“Thornhope, Indiana” is the winner of The Saturday Evening Post’s 2019 Great American Fiction Contest. Meet Jon Gingerich and the other Great American Fiction Contest winners.
He still had dreams about it sometimes. A grain silo glinting with sun. Irregular outbursts from an idling motor. Steel walls that rang with strikes from the shovel, every word his brother barked inside. He hated that about dreams, the details that lingered when he was awake, sat inside him all day as though he’d been filled with rocks.
“Leave the goddamn motor on,” Richard yelled.
Last load of the day and their father had been transporting grain to the Thornhope elevator when the silo funnel jammed. Carl deliberated from the grass,
considered the ladder where the auger met the silo mouth, the fingers that gripped from inside the hatch as Richard stabbed away into a sea of kernels. Then the funnel resumed with roaring relief and the hand disappeared, the arrhythmic rustle of rushing corn brought to an abrupt halt as something punched the silo floor. What followed was a prolonged vision of life reckoning with itself, glimpses from the vantage point of some parallel impossible future coming to pass. Carl running to the control panel at the utility barn to disengage the motor. Carl climbing the ladder and peering into the mouth, encountering vacant dunes. The square of light that shone into the hatch, a sifting of kernel sand as he entered the broiling box on his knees and began the impossible task of digging through it all. The grain that just shifted back. He remembered finding Richard’s fingers after several minutes. He remembered squeezing the hand and his brother squeezing back, remembered screaming for help, remembered sinking too, thinking for several moments he’d drown in it. He remembered pulling at the arm until he was sure he’d separated it from the shoulder, unable to retrieve the body against the weight of the grain. He remembered wild pulses of color in the yard, various sirens and the bursts of men tumbling up the ladder and the screams of a saw against silo walls. He remembered that after several minutes the hand grew cold, and then he lost it altogether.
It was still dark when Carl walked the lot. He woke early because he couldn’t sleep and hated the quiet, but outside the quiet was different from the quiet in his room. A pale light shivered out across the fields and the air was thick, smelled of freshly turned soil and barn manure, as it had every summer morning. He passed the concrete cap where the silo had been, remembered reading somewhere about a tribe in the Amazon that made soup from their relatives’ ashes. He didn’t think he could ever get used to something like that and wondered what someone from that part of the world would think about things he considered normal just because he’d done them every day. As he wrestled through the row with a coil of hose, a breeze came over the valley, sent shudders through the stalks. At the pivot system he screwed the hose into a rusted intake, then returned to the lot, sluiced the spigot’s threaded ring free of grime, and attached it to the line. Ropes of water began to coat the stalks and now the sky swelled with sun. He wiped husks off his shirt as he passed the combine shed before stopping at the last barn. When he drew open the door, birds scattered in the rafters.
He remembered squeezing the hand and his brother squeezing back, remembered screaming for help.
The Nova lay under a snow of dust, red and hale like a blood-swollen tick. Carl flipped the overhead lights and cleared a pallet rack of rusted fencing wire. Sitting on an upturned bucket, he removed the starter from its cellophane packaging, studied the manual, then lifted the car’s hood and disconnected the battery terminal. The starter caught in the transmission housing the first time he tried to slide it in; it took several attempts before he was able to secure and fasten it with the ratchet. He attached a new wire to the terminal and another to the solenoid and then went to work installing the new battery. When he was finished, he opened the door and sank into the seat. The interior smelled like cologne and leather oil. A withered atlas lay on the floorboard. Carl turned the key and the engine coughed to life, roused from a deep sleep, and the barn filled with light and exhaust as a cassette in the stereo came through the speakers, some heavy metal band Richard had been listening to the year before. He sat there, feeling the steering wheel’s grooves between his fingers. In a wedge of light just beyond the barn door, a dead crow lay in the gravel.
He’d come up with the plan the week after high school graduation, nearly a year after his brother had died. He’d fix Richard’s old car, pack his bags, and leave unannounced for California. A travel agency in Indianapolis arrayed rows of brochures; the photographs were foreign and strange, and in the following weeks he studied guidebooks and highlighted destinations that appealed to him: Big Sur, the Pacific Coast Highway, the redwoods of Humboldt County. It was of little consideration that he didn’t know how long he’d be gone, or when he’d come back, if he was to come back at all. The misguided ambition of it was just another reason to leave. In the weeks since, he’d thought about the trip so often he’d willed it into memory. He just needed a car to get there.
“We’ll transport hogs tomorrow,” his father said that evening at the table. Supper was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, sweet corn. They’d had it twice a week for as long as Carl could remember. “You keep an eye on that pivot system. July is hell on those crops.”
The dining room was windowed with sepia photos of a family Carl had never met: his parents’ relatives and their parents’ relatives, Scottish frontiersmen who’d roved the Midwest grasslands. Modern additions of Richard hung between them: Richard in his football jersey, Richard at prom, Richard on the combine.
“Make sure the truck isn’t blocking the gate,” the old man continued. “Orr Grain folks need to dig up that silo cap before they build the new one.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” Carl said. “Figured I’d work on Richard’s car.”
“What the hell for?” the man wheezed. He spoke like he had to cough everything out. “You play with cars after we transport hogs.”
“Do we have to talk work at supper?”
The man had a raw face, calloused hands, the nails stained with cog grease.
“Persimmon pudding in the fridge if you want,” his mother said. A dandelion crown of hair bobbed as she gathered plates. “You going to that auto show in Logansport next weekend?”
“I got no car, remember? Am I supposed to meet friends in a grain truck?”
“You wrecked your car,” his father said.
“A rotor went out on the highway. Because you bought me a hunk of shit.” The men shared eyes. Eventually the sounds of silverware resumed.
“Life doesn’t end after high school,” his mother said. “You need to socialize. Don’t want to be like your cousin up the road.”
“Third cousin,” Carl said, as his mother tried to conceal a grin with her sleeve.
That night Carl went upstairs and quietly entered Richard’s room. The space had a museum-like quality: Carl’s mother insisted they keep everything the same. Richard’s coveralls hung from the closet door, puzzles he’d completed as a child had been matted and framed behind glass. Because the door was always shut, the room sponged up the house’s exclusive smells, aged fabric and swelling wood. Carl examined a dresser and its curios: a class ring, a graduation photo, a Matchbox Corvette. He opened a drawer and explored the depths until something pricked his finger, removed a chipped arrowhead, jagged like a shark’s tooth and tied to a crude shoestring necklace. He slipped it into his pocket and went downstairs, where he found the front yard alive with fireflies. A breeze had come over the farm, the branch shadows sent blue fingers dancing over the house, and the porch began to hum with kills from the bug zapper. He crossed the lot, looked back to the house, and noticed his father’s silhouette in the static glow of the living room television. He entered the barn and popped the Nova’s hood to appraise the interior, the work that needed to be done, when a white pickup pulled into the lot. Bruce Orr climbed out of the cab wearing high-waisted khakis and a blue Starter jacket. A ring of fish-belly skin bulged over his belt.
“Your daddy around?”
“See for yourself,” Carl said.
“Wanted to speak with him about the bin model we’ve been discussing.” He waved a manila envelope and tucked his lower lip between his teeth, spit in the gravel.
“So speak with him,” Carl said and shut the Nova’s hood.
The man looked Carl over and shook his head, then made his way toward the house. Carl stayed there until after the man left, alone in the quiet of the barn, waxing the car’s hull with an oiled dishtowel by the milk glass light of the moon.
On Monday, he watched through his binoculars from the water tower planks as Dale’s pickup stirred a canopy of dust over the road. Carl’s grandfather had built the tower sometime before the war; its rusted base once supported a galvanized tank but that had been taken down decades ago. He could see for miles up here, from the reeded sloughs of the Tippecanoe in the east to the twin bronze spires of the Thornhope elevator at the county line. When the pickup pulled into the farmhouse lot, a tide of gravel swept into the grass.
“Those legs are rusting through,” Carl’s mother yelled as he climbed down the tower. She was on her knees in the garden, pruning a caged row of plum tomatoes. Her hands were mossed with chocolate-colored soil. “You’re going to break your neck.”
They drove through town, honking and waving at familiars. They stopped at an auto parts store in Monticello, where Carl bought a carburetor, then parked at the banks, dropped their fishing rods on a sandbar, set their lines, and opened warm cans of Milwaukee’s Best. The sun danced through the branches, foxing the water with patches of orange light.
“Check it out,” Dale said and opened his tackle box to reveal a menagerie of dry fly wings, wooden wasp and moth lures housed in cradles of black foam. He held a lure between his fingers; it had an epoxied thorax, a mohawk of orange breast feathers.
“Mud dauber.” He turned it over to reveal an underbelly of hooks.
“You’ve got a talent,” Carl said. “Still think you could open an online shop.”
“You get tired of corn I can get you in at Braun,” Dale said. “I start Monday.”
“Can’t do factory work,” Carl said. He took a sip of beer, cast his line, and closed his eyes.
“Can’t sleep,” Carl said.
“Life doesn’t end after high school,” his mother said. “You need to socialize.”
“What’d you buy that carburetor for?”
“I’m still leaving.”
“Be gone in a few weeks, maybe next week if I can.”
“Because you don’t have any money. Because you don’t know how you’re going to make money once you’re there. What about your folks?”
Carl shrugged. His line drifted into a shoal scummed over with algae.
“You’re out of your goddamn mind. That Nova didn’t run half the time Richard had it.”
“I got the starter in Friday and she fired up,” Carl said. “Holds up like hell won’t have it.”
“Richard always said the transmission’s shot,” Dale said.
“I’ll keep it on fluid until I get it fixed.”
“New transmission’s going to set you back eight hundred.”
“Can’t install it myself.”
“Fifteen hundred. You ain’t going nowhere.” A rippling ring turned in the lake. “Heard your cousin was in Lafayette yesterday with that thing on her head again.”
“So?” Carl said.
“So, nothing. Just saying. You miss high school?”
“Hell no.” Carl troweled a sand mound with his boot. “You know, I read once that Hungarian is the only language that has a two-syllable word for yes.”
“Now what the hell does that have to do with anything?”
Carl reeled in his line and clipped it with a pair of wire cutters. “It’s stupid,” he said.
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
“No, this. I don’t know why we have to come all the way to Monticello to fish. What’s wrong with the creek?”
“Creek’s got nothing but smelt and crawdads,” Dale said. “Lake has bass.”
“I’m tired of fish.”
That night Carl lay on the couch with Susan, running his fingers through the soft scoops of hair. He enjoyed exploring the curves of her body, the subtle dip in her stomach, the rounded fins of pelvis that disappeared into her hips.
“Bruce said you were working on some car in the barn the other night.”
“So?” Carl pulled a quilt over them, trying to get their heads under it.
“So, you don’t have a car,” she said, swatting him away.
Toys were scattered over the carpet. Carl thought there was something dirty about it, sleeping around with kids’ toys everywhere.
“He’ll be back in an hour,” she said. “You need to get that grain truck out of the driveway.”
“I read once that in Iran you invite people to your house even if you don’t want them over,” Carl said.
“That’s not a very good policy,” Susan said.
“I don’t think so either.”
She reached down, picked her underwear and T-shirt off the floor. Soon he was undressing her and kissing the divot in her neck. It made her laugh, and she squirmed against him.
“You think this is strange?” she asked.
“We’re cousins. It’s strange.”
A baby began to cry upstairs and Susan pulled on her jeans. A yellowed front page of The Pulaski Gazette hung framed over the mantel, a smiling teenage beauty queen in a floor-length ball gown skirt, frozen in time. Susan had won the Miss Pulaski Pageant the year she graduated high school, advanced to the state pageant, but lost the following year to a girl from Carmel. She disappeared from the public eye soon thereafter, married Bruce Orr, heir of Orr Grain in Winamac, and had a family. In the years since, word around town had it the fall from fame had bruised her ego. One rumor that’d gained traction was that Susan allegedly took to wearing her old pageant crown around town: to the dry cleaners, the grocery, the post office. Carl had never seen her do this and didn’t believe it for a second, because he knew this was what people in their county did: They’d convinced themselves that different experiences were experiences not worth having, and set their targets on anyone’s attempts to move beyond the place they’d been born because it made them feel better about the fact that they’d never tried.
“You ever think about leaving?” he asked. “This town, I mean.”
“Not anymore. Went to Indy a couple times to compete, went to Chicago for our honeymoon.”
“What’d you think?”
She started for the stairs, paused in the doorway. “I think I wanted to do a lot of things. I can’t tell you what was going through my mind at 18.”
Beside the framed clipping, a family photo revealed an older Susan seated next to Bruce, their infant daughters on his lap. A thick moustache draped over the man’s lip. Carl thought he looked like the butt of a joke he was too dumb to understand.
“I’m 19,” he said.
“You look a lot like Richard when he was that age.”
“I don’t want to talk about Richard.”
Carl got up from the couch. He put his arm around Susan’s waist, brushed a finger across her jaw, and went to kiss her. A clumsy performance, carried out to make him seem older than he was. “I’m moving to California,” he said.
Susan cupped a hand over her mouth to mute a laugh. “No, you aren’t,” she said and continued laughing as she climbed the stairs.
Carl worked on the Nova for the rest of the week. He installed the carburetor, got a pancake compressor from the garage and filled the tires, then started the car and made several turns in the lot before pushing onto the road. The Nova fought him for the first mile; the belts screamed and the transmission groused its way into gear, but was humming at a steady keel by the time he circled back home.
He replaced spark plugs and the ignition coil, changed the serpentine belt, installed new taillights, patched the radiator with sealant. The following Monday, he drove the car to a service station in Royal Center for a new set of tires. When he returned to the farm, he found Bruce Orr and his crew surveying the site where the old silo had been.
The men arrived at the farm each morning after that. They bulldozed the concrete cap and burrowed deep wells into the earth as Carl changed the Nova’s disc brake pads and replaced the air intake. On the third day, as he installed a new distributor, a semi ferrying massive steel slats showed up at the farm. Sometimes he worked on the car in the lot as he watched them; other times, when the noise of the silo’s excavation became too much, he drove to the Tippecanoe banks and listened to his brother’s cassettes as he watched swallows pick in the ruts. He replaced the fuel filter and thermostat. That Friday, he returned home to find a new silo where the old one had been. It had a bullet-silver barrel and a blood-red, curvilinear triangle roof, seemed to stand above the fields like a castle turret. Carl headed for the barn, found the rotting crow he’d seen the week before, now bloated with decomposition. He grabbed a discarded instruction manual and picked up the bird, then marched to Bruce’s truck, leaned into the open window, and tossed the carcass into the glove compartment.
The Oak Grove’s evening crowd was thinning out as Carl and Dale hunched over a booth near the kitchen. The restaurant’s paneled walls bowed from moisture damage, entire sections of ceiling tile swelling with rot. Two teenage girls wearing low-cut dresses entered the restaurant. A group of seniors seated near the door looked the pair over. Their faces were small and dark and they spoke in hushed, inquisitorial tones.
“Haven’t seen you in a minute,” Dale said while scribbling on his napkin. “Heard there’s a new grain bin at your place.”
The question seemed padded, calculated to conceal intent. “Dad’s idea.”
Bruce Orr and several of the Orr Grain crew entered the restaurant and sat at a table in the back. Bruce motioned Carl over; Carl ignored him and thumbed at his menu before a pregnant waitress arrived and took their orders.
“I’m sure that was hard,” Dale said. “I mean, I know your folks aren’t talkative types.”
“I’m fine,” Carl said. “In fact, I’m leaving soon. Carburetor’s in and I got new belts, even new tires. I thought about converting the brake system to a dual cylinder, but that’ll have to wait.”
“Whatever,” Dale said and continued drawing on his napkin. Crude designs for lures lay scattered around the table.
“Doesn’t it bother you that these are the same people you’re going to be looking at for the rest of your life?”
“They’re not so bad,” Dale said.
They crossed the restaurant lot, passed an assembly of cars. Bruce Orr’s truck was parked next to a mud-spotted tractor, its bucket frozen skyward like a Venus flytrap awaiting prey. The man climbed out and looked Carl over.
“Hope you like the new bin,” Bruce said. “Got to say, your daddy’s a more pleasant man to carry conversation.”
Carl spit in the gravel.
“Suppose you don’t know anything about a dead bird in my glove box. Maybe you’d like to pay the cleaning bill?” Bruce began to follow Carl across the lot. “Tell you what, you stay in your barn, keep working on that old car. Maybe Thornhope will get its first Brickyard champion.”
Carl turned, noticed several of the Orr Grain crew milling outside their trucks. He smelled coffee, chewing tobacco on Bruce’s breath.
“Maybe I could borrow your wife’s crown,” Carl said, and the lot went quiet.
Bruce’s head reared back, seemed to make sideways whipsaw motion, and then the ground slipped under Carl’s feet and there was a stabbing pain in the sinus below his right eye and his breaths grew heavy and tinged with blood. He tasted dirt, felt gravel in his cheek, and realized he was lying in the parking lot.
“Goddammit,” Bruce said. He was on his haunches now, with a hand pinning Carl’s arm behind his back. “I’m real sorry about what happened to Richard. We all are. But you’re going to make life a lot easier if you stop being such a hotheaded little prick.”
Carl squirmed and Bruce tightened his grip, drove a knee into Carl’s spine. The pressure cut through to his sternum, made him feel as though he was sinking. He wanted to cry but wouldn’t let himself. So he kept his face to the dirt and endured it.
“We’re going to have to live with each other. We’re family, whether we like it or not,” Bruce said. “Now, I’m going to let you up, and if you try to fight me I’m going to break your arm.”
“Don’t fight him,” Dale said.
Bruce pulled Carl to his feet and he noticed an uneasy sullenness around the man’s eyes, the look of someone brokering an act of kindness to which he wasn’t fully committed. Then Bruce seized Carl by the shoulders and hugged him. The gesture made him uncomfortable and redirected his focus inward, so he broke free and pushed through the crowd, eyes to the ground before he climbed into the grain truck and drove home.
He packed his duffel bag that night, picked bits of gravel out of his cheek in the shower, swabbed his face with antiseptic. Downstairs the house was quiet save for the ticking of a clock, several sinking keys of floorboards. He slipped outside and climbed the water tower by its crosshatch of beams. Rolling onto the planks, then lying down, Carl surveyed a moonscape of blue fields. The breeze was warm and tasted like honeysuckle, and feral dogs were howling somewhere deep in the woods. Through his binoculars, the headlights of Bruce’s truck flooded the Orr’s driveway down the road. Carl dug out his cellphone and called Susan. She answered on the first ring.
“I never walked around town with that crown on my head, not once,” she said and began to cry. “People are so stupid. You do one thing right and they just remind you of the times you failed.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Carl said. “I’ve got a credit card and a couple hundred bucks and I was thinking you should come with me.”
“You’re crazy,” she said. “A couple hundred won’t get you anywhere.”
“I’ll get a job at an auto parts store or something. And you can start doing pageants again, maybe modeling.”
“I can’t do anything like that, Carl. I’ve got a family.”
“You could start over.”
“Carl, I’ve got to go.” Her voice fell into a whisper. “Bruce is here.”
Carl looked into his binoculars again, saw the distant lights of Bruce’s truck making its way toward town.
Carl climbed down from the tower and crossed the yard for the porch, where the wind was rolling and sending bell chimes into the yard. He caught a flash of something and watched as his mother moved across the hairline of stalks near the darkness where the new silo stood. She seemed to be humming something, a song or lullaby whose words Carl couldn’t hear, because the wind had picked up again and now the chimes made music of it. He felt guilty standing there, as though he was intruding on some private, personal act he didn’t have permission to witness, so he slipped inside, went upstairs, and collapsed on the bed, exhausted. He thought about the faraway places he’d read about and their customs, like how kids in Greece throw their baby teeth onto roofs for good luck, or how Russians give flowers when they break up with someone, or how female relatives paint designs on Muslim brides before their weddings. He wondered if other cultures recognized how messy grief could be sometimes, the unfair expectations we put on ourselves to say and feel the right things, to ensure the adequate public display of aggrievement is being expressed. To spell out what he couldn’t put into words anyway, like the months he’d spent wondering if he could hear Richard’s voice in the house if he concentrated hard enough. How he’d squint and imagine him there, racing to the edge of the field on the four-wheeler, waving back for Carl to catch up. He couldn’t help feeling guilty at how relieved he’d been that he wasn’t thinking about Richard as much as he used to, or Carl’s memory of him, which wasn’t the same thing. And almost on top of the thought he was asleep, and had the same dream he had every night.
Carl woke before dawn, dressed, and walked the lot. In the barn, he hung Richard’s arrowhead from the rearview mirror and started the car. The Nova gave a quarrelsome wheeze for the first several miles, its chassis rattled and the transmission bucked as he shifted gears just before the Thornhope elevator, but settled as he pushed off the county road onto the highway, where he headed west. Blacktop mumbled beneath him, the Nova’s shadow fell over a quilt of fields, an electrical charge of summer was in the air, and a breeze filled the car with the smells of juniper and dandelion as he rolled down the window. He merged onto the state toll road with its great lanes of traffic, vistas of sleeper towns and mall-sized rest plazas. Behind the teakettle wail of wind, he heard crickets churning in the swales between the stalks.
The car gave out somewhere near the state border. It slowed down in the lane, and when it wouldn’t accelerate Carl was forced to pull onto the shoulder. He restarted the engine and crawled along the berm but couldn’t get the Nova to climb out of first gear. He called Susan’s cellphone but she didn’t answer. An hour later, he stripped the car of everything his brother had left behind: dusty cassettes, expired registration papers, a handful of sticky coins. He got a ratchet from the glove compartment and removed the plates, took the arrowhead from the rearview and stuffed everything in his bag. Then he began walking.
He was on the toll road the rest of the afternoon. Convoys of vacationing families passed. Teens in a car with Nebraska plates yelled something at him. He tried calling Susan again. Eventually, he began holding his thumb to traffic. Trees on the side of the road had turned up their leaves. Dark plumes of cloud spread across the sky. The rain fell in battering sheets, and gravel-sized drops hammered against the screaming slats of passing truck beds. He kept his thumb to the road but the rain grew so violent he became invisible to traffic. The wind rolled against him and the sun began to set, and by nightfall he was soaked through and shivering.
Somewhere just before the I-80 junction, a grain truck pulled up beside him. Carl climbed into the cab and the driver, a soy farmer in his late 60s, offered him a towel and thermos. The man asked Carl where he was headed, and then the truck shoved onto the highway and they traveled east, back toward the farm.
The Post would like to extend special thanks to its staffers who helped with the selection of finalists, and to its distinguished panel of guest judges who shared their time and talents, including Peter Bloch, Holly Miller, Estelle Slon, Jesika St Clair, Michael Knight, and previous Great American Fiction Contest winners Linda Davis, Celeste McMaster, M. West Moss, Julia Rocchi, and Michael Tasker.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
This article is featured in the January/February 2020 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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