AT THIRTEEN, I WANTED TO BE A FATHER.
Our failing family farm had two trailer homes sitting vacant. To make ends meet, my parents rented one to Valerie, a pregnant, unwed twenty-three-year-old with tomato red hair who worked at the Kroger deli, where my mother was the manager. The day Valerie moved in, I watched from my bedroom window as she toted a suitcase up the three steps to the trailer. That’s all she had: a faded pink suitcase, the vinyl peeling. I thought her hair looked pretty. A small herd of Holsteins, my 4-H project, bawled at her from behind a fence. It was springtime but still cold out, and from my window I could see Valerie’s breath escaping her body. My mother, who’d opened the door for her, patted Valerie’s swollen stomach. I stopped spying from behind the curtain and went to the stereo to put on Air Supply’s “Lost in Love.” Then I lay in bed and thought of how I would propose to Valerie: I’d tell her the baby needed a father. I would get down on one knee, my hair feathered just right for the occasion, and present her a ring. Maybe my sister Dina would let me borrow one of hers.
My father and mother had been renters all their lives. Then, in 1980, both of them forty years old, my parents had signed a mortgage agreement with Dennis Rice, a farmer nearing retirement who wanted to sell his place to a “hardworking family.” My father was tired of renting run-down homesteads, doing all the work, and splitting the meager profits from the corn and soybeans seventy-thirty with the landlord, who got the lion’s share. The problem was he couldn’t qualify for a regular bank loan with what he earned from his union job at the ceiling-tile factory. So Mr. Rice, playing the role of benevolent father figure, had agreed to be the mortgage lender himself. He’d arranged for a lawyer to draw up a contract, and my father had signed it. The interest rate was nearly 18 percent. If we missed more than three payments, Mr. Rice would be able to evict us and repossess the farm.
The day we moved in, Mr. Rice stood in the bare kitchen and went over the terms of the loan with my father. “Of course, Dan,” he said, “I know we won’t ever need to think about this last part” — the part about evicting us. “My lawyer made me put it in.” Before he left, Mr. Rice invited us to come to his church in town. He was almost seventy but strong and lean, and he hugged us all, reminding us kids to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ. My older brother Darren, who was fifteen and wore a black Van Halen T-shirt over his long-sleeved thermal underwear, just rolled his eyes.
Each evening, as darkness settled over the farm, I’d watch Valerie’s mobile home from my bedroom window. My mother had sewn Valerie some drapes from leftover U.S. Bicentennial material: the words “Don’t Tread on Me!” with an eagle soaring above them and flags of all sizes raining down. I had drapes of the same pattern in my room, and I fingered the cloth. I’d not met Valerie yet, and I was afraid that when I did I might lose the ability to speak.
A knock rattled my bedroom door, and my father said, “Let’s go. We’ve got chores to do.” The paddock where we exercised the livestock was a mess. Old Man Rice had not kept up with repairs or manure removal. We’d been breaking our backs patching, painting, hauling, and making the place respectable. My hands were blistered and torn, and I don’t think my parents, who held down full-time jobs, slept more than a couple of hours a night.
It was in the middle of a long Saturday of chores, after I’d greased the two planters and prepared the tractors for the fields, that I ran into Valerie. It was the first warm day of spring, birds twittering in the trees, and I was jogging toward the house as she walked across the verdant yard.
“Hi,” she said, her flaming hair lifted by the breeze. The sky was bright blue, the trees tipped with red buds, the green daffodil shoots that my mother was ecstatic about forcing their way up along the garage. Valerie smelled of cigarettes and perfume. She shook my hand and crinkled her button nose. “Your mom showed me your picture at work, but you’re even cuter in person.” I thought I’d pass out. She had on her Kroger uniform, the dark blue polyester like armor. The top was cut to fit to her growing belly, and her soft-soled shoes — for standing on her feet all day — broke my heart. She looked at her watch. “Oh, fiddle,” she said. “I’ve got to go. My shift starts in ten minutes. I don’t want the boss getting mad at me.” She winked. We both knew my mother was her supervisor. Valerie dashed across the gravel to her car, a 1970 Ford Maverick, rusted and tilted to one side, that I viewed as exotic. She climbed in, fired up the engine, and rolled down the window. “Since it’s Saturday night, why don’t we play some cards when I get off work,” she said, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, blood red lipstick on the filter. The car tires spit gravel as she tore out of the drive. I was so excited, I forgot about the chore I’d been doing until Darren approached me: “Did you get the ether?”
“The ether, dimwit. I can’t get the MF started.” We called the Massey Ferguson tractor the “MF.”
“I guess I forgot.” My face was flushed.
“You look weird,” said Darren, smirking. “I saw you talking to her.” He punched me in the arm.
The fields seemed as limitless as the canopy of blue sky above them. While our dad planted corn with the John Deere, Darren and I disked and harrowed another field, getting it ready for the eight-row planter. Darren drove the MF with the disk behind, and I followed with the harrow on the old Allis-Chalmers, a tractor so slow you could walk alongside it. Both tractors had AM radios, and we listened in tandem to WOWO. Every so often, Darren would rev the MF’s engine to get my attention, or hang halfway out of the cab, whistling and acting the nut — anything to make the time go faster. We went up and down a field with no apparent end under a beautiful spring firmament, the air so crisp it hurt our lungs.
At lunchtime a familiar truck rolled across the flat land: red and spotless, stark black tires glistening with Armor All. Mr. Rice had started showing up at all times, even during supper or in the morning, making my siblings and me late for school. He made many suggestions, sometimes turning sour and bossy. It was clear he still saw the place as his own and my family as just borrowing it, but my father was polite to him and expected the rest of us to be as well. Now Mr. Rice waved me down, and I pulled over, the harrow fishtailing behind, thinning the rich loam like chocolate cream. The earth smelled ripe with the scent of decay from last year’s clover.
I left the tractor idling and climbed down from the cab. Mr. Rice walked up and pointed a finger at my chest. “You’re not going fast enough out there to break up all the clods. Quit daydreaming and give it some horsepower.” His eyes were watery and cast a notch too far up, as if he were reading the words he spoke from a sign above my head.
“That’s as fast as it goes,” I said. “It’s a slow tractor.”
“Don’t lie to me, young man. Get moving.” He spun around and walked back to his truck, whose radio blared the voice of a preacher getting all worked up. As Mr. Rice sped to the next field, a flock of Brewer’s blackbirds exploded from the tangles of fescue he drove over, their nests likely crushed by the old man’s tires. I thought of Val, her little baby growing inside her belly. My brother and I finished up the field just past sunset with the tractors’ lights on. It was tilled in perfect concentric circles, like designs left by aliens.
I rushed through dinner and showered until my skin was red, steam rising from the tub as if a fire had been doused. Then I put on Mitchum deodorant and sat by my window to wait for Valerie to get home from work. It was past 10:30. Luckily Darren, who shared my room, was playing euchre at a friend’s house. A swath of yellow-blue light cut across the yard, headlight beams tracking the east side of the garage. I could tell by the thump of the motor it was Valerie’s Maverick. My mother wouldn’t be far behind, maybe thirty minutes, the time it would take her to do some light shopping. We mostly ate from our freezer and pantry, making do with the preserves she’d put up the year before, eating canned vegetables with pork shank.
I raced downstairs and bolted toward the back door, then slowed to a stroll, nonchalant, as if I were leaving the house to check on the paddock as part of my Saturday-night routine, having forgotten about playing cards with Valerie. I shoved my hands in my pockets and kept my head down. The night was cold and quiet except for the pings of Valerie’s motor settling.
“Hey,” she said, “are you ready to play cards?” She tossed her baggy denim purse over her shoulder and snapped her gum. “I need to shower first, though,” she said. “I hate the way that deli makes me smell.” A faint aroma of basting barbecue surrounded her.
“OK,” I said, “I’m just making sure the tractors are locked.” I kicked the ground, my armpits heavy with Mitchum.
“Great. Come over in fifteen minutes,” she said.
Sixteen minutes later I knocked on the door of Valerie’s trailer. I’d opted for some Big Red gum, the cinnamon burning my chapped lips. She opened the door, and I stepped inside to the sound of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” by Queen. The interior of the trailer was dimly lit, lamps casting pinkish light onto the sagging couch and tattered La-Z-Boy. Valerie wore a robe that didn’t quite cover her knees, and she gave off the scent of balsam and Ivory soap. Through the bathrobe, it was difficult to tell she was pregnant.
“You look nice,” said Valerie, struggling to pull a comb through her wet hair, which appeared brown instead of red. “I’ve got a rat. Will you help me?” She turned around and backed up, handing the yellow comb to me over her shoulder. I was confused, but I took the comb and began trying to fix her hair. The teeth caught in the tangles, and she yelped, then giggled. The long, wet strands were still warm from the shower. Finally, after I’d made her cry out several more times, the comb slid through easily.
We sat down in the kitchen alcove. A candle flickered on the table as Valerie dealt the cards. “Do you know how to play two-man euchre?” Her agile fingers shuffled the deck, first overhand, then in a riffle, the cards flipping faster than I could see. We played several hands, and I lost. Valerie laughed and winked a lot. When she crossed her legs, the robe slipped up, exposing a freckled thigh that scared me. All of a sudden, she tossed the cards on the table and said, “Let’s pig out!” She got up and yanked open the freezer door. “Frozen pizza! Pepperoni!” she cried, trying to sound Italian.
We sat on the sofa and ate Hershey’s Kisses while we waited on the pizza. I’d never been out on a date, but I assumed this was what a first date felt like. Valerie turned the music down so that it crackled softly from the speakers. She put her feet in my lap and leaned back. “God, my back hurts,” she said. Her bare toes wiggled. In the watery light she looked like a girl I knew in study hall.
“When is your baby due?” I asked.
“Not until October,” she said. “What do you think about ‘Rolin’ if it’s a boy and ‘Taylor’ if it’s a girl?”
“I like them both,” I said, feeling grown-up.
“Do you know I’m ten years older than you?” Val said, puckering her mouth. “God, that sounds so weird.” The timer on the stove dinged, and she pulled her feet from my lap and shot into the kitchen. I breathed into my cupped hand and smelled melted chocolate.
While we ate, she told me all about the guy who’d gotten her pregnant and then run off: a Hormel-chili truck driver named Randall. They’d met at Kroger and dated for almost a year. When she told him she was pregnant, he said, “I’m not wanting a family.” The next week at work, another truck driver delivered the chili — and the news that Randall had quit. Valerie tried for a while to find him, then gave up.
“I can raise this baby myself,” she said, a scared smile on her cherry red face.
It was getting late. The wind rattled the mobile home. “That Mr. Rice is a creepy guy,” Valerie said, munching on pizza crust.
“I know,” I said, pleased that the conversation had turned to a familiar subject. “He’s always showing up, telling us how to do stuff. Darren says he’s a complete dick-face.”
Valerie threw her head back and laughed. “Your mom can’t stand him either. She told me he invites himself to meals all the time. He stares at me when I get out of my car.”
We went on gossiping about Mr. Rice until it was almost 1:30. Finally Valerie walked me to the door. “Good night,” she said, and she kissed me on the cheek. “Come over tomorrow night at the same time. I’ll rent us a movie.”
As I walked toward the house, across the small patch of yard, I looked up into the clear, dark sky filled with pinpoints of light. I wanted to be Rolin’s or Taylor’s daddy. I could do it, I thought as I opened the door to my house and crept quietly in, like a father coming home late from work.
For the next two weeks I went to school, worked planting the fields in the afternoons, and spent my evenings at Valerie’s. We watched movies on her Betamax video player and ate junk food and told each other secrets we’d never uttered to anyone else. I rubbed her back, which hurt because of the baby. Valerie cut my hair and pierced my ear, numbing it first with ice cubes and holding a potato behind it as she pushed a corsage pin through the lobe. She gave me a gold stud to put in it, and she wore the other one.
Mr. Rice continued to pop up like an apparition, shaking his head and pointing out things he didn’t think we’d done right. Darren flipped him off behind his back. Our dad was exhausted, working twelve-hour shifts at the factory and coming home to plant corn and soybeans in the dark. Once, he fell asleep at the wheel of the tractor and nearly drove into the river. After her job at Kroger, Mom didn’t have any extra time or energy to give to us kids. People from the fuel company had been calling for their payment, and the seed bill hadn’t been paid. The farm looked great, tidied up and repaired, but financially we were losing ground. Then, on a Saturday afternoon in early April, a thunderstorm ripped through, and sheets of rain sent most of what we’d planted two days earlier rushing into the culverts. All we could do was inspect the damage. My dad smoked a cigarette and used a stick to pick through the loam, Darren and I trailing behind him. Then Old Man Rice showed up, his truck splattered with mud.
“Well, what are you going to do now?” he demanded as he jumped out.
My dad wheeled around on him but didn’t answer. His cigarette hung loosely from his lips, smoke coiling in the humid air around us.
“I told you not to plant this week,” Mr. Rice continued. “That’s what the Farmer’s Almanac said. I told you God came to me at church and said you and your family needed to repent, or he’d deliver punishment.”
Darren made a face behind Mr. Rice’s back.
“Go home, Mr. Rice,” said my dad, tossing the stick aside. “This isn’t your concern.”
“Not my concern? Not my concern?” Old Man Rice’s eyes widened, and his wispy gray hair swam in the breeze. His veined hand trembled as he pointed at our dad. “You’re two months behind on payments. If this isn’t my concern, I don’t know what is.”
Our dad kept his back turned and didn’t speak to Mr. Rice. “Boys,” he said, “fill the planter up. We can replant this tomorrow.”
Old Man Rice seemed to vibrate like a reed as our dad walked right past him to the barns.
That night, as we were eating dinner, Mr. Rice showed up again. For the first time, he actually knocked instead of barging in. Dad answered the door, his hand on the knob blistered and nicked across the knuckles. He had to be at the factory in two hours for another shift. I was trying to rush through my meal so I could go buy Valerie a present.
Mr. Rice was dressed in a suit and tie and smelled of aftershave. Dad offered him a seat at the table. “No thank you,” he said, more reserved than I’d ever seen him. “I just wanted to come and carry you all to the worship service tonight.” He looked at his silver watch. “You have an hour to get ready. I’ll wait in the car for you.” His wife was already waiting there.
Our mother shot our father a look as she stood up from the table, starting to clear it. Old Man Rice added, “And it would do that woman with child to come along too.”
I felt a flame surge inside me.
“Thank you, Mr. Rice,” said our dad, “but I have to work, and Doris and the kids have chores to get done. But thank you.”
“You’re going to have to get some help from God, or you’ll never make it,” Old Man Rice said, anger bristling underneath his soft tone.
“Maybe next time,” my father said, and he showed Mr. Rice to the door. When Dad came back to the table, he looked worn and beaten down. Maybe he’d realized that signing a mortgage agreement with Mr. Rice was no different from having a landlord.
The next day we replanted the storm-ravaged field and moved on to the other sixty-acre plots, all outlined by rusty fence rows, their wooden posts leaning. With the crop in, we were able to take a little break for the first time in two months. Dad called in sick at the factory over Memorial Day weekend so he could stay home and sleep. Our mother cooked all his favorites: yeast rolls with chipped ham, rhubarb pie, savory dill potatoes, Salisbury steak. We even invited Valerie over for meals; she asked me to carry the behemoth Betamax machine, and we watched movie after movie. Nervous my family might see how in love I was, I pretended to be only slightly interested in her conversation. She wore glistening lip gloss and a long black cotton dress over her round, compact stomach, and I snuck glimpses of her all night.
During the last movie, a James Bond film that my mother called “risqué,” Valerie sat next to me on the couch. I remained upright and stiff, ignoring Darren’s attempts to get my attention. My mother turned the light off, and before long Dad was snoring. He slept fourteen hours a day that weekend, and we were all happy for him. There was no sign of Mr. Rice. It felt good to be together, all the work done — for three days, at least. I suppose that was the last night of our dream of owning a farm.
After the movie had ended, I walked Valerie to her trailer. She invited me in, and I pulled the present from my pocket.
“What’s this?” she asked, her face glowing. She pushed a red nail under the Scotch tape and pulled away the wrapping paper. It was just a baby rattle, but she acted as if I’d set up a college fund for her unborn child. She hugged me tight, her swollen stomach pushing against mine. I wanted to bury my face in her hair. Then she took a deep breath and started crying, still clutching me. I patted her back as I’d seen my father do to my mother’s when she sobbed after a hard day.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, as if irritated by her own emotions. “It’s just I’m scared sometimes.” She backed up, and a few of her red hairs clung to my shoulder like tethers. “Besides, you shouldn’t be worrying about me.” We sat down on the couch, and Valerie leaned back, put her feet in my lap, and closed her eyes, exhausted.
“You know, you’ve never told me if you have a girlfriend,” she said, sleepiness slurring her words.
I stiffened. “Not really. I mean, no.”
“Oh, I can’t believe that. If you were five years older, I’d snatch you right up.”
I rubbed her feet as she drifted off. I wanted to be her baby’s father; to marry her, work the farm, and feed her child. But I only vaguely knew what was required of a husband, and the thought made me feel both excited and overwhelmed. I pulled a blanket over Valerie and slipped out the door.
The night sky was clear, and the weather had warmed up. Crickets trilled near the cistern. The cattle moved along the fence; I couldn’t see them, but I heard their hooves padding the soft earth.
In less than three months, Old Man Rice had his lawyer foreclose on us. By then, we’d gotten everything fixed up as good as new, including the house. (Dad would later say we’d rented the idea of owning our own place.) When Mr. Rice and his son came and took it back, they could barely hide their excitement at the coup they’d pulled off. They’d brought the sheriff to make sure we didn’t protest. Mr. Rice also had an orange Gideon Bible for each of us. He handed them out before we climbed into our vehicles. Valerie clutched the same faded pink suitcase she’d moved in with, and Darren hauled her massive video player out to her car. Dad told Mr. Rice he could keep the Bibles; he may not go to church, he said, but he remembered something about the Golden Rule. Mr. Rice tried to tuck the Bible inside Dad’s shirt pocket, but Dad pushed his arm away and said, “Don’t touch me.”
I saw Valerie only once more, in the hospital after she’d delivered. I rode along with my mother to see the baby. The Hormel-chili driver had come back. He was shorter than I was and wore a bushy beard. Valerie looked worn-out but happy, little Taylor swaddled and lying on her chest. We didn’t stay long, and my throat ached the whole time. On the drive home, to a rented house inside the city limits, my mother said, “For a while there I thought Val’s baby would be fatherless.”
I didn’t know how to say that I would never have let that happen.