I remember the morning I lost my mind. I sat in the cluttered kitchen of the farmhouse engulfed by a feeling of bleakness; the dirty dishes piled in the sink, the sound of the truck sputtering outside—it was so familiar that it was desolate.
A thought nagged from the bleak: Where was my long sleeve shirt? I hung it on the back of the kitchen chair last night, now it was gone. It was the only one that was remotely clean.
That’s how I ended up in the middle of peach harvest in a T-shirt, arms ablaze from the fuzzy chafe of peaches. A coating of sweat slicked over my arms and reminded me of the time when I was a little kid and I crawled through a patch of stinging nettles in the rain, chasing after a chicken.
Part of the problem was that Mason, my stepfather, refused to update the farm equipment. Sometimes, when the creaky old combine was leaned up in the field waiting on repairs, he’d strut into the rows with the walk-behind corn picker he won at a small farm expo. just to prove a point.
When August peach harvest came around, he had the same mentality: Pick ‘em the old fashioned way. That meant climbing a ladder and getting the fruit into the basket and then personally emptying that basket into a crate.
Once, I spent all night poring over farm catalogs, circling tools and modest machines that had the power to ease our summer days. Our thirty-acre sliver of Otton farmland barely passed as a proper farm compared to the Lasky’s ocean of corn, yet somehow we were working harder than them to keep the land producing.
I left my selections on the table next to Mason’s newspaper and every time the catalogue ended up in the black plastic bin by the door.
“You wanna spend all our cash so you can plop our ass in an air conditioned hole and call it a harvest?” He said. His squinted glare sent wrinkles through the skin around his blue eyes. His cheeks sunk in further than usual and I could almost see the contours of his skull. “You ain’t no farm boy.”
I agreed with him.
“You’re right,” I said. “I was meant to be a professional.” I sat up straight at the kitchen table. For the first time realized I was actually taller than him.
Mason got to his feet.
“’The hell you think this is, some kinda fuckin’ doodle?” His voice was hoarse and his fist fell to the table like a gavel. “You’re a farmer, you’re a goddamn professional. An’ if for some horseshit reason you don’t think you are, then I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doin’ all your life.”
The room got quiet and he returned to his seat with the slow jerkiness of an old man, still fixing his glare on my face. I turned my head and stared at the wall.
“I don’t understand what the hell’s wrong with you, Martin. Would’ya rather be stuck in some dipshit college in the cornfields with your thumb up you ass waiting for someone to tell you how to wipe it?”
There was stillness before he tore into his egg sandwich.
There were other roadblocks to my daydreams. When my high school counselor asked me what I wanted be when I grew up, she didn’t wait to hear my reply.
“Farmer Martin,” she said smiling.
Otton, a speck of a Midwestern town, was only significant for the amount of grain it produced on an annual basis.
It was when my best friend Daniel took off to college that I felt the full stagnancy of my life. He got a football scholarship to Boise State University and I got a reality check—I looked around as all my daydreams vaporized: there I was standing in a mucky chicken coop ankle deep in ripe shit.
Here’s the gist of my summertime life in Otton: Bent over from the first peep of spring until the last stand of fall, lifting, stinking, and grunting through each day sunup, sundown.
With no time to cook, Mason and I lived on cold lunchmeat slapped on white bread that was on sale at Wal-Mart. Or sometimes, if Mason was in a good mood, we’d mix hot dogs with canned chili and eat it with corn chips mashed up in it, topped with maybe some grade B sour cream from Lasky’s Dairy. As long as it wasn’t a peach or another egg looking back at me I was happy, and it kept me full.
My favorite, though, was Chinese. Sometimes I would sneak downtown to the China Buffet with ten dollars pocketed from the farm stand and gulp down all the sweet n’ sour goodness I could fit in before wobbling home, top heavy.
Mason never approved of spending money on food unless it was on the ten-for-ten rack at Wal-Mart or Meijer, Grade B dairy products, or the better part of a large animal. The rest we got from our farm.
In the summer we mostly ate crap out of a can because we were just too tired to cook. Actually, it didn’t bother me. Even on the slowest days in the middle of winter Mason and I had a very limited idea of cooking and it involved throwing a chunk of meat in a pot with water and onions and boiling the shit out of it. Come March I would kill for a slice of cold ten-for-ten lunchmeat.
So there I stood, sleeveless and baking in the orchard. It was a Friday and I was sure that I hated my stepfather, roommate, boss–Mason Specter.
On a midmorning break, Jacques, the sporadic and unpaid university intern, propped his picker stick against a tree and eyed me up and down. A bee buzzed by. There was a stiff silence. He jutted his chin at my arms.
“Should’ve worn long sleeves,” he said. His words broke something inside of me.
First, I felt a fiery lump expanding inside of my chest. Then I felt my muscles tightening and my jaw gripped down on itself like a vice.
I’d felt these anger spells boil up before; sudden volcanic fury that hit the nearest person on the way out. After an unfortunate incident involving a sheep shearer, I dedicated myself to learning to contain them: I’d seal up, Tupperware style. But that day, there was no sealing.