I’m driving to my pop’s with my son, Dan, who is home from school, and we have to hurry because the sky looks like concrete and the storm will be here soon, I know it, look at the prairie grass, I tell Dan, it’s swaying like those air dancers at dealerships. Dan just nods, his eyes still on my gin cup, which I grab from the cup holder with my good hand, the other one having been rotten since the stroke but good enough to operate the wheel because it’s Sunday morning and the storm is coming, so no one is out on the road, just me and Dan.
I take a gulp or two from my cup, not much, just enough to round the edges, because it’s tough visiting Pop, him being in a wheelchair, thin as a stalk, usually jolly, but sometimes cruel, saying I don’t visit enough, saying I should be more like John, saying now there’s a loyal son, bringing me my cigarettes and applesauce. But which son is visiting before the storm, I ask, which son is delivering potatoes and carrots and two jugs of water and a big, wet-cured ham, which son tips the nurses so Pop gets a room on the first floor and doesn’t have to climb the stairs with the banister being in disrepair and all?
We’re silent for a while, in our own heads, listening to the car groan from the wind, staring at the blur of gray fields—everything is so bloodless—when Dan says they hide the dying, otherwise why place grandpa and the other terminals in a rundown building with not another thing in sight. I say, well, I’m not sure that’s right, son, even though I know he’s probably right, but I want to talk about something positive, so I say something like when the Lord takes him, he will be in the center of it all.
And you know what my son says, he says he doesn’t believe in that stuff anymore, that’s what he tells me. I can tell that he can tell that he upset me, so in an attempt to remedy the situation, he says some mumbo-jumbo about consciousness surviving death because it’s just patterns of information in the brain, so, he says, theoretically, assuming there is no information loss from a black hole, Pop’s consciousness, or more precisely his information, will remain in the universe and can therefore be reconstructed. I have no idea what he means and he’s just trying to be smart, smarter than me, smarter than the Lord, so I say something that’s sure to needle him, I say, whatever you say Farmer Dan, and his face turns red and he has no comeback.
Dan is silent now, stewing, picking at his nails. I know I shouldn’t call him Farmer Dan, but I’m the one (granted, I did have help from my buddy’s son) who created the GoFundMe internet page, I’m the one who filmed him riding a Friesian stallion as he held his copy of Principia Mathematica, I’m the one who photographed him in his stained overalls throwing feed to the chickens with A Brief History of Time on the bench behind him, and, yes, it’s true, I didn’t expect the controversy, I didn’t expect so many folks to donate, so many folks to say, well, these are the types of people we need to help, those who are smart and young and need just a little push, and I certainly didn’t expect backlash to that sentiment, those who said this is just bad performance art, this is an exploitation of the down-on-my-luck-farmer-boy stereotype, because who leaves a book in a henhouse and who still wears overalls, clearly this is just an attempt to pluck at the heartstrings and the purses of the elite, and I sure as hell didn’t expect backlash to the backlash, those who said to the original backlashers, stop being cynical, and so what if it’s performance art, the questions are, is Farmer Dan (that’s what people started calling him) smart and does he need a little push, and since the answers are yes to both, why not donate? The point is, we raised a bundle and I don’t want Dan to forget that the only reason he’s at his fancy state school and can act so much smarter than his father—whose pop is dying, by the way—is because of said father’s efforts, and so maybe now is not the time to discuss consciousness and black holes and information loss.
I turn to Dan to tell him this and the next thing I know I’m horizontal in frozen dirt, looking up at a tree, its branches naked, stiff, numerous, pointing in all directions, and Dan is hovering above my right arm, his upper lip sweating. The dirt is speckled in a deep red and it’s a colony of fire ants and I need to run, run, but it is winter and I am in Iowa and the red spots are not ants but my blood. I know the ground is frozen, the winter wind vicious, but I don’t feel cold, instead I am hot, like I’m sunbathing on the porch, because, sure, my son is muttering, too much gin, too much gin, but I can see how this all looks from an observer on high. Look, the observer says, here is a boy, alone, in an alien landscape of black trees and tall, tall prairie grass stretching toward the colorless sky and he is a good boy, yes, he is a good boy, look at how he helps his father, look at how he removes his sweater despite the winter freeze, look at how he carefully wraps it around his father’s arm, look at how the Lord tests him and how well he’s done, look at the snow falling now, in great, heaving gusts, look at how the boy tries, he tries, so much more than his father.
Notes from Guest Reader Helen Rye
The monochrome landscape and simple, natural style of the writing in this story are a beautiful foil to its intimate depiction of father-son relationships across generations. The ending is so immediate and raw; the naked vulnerability of it twists me up under the ribs every time I read it.