by Jeffrey N. Johnson
Every Saturday morning James and his ten-year-old son went to buy eggs. They climbed into an old Ford pickup, set the choke, and after some protest the truck fired up. James slapped Nathan on the knee and off they went with windows cranked down and a cool windstorm flailing their hair. The truck slowed through town past the Baptist church, the supermarket, and the antique shops. James pointed to the old boarded up five-and-dime where he worked as a young man and Nathan nodded. Some Saturdays, Nathan would point to the five-and-dime first and his father would nod."Dad, why don't we just buy eggs at the supermarket like everybody else?"
James pondered the question as they rumbled over the loose boards at the railroad crossing. A grain elevator with a faded Southern States logo sat to one side like a giant, abandoned milk carton.
"These eggs are fresh, Nathan."
They put the town behind them as the road ran deep into the Piedmont, down two lane roads so narrow the side mirror clipped the leaves of passing trees. James glanced at his son. The boy's eyes were closed and his chin rested on an arm over the window sill, letting the morning air splash over his face. James knew the road by heart and thought he could have closed his eyes too.
A few miles out of town they coasted into a small valley of fresh-cut ochre fields. A lone farm house sat in its belly surrounded by ridges of ancient cedar. Though it was still early Fall, smoke rose from the chimney. Planted around its perimeter were a number of outbuildings: barns, sheds and coops, all once painted bright red but now sanded down by time and weather. A mass of honeysuckle was pulling down the fence where they hit the potted driveway. The sound of crushing gravel signaled a shift that they were entering world of old ways and hard attitudes.
Lewis Pitman looked as though he had been waiting for them, but had likely been sitting on his back porch all morning. He gripped the arms of his rocker and stood as tall and straight as he could. Resting one hand on his walker, he raised a Mason jar of goat's milk to his lips. As he drank, the tracheotomy tube in the center of his throat surfaced like a plastic button sewn to an old hide.
James climbed from the cab and brushed his mussed hair to one side with his fingers. He smiled at the scent of fresh cut hay. Nathan hopped down and mingled with the company of roosters bobbing in the yard.
"Lewis, you're looking good today," James said, though not without concern.
Lewis Pitman responded with a large exhalation, a half whisper—the other half whistling through the tube in his throat. A garbled thank you came out. Though strained and bleary, his voice retained a memory of the powerful man he had once been. He set the Mason jar aside and extended his hand.
"Growing like a weed," the old man warbled, motioning to his son. "Remember you. . . that age." He kept gripping James's hand for balance, then grabbed the walker with both hands and rapped it once on the floor. "Come," he said. Lewis pushed ahead, resisting James's attempt to help him off the porch. The two men took a painstaking pace across the yard with Lewis and his walker leading by a half step and James beside him with a ready hand. They passed the wire cages and the warped chicken coop, and came to a barn with an open side to the south. Inside the cavernous space sat Lewis's tractor, a rusted hulk of a machine, its tubes and tires dry-rotting and the engine pasted with oily chaff. Scattered to one side was a host of implements: a disk, several plows, a rake and baler, all being consumed by a jumble of pokeweed.
Lewis paused to catch his breath, then nodded toward the old machine.
"What you figure it's worth?"
James looked over the obsolete tractor.
"Hard to say, Lewis." James rubbed the day old growth on his cheek. He feigned interest, taking a closer look at the engine. "You found a buyer?"
Lewis shook his head as Nathan came up from behind. "What's that for?" Nathan asked, pointing at one of the boxier attachments.
Lewis shook a finger at the contraption, then deferred to James.
"That's a baler," the boy's father said.
"Your daddy. He knows," Lewis said. Nathan turned to his father, whose face looked older in the shade of the barn.
"Years ago I used everything here," James said, motioning all around. "Mr. Pitman used to hire me every season." Lewis stood a little taller. Nathan climbed on the baler and surveyed the ruins.
"Like around my age?" the boy asked. "A little older, but not much," his father said. "It was a long time ago." He couldn't bring himself to look at Lewis, whose eyes were fixed on an arbitrary spot in the back of the barn. Lewis's sons were not farmers and had gone off long ago to find their own ways. Before leaving for college, James's days on the Pitman farm were hard working and happy. He had never since had a job where at the end of the day he could feel accomplishment in his muscles and joints. He lamented that his son might never know such rewards. James planted a foot on the front wheel of the tractor, stared at the ground as he spoke. "Lewis, why are you trying to sell this old stuff?"
Lewis sank a little into his walker and lowered his head. "Damn taxes," he said, the spirit wheezing out of him. "Can't keep up."
Nathan climbed onto the tractor and bounced into the saddle. "Does it still work?"
Lewis raised a weak hand and twisted it in the air. The key was in the ignition and James told his son to turn it. The boy stared back reluctantly. "You're old enough now," his dad said. "Push in the clutch. Stand up on it if you have to. Slip it out of gear. That's right. Now push the button." He pointed to the fat metal knob in front of the stick that looked like it could have fired a torpedo. Nathan pushed it hard. The tractor groaned three times and fell silent.
"Battery," Lewis said, shaking his head as though it was always the battery.
Just then a crushing sound came from behind the house as a shiny flatbed truck roared into view and spit gravel down Lewis's driveway. A big brown arm stuck out the driver's window and waved, less in hello than in announcement of his arrival. Nathan waved back, but his father just watched. The truck made its way to the large hay barn toward the rear of the property. Two workers jumped out the far side as the truck backed up to the double-door. Their clothes were dirty and wrinkled at every joint, looking as though they would hold their shape if taken off. In unison the men yelled, "Whoa!" and the truck jerked to a stop.
"Lewis," James said with some weight, "I see you're still renting your fields to Millen. If you don't mind me asking, how much are you charging him to cut and store?"
Lewis stood firm. "Going rate."
The going rate in what year? James wondered. He had sworn to himself to keep his nose in his own business, but he knew Millen too well. "You best be taking fifty percent of his gross and not a penny less. Plus storage, mind you."
The man with the big brown arm jumped from the cab and walked toward them with a smile, lips parted but teeth locked together. His khakis were pressed and in his golf shirt pocket was the outline of a cell phone. He left deep footprints in the grass.
"Damn Lewis," Millen said barreling toward them. "I've been working myself to death. I'll be seeing my grave long before you see yours."
"A good day. . .that will be."
"James," Millen said, staring right into his eyes. "Your boy?"
"Yes, you could say he belongs to me. How are you, Millen?"
"Work and more work and I still can't make ends meet."
"You're doing well enough for that new flatbed."
"Three words, my friend. Tax de-duction. Your tax break is sitting up there on that tractor. I drive mine." He took a step closer to Lewis and looked down on him. "We're keeping the last two hundred bales here 'til New Years."
Lewis looked up the best he could. "Best pay. . .this time," he said with an exasperated whistle.
"Put it on my tab," Millen said, walking away. "You know things are tight."
The three of them watched Millen march back to the hay barn yelling orders at his workers, who were already throwing bales out of the loft onto the flatbed.
James planted his hands on his hips. "He's not paying you in a timely manner?"
Lewis just turned and motioned again toward the tractor. James shook his head and stepped back into the shade of the barn where a bush hog was languishing in the next stall. He took a closer look and pondered it for a moment. He sighed quietly to himself. "Lewis, we might be able to come to a price on this."
"Dad, we already got a lawn mower."
James gave his son a look. He thought of his five acre lot and then blocked out what his wife would say. "We don't have a bush hog or a tractor big enough to pull one. How about it, Lewis?"
"You decide," Lewis said. "Next week."
It was plain that Lewis was wearing down, so the three of them walked back to the house. James helped the old man up the porch and into his rocker as Mabel popped open the screen door to greet them. She seemed as wide as she was tall, and the porch creaked loudly as she stepped on it. She held out her cupped hands.
"Got chick feed for you, Natty." She poured the tiny pellets into Nathan's hands until they overflowed. He trotted back to the chicken coop, sprinkled the feed on the dirt floor, and watched the birds peck and bicker.
"What do you say?" James called to his son, whose thank you sounded back across the yard.
"Is he going to be a farmer?" Mabel asked hopefully.
"Can't say." He watched his son and at the same time took in the whole farm, noting how much had changed over the decades. He was sad that Nathan would likely remember this place only as a childhood novelty, a petting zoo at best, but perhaps the boy was better off not having such deep roots. He turned back to Mabel. "Lewis tells me your tax assessments are up again." The old man made no sound but for the soft creak of the rocker. His wife regarded him nervously and wiped her hands on her apron.
"Don't rightly know how our land is worth what they say it's worth," she said.
"Have you applied for relief? They got programs to—"
Lewis thumped his walker on the porch. "I've always paid!" he cried out, and then lurched forward with his chin up to catch his breath as the air wheezed through his neck. James rushed to his side, though he didn't know what to do.
"He's fine, James," Mabel said, resigned to fate, yet not without feeling. "Lewis don't take no charity."
James took Mabel's arm and guided her to the far side of the porch.
"How far is Millen in arrears?"
She kept her hands knotted in the apron, then looked down like she couldn't untangle them.
"He said he's gonna work out a payment plan."
"How bad is it, Mabel?" She was about to break down. James felt bad for pushing.
"We ain't seen nothing since spring. And that was only half what he owed us from last year."
Nathan came back to the porch with fresh grass stains on his knees. James looked out to the hay barn and caught words of the mens' banter, cursing, and lewd jokes as they loaded the flatbed.
"I'll talk to him this week," James said.
"No, James. Don't."
"Mabel, I'll talk to him. He needs talking to."
Her damp face eased, but still showed lines of worry. "Let me get your eggs," she said as she finally untangled her hands. She reemerged a minute later with a grey carton and handed it to Nathan. James felt the coins in his pocket, then pulled out his billfold.
"I don't have exact change today," he said. "Y'all just take two dollars." Mabel looked grateful, then embarrassed as Lewis again grabbed his walker and rapped it on the floor. She hurried inside and came back fingering a rose-colored change purse. She scraped out a few coins, but James waved her off.
"You can make change next week. I don't need an IOU." Then speaking to Lewis, "You can feel right about charging a little more for such fine eggs." The old man didn't flinch as he gazed across his dormant fields.
Mabel hollered thank you as James and Nathan climbed into the truck. Nathan held the carton of eggs in his lap like a present and his father started the engine.
James called out the window, "Lewis, if you can talk your hens into laying me two dozen for next week, I'd be obliged." Lewis tapped his skeletal hand several times on the arm of the rocker. "And I'll look into pricing that bush hog."
The driveway circled the house and passed the cloud of hay dust drawing from the barn where Millen was still barking orders at his men. Young Nathan raised an eager hand and waved, but Millen only looked away to answer a call on his cell phone. Then the boy looked at his father and saw that his face was tense, his jaw tightened. As they hit the pavement, Nathan flipped open the lid of the carton. He ran a finger over the perfect little brown domes.
"Dad, the eggs at the grocery store are only a dollar forty a dozen. That's only fifteen cents more than what the Pitmans charge, but you paid them two whole dollars." James was silent as the road climbed to higher ground. His hands squeezed the wheel and his eyes were fixed on the rear-view mirror as they rose above the valley.
"We don't come here for the eggs."
My stories have appeared in Connecticut Review, The Evansville Review, Potomac Review, South Dakota Review, The Distillery, and Summerset Review, and my poems have appeared in South Carolina Review and are forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine. I'm a recipient of a "creative fellow" grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.