When the Corn Died: Chapter Three
The Harper Family Welcomes You Back
Step into my time machine and join me as we travel back to the year 1933. The country is in the throes of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt has been in office for six months as our story unfolds. The Harper family is trying to make a go of it in rural Iowa on 120 acres of corn and heartache. Their only son has gone to Missouri to work in the mines, and a young mother and her son are staying with the Harpers because, well, she has nowhere else to go.
Let’s see what else is happening on the farm.
A VISITOR COMES A’CALLIN’
I saw him approaching from a good ways off, a cloud of dust rising behind, smudging the otherwise green landscape. By the time he reached our driveway I knew this wasn’t a sociable visit.
I climbed down off the John Deere and wiped the sweat from my eyes. July first was going to be a hot one, already eighty in the shade and not yet ten a.m. I took a drink of water from the old canteen I keep with me out in the fields and watched a lone cloud slowly drift across the sky. It was too damned hot which, of course, meant good corn-growing weather, and the sea of green stalks in every direction was a testimony to that fact.
The new Ford coupe pulled up in front of the farmhouse and stopped. The driver shut off the engine then just sat there, probably enjoying the shade of the giant oak overhead. I was just climbing over the fence when he opened the car door and stepped out.
Mister Robert Stapleton, the owner of Charles City Savings and Loan.
He was here to ruin my day.
Bad News Arrives
“Morning, Peter,” he said as I approached. He was a gaunt man, as though his body absolutely refused to put on any more weight than was absolutely necessary. His complexion was permanently pasty, probably burned easily, and his expression never quite conjured up a smile. I’ve known him since we were kids. Can’t say one way or another how I feel about him. He just is.
My parents worked this damn farm. His parents owned the damn bank. Legacies were passed on and so here I was, in dusty overalls, reaching out my hand to shake his, he in his button-down three-piece suit.
“Morning, Robert. What do you say we go into the kitchen for a glass of lemonade? We can talk there where it’s cooler.”
I held the screen door open for him and followed him into the kitchen where my wife, Evelyn, and our new boarder, Emma Jameson, were mending clothes at the kitchen table. Emma and her son, Timothy, were living with us for a spell, helping us out while we helped them.
Evelyn flashed her winning smile, the one designed to win over the darkest of hearts, for she knew, as did I, what this visit was all about.
“Robert,” she said. “Sit down and let me get you some lemonade. It’s mighty good to see you again. How are your wife and daughter doing? I haven’t seen Daisy in gosh, it must be a month or so.”
Stapleton looked uncomfortable at our table, unsure where to put his hat, fidgeting with his hands.
“The wife and daughter are both fine, Evelyn. Thank you for asking.”
He fidgeted some more.
“I wish this was a social visit but it’s not. Now that July is here you folks are three months delinquent on your loan. As the bank’s representative I need you to tell me how you plan on paying what is past due. I need to leave here today with some answers, folks.”
He wanted answers and I had none.
“We’ve got a good crop of corn this year, Robert. By September we should be able to meet our debts.” I sounded hollow and I knew it. Betting your future on nature and crops is a fool’s bet.
Evelyn walked over to the counter and opened up the cookie jar. She took some money from it and handed it to Stapleton.
“Here’s twenty-eight dollars, Robert. We’ll have the rest for you by month’s end. That’s a promise and you know well that the Harpers stand by their word.”
Stapleton finished off his lemonade, grabbed his hat and put it on.
“All right, then. You have till July 31st. If we don’t have the remainder of your payment I’ll be forced to begin foreclosure proceedings. I can see my way out. Thank you for your time and hospitality. I’m sorry I had to intrude on your morning.”
He didn’t seem a bit sorry but I decided not to mention that fact.
After he had walked out we heard him start up the engine, then watched him drive back to the main road. I turned to my wife.
“And just where in hell do you think we’re going to get the rest of that money owed, Evelyn?”
She gave me a quick kiss and winked.
“We’ve got thirty days to figure that out, Peter, and no cussing in my kitchen. Now leave us women folk to our sewing, please.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting over the crop and fretting over the mortgage. I’m not sure which of those two wrung the most worry out of me. While I coaxed life out of the old tractor, young Timothy fed the critters. In a matter of days he had learned a few chores around the farm, and even at his young age he showed a willingness to get his hands dirty and do his share. He was always smiling like our son, Peter Junior, a fact that only added to the longing I had for our boy.
Timothy and I called it quits at six and went in to wash up for dinner. Evelyn had gone to town for some staples earlier, and she and Emma were putting food on the table when we walked in. Evelyn treated me to a smile when she saw me.
“We got a letter from Peter Junior. It’s there on the table. He sent twelve dollars. Says he thinks he’ll be home before Thanksgiving. Isn’t that wonderful news, husband?”
God I missed that boy something awful.
I read his letter about tough men in tough times, fights, a stabbing, new friendships and missing home, and then let melancholy spread over me while we all ate a pork roast and mashed potatoes. I was deep into the dumps when I heard my name called.
“Peter Harper?” my wife said. “Where are you? I said your name three times.”
“I’m sorry, Evelyn. What did you say?”
“I said I got a job this afternoon and I start working tomorrow. When I was in town I got to talking to Mrs. Hart at the feed store. Her husband, as you know, is part-owner of the Oliver Farm Equipment Company, and she said their family needs a housekeeper four days a week. She said that big old house of theirs on Floyd Hill is too big for her to take care of. Anyway, I asked for the job and she hired me on the spot. It pays good and I couldn’t say no to the money.”
“Now wait a damned minute, Evelyn. I don’t want you cleaning houses for the rich, and what about our house and the chores here?”
“Peter Harper, I told you I don’t want you cussing in our home. As for me cleaning for the rich, we need the money and this is no time for false pride. Emma here has agreed to help out with our chores so I’m telling you, here and now, that this is going to happen. And while I was talking to Mrs. Hart I told her we had two milk cows and two sows we needed to sell, so she agreed to buy them. She’s expecting you to deliver them sometimes this week.”
“Just like that, wife? Don’t I have anything to say about it?”
She smiled that damned smile.
“Just like that, husband, and no you don’t, and I also think we need to consider selling the Ford. We can use the horse and wagon to get back and forth to town. God helps those who help themselves, and that’s exactly what we need to do.”
I’ve never been angry with Evelyn. I found it impossible. She was headstrong and willful and by God I loved her.
She kissed my neck and then bit lightly on my ear as we lay in bed.
“Don’t be prideful, Peter. With the money from the hogs, cows, the Ford and my working, we can pay for two months on the mortgage. That leaves us one month to figure out. We just have to make it until harvest and we’ll be fine.”
“No guarantees of that, Evelyn. Corn prices are dropping. No telling what that crop of ours will get us in September. I’m a bit worried.”
“And I’m a bit worried, Peter Harper, that you’re too tired to make love to me tonight.”
I rolled over on top of her and looked into her eyes.
“That will never happen, Evelyn.”
And then she allowed me to find comfort within her as the crickets serenaded and fireflies danced outside the window, and for one hour my concerns were gone.
More to Come
Thanks to my grandparents for the inspiration, and thanks to all of you for your support. We’ll join the Harper family next week to see how they are doing under that Iowa sun.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)