(I continue to work on my novel, and as a result have been neglecting this site. So I figured, what the Hell, I may as well post the most recent chapter I just finished. I think that it’s self contained enough that it doesn’t need any background. It’s a bit longer than what I usually post, but, oh well …)
Bernard LaRoche woke up in his recliner in the living room. He’d been asleep for only a short while, long enough for the late afternoon shadows to creep in and spread across the corners of the walls and floors and ceilings, steadily consuming daylight as they advanced. His dog, Max, a Gordon setter, lay curled up in a black ball, asleep at his feet on the braided rug. Through the open windows, a cool breeze blew in from the west, a reminder that as warm as the days had been lately, autumn was not far away.
Bernard got up and crossed the room to the windows. The dog woke and raised his head and watched as Bernard shut each one, then got up and followed Bernard into the kitchen.
“What’s the matter, buddy?” Bernard asked. “You hungry?” Bernard reached down and picked up the empty dish. As he reached into the cupboard, where the bag of dry food was stored, the dog started wagging its tail. Bernard filled the dish and opened the refrigerator. He emptied the remaining contents of the open can of soft food in with the hard food and took a spoon and mixed them together. He bent over and put the dish on the floor, and as Max buried his snout in the mix, he gently rubbed the top of his head, saying, “there you go,” pleased by the dog’s satisfaction with his meal.
After rinsing his hands in the sink, he opened the refrigerator again and took out the plate wrapped in tin foil and set it on the counter. He removed the tin foil to reveal a dinner of meat loaf and mashed potatoes and green beans, then placed the dish in the microwave and set the timer. As he waited, he took out some silverware and a glass, and pulled a gallon of milk and the bottle of ketchup out of the refrigerator. He methodically set his place at the table, adding the salt and pepper shakers and a napkin to the silverware and condiments and took the opened half loaf of bread out of the breadbox and placed it and a stick butter on the table as the microwave beeped. He opened its door and grabbed the plate, using a dish towel to insulate his hand from the heat, and set it on the table. He pulled a chair out and sat down and poured a glass of milk.
Dinner was meant to be eaten in the kitchen, at the table. It had always been that way, from his childhood through the years he was married and raising his family, and all the years since they’d been gone. Even after Marie and her husband, Patrick, got in the habit of eating dinner in the living room, while watching the evening news or “To Tell the Truth” on the television, Bernard took his meal in the kitchen, at the kitchen table. It wasn’t that he was superstitious – all those years he could barely tolerate his wife, Edith, having to say grace every night – he was just set in his ways. Now, more than twenty years after burying Edith and five years after Marie and Patrick had moved to town, he sat alone at the table, with Max eating on the floor next to him, the kitchen lit by the evening sunlight that streamed through the window above the sink.
Max finished eating first, and, like he did every evening, stared at Bernard. Bernard, like he did every evening, said, “You done, buddy? Time to go outside?” Max’s tail wagged as Bernard got up and opened the back door and let him out. Bernard sat back down and finished his meal. It was good, he thought, as he dabbed a forkful of meat loaf into the puddle of ketchup on his plate. Marie always made good meat loaf. Hell, everything she made was good, she was even a better cook than her mother was. She ran dinner plates out to him about three times a week. Once he moved to town, she promised, she’d bring him something to eat every day. It’d be easier for her to look in on him once he was in town.
He’d long ago accepted the need to be looked in upon. It was the moving to town part that he still wasn’t comfortable with. He’d already paid the deposit for the apartment in the senior center. It was small but nice, consisting of a kitchenette, a small living room, a bedroom and a bathroom. He didn’t need a lot of space. Best of all, it was self contained and independent, a small stand alone structure that opened up to a sidewalk, to the outdoors. It wasn’t like the old folks home on Highway 47 he’d seen too many of his friends end up in. That place was little more than a glorified hospital, where people were sent to die, where they were given a room that opened up into a hallway that god knows how many other rooms opened into, each one filled with another old person, the uncirculated air stale with the sterile aroma of death.
The apartment was opening up and he’d be able to move in on the first of October, in two weeks. The current tenant was moving to the twin cities to be near his son. Bernard had slowly been packing his things for some time now. Patrick recently listed the farm, but there was no hurry to sell, especially with the market the way it was. Bernard had already been renting most of the fields out to the Talbert brothers for the past few years. They weren’t in a position to buy just yet, but Bernard liked them, and was sure they could work something out, a deal where they could get the remaining equipment, including his 1946 Allis Chalmers tractor.
He’d reluctantly agreed with the conclusion that Marie and his oldest daughter, Annie, came to some time ago that he was too old to live alone out in the country. For years, Annie had been imagining nightmarish scenarios of tragic outcomes, from Bernard slipping in the tub and hitting his head to lopping an extremity off in the tool shed, that he and Marie laughed off, until the time in the previous February, after the storm, when Bernard slipped on the ice on the front porch and threw out his back, and laid there for an hour before Marie, on her cleaning day, stopped by and found him. The incident scared them both, and for the first time, he realized how helpless and vulnerable he could be out in the valley by himself.
He finish-ed eating and got up and washed his dishes. From outside, he heard a single bark, and he went to the back door and let Max in. It was shortly after 7:00. He went to the living room, turned on the television, and sat in his recliner. The rabbit ear antenna picked up only three stations, the NBC affiliate out of Eau Claire, the CBS station from Lacrosse, and the PBS station from Menomonee. He settled on “Real People” on channel 13, and although his eyes were pointed in the general direction of the images on the screen, his mind drifted.
He was thinking about tomorrow, about the hayfield behind the Ojibway Inn that he would bale, the last field to be baled, not just for the season, but forever. He’d been very conscious lately of all the things he was doing for the last time. He fought hard against the melancholia that was consuming him; he’d never been the kind of man to complain or worry about things. He knew that at the age of 87, it was past his time. He’d heard the remarks from the Talberts, Dennis and Dean, about how they hoped they’d be going as strong at 87 as he was; he’d heard these remarks for years now, it was just the number that changed, from 70 to 75 to 80 and beyond. The only farming he still did was mowing and baling hay, it had been several years since his shoulders and back enabled him to put the hay up in the loft. The Talbert brothers did that now; all he had to do was drive the tractor and make sure the baler had enough twine and didn’t jam.
He was also thinking of the town of Neil, population 2,045, and if he’d be able to sleep at night. He’d lived all but one of his 87 years in the old farm house, the same house he was born in, in 1895, on the same farm on Ojibway Valley Road. He was used to country darkness and country quiet, and since Marie and Patrick moved out, he’d grown used to the house being empty. Like Bernard, the house was feeling its age, with floorboards creaking and drafts seeping in under doorways and through weathered storm windows when it was cold out.
Bernard lit about the house, double checking the things he’d packed, the books and photo albums and the silverware and bathroom supplies. Each time he thought of an item he couldn’t remember packing, he’d check the boxes and find it. He repeated this procedure over and over. By the time he was finally able to devote his undivided attention to the television, it was 9:00 and dark outside, and Quincy, starring Jack Klugman, was just beginning. He fixed a tall glass of ice water and settled into his recliner, his body aching from the four hours of sitting on the tractor that morning. The living room was lit by the grayish light from the television. Max lay stretched out on the couch across from him, sound asleep, worn out from the morning chasing birds and butterflies and cottontails as Bernard circled the field in the Allis Chalmers. Max was the smartest dog Bernard had ever owned. He instinctively knew the boundaries of whatever field or woods they happened to be in, and even when hot on the trail of a squirrel or rabbit, he never strayed, never lost track of where Bernard was. In the afternoon, when Bernard was inside, Max would be outside and lay in the shade of the house until Bernard came out, when he couldn’t contain the joy he felt at having someone outside with him, and he’d run circles around the yard until he found a bird or butterfly to chase. Then, when Bernard went back inside, he’d return to his place next to the house, and wait patiently until he’d see Bernard again.
Bernard was relieved when the director of the senior complex said that pets were allowed, so long as they didn’t prove a nuisance to the other residents. Bernard introduced Max to her, and like everyone else who ever met Max, she immediately fell in love with him. Her only advice was that Bernard should make sure to keep him leashed, at least until he adjusted to town life and the new boundaries. She could tell that Max was well trained and gentle and that there’d be no issue with him jumping up on or scaring other tenants.
Quincy was over and the 10:00 news was just starting when Bernard got up and turned the television off. He climbed the stairs, with Max following close behind him. Bernard headed for the bathroom off the hallway as Max went to the bedroom and curled up on his mat on the floor next to Bernard’s bed. Bernard finished his nightly ritual of washing up and tending to his dentures before returning to the bedroom and laying out tomorrow’s clothes. Like he did every night, he set the alarm clock for 5:00 A.M., even though he couldn’t remember the last time he didn’t wake up before it went off. He finally shut the light off and climbed in bed. He pulled the covers up to his chin, rolled onto his right side, and quickly fell fast asleep.
In his dream, Bernard was deer hunting, up on West Ridge, on county forest property, in the big woods. It was still dark, before sunrise. He’d parked his truck on the side of Logging Camp Road and uncased his 30.06 and walked down the fire trail, looking for a good knoll to sit atop of. He came to a clearing that opened up into a broad field and sat behind what was a perfect natural blind, with downed branches in front that opened into a window he could watch the field from. In the darkness he could make out the shapeless black masses of other clumps of brush; it looked like someone had come in with a brush hog and cleared the undergrowth away from the clearing.
As the sun rose the black masses revealed themselves to be crushed wrecks of crashed automobiles, and he realized that the window of brush he was looking through was in fact the glassless window of an almost flattened blue Ford Mustang he found himself sitting in. The clearing he thought he was in was actually a graveyard of abandoned automobile bodies, a small junkyard. Just as he was processing this, out in the field, in the faint early morning sunlight, a few hundred yards away, he could make out the shape of four or five deer, silently grazing, too far to shoot at just yet.
As he watched the deer, behind them, way in the distance, a small rolling black mass appeared, moving like a cloud through the field, until it got larger, and he could make out the shape of a herd of some kind of African antelope, thundering across the field, into the clearing now, toward him. He watched as one of them butted its horns against the car he was sitting in, shaking the rusted frame of the Mustang; a couple more leapt right over him. As the rest of the antelope stampeded by, he clearly saw, in front of him and to his left, an old male lion, its mane speckled with gray, running along with the antelope; it too passed.
After the stampede, the field was empty and the deer had vanished. The sun was now high in the eastern sky. Disoriented, Bernard decided to walk back to his truck, and left the crushed car and started back down the trail. As he walked, the familiar path grew increasingly unfamiliar, as the woods thickened, and soon he was walking in a tropical jungle. He came upon a small clearing and looked about and suddenly, without warning, he realized he was surrounded by three enormous tigers, a few feet away from him, each lying on the ground, giving no indication of having seen or having any interest in Bernard. In the distance, through the underbrush, he could see his parked truck, and one of the tigers, the biggest, laid between him and the road. He crept quietly around the tiger, getting closer, and he could see that the tiger was holding something green and red between its front paws. He got close enough to take a better look, the tiger showing no interest in him, until he could see that the item was the severed and bloody stump of a human arm, in the sleeve of a U.S. Army fatigue jacket. Looking closer he could read the name “Alexander” in black stenciled letters printed on the sleeve.
He jumped awake, his breath taken away, and slowly gained his bearings. It was the middle of the night and the house was pitch black and still. The stillness and the dark made him uncomfortable. He turned the lamp on the nightstand on. From his mat on the floor, Bernard could see Max open his eyes and look up at Bernard, and then the dream faded and his anxiety waned. It was another in a series of nightmares he’d been having over the past couple of weeks, and with each one he woke up gasping for air. He had the nagging feeling that the old house he’d slept comfortably in his entire life was suddenly haunted. In the darkness he could feel the presence of those who’d passed, of his mother and father, his wife, and his grandson. He thought of the dream and of the charred remains of young Joe Alexander, forever hidden from him in the closed casket that he returned home from Vietnam in, more than fourteen years earlier.
They’d received the news on July 3rd, 1968. He’d been out in the fields and just missed the visit from the priest and the officer; it was when he came in for lunch that he found out. Patrick met him on the front porch. Inside, through the screen door, behind Patrick, he could see Marie, slumped in the chair in the living room, as if something had knocked all of the air out of her.
“Bernard,” Patrick said, “its Joe. They came and told us. He’s …”
Bernard looked at Patrick, his eyes wide, and said “No.”
Patrick looked down. Bernard said “No,” again, firmer and stronger as he opened and stomped through the screen door. He looked down at Marie, and she looked up, her eyes big wet puddles, and he said, anger in his voice, “No.”
Marie broke down and started crying, putting her face in her hands, and Bernard knew it was true, it was real.
He fell back asleep and woke up at 4:51, nine minutes before the alarm was set to go off. He turned on the light and put on the clothes he’d laid out on the counter the night before, slipping on the white t-shirt and blue work shirt before climbing into the fresh overalls. Max barely lifted his head as Bernard went down the hallway to the bathroom to shave and put his teeth in. When Bernard returned, Max was up, stretching his legs. Max followed Bernard down the stairs into the kitchen. It was still dark outside when Bernard opened the door and let Max out. He made a pot of coffee, poured the first cup and sat at the table, waking up, planning his day.
By 6:30 he was out in the machine shed next to the barn. The morning air was cool and crisp, cold enough that Bernard could see his breath. The sun was just above the horizon and the sky was a deep and cloudless blue. Bernard made himself busy readying the Allis Chalmers and the baler, hooking the baler up to the tractor, filling the tractor up with gasoline and loading the spools on the baler with twine. Around 7:00 he could hear the roar of the Talbert’s diesel as the truck pulled in the driveway. Max recognized the sound, too, and ran out to greet them, his tail wagging rapidly.
“Hey, old boy,” Dean exclaimed as he stepped out of the still idling truck and scratched Max behind both ears. Dennis got out of the passenger side. Bernard stepped out of the barn and waved to them.
“How ya’ doing this morning?” Dean asked.
“Good, good,” Bernard replied. “Gonna be another beautiful day. I should have that last field knocked out by noon or so, it’ll only take a couple of hours, once this dew dries up.”
“Hell, we can’t keep up with you!” Dean said, smiling. There was no mistaking him and Dennis as brothers. They both had the same square face, the same hard jaw. Dennis, in his early forties, was the older of the two, with a slight powdering of gray in his black hair that Dean was yet to acquire. Dennis wore a light jacket, a black windbreaker, with the words “The Snow Palace” printed in white letters on the back; Dean was wearing an un-tucked red and black flannel shirt and blue jeans.
“Well, we’ll start getting the bales put up probably tomorrow,” Dennis said. “Gotta get started on the corn today. Checked the weather report, and it ain’t sposed to rain until next week sometime, so we should be okay.”
“That’s okay by me,” Bernard replied.
“How are you doing?” Dennis asked. For a moment, his eyes caught Bernard’s eyes, and they both knew why Dennis was asking. Bernard quickly looked away and tended to the baler.
“I’m doing good, real good,” Bernard replied.
Dennis sensed the evasiveness in Bernard’s body language and that he wasn’t comfortable talking about the end of haying season, the end of Bernard’s time on the farm. “Well, like I say, we’ll be by first thing tomorrow morning with the wagon and start putting them bales up,” Dennis replied, “assuming you’re around to supervise.” He was grinning and winked a knowing eye to his brother.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be here,” Bernard replied. “Somebody has to keep you kids in line.”
Dennis and Dean both laughed, and they got back in their truck. “You need anything for today?” Dennis asked through his rolled down window before Dean put the trick in gear.
“No, I’m all set.” Bernard replied. He was standing beside the passenger side of the truck by now. “Gotta run to town this afternoon. You guys need anything?”
Dennis and Dean looked at each other and shook their heads. “We should be okay,” Dennis said.
“Okay,” Bernard said. “I’d love to stand here all day and chat, but there’s work to do!” Dennis returned his smile.
“Okay, old man.”
There was an element of sadness in Dennis’ eye as Dean put the truck in gear and backed out of the driveway. Dennis waved and watched as Bernard stood there, his back to the towering barn, waving to them, looking smaller, shrinking, as Dean pulled out onto Ojibway Valley Road and put more distance between them.
It was past nine o’clock by the time Bernard pulled the Allis Chalmers out of the yard and down the rutted path that lead to the last field, the 20 acres behind the Ojibway Inn. Max ran alongside the tractor. It was a Thursday, the hay he’d cut the previous Friday laid there, raked and dried out and waiting to be baled. He maneuvered the tractor through the field, occasionally taking a swig of coffee from his thermos whenever he felt the first signs of sleepiness settling in.
It was late morning, about 11:30, and he was almost done when he passed the end of the field that was directly behind the Ojibway Inn. He glanced toward the parking lot at the exact moment she got out of her car, a blue Ford Mustang with Illinois plates, one of the recent models, late 70s or 80 or 81. He recognized her immediately, even from the distance, and watched her walk to the front porch. She had long black hair and wore blue jeans and a blue and white flannel shirt.
Bernard wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him, seeing her just as he was finishing baling for the last time, two short weeks before he was to move out of the house and into town. He wondered if he imagined her, or if she was a hallucination, if senility was finally setting in. After all, he’d been feeling the presence of dead people recently, especially his grandson, Joe. Maybe seeing her was an extension of these feelings.
He’d been feeling Joe’s presence at night, either in dreams, like the one that woke him up the previous night, but more often he felt him when he went to bed, before he shut the light off, standing in the doorway, like he did that night just before he left for the army. Most nights he replayed their conversation from that night, and now, with almost all of the hay baled, he replayed it again on the tractor.
“Grandpa?” Joe asked.
“Were you scared? When you left?”
Bernard took his glasses off and set them on the nightstand next to his bed. He rubbed his eyes. “Yes, I was. I’d never been out of the valley before. I didn’t know what to expect.”
“I’ve never been out of the valley, either.” Joe said. “I mean, not really.”
“You’re going to be just fine.”
“I’m scared.” Joe looked at the floor.
“That’s only natural. At least you admit it. It’s good to be scared. It means you know there are things bigger than you. Use that.”
Joe got up to leave, and standing at the door, he turned to Bernard.
“You’re the reason”, he stopped and started again, “you’re the reason I’m going. I’ve always looked up to you. I love you, grandpa.”
Suddenly a flash of black appeared in the field in front of the tractor, and Bernard jerked, and he recognized the form of Max, running in the center of the field in front of him. Awakened from his trance, he realized he’d drifted. He slammed the tractor to a halt. He was suddenly aware of the perspiration that was soaking him. He took the big red handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face, and got his bearings. He’d strayed off course.
He composed himself and finished up the baling and went back to the house for some lunch. He parked the tractor and put the bailer away, deciding he’d wait until the next day to clean it. Grey clouds moved in and filled the sky, but it didn’t feel or smell like rain. Max followed him as he climbed the back steps and entered the house, stepping into the kitchen. He made himself a sandwich and sat in the living room in his recliner. He was too tired and his joints ached too much for him to dwell on the events of the day, and soon he was asleep in his chair, satisfied and aching and content.
He woke up about 3:30 and remembered that he had to run to town to get his prescription for his blood pressure medication refilled. He got in his truck, a dark blue 1981 Ford F150 with the manual transmission on the column and the words, “Alexander Ford, Neil, Wisconsin” printed on the tailgate.
The sky was still overcast as he drove past the Ojibway Inn. He scanned the parking lot for the blue Mustang he’d seen that morning. It wasn’t there, and he was beginning to convince himself that he’d imagined it, that his mind had been playing tricks on him, that maybe he’d fallen asleep on the tractor and dreamed the whole thing. Then he turned down Cemetery Road and there, in front of the church, a blue Mustang with Illinois plates was parked. He slowed down and saw her again, standing in the rows between the graves, underneath the massive oak tree. It was her, all right. There was no mistaking it.
Bernard pulled his truck into the parking lot next to the Mustang and got out. He walked to his grandson’s grave, where she still stood. As he approached her, he noticed the fresh bouquet of flowers on the grave. She saw him and a sad smile of recognition formed on her face. The breeze was out of the south, and she absent mindedly brushed her hair from her eyes.
“Hi, Bernard,” she said.
She was still stunning, still breathtakingly beautiful. She was always a beautiful girl, but the years had filled out her face, and added even more depth to her dark eyes. She was, simply put, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
She stepped to him and threw her arms around his neck. He gently reached around and patted her on her back with his right arm. As she pulled back, she dabbed at her eye with her shirt sleeve. There was an awkward moment of silence.
“I see you brought flowers,” Bernard said.
“Yes,” she replied. “I forgot just how beautiful it is here.” She turned and looked at thr grave. Bernard’s eyes followed. It was a substantial but plain granite stone, with the words:
“It’s a nice spot,” she added. “Peaceful.”
“Yes, it is,” Bernard said. They stood silent for a moment. They could hear the breeze blowing through the trees.
“It’s been a long time,” Bernard said.
” I know.”
“How have you been?”
“I’ve been doing well.” She was still staring at the grave.
“I hear you’re married now.”
“I was married. Not anymore. Divorced.” She said it matter-of-factly.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. I’ve got a daughter now. She’s nine years old.”
“Is that so? Did she come with you?”
“No, she’s with her Dad this weekend.”
There was more of the same uncomfortable silence.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” she finally said.
”Nah, I always knew you’d come back someday.”
“I guess I did, too,” she said, running her hand through her hair. “I didn’t expect it to take so long, though.”
“Sometimes these things just take longer than you’d think.”
She appreciated his gentle acceptance. She’d been worried about how he’d react if he saw her.
“So how are you?” she asked. “You don’t look much different.” She was telling the truth. Other than a few additional lines on his face, Bernard looked pretty much the same as he did the last time she saw him, more than fifteen years ago.
“Nah, just older, not any wiser though.”
“Do you still live on the farm?”
“Funny you should ask. For the next two weeks. Then I move into town. Getting too old to be out here by myself.” He was trying hard to come across as nonchalant.
“Wow. I was planning on looking you up. Looks like I came back in the nick of time. How about Marie and Patrick?”
“They live in town now. Patrick’s owned the Ford dealership for the past five years. You plan on looking them up, too? I know they’d be thrilled to see you.”
“I’d love to see them, too. I just wasn’t so sure they’d want to see me, since I didn’t come to the funeral and all.” Kim looked at Bernard, trying to gage his reaction,. She’d been very anxious about how she’d be received, coming back after all these years.
“Oh, Hell, don’t worry about that. They understand.”
“Do they? They were always so sweet. I felt so bad for them.”
“Well, I’m not going to kid you, it hit them hard, losing their only son like that. But what can you do? You gotta keep on.”
“Yeah, but that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?”
Bernard recognized the flash of anguish in her voice and eyes, and he knew, at that moment, how painful it had all been for her, and how important coming back was to her, and his admiration of her grew.
“How about I call Marie and Patrick up and we go out for dinner tonight? It’ll be my treat.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
“We’ll go to Gustafson’s. I’ll pick you up around six?
“It’s a date,” she smiled.
Since he’d be going to town now that evening anyways, Bernard decided he’d pick up his prescription then, and he went back home. He immediately called Marie and told her Kim was back. Marie was shocked and started crying on the phone, saying that she couldn’t wait to see her and that she and Patrick would be glad to have dinner with her.
Bernard showered and put on clean jeans and his best western shirt, the cotton, off white long sleeved button-up splattered with the pattern of the brown form of a small cowboy riding a horse between two cacti. At 5:20, he called Max in and filled his dish, and he was off to the Ojibway Inn to pick up Kim.
She was waiting for him on the front porch, dressed in a white blouse and a black sweater and black pants. Her smile radiated when she saw him pull in, she was up and at his passenger door before he had a chance to get out. She climbed into the passenger side of Bernard’s truck.
“Hello, there,” she smiled as she got in.
“Well, I’m good and hungry. How about you?”
“That makes two of us.”
“Were you able to get a hold of Marie and Patrick?”
“Yep, they’ll be joining us. Marie is excited about seeing you again. They’ll be meeting us at the restaurant.”
They drove for a while in silence. The clouds gave way to the late afternoon sun. It shone brightly above West Ridge on the woods and fields that ran along Ojibway Valley Road. Some of the trees, the maples, mostly, had already turned to their autumn golds and reds. “Gosh,” Kim said, “it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still as pretty as I remember it.”
“It’s a pretty time of year,” Bernard agreed, “Fall has always been my favorite season.”
“I remember Joe taking me down the river. It was October, and the colors were just amazing.”
“Yeah, got about three, maybe four more weeks until they reach their peak.”
“I think about that trip a lot. Whenever I think of Joe, that’s how I remember him.”
Another uncomfortable silence followed.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“You know, bringing up those things.”
“Ah, don’t be sorry about that. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
“For what it’s worth, I think about him a lot, too. Especially lately.”
“Oh, I dunno, I guess with me leaving the farm and going to town and all. I’d always figured Joe would inherit it someday.”
“Oh, he would have been glad to. He loved the farm.”
“Yes, he did. He was my right hand man once he was old enough to walk. Used to follow me everywhere. Folks called him my little shadow. Used to sit on my lap on the tractor for hours at a time.”
“He told me about all that.”
“He had a true love of farming, and I knew, I just knew that someday I’d pass the farm on to him. Old Patrick, he tried hard, but he never wanted to be a farmer. He always wanted to be a businessman. Gotta give him credit, though, all those years he worked on the farm, he never complained once. Living in another man’s home, had to be rough on him.”
They pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant. Patrick and Marie stepped out of the Ford Horizon with the dealer sticker on the window, and as Kim and Bernard got out of the truck, they were there to greet them, each taking turns hugging Kim.
“My, oh, my, you’re just as pretty as you ever were,” Marie exclaimed through watery eyes.
They went inside and Patrick told the bartender they were going straight to the tables in back. As they seated themselves, a waitress appeared with menus. There was a handful of people at the bar, and in the back, two of the other tables were filled, one by an elderly couple and one by a mother and father and their two young children.
“So how long are you back for?” Marie asked as they settled in to their seats and studied the menus.
“Until Sunday. Have to be at work on Monday.”
“And what is it you do?”
“I work for a big Hotel in Chicago, I’m a concierge. I majored in Hotel Management in college. Plus, I’ve got to get back to my daughter.”
“Bernard said on the phone that you have a little girl.” Kim reached in her purse and took out photographs. “Oh, she’s adorable. She looks just like you.”
The waitress came and took their orders and left. While they were waiting for their food, Kim told the story of the first time she’d ever heard of Gustafson’s supper club. “It was that first night I met Joe, at that benefit dance at the church. My little brother, Josh, he was so cute back then, he’d won a coupon for a fish fry dinner here in the raffle. He was so proud. Anyway, we had to leave the next morning, before we could cash in his coupon. He was so upset, he ended up giving it to Joe that morning, but he went on and on about it so much that the next year, when we came back, we had to have fish fry here that first Friday night.”
“I remember that night,” Marie said. “Joe came in like he was walking on air. We kept pressing him about what had happened, and he finally said, ‘well, I met this girl.’ That was all he said.” Marie looked up and caught the emotion in Kim’s eyes. “I’m so sorry, Kim”, she said, as Kim started gently crying, holding her napkin to her face.
“No, don’t be sorry, it’s all right.” She was trying to smile through the tears. “It’s just, it’s just ….” Marie gently put her hand on Kim’s wrist.
“There, there,” Marie said.
“I thought I’d be okay, I thought enough time has passed. But I don’t think I’ll ever be okay.”
Patrick and Marie looked at each other. “We understand,” Marie said. “We’re just glad you came back. It’s so good to see you again.”
They eventually got back to safe small talk. Patrick talked about taking over the Ford dealership and how bad business had been with the interest rates as high as they were and how he hoped Reagan would do something to turn the economy around. He mentioned that they were putting the farm up for sale, too, but that the best they could hope for in the short term was to keep renting the fields out. They talked about Bernard moving to town, how they’d only be a couple of blocks away from each other, and how creaky and drafty the old house was getting. They talked about the Ojibway Inn, how impressed Kim was with the remodeling that Willard Caffey and his wife Emma,had done since buying it from Marie six years earlier.
Finally, after finishing their meals, and after Bernard won the fight over the check, they were out in the parking lot. It was dark now, a warm September evening, as they stood under the neon sign that said “Gustafson’s Supper Club.” Kim hugged Patrick and then Marie. Marie held on to her for a long time, and they separated, their eyes wet, and said one last goodbye, before climbing into their respective vehicles. Bernard steered his truck out of the streetlights of town into the two lane darkness.
“That was nice, seeing Patrick and Marie again,” Kim said. “Thank you so much.”
“Thank you,” Bernard replied. There was more silence. Bernard chose his words very carefully.
“I know that had to be difficult for you,” he said.
“It wasn’t so bad. I’m sorry I got so emotional there for a while.”
“No need to apologize.” They went on for a while in silence.
“You know, I’ve got some things for you.” Bernard finally said.
“I know. You’re referring to the ring, aren’t you?”
“Why yes, yes I am. And some other personal effects I saved. But mainly the ring.”
“Thank you, but I couldn’t take it.”
“It’s okay,” Bernard said. “I know he asked you. And I figured you said no.”
“That’s not what happened. Why do you think that?”
‘Well, afterwards, after word came about him, I was going through his things up in his room, and I came across the ring. I figured since you didn’t have it, you must have said no.”
“That’s not what happened,” she repeated. “Anyways, it was a beautiful ring. I always thought it was more than he could afford.”
“Well, if it’ll help at all, he never asked for any help for it. It was paid for, too, I saw the receipt. Somehow he’d saved up enough money to pay for it all himself. He’d told me, the night before that he was going to ask you.”
“What happened is this. We talked about it. And he said he was going to ask me. And trust me, I would have said yes, no question about it, I would have said yes, yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. But then he said, he didn’t feel right about asking me and then leaving right away, and that if something happened, something happened to him or something happened to me to change my mind, he didn’t want me to be bogged down – that’s just how he put it, bogged down – with a diamond ring. He said he’d keep it in a dresser drawer, and when he got back, he’d ask me then, and if we still felt the same way, we’d get married. And that’s what really happened. Only thing is, I’ve been bogged down ever since anyway, bogged down with his memory, bogged down with his decency – I’ve never met anyone with as pure or beautiful decency as Joe had.”
“I’m so sorry,” Bernard said. “I found the ring in his dresser and just assumed.”
“What did Marie think?”
“I never told her about the ring. She knew, or she had a hunch that he was going to ask you. But he never told her about the ring. He told me about it about a week before, and we talked about it that night, he asked for my advice, and I told him to go ahead and ask you. I just assumed he took my advice.”
“Well, that was Joe, he thought things through and made up his own mind. Just like going to that goddamned war in the first place. He’d thought that over and made up his mind.”
Bernard grew quiet. The night was dark, and, as he turned off the bright lines of Highway 47 onto the faded center line of Ojibway Valley Road, it got darker. The darkness seemed to be consuming them.
“He sure looked up to you, though” she started. “He always …”
“It was my fault,” Bernard flatly interrupted.
“It’s my fault.”
“Bernard, what are you talking about? Nobody …”
“That last night,” Bernard said. “He came to my room and told me, I was the reason he was going. Cause I was in World War One. I filled him up with all that war hero crap.”
“Bernard, you mustn’t blame yourself.”
“I knew it was all a load of crap. But I filled him up all those years. If only I’d taken the time to tell him the truth, that none of it was worth it, that there was no honor or glory. There was just death and destruction, that’s all it boiled down to. It was that way in World War One, and it was that way in Vietnam, and it’s been that way in every war that’s ever been fought. Only he didn’t know that. But I did. And I never told him.”
“That kid belonged on the farm. He belonged with you and your babies and the fields and the crops. He sure as hell didn’t belong in some goddamned jungle on the other side of the world.”
“Bernard, it’s okay.”
“Don’t you see, he told me. I’ve been carrying this around for fifteen years, even before he was killed. He told me clear as the day that I was the reason he was going. If only I’d stopped him. But I didn’t. So it’s my fault.”
They rounded the big S curve and the bright neon sign for the Ojibway Inn came into view. Neither one said anything as Bernard pulled into the parking lot and put the truck in park. Before she got out, Kim said, “Bernard, I’m sorry.”
“What on earth do you have to be sorry about?” he asked.
“I shouldn’t have come back. I didn’t mean to stir up old things like this.”
“No, it’s not that way at all, Kim. I’m glad you’re back. I’m thrilled. Really, I am.”
“These things have been coming to a head lately anyways. I guess with me moving out of the house and all. I’ve been thinking about Joe more than usual lately anyways.”
“And then I had to come along …”
“But I’m so glad you did. You don’t know how much I’ve wanted to say that, to speak those things, to another human being.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you’re wrong.”
“Kim, thanks, but …”
“If you’re going to take the blame for him leaving, then you’ve got to take credit for all the good that was Joe. Joe was and will always be the great love of my life. I only knew him for a short time, but long enough to know how special he was. And it’s true, he adored you. But if you are going to blame yourself, make sure you give yourself credit where credit is due. He was who he was because of you. Okay”?
“Oay,” Bernard mumbled.
His head was down, he was staring at the floorboard of the truck, when he felt her lean over and plant a kiss above his right eye. Then she opened the door and got out of the truck. Before she closed it, she said, “see you tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Bernard replied.
“I’ll stop by around lunch time,” she said.
Then she was gone, up the porch steps and through the front door. Bernard pulled out of the lot and drove home. The house was dark; he fumbled for the keys and unlocked the back door. Max greeted him, all happy wiggles, as if he had returned from the other side of the world. Bernard reached down and scratched behind his ears and under his snout, his two most favorite places.
The next morning, at 5:00, Bernard was awakened by the sound of the alarm clock. Max was standing next to the bed, his tail wagging, waiting for Bernard to get up and let him out. Bernard made his way down stairs and let Max out and put on a pot of coffee. He looked out the kitchen window to the west, and the sky was clear again. It was going to be another beautiful day.
By 6:30, Bernard was working, hooking the hay elevator up to the opening in the north end of the loft. At 9:00, Dennis and Dean Talbert pulled into the driveway, pulling the flat wagon stacked high with bales of hay. Max ran and greeted them, and Bernard followed. Dennis was driving; he pulled in and positioned the diesel so that the wagon was lined up with the hay elevator.
“Morning, old man,” Dean said, as he and Dennis got out of the truck.
“Good morning, guys.”
“Well, I see you got the elevator ready,” Dean said. “Guess that means we have to get to work.”
“You bet your ass it does,” Bernard said. Dean laughed as he entered the barn and climbed up into the loft. Dennis took his spot at the end of the wagon. He turned on the elevator and the pulley lurched into movement, climbing the angle to the opening in the north end of the barn.
Dennis climbed to the top of the wagon and one by one, took the bales off the top two rows and threw them down to the ground. Bernard reached over to pick one up, and Dennis quickly said,”Now, now, now, we’ll have none of that.”
Bernard stopped, red faced, feeling helpless.
“You just leave us to do all the lifting,” he said to Bernard. “After all, it’s my horses that are going to be eating the damn stuff.” Dennis’s wife, Connie, owned three quarter horses and boarded another three on their farm. The hay was largely for them, and was figured into the rental fees the Talberts paid Bernard for the fields. Their loft was still pretty full with bales from the second cutting, what they were putting up in Bernard’s loft was what would get them through the winter.
Dennis climbed down and started feeding the elevator, while up above, in the loft, Dean took the bales and stacked them. “Well,” Dennis said to Bernard, “how’s it feel to be retired?”
“I ain’t retired yet,” Bernard said. “Still gotta keep you kids in line.”
Dennis laughed, and then said, “Seriously, how are you doing with everything?”
“I’m ready,” Bernard said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t gonna miss it, though.”
“I’ll bet,” Dennis replied, grabbing another bale with the hooks he held. “Anytime you want, you just drive on out and see us. I mean it. You’ll always be welcome at our place.” Dennis and Dean were relative newcomers to the valley, having bought the Johnson farm, about three miles south of Bernard, five years earlier. Dennis and Connie took over the old farmhouse and lived there with their two children, Peter and Samantha. Dean and his wife Joan bought the old Anderson place, about a mile away, and together they operated the 160 acre farm. They were renting another 200 acres of fields from Bernard. Bernard recognized that they were good farmers and hard workers, and he was pulling for them to succeed.
“I appreciate that”, Bernard said.
By 10:30, Dennis and Dean finished unloading the wagon. “Well,” Dean said as he climbed down from the loft, “one down, about four more go go.” They got back in the truck and left to fill the empty wagon up with the second load. Bernard climbed the steps in the loft to review Dean’s work. The loft was hot and thick with hay dust. Bernard put his handkerchief over his nose and mouth. He found the bales neatly stacked in the rear of the loft.
He started down and saw Max lying at the bottom of the steps, waiting for him. Once Max saw Bernard, his tail started wagging again, and he danced, spinning in excited circles, until Bernard’s feet hit the floor, then he was off, out the barn door and into the deserted pasture behind the barn, running, his strides fluid and long.
Bernard busied himself with a pitchfork, raking up the stray strands of hay that Dennis and the wagon left behind into a small pile next to the elevator, when the blue Mustang pulled into the driveway. Max ran up and barked at the car, and Kim got out, wearing a red sweatshirt and blue jeans. She was carrying a brown paper bag. Bernard tried to resist what he didn’t dare admit to himself, that he was in love with her, but it was no use.
“Hi there, old timer,” she said, smiling as she approached.
“Good morning, Kim.” He looked at his watch to make sure it was in fact still morning. It was 11:30.
“I hope you’re hungry,” she said. “I ran to the IGA this morning and picked us up some stuff for lunch.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Bernard said, as they stepped through the back door, into the kitchen.
“Yes, I did,” she replied, “especially after you bought dinner last night.” They went inside. Bernard excused himself and went to the bathroom and washed his hands while she emptied the contents of the bag on the counter. “Sit down,” she said, “and let me make you a sandwich. I got a good loaf of French bread and some deli meat. There’s baked ham and roast turkey and, my own personal favorite, pastrami. I also have genuine Wisconsin Colby-jack cheese and lettuce and fresh tomatoes. Now if you like, I could slice you off a chunk of bread and stack all of this together – wait, do you have any mayonnaise?”
“In the fridge,” Bernard said, taking his seat at the table. Kim opened the refrigerator and found the jar of Hellman’s.
“Ah, perfect. What do you say, sound good?”
“Sounds wonderful,” Bernard replied.
Kim asked Bernard where the silverware was, and started working on the sandwiches. “It’s another nice day out, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yes it is. They say it might rain later this afternoon.”
Kim was looking out the window above the sink. “That sure is a beautiful dog you have. What kind is he?”
“That would be Max. He’s a Gordon Setter.”
“I’m not familiar with that breed.”
“Neither was I. He’s supposed to be a bird dog, but I never took the time to train him.”
She was watching him through the window, laying in the shade of the elm tree next to the house. “I just love his markings. Those patches of brown above his eyes.”
“I found him at the shelter. He was just a pup. That was seven years ago. He’s by far the smartest dog I’ve ever owned.”
“What are you going to do when you move?”
“All ready checked on that. They allow pets in my new place.”
“That’s good.” She turned around and handed Bernard a plate with a perfectly constructed boat of a sandwich and a pile of potato chips.
“Whew, that’s an impressive sandwich.”
“Thanks. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Just water, from the faucet, will be fine. Glasses are up in the cupboard next to the sink.” She poured him a glass and started making her sandwich when she turned and saw Bernard, politely waiting for her before he started eating.
“Go ahead,” she said, “you don’t have to wait for me.”
Bernard took a bite of the sandwich. “What do you have planned for the rest of the day?” he asked
“Oh, I don’t know. Thought I’d drive around a bit. Enjoy the countryside.” She finished fixing her sandwich and joined Bernard at the table. “I think I’m going to head home tomorrow.”
“You’re not staying till Sunday?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s such a long drive, and I miss my daughter.”
“I understand. I hope you found what you came back for.”
“I think I did. I have to admit, it was harder than I thought it’d be. But last night, talking to you, I think that really helped.”
Bernard nodded, and said, “I think it helped me, too. Oh, before I forget, excuse me ….” He dabbed his mouth with his napkin and went upstairs. He returned a couple of minutes later with a cigar box. He handed it to Kim. “I want you to have this.”
She opened the box. Inside were Joe’s army dog tags, and an ancient black and white photo of a woman with a small child in a sailor uniform sitting on her lap. “Who is this?”
“I have no idea,” Bernard replied. “It sure isn’t anyone I recognize. But it must have been important to Joe.”
There were old baseball cards, and there was the ring. But it was the raffle tickets that caught her eye. “Oh, my God,” she said.
“He saved these. I can’t believe it. These were the losing raffle tickets from the night we met.” Tears were running down her cheek. “Thank you, Bernard. Thank you so much.”
“I’m just happy to have had the chance to give them to you.”
They finished their lunch, and Kim was just getting ready to leave when the Talbert bothers pulled into the driveway with the second wagon full of hay. They started up the elevator and Dennis started unloading the wagon when Kim and Bernard walked out. Kim was carrying the cigar box. Dean and Dennis both did a double take at the vision of beauty that accompanied Bernard to the Mustang, trying their best to mind their own business. Bernard could feel their stares as he walked Kim to her car. Before she got in, she hugged him, and gave him a peck on the cheek. “You take care of yourself,” she said.
“You, too,” Bernard replied. “If you ever come back, look me up”
“I will. And I’ll be back. It’ll be easier, now.”
She got in the car, and they waved good bye, and she was gone. Bernard made his way back to the hay elevator. Dennis and Dean were surprisingly quiet until, from up at the top of the elevator, Dean cried out, “Why, Bernard, you old dog, you!”
Dennis broke into laughter and a wry smile formed on Bernard’s face. “Just because there’s snow on the chimney,” he said,”doesn’t mean there ain’t fire in the stove.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Dennis and Dean brought wagons stacked high with bales of hay and unloaded them into the loft. Bernard “supervised”, making sure things were out of their way and engaging in the idle chit chat farmers have used for years to pass the time spent working. They talked about the weather, about crops, about cars and trucks, and deer hunting. Bernard was enjoying himself so much that he didn’t have time to dwell on his pending “retirement.” The sky gradually grew darker as the afternoon passed by until, as if on cue, just as Dean was putting the last bale up, a loud crack of thunder sounded, and a couple of minutes later, a soft rain began pelting the ground.
“How about that,” Dennis said. The three of them were standing in the barn, behind the wide open doors, watching the rain. Max was in the barn, too, curled up in a pile of loose hay, dry and happily asleep and exhausted from a glorious day spent chasing birds and mice around the farmyard.
“Just in the nick of time,” Dean said, and, turning to Bernard, added, “are we good or what?”
Bernard laughed, “You’re good, all right, just that I ain’t figured out what for yet.”
“Well, old man,” Dennis said, extending his hand, “happy retirement.” Dean extended his hand too, and Bernard shook hands with both of them.
“Well, Dean, we’d better go get that tarp up before it starts raining any harder.” Then they were off, in their Diesel, Dennis beeping the horn at Bernard as they pulled out of the driveway on to Ojibway Valley Road. Bernard stood alone in the barn and waved good bye.
Two weeks later, on September 30th, Bernard was all packed. Marie and Patrick were going to come by the next day and move him into his apartment. The sun had just set when Bernard realized there was one last thing to do. He loaded up the supplies in his F150 and drove to Dennis Talbert’s house. He got out and rang the front bell. Dennis opened the door.
“Dennis, there’s something I need you to do for me.”
“Sure, anything, you name it.”
“I need you to come out to my truck with me.”
Dennis stepped outside and they walked to Bernard’s truck. Bernard opened the door, and Max jumped out, his tail wagging.
“What is it?” Dennis asked.
“Take him,” Bernard said.
“What? I couldn’t …”
“Just take him. He won’t be no trouble.”
“I thought you were taking him with you.”
“He won’t do any good in town. He loves it out here. He can’t run in town.”
“Bernard, I can’t …”
“Please?” Bernard was looking directly into Dennis’ eyes, his face red, his eyes wet, pleading with Dennis. Dennis silently nodded. Bernard reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a bag with all of Max’s things – his dish, a leash, the mat he slept on, and the bag of hard food and the cans of soft food. He gave it to Dennis and then he took a folded up sheet of paper out of his back pocket and handed it to him. “I wrote everything down that you need to do.” Max was up by the front porch when Bernard said, “Thanks, Dennis.”
“Bernard,” Dennis said, “don’t worry. We’ll take good care of him.”
“I know you will. Now, if you don’t mind, take him inside before I leave. It’ll be easier that way.”
Dennis nodded that he understood, and took Max inside with him. Bernard backed his truck out onto the highway, and drove straight into the last night he’d ever spend in the house he was born in.