Winter Wheat

A stranger asks for help, with a promise to return the favor.

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That fall my brothers and I would be sowing the fields on our own for the first time. Dad was working extra shifts at the ceiling-tile factory with the threat of layoffs ever present. One night he sat us down and said, “Wheat’ll be yours to get in the ground. Work together.” That was it. Derrick was 18, Darren was almost 14, and I was 10 and proud to be included. “Questions?” Dad said. He was so spare with words that every one he did speak seemed significant. He looked at us, his eyes like round black stones. I envied the manly hair on his arms.

Derrick told him we understood.

“Listen to your brothers,” Dad instructed me, and then he was out the door to the factory.

The winter wheat went into the ground around late September, as soon as the flies were dead and gone, and it sprouted quickly, the green shoots hibernating beneath the snow until the spring sunshine ushered them into adulthood, when sturdy heads of grain would click together in the wind like thousands of tap dancers. Each afternoon my brothers and I would get off the bus and shuck our starched blue denims in favor of Carhartt pants made supple by work. The weather was still warm enough that we could wear just our white T-shirts until the sun went down.

It was on one of those sunny fall afternoons that we met our new neighbor Kenny Pound. My parents were cash-renting our farm, which meant we were working someone else’s land and getting little of the profits in exchange for doing all the labor. Dad was still at work, putting in overtime, and Mom was filling in for someone at the grocery store when Kenny pulled up in his truck. Our sisters, Dina and Dana, had chores to do in the house, and Dad had left us a note saying we needed to get at least 30 acres seeded by nightfall. Kenny walked over as we were filling the planter with dusty wheat seed. He had recently begun cash-renting the farm up the road, from the same landlord as we were. We knew someone had moved in, but we weren’t prepared for a man with a thick beard and dark-brown hair that hung well below the collar of his flannel shirt.

“Looks like our new neighbor is Bob Seger,” Darren said under his breath.

“I can see you men have what it takes to fill the coffers,” Kenny said in greeting. I looked to Darren and Derrick and could tell that they, too, barely knew what this meant. My brothers each ripped open another bag of seed and dumped it into the planter, but I couldn’t take my eyes off our new neighbor. He wore real cowboy boots, not steel-toed lace-ups like ours, and he didn’t wear a seed-company cap, leaving his hair free to blow in the autumn breeze. He introduced himself with a broad smile and immediately pitched in to help. My brothers shrugged and went on working. Once the planter was filled, he asked if we needed anything else. We were about to start seeding when an old station wagon pulled into the field and Kenny’s wife, Sarah, got out with a baby on her hip and several paper lunch bags in her hand. She waved as if she knew us.

We all sat and ate peanut-butter sandwiches and drank ice-cold pop for longer than we should have while Kenny told us how they’d been living on a commune near Denver, Colorado, but he was from Indiana and had missed it so much that they had to come back. The baby boy Sarah held had the same thick, dark hair as Kenny, who wasn’t shy about showing his love for his son. He cradled the tyke and kissed the top of his head and laughed whenever he blew spittle. The whistles of a bobwhite along the fence line traveled over the empty fields to us, and Kenny said the bird was calling for its young. “You know, they’ll starve themselves and go without water trying to feed their children.” Just then a flock of birds burst into the evening sky, looking like little black brush marks before disappearing completely. Kenny took the baby’s bottle from Sarah and fed him. We’d never seen our dad hold a baby. He rarely even hugged us, though sometimes on your birthday or Christmas he might grab you for a quick embrace. Kenny acted as much like a mother as he did a father.

After Sarah and the baby had gone home, Kenny handed Derrick a cassette tape of Prince’s Controversy. “Listen to ‘Let’s Work,’” he said. “It’ll make the time go faster.” Then he winked and climbed into his truck. “I’ll be back tomorrow!” he yelled as he bounced over the furrows and turned onto the highway.

 

The next morning before school, Mom gave Derrick one of Dad’s notes, scratched with such intensity that the pen had nearly torn the paper. He read it aloud: “No dawdling. You only got 20 drilled.”

“Just do your best,” said Mom, clad in her polyester uniform from the grocery store. She worked the deli, shaving pound after pound of meat we couldn’t afford. In her spare time she’d draw or sew or crochet scarves for us that were so long they trailed along the ground like a bride’s train. Right now she was in the bathroom talking about herself in the third person: “Your mother’s got to get this hair colored!” She grabbed her car keys and kissed us all goodbye while our sisters packed our lunches.

After Mom left, Derrick said he’d listened to the Prince tape. He shook his head and announced: “Not for everyone’s ears.” I knew he meant it wasn’t for my ears, which only made me want to listen to it more. I was about to whine when Dana said there was a man at the door, and we all turned to see Kenny standing on the porch, the sleeping baby in his arms and a diaper bag over his shoulder. He asked if he could come in, mouthing the words so as not to wake his son. I jumped up and opened the door. Kenny stepped inside and whispered to the girls, “You must be the sisters.” Dina and Dana blushed. I noticed he wore a puka-shell necklace, and his chest hair was as black as crow feathers.

Dana asked why he had a baby. Her perplexed look seemed to express how we were all feeling.

“Because he’s mine,” said Kenny, gently pushing the baby’s pacifier back into his mouth. “I’m his daddy.”

“But he’s got a momma, too, right?” Dana asked. “Why doesn’t she have him?”

Kenny grinned and said he would tell Dana all about it later if she and Dina would watch the baby after school while he helped Derrick, Darren, and me get our wheat into the ground.

“You don’t have to help us, Mr. Pound,” said Derrick. “Dad gave the job to us to do. We’ll be fine.”

“Call me Kenny. And I know you can handle the work.” The baby started to rouse, and Kenny removed a bottle from the bag, held it to his cheek to check the temperature, and gave it to his child. “What I was hoping,” he said to Derrick, “is that we could help each other.” He offered to help us get our wheat drilled, and then we “men” could assist him with his. I nodded enthusiastically, happy to be considered one of the men. Kenny said he would ask our folks first, of course, and he would pay Dina and Dana for the babysitting. He needed their help only because Sarah was driving to Kokomo and back to take nursing classes. He put the baby on his shoulder and patted his son’s back rhythmically until the child let out two burps. “I’d better get out of your way,” Kenny said. “Don’t want you to miss your bus.”

Derrick curtly said that he drove us to school.

Kenny praised Derrick for taking care of his brothers and sisters, which caused Derrick to squint suspiciously at him. Kenny told us all to have a wonderful day and left.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t act that way around Dad,” Derrick said as Kenny buckled his son into a car seat and bent to kiss his brow.

 

That afternoon after school, Kenny handed the baby and the diaper bag over to the girls and paid them each five dollars. Mom seemed bewildered and told Kenny the girls would watch the baby without pay, but he insisted and said he considered it an honor to have his son cared for by “such fine women.” Dana giggled.

We changed our clothes and went to work with Kenny in the fields. The air was cool and smelled of wood smoke and manure. Around dinnertime Mom brought us steaming bowls of chicken and dumplings. Kenny ate around the chicken but slurped the broth and gobbled the dumplings. As it grew dark, we started to climb back on the tractors, but Kenny pulled us aside. “You boys are lucky,” he told us, nodding toward the gravel driveway, where Mom was pulling away in the station wagon. “You got a family here.” He stood straighter. “There’s nothing more valuable in all the world.”

I was a pudgy kid, and I stood on my tiptoes and sucked in my gut to look leaner. We’d been raised to be stoic and reserved, slow to show emotion, but now, in the cool of the evening, Derrick and Darren cautiously began to smile. Kenny drew us in for a hug just as our father’s headlights illuminated the field, bouncing when he drove over ruts. Panic shot through me. I pictured him and Kenny in a brawl like the ones I’d seen on Bonanza — split lips and bodies flailing about before someone pulled the panting men apart.

The night air had a bite to it, and trees rustled in a breeze.

Derrick, Darren, and I stepped back from Kenny, but not before Dad had seen the hug. He killed the pickup’s engine but left the bright headlights on to see by. His steel-toed work boots hit the ground like the flat of a shovel on wet cement, and I shielded my eyes from the headlights’ glare. Kenny stepped forward, his hand extended. “You must be Mr. Crandell,” he said. I was glad he didn’t try to embrace Dad — or, worse, slap him five. They shook hands. Dad dropped his cigarette on the ground and crushed it out in the soft loam. He looked around as if searching for an explanation for the scene he’d come upon: a young man hugging his boys.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here,” Dad said to Kenny.

Kenny patted our father on the shoulder. Dad glanced at the hand as if it were laced with nitroglycerin. “Nothing, sir,” said Kenny. “I’m helping the boys get your wheat in the ground, and I’m hoping they’ll do the same for me.”

Dad lit another cigarette as Kenny explained the arrangement. When he was done, Dad nodded, seeming to inspect Kenny’s puka necklace and hippie beard. The ember of his Salem Light glowed bright red.

“If you’ve been helping the boys get the wheat sowed,” Dad said, “they’ll return it likewise.” Then he turned away and slogged back to his pickup. “Get your work done so you can help the man,” he called over his shoulder to us.

 

For the next four days we worked with Kenny, and we loved it. The afternoon sun was golden, and the sky was an enormous blue bowl. It was hard not to smile when he told us what a good job we were doing and how he hoped his boy would grow up to be like us. As we drilled the seed into the earth, which had just the perfect degree of dampness, we listened to Kenny’s music. He had dozens of cassettes he’d made, the tracks listed in precise cursive writing. On the fourth day, our fields planted, we drove the equipment over to Kenny’s. He was sowing 80 acres, and the time flew by.

Just after dusk on the seventh day, all the winter wheat, Kenny’s and ours, was sown. His wife brought us spiced cider and hot biscuits. We sat on the tractors and ate and laughed as Kenny told us how he’d once covered 40 acres before discovering he hadn’t put seed in the planting drums, so the only thing he’d sown was air. His wife had the baby swaddled in a fuzzy blanket, and Kenny held him and kissed his forehead. It still stunned me: Here was a man who used his back to make his living, and yet he also showed affection and talked about his feelings. Kenny handed the baby to his wife and told her he’d be home before long. Then he asked us if we’d ever seen the river on a night like this. He pointed to the moon. “Come on,” he said. “It’s just a short walk.”

We followed Kenny over the soft topsoil and into a ditch planted high with fescue to keep erosion at bay. The night air had a bite to it, and trees rustled in a breeze. We slipped along a fence line and down a hill to the edge of the water, its glassy surface mirroring the moon.

“Would you look at that,” said Kenny.

I waited for him to show us something. Then it dawned on me that Kenny had brought us to the water just to see the moon’s reflection. We didn’t speak. While we stood there, Kenny recited some lines of a poem about the smell and taste of leaves, the stories they held. Then he told us we shouldn’t be afraid to live the life we each decided was right for us. I looked to Darren and Derrick for some clue as to what they were thinking, but they seemed slightly dazed. After a while Kenny said, “Fellas, I sure have enjoyed working with you this past week.” His voice caught, and he wiped his eyes. “Can’t wait to work many more seasons with you.”

Derrick and Darren seemed glad when we made the short walk back to the field, but I secretly wished we could have stayed there by the water.

A couple of nights later, as we were falling asleep in our twin beds in the room we shared, I asked my brothers if they missed working with Kenny. The bedroom remained quiet, and I didn’t ask a second time. Maybe it was because Kenny had shown us something about being men that we had yet to understand, or maybe my brothers were embarrassed at how loving Kenny was with his son and us and how solemn and reticent our own father had always been. I lay there that night and hoped I would have the courage to follow Kenny’s example someday, but I also wanted to be the sort of man my father respected and admired.

For the rest of that fall, Dad had less overtime at the factory, and we worked with him more on the farm. I’d sometimes catch a wistful expression on Derrick’s or Darren’s face that I read as a desire for the work to be more fun, or for some encouragement, maybe even a hug at the end of the day. But we labored with Dad as we always had: mostly in silence, with a seriousness that now seemed almost cruel.

One weekend, as we spread straw for the hogs in advance of a cold night, Dad rounded a corner and found us singing a song from one of Kenny’s tapes, with me standing on a bale and crooning while Darren and Derrick played pitchfork guitars. Dad stood and stared at us while we scrambled back to work. For a second I thought I saw him open his mouth to say something, but he only licked his lips and coughed before walking back to the tractor.

“That was close,” said Derrick as Dad drove away, the tractor spewing black diesel exhaust. We returned to our task with renewed solemnity, but before long we were kidding around and praising one another’s work once more.

 

It was early November when we learned of Kenny’s death. The maples and sycamores were bare, the last fields of corn stark and empty. We’d been done with our own harvest for a couple of weeks and were grateful for some downtime. Derrick had mentioned just the day before that we ought to ask if Kenny needed any help. We hadn’t seen him in more than a month. The last time had been at the grain elevator, where Kenny had hugged us in front of our father’s friends, men with shaven faces and scoured work boots and pressed denim shirts. Kenny still wore his puka-shell necklace and had a tiny braid behind one ear. He talked about his wife and baby, telling us we’d all get together after the first snow and go sledding. He even suggested our folks come along. We could hardly picture our father lying on a Flexible Flyer, wind blowing his cap off, his cheeks red.

That afternoon in November, Dad asked if we wanted to go take a look at the sprouting wheat. We eagerly agreed. The wheat had been ours to get into the ground, and we were proud of it. As we put on our boots and gloves, Dad seemed unsure about the wisdom of what he’d just asked us to do. He forced a smile and gave us each a pat on the back as we exited the house. Mom and the girls were grocery shopping for a big post-harvest meal that night. The weather was bitter and gray. We walked the length of a pasture and over another fence line to the periphery of one of our fields: 40 acres carpeted in a perfect kelly green, a testimony to our labor. Blackbirds hopped over the verdant landscape.

“Boys,” Dad said, “that young guy, Kenny … ” He rubbed his hands together and looked at us standing in the cold. His voice grew softer. “It’s a damn shame. He slipped, they said. He was picking corn alone. Didn’t have much of a chance.”

We all knew what a combine could do to a person. My vision blurred, and the tears came fast. Derrick kicked the ground and closed his eyes tight while Darren looked away and walked in a circle. “I know,” said Dad. It was clear he was trying to offer up a side of himself that we needed just then, but he was unaccustomed to giving consolation. “Come on, now,” he said, and he pulled me to his chest. I sobbed, and he made a soothing sound that I’d heard him use to calm sows in labor. Then he handed me his handkerchief, and I blew my nose. Derrick and Darren wiped their eyes with the cuffs of their jean jackets. “I’m sorry,” said Dad. “I know you boys were fond of him.”

With that he started to walk along the edge of the field, and we followed. Halfway down, Dad stopped and surveyed our work. He said we’d done a fine job getting the wheat in the ground. The following summer we would harvest it together.

Two days later Dad drove us to Kenny’s funeral. He told Sarah that we’d plant her fields and harvest them, too. He even patted the baby’s head. On the drive home Dad told us a story we’d never heard, about a time when his brother had nearly been killed by a team of draft horses. “You never know,” he said.

We drove on, past fields of winter wheat on either side of the road, all that beautiful green that would lie dormant under the white snow, safe from the subzero cold until spring, when the sun would return, and it would grow again. In the fall the grain would be separated from the chaff, which would be plowed under, as it had been so many times before.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com

This article is featured in the September/October 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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