The Absence of Land
by Dwight Krauss
Eddie wasn’t surprised when Dad walked out of the woods (or, where the woods used to be), stepped up next to him and leaned on the fence. Disconcerted, maybe, but not surprised. Dad’s spirit was tied to the land. Why should it leave?
“Hello, son,” Dad said.
Eddie nodded, wary. “Hi Dad. You look good.”
“Thanks.” Dad eyed him critically. “You’ve put on weight.”
Eddie patted his stomach and grinned, “I eat good.”
“And get no exercise.”
“Yes I do. I go to the gym. I run.”
“That ain’t the same thing, son.” Dad turned away and stared over the field; he was hawk-eyed and weathered by decades of Iowa. “Sorghum.”
“Yes.” Eddie reached through the metal rails and gently stroked a blade of it, green, rich, vital.
“Followed by wheat.” Dad’s tone was contemptuous. “Modern farming.”
“They’ve got new techniques, Dad. No allelopathy.”
“Do you notice, son, that you say ‘they’?”
Dad faced Eddie. His eyes were different. Dad always had vision; he could sweep the farm and take in the corn’s slightest color change, a centimeter’s growth on the beans, which way the cows were facing, and he would immediately know everything’s status. Now he saw other things.
“Why, Edward?” Dad asked it softly.
Eddie had never had to answer that question from Dad, and was relieved he’d never had to. Oh, of course, Mom and the uncles asked, but that wasn’t the same thing. He had, though, just before driving away, gone to the cemetery and stood over Dad and explained, albeit in his own terms and not in any way Dad would accept. Those words wouldn’t work now. But he didn’t know any others.
“It’s all changed, Dad.”
He cocked his head. “Tell me how it’s all changed, son.”
“You can’t make a living that way anymore.”
“What do you mean by ‘living’?”
“Dad...” Eddie shook his head, exasperated. He’d had this argument with Mom and the uncles already. “It’s different. Kids need things. My kids needed things.”
Dad interrupted him. “All kids need are the same things this needs.” He gestured at the field, “Sun, water, space, and nutrition. What they want, is a different matter.”
“Not anymore, Dad. Wants in your time are needs today. Life is more...” he searched for the best word, “...complicated.”
“Only because you say it is. Doesn’t mean it really is.” Dad turned back to the field, gesture of finality.
“Dad, no one can make a living farming anymore.”
“No one?” Dad glanced mildly at him.
“Well, alright.” Eddie waved an impatient hand. “Some do, the co-ops, I know, everyone told me that, too. But eking it out year to year, terrified of the weather, always one season behind on the loan...” He shook his head. “That’s no kind of life.”
“The house had no mortgage, son.” Gentle tone. “That is, until you put one on it.”
“We needed new equipment, Dad.”
“And new clothes. And Playstations. And private schools. And tutors, too, I reckon.”
Eddie’s breath came out slow. There it was, Dad’s favorite technique, the Ironic List, all dispassionate, non-accusatory, yet as devastating as a pointed finger.
“Yes.” Eddie was mad now. “Those things. And others. Like college. Like weddings. Like grandchildren.” Two could do this.
Dad nodded, “Those things, too. Which we had.”
It was like a punch in the stomach. Eddie slumped against the metal — not a slat, not the white picket around the house that he had to paint every year — to get his air back. “I’m not you,” he finally said.
“I know.” Dad’s voice dropped even more, if that was possible. “I don’t mean to imply you should be. But” — his blue-now-forever eyes blazed suddenly, locked on Eddie — “you stood right here, right next to me, and you said you’d live here forever.”
“I was fourteen.”
“Don’t have to be much older to know what’s true.”
Eddie shut his eyes, held them, let the sorrow flow. “All right.”
Dad was still there when he opened them. “Tell me, Eddie, why do you keep coming back?”
“It was home, Dad.”
Dad looked behind them at the field of soy. “Was, Eddie. All plowed under. So, why? They could arrest you for trespassing.”
“Your suit, your Cadillac, will stop them?” Dad smiled. “They can do what they want. They don’t, though, because it would be pathetic.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Then, tell me, son,” those eyes again, “why do you keep coming back?”
“Why do you?”
Dad laughed, his real laugh, rich and full and alive, alive, alive. God’s Own Chuckle, Mom used to call it. “Oh, Edward, I am this place. Always will be. Besides,” he winked, “am I really here?”
“You look real enough.”
“I look like what you want. I sound like what you want. I’m even using your words and what you remember of mine. Is it real?”
Slowly, Eddie pushed a finger at Dad’s arm, felt the slight resistance, incorporeal. He took a step back, frowning. “Don’t think it matters.”
Dad just smiled. “Question still stands, son.”
Eddie lowered himself and took a handful of the soil. It was black as ever, probably more so now, thanks to Monsanto. “I think I screwed up.”
“It calls to you, doesn’t it?”
Eddie clutched the soil into a moist clump. Nights, Betty unconscious while he prowled the house, stepping onto the verandah, the cool granite tiles under his feet making them itch because it wasn’t grass and dirt and direct contact with the earth. Had to walk out through the patio and the pool and past the barbecue pit across the flagstone just to dig a toe down.
“It calls to everyone. It still calls to me, son.”
A sob escaped Eddie, surprised him. He stood, the dirt turning to rock in his hand. “Dad.”
“It’s all right, son. It ain’t you. The spirit has changed. The men of commodity, they changed it all.”
“But Dad, I just feel so...” He couldn’t find the word.
“Disconnected.” Dad took in a breath. “I know. Everyone does now. They don’t know why. They think they need a raise or a title or headlines but what they need,” and Dad’s hand shot out, corporeal now, seized Eddie’s hand fiercely, binding his fingers back into the clump and crushing that into him, the earth seeping into his blood, his heart.
Eddie gasped, squeezing his eyes shut, the pain. “Dad, you’re hurting me!”
“No,” Dad’s voice was far away and Eddie opened his eyes and Dad was far away, standing now where the woods used to be, the squirrel woods where they all, he and Dad and Sloan and Frankie and Carol and, yes, Betty, took their silly BB guns and missed more tree rats than they annoyed, and the day the buck walked out, majestic and crowned, and looked at him, so astonishing he could not bring the rifle up. And Dad had whispered, “Let him go, son.”
And where the chestnuts fell and were gathered for midnight roasting, and you walked through to the north field because there, right there, you could see the ecliptic and measure the seasons, and the wind caressed you and the growth, the pure life, bowed to you and bid welcome.
“You hurt yourself” carried on the wind that mentioned summer and, for a moment, Dad stood against the ghost woods, the ghost house, ghost fence, ghost life.
And was gone.
Eddie leaned against the industrial fence and measured the sorghum with his eye and snorted a contempt for laboratory farmers who forced a chemical compatibility. Don’t you know you put a food crop — corn is best — between the breads? He leaned his head back, eyes zenith, and measured the angle and the time until equinox and thought of harvest moons.
Then he walked back to his car and drove two hours home.
Copyright © 2009 by Dwight Krauss