Thom Middlebrook

WINTER FOR ARDEN

The last time Arden Stein paid for health insurance was August the 20th of 1987. That was the day and month when Laurinda last watched him head out into the field. After breakfast Laurinda would set about her daily tedium of washing the dishes, making the bed, dusting. She kept a decorative sham draped over the rocker in the bedroom and she placed it over the foot of the bed every day. It was a small attempt to pretend that her life was rich, even though one side of the sham had a hole in it, either from a mouse or one of Arden’s miserable toenails. Laurinda took that as a lesson about shiny things. If you turn them over they all have a hole.

Most days she would eat lunch by herself, she would pay whatever bills were due and then start dinner and wait for Arden to come home. Later that night after sun down she got into the pick up and drove out back to find him pinned under the tractor, dead. She said that she knew it before she even left the kitchen. Nobody on a tractor ever comes home after supper time. Anyway there he was, that stubborn, stupid old man laying under the International Harvester.

The headlights of the pick-up cast long shadows into the field. It was that hour of the night when mist starts to come up out of the rye grass and fireflies start their blinking. Laurinda said that she sat behind the steering wheel and cursed him acouple of times before she grabbed her flashlight and got out of the truck. Sure enough, Arden had plowed his last field.

Laurinda stood there for a while, taking shallow breaths, two in for every one out, looking up at the sky, waiting to see if she was going to cry. She claims that she had only cried three times during their marriage and tonight was no different than the others because Arden had never noticed. Farming and crying do not go hand in hand because tomorrow you have to get up and go right back to work. Same as always. “They-ain’tno-use.”

She thought of leaving him there until morning but then she thought that the coyotes might get at him. She made a joke to me that “it wouldn’t be right to make a coyote sick.”

She was not fond of the idea of going home and calling the neighbors and the sheriff, causing a fuss after everyone had gone in for the night. She cursed him again. She got back into the truck and wheeled around toward the house. It was a small amber dot against an indigo backdrop and the ride back seemed about ten times longer than the ride out. That is the difference between realization and discovery.

Laurinda called the Erickson’s and the Jahnke’s, she called Arden’s brother, Henry even though she knew that he would not answer after dark. Pete Jahnke said that he would call the sheriff. A half hour later they were all back in the field. Three pick-ups and one sheriff ’s car surrounded the tractor. Eight headlights and the sheriff ’s patrol light shined on it all. The harsh light made Arden look a little more dead than when Laurinda had found him.

The men attached two winch lines to the tractor and then got up into their trucks to pull it off of Arden. Righting a tractor is somewhat like throwing a china doll down a flight of stairs. There is no suspension to soften the blow. When the men pulled that beast off of Arden it wailed and bucked and slammed into the earth. Laurinda allowed herself a brief moment of tears. Dead as he was, she hoped it didn’t hurt him. As she recalls, the sheriff told her that they would take Arden over to Durand and she could deal with everything in the morning.

She did not sleep so well that night. She said that it was the same feeling that she had the night before she and Arden got married. She knew that it was about to happen and that was all that she knew.

The year after Arden died I bought the house from Laurinda. She had me over for coffee and some store-bought vanilla wafer cookies. We sat on the porch and she told me stories of their life together. She told me of everything that I would have to fix. She told me about the neighbors, She told me that I best not mow the lawn because Arden had left a lot of ammunition in the grass from working on guns over the years. She was not kidding.

She pointed to a barn and an outhouse that sat on a path that bordered 80 acres of corn. “That was the last place I saw him alive.” she said. I remembered thinking,“So that’s 80 acres?” I’m fairly certain that she knew I didn’t know that.

It was quiet in the country. It was overcast and the light was pale and even. Things were more or less featureless. From a distance I could hear the sound of a single engine aircraft that I couldn’t see because of the clouds. It passed over the house and the sound faded into the distance.

Arden was dead, Laurinda was off to Montana, I had bought the house and who knew where the plane was going?