Fiction Historical Fiction Drama

“How is your back doing?” Millie asked. The grimace on Harvey’s face said it all, but she wanted to hear him admit it.

Harvey ignored her question. His pain levels were private business, and acknowledging them was a sign of weakness. A farmer had better things to do than feel sorry for himself.

“Did you count the livestock?’ he asked.

“All present and accounted for.” That was not the chore it used to be. Harvey had sold the horses, the mule, the yearlings, and all the cows but six, along with their calves. The lone pig that remained would be slaughtered before Thanksgiving so that they could have the neighbours over for a feed of spare ribs. The cattle would be auctioned before the cold weather came, because there were not enough of them left to keep the barn warm.

“Is that spotted heifer still limping?”

“Just a little. I think she’ll be fine.”

“I’m going to lie down for a while. Too hot out there.” Harvey had been working for less than two hours cutting down brush and reinforcing the fence running beside the lane to the road, but he was completely exhausted.

“Sit down and have a coffee with me,” Millie said. “We need to talk turkey.”

Harvey stopped in mid-stride, turned around, and sat down at the table with a sigh. When Millie wanted to “talk turkey”, it meant that she had made up her mind about something and would not give him a moment’s peace until she had her say.

“No coffee, thanks,” he said. He didn’t want any caffeine in his system to keep him from escaping into sleep.

“Would you like me to make you some willow bark tea? It might help.”

Harvey snorted and shook his head. He hated the stuff, although he had to admit that it helped with the pain. “Coffee will do.”

“It’s decaf, anyway,” Millie said as she poured. “Doctor’s orders.”

“Doctor’s orders! Doctor’s orders!” he stormed. “Are you going to let that quack run our lives?”

“No point paying a doctor to give you advice if you’re not going to follow it,” Millie said tranquilly.

Harvey stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into his brew. Doc Gable, who had assisted at the births of three generations of babies in the town of Pinetree and surrounding farmlands and kept working in his clinic until the week before he died, had been far more moderate in his pronouncements than this new fellow Millson, fresh from medical school. Millie had taken to him and his progressive ideas immediately, but Harvey had steadfastly refused to make an appointment.

He took a slow sip, held it in his mouth for a moment, and swallowed. Millie made excellent coffee, but it was just not the same now that he knew that it was decaf.

He cocked his head, trying to summon a smile. “Well? What’s up?”

“I’m not spending another winter on the farm.”

Harvey set down his mug with a thump. “What?”

“I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“Neither am I,” Harvey flared. “But I’m not going anywhere.”

“I have heart trouble. Dr. Millson says I can’t shovel snow anymore.”

“You’ve had heart trouble for years. Nothing to worry about, you said. Doc Gable prescribed those patches, and you hardly ever used one.”

“I have to be more careful now.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Harvey proclaimed. “That new doc is just too full of himself, that’s all. Wants to show off all the fancy modern nonsense he learned.”

“I trust him,” Millie said, “and I want to be there in the flesh when our grandkids get married. I’m going to live in the slow lane from now on.”

“You don’t know the meaning of the word slow,” Harvey protested. “You’re the neighbourhood Energizer Bunny, always up and ready for anything.”

Millie’s face twisted, on the verge of tears. “No more. I’m tired. Really tired.”

Harvey looked down into his coffee mug, as if there were some wisdom hiding there. He had noticed that Millie was slowing down, less eager to jump in and help when something was too much for him, but he had told himself that she would get over it, as she always had. 

“If you can’t shovel snow, I’ll do it,” he said. He knew that she knew that he was bluffing. He hadn’t shoveled snow for two years. 

“I guess you’ll have to,” she said. “I won’t be here.”

“This has been your home for over forty years. You can’t just up and leave.”

“I’ll start getting the old age pension next month. I’ll manage. Mrs. Macadam said I could stay with her rent-free.”

“She wants the services of a housekeeper without paying for them.”

“Just a bit of cooking,” Millie said. “She’ll pay for the groceries. She already has a cleaning lady and a steady youngster to look after the yard and shovel the snow.”

“That crazy old bat will talk your ear off! She belongs in a nursing home.”

Millie refrained from pointing out that Mrs. Macadam was two years younger than Harvey was. She pretended to give her full attention to her coffee and let Harvey stew. She knew that this was not easy for him. His land was everything to him, more important than his marriage, his children, or even his version of God. She refused to be called a “farm wife”, because she had married a man, not a piece of real estate, but she couldn’t help thinking that the farm was his true wife, and she was only his mistress and housekeeper.

Harvey shifted uneasily on his chair, collecting his thoughts. He started to speak a couple of times, but his thoughts dissolved into chaos as soon as Millie looked at him expectantly. Finally, he smacked the table with his fist and heaved himself to his feet. “Enough nonsense!” he shouted. “We’re not going anywhere!”

He stomped out the front door, slamming it behind him as hard as he could. Instead of a satisfying bang, it scraped on the threshold and remained half open. The rusty upper hinge had pulled loose again.

He fled to the barn and plopped down on a bag of grain. He had spent many hours there, talking to his dog Shep, who seemed to understand everything. But Shep had been dead for over four years now, and Harvey was not about to risk further heartbreak by adopting another four-legged friend.

“Damn government, giving hand-outs to women! Once they get their hands a few dollars, they think they can do anything they want! No marriage can survive that!”

Shep’s spirit was leaning against his leg, commiserating. Harvey could almost feel the pressure of his dog’s chin on his knee. As long as he kept his eyes closed, he was not alone.

When he had married Millie in 1926, women knew enough to trust their husbands to take care of them. They might have a temper tantrum once in a while, but they quickly got over it. Now, women wanted to get jobs and their own cars and drink beer and smoke and have affairs and make decisions just like a man. No good would ever come of that.

Millie had been a good wife, an excellent wife. They had raised four children together, and she had worked like a whirlwind in good times and bad. When the depression hit and there was no money, she improvised and made do, bartering for what she needed, and with enough to spare to invite transients to the family table in exchange for chores. But the older she got, the more she insisted on having a voice in how things were done. And he had listened to her more often than he should have. If he had kept the upper hand more firmly, she wouldn’t be threatening to abandon him now.

“If she hadn’t been such a banshee about higher education, we wouldn’t be in this mess!” Harvey raged. “We’d be Wilson and Sons, with younger backs to do the heavy lifting and shovel the snow!”

The education controversy was a wake-up call for Harvey, discovering that his wife was not as meek and submissive as he imagined. She regretted dropping out of school when she was sixteen, and was determined not to let that happen to her offspring. She insisted that they have ample time to do homework, and never allowed them to skip school to help with the farm work, even at seeding and harvest time. She talked to the teachers and monitored the kids’ progress and pushed them to go to university. Alice was a high school teacher now. Jim had his own farm machinery business over a hundred miles away. Greg had gone overseas to design and oversee the construction of dams and bridges. The youngest, Danny, had been Harvey’s last hope. He was a natural-born farmer, watching over the livestock like a guardian angel. But he had gone to vet school and was now looking after cats and dogs and race horses in the big city, making money hand over fist.

After unburdening his heart to the spirit of Shep, Harvey felt calmer, but still not ready to deal with Millie’s treasonous schemes. He climbed into his truck, let himself through the back barnyard gate, and started driving up the double-tracked trail that bisected his land. His inspection tour was a daily occurrence unless he was very busy or too short of breath to consider any exertion. Surveying his kingdom never failed to settle him down, looking backward with pride and forward with hope.

To his right, the cows and calves were resting under the trees at the far end of the pasture, oblivious to their impending doom. He counted them automatically, even though he could tell at a glance that they were all there. He squinted, wishing there were more of them to count. Maybe he should have put his downsizing off for another year. He missed his stock, especially the horses which had always been an important part of the family.

The wheat in the field to his left was not his. He had rented part of his land to his neighbour Terence Ball. Terry was a good farmer, but he was inclined to get carried away. Instead of plowing and cultivating the field last fall, he had planted his winter wheat in the stubble using special “zero till” machinery, saying that it would preserve moisture and control erosion. Harvey was convinced that such craziness would never work, and felt personally insulted when the grain grew and thrived.

He drove on, through more fields, around a small gravel pit dug into an end moraine left behind by a glacier, past the sugar bush, and finally into Miz Ellie’s yard. He stopped the truck and rummaged through the glove compartment in a hopeful search for pain pills. All he found were the instruction manuals for the truck and the combine, a Philips screwdriver, a spent cortisone inhaler, and three clean rags. He made a mental note to pick up some extra-strength over-the-counter pills at the pharmacy the next time he was in town. They didn’t work as well as the prescription version, but any relief was better than nothing.

He sat quietly, thinking about his old neighbours, Bert and Ellie Jenzen, who were both dead now. Bert worked for the county as a mechanic and grader operator, and boarded horses on the side.

Harvey had started renting their land – fifty-four acres adjoining his hundred – after Bert died.  Ellie agreed to sell it to him when she couldn’t manage on her own any more, even with frequent visits from Millie. He had planned to rent out the house, but some rowdies broke in and partied there and set it on fire when they left. The remnants of the walls stood grim and black, surrounded by weeds. The barn roof was sagging, and it was only a matter of time until it collapsed. Whenever Harvey visited Miz Ellie in the nursing home, he was careful not to let her know the true state of affairs. It would have broken her heart.

She had begged him to look after her cats, and he did his best. When the weather became frosty, he caught them and brought them back to his place. They promptly decamped, except for the oldest one, the calico matriarch who looked so pathetic that Millie brought her into the house, fed her soft food, and let her purr her last days away on a braided rug by the window.

Harvey recalled Miz Ellie’s tear-stained face two months before she died. “I shouldn’t have been so stubborn,” she told him. “I should have sold the property to you when you first made the offer. I could have used that money to do some traveling, try snowbirding, have some fun. I couldn’t let go because it was part of Bert and all our memories. But memories won’t feed the cat. We can only live the life we have, here and now.”

Harvey sighed. Miz Ellie had hung onto her land for too long, and lived to regret it. And now he was doing the same thing.

At Harvey's last medical appointment, Doc Gable had laid down the law. “You have serious osteoarthritis and emphysema, and you are never going to get any better. Get out of farming while the getting is good. People are expanding their operations now – you can get a decent price.  If you wait until you are hauled away in an ambulance, you’ll have nothing to say about what happens next.”

Harvey had mulled things over, kept his distance from the clinic, and put off his decision. Without the inhaler and prescription pain pills, his body was becoming more troublesome each day. The possibility of a fatal accident was starting to look like a blessing.

Now Millie refused to let things slide any more, and he had to choose between her and his land. Much as he hated to admit it, she had a point. If she had a heart attack in the dead of winter, how would he get her to the hospital when the lane was plugged with snow and the truck was parked at the road?

And invisible hand gripped Harvey’s chest and squeezed until he could barely breathe.  He rested his head on the steering wheel, and tears started to flow down his face. The land had been his life, but that life was past and gone.

When he was able to breathe again, he wiped his face with one of the rags and drove into town.

It was almost seven when he came home. He was worried about the reception he would get, but Millie smiled as if nothing had happened between them. She had even re-anchored the loose door hinge.

“I’ve kept your supper warm,” she told him. “Venison stew with dumplings, and angel cake for dessert.”

His stomach grumbled. “Thank you,” he said, his mouth watering. He wanted to apologize, but couldn’t find the words.

When he had finished eating, he pushed his dishes to one side. “Let’s talk turkey.”

“Would you like to sit on the porch?” Millie asked.

“Good idea. And I’ll have some of that willow bark tea, if you don’t mind.”

They sat in the swing seat and rocked, bathed in the afterglow of the sunset. It was almost as if they were young again, with their married life before them, rich in possibilities.

“I talked to Ernie Fischer,” Harvey said at last. “He’s going to go to Florida in November and won’t be back until after the New Year. He said he’d be obliged if we would stay in his house and look after things for him. If we haven’t found a place of our own by the time he gets back, we can stay as long as we need to, as long as you make him a pie once in a while.”

He could feel Millie smiling in the darkness. “I could do that.”

“I’m going to sell the land,” Harvey said. “We can buy a little house in town, with no stairs and a garden, and the hospital right there if we need it.”

Millie took his hand and squeezed it. “Are you sure you’re ready to let go?”

“I’ll never be ready. But I want us to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary together.”

She snuggled close. “In that case, you’d better make an appointment with Doctor Millson.”

“First thing in the morning, when I go to the real estate office.”

He put his arm around his wife. He loved his land, but it couldn’t give him the love that she did.

October 05, 2022 05:35

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Ann Martin
05:06 Oct 19, 2022

So very real! We know those people! You are a very skilled writer, Christine, with a gift for turning ordinary lives and ordinary events into something we relate to and care about. I look forward to reading more of your work.


01:12 Oct 20, 2022

Thank you, Ann! The story was inspired by my parents, as well as other people I have known. My father was wise enough to know when to move on, but many others endured great hardships because they couldn't let go. I left the farm behind when I started working in 1967, but I still miss it and the lifestyle that went with it. The house burned down, the barn was disassembled, and fences were taken down to accommodate giant machines, but my memories are untouched.


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