A Farm Boy Agonizes About His Future
I sit on a bench where the courthouse once stood, and as the cicadas’ song waxes and wanes, so does my perspective. In their silence I hear: popping corn, a waitress offering my sister a free Coke because I shared my fries, Bob the pharmacist telling me not to burn my lips on the cinnamon sticks, horns honking and cans clanging in a newlywed parade, the Green Diamond passenger train announcing its departure, Grandpa discussing the lack of rain, Grandma talking about canning tomatoes, the babble of courthouse fountains, and John, my friend, telling me to hurry up or we’ll miss the cartoons at the theater.
They remain silent for so long; cicadas sing when they can, unlike the square that will never sing again, except for a whispered dirge deep in my memory. As their volume surges, I lose that memory, and I’m drawn back to an empty square. It’s all gone: the station, passenger trains, popcorn wagon, theater, courthouse, soda fountain, Bob the pharmacist, Grandma in her hat and white gloves, Grandpa in overalls with clouds of cigar smoke from under his straw hat. Only ghosts linger on sidewalk benches, in retail windows, unseen behind stains of time. The Piggly Wiggly sign is faded, and I can read it only because I know that’s what it says. Famous Cash is now a café. Peering out from behind Sue’s resale shop sign is part of Gottlieb’s Clothing. At the beginning I can see G O T…and at the end I N G, looking for customers and wondering where they’ve gone. They’re all at Wal-Mart or the mall. Only Squeaky’s Tavern remains, and if I concentrate, squint, I see Dad coming out of the bar and getting into his new, blue, Chevrolet truck. He stopped for a celebratory beer. There was only time for a beer, no pool. His grin is wide; you can see his missing tooth. He isn’t smoking for fear he’ll fowl the new car smell. People wave, yelling a friendly hi. Today it’s all about his new truck and what it says. Dad’s proud and he wants everyone to see his truck before he drives home.
When Dad parks in the gravel driveway, I can’t believe my eyes. His name, Joe Holt, is followed by and son. It’s on both sides of the truck. I’m horrified at the number of people who saw the truck as he drove around the square.
Dad is sunshine on a rainy day, unashamed to glow with pride. It takes all the self-control a chubby, self-conscious, seven-year-old can muster not to turn Dad’s smile into a withered frown. I’m nauseated. A future I don’t want is written in those words, and son. To me it says, and the future farmer. I won’t go to college. I’ll have to milk cows for the rest of my life. I’ll have to gather eggs from pecking chickens that don’t want to give them up. I’ll have to slop pigs. I’ll have to be macho and manly. I’ll have to deal with hay, straw dust, off-color jokes about blondes, breasts, and sex.
Soon 4-H will come up and I’ll have no choice but to give in and join, but with what. Maybe I could enter vegetables or the cakes I help Grandma bake. Little do I know, Dad has arranged for me to obtain a cow from my uncle Fred’s herd. My mom’s brother-in-law has a large number of cattle and has agreed to give me one of the heifers, a fertile female, so I can breed her and start my own herd. I look to the heavens for help from God, but then I remember the biblical shepherd stories. I fear there will be no help coming for this kid.
I sit in silence in the yellow vinyl chair as we eat lunch on the metal kitchen table in the same yellow. As we eat, Dad turns on the radio for the livestock and grain report, as well as the noon news. News of the county and town, that doesn’t get passed on when visiting the square, is heard on the noon radio broadcast. I have all my fingers and toes crossed, hoping with all my might, that Dad’s new deed doesn’t make the news. It doesn’t.
Our telephone is a party line, and each home has a distinctive ring. You hear everyone’s ring. Our phone number is 9R 40, rural line 9 with four long rings. One of our neighbors has four longs and two short. All too often the operator, Peggy, is playful, waiting till the last minute to add the two short rings. It really doesn’t matter. All the neighbors know when someone is getting a phone call and listen to the conversation. So when the phone rings, I run to answer it before Mom, Dad, or my sister can tell the caller about and son, but thankfully, before I get there, the operator adds two shorts. I listen anyway. Sure enough the news is spreading. They’re talking about me and the and son.
Dad calls me back. “Hey, why don’t we go visit your uncle this afternoon and look at the cattle? He called and offered to give you the heifer for your birthday.”
There’s the news I’m dreading. It means tromping through manure-infested mud to pick a calf. What do I know about cattle? I know Uncle Fred’s cattle are red and white, while other cows are black, white, or both. I knew a bull from a heifer, and some of them have horns. How do I choose one? Hopefully, Dad and my uncle have more cattle sense.