I was standing by the fence on the morning of the stillest day of winter. Frost crisped the ground, the eucalyptus were silent, some of their outer branches dying. I saw him at some distance. On his tractor, the high ping ping of the engine carrying across the fields. I imagined him smoking, but I’d heard he’d stopped since Alice had died. The one thing he treasured most he gave up as a way of being with her. When he normally would have been with himself. A neighbor said he also wore his wife’s scarf. A pale Angora sort of thing that farmers did not wear and felt some unease about, even when their wives wore them. But John had changed and was dangerous to laugh at. At least, no one dared to, and wouldn’t have anyway.
We talked about him at Booth’s Cafe. How he wore the scarf, and had put the pipe back in his mouth, upside down, maybe because of the rain – except that it wasn’t raining, and therefore had to be some sort of half-mast gesture. We talked about his farm and how it needed painting and plumbing and tanks cleaned, and cows wormed. Gary was his vet, and had come of his own accord finally, with an excuse that the county required it of him — an inspection for sleeping sickness, or something like that. But we all knew that Gary had come because of grief, and had spent as much time watching John as feeling cows’ udders and necks and veins.
And the whole time Gary was there, John drove his tractor out across the corn stubble, hooked up to nothing, and leaving his herring-bone tire tracks against the frost, a confused sort of writing, perhaps a letter to Alice.
That was what worried Gary. His father had walked across his own fields with a shotgun and blown off his left ear. Out of grief. When Gary’s mom died. And Gary had come after him, found him, and led him home, the old man not being able to hear a thing, weeping, and laughing about how he’d missed and what a damn fool he’d been, and how he loved Gary. And then he had stumbled, and the two of them went down, fell, and got up on their knees and held each other for the first time in their lives, and wept, and clung to each other, the way the frost had back that winter.
I stood at the fence. I could hear the tractor long before it came up over the curve of the earth. Gary couldn’t keep inventing reasons to watch over John. He’d already made four veterinary visits that same week, and his receipts were showing it. He’d called and suggested maybe I should find something to do down by the fence. That John would come by eventually. And so I’d gone straight over, driving the pickup across the gorge and up over the long ridge that separated us.
I could see him clearly now. There was purpose in his life again. At least enough to have him follow the line of the fence and not just make tracks all over the fields. I tapped the fence post in front of me with my quarter-sledge, as if it needed something. I banged on the top strip of the barbed wire a few times, testing for tension. I walked around the pickup, kicked the tires, checking for air pressure. I opened the hood of the truck and pulled one of the distributor wires off and dropped it down through the engine onto the ground, and bent over the engine, poking around at nothing.
I heard the tractor stop. John sat looking at me, and I watched him, gazing into his sad eyes, looking for some indication of what his intentions were. He sat there on his steel spring-seat for a long time, Alice’s scarf hanging down as if he was a college boy, his pipe inverted, his hands red from the cold, gripping the iron steering wheel. I said nothing. No greeting seemed appropriate. And he just sat there, his back a little hunched, the engine running, the cold white sun above us moving slowly toward the dying eucalyptus grove to the west.
“My truck won’t start,” I managed to say eventually.
His face remained as it was before. And then just the hint of a smile appeared at the edges of his mouth.
“What?” I said, prompting him.
His mouth opened farther. I wanted to say, how are you? But didn’t. I knew how he was.
“I miss Alice,” he said.
I was unprepared for that, and John reached up and took the pipe out of his mouth. I mounted the wire fence and jumped down on the other side, and walked to the tractor. He handed me his pipe, but didn’t let go when I took it. His eyes brimmed and filled, I was sure he couldn’t see a thing. The pipe trembled, and I reached up and pulled him down from the tractor, and knew what to do, though I had never done it before, and held him while he cried. And then couldn’t hold back myself, and let loose.
Gary had returned for the fifth time that week and had followed the herring bones across the field and along the fence and saw us and approached and stopped his truck a little way off and shut off his engine and listened to our howls, like two sad dogs, he said later. The ping ping of the tractor and our crying swallowed up by the frost, I suppose. And the winter sun curving westward.