It was hot and humid and the air stung, more mosquitos than anything else. Screen door was full of gaping mouth holes that swallowed the night into the house, so it could keep biting us as we clung to our thermal blankets, lying on mattresses, curled up like adult babies trying to protect ourselves.
Well, this is home now, my friend told me and I grinned and shook my head because I’d be home—really home—in just a week, and he’d be here all alone on his stupid farm forever and I didn’t care too much because he was clearly happy with it.
He was fashioning a water pump, mostly out of PVC pipe and bushings and one-way check valves. Because why should I pay for water when I can get it right out of the ground, he explained. We were killing our data plans, huddling over our phones watching YouTube tutorials, buying wrenches and duct tape and Cokes from the Ace Hardware a half hour down the highway.
Not exactly sure how people did this shit before /out/ or r/homesteading, he said and I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
Looking for farm relics, nothing in particular, I explored drawers in the master bedroom and lifted a crumbling journal. Kept it next to my mattress, carried it with me, read a couple entries while my friend took a freezing cold shower with a hose, spent time with it when he drove to the nearest town for more tools.
She was trying to keep her family together. Moving to a farm is so hard and it’s worse when you’ve got the young ones and they don’t have anything to do because the electric isn’t working yet and so you read to them. There’s the big hardcover Dr. Seuss collection grandma gave them for Christmas and it’s enough for now but she wishes there was a little money to get some new books, they know these stories so well now there’s hardly any use going over the greasy pages again.
Doesn’t take long for them to tire of those stories, of the snot-stained pages and faded pictures. There are fields outside, a stream and lagoon, dirt trails and the decaying trailer, about a half mile back from the house, with the door hanging by its hinges, rust clawing its way up the sides, chewing into the axles.
It’s decaying and she’s sure it’s dangerous. Her husband agrees, but weeks later he’s in there scavenging for tools, for anything of value, and the kids are playing in it.
She didn’t say a thing about it, couldn’t say no to the kids when they were having so much fun.
She asked about it, after the little ones were tucked into bed, why did you let them into that trailer? Couldn’t the roof collapse? What if there were spiders or snakes or something? Things blurred when he opened his mouth and soon she was apologizing. He broke the toaster that night.
In October she’s worried the neighbors are watching them, talking. By February of the next year she’s thinking they’re spying, sneaking around in the acreage. She’s doing the laundry in a pail, cold water, it doesn’t do much and there’s no detergent, but it’s something. He’s staggering into the house late at night, dirt under his nails, days spent planting his drug plants. The weed he says will save the farm. Even this dream now poisoned.
Come July and she tells of pot farming as if seeds first met soil today. It will take time to reach harvest. But the neighbors, she writes. They might start watching, sneaking around, or maybe they already have.
August and September, the same. The seeds only planted today. We’re just doing this to get the farm started.
Entries every day. She tracks the weather. Details their finances and how he spends $5.40 a day on Marlboro Reds even though there is no money coming in and they’re burning through their savings, the money her dad gave them to start off. It won’t be long before they’re dead broke and the kids are getting picked on at school because their clothes are soiled and repaired with cheap stitching and duct tape, long pants cut into shorts, shirts stretched and ripped and misshapen. She’d buy them anything if she had the money but the money isn’t coming in yet and she doesn’t even have the garden she was going to start.
He’s selling to people but only the guys he knows, the ones he drinks with. He’s selling to strangers. Giving it to anyone who will buy because it isn’t very good but that’s the ground, the soil, it isn’t what it should be. They’re peculiar and she doesn’t like how they look at her, eyeballs bulging, licking their cracked lips and their hands always on her shoulders or rubbing their oily faces, muttering in slurred words and smoking in her living room even though she asked her husband to not let people do that. The kids have such small lungs.
Her handwriting turns jagged and sharp. The neighbors are stalking the farm on every page. She knows they’re gossiping, chatting up her daughter, watching through the windows. She’s only eleven and these scumfucks are trying to get her to rat on her own family.
She’s going to talk to her husband about it and if she knows him at all, he’ll settle it the way he settles everything. His arms are pitchforks when he loses his mind and everything goes black so fast when he hits you from the side, too quick to see it coming. Her jaw is still clicking from that time, oh he was so mad, and her head against the kitchen counter, it felt like hitting pavement, felt like a hundred pounds of concrete smacking her in the face. But she shouldn’t have asked about the money. That was dumb and she knows that now.
She’s thinking about her husband’s strong hands and how he grabs you around the throat with one hand and points his thick fingers in your face with the other, when he tells you where you’re wrong. She can see it now, how he’d kill the neighbors. Oh he’ll settle it all right.
She would take drives with her father when she was young. He’d say you know what that smell is, that’s the smell of money. They smell like manure, she would start. And he would say that quip about farms.
He’s growing too much pot on the farm and he isn’t very good at it. It’s the soil, he says. He needs some special fertilizer but he has to order it online. There isn’t much money left. He’s ordering it because this will make all the difference. This was supposed to be year one, she reminds him. We need the money to get the farm moving, he said. Farms take time. It’s only been a year. It’s almost over. We’ll be past this soon. Just a little while longer. It’s only been a year but weren’t the kids five and eight when this started?
He’s handing it off during daylight hours. Holding conversations in the driveway, voices hardly muffled anymore.
She’s been looking at the dates on some of these entries. There are so many and if the numbers are right they’ve been here five years now but that can’t be right. He keeps saying it’s been two. Actually, it’s been one, he says.
There were so many lights. House filled like the Christmas they hadn’t had yet, the one where he finally bought a tree, put up lights, they didn’t have to be nice or expensive, just something from the dollar store or the superstore in town. Anything. But no, the first time red and blue lights flooded their living room it was this.
They dragged him out the door, knees cracking against the splintered hardwood floor, boots skidding. They kicked him in the side. He grunted. She cried. The kids watched, cried, and she begged them to go back upstairs, to please go to sleep, to climb into their beds, and read a story to each other but they still didn’t have a book besides the Dr. Seuss collection and they were ten and thirteen. And she was crying and they were watching her. And she won’t forgive herself, she says, for letting them see her shatter like that. She can’t imagine what it did to them.
They did their homework and marched off to school every day to wait for the rural bus, his jeans duct taped together where he caught them on a nail and her skirts that were once just fabric and aren’t sewn real well. And they never once complained about that. What did they do to deserve this, she asks.
And he’s gone and there is all this land and that smashed camper in the back that the kids still hide out in together, even when it’s hot. She doesn’t know why they go there or what they do but there’s nothing else to do and at least he was never out there yelling or hurting them. Maybe they felt safer, she wonders.
In the back the grass is long and yellow, the soil a bitter clay. My friend tills it by hand and hums to himself, a hill of thick weeds growing beside him, one clump at a time. He’s going to plant a garden there.
You know what farms smell like, I ask him. He says he doesn’t know.
And I tell him that quip about farms.