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.