In yesterday's opening segment, you may have noticed the time I spent with an old house in the country. For those of you acquainted with Siouxland, I was using the old Remko Kooi house, just west of the little town of Lebanon. Basically, the town I'm describing in the story resembles, in my mind, Lebanon, Iowa, not because of any story I know whose origins are that little burg, but because visually and sociologically, I guess, that town was the kind of place I was looking for as a setting.
Today, the narrator introduces himself as someone who is interested in the way traces of the past come up along the gravel roads all around him. That the story is thirty years old is clearly evident--the boys are Vietnam vets, and the old man is older than NFL football.
And trust me, I mean no disrespect to the Branderhorsts among us. To me, the name Branderhorst, solidly Dutch, just sounds male--and that's what I wanted.
It's a dark story. Don't know why I was so attracted to stories like that, but I was and probably still am.
Lord, have mercy.
So we were married. Then the school closed up, and I took a job at Winoka. Even though we lived in Goshen, Goshen forgot about me, and once more, I became an outsider. "The land of Goshen," my friends in Winoka call it. It's a dead town on the prairie now. Last month Herm Beernink died, and his place was sold-a decent house, two barns, one good shed on a five- acre plot at the edge of town-for four thousand dollars. They were lucky to find a buyer.
I'm a Midwesterner at heart, but I grew up far north of here, where dozens of inland lakes mirror the woods and patches of farmland that sit on their shores. I grew up in a church, but somehow we didn't take faith as seriously as the Goshen people do. Maybe I say that because I lived back there only as a child, but I don't think so. I married into this place, for better or for worse, as they say; and their faith has eaten into me too now, although it's not easy for me to admit it.
But I've never regretted marrying Julia. She's a Branderhorst in ways that I'm not always proud of, but she's got roots like an elm or an ash, like her whole family. The old Calvinism buried itself in her soul, and she sees her calling clearly. She invests her devotion in our family the same way her brothers invest their sweat in the land. I like that. Maybe I'm old-fashioned. Maybe Goshen's got into me. I loved her when I married her, and nothing's happened since to make me stop. You've got to believe that. I really do love her. History tells us that those feudal marriages didn't always work, but this one has. I swear it.
It's early March now, the time of year when everyone thinks it's supposed to be spring. One day the temperature can creep up to forty degrees and make the farmers restless. "You can start to hear the seed rustling around in the bag,” some farmers say, but what they hear is the echo of their own anticipation. It's still too cold for a farming operation to come out of its long winter's nap, but there's this feeling all around. Everyone's out in the machine shed with grease guns.
Beagle died on New Year's Day, in the afternoon, with his boys just outside his bedroom watching bowl games and his wife and daughters drinking coffee, their laps full of kids, around the cleared kitchen table in the slowly dying heat of the stove that had just cooked up a holiday ham. He couldn't have designed a better way of dying if he'd sat down one day and decided how he wanted to go.
The Beagle was reared in a day without television football, and he never really understood the game at all, so it was no surprise when he picked up and left the den, explaining that he felt like lying down for awhile after dinner. Julia herself found him when her mother claimed it was unlike him to take such a long nap and maybe someone should check to see if he was feeling okay. He was lying there on his back, stone dead, one leg up over the other, as if he'd just decided to die like some gentleman he never was.
"Dad's not breathing," Julia told us, almost whispering, when she came into the den. Her eyes were glassy, but something in her, instinct maybe, warned her not to tell her mother right away. So she came to the den. "I took his arm and everything--" she said.
I don't know how to explain what happened next. We all left for the bedroom, of course, and Julia kept her mother outside while the men hovered over his body. Randall grabbed for his wrist to feel for his pulse. Then he jumped up on the bed and held open the old man's mouth and breathed his own breath into him-in even, almost machine-like breaths. He jerked open Earl's collar and popped the buttons down the front of his shirt. The old man's left arm fell like dead weight off the side of the bed, the back of his hand landing limply on the rug, its fingers uncurled just enough to reveal a pallid, bloodless palm.
"Call an ambulance," Randall said right away, so I did, right there from the phone on the nightstand. You feel so helpless when something like that happens, and you remember the thousands of times when you tell yourself it—would be useful to take some classes or something, learn how to deal with that kind of crisis. Right then and there, I swore to myself that I'd take the time to learn how to deal with emergencies. It's something I've forgotten now, two months later.
Methodically, Randall kept forcing breath down into his father's lungs, one hand pinched over the old man's face. But it was clear that there was no response, so he straddled the body and fiercely ripped open the shirt as if somehow the fabric itself were locking up his lungs. "Come on, come on," he said, one hand down on the old man's chest, pushing and pumping, as if what was inside was nothing more than an engine too tired to ignite.
By then mother had made it into the bedroom. She stood there with her hands up to her face, Julia and Mary Nell holding her arms as if she might bolt.
Your mind spins so far out of control in a time like that. Images roll like leaves tossed in a whirlwind. I remembered the time a cow had calved on a Sunday afternoon, and Randall had stood over her and hammered her to her feet once she had delivered, Julia sitting there explaining it all to our Kevin. That's almost the way it was that New Year's Day, Randall banging away on his father's chest.
Randall spent a year in Vietnam growing callous to death, the way he explains it. Maybe it was that year that made him swear the way he did. "Come on, come on you son of a bitch!" he said, not loud but emphatically, as if his words could shock that heart into pumping. "Come on, come on," he kept repeating, his hair falling down from around his temples over his ears.
But you didn't need any experience with death to see that Earl was already gone. His mouth gaped and his head fell slightly toward the arm that had fallen from the side of the bed. Randall kept working anyway, kept pushing and pounding at his chest, his anger growing so high in frustration and grief that his own sweat fell over his outstretched fingers and wet his father's chest. But Earl was gone.
There were no dying words from him, no final injunctions, no assurance of faith. I'm sure he would have planned it without any dramatics himself, if he could have. It would be like me to try to tack some moral on the span of my life; it's the teacher in me, I suppose. But Earl Branderhorst would have thought a last word or two redundant, I think, nothing more than useless talk. For all his sins-his pent-up anger, the roll call of grudges he carried and those that were carried against him, for the years of petty deceit, the livestock miscounted, cutthroat deals spun out at another's expense—for all of that there was no Calvinist's last rites and no forgiveness-begging. Earl Branderhorst slipped out of life with what I expect was a conscience pumped full of rationalization and his own brash self-assurance that sometimes crossed over the thread-thin line that separates well-muscled will from plain, sinful pride.
I'm sure that when he stood up before his Maker that day, he expected nothing less than an extended right arm showing him the way to glory. A lifelong Calvinist, Earl, comfortable in his election, knew little of confession. If someone had told him that he'd spent his entire lifetime selfishly building his own kingdom, he would have thought the notion nonsense. What he was building, he thought, was a family. But he wouldn't have said that either. It wouldn't have been right for a real man.