The Fourth River

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Essay: “Driving the Section Line,” by Sarah K. Lenz

By on February 29, 2016

From The Fourth River, issue 12

 

“This is where I want you to spread my ashes,” my father says. “When I die, cremate me and dump me here.”

I look to the edge of the ravine. A rotten fence post and a curl of rusted barbed wire jut from the sod. The fencepost is covered with yellowish-gray lichen. A few orangey cedar trees and smaller clumps of spiked yucca dot the pasture. There’s a cluster of chokecherry bushes. A few mulberry trees at the fence lines. Twenty years ago we cut wild asparagus here.

We’re on Henry’s Hill, a notorious make-out point. Local lore has it that most of the kids in my class were conceived here. My father loves it for other reasons. From its summit, supposedly the highest in Valley County, what used to be our homeplace spreads under our gaze. We take in the expanse of corn fields, feedlots, and the barn—symbol of American agrarian prosperity—a red smudge in the distance. The 180 degree view spreads out for miles.

“I told your brother the same thing.”

I imagine my brother and me, taking turns with the urn, shaking out ashes that catch in the wind.

“Is that legal?” I ask, wondering who owns the land, about trespassing laws in Nebraska.

“Better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

He flicks his cigarette butt off the embankment, giving me something else to worry about. The combination of dry wind and parched grass is perfect for brush fires. The wind makes a high-pitched groaning as it sweeps over the trees and makes me feel spooked. The wind here is sinister, like nowhere else I’ve lived. Not like the wind in Boise, Idaho’s foothills or in muggy middle Georgia. Compared with here those places don’t have real wind. The weather changes fast on the plains, too, can drop 30 degrees in an hour. When it does, grizzled men in overalls huddle over cups of hot coffee at the Pump and Pantry Gas Station. They talk about cattle’s nostrils icing over until the poor beasts suffocate.

“I should have known I’d have bad luck,” my father continues. “1977—the first year I farmed—corn got hailed out. Lost everything.” He squints into the distance between the pasture and cornfields. He doesn’t see well anymore, needs cataract surgery. “That kind of thing makes it hard not to be superstitious.” In a softer voice, he adds, “Makes you wonder about God.” Those words haven’t sunk in before he changes the subject: “This used to be a Pawnee Indian lookout.” This is just speculation on his part, another kind of faith, the only kind he can muster anymore.

Farmers buy crop insurance for drought, for plagues of grasshoppers, for hail, even for tornadoes. The wind makes it easy to imagine being sucked away. Locals refer to natural disasters as “acts of God,” terrifying because they are random and uncontrollable.

 

Back in Dad’s twenty year-old Geo Prizm, we drive across an open field before finding the powdery dirt road leading down the hill. Since this morning we’ve driven 60 miles north from Grand Island, where my father lives now, to Valley County, where I grew up and where he used to farm. While driving he chain-smokes Old Golds. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson play on the tape deck.

It’s a typical Midwestern spring day. The sun shines. Clouds, carried by the wind, move across the sky so quickly they look like time-lapse photographs. I’m visiting from out of state, flew into Omaha for an old college friend’s wedding. Now I’m in the interior of Nebraska, the center of the central plans sight-seeing in Geranium township, the northwestern edge of Valley County. We’re driving the section lines, roads that follow both the compass coordinates and the mile-by-mile Jeffersonian grid that makes a patchwork quilt of this flyover country. The 35 square-mile township has a population of about 100, about three people per square mile.

As Dad drives, I count grain bins with the Chief Industries logo. My father retired from Chief years ago, but he still wears the same factory work clothes: navy blue Dickies workpants held on his bony frame by thick red suspenders. He worked in fabrication and welding. The aluminum alloy the bins are made of turns slate-blue after a few decades of exposure to the elements, so the bins look like cylindrical hunks of sky fallen to earth. Spaced in clusters of a half-dozen or so between homesteads, most of the bins are about the size of what my father calls “cracker boxes”—small, rundown houses.

The bins hold field corn—the starchy kind humans can’t eat unless it’s fed to cows and turned into beef or chemically doctored into processed foods. Propane dryers jut from the side of each bin. These industrial-sized heaters with powerful fans force air around the corn, drying it to make it worth more per bushel. Farmers hold it patiently in the bins for weeks, sometimes for months, to get a better market price. This takes a lot of energy. It’s a gamble between propane prices and corn futures. The lines between profit and failure, life and death, are thin.

When I was growing up, every fall the bin fans whirled so loud at night the countryside hummed like the inside of a factory. I remember stepping outside on those nights to a black sky packed with stars blurring into the smear of the Milky Way. The air smelled of corn-hull dust and buzzed like a beehive, our farmhouse the center of the hive. It’s been a decade since either my father or I have lived in Valley County, longer since we lived on the farm. This is the last place where my father was happy, before the bank took the land that had belonged to his family since 1880.

After Henry’s Hill he takes me to the one-room school where my grandmother taught, and where he and my uncles went to school until the 8th grade when they transferred to high school in town. At first he can’t find the schoolhouse. Apparently a farmer moved it—on the back of a haystack mover—so now it sits in someone’s back pasture. For forty-five minutes we drive up and down the section lines, before he turns off the road and noses the car up to a three-strand barbed wire gate.

“Get the gate will ya?” They’re the first words he’s spoken in an hour.

Now I’m less worried about trespassing and more worried about cattle. What if there’s a bull? Reluctantly, I unbuckle the seatbelt that Dad teases me for wearing. Maybe he has a point. We haven’t met another car all day, nor exceeded 45 miles per hour. Still, gravel roads go soft in the spring, the shoulders get spongy, and the gravel loosens enough to fishtail a car.

The gate’s been jury-rigged with baling wire and pliers. I know to lay the fence down flat—so the wire can be driven over. I refasten the gate and get back in the car. Dad finds a cow-path rut in the pasture and follows it along the hills. At ten miles per hour the car pitches like a boat over swells.

Behind a cluster of cedar trees I see it: a sagging schoolhouse, its clapboards weathered to a dull gray. Dad gets out of the car, stubs his cigarette in the grass, rattles his throat with a spittle-laden cough. He opens the front door and walks in like he owns the place. The building’s graceful decay makes it more beautiful than it ever could have been in its prime. Peeking through rot holes in the roof, sunlight dapples the warped floor boards and flashes across a broken wall, plaster crumbles off wood lathes like frosting off a cake. From the remaining plaster, long skins of milky green paint peel.

“There used to be a ceramic water cooler here,” Dad tells me, fingering a rusted stand. “And look, here’s the old bell tower.” I look up. The belfry is empty. “Remember that old bell we had on the farm? Here’s where it came from. Your grandma got it when they closed the school. But it got sold at the foreclosure auction. Remember?”

I remember. Mom used the school bell for a dinner gong. My favorite chore was ringing it when supper was ready. No matter how far away Dad worked on the 80-acre homeplace, the bell summoned him. Only a sound that crisp and loud could pierce the windy, almost treeless land. It traveled farther than my loudest screams (meant to provoke the tom turkeys into gobbling), louder than the howls of Spike (our border collie) and the wild coyotes. It filled the space with its resounding, mellifluous tolling. I felt it in my throat and lungs, as it caught and scattered in the wind. Many faiths ring bells for ceremony. In this small family ritual, maybe we wished the gong could put demons to flight and protect us from random acts of God too. But dad still lost the farm, still had his alcoholic demon.

After some minutes I feel anxious in the schoolhouse’s silence, broken only by the wind, swishing ominously through the cedars. A mud-caked four-wheeler parked in the back room reminds me that we’re trespassing again. Does the owner carry a gun? Might he think we’re there to steal his property? Dad isn’t worried. He has faith in his old neighbors. He could explain who we are and why we’re here. Maybe the owner and Dad were classmates in this very room sixty years ago.

Three miles later Dad pulls up to a hedgerow of ancient Osage orange trees a mile south of the homeplace. Hedgerows are rare these days. Most farmers sawed them down in the 1970s to make room for more rows of corn. Dad’s weathered face matches the gnarled trees’ wrinkled bark. He points to the adjacent field of corn seedlings, the rows plowed as perfect as narrow ruled paper.

“There used to be a road ran alongside these Osages,” he says. “I walked it to school and back, straight across the section line.” I try to imagine my father as a child but soon abandon the idea. Instead I think about how things fade away and disappear. Grandma Krahulik used to pick the lumpy, lime-green colored fruit. She put them in closets and cupboards to repel bugs, but it seems to me now that like the school bell they protected us from other things, too. The Osages likewise warded off the evil spirits carried by those dry prairie winds. I wish they were in season so I could take some home with me. Even if they were, I probably couldn’t get them through airport security. No one knows what they’re used for anymore.

“We should head back,” Dad says.

He coughs, rattling phlegm again as he lights another cigarette. He’s getting antsy for a beer, ready to spend the rest of the day downing his habitual twelve-pack of Old Milwaukee. He points the car east, toward the nearest package store in Ord, seven miles away.

On our way we come upon the Geranium Catholic Church, a quaint brick church with a white steeple centered on its peaked roof, a sight so familiar to me it could have been a painting over my bed. A gravel parking lot spreads in front. To its south more cornfields. Behind the church next to a small graveyard stands a life-size crucifix.

As a kindergartner, I rode with my mother every school day to meet the school bus. By driving the section line, we could intercept it in the gravel lot of the church, cutting the circuitous commute by ninety minutes. I remember my fascination with the crucifix back then, with Jesus’s graphically depicted agony.

I get out of the car. The wind lashes the gray knit skirt I’m wearing, whipping it against my thighs. I head for the statute, realizing I’ve never seen it from up close. Rendered in black granite, Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene kneel at the foot of the cross. Gazing at it now, I think about what strength it must have taken these women to watch Jesus’ slow death on that cross. An anguished cry pinches Mary Magdalene’s lips, desperate eyes looking heavenward. I will lose my father even more slowly, with less anguish, like topsoil blown away by the wind. Though I’m not Catholic, I try to remember the Hail Mary prayer, only the last part comes to me: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. I like the idea of Mary interceding for the dying, since I’ve been watching my father slowly kill himself for decades: poisoning his heart and lungs on a pack-a-day cigarette habit, pickling his liver with rot-gut beer.

Dad comes up behind me. He clears his throat and spits a ball of mucus into the tall bromegrass. “Did you know we’ve got relatives buried here?” he asks.

I shake my head. He shows me my great-great grandparents’ tombstone, dating back to the 1890s. I wonder why I never visited the graves before until I realize you can’t mourn what you haven’t known.

Neither of us has been inside the Geranium church before. It closed when I was in junior high, twenty years ago. Nailed-up plywood replaces a broken stained-glass window. Dad walks up the cement steps and tries the door. It opens. As we cross the vestibule into the sanctuary, a holy hush takes hold. The formerly blood-red carpet is dull with dust. Hymnals and prayer books furred with cobwebs sit untouched in wooden pew racks. Light streams in through the remaining stained glass in beams of red, green, blue, and yellow.

I try a small door to the left of the pulpit. A choir robe yellowed with age dangles from a hook on the built-in Chifforobe. A mirrored medicine cabinet hangs on the wall next to a corroded fire extinguisher. It’s oddly comforting, this quaint safety feature, at the ready—after all these years. I imagine grabbing it, pulling the pin, and cloaking the sanctuary in a cloud of chemical foam. In the cabinet’s tarnished mirror I catch sight of myself and am surprised by the guilty look on my face, as if I’m somehow to blame for the failures and losses that have been following us since my father and I set out on this tour. When I turn to leave the room, Dad has yanked open the door to the confessional, opposite the sacristy.

“I’ve only seen confessionals like this in the movies,” he says.

“If you were Catholic,” I ask him, “what would you confess?”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” he says, a nervous chuckle gurgling in his tobacco-hoarsened throat.

On the way out of the church, we stop in the vestibule. Dad looks up at a yellow nylon rope dangling from the belfry.

“I’ll be darned,” he says.

“What?”

“There’s still a bell up there.”

He tugs the rope. I hear a creaking like two porcelain dinner plates being rubbed together, followed by the first clap, then another. He grins schoolboy-like at me. “Sounds just like my old school bell.” Encouraged, he rings it again, putting his shoulder into it this time. He tugs the rope harder and harder, letting it slide through his hands on the rebound. He keeps pumping, holding on, letting the rope pull him off the ground. He keeps ringing, the sound growing louder, the rings blending into a single, unbroken pulse. My ears buzz. I imagine the waves spreading over the section line, across the fields in concentric circles—past the sculpture of the Marys and Jesus, past the homeplace, past the schoolhouse, past Henry’s Hill, spreading out wider and wider, into the universe. My father keeps ringing. He’s ringing away demons and thunderstorms, ringing away the chaotic, random acts of God, chasing off the last heavy silences that have hung between us. He’s ringing for forgiveness. His grin reveals rotting teeth and beads of sweat dot his forehead. His bony body hangs from the rope like a puppet on strings.

At last, my father lets go of the rope. It takes a long time for the clapper to stop. Finally as the last reverberations fade, Dad gasps for breath. His face is red. He hacks and coughs. I ask him if he’s okay. He nods, takes a blue hanky from his back pocket, and mops his face. Then he looks at me, eyes beaming with love as dust motes swirl in an angled stream across the transom, snared by rays of sunlight.

***

Sarah K. Lenz’s nonfiction has appeared in New Letters, Colorado Review, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. Her work has twice been named Notable in Best American Essays. She won the 2015 New Letters Readers’ Choice award. She holds an MFA from Georgia College and lives in Corpus Christi, Texas.