I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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Bill Pody was our love guru. He drank twelve Pepsis a day, smoked three packs of Marlboros, and occasionally ate — usually a cheeseburger. He was forty-one. He lived in a lime green trailer next to a short, concrete silo. From my farm we could see the silo presiding over Pody’s hill.
Pody’s wife had left him. His feet were turning blue, at least what remained of them; he’d lost three toes to the backhoe. Pody’s girlfriends liked to say he loved his farm so much he gave his toes for it.
Pody was an inventor, an alfalfa farmer, and a grade-school principal. He had a habit of saying, “Unh,” every twenty seconds or so, whether he was driving, tinkering with an invention, or drinking Pepsi. My farmhands and I started saying unh, too.
Pody didn’t start out as our love guru; in the beginning, he gave farming advice. In his matter-of-fact slur, he said, “When you get that wagon welded up, John, paint it. Then you’ll be proud of it. Unh.”
I painted it, and then I was proud of it.
He advised, “John, don’t buy a square baler. Buy a big, round baler. Those goddamn square balers are obsolete. Want a Pepsi?”
I bought a big, round baler, and it saved me a lot of work.
Occasionally he’d ask a favor, usually the same one: “Say, John, do you mind if a lady friend parks her car at your farm? I don’t want my other lady friends seeing her car when they drive by and snoop.”
“That’d be fine, Bill.”
That evening a big family sedan would follow Pody’s black pickup to the impromptu parking lot behind my Scotch pines, where the lady friend would get in Pody’s truck, move his six-pack of Pepsi from the seat, and scoot over next to him.
I’d imagine the scene inside the truck as it rode down my long gravel driveway on its way to the green trailer: The lady friend would scan Pody’s bronzed, intelligent face, her gaze lingering on his sensual mouth. She’d glance at his crotch, think about the color of his toes, and wonder whether this was a “redneck Bill” day that would leave her empty and hating her life, or a “sensitive Bill” day that would bring joy to the next several weeks. Pody’s penetrating brown eyes would dart from the fuel gauge to the crops to her eyes to his hill. He’d wonder whether he should have his lady friend duck if he met another lady friend on the road.
Late one spring afternoon, Pody called the farm while I was out planting corn. Amy, a farmhand, answered the phone.
“Unh. Amy? This is Bill. I hate to bother you, but I think I’m having a heart attack. Would you take me to the hospital?”
Bill met Amy outside his trailer, and they sped off.
That night, Sherry called. “How is he?” she cried. “The hospital won’t release any information except to his family. I was with him in the trailer. That’s why he met Amy outside.”
Pody had often said of Sherry, “A lady in public, but a real whore in the bedroom.”
After recovering from the heart attack, Pody left his shop door open certain nights. When the door was open, he would counsel us on love.
“Tell David to get out,” Pody told Amy. “You don’t love him anymore.”
“But, Pody, we’ve been together for five years.”
“You don’t love him, Amy.”
At midnight, Amy came home. “Pody’s door is still open,” she told Ken, another farmhand.
“God damn it, Ken,” Pody said, “can’t you see how Jenny looks at you? She’s crazy about you. Are you going to give that up?”
“Well, yeah, I think so.”
“For what? It’s hard to find that kind of love. She’s devoted to you, Ken. You think there’s something better than that?”
“Frankly, she just doesn’t do it for me, Bill.”
“Get rid of her, then,” Pody instructed.
Jane, my old girlfriend, came to visit.
“You know why she’s here, John?” Pody asked.
“She was going to some workshop in Milwaukee,” I answered, “so she stopped at the farm.”
Pody rolled his eyes. “Bullshit, John. You’re not that dumb.”
I stared at him through the Marlboro smoke, wondering whether it was the sun or his bad heart that caused the coppery color of his skin.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She came all this way to see if you’d marry her.”
“Marry her?” I laughed. “She didn’t tell me that. She told me you hugged her down by the creek. She thought you were going to try to kiss her.”
“I did hug her. That’s when she told me that if you didn’t marry her, she’d marry that optometrist who reminds her of you. She loves you, John.”
“Let me tell you about Jane. When she lived on my farm, she’d leave little notes in the morning, saying, ‘Here’s a dessert I think you’d enjoy making. Try it.’ All day I’d be picking corn, way the hell behind, with something breaking down every couple of hours. She’d get home and I’d be fixing the combine, all covered with grease and dirt and chaff. She’d smile real big and say, ‘How’d the lemon puffs come out?’ ”
“Do you love her, John?”
“Then get your ass down to your place, wake her up, and tell her, so she can get on with her life. Unh.”
In late summer, Bill had another heart attack. This time Ken met him outside the trailer and took him to the hospital.
That night, Connie called. “Is he dead? Is he dead?” she asked. “I was with him. That’s why he met Ken outside the trailer.” I had never heard of Connie.
The phone rang again. “This is Sherry. Was someone else with him? Just tell me — was he inside the trailer or outside? Will he be OK?”
After two weeks, Pody came home.
“The doctor says I’ve got to change, John,” Pody said.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to cut back on cigarettes and eat more cheeseburgers.”
“What about the Pepsis?” I asked.
“Pepsis won’t hurt you,” he declared.
“Why don’t you come down and eat with us, Bill? I’ve got a cook who makes two great meals every day, very nutritious.”
Pody sat at our vegetarian table once. The next time I invited him, he said, “I’m sorry, John, but that’s not food you eat. I hardly recognized a thing on the table. You don’t even eat meat. Unh.”
“She’ll make you cheeseburgers, Bill — anything you like. We want you to stay alive.”
“What are you going to do about Valerie?” he asked.
Although Valerie had jilted me twelve years earlier, I still had a huge crush on her. “Let’s not change the subject. This is your health, your life we’re talking about.”
“What are you going to do about her?” he persisted.
“Because it’s on your mind, God damn it.”
“I think you ought to eat with us is what’s on my mind.”
“Come on, John. She’s always on your mind.”
“What do you think I ought to do about her?” I asked, annoyed. I did not want to discuss Valerie with Pody. Since his second heart attack, his insights were too penetrating. He had touched death, and now his self-assured words landed like a message straight from God.
He said, “I think you oughta get on that fuckin’ phone, call Valerie up, and tell her you wanna roll in the hay with her.”
I blurted a laugh. “Bill, she’s a very sophisticated woman. I can’t call her up and talk to her like that.”
“The hell you can’t.”
“I don’t think you’ve been around this kind of woman, Bill. She’s from a very prominent family of classical musicians. She’s an actress. She graduated from Smith College. Have you ever heard of Smith?”
“No. It don’t matter where she graduated from.”
“She’s refined, Bill. When I was milking, she used to dance ballet between the cows. I can’t call her out of the blue and tell her I want to roll in the hay with her. I don’t even know if she likes me.”
Pody put his Pepsi down and looked at me stonily. “Bullshit. Twelve fuckin’ years you’ve been pussyfooting around with her. She’s just making a fool out of you. Do you know why she’s making a fool of you?”
“Because you won’t ask her to roll in the hay with you. I guarantee that if you call her up and say, ‘Valerie, get your ass out here right away. You know goddamn well we should be rolling in the hay together,’ she’ll do it. She’ll drive right out.”
“Bill,” I said, “she’s married, she loves her kids, and her husband’s got money.”
“It don’t matter. I know about women with kids. I’m a principal. Women come into my office every day to talk about their kids. Then they want to come out to my farm and talk some more. I won’t tell ’em where my farm is, but they find out. It gets kind of empty for ’em when their kids are in school. The kids don’t need ’em anymore, and their husbands have got girlfriends. But be careful, John. You call Valerie, you’ll have her — and you might not want her.”
The next day, I made big, round bales of hay. Chaff and sweat caked my skin. The tractor roared. The baler whirred and swirled. I watched a huge bale spin bigger and bigger in the chamber. I thought about Valerie and myself twelve years earlier: We lay in the tall September grass listening to the creek gurgle. I rolled on top of her, my thumbs hooked around her panties. Her brown eyes pleaded, “Yes, be the first, my farmer. Be my first.”
I hesitated as mosquitoes bit me savagely. I unhooked my thumbs. “I can’t stand the mosquitoes, Valerie,” I said. “Let’s go.”
The memory was still on my mind that night as I rehearsed my lines: “Valerie, God damn it, listen, I want you to . . .” Too abrupt. “Valerie, I think it’s about time you and I rolled in —” I broke out laughing. Finally, trembling, I called Valerie. The closest I got to asking her to roll in the hay with me was talking about my big, round bales.
The following spring, Nathan and I were about to leave the farm to pick up flowers for a Passover Seder when Pody called. His heart had given out a third time. He met us outside his trailer. I drove. Pody lay in the back seat. Nathan held him.
“It smells in here, John. You should get the exhaust fixed,” Pody admonished. “Unh.”
“I will, Bill.”
“Nathan, my shoes are too tight.”
Nathan removed Pody’s shoes.
“John, if I don’t make it this time, tell Mrs. Rivers I want her to have the commission on the Sanders farm.”
Pody’s eyes fluttered, and he died.
That evening, Mrs. Rivers called. “Bill’s dead, isn’t he? I was with him,” she said gently. “That’s why he met you outside.”
“Yes, he’s dead.”
“You should have seen how blue his toes were the last couple of weeks,” she said with a sigh.
Bill had often said, “Always a lady, that Mrs. Rivers.”
“If the Sanders farm sells, he wants you to have the commission,” I told her.
“Did he say that when he was dying?”
“Yes, Mrs. Rivers.”
Sherry called. “Did he say anything about me when he was dying?” she asked. “We were going to get married, you know. He was going to make a will and I was going to get everything.”
“No, he didn’t say anything about you, Sherry.”
Then Barbara called. I had never heard of Barbara. “He’s dead — I know it. I can’t talk to my husband about it. I can’t tell my friends. I can’t tell anyone.”
“Yes, he’s dead, Barbara.”
“I don’t have anything of his. I want something, anything.” She was hysterical. “You don’t understand what it’s like. I can’t just go out to his place and get something. His wife can. She can take anything she wants, but she doesn’t even care. It doesn’t matter to her. I want something. Do you have anything of Bill’s?”
“I might have some tools, but I don’t think so. I was pretty good about returning them.”
“Think, please! Anything at all. Just something.”
I hesitated. “I’ve got his shoes,” I said.
“Oh, God, his shoes.” Her voice quavered. “Could I have them? Please?”
One shoe seemed like enough, I thought. Pody’s other lady friends might want something, too. But then I’d have to explain who had the other shoe. Would Pody’s wife want his shoes, even though she and Pody had been separated for five years? Would the hospital tell her his body had arrived without shoes?
“You can have the shoes, Barbara,” I said.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
But how would I get them to her? Would she come to my door and wait for me to hand her the shoes? Should the shoes be in a bag? A box? Would I invite her in? All the Passover guests would be here. Would she come in and sit down and cry? Maybe she’d make small talk with the guests while I sat there wondering if it was time to bring out Pody’s shoes. Maybe I should be wearing his shoes while we chatted; then, when it was time for her to leave, I’d just take them off and hand them to her.
“They’ll be in a paper bag in the brush behind my mailbox,” I said.
The Passover guests arrived. We sat in the dark talking softly about Pody and watched out the window for Barbara. Her headlights scanned the night sky as she passed over Pody’s hill. Her four-door family car stopped at my mailbox, where she got out and searched the brush with her flashlight. Clutching the bag to her chest, she got back in and drove off.
After the funeral, Pody’s girlfriends called me regularly. Each wanted to know how Bill had felt about her, and especially what he’d said about her when he was dying. I was embarrassed, because I had never heard of several of them.
That June, a rock smashed my big, round baler. I was lying under it, assessing the damage, when Mrs. Rivers drove into the yard. I continued working as we talked.
“We’re meeting every week for lunch,” Mrs. Rivers said solemnly.
From under the baler, I could see Mrs. Rivers only from the knees down. She wore nylons and navy blue pumps.
“How do you know each other?” I asked.
“We met at the funeral. Didn’t you see us in the back of the church?”
“I remember some veiled women in back. I figured maybe they were teachers from his school.”
“That’s good. Maybe his family thought that, too.”
“What did you do, exchange phone numbers at the funeral?”
“How many of you meet?”
“What do you talk about?”
“The others want to find out who Bill loved the most. That’s why they call you all the time, John. Whatever you tell them, they discuss endlessly at our weekly luncheons.”
I slid out from under the baler and stood up. “I don’t have much to tell them. The only one he mentioned when he was dying was you, Mrs. Rivers. I don’t know who he loved the most, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was you. He said you were always a lady.”
“I don’t even care who Bill loved the most.” She looked at the sky and took a deep breath. “Just to know he loved me is enough.”
“So why do you go to these luncheons?” I asked.
“To talk about Bill.”
In the fall, I stopped at the farm of Pody’s sister and asked if I could custom bale some cornstalks for her cattle. Pody’s sister talked to me through her screen door.
“Are you the ones putting flowers on Bill’s grave?”
“We thought maybe your farmhands were doing it.”
“We don’t have time to run over to Bill’s grave and put flowers on it.”
“OK,” she said, “I believe you.”
The following week, Mrs. Rivers called.
“You won’t believe what they’re doing to Bill’s grave,” she said. “They’re pulling out the flowers and scattering them around the cemetery.”
“How do you know it’s not a jealous girlfriend?”
“The others don’t care enough to visit his grave anymore.”
“Do you still meet?”
“Yes, but not once a week.”
The ground froze and Mrs. Rivers called again.
“The family didn’t even care enough to put a grave blanket on Bill’s grave. I put one on, and they threw it off.”
“What’s a grave blanket?”
“It keeps the grave warm. They left a note saying that if Bill had really loved whoever was fussing over his grave, he would’ve gotten a divorce and married her. But he must’ve loved his wife, since he didn’t divorce her.”
“Bill was a procrastinator,” I offered.
“I left a long letter on the grave.”
“What’d you say?”
“I said they didn’t understand Bill, that he was very sensitive. He loved the farm so much — that’s why he lost his toes in that accident. I said they didn’t even try to understand Bill, and that’s why he died unhappy.”
“They crumpled it up and threw it on another grave. And they left a note that whoever was leaving notes should stop it and should stop visiting his grave. I wrote that I would keep writing notes and keep visiting his grave.”
I pictured grave blankets, dead flowers, and crumpled letters strewn about the stark, modern cemetery where Pody was buried. A tidy man, Pody had often said that the entrance to a home expressed a person’s character. He’d taken special pride in his mailbox. I considered making a mailbox at the foot of Pody’s grave, and a discreet trash basket.
As time passed, Pody’s girlfriends called less and less. Mrs. Rivers made her last trip to my farm two years after Pody died. She stood and cried in the middle of my living room for two hours, then left.
One fall morning, I heard shouting and banging on Pody’s hill. His wife had hired a crew to scrap the trailer. That afternoon, on a long flatbed, ragged sheets of lime green steel flapped and screeched past my farm.