Gameboard

GameboardI met my husband in a dog food factory.  I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s true.  We both had summer jobs at ProVets Pet Foods (“Only YOU love your dog more”.)  I was finishing my degree at GreenbriarJunior College, which is in the same town as ProVets so locals called it Dog Food University.  Randy was getting a real degree, a B.S. in engineering at the University of Illinois.

I liked working at ProVets  – the pay was good and we were inside in the air conditioning, which sure beat walking beans or detasseling corn under the hot beating heart of an Illinois sun.  Still, I couldn’t wait to leave.  I’ve spent my entire life in the rural midwest and I was ready for something different.  Some place where all the men don’t wear baseball caps that say DeKalb and John Deere.  Some place where the restaurants don’t have meatloaf on the menu.  Some place where people don’t bark when you tell them where you went to school.

I didn’t want to stay but Randy didn’t need to stay. With his grades he was sure to get an offer from one of the big firms that interviewed on campus – Boeing or Lockheed or Caterpillar.   Wherever he settled, I planned to move in with him and look for work.  We hadn’t really talked about marriage but it was out there on our horizon.  We’d wait for it the way a farmer waits for rain; eventually it would come.

I don’t think Randy’s mom was too happy about the plan. She never said so, but I think she thought Randy was tying himself down too soon.  At the time, it made me mad, but now I understand her better.

Randy gets mad when I say that about real degrees. He says lots of smart, successful people go to small schools, or no school at all.  Look at Sam Walton.

That made me laugh. Sam Walton is dead, I told him. And I guarantee the guy running Wal-Mart has a Big Ten or Ivy League degree.  He sure wasn’t an alum of Dog Food University.

In answer, Randy put together a list of CEOs in the Fortune 500 that didn’t get a college degree.  I don’t remember all the names of the guys – and they were all guys, not a woman among them – but everyone knows the companies they keep: Anheuser-Busch, Microsoft, Dell Computer.  There was a whole bunch of them.  I was pretty surprised, actually. But mostly I was touched that Randy would go to such lengths to make his point.

I think that was when I started falling in love with him – because he was so deliberate.  The dictionary says deliberate means “slow, unhurried and steady” and that’s Randy all over. That CEO list is a perfect example – he makes his point, and then backs it up. He doesn’t just spout off, he doesn’t say ‘hey, just trust me’.  He hands you the goods so you can see for yourself.  And best of all he never says “I told you so”, just gives me that slow smile that starts in his eyes and spreads gradually across his face, like melting ice cream.

I know he’s right.  I didn’t go to Greenbriar because I’m dumb.  I went because I wasn’t poor enough to get the grants I needed to go to a better school and I wasn’t rich enough not to need them.  And I wasn’t smart enough in math or English or science or good enough at basketball or volleyball or track to get a scholarship.

That leaves ambition and good old Puritan work ethic, and maybe I was lacking in both of those, too. Or maybe I am just a realist. I wasn’t a bad student – in high school I made mostly Bs and a few Cs – but it took me every ounce of what I had to make those Bs.  That’s hard for brainball like Randy to understand: that for some of us, being slightly above average is grubby, hard manual labor, a full-time job in itself.  There was no way I could work the hours I’d need to pay for books and rent and tuition, never mind food, and still make the grade at a good school like U of I.  I knew my limits.

The school thing didn’t really bother me. I always figured I’d find a way out of east central Illinois, Greenbriar or no.  It’s not why I fell in love with Randy, but it sure didn’t hurt.  It’s funny but one of the jokes my mom used to make was that it was just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man.  She died when I was twelve, so she never met Randy. I think she’d probably approve of him, all things considered.

With my mom dead and my dad spending his weeks in the field and his weekends with his girlfriend four hours away in Springfield, there wasn’t much for me to go home to that summer. So when Randy and I started getting serious I fell into the habit of staying with him at his parent’s place. They lived one town over from ProVets.

Randy got his looks from his mom, but really it was his dad he took after.  Like Randy, Darryl didn’t talk much.  When I met him, he had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It made his hands shake and his head move around a little when he talked, but otherwise he seemed fine.

I remember one time when he was trying to light a cigarette – Randy and I had been together four months, and I was losing some of my shyness around Darryl by then. It was a windy day and Darryl kept chasing the shaky tip of his cigarette with a match, but the wind kept beating him to the punch.

After the fourth try I couldn’t stand it anymore: I grabbed his hand and held it still until he got it lit. He gave me this look – at first I thought he was mad, or offended, and my heart skipped a beat – but then he just smiled a slow smile and said Thanks, and it was so much like Randy that my heart gave a little bump and got back going again.

That last school year went fast.  In December Randy interviewed and got an offer from Boeing in Chicago, contingent on his graduation in May.  Then, in April, just before finals week, Darryl took a turn for the worse – a big turn. It took Randy and his mom by surprise.  I guess they’d sort of lulled themselves into thinking  Parkinson’s wouldn’t be anything more serious than Darryl shaking all the time.

So Randy missed his finals and went home to be near his dad, until he either got better or worse. When I saw Darryl, I knew it would be worse and I thought it would be fast. He was shrunk and little and old, like an apple doll.   Not like Darryl at all, except for his eyes. They looked out from his head that shook and shook, and they were bright and aware.  That was the worst part, in my mind – that he knew what was happening to him.

I was done with my dinky little degree, so stayed on to help Randy’s mom with the nursing while Randy got his dad’s crops into the field.  Nursing isn’t anything like farming of course, but still it was hard work. It’s funny how sickness makes the body smaller but its demands larger.

Before things got too bad, Darryl and Randy made an agreement.  A pact, I guess you’d call it: if Darryl could squeeze Randy’s hand  – even just a little bit –  it meant he wasn’t in too much pain.  And so this became a common sight: once every evening Randy sitting next to the bed in one of the straight-backed kitchen chairs, holding his dad’s hand and talking about this and that, Darryl nodding away as if in agreement.

Sometimes I would imagine I could climb on top of Darryl and lay face to face like lovers, holding his body down with my weight and stroking his arms until the tremors were smoothed out of him like wrinkles from a sheet.  I told this to Randy once, trying to make it sound like a joke.  For a second, his eyes got bright and he looked just like Darryl that day out in the wind.  It was the only time I ever saw him cry over his dad.

I was right about Darryl getting worse instead of better, but wrong about it being fast. He died by slow degrees, a watched pot whose water was evaporating instead of boiling.   Between Darryl’s illness and the farm, Randy couldn’t find the time that summer to retake all of his finals.

It was a hard time but there were some good things, too. I was able to get full-time at ProVets and save some money. And on my birthday Randy drove us down to St. Louis to go on one of those riverboat casino cruises.  It was sort of cheesy, but fun.  We had dinner and drinks, Randy played a little black jack and I did the slots.

The roulette is what I remember best though.  On a whim I laid down ten on red number thirteen – thirteen is my lucky number. I was feeling good – like I could control the wheel with my mind.  I was always making mistakes like that back then – thinking I had some sort of power over my life and what happened in it, when really it is all just luck, and the only thing you control is how much you put down.

The wheel landed on the green square with two zeroes and poof! my pretty white chip with the gold threads was swept away.  I got mad and Randy laughed fit to die.

“Isn’t it funny that the color everyone loses on is green, and not black?” I asked Randy on the drive home.

“Why is that funny, tell me.” He sounded amused, and I was glad.  There hadn’t been many opportunities to laugh in the past year.

“Well, green means go. And it’s the color of money,” I said. “Those are good things, right?”

“And corn,” Randy said, so soft I wasn’t sure I heard him.  He was looking out the window at the cornfields standing tall and quiet and shadowy in the moonlight.

“Corn is yellow,” I said.  “But seriously, wouldn’t you think that black – the color of death – would be the color where everyone loses?  Not green. Green is for good stuff.”

I thought I was being pretty logical, but Randy as usual was one step ahead.

“So what about red?” he said. “Red means stop. Why wouldn’t that be the color where everyone loses?”  I couldn’t think of an answer to that one.

Not long after that trip came a day when I found Randy sitting in Darryl’s room. Not talking like he usually did – just holding one of Darryl’s hand in both of his.  He didn’t look up, and I left without saying anything.  He sat in there all day and then all evening too, missing supper.  When I went to bed, he was still in there, just sitting and holding his father’s hand, waiting for the squeeze that was never going to come.

– – – – –

Darryl died one week later, on a cruelly beautiful fall day where the sky was blue as the Mediterranean Sea must be, with high feathery clouds scudding across it like wind ruffling the surface of water.

At first what I noticed was the absence of the Parkinson’s – no more pills and catheters and turning, no more feeding or bedpans or physical therapy.  The absence didn’t become Darryl-shaped until one day when I was straightening up his old office. In a big stack of papers I found a folder full of brochures with titles like ”How Our Brain Controls Our Movement” and “Living With Parkinson’s” – stuff the doctor must have given them when Darryl was first diagnosed.

But there was also a picture that had gotten mixed in.  It was Randy and his dad. They’d been fishing, both of them holding poles and wearing their old jean jackets and matching John Deere hats.  The sun has them squinting and turns the lake behind them into a great big mirror of shattered light. They are red-nosed with fresh air and you can almost smell that lake smell that is somehow both fishy and clean at the same time.

Darryl’s death coincided with start of fall semester, so by the time the funeral and farm work were handled it meant Randy couldn’t retake his tests until the spring.  Boeing had to rescind the offer.  They were nice about it, telling Randy that when he finally graduated they’d like to hear from him.

But we heard what they didn’t say: the offer was no longer a sure thing.  So Chicago was still the same four hundred and seventy two miles away that it had always been, but now it somehow seemed a lot farther.  I didn’t say this to Randy, though.

To cheer Randy up I went into town to buy some steaks and lettuce and maybe some wine and candles, thinking we were both overdue for a romantic dinner.  It was a nice day, not too hot, and I rolled the windows all the way down and drove fast through the tall green corridors of corn.

I sang along with the radio while the wind rushed through the cab of the truck, swirling my hair all around, and for a minute I was almost tempted to hit the gas hard and drive.  I’d ride those narrow country roads that lay between the cornfields like long asphalt snakes all the way to Chicago.

Not that I’d ever go without Randy.  What would I do on my own in Chicago? It was just an impulse, there and gone as fast as the rows of corn whipping past my window.

When I got home there was Randy, pacing around the living room.

“Where have you been?” he asked. Except he put the emphasis on the word ‘you’, so it came out like an accusation.

“Store,” I told him.  I tried to hand him my bag so I could go out to the truck for the rest, but he dropped it right on the floor.

“No, where were you? Really?” he asked. His voice was so loud, his mom’s crystal vase on the TV went ping.  I stared at him, surprised.

“That’s where I was, really. What the hell is wrong with you?”   This time it was me, hitting the word ‘you’ too hard. I’d been home all of ten seconds and we were already fighting, something that was getting more and more common.  What happened next wasn’t common, though: Randy slapped me.

It didn’t hurt.  I was more surprised than anything else.  I think he was, too. Before I could think what to say, he was out the back door.   I watched him walk to the barn, and then I put the groceries away.  What else was I going to do?

He came back in a few hours later and tried to talk to me as if nothing had happened.  That was worse than the slap, somehow. My eyes started stinging but I blinked hard.  No way was I going to cry and give him the satisfaction of comforting me.

Things were quiet between us for a couple of days, the air between us strung tense as a rope. But on the third day Randy did something that took all the mad right out of me.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been under a lot of pressure but that’s no excuse. It will never happen again.  You have my word.”   He waited, his head cocked in that cocker-spaniel puppy way that usually loosens me right up.  Not this time, though.  I kept right on doing the dishes.

“OK?”Babe?”

I heard a crinkling sound and when I finally looked up it was to see him holding a brown paper bag, the kind I used to take my lunch to school in.  I looked in the bag and there was a small red box. I looked in the box and there was a small diamond ring.  I looked at Randy and he looked very pleased with himself.

“So, how about it?” he asked.  “Or are you still mad?”

“When?” It came out so soft, I had to clear my throat and say it again.

“After I graduate. It’s all set.  I’ll be retaking all of my tests at the end of spring semester.  I talked to Boeing – they said they’ll have a spot for me in May. We can move to Chicago for our honeymoon, right after I graduate.”

He grinned, waiting to hear what I would say.

This time I couldn’t stop my eyes from stinging, no matter how hard I blinked.

– – – – –

All that good news made for a really good Thanksgiving.  We invited some people over, to make it a party –  we figured that would help Randy’s mom get past it being the first holiday without Darryl.  It turned out nice – smoked turkey, cold beer and potato salad out the wazoo, and in the middle of it all was Randy, seeming happy and like his old self.

Before dinner, the guys were messing around in the back yard. Someone found a football under the deck out back and even though it was a horribly deflated the guys got up a game of touch.  I stood with some of the other women and watched, laughing but wondering, too, if anyone else saw it the way I did: that flabby ball arcing high into the sky, making a shape almost like a squashed heart trying to fly away.

– – – – –

In March Randy took a break from planting and studying to and we went to the Broom Corn Festival, which is just a fancy name for sitting at a trestle table eating VFW-barbequed chicken and drinking beer out of plastic cups.  We sat with our friends John and Kelly and talked about every farmer’s mistress, the weather.  I caught Kelly looking at me a couple of times.

When the guys got up to get more beer, Kelly pounced.

“So how’s it going?” Kelly asked, giving a little nod in Randy’s direction. Her face was all squinty with concern.

I thought about how Randy had woke me the last couple of nights, talking in his sleep. I could make out enough of what he was saying to know he thought he was talking to Darryl, and I didn’t know whether to be sad or scared for him.

But to Kelly all I said was “Fine. We already started packing for Chicago.”

She gave me a funny look.

“You haven’t talked to Pete.”  The way she said it – as a statement and not a question – made my chin go out.

Pete and John and Randy were best friends since kindergarten. They called themselves “The Gruesome Threesome”.  There were more pictures of Randy with Pete or John around the house than there were of Randy and me.   Either Pete or John stopped by at least once a week, usually more. Lately Pete hadn’t been by, I realized.

“No,” I said. “He hasn’t come around in awhile.”  This time it was me that waited.

“They got in a fist fight,” Kelly said.  “Anyway, Randy got in a fist fight. Pete never hit him back.”

“When? Where?” I couldn’t believe it. It just wasn’t Randy. I opened my, mouth to say so, then I remembered the slap and shut it fast.

“Out at the elevator.  They were standing around talking, and Randy just suddenly got real mad and started swinging.  He gave Pete a pretty good shiner.”

The fact that Kelly had seen the shiner meant they’d all been talking – about Randy, about us.  I was glad I hadn’t mentioned the slap to her, but I knew that she knew.  She might not know the full story, but she knew that there was a story.  I kind of hated her for that.

After a couple of weeks Pete started coming around again, but I noticed it wasn’t as often as it used to be. And he was watchful of Randy – always pausing a second or two before he spoke, as if weighing in advance how Randy might react.  Randy didn’t seem to notice, something that broke my heart a little.

– – – – –

A week before Randy was to take his finals, I was packing up books and pictures and went looking for the fishing picture I’d found of Darryl and Randy.  It was hard to relocate; the folder it was in was a lot fuller.  New brochures had been added.

One was called “The Real Cost of Generic Selegiline HCi Tablets”. Another was  “Diet and Sinemet, What’s the Connection?”  And in the very back, something called “Mini Mental Status Exam For Early Onset Parkinson’s”.   I stood there leaning against the open file cabinet and read through the questions  (Are you having difficulty thinking?  Are you aware of a change in your personality?).

Then I sat down and read them again (Do you have difficulty telling time on a non-digital clock?  Do you see people who you know are dead?).

Then I went and sat outside on the back step where the breeze could cool my hot face and read them a third time.  (Do you shout angrily? Do you hit people?)

There were fifty-four questions in all, and someone had answered thirty-eight of them Yes.  I could see where the pencil he used had torn through the paper in places.

– – – – –

By noon I was clocking in at ProVet, in plenty of time to log half day’s pay. The first thing I did was go up to the top of the grain elevator.  Measuring the grain bins is my favorite part of the job and just then there was nowhere else I wanted to be.

The air was hot and full of dust and chaff that flickered in the sunlight and stuck to my sweaty face and arms.  Grain elevators are skull-crunchingly noisy so you have to wear earplugs, which gives everything a muffled, underwater sound.  You can feel more than hear the machinery, thumping underfoot like some giant heartbeat.  It’s like being in a big mechanical womb.


When we were still just part-time, I’d measure the bins and then go out and stand on the little platform and wait for Randy to join me. We’d sneak a kiss and then stand and look out over the surrounding fields.  If it was clear you could see all the way to Springfield.  Sometimes we could spot Randy’s dad out there on his big John Greene tractor – he farmed land that was adjacent to the plant.

From high up, east central Illinois looks like a giant game board: neat green squares of cornfields divided by rich brown channels of earth.  The farmers on their cultivators are like movable game pieces.  In high summer when the sky is tall and blue you can almost imagine some distant gods reaching down with their big hands and moving the farmers around: extra points for landing on the university, three spaces back and a fine for landing on the bank, marriage and kids for some, sickness and death for others.

I stood on the platform and shaded my eyes, hoping to see Randy in his slow green chariot. I couldn’t spot him but I liked the idea of him riding along and maybe looking up to see me there on the platform, tiny with distance.  He used to say that someday he was going to bring a football up to the platform and throw the mother of all passes, and if I close my eyes I can picture it:  the ball soaring high into all that wide-open space, looking like it might fly all the way to Springfield or even Chicago before dropping back to earth like a roulette ball on a wheel where the game is rigged, all the squares green instead of red and black.

Gameboard

12 responses to “Gameboard

  1. I could imagine the future for her; dealing again with illness, loss and sorrow. But I wanted more! So well written. Really enjoyed it. Very real and truthful. Excellent.

    ~Chris

  2. As the son of farmers (which pretty much makes me a farmer too) and a college student, you hit the mark with me.

    Bravo

    JZ

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