Progress Martin J. Ryan
It was September. Lately, it seemed to take all of Henry and more just to do the essentials. The sun was out now but it had rained for several days, and the cow-churned mud sucked at his boots as he moved forward and slapped a flat stone against the haunch of the last one, a stubborn beast. Blasted mud. As if the damned earth itself was happy as sin to ache his legs.
“Hell’s wrong with you? Git, you nasty bitch!”
Finally, in she went with the others. “Crazy Daisy,” his wife had christened her. The other cows were as docile as you’d expect, but this one was as much out-and-out belligerent as crazy, in his opinion. “Unlucky thirteen,” for sure,” his son Nat had said, since she was that number when bought at auction. Belligerent like Nat, just barely crossed his mind before he erased it fast, knew it wasn’t true, and didn’t want to think of the boy. Never believed in all that hoodoo, anyway, all that thirteen shit. He had slept late and was backed up with all his chores, so the cows were full and moaning and ready to explode. “All right, all right,” he told them. Last night he’d had a troublesome dream that he couldn’t recall, and today he felt weak and downright ill, and it didn’t help any when a turkey vulture slipped downward out of the nowhere sky and perched itself on the post-and-rail, the other side of the road where Henry’s property continued. The damned clumsy brute with its savage little head, nearly lost its balance on the rail as it glared at Henry, then glared at something in the road—a squashed possum, far as Henry could make out. His beagle hound Charley barked ferociously and displayed his teeth, raced forward just so far, then backward, then forward again, and had about as much impact as a field mouse on the ugly thing.
The bird rested only a moment before methodically displaying its great jointed wings, spreading them, folding them, spreading them, with what became for Henry a measured taunting, as if to menace him with their feathered darkness. He shouted, “Scat, you filthy bastard,” as he threw a rock which missed but caused the vulture to lift off, as if yanked upward by a rope, then watched it fly to a tree down the road where he knew it would bide its time.
His wife Tess, wearing a flowered housedress and rubber boots, came out to help with the milking. “You call out?” she asked.
“Must be hearin’ things.”
“Mmm, you must.”
“Did I see a vulture?”
“Guess you did since you’re talkin’ about it.”
“You know, they clean things up for us. ”
Damned if every breathing thing wasn’t precious to the woman. She had six or seven bird feeders around the farm “So do garbage trucks,” he told her, then asked, “This your lecture of the week?”
An enduring woman, she tucked the underside of her skirt forward and squatted on her stool, then chose another topic: “Sure could use Nat’s help,” spoken softly though not without reproach.
No response from Henry.
“You all right, Henry?” she wanted to know, brushing at a fly tickling her hairline which was mostly grey, like the rest of it, pulled up and back and circled with a braid, her year-round style. Fashion was something they saw in magazines at the IGA checkout. “Not in our closets,” she’d said more than once, with Henry never quite knowing if she was complaining or bragging, but not giving a damn in either case.
He didn’t look at her when he replied, “Uh-huh,” figuring ‘You all right, Henry?’ was suspect as a question since she knew damn well he wasn’t, and he’d have to be dumb as a tree stump not to see she spoke more from satisfaction than sympathy. His hound Charley, loving Henry no matter what, stretched out alongside him and waited to be scratched behind his ear.
“Think you’re lookin’ a little peaked lately,” she opined without a trace of speculation, each word a sharp little bug bite; all of which was especially annoying to him since Tess had actually calmed down the past few weeks, and he had figured things were getting back to normal, figured she was finished with all that hate and anger stuff, and accusations, being so worn down as she was. He guessed that maybe that part of it was over with, for which he was grateful; but he was hoping her new back and forth thing—the bitter little pokes on the one hand, and the weepy stuff on the other, weren’t gonna be a forever thing; and that she’d someday return to their bed.
He reached down to the one who still loved him and scratched, then said, “I’m just fine,” with just the right amount of edge she’d recognize as, Don’t’ wanna talk about it, and Henry was thankful when she sank back into what used to be her usual forbearance, that center of quiet in the general hum. Life’s hum. It was never silent the way the stars were silent, he believed, in spite of what Nat had insisted about stars radiating noise into those electronic gadgets. Anyway, life’s hum, like even when the cows, the porkers, the chickens, were mute, there were the swarms of flies eager for droppings, the secret rustlings of mice and rats, the early September cicadas, suddenly tepid, not so much serenading life as mourning finales. And also, there was a kind of stillness, he knew, when the smallest sounds were there but you didn’t hear them, a stillness that can stop you cold in the midst of chores, when unspoken terrors were implicit. The way it was now as he remembered his dream: his son looking up at him and saying those words.
He turned away from these thoughts and focused on the cows. Steamy odors coming off the hides, massaging teats, the warm sweet milk and the rhythm of the squirts in the pails; then the relief in pendulous udders. Finished with this one he paused to look at his scarred, arthritic hands, paining him, knotty as the cherry tree out front of the house, with perfectly stained lines in all the hands’ creases (as if done with one of them fine-line markers Nat used, he recalled, when making notes for his tests at school), with work-thickened layers across the wide palms that were not without feeling, for he used to be soothed by the cows’ passionless calm which he thought seeped up from his fingers through his arms to his shoulders. A farmer down to his toes, he could smell himself. Never mind sweat, he reckoned his clothing and skin had too-long sopped up the reek of urine-stained hay and flop, and gave it all back like wet wool, but he nevertheless believed it to be the honest essence of what he was, and be damned if you didn’t like it.
Missing his cadence, his wife released warm teats and said, “What?”
“What, nothin’. Hands hurtin’ a bit. No problem.”
They both returned to their separate rhythms until moments later when they merged to a familial beat.
“Haven’t seen that pesky dog in at least two or three months, I guess,” Tess suddenly offered for no apparent reason--not referring to Charley--while maintaining the seemingly faultless pace of her milking, which always struck Henry as being in tune with the eternal tick of the universe; her unexpected insertion of the other dog the result of her wanting the reassurance of conversation, he judged as he glanced at her profile which somehow appeared less well-defined than yesterday, or maybe a month ago, as if she were being diminished by life the way stone is reduced by wind and rain. He sometimes caught her with wet eyes and knew she’d been crying, but at the moment he couldn’t tell without staring, and he didn’t want her to catch him, to deeply engage him.
“Mmm,” he murmured. “Can’t say I miss him any.” Been plenty more than two or three months, he knew. More like four or five. Damn mysterious dog came from some place down the road. Used to worry the cows once or twice a week, barking and nipping, until Henry finally brought him down with a load of shot and buried him without a word to anyone. The prudent way to do it. Otherwise find the owner, complain, make an enemy. All kinds of problems. Heck with that. Tess had been in town. Hell; what she don’t know about, she can’t let it slip, was his way of thinking. Several gnats walked across his glasses while others crawled on the underside of his cap’s visor and along his brow, itching him, while a deer fly sped a dizzying circle round his head as if it had gone berserk; all conspiring to punish him, he guessed. The Devil’s will, he figured, since God had long ago given up on the human mess. He felt nauseous.
“Sure hope we hear from Nat soon,” Tess said as she scraped her stool and rose to milk the next one.
----Recollecting, he saw himself and Nat in the November snow, icy for that time of year, the declining sun’s rays bleeding into the bluewhite horizon where rows of frozen corn tufts disappeared over a rise in the field that he always liked to think of as the Earth’s curve.----
Waking to the present he said, “Woman, I got the message. You tell me that at least two or three times a day.”
“It’s just I miss him so much.”
----Nat was just fifteen, then, and the buck was black against the sun which had edged itself down into the crust like a red-hot coin. The deer roughed up the snow with its front hooves, then bent and nosed into it looking for green. It had come out of the woods while they stood still as trees with the wind in their favor. Henry thought the thin crack of Nat’s weapon in the dry-ice air, was sharp enough to splinter the sky.----
He looked at her and said, “Well, if missin’ him so much would bring him home, which it won’t, he’d have been back a lot sooner than today. Like if the First National gave me a sawbuck every time you said you were missin’ Nat, I could soon buy a new tractor and build a new barn.” Her eyes moistened, which made him feel bad, but if he let her, she’d drive him crazier than Daisy.
----It had been a clean shot, he remembered, and the buck never had another thought. What with Nat’s success and Henry’s pride, and all that warmth back and forth between them, they didn’t know how close they had come to having frostbitten fingers and toes until they got home. Tess called them fools, and father and son shared the laughter of reckless adventurers.----
In the present, Tess said, “Henry, you’ve gotten to be so mean, I sometimes think I didn’t really know the young man I married.”
He had nothing to say about that since he right off believed she hadn’t known him then, anymore than he had; but then, thinking on it another minute, he concluded, no, the truth of it was, he hadn’t changed the littlest bit, anymore than she had. The other thing he knew was that they were as different from each other as the sun was different from the moon. Tess saw the miracle of God in every living thing; in every petal, stamen, pod and kernel, every damn bee and spider, lizard and bird and all the rest of it; how God cared for it all. Whereas Henry figured it was every man, every creature, for himself. You get down on your hands and knees and you see the bugs tearing at each other; you hear a fearful cry in the middle of the night, you know a great horned owl tore into a living chipmunk or a rabbit; or that a coyote or a fox chomped on some other critter and licked it’s chops without a guilty conscience; just like Tess and he did after a roast turkey or a leg of lamb; and where’s the news in that? Hell, if every living thing was so all fired precious, you’d think Tess’d stop eating altogether. He couldn’t recall her carrying on any when he slaughtered the last porker. God don’t give a hoot, and since she’d grown up on farms, you’d think Tess’d know that. Well, everyone had their own way of seeing things, he allowed. He stole another glance at her as she milked Daisy, she being the only one the nasty bitch wouldn’t try to kick. She had good hands, Tess did, strong enough but mostly gentle, a reflection of what she was made of inside, he thought. Even the crazy cow understood that.
Tess was a true green thumber, as well. Grew all those geraniums from scratch in that plastic greenhouse of hers, and sold them every spring to local nurseries. The corn he sold in August to two local IGAs, plus a load of it each Saturday morning at the farmer’s market in town, where Nat with his good looks and quick wit charmed the yuppie weekenders and newcomer commuters, most of them baby boobs. Boomers, that is. And boomer kids grown up. Whatever. Winters, while Nat cracked his books, Henry often rented himself out to larger farms, maintaining their heavy equipment. In these ways--in what sometimes seemed a near mindless stretch of seasons, conscious only of snow’s accumulation and melt, of mud and ruts, of summer moments focused on rust and oil and earth and steaming hides and bodily aches, with sunlight allowing for the racing shadow of a hawk which drew Henry’s and Nat’s eyes up to the sky where they noted the silent movement of the planets in the sun’s steady creep, with man and boy wiping sweat and grinning and Henry saying, “Where’d the time go to?”--they more than got by. Until recently. Now, whenever he got extra busy, he’d have to hire another hand.
A couple of months ago Tess was saying things like, “You drove him away,” and “If it wasn’t for you he’d still be at home,” which he knew better than anyone how right she was; but that had mostly tapered off now to how much she was missing him, which didn’t relax him for a New York second, seeing as how bad he was feeling, in addition to her mean little bug bites; and something shivery was coming from Tess that was like a notch-and-a-half above zero, with him figuring it to be the way his dog Charley might pick up on one of them teeny vibrations you read about, before a quake.
He recalled how Nat, a small boy then, had followed him around hankering every minute to learn something new. “Henry’s shadow,” Tess use to say. Smart as the dickens. Made no difference what they were doing, the kid soaked it all up. Said maybe he’d study agriculture, and maybe computers, when he went to college.
----“College, mind you,” Henry had said to Tess years ago on a rainy October morning. “Maybe study agriculture, the kid said,” he told her, somehow forgetting the other maybe, the computer maybe. “And me never gettin’ past the ninth grade.”
“Well, you were certainly smart enough to, Henry,” she had told him, “but you were a farm boy with early responsibilities,” saying this like maybe he’d forgotten he was not only smart but reliable, too, and that he was to be admired. “It’s a different world now.”
“That’s true, all right,” he replied, going along with her while believing she was always trying to get around to his good side with praise, with him judging himself to be something of a failure and thinking maybe deep down she thought as much herself; both of them knowing he’d never been much of a businessman, that he’d once come close to losing the farm. Hell, Tess’d always been better with the books than he ever was, when she’d use that un-Tess-like bookkeeper voice of hers to talk about money, with him usually handing her a hard time before giving in. “But he’s a regular whiz,” he finished as he looked through the rain-flecked kitchen window and watched the regular whiz dressed in his new slicker, running along the gravel drive and climbing into the yellow school bus that was idling on the dirt road. Real eager to learn from those books of his, Henry observed, while something vaguely disquieting stirred in his innards; though he easily overcame this unease by standing in the doorway to his son’s bedroom, which he often did, and imagined his future and the future of the farm, extending out from there.----
Trouble was, back then the boy had wanted the whole damn world crammed into his clever little head: the farm, the books and school; and school was part of town and different ways of thinking. The other trouble was, the teenage Nat came home later and later: either because of after-class stuff with them damn school computers, or hanging out along the Westville Green with the well-off townees with corporate daddies yakking about God knows what. Hell, he’d seen them, those baggy ass kids with weird hair, lookin’ like homeless clowns.
----He had said to Nat, “How the heck can you hear each other, with them boombox things they got in them cars of theirs?”
“We hear just fine, Pop.”
“Most of those kids ain’t from here, and will last for maybe a year or two, maybe three, what with their snooty parents always bein’ shipped this way and that by their companies and not havin’ roots, for Christ’s sake. Bad enough, Westville keeps growin’ and building bigger schools and extra roads for which they already tax the shit out of me. And town don’t look the same anymore.”
“They’re gentrifying, Pop. I think it looks great.”
“The mayor says they’re makin’ everything quaint,” the boy said, with his father deciding that the boy, for some weird and mistaken reason, decided ‘quaint’ was the same as good. “To bring in tourist business, you see. They’re installing these fake gas lamps and brick sidewalks that’re really neat; and they got a new ice cream parlor and an antique shop, and one of those expresso bars.”
“Not to mention the damn city snooties in their sporty convertibles tearing up the back roads, like the one going past this house, mind you. As if they owned them. Where’s your head, boy? Developers are eatin’ us up. Realtors come by as regular as relatives lookin’ to sell my land for me. ‘Land rich’ they keep tellin’ me, like it was a crime. Used to be four farms along this road. Now it’s just us. Don’t you care?”
He looked at this handsome pure-gold son of his who was so much better than he could ever be; big enough for football but too studious to play; this boy who was to take the farm into the next century, the farm Henry’s great grandfather had bought back in 1886. Where was his head?
Nat began to smile, but then bit his lower lip, which is what he sometimes did when he had a problem, meaning he was now at least a shade torn by loyalty which Henry could see, but he could also sure as hell see the boy wasn’t split wide with despair, either, when he said, “It’s progress, Pop.”
“Progress. Jesus H! You don’t see beans! People act like progress is always some kind of improvement over what was, and that’s crazy. You put the time in you can probably trace most of what’s wrong in the world to progress. Like the Chinese did us this big favor by inventing gunpowder, right? You take some new drug for an ailment an’ find out it’s got thirty-seven other things that’ll kill you. Watch out, boy, ‘cause nature’s gonna kick ass, in ways you can’t even see yet.”
Nat was too damned open, too easy with smiles, and Henry didn’t believe his son had ever had a fistfight; though he figured Nat’s big size probably forestalled most challenges; but sometimes, as at this moment, Henry would be angered by the smile, worried that maybe the boy thought Henry had a burlap head packed with straw. Progress, shit. Progress for Henry was a new BMW carrying off his son, leaving Henry behind covered with road dust.----
After the milking, a silent but teary-eyed Tess went back to the house, then returned with veggie scraps to add to the feed for the pigs. While she was inside the pen, one of the big porkers pushed through the unlatched gate and wandered across the compound to the barn.
Nowadays, Henry went to the old building his grandfather had constructed, only when he had to. Nat was supposed to have helped him paint the exterior of this post and beam relic, which had weathered wood-grain textured over with ancient red, appearing as if it had been spattered years before with the blood of a great slaughter. As he moved inside he thought of ghosts beyond light, settled into shadows. He did not want to be here. “Here pig, here pig,” he called to no avail. The damn porker, as contrary as Daisy, was quieter than a snake; he couldn’t see him. The sun pierced separated boards in vertical slices and ran across the floor in prison-bar stripes, while from a loft window a bright rectangular shaft burst downward and forced its way into the gloom. He conjured Nat at age thirteen somersaulting from the loft to the piled up hay below, heard himself shouting at the boy and telling him there might’ve been something dangerous hidden in the hay, while at the same time, nesting in his heart alongside his love was his pride in the boy’s derring-do. But now there was just a rat skittering along a rafter and raising dust that swirled through the light-shaft like a storm of atoms, and at the far end high up at the dark apex, four bats were barely visible in reflected light, hanging like a cluster of small, partly folded umbrellas that were tattered and abandoned. His heart struck his ribs when a pale shape at the far wall suddenly moved. Jesus, he’d forgotten why he was here in the first place! Just the damn porker, is all. After corralling it and getting it back into its pen, he leaned against a fence-post and retched.
The first time Nat left Henry and Tess was at age sixteen, when Henry hit him openhanded in the face for coming home with his ear pierced by three gold rings. The boy’s smile had made it worse, and Henry’s rage was an awful thing, scared him like he’d never been scared, as if it had come up from hiding in a place as deep and dark as an old well, and he couldn’t stop it--his spittle flying with his words: “God damned town kids! Knew it! First it’s them blasted earrings, next it’s smoking dope!”
He thought the boy edged up to a laugh, at “dope,” what with that slow smile of his, the way it could spread and take over his face as it usually did when he couldn’t get hold of it, with Henry again fearing the smile was disrespectful. And he struck him hard. Something he’d never done before.
Tess had come between them, though Nat’s self-possession ruled out any idea of hitting back; yet being imbued with a fair amount of pride, and a good deal less than his mother’s brand of endurance, the boy crept out at dawn and traveled east against the sun’s rising. He hitchhiked out of Connecticut, over to Rhode Island, where he worked three weeks with a posthole digger putting up new fencing on a large farm; told them he was eighteen which they readily believed since he was nearly six-feet tall. Without a word from the boy, there was hardly a moment when Tess wasn’t crying, albeit quietly, while Henry felt as cold and dried up inside himself as January grass, though nary a word of regret escaped him; not even when Tess telephoned the police, and a radio car arrived with an officer who questioned them and said the police would call around and “keep our eyes out for him.”
“A nice young man,” Tess had said about the policeman. “You notice, though, how he kept glancin’ at you? Like he knew you?”
Uh-huh, Henry noticed it all right. Noticed her little bug bite words, too. He recollected several years earlier, when the nearby Eckert farm sold to a developer who broke it up and built a bunch of big homes on four and six-acre spreads, each of which took deep pockets to buy. Soon after the first house sold, the fancy owners idled their new Land Rover at the end of Henry’s gravel drive.
----Sonofabitch if they didn’t gawk like they ‘d never seen anything so goddamned picturesque as him and his farm. Next they’d probably bring their weekend guests to take a gander. Hell with that shit. He stepped inside and reappeared with his Granpa’s unloaded 12 gauge, resting diagonally across his chest, and watched them burn expensive rubber to escape the backwoodsy nut. An hour later two radio cars showed up. One turned into the driveway while the other parked on the road. “Mmm, backup”, Henry mused while maintaining a very straight face.
“You saw them, right?” Officer Clark asked him.
“I did. Thought maybe they stopped to do some map readin’, like they were out on one of them safaris, you know. Lookin’ for lions, I mean. What with that nifty Land Rover, an all.”
“Uh-huh…. They thought maybe you threatened them with a gun,” the young cop said, not seeing any kind of humor in this.
“Did they, now?”
“Yessir, they did. So I was just wondering--did you?”
This boy’s got ten miles of nerve, he thought, but he answered: “Aahh, let’s see. Yeah, I might’ve brought out one of my shotguns to see it better in the daylight. For cleanin’, that is.”
“Yep. Was Granpa’s ol’ twelve gauge, as I recall…. Now, if those two city folks fancied somethin’ else, it ain’t my problem.”
“Uh-huh. Can I see the weapon, sir?”
“You got a warrant, son?”
“No, I’m just askin’.”
“Well, you go get yourself a warrant. Then you can see my granpa’s gun and all my bayonets and hand grenades; plus my nifty collection of machine guns, an’ some of them Molotov cocktails, as well. Got some shrunken heads, too.”
“No need to wise-mouth me, Sir.”----
Yep, Henry remembered, that was the same officer. And Tess damn well knew he was, too, since she was home at the time and heard it all.
When Nat finally telephoned to say he was catching a ride home, Tess said to Henry, “Now don’t you start scolding the minute the boy walks in.”
“Don’t lecture me, woman, I know enough to wait a spell.” He’d wait ten minutes and then give ‘em what for, by God.
But the next day when a boombox car deafening all nature within hearing, braked and kicked up dust in front of the house, Henry’s heart felt big as a melon, and he stayed out in the field for a good half hour, extra, in fear of greeting the boy with moistened eyes. At the house, it took about half a second to notice Nat’s ear was free of gold rings, which made shaking hands a lot easier to manage for Henry, though when their palms came together they were as hesitating, awkward and formal, as the palms of opposing generals at armistice. “School starts in three days,” was all Nat said to Henry, who merely nodded in response. And that was that.
As time wore on, mutual chores broke them down and they got along just fine, since as Henry mostly believed, there was nothing like sweat to reduce a man to what he real-as-dirt was; though, much later, thinking back, he decided that maybe if someone’d held a shotgun to his head and prodded him to dig a foot deeper, he might’ve seen it otherwise.
So the following winter, It wasn’t like Henry could say he was truly surprised when it happened, seeing as how surprise can’t be the real thing when it follows denial, which is where Henry’s mind had been for some time, he later admitted to himself. Well, maybe because it came on so gradually, which—except for running away--was typical of Nat who’d never been one to just jump into something. Still, it had seemed to Henry like Nat just all of a sudden talked more and more about working those damned contraptions, and less and less about the “science of farming;” until the day when Nat drove home from school in Henry’s old pickup and marched back and forth across the ice, carrying heavy-looking boxes into the house.
----Well damned if what didn’t come out of those boxes was a computer and other gismos, all mysterious and scary to Henry whose face turned two shades darker, to something between red and purple, Tess observed.
Standing in the doorway to Nat’s bedroom, Henry said, “Where in creation did you get that stuff, boy?”
“School,” was all he said as he removed his coat and studied the complicated mess of wires.
Nat was bent over and had begun to separate the bewildering tangle and to insert the strange looking plugs into stranger looking sockets, with Henry wondering just how in hell the boy could be so sure about what he was doing. “For what, I said.”
“For school, Pop…and other things,” his voice delivering this message in its usual easy-going manner.
“Boy, look at me when I’m talkin’ to you.”
Nat gave out a quiet sigh and unwound himself to his full height, which a month away from seventeen had become at least six feet or more, just about matching Henry, though maybe twenty or more pounds lighter. “I’m lookin’ at you, Pop.”
Nat’s patient sigh irritated Henry nearly as much as the presence of the godawful machines, but he looked at his son as if for the first time, the way Nat studied his father with folded arms, the boy’s easy grace, his dark sharp-as-a-tack eyes showing few doubts, if any; a young man so all-fired centered and complete he was near to perfect, and Henry thought he’d choke on the love and pride that was blocked by the swelling lump of anger lodging itself in his throat.
He couldn’t speak. This life of theirs, the farm, his plans, it was all heading down the wrong road!
“I have to tell you something, Pop,” Nat said.
“No,” Henry replied, turning away. “Don’t wanna hear it. Not a word.”
Nat grabbed his coat and followed Henry downstairs and tracked him through the kitchen, rushing past Tess working at a counter in a worn frilly apron and slippered feet, dipping chicken into egg and flour. He told him, “I’ve been helping out at school, programming a new system for them. They’ve lent me the computer so I can do some work at home.”
“Don’t wanna hear this, Nat,” said Henry, waving the boy away as he sped out the back door, with Charley rising from the kitchen floor and loping after him, his nails clicking the linoleum. Henry couldn’t think, couldn’t line up his thoughts.
“Pop, you have to. The thing is, they say I have a true gift, that I’m way beyond any of my teachers.”
“Well don’t get too uppity about it,” Henry said as he strode across the compound past the cow barn, feeling as if lightening had pierced his head. Nat hurried alongside and told his father, “They’ve been in touch with several colleges and they’ve gotten good responses. Mister Walters says I’m sure to get a healthy scholarship offer from a couple of them.”
Damn, Henry suddenly reasoned (forcing these thoughts upon himself with as much difficulty as he’d have saddling up Daisy), the boy hadn’t actually told him he wasn’t gonna do the right thing, the agriculture thing, right? Trying to quiet the terrible storm threatening to crack his head in two, he stopped in the middle of the road and faced his son: “Studyin’ the farm business?” More hopefully: “I’m told,” he revealed for the first time, “the Gibson farm’s usin’ computers to keep the books an’ stuff.” Naw, that wasn’t it; he could see it in the boy’s eyes, that it was something else and it was all bad.
Henry heard the sound of an approaching vehicle, saw it beyond Nat’s shoulder coming up too fast for the slush and ice, one of them 4x4 yuppie gas guzzlers, felt pissed enough to shove his son into it’s path, instead said, “Watch your ass, these fuckers’ll kill you.” The two jumped to the side as it skidded by. “Slow down, idiot!” Henry yelled after the truck. He re-crossed the road to the woodpile and yanked an axe from a moveable stump. “You didn’t answer me?” he said.
“Not exactly farm business,” Nat replied, shivering. He slipped on his coat as
Henry upended a frozen log on the stump and hefted the axe.
“Gimmie somethin’ straighter than not exactly,” Henry said as he swung and split the log, one half of which flew and nicked the back of Nat’s hand and drew blood. Henry saw it but paid it no mind; well, he supposed, it was not exactly ‘no mind’, since he’d have to admit to extracting at least as much satisfaction as you’d get sap from a nail-hole in the bark of a pine.
“Well, Pop, actually”—ignoring the pain and running his other hand through his thick black hair—“It’s for computer science, you see…. I’d be pretty busy.”
“Busy, huh,” Henry replied not asking, just echoing, his tone a tad better than a sneer, he knew, and didn’t give a damn. He balanced another log and hefted the axe while reckoning this was the first time he’d seen his son looking flustered as a squirrel about to be roadkill, which made him think that maybe his son was giving him a face about as true as a three dollar bill.
“The plain truth is, Pop—well, I’ve already completed the systems program for the school’s computer network. The thing is, I’ve been offered a job, a real one, at this company in Stamford…which I naturally turned down ‘cause I want some college first. So instead, they gave me this free-lance job to write a program for one of their clients. Seems they’re growin’ fast, and they’re real hard up for talent.”
Henry didn’t miss that littlest bit of self-congratulation that leaked up before the boy could cork it, then said, “Who in hell is they?” as he swung the axe with a grunt, hit the log wrong, shaved the bark and hurt his wrist. “Shit!”
“Software Solutions, Inc.”
“That’s who they are, Pop. They design systems software. Like I said, they’re growin’ like crazy and thinking they might go public early as next year.”
Henry felt like some kind of short-fuse bomb atop a rocket, and Nat’s words were like matches in danger of striking fire. “Goin’ public?” he asked; “That like someone exposin’ himself?” wanting to lighten up enough so he wouldn’t just lift off God’s green earth, explode and take out Nat and Tess and the farm, to boot. Nat didn’t even smile, didn’t get the joke, stretched thin as it was.
You better damn well watch it, boy, were words he didn’t speak, while Charley leaned into his leg and wagged his tail, and Henry nudged it away with his foot, hard enough for the dog to yelp.
It was clear as blue sky to Henry, the boy’s had this big secret life; been moving in and out of this other world, all along, like one of them parallel universe things you see on television. If he could’ve strangled his axe handle, he would have. “You’ve betrayed me, boy!” he shouted. Charley moved away another ten feet and sat.
Tess at the kitchen door, her cheek smeared with flour, called out, “Now, Henry!”
“Pop, I—“ Nat started, but Henry cut him off in a hurry with: “Pretending one thing while doin’ somethin’ else. You know how sneaky that is? Huh? Jesus H, I thought you loved farming?”
“I do love it, I just love tech more.”
“What in hell is tech?” He knew, but he swung the axe hard into the big stump as if to murder it, and said, “Speak American, boy. You stupid, or somethin’?”
Henry could see that he’d been right, that his son wasn’t so much flustered as he was downright pissed, which told him the boy had all along been getting himself fired up for this day, a notion which lit the fuse.
“Computers, Pop. It’s just I understand the work better than—“
“Better than? Cowflop! What kind of son are you? Sneakin’ around behind my back! Don’t think I’m gonna give a hand with this. I’d planned to sell a few acres to help you through college, an all, but now I’d soon as cut off a leg. Not a plugged nickle!” He yanked the heavy axe free of the stump, looked around for something other than Nat to target, and threw it end over end at one of Tess’ bird feeders; Nat watched it fly, watched it miss and clatter sparking against a fieldstone wall, watched Charley run after it and put his teeth around the handle, try to haul it back to Henry and discover it was too much for him. With his head shaking in what Henry later decided had to be amazement and disgust, Nat glanced his mother’s way to judge her distance, then turned back to Henry and said something too soft for Tess to hear. He then spun around and headed for his father’s pickup.
“What?’ Henry said, moving forward.
Tess saw the hard tilt of their bodies, the way the two seemed to darken in spite of the fairness of the day, perceiving in them what she’d sense in a strange summer wind and a green sky, when she’d yell for a child and snatch the wash from the line, then run for the cellar and hope for the best.
She let the kitchen screen door slam behind her as she ran toward them, slipping along the slush covered ice.
Henry was fast, was after him and grabbing his shoulder the way you grab when you’re going to punch, or wanting to anyway, asking, “What’d you--?” with Nat turning and taking hold of Henry’s wrist and loosening the hand, using a grip strong enough to surprise the father, who saw for the first time ever the face of the son consumed by a storm, yet pressing the boy once again with, “What’d you say?” not absolutely certain, or maybe unwilling to believe what the words had been, but pursuing it like a man wanting his satisfaction.
Free of his father and staring at him with a stranger’s eyes, Nat pointed a rigid finger at Henry, warning him away, saying not quite as softly as before, “You—heard --me. You—heard,” with the kind of breathlessness that revealed a hard pumping of the heart
Tess was then upon Henry, arms tight around his neck and yelling, “Stop it!
God! What’re you doing?” And Charley barked while his master heard the woman’s question and saw what he was doing, and became so terrified by his mortal thoughts he began to struggle with merely half his strength against Tess’ hold, so that the boy might easily escape.
Slush spattered up behind the rusty old pickup’s spinning wheels and Nat was gone, but Henry had heard his words all right, he was sure of that, words that told him, “Fuck you old man,” delivered soft but clear as “Have a nice day,” but with the “Fuck you,” now taking root like a tumor between his ears, and goading him to seek relief in an alternate prey.
When Tess released him he went for the axe, took it up and ran slipping-sliding for the house, with a half-frozen Tess close behind grabbing at his shirt with flour-smeared hands, her braid undone and wet slippers flopping, trailing him inside and upstairs to Nat’s bedroom where it was plain he aimed to chop up the computer as if it were a living-breathing threat.
“Henry!” Tess stopped him by gripping and tugging the neck of the axe handle, and reminding him, ”You can’t afford it!” He kept tugging back ‘til she said, “Hear what I’m saying! Money!” Then she spoke more quietly as the just-as-angry but suddenly practical husband, listened to his bookkeeper wife and relaxed his hold. “We don’t have enough extra, Henry,” she told him. “I mean, you can kill it all right, we both know that, but then you’ll just have to pay for it. And then Nat will get himself another one, anyway.” He let go of the axe when she asked him, “You can see that, can’t you, Henry? And then she followed with a more reckless question: “And can you see a little bit of Nat’s side of it?”
He didn’t answer her second question in words, but he figured she sure as hell got the big picture clear enough when Henry attacked the problem the way he would squirrels in the chimney or bats in the attic. With a vengeance. He yanked the tangle of wires and plugs and repacked the components by trial and error, giving up on the confounded puzzle-shaped pieces of foam packing, which drove him closer to the edge, and shoved them along with the mess of wires into a paper bag. He then hauled it all in the backseat of his Ford sedan, tore up the roads skidding and sliding, and deposited everything on the steps at the entrance to Nat’s high school. He told the uniformed security guard who’d just informed him: “You can’t leave this here!” that “Hell I can’t. This stuff , like all the rest of what’s goin’ on, is against nature and I won’t have it! Summer comes an’ you got Lyme ticks and Killer bees and mouse virus, and that nasty mosquito encepha-somethin’ stuff , the result of the earth fightin’ back against all your techno crap. If the school wants this progress shit, then it deserves what it gets! The whole world deserves it!”
At night, the Hartford television news anchor informed Henry and Tess and other viewers, that the little town of Westville didn’t have a bomb squad, so the regular cops had to sort through all the ominous looking wires before declaring the packages safe. The school security guard had earlier described the unidentified man as a raving woodsy kind of lunatic who was dressed in overalls, shouting something about the earth’s revenge.----
Henry’s pickup truck was found abandoned in town, but Nat had disappeared. Teachers, friends, relatives—no one knew anything. Both the farm in Rhode Island, and the company in Stamford that had offered Nat a job, had been twice contacted by the police, but neither had heard from Nat.
A postcard from Vermont arrived in April, addressed to a tearful Tess, and it read: “Just traveling through this place. I’m fine. Don’t worry.” Yet in the absence of Nat, Tess felt wounded by the mere appearance of Spring which presented itself so unthinkingly, this time with calfs and a litter of piglets; and even a passive doe standing close to the barn was an affront to Tess, the doe allowing it’s glistening newborn to slither free and plop to the ground while calmly watching Henry and Tess watching her. The Westville police had visited three times, making Nat their business since he was still a minor, and in answer to their questions Tess had revealed that father and son had argued, yes, but they hadn’t come to blows, “or anything like that, for heaven’s sake; ” while Henry could see, as far as the cops were concerned, Tess was lying to beat the band, in spite of her story being true; well mostly, anyway.
“That the way you know it to be, also, Sir?” Officer Clark asked Henry in a manner suggesting the cop believed he was an unsavory and downright crazy rustic, considering he no doubt recollected Henry displaying his grandfather’s 12 gauge shotgun to the couple in their Land Rover, plus the fact of Henry’s being identified as the “lunatic” in the school “bomb scare;” though no law had been broken in either case, which Henry figured was a major disappointment to Officer Clark.
“That’s the way I see it, yep,” Henry answered, wondering if Clark used a carpenter’s level each morning when he placed his Stetson on his head, the way the brim ran so uniformly equal above each neatly trimmed eyebrow.
“I mean, that you didn’t become physical with your son?” Clark finished.
Henry, who imagined himself smearing the cop’s flawlessly pleated uniform with some fresh cow-flop, replied distantly with a thin smile, “You got it right, Son.”
Tess and Henry were reminded by the police that Nat had done this before, and it was their collective opinion he’d turn up after his eighteenth birthday, since by then the boy could do as he pleased; though, soon as Tess was out of earshot, Officer Clark, cozying up like a good ol’ boy, confided to Henry: “Of course, there are times when a kid’s so damned unhappy at home…he never comes back.” Then for the first time ever, he grinned at Henry, showing surprisingly wicked canines.
By the beginning of July, Tess had said to him, “ It’s too long, too much time. I know something real bad has happened, Henry. Somethin’ between you two that I don’t know about. I just know it. Tell me!” And he replied truthfully, “Nothin’, I’m tellin’ you! Nothin’ happened!” But by the end of July he gave no response when she accused him: “You were jealous of the boy. Couldn’t stand him being better than you. You sat on him!” And with that, she began to pull away each night to the far side of their bed, until finally, in August, pulling away became not far enough and she took to sleeping in the spare bedroom; and Henry never said a word about missing her since he couldn’t admit aloud to ever needing anything beyond having his meals on time. And so, alone in his bed, Henry felt perilously unanchored as if he had departed Earth for the blackness of space; and as if the owl, the insects, the yap and howl of a coyote, and even Charley’s dream growls, were merely recorded sounds which failed to afford him more than cold comfort in the night.
And then it was September, and when he looked at things squarely he had to admit to himself that Tess had permanently settled into this godawful routine of separate beds, and nasty words, and not the least the solitary moments of silent weeping, which for Henry were about as private and quiet, and therefore as dogging, as a teenager’s boombox going full-blast on the kitchen table. Henry guessed an outsider looking in at him and Tess would figure that what was left between them was as shriveled as crops in a season of drought, and as hopeful as a rotten forecast; whereas inside, from Henry’s angle, things were much worse than that. And the awful thing was, he couldn’t share what he knew; and what he knew was that Nat was never coming back.
For awhile, he thought every other day of selling his ninety acres to some greedy developer, believing it near certain he’d make an easy two million, and then he would move to one of them far away palm-tree islands in the Caribbean. But Tess’d never buy that for a second, what with the way she kept Nat’s room like a damn shrine, untouched except for a weekly dusting, mind you, as if believing it’d eventually draw him back home like some kind of powerful magnet. And she was mostly holding herself in as tight as she could while doling out Henry’s punishments in bits and pieces, perfecting them as she went along, he figured, like one of them Oriental tortures you hear about. But what Tess couldn’t know was that he was already being tortured by what was in his head, what he saw each night as he began to drift off and what he remembered as he awoke each dawn: that fluky kind of thing that can sometimes happen, as it did one morning in the middle of July.
It was Tess’ widowed sister having a hip replacement, and Tess going over to New York State to stay with her for two days, ‘til Tess’ niece arrived from Ohio to stay with her mom; and then Nat showing up on foot big as life the same morning Tess left . Fluky as hell. Nat coming down the dirt road as Henry was crossing it on his tractor, with Henry on the one hand wanting to jump down and pull the boy to him, on the other wanting to run him over, doing neither, his heart doubling its beat at the sight of him.
He recalled how his pride and anger took hold and he tried to play hard to get with the boy, just barely nodding his head hello, hopping off the tractor and going to the barn to move some hay that didn’t need moving, with the boy not buying it, not begging to be taken back, instead just trailing after Henry to tell him he’d merely come to see his Mom and pick up some things, before going off again.
“Well, you just missed her. Gone for two days,” he told him with not a small amount of satisfaction, disregarding the dried mud and dust on the boy’s shoes and the tiredness in his eyes.
“Where’d she go?”
He told him that, too.
So there they were with nothing and no one between them but a few feet of dirt, the son with nothing to do but shove his hands into the pockets of his jeans, the father, his back to him, forking hay like he was trying to hurt it. Even Charley was gone, Henry remembered, off chasing after some critters in the tree-line, the far side of the cornfield, probably turkeys
Nat said, “What’re you doing?”
Henry was forking hay from an open bale and tossing it to his left, heaping it on the floor, and he had no idea why. He said, “What in hell does it look like I’m doin’?”
“I--. Well…I’d better go.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, finding it hard to speak, his words jamming up in his throat.
“I’ll call Mom at Aunt Jane’s”
“You do that.”
“But I, aah…just wanna take a few things in that small grey suitcase.”
“Uh-huh. It’s in the attic.”
Looking back he figured his guilty conscience got the better of him for a moment and told him to say more than just uh-huh. While still facing away from his son he asked him, “How in hell’d you get here…and from where?” though he nearly strangled saying it. Hell, it was all up to the boy, far as he was concerned.
Nat had already turned to leave but whirled back and replied, “From New Hampshire, hitchhiking. My last ride was on his way to Hartford, so I got off on the highway and walked in the five miles.”
“More like six,” Henry corrected him.
“Maybe…. Aah, how you been?”
“Just Dandy. You?” he asked, glancing briefly over his shoulder at Nat., figuring looking the boy’s way was a major concession. He saw Nat wore a NY baseball hat and a backpack over a light jacket, none of which he’d seen before, which told him the boy had been earning money, though maybe not enough for transportation; the other hand, he knew Nat wasn’t one to spend money when he didn’t have to.
“I’m good,” Nat said…. “How’s Mom?”
“Give it your best guess.”
“Of course bad. Jesus H!”
“I’m sorry, I—“
“Sorry don’t do it, boy.”
“Maybe not, but at least I said it, which is more than you did. It wasn’t just me, you know.”
Henry paused. Some truth to that, he had to admit, telling himself to give an inch, at least that much considering this young man used to be his pure-gold boy. “You got a point there, I guess.” He glanced at him briefly before going back to his hay. He said, “You go off this way without seein’ her, you know, your mom’s gonna be worse than ever. Then she’s gonna blame me, tell me I drove you off.”
“So you’re saying what?”
He kept forking, didn’t want to look at the boy, to admit to wanting him to stay. “I’m sayin’ if you don’t stay ‘til she gets back, I ain’t tellin’ her you were here. Period.
“Why, for pete’s sake?”
“’Cause I don’t wanna take what she’d be dishin’ out! Better for her an’ me, she don’t know anything.”
“Oh…. Okay…. If you want, I’ll stay.”
“Hell, it ain’t what I want.”
“For mom, then.”
“Right,” Henry said, still moving the dumb hay into the dumb pile and not knowing how to stop. Maybe the boy would stay longer. Tess’d be flying high and maybe things’d be close to normal again.
“’Til she gets back,” said Nat.
“Right….” He knew he shouldn’t push it, but it just came out, dammit: “If you wanted to make her real happy, though, you’d stay and finish up school.”
“Well…I’m not sure about that. How would you feel about it?”
Huh. The boy didn’t get too worked up over that idea. Well, neither would Henry, even though he liked it fine. “Either way, it’s no problem, I guess.”
“I think, just ‘til she gets back. The thing is, Pop, I’ve kinda got my heart set on California.”
Henry didn’t turn around, didn’t pause, though he swore his heart stopped working for a few beats. He never thought it possible for a person to feel hatred for his own son. Until now. Very carefully he said, “That right?…. California?”
Starting slowly, maybe not trusting his father’s tone, Nat replied, “Uh-huh…. I’ll take the test for my diploma, out there. That’s easy. And Berkeley already said they’d take me. I, ah, didn’t tell you that, I guess. ” He hesitated for a few seconds, waiting for something that didn’t happen, then added with enthusiasm, “After that it’s Silicon Valley. That’s a bunch of office parks between San Francisco and San Jose, where it’s all at.” More excited: “It’s all cyber, Pop, the whole world, and I’ve got the head for it. I wanna write code, do programs, then go entrepreneurial. It’s totally wide open.”
Feeling just about as mean as he’d ever felt, Henry stabbed the bale, left it impaled and faced Nat: “Jesus H! You ask me how I feel about you stayin’ on with us, get me sucked in to that, then tell me you’re goin’ to California! What kind of game’re you playin’, boy? Huh?”
“Don’t Pop me, get the fuck outa here! We don’t need you!” He turned back to the bale, yanked the prongs free and scooped up a loose forkful of hay
“I wasn’t thinking, Pop,” Nat said, “I’m sorry,” his hands extended slightly, palms up.
Henry spun about and tossed the loose strands at him, wishing it was flop, and told him, “Back off! Go!” and returned to his nonsense with the hay.
Nat brushed at himself and said, “Damn it, Pop, I’m tryin’ to apologize.”
And then it turned into this dreamlike thing with Henry stabbing into what remained of the bale and saying, “That don’t do it either,” while forking the hay and tossing it left as Nat came at him reaching out a hand as though to touch his shoulder, saying, “Pop, listen to me, I—“ with Henry wheeling about in his fury shouting, “Fuck off, I told you!” and Nat and the pitchfork coming together so perfectly as if it had been planned, the way the prongs slipped so readily between the boy’s ribs; the surprise of it in his eyes, the “Oh!” from Henry as if he had been pierced, before yanking the fork back free of his son and Nat going to his knees holding himself and saying to Henry, “You didn’t mean it, Pop.”
He’d gone over it in his head a thousand times or more, how he was positive he never for a minute wanted it to happen, how you can be so fierce in your hate for someone and not ever truly want to hurt them so bad; which meant that even though back then he wasn’t pure of heart, wasn’t now and never would be, he believed he was absolutely a hundred percent innocent of what happened with Nat.
So that’s what he had in his head in September, this knowledge that Tess wouldn’t see her son again, this memory of how he killed the boy and buried him deep as he could, covered him over with the ancient dirt in his grandfather’s barn; what he had to live with, thinking maybe that time might cover over what he’d be feeling, what Tess’d be feeling, though he wasn’t too hopeful as far as she was concerned. Anyway, what it came down to was him doing the prudent thing. He felt bad enough as it was, without her being in on it. Hell, what she don’t know, she can’t let slip, was his way of thinking. Always was.
He noticed the turkey vulture was still around, perched on the post-and-rail about fifty feet down the road. A bunch of crows were squabbling over the shreds of possum the vulture had left. He swore the ugly thing was watching him like it knew something, and he figured he’d eventually take it down with a load of shot when Tess wasn’t about.