A Good Year
The coffee burned my mouth as I sat down, out of Emma’s way, at the table. She fussed around the kitchen getting breakfast ready, hanging coats on pegs by the back door, and setting a bottle to warm in a pan of water on the stove. Claire sleeps through the night now, but she would be awake soon. Emma usually feeds her while the boys and I eat.
“What will you do today, Emory?” The creak of the oven door, the scrape of the biscuit pan almost drowned her words. I cut only hickory for the stove. Emma claims it bakes better.
“Mend the axle on the hay trailer, I guess. Then there’s the shed roof I need to see about. Why, is there something you need done?”
“How long has it been since we got the corn in, a month now?” She was buttering the biscuits while they were still hot, the butter melting right into the flesh of the bread.
“A month. Yes, about a month since harvest. You know that.”
“Over a month I’d say, why hasn’t Chandler burned his corn? Every day I expect to see his fields laid by, smell the smoke from his corn stalks burning. Not long ‘till first snow and he hasn’t touched his fields.”
“Plenty of time for that,” I said, looking out the window into the false dawn in the east. The bottoms of the panes were rimmed with frost that was beginning to melt and run in heat of the kitchen.
“Why don’t you go down and see him today? You haven’t been down there since…Well, since right after the harvest. That axle can wait, it sure isn’t going anywhere.”
“Emma, if Walter Chandler needed my help he’d …
“No. No, he wouldn’t, Emory. He wouldn’t ever say a word. If I was a man I’d go see him. I’d go today and let the shed roof and all the hay trailers in the county go to hell.”
The boys came trooping in then. I helped their plates as Emma went upstairs with the bottle.
From my workshop I can see the road wind down the valley past my farm, then Chandler’s, before it disappears over the hill. The county tarred and graveled the road last spring, so when the yellow and black school bus stopped in front of my house there was no plume of dry November dust rooster tailing behind it. My boys waved up the hill to me before boarding. Ted, the youngest, had already unbuttoned his coat. I was glad his mother didn’t see that.
I could see Chandler’s fields, row after row of dry, barren cornstalks reeling in drunken ranks. Emma was right, the stalks should not still be standing. There was a winter smell in the air. The corn left in the field was an affront, like a roach on a wedding cake. I put my toolbox back on the workbench and got into the Ford.
I almost didn’t see him. His clothes were as brown as the corn stalks; the blue chambray collar of his shirt caught my eye. I got out and waited at the fence line, my forearms resting on the top strand of wire. I liked it better this way, seeing him at the edge of the field. I didn’t want to be in his house. He made a raspy sound, like pages being turned as he came through the corn.
“Emory.” He said, simply as a matter of fact. We didn’t shake, we seldom do, and his hands were occupied rolling a cigarette.
“Walter,” I replied. An awkward silence hung between us until he lit his cigarette and fanned out he match. “See you got your corn in,” I said.
“Yes, barns are all full – silo, cribs, and every vessel I own, even had to stack a few dozen bushels in the parlor.”
“Yeah, it’s been a good year.” I regretted this as soon as I said it, but Walter didn’t seem to notice. “You know I got that new John Deere? I can pull the center plows off and run the middlins. The outboard plows lay those stalks over just like they were hand stacked. I’m just about caught up. I thought if you wanted I could come down and give you a hand?”
“Been a little windy for burning,” Walter said. He was resting on the top wire, the smoke from his cigarette rose straight up in a blue stream.
“Smelled like snow this morning. You know how it smells this time of year right before that first one? I smelled that winter whiff, thought about that John Deere and just got it in my head I might come see you.”
Walter Chandler pinched the hot ash from his cigarette and watched it fall. He looked me full in the face before he spoke again. “I’m just as good a farmer as you ever were. I smell what’s in the air as good as you. I got a Case tractor sitting right over there as good as any Deere ever made.”
“Walter, I didn’t mean anything like that…”
“I’m as good a man as you are, you son of a bitch. I can take care of this place, I can take care of…”
“Walter, it was the diphtheria. There was nothing you could do. Nothing even a doctor could do. It was God’s will.”
“Get off my fence. Get back up the hill to your wife, and those children, and your God damned John Deere tractor. Don’t you ever come back down here and tell me about God’s will.”
After supper Emma informed me we would be having ham for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. I had seen this decision coming since the day Ted named the turkey I was raising with the chickens. She stopped in mid-menu and a strange look came over her face. “Emory! Do you smell that?”
The instant she spoke I smelled smoke. I ran straight upstairs to Claire, but she was sleeping quietly, then I saw the glow through the window, from down the valley.
I rushed out of the house toward the workshop and my truck. Over my shoulder I yelled one word back to Emma. “Chandler!”
I could see it all from the shop. A thin line of fire snaked across the fields; the barns were going sending volcanoes of sparks up through incandescent clouds of smoke. I stepped on the starter as flame came up through the roof of Chandler’s house. I rushed, that’s what you do when there’s a fire, you rush toward it or away from it, but I knew it was too late. I knew what I would find. Walter Chandler was burning his corn. He was burning all of it.
A recent photo of Ray Busler is unavailable and will remain so until certain statutes of limitation are past. Interested parties may Google Wilford Brimley and be assured of a close match. Busler is an autodidact who blames his teacher for his many shortcomings. His theory of writing is to never try to re-invent the wheel or discover fire and he seems content to drag along from sentence to sentence hoping for a spark. Ray Busler lives in Trussville, Alabama with his artist wife of 40 years.