Hard Labor

By John Gardiner


"Christ, is it early out," he complained, as he climbed into the back of the pick-up truck, feeling the cold steel of the tailgate against his hands. It was a cool spring morning, with the sun just starting to break over the horizon, its coming warmth not yet felt.

"Are you gonna bitch all day again, Scarney?" asked one of the others, already huddled in a corner of the truck’s box, shivering from the early morning cool.

"Eat shit, Rube," answered Scarney.

Rube grumbled something under his breath, but was quiet, as Scarney settled in against one of the wheel wells.

"Mornin’ Scarney," said a voice from another corner of the box.

"Hey, Brady," answered Scarney, acknowledging the greeting.

Scarney produced fixin’s out of his denim jacket pocket and rolled a cigarette, then struggled to get his battered Ronsen lighter to stay lit so he could light it. Finally, he accomplished the task and inhaled deeply, blowing the smoke out through his nose. He leaned back against the side of the truck, and closed his eyes.

"Tough night last night, Scarney?" Brady hollered above the noise caused by the truck speeding down the highway.

"This is still last night, isn’t it?" Scarney answered, lazily opening his eyes to regard the questioner.

Haven’t been to bed yet?" Brady asked.

"I caught forty winks on the porch waiting for you guys," Scarney answered. "I’m fresh as a daisy." He smiled as he made the remark.

There was silence in the back of the truck. Scarney settled back into his sleep-like state against the side of the truck, perhaps catching another forty winks, while the other two sat staring absently out the back of the fast-moving vehicle. They looked like condemned men, and there was some truth to that description, given the fact the truck was taking them to a day of hard labor on a farm located just outside of the small town where they lived—a day’s work to placate discontented parents, upset that their progeny lacked direction on life’s journey.

And they soon arrived at the farm, and had unloaded themselves from the back of the truck. They walked in single file up to the front of the barn, where the farmer was standing, having just come out of the great, gleaming, modern, three-story building.

"Mornin’ boys," the farmer said. "Looks like we’re gonna have a good day."

The man sounds chipper, Scarney thought. How can he sound chipper at this time of the morning? It just ain’t human.

"I need a couple of you to start workin’ on a winter’s worth of chicken droppin’s up in the barn," the man said. "You two head up there and see John," he added, indicating that Brady and Rube should be the ones to enter the barn and join his son, who was obviously waiting among the chicken droppings.

That left Scarney standing alone, hands crumpled into the back pockets of his jeans, trying to stifle an almost continuous yawn.

"Come on with me, " the farmer said to him, before marching off across the barnyard, expecting the tired teenager to follow, which he did.

Soon, they were in a pick-up truck, not the one they’d arrived in because it had departed for parts unknown after dropping them, and they were bouncing along the back roads.

"We’ve got to go over to the home farm to pick up some hay for the cattle over on No. 3," the farmer explained, as they drove.

Scarney nodded in acknowledgement, but actually had no idea what they were doing, other than he was sure it would involve a lot of hard work and grief on his part. He also looked over and regarded the farmer as he spoke. He was an old man to Scarney, white-haired, his face craggy and weather-worn and creased by the years, but clean shaven. Scarney saw the man’s hands on the steering wheel, large, rough, well-used hands that were put to many tasks and often. He looks rugged and able for what he does, Scarney thought, not like my dad or the other guys who work in the furniture factory in town.

It was quiet in the truck for the rest of the trip to the home farm. Scarney was imagining the other two guys, busy shoveling chicken shit at six in the morning, and was glad he’d made this trip. When Scarney glanced over again, the farmer looked pensive, brow furrowed, as if thinking deep and serious thoughts. How can the man even think at this hour of the morning? the teenager thought. But he also remembered thinking that the older man looked somehow troubled by those deep and serious thoughts.

The farmer backed the truck up in front of the barn at the home farm, this barn looking more like a real barn than the modern new one currently being emptied of chicken droppings by the other two unfortunate teens. This barn was sheathed in graying, weather-beaten boards, not the bright, shiny aluminum of the chicken barn. It was smaller and much, much older than the chicken barn. And it was full of hay, like barns were supposed to be.

"I’ll go up into the barn, and throw the bales out of the mow," the farmer explained. "You stack them in the truck, up as high as you can, without making it too dangerous to drive," he instructed.

And the task was upon him. Scarney started to dutifully stack the bales, as the farmer tossed them out of a window in the haymow. Thank god this is just a little truck, Scarney thought. He found he really had to hustle to keep up with the farmer, who was obviously not too old to put in a good day’s work.

Then, the steady stream of bales suddenly stopped. Scarney stacked the last couple, then stood and waited. After a few minutes, during which neither any more bales nor the farmer appeared at the window, Scarney wondered what to do. He kicked at the gravel in the barnyard, then started to walk slowly toward the barn door. He peered into the dark, dusty interior of the building, waiting a moment for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he saw the farmer sitting on a bale of hay up at the edge of the mow, his head in his hands, appearing upset, perhaps distraught.

The boy stood in the doorway to the barn, unsure what to do. Then, hesitantly, he went into the place.

"Are you all right?" he called out uncertainly, walking in the direction of the farmer.

The older man looked down. His face looked tragic.

"What’s wrong?" Scarney asked, as he climbed the ladder to the mow.

The farmer said nothing. He was stoic.

"Are you all right?" Scarney repeated, as he approached to where the man was sitting.

The farmer looked up. "I may lose it all," he said. "My land, my farm, my home."

Scarney said nothing.

"I owe the bank," the farmer said. "They might foreclose. I had a meeting with the banker yesterday." He paused, looking like he might break down. "My wife and the boys don’t even know."

"Christ, that’s rough," Scarney said quietly.

The farmer shrugged his shoulders, as if in quiet resignation.

The boy noticed some etching in one of the huge wooden beams supporting the aging structure.

"It’s all our names," the farmer explained, seeing that Scarney was interested in the markings. "That’s what got me going. This is just a place where a lot of kids have played, and some of them carved their names in this old beam here. My Dad’s name is here; so’s my Uncle Peter’s; and my brother Floyd’s, who was killed in the war." He paused for a moment as if searching for his dead brother’s name on the old beam. "I just got to lookin’ at all the names carved there, and it got me to thinkin’ that this might not be mine no more, and I might somehow let the whole thing slip away—and like maybe I’d let the family down in a big way."

He took off the peaked farmer’s cap he was wearing and wrung it in his hands. He looked stricken with grief.

Scarney was unsure what his role was in the drama that was being played out. He was standing stalk still, not certain whether to speak or not. "Things’ll get better," he finally offered.

"I don’t know," said the farmer. "I don’t really see how they can." He put his hat back on, and took a deep breath. "That’s one of the things people your age don’t realize. There’s times when things just don’t get better. I could be cast out of my own home; I may lose my wife’s retirement and my kids’ legacy—and at my age there might not be no turnin’ it around."

For a brief instant, Scarney thought of the other two Saturday employees, and the task they were performing, and wondered how he had ended up here with this extremely distraught old man. But mostly he was moved by what he saw, and he knew he must speak, but he could not find the words, search as he might.

So the two of them were frozen in silence in the dusty, old barn.

"I’m sorry," the farmer finally said, stirring from his statuesque pose on the hay bale. "I don’t know what got into me. Why should I burden you with my troubles?"

"It’s all right," Scarney said. "You need to talk to somebody about it—I’m just not sure that I’m the right person."

"I know," said the farmer. "I’ve got to tell my wife and the boys. I can’t handle keeping this all to myself."

"They might be able to help," Scarney said.

"Yea, maybe," the farmer said, but there was a trace of resignation in his voice. He hesitated a second before continuing. "But we better get on with loading this truck," were the words he finally said, and he sounded almost chipper as he said them, so that Scarney knew the serious time had passed. The two, the farmer and the boy, exchanged smiles. "Don’t say anything, eh?" he asked, as Scarney started down the ladder from the haymow, to go back out to the truck to re-start his stacking efforts. Scarney looked back toward him. "Not to worry," he answered.

After the hay had been taken from the home farm to where it was needed, it was time for Scarney to rejoin his two fellow workers, who by this time had scarcely made a dent in the winter’s worth of chicken droppings. They were completely white from the dust that swirled about as they grimly confronted the wall of fowl stuff in the barn. And soon Scarney was as ghost-like as the rest, as he went about his shoveling, hoping not to be the one to hit the next rotten egg. It was tense work. The farmer was nowhere to be seen, but Scarney wondered about the exchange they’d had. He knew that adults had problems too, and that they extended beyond keeping your parents off your back. And it was serious stuff to bother one such as the farmer seemed to be—a salt of the earth guy if ever there was one.

Finally, it was lunchtime. Scarney ravenously devoured the sandwiches brought out by the farmer’s wife, then stretched out under a tree for a few minutes. He felt weariness brought on by the lack of a night’s sleep, followed by a morning of extreme physical activity.

He didn’t have time to sleep, though, because the farmer re-appeared and gathered him up for another trip; this time to a neighbor's to borrow an air compressor.

"Sorry I unloaded on you earlier," the farmer said, before they’d driven very far.

"It’s all right," Scarney said.

They drove for a moment in silence.

"You know, I’ll never figure exactly what went wrong," the farmer started, again seeming to feel the urge to confide in the youth. "Everything seemed to be going so well for so long. We started out with the original hundred acres at the home farm. There was me and the wife and the boys and my mom and dad. We had a good life—all of us—off that little farm" He paused for a moment, seeming to remember some happier times.

"Then, it was like the boys were growing up, and we had to expand, so there’d be something for them. We bought more land, and we needed more and bigger equipment to farm it, and the next thing you know, we need a bigger barn, then there’s the new house. One thing just seemed to lead to another. I thought I was being so careful; building it slowly." He paused, seeming thoughtful about what he’d just said, perhaps following the chain of events through again in his mind.

"Then the interest rates took off a couple of years or so ago, and there was no stopping it," he continued. "Crop prices were already dropping like a stone. Costs going up. I’ve tried just about everything to get things going again." He paused again.

"Christ, boy, don’t tie your whole life to somethin’," he finally said. "It just doesn’t seem to be worth it."

"I think I know what you mean," Scarney said, surprising himself that he even spoke. "I don’t know anything about all this farming junk, but it seems pretty complicated to me."

"Yea, I guess it is," the farmer answered.

"It seems to me that a lot of people get too complicated about life," Scarney said. "Life’s a party, and if you stop having fun, they’re just isn’t any point."

The farmer looked over at him and smiled. "That’s okay when you’re young," he said softly.

"I’m not getting married......or having kids.......or having a house you have to fix all the time like my dad," Scarney said matter-of-factly. "It just isn’t for me," he added with finality.

"I know what you’re saying," the farmer said. "Most of us think like that when we’re young. But then we grow up, and maybe we meet a girl, or whatever. Me, I left school when I was twelve and went to work on the farm helping my dad. I swore all the time that I was working away with him, slopping the pigs, shoveling cattle dung, whatever, that you’d never catch me being a farmer. Christ, I wanted to get away from here. I saw how hard my dad worked for what we had." He paused for a moment, as they met another truck on the narrow country road, and he had to navigate past it.

"Yes sir, I wanted to get so far away from this place—to party, as you put it—but I never made it," he said. "And I met my wife at a church social, and we had our boys." He paused again, and smiled at the remembering of his family. "And those were good times back then, even though I never made it out of here."

"Well," Scarney said thoughtfully, "it seems to me that your family might have been worth it."

"What’s that?" asked the farmer.

"Well, you said it wasn’t worth it to tie your whole life to something," Scarney said, "but maybe a family could be worth it."

"I never really thought of it like that," the farmer said. "I guess maybe to some people. But I’ve always been a farmer. It’s who I am."

"Everybody’s something," Scarney said.

"And I’m a farmer," he answered.

And there was silence in the truck, as they rattled along. They loaded the compressor onto the back of the truck. It was a heavy brute, and they sweated and struggled with it, grunting and swearing until the task was accomplished.

On the trip back, they talked about the Stanley Cup playoffs and the early demise of the Leafs, and there was no return to the troubles of life. They sweated and struggled to unload the compressor, then went up to the house for a cold drink. Then, it was back to the chicken shit for Scarney. For the rest of the day he savagely tore into the mountain of manure, forgetting his weariness, working diligently for his pay.

Finally, it was the end of the day, and Scarney climbed back up over the tailgate and into the back of the pick-up for the return trip to town. He had money in his pocket. He’d catch forty winks in the bathtub, then head for the horse races, then to the hotel to check out the action.

"Hey, Scarney, goin’ to the Hartley tonight?" asked Brady, after he’d taken up his position near the front of the box.

"Think I’ll head to the races," Scarney answered. "I’m feeling kind of lucky."

"Blow your money," growled Rube.

"Eat shit, Rube," Scarney shot back.

And it was like he was back in his own life. But he remembered that conversation with the farmer even as he went about his own life. And he struggled with responsibility in those early years, but he met a girl......and had kids......and bought a house he was always fixin’.

The farmer shot himself on the day the bank auctioned off his farm.

Where’s the moral?