The End of the Line by estory
Story of the Month contest entry
"Listen," I said to my son Brandon, "Will you at least think about it? What do you mean, there's nothing to think about? It's our land. I know, I know; you have other ideas. But will you at least think about it? Think about what this land has meant to our family. What it means to me. What it could mean for you. Before it's too late. You know, once it's gone, it's gone."
I hung up the phone and walked out onto the porch. I took a deep breath. It was getting dark, but I could still make out every wrinkle of that field stretching away to the horizon, where the line of distant trees marked the end of it. I knew it by heart, I'd driven over it in the tractor so many times. I could hear the tobacco plants growing. I watched the fireflies weaving between them, winking on and off in their mating dance, the same dance they've been doing on the farm since the beginning of their time here on God's good Earth. They looked like they'd come down from the stars. At least, that's what it felt like to me. And now it was looking more and more like the whole thing was going to pass out of my hands altogether and become something else. A housing development. A shopping center.
My wife opened the screen door behind me. "Earl," she said, "What was that you were talking to Brandon about?" She seemed concerned for me and Brandon both. I knew that.
"Talking about the farm," I said, "Whether he wants it or not."
"Earl," Shirley said gently, "You know he doesn't want it. He's said so already. Why do you keep thinking he's going to change his mind?" I could feel her hand on my shoulder, like a butterfly or a bird. Something bringing peace, but ready to fly off at any moment.
"I just can't bear the thought that this land is going to leave our family for good, on my watch."
Shirley didn't say anything after that. She went back inside and left me out there to mull over my loss. She knew the farm had been in my family for generations. She knew it when she married me. She was the one who bore my kids, Brandon and Lizzie. All the while those kids growed up she knew what I was thinking, what I went out there on that tractor for, every day. A Jackson came over to Johnston county, North Carolina, from North Ireland, in the seventeen hundreds. We've been on this land from before there was country, and ancestors of mine fought for this land in the Revolution, and the Civil War. My grandfather was in the First World War, and he went through the Great Depression. My father was in the Second World War. Then there was the sixties. The seventies. We never lost our hold on it. I always thought I would hand it over to my kids, and that when I went to the grave, I could go to my ancestors in peace. It never occurred to me that I'd be selling it to a developer and moving away. That I'd never see this land again. That my own kids would turn their back on it.
"Earl," Shirley called out from the living room, "Why don't you come on it and have a glass of ice tea?"
Well, there was nothing more to wrestle out there with by myself, so I went back inside and closed the door and sat next to Shirley in my chair. The glass was already on the table. The Price Is Right was on TV. Shirley liked the Price Is Right, but lately it was starting to get on my nerves.
"Honey," Shirley said, "I know you want the kids to take over. But you've given them both the chance, you see? You have to let them live their own lives, at some point, and learn to live with that. What will be will be. You're 65, Earl. You know you can't do this forever. You've got to do what's right for you, and for me too. I'm getting old too, Earl. This is a lot of work here, you know that."
I wiped my face. "Yeah, we're getting old, Shirley, I know that."
"The man made you a good offer," Shirley continued. "You said yourself it was a good offer."
"It isn't the money, Shirley," I said, putting down the ice tea. "I know we could use the money. But money isn't everything, you know."
"Well, we could take that money and buy ourselves a nice, quiet, little place," Shirley said. "We could just have a little garden, and a little yard. Just enough you could mow with your tractor. Someplace where our grandkids could visit us. It would be nice to take it easy."
I sighed. "You think I don't want to take it easy?" I said. "My back hurts just getting out of bed. My fingers bother me. My knees bother me. But I would feel better if just one of those kids, just one, would think enough of this place, all the work I've put in here, the fact that it's been in the family so long, to want to keep it going. To me, a farm is something worth keeping going."
"The tobacco business isn't what it was," Shirley told me, looking over her glasses. "You know that. People are smoking less and less. They say it's not good for you. Every year the prices go lower and lower. You get less and less for killing yourself out there."
I took a drink from the ice tea, rubbed my face with my hand. I leaned back in the chair, closed my eyes and opened them. "I've been thinking of switching over to soybeans. We could always switch over to soybeans, or sweet potatoes. That's not it. They could keep it going, somehow, if they really wanted to."
"Oh Earl," Shirley said. "I just think it's time you accepted the fact that neither Brandon or Lizzie is going to keep it going. And we've got a chance to take care of ourselves. I think you should tell that man you've made up your mind. Just sell it to him and take the money and move on. It's almost a million dollars, Earl. We could buy a little place, maybe even not that far away, and have plenty left to be comfortable. We wouldn't have to worry."
Almost a million dollars. Yeah, it sounded like a lot of money. And you think I didn't want to take it easy? But that wasn't it. Just looking over that field, that's been in our family for generations, and seeing a strip mall and a parking lot, or rows and rows of little houses, with people in them from who knows where, who don't know nothing about this land and what it's meant to us, who don't even care; that was enough to make me sick. And what was really tearing me up inside was that neither Brandon or Lizzie, my own kids, cared either.
I don't know what I was dreaming about when I used to see them two riding their bikes between the rows of tobacco plants, or pushing them up in their swings, so high they could see to the end of that field, like I could. What does any father dream about? Everybody wants a better life for their kids. Everybody wants them to be happy. That wasn't it either.
There's something that's changed in this world, something that's changed for the worse. These kids these days, they don't go to church with us like I used to go with my parents. They don't follow you out to the barn, follow you around on your chores. They don't sit around the kitchen table Sunday nights playing Go Fish and laughing it up together the way we used to do. No; today they're off on their own. They sit up in their rooms with their cell phones, talking to people who aren't there. They go off to college and learn about computers and satellites and they go on the internet and they let it all carry them away to all kinds of places I never imagined, all kinds of ideas and people I'd never entertain myself. They get degrees in science and communications and they become people you don't even know. They move to the big city. They forget where they came from. They don't want to be like you. That's what hurts. That's what makes you wonder what you banged your head against the wall for, all those years.
"It's the developer," Shirley was saying, holding the phone out to me. "He wants to know if he can come out and talk to us again. He doesn't know how much longer he can keep the offer open. There's other opportunities out there, he says."
"Tell him I'm out," I said, picking up my jacket. "Something's come up and I'm outside. I'll get back to him as soon as I can."
I went out there and just walked around with my hands in my pockets, walking passed the tobacco plants, looking up at the stars. In the dark, the tobacco plants looked like people standing out there in their overcoats, watching me walking around, trying to tell me something. It's like they were saying: 'This will be the end of us, you know, if you sell this place. You'll never see the likes of us again. We're dying out, little by little, farm by farm, because you people are selling out. Forgetting where you came from.' I felt half crazy, half terrible, all the same time. I felt like apologizing to those old tobacco plants, for my kids. Telling them I don't know what's got into them. How it was my fault those kids didn't learn to love the land like I did. My fault they moved to the city and became a software engineer and an investment banker. I stood looking up at the stars in the dark, wondering what happened to those kids, whether there was some way I could get them to understand, get them back.
The next day I called them both up, one last time. "Look," I told Brandon, "Before I sign the papers, I'd like to talk it over with you guys one more time. It's just that, once I sign the papers, then that's it, and I want to give you a chance to hear me out, and maybe change your mind. I know you've thought it over. I know you have your own plans. I just want you to listen to what I've got to say about it, before it's too late. Yes, your mother thinks we should sell it. I just want to talk it over with you. Because you guys are my kids, and whether I leave you the farm or a house in the suburbs and some cash, I think we should talk it over. Sunday. It'll take as long as it takes for us to decide. No, we can't wait. The guy's saying he has other opportunities. He wants me to say yes or no. Alright. See you then."
"Well, Brandon will be here, and I think you should be here too," I told Lizzie. "It involves you too. It's a big decision and I don't want to make it without you. No. The guy wants me to make up my mind. I don't know. Your mother thinks we should sell it. Well, I think we should talk it over. Brandon's coming over Sunday, and I think you should be here too. OK."
Shirley was looking at me over her glasses as I hung up the phone. "Oh Earl," she said. Then she turned around and went back into the kitchen.
"Look," I called after her, "It can't hurt to talk it over with everybody. I just want them to think about what I have to say about it. Then we'll do what we've got to do. But once I sign, then it's over and done with."
Saturday night I sat out there on the back porch by myself. Shirley didn't come out. Well, this is it, I told myself. Fifty years I've been at this. Two hundred years of the Jacksons all together, here in this spot. Fighting for this land, working for your family. And this is what it's come down to. A piece of paper with my signature on it, my signature, and it's all gone. The homestead, the houses, the barns, the names; they'll all be forgotten. The bulldozers will come and tear it all up, push it all out of the way. They'll cut in roads, utilities. They'll bring in trucks with brick and lumber. They'll put up townhouses. Dozens of them. The people who move in won't even think about it. It'll be like it was never here. They'll call it Jackson Park. They won't even know who the Jacksons were. And we'll live out our lives in a little place somewhere that used to be someone else's land. Brandon will move to Cary. Lizzie will move to Charlotte. They'll be doing things I know nothing about, that have nothing to do with our people. But they'll be happy, right? And I'll have all that money. At least I'll have the money. Shirley can take it easy. Hell, maybe I can take it easy too.
But somehow I could see those tobacco plants turn their backs on me, like they was pissed at me for selling out. I could see my father, my grandfather, shaking their heads. Maybe my great grandfather. I could hear them all telling me: 'I can't believe you did it, Earl. I can't believe you went and sold the farm.'
But what else am I supposed to do?
Sunday afternoon, Shirley and I were sitting in the living room. She was knitting one those needlepoint things. I was watching a movie. She kept looking at me over her glasses. I kept getting up at the commercial breaks and looking out of the window. Sometimes I'd go out back and look over the tobacco plants.
"Earl," Shirley said, "You've done your part for the place, you know. You've done your piece."
I turned and looked at her. "Have I?" I answered.
Lizzie showed up first. She went to meetings all the time now, I thought to myself, and it was a force of habit to show up ahead of time. She did have a nice, red Honda. It sparkled in the driveway like a ruby. Not a farmer's daughter's car, that's for sure. She had Shirley's good looks, I thought, as she came up the walk, but she looked nothing like her in that business suit.
"Hey dad," she said, smiling, putting down her phone.
"Hey," I said. "All we have to do is wait for Brandon."
"I hope he isn't too long. I have some things to do for the office."
"On a Sunday?" I asked.
"That's the way things are today, dad," she said.
"Well, don't let them work you too hard," Shirley said, getting up. "Especially on the Sabbath. You want some tea?"
"Are you sure you want to stay in a job where they make you work Sundays?" I asked her as we sat down.
"Well daddy, that's what you've got to do to get ahead, nowadays."
I shook my head. "I never work Sundays, and you can't say we ever lacked for anything. When you have faith, the Lord provides."
Lizzie looked at me and smiled. "Oh daddy. If only my bosses had faith like you."
Just then I saw Brandon's black ram pickup. At least he looked like a farmer's son. A Stettson and jeans. "Well, here's Brandon," I said. I turned off the movie and we all went and sat around the kitchen table.
Brandon sat there, not looking at me, not looking at anybody, and shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you, daddy. It isn't for me. I've got a career of my own. I'm doing what I like to do."
Shirley looked at him. She looked at me.
"I just want you kids to understand that once I sign the papers, the farm is gone. It's been in our family for two hundred years. This is your last chance to keep it in our family. This is it."
Brandon shook his head, still not looking at me. "I know how you feel, daddy. I really do. But farming just isn't my thing. I wouldn't be able to make a go of it anyway. It's such a struggle. And I don't want to struggle like that."
"You wanted them to have a better life, Earl," Shirley said. "You said so yourself."
Lizzie leaned forward. "You don't have to worry about us," she said. "I think you and mama should do what's right for you."
"That's not it," I said.
Brandon finally looked at me. He looked like me, sometimes, I thought to myself, with that square jaw and those eyes, like he was thinking of how to chew you down on the price of seed. "How much money did they offer you, dad?"
I leaned back in the chair. "Three quarters of a million dollars."
Brandon and Lizzie looked at each other. Then they both looked at me.
"Dad," Brandon said, "That's a lot of money. I wouldn't even think about it. You and mom can retire, get yourself a nice, little place and take it easy. you don't have to worry about me and Lizzie."
Shirley said: "That's what I've been trying to tell him."
"You don't understand," I said. "I know all that. I realize that. What you don't realize is how special a farm is. Without farms, there's no food. Forget tobacco. We could grow soybeans. In fact, I've been thinking of it doing it myself. This farm's been in our family for generations. It's what our ancestors did. It's what they fought for. What gets me is that you two are turning your backs on it all. You want nothing to do with it. That kills me. What I want you to think about is that once I sign the papers, this place is gone. For good. They'll make a development out of it. Sure it's a lot of money. I just want you to understand that if I take it, you lost your chance on the land."
Lizzie looked at Brandon, then at me. "Dad, we get that you put your heart and soul into this place, we really do. We appreciate what you did for us. We had a good life here. But you gave us an education, and we took that, and we made something of ourselves with it. We can't use the land. We think you and mom should take care of yourselves now. Take it easy."
"You deserve it," Brandon said, looking at me.
"We'll be happy for you," Lizzie continued, "We really will be happy for you. Don't worry about us. We'll be fine."
There was a silence. They were all looking at me, like I was crazy or something, like I was trying to hold onto something that wasn't there anymore.
"Earl?" Shirley said, looking at me.
I took a deep breath. I clasped my hands on the table. I looked down. "I guess I was hoping this place would mean something to you. And I guess it don't."
Brandon leaned over. "Dad, we're proud of you. We're proud of how we lived. Right Lizzie?"
"Yes," Lizzie said, squeezing my hand. "Of course we are."
Shirley looked at me. I looked at Shirley. "Well, Earl?" she said, "Are you going to tell call that man and tell him you're going to sign the papers?"
I looked at Brandon, then Lizzie, and then Shirley, my wife. I sighed. "Well, I guess there's nothing else to do."
Lizzie smiled. "Dad, you should be happy. Three quarters of a million dollars."
Brandon laughed. "Good for you, dad. Don't spend it all in one place. Geez. Three quarters of a million dollars."
Three quarters of a million dollars. Less fees and commissions. There's always fees and commissions for somebody in these things. The man came with the papers in a suit, like he was going to a funeral. We sat around the dining room table and Shirley gave him a glass of ice tea. He spread the papers on the table and set the pen there in front of me and smiled. I picked up the last piece of paper and started reading. I figured for two hundred years we've been on this land, I could take my time. The man cleared his throat and looked at the clock, the way these fellows always do.
"What is it, Earl?" Shirley asked me. She was looking at me over her glasses.
I didn't say anything. I just picked up the pen and signed my name in the designated space.
When I was done the man took the papers from me. He was smiling. He held out his hand. "Congratulations!" He said. He handed me the check and I looked at it. Six hundred and forty five thousand dollars.
"We're rich," I said, looking at Shirley.
"For once in our lives," she said.
The man laughed.
The last night I stood outside in the middle of those old tobacco plants, by myself. I looked over the old barn, the one my grandfather built. I looked over at the house. I thought about all the times I had gone up and down those rows in that tractor. How many times my daddy had done it. How many years my grandfather did it with a horse and a plough. 'Well,' I said to myself, 'That's that. Time to move on.'
We drove over to the new place, Shirley and me, the place we bought in Wilkesboro for three hundred fifty thousand. When we got out of the car, I looked at it. A ranch house and a screened in deck, a garage, rose bushes, a one acre lot. 'Is this what three hundred fifty thousand dollars comes to?' I asked myself. 'Is this what you end up with after two hundred years?'
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