Prairie Fever: Prequel

At no time, since they met on the Walters’ farm, had he foreseen this reality; nothing had warned him when he’d glanced across the yard full of friends and workers all drinking lemonade or beer and had been overwhelmed by the child-bearing hips of a young woman, looked to be about 25, who made his heart beat faster, and that then, two years later, after their marriage, before his eyes, she would change into the whining, preening, suffering creature whose existence he tried to everyday to deny. A skinnier woman, still with curvaceous legs however, but a constricted, repressed woman whose eyes blazed every moment with reproach, mostly for him, but ostensibly for every living person, whose false smile was as ugly as his bunioned feet after 10 and one-half hours of lifting 50-pound bags of cattle feed, his own damp underwear, and his own smell of grain dust.

It happened soon after their marriage. They had plans to go out with their new neighbors on their side-street, single-story, white-slab house in a new tract of cheap homes in Torrington. She was alone, sitting very straight at the mirror and trying hard to apply her make up. Her eyes were still red and blinking, but she gave him a small smile before turning back to the mirror. “Hi, You ready to leave?” He closed the door and started toward her with a look that he hoped would be full of love and compassion; what he planned to do was bend down and kiss her. But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him that she didn’t want to be touched, which left him uncertain what to do with his hands.

Will you do me a favor? The thing is, will you tell the Klumpers we can’t go out? It’s going to look rude isn’t it? I don’t think much of them and would rather go to the movies just with you.

You mean you won’t tell them.

She closed her eyes. OK, I will then. Thanks a lot.

Her face in the mirror, shining with cold cream looked 40 years old, instead of 26, and as haggard as if it were set for root canal.

They are going to think its rude. I can’t help that.

All right, you go along with them, if you want to and give me the car keys

Oh, shit. Don’t start with the car keys. Why do you always have to –

Look, Doug. Her eyes were still shut. I’m not going out with those people. I don’t happen to feel very well and I…

OK. He was backing away, holding out trembling hands like a man waiting for a mugger to get close enough to club him. OK. I’m sorry. I’ll call them. I’ll be right back. I’m sorry.

He didn’t realize it at the time, but she had won a battle and already was prepping to win the war. Many more times he would fight a rearguard action until he no longer fought, but just jumped, like a nervous cat.

The floor rolled under his feet like the deck of a moving ship as he made his way to the living room phone and dialed. “No, no she’s OK. Really. It’s a scratchy throat.”

She was waiting for him, ready with a pleasant social face for anyone they might meet in town but they avoided them all. She led him through the back door of their house, out of sight of the Klumpers’ place two doors down. Their back yard opened onto 50 yards of empty, whispering soybean fields. They walked without touching each other and without speaking, moving in and out of the oblongs of street lights that lay on the sidewalks leading to “downtown.”

Walking now through the same farmyard smells in which he had first met her three years ago, he allowed his rising sense of poignance to encompass her as well as the sadness of her own childhood. He wasn’t often able to do this. She, like him, crisply told of her memories and didn’t allow for sentimentality.

I always knew nobody cared about me and I always let everybody know I knew it. She had entered the town’s junior college after graduating high school with honors. But her folks had pushed her into marriage when Doug proposed. She secretly also had had a pending long-distance marriage proposal from Jack, who was still stationed in the Navy in Japan. In her heart, she had wanted to wait for him and finish college. Jack was dashing and ambitious and smart. Doug was movie-star handsome also, but had only an eighth-grade education and no ambitions other than having kids. She had done what she had always done, given into what she thought her parents wanted.

He had hoped she would sit close to him in the theater–he wanted to hold her shoulders while they watched-but she made herself very small and pressed against the side of her seat, turning away to watch the people to make sure the Klumpers weren’t at the same movie. This caused his eyes to water and his mouth to tighten as he watched, until finally, licking his lips, he thought of something to say:

You are the only person that matters to me.

All right, could we stop talking about it now?

Sure we can. He tried to pat her thigh but she stiffened again, just enough that he noticed. His eyes watered up again. He felt like a kid waiting for his mother to “whup” him.

He had grown up on an Iowan farm with four brothers and three sisters. He was drafted and managed to avoid the Army until after the war. Finally going further than 30 miles from the family farm and sharing feelings with other guys in Torrington had brought his own confidence up. It seemed a time of rapid, dizzy self-confidence.

His character seemed suddenly to coalesce. For the first time in his life he was admired, and the fact that girls could actually want to go to bed with him was only slightly more fantastic than his other discovery-that men other than his brothers would actually listen to him.

His marks at school were at best Ds and Cs, but there was nothing wrong with his performance on the beery all-night talks in Italy in 1946.

But then it nagged him that none of the girls he’d known had given him a sense of triumph. He was never in doubt of being able to land a classy girl. His own mother was classy, although unschooled. He’d seen two or three though he’d never come close enough to touch their hands. Wasn’t it logical to expect that he’d be limited to farm-country, quiet, nicotine-stained sorts of women?

One night, bolstered by four beers, after 12 hours of baling hay in 90-degree sunlight, at a farm party, he had walked across that yard and said: I guess I didn’t get your name.

To him, even though she was standing in the farmland where she’d been born and raised, she was a first-rate girl whose shining hair and splendid legs had drawn him a bit out of the shell that had begun to re-enter with his discharge from the Army.

I’m Mary.

Within five minutes he found he could make Mary laugh, that he could not only hold the attention of her eyes but that she would follow the shape of his face.

What do you do?

I’m a farmhand.

No. I mean really. What are you really interested in?

I expect to finish up school. Folks never pushed us past the eighth grade. I want to own a farm-equipment store here in Torrington, or around this part of the country.

That sounds like me. My folks made it impossible for me to finish college.

Oh, we could take care of that. We could go to school at the same time, just different schools.

Five minutes later he found the small of Mary’s back rode neatly in his hand and a week after that almost to the day she was lying miraculously nude beside him in the first blue light of day on the Haren’s farm where he worked, just across the cross-country two-lane Highway 16 from her Walters home.

(Honeymoon SEQUENCE?} , drawing her delicate finger down his face from brow to chin and whispering, Doug, you’re the most interesting man I’ve ever met.

Mary took the camera off the top shelf of the closet. She had only a draped blanket over her small-breasted chest by child-bearing-hipped body. Her hair completely disheveled, she stuck her head and her 1950 Kodak B&W camera out of the window and snapped a candid photo of Doug as he leaned against the side of the motel gate, his back to her, facing the sun. He loved the out-of-doors and the sun, just as she did.

She giggled loud enough for Doug to hear. He turned and said “Why you!” pointing his finger at her, still 20 yards away. He then mock-combed his hair and struck a pose facing her-one very similar to a photo she’d seen of him in Italy in 1946. Cocky, manly, bold. She snapped the photo.

He ran to the motel unit. She quickly put her blouse and slacks on, knowing he was going to grab the camera from her. She didn’t want any nude shots filtering down through the years to her grandchildrens’ hands.

He burst into the room. “Gimme that thing!” They mock wrestled with her giggling and him pretending to snarl “Don’t get me riled!” She willingly gave him the camera. He said, “get outside!” “I’m not going out in public this way!” “We’re on a farm in the middle of nowhere!” You’re clothed for crying out loud. She laughed and, blushing, bounced down the steps to the house’s back door “patio”-just a 10 x 4 foot chunk of cement, 8 inches high.

She turned around and he snapped a shot. “you fool. My hair!” “It’s fine, honey. The first time he’d called her anything but Mary. She quickly pulled her fingers through it to shape it around her head. He snapped another.

The beginnings of her George Patton-personality crept in: “Get by that tree.” Doug obeyed, but managed to strike a goofy pose.”

Those shots survived 56 years to land in Joe’s hands after his dad’s funeral. He was thrilled and shocked looking at them as he had been when his father cried shamelessly, continuously like a baby during the two years after her death and before his own.

The movie had finished. Neither could recall the plot.

As they walked home, he spoke of the Klumpers again.

Doug, could you please stop talking now, before you drive me crazy?

He stopped and stood leaning on a parking meter on main street in Torrington. The street was deserted, but for one or two other movie goers crossing over towards lakeside homes. He tried to take her in his arms. No, Doug, please don’t do that. Just leave me alone, OK?

It’s only that I want to.

Leave me alone. Leave me ALONE.

He drew himself back and leaned there for a minute, listening to the beating of blood in his eardrums.

I think there’s a lot of bullshit going on here. Number one…

She was off the sidewalk now and running away down mainstreet itself, in the street lights, quick and graceful, a bit wide in the hips. For a second as he started after her he thought she meant to kill herself-she was capable of damn near anything at times like this-but she stopped in the street 30 yards ahead, beside the luminous Rickbeils’ Hardware sign. He came up and stood breathing hard, keeping his distance. She wasn’t crying she was only standing there, with her back to him.

What the hell is this all about. Come on, let’s go home.

I will in a minute. Just let me stand here a minute, alright?


She didn’t answer.

Look. Could we just sit in the house, or on a bench somewhere, and talk about it instead of running all over 10th Street?

Haven’t I made it clear that I don’t particularly want to talk about it

OK OK Jesus Mary. I’m trying as hard as I can to be nice but ….

How kind of you. How terribly terribly kind of you.

WAIT a minute. Listen a minute. He tried to swallow but his throat was very dry. I don’t know what you’re trying to prove here but I do know one thing. I know damn well I don’t deserve this.

You’re always so definite aren’t you on what you do and don’t deserve. She swept past him and walked back towards the theater.

No WAIT a minute. He was stumbling after her in the unmown lawn of someone’s front yard.

She leaned with the backs of her thighs against a fence and folded her arms in an elaborate display of resignation while he jabbed and shook a forefinger at her.

You listen to me. This is one time you’re not going to get away this crap. You know what you are when you’re like this?

Oh God, if only we’d stayed home tonight.

When you’re like this, you’re sick. I really mean that.

And do you know what you are? Her eyes raked him up and down. You’re disgusting.

Then the fight went out of control. It made their arms and legs shake and twisted their faces into shapes of hatred. It urged them harder and deeper into each other’s weakest points. It went on and on.

Oh, you never fooled me, Doug, never once. All your holier-than-thou religious morality and your “love.” Oh, I’ve always known I had to be your guts. Just because you’ve got me safely in a trap you think you—

YOU in a trap. YOU in a trap. JESUS You are full of beans!

Yes, me. She made a claw of her hand and clutched at her collarbone. Me. You poor deluded shitass. Tell me by what stretch of imagination you can call yourself a man!

He swung out one trembling fist for a blow to her head and she cowered against the fence in fear; then instead of hitting her he danced away in a silly imitation of a boxer’s footwork and hit the roof of a car parked on main street. When he finished, the sound of the unrelenting prairie wind was the only sound for miles.

God damn you, he said quietly. God damn you, Mary.

With parched mouths sucking in air and with wobbling heads and shaking limbs they settled themselves enough for the 12-block walk home. Already they looked like very old and tired people.

As the house swam up close in the darkness, they tensed their shoulders and set their jaws for long bouts of endurance. Mary went first, swaying blindly, through the kitchen pausing to steady herself against the refrigerator and Doug came blinking behind her. Then she touched a wall switch and the living room exploded into clarity In the first shock of light it seemed to be floating, all its content adrift. The sofa was here and the big table there, but they might as well have been reversed. Only one end of the longish room showed signs of pleasant human socializing–carpet worn, cushions dented, this was where they had put their first TV set less than six months ago (Why not? Don’t we really owe it to ourselves?)

Doug couldn’t tell whether he was angry or contrite. His throat was still raw, but his only other memory was of the high-shouldered way she had stood and that false, vulnerable smile, and this made him weak with regret. How’d I get into this mess? Two kids already and a TV set, a house? And I hate her. How? The lights were blurring and swimming in his eyes.

This was going to be as bad as the last one. It was going to go on for days. But at least they were here, alone and quiet in their own room instead of shouting in public; at least the thing had passed into its second phase that however implausible had led to reconciliation. She wouldn’t run away from him now, nor was there any chance of his boiling into a rage. Early in the marriage these numb periods had seemed even worse than the humiliating noise that set them off; each time he would think: There can’t be any dignified way out of it this time. But there always had been a way, dignified or not, through the simple process of apologizing first and then waiting, trying not to think too much about it. The attitude produced more and more-and with more ease–a total suspension of will and pride.

She was on the living room sofa.

Listen. I just want to say I’m sorry. I won’t touch you.

That’s wonderful. Now will you please leave me alone?

The next morning, a Saturday, it took a while for his mind to focus on the noise: it was his own clanking lawnmower. Somebody was cutting the grass in the back yard, a thing he had promised to do the weekend before. He squinted through the window. It was Mary stolidly pushing and hauling the old machine, wearing a man’s shirt and a pair of loose, flapping slacks, while both LeeAnn and Joe romped behind her with handfuls of cut grass.

Mrs. Schoer, who lived in the house between Doug and Mary and the Klumpers, toddled over to bring flowers to Doug at the front door.

Mary slowly and heavily brought up the rear, pulling the lawnmower behind her, blowing damp strands of hair away from her eyes with a stuck-out lower lip. Everything about her seemed determined to prove, with a new, flatfooted emphasis that a sensible middle class housewife was all she had ever wanted to be and that all she had ever wanted of love was a husband who would get out and cut the grass once in a while, instead of sleeping all day.

What should I do with this stuff?

How should I know? What is it?

I don’t know what the hell it is. I thought you’d probably know all about it.

Whatever made you think that? What’s it for, didn’t she say?

His mind was blank.

The children were switching their hopeful eyes from one parent to the other and LeeAnn was beginning to look worried.

Mary ran her fingers into her hip pockets. You mean you didn’t even ask her?

The plants were quivering in his arms.

Look, could you simmer down? I haven’t had any coffee yet and I….

Oh, this is swell. What am I supposed to do with this stuff. What am I SUPPOSED to tell the woman the next time I see her?

Tell her any God damn thing you like. Maybe you could tell her to mind her own damn business for a change.

Don’t shout like that daddy. LeeAnn was bouncing up and down, flapping her hands and starting to cry.

I’m not shouting. She held still then and put a thumb to her mouth, while Joe clutched his fly and took two steps backwards, solemn with embarrassment.

Mary sighed. All right, take them down to the basement.

The new house had come with two full-size gardens in the backyard. Doug and Mary had quickly agreed that the children would need one of them eliminated, just for play space. At least it was man’s work. And he could see his house the way a house ought to look on a fine day, safe on its carpet of green, the frail white sanctuary of a man’s love, wife and children. He could take pleasure in the sight of his own flexed thigh, lean and straining and of his heavily veined forearm

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