When the Corn Died: Chapter One of a New Short Story Series
Welcome to a New Series
Thanks for joining me as I continue to hone my craft. Last week I put to bed the Dale Saga, so this week I will introduce you to a new family, the Harpers, and life on their farm, in Iowa…the year, 1933. Let’s see how they are managing to get along during the Great Depression.
Let’s peek in on their farm and see how things are going for these hard-working folk.
Another Day, Another Heartache
One-hundred and twenty acres of knee-high corn under a rising June sun, a sea of green rippling with the early-morning breeze, weighing me down with worry. The sight used to fill me with wonder. Now, well, all I can see are crop prices falling faster than my hope.
There’s a lot of irony out there. It’s going to be a good harvest, no doubt about that, but that good harvest will net eight damned cents a bushel, down from eighty five years ago, and it cost twelve to plant and grow. It don’t take no damned genius to tell that ain’t no way to run a business.
I slop the hogs, three cents per pound on the hoof, losing money for me daily, and crank up the John Deere. Seems like a waste of time, you ask me, but I don’t know what else to do. This farm has been in the Harper family for seventy years. Grandpappy first dug a furrow here after the Civil War, and his son after him, and by God there were some good years with the corn growing so high and the demand rising, rising, rising….and then it all went to hell in a handbasket.
Forty-eight years old and stuck between a rock and a hard place. Listen to that engine, running rough, probably needs new plugs and where the hell is the money coming from for those, or anything else, for that matter?
My son walks out the backdoor of the farmhouse. Pete Junior, named after yours truly, eighteen years old last month, a strapping slab of beef just graduated from high school, no plans for the future in a country beat down and struggling just to breathe. He’s a good kid, hard-worker, takes after his mother, Evelyn, much more than me. He’s got an artistic side to him, a gentle soul in a six-three frame, and if this were another place, another time, I could see him writing a novel and talking philosophy with similar folk along the Left Bank in Paris….but this is Charles City, Iowa, about as far-removed from the Left Bank as a man can get.
“Morning, Pa,” he says to me as he tosses a couple crumbs to our old hound, Trusty. The boy always has a smile on his face, like he don’t recognize the fix we’re in, but I know he does, he works a dead-end farm right alongside me. He knows the prices are falling. He knows the bank wants the loan paid and the interest keeps adding up and egg prices dropping fast along with just about everything else. He knows all that and yet he smiles, again his mother in him, and I can’t get mad at him for that. Sure enough can’t!
“Good morning, son! Feed the chickens for me, will ya, then head out to the southeast corner and mend that hole in the fence. It’s supposed to rain tonight, God knows we need it, and I want to get as much done as we can before this dust turns into sucking mud.”
“Sure thing, Pa,” and there’s that smile again, and I figure I may not be much of a farmer these days, but I raised me one fine son. Well, maybe I’m taking too much credit. His Ma deserves the bulk of it, I think, and the breeze carries with it the smell of bacon frying. I might as well head in for breakfast and save Evelyn calling me.
She’s forty-two now, hard to believe as I look at her dishing up the meal, long, auburn hair, tied in a ponytail, still a fine figure, little crows-feet the only sign that the years are advancing on her. She’s put up with me now for twenty-four years, hard to believe she chose me, God’s own truth, best-looking girl at Charles City High School, then or now. She had bankers’ sons, lawyers’ son, doctors’ sons, all sorts of money heritage courting her back then, but she only had eyes for me, Peter Harper, a farmers’ son, gangly, shy, and completely lacking in social graces. Truth is she did the courting. She explained, after we were wed, that she figured if she didn’t take the bull by the horns nothing would have happened between us, and she may be right and by God she’s still a beauty and I’m a lucky man.
I walk up behind her, put my arms around her waist, pull her to me and smell the lavender in her hair, lavender, her favorite scent, always with her, a part of her, her signature. She turns, smiles and kisses me gently.
“Peter Harper, you stop it now. We’ve got a ton of work to do today and no time for such foolishness.” But she’s smiling when she says it, and I see our son in that smile and I realize just how damned lucky I am. “Now wash up and sit yourself down. Eggs and bacon are waiting.”
I do as I’m told. Daddy didn’t raise no fool. He always told me to find a good woman and listen closely to her. More often than not, he said, she’ll be smarter than you and a damned sight stronger as well. He was right. Evelyn was proof.
She joins me at the table.
“Mrs. Crawford stopped by while you were in the barn,” she said between bites. “She says the Pinkers are selling out and moving out west. That’s five families since the first of the year. She also said Peterman Mercantile on Main Street is closing. I guess the Petermans have relatives in Chicago and a job waiting for them, so no sense losing more money in that store of theirs. That means just one store left in town where we can buy staples and such. Tough times for sure, Peter. President Roosevelt says we shouldn’t be afraid, but seems that’s easy to say sitting back in the White House. Still, he seems like a good man and he has our best interests in sight.”
“I’ll bet you’re thinking, right about now, you should have married Josh Bancroft when you had the chance. You’d be sitting in that big house of theirs on the banks of the Cedar River, drinking mint juleps and talking to the other fine women about the latest New York fashions.”
She gave me that look that still stirred my loins.
“I married the best man in town, Peter Harper, so you shush up and stop your foolishness. Times are tough for sure, but we got each other, and a fine son, and I have no regrets at all. Besides, I don’t like mint juleps.”
The Day Drifts By in the Dusty Wind
Peter Junior and I got about as much done as possible for two men under the warm Iowa sun. By sundown we’re dirt-streaked and dragging ass back to the farmhouse. There’s rain in the air and it’s coming soon. After cleaning up we join Evelyn for some ham hock soup and fresh bread just out of the oven.
Junior hasn’t talked much all day long. I figure he’s got something on his mind and he’ll say it when the time is right. That time arrives as we’ll all enjoying some ice cream.
“Ma, Pa,” he says. “I was talking to Lucas the other day, and he told me there’s work down in Missouri for those willing to head down there. Seems they’re hiring for the lead mines, a couple hundred men, about six month’s worth of work, but it’s first come, first serve. He’s going to ride the rails down south and he wants me to ride along with him, look out for each other. I figure I could do that for six months, send home money that will help out here. I’m guessing I might do that. Just wanted you to know. I know, Pa, it’s going to make things hard for you, but we need the money and it seems right stupid to pass it up.”
What’s a man supposed to say to that? We all know the day will come when the chicks leave the nest. I just wasn’t expecting it to come so soon. Evidently Evelyn wasn’t expecting it either because she damned near breaks my fingers squeezing my hand. I look at her and tears are glistening, the first one slowly rolling down her cheek. I can’t talk. She’ll have to.
“I don’t like the thought of you riding the rails, Junior. I’ve heard stories of yard bulls cracking skulls in many of those rail yards. Still, son, you’re a grown man now, and I got no hold over you. Your pa and I will support you no matter what you decide. When are you thinking of leaving?”
“Tomorrow morning, Ma,” he says, and just like that I’ve lost my appetite.
The tears are really flowing now.
What do you think, should this story continue?
Fireflies Dancing and Lightning in the Distance
I hold my wife tightly in bed as thunder drummed the skies. My mind is jumbled with thoughts, with worry and with love. He’s a big boy, he’ll be fine, a good head on his shoulders, a good experience for him, no sense worrying, thinking back to those downy cheeks eighteen years ago, so damned proud I was then, so damned proud I am now, not sure how the hell times moves so quickly, the blink of an eye, from cradle to the great unknown and me with no control over any of it.
“He’ll be fine, Peter.”
“I know he will,” I say, almost convincing myself of that fact.
“We’ll be fine, Peter.” And then she kisses me, and the words of my father echo in my mind, and her strength flows through me and allows me to finally sleep.
Thanks for Joining Me
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter. I’ll be back next week and we can find out, together, what’s happening with the Harper family of Charles City, Iowa. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll dedicate this one to my mother’s family, the O’Dowds, good people who lost their Iowa farm during the Great Depression. It’s the least I can do for all they did for me.
Until then, do all things with love.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Bill Holland