a young boy growing up on a farm in rural Ohio experiences his first sense of loss
|Gerald A. Jennings
about 2300 words
c. 1991 G. Jennings
Gerald A. Jennings
Jason wasn’t surprised when Daddy C took him into the fields, because he had heard Mommy talking to Daddy the night before after they put him to bed. Floyd, she said, take Jase into the fields with you tomorrow. He’s really gonna miss his sister and I don’t think he understands why it is she can go to school and he can’t. Jason knew mommy was serious because she called Daddy ‘Floyd’. Most of the time she called him Daddy C too.
Anyway, the next morning Daddy C woke him up real early and helped him get dressed. Mommy was still in bed. After oatmeal Daddy C took him into the bedroom and held him for Mommy to kiss good morning, and she did, but Jason could see that she was real sleepy. When Daddy slapped her across the butt she woke up though in a big hurry and grabbed him by the seat of his pants before he could get away. Then there was a lot of laughing and giggling and rolling around on the bed, and in the end Jason got tickled within an inch of his life like Mommy always said.
When they went outside, Daddy C picked him up and got real serious. Jason, he said, I want you to be real careful. There are always a lot of trucks and tractors going in and out of the field. Don’t you get to playing and forget about them and get hurt. I’m going to ask Flora Chavez to keep an eye on you for me.
That didn’t bother Jason because he liked Mrs. Chavez, and Leticia too. Leticia was real pretty and always played with him, except when Mario came around, but that was alright because he liked Mario too.
Daddy always said tomatoes were money in the bank. Jason didn’t quite understand that. But with the wisdom of four going on five, it was enough that Daddy C said it like he meant it; so he stored it up in that vast limbo of things he would understand when he grew up. Daddy C was happy and that was what mattered. And he would get to be with the Chavezes and Arreguins and Murillos all day, not just in the evenings like before. But Mommy said he better not pick up any bad Spanish words. But he really liked Tomaso Ortiz. They were good friends.
For awhile the first day Jason watched Mr. Gomez, Arnulfo, and Rosa pick the tomatoes and fill the hampers. Their hands flew as fast as the little birds they sometimes flushed from the vines as they moved along the endless rows. Jason’s eyes could hardly keep up with them. Once in awhile one of them would stand up, put a hand on their lower back, and stretch. But not for long; in just moments they would be stooped over once again, fingers flying, not a motion wasted.
Soon, however, Jason got bored and went looking for Tomaso. They played and the day went fast.
The days that followed were a lot alike—cool in the mornings, but hot by noon. Jason always had a good time. On the days that it rained, he would stay home with Mommy and they would play games between her chores over the long, quiet mornings and early afternoons. But the mornings that were nice, Daddy C always woke him up, and Mommy would be up with Sabrina to get her off to school and to get breakfast for all of them. On the weekends she would stay in bed, but she always gave him his kiss, no matter how sleepy she was. Jason felt very grown up because for once even though Sabrina was older, she couldn’t get her way. On the weekends she wanted to go to the fields too, but Mommy said “no” and even though Sabrina cried and sulked she couldn’t get Mommy to change her mind and give in. It made up a little for her getting to go to school when he couldn’t.
Jason was a good boy—”such a darling” like Mrs. Morman used to say when she babysat for him—and he watched like Daddy C told him he was supposed to for the tractors and the trucks and always got out of the way a long time before they rumbled past. Daddy C never had to worry, and Mrs. Chavez was always there. She had Arth-Ritis and her hands were too crippled up to pick much anymore. After awhile, Tomaso went off to migrant school and Leticia spent more time with Mario, but Jason never got bored.
Daddy C let him bring his trucks and cars and G.I. Joe and He-Man out to the field and he would play, completely absorbed. A lot of times he was surprised when Daddy C would come for him and say it was time to go home.
He liked the field and the pickers with their soft, rapid Mexican voices, and the birds, and the sunshine; but most of all he liked the road. Not the road, the narrow black-and-grey township road that ran past their farm, but the big, wide, dusty dirt road that the trucks and tractors used. It wound around the field among the rows like a snake, growing longer and wider as the harvest went on. Jason loved playing in the road, and it was safe. Mrs. Chavez always took him to a part of the road that wouldn’t be used on that particular day. Sometimes that would be way out in the big field, far from the paved road, where the only sounds were an occasional chuckle from a distant tractor, crickets, wind in the vines, Mrs. Chavez’ soft singing, and the wild cry of the killdeer. Jason would get filthy playing in the dust of the road, but Daddy C didn’t seem to mind. Mommy would shake the dust out of his tiny bib overalls every evening, wrinkling her nose in disgust; but Daddy C would wink at him and tell her that working men were expected to get dirty, and then she would look at him and smile. Mommy was pretty too. A different way from Leticia, but real pretty.
The wonderful road became a lot of things to Jason when he was playing pretend. The ruts became foxholes, rivers, ravines; the piles of dirt and debris on the berm became fortifications for his soldiers to hide behind, or earth for his Tonka bulldozer to move. In some places these mounds of dirt were high enough to serve as hills for his army set to fight over. It didn’t seem inconsistent to Jason that modern infantrymen were opposed by indians or spacemen from other sets. There were clods he could throw at them that served as bombs, and sandy places where he could dig out tunnels for the defenders to hide in. The carnage was always complete and joyfully innocent of malice.
But even when he wasn’t playing pretend Jason liked the road. It was big—bigger than the township road—and he liked the bumpy ruggedness of it that made the heavy trucks rock and sway as they toiled along it. He liked the lovely buff color of the packed earth and its top layer of fine dust that was a delight to wiggle his toes in, almost as soft as the powder Mommy used to make herself smell good when she was getting ready to go to a party. He liked the way it wound around the field, getting bigger as the harvest wore on. No pharaoh could have been prouder of his pyramid than Jason was of their road. It was like a tree, somehow almost alive; he couldn’t remember when it hadn’t been, and in his mind it went on forever over the flat fields, even to Indiana. He had been there once, to visit cousin Alvin. It was a road that astronauts would have been delighted to use on the moon.
Near the end of the harvest (to Jason, the picking, too, had become an immutable fact of existence) Jason turned five. Mommy invited some of the neighbor kids and all the migrant children to the party; they had cake and ice cream, and screamed and giggled over the video game machine Daddy C had bought for him. Jason was sad that Tomaso wasn’t there. The Ortiz family had left to follow the harvest elsewhere, to someplace called Mishigin. Jason was a little mad at Tomaso and his family. He had wanted Tomaso to be at his party.
It was only a day or two later that Jason woke, and without thinking about it like an adult would have had to, knew from the angle of the sun in the window that it was late. He put on his teeshirt and jeans and grabbed his shoes to take them to Daddy C so that he could help him put them on. He went past the white tower of the refrigerator on his way and saw a piece of paper held on the door by a maggit. He couldn’t read anything but his name and some of his numbers and ABC’s, but a paper on the refrigerator usually meant that Mommy was in town. He heard Sabrina cough from her bedroom. She had stayed home from school today, then. Daddy C was just pulling on his jeans when Jason tottered in and presented his shoes as if beginning a ritual.
Daddy C tickled his feet and they wrestled awhile on the floor, Daddy C groaning loudly with pretended pain when Jason grabbed him around the neck. They both ended up giggling and out of breath.
When his shoes were on, Jason was immediately grave and asked Daddy C why there weren’t going to the fields this morning. Daddy C looked surprised and picked him up, patting him on the butt as he did so. Well, little buddy, he said, the harvest is over. All the good tomatoes have been picked. Jason didn’t say anything and he put his thumb in his mouth, one of the few things he did that usually made Daddy C mad. But this time Daddy C didn’t say anything, just looked at Jason funny and put him down. He was real quiet as he put on his work shoes. When he got up, his mood seemed to change a little. He winked at Jason the way he did sometimes when they pulled a joke on Mommy or Sabrina. He didn’t say anything, but he walked into the TV room and clicked on the TV to watch the mid-morning news.
Jason pulled himself into the tall chair at the kitchen table. He was puzzled about why Daddy C hadn’t answered his question, but he shrugged it off. He poured the milk on his Cheerios and was proud that he didn’t spill any of it onto the oilcloth, even though the pitcher was heavy for him. He glanced out the window and saw Mommy’s old blue Pinto turn down the long drive. She was wearing the red blouse under a light sweater, and Jason thought she looked real pretty. As she came in the back door, he jumped off his chair and locked her legs in a good-morning hug. She swept him up and kissed him at the same time Daddy yelled morning to her from the other room. She went in smiling and kissed him on his bald spot (something he usually didn’t like) but he didn’t move or say anything because the farm report was on.
Comb your hair, Jason, Mommy said. We’re going into town. We got to take Sabrina to the doctor. I got some pills for her but Doc Seyers wants to see her to make sure she won’t get strep.
In the end Mommy let Sabrina sleep a little longer while she did a couple of loads of wash, and Jason’s hair was long since mussed up again when she was done. Jason heard the big John Deere snort to life outside and saw his Daddy head to the end of the drive, turning in the direction the Schroeders lived. Mommy woke up Sabrina and brushed her long, fine hair after she washed and dressed. Mommy wanted to leave, but then Jason had to pee, and so she scolded him—first for waiting so long to do his business, then for trying to run out the door without his jacket. Mommy never scolded very hard unless she thought he might get hurt. Jason loved to go to town, but it was more fun when Sabrina didn’t go along.
The little car buzzed down the road, Jason in the back, face pressed against the side window, watching the browning fields go by. There were still stands of corn and beans, but other fields were now empty, filled only with dry stubs and the sound of the wind.
Suddenly the car slowed, and Mommy turned to him, smiling. There’s your Daddy on the tractor, Jase. No, the other side.
Jason crawled over to the other side. Daddy C was up on the big tractor, waving his hat and smiling, mouthing words they couldn’t hear. Jason smiled and waved back, but then he saw the wicked curved teeth of the plow being pulled through his road. The soft brown dust was being turned over, covered with greasy-looking clods that heaved, fell, then lay still. Completing the turn, Daddy C put the tractor into high gear, the voracious, idiot monster-plow following obediently behind. Jason’s face was blank, but his eyes continued to follow the plow until they turned the corner onto road G where the scene was lost behind a field of sadly rustling corn.