Where You Belong
It was a late afternoon in March when Britta returned to the farm. She had said the memorial arrangements and work kept her away. The truth was she dreaded confronting the place. The light was about to leave the sky when she stopped at the top of the gravel driveway and glanced around. The farm looked lonely, isolated from the real world. After a couple of deep breaths, she continued down the driveway. In the middle of a field, where Rob must have left it, stood the red tractor. Oh, how he had loved that piece of junk. She drove on. The field on her left was bursting to be to picked, while the one on her right waited to be planted. The car fit between the two redwood trees in front of the 1950’s ranch house whose roof sagged as though the weight of air was too much.
Before going in to face the kitchen where she had last seen Rob alive, she sat in the car and thought about that January day. She hadn’t wanted to bring her work along, but she had a marketing report due, so she had planted herself at the Formica table, her eyes fixed on her laptop. When Rob had come in for fourth or fifth time, he snuck from behind and brushed his lips against her ear. “Take a break,” he had said.
Had she even glanced up to see his face, boyish and bright eyed for thirty-three? That’s the face she wanted to remember.
He had circled the table, plopped across from her, and shouted her name. It had startled her. It was uncharacteristic for him to shout.
“You remember what it’s like. Deadlines” she had said.
“We’re overdue,” he said.
“It doesn’t help the connection here sucks.” She’d plan to work at home that weekend but he had coaxed her to come, so what did he expect?
The chair had scrapped the floor as he pushed it and stood. His height had made the low-ceilinged kitchen shrink.
They had bought the farm to rescue the marriage when he grew disenchanted with work, and life. There was not an exact moment of rebellion, just instances such as the winter night he left the condo and drove to the hinterlands to sit on a rural hilltop and watch a sky swell with stars. Her remedy for workaholism was to join a fitness club. He searched for bigger changes. She protested the practicality of a farm, but his passion for it had overmatched her reluctance.
Britta looked at the farm house, sighed, and got out of the car. She hauled in her suitcase and supplies: Kona coffee beans, brick of cheddar, bags of trail mix. She left the vodka at the condo but she missed it. Rob’s gray rubber field boots waited against the porch wall as though he would walk out the door and slip into them.
Spoiled fruit stunk the air of the cramped kitchen. Groaning floor boards gave her the creeps. Worst, his absence filled the empty space. It was a slow night before she fell asleep. Truck tires rolling over the gravel driveway yanked her awake. Ever since the accident she had a dream in which she chased his truck as it raced away from her. But this time the truck seemed to drive in at an everyday speed, crawl by the house, and continue toward the barn. A strip of light slid under the window shade. She sat up and shook her head for sensibleness.
On that January afternoon, the window over the sink had rattled when Rob slammed the door. His truck hurled gravel onto the porch as he sped away. She’d needed another hour, two at most, and it would also give him time to come around, sympathize with her situation, return with a bouquet of wildflowers. She’d greet him with a juicy kiss and the bottle the of Pinot Noir she had brought. He had seemed a little needy, who wouldn’t be living so far from a Starbucks. Assured, she had continued working on her laptop until the call came that had rushed her to the hospital and the dour doctor who said, “If it’s any comfort, I believe he died on impact.”
Britta got up and cleaned corners covered with cobwebs, sills shrouded with dust, and the bathroom’s grouty old tiny tiles. No wonder she never befriended the place. There wasn’t time to do more before David Norton, the real estate agent, tapped the window.
They shook hands and exchanged banalities, then stood on the porch a silent few seconds. The porch was long, narrow and bare, except for a pair of mismatched rockers. A ceramic planter on the step grew something lifeless.
“I’m sorry for what you’re going through.” Norton’s tone was laced with pity for a weak widow. It chafed her. But by then she was used to it and nodded while staring at Rob’s boots.
Norton cleared his throat. “I stopped by from time to time. Rob caught on to farming, studied the trends, told me peas were back in fashion. Last time I was here I let him know developers were searching for land, in case he changed his mind. I’m sure he told you.”
Had Rob mentioned developers?
“I’m okay with developers,” she said. To hell with the farm. Didn’t it share blame? They were happy during the early years when there was no rural oasis.
Norton eyes widened as he conducted with his hands and arms. “It’s incredible! Amazing views! Distant hills, the valley, nothing available comes close.” A person could disappear when the fog rolled in she thought, but didn’t interrupt. “And flat acreage! Impossible to find in this county.”
He exaggerated, but it was true about the views; on clear days they dazzled you. Rob had coaxed her out to see full-blown sunsets exploding across the horizon, a double rainbow arching the barn––the sky so big out here––and one time, a pair of coyotes howling at the moon, at least he said it was the moon they were harassing. She got the aesthetic, but didn’t crave it the way he did, and she sometimes had begrudged his appreciation of nature, as though his retreat from the real world had given him a unique awareness code she couldn’t have. “Do you want to see the house now?” she said to Norton.
Norton swung his arms as though to embrace the fields. “This’ll be state of the art homes.” He waved away the old farm house, condemning it.
Britta wanted the conversation over. “Do you think it’ll it take long to sell?”
“The market for land is hot.”
When Norton left, she picked up a ceramic container and trudged to the rise where a lone majestic California Oak dominated the land. Kneeling at the base of the tree, she worked Rob’s remains into the damp ground with the kitchen spoons she had brought, realizing she should have stopped at the barn and gotten one of his farm tools. Ashes mixed with wet dirt to form a muddy mass. She patted it into submission. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry the rest of my life.” She leaned against the massive tree trunk and shook with pulsating sobs. After a while, a ruckus overhead distracted her––birds squawked. It was hard to decide where to bury Rob’s remains. He died during a temporary period of a less than half-completed life when this farm was his world, just as growing-up he was the kid who lived in the school computer lab. She rubbed the ground. “You can stay here forever.” The spectacular tree would survive as the cornerstone of Happy Horizon Ranch, or whatever they’ll call it. Another burst of squawking, then a hawk flew away. Must have tried the wrong nest.
Tall grasses tickled her legs as she walked the path to the weathered barn. Orange blossoms of California poppies rippled across the unplowed field. When she came upon a camper van behind the barn, she took a picture of the license plate. The barn door pushed open. A woman came out carrying a crate.
“You’re Britta, right?” The woman set the crate on the ground, wiped her hand on her jeans and held it out. “I’m Jane.” She spoke with assurance Britta recognized the name.
Jane had the just-scrubbed face of women in skin-care commercials. “What are you doing here?” Britta asked.
Jane pushed the crate forward, inviting inspection. “They’re my own supplies and heirloom seeds.”
Rob had had a university grad student helping him with organic certification. Did he mention she was a pretty mother earth type with body art and piercing green eyes?
“Rob and I had matching spirits… being ethical over what goes into and out of the soil.”
Jane’s sense of familiarity with Rob ambushed Britta. “He was a brilliant programmer,” she said, establishing his farm infatuation as a phase.
“Jane looked around. “People have farmed here for a century.”
Britta didn’t know the history.
“I’m sorry for what you are going through,” said Jane. “I understand how tough it is.”
She couldn’t understand. Britta stared at the woman with the heirloom seeds and the ‘matching spirit’. In the uneasy silence, she grew suspicious. It was Britta and Rob who had supported each other’s projects, listened while the other worked out glitches, massaged each other’s neck and shoulders, and when the start-up he worked for got funded, giddy with joy, had toasted with an exclusive Pinot Noir they’d stored for such an occasion and had taped over the label, To be opened when one of us reaches the moon.
Britta’s arms sliced through the air as Norton’s had done. “This’ll be houses divided by fences, paved streets, patios and pools.” Jane was not a threat––she couldn’t steal what wasn’t there––but Britta couldn’t contain her prickliness. She flicked her hand. “So there’s nothing here for you.”
Jane didn’t blink. “You know it’s a mistake.”
“It’s not your business.” Why was she the one nervous? It was Jane who was trespassing, but Britta wanted to rush away. She was relieved when Jane put the crate in the van and drove on.
The burial of Rob’s ashes and the encounter with Jane rattled her, but in the house she proceeded the only way she knew; the next task on her list was sorting Rob’s things. There were jeans and T-shirts that smelled of his sweat. She put on his San Francisco Giants’ jacket and cap. Before their careers took over, they cheered at the games––once they were on the Kiss Cam. The cap was a head size too large and the jacket sleeves came down to her knees. She kept them, and an unwashed T-shirt, then took a deep breath, grabbed clothes without looking, and stuffed them into bags for Goodwill. She stopped when she found a silver cookie tin buried in his sox drawer.
The tin contained a heart-shaped cookie with purple specks, some crumbs, and a folded paper which she opened. Under a drawing of a field of lavender was written:
I made these for you using pinches of the lavender we planted together. Something to enjoy until I get back. I already miss you.
Britta tore though the rest of Rob’s things, tossing them in a pile as she emptied boxes, desk drawers, and his dirty clothes hamper. She smacked his books to the floor. The only other surprises were a sketch book, drawing pencils, and containers of seeds stuffed everywhere. He could have planted until he was a hundred and six.
At last, she sat at the kitchen table and opened the silver tin again, this time as though it was a weapon. She turned the note over and over in her hands. After licking her index finger and placing it on crumbs at the bottom of the tin, she tasted the stale remains. Wasn’t it enough he had fallen in love with soil, and stars, and an old red tractor? Despite their frayed relationship, she hadn’t suspected. It changed everything and nothing.
After another fitful night, she parked herself on a porch rocker and sipped coffee from a chipped mug while she awaited daybreak. She listened for sounds of the farm waking; Rob had called it a symphony. There was stone silence. The sky turned pinkish until the sun crawled over the horizon and swelled behind the oak tree. It haloed the tree. Staring at the site with its new secrecy, she murmured, “I’m still sorry, you bastard.”
Britta was ready to head to the city where she could suffer to the buzz from the cafés in the street below the condo when she heard someone coming down the gravel drive. It was Jane. Britta sighed, too spent to rage.
Jane sprang from her van and took long strides, stopping next to the container with the dead plant. “We need to talk about the future of the farm. Rob loved this place. Keeping it a farm is essential to what he was.” Jane must have had a sleepless night too and gone over that speech until she narrowed it to an elevator pitch. She stood there, arms crossed, waiting for a response.
“Hold on.” As Britta bolted up, she spilled coffee onto her lap causing her her knee to bang the rocker’s arm. She hobbled into the house and returned with the silver tin. “Is this yours?”
Jane nodded like a shy child. She was as round as Britta was sharp.
“A few months. It didn’t start out that way.” Jane swiped her shirt sleeve across her nose.
A year ago he left his company, stayed full time on the farm. During that semi-hermitic period, while Britta waited for the long days of plowing and planting to grow dull, Jane must have charmed him with her mother-earth ordinariness.
“He would have made the farm successful,” said Jane.
Britta shook her head. At Jane’s naiveté, and at Rob’s. It was folly to try to make it on a small farm with lettuce and spinach, and what had Norton said? Oh, peas are in.
Jane continued. “He wanted to show you the farm would pay for itself.”
Britta had expected Rob to acknowledge the farm was an extravagant lesson. They would sort things out, get back to their real lives–not with the same frenzy, but with vacations, and Sundays. Years later they would tell stories about the detour, laugh at how he had gone through a second boyhood. Why had she pretended that outcome? She had known all along Rob had given up the other life long before he found the farm. And here was Jane, confident in her conviction, trying to effect the fate of a farm as though one can just reason how things ought to be, mistaking wishes for reality. “When was the last time you talked to him?” she asked Jane.
“On that Thursday… before. He said you were coming for the weekend. There’s something else you should know. You probably already do …” Jane hesitated, started, and stopped.
Britta braced for being cannonballed yet again. At some point during that murky year, he had slipped out of the marriage too. Now she understood he had coaxed her to come to the farm that January weekend for the purpose of officially ending it. Jane would deliver the message. God she missed the vodka.
Jane spoke with yielding sincerity. “It was over between us. He looked forward to that weekend, to you. Had it all planned. He wanted to revive your marriage. I knew he’d work something out. He wanted to be with you. He loved you.”
Britta let out all the breath she had in one long sigh. The sun had risen into a sky it had all to itself, not a cloud in sight, its brightness too eager. ‘If it’s any comfort’, the grim doctor had said. Now this. Oh, the cost of another hour on a computer.
“Would you think about it?” said Jane
“Keeping it a farm. He would have wanted it that way. ”
“I’ll take the best offer.” She wasn’t going to wiggle the truth anymore.
“That’ll be a developer.”
“I need to sell it.”
“But the farm is a true place,” said Jane.
‘A true place,’ sounded like something Rob would say after leaving a warm bed on a moonless night to laze on the cold ground and awe at the sight of three planets aligned. He could make you want to believe it was all that mattered.
Jane walked toward her van, but before she climbed in, Britta said, “I buried his ashes on the hill, under the giant oak.”
Jane looked toward the tree. “Rob’s spirit will stay here too.”
Britta forced aside an image of Rob suspended above mock mansions, manicured landscaping, and the glare of LED streetlights bleaching the night sky.
The engine of the van sounded overstressed as Jane drove away. Britta watched until Jane disappeared into the rest of her life. Then she packed her car, pulled out of the farm at a slug’s pace so as not to cause additional disturbance, merged onto a jammed freeway, exited to a street booming with the energy of a full percussion section, parked in a garage under a building that squeezed seven stories into a crowded skyline, and took an elevator up to her condo. There, on a glass side table, was a silver-framed photo of Rob leaning against his red tractor, secure in time, sporting a smile as wide as his face.
Mary Pat Musick’s short stories have appeared in The Monarch Review, Fiction Southeast, Crack the Spine, Bartleby Snopes, Coe Review, and other publications. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.