Chris Espenshade : The Course of a Season (essay) Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Relative to this piece, I have run throughout the Southeast, for North Forsyth high school, the University of Virginia, and Wake Forest University. I raced Peachtree back when we thought 1,200 was an astounding number of competitors. I once placed second at the Tuckasegee River and Road Race, 10 miles of whitewater on Saturday, 10K of road race on Sunday. I have worn out a lot of running shoes in the South.

The Course of a Season

The race starts hot, across the practice field, down the grass ramp, and around the baseball field. Indeed, the runners have warmed up to be ready for this. College cross-country runners always go out too fast. The intensity of the first mile is the lingering heat in mid-September.

The short uphill to the mile mark is the only pavement on the course, and the jarring clacking of spikes shocks us like the first chilly dew of the autumn. In that dew — soaking quickly through the shoes each morning run and leaving toes chilled through the first class of the day — is the promise of change. The split at the mile mark, the overnight lows in the last week of September, and the reddening of the poison ivy and maples, tell us what one may expect.

The stretch through the barnyard speaks of the conflict between summer and autumn, sweater off and on throughout the day. Here are the small, A-frame houses of 20 fighting cocks. The runner here is often fighting with himself. Was that first mile too fast, meaning trouble later in the race? Or, was that unexpected split foretelling a great race to come?  

Quick turn into Possum Hollow. The fast downhill through a tunnel of trees reminds us of that consistently cool, first week of October, when one likes to imagine that serious autumn is here to stay. This downhill is the season warning us it is time to cut and stack firewood.  Alas, Possum Hollow is a loop, and the return uphill suggests an unseasonably hot, second week of October. Summer’s dying gasp.

The dirt road takes the runner from Possum Hollow to the fields. Time seems to slow on the road. Although this race is unfolding, our runner is still headed out, the wrong direction. He longs to be finished with this middle, hold-my-pace section. This is the part of the autumn that promises the eventual splendor of a Monet, but seems to be moving too slowly to get there. Let’s get on with it. Yes, there are some trees going red and orange, but there are still too many green. There is a subtle trend toward cooler days, but there is the very real feeling that the show has yet to start in earnest.

The fields represent full labor. Here, the team has run intervals all season. They run hard when the first whistle blows, run easy when the second whistle sounds. Wherever they are when the 30-60 seconds of easy running ends, they have to get back up to speed. The runners hope they are not at the foot of Hangman’s Hill when the whistle blows.  The coach knows full effort will be required at this point in the race; the truth is revealed in the fields. This is when the leaf hues are peaking, and many leaves are already on the ground. This is the frost on the pumpkin, soon to become a jack-o-lantern. This is the time that the sun and soil suck the color, suppleness, and life from the hay fields, suddenly, seemingly overnight. The road kills of diverse species tell us that the animal kingdom has become manic in its preparation for winter. This is not the time for autumn or runner to be timid.

Dirt road again, this time heading in. The gravitational pull of the finish has added to the runner’s momentum. He is also pushed by either his success to this point (“Don’t blow this.  You’ve got a good race going.”) or his disappointment (“Do something, mother fucker.  There is still time to salvage this.”). This is where the runner relies on self-loathing to hold his speed. The season, too, is gaining momentum. The trees are naked, and there is nothing to stop the cold winds of fall. The sun can still manage to be warm for a moment, but there is always a cloud on its way to produce a shiver.  

The fighting cocks. The internal argument for the runner is when to start his kick. The short stretch through the barnyard is not suited to sprinting, but the runner knows there will be no excuses once he turns the corner and enters the last mile. The seasonal struggle now is with winter, rather than summer. This is the second week in November when everybody is surprised by the morning cold, hoar frost on the goat paths, and the dark gray skies contrasting with the brightness of early-hung Christmas lights. Instead of an occasional chill, one relishes the occasional warm moment in the sun, out of the wind. Everybody now knows this will end painfully for both the harrier and the fall.

Hitting the pavement once more, the runner is offering everything he has to see this through. The end is near, and he must finish strongly. The clouds and shortened days mock the former warmth of the autumn sun, and winds are left with no work beyond wreaking havoc with the leaf piles. This is week of after Thanksgiving. The last Vs of south-bound geese call to the autumn “That’s okay.  Let it go.”  The coaches and team-mates yell to the runner “This is it.  All the way through.”

The race and the season are suddenly no more.  The runner does the strange, post-finish shuffle, hands-on-knees, trying to catch his breath.  No sign of the fall.  The athlete and the autumn have run their course.  

Donna Walker-Nixon : Straw Man (fiction) Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement:  When I was ten, eleven, twelve years old, I dreamed of moving up North to live in a garret and write novels–never knowing exactly what I’d write about, but it would be lofty. Fifty years later, I still live in the South, and I write about the heart and soul of what I know–people in Texas whose lives seem small and insignificant. Yet they are as important as the people up North.

Straw Man

The music machine faltered as it churned out “Turkey in the Straw.” On hot summer days, the straw man with his jutted jaw and slate hair wiped his brow and prepared to face children who gave him nickels for ice cream.

If a little dab would do most men, Blake Fritz pomaded his hair with extra dabs of Brylcreem. He slapped the sweat off his face and dispensed orange popsicles and Fudgesicles. He gave broken sticks for kids to glue together and transform into mountain cabins for history projects in 7th or 8th grade.

Sticky globs of melting orange, red, and brown, melted on sidewalk slabs, leaving behind indelible memories.

Thugs in a 1960s gang, the only one in town, roughed him up, ripped the sleeve of his white coat, and demanded, “Your money or your life.” He chose to give up his money and to find other paltry means for surviving.

He trudged mile after weary mile, sometimes swiping his clumps of hair, as he crossed the Brazos River bridge and headed toward the wings of his inward war.

As if asleep he sludged through a distant past where doctors refused to hear froth-gurgling lungs of men who could not breathe. Obscene cancerous scenes they brought back home, unsigned plaques with uninscribed slogans, remainders of the first “war to end all wars” where Wilfred Owen marched through bog after weary bog and prayed with iron-clad irony:

Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

In the second war of the worlds, army doctors diagnosed Blake with war neurosis, then PTSD. They shipped him home to cope and re-imagine vivid agonies night after harrowing night.

Back at home, 20 years later, he still trudged. His 40s model car, going defunct after his mother died—like the grandfather’s clock bought on the day of some young man’s birth, too big for the shelf, standing on the floor and succumbing at the same time as the man left this world to find his true home.

As he slogged through the snow, intermingling war scenes with home front casualties, he mumbled indistinct words. People said this was his way to remember stationary orders—but who knew what vague phrases from the vivid, haunted inner war he involuntarily summoned. He attended every service of East Side Church of Christ, praying Jesus who could heal all wounds would heal his.

For Townsend Realty and Insurance—he scribbled orders of office stationery with a gold embossed TRI and the name of Clark Townsend with his mailing address on the letterhead and on the envelopes.

The banker who served as the church accountant, once commented, “Time to file income tax in a couple of weeks.” And Blake, who never spoke unless someone else initiated a conversation, answered, “I don’t make enough to file.”

***

His brother Capt. Will Fritz filed other forms, took other notes, and wore other hats: an LBJ Resistol silver gray beaver fedora, too big for his face, but policemen ordered them as if in bulk. He passed his hats to Blake. By the time Blake got the weathered hat with all its pin-pricked dots, he had to crumple up the frayed self-conforming velvet lining.

Crude, country, talking like a farmer, Capt. Will organized the homicide and robbery division of the Dallas Police Department. He conducted his own interrogations: “Boy, have you ever been a member of the Communist party?”

Old-time investigators took no notes since they could be misinterpreted by lawyers who knew but did not admit they knew this cardinal rule. He decided in advance the prisoner’s unspoken answer, which he already categorized in his mind as deception.

In one ten-year period, he had a 98% record for solving and convicting criminals. Even though Lee Harvey Oswald refused to confess, Capt. Will remained certain they had their man.

Then he received a call and commented, “The FBI has it now.”

He wrote hazy after-the-fact notes that blended into myth. A fellow detective once commented, “You used your own wits to convict culprits who could not tell the same story each time.”

Regardless, Capt. Will rounded up vagrants, and made sure they showered and ate at least this one square meal that day.

The isolated folktale remains: he drove through the night to see the only person he could trust. His brother Blake took possession of the notes and other details of that complex interrogation.

Laurie Brown-Pressly : Jo’s Funeral (fiction) Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My given name is Laura Ruth, and I am a sweet tea addict. I grew up in Woodruff, South Carolina–home of the Wolverines. I won a shagging contest in college at Clemson University, and, no shagging is the SC state dance–get your mind out of the gutter. I love Flannery and Faulkner. I wish I had learned to make my grandma’s biscuits. I aspire to be a Julia Sugarbaker, but I know deep down, I am really a Suzanne!

Jo’s Funeral

She held up the figurine and dusted it off. She didn’t have to turn it over; the muted colors and design of the figurine’s face were the tell-tale signs of a Hummel. She put it on the table next to the bubble wrap. The next item she selected from the shelf was an angel made of resin. She flipped it over to verify the “made in China” stamp before wrapping it in some newspaper print and packing it in the box marked for donations.

Every flat surface, every bookshelf, every dressing table, every chest of drawers, the mantle, and even the tops of the television sets were adorned with such knick-knacks. Save for cursory dustings, most of them never moved from their designated spots. They served as sentinels keeping watch over a family for over three generations. Betsy picked up two dainty tea cups that she once envisioned belonging to a fairy queen, and she smiled remembering the time she forced her little brother Brian to have a tea party using those fragile white and blue cups and their matching saucers. When she discovered her children playing with her mother’s prized Delftware imported from Amsterdam, Betsy’s mother, hands on hips, brow furrowed, admonished them, “Some of these pieces are quite expensive. You mustn’t play with them.” Her mother’s stern face only encouraged young Betsy to view the knick-knacks with greater awe. 

She dusted the tea cups and saucers and gently placed them on the table. Next Betsy reached for a pewter pencil sharpener in the shape of a princess phone. Cradling the base of the phone in her palm, she picked up the little receiver and held it to her ear, thinking of the pretend calls she had made on the pencil sharpener.

“Who are you talking to?”

Betsy gave a little jump. She hadn’t heard her sister-in-law Claire come into the room. 

Claire giggled, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Then, turning to look around the guest bedroom, Claire added, “Your Grandma Jo certainly had a lot of Tchotchkes.”

“Knick-knacks,” Betsy responded flatly.

“Come again?”

“Gran called them knick-knacks. My dad called them dust catchers,” Betsy answered, gesturing to the shelves. “Grab a dust cloth and join the fun.”

They worked at wiping away years’ worth of dust from her grandmother’s treasures before relegating the items into a donate or dump pile or placing them on the table where family members could select a favorite keepsake or two to take with them when they left Gran’s house for the final time. Claire grew up in a Manhattan apartment where space was limited and such tchotchkes were often culled, so she was intrigued by Jo’s collection. Claire placed a dime-store “Best Friend” plaque in the donate pile and carefully dusted a San Francisco Music Box snow globe featuring a boy and dog before placing it on the table. She paused to read the inscription on a plastic trophy honoring the Foulk County Bridge Champions and briefly debated where to put it before returning it to the shelf. Every couple of minutes, Betsy would pause to share unforgettable stories about many of pieces. 

Betsy smiled as she picked up an orange model car. She showed Claire how to open the tiny doors on the toy car while revealing that as a boy Brian was so taken with the car that he slept with it during their visits. 

Sitting next to the model car, was a beautiful Lancaster Glass goblet with etched stars and a subtle yellow tint. Betsy lowered her voice and raised her eyebrows, “Did you know that my Gran’s mother, my great-grandmother Alice, was a divorcee when she married my great-grandfather? That was so scandalous back in that day, especially in a small town like this. But Alice was independent, ran her own bakery, bought her own house…. Anyway, this was the goblet she used to toast at her first wedding.” Betsy raised the glass and continued, “According to Gran, she could tell when her parents were arguing because Alice would drink from this goblet at the dinner table. I guess it was just a subtle reminder that she wasn’t afraid to go it alone.” 

When Claire began to extract gently the hard-bound books from their shelf, Betsy told her she should probably check the pages. Her Gran had been known to hide money in strange places. Hidden between the pages of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was a four-leaf clover that had been pressed between two sheets of wax paper, and a first-day-of-issue Elvis stamp fluttered from the pages of a Methodist hymnal. Claire also uncovered several black and white polaroid pictures, a church bulletin from 1973, and an olivewood bookmark from the holy land but no money.  

The two women continued to sort items. At one point, Claire scrunched up her little pixie nose when she opened a trinket box to find four confederate flag cupcake picks. Betsy, who couldn’t tell if Claire was surprised by the confederate flags or by the fact that her Gran kept cupcake picks, laughed, “Here in Mississippi, they didn’t get the word about Lee’s surrender until around 1991. And even then, they didn’t believe it.” Claire raised an eyebrow, but Betsy simply shrugged and shook her head.

After clearing one of two big bookshelves in the guestroom, the women washed up and sat at the kitchen table to eat a slice of the seven-layer, chocolate-iced cake that Ms. Hill had dropped off earlier that day. Between forkfuls, Claire asked about the details for the next day, “So there will be a receiving line before the funeral?”

“Yes, we will meet friends first and…”

“Meet friends?” Claire interrupted. 

“Meet friends is southern for receiving line,” Betsy giggled. “We stand around at the front of the church for two hours before the funeral as people come by to shake hands and offer condolences.”

“Who will we see tomorrow that we know?” asked Claire.

“Well, I imagine most of the Massey family will be here—Mrs. Pat and Mr. Dan and one or two of their daughters, maybe even a couple of their grandkids. Jeff will be here, but his girls are at the beach with their mama this weekend. Mr. Walt—he’s the one that always brings barbecue.”

Claire nodded. “What about Ms. Edna? When Rivers was born, she sent us a beautiful, soft baby blanket that she knitted herself. She’s still alive, right?”

“She sent Merritt one too. It was a lovely mint-green and pink. And I think Mom still has the ones she made for Brian and me.” Betsy sighed, “Good old Ms. Edna. Yes, she’s still alive, but she won’t be there.” 

“Oh, is she not able to get out?” Claire’s forehead creased as she thought of a bed-ridden Edna missing her oldest friend’s funeral.

“Not exactly.”

Edna and Josephine were both in their 90s and their friendship was documented in the frayed black and whites, faded Polaroids, and digitally-edited pictures printed from Claire’s mother-in-law’s computer. These photos were enshrined in several albums that lined the bookshelf in Jo’s bedroom. Their children and grandchildren had played together on the church playground. They held each other’s hands through births, illnesses, and deaths. When Josephine’s eight-year-old daughter Emily died following a short illness, Edna was waiting with a picnic basket of food when Jo arrived home from the hospital. Claire herself held fond memories of visiting with Edna who always smelled of White Shoulders and cinnamon and whose hot cross buns were a buttery, sweet delight.

Unfortunately, the previous spring, the two had a falling out over the rules of a card game. As she cleared the table, Betsy recounted the story she was told, “Edna accused her of cheating, but my gran insisted she did no such thing. Edna acquiesced, but when she dealt the next hand, Edna skipped Gran. In response, Gran quickly snagged the cards from all the players and suggested a game of 52-card pick-up before tossing the cards, confetti-like, into the air. Edna grabbed her casserole dish and purse before storming out, and they haven’t spoken since.” 

“You’re kidding, right?” She and Betsy returned to the guestroom, ready to tackle the second bookcase. 

“I wish. Apparently there was one mostly insincere exchange during the passing of the peace one Sunday. Mom described it as mechanical and quite cold, said that the church could’ve saved on air conditioning that day if they had just forced the two ladies to share a pew.” Betsy stood on her tip-toes and placed a recently dusted Jesus figurine back in his proper place on the top shelf.

“That’s so sad. They’d been friends all those years. But surely Edna will come tomorrow to say goodbye, won’t she?”

Betsy paused for a moment in thought before replying, “I doubt it. I loved Gran to the moon, and I adore Ms. Edna too. But both are…or were set in their ways. Sometimes Gran was slow to forgive. When Mom and Dad moved to Charleston, they joined a Presbyterian church near their house. Gran couldn’t believe they weren’t willing to drive a few more miles to attend the Methodist Church. When she was visiting us, Gran would go to church, but she never sang. She would barely grunt as she shook the pastor’s hand on the way out the door. She would mutter under her breath about predestination. This went on for years until Mom and Dad moved to Mount Pleasant and changed back to a Methodist church.”

Claire, who was baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church but was never religious asked, “So what’s the big difference between Presbyterians and Methodists?”   

Betsy smirked, “As far as I can tell, the hymnal page numbers are the only difference.”

***

Claire took her place in the receiving line where she was flanked by her husband and daughter Rivers on one side and Betsy and Claire’s niece, Merritt, on the other. Claire could easily lean over and whisper to Betsy about the visitors she couldn’t place. Claire searched the faces in line and kept a close eye on the clock hanging on the back wall of the sanctuary. As the time for the funeral drew near, Claire became more anxious, shuffling her weight from one foot to the next, tugging at the hemline of her dress.

During the funeral, Claire was seated at the end of the front pew directly in front of Betsy. As the preacher delivered the eulogy, Claire fidgeted in her seat and kept peeking over her shoulders as if she were looking for someone seated at the back of the sanctuary. Betsy thought that perhaps Claire felt ill. The church was close to full and a bit on the warm side. Betsy leaned forward and whispered in Claire’s ear, “You ok?” Claire gave a quick little nod. However, as everyone made their way across the street to the cemetery for the graveside portion, Betsy noticed Claire hung back and watched as the funeral attendees filed out and made their way to the grave site.

The July air was a thick blanket of humidity. Betsy shifted from one foot to the other, glad she opted to forgo pantyhose. She had no idea what the pastor said as they stood by the open grave. Instead she kept a close eye on the pallbearers. Several were quite red in the face and all of them glistened with sweat. She hoped the pastor would be quick, so everyone could return to the coolness of the church social hall before someone passed out from heat exhaustion.

***

Claire sat picking at her lunch when a tired Betsy slumped into the metal folding chair next to her. “Small talk is so exhausting,” Betsy exclaimed. As she took a long sip of ice cold sweet tea, Betsy noticed tears in Claire’s eyes. “Hey are you OK? Did you get overheated?”

“She didn’t come,” Claire said earnestly.

“What?” asked Betsy. “Who didn’t?”

“Edna really didn’t come. Six decades of friendship and she didn’t come to say goodbye.”

“Oh.” Betsy wasn’t sure how to respond. She handed Claire a clean tissue from her pocket and gently patted Claire on her thin shoulders. 

“I’m not even sure why this upset me so,” Claire confessed.

“Well, it is sad. It’s loss compounded by loss compounded by more loss—loss of friendship, of family, and then, of hope. It is sad indeed.” Betsy got up from the table and began to clear away Claire’s plate. “Bless your little Yankee heart. Let’s go back to the house, devour some more of that cake. Maybe later we can play a little 52 card pick up and drink a toast to Gran and Edna. We’ll use Alice’s goblet.”

Claire pushed her chair back from the table and murmured so only Betsy could hear, “Damn rebels.”

Monica Bellon-Harn : Piggly Wiggly (fiction) Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I spent the first seven years of my life straddling the Sabine between southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas. Even though across my life I dotted the map in Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Mississippi, I kept circling back to the place I call home. My stories emerged about why we stay, why we leave, and why we come back. In the south, person and place coalesce and become identity. When people ask me where I am from, I emphasize south Louisiana. My mother always says anyone from north of I-10 is a Yankee.

Piggly Wiggly

Maybe Jane discovered truth. Someone confronted her with her lies and she discovered a new way to be. Maybe her need to reinvent her past to create a different future disappeared so she moved to another town to live out her days alone. It could have been after she told them at the American Legion that she had been in the army stationed in Germany and when pressed it was clear she hadn’t been to Germany and wasn’t even in the army. Donny, down at Donut King, said the only thing she could say about Manheim was that it was a shithole. I don’t know where Manheim is but she said it was awful and didn’t like to talk about it so I never asked.

Someone said that she ran from this life bound for Key West. Alone on the highway she turned the radio loud to hear her favorite band – maybe Talking Heads or Violent Femmes. My neighbor said Jane couldn’t name a single of their songs but I remember her singing along once or at least humming. Maybe at the water’s edge she invented a new name and a new purpose – a dancer or a baker or a candlestick maker.

Georgette said she is in a small southeast Texas town near here. Georgette cuts the hair of a lady from that town. The lady drives here for a haircut because Georgette is so good with the scissors. She said Jane’s mother put her in the passenger seat of her car and drove her across the open roads of Piney Woods to her childhood home. Once they got there she raged. Her mother gave her a choice – stay or leave. Given this choice Jane froze and was couldn’t walk out the front door. I don’t know about that. Once Jane told me that on the way home from her high school graduation her mother pulled the car over and asked her where she was going next because she wasn’t headed back to live with her. Anyway, Georgette isn’t that good with the scissors so who knows where that story came from.

Others said they thought her childhood home was actually in Tucson and that was where she was headed. One person thought she drove to the Mexican border to find her real father who lives in Tijuana. Jane told me her father was from Patagonia but had abandoned her when she was a child. She wondered what he did and if he thought about her. She told me her stepfather was an idiot, but she knew her real father must be quite smart. Since she can’t drive to Patagonia I don’t imagine she is searching for her father so I just shook my head when I heard that.

Donna kept driving by her old trailer park looking for clues. Supposedly her husband, reportedly loyal, disappeared. Maybe he ran off to New York to be a singer since Jane said agents were interested in his audio samples. One person said he uncovered her web of tales so he left. Her stories and antics that kept him entertained after a few beers bored him once he was six months sober. He yawned when she began to talk and he left just like any husband anywhere might leave his wife.

In truth, there are so many ways her story could have gone. A liar can take on varied lives. Marge, who works the cashier stand next to mine at the Piggly Wiggly, said she was telling stories to pass our days so why does anyone care.

All I know is this.

I stood in the drive of her empty trailer home after her husband left. She rolled down the window of a refurbished orange and white RV to tell me goodbye.

“I have room for you,” she said.
“Drop me a postcard when you get to California,” I replied.

She was meant for more than this small town, but I was not, so I watched her pull away. I stood at the edge of the fence dividing her trailer park from the road and stared into the distance until the white speck of her RV curved to the left and out of sight. She was alone and I couldn’t hear a single tune from the radio, just the dampened sound of an engine that had been repaired too many times. Sometimes I think I should try to look her up in a phone book or I could go to the library and ask for help with the computer to find her, but really I wouldn’t know where to begin.

It has been a couple of months since she left. It’s an easy walk to the Piggly Wiggly from my trailer so I put one foot in front of the other heading against the traffic. I cross the parking lot and walk on the rubber mat that opens the double doors as soon as I step on it. I walk to the back to get my apron and punch the clock. I am ready for the morning regulars. I know the man who buys Early Times every week, the woman who spends twenty minutes picking out one piece of fruit, and the mother who searches for her last quarter to pay for the milk. This is where I hear all the tales, the talk that fills the minutes of silence while I scan their groceries. I hear the quiet secrets between men and women as they whisper about whether or not he hit the casino instead of going to work at the plants that day. I hear the quarrels between mothers and daughters about open windows and nightly escapes. I hand them their receipt and tell them how much they saved.

Con Chapman: Hard Times (fiction) Nov. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Missouri, a border state, the site of a skirmish in the Civil War. I was raised in a county seat with a population of around 23,000, which doesn’t necessarily sound like a small town until I tell you that it was the biggest city in any direction for 55 miles. In between lay acres of farm land, and smaller towns such as the one in which Hard Times is set. In rural towns in the southern Midwest there is little separation between social classes; I worked with the village idiot–as an equal–at the job depicted in Hard Times.

Hard Times

The TV reporter came by the restaurant, the only one in town, Thursday at noon time. She said they were doing a story on how hard times had affected the town, and wanted to talk to people.

“What exactly do you mean ‘hard times’?” Mike had asked her with a playful glimmer in his eyes. He was probably the only person in the place with a college degree.

“You know, how the recession is forcing people off their farms,” she had said. Her camera crew was outside, she wanted someone to interview.

“Who are you talking about, being forced off their farm?” Mike asked. Bill and C.J., two city kids from the county seat fifteen miles away who worked at the seed processing plant, were eating with him.

“Dwight Maier,” the woman said. “He’s filed for bankruptcy in Jeff City.”

Mike looked at the two boys sitting in the booth with him, a facetious smile on his face. “Dewey’s gone under, huh?” he said. “I wonder how that came to pass.”

The two boys grinned, but kept eating. Mike would go back to an air-conditioned office, they would go back to a truck full of wet seed that had to be unloaded. They had to pack it in.

“He says he’s a victim of the hard times that are sweeping the nation,” the woman said, verging on breathlessness at the importance of what she was saying.

“Dewey ain’t the victim of nothin’ but the gross stupidity that’s sweeping his brain,” Mike said, and looked to the boys for laughs, or maybe support.

Bill and C.J. smiled, but didn’t laugh. They were going back to school in the fall and had no interest in trivial disputes between residents of the tiny town where they worked, other than as a source of amusement.

“Could we interview you for a different point of view?” the woman asked.

Mike looked at the boys with a smug grin. “Sure, I’d be happy to talk to you, just as soon as I finish up,” he replied.

“All right, we’ll wait for you outside. Thanks,” the woman said, then left.

Mike watched her go, her skirt tight around her hips. She was probably the only woman in town who was wearing high heels at noon time, he thought to himself.

“Fine as frog’s hair,” he announced to the boys as the woman walked out the door. They both looked at him, then at each other, suppressing a laugh. He thought he was cool, Bill thought to himself, but he was a goofball. He wore black-rimmed glasses and a clean khaki shirt and pants every day, as if it conferred some kind of authority on him to be in what amounted to a uniform. They would laugh about him on their way home from work every night, after the final truck of fescue had been unloaded.

“Well boys, it looks like I’m going to be on the TV,” Mike said as looked at the bill and laid down a five, two ones and a quarter for his chicken fried steak and iced tea.

“I’m going to the little boys’ room to freshen up before I go on camera.”

They watched him stand, hitch up his pants, and make his way to the men’s room with an air of importance that he must have felt was justified by his college degree and scientific understanding. “What a loser,” Bill said to C.J.

Outside the restaurant Dewey was being interviewed by the woman, his forehead plowed with furrows of concern, like the fields of his farm that had so recently failed.

“My family’s been farming in this area for nigh on fifty years now,” Dewey said as Mike came out the door and stood off to one side watching, his arms folded across his chest as if sitting in judgment. “We’ve never seen times as bad as this.”

“And to what do you attribute the severity of this downturn?” the woman asked. Her face was the most serious in the whole town since it wasn’t a Sunday.

Dewey looked at her with a blank expression for a moment, and Mike chuckled softly to himself. Dumb hilljack doesn’t even know what she said, he thought.

“Oh, I don’t know a combination of things. Foreign competition, and uh, the administration’s farm policies, that sort of thing.” He had told her what he thought she wanted to hear.

The woman said “Thank you” and her camera crew stopped taping. Dewey walked off and looked at Mike sheepishly on his way into the restaurant, then stood just inside the door looking out the front window.

“You want lunch there’s room at the counter,” Doris, the only waitress in the place said to Dewey when she noticed him standing.

“Naw, I’m just cooling off for a second,” Dewey said to her.

“Okay, just don’t get in my way,” she said good-naturedly.

The camera crew checked the light and the reporter asked Mike if he was ready to tape.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he replied.

“Okay—in one, two, three,” the camera man said, and when he had counted off the numbers the woman started to talk, as if she were a sprinter who’d just heard a starter’s gun.

“On the other hand, some say that farmers who fail have no one to blame but themselves for their losses. One of them is Mike Atkins, of Central Missouri Seed Company.”

Mike had assumed she wouldn’t mention where he worked, that he’d just be another man on the street commenting on the market and such.

“Mr. Atkins, you’re one of the ones who say that farmers who fail are responsible for their own fate. Why is that?”

“Well, ah,” Mike started out, not as confidently as he’d thought he would when he was sitting in the air conditioned restaurant sipping iced tea. “Dewey there . . .”

“Mr. Maier?”

“Yes. He, uh, he tried to plant his soybeans there with a damn—I mean darn insecticide sprayer, when he should have been using a planter. I seen . . . saw him out there in his field doin’ it. Lord, anyone ought to know that won’t work.”

“So it was Mr. Maier’s incompetence, and not global economic forces, that led to his downfall?”

Mike felt his cheeks getting warm, warmer than they would have been had he just walked to his truck after lunch under the noon sun.

“Well, uh, yeah. I mean, there’s plenty of people doing just fine this year, they’re just better farmers than Dewey.”

“Your company—who’s the president?”

“Mr. Alton Jones.”

“And how much will he make this year?”

“Oh, hell, I don’t know. I’m not privy to that kinda information.”

“But it’s substantially more than the poor farmers in this area—is that a fair statement?”

Mike felt that the crowd outside the restaurant was growing. He saw Bill and C.J. edge along the sidewalk until they were out of camera range, then get into the pick-up truck they had driven in from the fields.

“Well, uh, sure, I mean, that’s business. The guy at the top, the one who puts up the money to buy everybody’s seed and takes the risk that the price will drop, he’s gonna make more money. This is America, you know.”

The woman turned away from him to face the camera and began to talk at it instead of asking him questions. “Two sides of the story—the farmer and the businessman—in this depressed farming area where grain prices have reached all-time lows and speculators stand to make huge profits. This is Natalie Fuchs, Channel 6 Eyewitness News, reporting.”

“Thank you,” the woman said to Mike when she was done, then turned back to the van with the others from the TV station.

It wasn’t at all like he’d imagined; he’d thought it would be one of those friendly, joshing interviews like he’d seen from Royals Stadium in Kansas City, with the sportscaster talking to one of the ballplayers about how he was doing, what to expect in today’s game and so forth. He took a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and wiped his brow, then turned around towards the restaurant where he saw Dewey, staring at him with a defeated look on his face through the window.

Mike gave him a half-smile, trying to let him know he didn’t mean it personally, then walked off to the company truck and drove back to the plant.