Tom Blethen faced two fifty foot rows of potatoes. He looked up at the December sky. It had rained, the field was all muddy, and it was going to rain again. Bessie Blume came out from the house. “You had better get those spuds all dug up now or they will rot in the ground,” she said and walked back to the house, to have coffee with Helen. Blethen muttered mild curses under his breath, but Bessie was the boss, and he was the farmhand and potatoes don’t dig themselves.
Spuds, I hate that name, why don’t they just call them potatoes, he thought as he wrestled with the spade. This is just like one of those Thomas Hardy novels, Far From the Madding Crowd. Why did I end up in that book, out in the goddam “moors” digging “beetroots” in the rain? Geez, I gotta stop talking to myself.
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed up Charlie Bones in Seattle. Charlie Bones was an artist and not gainfully employed, someone you could call at any time and he might be free. “It’s me, Tom Blethen, down in California, standing in a field, working in the rain.”
“I thought it didn’t rain in California. You could have stayed up here if you wanted rain,” Charlie said.
“I’m standing out here in this muddy field in Oxnard,” Tom said, “and I’m calling you because I’m desperate to talk with someone who has a grain of intelligence.”
“Unlike you,” Charlie replied. “If you had a grain of intelligence you wouldn’t be working in a muddy field.”
“You got that right. I’m too old for this. I moved down to California to get out of the rain and to get out of doing farm work.”
“But you brought it all with you,” Charlie said. “There’s no escape.”
“Okay, thanks for the advice.” Tom said and hung up. He should have told Charlie about being trapped in a Thomas Hardy novel. You read books to find out who you are and then you find out you’re somebody else. Wow, that’s too spacey. I gotta calm my mind. You read books for the images — my life is like a Thomas Hardy novel. That’s better.
He began digging again. He started with the red potatoes because he liked red potatoes better than white ones. Let’s see, he thought, in fifty feet I might get fifty pounds or better. He worked slowly. That’s what he used to tell the crew when he had a crew, to work slowly. The slower you work, the more you get done. You see those Mexicans over there – barely moving, but they don’t stop, they just keep going. That’s what he used to tell his crew.
“So now I’m a professional Mexican and my life’s ambition has come true,” he said out loud. “I must know something.”
Tom was thinking he was smarter than Bessie. He called Charlie again and Charlie straightened him out. “Tom, you’re working on her farm. If you were so smart, Bessie would be working on your farm.”
“Well, if I was so smart I would be living in a condo in Santa Monica. I’d be buying gold-finger aerobiotic organic potatoes at Whole Foods for $5 a pound – by God.”
“Give it up Tom, you like the farm.”
“I hate it when people say that. You get hit by a car and they don’t say it was meant to be. You end up in the hospital and they don’t say it was what you really wanted all along.”
“So, quit,” Charlie said.
“Remember when we worked in the fields together up there in the Skagit? That was twenty years ago, we were regular peasants back then, doing it for the glory. I was stuck in a different novel then, Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.
“Remember that scene where Count Levin goes out to work the wheat harvest with his own serfs, and he gets his hands dirty and he feels like the salt of the earth? My whole life changed after I read that book. I blame this on Tolstoy, he was such a phony. He talked a good game about the wholesome peasant life but he stayed in his castle, or whatever it was. Not me, I went whole hog and moved right into the book. I took up farm work for real. God, I wish I hadn’t.”
“You’re breaking my heart,” Charlie said.
“Look, I don’t want to seem too self-absorbed. Have you sold any paintings? “Tom asked, changing the subject.
They talked a little longer. Tom could have called Kevin Sunrise or Jim Smith or Rebecca Love. At least he had friends to call. It was lonely out in the field. He kept digging. It was like a treasure hunt because you never knew how many potatoes you would find or how big they might be, and this looked like a big crop. The wheelbarrow started to fill up. “A fucking harvest bonanza is unfolding before my eyes. As God is my witness I’ll never go hungry again,” Tom said and he shook his hand at the sky.
Bessie came back out of the house after Helen drove out. “Nice looking spuds,” she said, which was a lot of motivational speaking for her. She owned 15 acres and rented out most of that to a neighboring farmer, raising her own small crops on a few acres near the house, herbs mainly, to sell, and the potatoes and other vegetables for her table. That and a few chickens. She was short and wiry. She had strong features and weather-worn skin. Her hair stood out, stiff as a brillo pad and wired like electricity.
“You really got a lot of hair,” Tom told her once. “That’s a sign of vitality.”
Bessie did not care for flattery.
“But you’re awful skinny. You know, if I were you, I would stop drinking coffee all day and make yourself a big chocolate milk shake, fatten up a little bit,” Tom had told her.
“You want to keep your job?” she said.
He did want to keep his job. He liked Bessie, but he was careful about that. Tom lived in a trailer in back of the barn. It was an old Airstream with real wood paneling, kind of warm and cozy. He kept his poems and manuscripts and paintings and photos inside, some small collections of half-finished unadmired work, files of old letters, back when people wrote letters, a lifetime of fits and starts.
Fucking farm job, he thought. The only book they ever wrote about farm work was Of Mice and Men – two tramps going from ranch to ranch. What a bunch of losers, the salt of the earth. I get to live on the far side of the barn, and I can go outside at night and take a piss under the stars.
Bessie had her farm house, and it was nice. She had married well and divorced even better. Her children were grown up and gone. She spent a lot of time on the phone, Tom noticed, and she wrote letters, regular mail letters — she didn’t like the computer or the email. And she’s lonely in there and I’m lonely out here, Tom thought. So I’ll make a move on her, like in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and I’ll be her pet hound dog. But I don’t know, it’s not a good idea to get up close and personal with the landlady. I could end up going down the road again. And seriously, am I getting any signals from Bessie?
It was nine p.m., the stars were out, the wind was gentle and the fields were quiet. Bessie was in the big house by the light of a warm yellow lamp. She sat on the floor on the old rug in front of the television. It wasn’t too late to put together a load of laundry and bring it to the house. Tom got his basket ready and walked over. I don’t care what happens, he thought, I’m just going in there. I’m gonna die, probably not for a long time, but I’m gonna die, and what else can I be sure of? And why sleep alone?
Tom put the laundry in the machine and came over to the living room, standing up, looking at the television, Bessie stretched out on the floor, on her side, her head on a pillow.
“What are you watching?” he said. He didn’t care what she was watching and she ignored the question. “What are those little colored flags over the mantel?” he asked.
Bessie stirred slowly. “They’re Buddhist prayer flags. I’m a Buddhist.”
“You’re Jewish. How can you be a Buddhist?”
“I’m a Jewish Buddhist.”
“Fine, I’m a Catholic pagan.”
“Would you like some popcorn? I’ll make some.”
That was Bessie’s idea of a treat, a warm gesture on a December night, but austere, with no butter, and no butter expected. Tom sat in the maroon easy chair by the fireplace. Bessie had lots of books, old hippie texts and arts illustrated, photos of baby children, paper mache sculptures crudely finished, scraps of crepe paper taped to the ceiling from a party long ago, a Japanese screen holding off the dining room, a Chickering upright piano gathering dust, and a broad picture window looking out on the field with no curtains.
Women always have curtains, Tom thought. But not Bessie, she was a little too Zen, like a Rye Krisp cracker without any hummus.
She brought out the popcorn in a very large, very old wooden bowl and set it down on a small table next to the maroon easy chair, taking her own place on the rug, with her stocking feet tucked under her hips, sitting closer than Tom had expected.
“What’s on your mind?” she asked looking up, her face in a halo of wiry hair, her thick eyebrows arched, her gaunt nose unmoved.
“I’ve been on this farm for six months now…” Tom began.
“You don’t want a raise?” she asked.
“No, no, we can talk about that another time.”
“It’s about you,” he said.
“I’ve got all night,” she said and she stretched and began to seem as if she might be enjoying the attention. That made Tom nervous. If I hesitate now, she’ll kill me, he thought.
“How did you end up out here?” he asked, and grabbed a handful of popcorn, still steaming hot, with just enough salt and some of Bessie’s herb mix.
“I’ll say this slowly. It was back to nature for me, just like a lot of people. I grew up on the Lower East Side in New York, I went to City College, I dropped out, I hitched out West, I wanted to be a California sunshine girl. I met Frankie. He wrote poetry and we smoked pot together. His family had money. We got married and had children and his folks bought us this farm. I planted strawberries and worked 12 hours a day. Frankie spent more and more time in Los Angeles. He began using hard drugs. I kicked him out. I raised the children by myself. Now I’m free, but I love my home more than anything, so here I sit.”
“That’s the short version, I guess,” Tom said.
“You wanted to know.”
“What happens now?”
“The wind blows. Om, Om, Om. The wind blows and no one knows.”
“Did you read that book about Bathsheba? She owned a farm, it was in a Thomas Hardy novel.”
“Well, she was young and pretty and kind of stuck up and she owned a farm. Her name was Bathsheba Everdene, and one day Gabriel Oak came to work for her. He was a shepherd and a kind man. She put him to work, but she snubbed him, then she married the rich man who lived next door, but she was very unhappy. All kinds of bad things happened to her, except all that time Gabriel was her faithful friend, and she finally realized that and then they came together. It was a pretty story. Do you read books like that?”
“I do. I would like to read that book, the way you tell it,” Bessie said.
The television was still on, keeping them company, like a third person in the room. That was safer, buying time. Tom had thoughts. Thoughts aren’t good. Om, Om, Om. Peace is good, not thoughts.
But this is the earth and the body of desire dwells on Bessie’s farm with Tom attending. And the fruit of the soil comes from desire because we are not angels.
Bessie switched off the television and walked over to the stairs. She began ascending, and turning back, said to Tom, “Are you coming?”
Fred Owens grew up in a suburb of Chicago, lived many years in the Pacific Northwest and now resides in California. He works on organic farms and community gardens.
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/7687126@N06/