The Fence and the Sadness of Men
I was standing by the fence on the morning of the stillest day of the winter. Frost clung to the ground, the eucalyptus were mute and dying, their outer branches at least. I saw him at some distance. John Burrows on his 1949 John Deere row tractor, the high ping ping of the engine carrying across the cold fields. It was the A model with the close-together front wheels and the overall tricycle look. Its twenty-five or thirty horses were geared down to make a powerful ploughing machine and an unstoppable widow-maker when one of the two rear wheels climbed a stump or dropped into a hollow, tipping the tractor over sideways and pinning the driver under too much weight for him to breathe.
I imagined him smoking but had 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 cream-colored Angora sort of thing that farmers did not wear and felt uncomfortable about even when their wives wore them. But John had changed, and he was dangerous to laugh at. At least, no one dared to and wouldn’t have anyway.
We talked about him in Booth’s Cafe. How he wore the scarf, and the pipe in his mouth, upside down because of the rain—except that it wasn’t raining, therefore some sort of half-mast gesture. We talked about his farm and how it needed painting and plumbing and tanks that needed to be cleaned and cows attended to. Gary the vet 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 John’s grief and had spent as much time watching his friend as feeling cows’ udders and the veins in their necks.
The whole time Gary was there, John drove the tractor out across the corn stubble and frost, leaving herring-bone tractor tire tracks, crisscrossing the fields enshrouded in frost and cold and bereft of meaning, navigating this way and that with no discernable pattern. That was what worried Gary, whose father had walked across his own fields with a shotgun and blown off an ear out of desolation when Gary’s mom died. 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 goddamn fool he’d been and how much he loved Gary. And then he had stumbled, and the two of them went down, fell and then got up on their knees and held each other for the first time in their lives and wept and held each other the way the frost held the fields.
Gary couldn’t keep inventing reasons to watch over John. He’d made four long veterinary visits that same week, and his receipts were showing it. He called and suggested maybe I should find something to do up by the fence, that John would come by eventually—and so I’d just gone straight over, driving the pickup up the gorge road, stopping briefly to see if I could see trout in the black icy water beside it, then on up to the ridge that separated the Burrows farm from ours.
I could hear the tractor long before it came up over the horizon. Then I could see him. There was purpose in his life again, at least enough to have him follow the line of the fence and not just make crisscrosses all over the fields. I tapped the fence post in front of me as if it needed something, banged on the top strip of the barbed wire a few times, testing for tension. I walked around the pickup, kicking the tires, checking the pressure. And then it occurred to me what needed to be done. I opened the hood and pulled one of the distributor wires off and dropped it down through the engine onto the ground and continued bending over the engine, poking around at nothing.
I heard the tractor stop. That was a good sign. 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 for a long time, his Alice scarf hanging down like a college boy’s, his pipe inverted, his hands red and blue from gripping the iron steering wheel. I said nothing. No greeting seemed appropriate. And he—I hadn’t required anything of him—he just sat there, the engine running, the white sun above us sailing slowly toward the dying eucalyptus grove to the west.
“My truck won’t start,” I managed to say eventually. His face remained as before. With just the hint of a smile appearing at the edges of his mouth, as if he saw through my ruse.
His lips moved.
“What?” I shouted. But not that loud. His mouth opened further. I wanted to say, “How are you?” But I already knew how he was.
“I miss Alice,” he said.
I was unprepared for that. He reached up and took the pipe out of his mouth. I mounted the wire fence, jumped down on the other side and approached the tractor. He handed me his pipe, stem-first but didn’t let go when I took it. His eyes brimmed and filled so much I wasn’t sure he couldn’t see me. The pipe trembled and I continued pulling him by the pipe, at the same time taking another step toward him, pulling him past his tipping point, until he came away from the tractor, slipping down onto the field, and I knew what to do, although I had never done it before and held him while he cried and then couldn’t hold back myself and let loose, the two of us howling like two sad dogs, Gary said, who had returned for the fifth time that week and had followed the most recent herring bones across the field and along the fence until he saw us. He stopped his truck a little way off and shut off his engine and listened to the cries and howls, he said, coming across the dark field, the ping ping of the tractor swallowed up by the silent clinging frost, and the cold white sun curving westward.
The next day, at the Booth’s café, where the town’s most silent farmers—all of them my friends—met for coffee late mornings after milking, feeding and mucking, someone asked Gary how John Burrow’s cows were doing, as if Gary might have veterinary information that could be useful to all of them. The question was slow and neutral. And so Gary began to tell the story. Everyone stopped talking. Even fierce Agnes Booth stacked dishes in slow motion so she wouldn’t miss a word. Not a farmer met Gary’s gaze as he spoke, he said later. He told about telling me to go up and wait by the fence, that John would come along. How he had let himself in the field and had followed the most recent herring bone tire track until he had seen the John Deere and me standing beside it. He said he couldn’t tell whether we were talking. That I was just standing there, and John was holding out what appeared to be his pipe. A farmer stirred sugar into his cup, clinking the spoon against porcelain. A big red hand came out from the man beside him and calmed the stirring. Someone else blew his nose quietly into a red bandana with his eyes closed. One or two others rubbed at something in their eyes with their forefingers. Men folded the flap of an ear forward to hear better. Gary told how I had pulled on the pipe until John had swiveled around in the steel bucket seat and come down into my arms. That was when Agnes Booth, without a sound, and with her head down, withdrew through the swinging door to the kitchen, easing the door shut behind her and studying the farmers for a moment through the round window, as if realizing the gathering had suddenly become something very private and foreign. Then Gary told them about John and me howling like sad dogs. Which is when the men gasped, coughed, sniffed in mucous, and said “God!” to explain why they were crying and suppressing the tears with heels of their powerful hands, trying to recover with deep, deep breaths.
A week later, in a soft voice, Agnes told me she had thought a dam was about to burst and that that was the the reason she had left the room, that she hadn’t known whether it would be water she would be able to swim in. A week later, I was there when John Burrows walked into Booth’s Cafe without the scarf, sat down, ordered Agnes’s coffee and lit his pipe.