Life In America
The land is so flat and open it seems like you’re looking clear across north America and that maybe the tips of Chicago’s skyscrapers will, on a clear day, be visible 1000 miles to the north.
At the furthest reaches of your vision, in a complete circle, level with that vision, where the skyline touches the white sky melted and blended back into sunlight, a picture forms, perfectly brazen and trembling with a drama intense in the ringing silence of your ears; like one who would have looked a mile across an open field, and seen the men at Gettysburg in the climactic heat of impact on a wall bulging with violence directed at their impossibly open, naked forms breaking on iron ball and shot; but you are far enough from the moving forms that the silence is all the more shocking. Where it would have been unbelievable that so much drama could lose so much of its impact at so relatively short a distance. The only explanation being that in this world, where all is living, there is that much drama per every square inch and where nothing else travels very far from its source; being beaten back by everything which is in its own place.
This same action was present in the man, alone under the August sky. In the heat and the way things at a distance shimmered, he thought of that American battle story passed down by his own father. Strangely, in the midst of this nothing, there was a country store at the nexus of two untraveled gravel roads which stood like Stonehenge, alone and unafraid, where wares, and stores, and hard candy could be bought with priceless cash.
The land is flat and empty of trees, hill, or markers of any kind, aside from the farmer in the field with the broad brimmed hat, standing against nature, both leaning into and consistently marking the other.
In the loneliness, which he had learned to love, he places his shovel down and all stops; and when he picks it up again it all starts. Below his gaze, breaking the loud silence of the empty scene shattered in sunlight, crystal clear water bubbled pass the dark green shoots of crop that will one day turn greener still if a million things did not go impossibly wrong.
After him, his boy would break with a thousand-year lineage and move into the city. For the boy to live the man would die, at the crease of two ages. The conditions were there, and no one knew it, or maybe the man did.
Some have said it was the fumes of the engine exhaust from the old American tractor that did it. Fate had placed the man where no one came behind you to ensure you were all buttoned up. That morning he’d felt unusual and was soon never so sure of anything and he’d always had to be sure of everything.
A tenant farmer is a short seller; the most frightening prospect in all of finance; and he does it twice in the same transaction. To sell short is to borrow an asset and turn around and sell it at a relatively high price with the expectation of buying it back at a lower price, pocketing the difference, and then returning the asset and a portion of that difference to the owner as payment for the borrowing.
He borrows raw land from the owner and loan “proceeds” from the bank. Now he is in possession of two things that every night he remembers are very much not his. With the loan proceeds of the bank and the land of the owner he daily breakfasts on hope.
Through an alchemical process of land, and labor, bounty is squeezed from the inert substances on the flat spot empty of tree and hill. Then the loan and some of the bounty is returned and paid to the bank and the land and some of the bounty is returned and paid to the land owner. What was left was given to the boy and all of that was gone by the time he’d reach ten when he hoped he’d been given enough.
There was no heating the home that winter and the winters were wet and brutal but now it was summer in the field and the man had been in the open air with the black birds with red tails and white birds with long necks which sing and what you are sometimes hearing is the tuning fork of pain.
Hope is what separated him from the birds that visited him there and to whom he was God as they looked at him quizzingly, twisting and bending their heads like an owl. But the loan we can never hope to repay in kind was coming due. So, he descended the tractor for the last time. It was only when he was scared and it’s ok to be scared. It was not English he spoke to his wife when he met her in the little house they’d built on the prairie where she herself would have been afraid to see him back so early.
She knew he would never stop working unless he had to. Because she knew that he knew that to stop meant the work would go undone until he did it; that it would sit in the field waiting for its man; as the labor of the homestead did for her.
They were 6th generation American. But they still spoke that ancient language that was rudely visited upon England in 1066. So, it was that he walked into his house, leaving behind the fields he would plow no more forever; where at that very moment a wet breeze mixed, with the lonesome sounds of the wandering birds under a graying sky looking for their man, who had gone home twice now.
As she greeted him tenderly she realized she’d long since, willingly or otherwise, become tied to him, and she knew, that his news was her news when in an hour he died and less than a year later she would follow but they weren’t either of them yet 45.
The boy standing at her side when she did was ten. The number ten, where all is after and some little bit was before; the ingredients for the man were just standing there mute, like the child, for a moment in time. He wanted her to stay. Oh, how he wanted her to stay. But she went. And he cried and when he finished crying, with the energy and vitality of a child, with tears like a stream of lava from an open source, and like an exorcism, she was still gone and he was numb.
It was silent then, in the little house seated under the big sky, and the birds in the field so close could be heard through the porous walls calling him out to join the fray; to pitch into the battle like the men at the wall at Gettysburg.
And God gives the toughest assignments to the people who can handle it because nature abhors a vacuum. And if you’re given, or not given, something it’s because you are, or you are not, game. But some people are born nearly ready and brimming with potential they did not ask for and are marked for pain because that is just nature’s answer to the question of growth. So, the boy was ten when he was turned out of the little home where it was no longer she in her room and deposited upon the sands.
He would make his way into the city and work odd jobs that a child could get being careful not to take work from the men who had more to lose when their families were hungry in 1920; when you could see it in their eyes and wisely gave ground living to fight another day on more suitable terrain.
But the kid had the spark which people see, but that he had had to earn, when next to her he was only ten, with nothing, as she lay dying. God knows what she told him in the ancient accent before she left him to fly with the black birds with the red tails and white ones with the long necks who would now share precious life with her boy and it had made her jealous of them for a second.
Now was the time for work. Oh, how he worked, and he was kind and people liked him as he always managed a smile that started in his eyes and trickled down to his face and in that order. He raised a young family and helped to assemble FDR’s dream. He brought his family along, or they brought him, crisscrossing the fortress of a continent that feels like a world and where, with no one to fight, battle is done inwardly and upwardly. He had a strong wife who packed lunch pails for him and had seen something in the orphan.
He’d later tell how he hammered rivets into place walking the beams above the flowering cities. Everyone he met he liked unless they didn’t want him to in which case he’d never caught that virus of wasted energy which gave him a quiet and relative speed. But to nearly all you could tell he’d earned every morsel and carried something golden and it was what she had told him before she left.
Then work took him back to the city he’d rode to when all had seemed lost but was in fact very much right. He was a family man now. One day he was working in a tree, perhaps hanging Christmas lights, and it was a Sunday in his yard. Below him was a strong boy he remembered as his son and he was proud that the boy had just gotten back from the sandlot with his glove in America.
He fell out of the tree in his happiness. He was a man who worked with his hands, but his back was broken now, and he would no longer smash rivets in the sky for freedom. He lay in the hospital and thought of his dad climbing aboard the tractor on the day it all seemed to go wrong for him. But as he lay there he was still unconvinced, as he’d always been, that anything had gone wrong at all.
Then his wife said “I’m a woman and you’re a man and it’s 1955. You want everyone to love you and they do, but for myself I could care less.” Instinct had told her they’d make a great team. “So, you’ll start a realty company and I’ll help you run it.” And they did, and it worked, and men still do not cry when touched by an angel if they can help it.
The people came because they saw that he was good and did what he said and said what he did because he knew what she had said and, somehow, he had known what it meant when she had. In this way she had carried him along in the life she knew he shared with the birds that sang from fields now distant.
The language of the old world was still spoken in his office with people from those fields, themselves orphans in the new town to make a new way. He began building federal housing developments on loans that moved in his blood and lessons which echoed in his ears with the gentle voice of his father. He prospered because he had the philosophy she taught him in her suffering which only a child can learn if caught right, before anything else could catch him differently.
In a language no longer spoken she had said “It’s ok, be strong and I love you. We’re both going home, my son. But here the road forks, you see. Your path goes that way and is marked by different forms all the same as mine. But the roads, they’ll meet again. And there, I’ll find you.”
On that path, and with that message, like a burning coal, he blazed a life in America.