He envied Jefferson’s freedom to travel the world. The voice of judgment which he heard became internalized and because of that voice he never became as close to his friends as he wanted. He felt rejected by his friends because he could never be as close to them as he thought they were with each other. He watched from a distance his friends’ tortured lives. He envied their mean circumstances, the squalor, abuse, poverty, and desperation. Standing in an empty field on many a winter’s night he recognized the voices he heard from town, schoolmates screaming in the night. John’s so-called successful family was no better. His mother was so obsessed with having food to hand out, bread, applesauce, preserved meats, she delivered food around the county because they were farmers they had a bigger fuel allotment. While kids at school thought they saw John with his family joy riding, if they saw anyone it was his mother scavenging flour to bake more loaves or making deals for yeast, bottled gas, eggs, milk and flour. Trading whatever they didn’t need for food for the hungry and homeless. She did not know where to turn when John needed new clothes. Despite what people said about his family being rich John was far from being the best dressed. His were some of the oldest and most worn clothes of anyone he knew, hand me downs from strangers. Children’s clothes who got sick and died and on Xmas their unused toys bought for the dead children by a parent who died or whose kid died before the holidays. John’s father was always out in the field or the tractor barn, the light in the tractor barn was on half of the night. His father worked hard and his mother gave everything away. That was as much as the sixteen year old could
decipher of the social system and the reason people acted as they did. He was able to satisfy the requirements of the friends his age and create the environment he needed at home by being a clown and troublemaker in school. John resolved the constant problem he faced as an individual who needed to find his place in two different societies, school and home. With one action it seems he had done that, a rather elegant solution that made him feel proud to be a fool. When the boys got in trouble the principal called John’s parents because he knew John was the only one with parents who might respond. It was a cruel and efficient move that also satisfied Principal Pelter’s curiosity. John Miller’s permanent record listed his parent’s income which was impressive and his mother’s suspicious activities. The librarian and the security guards reported John was the leader and the biggest clown of the three, he was also the most nervous after the boys were apprehended. Being escorted to the office by guards gave John and his friends one more thing to laugh about in the hall and it made for one more occasion for his parents to talk to him without knowing what they are talking about. Waiting on the bench outside the principal’s door the boys made sure John got the middle seat so they could give him the treatment. They poked at him and made the sort of noises in his direction which as the principal observed, these rural kids were so good at. Each boy looked and acted like a slightly askew version of the other. Even without a dress code the boys all tended to look and dress alike. Girls on the other hand distinguished themselves by each trying to look different. Boys wearing blue jeans or khakis all disappeared into the background while the girls were a flutter of primary colors except a few who preferred black. Girls were only required in school to tone down the make-up and show their faces. The procedure for interrogation of students did not change with a school’s location, city, suburbs or even here.
Mr. Pelter called the boys in singly and sent them out with escort to create the feeling of suspicion and paranoia between them, he called the Miller boy last. “I have it all on my security tape.” The principal played a timed loop on the screen, the slapstick of teenage boys, the tall one tripping the short one, John, who fell onto a small table and landed on his hands and knees crushing something, it was all grainy, in black and white and nothing could be distinguished. Without witnesses the tape could have been anyone. The ungainly looking one of the three did nothing in the tape but be nearby and looking on. “I don’t think your parents are going to be too happy to see this.” John, the smallest of the three was filmed laughing on all fours above the display model on which he collapsed with exaggerated guffaws. The explanation was the weekly game they played as the girls were marched out of the library and the boys’ class marched in. The girls whose painted eye lids and plucked eyebrows pointed like arrows to double and triple twirled peaks of hair and their cheeks were iridescent with day glow paint they came into view like traffic lights above crisp moist and usually bright red lips. John’s action let the young ladies know the success of their efforts. Blinded by passion John was an easy victim when Mike Warner’s foot stuck under his. After he fell clumsily he could not help but play it into a death scene. As for the Native American lodge made of newspaper glued to wire and painted brown to look like buffalo hide and green sponges shaped with scissors into shrubbery looking far older than the twenty years it stood by the library door was crushed by John’s fall and spread in pieces all around him. Plastic ponies lay on their side. His father who was always so serious would never understand how his son could act this way. He never did anything stupid in front of girls. “My father is working and my mother is off handing out sandwiches.” John told the principal and hoped it was true. “Then you will wait outside my door until one of them
comes to school.” John expected to be escorted out while the Principal Pelter waited on the phone. “Mrs. Miller, this is the school principal calling.” What could be worse than destruction of school property, John wondered. “It was a hateful destruction of a depiction of native life.” John was content to sit on the bench until his parents came. When they flanked him he wanted to get up. “Let me look at you,” his mother grabbed his arm, ”are you all right?” John’s father had never been able understand a child not wanting to be like his parents, he often confessed that. His mother only wanted to know who it was John was accused of hating and why. She knew her child could not be guilty. Just as she had been taught by her mother to be kind to all of the little people underneath she was taught the same of the different races. While she taught her son to live with and not above people she taught him to respect all others. While containing her yet to be directed anger Martha wondered, is this the first display of a trait John inherited from her to feel disgust and the urge to get as far away as possible from home. Mrs. Gladstone, the principal’s secretary who knew all of the students and none of the parents when Jody went there did not know who he was until he said they were John’s parents. John sat between Martha and Jody on the wooden bench adjacent to the door to Principal Pelter’s office. Since John was twelve and began ripening like cheese into a feisty pre-adolescent they seldom went anywhere, or did anything that could identify them as a family, despite the circumstance Jody felt proud being seen with his son. John stood, it was obvious he did not want to take a chance of any of his friends seeing him with his folks. Urgently he twisted and jerked out of the seat. John had always been a moody and difficult child. He never wanted to be dad’s pal, he wasn’t interested in tractor rides. When
Jody was a boy all it took was a disapproving look from his father and he was crushed. Martha did not know what to do about his behavior. She had not been a discipline problem for her parents. She internalized her revulsion until eighteen when she went away to the least likely school a girl from an old Virginian moneyed family might be expected to attend. There were years of studied silence in which she discovered herself, met Jody and had a child. Once established as an independent adult she rebuilt the relationship with her family. Her son’s disposition was uniquely his own. The meeting with the principal was for 9:30 and Jody nudged his wife every minute the hand slipped further past the six and after five minutes he got up to pester the receptionists. “He will be with you shortly.” The crooked old lady barely looked his way. “This is on purpose. He’s making us wait just to impress us that he can.” After Jody sat back on the bench and nudged Martha twice more until she got up. “Will you please tell the principal we are waiting. My husband is needed on the farm.” “I’ll remind him again.” The secretaries gnarled arthritic hands were as large as the side of her face as she held the phone. Martha glared at the lady when she looked up. “Go right in.” “We had a Bozo like this for a principal when I went here.” Jody said as he stood, not caring who heard. Just being in that office awoke resentment from his own teen years. In his youth Jody was a mild one and not a wild one yet he had the same things irritating him as did the kids who got into trouble. Mr. Pelter was near the door as it opened toward him and Jody was now concerned if he had heard the ’Bozo’ comment, he gave Martha a quick look of foolish embarrassment. His handshake was disconcerting to Jody, too long for a stranger, not proper enough for an authority figure, soft and
sickly, irksome enough for him to watch how he shook his wife’s hand. He pressed her fingertips between his thumb and fingertips, a dainty shake, his tight smile turned to a leer. This man was not to be trusted, Jody felt at once and between him and Martha in silent communication they immediately reached the a consensus that they would not take this man’s word over that of their own son. Mr. Pelter had the look of another in the parade of principals in sharp suits and polished shoes who had marched in and slouched out of the county school district. This rural district was a planned first step, no more than a stopover in a procession headed to one of the coasts or the sun belt for higher paying urban and suburban positions. He must live in one of the rental apartments in town and had a set of weights in one of the spare bedrooms because there was not a health club in this county. Mr. P took every opportunity to attend professional training, seminars and leadership development courses where he spent half of the time at the conference looking for his next job and the evenings went out binge drinking on the prowl for one night stands. The University tried to cultivate him as a leader but so far he was no more than a clothes horse. He wants power but this is the best he can do, intermediary between the town committees who decided policy and teachers who heard it all before, students who heard nothing and the irate public. Jody and Martha had attended School Committee hearings before Martha became sick. She thought this school was as out of touch with truly educating the kids as was the one she attended but worse. Here they excluded and ruled against what was heretical, science, and history, to only teach survival skills. Her old school weighed down the kids with what they needed to know but was worthless, etiquette, television, and how to be a good consumer. Survival skills were appropriate in this region where the climate was sometimes harsh, healthy wheat shipped to be processed and returned as moldy
bread, and electrical service was intermittent. Father returned to his farm work, he was too busy or too tired to involve himself, John was sent to his room to sit and do nothing before his mother knocked on the door and insisted to came in to help him write his punitive essay. “It’s not a punishment essay,” his mother corrected him, “it’s an apology. Like it or not your principal caught you laughing about the destruction of school property.” “It was just a card board box and papier-mâché. You’re the one who should be apologizing. Your farm is on Indian land, isn’t it.” At that point John’s mother realized he was correct and she proceeded with John’s guidance to write her own letter of apology. His mother showed his father the letter for him to add the specifics but as far a he knew the stealing went on years earlier during the time of Andrew Jackson and that the original farm was bought from homesteaders after the civil war. The first Miller had been a German officer who came to train the Union Army. The first farm was bought many years later. John listening from his room and felt slightly noble learning that his ancestor fought to end slavery. And his father pointed out that it seemed unlikely that his principal who everyone knew was from California had any native American blood as he claimed. Every native American his father ever met always identified himself by his tribe and Mr. P did not mention a tribe. “Maybe his father was a traveling salesman.” His father added for good measure. There was a rare smiles and laughter between the three of them but nothing changed. John went back to his friends who he envied for having one parent who neglect them at home and did not have to answer any questions and above all had the freedom from responsibilities their poverty granted. Those kids did not have to be thankful for things they resented. When his father was not exhausted enough from work
he made it a point to keep his farm tidy, to look better than most of the neighbors. The nearest neighbor was Grandpa. John watched his father watching the Agri-Corp farm chemical ads on TV, he was a slave to whatever they sold him just like the rest of the farmers who produced more food than the world could consume just to have a little more to sell than their neighbors. It was as uninspiring to John as the fact that his parents were still together. It was exciting when parents split up. He threw his mother’s campaign to feed the homeless in her face by pointing out all the empty spare rooms in their house. Her response was that she feared for the family’s safety. If there was any relative he could identify with it had to be the only other discontented one who lived a mile down the road, his quiet and cynical grandfather. He had a stirring memory of his grandfather long ago whispering a secret with hot moist breath pouring in his ear, grandpa swore John to silence, he could remember the confidential wink he periodically got from the old man for many years to follow but now he could not remember over what. But it he was sure it was a great secret that they shared when John was a kid. In a time when public figures kept the lowest profiles possible and politicians offered no leadership, most people in John’s high school Social Studies class could not name the current President. His grandfather was John’s hero. Grandpa called him Johnnie and one of his grandfather’s secret winks, usually followed one of grandpa’s difficult sprees, meant the world to the boy. It was after all his father’s father. As grandpa was a difficult man John or Johnnie made a decision to be a difficult youth. It seemed his grandfather had for a long time been tired of the farming life but now kept at it for the sake of Jody and the rest of the family. So in protest grandpa had become one of those farmers with a cluttered front yard.
John still had the girlfriend that was selected for him at birth. He and Missy got to be friends when they were still young enough to play together. Chastity was common, for several generation they believed in a direct correlation between sexual experience and several strains of incurable and for certain cases untreatable diseases. Once government and the medical industry placed a dollar value on human life they were able to draw a line separating who and what conditions were treatable. The number of dollars changed with the economy. There was never a good year to contract H.I.V. and treatment for cancer after fifty was questionable. As a result Missy was more than his betrothed, for rural people they often had marriages between children not older than 14 and virginity was once again respectable. Sex was also the agent that spread many diseases of a lingering death because old cures no longer worked, and others became incurable because such highly refined medication was not affordable. The health officials found it more effective to disseminate the terrible rumors than the facts, a strategy to which was agreeable to these farmers. Missy painted her face heavily like most girls, there was a time when she was everything John’s parents wanted for him which John never got to know if he wanted for himself or with her. Missy’s parents were once nearby farmers but they lost the farm, before that her mother took off which was when the visits to the Miller farm ended. Now that Missy and her father lived in town if he wished John could visit on his own. Some of the other girls at school were far more interesting to him but he did not want to get married. He was frustrated by wanting a girlfriend but not wanting to get married. As a couple John and Missy remained chaste. Recently John had been toying with the idea of dumping Missy.
Instead John dumbed himself down and got in trouble with other boys. Everything was for laughs, to get the laughs while they were still young. A grim future ahead of them was fairly evident although their small town was well off unlike the cities from were wave after wave of homeless emanated. It made no sense how apartment complexes could be empty while the unemployed in breadlines during the day waited at night for a mat to sleep on in the street. At least in the rural areas an evicted family one day could squat that night in an abandoned home in town and in time return to squat in their old farm house from where they could watch others work their old land. His mother’s mission was to hand out sandwiches to the poor in town. She and Grandpa complained about the politicians to whom everything was an omen for impending and inevitable economic recovery, even the ten year anniversary of the recession. According to them all that was left of the economy was food production and government jobs. Johnnie waited in the little shed at the end of his driveway for the school bus. The same shed he waited in on his first day of school although he did not remember he knew it. His parents never tired of reminding him. When they got to town it had stopped raining and so John made one of his smooth moves around the side of the bus and across the street darting through two abutting backyards and into the next street. In his mind it was a smooth move but there was little risk, attendance was hardly enforced and no one seemed to care. Approaching Main Street he saw mothers with children in the park. Dirty children ran wild as mothers spread out sleeping bags, blankets and wet clothes to try and get them dry during this rare outbreak of sunshine. The shapes of homeless men could be seen in the alleys between the stores on Main Street, some had worked for a little money and got drunk, others hurried home to a
tent clutching a loaf of bread and a jar of milk. Heavy loaves of bread and jugs from home of watery milk was all those kids with swollen knees and elbows lived on. Main Street always smelled of iodine now from the weekly spraying. The spraying was supposedly for public health but its real intention was to humiliate the homeless, mark them and move them out of town, that was what Johnnie’s mother told him. It seemed now everyone looked forward to the spraying like a Saturday night bath. Unless he ran into someone he knew or found something else to do on the way Johnnie was heading to visit Missy in the small house where she and her father now lived. She stopped going to school years ago to take care of her father who was drunk on homemade corn mash all the time. The arranged marriage was hardly spoken of any longer but they were two people familiar with each other and old habits die hard. After her mother left to pursue the life of a career woman in some big city the idea that this was a clean family fell by the wayside. When John came in Missy made him another pot of coffee from those same grinds after adding a little bit of burned corn. Johnnie drank some to be nice. “Your mother was by the other day. She looks good, I was glad to see her.” John nodded thinking it was a good thing she was not coming by today. Even if the school did not care much about attendance, his mother expected him to finish high school with an education and go on to college. “I still got a couple of your mother’s sandwiches if you’re hungry.” “I ate at home this morning.” John begged off out of pity. The coffee was making his stomach growl, “Do you have any milk for the coffee?” “Sorry, fresh out. I’m going to send dad down to stand on line later.” “It’s such a nice day. Care to go for a walk.” “I can’t,” she indicated her father who was sleeping in front of the weather channel. Most likely dreaming of the old
days on his farm. It seemed like a long time ago that she was his intended. The two mothers would have coffee and the two children would be left to play. Missy played with her toy baby and John tried to join in. He had never really put much thought to having a baby, as years went by they went for walks and talked of other things yet he always felt uncomfortable when the subject of their future child came up. John always had a secret feeling that he wanted to find what his life was about by himself. Not from Missy and not from his father. It was like the dinner table, if someone said ‘Eat it‘, he wouldn’t. He got to an age rather early when he had to be dragged to visit Missy and her family. He told his mother that something about Missy’s mother was creepy, her jerky mannerisms and her darting eyes. The house smelled funny too and the visits were boring. Now he was glad he was never rude when he got there. He was glad he remained friends with Missy. They had talked about where babies come from, neither knew and it was disgusting to suspect the ’you know where’ parts, the source of all filth, disease and evil. They visited less often after her mother left then finally not at all after they lost the farm and moved to town. Missy had always wanted something to take care of, John was glad it was not him and it would not be their baby. Things had worked out alright for Missy, she now cared for her father. At the door John held Missy’s fingers between his for a second and it spoke of the world that might have been. Along with the marital arrangement was the deathly fear of sex. John could only imagine himself being a virgin for the rest of his life, as for Missy, he did not know enough to speculate. “Have a nice walk.” She said closing the door. She looked nice for that one moment, people look better with sun on them, even the homeless had a happy glow in broken sunlight. Missy was squinting at the outside light but John imagined she could have also been smiling.
His luck, he thought at the sight of approaching weather, as he turned the corner back onto Main Street clouds blocked the sun, then followed the loud steady drum and hiss of approaching rain, cold and encircling, he trotted then ran back toward school as the distant sidewalk darkened from the water racing toward him. Sheets of rain running off the school roof were blowing onto him. “Let me in.” He pounded the glass door while the security guard smiled at him. The guard opened the door a crack, “Principal’s orders, no one gets in after eight.” The guard was clearly getting a great deal of enjoyment out of this. Deciding that he could not get any more wet than he was Johnnie began tapping on windows. When he saw the back of the principal at his desk he stood there and kept tapping until he was no longer ignored. Johnnie knew he had gotten through when the security guard, now wet like himself and no longer smiling grabbed Johnnie’s arm and dragged him to Principal Pelter’s office. “He said that you weren’t letting anyone in the school. I’m going to tell my mother that you locked me out in the rain.” “Does your mother know that you were bunking school today?” “Yes, she does, she told me to go visit my fiancée whose father is sick. My mother is going to the next Board of Education meeting and she’s going to make sure you lose your job.” “I don’t think your mother can do that. I have a right to lock the doors to keep the student population safe.” “My mother is on the School Board, she can get you fired. She could probably have you arrested for locking me out. I have student‘s rights. I’m all wet.” “Go see the nurse, mama’s boy. She has towels and dry clothes.” “If I get sick you will be in big trouble.” John was at the point with his parents were they barely
communicated at all. If there was anyone he could talk with at home it might be his mother but ideally it would be his grandfather, Big Ed. John admired the way his grandpa turned phrases that were nasty, bitter. hopeless and funny. John imagined that he understood his grandfather who was contrary and sarcastic to everyone including grandma, but especially to his son, Jody, John’s dad. Grumpy and sluggish Grandpa thought everything was miserable, probably not worth the effort and likely to turn out wrong. John laughed at everything his grandfather said and tried to sound just like him for as long as he could remember. Of course talking to his grandfather was an ominous thought, when he visited Grandpa he mostly listened and agreed. John feared his own manner of speaking was not yet manly enough. It seemed to John the only thing he admired about his own father was that he could defend himself when he spoke with Big Ed. John knew by heart what he called his grandfather’s ‘big speech’ hearing it first when he was young, his grandfather started by asking John’s father, “Why do you want your son to grow up to be a farmer?” To a small boy listening it was the funniest thing he ever heard, “This farm killed my father, there’s no money to be made in it anymore. You place yourself in a toxic environment and run the most dangerous equipment in the world and risk your life for what? To pay the bank so you can be your own boss and make no money year after year.” Killing yourself to be your own boss was a wildly comedic concept to John as an eight year old who was being pulled in different directions by the different adults around him who often asked about his plans for the future. “Did I ever show you my short fingers?” It was like a trick before his eyes, half a pinky and the top of a ring finger both blunted. Grandfather did not considered the sight of human mutilation a treat for a young boy but John laughed. “My father was killed by a piece of equipment.” Grandpa added for zest. “He doesn’t need to hear this.” Jody struggled with his mother but she still carried him out of the room.
But he could hear Big Ed, “I saw my father cut to ribbons. He bled to death in agony, caught by the chopper blades. You should be glad that your son doesn‘t want to be a farmer. I don’t wish this life on my worst enemy.” John was relieved that his grandfather would probably not hear about him bunking school. If the breakdown of family communication had a good side that it was likely to be his parents not telling how much trouble he was having in school. Just the fact that they were in high school was an embarrassment, that John and the other boys weren’t tough enough to live on the street and that their parents still had faith in the system and imagined that their child might make the necessary steps to rise through the system to some day have a house and to buy food maybe have an important job that would provide them with plenty of fuel stamps and a personal car. John and his friends at school played the complex game of being on line for the goods while denouncing the life that would give them those things. His mother having organized her little army of food givers was proof that someone who was on the inside could improve things but the fact that it was his mother doing it made being a protester unappealing. For the teens who were still optimistic that the future would have a place for them they had the football team, the gun club or the bible belters who used martial arts to make sure an eye was traded for an eye, but for John and his friends there was just the blanket of laughter and mockery they hid under. They weren’t in school for the sake of their future but rather for the free meals. Those who preached survival of the fittest like Principal Pelter made a point of letting everyone know that John was not from a typical Iowa family, his family are still farmers. Out of date hold outs who thought they were better than the rest. They are making a fortune by exploiting the land. It
was easy to despise the family farmer although the Agriculture done by corporations was vague and maybe because of its size and facelessness did not offer a compelling target. That which was package and labeled, put into palms size instantly edible form became loveable. It was jealousy over wealth, real or imagined and the security they thought the farm family had on their land. A typical consumer had no idea of the torturous route from production to sale the small farmer had to endure. Agri-Corp supported politicians put through laws and regulations to further snare competition, Agri-Corp was the devourer of the last refuge of the small farmer, the land.
John new that his family was splintered and full of anger and tension. That’s what he loved about his grandfather who never spoke well of anyone. After bunking school in the morning John decided to visit his grandfather before going home. At least he would a have a few laughs before he got grounded. He and grandpa put heaping table spoons of instant coffee into mugs then grandpa poured the boiling water and they poured in mountains of powdered artificial cream. “Here comes your dad. He is the biggest crybaby. Never comes over to be sociable, it’s always a problem. Same way since he was a kid, always had something to cry about.” There was a quick double knock then Jody opened the door for himself without missing a beat. “Hey dad, I got a problem.” John and grandpa both had blank expressions like there was no conspiracy between them. “What did I tell you?” grandpa said to John. John nodded his head solemnly. Dad and grandpa talked about a shortage of good seed. John paid little attention until his grandfather turned to him. “This is the Godless marriage between nature, science, the farmer and business. Ten years ago he wouldn’t touch this
manufactured planting material and now every aggressive young farmer wants to grow plants with sterile triploid seeds, one kernel is the size of a man’s thumb and one ear big enough to feed an entire family at a barbeque.” John’s father spoke as though noticing him for the first time, “You need to get home, young man. We got a call that you bunked school today.” “I went to school, I just went to see Missy’s family in town.” He knew that would fall on the conversation like a shroud. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen them.” Everyone was silent with their own thoughts until Grandpa jumped onto the subject. “Now don’t start telling me losing his farm was just the free market eliminating inefficiency. That fellow was as good a farmer as anyone, it was just bad luck anyone of us can be next.” Turning to John, “That is why you better not screw around in school. You don’t want to end up like these farmers. At the mercy of the bank and the weather and prices. I think we should all sell out and go south where it‘s dry.” “My Dad says he wasn’t a good farmer.” John could not help himself, dissatisfied by the lack of confrontation, he wanted them to go at it. “Well no one is as good a farmer as your father.” Grandpa said, in a different kind of mood, “He would sit on my lap on the tractor when he was a little boy and tell me everything I was doing wrong. That’s why I had to get him his own tractor and give him his own acreage to farm before he was a teenager and could reach up to slit my throat.” Jody approached the door choked with frustration, “Dad, you can’t help me?” “I don’t know anything about that fancy genetically improved so called corn. I can’t be bothered with all the extra fungicide sprays, going out and reapplying every other day after a rain or ten inches of new growth.” Grandpa grew concerned, “You’d be out spraying twice in one day on a day like this.” Then mocking, “If you had gotten your corn planted in time.“ He turned to John, “That’s why you better
not screw up in school. You want to be out on equipment in this rain. Sliding around in the mud. Farm equipment is deadly dangerous. You stay in school, go to college and get a real job that pays every week instead of once a year. Leave the farming to businessmen and high school drop outs.” “Come on boy, you got to go. Your mother has dinner waiting for us.” John stood, his eyes were rolling from super coffee that was half drunk and grandpa was waiting for answered, “I don’t want to be a farmer.” Inside the truck the windshield steamed up, Jody adjusted the air system and drove slowly through another sudden downpour. “Your grandfather’s father was killed by a piece of equipment. He was a boy and he saw it happen. My great uncle told me it was brutal. His insurance saved the farm. We probably would still be making payments on this land if your great grandfather didn’t have that insurance.” The words were thoughtless, an echo coming out of his father’s mouth. John had heard this story several million times in some form since he was a child. In high school he had learned about the farm crisis of old. Revised history in the school books taught that the tragedy of those times might have been avoided if the risk of farming had been managed by banks and corporations as they are today. That the best way to produce food was for large companies to do it. Family farms were an inefficient left over from settler days. The tragedy of farming were the farmer suicides because the producers of food in America could not afford to feed their own families. Then it stood to reason that what they told him at home was also a lie. What happened was no equipment accident. John’s teenage defiance of his family grew from the resentment of being a child and having been told these stories and still they expected him to be loyal to his family who lied to him. If he was told without doubt his great grandfather committed suicide to pay the production debt on
the farm he would be confused about what to believe. The insecure child who saw father and forefathers as wise and strong could not allow it. “How do you feel today dad?” “I feel fine, I feel fit.” Jody leans over his son’s shoulder, “What’s this?” “It’s mine dad.” John attempts to pull the carton of cigarettes from his father’s hand but it was no contest. “Dad. What did the doctor say?” “I’m proud to tell you, I have some of the highest blood pressure he’s ever seen. The blood is not flowing, it’s just seeping through my veins. So thick it oozes.” Both grandfather and grandson laughed. “Where’s mom?” “Avoiding me.” The grandpa answered. “You need to get home. Your grandfather has to rest.” “Don’t drag my grandson away from me, we were just talking about sex. There is a lot he doesn’t know and maybe you don’t know either. That’s what the generation today doesn’t understand, or their parents. You have got to live every minute, drink the cream and squeeze all the flavor out of life. I feel sorry for you kids today, so afraid of everything. Life is not worth living if you are going to live in fear and hide in the shadows. You can’t stretch out your time on what’s left of the earth by not taking any chances. The boy was telling me how some of the couples today put on gloves before holding hands. Matching gloves mind you for couples who are steady. When I was young we took our chances, we took the most chances we could get away with to see how far we could go. It was a challenge for us to bite off more than we could chew.” “Dad, the family wants you around for a few more years.” “Why, so you can put me to work because everyone in the family needs to work, to pay a few bills and try one more year to keep our head above water? I’m going to show
you what’s wrong with you and your entire generation. Johnnie, open that refrigerator door.” In awestruck silence the boy quickly stood and did as he was told. “There it is, my heavy cream you took from me last time. You took it off the table and put it away. You didn’t pour it down the drain to keep it from me or throw the container against the wall to show me how concerned and pissed off you are. No, nothing goes to waste and no one gets excited anymore because your gutless generation wants to crawl on its belly a few extra years before falling in the grave. If that’s living the way you want me to live - I don’t want it.” “Oh God.” From the next room came the sound of grandmother’s exasperation, the breakfront rattling and the clink of glass against glass. “How are you mom?” “Fine son.” After a pause the sound of TV in the living room turned down. “I need your dad, we’re a family and we want to survive. These are tough times and we want to send Johnnie to college.” She called from the living room. “Son, when you wanted to become a farmer I should have just handed you the keys and drove away.” “Amen.” Grandma called from the other room. John knew that neither his father or his grandfather could survive the way people had to survive these days. To be idle, aimless, standing on line all day for food. They were both overflowing with disappointment and were pulling each other down in a circle of blame. At least grandfather had stories about how things were and how they should be but his father was blindsided and only had the deeply disturbing idea that everything is wrong and nothing in the world he could do would change that. John felt his mother who handed out sandwiches to the hungry was the only one with a vague notion of reality but no idea how to survive in it. “We had just had that one good year to offset a lot of bad years. I could have gotten out at a perfect time but you
made me feel all sentimental. And I did not want to sell the whole thing to you like I should have and been a savvy business man at the expense of my own child. You were there with your bride and there I was instead of being smart and retiring then, I thought I could be a gentleman farmer with a grandchild on my knee.” “We have to go dad.” Jody now pushed John out the door. They had heard the rest of this story so often they all knew it by heart. Grandfather would go on about the second worst economic thing, first worse is losing a crop. The second worse is what happened to them, they had one bumper crop after another, so much corn was grown in Iowa over those years that no one could make any money. Producing a huge crop worth nothing meant the farmers had to work like slaves year after year. Jody, a college boy was one of the production leaders of the county. His father however would not follow suit. It seemed to him like others had a plan for him to work until he dropped. That would usually tick off father and he and grandpa would launch into the big fight where in the end everyone blamed grandpa for being closed and unknowable. But he would try to explain, he saw his father killed by the cutter. It was wrenching exhausting to listen. John himself was so tired by the end that the words and passions just hung like clothes on a clothesline. He had yet to reach the age when he could understand it. “I’m glad we got out of there.” His father said. “Dad, what would happen if you did throw grandpa’s container of cream at the wall?” “Grandma would probably go for a gun.” Jody joked. “Yeah!” John said with enthusiasm and pulled his feet up onto the seat to ride like a little kid and have some wild imaginings. “Where did you go today?” “Huh?” As though disturbed from sleep. “We got the call from school, where were you this morning?”
“I went to visit Missy and her father.” “They were good folks.” “They still are.” John began defensively then switched to an attack, “Just because her father couldn’t pay some bills and had to sell his farm and his wife left him doesn’t make him a bad person.” “Listen John, I knew Tom just like you know Missy, since we were children before school age. But I can’t talk to him anymore. There is something that changes a man after losing that much.” “Did he always drink booze, he was sleeping on the couch this morning, it smelled like bad stuff.” John added, sorry for getting his dad so worked up. “That’s not what changes a person overnight.” His father sounded very insistent. Again John regretted his words, only in recent months had it dawned on him the significance of his grandmother’s constant wine and cocktails. The fragrance of a perfume cloud surrounding her. They were home, John ran into the house in the hopes of getting past his mother unnoticed. Now John’s father stood back to let his mother handle the discipline. Jody has his farm and the things he does with his hands, his own skills to hone and improve but for Martha half of her ambition was in perfecting her son John. There are times when radical leftists and arch conservative may find themselves on the same course of action but for different reasons. Because it was what she wanted to do Martha was able to justify being a stay at home mother, not because it was her place. Going to school and conforming as a hedge against a questionable future was not supported by her philosophy. In her youth it was instinctual for her to enter every competition at school and she out performed the others but her son who did not like going to school also did not do well. She felt bad saying things that were hollow for her and John picked up on the feeling. His mother’s request was more effective than any
threat or reasoning his father could come up with, she made him feel like he had to try and do better. Martha would have been aghast to learn that she made her son feel guilty. Martha’s mother never made Martha feel guilt. She made Martha hate herself and hate her. John never felt so strongly toward his mother who was most of the time gentle and nurturing. School was a very basic expectation, it was also a troubling and unsure time, school was a stressful place and John told his mother and himself in all honesty he would try harder to do better and take it all more seriously. Mother pointed out to John how many of the homeless who she helped were lacking in basic education and that made them unemployable. The younger generations had missed out on many things, Grandpa was right, they had missed the freedom and licentiousness of his time. Once they feared an over populated world now the fear was under population. Jody wanted to teach John to drive a car at twelve as was done when he was a kid but Martha forbade it. “He would have to travel with a gun,” she said, “and I won’t allow that.” A gun to protect himself from the hungry and homeless. Kids today must like to stay at home was John’s conclusion regarding that situation. You can’t miss what you never had, Jody tried to apply what he felt for his son to himself, yet he did miss having his son with him on the tractor and working on equipment as he did with his father. He so looked forward to that when he saw the child born to them was a boy that he ached for it in the first years after when John showed a fear of loud tools and equipment and a preference for staying home instead of getting in the tractor bubble with Jody.
Parents were not culpable and they had no obligations. Being disconnected from their lives John felt the forces which allowed his comfortable distance were also responsibility for circumstances they lived under and the
suffering innocents around them. That was the unspoken lesson he learned in his own way but would not share with his mother.
Chapter 3 Young Martha
As much as she dismissed her mother from her thoughts as someone who had no influence in her life it was her mother who indoctrinated her to do what she was now doing. Helping the less fortunate was how her mother justified the waste of an evening going to a drab party for dull people to give some of her own sparkle to the event. Her mother would say it is important that those directly beneath us think well of us because our feet are planted on their heads. It only made sense to first give bread to the hungry before washing the sores of the afflicted. What should have been well known but was very easy to forget is that the plague was not transmitted by bathing them, or touching them in most ways. She changed bandages for their comfort since oozing sores never healed. Easing their final days was not a form of life extension and providing them last moments of relief did not insure Martha’s social prominence. There was no haut society in Iowa although the classes were well defined. Spheres of influence were small but restrictions were enforced here as rigorously as Washington. A worker could elevate himself to a manager. Every position in all of society was as narrow as it’s title in a culture that was deeply detailed. The new restrictions were proposed by schools, hospitals and business eventually became the laws written and enforced by government, busy work for elected politicians which created new classes with new responsibilities and giving those class members something to do and everyone something to talk about. Government Offices and positions with titles instead of numbers were
bones thrown to retired movie stars and war heroes, even the Army was only for show, the fighting and the profitable cleaning up was done by contractors, recruited vigilantes and free lance terrorists. Security guards thugs handled home security for the elites, crowd control and law enforcement they turned surviving criminals over to the police for locked up and booking. This style of governing saved the taxpayer revenue tax payer were in heavy decline as machines now designed and built machines that supplied goods. Bread one week, milkaid the next, breakfast flakes, shoes, availability depending on the corn being harvested, summer, winter, marsh grown. Energy required to dictate and enforce things that society was already doing was a tremendous waste of the surviving resources and the results were counter productive in all ways except one. Of those who would protest the general condition none had the strength to do anything about it. When she first left the community of steel and glass that dominated the eastern coastline of Iowa along the Mississippi Sea, she had no idea it would place her in the literal belly of society. It was like descending from the purity of austere thought into sweat and fermentation. Here was the core of oppression and depth of inhumanity. Escaped farm works fled to the cities to become undocumented nonpersons, for them laying on a slab of concrete under an artificial sky was a better life. She had seen growing up the beggars who crouched outside restaurants, certified as plague free and eligible to receive alms but escapees from outside Iowa became the refugees who could not enter the gates or come near the glassed off areas. They lived on the beach eating polluted mollusks, deformed crabs they could catch and what they gleaned from the refuse piles that surrounded the city. The poor here were right at hand and unavoidable, hungry while living in this mythical place where food was actually produced almost within view of the dome. Food production had been a mystery until she married a certified expert who judiciously combined water, light and of course
seed in the soil. Not far from their fence waiting without hope those who were the most hungry yet could not be fed without all of the proper paperwork done, cards issued by one department and stamped by another, no federally funded soup given until the number issued matched the givers name. Workers both public and private made sure papers were in order and security guards kept the peace when a hunger case got cast out of line. Wielding of power to control the small mob of sick and docile beggars satisfied the working poor and the other tax payers. That was the image now that made America great adding to their spiritual nourishment by creating and upholding the illusion that something was being done about the situation and all of the impossible demands were in the process of being met. The complaints coming from the lowest of the classes, which other than the domed is all Iowa has, about the unfairness and bad manners amid starvation and plague were almost inaudible and dying out. If you did not know what they were saying it was just a murmur from outside. The tax payers here could not help but see that the next ones to fall to the gutter might be themselves. The proof was everywhere one looked, the fed and the healthy had their working papers in order while the sick and hungry did not. Hungry, poor, homeless, plague stricken and the dying were in every shadow. Body removal was done by the scrawniest security guards who could not lay on a good beating. They were slow and there was never enough of them. Their fellow bull dog guards with chest thrown out laughed openly at the body haulers. In the city they were taken out of view behind the tinted glass by roughnecks in uniform who worked clumsily in their massive gloves, breathing apparatus and helmets. Here in farmland Iowa the unmasked with pitch forks and wheelbarrows carted them to a kerosene fueled incineration. The hungry survivors, tomorrow’s load, were at everyone’s feet, along with the undeniable odor was the grumbling of their empty stomachs. These people rose from their cowering to received a
homemade sandwich in plastic. The thanks she received was unlike any words she had ever heard spoken. Their faces turned up to give thanks were unfolding flowers in surprise and gratitude. That she let tips of her fingers touched one of them would have caused genuine disgust elsewhere and a look that questioned her motive. Her upbringing would never have led Martha to bother herself with the mortal issues of her age. Unmarried girls of her social class spent most of her days being served in a specialty shop. Demanding the privilege of buying what she did not need, wearing a hairdo of such extravagance it was equal to an average house payment for one of father’s middle managers and was modest compared to some the other girls wore. When an elegant and established woman like Martha’s mother changed hair dressers it was information her press agent released to the social news channel. Mother’s few idle hours were spent learning how to buy paintings or in gossip chambers with her friends while the latest high art was played out before them on screens and stages taking up any lull in the conversation. Martha fought with her mother who allowed her to have anything she desired provided it meet with her approval. She wanting to make Martha in her own image. “Simply gold plate your hair like I do, that classic look will never go out of style.” The beauty and longevity of her mother’s generation who after the designer war had created so much from so little using teams of the finest hairdressers, designers and on down to their army of maids, men servants and nail polishists. Their extravagances beautified a world and entitled them to feel that they surpassed the Greeks and Romans. In fact they had gone beyond anyone in history. Medicine had made them immortal and eternally beautiful. The only death they feared was a social death. The requirements for the young girls to become one of these women of marble were, sobriety, chastity, charity, elegance, and beauty, once those virtues were mastered,
something that was almost always done with the support of their mother’s network, they were almost women and could approach the central virtue which was marriage. When a merger was proposed and a marriage was incorporated it was said a new household was created, although often the couple did not live together and in some of the most successful marriages they never met. It is through the social and financial instrument of marriage that a woman was finally considered established. Such was not the situation for men who were expected to work. As in nature and antiquity the continuation of society and humanity through the distribution of wealth and culture was dependant on women. The women of the society which Martha was expected to grow into were the role models for all of the other classes. “Do I have to tell you the whole history of the human race to get you to put out those candles?” Her mother did carry on, it was not a practical hairdo. “I’m only going to take it off because it’s getting a little heavy. I can’t balance it with you yelling. Alexander the Great said it won’t burn anything. It’s a cold flame.” With her minimally trendy friends at school Martha always claimed to hate such haut fashion and over indulgence. She had to have it done to herself despite everything she claimed to believe. If not it would be a serious disaster for her at the party, at school and especially with mother at home. It was like she was not even there when they outfitted her. Not every girl could wear such inspiring hair. Alexander the Great told her she had the straight back, noble carriage and was one of the few girls strong enough. Everyone assured her beauty was always a burden. She had no more choice than an infant receiving its secondary immune system. The life of a young woman was not predetermined despite the obligation of the parents to arrange a marriage for their son or daughter. It became a challenge for the young to throw off the pre arranged union or merger and show their own acumen by doing better in the proposal and negotiations than their parents. The ones who did were usually the one who did very well in business but poorly in
marriage. Intimacy and closeness were something to avoid if a marriage was to last which was why prearranged unions outlasted the others. A marriage between a manufactured product house and a resource family is likely to be a more profitable union than if the same dry land resource was to marry banking or even a fishery family. Or railroads in the south if the family is a mining operation in the west. At fourteen Martha prepared for her first Charity. A function heavy with potential if the specter of an arranged marriage is motivation for the average rebellious child to prove maturity or demonstrate immaturity by attempting to outplay the parents in the nuptial game. It was also an excuse for parents to get out and be seen as a couple and to show off wealth. Charity plays the most central catalyst role in the complex mating ritual. The intensity of the Charity is hoped to heighten the awareness in amply protected children of the danger in being left alone together without supervision. When properly played it will change some for life. Charity is what takes up most of the time of women. Men work and women manage the charity. A charity function generally employs a thousand or more members of the lower classes to serve, clean, entertain and in all ways maintain the uninterrupted quality of life for the young of society as they get to know each other so they may gracefully get about the business of running the world. Charities are given for geographic regions, fields of study, each industry will sponsor one during the course of a year. Families who can afford it and some who can not will stage their own charity for a hotel full of their closest connections. The idea of going out to meet someone with status who will overthrow the merger parents have arranged is allowed, a futile romantic challenge made by the youngest and least of our class. It is a premature attempt to leave the nest that almost invariably lands the young flat on the ground. “You can not go looking like you have a chandelier
balanced on your head.” Martha’s mother’s vocal irritation was the only thing that salvage a coiffure which Martha herself dislike almost immediately. “But you have achieved the desired affect, to upset me before you go away to your first charity.” It was hard for Martha to believe that some girls had good relations with their mothers, hers was endlessly contentious. She made the rules for Martha’s life so strict that she was always on Martha about something much like she was constantly criticizing Martha’s father for no good reason. It drove him out of the house perhaps he was no different than most other married dads. Martha and her father were close not merely because they faced a common enemy. An exchange of pleasantries while passing in the garden seemed to mean something. It was not just a suit of clothes, a new musk but a person with shared memories who she knew was always there. Her mother was always there too but not in the same sense. Martha’s arranged merger was to be with the son of one of mother’s friends growing up. Since Martha’s father managed real estate and the boy’s father was an importer a marriage would have no business value and it was clear having met a few times while growing up she and the boy did not like each other. A future with him was a constant source of anxiety and even nightmares for Martha since she was old enough to understand the custom. She found her father as usual in his small building behind the main house where he did business work, met and entertained business guests and where he slept. “How does my hair look, Daddy?” “You look beautiful. I want you to meet someone super nice.” He immediately put aside the reader he had been looking at. “I am so nervous and Mom doesn’t like it.” She did not care if her sculpted headpiece crumbled as she put her head on her father’s shoulder. “Just have fun. Is that real fire? You don’t have to meet
anyone tonight. I don‘t care if you get married when you are thirteen or thirty. Just show yourself off to your friends and have fun.” Martha laughed, her father always sounded ridicules when he tried to talk like a young person. Still she worried, “I don’t want to be alone. I hate that boy, Wasay, whatever his name is. Mom said with my attitude I could end up a career woman.” She let herself cry. “Don’t even talk like that. Did your mother really say that?” “Once, a long time ago. Of course I had said something first. I don’t want to repeat it, it’s embarrassing.” Martha was referring to an emotional and precocious conversation when she was little more than twelve. She asked her mother why women could not have sex before marriage. Very passionate about the things she knew before she was old enough to understand Martha was trying to reason out morality. She grappled with ideas like the double standard that said men could be as sexually active as need be but only with the fabled career women whose role was to never marry but to inhabit the back room of office buildings for the relief and satisfaction of hard working men. An employer might present a career woman to reward good work. There was also supposedly a type of man who needed the regular service of a career woman. Accidentally meeting such a man was a constant fear of timid and virtuous girls like Martha and the others at school. No good every came to a career woman and invariably they always died of plague and tragically spread it to innocent women who trusted that certain kind of twisted man. That was the fate old married women used to threatened any girl who did not get married and it was how mothers responded to their daughters when questions of sex came up. Sex was not something people actually did, no more than her father literally ate up the competition at work or killed someone when angry or put a real head over the mantle. Planting the human seed when not done in a clean and efficient clinic was filthy, unpleasant and extremely risky
both to mother and future child. The society while built and fortified by marriage disparaged sex and children. Marriage is in its pure form mating, a relationship for the benefit of the mating pair in terms of being a domestic set who could insure mutual wellbeing autonomously without cost to or intrusion by any government agency. Sex was linked to excretion if not something more filthy and with more psychological disturbing associations. The main health consequence and primary reason for sexual avoidance is the plagues which nests in those dirty areas and is transmitted by contact. It was a general belief that the plague was a gift from Devine caring and wisdom to help people who lacked self control. Those people no longer existed. Only the hardcore were left and the plague itself to keep their numbers small. It was a rule of thumb to take twice as long preparing for a charity as the charity was planned to last. This was to be one weekend, a four day affair, and Martha had already spent several days clothes shopping, refitting and tailoring and another day on her hair, her teeth needed a new color for spring. Last were nails and makeup. Only twice that she could recall had Martha ever seen her mother without makeup, her father said he had never. That was another one of the things that did not seem normal about her family. Martha had worn makeup since starting school like all girls but this was different. Her mother whose job it was to instruct in these matters despaired. “Oh, you are such a homely child.” Martha remembered the glimpses of her mother’s real skin and face. Beastly ugly, a horse face. Her mother was certainly expert at hiding, disguising and cosmetically replacing all of Martha‘s natural appearance. Parents who dropped off their kids were invited to champaign under a canopy of laser light and smoke. It was a small charity, only 200 but it was enough to reserve an entire hotel in the suburbs giving the impression that it was
a bigger the concentration of opulence made less seem like more, something that was sure not to catch on. This intimate affair was sponsored by one of the wealthiest families on their road. It was intended as social practice for a girl who rumor said was over twenty, an image that sent chills. Music streamed from several areas in the hotel and on the grounds. Where ever one looked servants were waiting on the young people. “This should be inspirational to them.” Martha’s mother said to her husband. He agreed. “This is such a waste.” A girl was speaking who Martha did not readily know but was a friend of a friend who had spied her getting her nails done for the party. Apparently she had noticed and could now recognize Martha without the dust mask she was wearing at the nail tip boutique. There were always women who talked about how they hate beautifying themselves but they all did it. They had often talked about how they hated the phony culture but this girl who was considerable older, perhaps even twenty, the very girl everyone had been whispering about. Her eyes flashed and she had the wild look of someone who did not even belong at a charity or in the city. It was the look of the hungry when they turn wild. Martha had just left one of the servants who was delivering her trunks when this girl trapped her on the walkway to a side entrance. With an immediate shutter at seeing this wild woman approach, nowhere is safe, the maxim immediately came to Martha’s mind. While speaking with Martha some people who did seem to know her showed up. “The problem is not in my mind, it’s in my body.” She was pulling down her hair until her enormous beehive collapsed on her head with a crunch, the stiff mass of hair cover her face until she threw it to the ground and it rolled under a bush. “It’s ninety degrees and look at what I’m wearing.” She tore off her wrap, vest and bodice until she stood there
practically naked in only a shirt, cammy and bra. Clearly the problem was her mind. Mental health had always interested Martha, it was one of the main things she read about along with science. She was drawn toward book reading because she was considered oddly bright. She did her reading at home, bringing a book to school would make her stand out from the other girls. Psychology interested her because she wanted to understand how people thought however most of what she could find to read was about abnormal behavior. Some of her friends ran away in shock and disgust. No one had ever seen a display like this. The servants did not know what to do and one would not call security in a situation like this, not yet. Finally the girls parents came running and they walked her away, one with her hair under her arm another carrying her clothes while servants still so perplexed by the situation called to other servants who formed a circle to keep other girls away. This behavior usually described as going crazy was the second most common mental illness yet few ever witnessed it. The Sleeping Beauty sickness was the number one illness. It mostly struck girls over the age of ten and it simply made them go to sleep and stay asleep. Every year a few girls in Martha’s class were stricken. Once put to bed they could sit up for a meal but could not get out of bed for the toilet. A few recovered after twenty or more years. “Was she drunk?” Martha asked one of the girls who stayed behind. “I heard someone in her family has the plague.” “No!” A gossip exclaimed with horror and pleasure. The plague’s dead and dying in themselves were not so shocking. The victims were everywhere, it was where the money raised by charities went. Despite one’s entire lifetime of seeing it, generations witnessed its malignant presence, all anyone knew was the practice by which it was caught and transmitted. It was by sexual intercourse between unmarrieds. This fact had caused an overflow of fear and a suspicion toward sex. No one who cherished life dared do it
more than was required for procreation. The human body became seen as weak and flawed and the view of the natural world was that it was the enemy. Martha and other intelligent and thoughtful young people were still affected by the major campaign against sex that was directed at children. A poster was seen everywhere they gathered, the school, church, the doctor’s office and especially where together in crowds there was a chance of physical contact like hallways and stair wells and bathrooms which were wallpapered with the image. The powerful image became the theme in most dreams of kids in elementary school. The words, “Don’t try it. Not even once.” and between the two phrases were pictures, the face of a plague victim, hairless, covered with scabs, emaciated, festering holes, the remains of a nose, and eyes crusted closed, it made one long for the face of the dead. The other image, a tiny curled up naked baby. If someone in her family did have the plague it would have no bearing on her taking off clothes. Someone like that might even want to be more covered and safe from contact. Word spread quickly and the first night of the party became a grump fest. People now were too shocked and appalled to laugh or smile. Those who would be merry dispersed like a flock of birds frightened by a noise. The only hope was for activities the next day. Mostly boys did not immediately return to their rooms, as the night got later their voices could be heard echoing in the atrium. Laying in her hotel bed not tired and uncomfortable with a few small nightlights casting apposing shadows and gruff voices in the nearby distance Martha got a glimmer into the madness of her hostess. She had always been instructed in home, church and school that when a thought stops to dwell on the abnormal or the unpleasant that in itself was a warning. Several times Martha tried to clear her mind before falling into sleep. The next day the children fully preformed like practiced adults, properly dressed for various sports. Martha had heard the girl assigned to share the room with her come in
but as things were already so overwrought it seemed easier to sleep through greeting her that first night. Martha had horses at home and she was one of the first to go riding. When she returned the roommate was getting up. Martha was changing from her riding outfit and the roomy, Linny, was asking what Martha thought of her clothes. Nothing special but Martha lavished the garments with compliments. Both of them now took a few minutes to finish unpacking. “This sweater,” Linny said holding up one that was beaded and looked dull, “my mother got for me at a thrift shop.” Thrift shop, Martha thought, what kind of woman was her mother? “It was a regular tug of war between her and another shopper. You can find treasures there but you have to have an eye.” Every year the servants delivered Martha’s family’s old wardrobe to one of those places. Helping the poor and plague ridden was an obligation but not for this. “Were you out riding? I do wish I had a riding outfit. If a man rides then you can assume he is choice.” She was trying to fake her way into the life Martha felt stuck with, she probably got invited to this charity by faking. “I can send my outfit to be cleaned, we’re about the same size. Why don’t you borrow it.” “If there is anything of mine you would like to wear…” Martha could only smile and her face burned as she put on the expression like her mother wore, a look of pleasure and pity. The face of a lie. At that moment began a thought process more dangerous and erosive to all that her mother wanted to preserve than even sexual revulsion. Yet it came to her as naturally as the questions about sex. Seeing the humility of Linny and feeling godlike above her Martha experienced the sense of humbling shame for her pride. Martha was maturing into the age of selflessness and giving. Linny was trembling in gratitude and fear of discovery. Over a gesture,
crumbs to feed her new life, effortless for Martha. It would have taken more effort to resist the desire to share. Martha went to take a shower before she finished unpacking in the hope that Linny could restore her dignity in that time. Yet even as Linny dressed and primped in Martha’s presence there was the same hunched humiliation and deprecation about this girl in other people’s clothing. The life of a society woman has many roles to play. Enough so that it left little time to think about the implication of some of the rolls. It felt good to give but Martha did not want to help recruit someone who if let in would fall to the lowest rung from where her life in society would only served to feed cat talking gossips. The rest of the days of the charity Martha avoided her room and roommate as much as possible. There were other girls from school who she knew as skeptics and she sought them out. They talked like they did in school but it was not the same with servants all about whose heads bowed down as they approached and where ever one looked the tables were over loaded with the richest food items most to be thrown away. Music to overwhelm the thought process and of course, boys. When she got home she wanted to talk about what had happened, the girl who took off her clothes and poor Linny but her mother was only interested in her little black writer and laughed with cold superiority that Martha had not met anyone. She was still anxious to talk but one does not talk to ones father about such things and among her closest circle the response was nervous laughter. In school it was all right and even expected for the teachers to chide her about thinking too much and asking too many questions but among her friends a conversation about the significance of some of the things they did would surely lead to the suspicion that Martha would be next to go crazy. Her friends would start dropping her there on the spot. Being almost comatose in bed and having servants clean you was one thing, being half naked, shaking a fist and screaming invectives at society is quite another. Living in the dome that was included the capitol region
where everyone’s home is surrounded by high walls and travel on the tramway is done in private cars with dark windows, Martha and her only friends all attended a heavily restricted school where there was no evidence to be gotten from the teachers or the students leading anyone to think there might be a world on the other side of the walls and the glass. Refusing to believe what they could not see. But for a few the suspicion was there and it seemed to have always been in their mind without evidence and it could not be medicated or reasoned away. Rooms in homes had walls and partitions for minimal privacy which were thin and one easily went around. A modern home was defined by a roof and walls to keep out weather. Inside a child could not laugh or cough without being heard by a parent or a servant and that was part of the design, to keep society’s precious children safe and under scrutiny. Only at those rare times when driving out of the city in a private car past places where the walls on the highway were not all equally maintained and driving to some areas with an acrid odor, and the feeling of a strangely fetid presence that supported the rumors saying those where the plague ravaged regions. It was dangerous outside societies walls but her curiosity grew amid the silence at home and in school. One afternoon she instructed her driver to take an unfamiliar exit. At the bottom of the ramp were security guards who spoke first with the driver and then Martha. For her own safety they said. Behind the guard she could see people sitting on the ground she watched with interest as one of the guards hovered over them. Nearby was a row of rust colored buildings most with broken windows. From the distance it looked like the guard was offering those people something to eat or drink for they looked hungry their faces were lifeless and their clothing hung shapelessly but as the car made a half circle to return to the express it looked like a gun in the guard’s hand. Surely they were criminals. What crime could these weak and cowering lower classes have been
attempting. It must involve the theft of food. The site of a gun was enough to satisfy her curiosity for a few more weeks until school break ended. As the girl tearing at her clothes disrupted the party, that event and now this was all that was needed to ruin the weeks of leisure. It was easy to learn about the private lives of singers and actors, the news reads and shows were full of that. Some celebrities were not even associated with any art or achievement but like Martha’s mother simply publicized intimate details to arouse interest. Her mother aroused almost no interest in Martha‘s mind however the publicist said mother‘s life was widely read. The publicists fees were reasonable so the truth of the matter was never investigated. But why people were arrested, how they came to be living behind the wall, those things were almost unknowable. Now Martha went to the tennis club, masseuse, and nail clinic asking questions and getting strange looks but few answers. The general opinion was that they were new arrivals, either sick or weak and generally not fit to enter or serve society. Beyond the crimes they carried out for sustenance cultish sex seemed to be among the problems they caused and it was the candid opinion of some that natural conception and birth were taking place and they were creating more little classes than the plague was able to erase. She knew her father went outside many walls, that is what men did to obtain resources and claim new real estate. The other business men who occasionally came to the house still greeted Martha like a toddler, she might be able to ask one of them. Mr. Malone said the streets were full of the dying and in the capitol drunks had to be paid off for anything to get done. As Mr. Sanchez described it everyone had guns on the other side of the wall, gunshots and the cries of children were heard every where. And Mr. Wu describe masses of people crushing each other everywhere to receive a sack of food and a bottle of clean water but he said there were almost no babies and few killings. If they
had one thing in common beside how inappropriate it was for her to ask these question, it was the outside world was not a place fit for her. Martha asked out of naiveté the questions sparked by the faces she actually saw when her car passed near them. Their faces had pained expressions no different than she had sometimes seen on the faces of people who she new and loved. Father’s business friends after enough of Martha’s sincere argument could be made to agree on one thing, the classes for the most part are people, if not like us they were still some kind of human being. The purpose of a charity, the words on an invitation always say, is to help those less fortunate but no one ever explained who they were and how their circumstances came about. When it said in the small print that ten percent of the funds went to researching a cure for the plague she now understood none of it went to help those who had no way of getting within the wall. The emotion of pity she had felt for Linny, who she could have brought home and had her mother make her into the woman Martha did not want to be, was insignificant by comparison. People were gathered at the edge of our society to die. There was an entire other world out there and this was its refuse, they were driven to find salvation but instead were handed a slow acting suicide capsule. After high school when she announced her intention to journey inland for her college education there was concern if she would ever find her way back into the city and suburbs, or the family home. On which side of the protective glass would she next be seen did not concern her mother who thought a fate equal to death was justice for her unmarried daughter.
At the Co-Op Jody could see it in the mirror before he noticed the dashboard light was on. If he had been paying more attention to his dashboard display of red, green and amber lights he would have noticed the unplanted row before then but it had been that kind of a morning which was stretching into that kind of an afternoon. Mistakes made at planting become costly at harvest, Jody heard in his mind one of those maxims he was raised on and could see dissatisfaction on his father’s face if he knew. The dashboard diagnostic display told him exactly where the problem was and Jody climbed out of the bubble down the side of the tractor and crawled under the planter to inspect. There was a long crack in one of the plastic cups that fed the tubes which filled the aluminum wheels that dropped the individual seed into the chiseled trench in the ground. The soil as black as tar was clinging all over the undercarriage and as he crawled out it was on him too. Cleaning himself with a rag from the toolbox his stomach quiver with every word his father seemed to be saying. “Plastic parts are always the first to break. Every foot of the unplanted row has a cash value.” Jody climbed back into the bubble, he picked up the phone and pushed the button that would dial Green‘s, the tractor dealer. “Phones worked better back when they were cellular. Before the war we used to get excellent reception everywhere on the farm.” The father image in Jody’s mind chattered on. When things went smoothly it was a companion voice like the radio that could be ignored or turned down but at times like this his critical and unloving father was extremely annoying and out of control. “The measure of a man is how he acts in a crisis.” His father was always right with his unsolicited advice.
The phone in the tractor was dead, he had to listen closely to even hear the buzz. Jody drove the tractor off the field to make a call from the tractor barn. Like these new strains of corn, the kernels are so big the equipment was always getting jammed at planting time. And the harvests were so big the silos were bursting. If he had a son like he had been a son that skipped row would be planted already. When he was a boy he proudly displayed his blistered hands from a day’s work. His son John complained if he was not driven to the school bus stop at the end of the driveway. All weather annoyed him. Jody now had a choice, he fingered a screw driver, he could clean trash from some of the chisels while he waited for the phone to be answered or he could relax in the air conditioned cab and admire the view. Suddenly their was a voice, Jody spoke alone in the empty cab. He was lucky enough to find the part in stock at the dealer but the truck had a lot of stops that afternoon. The part would be in his hands sooner if the dealer’s driver dropped it off at the Co-Op where someone might be headed in Jody’s direction and could leave it with another farmer or by a certain telephone pole for Jody to pick up. A three person relay in a tradition going back to pioneer days when settlers first had to accommodate themselves to great distances. A remnant of the timeless tradition of farmers helping each other. There might be a week of work done by two men or one farmer might lend another his son. Often that was how parents arranged marriages back then. He read off his GPS location and told Phil, the desk man at the Co-Op, what the plan was then waited. Winter maintenance could not cover everything, he saw the broken part in his mind many times before that day. In his imagination he saw everything mechanical broken at one time or another. Money was made in those fleeting years between when the equipment was paid off and before it became completely broke down and had to be replaced. It was nice to make money but the big planting tractor was
only one or two more seasons from being traded in. They made it so that a farmer could get a better loan for an entire machine even though only half of it needed replacing. It was a bind. Today Jody did not know a moment of peace, “I’ll tell you what a bind is. When you are eight years old and you can not reach the shut off and your father has his arms caught in the corn chopper. I saw the blades dripping with his blood. He tried to look like he was having fun. I can still hear the crunching. You don’t know what it’s like to be in a bind. How could you?” “No trucks going your way, sorry Jody.” That meant the rest of the day was lost. “Don’t close ’til I get there.” Bouncing down the state highway he picked up the microphone the car CB and home base were working. “Hello.” It was a pleasure to hear her voice. “I got to go to town.” “I’ll have the plate when you get home. What time?” “Around 9.” “Drive carefully, I love you.” “I love you too.” Jody enjoyed the married couple’s shorthand. With that brief exchange he knew when he got back to the farm Martha would meet him in the tractor barn with a warm plate wrapped in plastic and kitchen towels, his dinner of steak and potatoes along with a thermos of special blend coffee. Why? Because they could say to each other those three words. Words neither had ever heard in their parents’ homes. Like unobtainable necessities, the nutrients for a healthy life that could only be found in one place, one with the other, in Iowa. Driving Jody thought how the car should have a GPS like the tractor which kept perfect row distance and could control the car on the highway. Then he had a dangerous thought, ‘So I could take a nap’ and a full body yawn overtook him. He jumped to artificial wakefulness, turned on the radio and softly slapped himself. When he turned at the
cross road the sun slid past his eyes on the horizon. The cinderblock Farmers’ Co-Operative Store was visible for several minutes in cones of white light against a dark red sky. They were still busy filling seed and chemical orders but as Jody’s headlight beams bounced up and down on the building he could see what he had grown to accept. The windows were empty and what was a fascinating store when he was a boy stocked with hand tools, guns, fishing rods, wheel barrows and between Thanksgiving and Christmas they stocked sleds, bicycles, toy tractors, fishing poles and fire trucks, today the empty glass reflected headlights. During the simpler time when the Co-Op was no more than a buying club for member farmers it was able to survive and thrive. Like most people farmers are also driven consumers who spent freely during the good times. Good farmers became solid consumers and the farmers who were less able, lazy ones, and those not smart enough to stay up to date and driven to remain competitive, or the plain unlucky who lacked either farm or business skills, they eventually went out of the business. But from California came agricultural giants who having devoured the fruit and vegetable growers on the west coast arrived in the corn belt with so much surplus cash they were able to compete unfairly. They ran farms like bankers with so much money they did not have to run an optimal farm just enough to show a positive return on the investment. Large food processing companies began moving in with their own markets. They flattened the prices for grains by filling their own huge demands first. In turn that lowered incomes of the family farmers who supported the Co-Op. The plate glass window of the Co-Op now reflected back darkly except for paper placards, Danger Explosives! Danger Chemicals! Pelagro! Just like the lives of many farmers the Co-Op only handled necessities and fewer of them because there were fewer independent farmers. Farmers who had surrendered to Agri-Corp were supplied by Agri-Corp.
“Can I help you, young man?” Old Phil had been ringing up sales at the Co-Op since Jody was a boy. He was surely eighty now, he must have been sixty then. Just as Jody was a young man when he started farming he remained so no matter how long he farmed because most of the other farmers were his father’s age. In the same way by both logic and magic Phil was always the oldest man anyone seemed to know. He could see the box behind the counter with his name on it. No time for talking, “You have a box for me. Jody Miller.” Even the chairs for retirees were empty, the checkers could not come out yet. Planting time and everyone had to be useful or out of the way. The box felt empty but echoed the insignificant sound of plastic against cardboard. The little parcel kept grabbing his attention as it slid on the bench seat with each bump and bend in the road. A multimillion dollar farm stopped for that little part. It gave him a chill. “Don’t think about it, Jody. It’s only money.” His father’s words as he and Mom sat in the chairs near the wooden railing inside the carpeted area of the bank. “You can die owing it to them,” dad added for moral support on the big day when Jody and Martha became financial partners with his parents for the family farm. The effort not to think about it had haunted him for the twenty years since he signed for his first production loan and every year it grew stronger, a nausea brought on by thoughts of death and money. When a man’s life is his farm then who ever holds paper on the land also has a hold on that man’s life. Martha was totally supportive because she believed Jody was a good farmer who had learned from a good farmer. There was something Martha did not know, as open as the family was about finances, there was no false expectation about high living or getting rich. And with every record carefully stored and available since Jody’s family began farming this land, the type of seed planted, yields per acre, rainfall, fertilizer rates and fugicides, insecticides and herbicide plus other the other chemicals to keep equipment
running. There was something unwritten that he had overheard many years ago which would have driven them all to their knees, made them curse the land and seen them all working for someone else in a city. Or so it was in Jody’s mind. When he was in high school Jody had learned about the time in national history the teacher labeled on the whiteboard as ‘The Farm Crisis,’ Jody and a few others perked up in the normally sleepy classroom. Only three or four in the class still lived on a farm although almost everyone was dependant on farm production for employment and the town’s existence. Jody’s focus zoomed in on the teachers mouth because every word was so familiar that somehow it seemed Jody himself had lived it and the teacher had spied in on Jody’s family’s life. ‘Tight Money’ the squeak of a marker on the board, “This should be in your notes, people.” The teacher said out of habit as he wrote, ‘ 22% Interest. Crop Failure. Bankruptcy.’ The teacher turned from the board and continued speaking in the same disinterested monotone but it was for Jody an electric moment. Something elicited a childhood memory and would forever after ring in Jody’s ears. “Farmers could not compete with urban and suburban home owners for the tight money. In a financial crisis farmers walked off their farms, sold the land when they could, some even committed suicide.” The moment world history touches family history. The first Millers were recruited from a line of German speaking people who loved parades, uniforms, precision marching and as a result could be ordered into the roaring mouths of cannons and rifles, could march upon order into barbed wire or bayonets. It was no coincidence that when his father’s father was killed by machinery the interest rates were at the same number as on the whiteboard. Jody ducked his head but he knew the teacher was looking right at him. It was something his father said with regularity. It was murky, without detail, the emotional
memory his father shared freely and obsessively. “Farming this land killed my father. I watched my father die.” Jody heard those words before his father meant for him to hear them. It was a surprise as he blew out his birthday candles, “I watched my father die when I was eight.” To which there was no response, Jody had the mental barriers in place against his father’s frequent harsh words and hurt look. From earliest childhood the tension and the enigma was disguised and buried by his mind. Sense could not be forced out of the words until he was in a high school history class and the context of the past became clear. He could not question it as a kid, it was too frightening and other adults never discussed it. The words, conversation enders and the irrational hung around the house and farm. As soon as Jody could walk he tagged around the big people, he knew the entire farm operation by the time he was five like other kids know all the cartoon characters. The towering tractors were the first things but he watched, the amazing emergence of the crop and the hypnotic growth like green swords forming a maze which to a small boy could swallow the sun, clouds and all of the sky then the harvest going by combine tractor and trucks into processing and storage. His father’s son, Jody knew what different buttons did even though most of them were out of his reach. “Be careful. Don’t touch that.” He was warned endless times in those early years as his interest expanded to the processing of the crop and the turning blades and numerous knives that chopped the giant corn plants. It was a small room with a small door. All the switches had to be shut before the door could be open. Jody’s father instructed him, “This is the room where it happened. This machine and these blades.” Today’s Amazonian corn yields required new, larger and stronger silos for storage. Even the old building were insufficient for the gigantic equipment. Jody was too busy to
reflect but it would have been easy to view the farmer as shrinking while everything around him had grown. Everything except him. It was the harvest and everyone was busy, Ed easily snuck away to follow his pa. He wanted to tell his pa to shut the switches before he opened the door. But Ed wasn’t supposed to be there so he did not speak. He could hear pa making odd quiet sounds and watched as the chopper played tug of war with his fathers arms but it was his pa, it had to be all right the boy thought until blood was spraying out of the box. Ed’s mother kept the farm, Ed’s uncle’s split the work and helped raise their fatherless nephew. There was never a decision made as he got older Ed simply continued in the way of his family. Eleven months of the year his guts twisted slowly until the harvest was in, even if the harvest was low he at least knew where he stood. Cornered but in control. Jody knew all of his life that he would be a farmer. It was too late when he realized the price his family already paid and he was an adult when he discovered the same feelings in himself. The life insurance his grandfather carried freed his children and grandchildren from the kind of money worries that might cost them the farm but every year a battle had to be fought and won. Problems at planting time were the worst because those problems had to be dealt with twice, once during planting when time is critical and again at harvest when the crop is measured. He shared his fears once with Martha, not the part about Grandpa, only his anxiety when it came to making only one paycheck a year. “If it ever came to that,” she told him, “my family would help us.” Jody saw that as adding to the humiliation, “You were never like that before. You always wanted no part of their money, their yachts and tennis clubs.” “It’s family, you made me see the importance of family.
Family money is my money too.” Having seen what a bad harvest and being at the mercy of bankers had already done to his family once it seemed money from Martha’s family would not be intolerable. He would do the same for them if their fortunes ever went down. Jody told himself that but it was a plan that could not hold up under realistic conditions. If for one of many reasons the farm was to fail, lack of rain, too much rain at the wrong time, insects, fungus, fuel shortage then Martha’s people could rescue them, they had many holdings beside the tobacco and horse farms they owned. Land investments for housing, resource holdings, coal, oil, shipping and money in the bank that was not at risk and the ownership of banks which made money upon money upon money. So that if the folks back east were to founder in the slightest then Iowa would have long since turned belly up because like a river money only flowed one way. But the thought of mutual beneficence, generosity and plane family was a shallow comfort for Jody. He slipped the washer over the shaft as Martha came into the garage with his supper. “I just got to tighten it up.” Jody called out to make the small job seem bigger than it was. He looked about and saw no wrench. “Supper is going to get cold.” Her clear gentle tone of one who was gentle, patient, educated and wise always rang like a bell in his ear. “This can wait.” He said like a confession and wiped his hands on a dirty rag. He sat on a low metal stool. She unwrapped the plate and handed it to him. Steak, baked potato and string beans. Out of the big old freezer almost a year in deep freeze and she transformed it, he did not know how hungry he was until he started when he was done he held his plate up, inspecting the bottom. “No more?” Martha laughed. “How’s our boy taking his punishment?” “I know this is a bad time …”
“I’m coming home. I’ll talk to him. I’m bushed. I can drive the tractor all day but two hours on the highway gets to me.” “I think they said morning showers.” Martha had learned to be a weather addict. “Did they say are ‘calling for’, or ‘there is a chance’?” Jody questioned her carefully. “Which channel did you see it?” Talking about the weather among farmers was an important first item of conversation and not a desperate final gambit. Talking about weather did not have the connotations that it had in every other segment of the population. With that Jody questioned her for the specifics of the report although he would momentarily be in the house watching the Weather Channels, all three of them. Jody got his father on the phone. At times Martha could be so vague and wrapped in her own world he did not want to interrupt her making muffins, post industrial wife filling the home freezer with muffins. Only another life long farmer could share in the grousing, spitting and kicking unyielding objects since it would be foolish to get all wet kicking the rain. Few farmers were left who he could call and usually there was only one with whom he cared to speak. “I finished planting my acreage around six, I could have loaned you my equipment. You had enough seed. Right?” The phone had separated and connected Jody and his Dad and through the years the message did not change, he wanted to know he still had his father‘s respect although they went separate ways as farmers. It was not the same as talking in the flesh but their homes were separated by a drenched half mile. If he had not made the call he would not hear his father criticizing him for not using his head. Star Trek the ancient television show his father had watched since youth was loud in the phone and in his mind could see his father in the recliner Jody and Martha gave him when he turned sixty. Dad relaxed in his bedroom and Mom in the living room. “All right. Thanks Dad.” Thanks signaled he wanted to cut the conversation short.
“All right boy. Pick me up tomorrow and we’ll check the levee.” “Good night Dad.” The levee was a wall of dirt covered in plastic and clay that formed a gentle U on the far side of the road bordering the west side of the farm. It was placed against the almost imperceptible tilt of the land toward the river system that eventually fed the Mississippi Sea. The wall was almost a mile long and at the ends, at right angles to the wall stood concrete pillars, hinged to the pillars an iron gate allowed the water level to be adjusted. Jody had been a boy on a bulldozer when he helped his father build the levee. That spring Iowa was part of the Great Lakes, it was a dream project for a kid, after Army men laid it out trucks dumped gravel and clay. He did not then understand how close the family had come to washing away and losing everything. As impressed as Jody was with himself that year for operating the dozer the image of the fields under water made him wonder about rice farming. He thought of himself as a young steward of the land and pestered his father with what he thought were important questions about rice. He still believed then that his father and the state of Iowa could grow anything. He did not understand the place his father was in as he listened with feigned interest to Jody’s information on rice cultivation. Iowa, Jody discovered as he did more research, is just too cold. His father had been filling out forms for farm assistance that year while people in town worked and spent cash. Jody’s mother that year was shopping with food stamps. The next day Jody picked up his father at first light, it was still raining with a strange persistence. Didn’t the rain know it won? Did it have some point to make beside the giver of life can also take life? It was no longer rain, Jody feared, if he tasted it it might be tears from an offended sky, a furious nature and a broken system. His pickup was a 4X4 yet it skated sideways through the water washing over the road behind their farm. The trench ten feet wide and six
deep between the levee and the road overflowed to cover the road and deposit a residue of slick wet leaves and trash, the water behind the levee had lapping waves spilling over to fill a mile long basin that glistened in the shadows of early morning like the skin of a snake. Despite what he saw the happy memory from childhood of helping to build this put a redeeming light on the moment. “Remember when we worked together on this, Dad?” Jody asked. That was what made it special like only a few of the days as a boy when he actual worked with his father and not merely like his father in his private quarter of land on his own tractor. There he grew a variety of grains for the livestock. Now dad farmed the smaller plot. Dad recalled, “Every morning I would come out here to straighten the mess you made. Remember what I told you back then?” His father plunged a knife in, “I told you it must have settled overnight.” and he twisted it. Jody brooded. “I got called in to the principal yesterday about your grandson.” Jody had not intended to share that but it was his way of spitting in his father‘s face, to say, You had it easy, old man, I was a good kid. “She babied him, when she had her woman parts removed she started to baby him.” “It’s temperament.” Jody stated as a counter argument but without expanding. Jody believed that temperament skipped a generation or was comparable to a recessive or double recessive gene. In any event he did not want to fire up his father or else talk would inevitably turn to Grandpa’s accident. Neither man would be able to convince the other of anything. Sometimes one did not have to travel deep to reach that place in his father that loathed the farm and when every memory reconnected him with memory of that day. Like his grandfather Jody knew he too had the strength to take the pain of being sliced and chopped to death in silence and also shared the weakness which led his
grandfather to kill himself over money. But his weakness was not money. On the field across from the levee where corn plants should have been sprouting by now water gathered irregularly wherever the land dipped. It was the depth of the rich top soil that could grow corn thirty feet tall which did not allow the excess moisture to sink in, poorer soils would have less water collecting on the surface. “It’s starting to look like a rice paddy again.” Jody made his long standing observation. Other less fertile soils, even a rice field, would be passable before this deep fertile soil dried from a condition of muck. Having been geared up for the work and long hours of planting the rain delay got on Jody’s nerves. Martha who often planned winter projects around the house for Jody had to usher him out of the house since his fretting was getting on her nerves. In the winter he could spend long hours reading while peddling the stationary bicycle but now he stared into the sky trying to determine the depth of the clouds as he paced beneath the overhang of the tractor barn on the dry side of a continuous sheet of water. It was a warm tropical rain, Jody felt what the Weather Channel confirmed. While the Amazon basin continued in a drought the flow of moisture shifted. The concept of a weather pattern was thrown out and replaced by the word Freakish. Freak was an exclamation but other words were frequently used like unusual, inexplicable, and benign freaks were described as ‘sights never seen before’ and ‘once in a lifetime, and oddities. One could almost hear the collective consciousness begging for a reliable pattern, anything that could be depended on and planned for. This decade had hosted three 100 year storms and one 500 year event. The rain eventually stopped and the warm temperatures allowed Jody’s fathers corn to germinate and if things continued drying that crop would get it’s weed and fertilizer spray on time. The calculator in Jody’s head went to work, he recalculated with each day of delay. First a worst case scenario was figured, half of the farm’s income with all
of its expenses, he dwelt on that number and hoped it would not come to pass. The crows told Jody the condition of his planting. The black birds seemed to be celebrating their good fortune with leaps into the air and free form glides back to earth as they gorged on deposits of especially savory and tender corn sprouts now on the surface of the field in the low spots they formed man size swirl patterns after soaking long enough for the chemical bird repellant to wash off. He had to get more seed, the urgency for that kept his mind off the long term implications. He called Martha to let her know. He opened the utility box in the back of the truck to make sure the tarp was there. The tarp since the day he bought it had never been more than five feet from the truck yet he habitually checked for it whenever he thought he might need it. It made him feel he was prepared at those times when he was least prepared. Now especially was one of those times. Only once before had he seen the crop washed out of the ground. Jody had to park his truck on the side of the road and walk past other trucks some with names painted on the doors that were not familiar to him and he past old men he had never seen or not seen in many years. He saw trucks from Nebraska with men sleeping in them as he got closer to the Co-Op building. Not one to talk with strangers unless they spoke first, Jody passed men his father’s age and others who were strange to him before he came upon Billy, someone he knew from high school. His truck was in the parking lot, he must have arrived hours before the others, he was sitting on the tailgate. He had a large lunch pail by his side. Like Jody Billy’s family had been generations on the farm but Billy had to take over the entire operation during high school when his father died. His father worked himself to death on poor soil. Billy did not have to buy in to the family operation like Jody did, instead Billy inherited a stack of bills and the option of trying to keep up with them or selling the farm and finding a new place for himself, his
mother and the younger kids. He was probably too young back then to make the right decision. “What’s going on?” Jody asked. “We’re waiting for seed.” Billy said in a dragged out voice filled with irony and sarcasm, telling Jody it was a wait based on an empty promise. Billy’s intonation was not a regional accent but rather the way his entire generation spoke, a generation who expected to be lied to in any business situation and by anyone in politics. “How long have you been waiting?” Jody settled in taking a seat next to his friend on the tailgate. “My place dried out two days ago so I came down yesterday and came back six this morning.” “Where’s the seed? I see farmers here from all over.” “Independent farmers aren’t the only ones who got washed out.” There might be a day of waiting ahead so Jody took his time responding. “Agri-Corp’s farmers don’t buy their seed at the Co-Op.” “But they control the market because they are so big. Phil at the desk said he got a call from a lawyer and after that he called Central. The Agri-Corp farms get the seed first,” Bill paused to let that sink in, ”if or when it arrives. Then they release the seed to the open market but … ” he paused again to get Jody’s full attention, “Agri-Corp won’t release their rights to hold back seeds until the weather settles down.” “How can they do that?” “It’s easy, last year at harvest they paid for this year’s seed plus the extra ten percent. Aren’t you glad you stayed independent? The ten percent we put in our pockets they risked because they’re run by investment bankers and we’re farmers who only have a Co-Op.” “But they don’t use the same seed.” Jody observed. “Oh, this is deep,” Billy said, “Phil tried to explain it to us before this mob of Agri-Corp’s people arrived. Do they look like farmers to you?” He gave Jody a moment to look around at the unfamiliar faces.
Jody held off judgment. “It‘s like this,” Billy resumed, “They buy the seed plus ten percent then never pick up the seed and have the payment refunded. It’s been going on for years. The Co-Op took the ten percent just to stay in business. But to them it was insurance that they would get served first at times like these. It was all done with paper and phone calls and agreed to by our own lawyer for the Co-Op, not farmer. It went right past our own Board of Directors. You can‘t speculate with seeds, seeds mature in the ground not in a bank.” “So we sold through the Co-Op but they are keeping us from buying back part of our own crop.” Jody said hoping that summarized the essence. “Hold on sod buster, that would be true if it was your corn. The seed the Co-Op sells is an old Agri-Corp patent from years ago and they have the right to buy it back. That was supposed to protect farmers in the old days who were afraid of genetically altered seed.” “I guess they really did have some lawyer in on this one. It’s like we screwed ourselves. Some of the folks say never do business with Agri-Corp, they‘ll pin your ears to a wall.“ Seeing Jody understood the situation Bill answered with more dripping sweet sarcasm, “That’s right. Maybe this year all we’ll get to grow is hay. Then we won’t break even. Or we would if we didn’t have families to feed and bills to pay. A couple of years of that and we won’t be joining Ag Corp, they will be buying our farms for themselves from the bank and their own people will run them.” “I’m not going to grow hay this year.” Jody did not have to run the calculator in his head, there was no money in hay. “Are you looking for some calves?” Bill asked after a while. “No.” Jody said thinking that was the reason Bill got him all wound up about a seed shortage, just to sell calves that could be raised for meat. Jody did not keep livestock, not even chickens for eggs. He and Martha liked to occasionally take days away from the farm and there would
be no one to care for the animals. Certainly not John. The crowd began to stir, old Phil stood on the concrete pier where trucks waited to be loaded, his hands cupped around his mouth a trickle of indistinct words could be heard. Then a buzz filled the air, he said “We have silage mix, and bags of rye, clover, and some alfalfa. If anybody wants.” The farmers answered with boos and jeers. Behind Phil his teenage helper emerged driving a forklift carry pallets of burlap bags, hay seeds. “No corn,” the words that filled the air next. Phil, the counterman at the Co-Op for as long as anyone could remember was esteemed for his accuracy, honesty and impartiality. His life was simple despite the complexity of his job, he figured the best delivery routes and helped farmers calculate pounds of seed per farm and complex mixing directions for the array of chemicals the CoOp sold. He had no idea the effect of what he had to say next. He said it because he had an ethic not to lie or hide the truth the Co-Op was a special place, the farmers in front of him were his customers and employer. “Only Agri-Corp farmers will be able to sign for corn.” The fighting started when a few hotheaded local farmers saw the smug look on a stranger’s face. Rioting came over them like a natural urge. Farmers struggling against constantly worsening conditions had the sellouts among them who had turned their back on the proud tradition of integrity, independence and sharing the risk for lower pay and intangible security. Hardship. Worry and looming bankruptcy for a moment had the face of strangers and the farmers lusted to punch those faces. Phil did not get to say his next sentence, it might have saved his life, ‘The corn hasn’t yet been delivered.’ Family farmers and Agri-Corp men both decided to search the building. Good but unwanted seed showered like a dry rain as men set upon the burlap bags on the dock. There was even laughter but old Phil was in terror. Instinctively he ran behind the counter that had always been a sacred place where only he could go. No one who knew what happened
would say but Phil’s aged body and brittle bones did not survive an Agri-Corp man pulling him out from behind his counter. A calm and the knowledge that a man was dead radiated from the spot where he fell. The teenage helper got the word out that a corn train was coming in the morning. Shamefaced farmers first drifted away but soon all were gone. It was unspeakable for such a thing to happen in their midst, this was Iowa. Everyone driving home that day who passed the tractor trailer in the center of an Agri-Corp security motorcade pointed an accusing finger. The AgriCorp farmers who remained they felt no shame and they would never know any. It was a knowledge which never had an application to them. They took their seed corn back to their Agri-Corp farm and left old Phil’s corpse for a receipt. When the train pulled in, fearing fro his own life, the helper quickly loaded the waiting trucks. Others who stumbled into the office told superiors who arrived with the shipment that they had found this man dead on the counter. His body waited behind the counter until the next afternoon when the State Troopers arrived. Jody sat in the bubble of his tractor having a lavish daydream about the ancient past, the natives and buffalo, the civil war, how land was the silent witness Jody had a clear vision from the soil’s point of view, perhaps brought on by a slight oxygen deprivation as the air in the bubble was being triple filtered while he was applying the first combination chemical spray. The corn speared through the soil on his father’s farm while here on his own acreage weeds were like cupped hands unaware of what fate awaited them. There might be a seed shortage but chemicals were still in abundance. He thought about the investment bankers who were professional money managers easily out maneuvering small farmers who liked to romantically think of themselves as gamblers. Jody knew he would be a lot more comfortable with some money in the bank but what he had instead was the skill to produce terrific yields almost
every year. By the afternoon of the first day of spraying many of the weeds covered were already wilted and twisting in the sun. By the fact that corn is a form of grass they survived the special herbicide. Agri-Corp farmers had a better chemical regimen however they used a seed with several additional genetic modifications not available to the average farmer. Again Jody was proud of his skill. Most farmers who went over to the big corporations were often already on the financial ropes because most of them were not good farmers. It might be easy for a money man to make a profit during years of bumper crops but during lean years it took the best farm managers to survive. After spraying the equipment had to be cleaned, the chemicals were highly corrosive to stainless steel and even some plastics. Jody dropped the sprayer on the apron of the tractor barn, parked the tractor then doffed his yellow rubber wear, a gas mask and elbow length rubber gloves. He used a high pressure tank and detergent first then followed by a double rinse with regular water. From the apron the rinse water and the foamy chemical detergent mixed together in long cyclonic arms filling a large dead drying area. A stray cat came up to the water and foam but turned away. Steward of the Land, the phrase turned over in his head. It was what those crazy organic farmers called themselves, Jody saw himself that way too but he could not see doing the things they did. He would feel foolish ordering through the mail wasp eggs to kill corn borers. Or planting buckwheat or millet with the corn to control weeds, no one else did it. He was careful not to step in the tan water standing in the driveway as he walked home. After a combination spray for fungus, insects and weeds he had to worry about the weather, if the stuff got washed off another spray would be expensive, like reseeding, an unplanned expense. Jody took his shoes off on the sun porch where Martha started the flowers she planted around the yard. Conscientious about his
contact with the chemical Jody immediately took a shower. “Did you finish your planting yet?” Jody asked playfully seeing Martha at the kitchen sink washing the soil from her hands. Her hysterectomy had one advantage Jody thought. “Is John out with his friends?” He asked as he approached her wearing only his towel. “Aren’t you hungry?” She asked. “Just like a woman always expecting a man to eat. Come on.” “Put that towel back on and get dressed. What are you going to say if our son walks in? Supper’s almost ready.” She was a slender woman, very back east looking, not one of these women to get hefty after marriage or the birth of a child. She’d just have a salad and a narrow slice of steak most nights but if she had been working outside as she had today she could pack it away better than the men. “I saw Billy I went to school with today, I felt sorry for him,” he did not want to share the disturbing news, instead Jody said, “Billy always talked about being a diversified farmer but he never got the economy or expertise of specializing so instead he stayed small and became inefficient and uneconomical raising hogs, calves, corn and wheat all at once.” Jody felt better telling that version of his day to Martha and he forgot the omen for all of them that he felt driving home. There was a puddle of condensation under his water glass. “I’m putting on the weather, call me when it’s on the table.” Jody went to the unused bedroom he called his office and studied the weather channel. The word from last week, ‘freak’ was now replaced by the word super cell. This was becoming the second consecutive occurrence of an almost identical pattern. Scientist now were looking at the jet stream for answers. The Polar Jet Stream was periodically disappearing and reforming, being replaced by the Subtropical Jets Stream bringing tropical rains to midland latitudes. It was a tropic stream that was not in the traditional tropics. It was a puzzling misnomer that Jody did not have time to think
about. The weather map switched off to show a woman sitting on a beach towel in slacks and children in shorts playing volleyball in the sand, the announcer said the footage was from Greenland near the Arctic Circle. “Look at this, Martha.” “You just keep your hands to yourself, Mister.” Jody heard a plate clatter and she stepped into the small room. “Sun bathers at the arctic circle.” He said absently his eyes switching involuntarily from the image to Martha’s butt. Jody got a new grip on himself and wondered, had he been jostled just the exact way in the tractor, was it the hum that made him vibrate or was it the oxygen deprivation that loosened the normal selfcontrol he had over his mind? He did not know. Suppressing his urges was always an easy thing for him, there was no sex in his home when he was a boy growing up. Sex, that uninvited guest who demanded too much attention, sex was for career women, chronic masturbators, the insane and losers. It must have been the fight at the CoOp, the chanting, even death. Sex is for making babies and now the awareness of a death, one less person in the world had roused some natural urge to spawn a replacement. When Martha turned his distraction was obvious, “What’s wrong?” The frustration welling up made him almost want to cry. He did not know what he was going to say until he spoke. “It’s the weather. The weather, it’s all this rain and bad timing. I worry about John. It’s everything.” He barely choked out his last words. “I know, sometimes I feel the same way but I don’t want to upset you. I’m so glad you said something because I have wanted to talk to you for a long time. It’s private here, sit down.” Martha had a growing concern about her parents, particularly her mother who were due to visit soon. It was easier for her to talk, Jody never forgot what a genuine friend she was but of course one could not have talks like
these everyday. He struggled not to speak of the events in the afternoon but he instead kept linking that nagging sexual desire to the other social stereotype associated with sex. It seemed like a self fulfilling prophecy as he delved into the subject. The urge for sex was distracting him because he was beginning to see himself as a loser. It was going to be a bad year financially with so much corn washed out, it did not just grieve him that his son was drifting away it was his obvious failure as a parent. Jody was also jealous of his son for the affection he received from his father. He knew they laughed at him behind his back because they laughed at him to his face. “Sex is not going to fix any of those things,” Martha said kindly. “There is nothing you can do about the weather. Is there anything you can do about the crop?” “Maybe hyper fertilize the hay.” An easy response for Jody since he thought about things like that all day long. “That sounds pretty good. And the other thing is you can go and talk to your father and your son to build a better relationship. That’s a lot easier for you to talk to them than for me to talk to my mother.” They laughed together and both stood uneasily, it felt like the aftermath of an intense workout. “Thank you, I really am feeling a little better now.” “Just a little?” She got closer and let him kiss her. They kissed together without embracing. They broke it off after that allotted time, a pattern they had developed when they were first dating. They learned over time how few couples who escaped the disabling ravages of the plague managed as they did to express loving feelings without having it overwhelmed by revulsion. “Go get dressed, dinner is waiting.” While getting dressed Jody felt relief like a weight lifting from him, as though the body of Phil was ascending and leaving both the earth and his consciousness needing never to be mentioned. Poor Phil. Phil D. Order, as the men called him when he was a boy. Jody did not even know his real name.
Chapter 5 Mr P.
They asked the teacher to, ‘Please, open a window.’ he did so with personal relief. Above their heads they could hear the sounds of girls, light steps, trundling around like a lunchroom cart with a broken wheel. Attuned to sounds, a footfall, a pencil drop, or a book at which the boys looked up, some amused and others with concern. Theory was the girls did it on purpose, they knew how every scratch on plaster controlled the boys in the downstairs classrooms. Like those light and wild trotting steps that every male feels in the pit of his stomach. And heavy ones, “Fat Maxine” followed by laughter cut short by the teachers pointer coming down as a warning. “If you do not know how to read you will not graduate.” These boys knew the score, jobs were so rare that only the most hopeful of boy children, ones with homes to go back to and a relative who might help them find work, they were the ones still attending every day. Girls learned to read quickly yet no jobs were open to them other than required knowing how to identify currency and lavishing make-up on their faces. Attracting a working man, staying home and having a child was work enough for the other kind of girls. Twice as many girls went on to high school as boys. School was still a safe place to deposit daughters. With security guards on the stairs and in the halls they could not possibly get pregnant. Most of the boys formed a mob who strained at the mere female presence on the other side of the fence and the echoes of feminine voices and laughter that carried through the pipes and the heating system making the adolescent male heart surge. Teachers found themselves in the awkward position parents sloughed off. They knew the diseases and other risk of sex yet they had to tolerate the indignity because they
were working with the reproductive population. The effect was to make otherwise repressed teachers more relaxed about the subject and less guarded in talking about the actual activity which they had seen in books and films. Nonprofessionals became insanely fearful over sex and admired teachers for doing what few others could. Boys did a lot of harmless acting out to get attention and demonstrate that they had enough self control to be trusted to let loose and get out of control within acceptable boundaries. They boys fantasized about every observable detail of the girls who flocked to school in overwhelming numbers. The adolescent males observed as the passageway was cleared for the girls through the indigents from town, men who collapsed in alleys, doorways and alongside the sheltering walls of the school who were rousted out each morning. The sight of their future selves made the boys feel endangered. Precious for now, they were cared for at home with every spare family resource being devoted to them. In each graduating class one or two of these young men even went to college. This was an exceptional high school since it usually graduated about 20 boys. Finding a school in rural Iowa that surpassed schools under city domes was not so unusual as some from the cities and coasts wanted to believe. Although few farm families survived, traditional values continued and these small town boys were offered wholesome activities by the community instead of ersatz urban vice. The girls in Iowa did not find being a wife and a mother a less degrading of options. They desired the opportunity to nurture a child no less than a career. Principal Pelter knew how to play the situation much as the situation played with him. When the three vandals were brought in he knew the one named Kel who he could slap around at will and the boy would feel right at home. He looked part Native American, he was probably the first one to trample the display after it was knocked down. The
smelly, disheveled Warner kid was a follower, his father was a security guard for a local business. If P let the school security have him for five minutes everyone would feel better about themselves and the father would probably want to be the principal’s friend. The one who was an exception was the one he truly hated, a know it all. His parents probably don’t want the kid to be touched. As superior as so many of the others were to Mr P, this kid’s family was above them all, looking down on the town from their kingdom on the hill. Mr P almost flipped his car last weekend as Nebraska State Troopers chased him right to the Iowa line. He was doing nearly 90 MPH when he switched off the lights and smoked them turning onto the last dirt side road he saw to make his getaway. All four tires squealed, he did not dare touch the brake pedal or the brake light would give him away. Mr. Pelter had already lived several years like this, hiding his secret self in a profession where a thick suit, somber matching tie and his dour expression had more weight then the contents of his mediocre resume. Next year he might be replaced by someone’s cousin or a tenured teacher, some schools liked to give a teacher time in the barrel. The school district covered a vast swath on the map with a population that added up to a small town. If he did not remember what he did the night before there would be a dozen innocent locals to remind him before he got to his office in the morning. His family long ago recognized that he did not have the grit to make it as a teacher so they enrolled him in Educational Leadership, it fit his strutting manner. Head straight, eyes narrow, no better way to greet a work day that started before 6 AM than with a close shave, decapitating a bloody row of pimples on his neck and a tie and collar echoing his pulse through the unrelenting pain of a hangover. He had been initiated to alcohol as a college freshman with beer guzzling and now as a post graduate was advancing the field. He had a calendar of brewers and
distillery sponsored events. Tonight it was speed dating and wine tasting at the airport Radcliff a five hour drive that he just might make if he left before the school buses departed. If he did not get lucky there, he would follow with a Senor Winces Flavored Tequila Slammer night at a college bar halfway back to home. Most of these college kids would be like himself in a few years, P imagined, business class drinkers. Working in clean jobs, drinking like fishes but with their backs turned on the blue collar types and the bums who likely drank as much as any of them did. Or so he told himself to gain self acceptance, often drinking alone in a crowded bar. Iowa was not California, it was not even Utah. In Utah hypocrisy was actively pursued, the non-Mormons made a show of depravity for their Mormon neighbors, there was plenty to do. After all Nevada, the only state where sex between unmarried people was still legal, shared a border with Utah. These Iowans were truly dull moral people. They were trend setters for the national agenda, they were not only the first to complain about the social climate in school they did something about it and the nation followed. It was determine that school must be both a place where morality and correctness were taught and to do so a positive environment was made mandatory. Once the list of taboo subjects was started it could only grow. Whatever was taught had to go through a thorough process of evaluation to make sure it would not disturb the minds of the students and lead to disruptive behavior. In textbooks wars became disturbances between neighbors and assassinations were untimely deaths. In a society where the anti-sex forces worked around the clock to obliterate licentiousness and related pleasure not even a senior high in school could discuss the sexual born plague that had wiped out almost half of the world. Only students over the age of eighteen were allowed in a special health class where books with distasteful pictures were distributed. School Committees who decided what could not be taught were made up of clergy, local businessmen and
politicians. Professional educators were deemed unfit for these groups because it was felt they only wanted to hire more teachers and increase spending. How little they new about the teachers’ mind set, like Mr. P’s. Equal to budget was curriculum. When the public was still not satisfied with the product of their educational system they began slashing the moneys tax payer allotted and extended an invitation to outsiders to contribute to the system. Coca-Cola had its own version of U.S. history and the unpleasantness between the states. A pint of ginger brandy consumed at his desk watching the sun rise, both sweetened his breath and heightened his self esteem, the effect left him after 90 minutes. He had a front pocket full of worthless phone numbers he had gather the night before finding no one to go home with. How could he have lost to that competition, farm boys and prematurely balding middle managers. The women were at best a collection of corn fed prize winning pill poppers. That was also part of the Iowan culture, ladies waiting at their candle lit tables kept ornate pillboxes on display, the uppers, the downers, the hormones to make them feel good about being bad. Like so many of his girl students who took them in the morning and at the Nurse’s Office during the day. The behavior mod pills came out of their snapping purses during a stressful night of small talk while waiting to be selected. The judicious application of pills was how Iowa could boast the lowest suicide rate despite having the most suicide prone population, single women over twenty one. Followed by those under twenty one. “Wow, you’re doing pretty good.” She said in a high and smoky voice. “How old are you?” P replied. This girl was nineteen and had all of the physical qualities he was looking for. He could go for her, no problem. He did not want to wait to call her. He made that mistake too often. P had two ways of talking about himself, like for that
nineteen year old, starting with his car and salary. Or for the other ones, women with glasses, facial hair, too old, the ones who reminded him of his mother, he let them know immediately that he works for the school. But this one could be tonight’s winner. He fingered the receipt for drinks with her scrawl. She gladly exchanged numbers with him, not that a woman ever called a man, as far as P knew. While she spoke he already had her mentally naked, skeletal thin with big ripe melons. At the end she shook his hand, not just the usual - Nice talking to you. He could be in. So he daydreamed at his desk, under his coat last night’s memory was making him firm, he went out to the hall, with the last bell he continued the circuit around the school. Mr. P lived for the night and dragged through the day. Disappointment followed as usual. The melon farmer in a tight sweater never once looked his way after the number exchange although he could not get his eyes off of her whenever she got up to change seats. The hostess rang a bell and along came the next available cutie. Some of the other losers blocked his line of sight, suddenly she and her fresh fruits were nowhere to be seen. He threw the number away, if he did not connect that night he lost interest. He did not want to call to hear some man answer the phone, Pizza King! He did not want to see her apartment or have to go on another date before he found out if he was getting lucky. The objective of all of this was to remove the element of luck. I’m not divorced yet, every time he heard that it was an engraved invitation, he waited impatiently. Exiting alone despite his best effort, the night like so many was stacked against him, he could not compete in this crowd, he was younger than most of the women. Except that one slut tonight was a pig judging contest. P hated his life, his job, his parents. He needed action and new faces to get his mind off his self pity. P was too proud and he left thinking his standards were perhaps not low enough for this crowd. A good night’s sleep was seeming attractive to him, he did not even cruise the
local bars but got directly on the clover leaf to the highway home. So many evenings now were ending with him hating himself. He was old fashioned that way, a drinker not a pill popper. Next step was to lose the tie and check out the college scene. It was like a kick to the groin when one of the undergrads hoisted a beer in recognition. “Hey, Mr. P!” Then that reedy still adolescent voice and annoying Iowa accent like plucking loose guitar strings. “It’s my old high school principal.” Looking around as though the greeting was for someone behind him P did not change his expression but eased into the column of students streaming out the other door. Anxious and still thirsty he saw an unexpected swarm of lights at the road house where he knew at least they sold beer. Several cars are parked outside, all full size, four door models interspersed at odd angles with two busses. Whores on wheels? This should be good for some laughs, P thought. The door was chocked opened and the stench hit him before entering, inside the place stunk of body odor, sweat and beer. This suit needed a cleaning so P, already disgusted with the night flinched and walked in. All the lines moved quickly, he bought a beer and looked for a seat. From their dress and hushed voices he realized these were Mexicans, all dead tired and some were squatting on the floor like they were waiting for the next donkey cart. Unobserved P snuck out with his tall plastic glass of beer in hand. It was illegal to take alcohol off the premises in Iowa. Aimless, P walked away from the light. The back door of a car swung open in his path. “Here you go. Grab a seat.” A voice called out from the car. It was not a woman’s voice, P ducked down, one guy in the back and two in front, all white. For no reason except a sense of abandonment P sat on the edge of the back seat so that his feet were still on the ground. “How’s it going?” He asked momentarily stripped of all pretense. Eating sandwiches and drinking beer the men did not say much. “These ‘Cans with you?”
He knew about Cans. Where he grew up it was anyone whose skin was a shade off white, had an accent and was not Asian. He grew up in one of California’s remaining Caucasian-Asian enclaves. “Were just moving them to another farm.” One replied after a bite. “I thought you were with the company.” The one sharing the back seat with him laughed. “You mean you don’t know this guy?” Asked the one in the driver seat. Obviously P was sharing the seat with the company screw up. “Who are you fellows with?” P sought to elevate the tone for the sake of self preservation, seeing all of these Mexicans could mean something illegal was going on.
Little Johnny’s parents were at his door. The farmer and his wife, hard working, well sexed, standing up for their little offspring - fruit of their loins. Reminding him at once of his own parents, so many of them did, he hated them. He understood why this kid was the cause of his misery, it was well illustrated, they were standing right beside him. The type of parents who bend over backwards to make good. High power land owners their acreage must be worth plenty. P had more respect for the ones who said their dad couldn’t get the time off work, work being a barstool. He preferred kids whose drunk parents went straight for the belt and filled punk kids with fear of the principal. This little Johnny might tremble in front of him but was putting on an act. This farm boy would be unbreakable because the precious little punk ruled over his parents. Little Johnnie who could be so bold in the school hall showed up at the door with mommy and daddy in tow. All of his bad behavior was to try and break free of the image. As a kid Paul Pelter was the same way and he was doing this kid a favor by turning up the pressure. “If I were to follow through in this matter the police
would consider it a hate crime.” The father scowled and the mother spoke. “I just don’t know what’s gotten into him. We raised John to understand and respect the Native Americans.” Mr. P was moving continually eastward since leaving his home state of California. He had seen timber wolves, big horn, grizzlies all as school mascots but this school still used Indians and was totally out of step with the Political Correctness most schools practiced. A few years ago the grandparents of these kids were killing Indians, the police basement is full of them today sleeping it off. Yet here the school had a miniature village on display in the library, native headdress displayed outside the auditorium and a tomahawk decaled on their football helmets. This was a town full of hypocrites. P didn’t like it because his job was to be the biggest hypocrite of all of them. P kept drumming in the stuff about ’parent’s responsibility’ without relenting. He would not allow an atmosphere where the parents could buddy up, if the father asked about the football teams record P would use that practiced scowl. If he could see one of them was a lush it would be different then they would share laughs about the cruel and sadistic approach to parenting that all teenagers disserved. “You have precious few years to mold this boy. If he went into the military with the attitude he has now he would come home in a body bag.” P did not mention to these parents that no branch of the military accepted volunteers with such poor grades as John’s, or did he allow any discussion of politics as he slid into the next subject, fitting punishment. The school handbook backed him up, John’s misdeed of racial slurs was among the worst offences on the list. Making fun of Native Americans is as bad as carrying a weapon or fighting. How badly did the boy’s parents not want him to be suspended? Confined to home, the place a teenage boy hated most. “Mrs. Gladstone, send John in, please.” Knowing that no one is more miserable than a teenager
P made the most of it. Bringing misery to happy homes and reinforcing dysfunction P demonstrated his loathing for this career that was forced on him by his guiding parents who thought their altruistic meddling was a wonderful gift for P who as a boy was only bent on fun, pleasure and indolence. It was only time and the ending of the teen years that allowed him to settle down at the tenth rate private college where his parents sent him. If a pair of teachers could get their son off from a murder charge, it was only P’s own timidity that did not let him try. Too dumb and weak willed to be a teacher he now supervised them. He was yet to get even with his parents but he sensed it around a corner, he would ditch this career job for something that would really suit him. Bartender, bar owner, liquor salesman, stud porn star. P hadn’t a clue, he liked to drink, he liked loose women, he enjoyed when he filled the kids with fear or made the teachers cringe but there was no more money in any of those jobs than he was already making as a high school principal. If there is any money to be made. That would mean getting out of the soy bean circuit and working his way back west, homeward, to mommy and daddy and big sister all looking down on him. He needed a career change that would shock his family. Motivated as he was to bring misery, the impression he made as an authoritarian figure was an excellent one but the performance reviews he received from the various schools where he headed the administration always went from average to sub par. He was a bargain basement administrator and his academic performance as a graduate student was poor. Hotel or restaurant management had potential for him, or manning the shotgun at the door of a brothel. John entered Mr P’s office with a bounce in his step and a look of self satisfaction. On his heels a security guard with linebacker shoulders and a beer lovers gut announced, “He was roaming the halls.” “Hi guys.” John said seeing his parents.
This was the kind of family scene that made Principal P want to puke in a wastepaper basket. The ones who were their teenagers’ buddies. The father was impatient with the entire process but the mother’s expression told the story. Pampering their only child, P might as well send them all home now, they were a fortress protecting a kid who was long past due for a total ass kicking. The boy was better off coming to school where at least the teachers and administrators could make sure little Johnny learned his lessons. The handbooks punishment for a first offense was a two day suspension. P topped that with a ten page essay for Monday about Native American Culture. P congratulated himself on sowing the seeds of future resentment. The one career move that really tempted him used those same hair splitting skills that turned possible allies of enemies into cohorts. P could visualize the turmoil the writing assignment would promote, the pressure of mommy sitting down to get the work done with little Johnny. She, doubtlessly, a humanitarian who protested the stereotype of the old Indian drunk and sitting on a bench while the young ones are knifing each other and beating their squaws, this will be a punishing assignment. If the work isn’t done, P would personally bounce this kid out of here. To P’s mind riling up these sedentary folks were the skills of a carpetbagger type politician. He could see himself riding to office on the most currently divisive issue, the current war, or the next one, taxation, some local land use thing to get the townies nervous, and talk about taxes they don’t earn enough to have to pay, urging them to vote with the wealthy farmers who were getting away without paying taxes. He would go to some business lunches to sort out who had the deepest slushiest pockets. Wave the flag and attack the liberals was the way to do it. That seemed like work and he did not want to risk his publicly funded job to run for an office. He knew a few principals sat on the Board of Education. But that was too public, he wanted to inspect something behind closed doors
with kickbacks on public contracts and workers to shake down. At the moment he liked the idea of humiliating liberals, he would have to think of something. John began by protesting his innocence but soon the mother and kid were having at it in hushed tones. “Let me ask you,” P spoke aside to the father, “What do you know about this Ag Corp?” “Agri-Corp? If you have some arable land they’ll farm it for you. Pay your taxes and put a few dollars in your pocket. Why? Do you have some acreage?” Jody, the father, lightened up. “No, I’m just considering some options and opportunities.” If he hoped to learn anything it was best to be as vague and close mouth as possible not wanting to tip his hand since P knew nothing about land or farming. “If you want to get land into production you would do better by doing it yourself. Have your soil tested, go down to the Extension Station, talk to some farmers.” This was a lifetime’s worth of conversation for one of these Midwestern guys. Jody continued enthusiastically, “The reason you don’t want to go with Agri-Corp, even though it may sound like an attractive offer, they can use your farm up, destroy the land and then move on. Plus they depress the market price for the rest of us.” “But you said they can pay my land tax and make me money.” Nothing that makes money could be bad. It was like teasing a dog on a leash with a piece of raw meat. “I want to make money from my investment.” “A farm isn’t just a piece of land or and investment. A farm is a living thing and a way of life. The money they turn over to you will be coming out of the condition of your soil. Instead of feeding the soil they eat up the soil and then turn it back over to you.” “How do they depress prices?” P asked before farmer Brown could make another offer of friendship, P was uncomfortable with one man offering to help another man. Maybe that judgment was the result of too much college but
it seemed gay. “They bring in foreign workers. They’ll get a family from rural Mexico and put them on an isolated farm, no car, no phone, give them supplies like a sack of rice, and a sack of beans, so they never have to go to town. They leave the moms and kids at home and put the men on busses and the equipment on tractor trailers to travel the countryside working the farms. In the winter they go home to Mexico. They pay those people so little by our standards that everyone makes a little money even before they undercut the market.” This plan seemed absolutely brilliant to P. “It’s tragic for us and it is tragic for the Mexicans.” The farmer added after a silence. “That’s very interesting. It makes me want to think twice about my investment.” P stood up as a signal that this meeting was over. “Nice talking to you and I expect that essay on my desk Monday.” He could not get them out fast enough before he settled back down and made a call on his cell phone. All his life he had been dragged by the career expectations others had for him but now for the first time P was anxious and jumped at a new opportunity. Unlike the urban coasts Iowa school committees made decisions for themselves without hiring professionals to give them choices. Principal Pelter who believed he was using them as a stepping stone was in turn being used by the local school board as a rubber stamp. He did little more than a security guard work for less pay than a security guard, his only credential was that he was trained to communicate with the various teachers, students, parents, shrinks and the police without tipping one off to what any of the others knew.
CHAPTER 6 RECRUITS
With his monthly pay P found stapled to it a large envelope. “Evaluation.” One guy said in a deep and ominous voice. “Pink slip.” Said another to laughter. Before P had got to open it a captain came up and told Paul where to sit then joined him. “Those are recruitment papers.” The captain said pointing to the envelope. “You are being required to recruit three men for part time grunt work. That’s your assignment for next weekend. Make sure the forms are completely filled out then have them with you at the pick up point in two weeks.” That was the rote part the captain had to tell Paul, he added, “Once you start recruiting for Agri-Corp that empty column in your pay starts to fill up. That’s a nice feeling, Paul, to make money from somebody else’s labor. So make sure the guys you pick are reliable because that money will be your retirement in twenty years. Icing on the cake.” That was very motivational, more money in one’s pocket and early retirement. As much as he hated all forms of work now he shuddered to imagine how much more he would hate it in another twenty years. He would recruit by selling the company ethic, one that he shared, Money in Your Pocket. “Why ‘two weeks’?” P was suspicious of this luxurious stretch of time. “As easily as you and I were recruited it seems out in the field most people have little interest in doing better and others when they hear the name, well, Agri-Corp is just too awesome for them and they become afraid to serve.” P’s captain who always had pat answers was honestly perplexed at the difficulty of recruiting. The bus ride was long, dark and restless, the flight was eastward which meant loosing two more hours of sleep. He would not look at the material again until he was at his desk Monday morning. He now shower shaved and dressed at school on Mondays, he was having hard rolls and black coffee at his desk before Mrs. Gladstone or anyone at the
school arrived. Clear about who he could recruit, males over 16 without police records, there was no hint as to the location of the mission for the new recruits. P knew the general mission, half of everything they did was security and what new recruits would be submitted to as well as some of the jobs P once did were now done by his underlings. He was not about to attempt to recruit his own next boss as the guy who recruited him had joked. Agri Corp still used plenty of grunt workers, laborers and garbage men, he would aim to fill one of those positions for the company. Security was also considered grunt work because of the way they spoke. When he went to stash the papers in the bottom desk drawer he heard something familiar yet forgotten rolling heavily forward. The booze bottle felt cold and unfriendly, he only closed the drawer again. He was a different man now in only a few short months. The broader sense of himself, the risk and mystery of what he was now doing and the hope to get out of his current job in education had all worked to change P into Paul who was trusted, responsible and could carry the extra burden. No longer the candy cheeks who could only go in the direction his mommy and daddy sent him, with the help of Agri Corp he was taking risks for himself and becoming his own man. He did not even turn the TV on Monday after he got home. He opened the slider on his second story apartment and looked at the surrounding town in a new way. He had to draft people from out of this place. That was a daunting and sobering thought. Those who he and the company most wanted, strong, skilled and uncompromised, all those best qualified would be busy with farm related work, truck drivers, carpenters, anyone with a thick neck. They were all very suspicious of Agri-Corp for its wealth and power and the scandals and rumors surrounding the company. Moreover he hardly knew a soul outside of school and his elderly neighbors. He could not even pick up the phone to call the last town where he worked, he had problems all throughout his history. Going seven years back to college there was no one. Being an under achiever from a family of
over achievers the desperate thought that he must find a new line of work, a future where he could thrive, one that suited him was a thought that had come to loom over him. That night at the roadhouse the men in supervisor uniforms lording over a bunch of stinking cans, making as much a month as he was he, the company investment plan and the clincher was when they told him they take no recruit over thirty. The intense military style training changed him, it made his mind receptive to understand the indoctrination. Global maps lined the classroom, an instructor and an aid presented to the class of 6 new recruits the geopolitical reality which was the capstone, the vision, which guided Agri-Corp. American management, a world wide body of workers, the aggressive purchase and development of productive American land. All investment the company made were owned by contract employees. Corporate direction was decided by a hierarchy whose selection was based on merit chosen from the contract employees. From his apartment he could look down Main Street and see the two bars on either end, on opposite sides of the street. People hobbled in and never seemed to come out. After school Tuesday he drove to the Social Services building which housed the unemployment office and welfare. He sat in his car in the parking lot and it soon became apparent that these people were too far down, too desperate and hungry, if there was one character in there worth recruiting the rumor of a job might get started and that would turn into a riot. Thirty-five percent unemployment and he could not find someone to work. It was clear that like himself he might have to find someone who already had a job. Who had a taste for money and wanted more. Lately Paul Pelter felt radiant in the mornings, sober, strong, invested, no idle time for self destruction and it was the company and its training that did it. Where once he trembled, in need of a drink behind curtain, now light flooded his apartment. In the lonely months preceding even when he was still drinking he had gotten to know the town well from the
outside, where people socialized, what churches got what sort of turnout, the small local businesses still in operation. Many a hungover Sunday morning were spent that way. At the town’s only gas station workers had all the hours they could stand. It was almost all security, checking that people had the right paperwork to buy gas, opening the gate, manning the tower, or guarding the bankroll. Now as he tried to find those recruits Paul made unsuccessful attempts at conversation and was rushed out by security guards. Employers did not like him talking to employees anywhere. By Thursday P was dreading he would have to take the next day off from school, so far he had no recruits and felt clueless. He used to hate the locals with their soup bowl haircuts and suspicious looks, he could talk to doctors, sheriffs, or judges about official business and bar tenders and bargirls, he did not know how to talk to people. Only those clearly below him or above. On Friday evening alone in his room in the Victorian boardinghouse the smell of death and the odor of old ladies living next door began closing in. Still racking his brain and about to resume his aimless drive when he saw the high school lit up. It was a school dance and at that moment he decided to help chaperone. Walking there the heavy repetitive rhythm of the music was heard for several blocks, girls from the school most of them wearing white gloves and long full dresses could be seen entering the gymnasium. Boys were loitering, smoking and coughing in the shadows. Paul continued taking no notice. “Do you have a ticket?” Principal Pelter’s look was evident that he did not get the joke. “I’m just kidding. It’s nice to see you here.” It was one of the old maid teachers, around mid forties, no gloves, no ring on her finger. “I suppose high schools are a lot different in California. It must have come as a surprise to see boys and girls in the same building. You’re from California, right? Your year is almost up and I feel like I don’t yet know you, yet.” She took tickets from entering students. The students
mumbled, ‘Good evening, Principal Pelter’ and he mumbled trite phrases back, ‘Have good time, kids.’ Iowa was different, the microcosm of the high school was in many ways like every other high school but the little farming community had a feeling of shared burden which the cities where Paul had lived and worked in lacked. City people seemed more nervous and selfish, urban food lines often turned into riots, here it was always calm. “My year is almost up and I still haven’t reached all my goals.” “Relax, you’ve done a good job. Everyone respects you. And off the record, a lot of us don’t reach our yearly goals.” “You know what that means?” He slipped now out of Agri Corp recruiter mode and back to Principal. He gave the punch line, “Next year you have to set your goals lower.” She laughed a little too much and P had diverting thoughts in his mind. Here the girls wore white gloves and wore old fashioned dresses to emphasize their virtue. In California the trend was that the girls carried a special handbag called a tote that held a small caliber gun like an antique derringer. “I’m going to check on the kids.” It was best to step away, he was feeling the twin temptations of sex with this woman or mentioning the opportunity of work that as of yet he had not discussed with anyone. In the gym the boys and girls were as segregated now as they were during school hours, only half the lights were on and balloons were everywhere. The beat of the music competed with his heart as he felt the vicarious tension of boys and girls eyeing each other across a room. He walked up and down where the dance floor should be and after making a circuit he filled with a overwhelming sense of magnanimity. He stepped out of the gym. “Miss ah …” “Miss Adams.” She filled in. “Miss Adams, do you see a student here who can cover for you for a minute? And do you have a pair of gloves?” “Why yes, Principal Pelletier, what do you have in
mind?” She selected a girl nearby, Takeover. She produced cheap cotton gloves from a box on the table. “We’ve got to show these kids.” “I don’t know how to dance to this kind of music.” “Me neither, we’ll just be careful.” Becoming the only couple on the dance floor a cheer went up before the dance was over some of the boys had crossed the dance floor to talk with girls. “Thank you.” Miss Adams said “I haven’t done that in years.” Paul led a quick egress. “Me neither.” Paul felt transformed but he could not undermine his mission. He had to escape this moment and its implications. Too old to have a feeling like this as a school professional, it was what he felt daily when he was in the field. Clearly he was not breeding stock and neither was his dancing partner, possible that explained why he did not miss his debaucheries. Seeing the students like that gave him a clue to the solution of the problem presented by his other job. “Good night, Miss Adams.” Sunday was a football game, it was an intramural exhibition but trophies were going to seniors and letters for the underclassmen. It was a celebration to mark the end of sports for the year it was not required that Principal Pelter be there and he generally did not attend functions not in his contract but now he was on a mission. He wanted unhappy outsiders, lonely desperate kids, the punks, kids smoking in the parking lot. He was going to befriend someone who he was sure hated him, it would be easiest to recruit from the ones who reminded him of himself at their age. pt2 Principal Pelter, sober and not hung over could be a commanding presence, the theatricality learned at grad school back in California, “Bring in the first one, when he’s done escort him back to class. Don’t let him talk to the other
two.” Martin Kelly, a sleek nose ands trusting eyes, he looked Mexican in some part of his lineage. His hair was not black or straight, most likely he was an African American also, a few descendants with trace resemblance to the original strain were still to be seen in these rural areas. He could not pick a negro out in a crowd back home, the racial features were long lost. It was a superficial interrogation, Pelletier knew all the answers before he asked the questions, he just wanted to see how attuned this kid was, what things he might lie about, if he was hungry or just bound to be a lump. A life long townie, generations on welfare, Kel, as he was called, was only here because he was with the other two. Paul felt confident, at least he had some potential recruits to discuss things with. “Security.” They waited, security was always slow and never too bright, “Take him out this door, escort him to his class. The door was the one to the hall. Security was a big service, it had the potential to employ everyone, no disability ruled out some security job from watching people in person or on screens to various forms of cryptography and eaves dropping. Kel seemed like a potential security person. If he was smart enough to take a job. The next kid, Mike Warner came from a family of displaced farmers. Those people hated idleness and government support. When the employment possibility came up the boy jumped at the chance and said he also had his father, brothers and cousins who needed jobs, even part time. “I’m not making any promises.” Even with one on the hook P felt it was necessary to angle him properly, “There aren’t that many jobs and we can only fill one at a time.” “Well, did you ask Kel? Because I don’t think he’s going to work out for you.” Not yet hired and he was starting out as a back stabber, that level of nervousness was good to work with, Mike Warner would naturally be suspicious of others and he seemed bright enough to suck up to those who would do
him the most good. P felt richly satisfied having scored himself his first lackey. “Stay out of trouble and don’t talk to anyone on your way back to class. Go that way.” P indicated the door where he would walk past their friend Johnnie. From the monitor on his desk P watched him walk robotically through the waiting room. “Get in here Mr. Miller.” P said loudly without shouting. Johnnie slouched in. He was the one P wanted to recruit for his personal satisfaction. The boy looking at the ground, making unnecessary sound with his shoes, he was the one who reminded P most of himself, independent, arrogant and trapped by the combination of a lack of opportunities and his parents expectation. There was really nothing he wanted to do. At this boy’s age he had yet to discover drugs or fornication and still saw alcohol as something for old people. Which was how P felt until he got to college. “Kel, Mike and you were in here before. I see you restored the Native Village. Nice job too. But then we caught you smoking a cigarette in the school parking lot.” P was now quiet, he wanted it all to sink in. “I know you’re their leader. Not because you’re the only one who can afford a cigarette. Not because you’re smart, Mike is the smartest of the three of you. You are leading them because you’re not afraid, the others are afraid of me but you think I can‘t hurt you. You have your entire future laid out for you and I can’t do a thing about it. Your parents want you to go to ag college like they did but if you go to college or not your future is secure. I could throw you out of school today and tomorrow you would start the job you’ll work for the rest of your life.” Johnnie looked up, “We all chipped in for that cigarette, Kel’s mother bought it for us, we gave her some drags and the butt.” “Sure, they’re poor, those people will do anything. I wanted to help those guys and I won’t let you stop me. I offered them an opportunity on the condition they stay away from you.”
“You can’t do that. You’re the Principal, that’s not fair.” “Life is not fair, those boys and their families know that. You have it already in the bag, life on the farm to look forward to, those kids have nothing. You are the one who is unfair to them. Out of fairness, even though you don’t need it, I was going to offer the same opportunity to you.” P had judged it right, like himself this boy hated the idea of being in his parents’ work for the rest of his life. It was neither compassion nor sadism that now motivated P. He just wanted to see if he could do it. Had he learned enough in life to outmaneuver this boy who was standing in for his younger self. P watched the seconds go by on the monitor facing him on his desk. A few seconds more of holding his own. “You can’t take my friends away.” “You’re right and I didn’t. Even if I told them that hanging around with you was a bad thing they could still do whatever they want. I can’t force them not to talk to you. Could I force you not to talk to them?” “No.” Johnnie said weakly, adding, “What is the ’opportunity‘?” “Just a part time job. You probably wouldn’t have time to do it with all the work you must do at home with your parents.” He did not have to turn the word ’parents’ into a wretched noise. Just his saying it did that for him. Just as Principal and Parent were a terrible alliance John now had the chance, opportunity, of using the Principal to pry him away from his parents. “You’re offering a job for money, not food stamps or a grade.” “Money, yes, money. You like money, you’re interested in money? A job for money?” “They say you can never get enough money.” P contained his enjoyment of the moment. “There is some paperwork …” “My parents don’t have to know about this, do they?” “You’re sixteen, this is business and business matters are completely confidential.”
“Good.” By the end of the month Mr. Pelletier is buying the boys breakfast on Monday morning after getting off the bus returning them from a weekend of basic training. The boys shovel it in while Paul tells them lies about how he is racking up big sales in the field using all his salesmen tricks. The next week P could not believe the message left on his phone. Could it be a prank? He receive no authentication message. Out of fear and respect no one would dare pull a prank like this using the Agri-Corp name. A call to confirm if made by Paul would be frowned on and he did not want to gain notice that way. He was obliged to take it on faith. When the weekend came he did not catch his usual bus to a connecting bus but instead drove himself to the destination. There was unavoidable embarrassment, almost no one associated the jobs they did or the tactics they were taught to use in the field with anything a gentle and forgiving Lord would identify with but here they gathered for one of the largest meetings of Agri-Corp employees anyone had ever heard of and it was in the temple hall of a church. The company enforced punctuality and the room filled quickly. The light dimmed, the wall began sparking and everyone took seats and became still. Some familiar looking plants began to appear on the video wall although the ones in the presentation even when blown up to twenty times its size were more perfect and more beautiful than any ever seen in the field by those in the room. The title streamed across the wall then an enthusiastic almost irrational voice spoke.
TRI-CAL & TRI-CAL II
The first farming revolution was Tri-Cal, this ultimate product of cross breeding and molecular genetic engineering produced corn kernels the size of wine corks and twice as many ears per plant as other corns. A true silo buster at harvest time. Agri-Corp developed it and owns the genetic formula, no one else in the world can grow it who does not buy the seed directly from us, and it’s not for sale! The competition can not adapt it or a mutate it because the TriCal seed is sterile. The Tri-Cal family of growing products will grow and out perform in any soil but to unleash the awesome growth potential and to prevent rapid soil depletion Agri-Corp recommends adjunctive nutrition formulated especially for busting down silos the Tri-Cal way! By the nature of any dynamically growing crop it is especially vulnerable to fungus but fortunately this particular engineered growing product has its bountiful yields locked in and extra production assured with the various fungicides for your unique conditions and the special Tri-Cal requirements. Agri-Corp engineers are working around the clock to incorporate fungal and viral resistance to power punch future optimum harvests for the pending release of Tri-Cal Generation III coming soon. The wall became dark again. A single light beamed on a live speaker. A very average looking man but one who spoke with unaccustomed knowledge. He seemed to be someone more important to the company than the rest of the guys who filled the seats. He spoke. P tried to listen and understand but his new self was like his old self and if he was not active then to him the lecture became a backdrop to a dream. Lights went down again and through half open eyes the changing slides were like the moon shimmering over the speakers head. “Tri-Cal number two was exclusively cultivated on Agri Corp owned farms. By adding to the corn genetics genetic material from another grass plant, the
banana, we had perfected “no-till” corn. Corn plants as tall as banana trees growing from a mat and from every crotch emerged first tassels and eventually a tremendous ear of corn. Like a tropical fruit this corn grows year round and so is ideal for the frost free corn belt through Michigan and parts of Canada.” Pertinent images flashed on the wall as he spoke. “Mature corn is on the plant year round and to keep adequate size the highly vigorous stalks require constant thinning and with the original Tri-Cal’s susceptibility to fungus constant spraying is required. Because number two is grown from a perennial mat all plant culture for its development had to be preformed by hand. The seed for TriCal II is grown in a lab and not the field and that allows Agri-Corp to boast about the savings on fossil fuel during development. “Tri-Cal II is deemed by Agri Corp management the perfect crop for a new world that was emerging with the advent of global warming and the end of fossil fuels. We have developed a miracle crop in time to save billions from starvation. Because other countries do not recognize limited exclusivity of food stock and seed germ as well as limits on the presence of genetic engineered food. And to maximize the profits we can all anticipated, as well as for reasons of already having the resources in place, also having had a bad experience with the first version of Tri-Cal. The United States was chosen by our multinational food corporation as the place to exclusively grow Tri-Cal II. The United State was also deemed one of the most amenable places for the social revolution that was needed to farm II. The corporate department of sociology projected an exchange of forty to one. That is for every one farmer removed from the old fashioned mechanical and fossil fuel based farm, forty workers will be in place since II requires hand tillage.” P perked up when the slide show put up a picture of the autobahn, he liked European cars, in the background was the Agri Corp home plant which originally developed
synthetic chocolate from corn and soybeans. In Europe it was known by another name. “Nazis.” P could hear someone whisper in the dark and he joined the group chuckle. The speaker cleared his throat, the audience settled and he continued. “As a global multinational corporation Agri-Corp acknowledges but it will not allow itself to be limited from growth by arbitrary customs or laws. The word corporation means a living body and we are so recognized where ever we go. Like a citizen with rights we will do what we must for mutual benefit and when our rights are questioned we will bring to bear our army” - he paused, “ of attorneys. Our Army. Agri- Corp employees never fear local laws or threats since it is the corporation who takes full responsibility for their action. Like the civil rights movement it is sometimes necessary to violate unfair laws in order to bring about change. “To modernize the United States first and then the world we must capitalize on American’s unique amiability to social change. If that change is not in accordance with legal guidelines we must first violate those laws to prove the need. We can then move legally through the judicial system and by winning our cases change the society.” So now P and the other attendees were beginning to understand in depth the purpose of the secrecy and limited access. It was nice of them to explain it all after so long working under shadowy threats and coercion for their silence. When it seemed like it was over, a typical load for indoctrination and orientation, the speaker continued. “It is against the philosophy of this company to subsidize abstract research, or on a product that can not begin paying for itself. Thus the introduction of generation one proved immensely profitable allowing us to move on to step II. Labeling is still used to create resistance in people’s minds. In today’s world that means the hungry, the starving, our customers who could be fed by us with an enhanced and profitable product are being held hostage by the politicians who only want to line their own pockets. But we are
committed to putting money where it will do the most good even if it means paying government officials soliciting bribes who stand in the way of putting research to work. A growing plant, a growing company, and yields that are proven.” At which point the invited crowd in the church went crazy cheering. Before too much of the momentum was lost the speaker continued, “The preceding video display is information for public consumption, it is true, all true, to a point but there is more and that is strictly in-house, information exclusive to those here. As always, as long as you say nothing none of this will ever appear in the news. “Can you keep a secret? Tri-Cal III is ready and is scheduled to begin preproduction growth in the spring at a selected site.” The crowd again cheer but there was a sinister mumble in the back of the crowd. P was relieved, he was deep enough in this mess. He had to get out and he had to move on. If he learned anymore he was afraid of what they might do to him before letting him out. Somewhere cages were being constructed by non-contract day workers. “Strictly for reasons of climate the place we will be launching our investment is eastern Iowa, along the Mississippi sea. Security resources are already being focused there. Some of you, I hear the groans,” the speaker’s tone became unhappy, “To feed a world one must occasionally inconvenience ones self. When a decision like this is made it is made for the strength of the body of the company of which we are all part. This world is our home, do not disparage your place. It is temporary, in time we will see the world united and we will all carry the same burden.” Paul cringe at the thought of things back in town becoming cozy with all that security muscle squatting down over little Iowa. He wanted to go home, to see a beach and smell the musk and hear the roar of the ocean. Now he even wanted the freedom of the lonely, alcohol driven, itinerant school administrator he once was.
“Men from Iowa, the company will ask something a little different from you.” The speaker’s lips could be heard brushing against the microphone making a booming whisper. P shrank in his seat. Sometime it seemed disconcerting that this company had no head. The corporate charter stated its mission is simply improve and encompass. Every department had to measure up and the numbers were sent somewhere. Someone looked at the figures, summarized them in black or red, not that there was likely to be much red, everything was done so cheaply, don’t fly take a bus, or do us a favor, buy this from your own money then work a twenty hour day. Separate that old lady from her grandson and put him on a bus. Go to a foreign country stand inside a fence and shoot at anything outside that moves. Working for Agri-Corp was never boring, it was sometimes terrifying, often annoying and one of the most annoying things was not knowing and wondering, who is in charge? “So Iowans you are going to be happy hosts to some of your co-workers. Let’s see your hands if you are from Iowa or have some knowledge of Iowa now or in the past.” P could feel it and see it all around him just as he felt it himself. He looked around to see if there was anyone here he knew or knew him, or with whom he might have spoken. There were eyes on him. “Maybe we’ll be roomies, put your hand up.” An idiot two rows ahead spotted Paul. More reluctant hands started going up. “It’ll be fun. Let’s see, I do have a list in my pocket. My number men tell me one it twenty, so that should be fifty of you. I hear you. I know what you are complaining about. No need to worry, you’ll get enough food credits.”
CHAPTER 7 GUESTS
It is not important that you aren’t good looking. You’re smart and you know how to get what you want because you know how to ask for things. Boys and men are easy, the only challenge is working them into your schedule. Didn’t you ever notice me and your father. I simply compliment him whenever I see him and we go along fine. Each in our own world. You need to keep a calendar, you’ve seen my little black book. You don’t want to rely on memory or something you have to run home to look at. What does this have to do with you? Once you find the boy. And you might as well aim ten years above your own age. Once you have found the young man you want the next step is to get him in your little black calendar. Find some insignificant school affair and invite him. If you wait for the man to be the aggressor, mercy, I don’t want to imagine what you might wind up with. You can love a horse or a dog, you can love the Republican party but don’t try to make love the basis of your marriage. That will lead to disappointment. I hope you never fall in love. No man is going to love you as much as you love him. Men are toilers, doers, men are machines. Love is just a word to them. Look at how happy Champion is when she sees me, no man will ever give you that. Not after the first year anyway. Do not soil yourself with affairs. Despite what you might think they are impossible to keep secret. The women who have affairs are generally the first ones to blurt it out. As if it were not written all over their faces. Smug satisfaction is for those who can not control their urges. Sex is a trap door for a one way trip to hell. Sexual maturity is when you take the vow of celibacy until marriage. One is better off not succumbing to physical urges. I have gone on fund raisers and seen the hospitals full of dying AIDS patients. Not only the perpetrators but onto the next generation. The children of the damned who are damned themselves. Sublimate, sublimate, that is why I have my horses and the good works I do for those less fortunate.
So many love me for my dedication, how would I be able to give of myself if I was having affairs. I say affairs because when one does not satisfy no lesson is learned but the desire is still there and one simply leads to another. Those were the words used by Martha’s mother dispatching her to college. Jody brought Martha out to go fishing in the dark, to sit in front of the duck pond on campus kissing, it felt so natural for her that she was swept away. Her mother’s world of fear and warnings dissolved. What she had been told during her innocent years as a girl living in her parents’ house seemed rational and comforting even hope filled by comparison, the reality was when her mother heard about Jody the walls of the Munroe mansion might as well have been running with blood. I will not hear of it. You will break it off now. Martha’s mother was the product of a supervised selective breeding program. The qualities that were chosen for breeding were clearly followed. Likewise Martha had to marry someone with money, preferably someone from a wealthy family who stands to inherit, like her greatwhenever-grandmother did, she bred with someone who owned slaves, and the great grand after her married a distiller turned bootlegger who bought land. The breeding guideline was simple for Martha‘s mother‘s generation, marry someone rich. Until Martha came home from college her mother had trusted in her good taste and intelligence, the choices for today’s women were more rational, a good earning potential, a doctor, a lawyer, an MBA, someone with real estate, royalty, someone near royalty, anyone with a lifestyle to which she would like to become accustom, a tribal leader, even a crime kingpin. Her catch was notably unsuccessful, blame it on the competition, holding onto good breeding stock in a democratic country with an inflexible morality is a challenge. Few of the children are able to achieve the goal set out by
the parents and many of those who did found themselves not happy in the breeding relationship. Martha’s mother could trace her line back eleven generations to England and the wrong side of the American Revolution and still later the losing side of the Civil War in Virginia. Along the way were the family discards who far outnumbered those in the conservancy. A trend that kept wealth in fewer and fewer pockets. Just as well for those who had to carry the burden of money. At first she was unsentimental telling Martha, “If you marry that farmer you are dead to me.” This was how she had seen these situations handled and so she was thankful that it was done over the phone, she did not know if she could restrain herself to merely declaring her daughter dead in person. For a woman there is only one means of achievement, the marriage of her daughter. How could she scratch her daughters name from the ledger books, she was the only child of the marriage. Martha’s father who enjoyed meeting the customer did not see it that way. Although Martha’s mother had her own means she followed instructions and married up to a higher income bracket, so that any break in the marriage would mark a financial up turn for her. It was win-win, the marital asset could be exchanged for cash and real estate. Martha’s father truly loved Martha and he envied the man who married his little girl who grew up full of energy, intelligence, compassion and still so many questions, all qualities his daughter had which the mother lacked. He was young when he met his future wife, he confused her peevishness for passion. With the birth of a grandchild Martha’s father would not let the family stay estranged. “If you want to discipline your child for what he did in school tell him he is out of the will.” Martha’s mother’s parenting advice after a phone call from the school had interrupted their phone conversation. Mother called making arrangements for their trip out this summer. Martha looked
back at college and the first years of her marriage with Jody, the years when she did not speak to her mother, and now thought that was the best reward for marrying a farmer. She felt selfish thinking that way because her father and husband were like friends. Fathering and being a grandfather was also something special for the men. With the nanny, maids, tutors of her youth, Martha got the definite feeling that being a parent was nothing her mother cared to do. Men are more easily satisfied. Her parents now visited several times a year and bought a large house on a vacation lake. Whenever her mother visited she first looked around at the four walls of the room in the small house and reminded Martha how she had failed to achieve the lasting independence she had originally desired when she enrolled in a veterinary program. This marriage cost you dearly, her mother insisted when they were alone, what ever happened to that youthful dream job of being a New York writer and photographer? It was low grades in chemistry that got her out of the vet program and New York was a passing fancy. For the sake of family unity Martha bit her tongue. She liked the people she met in Iowa because they did not flirt with many of the accepted evils, Iowans did not have to be threatened to return to civilized behavior. Jody was one of them. Making love with him was a risk of creating life, not the possibility of risking their own deaths. He was easy to love and in the life they had Martha was able to shed the complications of the way she was raised. While the girls she had gone to high school with were at each other’s throats pursuing the few paying jobs for executive women, Martha was doing what was far more important, raising a child and being a mother. Even though they had taken on some debt buying into the farm Martha knew it could be easily handled having learned enough about business as a child listening to her father who brought clients to the dinner table. She was flattered and knew that she must have picked right when her husband chose to spend time with her
instead of another farm project. Even among these less complicated people so many families lost track of what was important and emulated the wealthy in a never ending pursuit of money. They did not appreciate their position and instead thought it wise to emulate the wealthy who were some of the most unhappy people. Grandpa Andy dismissed his grandson John with a special pat on the head for having a job and as usual he slid several fifty dollar bills from his wallet to the boy. The bond was weak but for less than a tip to a cabby he bought loyalty that he hoped with time would turn to love. Thus far with the crisp snap of a few bills he had purchased more fealty than some fathers did with jets, cars, condos and the investment in years of education. Only a holiday grandfather, since last time the boy’s face appeared dirty, needing and having been putting off his first shave. Andy could not help but feel the threat of a youthful male. He also felt pity for the poor farm boy with the delicate champaign colored down sprouting from his cheeks. His grandson’s other grandfather was a scruffy old fellow therefore it had to be Andy‘s job to talk to John about manly grooming evidently his father had neglected. Andy used extraordinary caution and respect, after years he still felt a melancholy superiority to everyone he met around his daughter’s chosen home. Or anyone who had to live outside of the protection of an urban dome. “Tell me about this outfit my grandson is out working for?” Was his greeting for Ed in the spirit of getting down to business with someone he knew but wanted to know better and wants to like. “Our grandson.” Ed had to maintain a slight edge of insolence so that his counterpart did not snap a few bills his way or mistake him for an employee. Typically Ed was not very trusting, he cultivated the somewhat accurate stereotype of himself as the naïve farmer but no one was going to take advantage of him. By making a false target of himself he could better calculate a true response. He learned
to let down his guard for Andy, not only was he family, Andy could be a valuable catalyst for change. As an adult working with an adult child Ed wanted to encourage a change his son, Ed felt the need to deliver his son from innocence to an understand of the vulnerability of remaining on the farm and this imperiled land. “I never met a woman who is as much of a bitch as your mother-in-law.” Ed observed on a morning fifteen years earlier. He was taking a break from the socializing. His wife and the new relations drank scotch, talked horses and rode. Ed bowed out spending an hour working with Jody in the tractor barn. His wrench slipped, he drop a heavy tool and cried out. “Sh-it!” “Dad, I am twenty four years old and I have never heard you use that kind of language before.” Jody said turning pale. It was as though his son never suspected that his father lived a life. Jody said shit once in his early teens in front of his father. The look his father gave him had the effect of his mouth being sewn closed. Jody‘s father shook his head, “Well our wives are angels but we’ve got to feel sorry for him.” Ed said. From that time on he did his best to be more than an in law, at least toward Andy. By humanizing his son’s father-in-law he might equally humanize himself in his son’s eyes. In Iowa Andy let his defenses down, it was an easy place to arrive at after watching his wife struggle to impress by dropping names no one heard of and dollar figures that only impressed the locals at home of how much she over spent. His wife only built a brittle wall for the locals but Andy saw it as unnecessary they did not live with these people and did not do business here. There was something relaxing about asking questions and listening to the answers without having to filter out all the bullshit. Andy stopped short his first meal at the farm house, they clasped their hands before the meal in front of the plain
food on their plates, all heads bowed before Ed spoke, “We thank you Lord for the miracle of this meal, Amen.” Everyone said, Amen. The food on the table only vaguely resembled food that was available in the east. Food only nourished the body without specialty shoppes and take out. Home cooking, a term that implied poverty, was uninteresting and did not spark thought or conversation. “What is this?” Andy cringed at how his wife asked the question but Jean took no offense, it was the pleasure of having visitors. A meatball, its made with ground beef and pork and bread crumbs, I’ve made them for years. And spaghetti with tomato sauce.” “Yes, I recognize the pasta. It’s very flavorful served this way.” Andy was not sure which way things were going to go until she complimented the food. He could feel the tension release and shoulders dropping around the table. “After dinner we should go for a treat.” Ed announced. “Soft serve ice cream.” Jody said beating his father to the punch, he was like a little boy. He and Martha joined in a big laugh at the old man‘s expense. Ed acted hurt. “Laugh at me and your not getting any.” Was that the attraction his daughter felt for this place and these people, its simplicity and her superiority to them? The only challenge was living with the lack of opportunity. There was almost no retail to be had and the real estate market was as flat as the landscape, parcels changed hands with the generations. But when his daughter said, I’m sorry, Dad, and was talking to her father-in-law then Andy saw the truth. Sixteen year ago his daughter found a family with these people. Now, he too after sixteen years knowing the Millers, Andy felt the power of family love. It was an emotion that came to him gradually over time and with considerable difficulty. There was competition over the many other things
he felt and did not feel. That burden was the way he was trained, his only value was monetary, God was real and in everything and owning things was how one got close to God. By donating back to the church one made oneself known in the necessary business circles. Money assured survival, ostentation which followed was inevitable but mostly a matter of perspective, it came as he gathered more money, it announced his diligent acquisitiveness to the world. Showering himself with earthly pleasures of the pricey and the beautiful meant he was blessed. Money meant more than security, it assured his life would be long, he knew it was possibly for men like himself to buy enough medical science to attain immortality. An endless life of pleasure, he was convinced in childhood, it would be his, leaving almost nothing with the power to sway him from his destiny. “Buy her something.” Martha’s mother suggested seeing how it bothered Andy to be failing, second if not third in the competition among men for her loyalty. Martha was in a place which Andy could not buy or steal, he could only receive the gift if he earned it over time. He took his wife’s offering with shy acceptance because it was an admission of his own need. Martha’s mother of course could not see or feel any of it. Her acceptance was only to placate her husband, she assigned his reaction to her presence to the uncommonly close quarters the summer brought them. The social pressure against sex was so strong that even married women rarely discussed it, least of all would she want to associate having relations during nights in Iowa. In recent years Martha’s mother came to Iowa only to insure her husband returned home after the visit. Being single, whether by nature, death, divorce or abandonment did not bode well in her circle. She only needed Andy to maintain one aspect of her status. She was still too youthful looking to be a dowager. At the same time she did not enjoy the role of being publicly known as an obedient and dependant wife. She found fulfillment in being a snob to everyone.
The three families were gathered around the table when she announced, “Don’t expect us for Christmas. I can not stand the cold and we are making plans to return to Madagascar.” Andy did not miss a beat, “Madagascar is a toilet.” and returned to talking about the bullfights with Ed and John. “We’ll discuss it at home.” She began a monologue as Jean on a drunken impulse rose from her place and Martha with an irrevocable look of embarrassment refused to come to her mother’s conversational aid. “We loved it there twenty years ago.” When Jean returned she tried again, “How is Ed’s health. He looks pale.” “My Ed’s a rock.” Her voice was loud and raspy, “Everyone this side of the Mississippi sea looks pale, it rained 27 days last month. You brought us this clear weather.” Martha’s mother smiled and took that as a win. Jody was worried about his father. Ed was asking Andy about wills when they drove off in Ed’s car to inspect the house on the lake. Yet it was not the inevitability of death that was bothering Jody, estate planning and money matters were Andy’s favorite conversational topics after bullfighting and football. John was not worried at that moment about his father’s health although that was an obsessive point of conversation whenever two or more of the family gather and Ed was not in the room. Ed had had two heart attacks since he turned fifty five and had gained the title Big Ed among friends and other farmers in those years as his weight soared. The impression was aided by the fact that his overalls never caught up with his true size. Jody’s worry was fostered by questions like Why isn’t he looking at me , and Why didn’t he answer me? Thoughts he had during the dinner. These were the exact same thoughts the man had forty and more years ago as a boy. He had long ago suppressed the tears but the urge to cry was still alive deep in his stomach. Now his dad and Andy
were off having men’s talk leaving Jody with the women and John. He would recover, he always recovered, after he was too old to cling to his father’s leg or tag along behind. He learned to tell himself, I am a farmer also and excused himself to find things requiring his attention. “You see the problem with kids today is that they don’t have the heroes we had growing up.” Grandpa and Andy settled outside in the yard chairs. Both men’s chairs sunk into the spongy ground. Grandpa was a sturdy round and slow moving man, he still ate like when he was in his prime of vigor yet his life now was mostly sitting around the house, Andy was sleek like a long necktie, eating only what was on his doctor’s diet, exercising regularly and properly medicated for his phenotype, genotype and age. Although the same age now grandpa whose knuckles and arteries both looked like sailor knots was not likely to live until seventy while Andy the child of science was a candidate to outlive his rustic contemporary by as much as sixty vigorous and pain free years. Death would be a relief from pain and toil to the one and longevity a comfort to the well invested other. While Andy had been taught certain values, conservancy of wealth, the importance of family in business, the innate superiority of the rich, here on the farm those values were lived everyday. Andy was a success in his field because he remembered those values at the times when others trembled for their self preservation and image. Andy was not afraid to pursue his advantages aggressively, to take risks and to break new ground. Ed worked methodically in the air and sunlight at the cost of his longevity. Years ago had Ed took Andy out to hunt and kill deer, the last of the wild life, foraging his crop. Going on the hunt was more than the acceptance and affirmation which it might have been for Andy’s peers back east. When Andy was eighteen his parents weighed him down with a secret knowledge that it took a blood rite like hunting and killing of a wild and graceful animal to overcome. He was instructed in
the significance of the creatures who competed with mankind for the food supply and how they must be respected. He was told that we are not alone as upright and deal making inhabitants of a planetary world, the instruction sited vast numbers of inhabited worlds. His parents told him he was in fact Jewish. After attending the business school at Princeton Andy did not return to his parents residence under the Manhattan dome, the company in the Iowa capitol dome who hired him after graduation became the source of all his human associations. It was that secret which pushed him to form his own company just to prove he was not docile and secretive. He decided early on not to do to his child what his parents had done to him, he would let the secret die with him. Although many nights he cursed himself for not having the courage to return to the ancestral home or to have bred with someone different. “We remember the only president who was not a crook.” Andy liked talking politics. Andy acclimated easily to rural Iowa, he felt at peace with the endless horizon and the greenery in its natural habitat. These visits reinvigorated him for the work he did of maintaining the steel towers and tubes society relied on and dividing then subdividing then walling in dwelling allotments for families and individuals. It was important work which allowed him the freedom to travel and take a real vacation not just a change in the scenery beyond touch outside the glass. These were not Asian actors playing native people. He envied Ed who could stay connected to their grandson. “That’s right and we had war heroes. Remember the astronauts?” The official line was ‘Space is a waste’ but both men felt otherwise despite what the actuaries and accountants who made public policy said. Andy, whose brain cells were healthier and well oxygenated did not need to make the same conversation that was seasonally adjusted with each visit and yet he enjoyed it. While natural air had been no friend to Old Ed there was an undeniable majesty to a sky not viewed
through the safety of reducing glass and an horizon not curved up at the edges but one that lay straight ahead with only a few barbs and light poles. His wife, like most east and west coasters, did not care for the openness so she stayed inside with Jean which she also did not enjoy. Grandpa was addicted to ice cream but as the evening progressed the women did not come out of the house and the men took a walk without Jody who went to bed, he had been up since four and planned the same for the next day. The conversation quickly got around to the question of their grandson John’s future. The men offered their personal frustrations and warnings while John did not want to hear any of it had seldom showed himself since turning twelve. In the house they visited with Jean which was part of the ritual punishment of criticism and complaints that made up each visit. Martha’s mother breathed through a perfumed tissue like it was a hand held gas mask and made conversational probes of Jean who never lost the horsy air of manure, sweat and fermenting grain, between sips of rank bourbon Jean replied in simple sentences but the look on her face and an unconscious gestures made it clear she was focused on the pain in her joints and muscles unaware of any tension in the room. Thus continued the quarterly farce of Martha’s mother attempting to show an interest in these people, part of her daughter’s life. Since her parents’ initial visit for baby John’s first Christmas when mother clutching her chest to breath greeted her saying, “You moved to this place to show how much you hate me but I came to show how much I love you.” Since then her mother’s stance had not changed. “Come back home. No one has to ever know about this.”
CHAPTER 8 GO WEST
AGGROUP WEST The crowd was surrounding the Aggroup building, windowless and unmarked, the only building of its kind in Xwang Ching, sheet metal with a flat roof and no windows. Chang joined the back of the crowd. He had walked there straight from the bus, he felt wakeful and ready, he had slept most of the night on the bus from his home village, he had eaten the last of the cold rice and meat his mother had sent. His father was a party member and learned of this opportunity through the party. Jostling to the front of the building was like a game. There were policemen near the front who were dragging anyone to the back of the mass who was being disorderly. Chang was doing well in the crowd, it had lifted him off his feet once, by the time he was able to touch the door he had already seen two busses come and go from the rear of the building. Someone near him said the busses go to the airport and to Zhing city. Idiot, some else yelled Pang Pah, they dig mud for the dam. The local train goes to Zhing. You don’t know, Chang himself said. It was a wonder of the modern world, three voices and three different accents. One thing his father told him, do not listen to rumors, If you have questions go to a party official. The door opened once more and the policemen quickly allowed ten more in. The crowd shifted with excitement every time a door opened, many like Chang were new to this . When the door opened again Chang turned sideways and pushed like a fish fighting the current. He was the second number ten to get in. The door almost clipped his heal as big men on the inside closed it again. Inside was calm, quiet and everyone froze as soon as they found their number painted on the floor. Be still, a big fellow facing the group of ten yelled. You will get your number then go in line. He pointed to the center, stay in order. If you are not in order or if your number …Where are the jobs? Someone asked. Silence. If you talk, or if you get out of line or lose your number, OUT!
You will be called. Chang followed the boy in front of him. Put out your hand. With a thick red pen the number 4379 was written on Chang’s hand. Stand there in line until it is your turn, if you rub off your number, out! Everyone in the center with numbers on their hands looked very happy. The numbers looked almost the same. Big men walked around the line, Move, move, they would say and everyone would move. Each time they said it the mood got more excited. Finally a man held up Chang’s hand to read the number. There he said. Chang went to one of the small surrounding tables. Name, age, Where were you born? Chang told them everything they wanted to know. Two of them wrote the information while a round eye sat nearby watching. Chang tried not to stare. The round eye who said nothing did not seem to mind being stared at. Looking at the other tables he saw a few more roundies. Sign your name. Chang did. Write your address. Chang looked up, smiling for his embarrassment. He handed the tablet and the pencil back. He told him the name of his village. Chang feared now he would be sent back home. The round eye spoke but Chang did not understand. Go there the other man said handing a paper, and a copy of the paper with Chang’s signature over to Chang. Chang forced himself to remain calm. A work bus and a home bus, he thought. What’s going on? He asked on his new line. This, he was told, is the non reading line. They are going to send us to school. Here, someone passed him a damp rag, it was mostly red. Your hand. Some talked about where they were from but most talked about where they thought they are going. The door he came through opened and Chang could see full daylight outside. He worried about his ducks, he knew that one was not well, He tried to see in his mind if it was dead yet, it had a goiter so the family, now only his mother and father, would not eat it, it would go to the pigs. It seemed a moment later that the back door opened. Be still! The voice of authority was already familiar to him, Walk! Do not run! Do not push!
The seats in the bus were hard, unseen, some in back complained. There was a crackling all around the bus. On came a female voice as the bus began to move. A cheer went up but it was quelled. The voice continued If you are quiet and respectful you will learn much and rise to a responsible position with Aggroup West Company, a world known brand. Aggroup West requires, good health, cleanliness and intelligence. By listening quietly you will learn and in learning you will grow in responsibility and with responsibility you will make your family proud. “Responsibility means money.” Chang could not see who the joker was but those around him pointed him out and the goon in front who had been facing them all the time asked for the young man’s paper. The bus slowly stopped, the joker was begging for pity. He was sorry but had to follow the goon who now had his papers. A quiet chant, “Get off the bus,” rose up. As the bus started moving the busy street already was swallowing the man with torn yellow papers at his feet. The seductive, emphatic voice resumed, “Aggroup West is the number one food supplier worldwide.” Chang comforted himself thinking of his pigs, feeding them the scraps, watching the sows nurse little ones. All he knew about Akroup was it means job, money and luxuries for the family and then Chang will return home to marry … some girl. The woman’s voice spouted on about Mexico, Canada, the U.S.A. She could have been talking about the moon. The bus hit a bump as the gravel road became concrete. “An airplane” like a breath it circulated through the bus, the goon surrounded by cigarette smoke was looking out the front window. Between the bus and the airplane was a white building exactly like the other one except no crowd was pressing against it. Exiting the bus this group of young men were already transformed as each one fidgeting or with fists clenched fought urges to rush the door. It was a new world on the other side of the door with something for everyone
-depending on respect. Chang did not like having to take his clothes off but he had never been seen by a doctor before only nurses stuck needles into him as a school boy. At the end he was told he could put his pants back on and rejoined the others. Chang was directed to a table and received his first gifts as an Aggroup West worker. Inside a crinkly clear plastic, the very look and feel made him happy like a child on his birthday, it was a gift of clothes, he was told to put them on, the company uniform. Now Chang was part of an army of soldiers in blue. He received a kit that felt like leather full of gifts for his mouth, face, body and at last a red can with a ring on top. Someone showed how to pull the ring. Soda! Sweet cola. The uniformed young men practiced respectful titles on each other, Comrade, Honor, Sir, Madam, Majesty, Chairman. Sweet cola seemed to get them very excited. At all times they stayed a respectful distance from the roundies who stood in groups of two and three. Attention, these new men faced the man speaking at the center of the room, this is your new friend. He indicated a green open top barrel. When you finish drinking your soda you will place the can in your new friend. The first sign of respect is where ever you are scraps, remains, dirty paper all goes to your new friend. “To feed the pigs.” Chang whispered to no one in particular. Others mumbled around him. This was not so different. The speaker concluded, “Now is time to finish your soda, give the can to your new friend, and hold onto your company gifts.” Of the many fantastic thing happening this morning no one expected to climb a ladder into the hanging belly of a huge four engine airplane. The dark wood floor was clean and everyone was bunched up inside and then they were told to be seated by the pilot who closed the door behind himself. A rumble that had to be the engines. There was paralysis, desperate voices and fear as in everyone’s bellies the momentum could be felt. Then the otherworldly, floating
sensation of wheels up. People seemed to pass out as the plane nosed up and banked into the sky. The few windows became searchlights. Chang got on his knees to see the clouds outside. Now he was very far from home indeed. We are in the clouds. I have to pee. They got bathroom breaks and had meals, they practiced the new language of respect. If an airplane could fly them to heaven they surely had been put on it. From the belly of the plane they got into a new bus. The city stood on every side, not one star could be seen in the sky. From the bus they crossed the concrete to a jet plane that could have swallowed the small plane they had flown. Chang got a window seat on the jet to see the tiny people outside and the propeller plane they had arrived on looking like toys. Now they were seeing more and different kinds of roundies. Dark ones who smiled and spoke the language of respect. Chang received a second meal, slept in his seat. Later with his seatmates they practiced the phrases they were told to understand, Venga conmigo, pala, rastrillo, escoba, and the most important, ir al trabajo, - 去工作 Go to work.
CHAPTER 9 & CHAPTER 10 CANCER AND HEART ATTACK
We are Alone Security at the small hospital which served the town and the population of many square miles of surrounding counties made it impossible to hide. One entrance for the public and everyone went through the same check point, townies and strangers both in the same uniforms patrolled. She averted her eyes from anyone in a white coat. She was
just another local to these hospital workers. “You missed your appointment.” Not even friendly recognition, her legs spread open in front of him. A dour nurse for a witness, what could go on? Doctors are now aggressive salesmen selling temporary cures and you did not know you were sick. When Martha was first diagnosed with cancer she laughed. She was not yet thirty and felt strong and healthy. It did not seem like a threat to someone who had taken control of her life at age eighteen and been places and done things completely unexpected by leaving the luxury of suburban dome life to become the hard working wife of a farmer. The second time, when cancer signs appeared first in her blood, her attitude was no longer that it would not slow her down like before, now she thought, You have to die of something. She resigned herself not to go through that process again, of being a good patient who was manipulated like a piece of bread dough. It did not help to be in the hospital every other day visiting Jody’s father, seeing a man who was a vigorous leader of the family now pale and stretched out with pipes in his arms and nose. Death was in the room like a light that cast no shadows while it sucked out our life and each visit to Old Ed left Martha less able to resist for herself. She was no different than the housewife who got miners lung from doing the laundry. Jody could laugh that he never got any insects or weeds growing in his lungs but the reality was that while he was in the center of the cloud of chemical spray he was sitting in a bubble and inhaling triple scrubbed air. The first time the doctors trivialized the procedure but Martha was sure if it was a case of men doctors who had to cut other men’s balls off it would not be such a common procedure. The procedure is the second most common, she was told, after tonsillectomy. As a well read mother she new the tonsillectomy was no longer done so quickly as it once was. Caring for a child, a husband, in-laws and her personal
project to feed the hungry she thought far less about the removal of her ovaries and trusted the doctor. For years since she took pills to supplement to what remained after they had removed so much of what she was. At first she accepted it, glad just to be alive but when her gynecologist started changing her supplement almost annually she wondered what was up. The pharmacist new everyone’s secrets and all of the doctors patients where getting their medications switched. This is better, right? But the pharmacist thought the only difference was that the new one cost more. Each refill cost a little more. None of them could really replace what had been taken from her. Changing medicines began to erode her confidence in the institution of medicine. Her entire procedure had been based on faith since only blood tests told the doctors that she had something wrong. After removing her ovaries the doctor said he couldn’t see anything and that was good since the condition was arrested while still microscopic. At that she questioned the doctor, Can you do a microscopic biopsy? The doctor’s response was a condescending smile, No, he said, we don’t do that. When she was melancholy about what she lost, not just the egg production but the ability to hold and nurture a child within, it was not ‘out of site out of mind’ for her. That was in the dark of night the only thing to counteract her darkest thought, What if something happens to my child? It was like they had left an open pit that she kept falling into, or dug a grave inside of her and at the bottom of the grave was a toxic waste pile. She was told the same thing by everyone, it’s just hormones. John’s mother said it too, she was raised in Montana and been on a farm all of her life, she had a pronounced mustache, white and tobacco stained, “We all go through it at some time,” she said in a husky voice. Ultimately alone, Martha thought, what would my mother do if she had this? She dialed the familiar number. First a lecture about them not having a view-phone on the farm and the plea that she return home. She said, Mom, I’m sick, and her mother began a different monolog, how she
embraced life’s torments knowing she had the means to trump them. Mother could go either way on the issue, being married to a lawyer allowed her to vent her spleen. She wanted to sue the doctor for not doing the biopsy. She insisted Martha get the latest implant developed, it was in all the lady magazines, the artificial ovary. After seeing herself reflected in her mother Martha retreated, she became unexpectedly meek, she was not about to sue the only gynecologist left in this entire quarter of Iowa. She was tempted about the artificial thing but that was trendy, big city medicine, it meant maintenance surgeries every few years. She felt trapped by the alternatives and caught in the stare of her mother and the doctor and the army who stood with the doctor. With no where to turn she surrendered to the idea that she might never feel like and will not be her old self again. Martha’s mother thought it was the perfect excuse for her to come back to the dome and see a ’real’ doctor. Pride, resentment, obligations and possibly hormones prevented that. John was a new born the first time and there was always farm work to be done. Only then when she thought she could blame the genetics inherited from her mother’s mother who died young did she accept what the consequences were amounting to, her life. But she lived unchanged, for a while. Now she treated her latest diagnoses like she treated her mother, hoping that if she ignored it long enough it would fade into the background and go away. So much of her life had been a reaction to her mother. Her mother was demanding, self centered and spoke with the support of generations of her moneyed family. Like it or not those women knew what was expected of them and did it. In response Martha became essentially self effacing and took her pleasure from her son, husband and her in-laws. The house Martha grew up in always had an outside element running through it, as if her mother could not do anything without hiring someone. Be the work her face and figure or
changing a roll of toilet paper. Father never seemed to have enough income to satisfy mother and she was always urging him to buy and expand. They were a distant couple, father knew how to have fun and when he had the time he would be with Martha, they had fun together. At fourteen Martha wanted to go to a public high school but could not get her way. Not even father supported that. When it came to college it was her choice or nothing. Her father said he would miss her but it took a while for the message to sink in. Her mother did not care and her father trusted her. She became a liberal in high school just to stir up excitement at home. She tried to embrace radicalism in college where liberalism was so commonplace. But the radical kids were too sad and slovenly, wearing wool knit hats in the summer they were a bunch of miserable neurotics. Martha felt she had too much to give to spend time on irrelevant causes. Her high school education exceeded the college of liberal arts curriculum at the faraway farmer‘s college she chose in order to get away from home. In an effort once more to do the unexpected she turned to science and veterinary medicine which was why her college was first built and was still renown. The vet program was highly competitive and she struggled, it was in meeting Jody that the circle of her life became complete. He was a man, not a portfolio. She experienced as feelings the things she dismissed in high school as corny and the basis for women’s oppression, that being self-oppression by surrendering to maternal urges. By sharing her life she learned how to be a complete person. Her degree in general agriculture was like a home ec degree but she did not mind. The liberal in her was redefining Liberalism. There had been many beautiful years. Dying would be all right. Old Ed was rallying after several weeks of blood thinners and a starvation diet, he was able to put both feet on the floor and sit up in bed, that was about when Martha
felt life stirring in her but not the good kind. The doctors had been telling the truth, the serpent of cancer had returned. - TWO In a strange bed Ed dreamed. It was once again that day not so many years ago when Ed looked in the mirror and wondered whose face that was, it was an unfriendly mirror only showing him the face of disappointment and frustration. It was the same mirror again but the reflection was different now, in a dream, in a hospital bed. He saw his face at all different ages. He saw himself with his father’s mouth, a circle refusing to cry out in agony and his mother’s nose red with grief. It was his intense face as a teenager, a second later his face the day he passed the age of dad when he had the accident. Since that day he felt lost, friendless, alone, he felt that way for two decades now, the years he had out lived his old man, those years were cursed. He felt a moment of panic, the selfish bastard. I was only a boy, I needed a dad, not a farm. He was the reason his dad died. By being the son of a suicide he knew folks treated him strange. A man a long time on his own with no tandem history to rely on. The eyes were strange, old wrinkled, not at all familiar. His old eyes saw reflected eyes of his young self, eyes that lit up when listening to the stories his uncles told of the amazing lives that men once lived. He dreamed of the body he once had and his own adventures inspired by the stories he was told. While his cousins farmed he traveled and did things they dared not do. Visiting cities, drinking alcohol, and loving ladies. He remembered the girl he had almost married, he should have never left her. Then came Jean who helped him and he brought her back home with him. Back when he was still in his twenties the things Ed did could have got him killed, the sex epidemic was not yet a plague but even back then he would have been shunned had
anyone known of his exploits. Twisting under the sheets in the hospital the memory of vitality was reviving him. His tongue was coated, he did not feel right the last few days and he dreamed he had checked in because of a serious heartburn. His aged doctor whose training had gone out of date thirty years ago told him that he was past the point where blood pressure and cholesterol meds would help. “Don’t tell Jean.” Ed insisted. Did the doctor wearing hearing aids in both ears understand? “Jean, come on in. Big Ed here is down to about one percent blood flow to his major coronary artery. We‘re going to keep him and dose him up and when he is ready roto the inside. We got to build him up. Now he is too week for surgery.” A speech the doctor made ten thousand times. “I am not going for the surgery and I don’t want the kids to know.” Barely raising his head, whispering. He was not afraid of surgery, he was not afraid of dying. There were things that were just not spoken of in Ed’s life. He reached the point years ago when living became excessive and cruel. Neither Ed nor Jean ever expressed their suffering to each other. Both knew it would be especially sad and lonesome for their boy, Jody, named for Tom Joad, his dad was his only friend other than his wife. Repeating the doctors words, Jean said, “Rest, build strength for the operation.” Jean returned home alone where vacation preparation dragged as she had to do all the work of packing and closing the house. Big Ed was kept in a new room in the wing of the hospital near the county convalescent home on the same campus. When it was founded over a hundred years ago it was called the old age farm. Old people in various stages of recovery, rolled or ambulated wearing bright clothes, clutching IV drips on wheels for stability, teary eyed old men in their eighties and ones Ed’s age who he found hard to get to know or when he did they seemed strange, men who have transformed into
menopausal women and waited to die, hopeless, sitting by their big shouldered and bearded wives. To Ed women were all the same from one cackling hens’ club to another, women always chattering and keeping each other company. It was no puzzle why most men depart by age seventy. The path ahead was strange and threatening to most of them. Their struggle was already concluded, unsuccessful for most and the spark was no longer there. No matter what success they had in life the wing of the hospital was filled with the sense of failure, we were now living on the state, none was in a position to buy more life. Once Ed considered people on the state the lowest of the low, now he was one. The three hundred acre square of land that had killed Ed’s father would now go on to Ed’s son. The farming culture was meaningless to him now. Whatever his son wanted advice on, he could not give it. Ed was at his first school dance again, training his best dog Gallant when he was ten. Jean delivers a boy and Ed is a young father lighting up like the sun. He recognized other faces in the newborn’s face. Dad? … He recalls again that day. He is a boy fixing a flat bike tire. Happy to share the workspace were his father is adjusting the two halves of the combine … The heavy rear end suspended from rafters by chains. It slides into the plate studded with bolts to hold the implement … Even Ed’s youthful ears know it sounds wrong. Dad? … but his dad was gone, clothes tattered, bones that shone through glistening meat, blood everywhere, he never cried out. He would not show his eyes. Ed, if he knew, could have thrown the switch to save his father but his father being impaled then flattened by the many tons of machinery did not have any breath to cry out. Old at forty, weighed down by so many things, Ed’s father, the American farmer back in the nineteen seventies felt singled out for an undeserved drubbing. Now sixty years later the entire country was on its knees together. When it was a few farmers like his dad losing their farm, or faced with that option, in 1975, he was alone. All they had was charity. Now the world was proving to be pitiless to
everyone, saw dust mixed with the flour of the loaves of government bread, went down smooth - no splinters, came out easy, had no nutrition and left people so weak they could not defend the nation that was being stolen in front of everyone’s eye. The MaoTseTung-Stores, biggest retailer in the world, sold card board coffins in the home garden area, it was one stop and last stop shopping. The older generation once held wisdom, now it was confused and out of touch, it had been like this for several generations. Now the youngest generation was also displaced. Only disappointment then the grave. The country today is ruled by a circle of elites, the government caste, the United Nations and big business. Old Ed returned from home forty pounds lighter and with several boxes of pills however he was still not going to have the surgery. Weak but feeling no pain Ed was sitting at his kitchen table where he had been all morning nursing a coffee. He was content to be a dying man touring the halls and chambers of memory when young John came to ask his grandfather’s help, to identify relics. John unfolding a sheet of lined paper and Ed looked. “A hay fork, a scythe,” those two drawing were obvious but other drawings the boy had made were too busy. “Something like that might be a hay bedding tool.” Old Ed was guessing, the machine age was well established all of his life. John left the hand drawings for Ed to examine, he was elusive about where he had seen these antiques. He said it was on the organic farm but Old Ed knew the organic farmers cultivated endless talk and they would have told John more than he wanted to know about the mysterious implements. Thoughts focused on the present, his grandson, a boy who cared little for farm life, the boy’s curiosity was itself curious. He came to his grandfather because he did not want to give his father any comforting thoughts about a change of heart. Maybe the old implements were stolen, Ed thought, as ever untrusting. Without evidence he tried to see all sides. He could not say he knew his grandson well enough to rule out crime, not in these times.
Old Ed’s thoughts kept circulating around those questions. Since John started working his part time job he missed a lot of school. Alone with the boy in the kitchen a few nights later Ed asked, “What were the tools made of? Were the handles plastic or wood? Were the blades sharp?” “I don’t know I just saw them from a distance.” “I hope you’re not thinking about doing anything that could get you in trouble. It‘s all right to look but don‘t touch.” John did not flinch when he answered, “I didn‘t touch anything, I just want to know.” That was a good sign. “These days and even back in my time, a little knowledge could be dangerous. Just as dangerous could be the pursuit of knowledge. Big companies like Agri-Corp are allowed to torture people who they find trespassing just to make sure they don’t know anything.” The Miller farm abutted Agri-Corp land, Ed often heard the workers singing when he was up at night. Rumor was they were Philippine and spoke Spanish with a Chinese accent. Another rumor was that some worked in chains. The separation of corporation and state was only a courtesy back when Ed was John’s age. That courtesy was long forgotten. Business simply took what it needed and gained the freedom that individuals had lost. Some of its most suspicious transactions are considered outside of law. The prosperous bought protection and more for their people. That a corporation was free to kill whether accidental manslaughter or self defense was no longer considered absurd, it was the law. A corporation was equal to a man, implicitly more so since a man is one man and a corporation is made up of many men. “You’ll get in trouble even if you don’t see anything.” Grandpa added. They put the innocent in cages without justification, liberty was suspended to protect business. “Do you think those could be torture tools?” John asked with youthful anticipation not weighted by knowledge of history or empathy. “Of course. What isn‘t? A cigarette is a torture tool. So
is a glass of water. In the right hands.” Old Ed a veteran of the Militia War had seen it in practice. His grandson’s adventurous spirit had been totally snuffed by cautious, fearful. over protective parents like the rest of the kids today. Thoughts that the best in life is found by taking risks fired in the old man’s mind, a youthful belief he once had that he wanted to pass along to his grandson. The important thing to do now is to kindle a fire, Old Ed wanted that more strongly than to preserve his own life. The two realities amplified each other. Old Ed could not hold back. Life would be a gift if he could pass it along to a grandson who exists in this lifeless generation. “Where are you seeing these things, John? What do you think is going on?” He brought John who was named for Ed’s father into the small garage behind the house known as Grandpa‘s workshop. He threw a switch and a moment after the initial roar the garage was comfortably warm. One wall was the garage door and the facing wall was a work bench surrounded by hand tools on hooks within arm‘s reach, the two side walls were covered with peg boards and more tools, mostly power tools. On the floor tool boxes were stacked waist high and in places three rows of boxes deep out from the walls. Plastic tackle boxes, big open carpenter boxes, and black and red metal affairs on rollers with hundreds of drawers. Some were special purpose tools in their original cardboard and Styrofoam packing, a few milk boxes and coffee cans filled with connectors, screws, nails, washers, nuts, rivets, staples. “Help me move these. Careful.” Containers crumbled in their fingers. “Not even twenty years old. What a crime how they make things today. Some of these tools were my grandfathers. There’s not much made these days that will last sixty or seventy years.” After a few minutes of moving boxes they took a break, Old Ed tired more quickly now and John who had lived a sheltered life was not strong. “What kind of gun is this, Grandpa?” John asked happily squeezing the trigger handle to the base, an easy and satisfying motion with no resistance uncocked on an
empty chamber. “A rivet gun. We used it to build vegetable green houses.” Like ancient square rigged cargo ships of dreams, sunk, forgotten, the waste of resources and time in exchange for a treasure of tools, the guides to use them, all to build a support structure with no plan to make it work. They produced bushels of flawless vegetables that sat in the local grocery and on roadsides and rotted. “What’s that?” John held up an empty seed box. “That’s a cucumber.” “I don’t like vegetables.” “You’ve never had vegetables.” Ed’s mouth watered with the memory of crisp air grown lettuce and hydroponics cantaloupes which were orbitally shaped from growing unsupported. The losses were worth the memory. He had long since stopped blaming the plastic salesman who hooked him up with the greenhouse. It was a pile of shredded plastic now, it started falling apart in the sun after three years and for the last forty years some of its tatters still blow across the highway to be unsuccessfully incorporated in the soil or else catch on a tree branch. It was Ed’s own fault, he had never dreamed he would fail. Most businesses fail and he was unprepared for failure as a result he never tried again. Grandpa let the boy play as he got to the box nearest the wall, hard plastic, once black now dust grey, the cheap container opened easily to the desert camouflage monocular. “Is that a gun?” The boy asked misled by the irregular shape. “It’s for night vision and it’s a camera.” “What good is that if you can’t shoot anything with it?” It was a sincere question which Ed answered sincerely but he wondered why kids today are so dumb. “You can see far away things close up and at night. And take their picture.” The boy was so wildly driven to guns, he would be a true danger if he ever got hold of one. Ed was ten years old when he got his first child sized . 22 rifle for target practice. From that age on gun safety was
part of his consciousness. He could not see his grandson handling a gun with the special consideration for its destructive potential. He could only imagine him popping off rounds without understanding how someone could get hurt. Saying the boy is dumb because of how he was mothered was only Ed’s way of venting what had built up inside, frustration that only some one his age might understand. This was an era of morbidly prolonged innocence. It was useless to vent. Was it because they saw no future and had no education that they were so dull. Even curiosity was dormant in this generation. “But what’s it good for?” The boy asked. “Well, you can stay back somewhere and use it to spy on girls.” Ed wanted to see if anything was flowing in the boy. “Why’d you do that, Grandpa?” Old Ed felt embarrassed for a brief moment. This is the last generation, he thought, not knowing if the end of the human race was a good thing and if he felt despair or envy toward his grandson and those born to so little responsibility. “Looking at girls or seeing over fences you’re not allowed to cross.” Old Ed remembered, a grandfather makes it all right. John would lead and Old Ed would be there to find out what was going on and to absorb any and all blame. After all our children must remain blameless to live in this world. “Did you say you saw this stuff where you work? Because I’ve been curious about the Agri farm nearby. We can investigate that one and you won’t get in trouble at work.” They met under a sky of blue mixed with white called azure, now it was a dark blue, not inky but blue suit color with a texture now like cheap construction paper. Old Ed had noticed the lines in his face because they had come on more suddenly than the change in the sky. It was good to know the ballsiness between man and boy could still be willed into existence. It was a constant like going out fishing with his
grandfather hours before dawn. Forgetting the brook trout that grew smaller, deformed then disappeared. Ed studied the difference between his grandson and himself to see if there was a definite contrast or if one did happily fade into the other. “You see this corner of their farm abuts ours.” Corn plants in the moonlight glowed, the iridescence gene was one of the first bred in by Agri Corp many years ago for security purposes. Their single kernel could be selected from a million others. “Grandpa we walk the fence line every night.” “That’s the beauty of this plan, the same tools for cutting the wire can be used to fix it again.” Old Ed had been in such a hurry to do this he hardly thought it through. It was the exhilaration that he lusted after. The sensation would either invigorate him or kill him and he wanted either one. “If they can walk the property line at two in the morning so can we.” “Grandpa, I don’t want to do this. I could lose my job.” “I’m your grandfather. Besides, how bad do you want that job? Security guard, that‘s a job for puffed up idiots.” “Good point.” Grandpa added, “You have the family farm.” At that John silently despaired. Old Ed continued as he imparted a birthright to his grandson, photographing farm tools served a purpose but was unimportant next to the freedom to face down the over protectiveness and let lose of limitations. John’s parents raised him to be filled with fear, a teen afraid of kissing, fearful of girls, afraid of government and vengeful corporations. Afraid of what goes in your file or what others say about you. The only way to overthrow fear was to find it, face it then plunge into it. Ed could say it but was too old to feel it in his bones like he used to, he had little left and so there was not much he was afraid to lose. Teenagers used to think and act like they were immortal, now it is all fear and hiding for the teens. His grandson needed to learn that by taking a risk he could win a world.
Walking the line and cutting the wire in the soft glow of the corn plants, it was a challenge to keep quiet in the crunching of chemically burned dead weeds. Zigzagging and trying to keep a small profile through the neighbors corn was proving to be difficult for Old Ed who had gone to his knees several times as he tripped over his own feet and the massive roots whose knuckle like plant structure broke the soil for these famous and genetically secret corn plants owned by Agri-Corp. The sound of them growing was like a freight elevator was the old joke. Crouched in them it sounded more like hydraulics. John hearing an “Oomph” paused for his grandfather, it was then that they both heard the sounds, voices, laughter, coughing. Grandpa was tugging at John to go back but now John had an interest in what was going on, inside the fence and the outside were for John two different worlds. His AgriCorp job was outside and to keep those also outside out. The voices seemed distant and unchanging, no one was coming after them or knew they were there. At two AM it was cooler, the generator went on and the lights turned on, electric skillets were plugged in, dry fish and rice were then cooked. The middle of the growing season was a time for mending clothes, fixing tents, repairing the storage bins. No letters were being written because these men could not write. They had been also ordered not to sing, when they made flutes they were taken away. It was important not to disturb the local racist Americans who were too lazy to do this work. The Chinese workers grew radishes, cucumbers and hot peppers on little plots like back home but the pork and chicken came frozen. “What does it look like?” Grandpa had to fight John off to look through the night vision monocular. “It looks like they’re camping.” He passed the monocular to John. “Those are the same kind of tents they use. Can you hear their voices? Kel says their aliens but we never seen any sign of a spaceship.” Grandpa stuck his finger in his ear to turn up his
hearing aid then froze to listen. “That’s some kind of Asian tongue their speaking.” Old Ed said after a while. “Asian tongue?” John repeated with incredulity. “Language, boy. Tongue means language, Chinese or Japanese. Or something.” This foray seemed to accomplish both of their missions, “Take some pictures and let’s get out of here.” The fear was refreshing to Old Ed. John now had something he could hold over his buddies and maybe over Mr. P. “That was great!” John hugged and draped himself all over his grandfather once they were back in sight of grandfather’s house. It was amazing what he was able to do with an old man that he was not able to do with a bunch of kids. “That was exciting but we got to keep quiet about this. I’ll put the pictures on a disk and then I’ll stash the disk. Taking these pictures could get us both into a lot of trouble.” John felt something inside that wanted to whine like a baby but suddenly he became as he envisioned a soldier, one who has a purpose, silent and obedient.
CHAPTER 11 FIRST JOB
A Job Off the Farm “Mom, come here, you have got to see this.” He lingered in the hall, he could not look knowing his mother frequently did not get dressed. “Mom, please.” His mother had always served him even in her pain and when he believed that he was too mature to be doted over. He wished she wouldn’t but did not have any concern until she stopped doing when she stayed in bed most of the day and wore only
her pajamas and a robe. He used a strong and unemotional voice imperative without being demanding. John was becoming a secret soldier now, for his own cause but he was not sure what that was, and as a man with a cause he realized that he represent something that might be important which caused his demeanor to change as he became aware of himself in a new light. Late nights, the responsibility of a job, having to think about Mark and Kel, and money was transforming John. He was developing a respect for the work his mother did or used to do for free. Finding clothes for those in need, dropping off meals to people at home and sandwiches for those who were homeless, she cared for others outside the immediate family. This then should be of special interest to her. “Let me have the camera.” Mark surrendered it to him. Mark’s camera had captured far better images than grandpa’s old monocular. The pictures showed strange devices but no chains, it was possible to read the labels on the bags sitting in a hand cart. The image of two Asian men standing near a small fire and a pan resting above he flame. John knocked on the door softly. “Mom? I have something here, I just want you to look at this.” He was past the point of impatience with his mother’s antics because she was his mother and he was only fifteen then surely she had to recover. Her strange behavior and the ways she had changed. By John’s body clock if he was sick by now he would have recovered. He was still far from the point of accepting the possibilty of her being severely ill but with his friends nearby waiting he had no consideration for this temporary condition of hers that he had to endure. Finally a childish, mmmmmaaaAAAAAAaaammmmm, the twisted song of infantile frustration. Hearing the bed noises from her room he felt both bad for reverting to whining and relief that she still could get up. “Can you come here?” She stalled, her voice was weak. “Please?”
He walked in with the camera held out and went to her side of the bed where the light was good and the room was warm but the smell, the cancer smell was strongest. She did not know how to work the camera and had no strength or patience to figure it out. Reality had already become dreamlike. Impatiently he grabbed the camera from her then returned it to her on automatic display. “I don’t know what I am looking at.” They had the bond of once having been equals, two parts that made a unit, parent and child, master and apprentice. Her nature was to go against what was the current view of society. John and Mom, long ago, walking the streets of the nearby town distributing sandwiches which he was jealous for the attention when she made them but became glad for how they lifted everyone’s spirits. “We think it’s people in tents.” John was kneeling in the bed with her to press camera buttons and showed her the close ups. “Look how thin this guy is. We were patrolling the fence and we found one of them. We don’t know what language he spoke. But we think he was trying to escape that place!” “Stay home, don‘t go near there again.” The strength to sit up left her, she closed her eyes and lowered her head to the pillow and spoke. “Work with your father. You don’t need that job. Your father needs help to run the farm, help Dad.” Everyone knew John hated the farm, she was already a ghost as she timidly made this request. “What’d she say?” Mark who waited in the hall asked excitedly. “She doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”
Working for Agri-Corp was not like school or home, it was work and he disliked it from the first and never found anything redeeming about it. He agreed with everyone who said Work Sucks, but they kept on working they seemed glad to do it and were happy to follow orders, glad for the recognition of being given orders . What good was the
money, he was fed at home and there was nothing to buy. Stores were empty, the grocers only had uninteresting necessities. Kel and Mike, both of their families needed the money, they were sharp and attentive but John slouched as he typically did and the prospect of getting on a bus and being taken to he knew not where was a little scary and daunting especially since he did not have his parents support like the other boys did. Mr. Pelter was seen walking across the street, he gave the boys a look that told them to stay where they were and then he stepped into the coffee shop. The street became an assembly point of twenty or so of young men, half townies and high school kids who knew each other, the rest looked like farmers and they waited in a common silence, they had been instructed to wait quietly. If someone’s buddy joined the group there was nothing more said than, Hey, and Howdy, as they waited a nod or look might follow. No one knew the significance of what was going on. They each trusted whoever recruited them and waited hopefully until a stubby white bus stopped near the head of what had become a line that grew from the street corner. The bus approached the wrong way sped to the end of the block and made a wide U turn. It reached them again and stopped, the door opened, a man emerged who waved them in, he got back in the bus after everyone was on board. There were seats for all, the doors closed and they were off. The seats were small and it was cramped on the bus and the familiarity amongst the guys made it inevitable that questions would be called out. The man who shepherded them on the bus finally stood. “Try to hold down the noise and all of your questions will be answered shortly.” John and his friends were at first surprised when their principal did not board the bus but they were glad. It would be good to start again where the authority, the boss, had no preconception about them. After making a semicircle turn onto a ramp an awestruck sound rose, through the weeds and stretched
across a noon sun was a long neglected stretch of the Federal highway. Many had never seen it, John had a vague memory of this endless pavement and knew his father took it annually to market his crop and bring home supplies. The highway had levees on both sides in some areas, in other low areas they could see fields still flooded on both sides. The vistas of water combined with the loose gravel made the drive seem like an excursion on the Mississippi when it is rough. Semicircles of debris remained where the water had crossed the highway. “I’ve never been this far.” Kel admitted. After an hour the bus was off the highway and stopped in front of a large sheet metal garage. Inside things were waiting for them. Jump suits and baseball caps were first distributed. John in silent anger waved the hat under Mike’s nose, “Agri Corp,” he whispered. Mike, who needed the job, mouthed the word silently, I Quit, fitting the hat to his head he wore a satisfied expression of a subordinate who finally turned the tables on a superior he secretly hated. People in the domed cities associated Agri-Corp with white bread, peanut butter and marshmallow sauce, as well as artificial leather shoes, and self heating micro meals in colorful boxes, while those in the third world saw the AgriCorp mark on sacks of corn, rice, artificial rice and dried beans, in Iowa Agri Corp meant a juggernaut of acquisition through controlling banks, the manipulation of markets and a monopoly of seeds, chemicals and plant patents. The family farmer rose unrepentantly in John. As often as he rebelled against the farm life it was too much for him to be in with and working for the enemy. Especially this enemy who was also hated by his father and grandfather. Terror flashed inside him with the realization that he could not leave, having taken a bus here he did not know the way home. One busload of men joined another busload in the large and poorly lit space. Five busses, a little over one hundred men more than half around John’s age almost all were desperate for work. Assembling with no instruction into a
single large group where the light was a little better as if to show their willing faces to the next recruiter or now more likely a boss. Some let it be known they would fight anyone thinking of edging them out for the job. They were eager to serve and the nervous turning began in each of their stomachs, if asked they would back stab each other. These men twisted and compromised by circumstance would make loyal employees. A large black screen on a stand came on showing a man in an ambiguous outfit displaying pins, chevrons and insignia, there was a slight movement in his jaw signifying that although this was a recording he was waiting for attention before addressing the assembled circle. “Welcome to Agri-Corp, gentlemen. Today you will receive the AgriCorp uniform. Take care of your uniform, the first one is a gift from the company, the rest you receive will be deducted from your pay. The flashlights and walkie-talkies you will be given are to be returned at the end of your work shift.” His recorded voice in the concrete block building echoed but reached most of the group in the otherwise empty garage. A desperate voices rose, What? What’d he say? “The men walking among you with clipboards are Captains and they will help you find your assignment. Captains are your direct supervisors. Know who your captain is and follow his directions. Until you are promoted you must obey any captain who gives you directions. Do as you are told and you will be promoted before you know it.” There was a lightness in the last few words but it was betrayed by the demeanor of some of the captains present who smiled sadistically. The voice ended and even the static accompanying it snapped off. The bright image of a man in a sharp uniform projected more authority than the slouching and contemptuous captains in the room because he was recorded and on TV. Each farm was assigned six recruits. John sensed the care made in the arrangement, numbers and geometry formed a symmetry in his mind, he noticed this immediately and later confirmed it, Mike and Kel where sent to opposite corners of the farm and no one in John’s groups knew
anyone else in the group. Had John been given a genuine education he might have gone far in mathematics but education only stressed practical knowledge which did not interest him since his practical needs were being served by his parents. Four of the six men were always on guard duty with eight hour breaks to sleep. The instructions were simple, “If you see anything suspicious call it in on the walkie-talkie. Call in if you see anyone going in or out of the restricted area. Take no other action. Trespassers are considered dangerous do not have contact with them. Do not enter restricted areas. If in doubt call it in.” Directions so simple even a security guards could follow. It was frightening and disorienting, everyone John met had an experience similar to his own. They were assigned to cold tents, issued thin sleeping bags which were passed from one guy to the next. Where ever John laid in the tent there was a rock under him. Captains were also the cooks and no matter what hours you worked it was mush in the morning and the rest of the day a kettle over a fire with beans and wads of meat occasionally surfacing in it, black coffee any time and in the morning canned grapefruit juice. Thin tissues for toilet paper and designated sand pits behind shrubs for toilets. The kids who were recruited mostly lived in poverty however they where kept far from this kind of hardship, at home they laid in soft beds with half empty bellies. Being coddled despite the poverty was a side effect of the plague and made parenting an attempt to give children the cushiest life affordable for as long as possible. The hope was to keep them home and away from carriers. The lifestyle was a gift from the previous generation who had faltered and failed. Being spoiled was a legacy to children for whose future had been destroyed by their grandparents’ generation. The rare possibility of a job, one with no requirements and completely unchallenging for those who were not conditioned to challenges, to provide vague security for
something unknown like the vague promises they received as children against an unknown threat. John studied those around him who were suddenly so happy to have an order to obey. They no longer had to think for themselves. With so many eyes searching for something to report John wisely did what he was told and kept his thoughts to himself. When the weekend was over and John was with Mark and Kel getting off the bus Monday morning back in their hometown where they reported to school and in class fell asleep. John held his tongue until there was a belch of diesel exhaust from the bus gearing up in the distance. “That was Agri Corp.” John approached Mike, whispering to him urgently. “So?” Mike seemed to be standing a little taller now that he had a job. “Didn’t they buy out your parent’s farm?” “Well, isn’t that who you want to work for, the folks with the money? You and I are farmers, we could really go somewhere with this company.” “I hate farming and you were only eight when your parents sold out.” “My parents didn’t sell out, they were forced out.” The weekend had made John so edgy he was not sure what he was saying or why, “My father says it was all the bad farmers who did know how to run their place that got forced out.” Kel stood between them saying nothing. “My father says it was independents like your father who wouldn’t sell for the price offered that ruined it for him.” Unsure of his economic model he added to be sure, “You’re just a spoiled rich kid.” It was a quiet week back at school, not until Thursday would Mark and John acknowledged each other. Could their newest friend Principal P tell whether or not the boys were still friends? By the next Friday the three boys were in the small mob waiting for the bus. After a few weeks when it became clear no one was getting fired and that there was no structure for advancing in the job then the tension on the
boys began to ease and the three of them were friends again. Like many who once pursued a good farm life Mike Warner’s father’s mechanical inclination, his skill driving a tractor, his ability to read the sky and the soils, all far exceeded his business acumen. Yet he and men like him owned the land. America’s once rich farmland was the most intensely sought resource by all of those who mastered business and made the rules in the money game. He had what they wanted and so long as he needed to borrow money regularly to keep in the farming business it was only a matter of time until the masters of the game would bring him down. The Warners were good parents and did not burden Mike with the frustrations of the adult world. Eventually the family had to move from their majestic acreage to a cabin within sight of Main Street but they made it an adventure. Dad who went from managing hundreds of acres to pulling a wagon and salvaging metal was still respected by his family as a bread winner when the bread was handed out by the government. Mike’s dad could no longer contain his emotions as much as he tried in light of the dim future for his son. That the very devils who manipulated the markets and slowly strangled off the income for family farmers are now the one his own son works for. It struck him in his heart. “How could the same people who spent so much time putting us out of business turn around and without so much as an interview hire Mike?” The old man wanted a job, he wanted to get inside, he wanted to torch the company, blow them up from within. It was so unchristian to think that way and worse than that was the primal rage working itself up toward his son, the traitor. Walking the street as he often did when he was supposed to be gather metal he stopped to see their old minister. The church was foreclosed but the minister paid rent and still lived in the same mobile home. The advice he
received was first to be Christ like and accept that which could not be changed but also to be forgiving and lastly to talk with his son about those thing which he could not say to him as a child. After a talk with his father Mike felt betrayed as well, when he offered to look for a job for his dad his dad said he would rather starve than accept their wages. Mike refused to quit the job, father and son became silently at odds. “What do you think it is we are guarding?” John asked one early Monday morning after the street cleared. “Aliens,” Kel remarked, “you know, space aliens.” “I think they are just trying to keep their farms safe from some of the unhappy locals.” Mike added. “My grandfather says they might have some kind of crop they don’t want anyone to get samples of. He said these could be isolation farms for research.” “Maybe there hiding something good.” Kel’s mind was on food. “My family’s old farm just outside of town is one of their farms now. I got some older cousins who could go there with us.” Born when the media pasted names on birth groups every five years and called it a generation, Mike’s cousin’s, about ten years older and part of the birth group labeled the ‘disenfranchised’ generation. However these brothers preceded the ‘single’ generation when the press and media noticed the trend for parents to have only one child, hoping doing that would enable the one kid to receive the things. Other parents who were in the ‘2.5 children’ generation considered it to be too much of a sacrifice to show their love. The Warner cousins had discovered crime in a place and at a time when no one was working and had nothing worth stealing. No more were they criminals than Mike’s father who gathered unclaimed metal. Crime was another name for doing nothing which they latched onto in an innocent attempt to impress. When Mike saw them again
and brought up the idea of investigating what was going on back at the old farm the cousins were hesitant. Violating the premises on your old home farm was like stealing from your own. “They might say something,” one of the sheepish criminal cousins observed. “They could know it’s us,” said the other. Mike used some of his father’s arguments on them about how unfairly Argi Corp dealt with everyone and the basic tenet of how unfair it was for them to profit during a time of general hardship. “We could see if anyone is driving the old truck.” Mike said and produced a spare truck key. One cousin nodded his head after serious consideration. “We’ll make sure they’re taking good care of the place.” The other added, already convinced. Mike and John needed the cousins whose burglar tools dangled from their belts like workmen, crow bars, oversized pliers, hatchets and rope, most of the equipment getting in the way and stabbing them as they progressed through the thick weeds and hedges cultivated to keep the curious out. It was an uncertain walk to the lights in the distance, the crime cousins led and gave heart to the mission. “If they have an electrical generator that would be worth something.” What he could not say since the economy was so askew, consumer goods had disappeared and bread was free. “It’s a good thing I brought this rope. … Oh shit, I think I dropped the rope.” Despite the loss they kept walking toward the mysterious light. As they neared the light turned into a circle of light. “I think it’s a UFO.” Kel observed as they neared and the light had fingers. “Tents, a circle of Agri Corp tents.” John realized first. “We might as well get out of here.” An unclear voice came from a distance ahead. Ssshhh, John quieted the others then called out. “Captain, is that you?” Mike and Kel struggled to hold back laughter. “I think it’s a rabid dog Captain, I’ll shoot it.”
“Don’t shoot!” returned a startled cry from the direction of a light in the weeds. The five of them ran as fast as they could in the dark before the laughter overtook them. They collapsed in laughter along the embankment by the road and began making plans to return in daylight. The night worked both for and against as a vehicle with a searchlight slowly approached. “Hide.” Mike panicked. “Just keep walking. No law against that.” They listened to Mike’s cousin and hustled down the road before a vehicle invisible behind lights pulled up alongside. “What are you fellows doin’ out here?” One of the cousin’s shielded his eyes, the searchlight was hard in his face. “Just takin’ a walk from town. Can I help you?” “It’s private property on both sides of this road. Trespassers will be shot.” “Just takin’ a walk, that’s all.” The vehicle continued slowly and the searchlight inspected everyone. Then the vehicle stopped and sat in the road where it remained. They had to turning west toward town before the lights were out of sight. “Forget it, they don’t have anything I’m interested in.” One of the crime cousins said when in full darkness again with the only sign of Main Street barely lighting the sky ahead. “It was a circle of tents. Right?” John appealed to Mike and Kel although he was sure but a circle of tents led to no conclusion only more questions. “Why would they need that many security guards?” “They brought something very valuable to our old farm.” Mike said. “It’s like an army.” John was only listening to himself. “It is an army and they’re protecting a UFO in there.” “You know cousin, I think your friend is right.” The other crime brother then spoke, “That’s why this country’s gone down hill the last few years.” These were two brothers with a single mind, “Round
about the year 2015 the earth fought a secret war with the UFOs and we lost.” “That’s why we never see the president very often anymore.” “Maybe that was the resistance back there and they shot down a UFO.” “If that was true we would have heard about it.” It was degenerating into standard roles and TV plots, the various forms of a discourse of a class completely lost and excluded, Mike was the momentary advocate for rational thought. “No one know who is still human and who the aliens have transformed.” “Maybe,” the brother speculated thoughtfully, “that wasn’t the resistance but a camp of the transformed.” “What do we do?” Kel who had been hanging on to ever word asked. “I think its obvious,” one brother started. “Tell the police.” The second brother concluded.
CHAPTER 12 GREAT LAKES
The other recent disasters did not matter compared to his father’s heart attack. His father, Old Ed who now was also Big Ed on a diet that could have been a poster model for Dairy Marketing. Eggs with bacon every morning, plenty of milk, cheese omelets or Mexican style salads for lunch with plenty of cheese and sour cream. Steak with baked potato dripping butter for supper and always ice cream for desert. It was a big heart attack, his third, with plenty of new blockage. If he survived the first hours the clogs needed to be finally removed, that surgery would have to be done elsewhere and after months of recovery to regain some strength. Old Ed never bothered with doctors, animal husbandry
had taught him everything he felt he needed to know. When Jean came down with pneumonia she let Ed treat her with the same penicillin used on the livestock. Jody had seen his father give himself stitches. His first aid kit was a box of home veterinary supplies originally purchased many years ago when Jean and Ed had horses and raised animals for the freezer. My father never saw sixty, Jody heard his father Ed observe countless times. Mother always reminded him, That was an accident Jean reminded him. Then he would groan, the groan his father never made and one for himself, a weak breath, rising from the pain of memory. Old Ed’s curse would be to go on living. Part of what Jody learned at college was a man does not have to be old at sixty, not anymore. He never thought about his father being in the condition he was but he did look like a frog when he squeezed himself into the bucket seat of his tractor. He used to say seat belts kill more people than they save when he could no longer close the seat belt in his car. His father did eat apples and bananas When he vacationed in Florida. Returning he told stories of all the exotic fruits he had piled up at the sundae bar. The title of Old was bestowed on Ed shortly after he had grown his celebrated mustache. It made him look like an old fashioned Mormon. He was always making changes just because he could. All his later life was spent in an effort to get out from under the legacy of suicide and failure his father left for him. He found himself first growing into the legacy as a young man, being fatherless he became a man quickly and early. He learned to love his father once more and that process was Ed‘s true gift. Jody, now almost 40 was learning to love his father as a man who understood another man’s sacrifices. First, if he wanted to go on living, he had to let go of the need to hate his father. Suicide, Jody hoped thinking of his son John, is not hereditary. Old Ed and Jean, as they came to call her, they had lived a good life, her family were western ranchers. She never wore women’s clothes, she always wore jeans and that set her apart. Her jeans became special and not his
father’s suicide. Once Ed became a married man he was untroubled for years. Attention was shifted to his wife and their son, if anyone questioned their domestic habits Ed shifted off the blame saying that’s how things are done out west where Jean’s family lives. It was part of the disguise of the happy and joking fellow he put on for the world. If one could draw nearer he revealed himself to be sincerely stubborn about maintaining the old ways and cynical toward life and the industry of agriculture. He remembered life before the plague and rebelled against the circles of safety which enforced the timidity toward life which he hated. Be my friend or my enemy but don‘t leave me guessing. Run hot or cold but have some feeling. One has to be grateful to be alive but a man has to live! He became a scare crow, a servant of the soil for fifteen, almost 20 years. Alcoholism at the time blurred much of his memory even now. His son was a stranger to him. He was a smart boy doing something stupid. He went from college back to the farm. That was unheard of and may have contributed to Ed’s sobriety. Like seeing a ghost, it prompted him to throw away the bottle. His son was like his father returned from the grave. At first Ed dug in his heels and resisted the way his son was taught to farm. These things aren’t in books, Ed told him but Jody had the books with that information and more. If Ed chose to see the spiritual he might say he was seeing his father’s life being completed by his son. The farm prospered once more and Jody’s wife had the baby. They named him John for Ed’s father. “Did I ever tell you about my father?” “Yes, dad, everyday of my life through high school until I moved out and went to college.” “My mother, do you remember her, she told me he had a heart attack and fell in the machine.” “I know, dad.” Jody was patient with his father who never remembered that it was the same conversation even years after he stopped drinking. He was so depressed and scared at 40 he had not the will to drink. He had his first heart attack before Jody came home from college. From the
hospital he never resumed his old vices. Although a schooner of beer was replaced by a sundae, sobriety became the lens through which he held the world in his skewed view. His empty glare, hate with no reason or desire to fight. To ease the work for his heart Ed was on dopamine enhancers for many years. What was once an all consuming anger became anorexic with these new pills. As for the medicine’s effect on his metaphysical heart and its alleged capacity to determine emotions, the pills made him not feel bad about not being able to feel. In his heart Old Ed saw life as undeserved and uninvited obligations and responsibilities. As the man grown from the child who had witnessed his father’s suicide the simple questions of why did he do it and why didn’t I save him? were the tiny seeds that grew like heavy vines tearing down any satisfaction or happiness. Ed when married and accepted his father’s legacy for himself which he expressed in his own way by being for many years one of the most exemplary farmers. Like a story with the last page torn out, on the anniversary day one year he just stopped caring. The farm became the junk yard by the side of the road. His father had done a lot of things, he was not in fact a sod buster being too late by about 100 years but his story joined theirs, he had lived that kind of life. Ed’s father had adventures and traveled he was past 30 when Ed was born. Ed learned about his father from his uncles but they too were old men. Maybe his father never liked farming or being settled and having a wife and child. For whatever reason when all the bank trouble came he was too old to even think about starting over from scratch. Mental depression was surfacing again. Until the reminder he had forgotten the promise he made himself long ago, not to let himself get older than his father. Like his father Ed could be a quitter but not to the same degree. When living became an insult to the dead Ed let his farm go to hell. Jean did not know how to respond. Unlike most wives she did not pursue Ed to clean up the outside of the place.
There was an unspoken exchange made between the two of them. Ed used his barbs and humorous observations about his wife’s home state as a shield to keep anyone from getting too close to him. His jokes were all based on superficial observation but the effect it had benefited her in the same way that neither Ed or anyone else ever questioned her more deeply. That her only family was out west where they never visited and she dressed like a man and they slept in separate beds before it was fashionable, later separate rooms all of which Ed attributed to Jean, the Boss and taking as gospel because, ’that’s the way they do it in Wyoming’. John and Ed were alike that way, both did whatever to try and make Jean happy. As both of them were in such misery, hiding from the world and each other, immobile and isolated being on the farm put Jean further in the bottle. When Ed’s private misery was becoming obvious Jean was unable to recognize it. Walking out of the hospital room Martha squeezed Jody’s hand as if trying to capture and merge his life force with her own but she lacked the strength “At least you will have the time to take care of dad’s crop.” “Are things like this destined?” Jody asked in earnest, “Our fields are on opposite sides of a road yet I got washed out twice and him not once.” This was the first time he was seeing out of he shadow of financial loss and personal failure since he broadcast the grass seed to grow a hay field in late July. He tried to be strong about it joking, I’m not a hay farmer, ‘I’m a - Hey, farmer! Get off the road. Out of my way farmer’ punching at nothing in the air. ‘ I blame God for this. Why wasn’t I born rich? Why couldn’t my father have owned a big building in the city instead of a patch of dirt and some cows?’ To blame Fate, Nature, no less a force than God was to remove some of the blame he had been shouldering and by becoming a Hey, farmer! Was to become more faceless in defeat and only a statistic with no responsibility. The moment brought something else to his attention. “We are the only other married couple I know. Right
now my mother is staying away from the hospital.” He could not help a look of disdain crossing his face. She always needed a space that excluded him. It took this sort of event to make the meaning of his parent’s relationship clear. His dad was always looking for ways to escape his mother with farm projects or things to do in the garage. Not that fought, they hardly talked, they never shared a laugh. Old Ed became a leading farmer by going to so many meetings and taking on projects and experiments that he heard about from the Agricultural Extension. Were his motives more sinister and selfish, not to bond with his son as Jody imagines but in reality to get away from the wife. “I wish you had known my mother before.” Jody said as an apology for his mother’s absence. “When we had horses.” That was the good time, when all of their disguises matched and they together looked like a family. Jody would never know that whenever his mother touched him she felt as though she was touching a stranger. He learned to ride a little but it was Jody’s choice that he was more drawn to his father’s world of working with machines and the land. Despite all that stood between his parents as a pair of adults who could not give or receive love they were always decent people who would not intentionally hurt their child. Outwardly they conformed and made no selfish expression that might ever weigh on him. Not until this day when his mother met her ultimate emotional obstacle. “My mother’s in a lot of pain.” Jody added. Jody’s dad was often saying things to enforce a separation, like, men don’t belong in the kitchen, and, certain work isn’t man’s work, or, let’s leave the gals to talk. Jody was at first surprised that he enjoyed time spent with his wife. Curiously his father had never answered the phone or the front door. Ed became a block of ice in his mid fifty’s and Jean turned to arts and crafts painting dappled horses on wooden model and collecting equestrian items. After Mom could not care for her horses his parents took long drives to go shopping. She still had many friends and after she went out visiting for days at a time she usually returned
with a some new plan for the house, replace moldings, repaint. When she could still reach and bend projects got done but as she became more crippled she asked for help. Dad however was very selective about doing what she thought needed to be done. The only communication they had was limited to a few things. Even when they took time to enjoy life it first had to satisfy a material requirement. When they befriended Martha’s parents who were rich and in that respect masters of the worldly possessions. Martha’s father lead Jody’s folks to an investments where they could spend their winters. In the beginning there was a lot of nervousness how the families would get along. Martha viewed her parents as callous exploiters and through her eyes as a rebel she idolized Jody’s parents. In fact, despite worlds of differences the two families were both essentially Republicans. Both Martha and Jody’s parents believed in the recent wars and supported the use of nuclear weapons. For different reasons the believed in the draft and using the army to back up private security. Security to Jody’s father meant destruction of all of our enemies at home and abroad by any means and to Martha’s father security was keeping the oil flowing to keep the country growing and building those castles in the sky while being able to feed the lower other classes, the unskilled and homeless. Once hostile natives were cleared out and resources salvaged nuked land was quickly converted to affordable housing. While both fathers paid lip service to the military neither would want to see their own child in the service. Life had too much to offer. The money and conditions were better in private security Shortly after their first visit Martha’s father saw the beauty of a place where he did not have to meet any outside expectations. He purchased a solitary log home on an overpriced lake development with a sand beach and dock for fishing with restricted access and security guards. The place was habitable once lead shielding and the air filtration system was installed. A residence the size a head butler might live in under the dome.
Jody sometimes felt that Martha’s father looked down on him but only as a father looking out for a child who had rejected his values. Martha’s father was not offensive to Jody’s family. It was Martha’s mother who could not help but appear like an aggressive horse fly, leaving a boil on each and everyone’s neck. Her first words upon meeting Jody, “Take our bags.” And what scorched Jody the most, she did not even say please. Her conversations usually compared Jody with her other young people who she deemed the successful ones, the ones making money. Privately to Martha her deprecations were not polite and not conversational. She always tried to make amends at the end of a visit in the scripted way adults talk to small children, not asking Jody how old or tall he is but seeking to hear once more the answer to, How may acres do you own? And after he answered she always replied, If you owned that much land near my home, and her eyes would role up, You would be so rich, then I wouldn‘t mind you marrying my daughter. Tell them Andy, I am right. Old Ed got well enough to leave for Florida early, the doctor and Jean made arrangements made for the ultimate surgery to clear his chest. Because he was a farmer he was put on an urgent list for treatment. One of the beneifits of the job. With few replacements coming along the present farmers had to serve as long as free science could allow. The torrential rains came on a weekly schedule. The heat was unlike any that had ever been seen in North America outside of Arizona or Death Valley. The old timers sitting in front of the Farmers’ Co-Op waited for the temperature to reach 120F before uttering, Hot enough for you? Most of the old timers got taken away and they filled the hospital when the humidity went up which was inevitable. It had happen in previous summers before, after and during a rain. Death’s slowed to an emphatic trickle after enough people left for the states along the ocean coast. Now the most at risk, babies, elderly, those already weak from illness, those without air conditioning and smokers had all died of heat but
were counted as plague victims. Now a strong healthy man would sit down to mop his brow in the shade and never get up again. This heat could take anyone. But the heat was good for the corn, great in fact as the plants developed side shoots with multiple ears. A giraffe could hide in Jody’s father’s corn field and even the stacks of hay bales which Jody now appreciated as a crop reached unprecedented heights. In 1989 the city of Charleston was destroyed by Hugo, a hurricane described as a once in 500 year event. California soon after was struck by the first hurricane in recorded history ever seen in the Pacific. Then New Orleans was destroyed. From the government agencies down to weather readers on television the use of comparisons to measure relative strength was dropped. Comparison is meaningless when so called 500 year events began occurring annually and levels of destruction reaching never before imagined scale. Fifty tornados in one afternoon struck Dallas tearing the glass skin from skyscrapers killing twelve thousand by hurling their bodies miles and raining tons of broken glass on others. Storms killed thousand more by flash flooding entire cities and regions after homes were smashed to bits by megaforce hurricanes and the multitudes of tornado offspring. The world supply of flowers were exhausted to make the wreaths laid by survivors after the rage subsided and calm returned to the lapping waters of the Mississippi Sea. It benefited insurance companies working with government to pretend the people for whom records destroyed never existed, saying victims were invented by people being greedy. It was the biggest insurance claim ever paid and the windfall for the companies was even more since entire cities and surrounding regions left no one living to make a claim. Blame was shifted to the Goddess of Weather, and men cursed Nature. Multiple hurricanes were pummeling the east coast at once. Martha’s parents had arrived in a full size amphibious
vehicle, a military model that had not been available to the consumer for several years. Andy had used the snorkel attachment several times. Survival is a birthright of the rich, Jody thought, he learned not to use the word rich around Martha who would become defensive, especially about her father. Pilled up in the back seat Martha’s mother was as useless as ever. Jody used the tractor to get to town but the town itself was increasingly isolated. At least the cell phone saved unnecessary attempts to go to town when airdropped supplies were immediately grabbed by town residence. Andy who was desperate to get away from the women sat with Jody. Jody satellite dish was getting an intermittent signal, they had to shout to talk and be heard over the sound of the squall which even drowned the noise of the emergency generator operating at full throttle. The wind, the rain outside which was stripping the windrow trees of their leaves and indoors rivulets of dirty water ran down the wall paper on one wall. Tears welled up on the ceiling and dripped into catch basins through out the house. Luckily only a small part of the roofing was blown away. Jeans trophies were now in boxes in the center of the living room. The scummy water leaking into the house made Jody angry. Farmers all of this season looked at rain as an enemy. “She’s smiling, isn’t she?” Jody was also angry at the weather reader with the untraceable British accent. Her voice seemed to reflect interest, “For the second time in thirty years North American maps will have to be redrawn for now a seventh Great Lake.” She disappeared in favor of a map of inundated Ohio and Illinois. “Yes,” Andy agreed gravely. “See if she smiles into her fish head soup.” “Britain is another feed lot nation. Their herds eat Iowa corn.” Jody looked over at his father-in-law. “That’s what they eat in Europe.” Andy spoke to clarify his fish head comment, “When times get tight. Eels, snails. Why are you watching this Limy broad anyway?” “Our satellite is out. There is some idea that the news
is being censored. The government is concerned about an invasion.” “Not invasion,” Ed rose up in his seat with interest in his voice. “Insurrection, individual states and groups of states being taken over from within. Natural disasters opening the door. Rival governments being set up with a new allegiance from the people to those who the think can save them. The new governments might seem responsive to their needs at first but these are not potential democracies. For years corporate states within the states have been positioning themselves. People fighting for bread will forsake the vote if they are getting fed.” Jody was unnerved by this, the rumors had taken root because of the economic conditions of the last few years. What Andy was saying made so many puzzle pieces fit. When Andy spoke everyone, including Ed listened, not a cracker barrel speculator, Andy spoke regularly to Capital City and he worked in the greater economy linking the domes. “The water will go down.” Jody said but was not really sure as he too had been a long time observer. He had never seen it like this. “A lot of marginal farms and farmers will be gone. But the market for corn for the feed lots will remain. Your trying to recover but there will be others who are in a better position to hold prices down and buy up abandoned properties. Something good will come of this. This is like Noah‘s Ark.” Jody said and he pointed out to John were a dead cow was floating quickly down the shallow stream which was once a driveway. Listening Jody felt like he was being strangled. “They want to form a world wide corporate vassal state.” “Why, why all my life have I seen these men pursue their unfair advantages. I know your right about what your saying because all of my life I’ve seen it. The American farmer and I think most of the American people, half for sure, have been getting poorer and poorer.”
Andy shook his head “Half if we were lucky.” Here he was seeing what made the situation so intolerable. In the juxtaposing of one set of numbers on top of another his own daughter, grandson and this passionate farmer were being led to a financial extinction with all the humanity of a firing squad. “These people consider themselves to be good Americans and even patriots. Since the end of the last war they have been trying to do what our colonial ancestors did. Remember? ‘To form a more perfect union’? They honestly feel the richer they can become the richer the American people can become.” “Some of the things they do are crimes. Which war do you consider the last one? The one with Russia and Canada, right?” He was embarrassed by his ignorance. “Alaskan independence?” Jody guessed. Andy nodded and continued, “Jody, those things were crimes but after the war they started changing the laws. That got such a head start that even without a disaster like this playing into their hands they were remaking the world the way they wanted it. Once the water goes down and this crisis has passed a smart and capable farmer like you can have a part to play.” Both Jody and Martha’s parents were in for a regular visit it when it struck, the flat lands of Florida where Ed and Jean were resting up for grandpa’s operation, disappeared, and only the highest tops of the Virginia hills many miles west remained as isolated islands. It was pointless to assume they survived but the ones who loved them knew how things were and not even their hearts could raise the hope of a miracle. The name given to it by meteorologist who are used to transitory events, rapid change and being on the spot with titles acceptable to the public who survive, as well as oceanographers and geologist was The Great Tidal Surge of 2054. The swell of ocean and rainwater reached to the artic circle, it covered a third of Canada to the Hudson Bay. Twenty five percent of all life in North America was dead in a
day, most of their bodies along with vegetation and all other fauna were washed out to sea and carried under to be lost in the vastness and depth of a cold sea. Having scoured the land, the water, its awesome power revealed, waited and gentle laughing waves mocked as some of the frail and hypersensitive surface dwellers returned with caution to burn and bury all kinds of dead flesh that was draped everywhere.
CHAPTER 13 MARTHA’S BURIAL
The Calcium Cycle “Your mother breast fed you although I tried to tell her not to. I forgave her long ago and now I’m glad because it brought you back home.” At the time he told her the milk could pass along environmental chemicals which were collected and multiplied in the human breast milk unlike that of grain fed animals, it was potentially bad for their child. Those were facts but what he felt was it caused an attachment that a father could not rival and as a result John shared none of his interests and was unfocused as a man having rejected farming and with no work or skill of his own. Jody looked at his son John as his failure as a parent, imparting no work ethic in his son. Motherly tenderness, her compassion for others and the maternal bond kept both father and son close to her. As a youth on his parents’ farm Jody saw the chickens laying eggs and stagger from the nest unable to lift their heads having suffered a stroke in the ordeal of ceaseless egg laying and eggs of such prodigious size. Less than 10% body weight per egg was unacceptable. He had seen on
nearby farms cattle in brassieres and knew that milk cows lives are cut short by utters reaching the ground and ready to burst with milk, a load that broke the mightiest girl’s back. We only expected of our livestock what we ourselves are capable and striving for. The blood supplies nutrients to life in the womb and when it must the unborn removes calcium from its mother’s bones. Nursing babies drawing on mother’s nutrients can cause blindness in mothers. Jody was discovering a similar potential in the silent communications of love. Martha was no longer aware of hunger. She could no longer feel anything, it was her husband and son together who had to survive. She wanted to be cremated to spare her boys the effort of digging a hole. But everything was too wet to make a sizeable fire. The damp earth was easy to dig. There was no carpenter to make a coffin, not enough wood to be found to build with, if they could find the one in grandpa’s basement it was mostly cardboard and likely disintegrated. Stepping outside Jody found his truck shaped like a horseshoe on its side in its own pond of water that it dug when it settled. The tool box in the bed was sprung from its screws and Jody removed it easily. They were a couple who did not give each other many gifts, now she owed him as he wrapped her weightless limbs. The snaps closing made an unexpected sound, her body, the rags she wore, her blanket muffled the sound. That lack of sound made the blood rise in Jody, to his cheeks and then the top of his head. Falling to the floor with chest pain, “This is death,” he thought. Jody wept into his knees and John continued the work. So little was left of her that after the last slop sounding shovelful there was no noticeable mound to mark the ground. Jody’s chest pain eased, slowly he recovered, scavenging one of the boards that were everywhere he scratched a cross in it with a small pocket knife. “Thank you for the miracle of making and giving us this wife and mother.” He tamped the stick in at the head of the grave then handed his son the shovel who did the same. “Now we can go.” Jody announced to John. This was
the last of the business he claimed to have. So he thought at the time. “I can’t leave the equipment.” John turned his back on his father. His mother’s prediction was coming to pass. John’s bond with his father was not enough to hold him, he must fly now as his mother told him he would. John was urgent to rejoin the company like a soldier who despite all risk and hardship might feel compelled to reunite with the army. He experienced a strong sentiment and bond with his friends who were in the company. This was not high school where he did not care to work for the teacher’s grades. The reward of work now, even with money being in flux, the friendships and shared experience, decent quarters, cigarettes and a few luxuries. Even a day off every few weeks. It was hardship time taking off to bury his mother and return. Great was the lure of the company. And it was a company, a grand vision larger than family and country. Support for the company army was unspoken because it was thin. It was a philosophical decision to raise an army, to turn Security Guards, mere thugs, into an instrument of policy. The claim was the right to defend company assets, warehouses, fields and personnel, in fact it was a Constitutional guarantee, if anyone could find a copy of the old constitution. The unspoken part was that the need of people to be fed was being blocked by the federal and state government and individuals and an aggressive force was needed to be put to use if the company was to succeed in feeding the hungry. It was a continuance of work once started at home as a child which would be a tribute to his mother. John had not been there to mark the daily changes reducing her. Early on for him was the time when he found her unrecognizable and everything that followed happening to her, the pipes, the rough surgery intended to free up the bed, her unprecedented struggle, that was all happening to a stranger. For John the concept of death was childlike, John was expecting her immediate return.
For Jody her loss was his diminishment. As little of himself as he was willing to show the world became that much less. He marked the date, October 5, at ten in the morning. Most years that date was just the beginning of the endless symphony which autumn had become. Typically it was a relatively drier season before the first snow came in January or February. If snow came at all this year. This year weather followed events and it was a wet autumn to accompany Jody’s tears. After Jody made his meager third and final hay cutting for the year the rain fell by buckets and barrels.
CHAPTER 14 SILO TIPPING
Water had saturated the soil and gotten around and under everything, not just on the surface but to considerable depth. Weighing more than concrete yet flowing free water came at all objects with force. Filled with a battering ram of debris and a constant pressure and ever changing angles of attack water pushes everything in its way. Water is unyielding, by nature nothing can compress water and there is nothing it can not move. The sand under the concrete foundation of the silos became supersaturated and what looked like six inch puddles were square miles of potential quicksand. Normally so benign, a blessing, hard to accept water also as a thing of tremendous weight and governed by natural laws that make it preeminently powerful. Even when it is still its unique nature makes it destructive to what is in its way, water seeks out other water, through capillaries it climbs hills and straight up walls. Between stars water molecules accumulate in otherwise empty space. Destructive, liquefying everything in its quest to be at one level with itself. The molecule is eternally spinning, corrosive, chasing its own tail. The sandy
clay soil is transformed under water’s rule and the silo’s stone foundation bobs up in the water like Styrofoam. A flow of water beneath the slab forced the concrete out of its socket and float being held up by a powerful yet unseen underground current. The slow rise of a few inches made the chopped corn inside shift and the silo tipped faster. Visible under the concrete a glimpse of a dry patch, craggy, with different colors, it liquefied with the next passing torrent, turned to goo and blended with the sandy yellow and red clay the same color as the flowing water. Reddish tan in the flow, foaming white in the corners of buildings that fell on theirs side and again blocked the onrush, black and tarry debris, piles of wood and studded roofs beams with nails pointing everywhere in the foam. The silo on its side separated from its foundation, rough edges appeared on the grey underside, rust metal roof still attached it sailed like a kite across the water forming a foam tail. The roof could not negotiate a half buried car and the submerged metal unpealed one rivet at a time like a muffled guitar note under the force of water. The grains of the corn harvest shown momentarily like an explosion of gold dust before fingers of filthy water spreading like a blob. Some corn held up in whirlpools but most of it went in one direction and was soon lost from view, obscured by the muck. Worth one third a year’s wages, a fortune by some measure gone down stream, down river, ebbing in and out of the destruction of cities many miles away. Now bird food or fish food. Who lost all this corn? Some urban survivor might wonder. Jody hoped they might have the brains to gather some and wash it, save it for eating. The remaining bins were more full. Jody prayed. If he lost all his silos he would lose the work of last year and the operating capitol for this year. If he lost half he would have enough to market and feed his family. But this was the flood, the return of the intermittent Great Lake. Half the state now were just dots in a circle, Jody remembered the last satellite image he saw. Drowning men, drowned towns did not appear, only a flat and featureless surface.
Jody’s house floated off its foundation leaving the porches behind like a boat leaving a pier but as the house debarked the edge kneeled down from one end to the other and collapsed as though begging to remain part of the foundation. The house became stuck in the ring of medium size trees, a windrow planted when the house was built to mitigate the wind. Jody walked and in spots swam toward his parents’ house. Swimming he discovered the water of this new lake was not as cold as the rain forming it. Jody remember how last winter it snowed steadily for a week, large heavy flakes but there was no accumulation as everything melted upon touching the ground. The warmth of the earth he thought. His parents’ house stood because it was built in the old style, post and beams the weight of the house was all pressing straight down. Jody’s plywood house had the pressure shared in every direction like a balloon and as a result it was easily lifted from its foundation to be carried and to roll. At the new angle walls became floors, the new ceiling had windows, and the front door was half submerged. Swimming in the warm and murky water was effortless. When the rain stopped over the farm the runoff showed distinctive streams through the still water. Father and son stayed in their sideways house. The grandparents home was unmoved but the first level was underwater. They found a ladder from the garage tangled in shrubs, they brought it home and it became stairs leading to an empty window frame. On clear nights, with all the rats and snakes around in the water they slept outside on white clapboard siding. John’s father produced a rifle when the it went down enough to get to the submerged basement. The ammunition was all wet and John’s father threw the gun into some deep water. “Why did you do that dad?” “A gun is a response to trouble. An empty gun? It asks for trouble.” Together they meditated on the rings of water. “Your mom would say, ‘You can’t steal from me what I am willing to share.’” His son did not see his father’s tears, the wind blew his face dry.
CHAPTER 15 SURVIVORS
The baby woke with black soot under its nose and spread across her face. The only heater was hastily made from a coffee can flared and hung in a discarded length of sheet metal rolled into a tube, aluminum foil used to seal it. The survivors had been burning balled paper, sticks and straw gathered in the dark. The heater was not well sealed and it burped grey smoke and black wisps. A little more smoke and the baby might have died. Along with the rest of them. They poked around the place, not even a can of dog food to be found. The only reason the building was left standing was because the ag company had plans to use it again. But those plans were erased by the blight. The plans of the chemical farmers had back fired. Natural farmers knew how to exploit the error but they were still dependant on byproducts and waist of the dominant society which they were fighting to save themselves from. Ironically the dominant society labeled them bioterrorists when they were trying to return to the natural ways of the past. With sheets of black plastic they could subdue if not kill the roots of TriCal II and the fungus whose spores had been in the soil forever were able to grow offer slight nourishment by the roots of TriCal II. The benefit was two fold as a field could eventually be made TriCal free. This was not a farm but an old settlement and Jody recognized it. “I own land out here.” He had been forced into migrant labor to feed himself but he never sold the 300 acres of his family’s land. “What’s that, Old Man?” First he flinched at the voice, he was an old man but he had never been merely an eater. Presently his condition, bald, withered, fingers that could barely grip a rake he was
just an expendable to this band of survivors. A human sacrifice to slow pursuers. Jody felt strong for a change, he was only fifty and the years away helped him recover from the poison, the familiar presence of streams where he remembered them and the distant hills he had seen since youth. He began walking to the place that seemed most familiar and the others followed. It was a long dormant human reflex, to follow someone who is walking. “My land,” he said. The others followed uninvited but he did not bar them. This was his new family.
END BOOK ONE