Chapter 1 – Buck
I grew up in a small town. Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a farmer. Most of the men in my church were farmers in one way or another, and when they’d take off their big hats to greet the preacher as they walked in their thin slicked hair always made them look shy and embarrassed. Out in the fields, though, they were real men with dirt in the creases of their skin and cracked calloused hands.
My favorite farmer was Buck. Buck always had a little smile when he looked at you, like he was letting you in on a joke between just you and him. His eyes were thin from years of staring through the sunlight and dust at his little lot on county road 26. He inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father.
The land wasn’t particularly good for our area, and there were much bigger farms in town. The lot sloped up to a steep pitch at the back, where the ground was unyielding and thick brush reclaimed the land. Years ago his family had tamed that rocky sloping hill right to the property line and the land was stacked now on two shelves separated by a wall made from the rocks that used to lay scattered in the field.
Buck and his family barely got by some years, but he was always finding new ways to keep everything going. Like most farms, they had a few fruit trees and animals but the main crop was wheat, which occupied the whole top shelf of the lot and a third of the bottom.
Buck’s farm wasn’t big enough for a combine like the big farms used. Besides, he couldn’t have afforded to rent one for half a day even if he wanted to. He had to use his daddy’s old sickle bar, rusted thick on the outside but with blades razor-sharp, and a long loop of baling wire tied to the end. Near the back of the lot where the land became steep, he’d cinch the loop up to angle the sickle bar just right along the ground to get the most out of that miserable lot.
When it was time to move the tractor from one shelf to the other, he had to have the neighbors come to help because his custom pulley lift took three men to operate. I always looked forward to those days, because my father would let me watch as the men lifted that huge mass of metal with their own strength. The job only took a few minutes, but they would talk for hours afterward, usually complaining about the weather or the changing times. Sometimes Buck would take out his pocket knife and sharpen a stick for me to play with, but usually I just sat and listened to them talk.
Chapter 2 – Ann
When I was 12 years old my father called me into his upstairs office to talk. He gave me some Twinkies and asked me to take a seat. He had never given me Twinkies before. Something was wrong.
He said that yesterday Buck’s wife Ann was riding horseback with a group of close friends, just like they always had. It was spring then, and they had gone to a local trail up high in the rolling hills that rose up on the county border. These were the same hills that skirted Buck’s property, raising one edge up high and just holding it there, suspended.
I knew the trail myself. Grover’s Bend. There’s a spot along that trail on the south face of a hill where the trees clear out, and you can see for miles with no houses or roads in sight. We used to go there as a family and just sit, not talking much, and then one of us would stir and we’d all just get up and head back home. It was like that vast expanse could talk, and it always said the same thing but sometimes you just wanted to hear its story one more time.
This time of year that clearing would be littered with flowers in full bloom. The hills beyond would be flecked with vague patches of purple and white where the flowers found comfortable places to establish themselves, and no stronger plants were there to push them out. Most people in town would venture out to Grover’s Bend at least once during this season as a kind of rite of passage. It was nice to get out and feel the warmth on your face after a long winter. It seemed to bring people back to life the same way it did with those flowers on the hill.
Ann was on an unfamiliar horse that day, and it had been raining the day before so the trail was thick with mud. Normally this is no problem; the horses do just fine and the streams run full with fresh clean water for them to drink. Twice, the trail crossed over one of those streams and there were old logs cut in half and set across in both places forming bridges for the people.
The walls of the creek are steep at the second crossing. Horses can’t use the bridge but nearby the large rocks of the stream give way to tiny pebbles. At that spot, two gentle ramps have been carved out on both sides of the creek by the trampling of countless hooves.
These ramps were used by rainwater as much as the horses, and after a hard rain they would be soupy bottomless fields where one had to hunt for the more solid places to step. Ann’s horse, only newly broken, was being stubborn and she was the last to cross. Eventually, she had to back up, dismount, and start leading the horse down the ramp. Once in the water, the pebbles lining the creek bed would provide a more solid footing.
She advanced slowly, testing each step, deftly finding a solid path with the horse in tow behind. The horse was getting uncomfortable, raising his head and taking reluctant jerky steps, but he was moving forward and all of this was nothing unusual. Eventually, she worked herself up to the running water, but here the mud was so soft she was sinking in past her boots and the horse came to a full stop. She pulled at the rope, pulled at her boots, neither was moving. With full-strength, she leaned and pulled her back foot upward to break the mud’s suction, but at that same moment the horse reared, and then it happened.
All of this had been relayed to my father by the friends that were there that day. After it happened, the three friends each told what they had seen but nothing really made sense. The only thing clear was that there was a lot of movement and splashing, and that Ann had ended up in the water, and that somehow that shallow creek had taken her strong able body downstream far enough to reach one of the larger rocks, and somehow her head had struck the first, largest, and sharpest rock among them.
But how could that be? Ann was the most competent member of the group. She had proven herself capable countless times in dangerous situations, always reacting quickly and correctly. And this wasn’t even a dangerous situation! No one had sensed anything before it had happened, no one thought to help or even watch very closely until the noise had started. The stream was barely three feet deep. I had been in that same water, as a child, and hadn’t been swept away.
It just didn’t make sense, but there it was. Ann was gone. By the time someone had gotten her out of the water those blank empty eyes were staring out, or not even staring really just, gone. Nothing. And everyone left behind was saying the same thing, as if no answer could ever satisfy: What happened?
Chapter 3 – The Town
When you live in a small town, everybody knows everybody’s business. The smaller the town the more this is true, and my town was about as small as they come. In a city, people collect in little groups of shared interests or heritage or occupation. You can disappear into a city; you can become invisible if you choose. For those who live in a small town, that’s not an option. This isn’t good or bad, or maybe it’s both, but that’s how it is.
After it happened, I remember how all the people started to act differently in church. They would walk up to Buck after service, and the wives would tilt their heads with tight-lipped smiles. The men would seem like people in a play, acting out a part they hadn’t practiced enough. They all shifted and looked at the wall or the door or the clock. Buck’s thin eyes still smiled but there was something else in them now. He was as big and tall as ever, but somehow he didn’t look tall anymore. Maybe I was just getting bigger.
It wasn’t just church that had changed either. My mother and her friends would talk about Buck’s family over tea. They would say how awful it was and how great she was over and over in different ways. It was like they were trying to find something they had all missed the last time they said it. But they never found it, they just kept saying how awful and how great and eventually I stopped listening.
The town brought food to Buck’s house for a long time. One of my mother’s friends started picking up Buck’s two kids every morning, and she just kept on doing that every day until they were grown. On weekdays she would take them to school with her son, and on weekends she would take them over to her house. Bless her heart.
Buck still worked the farm day after day, and we just grew into the thing that had happened like that. It never did make sense, but after a while, you couldn’t imagine it different. The thing had happened, but other things happened too, and who could keep track of it all? There were farms to tend to, meals to cook, and children to raise.
I went to the field at Grover’s Bend over and over for years after, but I never stopped at the creek. When I got to the field I would sit on my coat and stare at that big silent open expanse and just listen. I don’t know why I kept going, I just did it. I still go there sometimes.
Chapter 4 – Jack
Buck’s first child was a boy named Jack. The people in town all used to say that Jack was retarded, but not to make fun of him or anything. Back then we didn’t have to think much about which word we used to label someone like Jack. It wasn’t an insult, it was just what Jack was. Everyone liked him, even though he caused trouble from time to time. You couldn’t help but like him. He was what he seemed to be, not complicated like other people.
Anyway, after it happened Jack would cry for Ann but I always wondered how it was for him. Before it happened, he would cry like that when she went to the store too. Was this the same? How could a boy like that know the difference? Once when he was crying for her, I watched my mother’s friend give him a toy and say that Ann was gone and he settled right down. Just like that. How’s that for acceptance? In a way, he was better than all of us. Say what you want, but there was no shuffling or head-tilting or acting like a character in a play with Jack.
I started going over to my mother’s friend’s house a lot. She had a son my age, and Buck’s children were always there. The four of us kids would play together day after day. I was older than Buck’s kids and the son my age wasn’t much to speak of, so I guess I was helping my mother’s friend or something. I don’t know. They seemed to like me and I liked them so I just kept going back.
A lot of times we’d do this thing where we played with toys the wrong way. We made up new games out of old and would argue over the rules even though there were none. We had names for them all, but I don’t remember any of that. I just remember having a lot of fun playing with checkers but we weren’t playing checkers. I remember a game with a soccer ball and a baseball bat, and running around the house, and each time we played it would be some different new game that we all understood somehow.
Part of the reason we had to make up our own games was that Jack had to play too, so usually, it started with what Jack was going to do. We had to teach him, and once he had learned his part we had a game. Sometimes Buck’s daughter Mary would write the name or rules on a chalkboard because she had the nicest handwriting. That never lasted long, though. None of it mattered. The days were long and things were simple and that was good enough.
Chapter 5 – Mary
Mary was Buck’s youngest. She was more serious than we were in that innocent way little girls sometimes are. When we were playing she would always try to act like a grown-up and tell us what to do, but we didn’t mind much. She was two years younger than me and at that age, this meant that in the end, I was still the boss.
By the time I was 14 I had stopped going over to see them. I was looking for something else then that I didn’t think I was going to find there. I got lost in study and sports and other games and for a few years I didn’t think much about Mary, Jack, Buck, or Ann. I’ve since learned just how hard those years were on Buck’s poor family.
I guess the little forgotten house on county road 26 became a sort of nightmarish prison for those three. While the town and I eventually moved on after the loss of Ann, they still hadn’t been able to fill the hole that was left gaping behind those walls.
Looking back, I can see now that Mary’s bossy attitude was just her trying to be the mother figure the family now lacked. Of course she never really pulled it off. No kid that age could. Having a mother myself I didn’t know back then how hard it was for her, trying to live up to an ideal that kept fading more and more despite so much effort.
On top of that, Buck was empty for a long time after. He had lost a part of himself and while he loved his children deeply, they also reminded him of the pain. Over time, they became to him almost unbearable symbols of his loss. Before, each new obstacle the family encountered had been a testament to their unity. They would band together and suffer together and it was somehow good. After it happened, the obstacles kept coming but the magic was gone. They just couldn’t quite recapture that old goodness.
Buck worked endless hours and still the house was never in order. Maybe it would’ve been different if he’d had some time to think, but that wasn’t a luxury the family could afford. Mary was learning to cook and clean and take care of Jack, but she wasn’t doing well in school. She had always been an excellent student before, but the weight of responsibility was too much for a child to take and something had to give. By the time she was 13, that little house was practically bursting at the seams with tension.
She developed a nervous tick, and some of the kids made fun of it at school. After ignoring them for years, I started to notice Mary again and remembered her family. I wish I could say that I saw and understood that she needed help, but I was a 16-year-old boy and something else was catching my eye. We started sitting together at lunch and again I started coming by the gathering house on weekends.
Things were different during those years. The kids didn’t play group games anymore, and we kept mostly apart. For me, it was like Mary was the only person in the house. I remember sitting in her room and talking about the other people in town, mostly kids at school or our families. She had a cassette player and would listen to side B of Jagged Little Pill over and over and over. Each time the last song ended she’d go over to the player, rewind it, and start it back over. It was like she was trying to find something in those songs but kept missing it. It reminded me of how my mother’s friends used to say the same things over and over. She didn’t seem to notice when I commented on it or suggested letting the other side play for once. She would just hit rewind and keep talking about something else.
She told me that when she tried to hold back the tick in her face it got worse, and her whole body would shake like something horrible was trying to get out. It scared her so after a while she just stopped trying. I didn’t mind. I knew enough about the world she called home to understand its likely source.
During those two years, I won football games and failed tests and fought with my parents and rode bikes a lot, but when I think back now I just see Mary. Us sitting there in that room and talking and her folding clothes with me stealing little glances when I thought she wasn’t looking.
Chapter 6 – Me
Today is my birthday. That’s why I’m writing this. I don’t know what my birthday has to do with anything, but that’s what brought me here. I never became a farmer, but my brother does most of the work on our farm now that my father is getting older and slowing down. I still help them out from time to time. It’s hard, noble work and I’m proud of what my brother has done with the place.
After high school, I left and went to the city. I was looking for something I didn’t think I could find in that old town. I got a job fixing cars from a friend of the family who runs a mechanic shop on the east-side where things are less crowded. I never liked crowds. I take pride in my work and it turns out I’m pretty good at it. Lately I’ve been thinking about moving back, maybe starting up my own shop. I don’t know.
You can still find Buck working his farm out county road 26. He still drags the same old tractor up and down using the same pulley system from when I was a boy. His eyes shine now more than ever, and each year I understand the quiet joke behind them a little better.
These days the house has aired out a bit, and the worst of the nightmare is long over. A few years back fate finally seemed to notice Buck and offered pity in the form of a huge fire that swallowed up nearly all the wheat in three counties. Buck was one of the few who was able to save his crop from the flames, largely because of natural protection the high ground at the back of that lot provided. The bigger farms all had insurance so they were fine, and what they did lose was more than made up for in improved soil the following year. Meanwhile, Buck was able to name his price with private buyers calling him directly from far and wide.
Jack still lives at home, but Buck built him an apartment on the backside of the house with his own kitchen and bathroom. He grew up pretty well for a, guy like Jack. Got himself a job at the local cafe sweeping and clearing tables. He greets everyone that walks into the place with the same big, genuine smile. I went down the other day to talk to him. We always have the same conversation but he doesn’t seem to mind so I don’t either. How are the people? Oh, they’re just great. Some mundane thing happened lately, and that’s that. There you have it. Every conversation that two people had ever had boiled down and hardened and baked in the sun until there was hardly anything there at all except something you remembered and kind of liked. That’s the wisdom of Jack.
I never did find the nerve to act on my feelings for Mary. It didn’t seem right. She was broken then, and that damn tape was always playing. Maybe it would’ve been a good thing for both of us to make something more of it, but we were young and I was a timid boy. I’ve always wondered if it was the same for her, if time vanished and little details were screaming and everything shimmered back then for her too.
Her face tick faded with the years as the despair in that house settled and seeped down into the ground to be with Ann where it belonged. Mary teaches at the elementary school now and got married a while back. I don’t really know her husband, but I hear he’s a respectable guy and treats her right. A baby is on the way. She deserves every bit of it.
Well, that pretty much wraps it up. That’s what happened, or at least that’s what comes to mind when I ask myself the question. All these years and here I am now, dragging this stupid laptop all over town and writing for some reason. Trying to make sense of it all, I guess. You dig up an old memory and while you’re dusting it off you notice something new, and then when you put it back it’s changed forever. Here a little brighter now, there a little dimmer. This time I’m writing it down.
I’m sitting in the field at Grover’s Bend right now, almost out of battery, staring out at these old hills and I don’t know what to make of any of it. Can’t find any damn sense and there’s not much time left. I’m not mad though. Maybe a little sad, but mostly just glad it happened, whatever it was. From here it feels like something I’d do again a hundred times, and if it was different I’d do that too. Just from here though, don’t come telling me something like that on a Tuesday afternoon at the shop.
Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I don’t think that’s it. I think that no matter what happens, we can always find some place to sit and listen and escape ourselves, and for a moment from that distance it’s all so wonderful. Can’t stay forever though. Eventually, something stirs and you just get up and head back home. After all, there are farms to tend to, meals to cook, and children to raise.
I wrote this because I wanted to tell a simple story about something complicated. Small. No dialogue. Only four character names, each with their own chapter titles.
In the beginning, I wanted it to be about Buck, but it couldn’t just be about him. Then I thought it would be a love story, but the narrator and Mary just didn’t belong together. Then I didn’t want it to be about a town, or a man, or his family, or love, or even someone’s life. I wanted it to be about questions and answers —about something just out of reach that we come to know a little better with each story.
I hope that as a reader who made this far you were able to inch just a little closer to that something.