Cranston watched his wife slather on sun screen and don her floppy hat. When she sprayed mosquito repellant, he protested. The droplets irritated his nose.
“Again with that stuff?”
“Zika,” she said and blasted a second spray on her arms. “Ticks with Lyme Disease.”
He held back any more comments. They’d already had it out this morning. Breakfast had been a disaster. How could she ruin eggs? He’d tried to salvage the morning, but the French toast burned and his coffee tasted foul. He must have left vinegar from its cleaning. He tasted again, just to make sure.
Emma saw his grimace. “I think you did that because you weren’t paying attention.”
She separated several pairs of dirty and worn gloves into a pile before finally extracting a left and right, albeit of differing colors.
“I can’t drink the crap either, you know. I didn’t do it on purpose.” Cranston lifted the cup, then thought better. His plate looked no better.
“Stop swearing. It wasn’t just the coffee.”
“Yeah, well your eggs weren’t what I’d call gourmet.”
“Weren’t meant to be. Just simple and scrambled.” Her words bit at him. “You’re the one who insists on peppers and onions. Next time, you cook.”
She was angry, too. Neither got good sleep. A phone call at two in the morning from a distraught relative about her elderly father’s midnight diatribe kept both awake. Cranston couldn’t fall back to sleep and Emma hadn’t tried. She read under the bed lamp and turned each page with a vengeance.
Cranston touched his cup and sighed. “Want me to rustle up something else? It is my turn.” Lousy start to a lousy day.
“No.” Her quick return jab meant she wasn’t shedding anger as fast as usual. “I’m going to spend time in the garden.”
“Yeah? Well, good.”
“What are you going to do?” She watched him, then adjusted her hat. “Sit around all day?”
Why was she baiting him? “Walk, maybe. I missed it yesterday because of the rain.”
“Why not walk around the barn? Cleaning up. Good exercise and you’ll do something productive. I know you’ll just go to the creek and hang around. I wouldn’t call that walking.”
He shook his head, weary of the argument. “Have fun with the corn.” He couldn’t help himself, knowing how much her hobby cost. “Only six bucks for an ear this summer. What a bargain.”
Her jaw clenched. “It’s a hobby, Cranston. I’m a master gardener and it’s what we do. Better than your golf clubs in the hall closet. The ones that never get used. At least I’m doing something.”
He laughed without humor. “Oh, yeah. You want to see the fur fly? Just let me swing a golf club around here. I just can’t wait to hear what you’d say about that.”
He grabbed up his coffee and headed for the front porch.
Emma slammed through the back and headed into a garden of tall corn, tomatoes, okra, and climbing beans.
He caught a glimpse of her disappearing around the side of the barn, scattering chickens in her wake. The black liquid in his cup…couldn’t really call it coffee…caught his eye. She was right. It really was awful. He tossed it over the rail and turned back inside to grab his truck keys and wallet. The phone stayed on the entry table. Marty’s Diner would have a newspaper, good coffee, and waffles. He was in the mood for waffles. The morning was starting to look up.
The sun’s slanting orange rays touched the far western field. He couldn’t figure out where the day had gone. Jacob came in just as Marty poured his first cup of coffee. His friend was hiding out, too. Over a third cup, they decided to head for the lake. Jacob’s little boat sported a new motor and both wanted to try it out. They’d only zip around for an hour or so, and then pack it in. But Jacob had the little skiff packed with poles, too, and the Dollar General was on the way with ice, bait and beer.
And then, well…the day just sort of slipped away.
Cranston rounded the rusting rural mail box and stopped. Emma usually grabbed the contents after her morning shower. But he thought, he’d check, just in case. She might still be mad. Save the walk if she hadn’t bothered.
The box was full. Crap mail, he called it. One legitimate letter. A bill. The rest, garbabe. He read as he climbed back in the truck, and spotted the chickens running in the front yard. The dog barked and chased them, until it spotted Cranston. The black Lab slunk back under the porch.
“Damn,” he said. Emma must have left the gates open. He gunned up the hill, and could see both tractor panels sitting unlatched. “Son of a bitch.”
He couldn’t swear like this around her, so he satisfied his invectives alone or in a muttering silence. Lifting his arms like a scarecrow, he herded fat guineas and Rhode Island Reds back through the opening and locked them away. The ducks, scattered but didn’t pay attention to him. Several took a run at his legs. Cranston didn’t care about them. They could fly and besides, they bit and he didn’t like’m.
The feeling was mutual.
Both pigs watched him expectantly. He wondered if they’d eaten, and grabbed up the pail. Empty. He tossed two scoops in and filled the trough. The cow, a youngster and intended for the freezer this winter didn’t bother with him and continued to eat thick grass, enjoying the day and oblivious to its fate.
“Keep eating, eunuch,” he called into the pasture, and turned for the barn. “Emma?”
No answer and no light on, downhill in the kitchen. Monday. Chili, tonight, and his turn to cook. He’d have to hustle.
He called again and walked along the uphill trail and around the pump house. She wasn’t in the small orchard, or the field near the Agra’s company’s hay stacks. Bees drifted among the blossoms in the last of the daylight. Their clapboard home sat next to last winter’s tree death. A nice apple he liked. At one time their best producer, but a beetle of some sort was killing off all the county’s Granny Smiths. He made a mental note to check at the feed store for any news. Had to be organic…of course. Couldn’t use nasty chemicals. Emma would lose her certification. He snorted.
“Emma,” he called out, as he walked into the backyard.
Only a crow atop the barn’s peak answered. Cranston glanced up and muttered. He never had the pellet gun when he needed it.
“Get outta here, you bastard.” The bird didn’t move.
He threw a small stone but hadn’t had an arm in thirty years. The rock fell short. Way short. The crow cawed and eyed him. Cranston gave up and headed for the house.
“Emma?” he called out.
In the mudroom, he kicked off his boots and grabbed cans from the pantry. Not enough time to soak dry beans. One jar of diced tomatoes from last year waited on the top shelf. Emma did the preserving. He didn’t like to mess with mason jars and thought canned Heinz tasted just as good.
When the pot simmered, he headed for the shower and a good scrub. As always, all the fish went to Jacobs. His friend liked them and besides, Cranston hated cleaning fish. He liked drinking the beer and sometimes catching one, maybe two.
The sunburn on the back of his neck itched a little as he wondered why Emma wasn’t home. He’d checked the calendar, but he was sure Master Gardener was Thursdays in Portersville. Church on Wednesday and he had poker with the guys on Fridays, unless it was Christmas or Easter.
That’s the way it’d been since he took his retirement ten years before. Emma quit, too. A little early, but she still pulled in a nice check. Actually, hers was bigger than his. She’d taught school for almost forty years, while he’d avoided too much responsibility, ending up as the assistant manager at the IGA in town. Now with his little pension and hers, they had enough, especially when social security kicked in last year. There was plenty of money to put gas in Jacobs’ boat, although he should probably try and sell the golf clubs. A little extra in his pocket never hurt.
Besides, they were a present from the store he’d never liked anyway.
By nine, he’d eaten alone and made a half dozen phone calls to her friends. He closed up the barn, and checked the umpteenth time to make sure her little Toyota pickup still sat in the driveway. The pigs were hungry again. Of course. They were always hungry and could wait until morning.
At ten thirty, he put the pot of chili in the refrigerator and grabbed up the flashlight. The steer snuffled as he walked both paddocks and the pens.
The garden wasn’t all that big, maybe a quarter acre in five or six plots, and he walked those, too. Up and down the rows, and around her new irrigation.
Finally, he headed to the pond, tail pit, really. He didn’t like the place. A corner of bulldozed dirt, sunken mud with two feet of water in the rainy season. A filthy runoff came from the adjacent farm’s stagnated brew of excrement. The Agra group next door ranged cattle and all the shade came from trees on his side of the fence. Hence, the smelly bastards gathered on the uphill side of his property, laying around and fouling his land.
Cranston’s stomach rolled just thinking about the stink.
But Emma? She loved it. In the dry season, she chopped bales out of the ground, then added the odorous witches’ brew to her already rich garden projects. Her friends clamored around for her secret, but she wouldn’t tell. Her vegetables won prizes in three counties.
Where the hell is she? “Emma!”
His flashlight scanned her abandoned wheelbarrow and shovel, and the empty field all around. No water was in the pit, and the mud was hardened, waiting the summer rain storms.
He sighed and headed back for the house. He’d done what he could, and it was nearly midnight.
Well after two, the last sheriff’s cruiser finally pulled away. He kicked off his galoshes and sat on one of the porch rockers watching the black horizon. It was too late or early to call the rest of the people in her gardening group, although he was sure the word would be out. The county’s full of gossips and this was music to their ears. Wife runs off with fellow gardening guru.
But no one else was missing. Only Emma. Shit.
What the hell was he supposed to do now? He’d no idea. The county and a search team would be back at daylight to rip up his land.
For days, scores of searchers combed the farm, woods and creeks. They brought in a helicopter and even called in experts from the state police. For nearly three weeks he waited, mostly sitting on the porch until they finally called it quits.
The following spring, Cranston stood at the barn’s outside corner. The paddock stood fallow now, the grass growing tall and waving in the wind. The steer fed him through the winter with another year’s worth still in the freezer. One of the pigs sat in the freezer, too. He sold the other one to Jacob.
Dirty, demanding animals. He wouldn’t replace any of them until Emma came home. They were just too much trouble for him. There was always the IGA and besides, he still got his employee discount.
And the weeds. They grew like crazy. How in the hell had she kept all this going? Between feeding, cutting hay, trying to keep up with a lawn, and the apples…not to mention the chickens and their damn eggs and marauding raccoons, opossums, and rats…he couldn’t even go fishing with Jacobs. He was so damn busy and barely got done in a week, half of what she’d do in a day.
The talk was of a traveling salesman. She supposedly grew tired of him and his grief, and pulled up stakes for a better place. He scoffed, and got angry. Number one, they didn’t have troubles. At least, not like that. And number two, there wasn’t any such thing as a traveling salesman anymore. She was out there trying to come home. He just didn’t know where, and he was damn tired of her being gone.
All the talk finally died out by the third winter. Now, Cranston and Emma were just rural legends. Him living alone. Her? No one knew what to make of that.
A realtor came by in the spring to see if he wanted to sell. Seems a younger couple from the city was looking for a hobby farm and heard about his place maybe being up for sale. They would create a boutique vineyard, but Cranston wasn’t sure. Where would Emma garden when she came back if they had grapes in all the best places?
He’d told the guy to get the hell out and leave him alone. Boutique farm. What will they think of next?
The realtor didn’t seem offended, just laughed and left behind a business card and phone number. Just in case Cranston changed his mind.
That night, he chopped and cut an ear of corn for the microwave. The new corn field was not like the ones Emma had planted. He just ran the tiller through a couple of times and threw seed over the dirt. Beans and tomatoes were too much work but sweet potatoes and squash grew on their own. Only the strong survived, and not many at that. He ate what grew and what sat on the IGA shelves.
He left the last layer of husk for a quick two minute nuke as the store bought pork chop finished in the frying pan. He grabbed a handful of paper towels and his plate, and sat in the living room. Emma didn’t like eating in front of the television, but who else was he supposed to talk to?
He set up a tray, turned on the news with a quick glance toward Emma’s end of the couch. She didn’t like the news, either. He took a swig of beer and thought maybe he’d need a soak in the tub later. His back muscles were killing him. Why the hell would she do this kind of work for a six dollar ear of corn?
He ate the chop in three bites, then pulled at the last layer of husk, feeling a circular indentation. Expecting a worm or another such garden delight, he yanked the final steaming leaves away and prepared to drop on the butter, only to rear back and throw the ear across the room. It slammed against the wall and fell to the floor. Strangling the rows of white luscious kernels was a thin, metal band deforming and choking the vegetable into a curved white and yellow, corn coke-bottle.
Cranston slowed his breathing, because he knew. He knew as sure as he sat there. When finally he rose and retrieved the ear, shaking fingers couldn’t release the gold wedding band. His breaths came shallow as the knife cut and worked the ring free.
He read the inscription: Forever Yours, C.
Five Years Later
A sporty, red coupe rounded the mailbox. The passenger door opened and a young woman wearing tight, designer jeans stepped out. She had her hair pulled back in a blonde ponytail that bounced as she retrieved the mail.
“Is he still there?” asked the driver, her husband, down for the weekend from his attorney’s office in the city.
She shaded her eyes looking at the side of the hill where they’d wanted to plant vines. “Oh yeah. He’s there. Every day, every hour.”
“What’s he say?” the husband asked.
“I don’t know. He only talks to Jacob, the honey-wagon driver. And, that’s only when they empty his holding tank.”
The husband watched the man, sitting in a lawn chair, stunted corn growing around his legs. A tiny trailer sat nearby. “How can anyone live in a shitty little camper like that? What is it, now, six years since he sold us his place? The guys got to be a hundred years old, for Christ’s sake.”
“Eight years this September,” she said, shuffling the mail. “I’m still miffed he wrote that bullshit into the sales contract.”
“Hmm.” He knew it was coming. Again.
“You’re supposed to be the big shot lawyer,” she said putting a hand on her hip and turning to her husband. The old argument. “He gets a thousand square feet for their family cemetery, and he turns it into a garden? No one ever said he was going to live on it. They say he’s waiting for a ghost. That’s not a family cemetery. You should be able to break that deal.”
The husband shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t mind that so much. It’s the cops who give me a pain in the ass. Every year, like clockwork, some bozo comes out here and searches with an electronic gizmo. I swear, I’m going to tell them to get a warrant next time.”
“Yeah. You do that, big man.”
The husband breathed deeply and shifted for the uphill driveway. The argument grew worse all the time. For a moment, it looked like he would drive up the hill alone, but that’d ruin an already shaky weekend.
Instead, he said, “Come on. Get in.” She sat as he continued. “Just keep in mind we got this place dirt cheap and he’s an old man.”
“A damn healthy old man from eating out of an organic garden all his life,” she said.
The silence stretched and she touched his forearm. “Sorry. I know he can’t live forever, but where is the graveyard? There’re no headstones out there. Never has been, and probably never will be. He won’t even let us by the gates and he lied to us. That should break his contract.” She shivered. “He probably buried that poor old woman right there.”
“I know, hon. I know. But like you said, he can’t live forever.” He shifted the sport car and spun the wheel up the drive.
The man in the lawn chair never turned or looked around.
The husband pushed on the parking brake and said, “One day, you’ll plow it all up and we’ll plant grapes.” He tried a smile, but she wasn’t buying.
Instead, she watched Cranston through the car glass, a silhouette on the hillside.
She turned to her husband. “The thing that really creeps me out is the laughing and talking late at night. You’re not here, but I know he’s talking to that Emma person. And I swear, when the wind blows out of the north…” She turned to look at the man on the hillside again. “I can hear her answering. And, only he’s happy to be with her again.”
A note to the reader:
If by chance you’re wondering about Cranston and Emma’s story, and feel I’ve left something out, I haven’t. You may want to ask a Master Gardener. They’ll understand every true gardener and farmer alike is one with the dirt.