STORIES FROM THE LOST NATION
My father grew up fatherless in nearby Delmar. But his father’s grandfather, who landed in Lost Nation after leaving Kerry in 1848 and who became, according to his esteemed son the judge, “one of the largest landholders and most successful farmers” in the area—his spirit seemed to whistle through these fields. The Wolfes of Lost Nation. For a hundred years they spread like quackgrass across the township, raising farms, crowding the rolls of the Democratic Party, and marrying McGinn girls, and McAndrews. And in the summer, their boys would tumble down the hill to play ball, like my dad’s cousin Dave.
“He and Rich always seemed to find a game,” Dad said, pointing toward St. Patrick’s, which sat squat against a cornfield, looking bored. The diamond hid just behind.
I imagined my dad trudging dusty miles into town, an infielder’s glove tucked under his arm.
“It was easier for them,” he said, “Rich and Dave. They were already two, and if nobody was around, why, they could climb right back up the hill. I, on the other hand—”
And the precision of his English hung there in the car for a second, searching for something to cut. He flipped the shades down over his glasses.
His father died when he was nine months old. There’s a snapshot of the two of them, just weeks before the end—Ray, in a dirty white button-down and farmer’s suspenders, is lying uncomfortably on his back, cradling tubby little Tommy against his knees, while the baby sports large, round sunglasses and a single shock of thin hair tufting up from his crown. Sixty-seven years later and Dad looks exactly the same, right down to the pinch of his lips. He was ironic even then.
Ray’s death was appalling and slow, and when it was done, Gladys brought Pete Lassen in to work the farm, with occasional help from Dad’s three older sisters. And when there wasn’t work, there was ball.
“Swing the car around,” he said. “Dave’s farm isn’t far from here. He still owns it, you know.”
When the rental left the paved road and hit gravel for the first time it felt, a little unpleasantly, like we were floating.
“Did we pass it?” he said. I slowed down, but it’s hard looking for something no longer there. The house was gone. The outbuildings were gone. The dumb cows and pissed off roosters and the foggy chunk of dry ice I remember fearing as a kid—they were gone, too. There was a brown cornfield, and it covered everything.
“That’s the front gate there,” he said. “Now pull over, will you? I need to whizz.”
So I did, and he did. And I sat in the running car staring at my dad’s backside and his too-baggy blue jeans, a sadness coming off his slumping frame like the fog that came off that dry ice. How, I wondered, could I have once been so afraid of this man?
The welt from a belt buckle, I guess. He apologized and never did it again, and when I think of my dad, this is not what I think of. I think of Uncle Dave.
At the beginning of each summer, Dad insisted I get a job, something on top of the paper route, something to insulate me from the appearance of being lazy. So I would dutifully collect applications from nearby restaurants and grocery stores and then refuse to fill them out or return them.
“By the end of the week,” he’d say, “or so help me.”
And that was my cue to call Uncle Dave. He was always happy to subcontract a cornfield or two for detasseling. I hated detasseling—a task that involves tromping down mile-long rows in hundred-degree heat while reaching up and removing the plant’s soft, pollen-producing tassel, one stalk at a time. Still, I returned year after year.
On one particular afternoon, I dried up and fainted. Uncle Dave was a half-mile away at least, oblivious between his Walkman speakers while I sprawled face down in the dirt. I remember the dirt up my nostrils, and the crickets, and the rash-like cuts on my arms from the corn stalks’ sharpened leaves. And the sun. I remember the way it sucked the juice right out of me. What I remember most, though, is the smell: it was a dry, crackling smell I associate with bug-eaten leaves and clumps of sod in my hair. It’s a smell that dries out as the day wears on and the sun climbs higher. It dries out the way that the fields dry out, the way that my morale dried up, and then my body.
I remember thinking: what the fuck am I doing?
The answer was Uncle Dave. I would have followed him into the desert. Although he no longer worked his Lost Nation farm—instead, he taught algebra at the Catholic high school in Davenport—Uncle Dave still carted the farm around with him, its dirt lightly crusted over his entire personality. He was a big man, with blue eyes, lots of body hair, a competitive, tough-guy grip, and a bullhorn voice that always called me “honcho.” He wore Converse sneakers and denim cut-off shorts with loose white threads dangling in uneven orbit around his legs. Like the beat-up, deep-throated Honda he drove, he gave the impression he might backfire and break down at any moment. He was tan, dirty, and constantly applying lip balm with the tip of his pinky finger. He was always sweating.
Where Dad was opaque, Uncle Dave was aggressive. Uncle Dave was brutally sincere. Uncle Dave was an hour late to pick you up for your tenth straight day in the fields, and he was calling you “guy” and explaining between slurps of coffee that he had been stuck on the crapper. He was telling you what he had for breakfast. And then he turns to your dad, towers over your dad, who’s still wiping the sleep from his eyes, and only half jokes, “Tom, I’ve got a couple good acres for you. All you have to do is say the word.”
And your dad—who’s a few pounds overweight, who suffers from headaches and epilepsy and a bad back, who’s in terrible shape—is forced to say, “No, thanks.”
Then one summer Uncle Dave was not around. Instead I boarded a rusted blue school bus each morning with high school boys who spit chew into Pepsi bottles. We worked the fields in teams of two, manning baskets attached to lumbering, diesel-powered tractors. We followed the same mile-long rows, only this time we didn’t have to walk. Still, I hated it. I missed Uncle Dave. And while I zoned out to early R.E.M. on my headphones, the kid who shared my basket passed the time chucking fresh-picked tassels at some other kid hanging from a different tractor a few rows over. The sun rose. The sun sucked. And then our tractor abruptly stopped.
Our driver, a twenty-something dude who, inexplicably, wore an Italian bike racer’s cap, marched down the row and commenced screaming at the kid in my basket.
“You’re fired!” he screamed, citing some rule about not throwing tassels.
“You’re a douchebag!” the kid screamed back, citing the bike racer’s cap, which reminded me of the movie Breaking Away.
And the day ended with us talking tough in the parking lot.
First thing next morning, out of loyalty to the kid who had shared my basket but also out of disgust at the bike racer’s cap, I picked a ripe wet tassel and threw it, perfectly on target, at the driver’s head.
I was fired on the spot.
No one was more surprised at this behavior than me. Generally speaking, I was terrified of authority, of belt buckles and accusations of lazy. I did what I was told, if only mostly. The principal of my elementary school, who happened to be supervising a crew in the next field over, must have sensed this, because he offered me a job with his boys, effective immediately. I imagined myself deliberately, almost thoughtfully spitting chew into a Pepsi bottle, after which I told him I could start day after tomorrow.
The next morning, then, there was no rusted blue school bus. There was just me in my PJs sitting in front of the TV in the living room when Dad finally came down the stairs and wondered what, exactly, I was doing.
You could hear the clock on the wall tick.
I nervously mentioned the first tassel, and the angry bike racer’s cap, and then I mentioned the second tassel, which, in my telling, was something like a mighty blow struck for justice. I also mentioned the principal of my elementary school, who just happened to need someone to fill a spot on his crew—starting tomorrow.
Dad sighed. Dad swore. And Dad demanded I find a job until then.
“By the end of the day,” he said, “or so help me.”
“You’re a douchebag!” I screamed and burst out the front door in my pajamas and bare feet. I landed a few blocks away in Duck Creek Park, in a grove of Black oak trees, seething with fear and anger and with something else that had to do with the whole unseemly spectacle of it all: humiliation. The trees seemed friendly enough, though, and I hid out among them for the rest of the day. Eventually the sun started to droop, and what I remember most about that day is not my dad, but the absence of my dad.
When I finally came home, I made sure not to let the screen door slam.
Colorado Review, Summer 2009