In late fall, work slowed for Jonathan. In the winter, it practically stopped. Jonathan was in his winter, he knew. A winter without springs. Without summers to look forward to. Without falls to gather in the harvest and settle in. He pulled the tractor into the barn and shut it off, wondered what this place would look like without the barn, without the farmhouse. Full of house after house after house full of people who wanted to escape the city, who claimed to want the land, then did nothing with it except call a lawn care company in to blast it with chemicals once a week. He glanced at the trailer. Where would the little silver trailer go?
God, he loved that child. He loved her more than she knew. More, probably, than he was entitled to. But not more than he ought. Lord knew she needed as much love as she could get.
One Saturday night in May, the story went, long after her stomach had begun to bulge, Neala Jackson went to the drive-in with a girlfriend. She returned to the apartment she shared with her mother and four younger brothers, each produced in quick succession, one every year until Neala’s father skipped town. The front door was wide open, swinging on rusted hinges. There was no furniture left behind; no sheets or blankets or towels. Only a note, taped to the refrigerator, written in her mother’s unsure hand: “I’m sorry, but I’m just too tired to raise up any more babies.” Her mother had left Neala nothing but an old Chevy truck and a bank account—probably long forgotten—with a few thousand dollars in it. Neala slept on the floor of the apartment that night, with nothing but her sadness to cover herself—or maybe her anger. The first thing the next day, she drove right over to Vincent’s Vintage Vehicles and paid cash for a reconditioned trailer. She hitched it up to the back of the Chevy and drove it right onto the farm, smack-dab in the middle of the alfalfa field.
Jonathan couldn’t turn her away: Neala Jackson reminded him of an animal in a trap. Helpless and afraid. Rabid. The neighbors said he was crazy, at first. Said he was too nice for his own good. Said that Neala Jackson was nothing but trouble. Then they just stopped talking.
A shallow creek cut the farm in half. Years ago, Jonathan caught Ellie standing stark naked, knee deep in cold water. Ellie must’ve been no more than two.
“This where you bathe every day?”
Shamelessly, almost defiantly she looked him in the eye. “Yeah.”
“Well, then.” Jonathan had scratched at his jaw. “Where do you go to the bathroom?”
“In a little pot. Momma tosses it in the weeds by the track.”
Jonathan shook his head and pursed his lips and thought about what the neighbors would say next. First thing the following day, he plumbed in a water line and a small septic system.
In time, Jonathan plowed around the trailer and seeded a tiny lawn. Annie planted some of her perennials in a little flowerbed near the front door.
And, eventually, after it looked like we were going to stay for good, Jonathan put in a gravel driveway leading to the trailer.
Jonathan looked at the trailer. Neala Jackson never uttered one word of thanks. But despite her apparent ingratitude, he wouldn’t have done it any other way. Because she had given him—and Annie—the child.
The house smelled of furniture oil and cinnamon and contentment.
“In the back.”
The door slammed shut as Jonathan followed his nose down a hallway lined with discolored family photographs in dusty frames. There was his Annie, at her usual post in the kitchen. She’d kept her looks, grown more beautiful, in fact, with each passing year. As thin as Jonathan and nearly as tall. He smiled at her outfit. While most women her age tended toward flowered dresses and blue hair, Annie wore holey jeans and Jonathan’s old tee shirts. And when her hair needed a trim, she’d take a chair to the back porch, tie a sheet around her neck and hand the scissors to Jonathan. Jonathan would never get a job in a beauty parlor. But he did a decent enough job. Enough to keep Annie happy. And that was all he’d ever wanted. To keep Annie happy.
She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to him.
“Jonathan, when the Good Lord decides to take you, he’ll have to take that old Ford as well.” She smiled and kissed his cheek. “Hungry?”
He took her in his arms and rested his head against the top of her chest. He looked out the window. Beyond
Beyond the barn and the chicken coop; past Annie’s vegetable garden and the muddy field lay a set of railroad tracks. When he was a kid, Jonathan spent hours on those tracks. He’d place an ear on the rails and imagine he could hear the train approaching. He’d jump off at the last second and watch the train passing through the farm, chugging its heart out and chanting progress, progress under its breath as it puffed along and disappeared around the bend.
But it was always a dream: The last train left town years ago, taking progress right along with it, leaving only the tall weeds that grew between those abandoned rails; weeds where, Johanthan knew, Ellie would hide for hours waiting for her mother to finish up with her current boyfriend. He smiled. Ellie found treasure in those weeds: Endless balls of iron ore and heavy spikes that she’d lug home to Annie. Every time Ellie brought his wife something, Annie would stop what she was doing immediately. She’d sit down. Examine the treasure carefully and exclaim over it like that piece of rusted out iron was the highlight of her day. Annie’d kept them, too. Kept them in a shoebox underneath her bed, along with all the other memories she couldn’t bear to divorce herself from, no matter how happy. No matter how painful.
“Hmmm?” She pulled away. Smiled. God, how he loved those eyes.
“Where do unshared memories go, when someone dies?”
She closed her eyes, thought for a moment. He loved the way Annie took his questions seriously, ridiculous as they may sound. “Some memories, Jonathan, aren’t meant to be shared. Those must die.” She grew thoughtful for a moment. “Depressing, isn’t it?”
“Does place have memories? Does this place,” he gestured around the kitchen. “…have memories?”
“Yes. It does.” She smiled. “The people who move in after us will feel our memories, will feel our love and our history. Our pain and, yes,” she nodded sadly. “Our loss.”
“But what if this place—after we’re gone, I mean—is no more?”
She frowned. “A place can’t be no more.”
“What if someone tore down the barn and the house? Would the memory of place still be here?”
“This place will never be torn down, Jonathan. You’d never let that happen.”
“Memories.” She leaned against the oven, arms crossed. “I believe that when a place is torn down, destroyed, then the memories of that place are destroyed as well.”
“What about the trees? The soil? The plants?”
“Jonathan, if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, there will be no trees left on this farm.” She frowned. “This is hypothetical, isn’t it?”
“I’m getting a lot of pressure to sell.”
“No one can force you to do what you don’t want to do, Jonathan. I ought to know that.”
“They keep telling me that there are no heirs to the place; that sooner or later I will be gone, and you will be gone, and there will be no one holding on.” He stared out the window. Blinked back tears.
“Ellie,” Annie says. “Give the farm to Ellie.”
“Doesn’t need to know. Jonathan, you love that child just as much as you love this farm. Give the farm to Ellie.”