national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011

Auction Day

Sarah-Jane Abate  • 
Susquehanna University

I turn from the display of pipeline detergent for the milking system when Bill Mayhew barks my name. He’s luggin cans of primer in both hands. His face loses its harsh look when he smiles at me, and I walk towards him. It saves him from havin to carry those things, and I don’t need any of that detergent no more anyway.

“How’s the hay?” I ask. I drove past his fields on the way to the Tractor Supply, but it’s best to get the news straight from the source. Bill looks away. With his face turned, he looks tired. The bright store lights make him look older than he’s ever looked out in the field, or under the barn lights. Me, I always preferred barn lighting. Not as harsh. A lot more natural.

“You gettin anything?” He gestures to the wall behind me. I shake my head once and we start walkin. We thud our way to the checkout, boots crackin with each step. The line’s wrapped around the chicken feed, right next to the dog food. I grab a bag of chicken feed and heft it over my shoulder, carryin it back to the line and droppin it down. The line’s full of summer people tryin their best to farm, maybe a few horses, something they can get real excited about. Nothing heavy-duty. Not like we do.

“Rained right after I cut my hay,” Bill says, going back to my question.  Some of the people in line look sympathetic – the ones I recognize, dressed in their best barn clothes. The others, wearin the wrong shoes, don’t even look around.

“Damn,” I whistle. His whole crop’s useless if he wants to sell it to the people with horses. The ones with big money. Makes me almost glad I’m giving all that up.

Outside, a gas worker’s truck rattles in, out-of-state license plate bouncin off his front bumper as he brakes quick. I can see out of the corner of my eye Bill watchin the truck through the big front windows, then watchin me.

“How much they payin you?” he asks. It always starts like this. They always sound a certain way when they ask. I didn’t expect Bill to sound like that.

“Hundred fifty an acre,” I say.

He turns to look at me then. “Hundred fifty thousand?”

I shake my head, forcin out a chuckle. “Ain’t worth that much to them. Hundred fifty dollars.”

“You know the company’s paying the Restons’ bout seven thousand an acre, right?”

“Yeah, I heard that, but I hadn’t heard it from them.”

“It’s true,” he says. “They just signed up last month.”

“We signed bout a year an a half ago. Must’ve been payin less back at the beginning.”

Bill starts to say something, but before he can, Dick Crane strides up to us, moving better than a lot of the younger farmers I’ve seen. He’s used to this life, more than they are. His face is red from the heat of the parking lot and a battered Chevy without A/C.

“Coop, Bill.” He nods, stoppin beside us. The line inches forward, then stops as someone ahead of us forgets something and runs back to get it.

“How’s your place doin?” he asks Bill. Bill shakes his head, and Dick shakes his, too. They were in the same grade in school, two grades above me, together almost all the time. Then, they’d talk farming and girls. Now they talk farming and grandkids.

Dick turns to me. “Linda still runnin that daycare? We gotta put Maddie somewhere,” he grins, the little girl his pride and joy. “The smartest child, kid or grandkid, I’ve ever had,” he calls her.

I know he doesn’t know. “No,” I say, “We’re thinking of shuttin down once all the kids go back to school in bout a month. Most of em won’t need the place anymore. Sides, it’ll give Linda a break. She needs one.”

“Huh,” he says. “She mentioned something bout we should bring her in. Said she’d sure love to see her. You still gonna farm?” he asks, switching directions.

“Some,” I say. “ Not cows. Maybe some chickens, just to keep busy. A little corn for the farmstand.”

The gas worker from Texas walks by and nods at me, and I nod back. Bill and Dick both stiffen till he passes. I concentrate on pickin up the bag of feed and carryin it as the line moves forward, not looking at either of em.

“What do you got the rig on your land for? I heard they can just drill under and get it or something.” Bill asks.

“We’re the only farm round for miles doin this. Don’t got anywhere else to put the rig up. Gotta go on my land.”

Nobody talks for a while til we’re almost at the front of the line.

Dick finally says, “Should probably take care of business,” and Bill and I both nod at him. He heads to the back of the store where the pipeline detergent is.

I turn back to look at the line and Bill says to me, “I been hearin something bout an auction at your place. Gas company arrange that?”

“Some auction company down in Philly. Some kinda package deal.”

“When’s that?”

“Beginning of October.”

“You gonna be ready by then? Less than three months.”

“I’ll be done by then.”

“Yeah? I might stop by. Need a new combine. Mine’s startin to go.”

“Combine’ll be there.” The line moves, and I move with it. Bill follows me.

“You and Linda should come on over sometime. For dinner. I know Patty wants to see you. And Joey’s invited too, and his wife too, and Katie. That your granddaughter’s name?”

“Joey’s real busy, and last we heard, Katie’s in some kinda music camp for the summer. One of them city programs, some school thing, I think.”

“That’s a shame. Bet Linda misses them. I know Patty’d go mad if she couldn’t see our kids or grandkids. You know how much she dotes on em.”

“Joey’s just busy. Lotta kids get hurt in the summer. Last we heard his medical practice really started goin this past year.”

“Bout time. How long’s he been down in Wilkes-Barre for?”

“Been bout ten years since he moved down there. Said he had to work at Wilkes-Barre General till he could pay off his loans and open up his own place.”

The line moves more. More out-of-towners check out. Some Jerseyites. I can tell from the Mess’s fireworks bag that one of the kids holds. Probably on discount, since it’s a couple weeks after the 4th of July now. Mess’s is always was a waste of money, anyway. All you need is the little sparklers sold in the stores round here, if you’re a little girl. Maybe some gunpowder and matches if you wanna do it yourself. Still remember when my dad beat the piss outta me when I set em off too close to the cows.

The family from Jersey walks outta the store. The line moves up.

“Even if it’s just you and Linda. Anytime you want, Coop,” Bill says. “Just let us know and Pat’ll cook up something nice.”

“How bout you and Pat come to our place for dinner?” I ask, wantin to save Patty the work but not wantin to say that out loud. “Linda’s been dyin to cook for more than just me and the kids. And I got a lotta things to take care of fore the rig goes up.”

Person in front of me checks out, leaves with their bags. I grab the feed bag and pull it up so the cashier can scan it easier, drop it back down when she’s done. She looks familiar, like one of the Robinsons. She’s got Bob’s chin. I remember we all used to aim spitballs at that chin in school, and he always used to get us back in the hall after class.

“Your daddy ol Bob Robinson?” I ask, and she giggles. He’s gotta live a few towns over. I almost never see him anymore.

“No, my grandpa,” she says, and smiles. Hard to think that ol ball-bustin Bob has a grandkid now. I pull my wallet out to pay, and it slides easy outta my back right pocket. There’s not much cash in there. Lot more plastic than I’d like.

“You should, like, get a new one of those,” she giggles, pointing at my wallet. “It looks like it’s gonna fall apart any minute, like Grandpa Bob’s.”

I look down at it. It’s real leather, had it since I was a boy. It’s cracked, fadin, fallin apart. My momma got it for me Christmas one year, that and my first real pair of boots and a bone-handled pocketknife from my dad. Still have the knife, too.

I look back up at her, and she blushes again as she hands me the receipt. I smile at her. I take the bag of feed and start to walk away.

“Maybe you better come over to ours,” Bill calls from behind me. “Pat’s not feeling too well lately.”

I nod.

“When are they startin to drill?” he asks, and some people in line look up from their carts at me.

“Fall,” I say, “Got till end of summer to get everything taken care of. Gotta sell all the animals and machines—got no use for them in a few more months. Lot of it’s done already.” I tug the brim of my hat down as a goodbye and head out to my truck.

 

The house is almost empty when I get back. This time of summer, most kids in the daycare are on vacation with their parents, cept for the farmer’s kids. Linda looks up from where she’s makin lemonade from powder for the kids and homemade iced tea for us.

“Jim,” she says, and I go kiss her cheek. “Kids are all asleep downstairs. Finally got em to agree to naptime,” she says. “We pulled some vegetables from the garden. Lots of squash and zucchini. We left the corn for you, though. Looks like there’s some of it ready. Thought you might like to handle it. Either way, we got enough for the stand tonight.”

I nod my thanks, take my hat off, and wash my hands. The water sputters before it starts runnin.  Linda takes a cold chicken sandwich on a plate outta the refrigerator and puts it down on the table in front of me.

I don’t wanna start a fight with all the kids right below us in the playroom, but I gotta know. “Why’d you tell Dick to bring Maddie here? You know we’re shuttin down after summer ends.”

“Don’t we still need the money?” she asks, turning from the counter.

I shake my head as I finish chewing, shovelin in the food. “Not with the gas money comin in.”

“It’s not enough,” she says, “And you know it damn well as I do.”

“When we sell off the livestock and equipment, it will be,” I say. I wipe my mouth and throw my napkin down, coverin up the last piece of sandwich. “Hundred-fifty an acre for two hundred fifteen acres, plus royalties.”

“You don’t know for sure there’s any gas under there.”

“They’re building a rig. There’s gas. Even without royalties we’ll still get bout two hundred thousand if we can sell everything we don’t need no more. The real money’s in sellin everything off, you know that. We sell off all those cows we don’t need, that’s well over one hundred thousand right there.”

“How much is gonna be left after we pay everything back? All that equipment? And all those loans we needed?”

“We’ll have enough,” I say. I grab my hat and walk out to the barn.

 

It’s real quiet in here. The fans are the loudest thing, blowing the stink of manure in my face as I walk in. It’s too hot for the cows to be out today, so they’re all drowsin inside, eating all the food they should be savin for later. I walk along the rows of cows, hopin this heat spell breaks. It’s too expensive to keep em in. They eat all the feed I got stocked up, and their milk’s not doing so good either. I hope it drops below ninety soon.

Barn’s a lot emptier than usual, with most all the calves sold off already, too expensive to feed. Most all that’s left is the milk cows, now. Not much to do in the barn cept sit and think, so I leave the dark and the fans and step outside into a blanket of heat. I head down the hill from the barn, almost runnin to keep my step even.

I get to the road, cut deep, a drop down from the land. It ain’t really a road. The real road’s further out from the house, cracked asphalt of a highway. But that was too far away from the drill pad for the company, and instead I’m at the road they carved outta my land with their bulldozer. It ain’t nothing but dirt, the deep dark color of earth, and it leads out to the main road and them big water tankers rattle in on it all times of the day. It ain’t nothing but a big scar down the middle of my land, separating the small piece round my house and cow barn from the land where they’re drillin. The land that used to be the grazin fields and the crop fields.

I don’t stop to look as I cross that dirt road. I just head to the gate to look at the hay. It ain’t been cut yet, and good thing. That rain set the cuttin back now a few days. Gotta wait for the field to dry fore I can do the final cut. Don’t know why Bill mowed so early. Wasn’t time yet. He must be worryin, specially with all them hospital bills. Can’t let shit like that force your hand. End up makin bad decisions. Dangerous decisions.

One of the men guardin the gate looks at me, leanin against his truck like he’s on his lunch break, pretendin he’s not really guardin. He shields his eyes with his hand, then unlocks the gate and waves me in, goin back to lean against the truck after I pass. Allows me onto my own land.

I do my best to ignore all the fields they’ve dug up and head off to the side, to the few acres I got left. I’m stuck grazin the cows by the house – too much trouble keepin em here, specially heifers, and there ain’t no room for them anyhow. I only got a small patch of hay here. Borderin that is the pile of dirt they got built up.

Cept for my part, all the green is gone, and even my part of that will be gone soon. Just dirt everywhere my fields used to be. On top of that’s the drill pad. The rig ain’t fully finished yet, but they tell me it will be soon. They tell me I only got enough time to do one final cuttin of hay, but they don’t seem too keen about it. There’s not a lot of it. It’s easy to take care of. Woulda been easier if I coulda used the cow pond for water. Some people closer to town been hollerin bout the water, but I don’t believe it, not till I taste the methane myself. I’m gettin all the crops I can outta the land before the company takes it over.

 

I don’t call up Zach Smith, Pete’s boy, when it’s hay-cuttin time. It’s almost the end of summer, time for the last cut, and the damp of July’s burned off into dry heat. August’s prime cuttin weather. Hasn’t been enough money in the past year or so to bring Zach on as help, and he’s a good kid, but he’s probably busy anyhow. Sides, I got used to workin without him, and there ain’t much hay to cut, so I can manage just fine by myself.

Time used to be when my dad did the whole crop, just him and my brothers and me. He’d work us from before sunup till after sundown, and next day we’d go do it again. After ‘Nam there weren’t as many hands. He had to sell off a lotta the land too, to the east of us. Wasn’t enough money for gas in the tractors. Anyway, land went to some rich commie types tryin to get back to the land or some bullshit. All I know is they got back to our land all right, wastin it on some nudist colony. City people.

Land got smaller after my dad had to sell it off, lost almost a third of our land. Used to be massive, how I remember it. Been gettin smaller ever since. Got down to about two hundred fifty acres in total, both sides of that company-made road. Mostly it’s the farmland cross that road, over two hundred acres of fields. The rest’s by the house, bout thirty acres, most of it the woods behind the house. Land was never meant to be split up like this, on two sides of a road. Way it was when my granddad staked it out, it was one big plot of land. Almost two hundred fifty acres in one connected plot is what I had before I signed that paper. I know my dad had to do something like this too, but that don’t make it right.

Hay field this size should take bout a day to mow. Got up real early to milk anyhow, and I don’t plan on takin all that many breaks. I coax the haybine outta the shed, gas workers watchin me the whole time. Treat me like I’m a criminal or something, lookin to blow up the rig. Won’t say I haven’t thought something like that, but a deal’s a deal. Ain’t nothing I can do now, not since I signed that lease.

I finish the first border round my field, so used to the work I could do it asleep. My dad’d tell anyone who’d listen, over a beer or Thanksgiving dinner, that he did once or twice. But I’ve always been awake, watchin my land. I watch it now too, though there’s not much left they’ll let me on, with that rig blockin me. They’re makin a damn lot of noise tryin to build that thing up. I can’t hear over my headphones and the tractor, but I heard it plenty of other times, enough to know what it sounds like. As I’m cuttin, I see the men knockin down the last of the fence my granddad made and my dad and me repaired. They’re replacin it with some fancy metal gates, blindin in the sun. There’re chains and gates cross the entrance to that road they cut that meets the drill area. Started parkin trucks there at night, for security, they say. The lights keep Linda up. Me, I turn to the wall, try to sleep.

It’s bout mid-afternoon by the time I finish, stoppin only to go inside real quick and eat something, then I’m back out again.  Might as well put the tractor away for good, when I’m done. Won’t need it no more, no time for another cuttin, way the gas company’s agitatin. They want me outta their way, I know, but I’m gonna make em say it.

 

I can tell by the way Linda’s cuttin them squash that she’s anglin for a fight. Normally I’d make up an excuse and go out to the barn, but the milkin’s all done and sides, from the mood she’s in she’d probably follow me out there.

“Now that you decided to shut down the daycare, what am I supposed to do with myself all day?” she asks, throwin the vegetables into the pot.

“Go gossip with your friends or something. Do something with your church group, for all I care.”

“They don’t talk to me much anymore.” She starts slingin a dead chicken around.

“How come? Not even Susie?”
“You know why,” she snaps, tossin the chicken into the pot. I grab a beer—refrigerator keeps it only lukewarm, at best—and head out to the porch.

Not much to do now till the hay dries, and I got a couple days fore that. Milkin happens only once a day, and tomorrow’s my barn-cleanin day. I’m itchin to do something.

For now, I’m spendin the time on my land. Company still recognizes I got business over on that side of the fence, so I go down to the equipment barn cross that damn road and let myself in. I started lockin it after I found broken beer bottles by my tractors. The good tractors too, the ones that still work. Some of the machines are ready to be sold off at that auction, in little over a month. Some still need fixin; some I can fix and some I can’t. My brother was the mechanic of the family, not me, but every farmer needs some kinda basic skill. He’d teach me in the winter when not much else was goin on, even though I didn’t want to be out of the warm house and I cursed a blue streak at him. Didn’t see him much after that, after he went to ‘Nam.

Some of the machines, the auctioneer said when he showed up, are just scrap. I don’t need no auctioneer to tell me how much my equipment’s worth, but the gas company paid for him. Well-respected, they say. They want me cleared off my land fast as they can do it. My dad never woulda let them clear him off so fast. My granddad chased one of the men from the town bank off our land and down the road with the Winchester he kept just inside the kitchen door. Tale grew taller every time he told it.

Now that silver gate and that sign and that wound of a road are tryin to keep me off my own land. The sign tricks the out-of-towners drivin by on that old highway into thinkin that this land is the company’s now.

Corn’s gotta go by the house in the spring, chickens gotta go in the cow barn. Can’t use the pond no more. They’re using it for fracking fluid. I remember gettin shoved into that cow pond more than a couple times. Even more I remember shovin my two little brothers in there. I can’t hunt in the woods in back of the rig anymore, either. Lot happened in those woods. I took Linda out there a few times, when we were younger, still gettin to know each other. I showed up at her daddy’s run-down farm to pick her up in the middle of the night, couple miles past the other side of town. My truck made too much noise for her parents not to know, but they didn’t mind much.

There’s more broken beer bottles out there than I can count, on account of my school days. Took Joey out there when he was younger too, back when he still pretended to like huntin. He wouldn’t bitch about schoolwork or take his books with him. He’d take what I did; some food, something to drink, rifle and ammo. He’d stay awake next to me in the brush even though he barely bagged nothing. After one of his tenth-grade science classes he’d spend all his time out there leaned against a tree behind me, readin. He didn’t come out with me too much after that.

Nothing to be done, not much left I can fix. Gotta sell all the equipment I can and just junk the rest.

Gotta let the land support me anyway it can, even if that means sellin it.

 

“How is this fair?” Linda asks me one night. I can see her in the lights comin through our bedroom window. “You get to keep farmin, but I can’t do anything?”

“I thought you hated runnin that daycare,” I say.

“You learn to love it,” she says, and looks at me dead on.

A few days later, on Sunday, I skip church to bale the hay. Linda goes alone. I don’t skip lunch, even though I want to. We sit opposite each other at the table. There’s no noise but the sound of us chewin.

By the time I finish balin hay, it’s startin to get dark out, but that don’t matter much. Company says they’re still not done yet, but the rig’s all lit up at night, and it’s been like that for a while. They’ll be done soon. I can see my fields bright and clear now, even at three in the morning.

It takes a while to load the hay on the cart hitched to the back of the tractor. Such a small patch, I only get bout two hundred fifty small bales of hay out of it. Barely takes up any room in the barn, or at least seems like it. I don’t wanna take too long to get to Bill’s, but I don’t rush what I’m doin. He’s likely out late too. Farmers eat their dinners late.

I wash and dress for dinner, watchin Linda dress. Her back’s to me as she pulls her church dress on over her head, but not for any kinda modesty. We don’t really talk on the way over. Only contact we get is when I go round Devil’s Elbow too fast and she slides along the bench seat into me fore she can stop herself. Just a quick smell of a little perfume and the weight of her on me, and then she’s back over on her side again.

First thing I notice is Patty doesn’t look too good. She’s nice as ever though, and she makes her excuses for Bill, who’s out taking care of his cows.

Later, over chicken and mashed potatoes, Bill finally asks, “That auction comin up real soon?”
I grunt, “Little more than a month now.”

“That so?” he asks, puttin down his fork and knife and lookin at me. “They sure seem to be tryin real hard to get you offa that land.”

“They can try,” I say. “Just cause they bought the mineral rights don’t mean it’s theirs.”

Bill looks down at his plate, scrapin the fork through his potatoes.

Patty clears the plates fast as she can after that, and Linda helps her bring in the pie. Me and Bill take our beers out on the porch and leave the two of them to clean up. We stand at the edge of the railing. All I can see is dark. There ain’t no bright lights shinin in Bill’s windows, no out-of-state accents shoutin and cursin in the fields. I can’t stand to see Bill’s face when he looks out over his land. I turn my eyes down, watch my boots instead.

“It’s come back again. The cancer,” he says, and his throat sounds rough. He takes another swig of his beer. I don’t know what to say, never did, so I just clap him on the back.

“Is it worth it?” he asks suddenly. I know what he’s talkin about. Only one thing people ever talk to me about now. Even Linda.

“I’m still gettin something out of the land,” I say, and there’s not much more to say after that.

 

Come end of August, all the kids are gone. Most of the parents don’t need their kids watched no more in the fall. They can go straight home on the bus. Some of the other parents are puttin their kids someplace “more educational.” Truth is, they all started to leave fore we even told them we were shuttin down this past spring.

The house is quiet now. Me and Linda don’t have too much more to say, not after all these years.

Things sure change real quick with this company. Bout as soon as the leaves start to turn, they don’t wanna let me onto my own land. I gotta get to the equipment barn before the auction, but the men at the gate gotta go get their supervisor first, and one of them walks back to the trailer real slow. The other one watches me and chews, leanin against his clean white truck. He spits on the ground, not even botherin with a bottle.

“What’s the problem here?” the supervisor asks. He’s got a tone I don’t like. He sends the other men back to the rig.

“I gotta get into my barn there,” I say, not botherin to point. “Got that auction comin up in half a month.”

“We’ll let you get into the barn the day before. You had plenty of time before the rig went up to get your things in order.”

“This is my land,” I say, “And I need to get into my barn.”
“Not your land anymore,” he says, then steps aside. But he watches me the whole way to the barn.

 

Auction day. There’s a whole bunch of strangers on my land. The gas company’s keepin a pretty good eye on em, and I am too. There’s a lot of farmers I know, and they try to talk to me for a bit, but most of them don’t got the money to buy much. Lot of out-of-towners wantin “a cute little cow” or something they think they can start a farm with, some kind of organic bullshit. They don’t know what they’re doin. They weren’t raised with this life. Don’t know the first thing bout farmin.

Some businessmen show up too, wearin country clothes ordered from some catalog that don’t even get mailed this far away from the city. They don’t bother to go cross the road to the cow barn. They just look at the equipment. I get a lotta offers for scrap for all the pieces. It’s too old, too expensive, too hard to fix.

The cows go quick though. There’s a lot of people buyin them up. One by one grabbin every piece of my life. I’m surprised they don’t just tear down the barn and walk off with the wood my granddad put up. I even get an offer for the house.

The supervisor from the gas company looks happy once the last scavenger leaves, drivin down that road. The supervisor dusts off his hands as the men behind him keep on workin on the rig. I turn my back on the land and start toward the house, crossin that damn road to where Linda’s waitin in the kitchen.