A journal of narrative writing.
Page 2

He went to the stairs anyway and watched her to the bottom. When she was safely down, he walked her to the kitchen, pulled out her chair and returned to the stove. Thick slabs of fat-streaked bacon had ceased protesting in an old pan and in the smaller one next to it two jaundiced yolks had grown firm in their white penumbra. He put the meal on a plate and placed it on the table in front of her.

Lydia smiled flaccidly. She’d finally stopped apologizing. “Thank you, Wald. I’ll be back on my feet soon, I promise.”

“I know,” he said and nodded, though they both knew it was a lie. He sat down across from her and pushed a forkful of egg into his mouth. “I called the lands office again yesterday.”

Lydia looked up at him.

Waldemar shook his head.

“What’s so special about this farm that can’t split it up?” She asked. Lydia loved the farm as much as Waldemar, but subdividing the land and selling it off in bits and pieces would ease their troubles. And it was happening all over the valley: fertile farmland was cut into stamp-sized lots on which orderly hordes of matching split-levels lined up for miles in close, unlovely lines on treeless roads with names like Pine Street and Walnut Crescent and Willow Tree Lane. Even the farm next to theirs had been chopped up and sold.

“I don’t know,” Waldemar said. He raised his head and gazed hollow-eyed at Lydia. “I don’t know.”

Lydia turned away from her husband and stared out the window. Darkness was draining slowly from the sky. “It’s going to be alright, Wald.” She would not be a burden much longer.

Waldemar looked at his watch and stood up. The truck had to be loaded by six or he’d miss the first wave of weekend traffic.

Janet and Fredrik were reluctant helpers, but as their mother’s health waned, so had their complaints. And while the two of them lifted box after box onto the rusting old Ford, Lydia took tiny bites under the watchful eye of a weary Waldemar. When the truck was finally loaded he leaned across the table and kissed his wife on the forehead. He opened his mouth to speak – to say something comforting – then closed it, got up, and left.

Waldemar walked around the truck, pressing a zucchini here, moving a cabbage there. Fredrik and Janet watched in silence. They’d loaded badly once many years ago and he’d raged for hours, shouting and stomping and kicking at things. Even the dog stayed out of his way. Finally, he looked at his children and said, “Keep an eye on your mother.” Janet nodded. Fredrik opened the truck door and held it for his father. The yard light flickered and went off.

Waldemar climbed into the truck and draped his arms across the steering wheel. He stared out the windows, first to one side and then the other. On one side, the front porch with its stone steps galled by years of heavy use had succumbed to the serpentine canes of an untended blackberry bush. On the other, where the Hindus had lived, a long row of identical townhouses now pressed up against the edge of his land. Strands of limp barbwire hung from rotting posts and chafed the freshly stained wood fence that encircled the development. He turned the key and the old Ford grumbled to life.

The road was still wet from the previous night’s rain and a curtain of fog erased distance and colour. Ditches on both sides overflowed with cattails, wild grass and weeds. On the telephone pole a hawk was a brown silhouette.

Waldemar was a simple man. He’d conducted his life and his work with the steady and implacable seriousness of a John Deere tractor. Farming was all he knew. But politics and progress had interfered and his once-honest living had been reduced to meager subsidies and ridiculous quotas. That he was forced to sell produce to passing tourists at a makeshift roadside stand filled him with a deep and bitter resentment.

He rolled down the window and the scent of fresh damp alfalfa filled the cab. It was a rich and pleasant smell and a sharp reminder of the Holsteins he’d lost a year earlier. The insurance policy had been a joke; nitrate poisoning happened to farmers all the time. It should have been covered. He must have called them a hundred times. Tried to reason with them. They said it was negligence pure and simple. He was forced to go down to their office, shake his fists, pound on desks. They wouldn’t budge. Beaten and broke, he’d gone in search of a job, the kind with steady hours and monthly pay. He came close to becoming a long-haul truck driver – the power of the big rig and the freedom of the open highway were not unattractive to him – but his night vision was bad, they’d said, and he’d gone home angry and frustrated.

He pressed his back into the seat and took a deep breath. He’d driven this road hundreds of times and knew the straight stretches between crossroads and the tree-lined bends to which the stubborn mists of cool autumn mornings clung. He knew where the road snaked down into the steep valley and over a small bridge across a shallow creek whose cold water tumbled in soft murmurs to the vast dark ocean to the west.

Where the road met the highway, Waldemar clenched his teeth and shoved the old truck into first gear, finally shuddering to a stop. Skeleton-white birch trees loomed primeval from a mist-shrouded copse on the far side of the road. Waldemar watched a shiny black-and-chrome eighteen-wheeler rumble past, a leather-swathed figure on a low-slung motorcycle in its slipstream. He would have liked to be that man, just to know what it was like to have someone block the wind for him. A pebble pinged across the windshield and flew over the cab. Waldemar leaned forward and urged the Ford onto the highway.

A lone yew tree a small distance down the road marked his spot. When it came into view, Waldemar glanced in the rear-view mirror and swung onto the wide grassy verge. He hoped the stand would be where he’d left it a week ago. He’d built it at the start of the summer and had been leaving it behind a thick bramble near the yew tree. It was a simple two-by-four frame with a shallow counter in front on which to display produce, like a larger version of the puppet theatre he’d built for Janet for her seventh birthday. That was back when he could still do something right by her.

Waldemar eased himself out of the cab and slammed the door. He waded through the tall wet grass to where he’d left the stand and was relieved to find it just as he’d left it. He dragged it toward the highway and erected it in front of the laden back end of the pick-up. He’d discovered early that customers rarely wanted the cabbage or the lettuce or the zucchini he’d put on the shelf; they’d rather rifle through the boxes and choose their own. It wasn’t how he liked to do things, but he’d learned to accept that things didn’t always go his way.

He untied the ropes and pulled the holey blue tarpaulin out of the way and opened the tailgate. A long brown slug left a glistening trail of mucous on the brown-red metal. Waldemar tore a piece of cardboard off a box and scraped the creature onto the wet grass beside him. He glanced at the pale underbellies of cucumbers left too long in a wet field and wondered whether anyone would buy them.

He’d just finished setting up the stand when a black SUV pulled off the road in front of him. A faded yellow canoe was strapped upside-down on top of it. It was a young couple with two children – a boy and girl – on their way to a mountain lake for the weekend. Waldemar forced a smile as the husband opened the door. “Good morning.”

“Yes, and the further we get from the city, the better it gets.” The husband chortled.

“You’re so lucky,” the wife said. She shook her head and gestured at the little thicket and the rolling pastures on the other side of the highway. “Waking up to this every day.”

Waldemar kept smiling.

The husband opened the back door and said something to the kids. Waldemar heard only “real live farmer.” They got out and stood beside their father and stared at Waldemar and the old truck while the mother picked through a box of cabbages. They didn’t buy much: two cucumbers and a dozen ears of corn. Bits of loose gravel flew up behind the SUV as they left.

For the next little while, Waldemar sat near the truck on a folding lawn chair, his faded jeans taut against the torn webbing, and peeled bits of brown off the outer layer of the cabbages and trimmed the hairy ends of the corn to uniform lengths. Presentation was everything with city people. Before long, a dark blue sedan pulled off the highway and stopped in front of the stand. Waldemar saw her sandaled brown feet first. The woman tossed her thick black hair over her shoulders and walked to the stand where Waldemar sat.

“It’s Walter, right?”

He stared at her. At least she wasn’t wearing those Ali Baba robes and a red dot on her forehead like the rest of her kind did.

“Remember me? We met across the fence last summer.” She’d sold the land for the Hindus. Of course. She was one of their own. And then she’d written to him about selling the farm. She’d get a good price for him.

Over his dead body. “It’s Waldemar,” he said dryly. And don’t tell me how valuable my land is, he thought.