By Richard Luftig
I listened for signs of life but heard only the hiss and pop of the coffee that I put on myself. Sarah hadn’t come downstairs. She was in another bout of depression.
She was taking antidepressants but all it had done was cause her to gain ten pounds—which made her even more depressed—and uninterested in sex. Things had gotten so bad that I’d taken to sleeping on the couch.
She always had episodes but never this bad. We had married twelve years ago right out of high school and problems started soon after. Now I felt them piling up like snowdrifts on the county road. But, with trying to keep the farm going, and three young children, there weren’t many options.
There were times when she would break out of it, sit on my lap while the kids giggled. Three weeks ago, she had insisted that we forsake leftovers and go to Pizza Barn. When I argued how tight our finances were, she said; “Who cares?” But those good times were becoming rarer and further apart.
It was past seven but the children were still in bed. Sarah hadn’t gotten them ready for school, and I was going to have to do it again. With luck, Sarah had at least laid out their clothes. But, lately, she headed to bed right after supper, getting up only to take the secret painkillers that she thought I didn’t know about.
I emptied my cup, glad that I had brewed a full pot. It was promising to be a ten- cup day.
When I returned after driving the children to school, Sarah was sitting at the kitchen table, paying the most urgent bills, putting the others in the ‘hold” pile. Like usual, the second pile was higher than the first.
Her bulky terrycloth robe was clinched tightly around her as if she didn’t want me to notice that she was gaining weight. I’d told her that I didn’t care, but the message didn’t take.
I watched her push numbers on the calculator. With her lightly freckled face, high forehead and brown-red hair, she was as beautiful as in high school. I reminded myself to keep things light. “Trying to put yourself to sleep again? Those bills are pretty boring reading.”
She didn’t answer.
“So how bad is it?” I said.
She brushed her hair away from her brown eyes, tucking it behind an ear. “Depends,” she said.
“On how disastrous you think it is to be a hundred-thousand dollars in the red.”
“We’ve had worse.”
She frowned. “Not this early. We still need to plant, and I’ve never seen the weather this bad for this long. It could give us a problem in the spring.”
I faked ignorance. “How so? When it thaws, we plant. Doesn’t matter much when.”
But I saw she wasn’t buying. “How long you been farming?”
“All my life.”
“So have I,” she said. “So don’t try to sugar coat this. Freezing winter, dry spring, drought summer. That’s how it works.”
“That don’t mean it will.”
“It doesn’t mean it won’t,” she countered.
She got up. “Anybody not depressed after reading those bills should have their head examined. I’m going back to sleep.”
I tried to embrace her, but she moved away. “It’s only ten in the morning,” I said.
“So sue me. Even if I won, you wouldn’t have the money to pay.” She went upstairs.
I felt lost. I’m a big guy, six feet two and well over two hundred pounds with hands nicked and scarred from farming. I had a reputation for repairing just about anything. Why couldn’t I fix my wife?
I put on my coat and went outside. Halfway across the yard, I gave the ground a kick with my heel. When I was a boy, my father had told me that in the middle of winter, if a farmer could kick through the snow and reach mud, it would be a cool, wet spring, perfect for planting.
My heel hit solid ice.
By mid April, it was clear that Sarah was wrong. It had rained for three weeks straight.
Each morning, I looked from the barn to the sky, from the sky to the land. What used to be fields were lakes. The only way I knew where one field ended and another began were the ends of fence posts popping out of the water like tree stumps.
But that wasn’t the worst. That prize went to me getting the tractor stuck in the middle of the field. I had known better than to try to plow. The sticky ground was what old timers called gumbo. But impatience had gotten the better of me. I’m a farmer, and I wanted to farm. Spring does that to you.
Surprisingly, Sarah had been good natured about it. She teased me about being the dumbest farmer in the county. The children had picked up on her improved mood. I pretended to be mad.
But depression had kicked in again. The house was a mess and making sure the children’s’ homework was finished had fallen back on me.
When I worked in the barn, I heard sounds of scurrying below the floorboards. Even the field mice were leaving for dryer climes. I remembered the fairy tale about country mice and city mice. Perhaps the country mice were leaving my farm for Des Moines.
I walked into the house. Maybe there was fresh coffee. Maybe Sarah would sit with me and have lunch. That would be a good sign.
I heard water running upstairs and a commotion in the bedroom. Sarah might be laying out her clothes before getting into the shower. I thought about getting undressed and joining her. I imagined her body fitting against my chest, her head resting on my shoulder after we made slow love. But I didn’t want to push things. Better to let her make the first move.
I called upstairs, “Sarah, I’m pretty much done for the day. How about joining me for lunch?”
No answer. Maybe she was ignoring me.
I was on my second sandwich when she walked in wearing a business suit, white blouse, stockings and heels. I almost choked.
“Jesus, look at you. That’s not exactly helping-out–on-the-farm clothes. Where are you going?”
Sarah poured a half-cup of coffee and drank it black. “I’m interviewing for a job.”
I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly. “Excuse me?”
She put down her coffee cup, a defiant look in her eyes. “I’ve got a job interview in an hour.”
I felt like I’d been hit by a tree limb. “What kind of job?”
“In the secretarial pool at the county courthouse.”
Her eyes widened. “We’re up to our neck in debt, and the bank is holding enough notes against the farm to choke a horse. The weather stinks, and we have barely enough money to get the crops in.”
“We’ve had problems with the farm before and got through them,” I said. “We’ll do it again.”
Her look grew sadder. “That’s just one part of it. The other is I can’t take this anymore, my life a combination of cleaning, folding clothes, making supper and trying to be upbeat when you come in. It’s killing me.”
I tried to make a joke. “You haven’t been that successful on the upbeat part.”
She put her hand over mine. “I know and I’m sorry.”
I remembered again why I loved her.
“I’m going nuts here,” she said. “Like if I don’t get out, try something new, I’m going to explode. I can’t breathe.”
I wanted to hold her, let both of us have a good cry. But I couldn’t move. “I need you, the kids need you, here to help run the place.”
“It will be fine,” she said. “I’m just taking a job, not moving to a foreign country. You can get the children to and from school or they can take the bus. I’ll leave supper in the fridge, and you can heat it up. When I come home I can help with whatever else needs to be done.”
I didn’t want to bring it up, knew it was risky.
“Honey, you haven’t worked since the year after we got married. What makes you think you’re going to be able to step right in and do it now?”
She got up quickly, almost toppling her chair. “Now we’re getting to it, aren’t we? You’re worried that I’m not up to it, that if the pressure gets too tough, I’ll go off my rocker, and you’ll be the laughing stock of the county.”
She put on her coat and walked to the door. “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence.”
She slammed the door, started the car and drove down the long, gravel driveway. I looked at the clock. It wasn’t even noon and already the day was a disaster.
July. Ninety-five degrees with the same percent humidity. By this time every year, I hated being a slave to the farm. I dreamed of a vacation—anywhere would do—as long as I got to sleep late.
Still, I loved the corn moving through the cycle from seed to maturity. It was like watching your children thrive. I knew it was silly, but I felt proud.
Summer had brought good and bad news. The good news was that despite Sarah’s winter prediction, it was going to be a bumper crop. The bad news was that everybody in Iowa was going to have an outstanding harvest. This was a fact of farm life: if it was a bad yield, a farmer didn’t have anything to sell, but when the crop was strong, it glutted the market, forcing down prices.
There was good news and bad news in the family, too. Sarah got the job and her paycheck was a godsend. Frankly, I had been amazed. With the economy bad, probably every farmer’s wife was applying for work. But the bad news was that by June, Sarah
was out of work and back in the house. I didn’t know if she had been fired or quit. I was afraid to ask. Whatever the reason, she was back in one of her depressed cycles.
From my seat in the combine, I saw the heat shimmering in the far reaches in the fields. Even the birds had quit for the day. I stopped the machine. If I squinted and looked straight at the horizon, the unending fields of corn looked like waves on the ocean.
I remembered how I enjoyed real waves the two years I served in the Navy. While many of my sea mates hated the unending ocean, I had loved its freedom; water as far as the eye could see, with no furrows or straight-edges to tether a person to the land.
I had wanted to reenlist, maybe make the Navy my career. But my father had injured himself and couldn’t farm. If I didn’t come home, the land would have to be sold. For an Iowan, selling one’s land was akin to a mortal sin. Besides, Sarah was pregnant with our first child. I had mustered out and came back.
I looked at the sky. The clouds were making angry shadow- faces. It was like this nearly every afternoon. A thunderstorm would cool things for a few welcoming minutes. Then the sun would come back out turning the place into a hothouse.
I climbed down from the machine and walked to the house. In the living room, the kids were playing a video game, something involving car chases and super heroes. They didn’t look up.
I switched off the game. “You know you’re not allowed to play that until after supper.”
“Mom said it was all right as long as we were quiet,” Steven, the eldest, protested.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Upstairs,” he answered. “She has a headache.”
I turned the game back on. “All right. But like your mother asked, keep it down.”
I walked upstairs. The bedroom door was open, and I saw Sarah under the covers, a pillow over her head.
I quietly took off my shoes and work shirt, turned down the covers and got in on my side of the bed. Her back was to me.
I put my arm around her, nestled close and stroked her neck. Her hair felt oily. I didn’t care.
I kissed her. She groaned. I couldn’t tell if it was from pain or pleasure.
“How you doing? Stephen says you have a headache.”
She groaned again.
“You want me to get you a cold washcloth?”
“No,” she said. “Just stay.”
I loved those words. It had been a long time since we’d been this close.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t been much of a mother.” She hesitated. “Or a wife.”
She turned to face me, and I lightly kissed her forehead. “It’s all right. It’s been tough on all of us.”
I brushed the hair from her face. “Look, maybe what we need is a vacation.”
She opened her eyes. “What?”
“A vacation. The whole family.”
“Where would we go?”
“Who cares? Chicago, Minneapolis, Disney World. Anyplace away from here.”
She kissed my lips. Her breath tasted sour. “You’re wonderful,” she said, “but you know as well as I do that we can’t do that.”
She smiled weakly. “Because of a little thing called the farm. Who’s going to tend to it while we’re riding Space Mountain?”
I thought. “Maybe I can find someone to work the place for us.”
She shook her head and immediately grimaced in pain. “Not likely. Besides, you know as well as I that we can’t afford that.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
She pulled me closer. “I know. But there’s nothing that you can do. The problem is mine, not yours.”
“It’s ours. We’re in this together.”
She didn’t answer. We lay together, arms around each other.
“Do something for me,” she said.
“Go downstairs and make supper for the kids. There’s meatloaf in the freezer. Heat it up in the microwave.”
She began to cry. “Try to convince them that they have a normal mother.”
She kissed me one more time and turned over. “I’ll try to come down if this headache ever gets any better. Right now, all I want to do is to sleep but I promise, I’m going to get well, for you, the children, for myself.”
I went downstairs to feed the kids. Despite everything, I felt hopeful.
I set a place for Sarah just in case.
I loved the October air. It held the scent of football, the wisp of marching bands. I played halfback in high school, not first string, but not so badly that I only got into the game when our team was twenty points behind with a minute left to play. Now all I had to show for it was an arthritic knee that throbbed every time the barometer changed.
I tried to keep the combine straight. October was important. The daylight was lean but farmers needed to stay out after dark, getting the corn in. The first frosts and hard rains began in November. Today was two days before Halloween. I looked out at the windbreak trees at the edge of the property. The last of the leaves were already beginning to give up the ghost.
It was almost nightfall. Old farmers talked about spirits in the fields. I didn’t buy it, but I wanted to finish this quarter section and get back into the house.
Since that summer day when we rested in each other’s arms, Sarah had improved. She was staying on her new medication and had even taken up yoga. She was trying the best she could to keep her promise. Still, winter was always the hardest season for her, we both knew that. All we could do was hope for the best.
I circled the field, made a large arc toward the house and switched on the high beams. Field swallows swooped like dive bombers. I thought that they might be using me to find the safety of the barn the same way I hoped to use the houselights. It was like they trusted me to get them home. I wondered if they knew I was searching for my way too.
I knew I couldn’t afford the time off, but I had promised to take the kids next week to the local college for a football game. The team was small- time and so bad tickets were free. We’d go to the Dairy Queen and gorge on ice cream. Maybe, Sarah would come with us.
As I came out of a far furrow, I was surprised to see the spotlights on each end of the porch blink five times; two long, one short, two long At first, I didn’t understand. Perhaps there was some sort of electrical problem in the house. But it was too rhythmic to be random.
Then I remembered. It was our code; Sarah telling me that dinner was ready and it was time for me to come in. She hadn’t used it in such a long time that I’d given up looking for it.
I let out a long breath. We wouldn’t make a ton of money this year on the crops but we’d turn a profit, enough to keep things going. Maybe it would be enough to at least partially pay off our loans.
And Sarah was coming back to me. I could feel the signs in the crisp, October air.
Like my father always said: for a farmer, fall was best.
Copyright Luftig 2015