Outside Manhattan, Kansas
Stopping to mop his brow with a red bandana, Jason hoed the garden. He upturned limestone and dissected earthworms that jerked, then swooned, as if searching for their other halves. Smells of cow manure were strong that day, and the sun beat down unrelentingly. Today, Jason wished more than ever that the Ol’ Man hadn’t died in a fever, even if he were almost a hundred years old and such a curmudgeon.
At least, the Ol’ Man helped him with the wretched farm, which his younger brother Frederic rarely found time to do. It wasn’t that Frederic was lazy, Jason contended. He was merely a chubby intellectual so caught up in theorems and parallelograms that he was worthless as a farmer. The trouble was, Jason had no one else to help him. His older brother Will had worked side-by-side with him harvesting wheat and trailing after sheep that constantly needed a protector. But last year, after their father died, Will had joined an advertising firm in Denver. So today, Jason had no idea how he and Frederic would shear and market the sheep, plant and harvest the wheat this season. Even if Will had promised to take off a couple of weeks during harvest time, Jason worried it wouldn’t be enough.
He stopped again, leaned against the hoe, and glared at the forty acres that cascaded into rich, green trellises meeting the horizon. So far, July had been wet, thank God, and on days like this, the green Kansas hills were all that kept Jason going. He blinked and thought about his childhood again, days when he’d scaled those hills, galloped like a wild palomino. Back then, Will and he often pretended they were horses, then they switched their identities to military men after their father had grumbled about Korea.
“No!” Jason had stomped a foot and threw off the black felt hat his brother had shoved on his head. “I’m the American general. You be the stinking Korean general!”
Half a head taller than Jason, Will clawed his carrot-red hair and gawked at his younger brother. He’d never seen Jason so adamant. Will said nothing for a few minutes, then, in a soft tone, he offered, “We can take turns. You can be General MacArthur, and then I will. Okay?”
Jason spat on the ground. “No! I ain’t gonna play a filthy Korean at all. Pop says they’re filthy. They eat lice!” The skinny blond boy whirled around and scrambled down the hill.
The memory of the startled look on Will’s face back then drew Jason out of his reverie. He stretched back his shoulders, wiped his face again, and returned to hoeing. Suddenly, something cold hit his spine. He jerked and turned. Grinning there in his brother’s shadow, Frederic held a glass of iced tea. He rubbed his crippled leg as he held out the glass.
Jason grabbed it. “Thanks.” He drank a couple of swallows. “Boy, it’s hot!”
Frederic twitched his nose. “Always is this time of year. The average mean temperature for—”
Jason lifted a hand to hush the kid. “Knowing that stuff don’t help me.”
“You mean ‘doesn’t.’” Frederic grinned again then picked lint from his navy T-shirt and rolled it between a thumb and index finger.
“Who’re you to talk?” Jason spat out an ice cube. “I don’t see you out here sweatin’.”
Frederic’s grin faded. “I’ll be here as soon as I finish Calculus.” He stuck out his lower lip.
Strands of dishwater blond hair slapped Jason’s cheeks when he shook his head. “Can’t see why you’re goin’ to school in the summer. Don’t make sense.”
“I told you.” Frederic puffed out his chest. “I need a master’s degree to keep my job. The school’s only hiring teachers with M.A.s now. Summer’s the only time I can finish it.”
Jason handed his brother the empty glass then wiped his mouth with the back of a wrist. “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry.” Frederic smiled. “I’ll be out in an hour. Promise.” He turned and limped back to the gray, clapboard house.
Jason squinted after his brother for a few minutes, then he returned to beating dirt clods. Seven kinds of lettuce poked through the ground. Tomato plants were overrunning the cantaloupe. Carrots, onions, green beans. At least, this year, they wouldn’t need to spend much at the Manhattan grocers. Just the same, he felt guilty about spending so much time in the garden when he hadn’t finished plowing. Jason didn’t like field work—he’d rather care for the sheep. But the garden was different.
Maria had loved the garden. In the early years of their marriage, she’d kept it up, never allowed anyone else to work in it. When she left, Jason vowed he’d keep it thriving for her. He thought about Maria again as he hoed. He sighed. He missed her smile, her rose and lavender smells, and even the clink of her castanets. He needed a wife again. Forty-years-old and still without a mate, a lifetime partner. It bothered him terribly. Maria had been the nearest thing he’d known to a perfect woman during the first five years of their marriage. But then she decided to become a belly dancer at a Greek restaurant in Kansas City. So their last five years together weren’t much like a marriage, Maria clinking castanets in front of a full-length mirror when she was home, Jason staring at an empty bed each weekend when she danced in the city. Finally, one Sunday night, she didn’t show up. To find her, Jason had phoned the Highway Patrol and even the Kansas City Police Department. No one knew anything. Three days later, the mail brought her letter asking for a divorce so she could elope with the Greek who owned the restaurant. They’d planned to tour the Midwest with their act, Maria rolling her belly and swaying her hips, the Greek stomping his boots and spinning, then pouring ouzo into patrons’ mouths.
The year after Maria left, the Ol’ Man went, too. Jason admitted he missed his father, even though the man had complained and mumbled incomprehensible phrases during most of his waking hours, and he’d snorted and coughed in his sleep. And all too often, he’d say mean things like, “Jason, you’ll never get it together, will ya, boy? Too stubborn to go to college like yer brothers. Guess you’re meant to be a dadgum farmer like yer ol’ man.” Then, he’d snort again, tap his cane, and tug at the long hairs in his nostrils. Every few weeks, the Ol’ Man would raise his voice almost to a squeak, flicker his eyebrows, and ask, “When am I goin’ ta get some grandkids ’round here? Don’t wanna be rollin’ in my grave not knowin’ our clan’ll carry on.” The Ol’ Man seemed oblivious to Maria’s absence and to Will’s twin girls.
He stopped for a second, then saw Frederic wobble out of the house. “Jason!” his voice thundered and he waved an envelope. “Letter from Will.”
Jason dropped the hoe, ran to Frederic and grabbed the envelope. “What’d he say? When’s he comin’?”
“Two weeks.” Frederic’s voice was flat. Jason thought that was odd because the kid was always anxious to see Will.
“What’s wrong? Is Will okay?”
“Yeah, but—well, you’ll see.”
Jason almost tore the letter when he unfolded it. Will had been promoted. He would become the new manager of a branch his firm was opening in Arlington, Virginia, in a shopping center called Crystal City that lie just next to a freeway into Washington D.C. Jason frowned. “Well, I’m happy for him.” Then he wadded up the letter and threw it at the sun. “But it beats all. Ain’t no way he can take off now and help us harvest.”