By SARAH SMARSH
It was unlikely that Betty and Jeannie would end up in the country. They’d always moved within cities—Wichita, Chicago, Denver, Dallas—and neighboring small towns. And it was unlikely they’d stay for long. They first hit the road when Betty was a teenager and Jeannie a baby, and by the time Jeannie was in high school they’d changed addresses forty-eight times. In the late 1970s, though, they landed for a good while on a Kansas farm.
The farm was thirty miles west of Wichita, on the dry earth of southern Kansas that never asked for more than prairie grass. It’s too parched for corn, so wheat grows there. The sky is magnificent, though, in so-called Tornado Alley; in springtime, the moist Gulf Stream meets frigid air from the north and causes trouble. By summer the air is so dry that thunderstorms are smelled before they are seen.
The farmer was Arnie Mies. He sowed and harvested two thousand acres of wheat, of which he owned a square mile, or 640 acres. Some years he planted milo, and he raised alfalfa to bale for his fifty head of cattle; he also kept pigs, chickens, the odd goat or horse. He had one hired hand, and his sons and daughters pitched in at harvest. He butchered for a meat locker down the highway and sold aluminum cans collected in barrels near the trash pile west of the pole shed. He drank Lord Calvert whiskey in the 1910 house of painted concrete block, newly quiet with his ex and five children gone. He went dancing in Wichita honky-tonks like The Cotillion, a small concert hall on Highway 54.
There, one night in 1976, country music played, and widows and divorcées danced in Wranglers and big collars under a mirror ball. Sitting at a table with his friends—a butcher named Charlie Wapelhorst and a farmer they called Four Eyes—Arnie noticed a skinny woman with short blonde hair at another table. She and her friend wore paper rose corsages given to all the women at the door.
She’s not gonna dance with you, Four Eyes told Arnie. You’re too damn fat and ugly.
Four Eyes himself got up and asked the blonde to dance. She said no.
Arnie walked over, with a feathery brown comb-over, muttonchops, and a solid, round midsection jutting above his belt buckle. She’d overheard his friends call him ugly. She said yes.
They danced two or three songs, Arnie smelling of Old Spice, which he wore until he died. This woman, Betty, liked his happy laugh and agreed that every Johnny Cash song was the same damn tune with different words. Boy was shea looker. Funny, too. She wouldn’t let him take her out for breakfast at Sambo’s after—she’d stick with her friend, buy her own pancakes.
Arnie called her trailer a few times, but she didn’t answer, and then the number was disconnected. Arnie kept farming the land.
About a year later, Arnie’s pickup and Betty’s Corvette shared a highway intersection. They waved, got coffee at a truck stop. Arnie didn’t know that she’d gotten married—and divorced—in the months since their dance at the Cotillion. But he fell in love, and Betty felt a fondness that kept her at his side.
During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-four, Betty drove every evening from her job at the Sedgwick County Courthouse in Wichita to Arnie’s farm. She took over the house, cooking for Arnie and his field help, driving chicken and paper plates and jugs of iced tea to fields where yellow dust followed red combines. She learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms, and sleep is impossible but for the day’s exhaustion, and humor is found in shared suffering. If Betty hadn’t come along, Arnie would have turned into a regular drunk, he told her. Drinking together, though—that was honest fun.
Betty’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Jeannie, had just started high school in Wichita, had just found a social groove after changing schools twice a year for most of her transient life. They were going to move again? Sure. But out of town, to the middle of nowhere? To a farm? Jeannie was beautiful and smart. Her hobbies were fashion (she sewed her own) and reading (she rode her bike to the library). She preferred loitering at mall fountains to fishing in pasture ponds. But they packed up their trailer and moved to the farm.
Betty’s city friends drove west to witness her new country life, and Arnie’s friends showed up to witness his wild city woman.They partied at Cheney Lake, a few miles away along straight dirt roads and a curving two-lane highway. They fished and swam at the pond, with its water snakes and leeches, its dam dimpled where cow hooves had sunk in mud after rain. They camped in pastures with hot dogs, Coors, and s’mores. They drove mopeds through fields and crashed three-wheelers into trees. They had butchering parties in the detached garage that housed a meat grinder, a sink, hooks hanging from rafters, and a blood-stained floor; everyone got drunk enough to eat mountain oysters, and everyone who helped went home with a cooler of meat wrapped in white paper. They laughed when a pile of aluminum cans brought five times its worth at the scrap lot after Arnie, pulling them in a net behind his tractor, inadvertently filled the cans with sand and threw off the weight scales. During one liquor-store run to Kingman, after careening off an icy bridge and rolling twice into a field in Betty’s Toyota Corolla, Betty and her younger sister Pud sat shivering in the upside-down vehicle; Betty started to light a cigarette, but Pud got mad, so Betty crawled out the window to have her smoke. Pud named the place Camp Fun Farm.
It wasn’t long before Betty’s niece Candy moved into the farmhouse to escape a stepfather, followed by Pud and her little girl Shelly after the inevitable divorce—beginning a thirty-year stretch of Betty’s nomadic family members taking refuge there. Poverty has a way of severing roots; you park your car wherever there’s space, eat wherever food, sleep wherever a bed.
Arnie asked Betty to marry him. Betty thought she was done with all that, and anyway, Arnie was Catholic. She’d heard the Church didn’t take people who’d been divorced, let alone six times. But they married that October at a little chapel next to a highway and a trailer park.
The newlyweds had constant company at the farm. People blew in, popped in, dropped by; their pickup engines could be heard down the road, and then the sound of tires rolling slow on the gravel driveway, usually around dinner time. Betty peeled untold pounds of potatoes, baked pies, fried dinners and after-party breakfasts with the meat and vegetables that grew outside the door. She learned the isolation of rural life through a batch of cookies—she had every ingredient but the brown sugar, and what was she supposed to do, drive ten miles to Kingman just to get one damn ingredient?
It wasn’t like when you lived in town—you’d bebop down to the Quik Trip, Betty told me.
After the brown sugar revelation, she kept the basement overstocked with discount canned food, and the deep freeze packed with every cut of meat off the animals growing outside, and the cupboards overflowing with double-coupon deals, so that she’d never be stranded in the middle of a recipe. They were the sort of poor that doesn’t go hungry.
When Betty wasn’t cooking at the farm, she was working at the courthouse in Wichita, or driving between the two. Or she was pulling weeds in the garden east of the house, or cleaning or planting flowers or digging for tools in the “back room” full of shotguns. She was immediately adored by all but Arnie’s ex-wife, who tried to stir up trouble but learned quick that Betty didn’t take any shit.
Betty was just ten years older than Arnie’s firstborn, Tom, who came around in tight T-shirts, faded jeans, and long shaggy hair, generally laughing, drunk, and cursing in unimaginable ways. During the summer, Tom played on a softball team of area country boys, one of whom was Nick Smarsh. After games, Tom and Nick would end up at Arnie’s farm to drink beer. That’s how teenage Jeannie met Nick, and he turned out to be one thing she didn’t mind about the country.
Nick was seven years older than Jeannie and already had a small business of his own, laying concrete foundations all over the county. He’d started the operation at nineteen, and now at twenty-three had five employees and money in the bank. He was a farm boy, Catholic and German like Arnie; growing up, he watched the state take his dad’s land to dig Cheney Lake, saw his favorite uncle die beneath a tractor that slid from a dirt bridge, shot road signs through pickup windows, and followed his family into carpentry. He was handsome and tan in snap-up shirts with the sleeves cut off, his arms muscular from work and a bit fleshy from chicken fried steak.
When Jeannie and Nick had been together over a year, and she had her GED, Jeannie hinted at getting married. She was seventeen. A spread of land near the lake came up for auction, and Nick bought it for $350 an acre, knowing he would raise a family there. The wedding was set for January 1980 at the creaky country parish where he’d gone to school and helped his dad and brothers repair old structures. Jeannie got cold feet, but then she got pregnant. Eight months after the wedding, I appeared—by blood, one-half gypsy and one-half rooted as a mushroom.
The first offspring of the strange mix Betty made when she brought her brood to farm country, I had a special understanding of the way home works. In the eighties and nineties, we often read about and witnessed “the death of the family farm.” I knew, like everyone did, that farms went under after their families died. From my rarer vantage: Some families go under after their farms die.
We Were of the Earth for a Time and Relished Mortal Danger
Come on, Poopsie, Grandma Betty said.
Bett, I am dog-tired from today, Grandpa Arnie said, smiling and shaking his head while he stirred Calvert Extra and Coke with a spoon. Silverware always looked tiny in his hands. Arnie was as tanklike as his tractors and combines. Though he was of average height, he had the shoulders of a lineman and a bovine torso, attached to which was a large belly, round and taut, that threatened the buttons on his thin, brown plaid shirts. He wore sideburns on his wide jaw, and a fine patch of brown-gray hair swept across a mostly bald head connected to one of the thicker necks God ever made. But of his memorable build it was his hands that people watched. Tremendous clamps of calluses and bruised fingernails, they seemed too large even for his powerful arms; they handled rope with no gloves, they gripped hay bales as though the prongs of a forklift. Bare, they smashed mud daubers that landed on his shoulders. Grandma Betty, her frame slight against Arnie’s, squeezed his shoulder. She was forty-three. Her hair was the color of the Coors Original can she held.
The kids are going to hound you about it all night, she said, winking at me, eight years old.
Arnie sighed. His wiry eyebrows went up; his smile faded. He was worn out from fixing an axle on the Case tractor; watering and feeding the cattle, horses, and hogs; and hauling bales to a neighbor’s barn. Arnie had rushed home to shower, and the familiar weekend crowd had begun arriving before he finished his shave with Old Spice.
Come on, Betty said, and poked his enormous stomach. Come awwnnn.
Family and friends, chewing through mouthfuls of deer salami, watched Arnie from across the kitchen table.
My cousin Shelly and I hovered near Betty and Arnie.
Are we going? Shelly asked in her husky voice.
I said, Please.
It won’t be light much longer, Arnie said.
That’s why we have to go now, I said.
He squinted his eyes at me.
All right, I’ll go hook everything up, but I’m not going for too long, Arnie said.
Shelly and I already were shouting and smiling, running to tell the adults who were talking in the living room by the fireplace, or playing ten-point pitch in the dining room, or returning from the back porch with more cans of Coors.
You kids go get all the gloves and scarves and stuff from the closet upstairs, Betty said and looked at her sister Pud. Ready, Sis? she joked, elbowing Pud’s thick waist.
Yeah, can’t wait, said Pud, who, one winter weekend at the farm, tipped a three-wheeler into a snowbank, leaving her laughing so hard in a deep snowdrift that she peed her pants. Thick steam rose from the snow, high into the still, frigid Kansas air. It was one of Grandma Betty’s favorite stories that on snowy days I begged her to tell.
Shelly and I rummaged through the closet of old winter things, dumping some on the kitchen table for the drunken adults and taking the best selections for ourselves. We chased Arnie across the snowy gravel toward the Big Shed, the large, easternmost outbuilding beyond the chicken coop and the Little Shed. The freezing air smelled of ash, which drifted in large chunks from the burn pile, anchored by an old ceramic bathtub and a few crumbling barrels, just past the pigpen. I tugged at my ski mask as I ran; it was too big for my head, its eye holes sagging beneath my line of vision and requiring constant adjustment, which was hindered by my mittens. Moisture from my breath collected around the mouth hole of the mask and froze into tiny crystals.
While Arnie went on to the Big Shed to start the three-wheelers, Shelly and I stopped at the Cat Barn, where a dozen or so wild “mousers” fought daily over metal pans of generic canned cat foot. Between a broken antique band saw and an old icebox covered in cobwebs, we found the four old wooden sleds we dug out every winter. We dusted them off and lugged them toward the Big Shed with the rope Arnie had taken from his pickup bed.
No, that ain’t gonna be enough, Arnie said, looking at the sleds as he choked the Honda three-wheeler’s cold engine.
He clicked his tongue against his teeth as he counted people on his stout fingers. He shook his head and crawled off the three-wheeler. Many times, he had pulled two or three sleds behind the all-terrain vehicle, across our stretch of southern Kansas, where a hill was hard to come by. (Children often resorted to flinging themselves down the earthen embankments of rural highway bridges.) But, today, the weekend party was large and game for an adventure. A three-wheeler and a few ancient sleds wouldn’t cut it.
You katzenjammers can help me dig something else out, he said, his boots stomping across the dusty shed floor to a corner that housed the defunct camper he and Betty had bought at a farm sale ten years earlier, in the late seventies, for a family road trip through Missouri and Arkansas.
Arnie yanked the camper’s narrow metal door open. Shelly and I stretched to see inside. Arnie squeezed his large frame into the camper’s doorway and struggled to pull something out. A silver metal curve came into view.
Shelly, grab that end, he said.
I followed her, and we all maneuvered the long, heavy metal device with Arnie yelling directions about angles and Do you speak English? and various profanities.
Shelly and I dropped our end with a bang, even though Shelly was tougher than most boys, and we created a cloying cloud of oily dust. Arnie lowered his end with one large arm. We stood back and looked down at an old, torn-up canoe.
We took this to the lake one time, Shelly said, proud of her memory that stretched back to her early childhood. She was four years older than I was, and I hated it when she remembered moments that I didn’t.
Arnie tested the bottom of the boat with his boot. The canoe had three cold metal seats, and the floor at one end had a small hole. Arnie pulled two sandy floor mats from Old Brownie, the 1974 GMC pickup relegated to farm chores, especially harvest duties. He shook the mats and threw them over the torn canoe floor. He slid the canoe forward a bit, and the bare frame between the mats and the ground was enough to keep everything in place. Shelly and I looked at one another.
Let’s go! someone shouted from the front porch.
Soon Betty and a few others were in the Big Shed, wearing the gloves and hats Shelly and I had found. They mounted both three-wheelers, splashing their beers as they attempted to kick-start the older model that Arnie took to the pasture every day with buckets of feed hanging from its handlebars. Then the three-wheelers were echoing beneath the tin roof. I was itching to climb on as they zoomed and looped through the yard amid the sheds, the barn, the cattle corral, and the pigpen. We owned zero helmets and worried about it as many times.
It was almost five o’clock, and the slanting light under the roof of the open-air shed was stretching farther inside as the sun neared the horizon. Shelly and I waited for Arnie to rope the canoe to Old Brownie’s hitch, and we climbed into the bedraggled boat for the grand exit from the shed. Arnie started the diesel engine and dragged us past the Little Shed, stopping for a moment at the house. The people watching from the front porch laughed and said, You gotta be shittin’ me.
Once the revelers were harnessed, Shelly and I took our designated spots on the dirty floor mats over the hole at the back of the boat. The adults boarded the canoe with whiskey in plastic cups and beer cans wedged in foam koozies. They joked about our pending doom.
If this goddamned thing tips over, I quit, Pud said. Betty laughed as she squeezed in front of me, pulling my legs up around hers. Our thick coveralls, worn by countless bodies over the past decade, made noises when we moved.
Arnie revved the idling engine. We heard the truck switch into gear, and the canoe shifted forward.
Oh shit, Betty said. We all laughed with nervous joy.
Arnie turned east at the road and picked up speed. When we crossed patches of earth only thinly covered by snow, rocks poked me through the impromptu floor patch. I forgot about the cold.
Y’all right back there? Arnie boomed over the loud truck and the canoe’s metal bottom scraping the road.
Yeah, we yelled.
It wasn’t bad at all, we found, riding a canoe down a dirt road. The people at the front were singing Christmas carols, and we were wedged so tightly that the biting wind was easily avoided with a dip of the head behind a pair of shoulders. Arnie turned north at the tree row. We wondered what he was up to.
He’s taking us to the fields, I bet, Shelly yelled behind me.
We passed the row of hay bales, half-buried in drifts, and looked at the impressive expanse of white fields that stretched to the orange and pink horizon. The wheat and alfalfa, sprouting beneath the snow, were young enough that they would survive.
The rope between the truck and the canoe grew slack as Arnie shifted gears and then pulled taut when he punched the gas. We jerked forward. The engine grew louder. Old Brownie tilted sharply as it crested the dirt mound at the edge of a wheat field, and I whispered a prayer: Please God, don’t let us get hurt.
Hold on to your butts! Betty yelled, her drink splashing as we turned.
Shelly grabbed my waist tightly as we broke out onto the open field. Before I could look back at the entrance, Arnie was gunning us forward across the earth, the canoe’s metal surface gliding easily over the snow. My butt was numb from the cold and the impact of the earth beneath the floor mat, and the dirty snow spitting from beneath Old Brownie’s wheels was hitting us all in the face. Arnie leaned out the window and looked back at us.
You okay back there? he yelled.
Some of us shouted yes, and some of us shouted no and laughed. The noise of the big truck and the canoe pummeling the frozen earth, mixed with the gusting wind, seized our words.
WHAT? he said, sticking his head out of the truck and cupping his hand to his left ear. Then he floored the gas and turned abruptly to the right.
Lean! someone yelled, and we all bent into the turn, cutting a sharp angle with the ground.
I thought I might fall out, so I squeezed my legs against Betty’s sides. The frozen field was flying past in a blur inches from my arm.
Arnie turned left again, and we found our rhythm with the rocking and leaning until we hit a large dip and went airborne, landing very hard and nearly tipping to one side. The rug beneath me shifted; I scooted back against Shelly to avoid the exposed hole, which I watched until a clump of earth flew through it and hit me in the forehead.
I pressed my face against Betty’s back as Arnie sped us through another dip in the field that was so familiar to him. The terror and the joy of the moment were in my stomach. With my arms wrapped around her waist, I could feel that it was in Betty’s, too.
We Buried the Farmer
I knew from the gypsy blood that my body was the only permanent home to count on, but I learned early that even that place comes with an eviction notice.
By age nineteen I’d seen a variety of dead bodies: Grandpa Arnie’s brother, who also had colossal hands. Grandpa Glenn’s mother, who looked like me. A girl I roomed with at cheerleading camp, who at age fifteen was buried in a navy blue sweatshirt that read, “Cheerleader.” My high school’s middle-aged athletic director, who was so tall he needed a special casket. Grandpa Chic, who looked wrinkly and old, the way a dead body ought to look. The creviced old judge, descended from black slaves, in whose chambers I’d played while he smoked cigars and Betty smoked cigarettes between hearings.
I’d witnessed a dead-body horror following the passing of Great-Grandma Dorothy, who was fat from diabetes, or diabetic from fatness. She’d lived most of her life as an untreated paranoid schizophrenic. She’d started the caravan of women, pockets empty and faces sometimes bruised, who were my other family, strange to any permanent address. Betty and the rest weren’t mentally ill, as she was, but they’d learned her impulsive habits. At the gravesite, the hired men flubbed lowering the casket into the ground, and Dorothy’s large body nearly rolled out; it shifted to one side with a thud, and the casket’s buckles came partially unsnapped, creating an opening against which the corpse’s face pressed, mouth slightly agape. Aunt Pud turned away quickly, closing her eyes and putting a tissue to her mouth, but Grandma Betty stared right at her mother’s face.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for Grandpa Arnie’s wake, which coincided with midterms week in my lush, treed college town. I took a test and sped south. As woods gave way to grassland, I spent the three-hour drive preparing myself, remembering Arnie pulling things back and forth: arusty wagon full of cattle feed behind his dented Honda three-wheeler; a horse trailer behind his old diesel truck; a sharp disk behind his monstrous red combine.
Often, after a bumpy hour’s ride from school to our long dirt driveway, I would get off the bus and see him high off the ground, resting easily atop his white Case tractor, rolling out of the big metal shed near our house with a giant, toothy John Deere plow behind him. I would feel relieved that he was still doing chores and not already sitting at the kitchen table with a big glass of tea, because I hated how he greeted me, almost sarcastically.
Juh learn anything? he would say.
Not wanting to bother explaining the complicated lessons I had mastered in the classroom—algebraic formulas, three-point essays—to a grandfather who hadn’t gone beyond sixth grade, I always replied sullenly, No.
But when I got home to find him driving machinery, he did not ask about my studies. There were more important things to do.
Girl! He would holler down at me over the huge engine. Close the gate behind me!
The deep voice, full of power and phlegm, was lost to the churning equipment, but I had learned to read his lips. I would nod, and he would wheel slowly across the expanse of gravel that was our front yard as dogs, cats, chickens, and perhaps the odd piglet scattered from the painful roar. Once he turned toward the field, Grandpa Arnie would look back at me. Through dust, he would raise one index finger, which is how farmers wave to say hello, goodbye, thank you, or anything. Then he would surge forward, pulling the green plow out to the quarter where Jerry, his farmhand, already was turning the earth.
I arrived in Kingman underdressed and late for Arnie’s wake. Having raced out the door back at my apartment, I still wore jeans and a Nike windbreaker as I ran across the street to the mortuary near my old high school.
Dad and his wife, always late, got to the door of the mortuary at the same time I did. Dad put his hand on my shoulder as I hurried him inside. He was walking like he was old, though he was barely forty-four. He was wearing his snakeskin boots with a suit that was too big.
I’m going to need you to help me get through this, Dad said, his voice low.
His hairline was nearly halfway back on his head now, and his beard was gray. He had known Arnie even before he knew my mom. But I’d surely been closer to Arnie, having lived with him for much of my life, and it didn’t feel right to be summoned as Dad’s shoulder to lean on. I turned from Dad to go alone toward the chapel.
The people inside were already halfway through the Rosary. No seats remained in the main area, so I knelt in the last remaining pews of a side room set off by a tall partition. I couldn’t see past the makeshift wall to the casket and the pulpit and the family. I could hear but not see Father John, the priest who had married my parents and grandparents and presided over all my sacraments despite my being a bastard. The people near me were Arnie’s distant friends, long-lost cousins, and members of the farming community reaching halfway across Kansas. Some turned and recognized me as a wake celebrity, immediate kin, who belonged in a different seat. I wondered whether Grandma Betty was crying.
I squeezed my hands together and tried to concentrate on counting the Hail Marys but could think only about how Arnie’s big, leathery hands that swatted wasps and tied fence were lying somewhere in the other room, and why didn’t I bring a Rosary, how did the people who weren’t Catholic know what to do, where was Grandma Betty, couldn’t I have changed clothes at an intersection coming through Wichita, what kind of person takes a midterm after her grandpa dies, and how was Grandpa Arnie dead?
After the prayers, people filed into the chapel to view the body; some ushered me ahead of themselves. I came around the partition and saw for the first time the dark brown coffin with engravings of wheat stalks. It was a perfect coffin, if a coffin can be perfect. Arnie’s first wife and her husband were bent over the body. I always forgot about the first wife.
I saw Grandma Betty standing on the other side of the casket with a few members of the family. She had been crying. Not loudly or anything. She looked at me with a sad smile, and my cousin Shelly walked over in her tomboy khakis to take me past the body.
Hey. You okay? she said.
Yeah. I was late, I said, looking down at my jeans.
We stepped up to the open casket. I felt like I was going to fall down for a moment, so I tried to think about how it wasn’t really him lying there with a pancreas and liver full of dead cancer, his jaundiced skin poorly concealed by thick makeup. He was wearing his brown polyester suit, with his wide maroon tie, and the coffin was brown, and Arnie was a little bit brown, and everything was brown like the earth. A stalk of wheat lay across his chest. He wore his Tony Lama boots that I used to run and get from his closet so he wouldn’t have to climb the stairs with his bad knees. I looked at his face, sinking into the folds of skin pushing up from the collar around his remarkable neck. Betty never could find collars that fit around his neck. I thought his whole body was sinking. I noticed a bit of hair coming out of his right ear.
Hey, Grandma Betty said, rubbing my back with a hand that held a wadded tissue.
I said, Hey.
We hugged right there in front of the body, with a line of people behind us waiting to look at the body. Then Betty leaned into the coffin and stuck her pinkie finger in his right ear. It didn’t seem right to me to go burrowing into the crevices of a corpse. But she dug around inside the ear and pulled out a clump of wax, which she rubbed into her tissue. Shelly and I looked at each other. When we were little, if our ears were dirty, Arnie used to say, You could grow potatoes in there.
Hey, Betty, what’s on his tie? Shelly whispered close to Betty’s ear.
What? Betty said.
I had noticed, but not really noticed, a small metal pin in the middle of his necktie. We leaned closer to examine it. It read, “Forgiven.”
I think his ex-wife put it there, Shelly said.
Betty said, I thought that bitch was up to something. Her voice was low, like it might break soon.
As she undid the pin, she started to cry, just barely, and moved away from the casket. I said a prayer and sent a message into space for Grandpa Arnie or his soul or whatever might be around, and stepped past.
On the way out, I saw Jerry the farmhand wearing the look of a son who had lost his father—the same look my dad had worn, though neither he nor Jerry was Arnie’s son. Jerry, tall and skinny and sallow, seemed suddenly like a scarecrow. But he looked me in the eye while a crowd of people scooted around us.
Hello, Sarah, he said, and somehow we were giving each other a long hug, though he was always so shy, and we never talked much through all the years of him hammering in the shed or drinking iced tea at the kitchen table with Grandpa. He cried a little bit, too.
Leaving the mortuary, I was anxious to see the farm for the first time in months. I passed the wheat fields that looked cold and dead but were alive underneath; green sprouts would appear soon. I pulled onto the long gravel driveway and saw the square white house that I’d left behind for college the year prior.
When I opened my car door, the farm didn’t seem to be there. The cows and pigs made no sounds in the darkness, and I couldn’t smell them, because the November air was frozen. There already was talk of a farm sale. Betty was depressed and worn out. There was no one left to keep the farm alive.
I sniffed the air and grabbed my backpack, full of heavy textbooks. I crunched across the earth, past the cars that had beaten me home. I opened the metal gate, and then the metal screen door, and then the wooden front door that opened to the kitchen with its wooden chair where Arnie drank iced tea after his chores, when I got home from school.
The next day, between the funeral and the burial, I followed the hearse with Betty’s van. She was smoking in the passenger seat. I remembered to turn on the headlights as Arnie’s body pulled us toward its new home.
The Farm Dissolved, and So Did We
Grandma Betty moved to Iowa, and the Kansas farmhouse sat unoccupied for seven years. It still held furniture, televisions, clothes, photo albums. She left it all there. Nearby farmers stored their machinery in the Big Shed east of the house and their hay bales in the smaller shed near the cattle pen to the west. They kept their livestock in the pasture and rented acreage from Betty to farm wheat and soybean crops. But, with no proper keeper, the farmhouse itself began to fall apart. Windows cracked, the basement flooded, the chimney that had crumbled over my childhood bedroom upstairs crumbled further. Eventually someone broke in and stole some rifles.
Betty was reluctant to sell the place, because it was hard telling how long her Iowa marriage would last, and she might want to move back. Plus, her family members might need a place to stay, as they always had. Growing up, I’d moved in and out—mostly in—amid my parents’ nearly annual shifts among apartments, trailers, and houses in Wichita and surrounding countryside; Betty’s siblings, nieces and nephews, stepchildren, and parents also had found a rare touchstone in the place since the late seventies. So she left the water service running and, in winter, kept the furnace on a low setting to prevent frozen pipes. It was an expensive solution for anyone, especially the woman who taught me how to haggle garage-sale prices from a dime to a nickel, and eventually she stopped ordering propane and let the house go cold.
Betty drove her pickup six hours south to the Kansas farm twice a year or so. The visits amounted to sad, lonely hours of sweeping mice droppings, throwing away chewed-through bedding, or gathering a few more things to take to Iowa.
Betty told me: I always tell myself I’ll just go down for a weekend and clean the place, and then I end up staying longer.
Because there’s stuff to do, or because you miss the farm? I asked.
I don’t know, she said.
I’d spent most of my adulthood in Lawrence, a college town a few hundred miles to the northeast, and I also drove south when I could. Bumping down the dirt road off the two-lane blacktop, I always rolled down my pickup window to smell the earth and the air, as Dad and both my grandpas had done when I rode along to help feed the cattle or count the kernels on heads of wheat. Once up the gravel drive and out of the truck, I’d trace familiar outdoor tracks and sensory memories.
Passing the chicken coop: Holding a warm egg for the first time, my small hands cupping it while Grandma smiled. The infamous rooster suicide, a male chicken caught in a rope and hanging from a dusty rafter in his dark, suffocating house.
At the tin-roofed Cat Barn: Grandma’s shrill keeeee keeeee as she walked from the house carrying metal pans of cat food, a dozen farm cats jumping from cobwebbed corners of old horse stalls.
The hay shed, now collapsing, where Shelly and I climbed towers of baled grass: Our feet caving through snake holes, our bare legs shredded by needles of dusty straw. Finding there a mysterious green gem, maybe a toy lost by an earlier generation, that dazzled us as a treasure.
In the Big Shed: The smell of dust and oil mixed—still present—and of Grandpa Arnie’s sweat through a thin snap-up shirt, long gone. Metal tools playing metal machines like drums. The laughter of my extended family, drinking beer and climbing onto mopeds and sleds during the decades of constancy this place afforded them.
Blocking the farm from the north wind, the row of evergreens where Shelly and I had many adventures, pretending to be lost boys who ruled the forest: The wild feeling, the sad but thrilling freedom of a child whose parents don’t look for her. Bleeding from tree-branch scratches and stinging with horsefly and mosquito bites, deer ticks and ringworms burrowed into our skin.
The detached garage, where we butchered cows and pigs.
The cattle chute.
The grain bin.
The walnut tree.
The grass yard.
Betty eventually put the farm up for sale but pursued the idea wanly. In its condition, the place warranted a low price, but she balked at most offers and periodically unlisted the property to save the advertising fee and rely on word-of-mouth. The rest of the family seemed relieved that the farm remained within its grasp, though they were all gone from the area. My mom, Jeannie, recently had moved to Denver. Aunt Pud and Uncle Larry had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, as had my cousinCandy. Shelly to Texarkana. My dad was working construction in Wichita, had no money or interest in farming again and was the wrong side of the family anyhow. No one from our family would live at the farm again.
In early 2008, Betty said to hell with a traditional sale and put the farm up for auction. We’d auctioned much of the machinery and tools after Arnie’s death nearly a decade prior in the late nineties, when I’d driven home from college and zipped up my navy coveralls on a frigid winter day to watch an auctioneer in a cowboy hat stand on a hayrack I knew well. This time, though, the house would go, along with the outbuildings and a few acres.
After the auction and a bit of business wrangling, the farm had a new owner, and Betty needed to clean the place out by March.
God, I dread it, Betty told me.
After all those years standing vacant, the house still was brimming with the bounty of Betty’s many Walmart sale raids and weekend garage-sale escapades, the empty acquisitions of a woman who grew up with next to nothingand thus relished the act of accumulating the cheap somethings her years working as a probation officer in Wichita allowed her. These items overflowed from upstairs closets: bath salts made in China, faux-leather wallets, electronic language translators, fuzzy slippers, Life Savers candy. She wrapped them as gifts for grandchildren.
The kitchen, where Betty had fed so many family and friends, contained dinnerware, measuring cups, casseroles, heart-shaped cookie cutters, pancake makers, juicers, grease-splattered cookbooks, no fewer than three garage-sale blenders. Her mom had been a restaurant cook.
Betty was the keeper of a few family heirlooms—her Grandma Irene’s nineteenth-century mirror, her grandfather’s heavy iron tools, an orange highway cone my parents had stolen as a prank when they were in love thirty years earlier. These resided in the basement, which also contained shelves of decades-old canned jelly and garden vegetables, boxes and plastic tubs filled with crafting supplies, mouse droppings.
Back upstairs: the china cabinet full of my Great-Great-Grandma Irene’s crystal and silver, inherited from women too far back for me to name; the built-in cabinets full of miscellaneous tools and games; shelves lined with knickknacks; four bedrooms full of furniture. They all provoked Betty’s anxiety.
The February night when Betty and I arrived to spend a weekend cleaning out the farmhouse, the place lacked running water and was freezing cold due to an empty propane tank. So we shared a cheap motel room ten miles down the highway in Kingman.
God, I dread it, she said again. Part of me would just as soon light a match and burn the damn thing down. Don’t you dread it?
Not really, I said.
I had mourned the farm already and felt surprisingly ambivalent.
I asked her, Is it because of the physical labor or the emotion of it?
She puffed on her cigarette.
Both, I guess.
I turned off the light and crawled under scratchy sheets, thought about how the past and present didn’t match.
On Saturday morning, we ate breakfast at Kingman’s highway diner, The Ranch House, which Betty very seriously referred to as The Raunch House. She successfully avoided being spotted by an old friend she hadn’t seen in years. I had bumped into a close high-school pal when grabbing sandwiches the night before. Little went unnoticed in Kingman, which was one reason Betty had been happy to move to Osceola, Iowa.
Although I guess it’s the same damn thing there, Betty said.
The gray late-winter morning was frigid, and upon entering the farmhouse, Betty turned on and opened the oven to warm up the kitchen. She had called someone to partially fill the propane tank so that we might get the furnace going. Meanwhile we began our work in the old butchering garage. It was supposed to rain that afternoon, and we meant to get the outdoor sorting done before tackling the house.
Betty’s younger sister Polly and her husband showed up and helped us hoist a broken garage door onto its crippled tracks. Glass rained on our heads. I held the door up while they pushed out the dead Toyota pickup I’d driven for several years after Betty moved to Iowa.
They went about sorting fishing poles, wagons, and tools, and I climbed into the rafters to pull down Betty’s old “warsh bins.” She wanted to keep them in honor of her Grandma Irene, who first used them in the 1920s. They were thick with dust that coated my throat.
If I were you, I told her, I would ask myself, ‘Will I use it? Does it have extreme sentimental value?’ If both answers are no, get rid of it. It will just weigh you down.
Yeah, she said, but continued to amass tall piles of items that surely would spend the rest of their existence in storage. Her husband’s ranch hand was driving down from Iowa with a trailer to load the chosen belongings.
I spotted a bucket deep beneath a butchering table and yanked at the handle. Polly helped me pull it free, and we both recoiled from a horrible odor. The bucket contained a few small tools, which were stuck to the bottom by thick, dark goo—the decomposing juices of an animal no longer recognizable. The smell filled the garage; I held my breath and hurried across the gravel yard with the bucket. I set it between the pasture fence and the Cat Barn and ran back to the garage.
As we continued to work, an eastern gust occasionally placed us downwind from the bucket, gagging us with the reek of death. We finished sorting the garage, sheds, and barns just as it started to rain.
The house stunk of mice, alive and dead, but we were relieved to get warm. It had been the wettest winter in recent memory, and we were cold in a deep way. All day we had to squat outside the house to pee, since the water supply wasn’t on. Betty had been struggling with arthritis for years and found the day painful.
Let’s make a plan, I said, as she wandered from room to room with a stricken look. First, you go through each room and point out everything you want to keep. The rest of us will box things up and haul them outside for you. You don’t need to be going up and down the stairs.
This approach would work until Betty left one room to find a box in another and then became distracted and paralyzed by the new room. In the meantime, at Betty’s suggestion, Polly and I took things for ourselves. I loaded my pickup bed with gardening items, kitchenware, and a few antiques. Polly took their mother’s purse, which no one had sorted through in the fifteen years since Dorothy’s death.
I was relieved to discover that our task was merely to glean from the house desired items, rather than to properly empty and clean the place—a job that would require weeks, not a weekend. Still, I was uneasy about leaving such a mess for the new owners, as well as having pieces of my childhood handled without reverence by strangers.
That’s how auctions work, Grandma said. As-is.
I took the things I cared strongly for but left behind much with mixed feelings: the decorative ceramic cats my mom bought me when I was small; the teal, marked-down dress I wore as homecoming queen candidate at a small high school ten miles down the highway. I followed the sorting advice I had given my grandmother, but not without pause.
Jerry,who had started as farmhand in his teens and was now in his forties, stopped by to help. A high-school friend of mine visited with her baby. Polly’s daughter and her young family came for the kitchen table. It was funny how the casual swirl of visitors so easily resumed at the farm.
Then it had been dark several hours, and the truck was full of things, and everyone but me and Grandma Betty was gone.
I needed to relieve myself before we hit the road. In the black country night, Betty sat waiting in her truck, smoking with the heater on and the windows up, heavy rain glistening past her headlights. I pulled down my jeans and peed next to a walnut tree.
Sarah Smarsh has reported for Harper’s and Guernica, and her essays and criticism have appeared in The Morning News, Parcel, and Columbia Magazine. The author of two books on Kansas history and editor of an NEA-funded essay collection on women’s health, she has taught nonfiction writing at Columbia University, Washburn University, and elsewhere.
Listen to Sarah Smarsh and Jonathan Moody read and discuss “Death of the Farm Family” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.