He tucked the newly painted “For Sale” sign under his arm and lingered at the door. The empty kitchen was clean and neat, though it hadn’t always been that way.
He was never coming back.
His wife was a fine woman and a devoted mother, but she couldn't keep up with the disorder of every day living. Besides money, this had been the biggest issue in their marriage.
Larry worked hard on the farm, and on the delivery route. It wasn’t fair, he felt, that Gladys didn’t hold up her end. The house and the kids, that’s all he ever asked of her. Her failure to come through on her responsibilities colored everything in their lives, and as his complaints about this grew, so too did the distance between them.
They were a perfect couple, he thought, when they started going out, though their backgrounds were so dissimilar. She'd been raised in the city. The closest she'd ever been to a farm before she met him was when she purchased vegetables from a roadside farm stand.
That was how they met. He had a stand back then. Or, more accurately, he rented space on a larger stand that allowed him to sell his own specialties - pumpkins and strawberries.
Gladys came by one day, late in October, looking for a really dramatic pumpkin. Larry was known for his pumpkins. He took pride in the fact that he offered the biggest and best pumpkins around. He couldn’t remember how he came to focus on something so specific, but he loved pumpkins and had loved them his whole life. When he took over his father’s farm he dedicated himself to designing strains of pumpkins that would resist mold, insects and challenging weather conditions.
Gladys was one of the few people he'd met who appreciated just how spectacular his pumpkins were. She didn't even seem to notice Larry that first day, she was so busy ooing and ahhing over the superb pumpkin selection.
“Magnificent,” she kept repeating, as she walked around his produce.
But she was pretty magnificent herself, all golden and brown, surrounded by his meticulously cultivated, brilliantly orange cucurbita pepo.
“These are good, but the best ones are back on the farm,” he explained to her. “If you give me your number I’ll call you when they’re ripe - shouldn’t be more than a few days, and I’ll bring them in for you. Or you can come out to the place and pick the one you want.”
She told him she couldn't resist the idea of seeing the pumpkins growing in the field and she loved the notion of selecting her own, so she agreed to come to the farm. And when she saw him there, in his own house, on his land, doing what he was born to do, then she noticed him.
“I’ve married a poet, not a farmer,” he told her, as they worked on the harvest together the next year. When Gladys looked at a field of cabbage, she didn’t see dollars. She saw a miracle. And she was in wonderment that Larry was able to pull off the miracle by himself, every year.
They had their first argument when he sold Agnes.
“What did you think I was going to do with her?” He asked. “I can get five hundred dollars for her, enough to buy seed and fertilizer for the whole back field.”
“I’ve been feeding that animal every day for ten months,” she answered. “I get up in the morning and there’s Agnes, waiting for breakfast, nuzzling me with her snout. She’s not produce. She’s a pet. You sell that pig and I will never forgive you.”
And she never did. She cried over the pig when it left. Went out to the truck, put her arms around its fat neck and shed tears on its newly scrubbed hide.
Gladys wouldn’t have anything to do with livestock after that. She wouldn’t collect eggs or feed the chickens unless he promised they were all going to die natural deaths.
When Isaac was born she saw the same miracle she had seen in the field. She was amazed at the life she and Larry had created. Larry would find her sitting by the baby’s crib as it slept, its soft breath issuing soundlessly from its puckered lips. Gladys was indeed a poet. She was able to sit and admire the baby’s beauty but she did not see the hamper in the corner filled with unwashed laundry.
“The laundry will be there. It will always be there. But Isaac will not always be a baby. As long as he is clean and you are clean there is no emergency.” She deflected his criticism handily, though addressing it put a chink in the seamless good cheer with which she greeted him every day.
Gladys was addicted to motherhood. She fell in love with each new child as though it was her first. There wasn’t enough time for all the beauty and a clean house too. She didn’t seem to see the point.
“Your dinner is ready at night, isn’t it? Is there scum on the bathtub? Are there dirty dishes in the sink? I’m not running after my kids and picking up after them every time they leave something on the floor. They’re not cabbages. They’re people. They make a mess. Get used to it.”
But he never could.
The real trouble in their marriage did not begin, though, until after the fourth child was born. That was the year of the worst drought Larry had seen in his lifetime. Larger farms could wait the dry spell out. They were insulated against ruin because they had irrigation systems in place, which protected their precious crops. And the largest farms were able to generate income year round because they had refrigerated warehouses that preserved their produce.
But Larry had never accumulated enough cash to build a warehouse, or to install an irrigation system. The only way he could survive the drought was by selling off part of his property.
“Don’t sell that land. You’ll regret it for as long as you live,” Gladys warned him. But her words only made him feel more distant from her, because, how could she think he would do this if there was a choice?
Selling the land was the beginning of the end for him. He knew it and she probably did too. Without that land he had no future. His income potential would be forever reduced. The new child was just something else to support, a reminder of how stretched his resources were.
The milk route was the last straw. He was up so early and was so tired at night that they were hardly together anymore. Not in bed anyway. She was asleep or he was worn out. Two of them entered their own marital drought. It might have gone on like that indefinitely. Though it felt to Larry as though they were in the quiet eye of a terrible hurricane and they were just waiting for the storm to break.
Then he ran into Evan Graham. Larry had taken the pickup in to Fissetti’s Garage because it was belching black smoke. Evan was there BSing with Carlo Fissetti.
Larry hadn’t seen Evan for years, though Evan kept a house nearby. Evan was one of the few men he knew who seemed to have escaped the trap of domestic obligations. And he seemed to have defied the expectations of his parents that he spend the rest of his life tied to the farm.
“You ever get into the city?” Evan asked Larry, as Carlo looked on.
“I’m kind of tied up lately,” Larry answered cryptically.
“How 'bout meeting tonight? Get a drink, for old time’s sake. Remember the Rusty Screw? Still there, still seedy, still full of local color.”
The Rusty Screw--memories of that place. It was the bar they used to go to in high school. Notoriously indifferent to ID.
Evan looked so relaxed, so free.
"Sure. Why not?" Larry startled himself with the ease of his response. "See you there later."
He couldn't remember how many bars they went to but he clearly remembered where he ended up. The girl lived above a store on Water Street. By the time he left her apartment, it was almost dawn.
And the money he'd saved for a new battery was gone.
He hadn't slept, but still needed to make the 5 AM pick up from the milk depot. No time to change into a uniform. Had to head straight over there.
He sped down Longwood Road. Dark and deserted. The dog came out of nowhere. Didn't see it, but felt the impact, and then the soft body under his tires.
He stopped and got out. He recognized the dog in the yellow glow of his flashlight. The German shepherd that hung around Evan’s house.
“Sorry old fella."
He pulled the dog off the road and rested its body in the bushes. Nausea threatened, but he suppressed it. Had to be at the depot by 5:00. The small dent in his truck bumper was barely distinguishable from the old ones.
Gladys never mentioned that night. He noticed she moved her toothbrush from the rack over the sink and put it in the medicine cabinet. And the “his” and “hers” coffee set was reduced to just “his”. He didn’t know where she put the “hers” cup. She was like that. She wouldn’t have it out with him. He remembered she told him once, when they first got married, that if he couldn’t figure out some things on his own, fighting wasn’t going to make a difference.
Larry didn’t complain about the house anymore and Gladys didn’t ask him about what was happening with the farm.
He stopped by the Graham's one day to make his usual delivery. There was a note on the front door. It said to please stop mail and milk delivery. He found out later that Mary Graham had finally left Evan. She just took off with the children without saying anything to anybody.
He wanted to get home right away. Some instinct told him to rush. But everything was the same when he got there. His two-year-old was sprawled on the living room floor, with blocks all around. Gladys was in the dining room, nursing the newborn and the two older children were still at school.
He changed out of his milkman uniform and put on his overalls. He didn't say anything to Gladys.
He bent down and picked up one of his daughter’s blocks. "What are you building Janice?"
The toddler took the block from his hand and said, "Mine."
"Well I guess it is," Larry said and touched the top of his daughter’s head, which was covered with Gladys’ golden hair.
He knew it was merely a matter of time, of convenience and opportunity. Every day when he came home he expected to find the house empty.
And one day it was.
It was like a joke she played on him, although maybe he just saw it that way. The house was spotless. There were no children's toys strewn about, no crumbs on the kitchen table. Fingerprints had been wiped off the back of the kitchen chairs. She left him with a blank slate, the way she had found him. As though she was saying, "Here's your freedom. You are restored and in order."
The pictures in this post were created from different sources. All the sources are from Pixabay and are credited below. It took a bit of cutting, pasting and resizing in order to make each picture tell a piece of the story.
Photo effects and aging were achieved with Gimp tools. For Sale sign, that's me :).