There’s nothing better and nothing worse than doing what you love. When Elmer first stepped off the train, he expected the heel of his boot to sink into rich black soil, with the sky rippling out smooth in all directions. He was right about the sky but wrong – so wrong! – about the soil. It pushed back against his step, the clay willful as a sinner.
But Elmer held a piece of paper with his name on it, and that piece of paper yielded him one-hundred acres of the Northern Sacramento Valley. And so he set to farming his land.
“G’shaw,” Maude said one day, coming through the screen door and wiping her hands on her apron. “He’s done it again.”
Her husband Clyde sat riveted on the stoop. “Well I’ll be,” he agreed.
For Elmer had, in fact, done it again. He had harnessed his horse to the plow and ridden all night, slicing open the frowning soil all the way to the edge where his property kissed that of Maude and Clyde.
At that moment when the sun stops dawning and starts shining, Elmer was in the act of unhitching his horse. Fatigue ran down his cheeks like tears.
“Come in for some coffee,” Maude hollered. She listened as her own voice dissipated over the flat valley floor. Nothing in sight for miles except the row of eucalyptus that the Bjornstroms had planted as a windbreak, and fifty miles to the west, the start of the coast range.
Elmer wiped his brow, leaving a dusty streak just above his eyes. He held the horse’s bridle loosely in his hand.
“She makes the best ‘jacks this side of Minnesota,” Clyde added helpfully.
With careful steps Elmer lead the horse to hitch and climbed the steps to greet Clyde with a handshake. “You’re very kind.”
Clyde beamed and the two men followed Maude into the house.
“This land isn’t friendly,” Maude commented. She placed a hot plate before Elmer.
“But it’s land and it’s mine,” Elmer said.
“That’s what I say as I fall asleep each night,” Maude said, winking at her husband who sat across from Elmer.
Clyde forked a bite of pancake and spoke as he chewed. “Old Man Johannsson’s got some contraption he’s been fiddling with. He says it can do in three hours what your horse did in twelve.”
“A mechanical combine, except for plowing and planting.”
“Exactly. And he’s got a mechanical combine too.” Clyde swallowed his coffee.
Elmer chuckled between bites. “Gaw, I’d have to sell my land in order to buy one of those.”
“There’s a co-op forming,” Clyde continued. “You can come on as a member.”
Maude returned from the kitchen, refilled the mugs, including her own, and sat with the men. “I’ve been arguing with Clyde here about that damn co-op.”
Elmer’s eyes flashed between husband and wife. “How’s that, now?”
“They make you guarantee your share,” Maude leaned toward him, her auburn hair tumbling forward. A strand plopped into her mug and with a careless laugh she withdrew it, patted it dry. “And what have we got to guarantee? So they want to put a lien against the land.”
In a show of clean white teeth, Clyde grinned. “My wife’s the careful one of the two of us. She’d prefer I work to the bone than shackle our land with a lien.” His grin widened into his green eyes, and up onto the ledges of his high narrow cheekbones.
“Well, at least I’m no fool,” Maude countered, but she was smiling too. Her husband took her hand, squeezed it.
Elmer ran his fingers through his hair. It felt both oily and gritty with dirt. Somewhere below all the grime, his hair burned platinum blonde, a brightness to match the ice-blue of his eyes – a color so light that one could almost see straight through it.
“You still living in that shack?” Clyde shifted comfortably in his seat.
“Sure am.” As if looking for a glimpse of the makeshift dwelling, Elmer cast his gaze out the window. “I built a little barn – a stall, really, for the horse, and tacked on a room at the back for me. That’ll do until I bring in a crop, and can afford a proper house.”
Maude rose to collect their plates and moved toward the kitchen. “Well this isn’t charity, but you can stay here for a bit,” she said over her shoulder. “We’ve got a spare room in the back – it’s cozy, but it’s got four walls. You can stay till the crop comes in.”
“Or until a baby comes,” Clyde called after her.
“Won’t be any baby until you make me rich,” she threw back. Elmer could hear the smile on her face, wrapping itself around her words as they flew from her lips.
Clyde’s fingers drummed the handle of his mug and an old clock ticked stiffly from its place on the bureau. The warm meal and hot coffee combined to ease Elmer’s aching shoulders and thighs. He took in the quiet room, the worn sofa with matching ottoman, the green-papered walls and the sturdy dining table. The kitchen door swinging like a pendulum and Maude’s quiet singing as she washed up. Finally his attention returned to Clyde, who was grinning at him from across the walnut wood table.
“It isn’t all that bad, really,” Clyde said.
Elmer nodded. “But I’ve got to do things my way, I’m afraid.” He drank the last of his coffee and stood to go. “I appreciate all this,” he said with a vague gesture, and Clyde knew what he meant. They shook hands in parting.
It was a brutal summer. Elmer and his horse had tilled and planted all spring, setting up the ditches and rows so the canal would overflow the land and nourish the rice. But the summer was dry, bone dry. Elmer took to hauling gallons of water from the river at daybreak, before the sun hammered the world flat and still. His feet cracked and his shoulders grew tight and gnarled as a tree trunk. But one day he noticed the small green tips peeking out of the water and he felt reborn.
When it was time to bring in the crop, Elmer did not sleep for three days straight. He borrowed a scythe and a son from the Bjornstroms and worked until the last bushel had been entered into the distributor’s ledger. He was given a small advance for his crop and he threw himself onto his mattress and slept for 22 hours straight.
Maude had resigned herself. “The land’s legally yours, so I suppose there’s no stopping you,” she said with a shrug. With Old Man Johannsson’s machine and crew, their entire crop was harvested in five hours flat.
Clyde sat whistling on the stoop. When he leaned forward just so, he could catch a glimpse of Elmer’s shack from around the corner of the house. “When that boy wakes up, I’d like to invite him to supper.”
“I don’t see why we haven’t invited him sooner,” she called from the pantry.
“Well I didn’t want you falling in love with another man just yet.”
Maude could be heard laughing. “That’s always a risk,” she declared, and Clyde grinned into the sunset.
By next summer, Elmer had built his house. Clyde and the Bjornstrom boys helped out. In exchange, Elmer worked their crews after he brought in his own harvest. Then the following summer, Elmer expanded his barn, purchased another horse, and talk spread that he was going to take a wife. But if he had been considering matrimony, the woman never reciprocated, for when planting season rolled around again, he was single as a stick.
And a good thing too because that year the drought began, and it lingered for four years straight. The ground cracked and shattered in the heat, and the crops came in weakly. Maude turned twenty-five and the sugar for her birthday cake nearly cost her her wedding ring. Or so she tells the story. Instead of selling it, she took up a job teaching in the town five miles away.
“Snotty little brats,” she asserted as she served roasted quail and garlic rice.
“The little beasts adore her,” Clyde said proudly.
Elmer cut into his meal with a satisfied sigh.
Eventually the drought caught up with the people’s pride, and one by one, farming families fell into bankruptcy. The Johannsson co-op increased their fees to cover the gaps. But that just accelerated foreclosure and within a year the co-op owned a third of the land around Riverton.
Elmer’s crops weren’t any better than his neighbors’, but his costs were low, so low. He managed to feed himself and two horses and bring in the harvests at a profit. Quietly he began to build a savings to buy more land.
Six months before the rains broke loose, Clyde’s farm broke the bank. He showed up one day to tell Elmer man-to-man. But when Elmer pulled open the screen door, Clyde’s pride seized his throat and he found himself saying, “Come over for dinner, there’s a roast in the oven.”
Elmer dug out a bottle of the rice wine he fermented in the soil beneath his house. At dinner they all partook and each sip tasted sweeter, each bite more savory.
Finally Clyde set down his knife and looked straight through Elmer’s blue, blue eyes. “Our farm’s under.”
“Jesus Christ,” Elmer swore in front of a woman for the first time in his life.
Maude nodded vigorously in agreement. “We’re moving west, to a place called Santa Rosa. The Bjornstroms’ middle daughter married a man out there. He owns land, farms it himself. Said they’ll hire us until we’ve got our feet on the ground again, for as long as we need.”
“A vineyard. With a winery attached,” Clyde clarified.
“And you’ll both be hired?” Elmer imagined Maude’s red hair gleaming between the green vines.
“They hire plenty of women over there. It’s a different kind of work, not like this plowing and harvesting. There’s pruning and picking but the vines are there, year over year. Besides they’ve got a cellar, and I know for a fact the Bjornstrom girl works in the cellar so if worse comes to worse there’s work for me there, I’d expect.” She took a deep drink of her wine and refilled the three empty glasses.
“So Old Man Johannsson gets your land too?”
Clyde sighed and Maude nodded. “You gambled right about that co-op,” Clyde conceded.
Elmer tapped at his plate with his fork absentmindedly. “Santa Rosa. It can’t be too far. I’ll come visit.”
Clyde grinned. “You’re a damned fool, Elmer. You know well as I do that you can’t go leaving your farm unattended, not when you’ve worked so hard to keep it.”
“In winter then.”
Clyde merely shrugged. Maude was chewing slowly, her eyes on Elmer, and a softness dancing across her face.
“I can’t imagine living out here without you and Maude,” Elmer felt the words slip out unguided.
Again Clyde’s magnanimous smile. “You’ll find a way, Elmer. You always do.”
Maude disappeared into the kitchen and returned with hot peach cobbler piled high with fresh whipped cream. “To celebrate our friendship,” she declared and smiled at Elmer. And the look he gave her fell warm and close over her whole body.
When it was time to bide goodnight, husband and wife escorted Elmer to the front stoop, Clyde’s arm around Maude’s waist and the bottle of rice wine lying empty on the kitchen table.
Clyde shook his hand. “We’ll stop by before we leave for Santa Rosa.”
Maude detached herself from Clyde to kiss Elmer on the cheek. “Find yourself a good wife,” she whispered.
Elmer swallowed hard and slipped into the darkness. Clyde and Maude stood hip to hip on the porch until the lump of his back faded into the night. Slowly they returned to the house, their heads close as if sharing a secret.
On the edge of his property and theirs, Elmer paused. He dug a toe into the coddling dirt. The moon waxed ivory above him and silver stars speckled the horizon. His land lay calm, the flooded paddies reflected the sky and pocked with the dark ridges of his ditches. He followed their zigzag across the shimmering water until they arrived at the base of his house, which sprouted from the mirrored land like a forlorn island. It was dark and heavy against the night, like a closed eye. Without looking back, Elmer walked home.
Jeremy took up the gun and I smiled gamely. “Don’t think you’ll hit the mark,” I said.
He furrowed his brow, set the butt against his shoulder, and took aim. Nearby water spilled from the mouth of the fountain’s heavyset gargoyle. I narrowed my eyes, steadied my breath, and waited.
The shot rang out, loud and true. Fifty feet from where we stood, the bottom left corner of the target crumbled. Its heart remained intact. Hay burst heavenward and dust somersaulted through the air.
“Well damn,” Jeremy muttered. He handed the shot gun back to me.
I raised the gun and fired. The dead center of the target disappeared instantaneously: a perfect bull’s eye.
Together we sat on the lip of the fountain’s pool. I tucked the gun against my arm like a shepherd’s staff. Jeremy slipped the flask from his pocket, drank deeply and passed it off to me. The whiskey tasted of gunpowder.
About us the ruins of a castle buckled and curled. Its U-shaped corridors gave way to an untamed courtyard, in which we sat. Cracks veined the masonry. The windows blinked blindly down, the majority of their panes already stolen by quiet hands or broken by the hands of time.
Jeremy caught me staring at the decay. “Admiring my handiwork?”
I returned the flask. “You’re taking credit for Father Time’s hard work, are you?”
He laughed, his apple cheeks gleaming in the evening light. “I’ve got to take credit for something in my life, you know.”
The setting sun cast a gold strip along the roof’s ridge. I said nothing, but I was thinking of when Jeremy had been a little boy, his hair wispy. It was the summer after his mother had disappeared and we were walking along the river – the same one that flowed half a kilometer from the castle. He had run ahead of me, laughing at my cane with all the innocence of childhood. Then I heard splashing, and I saw water running through his white-blonde hair, and suddenly I was swimming too. My gimp leg kicking and my voice hollering. In that eternal moment, the feeling that I would do everything for this boy. My sister’s son.
Jeremy took a final sip of whisky and we began our stroll back home. We threaded through the former garden, its roses thorny and tenacious; under the distended portcullis; across the defunct cobblestone paveway.
Suddenly Jeremy turned to face his castle. Its beige face rose four stories high and it glowered back with the empty eyes of the narrow windows. He seemed to search for something along the surface and, finding it, he seized the gun from my hands and fired. A pane shattered on the third floor.
Pleased with his work, he returned the gun. “There,” he announced. “I have done that.”