Recollecting the Field of Corn

I stand at the edge of a field. Its sharp line demarcates the lawn of the house behind me from the farmer’s property that stretches a full quarter mile ahead and into the distance. My car is parked down the road, off to the left, the emergency lights blinking. I stare into the red flash of the brakes until the light is a kind of static and my breathing is calm. 

          The smell of a roasting pig hangs in the air like a mallet. Already, I am overwhelmed by the spirit of this place. I cannot see any pit dug into the Earth, which is how I remember that pig being cooked. I do not see the red-hot coals, but I remember them glowing at the edge of the barn nearby. I read an article once, I don’t know where, that said smell and memory are closely linked. That pig roast must have been thirty years ago.

          Perhaps, I shouldn’t have come here.

          I take notice of the night sky—it is a deep saffron that fades into blackness. The thermosphere, which appears as a curvature in the sky, has given way to space and a great yawning out into the universal. This is the sight I remember from my childhood. I fool myself into thinking, for a moment, that this was the purpose in coming here. Just to gaze at the stars, a beautiful sight I haven’t seen in my many years living in the city.

          It has been some time, too, since I last thought of my childhood home. In reality, this is why I’ve come here. The house behind me was my family’s place when my folks were still together. That was twenty-six or twenty-seven years ago. While cruising down Route 58, along the backroads of Ohio, finding myself near the old neighborhoods I remember so well, here on business and just driving, driving with nothing to do, I found my wheel guided as though by an invisible hand to this house. I felt possessed. While washing dishes, walking the dog, or planting gardens that never grow back at my real home, across the country, I’ve worked hard at shaking the feeling that I was somehow controlled by outside forces. But here I am.

          You appear before me, an image from a photo. I know, instantly, that it was you I was looking for. While meditating, this picture has appeared to me repeatedly. In the photo, you wear your overalls, pinstriped blue—clean as the day mom bought them—the same outfit you wear now. Lately, my mind has rested on this picture, and when the image is at its sharpest, I’ve wondered whether you would have, in those years, dreamed of becoming someone like me. Seeing you now as an image come to life, I remember how you once imagined yourself becoming a railroad conductor. Those were the years you played in the basement, shirt collar clenched in mouth, tongue drawing the scent—if not also the taste—of sweet detergent from moistened cotton. You spent hours sitting cross-legged before a train set as it chugged through the paper mâché mountain built by dad in our basement landscape, a magical place composed of reinforced concrete beams and lit by sodium phosphorus skies. You and dad painted the mountain so that an oily, ruby-red lava rolled down one side of a brown-blue pitch. Dad on his knees, sweating through his Hanes, laying down the track. How close you two were back then. In spirit and proximity. The smell of stale cigarettes and Milwaukee's Best on his breath as he mimicked the train’s whistle from the side of his mouth. The way you nuzzled close when he flipped the engine over and showed you the spinning wheels.

           You stand there at the edge of the field, as you do in the photograph, wearing your OshKosh B’gosh conductor’s hat, pinstriped blue. Nothing grows in this winter field, but you are full of bounty. You look out over the barren soil. The sun rises in an instant, as though it were just hiding in the darkness of the night sky. I frame you perfectly in the golden light, holding my forefingers and thumbs in the shape of a square. I can’t believe how childishly perfect you are. No frown lines. No stubborn paunch. I’m vain these days. I look in the mirror most mornings, poking at my nose and its sunken, oily treasure, and I wonder where you might have gone. Surely, we aren’t the same.

           The sun disappears and you seem surprised. The problems you have! The big issue of your day? Setting suns. A small cut, maybe, cured by mom with the juice of a dissected flower stem. It gets worse, kid, believe me. A divorce, for Christ’s sake, to a woman you barely remember.

          You stand at the edge of the barren field, your arms bursting with golden-hued maize. The sun reappears and the field sprouts orange-gold ears of corn. Sparrows dive through the air and a tractor engine howls to life in the distance—it’s time for the harvest. Those were my favorite days of the year. The great beast of a machine takes to the field, its teeth churning husk to cornmeal. Renewal and rebirth. I feel suddenly on the verge of tears.

          You stand at the edge of the cornfield. The bird calls crescendo. You smile and begin to run, just run for nothing, maybe. Just for fun. I say in a sharp tone: stop, stand to the left. You look crestfallen. In your future you will learn to be cruel to yourself. You will become an expert at it. You’ll have the sharpest knives and the cruelest implements of torture. And you will no longer remember fun. But now, I’m not being cruel. It’s just that there, in that spot, is where I remember you best; with the silky sunlight on your back. And if you insist on appearing before me, I insist your presence be pure. I have so little to hold on to.

          You stand in the spot I indicate and smile, but something is corrupted. You’re no longer quite as beautiful. Where are the crickets? They seemed so abundant in childhood. You would catch them in mason jars and let them die.

          You stand at the edge of the cornfield, but your attention is elsewhere. You turn your head toward the sound of a revving engine. I know what the sound portends. I grab your hand and we run together to the front yard. Under the old oak tree, we watch a pickup truck speed towards us from down the highway. The truck’s front right wheel clips the highway berm, causing it to dip into the ditch then spring back up as though hitting a loaded mattress. The truck, airborne, flips soundlessly through the air. You and I watch as the vehicle, snatched by gravity, comes forcibly down on the front lawn mere yards in front of us. The truck comes to rest on its bed, propped like a teeter-totter on its cab.

          You stand still, frightened. I curse you for cowardice. Then, I scold myself. Here I am, having driven miles to heal, but I’m still beating myself up. For this moment. For many others. Twisting memories so that I’m turning the blame on myself.

          I leave you under the tree and sprint to the truck. I want to look the driver in his eyes. I want to be brave. The chassis is pinched. The glass shield is shattered. I lower to my hands and knees and crawl like a child to the passenger side of the truck. Dad is at the wheel. His eyes are half closed. I smell whiskey and ice cubes and iron.

          Wake up, asshole. I’m yelling at him. I was here, I scream. I was watching.

          Dad is semi-conscious. He mumbles for help, and when he calls louder, waking to the moment, I see agony. He needs me. I feel sadness that this still moves me. I reach out, deciding at the very least to unbuckle him, but he is no longer there—nothing left but a pack of cigarettes and the sound of growling.

          Was I here to forgive him, or myself?

          I sit down on the grass and cross my legs. I take a deep breath, find center and count. In and out, breathing to ten. Reset. I use the blinking emergency lights of my car to once again find static.

          You stand at the edge of the cornfield, still as a statue, waiting for my return. I say to you: Everything is fine—ignore the accident, move to the right place, please. I’ve begun to juggle things, screw it up, and I can see you’re worried by it. My brain is too active. You waver in and out of focus. I try to sharpen my mind. I close my eyes and imagine a white floating orb, the light of it expanding out into the saffron thermosphere. I say to you, quietly, my eyes still closed: You were always good. When I open my eyes, you are exactly where you should be. I hold up my hands, use my thumbs and forefingers to create a rectangle in which to frame you.

          You turn your head from me. You avert your eyes.

          There is a cacophony in the field. The tractor we heard earlier is struggling. I see it in the distance. Its engine smokes and clatters and eventually dies. Our old neighbor, the farmer whose name I no longer remember, is a stick figure in the distance. He climbs from the cab of the tractor, takes a few steps, stops at the tractor’s tines, and looks down. Distracted and curious, I drop my fingers and stumble through the corn towards the tractor, its green head peeking out from above the elephant’s eye. The ears and stalks batter my face. I can smell the crop’s musky odor. When I reach the tractor, the farmer has his hat in hand, his head lowered. Tangled in the tractor’s tines is the mangled body of a dog. A cocker spaniel.

           Sarah, I say.

           The farmer nods his head.

           That was my dog, I say. I point at her open eyes and clouded cataracts. She was blind.

           The farmer blinks.

          I look to the edge of the cornfield. I forgot to tell you to wait. You’re gone. I turn back to the farmer and his face is blurred. I try to focus but I can’t remember his features. His body peels like a husk of corn to reveal the down of a dandelion within him, and he is blown away in the breeze. The corn around me disappears and the field is again barren. I lean down and knead some soil between my fingers. It’s been a long time since the field has grown anything. I’ve driven so far to come here that I’m embarrassed by the effort. What did I expect to accomplish? Was I expecting somehow to change?

          I close my eyes and try to summon you again, but you’re nowhere to be found. Memories are fleeting and sometimes lie. You can’t change what’s happened, only the perspective.

          Strangers call to me from the porch of my old family home. I squint my eyes to see them through the brilliant flood light illuminating the yard. I notice that the porch is painted a dark brown, and I remember that mom and dad had always argued about that porch. My father was meant to stain it. He’d been too lazy and no amount of reprimanding from my mother could change that. Behaviors aren’t so easily manipulated. That porch was still bare wood on the day we moved out. Dad fled cross country. He never owned a house again.

          The couple descend from the porch and walk slowly towards me, exhibiting some concern. They call out.

          Can we help? they ask. Are you alright?

          No, I say. It takes me a moment to correctly interpret that their question is not an offer, but a kindness. They didn’t expect or hope to help me, or that I might answer honestly. They want me to leave. I look out to the field. I work a knot from between my shoulder blades.

          No, I repeat, I’m fine. I was trying to take a picture of something, I say. The couple join me at the edge of the field, and perhaps sensing something in me—a sadness that will never go away—nod knowingly. We listen to a tractor fire to life in the field. We each force a smile. I hold my fingers up to frame the machine’s movement across the land, afraid that I will never leave this place behind.

DANIEL J. CECIL is a writer currently living in Seattle, WA. He received his MFA from the University of Washington, where he also teaches fiction. His work has appeared in The Stranger, The Heavy Feather Review, Rock and Sling, HTML Giant, The LA Review of Books, and The Plant, among others. Check out his website here: www.writerdanieljcecil.com.