The pickup was loaded with furniture which he planned to sell in town. He drove slowly down the highway so the canvas tarp wouldn’t blow. There had been some rain that afternoon and he knew the old dealer would pay less if the furniture was wet or in any way damaged. Having talked with him earlier that day, when asked if he bought used furniture, the old man’s eyes had glazed with practiced indifference as he absently replied that he’d have to see the ‘stuff’ first. So the young man promised to return with the furniture before the store closed that evening.
He glanced to the rearview mirror, checking the tarp, and remembered the dogs running behind the pickup, lost in the trailing dust. That morning he’d dumped the dogs, a yellow Lab and a white Spaniel, near a little town too small to have a dogcatcher where he hoped they’d find a home. Some years before when his father moved the family off the farm, he remembered the dogs dumped along a desolate road, how they’d circled and sniffed the air then ran after the car. There were other times in his youth when grownups came in the night to haul a stray away; they might as well have lynched his best friend. He could never understand the gruff ease with which adults performed such acts. Now, however, he realized if you live long enough, sooner or later you’ll likely commit every lame act you felt incapable of as a child.
Later in the week, he would leave his wife and young son, another betrayal, though only for a short while, till he could resettle. Still, an uncertain sadness quarreled with his thoughts, indistinct as two children quarreling behind a barn, faint and defiant as a distal, nostalgic scream. Too much was passing from him, too many attachments forsaken in a day. He felt more and more a traitor with its sour pang and hunger. It was dangerous to feel so empty. The home he had searched so anxiously and hopefully for, his wife, child, family, and friends, who were more than people to him, all members of a holy tribe living off a harsh yet cherished land, all betrayed.
There was another reason he drove slowly. He wished to savor the land, its contour and color, its varied texture and scent, take it all in and etch it deep to give assurance he would one day return. So he drove silently asking of the land its forgiveness – far easier to apologize to the vast face of the prairie than be gripped by the pleading condemnation of his young wife’s wounded eyes.
It was one of those transitional days of late November, the air full of melting snow and mud odors, the atmosphere gray, oppressive, as pale, sifting stratus clouds distorted the anchoring sun in a purplish haze, yellow-rimmed, shrouding the sky. And over all the land stretched a black sea of mud with islands of filthy snow scattered here and there, waiting to die. In the fields, arthritic stalks of milo and corn huddled, gnarled and bent by wet snow and high winds, their tumescent fruits hanging isolate, untenable, also waiting to die and to rot. One of those near-winter days of car-heaters and stoves half ablaze, the smell of over-boots on damp floorboards and gloves let to dry.
Many farmers had come to town, their cars and pickups lined the streets, no parking space left in front of the bars and cafes where the men sat talking over their coffee or beer while their women-folk shopped at the IGA or Boogaarts.
As he drove down the street he could hear their talk, the men, already knew their words. How it would have been a record milo crop. How the pheasant hunters out from Kansas City and up from Wichita had done enough damage dragging their big-ass boots and shotguns through the fields. No respect. Then the early snow and high winds had hit, knocking the buxom feed to a muddy mattress as sure as the little woman got hers. And there she lay in all her ravaged splendor, ripe and ready, the richest grain ever, and you couldn’t get to her lying there in the mud. No damn way! And di’ja hear, some took over 90 bushels an acre before the snow! This really sparked some ripe words. He’d heard it all, their pool-hall parlance, the county had been fairly abuzz with it for a week. He had it memorized, the piss and moan of each wagging tongue.
That ought to slacken their fat bellies, he thought, wondering how many new pickups orders would be canceled. But to those in the bars and cafes, it smacked of sin, an unharvested crop, something like thievery or adultery to their eyes. Like the Holy Virgin set before them, ever-merciful and kind, yet her loving mercy was forever out of reach, which made man’s doings all the more desperate. For the well-healed and their boosters, he had no sympathy, only bitter disdain. They hadn’t any need, nor were they luckless. Year after year the big landowners had pilfered the prairie then dissipated their gains in vain bellicose consumption. Having tilled the land for less than a century, yet in this mere span, they’d rifled the grass and soil in many places clear to the rocks. So he viewed the storm cryptically as the Indian nemesis…or dirt farmers blown to the wind. For there was a bitter pulse about the land and in himself, if he’d admit it, an angry sullen spirit which knew of other harvests left unfinished and other lives left untapped. And if the current gentry were not pleased with their substance then they could leave like all the others had through the years. All those they’d helped chew up and spit out…the jilted daughters and abandoned widows and sons. No, he had no sympathy for the overlords and bankers, only for the victims of their usurious, cunning ways. And of the latter, he knew a good many, knew their worries and shared them. Knew also that they wouldn’t be in the bars and cafes, or even in town – for they bought their whiskey early and would be parked in old pickups along the county’s back roads. And their thoughts with each drink would turn to their pending debts, after each bottle to their children, and with each passing day to themselves and to their wives alone at home dreading the anger, rage, and despair that would return come nightfall.
He longed desperately for the past – a past before all the looming thresholds of decision and anxiety when at times the sadness of the entire world seemed to collapse and descend upon a man’s lower gut like some deadly black cancer, an effluvium of despair like a day-after’s breath of alcohol and tobacco. He would like to have gone to the little cafe in the south part of town where his friends would be drinking coffee, their words always full of mystery and play like rowdy children born of riddles. And he would have joined them like a child in their theater of the absurd, shared in their cuss and laughter, and thus briefly escaped the environs’ as well as the mind’s hostility, instead, he turned east up 4th Street. He headed on past Lincoln where he should have turned, then circled the block and parked in front of the used furniture store.
The old building had once been the local Nazarene Church and retained the faded red lettering above the door; this epitaph merged with another more recently daubed on the wood and so juxtaposed the old dealer’s sign read “Nazarene Used Furniture Store.” It served somewhat as the county repository, shoddy, dilapidated, no larger than a one-room schoolhouse which it resembled, containing all the unharmonious clutter in which the communal soul abides. Whereas the Nazarene had been a carpenter and went into Judea to become the Messiah, his church now housed the unfired corpses and chipped remains of his former craft.
The young man stepped in and found the old dealer with another customer. So he stood back and let his eyes drift over the soiled mattresses, springs, and bedsteads, tables, chairs, hall-trees, and lamps stacked about the floor and up the walls in an indifferent array. There was a desk child-scrawled with crayons; a mirrored bureau in the far corner which a delicate old lady may have owned before she passed away. A strange expression he thought, pass away. He always envisioned a person walking over a pasture hill into the distance with the nimbus of evening serving in solemn witness to their passing. An old scythe hung like a crucifix on the east wall, the veins of its handle long sealed by the dirt and sweat of earthy labor. The implement as ancient as the Nazarene himself, and he wondered if the user had reaped just reward in final harvest. Close by stood a woodstove, its metal hide pitted by rust and ashes, the grate and flue unfired for a decade now. A set of narrow bedsprings stood against the wall, bent and warped as if by fevered nightmares. He wondered