Buryin' Gran and Other Stories by Frederick A. Lierman
Read a sample story and an introduction by the author below, or download the PDF.
Download in multiple ebook formats from Smashwords and Feedbooks.
© Frederick A. Lierman 2011
Published by Philistine Press
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
The editor of this site, Frank Burton, said I could include a short autobiography and a picture, if I wanted to, so I’m supposed to introduce myself, a task for which I am not well suited. Here goes. I like stories. I like a good story, word by voice, words on paper, probably better than a visual story, although I like visuals without words that allow me to make up my own story. I learned to read when I was six, first grade, living in Northern Illinois. The books used then were ‘Dick and Jane’ books that went like this: ‘Oh, look. See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.’ Followed by, ‘Oh, look. See Jane. See Jane run. Run, Jane, run.’ Followed, naturally, by putting Spot through the same exercise.
If I had stayed in Northern Illinois I might be a functional illiterate. Instead, we moved to Northern Florida where I was introduced to Alice and Jerry, who had an uncle with a toy store and a mule and the stories were much more interesting, so much more interesting that when I was called upon to read in class, I couldn’t, because I was about a hundred pages ahead of everyone else.
The South, at that time, seemed to specialize in stories, producing some great writers, which is immaterial because I wasn’t reading their material. Instead, I was listening to my teachers, all of whom put story time into the class schedule. And my mother, who gathered the four of us after supper was done, and read to us the classic stories she remembered. Then, she put us to bed.
As I grew a bit older there was radio, kids’ radio in the late afternoon and early evening, and more adult radio as the evening wore on. Radio for me was all stories. Some were drivel, some fascinating and exciting, some not understood.
At any rate, I wasted many a study hall when I was supposed to be doing homework reading stories. In ninth grade the study hall was in the library. I borrowed a book a day from the fiction section, and finished each one by the next day.
So, you can see, I like stories. They are in my history, in my very blood. I’ll tell you two here, very short and not in this collection.
The first begins with me in mid-afternoon on a Sunday before Christmas, half-way up a rickety, shaky stepladder in our den trying to fix a light fixture that hangs in one corner of the room. Even without the light the room is bright because it has large windows on two sides, and the lawn and shrubs are covered thickly with new snow. The TV is on in the corner of the room, tuned to Public Television even though there is a football game on another channel. You don’t watch football when your team, which was exhumed from the previous Sunday’s loss, is well on its way to being reburied. I am swearing. For those of you who don’t know, if you are doing a home project and it isn’t going well, swearing helps. It usually gets rid of the audience.
Anyway, I hear, “I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” Knowing me, even as little as you do, don’t you think that got my attention? It is the second sentence in ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Dylan Thomas’ work, and, as I watch, I see it being done in black and white silhouette, with a little man down in the lower left corner signing the story for the hearing impaired. But I can hear it. What a story, what a song that story is. I lean on the ladder and watch it to its conclusion.
If I could, I would own it, and my children, each would own a copy, and I would watch it again with their children every Christmas. I can’t. It appears that particular edition is not for sale, and I’ve never watched another version. I read it, though, sometimes aloud when I am alone.
Here is the second story. It’s called:
‘Coming Back From Town the Last Day of Camp.’
Each time I’ve seen
as I did the first time,
the shimmering heat
steaming the roadside flowers open
the summer I was fourteen.
clings to my skin, again;
heat squeezes my lungs.
against near solstice sun
reflected from the baked dirt road.
In my memory
I taste salt,
and old dust finds my teeth and tongue.
We lag behind the others.
She walks beside me, slowly,
in head-down silence.
I can feel her hand in mine
against the rules.
I am aware of being
all knobs and ribs and angles,
that my ears stick out,
and that she is beautiful.
She has brown hair, I think,
and dark eyes that meet mine
when we say we’ll write.
But we never do,
and now, I can’t recall her name.
So this is the picture of me, a romantic noir, who likes stories. I hope you enjoy the collection. There could be more, and if there is, we’ll fold them into the collection if we can. Thanks, and good reading.
I was trying to decide if the old building the stifling classroom was in or the enormous oak that stood outside the window on the wrong side of the building to shade it was older, and thinking it was probably the oak when she came in, almost last, and took the seat beside me, the only one left in the front row. “I have to sit up front,” she said, not especially to me or anyone, but not to the air, either, “or else I can’t see. I hope he doesn’t assign seats.”
“No one does that any more,” I said, and she looked at me. Her eyes were dark, not brown, exactly, just dark, and didn’t look myopic. They were closely set around her narrow nose in that way that I’ve found attractive. Women who have eyes like that seem to me to always look a little startled. She smiled. I wanted to say something else, but the professor came into the room and then the bell rang. The bell surprised me because I’d been to three other classes in other buildings, and there had been no bells, just a clock on the wall that most of us watched. The professor was also a surprise. He was a sturdy man with thick, brown hair, a three piece suit in the heat of late August, and a panting guide dog.
He walked with assurance to the table that occupied the front of the room and released the dog, which immediately curled under the table. After he removed his coat, rolled his sleeves to the elbows and loosened his tie about three inches he said, “Welcome to Addams Hall this warm August afternoon. I’m Doctor Donaldson, and as you can see, I’m blind.” He paused long enough to flash a quick grin. There were a few low snickers.
“Forgive me for selecting the only building on campus that doesn’t have air conditioning, but I teach in this old building because it still has a bell system. It tells me when the class starts and when the class ends. That removes the temptation from me to run my fingers over my watch when I sense that I’m boring you, and from you to take advantage of the fact that I’m blind to end class early.” He grinned again; we obliged with a short laugh.
“Now, because I’m blind, we’ll have to do certain things in this class to accommodate me.” He did what I can only describe as looking us over for a moment. “First, I’m going to assign seating in alphabetical order, and then, each day I’ll call role. That’s just to remove the temptation to take this class because it fulfills the Philosophy requirement, and never participate.”
Another instant grin, except this one disappeared immediately. He strode back and forth the length of his table, stopped at its middle and leaned toward us. His legs were shoulder width apart, his thick fingered hands spread wide on the table top, and he drilled us with eyes that didn’t see. “We’ve established Philosophy as a requirement because we think it’s just as important that you learn about different ways of thinking as it is that you learn to think.”
“Doctor Donaldson?” She had raised her hand when he said that he would assign seats. When she realized it would do no good, she spoke up.
“If you use the board I need to sit near the front so I can see it better.”
“It may surprise you, but I do use the board, and I understand that my handwriting leaves much to be desired. If you need to sit close, I can accommodate you. What’s your last name?”
He shuffled through the class cards that must have been Braille imprinted for him. “I’ve found you, Ms. Robertson. I’ll assign you by your middle name. You’ll come after Abner and two Andersons, and end up right about the center of the front row.”
“Is anyone else visually handicapped?”
“I’m not visually handicapped, Doctor Donaldson. I just can’t see chalk on the blackboards, especially those damn green ones.”
“Point taken, Ms. Robertson. I’ll restate the question. If anyone else needs to sit in the front row, please speak up.”
When no one else responded he began reading last names only. We all began gathering books and possessions, and shuffling around the room. My last name is Taylor, so I started automatically for the back of the room. If he read anything other than her last name, I missed it, and that bothered me because, for some reason, I knew I wanted to know her name. Because she sat in the front row, she was out the door ahead of me after class, and I was disappointed when I didn’t find her. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. I saw her again in the bookstore in late afternoon. Actually, she saw me.
“I’m from Cincinnati, and I’m here on scholarship,” I heard someone say from behind me. When I turned around I found her holding an armload of books and smiling at me.
“I was hoping that you needed to sit down front, too,” she said. “And when you didn’t need to, I was hoping you were the last Anderson.”
“Why?” I looked closely at her while trying not to appear to be looking anywhere except her face. When someone says something like that to me I want to know who is talking, not just physically, but the who that you can sometimes begin to discover the first time you really look at someone. She was taller than I had noticed when she came into the classroom, and thin. She still had those eyes that I liked, and they seemed sincere.
“I don’t know. I think maybe I liked your voice, and you’re older than most of the people in there, more my age. I’m starting college after most of my high school class has finished.” She turned abruptly and started walking away from me. “Come over to the table with me. I’ve got to put these things down. They’re getting heavy.”
She wasn’t content to just put the books down. She sorted through them as we talked, or she talked, because her conversation was a sort of non-stop hopscotch that encountered, left, and returned to subjects like a child’s feet to the squares chalked on the sidewalk. I didn’t say much, just listened and responded with an occasional “yes” or “no”. The funny thing about her monologue was that it all connected and made sense. Even when I said, “what are you doing with those books?” her answer made sense.
“When you’re on scholarship, you don’t buy new books, and when you buy used books, you make sure they’re the right edition, complete, with no sections missing, and legible.” She put her last book on the pile. And then, “I’m a dorm student, and my roommate told me that. What are you? Where are you from?”
“I’m sort of from California. I’m staying with my dad. He has a farm west of town, so I suppose I’m a town student. I’m here on the new GI Bill,” I said. And then added, “and my savings that once were equal to the finest racing bike available.”
“I’d say California is way west of town. You like to bicycle? I like to bicycle, too.”
“My address is Winnebago, RFD. I like to bicycle, but the racing bike I wanted was a flat track motorcycle.” I watched her mouth say “Oh,” without any sound coming out, and saw her quick frown bring her eyebrows together. For a long time for her, she didn’t say anything.
“Are you through picking out books?”
“Yes,” she said. “Are you?”
“Then let’s pay the man and get out of here. I know a place that has excellent food, burgers, pasta, salads for the weight conscious, if you’re interested. It’s easier to become friends over a table of food than over a table of books.”
“I don’t know.”
“It is, unless you eat books.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I mean, when you’re on scholarship, you don’t have money for eating out. You eat in the college dining hall, which I paid for along with my room fees.”
“I invited you,” I said. “I’ve got a buck or two, and I’ve got a job for tomorrow and Sunday that’ll keep me fed for a while.” It was true that I had a job for the next two days, and it was true that I had a ‘buck or two’, but that’s all I had after I paid for my books. That and the job.
“What’s your job this weekend?”
“Stringing fence. About fifty rods of three strand barbed wire.”
“How much is fifty rods?”
“Eight hundred feet.”
“That seems like a lot,” she said. “Do you do this all the time?”
“Not really. I just do odd jobs. This is the first time I’ve ever pulled fence, as some people call it.”
“Then how do you know what you’re doing?”
“My dad showed me.”
“I forgot. He’s a farmer.”
“He’s a writer. We just live on a farm. It’s small, but he’s done about everything on it and around it.” She walked with me toward the parking lot where all the town students left their cars.
“I’ll come for supper if I can come along with you tomorrow.” She looked down at the pile of books she carried in front of her. I’d made the offer to carry her books for her, but she gave me one of those looks that told me she was able to carry her own.
“What would you do? I mean, there isn’t a lot to this job, just digging post holes, driving steel posts, and stringing wire. I won’t even start stringing wire until Sunday.”
“There’s sun and study,” she said, knowing as well as I did that she could come if she wanted to. “I’ll bring my books, a blanket to take sun on, and the lunch for us.”
“I’m starting early.”
“That doesn’t bother me.”
We hadn’t stayed out late. I’d brought her home right after a supper of salad, pasta, and garlic bread, but she still looked sleepy when I picked her up at six the next morning. She blinked once at the pile of posts, wire, and tools that filled the back of my pickup, and then shoved a small duffel and a cooler onto the floor of the truck.
“I’m surprised you’re up,” I said.
“Shhhh.” She rolled up her denim jacket, put it between her head and the window, tucked her feet up on the seat so the left one rode against my hip, and shrugged her shoulders once. Her eyes were closed immediately, and she was asleep. It wasn’t done for show either. During the forty minute ride that went from the northeast side of town south into Ogle county, and a little east, she only opened her eyes once that I knew of. And she twitched, something you can’t fake.
Eventually I parked the truck on the shoulder of the narrow blacktop next to what appeared to be long abandoned pasture flanked on either side by fenced cornfields. There was a rutted drive, clear of weeds in the middle and grown up on the sides, that crossed over a culvert and wound through the scrub brush and woods toward the river. After I opened my window about halfway I slid out the door, pulled my hooded sweatshirt up over my head, straightened her legs a little, and spread the sweatshirt over them. She looked sort of comfortable to me.
Working more or less silently for more than an hour, I pulled eight hundred feet of barbed wire from the corner posts of the fields adjacent to the abandoned pasture to keep the fence straight. I pulled it tight, so that it sang when I lifted it and let it drop so it would be straight over the high places. I had my first corner post set and two of the wood line posts before I heard the door on the passenger side of my old Dodge truck creak and bang, and then pop open.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” I said, when I saw her walk toward me.
“Don’t be corny,” she said, giving her brown hair a shake and then twisting her head back and forth several times as she rubbed her neck. “I’d rather sleep on the couch.”
“Are you always grumpy in the morning?”
“Just since I’ve been born, I’m told, but there’s still time to change.” I watched her shrug her shoulders again, and thrust her hands into her pockets. She might have been cold, but I wasn’t. I had already shed my T-shirt, and the sweat was running freely from everywhere above my jeans, which were wet and darkened around the top.
“Did you have breakfast?” she asked.
“Before I picked you up.”
“Is there anything for me to eat?”
“Didn’t you bring anything for breakfast in that cooler?”
“I don’t want wine and cheese for breakfast.”
“Is that what’s for lunch?” I walked to the truck and lifted the gas-powered auger that I had rented from the back of the truck.
“That, and some bread and fruit. It’s supposed to be sort of like a picnic.”
“By noon it will be,” I said. I opened my door, tipped the old seat forward, brought out a paper bag and then two gallon jugs of water. “Here’s some water, and there’s six apples and two peanut butter sandwiches in the bag. It’s not wine and cheese, but it’s something.”
“Do you have any cups?”
“Didn’t think of it. I drink from the jug.” I opened the jug and drank about a pint. It was still cool. “Like that.”
“There’s a good, sharp folding knife in the bag to cut up the apples, if you want. Sometimes I eat them that way because it takes longer. I pretend I’m just eating instead of resting.”
“Okay.” She sat on the tailgate swinging her legs and eating a peanut butter sandwich as I stood the power auger against the truck and poured gas in the little tank.
“A gas driven power auger. It’ll make the job easier and faster.”
“Why weren’t you using it before?”
“You were sleeping.”
“Oh.” She put two apples on the tailgate and closed the paper bag. “By the way, what are the bathroom facilities around here?”
“Behind any tree or bush in the pasture.”
“I thought as much.”
“Take a shovel and bury your paper and anything else,” I said, making sure I was looking at the post hole digger and not at her. “It’s what you do out here.” From the corner of my eye I saw her pick her way carefully down a path of sorts.
Once she finally disappeared behind some scrub brush I started the auger. With the first hole, I learned that it would have been hard to be more wrong about it making the job easier. It powered its way down easily enough, but then I learned that I had to keep the auger powered when I pulled it from the hole. After three holes, I knew that a one man post hole digger isn’t. It wasn’t heavy, it was awkward, and all the time I was lifting it, it was trying to pull its way back into the earth.
After the third hole, I just stood there, muscles quivering, and the auger shut down, wondering when I would try something to see if it would work first before I committed to it. I was still looking at the machine I had thought would speed up the job enough to justify the thirty-six dollar rental when she came back from the pasture.
“You can’t handle that by yourself, can you,” she said, a statement rather than a question.
“It looks like I’ll have to dig them by hand,” I said, feeling the pain of the wasted money.
“How many do you have left to dig?”
I thought a minute.
“That’s too many,” she said. “It’ll take too long.”
“Probably a couple hours longer.”
“Longer than that,” she said, waving the shovel. “That ground is hard. Use the auger thing. I can help.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “This thing is really a bitch to handle.”
“I’ll bet it’s a lot easier to handle with two people.” She stuck her hip out with one hand on it and stared at me. “Are you going to be stubborn and macho or are you going to see if I can help?”
I looked at her, measuring as best I could what I thought her reaction would be to the wrenching and the pulling that the auger would do. Though she was nearly as tall as I am, she was slight, skinny was probably a better word, and with what she was wearing, I didn’t have a clue about whether she had any strength.
“Okay, we’ll try it,” I said. “I can drill the hole. That’s no problem. What I can’t do is wrestle this damn thing out of the hole. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to keep it running to even get it out of the hole.”
“I’ll drill the hole, and when I stop the auger, you grip that handle like this.” I grabbed the handle on my side with my hands turned palms upward and the fists together, my elbows in to my sides. “Then I’ll start it again. Bend at the knees, and try to keep your back as straight as possible. Lift with your legs. When we clear the hole, we’ll set the auger to this side where it’s level.”
It worked. In fact, it was almost easy. When I had drilled the first hole and she had grabbed the handle, I revved the auger again. She looked startled for an instant as the auger bit and tried to dive, and her legs wobbled once, but she pressed her lips together, set her jaw, and heaved upward. As she had said, it wasn’t hard with two people, and the auger came free, spinning and throwing dry dirt. We dug eight more holes before we hit a buried rock and I had to finish one hole by hand.
“I wish I had brought a different shirt,” she said as she watched me pry the buried rock loose with the post hole digger. “This one is too hot to work in.”
“I can believe that.” The shirt was dark and heavy, with long sleeves, and a collar. It looked hot, especially in the climbing sun.
“You can wear my T-shirt if you want,” I said. “It’s hanging on the first post down there by the truck.”
“All right, but don’t watch.”
I had the rock out and the hole finished when she came back, my nearly white T-shirt tucked way down in her jeans, but still bagging about her body.
“No bra,” I said, without thinking.
“You like?” she said, in a Garbo accent, arching her back and tossing her head. She really was skinny.
“Let’s dig post holes,” I said. “I’d like to get these done by lunch.” We did, too. Even with the ground hardened by drought, the auger worked well, except for several holes where I hit rocks that had to be dug out by hand. We spent almost as much time walking the two rods between holes as running the auger.
For lunch we sat cross legged on the blanket she had stuffed in the duffel, and had cheese and bread and fruit, no wine. Water from my jug, or diet pop. I drank water.
“I didn’t have any wine,” she said.
“Can’t work after wine, anyway. It makes me sleepy.” We ate, mostly in silence, like eating was a serious thing, which it becomes when you are working hard. At one point, she asked if I had been in the war.
“It wasn’t much of a war. Why do you ask?”
“The scars,” she said, pointing at the scar that crossed one corner of my ribcage. “And there are three or four on your back.”
“Three. They’re from getting off my motorcycle when the motorcycle wasn’t parked.”
“Oh.” That seemed to be something she said a lot to things I said. I didn’t know what that meant.
Not long after that we picked up papers and stuffed them into the sack. She stood and started folding the blanket. “What can I do?”
“Study, like you planned, thank you. The hard part’s done,” I said.
“Didn’t bring anything to study.”
“Why not? Why did you come, then?”
“I came for the morning,” she giggled, “the sun, the air.” She had her arms spread wide and was slowly spinning, her head tilted back and her eyes closed. If I had tried that, I’d have been on my back.
“I came to see what it’s like to string fence. I’ve never spent time in the real country, like this is.” I don’t know how she did it, but she stopped her spin when she had turned to me. “I came to see what you were like. How you are when you work.”
I just stood there, not knowing what to say. She was looking at me, arms folded across her chest, and a smirk that wrinkled her narrow nose.
“Does that make you uncomfortable?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it depends on what you see.”
“Well. You’re steady. When things don’t work, you don’t seem to get upset.” She stopped talking and picked up the blanket. As we started to fold it, she said, “Best, you’re peaceful. You’re hired. How about me.”
“You’re strong enough. You’re hired, too.”
“What’ll I do?”
“I’ll set the wooden posts at the right height and you can tamp the dirt around them so they’re set tight in the ground. While you do that, I’ll put the corner braces in and drive the steel posts.”
“Show me how, and let’s get this done.” She snatched the blanket and strode off to the truck.
So we set the posts. After I had set the end posts and tamped them tightly in place she took the old shovel handle that I had brought as a tamper, and the shovel, and set off down the fence line. I set the brace posts between the corner post and the first line post, stretched the brace wire, and twisted it tight. By the time I had the four end posts and brace post set, she was well down the fence line. As I walked toward her, I gave several of the posts a shake. They were tight.
I had her fill and tamp the rest of the posts to within about a foot of the top of the holes, and I shoved dirt in and packed the rest of it with the short handled three pound hammer I had brought to drive spikes through the brace posts and into the end posts. Mostly, we worked in silence except for the sound of the tamper, the hammer, birds, and our own breathing. We finished the wooden posts about mid afternoon.
If I had been pulling fence alone, I would have stretched another eight hundred feet of barbed wire down mid height on the wooden posts to serve as a guide for keeping the steel posts that went one each between the cedar posts as vertical as possible. Instead, she sighted down the fence line and helped line up the posts. She was good at it. My dad had modified his steel post driver by welding eight pounds of steel to the top, and the extra weight made sinking each steel post quick, even if it wasn’t easy. I had to sink twenty-three about two and a half feet in drought hardened ground, and I did it in just over an hour.
It was almost five o’clock when I leaned my tired, wet hips against the side of the truck and sucked on the top of the jug of warm water.
“Save some for me,” she said.
“Here. Finish it.” I handed her the last jug. It still held about a quart of lukewarm water that sparkled like fine champagne.
“I almost could,” she said, and then did. Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she looked puzzled at the taste of salt on her own arm. “Do we string the wire now?”
“We go have supper now,” I said, watching the late afternoon sun slide downward in the still sky. “And then we go home. I’ll string the wire tomorrow.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Bullshit, pardon me,” I said. “I’m tired, and if I’m tired, you’re tired.”
“Good. I’m tired, too.”
I gathered the tools and counted them aloud. “Do you have all of your stuff?”
“It’s all here. Do you want your shirt back?”
“I won’t need it where we’re going.” I tipped the truck seat forward and pulled out an old, gold towel and used it to dry myself off. “We’ll go over to Byron and stop at Aldo’s for pizza, if you like pizza. I’ll put my sweatshirt on. His place isn’t fancy, but the pizza is great and the air conditioner works.”
“I like pizza.”
“I’d have a beer.”
“I’ll have you home by eight.”
“What time do we start tomorrow?”
We started out at seven, after I went to early Mass. Stretching and securing the barbed wire, or ‘bob wire’, as some people call it, wasn’t hard. I tied it off at one end post, unrolled it to the next end post, put the stretcher on it and ratcheted until the wire was singing tight. She held the stretcher, and I went down the line, measuring and driving staples. When I got to the end post, I drove a pair of staples tightly into the post, wound the wire around the post, and tied it off. As we were finishing the stretch of fence west of the culvert and drive, a new pickup with an old man in it pulled up.
“Are you leaving a gate? It looks like you’re leaving a gate,” he said, before I could say anything. “You have to leave a gate, and without a lock on it. It’s the law.”
“I’m leaving a gate, and no one will be able to lock it,” I said, pulling off the leather glove from my right hand. “I know the law.”
“Good,” he said. “Nice job on the fence. As good as I’ve seen.”
He didn’t say anything else, just got into his truck and drove away.
“What was that all about?”
I pulled the glove back on my right hand and picked up the hammer that I had dropped when the truck stopped. “If you’ve crossed a property to get somewhere for a long time, maybe it’s seven years or twenty years, something like that, then, if someone puts a fence up, they have to put a gate in it. They call it a prescriptive easement, and it’s part of Illinois common law, and the laws of a lot of other states. The people around here have been crossing this field for years to get to the river.”
“How’d you know about that?”
“I could see from the track. You can tell if it’s been around long, and you can tell if it’s being used.” She looked down the track. Whether she could see what I saw, or not, she didn’t say. “When I bid this job I saw the track, and so I asked some of the locals. The owners are from Chicago, and they wouldn’t know.”
“How’d you know about prescriptive whatever?”
“Prescriptive easement. From my dad, first. He knows about people’s rights and believes that you shouldn’t always have to fight for them,” I said. “It’s right to fight for them, but no one should ride over them deliberately so you have to end up fighting.”
“He sounds like a good old sixties idealist.”
“No way. He’s the real thing.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Most of the sixties idealists just adopted causes. Made noise. Ran around telling everyone that things were wrong. They never did much, and for most of them, when the cause quit getting attention, they just went away.” I started driving staples again. “Dad stayed in there.”
“Is he one of those fighters I’ve read about?”
“Nope,” I said. I was tying off the last strand of wire as we talked, and didn’t look at her. That was best for me, because the subject of my dad, who lived in Illinois alone with his stubborn idealism, was something that my mother, who lived in California with a series of lovers, had harped on through most of my childhood. Resolving the differences in the natures of the two people closest to me was not only difficult for me, but I wasn’t through doing it. “He doesn’t gather attention. He doesn’t go around looking for causes, but if he comes across something that isn’t right, he speaks up. And he’s so damn logical, so damn reasonable, he usually gets his way.”
“I’d like to meet him some day.”
“I imagine you will, if you keep working for me.”
We made the gate. Like many gates for fences like we’d just built, it was three strands of wire strung between two posts. The posts fit into loops of brace wire that could be lifted off on one end, allowing the post to be lifted out of the bottom loop and the gate laid down or pulled back. When we finished, and put the gate in place, we drove up to the farm house where the owners lived. Mrs. Hathaway came with us in the truck to look the job over before she paid me. Mr. Hathaway stayed in the only place I’d ever seen him, in a lounge chair on the back patio, in the shade. Mrs. Hathaway was sun browned, wrinkled, and narrow faced. She looked intense, as if she would be difficult to deal with, but she hadn’t been. Mr. Hathaway was pale and flaccid looking, and seemed to take no notice of me or the process of contracting for the fence.
First, we drove the length of the fence.
“It looks straight and true,” Mrs. Hathaway said. We stopped, and she got out and tugged at the wires, and tried to rock the posts.
“It’s solid,” she said, walking along the fence line. “You’ve done a good job.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“But I didn’t order a gate. I didn’t want a gate. Why’d you put one in?”
“The farmers and the locals have been crossing that pasture or whatever it is for always, as far as I can see,” I said, as we stopped by the track. “I mean, there’s no sign that this land was ever fenced, so by the right of prescriptive easement, you have to have a gate in your fence to allow them access.”
“You’re sure of that?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m sure.”
“What do they want to go across my land for?” She looked at me, her dark eyes sharp and fierce, and showing that she was younger in spirit than her body looked. “There’s nothing back there.”
“There’s the river. That’s what they go down there for.”
“But that’s my land. I moved out here to get away from people trampling all over my property and my rights. You have no idea what it’s like in the city now.”
“There’s another concept in law called Riparian rights. According to that concept, you can’t own a river because the water is only passing through it. It doesn’t belong to any one, but to everyone.” She sort of smiled at me, and didn’t ask me again if I was sure. “Besides, the only people you’ll get down that track are local people. Most city people won’t drop a gate to get in. They don’t appear to have left any trash or to have done any damage. If you haven’t noticed them going down there before, well you won’t notice them now.”
“I suppose you’re right about that,” she said. “What are you?” You aren’t a farmer, and you don’t do this for a living, not at what I’m paying for this job.”
“I’m a student.”
“And is this your wife?”
“My classmate. She’s in my philosophy class.”
“You’re not going to be a lawyer are you?” Mrs. Hathaway turned and said, “Please tell me he isn’t going to be a lawyer.”
“He’s not going to be a lawyer.”
“I’m not going to be a lawyer.”
“Thank God. What are you going to be?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“He wanted to be a motorcycle racer.”
“Not anymore,” I said. Mrs. Hathaway smiled at me, looked one more time down the fence.
“Straight. Straighter than any other fence around here,” she said.
“It’s new. After nature has worked on it for a few years, it’ll look different.”
“Now is what counts. Now is when you get paid. Take me back and I’ll write you a check.”
On Monday morning, I cashed the check, and put the money I’d used for the materials back into my savings. After Philosophy on Tuesday, she gave me back my T-shirt, washed, and whiter than I’d remembered. Over her protest, I split the money I’d been paid for our labor with her. It was fair.
After that, we spent some evenings together, and parts of the weekends, and we studied together. We had some meals out, and some of them ended in holding hands and walking home. And on a hot, late September Sunday, the last day of summer, we went back to the piece of land where we’d strung the fence. I dropped the gate, drove through, and put the gate back up. The track had sparse grass growing up in it, showing that there was less use now that the fence was up. I wondered whether it was because the dry year had affected whatever activities once drew the locals to the river, or if it was the late season, when the corn and bean picking had begun, or if it was respect for the fence.
We drove my truck down to the river we’d helped fence away, spread a blanket, and had a picnic. In the early afternoon, we went wading in the river. It was clean there, and shallow, and the water was still warm from the lingering summer sun and the heat of the earth.
There were big boulders a little way downstream, and as we waded beyond them the current almost disappeared. The water went from mid-calf to mid-thigh in two short strides.
“Do you think it gets deeper,” she said, turning toward me, “deep enough to swim?”
“It might. This little river is known for some surprises.”
She said nothing further, only stood for a moment looking at the wide stretch of quiet water. Even as she turned and began striding back toward the boulders, she was pulling her T-shirt up over her head. As usual, she was braless. Leaning her back against the nearest and smallest boulder, she carefully removed her shorts and underpants, and placed them in a neat pile on the boulder. She flashed me a grin.
In several quick strides she was beyond me, up to her waist in the river. She porpoised and disappeared under the dark water, reappearing about fifty feet away.
“It’s deep,” she said, when she had rolled around in the water and swam back in a strong, even breaststroke, “quite deep in the middle.”
As she rose to standing in the water and began walking toward me she shook her head, then pushed her hair back with both hands. “The water’s nice. Don’t California kids ever skinny dip?”
“Just me,” I said. I waded back to her boulder and left my shorts and undershorts next to hers on the rock. When I reached where she stood, she took my hand and pulled me into deeper water. She swam gracefully, like Marlie Matlin in Children of a Lesser God. I swam effectively, keeping up, keeping close, beating the water to a froth until I was tired enough to simply stand where the water was up to my ribs while I watched. She swam back and forth several times, and then back to me.
I kissed her, or she kissed me, or we kissed each other, I’m not sure which, but we kissed. She wrapped her arms around me and burrowed the side of her face into my chest, holding tight to me. I stroked her wet hair, pulling it back from her face, and we kissed once more, but only once more, gently and passionately and chastely, if two naked people can kiss that way. We stood chest deep in the slowly moving river, she looking toward the riverbank back the way we had come, and I, chin touching the top of her head, looking downstream and upward, watching the few white clouds flee eastward, away from the afternoon sun and the high level winds. We didn’t talk. It was nice, peaceful. After a while, we walked back to the blanket, holding hands and carrying our clothes, and prostrated ourselves, letting the sun warm our cooled bodies, and dry us.
When our backs felt dry, we turned over, perhaps feeling that being naked in the sun was natural, but being careful not to look at each other, which wasn’t natural. Our bodies touched lightly at the side. I still felt peace. I almost slept. As I lay there, I felt her begin to shake, and I thought she was cold. When I raised on my elbow to pull the edge of the blanket over her, I saw that she was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I said, but she didn’t answer. When I put my hand on her arm she rolled against me, and buried her head between my chin and my shoulder. It was past dark when we left the river for home.
There have been times since then that I’ve thought about how we met, how we built the fence, remembering how she cried. I’ve never learned why she cried, and each time I’ve asked, those eyes have filled, and she hasn’t answered, only turned away. I haven’t asked for a long time.