Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Broken Chain--a story (vi)

His father's corn was not as easy to pick as DeRegt's. It had matured earlier, and the strong fall winds had taken a toll amid the rows. But John worked hard, even harder than yesterday, determined to get as much as he could in, despite his late start. His little brother Peter helped, but Peter was a boy and inexperienced and required lots of help with the inside row.

But none of that mattered. That he was doing their own corn, and that he'd done the right thing--of that he was convinced--pushed him along with a grace and a fervor that he recognized only when he looked back at the distances he was covering.

His father appeared late in the afternoon, but said nothing of the incident. That con­versation, he knew, would follow later at the supper table, once the younger kids were off. The three of them picked until a good deal after the setting sun made the ears difficult to locate. John drove the wagon back to the crib and unloaded, while his father did the chores.

It was the children who did all the talking that night. Something of that wasn't unusual, but it was impossible, he thought, not to feel tension because he knew that the whole DeRegt story wasn't over exactly either. His mother seemed angry about it, his father pensive, although his father talked about a trip to LeMars that day to set up a self-binding reaper. He'd stopped at some cousins of his, and his face brightened when he talked about what had looked like a healthy crop all up and down the road.

Only when the Bible had been read and prayers offered, the children had up and gone in­to the front room did the story return.

"What is this all about, this business between you and Henry De Regt?" his father said. Both of them were sipping hot coffee.

"He chain was broken. I saw it in the morning already," John told him. "I mentioned it--that it needed to be fixed. I told him, and he said he'd do it--and he never did." 

His father didn't look at him. He sat there, elbows up on the table, stirring his coffee with his right hand. 

"I asked him to--I didn't tell him he had to, but I said I thought it should be fixed, and he agreed, but he didn't--he wouldn't." All of that came back in rush of emotion. He could feel the nervousness in his hands, his fingers. "He deliberately left it broken all day, and I picked more  than two loads." 

"That's all?" his father said.

'The chain was broken," he repeated. 

"I heard as much," his father answered. "But that's all?"

"Yes," he said. "He was cheating me." He started to lift his cup, but saw it shake in his hand.

His father stared away into the kitchen, where both of them knew John's mother was listening. Seeing nothing of his own frustration in his father's face made him even more angry. There was no sense of outrage. 

"When you work for someone like DeRegt, the machinery is his business," he looked up in a way that made John feel as if he was a child, as if this was Sunday School. "You work for the man, and he pays you, and  he takes care of the wagon--it's his, not yours."

"He didn't--"

"Did you give him time?"

"When I came back in the morning, I said it again. I told him I wouldn't work until it was fixed--"

"And he said what?"

"He said--" John tried to remember the words exactly. "He said something like you did--that I couldn't make him do anything because he was boss and there were lots of boys who would be happy to pick his corn." Something in his father's cold callousness scared him, something was retreating. "He made me fill the wagon, Pa, fill it to overflowing. Twice the wagon was heaped up full--twice! Overflowing, way more than 30 bushels. A lot more. And I asked him to fix it--I didn't demand it. I didn't yell, didn't say it rough. I asked him."

"And how much did he pay you?" 

"He didn't."

"Then how did you know he cheated you?"

"He told me I picked 75 bushels." He hit the table with his fist, not hard, then pointed into the surface. "I know there was more. The wagon held 35 at least, probably 40. I know, Pa, I've picked before. I picked a hundred bushels at least--not 75."

"Don't have to get sassy. I know what you've done. You're my son."

The steady chime of dirty dishes and glass ware interrupted the silence. His mother was working, but listening closely, he knew.

"So you walked away from him because it wasn't fair?" 
His father scratched his temples. "Did you think of his side?" 

"More than once I asked him--"

"He has to get his crop in alone now." 

"He says he can get someone else easy."

"About that, he's right, you know. Someone else will make that money now." 

He'd seen what Henry DeRegt was doing, the way he was chiseling him--he'd seen it in the man's eyes. It was there in the broken chain, but it was there in the way he deliberately didn't mind what John had said. "You would not have worked for him either, Pa, if you knew he was cheating you. You wouldn't. It wasn't fair."

Tomorrow: The confrontation at the supper table continues.

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