J.T. Robertson is the author of The Memory Thieves (2014) published by Black Hill Press. His work has also appeared in Jelly Bucket, The Louisville Review, The MacGuffin, and other publications. He is a long-time attendee of the River Pretty Writers Retreat and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Missouri State University. J.T. currently lives near St. Louis with his wife Pamela.
I take a deep breath and begin to cough. It’s become a regular thing, to lose my breath and have my lungs bang around black in my chest. Usually worst this time of day, when the sun’s high and doing its best to cook water from the dirt. The fit stops and I spit, getting it out. The crud’s mixed with blood, seeping down into the cracked earth. I’m thirsty like dust, but there’s nothing to drink. Decide to have a smoke instead. The smoke burns its way down and back up again. Better get a move on. Got a way to go before I get to the grain bins.
We lost Bobby Ahrent yesterday, right here at the Taylors' place in bin five. Bobby was a good man and a good worker for the most part. We liked to shoot the bull, act like we were fighting, but us and everyone else knew we were playing. Had a regular routine, where I’d call him a young ‘un and he’d ask me if I forgot my walker at home. Bobby was always making cracks about me retiring and coming back to work over and over. I told him old farmhands never really retire. We might take a year from time to time, try working maintenance in one of the factories, but once dirt’s in your blood it tends to stay there, thick like mud in the veins.
Bobby had only been farming a couple of years. Me, I’ve done this kind of work long as I can remember. When I was a boy, we had our own land out off Stairstep Road just down from the Garlands, and Dad taught all ten of us kids to work the land. It wasn’t an option, really. We worked to eat and keep clothes on our backs. After he died in ’56, we did all we could to help keep the land profitable, but in the end, Mother had no choice but to sell. We moved into town, and she took a job doing laundry down at the nursing home just to keep us fed.
We all worked too, of course. Things were different then. College wasn’t an option in those days, not for farm folk like us. Hell, most of us didn’t finish high school. I left in the eighth grade. Being the oldest, it was my responsibility to try and do what I could for the family, with Dad gone. Garland hired me on as a hand for seventy-five cents an hour, and I was glad to have it. Roy Garland was a good man. He knew he could have paid me less and I’d have taken it, but he didn’t. He’s been gone for thirty years now. I’m still grateful he gave me a start.
My Martha made white beans with fried potatoes for supper last night, with a thick ham steak we split between us.
“You okay?” she asked me, wiping her hands on one of her stained kitchen towels.
“I’m all right,” I said. “Hungry.”
“I don’t know that I believe it,” she said. She put a ladle in the beans and cut the cornbread. “The being all right, that is.”
I didn’t reply. I knew she had more to say. Give it time and it’d come out, like the old rose bush out back in years it got bit by the frost. The buds always bloomed; weather be damned.
“Shirley called me this afternoon, told me about Bobby,” she said. “She said you were with him right before it happened.”
“That’s the truth,” I said, moving over the cornbread plate so she’d have room to set down the bowl of potatoes. “Seemed normal enough, before he went up in the bin. Maybe a little down, but he got like that sometimes.”
“Well, it’s a shame, in any case,” she said. “Poor Jodi, left with her little ones. Hard on a woman, losing her husband. Especially that young, poor thing. I wonder if she’ll move back to Caseyville.” She paused a second, thinking. “I think that’s where her folks live.”
“Could be,” I said, then a coughing spell hit, and she looked at me all worried like she does.
“I’m calling Doctor Thomas,” she said. “That cough’s just getting worse.”
“I’m fine, Martha,” I told her, taking a drink. “It’ll stop, just take a little while. Can’t afford a visit right now, and anyway, I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Working Sunday? What for?”
“With what happened, got behind,” I said. “Already a lot to do before that, truth be told. Farms don’t stop for funerals. Crops keep right on growing.”
Martha’s a good woman, and she’s been a good wife to me these past thirty-five years. Got no complaints. Not a lot of fire left in our marriage, but there’s a warmth between us—comfortable like a lazy afternoon. I do for her and she does for me. Her health’s gone downhill the last year, old aches coming back in her bones from years she worked at the motor factory, putting together parts on the assembly line. She’s a stubborn thing. Doesn’t like to take her pain pills because they make her sleepy, but I keep on her about it. That’s what you do when you love someone. You do what it takes to keep them from hurting.
I decide to stop by the old Granville place and take a look inside since it’s on the way. Looking pretty rough, but that’s to be expected. Just like me, there’s not much left of the old house now. Hell, it was broken down and gray when I was still young. When I worked for Roy Garland, we used to store extra seed, tools, and sometimes even hay for the animals there, back before tractors were standard. I remember that day the top floor fell through. There was a migrant hand working with us that summer named Jack. Can’t recall his last name just now.
Old Jack was wound tight as a second-hand watch, and we laughed ‘til we were sore when that floor came crashing down right behind him. He screamed like the Devil himself had appeared to drag him off to damnation. Most don’t ever hear a sound like that I suppose, full of pure fear. More likely if you’re a soldier or ride an ambulance I’d guess. First time I heard pure terror like that was old Jack. Swear he nearly had a heart attack. Heard the same thing yesterday over the hand-held radio when they started calling everyone up to help Bobby. He’d walked down into the grain, and I could hear him in the background. This time there was no laughter following close behind like when Jack got spooked by that roof.
An old penny catches my eye, half-buried in the dirt, and I pick it up to have a look. Head side up, which is good luck. Wheat penny, too. 1940-something. Last number is roughed up too bad to read. I haven’t seen a wheat penny in years. Hell, could be one I dropped while laughing at Jack all those years ago. I slip the penny in my pocket and look out at the rice field stretching off to the east. Not many laughs to be found anymore, even if you’re looking. Not much left to waste a smile on. The Taylors' new house stands out above the flat land, with tall white columns and a line of cedars down the west side. Used to step over those when they were first planted, years ago.
Best get a move on. Day’s not getting any younger, and neither am I.
“Sorry to hear what happened to Dale Ahrent’s boy,” Larry Newman told me this morning. We were at our usual table at the Money Miser sipping black coffee. Larry’s a deputy here in town, usually works overnights. Gets off duty around 5 A.M., and we’ve had coffee together every morning as long as I can remember. Can’t even remember how that got started, we been doing it so long. Money Miser’s the only thing open this time of morning, unless you want to drive up to the state line. Can’t complain though. You can fill your truck with gas, grab a pack of smokes, and get breakfast all in one place. Prices aren’t bad, neither.
“Bobby was a good kid,” I said, stirring my coffee. Honestly, I didn’t want to talk about it. I’d been thinking about it enough. Kept going anyway, because I knew Larry wouldn’t be content to stop. “Nothing we could do. Pulled him under quick. He panicked, couldn’t think straight enough to hold still.”
Larry shook his head. “Don’t know what he was thinking,” he said. “Not like the safety gear isn’t right there. Not like nobody didn’t show him how to use it.”
I just lit a smoke. Started to cough but managed to hold it back with a drink of burning hot coffee. From what I’ve seen on the news, smoking indoors is banned most places anymore. Not here. There’s not a restaurant in town that doesn’t have an ashtray waiting on the table when you get there, except for the McDonald’s, and that just changed about a year ago. You’ll just find the old religious folk in there in the mornings, now. Heard the coffee’s cheaper, but I’d rather stay here where I can smoke. Never much cared for all that Jesus talk.
“Oh, he was shown,” I said. “Not sure what he was thinking. Guess we’ll never know.”
“Randy said he’s going to look into it, but I figure there’s not much need. Just another poor soul lost to the grain,” Larry said. “Seems like we can’t go a year without one or two boys dying that way.”
“Shame,” I said. “Damn shame.”
The bins aren’t far now. I can just see the sun shining off the metal, slowly baking the corn inside. I’m getting too old for this kind of heat, can’t ignore it like I used to anymore. Don’t mean to complain, but it is what it is. I’ve kept it hidden pretty well, but I know the younger hands can tell. I take more breaks, move a little slower, cough like a cranky old diesel engine. Most days I just drive up to bins in my Ford, but not today. Don’t want to be seen. Figure it’s better this way. Got a plan if I do get spotted, though. I’ll just say I’m here to pay my respects, say goodbye to Bobby my own way. Not much of a lie. Suppose that really is one way of looking at it.
“Jodi’s leaving me,” Bobby told me yesterday, not long before he headed into the bin. “Don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“You two been having trouble?” I asked. I already knew the answer. I’d seen him sitting in his truck at lunch a couple of times with a blonde that wasn’t Jodi. Looked younger. Maybe just out of high school. Maybe still in it. Didn’t matter.
“I messed up, man. Met a girl up at state line one night, did some things I shouldn’t have. Did some more since.” He’d tilted a plastic barrel of insecticide, rolling it next to the others. “Quit when I realized how stupid it was, but it was too late. Guess one of Jodi’s friends saw us.”
“Got yourself tangled up good, then.”
“Yeah. I did,” he said. “She’s taking the kids. I just—I wish I could change it somehow.”
“Can’t change what’s done,” I told him. “Past is past. Best to just get through it. Move on. Think of your kids.” I stopped and lit a cigarette. Coughed. Spat.
He lit one too and leaned against the barrel. “Worst part’s how bad it hurt Jodi. Something in her eyes. Never seen her look like that.” His hands were shaking. “Sounds stupid now, but I never wanted to hurt her. I—I don’t know if I can push past that part. I love her. Doesn’t make sense considering what I did, but damn, I swear I love her so much.”
Didn’t know what to say to that. The other boys pulled up with BBQ sandwiches then, and we all ate lunch. The Taylors do that from time to time, buy us lunch. I figure it’s since they don’t pay as good, but it is what it is. Bobby didn’t say much while everyone else shot the breeze. Wandered off by himself after lunch, and I headed out to check one of the irrigation pumps with Dale. That was the last time I saw Bobby before he was already broken and gone.
The barrels are still where we left them, gravel crunching under foot as I get closer to the bins. A lizard disappears into the grass, past a crumpled wrapper from one of the BBQ lunches. Quiet out here, other than a few bird calls. Wind has picked up a bit since I started this way. I decide to rest a minute in the shade of the smallest bin there, the only one left built of brick instead of metal. I remember when that brick was still red, before time wore it down, the sun and rain bleaching it creamsicle orange. Back then this all belonged to the Garlands. Back then I was young and strong like Bobby had been, before the aches and pains and the thick crud in my lungs.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” Doctor Thomas told me two weeks ago, after Martha made me go. He looked down at my medical file then back up, taking off his glasses. “You have cancer spread through your chest,” he said. “It’s in an advanced stage, and the prognosis isn’t good.”
“Cigarettes?” I asked.
“I’m sure that didn’t help, but no,” he said. “From what I can tell it’s melanoma—skin cancer. Most likely from that place on your neck I looked at last year.”
He’d cut out a bad spot a while back. I was supposed to get more tests, but never went. Couldn’t afford it, so I did what I always did and went back to work. “How long?” I asked.
“With treatment, maybe six months,” he said. “Without it, you probably only have two, two and a half.”
I thanked him but told him I didn’t want chemo. Made him swear not to say anything. Could tell he didn’t approve, but it wasn’t his choice. It wasn’t his life. If it was my time, that’s how it was. Never been the kind to make a fuss over things I couldn’t change.
I tried, but I can’t imagine what was going on in Bobby’s head yesterday, or the times he was running around on that pretty wife of his. Never crossed my mind in all these years to look at another woman. Martha wasn’t perfect but she was mine and treated me good. During my days out in the fields—even on our wedding day—she was always there when I got back, comfortable and waiting with dinner on the stove. All I can figure is maybe Bobby walked down in the grain because he couldn’t see a way to live with it, the shame of what he did to the woman he loved. Can’t say I understand, but who am I to judge? We are who we are. We deal as best we can. We survive, until we don’t.
Bullet would have been easier, or a bottle of pills. I’d known plenty of men who’d taken the long way, drinking away their liver until the end. Bobby had walked down instead. I got no doubt he did it on purpose, knowing what he was doing, and how painful it’d be. Everyone did, who knew a thing about farming, including the life and worker insurance folks. Bobby had to know it wouldn’t be ruled a suicide. Hell, who would die like that on purpose? Walking down was just a bad way to die.
Corn or grain went in the bins once it was harvested, for storage and to let it dry out. Air would get caught in pockets down below the surface sometimes, due to moisture. Easiest way to level it down was for a man to walk on top of the grain around the edges, knocking it all down with the weight of his footsteps. Wasn’t too dangerous if you put on a harness. That way when the grain shifted below our feet, you wouldn’t get sucked down with it. Without the gear though, nine times out of ten you’d get sucked down into the grain like it was dry quicksand. The more you struggled, the worse you’d sink. Hard not to panic in that situation, try to thrash your way out. Most who walked down choked to death. Those that didn’t were slowly crushed by the weight of the grain around them.
Bobby had suffocated, thrashing the whole time and sinking deeper. Small mercy, but at least it was something. Call went out over the radios to everyone when someone’d heard him, but it was too late to do anything. They tried to pull him out, doing their best to shore it up around him. It just made it worse. It wasn’t something you came out of without a miracle. It took four hours to get what was left of him out once he stopped moving. Not much there, from what I saw. Wish I hadn’t seen it at all.
I can feel the heat through the thick callouses on my fingers, through the soles of my dust-covered boots. It’s a long way up the metal stairs to the top of the bin. They’re built a lot higher than they used to be. They were all brick back then, hard clay mixed and baked and put together with mortar. Not many of those left standing, like the old one where I just had my last smoke. I can see it back behind me, faded and almost useless.
“Lot in common, you and me,” I say under my breath, like it can hear.
Not much use in either of us anymore. Like that floor in the old Granville house, I’m ready to fall, ready to be done. Broken down and gray. Walking down’s a bad way to go, but it’s better than dying gasping in my bed, rotting from the inside like some old scarecrow. Life insurance will take care of Martha this way. She might even get some extra from the Taylors' insurance, help her live more comfortable until her time is up. I’ll be just another accident, another good man lost in the grain. A sad story to be remembered over early morning coffee at the Money Miser. Shame. A damn shame.
The corn doesn’t look like much, heaped there dusty and yellow beyond the platform’s edge. The dryer fan’s humming, circulating hot air inside the bin over the rolling surface. I pause a minute, having a second thought. A third. A fourth. Not so easy now that I’m here. I can hear Bobby’s cries over the radio and see what remained of his broken body. I can see that look Martha gives me when she knows I’m not all right. I can smell her soap and my favorite homemade blackberry pie. I picture the tears in her eyes if I do, and tears in her eyes if I don’t. I feel the heat of the railing through the seat of my jeans, leaning back to rest between the narrow stairs and that bin of dark yellow grain.
A bird cries somewhere, the wind cooling the sweat on my neck. The drying fan clicks off. The air settles in the bin as quiet falls. I take a breath, make my choice, and start walking down.
“ The Money Miser always smelled of cigarettes and too-strong coffee. It’s gone now, replaced by a different gas station—a T-Rex, I think. I wonder where the old-timers go to get their coffee these days. The shiny new T-Rex looked a little too fancy for their taste the last time I passed through town.
This story is, in a way, a love letter to the memory of my hometown, located among the rice and soybean fields of northeast Arkansas. To me, that area always had a sense of deep local history, alongside a constant undercurrent of slow degradation, and a quiet desperation. The area was impoverished and growing more so as the few small factories began to leave town. Buildings and vehicles were often just abandoned, metal left to rust and wood to gray until they became another part of the landscape. The old farmers in town were much the same, their skin sun-spotted and wrinkled from years working the fields. ”