✧ Finalist for the 2020 Ned Stuckey-French Nonfiction Contest ✧

Selected by Gilbert King


Hallowed



“Well, this is the shittiest outcome I can imagine,” I say, deadpanning as I push my way into the hospital room. I drop my backpack, containing my laptop and a USB microphone for recording, and catch my mom’s eye, giving her two exhausted eyebrows up. My dad, in the bed closer to the window, turns his head in my direction and snorts. Jackpot. It’s my job to break ice, distract, be funny. “Don’t be so serious,” he told me once about something I wrote in college. “Your funny stuff is better.” But there’s no punchline for the past twenty-four hours, since my dad has been reclassified from a guy living with cancer to a guy who will die of it. I’m here to help move him home, into hospice care. He is sixty-three.

§

Home. That’s what I’ve come to record. Not the house where he sleeps fitfully now, but the eighty acres and family that raised him. Straight-arrow county roads connecting black-dirt Minnesota farmsteads, each equipped to make a good living in his time: cow barn, horse barn, granary, chicken coop, pig shed, house organized around the warmth of a chimney. I know a lot already, like: where a shotgun always stood behind the kitchen door, below the fuse box, for woodchucks, and, how to tell when the horse chestnuts are ripe, the nut a mahogany shooter marble. I was raised here, summers and many weekends, Independence Day church socials and Christmas Eves, too. I was the last person each of my dad’s parents, Marlin and Verna, spoke to before their breathing slowed to nothing. I can’t let this rest. Already their house stands empty, five harvests now. The pinstriped wallpaper of my then-bedroom upstairs peels in chunks with the plaster, and the surrounding farmland is unpeopled by those with my maiden name—or any name, as bigger and bigger machines and lines of credit are required to make the living once afforded so earnestly by much, much less. When my dad Keith was born in a snowstorm, February 1952, thirteen of my grandparents’ siblings and their young families were settled—or would be—within a few miles of each other here. My dad and his older brother Russ and their gang of cousins became third- generation Norwegian Americans, with grandparents who still swore at them, though rarely, in their round-voweled mother tongue, and who knew how to do most everything by hand, from skimming cream to digging a grave. The Confirmation picture directory in the anteroom of Old Westbrook Lutheran Church has a sibling from both my grandparents’ families in nearly every somber class, year upon year. Then, their children begin to appear, allowed lopsided grins and collars with ruffles and thin ties. My dad is curly-blond and blue-eyed, with porcelain skin that quickly freckled, and thin, chiseled lips, ears that stuck out. They are farm kids, hardly scrubbed clean enough to hide their joy in life outdoors. Work, their grubby hands and thin pant-knees suggest, is a virtue. It seems pure fantasy that the span of one lifetime—mine—can erase all that my great-great-grandparents crossed oceans for, gave thanks for, tended and weathered and valued enough. There is something here, something about learning what to love that my dad wanted me to see, to know, even as he left the farm behind. He would instead invest forty- nine years teaching children to play instruments, to press and release keys and valves, and to move air, steady, transforming black on the page into something ethereal, together. I am a farmer now, too. Or, I married a man who became one, and I make my living telling the story of farming with as much at stake as the bullet that pierces the brainstem at the kill plant. But all that is long after I became my father’s daughter. Our tether is thinning, and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do.

When he’s gone, I’ll be almost alone in remembering.

§

Easter 1988 I dry my hair, on my knees, my head to the furnace blower in my grandparents’ dining room, where the staticky, over-hot air presses away the chill of April and bakes the little hairs in my nose. Next to curling my too-long legs into my grandfather’s lap, requesting that he sing ballad after grisly cowboy ballad, it’s my favorite ritual here. I slide the thermostat trigger on the wall farther, and again, to keep the air coming. Sunrise service, and the foyer smells of scrambled eggs. We shuffle into the worn pew behind my grandpa’s youngest brother and his wife, the one known to pick up the party line shared with my grandparents’ house and eavesdrop, before the phones had private extensions. “Marion, hang up!” my grandfather would bark into the receiver whenever he made or received a call. I know my great aunts and uncles better by their married names: Roger-and-Marion, Floyd-and-Eldora, Butch-and-Shirley, Truman-and- Alfie, and so on. They are, on my grandpa’s side anyway, paired exactly as they were in the ’30s and ’40s, most of them married here at this altar, with the Crucifixion scene inset in the chancel behind them. Dark rivulets stream from the body: temples, ribs, palms, feet. “Jesus, the sinner’s friend” is stenciled in lavender high above us, along the arch of the ceiling. The narthex has been repainted several times, but this remains their creed.

§

In this church, Handel’s Alleluia Chorus is the Easter anthem, and when we rise to sing, no one holds books. Directing is Anna Margaret of Earle-and-Anna Margaret, the youngest Kopperud sister. I stare, then don’t stare, at her too-thin right leg, the one she drags a little. Polio. That winter, when she was a young bride, Mar—Marlin, my grandfather—and her four other brothers took turns moving her prone body through physical therapy each night. Her husband, a big man and a bully, didn’t believe in the therapy, wouldn’t do it. Mar said once it was the closest to blows he’d come since his days as catcher on the county field team. This husband, the one no one likes, doesn’t sing. Or, he won’t be directed by his wife. At the organ’s keyboard, my dad’s cousin Shirley peers into the tiny mirror above her shoulder. I follow her refracted gaze past my music- teacher parents, all of us watching Anna Margaret’s slight-wristed right hand for the downbeat. Then the rafters ring.

§


My dad has two types of lymphoma, the morbid one swelling the lining of his stomach to the size of a basketball. A few months ago, an airhead hematologist breezed into the exam room where I waited with my parents, all of us in a row on the upholstered bench to one side. This was my dad’s 100-day checkup, when we got the thumbs up or down on whether his cancer had returned after his last treatment, the last ditch. Dad was optimistic. He was all bones under his leaf-green fleece and sagging jeans, but he was getting around better, eating again. I had already given him his Christmas present weeks early: tickets to a holiday concert chock-full of brassy arrangements. We would eat whatever five- star food he could stomach and stay in a hotel with fireplaces. In other words, stakes were high. My dad had just spent nearly four months in quarantine for stem cell transfusion, a process in which his body gave its own blood so the stem cells could be spun out of it. After he and his remaining cancer had been blasted by the one of the most aggressive chemo and radiation therapies used on humans, the stem cells were reinfused, forcing a reboot of his immune system. These cells and their descendants, theory held, would have no memory of cancer or how to propagate it. “How are you feeling?” this doctor asks, on autopilot. I haven’t liked him from the moment he domineered conversation some appointments ago. Finding my dad liked cars, he had launched into his passion for Mercedes. He trades jabs with a fellow physician, he says, who maintains that BMW makes the superior machine. My dad, he would never pause to discover, gets off on near-to-new Buicks and Toyotas. It’s textbook socioeconomic divide, and as my parents wait patiently in silence, I am biting my lip to keep from mentioning my Beemer X5, parked down the street. I built a farm and a local-food brand that was purchased by the largest meat company on Earth, putting my tax liability on par with this doctor’s, for a few years anyway. Today, as he patters on, my parents and I are riveted to the screen of his computer, where the MRI results will pop up. Blood work is good, he says. Low T count, which means my dad’s white blood cells are not in panic mode. The outline of a body appears. Even without ID, I could probably pick it out, so like mine: broad shoulders, long torso, the 30-inch inseam of his stocky Norwegian legs. Brilliant red orbs pulse everywhere, a whole galaxy radiating from his stomach. In his intestines. Lymph zones in his armpits, groin, neck. Spots in his lungs, his brain. We see it first, and the doctor sees us before turning to look at it himself.

For a second, all I see is my mom in profile, her head hanging, hands in her lap; my dad has his back to me, still staring at the screen, his shoulders slumped, chin lifted, a posture I recognize from black-and-white photos of him in his Sunday clothes, awestruck, listening to his older brother Russ, age nine maybe, my daughter’s age now. So like a kid he looks, with the tendons of his neck standing out below his occiput. It’s the way a child’s body says what he’s thinking and he doesn’t know to hide. “Oh, this is not good. Not good,” the doctor says, clicking, clicking through the slides. There’s some talk about options. They’ll call us right away if we’re eligible for Trial A or Q. The doctor shakes our hands, distressed, then leaves the room. I’m glad he feels incompetent just now. “I’m so sorry,” I manage, wrapping my arms around my dad as he shuffles to get his windbreaker off the hook behind the door. When I hug him, he chokes out two sobs, but then they’re gone. “Stiney, Stiney, Stiney,” is all he says, my nickname, running his hand up and down my back. We are so alike, greeting each other with one-armed hugs, faces turned away. It’s not that the love runs thin. It’s just enough.

§

From the age his hand could close around a cow’s teat, my dad milked Holsteins twice a day alongside his dad in their six-stanchion barn. Milk for sale stayed in stainless-steel canisters in a cooler under the big haymow, where the local creamery’s truck could back in and pick it up every other day. The milk they drank, my grandfather carried in five-gallon cans back across the yard, into the kitchen, and down a flight of wooden stairs so narrow he probably had to twist at the shoulder, forward and back, with each step. There in the cellar, a round-bellied strainer sat atop yet another can, to catch the lint of drinking another creature’s milk: downy hairs from the udder, flecks of dead skin, specks of dirt. “That warm milk, before it sat up for cream, was the best,” my dad told me once. He remembered it seeming funny to drink milk cold, because they never did. Instead, they ate heavy whip over fruit. Light cream on toast. Butter, on everything. “Gave me the strongest hands in the 7th grade,” my dad bragged of milking. He also relished being near his father, who would whistle Wagner and Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, low and sweet, as much to the cows as to him. But when my dad left for college, a talented baritone horn player, he left for good.

All over the Midwest, massive efficiencies made possible by equipment, seed genetics, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers ensured that farming on his family’s scale, with church and a cousin’s birthday each Sunday, would never happen again. My father was hell-bent on a clean break, my uncle Russ says, wouldn’t even fill his car’s tank from the farm gas barrel when he was home from college. “I think that hurt my Dad’s feelings,” Russ tells me. We’re standing in the shade of my grandparents’ covered porch, and he’s looking to where the barrel stood, by the granary, shaded by linty, benevolent cottonwoods. A steel basketball rim hangs, net-less, above the granary’s sliding door. “I think Keith—I mean, your dad,” he says, remembering that I am the one listening, “just didn’t know how to take any help.”

§

I am Keith, my dad wrote in school, maybe third grade.

I have Blue eyus I have whiteshbrown hair. I found the half-sheet of wide-ruled paper, pencil-marked, in a scrapbook I didn’t know my grandmother kept, or that my mother had. I have ferkles. I am skeny. I am not to tall. I live on a farm. I do chores. That is kind of fun But not to much. I do calf chores and pig chores too. I did them the last two nights by myself. then dad did the calf chores. The letters are large and deliberate, each ‘a’ like a tiny ‘d,’ listing to its side, a little half-note. He will make this shape his entire writing life, wherever my middle name, Kay, was required. Signing the last card I kept, “Dad.” It’s very possible my grandmother saved his narrative for the turning point it marked in his young life. “Don’t let him see,” his dad had said, as he had run to the truck. Rarely did his broad, steady father run—swatting the screen door wide. It wasn’t even four o’clock, too early for chores, and Dad was in from the fields. After dark, he lies awake next to Russ, who helped him get the cows in. There’s no breeze, and wondering smothers him. Finally, headlights crawl up the driveway. He hears the porch door creep open and shut. In the morning, Dad doesn’t call him to milk, and when he gets downstairs—my dad says to me, when he entrusts me with this memory—my grandfather Marlin is still at the kitchen table, one thumb resting on the rim of a coffee cup, staring out the window. “The Allis dropped a tire off a field access and rolled,” he said, turning. My grandfather and his four brothers farmed together, sharing equipment, and it was sheer happenstance that my dad hadn’t been with the driver of that Allis, a cousin his age named Wallace. The two were inseparable. The one not driving would have been hanging off the tractor’s step, talking about baseball and wiping grit from his eyes. “I went to help Tru push the wheel back,” my grandfather continued, putting an arm around my dad’s narrow waist. Truman is Mar’s oldest brother. Wallace is Truman’s oldest child. “He died right in our hands.” My dad and his father cried then, the first of three times my dad would witness, all of them for children. “Pull off my boots, Uncle Marlin,” Wallace had whispered. “My feet are hurting.” Dad didn’t want him to see.

§

My father becomes, instead, a junior-high band director and spends most of his career leaning against the chalkboard behind his podium, twirling a piece of chalk in his fingers behind his back, waiting for kids to shut up and grow up and listen. He’s a good musician but has no ear for discipline. Hundreds of former students will thank him, eventually, for waiting them out. The key to musicality, my dad shows me, is the ability to read rhythms. Tone quality, phrasing, stamina, all that comes to most people eventually, he says, “even vocalists,” he says, even more hushedly, but rhythm is what makes parts and chords, across a section or across an ensemble, interlock and vault into the next realm. It’s taken me years to realize his prowess at not just placing fractions of beats where they belong, but in putting them through the instrument he played most of his adult life: tuba. For nearly three decades, he performed in a decent brass quintet, laying the group’s foundation. It’s always there, the tuba, rooting chords and plotting tempo, rarely burbling into a range listeners identify as melody. The tuba’s aural frequency travels in wide, slow waves, so for the sound to hit home, even in tight, small performance spaces, the player must launch each pulse a half-breath ahead of its intended impact. In other words, a good tuba player is pretty damn quick. My dad was known to tap his foot to this before-beat, out of sync with others on- stage. Eventually he learned to hook his toes beneath his chair or stool to keep them still. Most of the time.

§

“I’ll come get you, if you need me to,” my dad starts, barely able to summon words. “Anytime, I will.” My parents are visiting me and my husband, Ryan, on our farmstead in Iowa, both of us working other jobs and trying, against reason, to start a grass-fed beef company by selling bricks of frozen meat at a farmer’s market. The trouble is that neither of us has footing in agriculture or business, and worse, we have no family and few friends nearby who are handy enough to help when things go wrong. My dad has just witnessed my husband lashing one of our cows, a Brown Swiss that wouldn’t let a surrogate calf suckle, with the lariat rope she had thrashed loose. Before it was over, my husband had been screaming obscenities and insults at all of us, his face purple with rage above his barn coat, his words thick with deep-seated accusation. He believes ends justify means. And he thinks my parents settled, made do with teacher-lives they resented, instead of taking risk to make better pay, more freedom. “Has he ever hit you?” my mom asks, when my dad can’t. “No,” I insist, quickly. “He wouldn’t.” “You know that abuse of animals is linked to....other abuse, right?” she presses. “It’s fine,” I say, still reconciling, myself, when enough is enough.

“I’m fine.”

§

In 1972, the year my dad graduated college and took his first teaching job, the USSR negotiated a multi-year contract for U.S. wheat and feed grains, causing profit for those grains to double, then triple. Everyone farming made money, and anyone who could, got in further.

Then, seven years later, when I was one and my mom finished her degree in vocal music, the Federal Reserve tightened policy to curb inflation. The next year, President Carter halted grain shipments to Russia to embargo their invasion of Afghanistan, and prices for the grains everyone had loans against collapsed. By the time my younger brother, Kenneth, turned one, prime lending rates reached twenty-one and a half percent. Farm debt across the country soared to fifteen times what it had been when my dad was born, while profits plummeted 350 percent. You got big(ger), or you got out. I remember riding in back seats as the adults drove slowly around the sections after supper, talking about foreclosures, neighbor after neighbor selling everything and finding some other work, someplace beyond anything they’d ever known.

§

My grandparents missed devastation by a hair, selling the last of their machinery in unforced retirement on a dry fall day, 1984. Their sons gone, they could live on a little land rent, Social Security, and a few investments. My grandfather stood in the driveway, watching the auction-company men chain his equipment to their flatbed trailer—the cab tractor, big enough to pull a plow, and a smaller front-end loader he used to push snow, run the belly mower, and lift me in the bucket to pick McIntosh and Wealthy apples north of the house. His hands in the pockets of his polyester work pants, he watched the truck until it crested the small rise of Hwy 6 and drove south, out of sight.

§

“No, this is too far,” my dad’s brother, Russ, says, slowing his city- clean Subaru on the gravel road to turn around. We’ve come to a fence line that, the way scrub trees have grown up through it, has obviously been a property boundary. “That utility post must be it then,” I say, peering now into the grassy ditch on my side of the car. We’re looking for the site of my grandma’s home farm, where once stood a two-story prairie Victorian, violet and emerald stained glass in the sitting room window, with two massive barns, hundreds of mature oak, ash, and walnut, even two modest vertical silos. Her grandfather built it, became a state senator in 1910. We’re five crow-miles from my grandparents’ land. Russ played here, worked on threshing crews here, and learned to love walnut trees and their honey-marbled wood, a botanical passion throughout his life. Today, we can’t even find the farm’s driveway, so shallow is the rise from the road to the level cornfield. But returning, we re-cross a sly creek. “Yes, that’s it,” Russ murmurs. He’s outlived everyone else who might know. “This is where they all went swimming, where ‘those Kopperud boys’ weren’t so tough, once my dad decided he was sweet on my mom.”

§

My own mother is half her former self. Literally. For the first time in our adult lives, I send her things that don’t fit me quite right. She’s in spin class at the Y six days a week, wears halter tops and buys dresses that cling. I’m proud of her, and I tell her so. But the half of her that’s missing also seems to contain the woman who was my father’s wife. He never saw her in Spandex, only witnessed her decades of shame and frustration at being chronically overweight and plagued by physical and emotional injury. Dad’s cancer diagnosis coincided with her own discovery that she was pre-diabetic, with high blood pressure and a knotted mess of allergies, digestive issues, and stress triggers. At my urging, she finally saw an MD- naturopath, who convinced her to start nutritional supplements and a total-elimination diet. In their part of Minnesota, going dairy-, egg-, and grain-free all but eliminated breakfast (no pancakes or omelettes, etc.). For several weeks, she felt starved and had to clear their pantry to eliminate temptations. Soon the cupboards were evenly divided between things she could eat (sunflower butter) and Dad’s go-to snacks, such as cheese puffs and sandwich creme cookies—foods so far beyond her diet that she wouldn’t touch them. She started walking the neighborhood no matter the weather, gazing out at the lake through the yards of homes with frontage. When her annual exam rolled around, she was fifty pounds lighter and given a clean bill of health. Dad was days from curling onto his left side for the last time, but he complimented her, as always. “Doesn’t she look young?” he said, flirting. Then privately to me, “Take care of her.”


§

A year into her widowhood, my mom rolled a new RV off the lot, the “home” she purchased with proceeds from the sale of the five-bedroom house she had shared with my dad. She doesn’t live in her Overlander full-time, though, even as she travels longer and farther each trip. When the house sold, she moved directly into the lake home of her very new boyfriend, a detail my brother and I learned by text message, itself a footnote to the text-bomb introducing the boyfriend just weeks earlier. And that came after a stilted confession that she’d been dating online for months. It’s not wrong, I know. She’s been pressed against the sadness more tightly and longer than we have been, and her detaching will happen differently. It’s just her tact that’s messing with us. “What the fuck?” my brother whispers, trailing off, when we call each other to commiserate. I can see his freckled and furry Norwegian frame pacing his living room by lamplight, his young children just down for the night. “Where did we go wrong with the basic communication? I mean, at least Dad called, even with nothing to say.”

§

While downsizing four decades of marriage, my mom gave me back a framed pencil drawing I had sketched for my dad for his fiftieth birthday. In it, he’s wearing paint-splattered bib overalls, holding newborn-me, the cap of my head in his palm, my feet not quite to his elbow. I weighed just under five pounds at birth, and this story, the “you fit here to here” birth narrative, I know only from his telling of it. There’s no real picture. But now I can’t remember where they hung my sketch in any of the houses they rented/bought/sold after moving from my childhood home in Nebraska. Maybe the accompanying text was too weird? Too private? “You were right: Life is hard everywhere. No pain, no gain,” I had written, acknowledging that the cost of my choices—specifically my marriage—ran high. “But then, I learned stubbornness from you, too....” Maybe it’s something else. “You have to remember,” my mom told me casually, recently. “Your father left my room in January 2013, and our lives were completely....” She used her index fingers to draw equal and opposite trajectories in the air. Startled, I rifle through my memory to peg anything to that date. True, he did sometimes travel alone to visit my brother and me, often to putter on some home carpentry project we were not going to attempt ourselves. With shame, some new, some old, I remember that I didn’t much question my mom’s absence. And then there was his reading habit: he slept poorly and would click on a lamp and turn pages most hours of the early morning. Also: the snoring. His was so bad she had to get to sleep first. Hers, she flat denied. It seemed reasonable that they would have adjoining bedrooms, clothes stacked in separate closets. My mom doesn’t offer any more.

I am not sure how to ask further.

§

“Go get Kenneth,” my hospice-dad says, breathless. “I need to talk to Kenneth.” Yesterday, I lay here in bed next to him, both of us staring at the ceiling, arguing about how long he’d had cancer. “No, you’re wrong,” he dug in. “It’s two years.” “Dad.” Math is not a long suit for either of us, but I walked him through his diagnosis, marking time by major holidays. “It’s been 14 months.” “No, that’s not right,” he shot back, shaking his head mulishly. It was the most adult, most other-ly he’d ever engaged me. But today that fight is gone. He’s beyond us, waking and sleeping in shifts of minutes. His brain, still firing unscathed even as his left side swells with edema, clicks through close-held concerns. First, he had panicked that his will wasn’t in order (it was), then that his health insurance policy had been dropped (it hadn’t). I slide over to get up, but my mom has heard, listening from the doorway. When she returns with my brother, I sense that we’re ruining something. Listless as my dad is, he didn’t ask for me. Or her. “I need to tell you,” he says, breaking off, “before my dad died, he confessed to me. Now I want to confess.” He pauses, putting us all on edge. This is serious. He’s tossing his head, fighting shame, his eyes closed. “I understand what Ryan did...” Now the downy hairs on my neck prickle. I’ve only recently admitted to my parents that for years, my husband bought the love he wanted, away from our farm, building business. I had reverse-engineered this truth and the missing parts of others when he announced an affair he was ready, he said, to trade his real life for.

How is that possible? I ask less often now. But I know. There is something about getting all the way around truth—his and mine together—that suddenly reveals how easy it is to fall toward or away. Either direction is natural and unknowable and impermanent. Now I’m sure my mom and I don’t belong in the room. But it’s too late. “I....I...........would masturbate,” my dad whispers. He stops, eyes still closed. It’s not clear if he needs to catch a breath or if we’re forcing him to revise his confession by crowding him. “Please forgive me.” Our eyes flit over each other, embarrassed. It is palpable that we were each expecting more. After a few anguished beats, I laugh. It’s the wrong reaction, I know, but I keep talking. “Dad!” Another laugh. “That’s completely normal.”

§

My mom, brother, and I have already been to the mortuary, sat at their conference table, and flipped through books of ClipArt to choose engravings for a shared headstone. I realize why cemeteries—even venerable ones dating back to founding families, like the one my dad will lie in—are crowded with generic memorials, in bad fonts. If those of us remaining knew how to grind what we really wanted into granite, the record would state something different. Mom settles for pine boughs in the corners and a treble clef with a few eighth notes between their names. I point out that there’s no time signature, no bar lines to indicate how to read it in rhythm. Exhausted, I proof the design until at least the staff lines are inked in black, distinct and precise. We arrange to have his thumbprint made into commemorative jewelry. Mom orders a key fob. I design a bracelet.

§

One impossibly long night later, in which a hospice nurse and I take turns administering last rite of liquid morphine, my dad’s labored breathing starts to slow, pause, restart, slow again, forty-eight hours shy of his birthday. I catch the syncopation, where I lie with my arm around his clammy bare stomach, as pale and freckled as my own. “Go get Mom,” I motion to my brother, who is shifting weight foot to foot, his infant son asleep in his arms.

“Love you,” we whisper, knowing Dad’s hearing will be last to go. A chorus of “I love you.” Then I try and fail to get his eyelids to stay closed, to hide how his eyes are fixed, up and away.

§

Still. It takes a summer and a harvest and another summer for us to get the headstone placed in Old Westbrook cemetery and convene to put Dad’s urn beneath it. At first, Mom wasn’t ready to let his ashes go. She still talked to Dad at night, she said. Then, when her new relationship forced her to hide the urn, in a walnut box the size of five stacked hymnals, she asked my brother and me if we wanted to steward it, er, him. “I thought we were scattering the ashes,” my brother says, confused. (And to me, eyes rolling, “If I get another text....”) In the weeks of planning the burial, my mother asks whether her well-meaning boyfriend should come along, as he insists family should not have to dig the grave. The rest of us stifle the question in judgemental silence, then share our relief when it’s decided the boyfriend won’t come, due to work. When we arrive at my grandparents’ farm, though, expecting to share meals and car rides to the cemetery, there he is. “Poor bastard,” I think, and make a point of giving him a quick, one-armed hug.

§

None of us in my grandparents’ farm house, Dad’s home, belong. There are just two habitable beds and a sofa. The nearest hotel is fifty miles away, so my brother’s family and my mother (and boyfriend) stay at the country home of my dad’s closest cousin-friend. It’s weird—for me especially, sleeping in my horse trailer, parked in the farmyard—like we’re trespassing. All around is everything I know: the path to the creek bottom where my grandfather would pole-vault across to call in the cows with my wiry, laughing father hugged tight to his side like a football. The cement dog bowl, empty by the house hydrant, where their spaniel, Ginger, taught litter upon litter of puppies to lap cool water. And the burn barrel beyond the corn crib, where my grandfather’s polyester Pioneer Seed coat caught fire while he burned household trash, as he had for fifty years, and he had rolled to put out the flames. He stumbled to the house holding as much flesh as fabric in his hands.

Two months later, my grandmother, who’d driven him for help, shaking, had to turn off a ventilator and watch him die—not of the burns themselves but of pneumonia that got the better of his lungs, blackened long ago by tobacco. He had given up smoking the day I was born. “Why isn’t he here, Teenie?” she had asked me, through the tissue she held to her mouth, bleary eyes scanning the barnyard. “I just can’t get over it, that he’s not here.”

§

The house’s propane tank has been disconnected, meaning there’s no fuel for the furnace, no thermostat to slide against this early fall night. Russ and I have dug up the fern peony tubers among the last remnants of my grandmother’s rose garden, transplants from her mother’s garden, and those from her grandmother’s before her. A few yellow coreopsis stand above the weeds at the northwest corner of the house, where they mark the path to the clothesline. The cow barn is gone from the west end of the yard, so the house takes more killing wind each winter. My dad had faithfully mown around the house, where Russ had replanted many of the grove trees, but still the tillable farm land creeps a few passes closer with each rent agreement. It’s in a corn-and-soybean rotation and, at my grandmother’s gesture, rented below market rate to a young cousin. He’s the grandson of the big man who wouldn’t sing in church, a legacy around here, among the few in the family still making a living in agriculture. “You know I’d love to farm this ground,” my husband says after the burial, as we pull out of the driveway and the house flashes stark behind sparse trees, until I can’t watch anymore and turn back around in my seat. Maybe, I think. Our farm company, the one we are both bound to, continues to widen its reach for tillage and planting in spring, then cultivating, then harvest. But working the land will not allow living here. There isn’t enough to hold any of us.

§

I’ve hung the sketch of my dad, holding me as an infant, in my bedroom, where it’s the first thing I see, after a dog jumps onto my stomach, wanting to be let out. In my car, I have one of his quintet’s CDs in the player. My favorite recording is a kiltering arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” in which the damn trumpets are mere bell ringers and trombone and tuba exchange melody with the French horn. They ascend through modulations, tight as tacks. My dad, I can hear, is conducting with his breath, a measured, sharp intake before his entrances. By the end, it’s almost as if he’s singing through his horn, before diving, disappearing, to the tonic of the chord. This is something he would do in student lessons, like mine, to keep the instrument to his lips and still show you where he was going, to get through the sticky part to arrive together at the broad resonance, returning home. There’s an impossibly delicate release, then, ringing wide and fading, even before you realize what’s happening. I press “Back” to hear it again, and he’s right there.


§

“The winter is coming to an end, and the cows are sheding I can pull the hair off in hand fulls,” he wrote in grade school. I can see him pressing a dusty clump of fuzz to his nose, maybe brushing its dull, discarded warmth across his cheek, then wiping the staticky mess of it on his pant-leg. I have a hard time believing he didn’t already understand; he knew, even the best milk eventually spoils. Now it’s mine, this living, and the stirring of what’s here then not here, its fleeting plenty. I grope along, just the finest of strands now, slipping. It’s as fated as not: I may never have as much again.



KRISTINE JEPSEN is a farm business owner in Iowa. An alumna of the AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship program, she has essays and reviews published or forthcoming with Creative Nonfiction: Sunday Short Reads, River Teeth, HuffPost, Hippocampus, Literary Mama, and Lunch Ticket, among other journals and anthologies. Her chapbook, Jaw Wiring: What you need to know, won the 2019 flash nonfiction competition at Sweet: A Literary Confection, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • Instagram - White Circle