A journal of narrative writing.
Flint Hills, Kansas
Page 2

"Do you have any family, Mr. Cornfield? I see that you have a wedding ring on, is your wife at home?"

Jerry looked Mr. Eastman in the face, squinting. He took off his glasses, started to fiddle with them, then set them on his knee. "She's here."

"May I speak with her?"

Still gazing down at his eyewear, Jerry said, "You might speak with her, but she won't be speaking back anytime too soon." He looked up. "Her grave is out back." He pushed with his arms and, grunting, suddenly stood. "You want something to drink?"

Mr. Eastman covered his chest with the straw hat. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Cornfield. I didn't mean to pry. Please accept my condolences."

Jerry nodded once. "You're about twenty years too late. I don't talk about it." His mouth shut like a wet trap door, and he paced toward the screen. The tree in the yard shushed, and the clouds rolled. Jerry stuffed his spectacles into his shirt pocket, placed his hand on the door handle, turned and asked, "Water with lemon?"

Mr. Eastman hesitated, then said, "That would be fine, Mr. Cornfield. That would be fine." His hat remained where it was.

Jerry opened the door. "Now you sound black," he said through the screen. "Not very, but some." And he shuffled into the house.

Several minutes later he returned, a porcelain jug in one hand and two mismatched glasses in the other. He set the jug onto a wooden crate.

"There was no lemon," he said. "And no ice."

He handed a glass to Mr. Eastman and, with surprising steadiness, poured water into it, then his own. "Should be cold, though."

They drank, Mr. Eastman taking large gulps while Jerry sipped. Making sounds of appreciation and holding his near-empty glass to the light, Mr. Eastman said, "Delicious." He smiled at Jerry then polished it off. "Sometimes water is all a man needs."

Jerry nodded and reinserted his pipe.

Carefully setting his glass on the handrail beside him, Mr. Eastman took a deep breath. "The company I represent has been around for quite some time, with agents spread out all over the country. There are some who say that before incorporating as a business, we were with the pioneers on their way out West, possibly with the very first settlers on our eastern shores, doing wonderful work for people just like you in all sorts of situations. It's something we're very proud of. Not that we've been duly acknowledged for our efforts, but that's not the point." His hand wiped the air. "Usually, our endeavors are beneficial for all parties involved, Mr. Cornfield, so at the risk of becoming too personal again, I would like to ask you once more: Is there any other family here who may have called Ashford Projects on your behalf? A son or daughter, perhaps?" He looked hopeful.

Sitting once again, Jerry gazed out into the lawn. Two monolithic and inoperative machines at its center ate space silently, reflecting the sun with dull indifference.

"Maybe it was some time ago?" said Mr. Eastman when it became apparent to him that Jerry wasn't going to speak. "We often schedule up to six months in advance."

Jerry chewed his pipe. "Nope. No one living here but me." He coughed.

"I see." Mr. Eastman tipped his glass to his lips, but had to wait for the final drops to reach him; these he sucked. "Do you have any family in town, or outside, that may have contacted-"

"No one," said Jerry. "No family. None." His breaths deepened and his chest began to rumble. "She..." A series of small coughs began that grew worse with his words. "Out back...with...her mother..." With one hand, he removed and held his pipe; with the other he covered his mouth. Jerry's thin body hunched and shook. Percussions emanated from his ribs. The fit became so pronounced that his spectacles jumped out of his pocket and clattered to the porch.

"Mr. Cornfield!" Eastman bounded from the railing and placed a hand on Jerry's back. Through the thin, plaid shirt, he could feel the old man's spine vibrating and protruding as though attempting escape. "Are you alright? Is there anything I can do?" He reached toward the glass of water, but quickly realized it was no use. "Are you asthmatic? Is there some kind of medication?" He held the old man's shoulders and tried to steady him, but the explosions of coagulated breath rattled the tiny body like a loose sack of kindling. "Do you have medication? Mr. Cornfield!"

As Jerry waved his pipe-hand in the air and shook his head, the coughing gradually began to subside. With a weak shove, he freed himself of Mr. Eastman's touch and raised himself up in the chair, regaining his breath in stages. Deep rumbles thundered in his chest, threatening to erupt, but Jerry made faces and compressed them into a hissing submission. He sat very still. When he reached shaking for his glass of water, Mr. Eastman quickly handed it to him.

"Mr. Cornfield, I apologize. I didn't mean to upset you like that. Is there anything I can do?"

Jerry drank from the glass until it was empty. He gasped and clapped his hand over his mouth and swallowed several times. Eyes closed, he sputtered through the fingers, and a few drops fell onto his shirt. He shook his head, wiped his face with an arm, and gestured for the other man to forget about it, to sit down. His breathing was uneven.

Mr. Eastman stood and mopped himself furiously. "You did scare me, sir. Are you alright?"

Jerry swallowed. "Happens," he managed.

George stood. "I'm very sorry. Maybe it was all a mistake. I'll phone Ashford Projects as soon as possible."

"I don't talk about it," Jerry said.

Mr. Eastman surveyed Jerry quizzically. He watched as the old man retrieved his spectacles from the floor with a trembling hand and pocketed them with complication. As the unsteady body eased itself back into the rocker and the pipe-chewing resumed, Mr. Eastman saw that the wrinkled face had hardened, the lips had thinned, and the eyes had narrowed, focusing intently on something beyond the porch. Perhaps the entire gray head, though appearing to be still, was, in fact, vibrating. He followed the man's fixed stare to the center of the yard.

"I understand," he said.

The breeze picked up again, but there were no other sounds. In the distance, a jet drew a straight white line from one cumulous to another and disappeared. Over time, its trail slowly wobbled and separated like taffy. The two men breathed.

Mr. Eastman gestured. "What are those mountains over there, Mr. Cornfield?"

Jerry took his pipe out of his mouth before answering. "Flint Hills."

He spent a moment taking in the sight. "Not very big," said Mr. Eastman, "but beautiful, I have to say."

He tilted his head, regarding the range of flower-speckled, emerald mounds within hiking distance on the left. Stretching to the horizon on the opposite side, the prairie undulated like an earthen froth. Trails wound through the tallstem grasses, disappearing over their crests and into the green. A mythical solitude pervaded, suggesting that to tread upon these paths could remind one of a forgotten membership to a long lost tribe.

Mr. Eastman turned to Jerry and laughed quietly. "For a state that's mostly flat as a billiard table, they're something. How did they get there?" He put a finger to his bottom lip. "Do you need your glasses to see them?"

"No. Only things up close."

"I see."

Jerry continued to stare into the yard as a thick cloud obscured the sun, blanketing them in shade.

"Mr. Cornfield, I truly hope you don't mind my asking, but with such a wonderful view- again, please don't take offense at this- why do you keep those two pieces of metal in your yard?" He gestured. "I'm sure it wouldn't cost too much to remove them. You may even be able to sell them for scrap."

Jerry's eyes didn't shift. He had been staring at the machines the entire time. They were difficult to avoid- the frames of the things, even without their wheels, were over eight feet tall. His eyes ran skittishly over their blockish components with a familiar tracking, as though following well-worn paths. Essentially identical, the foremost behemoth was slightly smaller than the other; from the view on the porch, their shapes overlapped, effectively blocking out a third of the landscape. Wild grass and weeds had grown up to shoulder height around and, in some spots, right out of the ancient vehicles.

"What are they?" asked Mr. Eastman. "Garbage trucks?"

Jerry nodded.

"They seem to have been in that spot a long time. How did they get there?"

Jerry shrugged. "Can't recall." He inhaled and made a face. "Twenty, thirty-some years ago. They were put there..." He waved his pipe in their direction just as the sun returned to illuminate the yard. The two trucks were thrown into sharp relief, and their shadows struck the ground like a slap. "Got used to 'em." Jerry nodded once. "Yep. Just got used to 'em being there."

Mr. Eastman brought forth his orange handkerchief once more. "I see." He wiped. "Even so, Mr. Cornfield, you could really open up the view of those beautiful Flint Hills of yours by having these machines removed. Consider. Someone might even pay you to do it." He paused and raised his eyebrows significantly. "The value of your property would increase quite a bit, as well, I don't doubt." He leaned back. His left hand patted his pocket rhythmically, producing the sound of muffled change.

"I don't mind 'em so much." He chewed the pipe and shifted it to the other side of his mouth.

The change-rattling stopped. "I see." Mr. Eastman took three steps to the near end of the porch and stood looking in the direction of the nearest neighbor's home, a half-mile away. "Mr. Cornfield, do you think that whoever called us- I'm not concerned with who it was, anymore- did so on account of the future of this property? Are you interested in selling your land, Mr. Cornfield?" He turned to face the old man. "Could this be the reason I came here today?"

Jerry coughed a few times, issuing dry, sharp cracks that didn't immediately induce anything further. He cleared his throat. "No." He pointed his pipe stem toward Mr. Eastman's ribs. "No, I have no interest in selling my house. Or my land. By God..." He coughed. "My wife and daughter..."

The old man reached for his glass but knocked it aside; it struck the jug and clanked and toppled without breaking. It rolled precariously over the box top. Mr. Eastman bent and retrieved it, filling it quickly with water for the man. Jerry took it with a shaking hand but had to set it down at once. His breath shortened, and he convulsed. Mr. Eastman, unsure what to do, hovered and moved his hands above the quaking body as though coming up against something invisible.

"Get..." managed Jerry. He then coughed in rapid escalation; small hacks became tremors that transformed into great kettledrum rolls that traveled to the bottom of his lungs, where no air remained. Breathless spasms shook his chest cavity, and Mr. Eastman heard a rattle in its core. Jerry's lower jaw worked silently, his eyes bulged. Fishlike burps came from his bobbing throat, and his face began to change color- he wasn't breathing.