Plowed Fields: Excerpt

Chapter 1


JOE BAKER PUSHED THE throttle forward, easing the tractor to a crawl as the row-end neared. In one clumsy motion, he pulled up the machine’s hydraulic lift, raising the plow from the ground, and dropped his casted leg onto the brake pedal. The back tire froze, pivoting the tractor and aligning the wheel perfectly into the furrow of the previously plowed row. Dropping the turning plow back into the dirt, he pulled the throttle down to top speed and headed the tractor up another row, leaving a wake of ripped earth, dark and moist.

Blatant self-satisfaction betrayed the boy’s usual stoic approach to farm work, emerging as a smirk to the plaster mold encasing his right leg from knee to toes. Such delight was uncommon for Joe, who had negotiated more tractor turns at row-ends than he cared to count. But then again, so was the state of clumsiness that stamped the youngster’s every move these days, prodding his ego on an endless effort to prove his worth, his usefulness.

Joe checked the back wheel’s position against the furrow, adjusted the plow’s depth and relaxed as the tractor lumbered up another row. Just a few more passes and this field, the largest of six on the Baker farm, would be plowed and settled for the winter’s rest.

The boy looked across the field, which was framed against a ruby sea of late evening sunset, and surveyed his handiwork. Picture-perfect layers of earth lay end over end, concealing like a grave every trace of the fluffy white cotton that had lived in this ground a short time ago. But Joe knew instinctively that the land held no deathly quality.

The plowed field was a dazzling sight to behold, lying in wait for the springtime seed that would turn fallow land once more into a festival of life. Every year at this time—his favorite, when the air became crisp, nipped with the approaching winter chill, and the pace of the days relaxed like a sweet-flowing melody—the boy became aware of the sacred trust placed in the land. A freshly plowed field held promise and radiated beauty. Joe respected the promise, he saw the beauty; but somehow any real attachment to the land always escaped his grasp.

Nevertheless, he had volunteered—or more accurately, insisted—for the task of plowing this large field, relegating his father and grandfather to the toil of relaxing and taking care of less pressing matters. He had accomplished the job by spending the hours after school perched on the tractor, working until the evening shadows disappeared and failing daylight forced him to attend his regular chores. Now, as he surveyed the results of his labor, he permitted himself another smug glare at the cast. And, experienced a twinge of guilt over the praise the effort would reap from his family. They mistakenly saw the endeavor as another example of a good boy’s dedication to the virtues of hard work, when in reality, far more than he dreaded the tedium of farm life, Joe despised any signs of uselessness in himself.

This last thought had been revealed to Joe early in a journey of self-discovery, a voyage plotted by the startling course of his sophomore year of high school. Other people had undertaken grander journeys of the mind and made more important discoveries about themselves, he felt sure. But the value of his own journey was worth more, or so thought Joe, who tended to qualify his words and thoughts as products solely of himself.

While admitting a farmer’s life held no great joy for him, the overwhelming finding of this personal journey had been an acknowledgment that he needed a sense of normalcy and purpose in life. In his mind, normalcy meant daily routines, obligations and expectations that were carried out, met and fulfilled without fuss or fanfare; and a purpose was any task to accomplish, from plowing a field to doing homework.

Early in his convalescence from the broken leg, there had been too much fussing and fanfare over Joe. He had felt like an invalid, a burden to the family, which suddenly seemed to neither want nor need anything from him. Feeling weak and inadequate, he had determined to restore a semblance of normalcy to life. He tolerated the good intentions of his family for several days, then pronounced himself recuperated and set out to prove the point. Whether he had proved it to the family was a matter of debate, but the boy felt more like a man.

Still, he was not whole. While his strength had returned quickly, the splintered bone required time to heal. Until that healing occurred, Joe would seek normalcy in his own way, and he would permit himself absurd pleasures such as taking delight in the accomplishment of any task that defied the will of the broken leg.

Joe owed his handicap to the perils of high school football. He had been a member of the Cookville High School Rebels, primarily because only thirty boys attended tryouts and every available body was needed for the varsity team.

Cookville was a football doormat in South Georgia, where enthusiasm for the sport verged on religious fervor. Joe had held no illusions about his ability to elevate Cookville to unscaled heights, which a break-even season would have accomplished. Yet, in the span of two games, he had recorded one of the team’s more memorable careers.

He had combined minimal talent with maximum luck to occupy a moment in the spotlight and a place in the suppertime conversations of the Cookville community. Such notoriety might have been heady stuff for some high school sophomores, but Joe was immune to fool’s gold. Luck, if there was such a thing, was a two-sided coin, evidenced by the brevity of his football career.

Even before the accident, Joe had borne little resemblance to a football player. In full uniform on a full stomach, he barely weighed one hundred thirty-five pounds. Still, he carried more weight than most people realized. His grandfather described Joe as a sturdy sapling, conditioned by his environment like a tree adapted to the elements. The boy possessed strength and stamina, both physical and inner, honed on his family’s farm.

His talent for the game lay in his hands. They were work-hardened, oversized paws, with long, grasping fingers and wide, bony knuckles.

Those hands had caught the eye of Coach Ben Simmons on Joe’s first day of football practice during an exercise known as Milking the Cow, which was also a chore that brought Joe into intimate contact with the family milk cow virtually every day.

As an exercise, milking the cow involved stretching the arms to full length at shoulder level and repeatedly squeezing the hands open and closed. Long after the majority of his teammates tired of the exercise, arms sagging and hands cramping, Joe had stood perfectly postured, his fingers flexing at a steady pace.

Coach Simmons had approached Joe, regarded his hands with mild curiosity and asked, “Can you catch a football, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

The coach had acknowledged the answer with a casual nod, but a week later, Joe was the starting tight end for Cookville.

The boy’s football knowledge extended little beyond what had been learned in rough, high-spirited games on the playground of New River Elementary School. It was limited experience, but typical of rookie Rebels because Cookville was a rural community. There was no spring football practice because most team members were busy helping their families plant crops. And while fall football practice officially opened two weeks before the start of school, most of the team, including Joe, staggered in sometime during the second week.

Coach Simmons could not expect otherwise, and thus kept the game simple. The Rebels offense consisted of twenty plays, the vast majority of them designed to send the running backs into the waiting grasp of swarming defenders. There had been an element of surprise then, when—in the 1960 season opener against the Valdosta High School Wildcats—Cookville quarterback Dale Bennett took one step back after the snap and fired a quick pass over the middle on the first play from scrimmage.

Valdosta was a perennial powerhouse on the football field, four times larger than Cookville and embarrassed to have the Rebels on their schedule. Cookville was the perennial patsy, having never scored against the Wildcats in seven previous games and downright intimidated on their eighth and most likely final try.

Joe had caught the ball on a dead run, with outstretched fingers between two Valdosta linebackers, then raced seventy-seven yards for his life to the end zone for a touchdown. The Cookville bench and stands promptly erupted into frenzied exhilaration. Players rushed onto the field and hoisted Joe to their shoulders. He became an instant star. When the pandemonium calmed, Valdosta proceeded to block the extra point kick, then scored the game’s last sixty-three points, chalking up the first win of a state championship season.

The 63-6 shellacking did little to dampen optimism for Cookville’s second game against the Cook High School Hornets. Cookville and Cook were archrivals, but beyond their neighboring locations, name similarity and good-natured ribbing, there was little in dispute between the two schools on the football field. Cook reigned supreme. In the fourteen-year history of the rivalry, Cookville had tallied a dozen defeats and salvaged ties on the other two occasions.

The game was played under a steady drizzle. It was a head-busting, hard-hitting slugfest between two mediocre teams playing with more heart than talent. Midway through the third quarter of the scoreless game, Joe ran a sideline pattern near mid-field. Dale Bennett’s pass was wobbly and overthrown, forcing Joe to cut sharply back across the slippery field.

At the last second before the ball sailed over his head for an incompletion, Joe leapt into the air, snagging the leather spiral with the outstretched fingers of one hand. As he hauled in the ball with both hands, two opposing players collided in mid-air against his right leg, striking from opposite directions with bone-crushing force. One helmet rammed Joe right beneath the kneecap; the second drove through his hamstring.

In the ensuing fall from grace, when he realized the sickening snap reverberating across the field came from his body, the boy had known his football career was finished. He had banished the game to a dead place in the mind, where memories of what might have been rarely mingled with what never was.

He landed flat on his back, the ball rolling casually from his hands onto the wet grass. A mad scramble ensued around him, and a Cook player recovered the fumble, but Joe never even realized he had dropped the ball.

His knee exploded like a conflagration. He struggled to sit, fighting for consciousness. When his eyes focused on the injured knee, absorbed the splintered bone sticking through the bloodied pants leg of his uniform, Joe promptly, and smartly, gave up the fight.

He had woken sometime later on a hospital stretcher, enduring a series of X-rays before a doctor finally injected a merciful dose of morphine. The next time he woke, Joe was in a hospital bed with his leg encased in a heavy plaster cast, attached to a pulley contraption suspended from the ceiling.

From his parents, Joe had learned about the surgery necessary to set the bone back in its proper position and reattach torn ligaments and tendons. From his brothers and sisters, he heard the gorier details: how the loud crack of his leg hushed the crowd instantly; the awestruck silence inspired by the ambulance driving onto the field and off again with his limp body; the hero’s standing ovation given when the sirens blared to life.

People often picked strange heroes, Joe believed, and the boy harbored not a single delusion of grandeur. At his best on the football field, he had demonstrated average talent. Lady luck had been the divining rod of his football fortunes, and he had prospered and perished with her whims—another conclusion Joe had reached on his journey of self-discovery, along with the realization that he was destined to be one of those masses of men who led a solid life of averages.

Joe could live with the averages, but the boy had made another discovery about himself on the solitary journey. It was frightening, an idea he did not fully understand but one that shared equal billing with his need for normalcy and purpose.

The boy looked out across the field once more, gazed across treetops into the sunset and acknowledged the well of restlessness running deep inside him. This restlessness scared Joe because he could not define it in exact terms, and because it provoked anxious feelings that he was destined to remain solid and would never soar as long as he was here on this place, this farm that meant so much to his family.

Joe wanted to force these thoughts from his mind, but he could not deny that his most memorable moments occurred when his actions or circumstances scraped against the grain of his character. And he could not help wondering where that grain was headed, and the scars it might sustain along the way.

The boy’s thoughts ran fast these days—no doubt compensating for his legs, Joe figured—though not always so deep. In one moment, he was likely to ponder a pretty girl; the next, the approaching Christmas season; and then, this kind of brooding reflection and speculation that cluttered his head with more questions than answers, invariably leaving him confused and glum.

Confusion bothered Joe like a gnat in the dog days of summer. He preferred simplicity, which was probably why he thrived on the familiarity of routine obligations and patterns. Normalcy kept his head uncluttered, restrained him from thinking deeply and warded off confusion. When normalcy failed him, as it did now, Joe had learned to seek distractions. They were easy to find when a boy’s thoughts ran as fast as his did these days. And then, without his appreciation, a distraction presented itself in the form of the last row to plow.

Joe wheeled the tractor into another perfect turn at the far end of the field and dropped the plow once more into the dirt. But instead of speeding up the last row, he idled down the engine, pausing to fish a cigarette from the pocket of his jeans.

He lit it and took a long drag, looking out across the field once more, thinking deeply about nothing in particular. Dusk had settled over the farm, leaving only a faint reddish hue over the treetops. A rustling breeze chilled him through the red flannel shirt, hinting of a hard freeze sweeping in from the Arctic hinterlands.

Joe took another drag on the cigarette, then accelerated the engine once more and headed the tractor alongside the fencerow. The boy guided the tractor with more caution on this row, ever mindful of a time long ago when he had tangled the plow in a fence and required his father’s help to extract it. He passed a small meadow, where cattle grazed on light brown clumps of dried grass, and then edged his grandfather’s prized blackberry bramble, now reduced to a dormant skeleton of vines woven through the fence. Finally, the tractor skirted the edge of the pecan orchard, its barren branches affording Joe the comforting sight of smoke curling away from the chimney of his home. A sudden rush of anticipation for a job well done and the hearty supper to come turned the boy’s head toward the end of the row.

And waiting there was his daddy.



Matt Baker stood at the edge of the field with his hands shoved into the pockets of faded dungarees, searching for warmth against the evening’s chill. A slight smile crossed his face as he witnessed his oldest son’s smooth attempt to discard the cigarette. Joe made a quick turn to his left, leaned over the wheel shield as if checking the plow and allowed the cigarette to fall into the ground as fertilizer for next year’s crop. But not before Matt, who possessed eagle eyes, saw the red glow and trail of smoke.

He’d always assumed Joe would take up smoking. But not so soon. Matt had resisted the leaf’s lure until well past his nineteenth birthday, and he’d started smoking to combat the tension of war. Of course, his son had waged a war of his own these past few months, a private war carried out despite, or perhaps in spite of, the family’s best efforts. The boy had endured the pain of a shattered leg and a lost dream with valor and resolve. If Joe found solace in a cigarette or two, Matt would neither begrudge him nor read the riot act over it.

No one had ever questioned Joe’s perseverance and stubbornness. But equally so, the magnitude of those qualities had never rivaled the likes of that shining through in the weeks and months gone by since the boy had been carried off the football field on a stretcher. Once home from the hospital, Joe had refused their coddling, cordially but in definite terms telling the family he could take care of himself. Then he’d set out to prove his word, making a mockery of the doctors who believed the recovery process would leave him a temporary invalid.

The doctors predicted a difficult adjustment to the heavy cast; Joe was moving with athletic grace, albeit on crutches, within a week. The doctors predicted a minimum three-week absence from school; Joe was roaming the halls of Cookville High School after just eight days of lessons from the county’s truant officer. The doctors predicted months of crutches; Joe was wearing a walking cast within eight weeks.

The pace of recovery was so alarming that once Matt had dreamed his son was racing down the football field, on crutches, intent on catching an overthrown ball. The dream had seemed so real that he had woken his wife with the suggestion that Joe probably should stay off the football field awhile longer.

Matt smiled in memory of that stuporous expression of concern, but was instantly sobered. In reality, Joe would never step on another football field—at least not as a player. His knee and two other bones shattered in that freak accident were now held together by steel pins, and while the boy would recover without a limp, the leg would never be the same. His son’s spirit and courage, however, remained unbroken.

Matt peered across the fresh folds of earth, acutely mindful of the skill and dedication his son brought to the farm work—and achingly aware that the boy’s destiny lay elsewhere.

Long ago, Matt had sensed Joe saw life differently than he did. That despite the boy’s down-to-earth demeanor, he possessed vision of breadth and depth. That when Joe looked out across these fields, he saw more than treetops and a faraway horizon. A few weeks ago, though, Matt had realized with startling clarity just how differently Joe and he looked at life.

They had been butchering hogs one crisp Saturday morning. It was a messy job from the moment Matt shot the two barrows. Working in companionable silence, they had split, gutted and sliced the shoats from end to end, tapping every edible scrap of meat. The chitlins and lights had been that night’s supper, the feet pickled, the head made into souse and the brains frozen for the family’s traditional Christmas Eve supper.

When they were winding up the job, dumping the last washtubs of bloodied water and wiping down knives, Matt had turned to Joe and suggested, “Son, how ’bout next time we let the butcher in Cookville do this?”

Matt had expected an answer of either lighthearted agreement or a teasing scoff. Instead, without breaking stride for even a sideways glance at his father, Joe said sharply, “Beats the heck of out me why you didn’t do that this time.”

The quick retort struck Matt like a slap in the face. He resisted an impulse to reprimand the boy, sensing Joe was unaware of his sassy tone. In truth, Matt had intended to send the shoats to the abattoir, changing his mind only because Joe had volunteered to help with the butchering. “Wait a minute,” Matt had said. “I thought you wanted to do the butcheren.”

Joe looked perplexed. “What on earth gave you that idea?”

“You did,” Matt answered stoutly. “The other night when I mentioned we had two hogs ready to butcher. You volunteered for the job almost before I got it out of my mouth. Hell, son, I was all for senden them to the abattoir in the first place. I didn’t, only because you seemed so surefire ready to do the job yourself.”

“Uh-oh,” Joe groaned, rolling his eyes. “I assumed we’d be doen it at home like always. I was just offeren to help. Butcheren hogs is the last thing I wanted to do.”

Matt had known then, inexplicably or perhaps from something in the way Joe uttered those words, but he had understood with certainty that father and son would never tend this farm as equals in a partnership. He had realized that Joe looked across the treetops surrounding these fields and saw a horizon beckoning with unfamiliar and infinitely interesting places, people and experiences. And Matt had understood that, like his father before him, he, too, would surrender a son to dreams different from those he dreamed.

Standing on the field’s edge, Matt felt a sudden need to find out if he would be up to the task of letting go when the time came. He had an even stranger feeling that the answer would soon come to him.

As he waited for the tractor to arrive at the row-end, Matt considered anew the difficult months Joe had come through. If the boy’s pace of recovery had been extraordinarily quick, then the intensity of it had been downright exhausting. In those first days home from the hospital, Joe had needed help to get from the bed to the bathroom, and his stubborn demand for no concessions on his behalf had bordered on the absurd.

Once, in particular, he’d insisted on a full-fledged bath, refusing a washbowl and cloth in favor of the tub. So Matt had carried the boy into the bathroom and left him on his own to climb into the tall claw-foot tub. There had been a loud thud and a few muffled curses from time to time, but all had gone well until Joe finished bathing and discovered he could not climb out of the tub. At that point, he’d put pride aside, calling for “a little help and cooperation.”

Matt had found him stuck in the deep tub, prone on his back, with the encased leg draped over the edge, unable to right himself without wetting the plaster mold. Matt had hauled him up, offered the boy a towel and walked out without a word said between them.

Joe had suffered a few other indignities, but mostly, he was successful in compensating for the handicap. In fact, too often he overcompensated, rushing headlong to tackle any chore or task that needed doing, working like a mercenary to earn not the almighty dollar but a measure of respect. At first, Matt had tried to rein in the boy. In quick order, however, he’d turned Joe loose, allowing him to gallop a breathtaking pace on a journey for peace of mind. Whether Joe had found peace remained unclear, but certainly the harvest season had never run smoother or easier for Matt.

Apart from his regular chores, Joe had taken over the daily grind for his father and grandfather, providing the men additional daylight to work in the fields. He’d replaced Matt on the combine at times, hauled trailers back and forth between the fields and unloaded and stacked a truckload of fifty-pound bags of hog feed in the barn. Just when Matt had figured Joe to reach his limits, the boy—cast and all—had climbed into the tops of pecan trees to shake loose the nuts. Now Joe was winding up another self-appointed task, and as he brought the tractor to a stop, a rush of pride swelled Matt.

Joe cut off the engine, then swung his good leg over the steering wheel and dismounted the tractor.

“That’s a fine piece of plowen, son,” Matt said. “You’ve got the fields looken real good.”

“Fields always look good this time of year, Daddy,” Joe replied, smiling slyly. “I just hope they’ll look good come next fall.”

“Me, too,” Matt agreed. “That’s what I always hope for; it’s why I keep doen the same thing year after year.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you glad to get a vacation from school?” Matt asked.

Joe looked quickly past his father in the direction of Cookville High School, where a few hours ago he had taken the final algebra test and history exam before the start of Christmas vacation. He enjoyed school and the separate identity it provided him from the family. The days he’d missed after breaking his leg had seemed like an eternity, leading him to believe he would never wish for another school vacation. And yet, the rigors of catching up on missed work and the spirit of the Christmas season had changed his mind, leaving him eager for the two-week vacation—just as the arrival of the new year would make him ready to return to his studies. Everything in its time, Joe thought.

“I was ready,” he answered.

“I was always ready for a vacation from school,” Matt said, squatting to pick up a handful of the nutrient-rich earth, sifting it through his fingers. “We only went about seven months of the year back then, but even that seemed too long to me. I always wanted to be right out here.”

Joe, watching the dirt fall from his daddy’s hand, said suddenly, “A boundless moment.”

Matt peered up at his son, puzzled.

A Boundless Moment,” Joe repeated with an embarrassed shrug. “It’s the name of a poem by Robert Frost. I can’t think of how it goes, but you reminded me of it just now.”

“Oh,” Matt said, staring as if he expected a more forthcoming explanation. When none came, Matt scooped up another handful of dirt. Standing, he gestured for Joe to do the same.

Joe quickly obeyed, the black soil cool and heavy with moisture against his palm. He righted himself and faced his father.

“This dirt may not seem significant to most people, but it means an awful lot to me,” Matt said evenly. “I make a liven from it. I depend on this dirt to provide for your mama and you children. I take care of it. I feed it. I understand it, and I know how to use this dirt to get what I need in life. You might even say I control it, leastways as much as a man can control a piece of earth without bowen to the will of nature.”

Matt paused, measuring his words with a sweeping gaze across the field and back to Joe. “Strange as it may sound, son, you’re kind of in the same position as this dirt. Right now, Joe, you’re pretty much compelled to do what I tell you—whether it’s plowen a field, sloppen hogs or milken a cow. But there’s bound to come a day when I tell you to do somethen and what I’m really doen is asken you to do it. When that day comes—and you and I will both know when it’s time—you’re not gonna be compelled to do what I say anymore. And I hope very much that when you make your decision, Joe, you’ll follow your heart and do what’s right for you.”

Matt searched the boy’s eyes at length, then asked earnestly, “Do you understand, son?”

Joe wanted to tell his daddy that his heart would always urge him to do whatever Matt wanted, even if it meant lying down across a railroad track in front of a fast-coming train. He wanted to tell Matt that loyalty was the most important expression in the world, except possibly for love and making love, the latter of which he could only guess about at the moment. But instead, the boy replied simply, “Yes, sir.”

Matt regarded his son carefully, concerned about the thoughts behind the boy’s unreadable expression. He didn’t doubt for one second that Joe understood him. But in Matt’s experience, the difference in understanding and doing was as wide as the gap between winning and losing.

Joe was a natural helper, someone who could be counted on to stick around as long as help was needed. He had a knack for making the people around him not only comfortable but also increasingly willing to accept that level of comfort. When Joe faced that moment of truth—the choice between will and obligation—Matt suspected it would take a mighty shove or supreme inspiration to push the boy toward the gateway of his heart. He hoped inspiration would rule the moment.

“Do you know the whole story about how you got your name?” Matt asked suddenly.

“After your brother, my uncle,” Joe recited automatically. “He was killed at Pearl Harbor.”

“That’s not the whole story,” Matt said coyly. “We almost named you Mark. From the day your mama found out she was expecten, she planned to name the baby Mark if it was a boy. I thought it was a fine name until a few weeks before you were born, when she finally got around to tellen me the reason she wanted to name you Mark. She was married to a Matthew, you see, and her intentions were to name our sons Mark, Luke and John. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—your mama wanted the four gospels right in the family.”

“Really?” Joe asked skeptically, with a bemused expression. “Are you pullen my leg, Daddy?”

“I swear to God it’s the truth,” Matt laughed, spreading his hands. “Needless to say, I put my foot down. Declared once and for all that we’d name the baby after my brother if it were a boy. I thought your mama was carryen religion a little too far.”

Joe nodded tepid agreement. His father’s disdain for the church warranted no comment.

“Well,” Matt continued, sounding more serious. “It was a good thing we named you after your uncle, son, because you’re a lot like him. Both of you born with a wanderlust.”

He paused, allowing Joe to consider the thought. “As far back as I can remember, your uncle was always runnen off somewhere else.”

“The prodigal son,” Joe interrupted, quoting his grandmother.

“Not at all,” Matt shot back. “My brother loved home, but his heart tugged him elsewhere. I’m glad he followed it and don’t doubt for one minute that your grandma ain’t, either. It was the right thing for him to do. In those few years with the Navy, your uncle saw more of the world than most men see in a lifetime. He truly lived the life he wanted.”

Matt paused again to choose his words, then looked hard at Joe. “I’m tellen you all this, son, because I want you to know that it’s okay if your heart leads you elsewhere,” he said soberly. “There’s no law that says a boy has to follow in his daddy’s footsteps. I’ve got everything I need right here in Cookville, and I farm because it’s the right thing for me to do. But wherever you go and whatever you do will be the right thing for you, Joe, and it’ll be fine by your mama and me.”

Matt allowed the dirt to trickle from his hand, watching it fall back to the ground. “But regardless, whatever you do, wherever you go,” he said, returning his gaze to Joe, “remember this farm and your family will always be here for you, son. No matter what.”

Joe stood dazed, stricken with disbelief, muted by the moment.

Matt smiled, slow and serious until his face dissolved into a spitfire grin. “Well, hell, I’m on a roll,” he said, dusting off his hands. “I probably should tell you all about the birds and the bees, but you already know that stuff.”

Joe shrugged modestly. “Did Mama mind too much about not getten a Mark in the family,” he asked as Matt mounted the tractor and settled on the seat.

“Nah,” Matt answered, leaning against the steering wheel. “Turned out Mark was her least favorite of the four gospels—at least name-wise. I don’t rightly know how she feels about the scripture.”

Joe nodded, still bewildered.

“You feed the hogs, son,” Matt said a moment later, “and I’ll milk the cow. Then, we’ll see ’bout getten us some supper.”

“Sure thing, Daddy. And thanks, for the talk.”

Matt gave his son a gruff smile as the tractor roared to life. He waved a hand, then drove off along the rutted field lane running through the pecan orchard and alongside the house.

Joe stood there—transfixed as he tried to absorb the meaning of this moment with his father—until somehow his legs began moving him toward the house. Gradually, he realized his hands still held the dirt. He stopped in his tracks, unclenched his fist and allowed the black soil to fall away. Brown stains remained on his palm, and the hand suddenly felt withered and bone dry. His teeth gritted, and the same dry, lifeless feeling filled his mouth. He began moving toward the house, quickly, purposefully this time, not stopping until he reached the well, where he rinsed his hands clean in clear, cold water from the spigot. Then, he fed the hogs.



Later, with night settled over the farm, Joe sat around the kitchen table with the family, listening to his brother deliver a lengthy, if somewhat overblown, blessing of the evening meal. Supper was waiting and everyone was hungry, but mealtime prayers took precedence over the food and the appetites. Joe’s mother and grandmother did not abide religion by rote. The two women wanted prayers from the heart, believing words of simplicity and honesty far more valuable than eloquence or superficiality.

Joe was thinking about those unchanging values, the rituals of home and the ties that bound him, when he felt the heavy weight of eyes upon him. He raised his head and found his father staring back at him. They acknowledged each other with brief smiles and nods before Matt closed his eyes and bowed his head.

Joe lowered his gaze once more, but his eyes stayed open, staring at the reflection in the plate.

As a boy, he had followed his daddy’s footsteps, worshipping the man who helped give him life and expecting to work the farm with Matt one day, just as Matt now did with his father. As he’d grown older, Joe had continued to worship his father but not the man’s way of life. He’d tried and tried to understand where their two paths quit running parallel, why his had crossed into uncharted territory. He had brooded over the differences, the seeming inability to reconcile his own desire and ambition with loyalty and responsibility to his family.

Suddenly, the dilemma no longer mattered. His father had granted Joe a license for the future. Matt had freed him from the tightfisted chains of the farm. No longer would Joe try to smother the fire of ambition smoldering within or quench the thirst pulling him away from his family. He was free to ponder and pursue another kind of life, a different set of responsibilities.

Joe had an inkling of the future then, a sense about the way life worked—of freeing yourself from one set of chains in order to be yoked to even tighter bonds. And in a way, the boy was glad just to be sitting at the supper table, belonging to this family, with nothing more than hunger pains to satisfy. 

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