A warm spring wind buffeted the seminary campus. Built on a ridge, and overlooking the Mississippi valley, clouds always appeared closer here; and on this afternoon, high cumulous formations rode over the tops of the trees, scraping, it seemed, the top of the steeple with its iron Jerusalem-style cross. The passing clouds brought a reminder of the gloom of winter, but moments later the sun would resume its intensity touching the young buds on the crabapple trees leading to the cafeteria. Mike had returned from his trip to Iowa and the quadrad was meeting for lunch to hear any news in this developing saga.
After moving through the food line, each of them gathered at a table away from the din of conversation. Paul was quickly halfway through his hamburger when Thomas joined him along with Mike. Andrew arrived last, after having stopped at another table along the way to joke with another group of students.
“Okay, we are going to do it! I just talked to Trent; he’s in. Mike, are you still willing to try drums?”
“You betcha,” answered Mike after bowing his head for a moment of grace before eating. “You know I’ve never played before, right?”
“Literally it doesn’t matter! All we have is one drum. Can you keep a beat?”
“I guess so.” Mike tapped his hands on the table. “Like that?”
“Exactly like that!” responded Andrew enthusiastically.
“What are you guys doing?” asked Thomas.
“Starting a band. Old time stuff. Trent and I both write songs. If we don’t do it now, when would we ever do it?”
“Do you need a guitar player?” asked Tom. “I play.”
“Well, we’ve got two already. Plus, Trent’s got a line on a guy who plays steel guitar. I think we’ve got that department covered. So, unless you can play something else…?”
“No, guitar is all I’ve got,” said Thomas, sullen.
“When you say you want me to drum, you literally mean just keep beat, right?” Mike asked again, sheepishly.
“Yeah, simple stuff. And not on all the songs, either. We’ll meet next week and just see what comes naturally,” Andrew laughed. He was throwing this together just like everything else in life. And just like everything else, it was going to work out just fine for him, another predictable win.
Paul was still busy on his burger. He was gazing across the room at another table, chewing loudly with his mouth open. His large fleshy lips coated in grease and ketchup. “Man, she’s fine,” he murmured. “Damn!”
Tom tried to follow his gaze. “Who are you looking at, Paul?”
“Freya, that student from Norway.”
“Of course, you are,” Thomas answered sardonically.
“You mean you aren’t?”
“Well, you know, not so obviously.”
“Dude, you gotta wake up. 'Obvious' is the way to do everything!” Paul laughed disarmingly.
Freya was a medium height, blonde in the Nordic way so that her hair was almost white, lighter even than her skin. She was beautifully formed, with just enough of a command of English to be cute as well as stunningly attractive.
“Don’t ya love being a guy?” Paul proclaimed with a grin.
Thomas could not argue with that, but a pit was forming in his stomach. He knew Freya and had talked to her many times, but it had been months ago. His sense of intimidation had only grown in the interceding time.
“Okay,” said Andrew. “Time to get down to the matter at hand. Mike, don’t you have some sort of report to give us?”
“For extra credit?” smiled Mike.
“Sure! Whatever,” Paul grinned. “We are all ears. We assume you went to Iowa?”
“I did. Got in last night. Long drive.”
“Sooo, what happened, lover boy?” teased Andrew, shaking Mike by one shoulder.
“Well, nothing definitive,” answered Mike. “I saw Beth. I drove out to her farm to bring a gift from my parents. They set it up for me to make the delivery. It gave me a reason to be there.”
“A special delivery, I hope?” laughed Paul.
“Alright, quit it,” demanded Mike.
Paul just giggled, again in that boyish way that made it all harmless.
“I got to deliver the gift. She is still… really… cute.” Mike chopped at the table in his awkward way. “But it has been only a year since her husband’s death, so I did not want to be forward.”
“So, you were backward then?” teased Paul again.
“Again, shut up,” retorted Mike. “I didn’t want to look like a tool; I just asked her to show me around. She has hired some helpers now. She’s got a guy who handles the horses and will eventually lead trail rides and hayrides for kids. He also looks after some goats, and they are building a chicken coop. It’s a small farm, but with lots of potential. Guys, Beth is amazing—she will have it working in no time.” Mike finished what seemed more like a scouting report than a story of romantic possibilities.
The group all sat in silence for a moment.
“So… she showed you around and then you asked her out?” prodded Andrew.
“Well, no, not really. I mean, again, she lost her husband. She has two little kids for Pete’s sake!”
“Yes, ‘Kid One’ and ‘Kid Two’ as I remember you called them,” observed Thomas.
“Right, I did, didn’t I? Well, their names are Casey and Benjamin. I mean, they are so young. Like three-and-a-half and just over two-years old. Anyhow, as I was leaving, I asked if I could call her. At first, she said: ‘What for?” Then she got this look in her eye. I can’t really describe it. Like a motherly look… Then she said: ‘Sure’. But I think it was that pity ‘sure’. The please-don’t-call-me-unless-you-are-just-being-friendly, ‘sure’.”
“Oh yes, the Iowa ‘sure’. I’ve heard of that,” said Thomas soberly. “It’s like the Minnesota goodbye.”
“Not exactly,” corrected Mike.
“So, what are you going to do?” asked Paul impatiently. He appeared more wrapped up in the story than his previous comments had indicated. “Are you going to call her or not?”
“I already did?”
“Bingo! That’s my man!” erupted Andrew. He grabbed Mike by both shoulders this time and shook him again. “When did you call her?”
“Today, just before lunch. She didn’t answer. I left a message. I told her I really enjoyed seeing her again, and that I wanted to ask her out. I told her I would drive back to her place anytime it was convenient.”
“Dude, she is totally your Bathsheba: she owns a farm, you are asking her out, and, your last name is Sheppard. Isn’t the guy who pursues Bathsheba in the book a shepherd? I mean, the parallels are all there,” observed Andrew.
“Yeah, but you know how well that turned out for him,” reminded Mike.
“They get married, don’t they?”
“After a whole lot of trouble,” Mike retorted.
“That’s beside the point. Don’t you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books?” asked Andrew optimistically.
“What does that have to do with it?”
Paul interjected, “Simple, just don’t do what the guy in the story does.”
“The thing is, I already am. I totally already am!” Mike chopped at the table as he repeated himself.
The next Friday evening found Mike on his way to Iowa again. He had gone on a whim, packed an overnight bag with some of his best clothes and left without a word to anyone. It was even a surprise to his parents when he arrived late that evening with intentions to spend the night. Beth, he had not called. He wanted to surprise her, to show up and make himself useful on the farm, even handy if he could. He remembered from his last visit that even though she had filled some positions on the farm, so much of the work was still in the preliminary stages and Beth was doing much of it herself.
The next morning, he drove into the rolling central farmlands near the juncture of two of the major highways that met in the heart of the Hawkeye state. Mike exited Interstate 35, and took the ramp onto I-80, headed west. For a moment he took in the sensation of being at the junction of these two national arteries which funneled cars, semis, pickups, and motorhomes in and out of the various organelles of America: cities, towns, and geographical regions numerous and diverse: cultivated uplands, river valleys, foothills, mountains, forests, and coastal plains. Mike was leaving I-35, that stretch of tarmac that bridged the distance between frigid Duluth near Canada, all the way to the Mexican border at Laredo. As his old Chrysler K-Car bumped itself up on to I-80 west, Mike joined a route that had its origins in New York City, and heading west from Des Moines, would briefly follow part of the route of explorers Lewis and Clark before rising onto the arid plateau of western Wyoming, passed Salt Lake City and finishing in San Francisco. On the cusp of what he hoped was a momentous day in the journey of his own life, he took courage from the fact that his destination lay along such storied and significant routes. Could his second meeting with Beth serve as the bridge of sorts, one finally connecting the east to the west of his own life?
But Mike was a practical man. He allowed only a moment’s consideration of such notions and returned to the details of his trip. For instance, what was he going to say to Beth this time? And would he even find her at home? And… was this all a monstrous mistake? With so much to do to prepare for exams at the end of the semester, whatever was driving him to return to Beth’s farm was certainly not practical. But maybe that was what also made this so exciting. This could go either way—west or south. Mike shot a glance at the review mirror and hoped for the ‘west’ as he took the exit twenty miles beyond Des Moines that ran south through the little hamlet of Earlham, and still a little more south, fifteen more miles to Beth’s estate.
As Mike entered this locality, he passed a region of undulating fields rolling gently between wooded boundary lines. In the early spring, the terrain was a quilt in browns, tans, and other drab colors, corduroyed with the furrowed ridges of last year’s planting, fence lines and county roads further dividing the landscape into what seemed, as he passed, to be perfect squares. He knew that as the season progressed, the quilt would literally come to life in a hundred hues of green, with the texture of each crop, be it corn, soybeans, or alfalfa for livestock feed, adding the impression of an artist’s brush strokes. Mist hung over the lower fields where snow still lay in protected crevasses, and the smell of manured land seemed paired with the mist as a prayerful incense offered in hopes of a good harvest in later months.
As he drove, Mike’s thoughts drifted to a summer, years ago, when his and Beth’s families had taken a joint vacation to the beaches of Lake Michigan. He had been ten, an awkward sixth grader dreading his entry into seventh grade in the fall. Beth, who was a full two years older, was about to enter her first year of high school. The difference between them physically had never been so dramatic. Well into her development both mentally and physically, she was a good six inches taller than Mike was at that point and growing in confidence. While Beth spent much of her time reading magazines and imagining herself capable of wearing the fashions depicted in her editions of ‘Teen, Mike had brought his collection of action figures to the beach, repeatedly hiding them in the sand and digging them up. At that point in his life, childhood still loomed larger than future interests. That was until the day he and Beth had gone for a walk in the dunes area of a state park. Mike and Beth were breathless when they reached the top of one mountainous dune, almost two hundred feet tall, only to discover that the dunes extended as far as they could see as they looked north along the tranquil, azure waters of the lake.
Mike had struggled to make it to the top; his pre-adolescent legs not having developed enough yet for such a climb. But Beth had no trouble. He remembered sitting next to her breathing heavily, suddenly enamored by her strength and beauty; the flow of her chestnut hair and the tanned smoothness of her skin enthralled him. They did not talk much that day, but he remembered Beth smiling at him and teasing him relentlessly. Her attention had flattered him in a way he had not forgotten. Since then, he had remember that day as the beginning of his interest in girls. None of the girls in his seventh grade class could hold a candle to Beth.
Mike arrived at Beth’s farm just before 11:30 AM. He found the entrance gate was adorned with a new sign: “Everhart Downs”. It was a cool morning, but certainly warmer than it was back in Saint Paul. As Mike pulled into the yard, his tires kicked up some dust which settled gently on his windshield. He quickly sprayed the glass with the window wash and ran the wipers a few passes. This only made a further mess of the windshield, which was now a semi-opaque, tan smudge. Through the haze, however, Mike could make out a figure approaching. His heart thumped. But the voice that accompanied the figure was male and brusk.
“Can I help ya?”
Mike got out of the car and discovered he was not mentally prepared to talk to anyone but Beth. He stumbled through an explanation of his visit, explaining he was a friend of Beth’s that happened to be in town and wanted to stop by and see how things were going. The man was disinterested, probably just someone contracted to make improvements to one of the agricultural outbuildings and was not in the position to give too much information about the owner’s whereabouts.
“Mrs. Everhart left this morning on some errand over beyond Truro. She’d be back early afternoon at the earliest. I don’t know how to reach her; she did not leave a number.”
Again, Mike fumbled, “Do you mind if I stay? I was just here last weekend, and I had made plans with Beth to return to help out.” He choked on this half-truth. How much of this uncharacteristically whimsical journey, and poorly conceived premise, was going to come back to bite him?
The contractor looked Mike over again doubtfully and said he would take him to the horseman in the stable area. He would know what to do. Mike obliged and thanked him. Leaving his car now, he followed the contractor as he hopped a fence and walked across a tilled field. Patches of snow lay scattered everywhere, but in the warmer climate of Iowa, coupled with the rich black soil, the ground had thawed and was muddy. Mike had not chosen the right footwear for this trek. He stepped carefully around muddy sections as he followed the man, who may have chosen this route to mock or discourage him further. Once or twice the man looked back and gave Mike clowning grin while glancing at the mud caking the soles of Mike’s shoes. The contractor was fully decked out in rubber boots and brown coveralls. An Ingersoll cap completed his attire. Mike, in comparison, sported a new pair of khakis and a striped button-down shirt covered by an Iowa Hawkeyes windbreaker. His brown Docker’s, styled after the profile of work boots, were displaying all the absurdity of any comparison to the real deal. Although he was not actually far from home, Mike looked as though he should be.
“You’re a friend from of Mrs. Everhart’s from high school, are ya?” The contractor stopped and was waiting for Mike to pick his way along the ridges of last year’s plantings.
Mike did not like hearing Beth described as Mrs. Everhart. It made him feel even more the intruder than he already felt he was. Finally, he caught up to the contractor and explained he was a family friend from childhood. This seemed to satisfy the contractor who extended his hand but did not introduce himself or even ask Mike’s name. Mike shook the man’s hand and returned his ‘Nice to meet you’ even though the two had not actually met. This was Iowa’s nice, as compared to Minnesota’s. Here you were a stranger until you gave adequate proof that you were not, which Mike understood he had not yet done.
The two figures trudged the remaining one hundred yards to a large pole barn that was connected to the main complex of the farm by a gravel drive, and back to the house and the driveway that Mike had parked on. Mike saw that they had basically covered the same distance over the field that they could have covered by following the gravel drive. He regarded the contractor who smirked as though a great punchline had been delivered.
“Not the right footwear, huh? I’m sure we can find you something.” He coughed as he said this to cover up what appeared to be a chuckle. “The horseman’s in the back there. Samuel, is his name. He’s hard of hearing, so make yerself heard. Good luck to yer.” The man turned his back and walked away.
It was clear from this last statement that the contractor was on to the true nature of Mike’s visit. This made him feel even more sheepish. If this stranger had figured him out so fast, certainly every person he met today who was familiar with Beth’s plight and loss, and her new status having come into this farm through bereavement, would have his number in as much time. Mike did not look forward to another interview with a subsequent Everhart Downs employee. How many would there be? And how would they all talk about him when he finally left? Mike stopped and reconsidered for a moment. Was it time to simply cut his losses and leave? What would be wrong with a second weekend with his parents? Nothing gained, nothing lost.
But Mike regained his confidence. Within a matter of a few hours Beth would return. He had come all this way. Cowardice would not get him anywhere in life. With renewed energy, Mike kicked some mud off his Dockers and made his way to the door of the pole barn. Inside, the warm, tangy smell of hay and horse manure overwhelmed his senses. Mike remembered he was slightly allergic to hay, and he felt the itchiness start in response to the humid air.
The barn was well kept; the interior was a light gray, which made the most of the glow of the fluorescent lights that hung in the rafters at regular intervals. As promised, the horseman was in the back, working inside one of the empty stalls. A small green tractor was parked in the middle of the barn. It pulled a trailer piled high with straw. Samuel was spreading the straw onto the floor of a freshly washed stall as Mike approached. His body was turned.
“Um, hello? Uh, sorry to bother you…” Mike started. There was no response. Samuel continued his work but then turned, assumedly to pull in more straw from the rig when he jolted upright.
“Hey there—don’t go surprising a fella like that! And, who are you?” Samuel appeared to be in his fifties, with ample gray hair, though not completely invading the brown of his youth. Laugh-lines creased the skin around his eyes. His forehead was also deeply furrowed. He was mid-height with a slight but sinewy build.
“Hi there,” Mike said loudly and walked toward the horseman, his hand extended in a friendly greeting that matched his tone. He wanted to make a much better impression this time, knowing Beth had contact with this man daily. Samuel’s handshake revealed the strength in his lean frame; it was the handshake of a man whose hands were his livelihood.
“Look,” he said. “Missus is away, so if you are from that insurance company, or the phone company, or the lenders, I don’t have any information for ya.”
“No, you got me wrong, I’m a friend. A friend of Beth’s,” said Mike confidently. “I was here last weekend, but I did not meet you. Samuel, is it?”
“That’s me. Well, you fooled me good then. You looked all business-like, except for yer shoes. Wanna pair of boots?”
“You know, I sure do!” said Mike amiably.
Samuel walked over to a cabinet on the far wall that when opened revealed a shelf with five pairs of rubber boots in different sizes, over which were hung several coveralls. Mike gave his size, and Samuel pinched a pair of boots between his thumb and forefinger. “There’s one set just a little bigger. Will that do?”
“I can’t thank you enough,” said Mike as he stepped out of his street shoes, which were caked with at least an inch of mud from toe to heel, making him that much taller.
“Well, that will be much better now. Anyhow, you are here to visit again, then? Beth will be back in a few hours. Are you planning on waiting? Was she expecting you?”
“I guess I will wait.” Something heavy settled in Mike’s stomach. He had committed now. The moment of escape had passed. If he had intended to take it, to take that simple out, all he needed to say was: ‘Oh, I’ll come back another time’. That chance was gone. If he had made that simple statement, he could have left, giving Samuel the message that he had been in town and wanted to stop by again. Once again, no harm, no foul. Yet at that moment Mike had a flash of brilliance. He said quickly, “Can I give you some help? I might as well make myself useful if I am going to wait.”
Samuel’s face performed an odd contortion, his eyebrows lifted a considerable distance, revealing a full inch and a half of untanned flesh between his upper eyelids and his bushy brows; at the same time the extremities of his mouth pulled down in dramatic frown. Mike noted that circus make up could not have resulted in a more exaggerated expression on a rodeo clown.
“I suppose that’s fine. Do you have any experience in this kinda work?” Samuel again looked doubtfully at the rest of Mike’s clothes, the costume of a college student. “Wanna put on one of dem coveralls? You could help me finish these new stalls.”
“That would be great,” said Mike confidently. “My uncle owns a farm I used to visit up north of Ames.”
With this last bit of information, Mike ingratiated himself to Samuel with ease. Not only had he proven himself not to be a stranger, he had given evidence he was not useless, and in fact, wanted to make himself useful. Samuel handed Mike a hayfork and directed him to another stall on the other side of the pole barn. This one still needed cleaning before it received its layer of straw.
“There’s a mop bucket in there. I’d give it a good wash and squeegee before putting down the hay there. Have a go at it,” said Samuel. “See what you can do.”
Mike worked for a good hour on the stall. He had to go over the concrete floor several times, especially in the back corners that had seen little attention by the previous caretaker. Sections were caked with horse manure. The scrubbing left him breathless, but he enjoyed the work. Somehow it made him feel closer to Beth, this activity of working on her barn. He certainly did not picture that this was how his visit would play out. After more than an hour there was still no sign of Beth, but her ETA was very vague. He looked at his watch and saw it was almost 1 PM. He had not thought of lunch with his “workday” having only started, but breakfast had been early, before his departure. He decided to take his cues from Samuel, who surely needed to eat at some point. He looked across the hallway and saw that Samuel was nowhere to be found. Probably on a break or using the facilities, he assumed. Samuel seemed a nice enough guy to check if Mike had plans for lunch. But not having any true acquaintance with the man, who knew?
Mike returned to his work. The mop pail was sufficiently soiled as to require a refill and a new shot of new detergent. He moved the bucket into the hallway and spied a ground-level sink with hoses, the obvious place to empty the bucket. Having done this, he found what appeared to be an industrial cleanser, added this to the bucket and turned on the hot water. It foamed up well enough, and he returned to the stall where he had been working.
After about twenty minutes he heard a man’s whistle, announcing the probable return of Samuel. Mike peaked around the stall as Samuel sauntered back into the pole barn. He appeared to have washed up, which meant that his absence had been due to his lunch break. Mike decided not to concern himself with food and keep his eyes on the goal. He wanted to finish this stall before Beth returned so that he could at least have that to show for himself. Mike felt suddenly silly again. What was he doing here in the middle of Iowa following some ridiculous notion that a woman that he barely knew in adulthood would be romantically interested in him? Did he really believe that a few hours of work on her hobby farm would cause her to fall in love with him?
The floor of the stall was finally dry, and he decided it needed no more scrubbing. Now he began covering it with straw. He glanced at the other stalls and saw that there was about four inches of straw covering the floor. Just enough to give some cushion to the horse’s joints and to catch stray waste products, Mike assumed. He may have been from Iowa, but he was not a farm boy. He realized with another shock of cold reality that he was making all these assumptions based on his experience while owning a hamster in grade school. Each week he had to clean out the wood chips and replace them with fresh bedding. Isn’t a horse just a giant hamster, anyway? Mike thought as part of a self-deprecating joke. The joke was on him.
What was he thinking? The absurdity of his situation hit him full force. Deep in thought and deeply self-conscious, he swung the hayfork and accidentally caught the cord of the barn radio that was sitting on a shelf. It tumbled down and landed right in the mop bucket with a splash-sizzle. As it died in the suds, sparks suddenly flew from the plug in the wall, landing squarely in a pile of straw near the wall. The pole barn was constructed of metal on the outside, but the walls of each stall were wood. The sparks caught instantly in the dry straw. Mike took a step back, the opposite of what he should have done, as there was only a matter of seconds in which he could stamp out the growing flames before he had an indoor grassfire on his hands. A moment later he rushed forward and tried to tap out the small flames as they spread toward the wall.
“Good gracious! Holy mackerel!” It was Samuel’s voice as he rushed to join Mike. Together they danced quickly around the floor of the barn, stamping out each trail of flame and smoke as though following a hundred lit fuses traveling across the floor. A moment later a large pile of straw in a corner ignited. Mike felt the sense of impending doom. This could not be going worse. Flames licked up and black smoke curled up from the hay pile and the paint on the adjacent wall bubbled.
“Get some water!” shouted Samuel. “Where is the mop bucket?!”
Mike suddenly remembered the source of the original spark and stealthily rushed to unplug the radio before electrocution was added to the list of the afternoon’s accumulating disasters. They hurriedly dumped water on the smoking pile of straw and up the wall behind where it had caught. The paint had turned brown in a section about four feet wide and about seven feet tall. Just about the right size for a grave, thought Mike morbidly.
Samuel stamped out a few areas that were still smoldering, and Mike joined him in a survey of the stall to make sure that no other places were ready to ignite. Satisfied that the danger had passed, it was time to assess damage. Fortunately, the floor was concrete, the only damage was the scorched paint.
“Well,” said Samuel. “I guess you’re painting now—I’ll get you a brush and the left over can.”
Samuel departed in an obvious huff and returned moments later with enough paint for Mike to cover up the charred area. He applied a first coat and considered his next course of action. Undoubtedly, he needed to repair the paint, but how to repair the impression he now had made upon Samuel, who would certainly relay these events to Beth. The sinking feeling came again in Mike’s innards. How soon until she returned?
Mike stepped into the open area of the barn. The light from the door revealed the haze of smoke his fire had produced. The first step was to air things out. He opened the large door and saw to his chagrin that a large Dodge pickup carrying a horse trailer was just, at that moment, turning into the drive from the county road.
Beth was home.
Mike took stock of himself and assessed the only course of action that made sense. He quickly opened the sliding door in the back of the barn as well to let the smoke clear out and then disappeared into the stall where he had been working feverishly to apply a second coat. At least she would find him working…
Minutes passed, maybe ten or fifteen. Samuel was again nowhere in sight, but this had been enough time for Mike to make a modest effort of repainting. He made use of the time and then stepped back and noticed that the shadow of the stall made the blackened corner almost imperceptible from at least the stall door. He returned and slathered on a few more swipes before he heard a new set of footsteps in the barn. They were not Samuel’s clunky boots. Instead, Mike recognized the shorter gait and lighter step of a female. He moved to the inside wall and saw through the slats the Beth’s tall figure. She was dressed in the trim clothes of an equestrian rider, a cream-colored, form-fitting jacket, and figure-hugging, stretchy pants which flattered her shape subtly. Her outfit was completed with shiny riding boots with brown side panels.
Mike felt the color rise in his cheeks. This was the moment of truth, or at least a version of it, depending upon what Samuel had reported to the princess of Everhart Downs. But rather than announce himself, Mike remained frozen in place, He watched as she took out a small compact and, strangely, checked her face, brushing a few stray strands of her auburn hair that had escaped a braid which, Mike observed, was hanging smartly down her middle back.
“Hello? Is anyone here? Steven, is that you?” Beth’s voice had a bell-like quality. But her question itself seemed slightly hesitant, uncertain.
Mike cleared his voice. “Um, yes. I mean, it’s Mike Sheppard.” Mike emerged from the stall, realizing that the effort he had made earlier in the day on his appearance, his careful shave and his thoughtful attire, had all been erased in the events of the day, making for a complete transformation to Iowa farmer. He emerged from the horse stall feeling more like a mule than a stallion, or perhaps an ass.
“Oh?” She seemed startled. “You?—I mean, hello… Mike. What—what are you doing here?”
The question confirmed all of Mike’s doubts. If she was glad to see him, even pleasantly surprised, this moment would have revealed it. The surprise allowed a glimpse behind the veil of her carefully constructed image. But rather than a bashful and flattered surprise, there seemed to be more of a glazed-over regret. And who was this Steven who had inspired the compact once-over of her appearance?
“Uh, I was… in the area again and I… um… stopped by to see how things were going.”
“You didn’t return to the Cities last Monday? You stay in Iowa?”
“No—I mean, I did return to school, but I came back down through Des Moines on a trip…” Mike was piecing this together and he knew it was obvious. What had happened to his carefully planned soliloquy?
“Samuel said a friend was here to see me. I’m sorry, I just did not expect you again so soon. I thought you would call.” She smiled faintly tilting her head slightly.
Mike realized that his poorly planned trip had not only put himself in an awkward position, but Beth as well. It was unforgiveable. What did he expect her to say? What he expected of course differed from what he hoped. On the trip down all he could picture was a glorious Beth tossing her working gloves to the wind, bounding in slow motion up the drive to meet him as he arrived. That was as far as the daydream had gotten. But what he expected, sadly, was closer to what was playing out in real time.
“I thought I would surprise you,” he said sheepishly. “And, when you were not here, I decided to put in some work, make myself useful. Samuel seemed to need help.”
This set Beth aback on her heels a bit. The reference to Samuel and the demands of work on the farm, seemed to be enough of a diversion to change the tone.
“Yes, he mentioned you helped out in the stalls for the new horses. I brought them with me. Wanna see?”
Mike was relieved that the focus had shifted. “I’d love to!” he said.
“One is just a colt, and the other is his mother, a full-grown mare of three years. I decided to keep them together and bought them both. That was not my plan, but, hey, who knows if I am doing any of this right…” she trailed off.
The self-abasement was a surprise and delighted Mike. She had every right to be rude if she chose to be. Mike had seen the edge in her personality before. She could be commanding and usually got the respect she desired. He was not surprised that the men he had met on her farm referred to her as Mrs. Everhart. Everhart must have been her married name. When they were kids, he knew her as Beth Proudfoot, a name that suited her more in several ways. But Everhart had this ethereal quality that captured something tantalizingly new in her womanhood. He was glad she kept it for that reason alone, even if it belonged to another man, and her children. Mike also considered that Samuel may not have reported the fire to her. Maybe it was for his benefit too, as a fire in the pole barn would not reflect well on his ability to manage the place in her absence.
Beth interrupted his thoughts. “I’ve got them in the trailer still. Can you help me unload them since you are here?” she asked kindly.
Mike relaxed as the tone of her voice had changed. She seemed less suspicious, accepting his presence. Enchanted, he walked next to the owner of Everhart Downs as they made their way through the barn door and out onto the drive. He observed her posture as she walked, straight and confident. He relished the sound of her riding boots clicking on the gravel. Her rhythm carried an unsurprising dignity. How did one survive the loss of a spouse and maintain this level of confidence? It was an extraordinary woman who led him across her property to her truck and her horse-trailer to unload her colt and mare. What did Mike truly have to offer? Nothing but undying devotion if she would have it! And yet, again, who was this Steven? He hoped simply that he was another worker, yet one that inspired a check of her appearance…
The trailer doors opened, Mike pulled out the ramp and secured the clamps on the hooks mounted in the bumper. Beth leaped up next to the colt and untied its harness from the wall of the trailer. Mike did not make a move to do the same with the mare. Remembering what he had almost done to the barn, he did not want to tempt fate a second time and have Beth’s new mare gallop free toward the interstate. Gingerly she handed the bridle of the colt to Mike, and with a delicate look, asked him to lead him down the ramp while she handled the mare. A few minutes later they were back in the barn. Mike led the colt into the stall Samuel had prepared. He watched nervously as Beth took the mare to where he had averted a disaster less than an hour ago. She seemed to linger in the stall longer than he liked. After he closed the stall on the colt, he noticed that the sizzled barn radio was now in a trash can outside the mare’s stall. Had Samuel done that before or had Beth just deposited there? What did she really know? And what had she graciously chosen not to make an issue for his sake?
Mike decided not to focus on this glaring piece of evidence as they met again in the central part of the barn. “So, I guess I should be honest about why I came back,” Mike started.
“Let’s go sit on the veranda,” interrupted Beth.
Mike followed dutifully and waited in a comfortable swinging chair while Beth prepared some tea inside. He felt as though he were dangling at the end of much more than just the chair’s creaking hinge. She emerged and placed a warm cup into his hands.
“So, you were not headed through Des Moines on some business trip?” she asked politely. He recognized that motherly look again in her intelligent eyes, and he understood she came by it naturally. Benjamin and Casey must have been staying with their grandmother while she continued to restore the farm. She was looking at him as a needy, even helpless, child.
“Not exactly. I guess I wanted to talk to you again in person. I’m not good on the phone.” Mike admitted. He waited to see if Beth would respond. But he noticed the natural resoluteness was returning to her expression, the same squint and jaw set that he seen, or felt he saw, when he lacked the courage to ask her out the previous weekend. That visit had not gone as smoothly as he had expressed to the guys. She remained quiet. Mike understood he was on his own to express himself at this point.
“I wanted to see you again in person, to ask you, well, if you would want to… say… get to know one another better. We knew each other as kids, but life is so different now. I know you lost your husband not too long ago, but I was not sure if you were interested…” Mike stopped and realized again the gravity of what he was proposing. For him, as a single male, it was nothing. The sentiment behind what he wanted to say cost him little really: ‘I want to call you my girlfriend and come and see you on the weekends and go out and have some fun in Des Moines.’ Intuitively, he knew from her side this was a much weightier proposition. A mother of a three and two-year-old does not just go have fun on dates in Des Moines, especially when she was also in charge of a farm and had the future of her children to consider in all her decisions, including who she would “get to know better”. Again, the absurdity of what was in his mind crashed into the hard surface of Beth’s reality, like an unknowing bird might careen carelessly into a pane of glass, falling lifeless. Mike’s proposal fell lifeless now.
Mike stopped and looked at her searchingly. But Beth’s face just broke into a grin. She stifled a laugh and, in fact, brought her gloved hand to her lips to conceal another before it escaped her control.
“Umm,” she began, again stifling a chuckle. “Sorry, I don’t mean to laugh. Oh, this is awful. I mean, I am flattered certainly that you drove four hours here today, without calling to be sure I was here.” Mike almost withered under the obviousness of his folly. He was only able to stare at Beth dumbly.
“Mike… you know that I just lost him a year ago…” Her stifled giggle transformed as tears welled up on the rims of her expressive eyes. “I mean…” That was all she got out as her breathing quickened and she brought her glove to her mouth again, but this time it was to stifle the sob that was starting. “It’s okay, I got it. I got it. I’m okay, I’m okay.”
Mike sat stupidly now, fully aware of his selfishness and self-absorption. “Beth, look, I am terribly sorry. This was a mistake. A total mistake.” Mike chopped his hand on the arm of the swinging chair to emphasize his words.
“I don’t mean that,” Beth said. “It’s just, so hard, you know? I have all this now. I did not ask for any of it.”
“And you did not ask for this either—me intruding,” Mike added quickly.
“No, don’t say that, you are sweet.” The tightness in her voice had vanished as quickly as it had come, her eyes now completely dry. “I just need more time.”
“I understand. I’m gonna go.” Mike got up abruptly and after shaking Beth’s hand—he did not know what else to do. As their hands met, he noticed some stray paint spatters on his own and withdrew his hand quickly. He went back down to the barn to change. He returned ten minutes later in his muddy Dockers and scuffed khakis. Beth was still sitting on the veranda, swinging slowly.
“ Please thank Samuel for me,” said Mike, choosing a mature tone. He walked to his car and quickly drove away. In his rearview mirror, he saw Beth was no longer on the porch but had already gone back inside.
“Idiot, complete idiot.” Mike repeated this to himself a hundred times as he made his way solemnly north.
“You almost burned down her barn?” Paul could not control his laughter. “I mean, you gotta admit, that’s pretty funny!”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Mike was not making eye contact with anyone.
“Wait, I am trying to picture this. You drive to the middle of Iowa to, what? ask her out on a date? But you don’t check to see if she is home first. I am I getting this right? You get there and when she is not at home, but out picking up new horses, you volunteer to work in her barn and…”
“And I accidentally—”
“Started a fire!” Paul almost fell off his chair as his body contorted in convulsions of laughter. It was contagious, as now even Thomas giggled uncontrollably.
“‘Common baby light my fire’,” sang Andrew. “Mikey, you gotta admit it, this is the best story of the year!”
“Well, I was hoping it would be a different kind of story, as in the best story of my life.”
“I’m picturing Sheppard coming out of a smoking building, ‘Baby, it’s hot in here…” Paul still could not contain himself.
Thomas regained control and asked, “So was anyone hurt? Like, any animals?”
“Look! Guys! It was never really a fire; it was just smoldering, smoking, you know?”
“Honestly, tell me you at least tried to make it look like you were the hero,” asked Paul, half recovering.
“Hero for what?” demanded Mike.
“For saving her barn?”
“Man, you’re so frigging stupid.”
“I know, I know, sorry. I’m just not gonna be able to get this out of my head now. So, did you ask her out before or after the… the barn fire?”
“More like a dumpster fire,” interjected Thomas.
“Okay idiots, I feel dumb enough already, you don’t need to rub it in.” Mike took a long sip of his beer, happy to have his glass as a prop to grip with both hands; its contents a necessary distraction and eventual sedative effect.
Andrew developed a slow grin and measured his words: “So, Mike, you know that there is a fire in the bo—”
“Yes, I know. I know. There’s a fire in the book,” said Mike mournfully. “Except the shepherd is the hero that puts it out, not the one that started it. He gets a job and she falls in love, almost…”
“Remember when I said you should do things differently than him so that you don’t repeat history…?”
“Yes…” Mike was starting to steam again.
“At least you tried…,” observed Andrew giggling, but his wink defused the explosion that was building in Mike.
At that moment their regular server, Terri, returned to the table. “Another round?”
“Yes, I’ll buy him one,” said Andrew, motioning to Mike. “Anything he wants,” he smirked.
“I’ll take a Sam Adams,” said Mike quietly.
“You okay?” asked Terri.
“Yeah, thanks for asking. The second beer will help.”
“Tough week for me, too,” she said. She swung around the table gracefully and scooped up the empties from where they had collected next to Thomas.
“Sorry to hear that,” Thomas said as she passed by, hoping to direct the conversation away from Mike, who had taken too many hits and near misses. “We all have something, I imagine,” he said sympathetically.
“But all our problems our own, aren’t they? You can’t compare them like apples and oranges. Heavy to me might be light to you, or maybe devastatingly heavy. You never know, do you?” Terri’s surprising depth of meaning stopped all the conversation while she continued retrieving bottles. She appeared suddenly self-conscious, smiling awkwardly at Thomas before leaving.
Paul grinned across the table. “She’s into you, Tommy boy,” Paul said when she was out of earshot.
“No, she’s not. I don’t think we have anything in common.”
“Who cares? She’s cute and sweet. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“You know I don’t.”
“So, what’s holding you back?”
“What’s holding you back with Freya? Huh?” Andrew countered on Thomas’ behalf.
“Nothing, actually. We’ve been hanging out,” answered Paul.
“The Norwegian girl?” asked Mike.
“Yeah, while you were in Iowa, I was sailing up the fjords, we’ll say.”
“Yeah, right,” challenged Thomas. “She likes Jason, anyone will tell you that.”
“She did like Jason, past-tense, or I should say aorist, to pull in the Greek. Finished, completed action. Ol’ Paul, here, is happy to be rebound for Freya and to teach her some more American.”
“Don’t hold back now,” said Thomas sarcastically.
“I might have to hold her back,” said Paul with growing satisfaction. “I’ll tell ya, she’s rebelling against something, that’s for sure! She’s looking to make use of her freedom over here.”
“Just remember you are going into ministry, right?” said Thomas.
“Oh yeah, but I’m a sinner and a saint, don’t forget. Simul Justus, man. Simul Justus.”
“Keep your Justus where it belongs,” responded Thomas. “By the way, I started reading one of those books for Nettleman’s class,” he said, hoping to redirect the topic away from Freya.
“Really? Which one?” asked Mike.
“I’m not going to tell you till I’m done. But I really like it. It’s a Hardy, too. I’m about halfway through.”
“Well, we got a couple of Hardy Boys here now,” said Andrew. “And let me guess, it’s either Jude, the Obscure, or Tess of the d’Urbervilles. And, knowing you, if my guess is correct, your life is about to change.”
“So, we can call you a Hardy Boy too, I suppose, Andy?” asked Thomas.
“It’s Andrew. And yes, I’ve read them all. I’m also turning something into Nettleman. But I don’t need to re-read. Mind like steel trap.” He tapped the side of his head.
“So that leaves only Paul,” observed Thomas.
“Huh? Yeah, right. I live it, I don’t need to read it,” said Paul.