During the months when my parents’ dream of owning a farm died, I became a sleepwalker, and Dad became ever more diligent about hygiene. He shaved twice a day: once before the sun rose and again just before sleep. He kept his steel-toed work boots dirt-free, the leather mink-oiled, the laces neatly double knotted. He starched his Allis-Chalmers cap weekly, using Mom’s flour canister to shape it so the top was perfectly flat. He brushed his teeth with such vigor that he appeared to be foaming at the mouth. He took scalding-hot showers and scrubbed so hard that he abraded his cheeks.
Dad showed this same intensity in his work around the farm we rented. Chores were always finished with a brisk sweeping of the barn floors and a vigorous wiping of the tools and dusting of the benches using the red shop towels that he laundered, line-dried, and folded himself. At the ceiling-tile factory where he worked, the other union men would mention how Dad had the cleanest forklift, as spotless as his thermos. He kept the interior of his old GMC pickup sparkling and bathed the exterior weekly with sudsy Palmolive, rinsing it with water from a garden hose. If he didn’t do these things, his mood would sour. His temper got worse when he was stressed or when he believed my four siblings and I weren’t being tidy enough, and worse still when he thought our family’s future was at stake.
By the autumn of 1978, when I was ten, Dad and Mom had been working extra shifts at their factory jobs for three years, trying to save for a down payment on a farm of our own. For Dad, maintaining order and cleanliness was another step toward that ultimate goal. But with five kids and the house surrounded on all sides by fields of corn, keeping things spotless was nearly impossible.
Autumn was harvest time, and we were all working around the clock to get the corn picked, we kids putting off homework and Mom and Dad calling in sick to work. We faced a strict deadline: if rain came before we got the harvest in, our parents’ chance of farm ownership would be sunk. Each of us had assigned chores. My oldest brother, Derrick, operated a borrowed John Deere combine next to Dad’s Allis-Chalmers, the two of them coursing up and down the flat plats, the corn filling their hoppers, tinkling like change against the metal bin. Corn prices had steadily risen in the early 1970s, helping Mom and Dad save, but by 1978 prices had nose-dived, even as it appeared our harvest would yield a bumper crop.
I was assigned to work alongside my brother Darren, who was four years older and kept me from daydreaming or getting lost in a book between chores. Darren and I had wagon duty, which meant we each drove a tractor to and from the fields, pulling wagons that we loaded and unloaded with nearly five hundred bushels of corn. The task seemed endless, and our tires made ruts in the soil. Every day after school we’d get off the bus, change clothes, grab sandwiches from Mom and sodas from our sisters, Dina and Dana, and ride the tractors into the fields. Throughout the evening hours Mom and Dina and Dana brought us thermoses filled with steaming apple cider or hot chocolate. The three of them would stand bundled against the cold at the end of a field and wave us down to deliver the drinks. The tractors’ headlights bathed them in a silver glow, as if they were onstage.
While we worked, I chanted in my head a simple refrain: Sleep good, sleep good. Since I’d begun sleepwalking, I was constantly worried that I might do something stupid or embarrassing while asleep — or, at the very least, rob the others of much-needed rest. A couple of times I’d burst into my parents’ bedroom, babbling unintelligibly about corn prices or basketball player Larry Bird. I could tell Dad was frustrated by my sleepwalking and maybe even saw it as a defect, but the more nervous I became about it, the more it happened. I envied my father’s short yet deep sleep. I believed my sleepwalking made me less masculine because it made me less like him.
All the activity in the fields drove mice into the ditches and the barns and inevitably through the cracks and seams of the house’s foundation. At the sight of mice indoors, Dad took action. He saw the creatures as disease carriers and a sign of our unworthiness to possess a place of our own. If he spotted one, he would get a mop and fill a bucket with hot water, bleach, and Pine-Sol. Oddly, he never put out traps or poison to kill the rodents. Dad seemed to believe that if we were just cleaner, and less careless with crumbs, and more observant of his rules about not leaving cereal boxes out with their tops open, then the mice would never leave the loamy fields and bring their disease-ridden feces inside. He grew angry when they appeared, as if he thought the pests might chew up all the money he and Mom were saving and make a nest out of the shredded bills. When Dad got this way, Mom would gently take the mop and bucket from him and assure him that she’d handle it; he had bigger matters to concern himself with — like harvesting four hundred acres of corn before the rain came.
One Friday night, after everyone had gone to bed late, exhausted, I had a terrible bout of sleepwalking. Most of the time all I could recall after an incident was the hazy moment of awakening, but on this occasion it was as if I were on the brink of consciousness the whole time, afraid to take the last step into the waking world. I knew I was outside, the cold air like menthol in my lungs, and everywhere was darkness except for the ocher light from the barns. I kept trying to wake up, but I feared if I did, I might die. It was as if I were blindfolded near a cliff, and the slightest move might take me over it.
The next thing I recall from my night of sleepwalking is sitting at the kitchen table, shivering, experiencing the familiar buzzing sound in my ears, the shock of light, the way voices started out at a low rumble, then took on their familiar shape. Mom put her hand on my shoulder and said, “My goodness.” There were Cheerios and spilled milk all over the table. “We’ll get this taken care of before your dad is done shaving.”
I brought my hand to my nose and smelled gasoline. The tractors ran on diesel fuel, but we kept gasoline for the truck. I’d been instructed many times to double-check and make sure I wasn’t filling a tractor with gas — a costly mistake. As Mom rushed around swiping the cereal into a bowl, I tried hard to remember why my fingers smelled of gas. A deep shame filled my chest.
That morning Dad found my tractor next to the fuel pumps. He sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “Now, try and remember, Doug. Did you start the tractor after you put fuel in it last night? It’s important to remember, because it smells like gasoline in that tank. We might be able to drain it if you didn’t start it. Think, now, think.”
I cried and finally confessed that I’d been sleepwalking and couldn’t remember if I’d started the tractor or not. Dad skulked around the room, rubbing his temples. Darren and Derrick and Dina and Dana all stood solemnly against the walls as if on the sideline of a losing team. Dad patted my head and left the room. I was tearful and embarrassed. Mom and the others tried to cheer me up, but I knew an expensive repair was the last thing we needed in the middle of our already-threatened harvest.
We heard the bathroom sink blasting. Dad was brushing his teeth. Then the water stopped, and the kitchen grew quiet. “Shhh,” Mom told us, tilting her head to listen more closely. We all heard it: the sound of little feet scurrying in the pantry. We were hypersensitive to that specific noise because of its effect on Dad’s mood. Mom went quickly into the pantry and closed the door. We heard her shuffling jars and cans around on the shelf, then tiny squeals, followed by several quick thumps.
I went on sleepwalking all through the harvest. Darren found me once dusting the stairs, and another time I came to at the clothes dryer, folding Dad’s shop towels. I kept repeating the chant about good sleep. The tractor I’d put the wrong fuel in was ok, but it still cost $150 to drain and prime the pump.
Almost two weeks into the harvest we reached the river bottom — the low-lying land along the water — where rich soil provided enough extra bushels per acre to make our 20 percent cut from the landlord worth it. But the constant rearranging of school schedules and factory shifts had taken its toll. Dad was worn out from having to labor both on the farm and at the factory, and he was getting flak about missing work. Mom had taken an entire week off, claiming we kids were sick with the stomach flu. One night we’d just finished a rare dinner at the table — instead of eating on the tractors — and were about to head back into the fields when the phone rang. Dad answered it and handed the receiver to Mom. He adjusted his cap, brushed a Carhartt sleeve, and went to clean his boots. Mom said hello; then her eyes widened, and her cheeks flushed. She told the person goodbye and hung up.
“They fired me,” she said.
Dad was sitting on the bench by the back door, using a wire brush on his work boots, a newspaper beneath his feet to catch the dirt. He placed the brush in a coal bucket. “We’ll deal with that after we get it all in. It’s supposed to rain next week, all week.” We’d have to push hard, he said. A lower price per bushel meant that we’d need every damn kernel.
Mom forced a smile, and she and the girls retreated to the kitchen. Derrick, Darren, and I put on two layers of coats to protect us from the plunging temperatures that left hoarfrost on the dried corn silk, the crystals glistening like jewels in the tractor’s headlights. Dad waited impatiently as we dressed. He never wore extra layers, just a single jean jacket over a flannel shirt and one of his starched hats on his head. I wondered why his cold red ears didn’t just drop off like corn from a withered stalk. “Come on, now,” Dad said, as we pulled our boots on over several pairs of socks. “We gotta make some progress on the river bottom before midnight.” The girls were washing dishes in the kitchen, and I could smell Lestoil from the laundry room, where Mom was doing a load of greasy jeans.
I was bent down, straining to latch a boot clasp, when Dad yelled, “Goddamn it, Doris!” We all froze. Dad’s eyes were on the corner, where a mouse was munching on something in the yellow ring of light cast by a floor lamp. Mom and the girls came rushing in, and we all stared. “You see,” Dad said. “You kids eat that goddamn sugared cereal and don’t give a damn about where it falls, and now we’ve got mice again.”
“Dan,” said Mom, the girls piled up behind her, “it’s from the fields. There’s thousands of them out there. Some are bound to get in.” But Dad was already stomping out the back door. Mom told my brothers and me to go on; she’d scrub the floors. “The smell of bleach always makes him happier,” she said. I smiled, but Mom didn’t. Two years earlier she’d had an emergency hysterectomy, and it had left her alternately depressed and manic, either unable to get out of bed or running around doing chores as if a buzzer were about to go off and tell her, Time’s up. Tonight she seemed tired, and her red hands were dripping wet. Derrick and Darren rushed outside, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the mouse.
“Get the broom,” Mom said to Dina. “We’ll have to run him out the door.” She rubbed her temples.
I went to join my brothers. We had a long, cold night of harvesting ahead of us.
The mice continued to show up. We’d find several in the pantry every morning before breakfast. Mom would tell us to keep our mouths shut, not a word to Dad, and then she’d disappear behind the pantry door. Dana, the youngest, would cover her ears to block the noises coming from in there, or the rest of us would distract her with stories. Mom used soup-can lids to patch holes in the baseboards and constantly brushed invisible crumbs off the counters into her cupped palm. She put poison in places Dad wouldn’t notice, like behind the dryer and on the top shelf in the pantry, where Ball jars of tomatoes sat like science experiments. She kept the sink full of sudsy water and bleach all the time, just for the clean scent. Dad was tense, gulping down his food and not speaking much. The forecast said the weather was about to turn wet.
The river-bottom harvest was complicated by a light drizzle that made the drive up the winding dirt road tricky. Even a faint rain meant we had to dry the corn in a gas-fired hopper, then transfer thousands of bushels into the grain bin for more drying. If the corn held too much moisture, the price per bushel would get docked. But the bill for the gas to dry the grain was climbing. Dad scribbled figures on a rectangle of cardboard, licking the tip of his flat carpenter’s pencil, then sighing and scratching out his work and starting over again.
Near the last few days of the harvest, Darren and I edged the tractors up the slippery road, each hauling a full load of corn. A fine mist had been coming down all afternoon, coating everything in a glaze — not enough rain to keep us from the fields, but enough to make driving difficult. It was dusk. Dad had been forced to go into the factory or else explain all his sick days to both his fellow union members and the management. Heavy rains were expected soon, and we worked in an anxious rush that sometimes led to mistakes.
When my tires began to spin on the slippery limestone, I put the tractor in park and waited for Darren to come help me. I’d been stuck before and didn’t have the skill to maneuver a tractor pulling a massive load in wet conditions. Darren jumped from his seat, ran back, and slid in next to me. He downshifted and tried to edge one of the tires onto the drier earth beside the road. We slipped and jerked, and I held on to the lip of the seat while Darren struggled fiercely to find some traction. After several attempts the wagon we were pulling started to skate to the side. We knew that a fully loaded wagon could take the tractor with it. Sure enough, the tractor’s front end moved to the right as the wagon’s weight inched farther off the road.
“Get out!” shouted Darren, and he pushed me toward the door. He wrestled with the gearshift. “Stay clear!” he ordered as I landed on the wet rocks. I jogged up to where Darren’s tractor sat idling, the diesel engine huffing an oily plume into the atmosphere. I heard a tree crack and watched as the massive wagon full of corn eased onto its side, leaning against the sycamores like a dying elephant, and then more creaks and groans and splintering sounds as ferocious as bones breaking. Corn kernels flowed from the wagon and down the steep hill of the river bottom, a bright-yellow sluice like gold coins poured from a treasure chest.
The tractor emitted a large blast of ebony exhaust, then rolled backward and rammed into the overturned wagon, one of its massive tires expelling air. Darren’s head smacked the windshield, and red hydraulic fluid gushed from a busted hose.
The drizzle turned to rain as I ran toward the accident. Darren was climbing out of the cab, a line of blood running down the middle of his forehead and dripping from the tip of his nose. He waved me away. The strong odor of spilled diesel fuel made me queasy. We both ran up the limestone grade, work boots slipping, as the rain fell harder. When we reached the other tractor, we rested against it and watched as first one flame and then another came to life in the gray river bottom. For weeks after the harvest we would shovel blackened corn into the truck bed to sell to the grain elevator for almost nothing.
That night Dad came home from his four-to-midnight shift and worked alone through the early-morning hours, trying to winch the tractor and wagon upright. Finally he called a friend for help. In the morning, over breakfast, Dad was solemn. We were trapped indoors by the rain, which had finally arrived in earnest, cold drops hitting the windows like insults. It was a deluge. With each new downpour, the goal of farm ownership drifted farther away.
Mom kept the house clean and tidy, bleaching and mopping as much as she could. Dad watched the water rushing into the culverts and checked the rain gauge on the fence post, the drops spattering against his faded yellow raincoat. It rained for three days straight, and Mom muttered the entire time about how all the water would make the mice even more desperate to enter the house.
I woke in the middle of the second night. Water rushed over the eaves outside the window of the bedroom I shared with Derrick and Darren. It was refreshing to be wide awake, no gauzy thoughts or muffled conversations playing in my head. I was thirsty, so I crept downstairs. I paused to listen to the sound of water splashing against metal inside the house. I staggered to the kitchen, eyes clotted with sleep, and spotted Mom filling a small bucket at the sink. The overhead fluorescent flickered. The smell of bleach was so strong it stung my nose. I stood quietly in the doorway, watching Mom use a wooden spoon to poke something down into the bucket. She was sniffling, shaking her head, and wiping her nose. After a while she set the wooden spoon on the counter, put the bucket on the floor, and ducked into the pantry. I moved closer and peered down into the bucket.
At first I thought she’d found wads of bubble gum somewhere during her cleaning. Then one of the small pink shapes moved slowly in the harsh bleach solution. It had bulging purple dots for eyes.
Mom emerged from the pantry, looking worn out, her face flushed. “Oh,” she said sadly when she saw me. “There’s just too many of them, honey. They can’t have babies in here. He’ll never forgive . . .”
She grew silent, bowed her head, and escorted me away from the bucket. We sat in the dining room and listened to the downpour together until both of us fell asleep with our heads on the table.
I awoke at dawn to the sound of thrumming water, and I sat and listened to our dream easing away in the rainfall. After the extra cost of the propane to dry the wet corn, plus the spill, and lower prices per bushel, the harvest of 1978 would drown us in debt. As it had been for generations of farmers before us, nature was in control of our future. There was nothing we could do.
Mom was still asleep, her head askew on the tabletop, her hair covering her face. I felt a sense of emptiness, a kind of raw lack I didn’t understand. I’d felt it before, when Mom had been hospitalized after the hysterectomy. I didn’t want to call it homesickness, because I believed foolishly that you had to own a home before you could really miss it.
In the weeks and months and years to come, Mom would get a food-service job. Dad would work more shifts at the factory. The girls would marry and stay busy with their children. My brothers would each find his own way in the world, doing something that didn’t involve farming.
And I, to my shame, would never learn to sleep right, even as an adult. I’d go on sleepwalking, sometimes cleaning in my sleep. Once, months after the ruined harvest, I woke up standing alone at the edge of the river, the empty cornfield behind me. Scared, I ran back toward the house, my lungs burning.