“A Field to Mow”
A short story
Ira Witmer drove the green John Deere tractor past the “FOR SALE” sign and into the field where his friend Daniel Mellinger used to grow corn, tobacco, and alfalfa. Ira had to mow this field, all ten acres, and he was not happy about it, not one bit. Dan Mellinger had been a good Christian farmer; their families had gone to the Rock Mill Mennonite Church together. Now Mellinger was dead, his kids scattered to the wind. Mellinger’s old wife Ruth was losing her memory in the Mennonite home, and the farm was up for sale. Mellinger was only ten years older than Ira, and here was Ira, who should be retired already, mowing a field of weeds that should be growing corn.
This was a beautiful piece of land, sitting on a ridge along the south side of Long Lane, which followed an old Indian trail from the Susquehanna River. There were about fifty acres, starting at Long Lane and stretching down a rambling hill into old woods, where Blossom Creek ran through. The view from this field took your breath away. It was what Ira’s boss, Abe Stehman the realtor, called “prime real estate.”
Stehman had phoned Ira this morning and told him to be sure and finish mowing the place before five o’clock, at which time he was going to show the property to some “real important people from out of town.” Ira said sure, of course. He needed this job. His wife had broken her hip the Christmas before, and the hip replacement surgery cost tens of thousands of dollars. Ira’s kids weren’t being much help. Three had kids and problems of their own. Thank God Medicare took care of most of the bills, even though Ira hated taking money from the government, which he was pretty sure was in league with the Devil.
Ira was sixty-four years old, and today he was feeling it. It was a tricky ten acres, with some rock outcroppings and lots of groundhog mounds. Mowing it would take all day, he was pretty sure. That’s why he was starting early. The sun was just rising over the hills to the east.
Ira took his time mowing the first round. The weeds were so high he couldn’t see the rocks or the groundhog holes. He didn’t want to start the day breaking a blade or an axle, so he went slow, watching ahead, then back, as wet clumps of chewed-up weeds plopped out behind the mower, like little green piles of horse shit.
Going down on the right, he went close to the hedgerow — a line of tulip poplars, sweet gums, locusts, and sumacs, poking above an old broken-down fence and thick brambles and honeysuckle vines that made it all one hairy mess. Dan Mellinger had let the place go in his final years; too bad his sons hadn’t stepped in to take care of the farm.
The weeds Ira was cutting were also a mess: pigweed, lamb’s quarters, Queen Ann’s Lace, alfalfa, clover, foxtail, and the odd stalk of corn or wheat coming up from old seed.
At the bottom of the field, in the shade of the trees by the creek bed, the dirt got soggy; Ira kept his speed up so he wouldn’t sink in and get stuck. Coming back up the other side, he cut close to the property line, where a new electric fence separated the old Mellinger place from the next farm over, where the corn stood up to the top of his tractor tires.
As he got up close to the top of the hill again, Ira scowled at the new houses popping up along Long Lane to the east. They were ugly one-story things with aluminum siding, asphalt rooftops and skinny trees in front on new-planted lawns. Ugly as sin, Ira thought.
It was a sin, turning this beautiful farmland into tract housing. Ira remembered thirty years ago, driving Long Lane all the way and not seeing one new house, just the beautiful old two-story brick farmhouses, the clean white barns, the rolling fields and woodlands. It seemed like a dream; now it was all city folk moving here, to what was fast becoming a suburb of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Ira felt sick as he remembered selling his own farm. He just couldn’t afford to keep going, the way everything kept getting more expensive. The guy who bought Ira’s place turned around and subdivided it into ten-acre lots for rich folks to build little mansions. Ira couldn’t bear to drive by there any more. The house where he’d raised his kids was gone, as was the barn. It burned him like mad to remember the buyer promising, “Oh, I think I’ll keep the place just like it is,” then next thing Ira knew, they were bulldozing the barn he’d worked so hard to keep painted and fixed.
The jolt of his tractor tire dipping steeply into a groundhog hole, then out again rocked Ira and brought him back to his current job, mowing the Mellinger farm; but quickly his mind wandered again, remembering the first time his dad told him to drive the old Allis Chalmers tractor for a hay wagon, one hot August day fifty years ago. Then fourteen, Ira was nervous behind the wheel, trying to work the stiff stick shift. Six or eight local boys were helping pull dried hay bales off the hayfield and throw them up onto the wagon. A thunderstorm was coming and Dad said, “Hurry up, Ira, it’s fixin’ to rain.” Ira tried to hurry, and he hit a groundhog hole, dumping half the load of hay back onto the meadow. Guys were tumbling onto the ground with the bales. It was almost funny, and nobody got hurt, but Dad was mad as hell and made Ira get off the tractor and help throw the bales back onto the wagon. That day the rain came in fast and half the load got soaked and ruined. It was Ira’s fault, and nobody let him forget it, either. Later his dad gave him a whipping behind the barn, with a switch from the apple tree. Dad made him drop his pants and he screamed as the switch cut into his bare behind. It wasn’t fair because it was only his second time driving the tractor. But Dad was always right, and the Bible said honor thy father and thy mother, and spare the rod and spoil the child. After that Ira looked out for groundhog holes when he was on the tractor, and he shot the fat suckers with a .22 rifle every chance he got.
Ira was about a third done when he saw Stehman’s Cadillac Escalade pulled off on a tilt by the side of the road. Short, fat, pale-faced Abe Stehman was standing, hands on hips, looking at what Ira had done. A faint wind tugged at his plaid suit pant and jacket, and blew a shock of gray hair over his mottled skull.
Ira pulled up close and cut the throttle. Stehman always looked so strange in the sunlight, like he had been in a tobacco cellar all his life.
Stehman’s face looked angry as hell. Ira knew right away he was in trouble. He tried to lighten the mood, talking like an Amishman: “What can I do you for, Mr. Stehman?”
Stehman wasn’t amused: “Were you over at Chestnut Hill apartments yesterday?”
“Sure. Remember, you told me to empty the dehumidifiers in the basement where you keep the extra furniture.”
“Did you lock the door when you left?” It seemed like Stehman’s watery eyes were trying to burn a hole through Ira’s skull, but their milky blue just looked sick in the bright sunlight.
Ira said, “I always lock the door, you know that. Why, what happened?”
“Somebody – probably some kids – got in there and made a total mess of the place.”
“What’d they do?”
“Cut up all the armchairs and sofas, busted the mirrors, smashed the dehumidifiers, spray-painted filthy words on the walls, and flooded the whole place by leaving a faucet running.
“Dang,” said Ira. “I told you we need better locks on those doors.”
“I don’t think it was locked,” said Stehman. “I’ve been over there half a dozen times when the doors from the first-floor laundry room were left unlocked.”
“That wasn’t me.”
“Who else has the key, Ira?”
“You, your boy….”
“My son is not a boy. He’s a fine young man. I trust him. He would never leave that door open.”
“I’ve seen him over there visiting one of the girls. I even caught the two of them down there one afternoon, smoking something, half-naked….”
Stehman’s face reddened and his eyes bugged halfway out of his head. “You’re lying to cover your own butt. I should fire you right here and now.”
Ira wanted to say, Go ahead, you evil old money-grubber, but he knew how hard it would be to find another job at his age. Besides, he loved riding the tractor under the sun. So he kept his mouth shut, while his guts burned with black fire.
Stehman said, “I’m gonna give you one more chance. If you finish this field by five, maybe I’ll keep you on. Otherwise, you’re out of here.”
Ira managed: “I’ll do it, Mr. Stehman.”
“Good. And don’t you ever accuse my boy again, especially to cover your own damned behind.”
Ira started up the tractor and pulled back towards the field of weeds. He imagined drawing a bead on Stehman’s head with a .22, like he was a big fat groundhog standing up on his burrow.
At noon Ira stopped his tractor under a tree by the hedgerow and sat down with a sandwich his wife had packed for him. Bless her heart, she’d given him ham and cheese, his favorite. He closed his eyes for a moment in silent prayer, thanking God for his wife, even though they hadn’t made love for twelve years or more. The sandwich and the smell of fresh-cut weeds and the music of locusts and the cold iced tea gave him a moment of peace, and he felt lucky.
Ira was feeling pretty good as he swung back up onto the tractor. The shadows of the hedgerow trees crept slowly over the field as Ira mowed.
Only an acre of weeds remained when Ira heard a loud bang, like a deer rifle shot against sheet steel. He’d hit a rock.
Ira idled the tractor and swung down off his seat. He examined the field behind him and sure enough, about twenty feet back, there it was – an outcropping of limestone half-covered by weeds, with fresh white scrape marks where the mower had hit.
Next to the mower Ira knelt and craned his head around to peer into the darkness. The two mower blades, usually sticking straight out from each other, now swung uselessly together.
“Damn,” whispered Ira.
* * *
Ira walked to the Mellinger barn, where Stehman had an old land-line phone. They used the barn to store extra lumber, bed frames and such. (Ira didn’t have one of those new-fangled cell phones. He’d read somewhere they give you tumors in the head. Ira didn’t need that.)
“Stehman Realty. May I help you?”
“Yes, is Mr. Stehman there?”
“This is Ira Witmer.”
“And what is this regarding?”
“I have a little emergency.”
“Just a moment, please.”
Ira picked at a hangnail. It started bleeding.
“What is it now, Ira?”
Ira had trouble talking. “Uh, I’m still here at the Mellinger place, and I’ve hit a rock. The mower blades are screwed up pretty bad. I’m gonna have to take it in to Kendig’s.”
Stehman was quiet, then: “Can’t you fix it yourself?”
“I don’t think so. It’s gonna take power tools.”
“Have you tried fixing it?”
“Mr. Stehman, the blades are knocked sideways and the nut that holds them on is burred pretty bad. I don’t see….”
“Ira, you hit the rock, you fix the damn mower, and you get that damn field mowed by five, or you’re fired. Got that?” The phone banged down and the line went silent.
Ira found a big wrench in the tool shed next to the barn. It was a little rusted, but it was all he had.
He walked back towards the tractor in the middle of the field. The hot afternoon sun burned on his neck. Now he was in for it. He would just have to fix the damn mower. That was all there was to it.
At the mower, Ira took a deep breath, lay down on his back, and slid underneath, into the cool darkness with the thick green smell.
Taking the wrench, he fit it over the nut holding the two blades to the pinion. Wouldn’t budge. Holding the wrench head firm around the nut, he planted one foot against the outer rim of the mower and strained. It wouldn’t move. Harder he pushed and his eyes bugged out. He felt like his head was going to explode.
He let up a second and set his jaw, then tightened his knuckles around the handle of the wrench and pushed, down with his foot and up with his arm, as hard as he could. His arm trembled.
A picture of the basement, full of ruined furniture, the sofas slashed and stuffing all over the place.
Stehman’s son Rudy, pulling up his pants, and the girl grabbing her shirt to cover her naked tits.
Suddenly Ira’s hands were pushing through into nothing and his knuckles punched hard on the inside rim of the mower. The wrench had slipped.
“God damn it.” Ira rubbed both hands. It hurt like hell. In the half-light he could see his knuckles bleeding, weed pulp in the scrape wounds.
Stehman’s bleary eyes, squinting up in the sun, accusing.
Ira grabbed the wrench and tightened it around the nut. He pushed, and pushed harder. He put both feet against the rim and pushed, arching up, his body one tool pushing, hanging over the ground like a powerful spring.
What happened next, Ira saw like he was watching a movie on his son’s TV. The wrench slipped again and his arm shot forward and the mower blades swung around and caught him right between the eyes. There was a blinding light, like the flashbulbs they used for wedding pictures, and everything was black and humming, vibrating, like an airplane he’d gone up in once, then Ira was up in the air, looking down. He saw the mower with his two feet sticking out from underneath. He knew that he was dead, or dying, but nothing mattered now. Nothing mattered. He was free.
* * *
Abe Stehman met the New York people at the Lancaster County airport with a limousine that cost him a hundred dollars an hour. The whole family had flown down in their private plane just to see the Mellinger place. These days, with the tight economy, it was hard enough to find people who could afford to buy ten acres, let alone a whole fifty-acre farm, with enough money left over to build a dream home.
Well, for them it was a dream, but for Abe Stehman, it was survival. He’d sunk all his money into a big development north of Lancaster, and it had turned to shit. Costs had run triple because environmentalists had sued about the way he was messing up a woodland, and then he’d had so much trouble finding homebuyers that he’d had to file for Chapter 11. Now his son was fighting drug charges – the police had busted him with a pound of marijuana in the trunk of his car. Of course Dad must pay the legal fees.
Abe Stehman had to sell the Mellinger place, or he was fucked. These people from New York were his last hope. Everything was riding on this deal.
The New York family’s last name was Russian, and Stehman had practiced pronouncing it as he drove to the airport. Makshinoff. Makshinoff. Makshinoff. Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Makshinoff.
The man looked to be about fifty, with salt-and-pepper hair, a tired face, and eyes that looked dead inside. He wore a black turtleneck and black trousers. Stehman flashed on something he’d heard about a lot of Russian mafia in New York. He hoped this man wasn’t one of them, but then he banished the thought from his mind and shook the hand warmly. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Makshinoff. And this must be Mrs. Makshinoff.”
The pretty, blue-eyed wife couldn’t have been older than thirty. They had two kids with them, a boy about eight and a girl about six. The wife shook his hand; the kids ignored it. The wife said nothing.
They drove for a while in silence. Mr. Makshinoff’s English was heavily accented, although the wife spoke to the kids in better English, and the kids spoke like Americans when they whined for a bathroom. Stehman stopped at a mini-market in New Danville to buy the kids ice cream and let them use the bathroom. In the parking lot, he pointed out the nice view of distant farms. “It’s even nicer, where we’re going.”
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” said the wife, smiling sweetly. Her husband gave a tense flicker of his cheek muscles.
When they pulled up at the Mellinger place, Stehman said, “Welcome to heaven on earth.” He opened the back door of the limousine for the wife and kids with a theatrical flourish and waved his arm to accentuate the view. The place would sell itself, he was sure of it.
The Makshinoffs stood together looking around. The husband squinted at the small houses Mellinger had just built to the east on Long Lane, as if to say, What kind of a fucking neighborhood is this? The couple spoke quietly in Russian for a moment. Then Stehman said, “Let me take you down the hill a little. Wait ‘til you see the creek and the woods.”
As they mounted the small rise, following the tractor tracks, Stehman was saying, “The old house and barn can be torn down, of course.”
When they reached the rounded top of the meadow, Stehman saw the tractor, motionless by a wide patch of unmowed weeds. His heart sank. Damn him, Ira Witmer had flaked out.
The wife was looking around at the view. Stehman’s hopes rose. She said, “It’s so beautiful. And quiet.”
Meanwhile, the boy had run down to the tractor. He stared at the mower and said, “Mommy! There’s a man and he’s not moving!”
Stehman walked quickly down the hill toward the tractor. Damn him, Ira was probably still trying to fix the mower, the incompetent asshole.
Stehman saw the trouser legs and work boots. They weren’t moving. Stehman felt his lungs collapsing into his stomach. “Ira?”
No answer. The boy looked at Stehman, then back down at Ira’s feet.
By now the Makshinoffs had reached the scene, holding hands with the little girl. All three stood looking at Ira’s feet. The father said something to his wife in Russian; the woman took the little boy and girl back up the hill, towards the car.
The Russian looked at Stehman and knelt, feeling Ira’s feet. “Cold. He’s dead,” said Makshinoff. “Maybe one hour, more.”
Stehman didn’t want to touch the body. It was bad enough that a potential customer was finding death where he hoped to raise his family; now he started imagining lawsuits.
Meanwhile Makshinoff was pulling on Ira’s feet. A hairy, unnaturally white stomach slid into view, revealed as the shirt was rumpled up by the dragging, then Abe saw the shirt stained dark. Was that blood? Yes, Ira’s face was caked with blood. It looked as if a big machete had cut him right on the bridge of the nose. There was so much blood.
Stehman felt the surge in his guts; he mumbled an excuse, turned and started running, but he stumbled and fell. On his hands and knees in the clotted clumps of freshly-mowed weeds, he lost his lunch: a turkey and bacon club sandwich with pickled corn. He looked up and saw Mrs. Makshinoff and the kids up the hill, watching him. The woman took her kids’ hands and led them back to the limousine.
After he cleaned up, Stehman called 911 on his cell phone. Mr. Makshinoff said he and his family wanted to get back to the airport, but Stehman needed to stay for the ambulance and coroner, so he sent them back in the limousine.
The ambulance came first, then the sheriff, then the coroner. The sheriff said it was obviously an accident; he’d known Stehman for years, even let Stehman go once when he had a little fender-bender after a New Years Eve party.
The sun had gotten low on the horizon by the time they finished checking everything. The ambulance took Ira’s body. Stehman watched the taillights blink out of sight over the hill, then stood there in the field of the old Mellinger place as crickets started chirping in the hedgerow.
He’d been a farmer’s son, Stehman had, and he missed the way things used to be. It was weird, but now he didn’t care that Ira had probably queered the Makshinoff deal. He felt sorry about Ira and he felt sorry about pushing him too hard and he felt sorry for Ira’s wife. He felt sorry that he was selling the best farmland in the world for tract housing and luxury homes. He felt like a worthless piece of shit, and he wanted a drink.
He walked slowly up the hill, not hearing the crickets, not seeing the sunset behind him, as he called for a taxi.
The last of the sun dipped orange behind the hills, touching the gray mackerel clouds with wavetops of fuscia. Choruses of crickets rose with the call of a mockingbird, then the hoot of an owl. No cars passed on the road for many minutes.
Above the tractor in the hollow, above the weeds still standing tall, above the clover and the Queen Anne’s Lace and the alfalfa and the pigweed, fireflies rose in the honeysuckle air of early dusk.