Rain On The Horizon
chance and life just around the corner.
He sat on his porch bench that morning. The breeze coming off his soy field was a godsend, not cold, not too warm, rather perfect. Caressing his face as though assuring him today would be different.
Now later afternoon, once again at his porch with a glass of lemonade, the very first of the heat haze showed over the soy. His gaze reached as far as his eyes permitted, out across the endless Illinois plain now covered in green from soy and corn. Mid to late summer always seemed to promise something, though he could never quite put his finger on it.
He could feel it, though.
He thought maybe because that’s’ the time of year he’d met June at the groceries. They’d married it seemed overnight and after a failed pregnancy, decided they’d never had kids.
Tomorrow he’d get that damn bank note paid off. He hoped that buyer came through for his old combine. He wondered if the guy was buying the old harvester to use it or as a collector’s item. As long as he sold it, he didn’t care. He was just glad to get it taken off his hands. The big combine had too many memories. June was hell on wheels in that giant rig, a big smile on her face.
Lately, his health had taken a turn for the better. His bad knees had settled just enough so that getting up and moving around was not an Olympian thing.
The doctor explained that the cartilages on both knees were all but worn away. These didn’t come back.
He knew that if he didn’t get the money to the bank soon, they would finally start with the process of taking his farm. He had nowhere to go, no family to speak of. This was it. Up against the brick wall. Up shit creek. The thought even occurred to him he’d just climb into his pickup and head west until things ran out. He’d heard of this, people losing their farms, even seen it with the farmer five miles from here. The guy ended up in the nut ward of Brokaw in town.
His friend’s wife had left him for an eye doctor. She was a looker and the poor guy’s luck just ran out. The thing finally caught up with him. There was nowhere left to turn. Wasn’t his fault. The crops failed because of the flooding rains. He was behind his seed loan, only made worse because of the rain. There was no knight in shining armor coming round the bend to save his sorry ass.
Paul always felt he was made a little different. There was something about quitting that rubbed deep and wrong. He wasn’t one to consider the grand finale with a loud bang but he wouldn’t be beyond jumping in his truck and sailing on down old 66.
Still, he worried that his health had reached the point that a factory job would be too much for him. He’d applied at the big Bloomington Post Office, he’d heard the postal service took care of its employees. They turned him down. Reasons given were vague. He thought: ’Come to think of it, there was no solid reason given for not giving him the job. I mean, how tough could it be?
The big Cat plant thirty miles east from here said they didn’t need people. That was a job that he never would’ve considered in the past, but now looked like cherry pie. He thought: ‘Imagine pushing a broom for thirty an hour! Jesus, he should have done that years before’.
Why bust my back digging the ground hoping to have a lucky year weather wise and market wise? When the market was strong and the weather perfect, it worked. Sure, he always had to do that damn farm loan. He could never get ahead far enough so that he could say, I’m clear now, at least for even a few days. Everything paid off, some in my pocket, roof and combine repaired. But the way the weather had been these last three years, it was enough to bury him.
He looked out at the pear and apple trees that grew side by side in the middle of the circle drive. All around the apple tree, the ripe apples had fallen and needed to get picked up now every day.
The sense of hopelessness was beyond description. He couldn’t shake the feeling. Sure, he questioned what purpose there was. It was just so fucking hopeless.
Paul knew he was at a point where some might consider a fast way out, the final exit. Not Paul. It wasn’t in his makeup. Somehow, he felt forever in debt to June. The kind of debt that made him feel he had to get the job done no matter what.
How was it that my dad used to make this work? How’d he do it? Paul had analyzed the hell out of the passing years and detected a gradual sinking. It had been a subtle decline, a combination of shitty climate, interest rates, waning market, and the powerful coops. Coops were farmers who’d sold their souls to big operators who offered everything needed to grow a crop.
This was how Paul saw them at first, as did all his independent farmer neighbors.
What the coops needed was land. You work out a long-term deal where your land through some legal trickery becomes the property of the coop. Each state had similar arrangements, but with individual kinks. In exchange, you got to stay on your land, your home. But now, you are working for a group of people in ties who had their offices in the city. But nothing lasts forever. Paul had heard of other farmers who’d been refused entry into the coop because of some silly technicality where before they took you in no questions.
When Paul stopped to think about it, he realized that most complaints came from those farmers who, for whatever reason, weren’t accepted as members. Those who were members seemed to be living rather well.
The coops had gotten so big they began affecting the market prices. If their silos, hundreds sprinkled across the Midwest, were full, they could drop prices as they saw fit just to get the crop out before it rotted. This slammed hard into the single farmer because the single operator had to have better prices to meet payments. The sheer size of the damn coops made it possible for them to skate through a bad weather year.
Somewhere he could hear his father growl: ‘son, you do whatever it takes you hear?’
Coops also had what Paul didn’t: diversification. Soy was one of many products they dealt in depending on what part of the country they were in. They’d even moved in on farm equipment sales, taking over chains of distributors and once again influencing pricing.
You couldn’t win. The lone farmer was the real lone ranger nowadays. If the guy didn’t have a large enough operation with all his ducks in a row, he wasn’t going to make it these days.
What about his grandpas move to growing hemp? That was a classic example of move and adapt.
After mulling it over for days, Paul finally made a decision.
The coop people agreed to look at his farm, and Paul was waiting for them out on his porch swing. He really didn’t know what to expect. Sitting out on the swing made him feel like a kid again, a teenager going on a first date. He’d showered off extra good this morning, dressed in his best. Even thought fit to go out and recheck all his equipment, which were two tractors, a barn, an old combine, wagons, two silos. He knew that the coop probably had no use for his ageing equipment, but he’d heard that at first, when the agreement was signed, the farmer had to rely on his own equipment.
Sort of a trial. The coop wasn’t about to invest in new equipment for a new member if he turned out to be a dud. A dud could mean a bunch of things. For instance, the creek flowing through his property could be the kind that flooded every time it sprinkled. This wouldn’t work.
The property had to show that it had enjoyed success through most of its existence, for obvious reasons. After all, the coop would not get itself tied into a situation where it turns out the property was a non-producer unless a great number of wild and improbable elements came together in an orderly and productive way. Were it not for bad climate conditions, and market forces, things over which a lone farmer had no control, the farm generally produced robust growth, reliable return through its long history.
This had been the case with Paul’s farm. It had belonged to his family since before the Civil War. There was a time when the old, white farm stead, still standing, represented what a successful farm should have been. There was even a time when the place had an almost stately air about it. From the main road, a straight access road to the farm buildings, had a row of tall pines on either side.
Sure, over the years, the farm had its deep struggles. The Depression just about buried them for good. Had it not been for the government’s need for hemp, they would’ve had to sell out. Paul’s grandfather took a gamble and put half the property in hemp, even before the wave started. It was something the old man said had spoken to him in the middle of the night.
First contact with the government people plus his grandfather’s willingness to spread the gains, including into the pockets of the corrupt government officials tasked with finding farms for growing the needed hemp.
Hemp provided material for rope, which was needed increasingly throughout the armed services. Paul’s grandfather knew how to suggest ‘a little prize’, to the government guys for getting the hemp growing permits for a handful of years. It was a good time.
Then there were the sunflowers, which took the nation by storm. The flower provided an oil that was said to cure all one’s ills. Someone figured out the seeds made for the perfect pocket snack. This was Paul’s dad, who covered the fields in the bright yellow flowers. Sun flowers came and went. Sure, they’re still a viable product, but on a much smaller scale.
It took years for Paul’s dad to rid himself of all the sunflowers after the boom. No matter how hard he tried, the damn plant, which had a stem as thick as rope and as tough as a wooden plank, continued to sprout here and there amongst the tall corn. The combine often broke down because of trying to process the sunflower plants. The corn was so high he couldn’t see the sunflower growing in amongst it. Other farmers who rented out their combines to other farmers soon had a list of farms who had the ‘sunflower problem’ and refused to service them.
With his combine on the blink so often there were times the corn rotted before he had a chance to harvest. Paul recalled that this was when things, for whatever other unrelated reasons, the luck of the place had begun to turn.
Paul played football in high school and was the team captain for several years. Some of the colleges sent scouts to see him play. He played offensive halfback and it was a thrill to watch the high schooler blast his way through the opposing team to the end zone. He was signed up for a scholarship in a small Minnesotan college and had attended classes there when his father became ill.
He had no choice but to leave the school and go help his dad. His Mom died during this long, slow fall into the doldrums. Some said depression, some said an undiagnosed cancer. Thing is, she just got thinner and thinner. Her heart gave out and left Paul and his dad alone in the farmhouse.
Paul remembered telling his dad that he’d understand it if his dad found another woman. Over time, though, it became clear that there were no women willing to take up with the farmer given the growing economic plight they found themselves in.
Those days seemed long past. Sitting on his swing on his porch looking out at the patch just beyond the graveled circle drive where a tall oak and pine stood watch over the family burial ground. Some six crosses stood mostly erect.
The newest cross was the cleanest, as it was the newest. His wife had succumbed to an unnamed stomach ailment. After she passed, now going on three years, it was as though he arose from his bed from sheer discipline. His life was his wife. He thought of an old folks saying that said something about not putting all one’s stock into one person. Paul had done exactly this with June.
At day’s end, when both Paul and June had worked into fatigued wrecks, he’d make a big event out of inviting her to join him to the Dairy Queen over at Carlock, not five miles away. The drive blew away the day’s wear and tear. Paul would look over at June, her beautiful face, small nose, pretty light brows. She was quick with a smile. For the drive to the Dairy Queen, she always made sure to look her best for him. Her brightly flowered sun dress fit loosely and danced over her lithe body as the wind whipped through the pickup.
It went fast. It may have even been on the return drive from the DQ or the movie when she doubled over in stomach cramps. No sooner, though, than she’d be sitting straight up again. ‘wonder what that’s all about Paul, geez.’ The cramps increased. The docs at Brokaw went through a list of opinions and suggestions. Despite a long list of tests, they never could say for certain what the problem was.
The pains continued until they got to where they wouldn’t let up. Morphine no longer worked. One Friday evening, as the sun was setting, June called out to Paul. He ran as fast as he could up the old creaky wood stairway. Within the hour, she was gone. He’d insisted on calling the ambulance, but she seemed to know. ‘No, you won’t call them Paul. I like it right here, hon. I want you to take care of yourself. The farm will find its solution. Believe me when I tell you this.’
She went with barely a whisper, a peaceful death people call it. Paul wondered if there could be such a thing.
After June’s passing, it was just Paul and the old house. They spoke to one another. A friend had brought over a golden terrier shortly after June’s passing. Jake had become a cornerstone of Paul’s existence. Both sat on the porch when a car horn shook them out of their reverie. A shiny Pontiac rolled to a stop in front of the house.
Three men climbed out, one holding a thin briefcase. They approached, smiling. Introductions were quick. After all, everyone present knew why they were there. Paul offered them a beer or lemonade and all accepted the latter.
The three men thanked Paul for his time, and one congratulated him and gently patted his shoulder. We’ll be seeing you soon, okay Paul? If you have any questions whatsoever you have our numbers, please call.
The three men represented the operational and the legal aspects when it came to considering the taking on of a new member into the Coop. One man was a farmer just like Paul and he deduced he came along for the ride to add color to the conversation were it needed, between two farmers. It wasn’t needed. All went well.
They walked all over the property, the operations man asking most of the questions. The farmer offered compliments on the orderliness of the place. As they approached the house, they noticed June’s rhubarb growing thick and wild all along the baseline outside of the house. ‘What beautiful Rhubarb, Paul, my lord. I used to eat that stuff like there was no tomorrow.’ The legal man, the senior of them, chuckled, taking a second look at the rich row of the plant.
Papers were signed.
The men walked across the gravel to where they had parked when the headman turned as though with an afterthought. ‘You know Paul, you should probably know we don’t accept over ninety% of those who apply to join the coop. Know that your farm, with the inclines of the land, its rich soil, the perfectly laid out irrigation, the creek, along with the way you’ve rotated crops, promises a long-term arrangement. All the necessary elements are there. One of the key elements is you, my friend, and we hope to count on you for years to come.’ He smiled once more and turned towards the drive.
‘Well Hon, guess it’s done,’ Paul said out loud, then turned to Jake. ‘Right Jake?’ Inside the ageing house Jake looked happily at Paul, his tail wagging. He always knew when they were about to go out. The two of them climbed into the pickup and drove the five miles to the DQ. Tears flowed from the man’s eyes, but brought them under control as he pulled up to the drive-in window.
This was the first time Paul returned to the DQ after June and Jake’s wagging tail and happy smile showed he was excited to see that it was a new destination.
Paul parked facing out to the blacktop across from which grew a huge field of corn, easily over seven feet tall. Jake, his bushy tail wagging, happily munched on his hamburger, and Paul spooned up his Peanut Buster Parfait. He’d ordered it with extra peanuts, as June had always done.
‘I guess life can go on though, never as it was.’ The ups and downs are part of it. The meeting with the Coop men went better than expected. Somehow they could even offer to help to get him out of the debt hole he lived in for years. All part of the long-term agreement. Paul would be the first to admit his head wasn’t for doing these business deals. He asked the legal guy to explain for a third time how it was that the farm still belonged to Paul.
A fellow farmer drove up to Paul’s pickup and slowed to say hi. ‘Hey Paul, looks like you have a new friend there, he’s sure a beaut. How ya been? Hey what’s up? You look like you swallowed a golden egg.’ Laughed.
‘I guess maybe sometimes the good stuff can look at you right in the face and yet…’ Paul stopped mid track and simply waved at his friend.
Paul and Jake sat quietly, watching through the windshield out over the top of the darkening corn rows. Lightning bugs started in just a few at first and then soon dancing and darting about the green stalks in gentle, flashing arcs. A late afternoon summer haze moved in, covering the land with a strange perfection.
Far off towards the western horizon, dark clouds punctuated with sporadic lightning promised an evening summer rain.