Front Porch Review
Having toiled from sun to sun, Ed rocked back so that the top of his chair touched the barn door. “Well, now, Kenny, you listen to me! Your sister won’t be around much longer. Small town like this ain’t gonna strangle the life out of that tornado. And any day now your mom and me gonna put this farm up for sale. Reckon we’ll get enough to buy a small place in San Diego. She always dreamed of living by the ocean. Anyway, just lettin’ you know, son. You need to start planning your future.” Ed, in a checkered denim shirt and Levi’s, moved the tobacco he was chewing to the other cheek, spat, snapped his black suspenders with assurance.
After fifty-five years of growing corn and soybeans, nurturing cows, enduring Illinois weather and tending to the needs and wants of his wife Abby, Ed resolved that paradise was most any place but here. Naiveté was one of Ed’s evident virtues. Indeed, Ed had spent too much time in the noonday sun, his arthritis was remarkably bad and being fifty pounds overweight on a 5’6” frame portended misery. And yet, he laughed. There wasn’t a day when Ed didn’t laugh. “Most people spend their days whining,” he often said at the dinner table. “World would be a better place if they laughed instead.”
Abby would always reply, “Amen.”
Kenny, squatting and scratching lines in a cow patty, stood, towering over Ed like an oak over a scrub pine. Some folks crossed the street when they saw Kenny approaching. Some nodded and wiped their hands on their jeans after he’d passed them by. Nobody, but nobody, said anything to him – wasn’t a smart thing to do; saying the wrong thing, and you were never sure what the wrong thing was, could result in a lot of pain. If Kenny had been bitten by a horse fly that morning, a simple “Howdy” could land you in the ER.
However, Kenny, born and raised a Baptist, was not intentionally mean spirited. For example, he always made his bed upon arising so he could tell Abby over breakfast, “Well, I got one thing done today.” He was proud of his milking ability. Admittedly he was not as quick and precise as the illegals Ed used at harvest time, but he respected their determination to do a good job. Then, too, Kenny, aged thirty-one, while not lusted over by the minimal female population (most left town after high school without suffering the pangs of pregnancy) was often discussed in Susan’s Stylish Salon and Spa. His sister Martha worked there as a stylist and frequently recommended him as someone to consider should the urge to mate become a compulsion. For his part, Kenny regarded women as necessary and useful; he tended to blush at pictures and talk of a sexual nature. When he was six and asked how calves came to be, Ed told him the facts of life; Kenny found the process uninspiring.
Because he struggled academically throughout all of his schooling, most folks suspected that Kenny couldn’t walk his way out of a railroad tunnel – deciding which light to head toward would put him to sleep. The truth is Kenny was sly. How sly? When he was sixteen, he started thinking about his future, about what he’d do without his family. Didn’t want to live in town, working for that pissant Norbert at the Ace Hardware. Decided back then he needed to be independent. Wanted to be an adult who could take care of himself, someone people would point to and say, ‘Now, there’s a successful man.’
Acknowledging that college was beyond his grasp, Kenny compensated with size and strength. Let it be known that for a fair price he would raise barns, uproot tree stumps and build rock fences. The invites poured in. And though he loved his parents, slept under their roof, there when needed, he kept his financial self to himself. Ed and Abby approved. “Make hay while the sun shines,” was one of Abby’s favorite sayings. She also believed every Adam needed an Eve and would say at least once a week, “The good Lord made us to go forth and multiply, Kenny. Time you held up your end of the deal.”
“Aw, Ma, I ain’t ready for that. You’re the only woman I want in my life.” Abby always smiled at that but never wavered in her conviction.
When Kenny stood before Ed and said in a steady, unemotional voice, “I got a plan,” well, Ed blinked and rocked forward.
“Oh, and what might that be?”
“First off, I plan on owning this farm. Heard you talkin’ about sellin’ it with Ma a while ago so I wasn’t surprised by what you just said. Had my eye on this place for some time. Reckoned you’d get weary of everything one day. Looks like that day has come.”
Ed was stunned, and then he laughed. “That’s the longest speech you ever made in your life. Didn’t know you were such an orator. But I got a question, Mr. Owner. Where you gonna get the money to buy this place? You ain’t exactly Solomon in all his glory.”
“Heavy work like I do has a hefty price tag and requires a hefty body. Knew that going in so I’m glad Ma fed me well and that you were a good teacher. Made sure that if and when I owned this land, town folk wouldn’t take advantage of me – so, look at me. Ain’t no one gonna mess with someone who walks and talks and looks like he owns the air he and they breathe. ‘Course I ain’t anything like that but that’s what I wanted people to think.”
Ed stammered, “What you say is true. But it don’t have to be that way.”
“Once I’m on my own, I’ll show folks my other side. But never spent a dollar I didn’t have to. So, I got a bit, more than a bit, saved up. And while I ain’t what you’d call a social butterfly, I made sure I made a friend of Mr. Ryder, the loan officer at Chase. There isn’t a tree on his land I haven’t pruned or a bush I didn’t plant. When he wanted the gravel road leading up to his house asphalted, my bid was the lowest. I taught his son how to throw a football and his daughter how to ride a horse. He knows he can count on me. Which is why he agreed to loan me enough money to buy this place when the time came.”
Ed stood. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” He stretched up his arms and placed his hands on Kenny’s shoulders. “Never would have guessed, never. You are the servant who pleased his master by takin’ care of hisself.”
Kenny smiled. He’d been afraid that his father would resent his calculated duplicity. “I want you to charge me a fair price, somewhere a little above market value. Don’t want folks thinkin’ I took advantage of my parents.” They shook hands.
Ed asked, “But whatcha gonna do with the land? I don’t believe you got any great attachment to being a slave to animals and plants.”
“That’s the second part of my plan.”
Unlike his parents Kenny was technologically astute. Through the twists and turns of social media he was aware of dietary trends such as vegetarianism, farm-to-table meals and sustainable gardening. Ed’s farm, a scant fifty acres, was unprofitable nostalgia. The day after taking possession, he sold the livestock. In the days which followed he and his illegals plowed under the corn stubble and divided the property, excluding the house and barn, into five-acre plots. Once these were properly fenced against marauding deer, his marketing campaign began.
The posters he stapled to telephone poles and “encouraged” store owners to display in their windows read:
Do God’s work
Grow your own fruits and vegetables
Bond with our rich Illinois soil
Lease five acres from Kenny
You know where to find me
The first to sign up was Pastor Tom Morvain, a close friend of the family and a strong advocate of self-reliance. Abby called him a healer, Ed said he gave good sermons. Kenny recognized his influence on the community and gave him a 15% discount. Sure enough, others, mostly people at one with Nature, secured leases. And it came to pass that Kenny prospered. Met the needs of his clients. Turned the barn into a locker room complete with his and her washrooms. Installed floodlights so folks could work at night after their day jobs. Even charged the wire fences surrounding the plots with a small electric shock to keep away the hungriest of raccoons. Fees rose accordingly but no one minded. After all, they were all God’s children doing God’s work, or so they said.
During this growth period dutiful son Kenny never missed a Sunday call to his parents. Related the latest about various sexual misbehaviors, always mentioned net profits, assured them the church was still standing and was well-attended, and promised Abby that he was anxious to meet the perfect woman. He lied; he wasn’t anxious at all. Ed made sure to tell Kenny that he was proud of son’s success.
Six months passed. Martha had moved to Chicago, opened her own salon, married an optometrist and was pregnant. Ed and Abby couldn’t afford San Diego and re-settled in Sacramento. Dreams, being what they are, don’t guarantee the ocean. But Abby was content; before leaving she had planted the mustard seed of Kenny’s salvation; his destiny was in good Baptist hands.
With one exception. Kenny’s lessees planted typical crops: strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets and so forth. A few tried blueberry bushes but soon surrendered the land to soybeans when maintenance cost became prohibitive. That exception was the pastor. Kenny had never seen the pastor actually work his land and so wasn’t surprised when Gloria Morvain, the daughter, knocked on his door one day. Said her dad had just transferred the lease to her and wanted to see which plot he had blessed her with. Being the pastor’s daughter Gloria would be expected to use the word blessed.
That being said, Gloria was regarded as the town’s foremost feminist. No one knew what that actually meant but she had once been seen at Walmart in shorts and braless so the label stuck. Presumed to be demure and devout, her neon lipstick and lavender eye shadow were tolerated but not condoned. The few men she dumped after one or two dates would all remark on her slim body, sparkly eyes and manicured hands. They didn’t much like that she read current controversial authors, was vocal about politics and didn’t know shit about pickup trucks.
Kenny knew Gloria by reputation. Knew she had a sense of humor but also knew, as the saying goes, she didn’t suffer fools gladly. And if there’s was one thing Kenny took pride in, it was not being a fool. “Happy to show you your land. Filled with weeds right now but won’t take much to get it producing. Got a golf cart outside. Let’s take a ride.”
Gloria, her eyes level with Kenny’s chest, looked up and smiled. She almost said but didn’t, “Where else would a golf cart be? In your bathroom?” Instead, she said, “Thanks. I appreciate you taking the time.”
Minutes later Gloria was looking at five acres of dandelions, sunflowers, thistle, corn stalks, milkweed and Monarch butterflies. “Who can I hire to clear this?”
“John Rustern does a good job. Others have used him and been satisfied. I’ll give you his number.”
“That would be great. I’ll see if he can do it tomorrow or the next day. I’d like to get started as soon as possible.” They shook hands, her grip a little stronger than Kenny expected.
The land cleared, a week later a van with a woman and a man, both in their thirties and both muscular, stopped at Kenny’s house. The side of the van bore the message GoodEarth.com. As the driver, the woman, lowered her window, Kenny emerged. “Morning, guys. What can I do for you?”
“Got a delivery and set-up for Gloria Morvain. She told us to come here and that you’d show us her spot.”
“Give me a minute then follow me. Not far.”
Fortunately Gloria’s plot was at the edge of the acreage, and the van could park alongside. Curious, Kenny watched while the pair unloaded and uncrated large sections of translucent Plexiglas rimmed in aluminum. Each piece was hinged so it could be interlocked, a true jigsaw puzzle. “What the hell is that?”
The woman grunted and said, “Gonna be a greenhouse when we’re done settin’ it up. Latest thing in gardenin’, especially for city folk with a little bit of extra land. Let’s ‘em plant year-round. Even comes with a wooden floor so your shoes don’t get muddy. Deluxe ones come with solar panels to provide electricity. Not somethin’ I’d fancy. But I guess some folks like to pretend they got green thumbs when all they really got is money they don’t know what to do with. Takes all kinds.”
Incredulity washed over Kenny. Under the terms of the lease, a person could plant whatever he or she wanted. He never imagined that someone would put a structure on the land. He guessed it was OK as long as the crop didn’t harm neighboring plots. As the sun set, the woman approached Kenny and said, “That’s it for today. We’ll be back in four weeks with the generator and all the other stuff you need for a greenhouse.”
“Yeah. You need a gas generator to keep the lights, heater and sprinkler system working. Miss Moravian ordered an extra-silent one; didn’t want to disturb any sleeping animals. Like I told you, takes all kinds. Nice to know that someone cares about sleeping animals. One good thing about greenhouses is that you can grow just about anything. Stuff folks around here never even heard of. Anyway, have a nice day.”
At home Kenny remained dazed. What, he thought, is she growing? What if it’s some sort of tropical vine that will take over the other plots? A drop of fear formed on his tongue and slowly glided down his throat and into his stomach. The aftertaste gave him a headache,
After a breakfast of oatmeal and bacon, he should have called first. When Pastor Tom opened the front door and Kenny blurted that he had to talk to Gloria, he learned that she was taking a shower and then a brief nap. Eight mile runs on dusty, rutted rural roads are challenging and exhilarating but wearying.
“Come, sit,” Tom said. “Have lunch with me. Tell me about Ed and Abby. How are they? Still in good health I hope.” He guided Kenny into the kitchen, even pulled out a chair for him. It was almost as if his arrival had been anticipated. The stage was set, and everyone knew their lines.
Kenny relaxed. He’d sat at this table many times in his youth, whenever Abby and Tom discussed some good deed for the church. He knew what to say when Tom asked what kind of mustard Kenny wanted on his ham sandwich. “Horseradish, same as always.” That, some dill pickles, and a glass of iced tea were placed before him. “Folks are just fine. Made some friends. Dad is learning how to play golf; now that has to be somethin’ to see. Mom, of course, continues to be a religious fanatic; just jokin’, Tom.”
Tom smiled. “Gloria was impressed with your operation. Said it had great potential. Thanked me for giving her what she wanted for her birthday. She knew I couldn’t grow anything but weeds but she was sure she could grow something of value. Wish I had her self-confidence when I was her age.”
Swallowing his last bite, Kenny asked, “You know what she plans on growin’ there?”
“Not really. She said it was going to be special. But you can ask her yourself; I hear her on the stairs.”
Kenny twisted in his chair and blinked. He saw a red carpet running from the bottom of the curved stairway to the chair beside him. Treading that carpet like a model, one foot precisely in front of the other, was an alabaster-clean Gloria wearing a simple black dress, black shoes and no jewelry other than a silver crucifix attached to a silver necklace. He blinked once more. He heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir bestowing its talents on these deluded Baptists by providing background music: the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Kenny became a study in awe.
As she took her seat, Gloria casually touched Kenny’s shoulder and said, “Welcome.”
The touch broke the spell, the carpet became linoleum, and the Choir rose into the clouds over Utah. Kenny did manage to say, “Nice outfit.”
“Why, thank you.” Gloria was not offended. She knew from talking to others that Kenny and eloquence were strangers to one another. “Nice of you to visit.”
Kenny was also a stranger to diplomacy and the art of conversation. Rather than discuss the high cost of fuel oil or the economic impact of a potential drought or even the probability of the state legislature discussing gun control, Kenny leaned forward, both hands flat on the table, and asked, “Whatcha gonna plant?”
Tom also leaned forward, curious. Gloria nodded slowly. “Well, well, right to the point, like an arrow to the heart.” Kenny was oblivious to the sarcasm. “I did a little market research, wanted to provide people with something they really needed. Lot of the old folks I met didn’t really care about fruits and vegetables, which is a shame. What they did care about was the pain they were always in.”
Kenny and Tom nodded in unison. They understood pain.
“So, I decided I would grow marijuana.”
“Marijuana!” Kenny was stunned. “No way! I’m not gettin’ arrested for bein’ a drug dealer.”
Tom joined in. “Gloria, this is one of your little jokes. As you often tell me, we’re not modern, we don’t get it.”
“Now just calm down, the both of you.” She reached out and placed a hand on each of theirs. To Kenny her hand was a cooling embrace, to Tom it was a reminder of family unity. “It is not illegal to grow marijuana. And I’m not going to sell it. I’m going to give away small amounts to those who are suffering.”
Tom asked, “I’m not happy about this, Gloria. Doesn’t seem Christian. Where did you learn how to grow marijuana?”
Gloria tensed at the rebuke. “Helping people in pain seems Christian to me, dad. Unless you believe people are born to suffer, sinners that we are. Right? We only get as much pain as God believes we can handle. Also, right?” She breathed. “Learned how on You-Tube. Ordered the greenhouse on Amazon.” She removed her hand from Tom’s but kept her connection with Kenny.
Tom stood and spoke his righteous self. “I don’t need a sermon on Christianity from my daughter. And we are all sinners, suffering spiritual pain. Bringing drugs into our community will not ease that pain. But, Kenny, it’s your property, your decision. The Bible, the words of Jesus, will be your guide. I’m going for a walk. I’ll pray for you and for my errant daughter.”
There was absolute silence for the next two minutes, the silence which follows someone’s last breath, and then there was a sob followed by a whimper followed by a sigh. Say what you want about Kenny, about his drive for success, about his occasionally brutish behavior, he was not above an act of kindness. He clasped Gloria’s hand in his and spoke simply and plainly. “Not right what your dad said. You’re doin’ somethin’ you believe in. Folks might not agree with you, and that’s their right, but I believe you have to try. Far as I’m concerned you can plant marijuana; hell, you can plant anything your greenhouse can handle. Whatever you decide, I’m by your side.”
Gloria stared at him, made an assessment. “Thank you. Friendship is a priceless coin.”
The next day being Sunday Kenny called his parents. Ed was golfing so he had ample time to describe the previous scene. “Mom, it was embarrassing to see Gloria treated like a child. Grown woman should be able to do somethin’ worthwhile.”
Abby responded. “Now, Kenny, you may not like this but Gloria and her ideas don’t fit in that town. Don’t fit in our, your, farm. Growin’ up she was a worry to her parents, and, after her mother died of a heart attack, Pastor Tom could hardly breathe from chasin’ her from one foolish thing to another. Gloria always wanted new. Not saying she wasn’t respectful or decent, she was those things as well as intelligent. Bur her intellect gets in the way of common sense. Know she doesn’t mean it, but just the way she talks, all them big words, puts people off. She’s not our kind. Best you not get associated with her. What would people think?”
“Think?” Kenny tried to maintain civility but couldn’t. “I could care less about what people think! Remember that part in the Bible about let him who is without sin cast the first stone? Remember that, Mom? Drop your stone. Gloria is a good person doing a good thing. Ask yourself, what good thing have you done lately?”
“Son, son, I don’t mean to rile you so. I love you; I truly do. I just have problems loving someone who is doin’ the Devil’s work.”
“The Bible tells us a lot of things that we guess at; you and I have been taught that no one can know the mind of God. So, I’m gonna’ focus on the part that says love your neighbor as yourself while you pay attention to the part that says stand behind me, Satan. Good bye, Mom. Say Hi to Dad.”
In the days following that conversation, Kenny and Gloria traveled the path marked Console Me onto the road called Talk to Me and were now on the street named Accept Me. When the van arrived Kenny and Gloria were an audience of two watching a magic act of sleight of hand. Within an hour the generator was running and all equipment was functional. They laughed when they were too close to a sprinkler head when it came alive. “This is fantastic,” Kenny exclaimed. “When do you start planting?”
“I have to drive to Chicago for the proper seeds and soil. Three hours at most. Care to come along?” Gloria wasn’t looking at Kenny when she said this but her hands tightened into fists and her breast heaved.
“Least I can do.” As suggested, Kenny wouldn’t get a gold medal for his responses to verbal cues but he did give an acceptable, though mediocre, answer. On the positive side, he then patted Gloria on the shoulder and said, “Parents be damned. Let’s make it happen.”
The next morning they were on the way to Chicago, on the Love, Honor and Obey Highway. Took them a day and night to get to the city, primal instinct and a convenient motel hindering their progress. Upon their return, Kenny resolved to be steadfast when he called Ed and Abby to announce his engagement and his hope that they would attend the wedding in the Fall. Pragmatic Gloria had already told her father and received his blessing as she knew he would, Baptist ministers being naturally joyful when a child chooses God’s plan.
“Now don’t worry, Kenny. You’re a success. They’ll rejoice and be glad,” Gloria told him. And the fact is, they did rejoice. And they were glad.
But then a strange thing happened. As Kenny was about to hang up, Gloria, who was listening in, said, “Oh, Kenny, let me talk to Abby for a minute. Why don’t you make us some sandwiches; I’ll take a Coke with mine.” After Kenny left the bedroom, Gloria closed the door, walked into the closet and shut that door behind her.
Positive she could not be heard, Gloria spoke in a whisper, a whisper only women can hear and understand. “Abby, bless you. I can’t thank my dad and you enough for all that both of you said and did. Kenny passed every test, and everything went exactly as we planned.”
Adam Restinow, a peripatetic wordsmith, shunned degreed creative writing programs in favor of attending to what people actually said and did. He learned that simple things, a word or a gesture, are at the heart of a good story. He also discovered that home-cooked meals cure many ailments, that true love is possible, and that listing prior publications is false pride. Adam and his wife live in Savannah, GA; but that could change if the wind blows cold.