The late afternoon air smells of yellow hay, the warm musk of manure, peppery fresh-cut grass, and chicken frying up nicely somewhere. A breeze is moving laundry hung from a tired line across the yard, and washing in waves over feathery tassels on tall August corn. Corn surrounds the shady yard on three sides, obscuring fields running endless beneath the perfect Iowa sky. The corn wraps around the farm like loving arms, like a lover’s intimate embrace. Fat red apples are ripe in the tree beside the house. They are falling to the soft, grassy earth in ever increasing numbers, as if understanding that only a select few will be chosen to fatten a pie, or a fresh-baked strudel.
The shade is comfortable against the afternoon heat. It is persistent and guaranteed by the crooked maple, the one scarred by that lightening strike last summer, the one beside the barn. A tractor tire, bleached dusty gray from years in the sun, hangs on a thick rope from the maple’s sturdiest limb. The tire isn’t used much anymore, not since the kids outgrew it long ago, even before going off to make their own lives. The grandkids are still too small to reach the tire. Sparrows flutter through the limbs to the barn’s awnings, chattering excitedly from their nests among the rafters and hay bails.
From where the two old-timers sit, half hidden in the midnight shadow of the barn, the tire neatly frames the concrete grain tower in Cylinder just visible above the corn. The afternoon sun shines upon the tower so that it appears as crisp and clean as polished gold. A flock of blackbirds falls upon the fields like handfuls of coal thrown from a great height.
The old-timers might have been there for an hour, all afternoon, or they might have been there forever. Time in these parts, save for those feverish moments of youth, the tentative misunderstandings of love awakened, or the chaotic trials of raising children, ebbs and flows as hypnotic as waves upon the smooth stones of some quiet beach. Doesn’t much matter how long they’ve been there, particularly not to them. They’d be content no matter what, especially if forever was as perfect an afternoon as this.
Don and Dean are sitting on a pair of small kitchen chairs. Same ones they’ve been on for years. So long that neither of them can rightly remember when the chairs were used for anything else. Don is sort of leaning back, which is a bit easier on his uncommonly long legs. He has the chair up on two legs, rocking up and back to a rhythm only he knows. Dean has his feet up and crossed on a stump.
Their wives are sisters, in a family in which if you are loved by one you are loved by all, with just enough judgment to keep you safe among the fold. It makes for a wild mix, one that Don is often heard to remark as being “darn good theater.” It’s a large clan, where bonds may become lost in the greater weave, except where they overlap most certainly.
Old Don retired from teaching some years ago. Still misses it, mostly, misses coaching the football team, watching his boys grow into men. He misses the pride swelling in his chest at every win, and the challenge in the losses. Sometimes the memories of those chilly autumn nights return full force; the moths and the June bugs swarming in the lights, the smell of sweat, fresh earth and hot cocoa. He hears the clacking of helmets and shoulder pads, and cheerleaders chiding the opposing team. Don was always a simple man, coached and taught that way. Never did see a need to raise his voice, never thought that life was all that difficult that it ever needed to be forced.
Dean? Well, he had counted the days to retirement for better than twenty years. Just sort of fell into truck driving. Wasn’t a calling or anything that he particularly loved. When he finally retired, Dean never missed driving across the country, the cold cups of bitter coffee, or the sense that he was always running to someplace unfamiliar and leaving the familiar behind. He laments all that he missed as the kids grew up, their lives more like snapshots than a continuum. The fact that they’ve grown into such good people, and the grandkids who shower him with affection are all that he needs to temper whatever guilt he still feels.
“Callin’ for rain tonight,” Dean says, not in a drawl, but with a lazy economy, a casual knowledge that human time is nothing if not to be squandered. Dean’s gaze is lost somewhere among the corn.
Don eyes drift around the yard. “Believe it just might.”
“Better tonight than today. Don’t like it much when it rains on Sundays.”
“Good sermon this mornin’,” says Don. “Father sure can get ya thinkin’.”
“That he can,” Dean agrees.
“Darn good breakfast too.”
“Those ladies of the auxiliary sure can cook.”
“Betsy Pendergast’s coffee cake.”
“Believe ole Betsy’s eatin’ more than she’s bringin’ to church.” Dean smiles mischievously. Don joins him as surely as a private language the two old friends cultivate and keep among one another.
“Morris Drew’s pork sausage,” Don says.
“That’s some good sausage.”
“Good sausage,” Don agrees.
“Believe he makes it right here in town.”
“Is that right?” asks Don.
“Believe I heard that.”
A long silence follows, one touched only by the laughter of sparrows and the breeze through the corn. Dean looks at the sky and nods knowingly.
“Yep, believe it might rain tonight.”
“Back is actin’ up a bit.”
“What’s the doctor say?”
“Says that a body knows when the weather is changin’.”
Don notices a butterfly dancing among the bright yellow marigolds beside the house. He looks to the pristine blue sky leaking through the fluttering maple leaves.
“Think I’d ask for a second opinion,” says Don.
“Would, but I’m afraid they’d tell me my knees outta be hurtin’ too, and I just couldn’t stand that.” Dean cocks his head. “Know who’s got good breakfast sausage?”
“Hog’s Breath Diner out by the interstate,” he replies matter-of-fact.
Don acts surprised, though they’ve had this same conversation, in one form or another, for twenty years.
“Got to be links,” says Dean, puffing his cheeks to hold back a bit of gas.
“Sure don’t like them patties. Think the Hog’s Breath has ‘bout the best.”
“Believe you might be right.”
“Yep. Problem with the world today,” Don observes.
“Not enough folks get a good breakfast,” Don yawns and stretches.
“Seems about right.”
“Stuff like that ought not happen.”
“Lots of folks over there of different religions,” offers Dean. “Lot of them folks don’t eat the same stuff.”
“Thought of that.”
“Whadya come to?”
“Figure everybody’s got a right to their own ideas on that stuff.”
“You’re a benevolent soul,” Dean grins.
“Just so long as a body gets a full belly every mornin’.”
“Could change the world.”
Dean chews his lip, studying the leaves. They have turned over, leading with their paler bottoms, a sure sign of rain. Dean takes a deep breath and thinks that his life is just about perfect. Well’ he muses to himself, he could be twenty years younger and a little richer, but then it wouldn’t be his life anymore. He’s content, and thinks maybe that this is the meaning of perfection, at least in this life anyway.
“Sure eat some pretty wild things in some of them countries,” he finally says.
“Reckon they’d say the same about us,” Don smiles. “Especially the way you and I eat.”
“Maybe we outta send some diners and truck stops. Figure that would be a better way to quiet folks down a notch, ‘stead of sendin’ the army over there, that is.”
“Just seems to rile things up more.”
“Outta be enough unemployed cooks and waitresses around.”
“You might think.”
“Could send ‘em the ladies auxiliary,” says Dean with a smoothly mischievous tone.
Don leans back a bit farther, hovering at the limit of his balance. He looks over at Dean. The smile is infectious. Don catches it right away.
“Know your lovely wife, Mary Lou, is in the auxiliary?” says Don.
Dean winks, the boyish smile deepening the lines of his round face. He adjusts the white John Deere cap teetering on his head. “That’d be my sacrifice to world peace.”
“You’re a good man.”
“We do what we must.”
“Where ‘bouts would you send her?”
Dean considers the question for a moment. “Ah, she’s a good hard workin’ woman. I figure someplace that needs a lot of help, say Siberia, Africa?”
“She’d set ‘em straight over there.”
“Set ‘em straight.”
“Sure can cook though,” says Don.
Dean nods. “Known your Joanne to cook up a good meal or two.”
“Send her too.”
“Cook them folks up a fine breakfast and maybe they’d settle down a bit.”
“Worked for us. We ain’t hardly been off these chairs all day.”
“Have to get up sooner or later. Smells like dinner’ll be ready soon.”
The scent of frying chicken and warm butter rolls fills the yard. The sun is setting, bringing a bit of an evening chill to the air. Don rubs his slight belly. “Think we’ll have to get up soon.”
Dean rubs his own belly. “Yep, feel things a rumblin’ in there.”