Farm Tennis

As the sound of his last shot ricocheted across the farm, the curtains moved across his mom’s upstairs window. He shook her hard until her head became a blur and the sound of her screams made him stop. She was tall with high heels and lots of jewelry. ‘You sure he’s dead?’ Tom circled them and tried not to look away. Every afternoon, Tom put on a pair of shorts and a collared shirt like they wore in Wimbledon. Jimmy was right – no matter how high they got when they jumped, they never touched bottom. This time she was sitting on the corner of the bed in her panties and T-shirt. He was trying to get their wheat to grow. He stood back a little with the bowl in his hands. ‘Promise me you won’t let yourself go, that you won’t use this as an excuse. No matter how long he stayed out there, the door never took breaks. He pointed at the weight set on the porch. There was still some daylight left, and they walked the whole way in the same irrigation ditch. ‘Who do you boys think worked all these years? By the time he finally got dressed, Jimmy had his backpack loaded. It’s not true.’
There would come a time – he could feel it starting like rapids from a river mouth – when there would be nobody left, and all his anger would be turned on himself. Rainbows were created, then destroyed. ‘Don’t go,’ he said quietly. He set the connector and walked back toward the road. ‘Thanks,’ Tom said. At the beginning of each point, he imagined the chair ump calling the score – ‘Thirty-fifteen,’ or ‘Advantage, Hogue’ – before he served. In it she said she was down in Phoenix for the foreseeable future. The best farmers in Oregon were switching to grapes. Each day, operating out of nothing more than rote concern, he came to irrigate, moving and resetting pipes even as he felt like cursing the land and any grain that might come of it. It was the kind of knowledge that would serve them well, Frank decided, as they went about choosing potential wives. He stared at the world between the strings. Promise you won’t do that again.’
He’d wanted to hurt her. He said it was near his house. He felt guilty because he’d never stayed away so long after school. Load after load with the wheelbarrow, orchard to compost heap. ‘Lay that on top,’ he said, and they did. He was an only child, and Tom couldn’t believe that all the games were his. ‘I should go,’ Tom said. The water felt freezing at first, but after a while Tom grew numb. It was a small house just off the road. His forehead was damp and he needed to sit down. Earlier, when one of his mother’s shoes had rolled onto the grass, he’d even chucked it back. ‘Come over here Tom,’ Sam said. They got off the bus where Jimmy said to, and they broke through the trees. He would wake them up. They took turns climbing the rope someone had tied to a tree, swung out over the water, and did cannonballs. He stood behind the service line Sam had made. Now it was so hot the water seemed to evaporate before it found the soil. She looked frightened of him, with her mouth open and her hands out to protect herself. ‘It’s not your fault.’
‘I’ve had dogs all my life,’ the man said. Nothing happened – it just died in the air. ‘He jumped out of your yard before I could step on the brakes. .’ She waved at the end table, scattered with prescriptions. ‘Right.’ At their door, he jiggled the handle. At the cab of the grain truck, he reached inside for the crowbar. When he came up out of the water he was good enough to catch the end of the rope and swim it in. The boys stood there without moving. It rose in the air like a ghost and fell back down in burning fragments. And she wanted to go alone. Out on the road, his log truck was still running. Run down everything, Sam said as he turned back toward the house, even if your returns seem impossible. ‘Because Wally got really hot one day, and we thought he wouldn’t make it, but a few minutes later he was chasing birds.’
‘Did you say your mom or dad are here? Frank struck a match and flicked it onto the pile. There were too many rocks. When the hands finished, Sam wasn’t saying anything back. He didn’t know they were friends. Your mom called and asked.’
‘My mom called?’ He came in further and put his empty bowl on the counter. Or your mom?’
‘Sort of. No matter how long he stayed out there, the door never took breaks.’ Fiction by Rob Magnuson Smith. He felt the whole of his face go numb. Can you believe you’re the better parent?’
The therapist had said the meds would clear a space in her mind for calm decisions. He’d never played before, but the cement driveway outside the combines shed made for even bounces. When he reached the marker he stopped, unfastened the coil and hoisted the pipe between his legs until it ran parallel with the others. He shifted his arms, and that was when Tom saw Wally. He’d been going easier on the whisky but now it was pouring back out of him, making him shudder. He dropped the hand brake. ‘I have to.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I can’t tell you. Nobody bothered him when he was playing tennis. Tom stood up and took his ice cream bowl into the kitchen. Jimmy was smart, but he couldn’t behave in class. Every once in a while he came up to change. ‘Don’t you get it? ‘Thanks again,’ he said, ‘but I can’t default on my match. He played full matches and came back from love five in the third set to beat the reigning champ of Wimbledon. Tom went with Jimmy Brewster, who knew a place where you could jump off a tree and not touch bottom. The flat metal door was the ideal opponent. There wasn’t any movement under the power lines that stretched to the hills. After his discharge he didn’t do much besides read. Sam got up slowly and headed off to chase away the drought. I can’t cope. Can you help with that?’
‘I don’t have a feeling left in my body. Way up in the garret, the shadows shifted. He also liked to sit on the sofa with a bottle. He looked around. Selfish. She also said she was with Neil Hackett. I’m very sorry.’
‘He’ll be four years old in a few weeks,’ Tom said. Then they hurried into the house. He reached for her shoulders. ‘I’ve talked to Nick,’ Jan said. My mom said.’
Tom sat on the bank and pulled on his shoes and socks. It’s even harder not knowing how long.’ She looked up. Until then there were still lessons to conduct. Mrs Brewster was at the counter. They would learn from this what they would need to know for the rest of their lives – that their mother was a whore who had no love for them, no love for anyone but herself. She had to get out of Silt for a while, she said. The sun made him squint. Across the farm only the garret of the barn was illuminated. ‘I don’t want to watch it.’
‘I don’t care what you want. Tom hasn’t been doing well in math. Mrs Brewster had a pie baking in the oven, a chicken in the broiler, and a big bowl of steaming potatoes ready to be mashed. With the cold iron in his hand, the conversation he’d had with Jan that morning came back to him. It hadn’t rained for ten days, ever since Wally was killed, as if the heavens had decided that was that. Moving along the tree line that fronted Dirtwater Creek, Frank rolled the final length by its giant steel wheel. Get out there and mow the lawn, he’d say. He wasn’t going to do that again. ‘Want to come over?’ Jimmy asked, as they climbed out and shook off the water. After changing her clothes she went back into the kitchen and started cooking. Remember the other day, when you were particularly hard on Sam? It was at the other end of their gravel road. There wasn’t even any blood on the body. He’d pumped from Dirtwater Creek using buckets, pulleys and horses. Then he turned the faucet.  
Image © David Prasad At the water main he pried open the concrete cover with the crowbar. Tom took off his shoes and his shirt, and so did Jimmy. Nick was still on his bender – he hadn’t shown his face in days. Not a single one. On your family’s farm – when you’re gone?’
‘Try to be understanding,’ she said. His hair stuck up on one side of his head, and on the other side it lay flat. The screen door squeaked and banged shut. They stood so close they might have been holding hands. Tom tried to imagine them talking to each other on the phone. Some office. He threw a few more until finally one of Jan’s blouses caught. Because I don’t know, not for certain.’
It was her tone – the fact of her leaving seemed decided. He wanted to stay in the creek all night and swim to school in the morning. ‘Sure,’ Tom said. He looked into the kitchen. When he jumped he flew further, and flailed in the air like a giant spider. They brought Sam to his knees. ‘Where?’
‘I don’t know. He learned forehands, backhands, and volleys. Recrossing the culvert, he headed straight for the nearest sprinkler. He had long arms and legs, and he was taller than Tom. ‘Stay for dinner Tom,’ she said. A moment later the water came surging through the pipes. ‘Try, Frank.’
‘Okay. On the other side of the fence, the neighbors’ lights were off. ‘Wait, please,’ Tom said to the man, and he ran to the barn. Or maybe it was himself he saw reflected at the river mouth, before the rapids took him. She didn’t come down for dinner. He came slowly out from the house, shoulders forward and head down, carrying his measure and electrician’s tape. Jan’s clothes lay on top. He watched the empty stairs and wished his mom would come down. Not a lot of grass left, Sam explained – you had me mow it last week. Wally’s coat had some leaves on it, but his paws were practically clean. Later, Jimmy’s mom came home and served them strawberry ice cream. ‘We’ll bury him in the apple orchard,’ Uncle Nick said. He wasn’t even reflected. Even if it rained, he reported to the shed for his next match. The wheat fields were black and the grass lawns gleamed. As Tom improved, the balls banged louder against the metal. At night Frank waited with the gasoline beside the compost heap. His motorcycle lay on its side under the hay elevator. At the bottom of the ladder, he called up to Uncle Nick. He would decapitate each one so that the inevitable arrived sooner. Then the breath emptied out of his chest, and there wasn’t anything to replace it. ‘You been playing a long time?’
‘Just a few weeks. It had taken everything he had, every bit of his self-control, not to break their door down, not to beat Sam in front of his mother for what she’d done. Can I help you with something?’
The man had a thick gray moustache and oil streaks down the legs of his jeans. ‘She’s in there crying – but who do you think’s paid for your clothes and food?’
Frank squinted in the sun. Firefighting and believing, they were strictly volunteer. ‘At home.’
‘Stay, Tom. My opponent always shows up, no matter what.’
 
*
 
A week later it finally rained. The dog’s head hung off the man’s wrists. ‘I’m done.’
For months he’d been sleeping on the sofa to give her the time alone she said she needed. Frank sat on his heels with the crowbar flat in his hands. Your mother, or me?’ There was only silence. There were frogs on the rocks and salamanders in the mud. His dad was under the hood of an old car, working on the engine. Frank had closed the bedroom door so they could talk in private. ‘You must have had some sort of plan all along.’
‘No. For months.’
‘Please just take care of the boys until I figure things out. For his ninth birthday Tom Hogue received a new tennis racquet from his mom. ‘Go get the wheelbarrow, Tom.’
The man who killed him didn’t say anything. The Californians had already made their incursions, buying up acre after acre, turning wheat into wine. There weren’t even any stars in the sky. In the distance the grain truck sat parked along the culvert. Before he’d died, his grandpa said their lofts held a lifetime of hay. In that breath was his whole life. He took the crowbar from the truck and walked back down the culvert into the fields. What am I supposed to do? Jan’s grandfather had engineered everything that lay in front of him. Those things I take.. Each time the wheel snagged, he had to kick them clear. When Tom and Sam came home from school, their dad barely looked at them. The man eased the dog into his arms. One of her bare feet rested on top of the other, and he had wanted to take it in his hand and kiss the underside, like he used to. Jimmy came through a gate and closed it after Tom came through. Sam would be alone with their dad, and their mom still hadn’t left her room. He would tell them exactly how selfish their mother was. It was late. ‘I should go,’ he said again. As he stood in her room, Frank wondered if this was the first thing she’d decided in that new space – to get out of Silt, to leave him. Farm Tennis
Rob Magnuson Smith

‘Nobody bothered him when he was playing tennis. They suck all the blood out of you.’
Jimmy grabbed the knot on the rope with both hands and kicked off. He planted his boots beneath the rotating head, drew back the crowbar and took aim. Once, he stopped playing and looked back at the house. He could feel the vibrations, like a series of earthquakes, under his boots. ‘How long you going to be gone?’
She stayed on the corner of the bed, her head down. What they’d found, here in Silt, was their own kind of death. A little later they came to Jimmy’s house. ‘I know how it is to lose one.’
Uncle Nick reached out and stroked Wally’s head. ‘Your dad around? It was pretty dark. Frank circled the pile and soaked it with gasoline. He looked up to see a man in a baseball cap standing on the gravel path. They were already awake – their light was on. Now that it was here, he wasn’t prepared. ‘It’s their fault.’
‘That’s it?’
She looked up at him. Where?’
He shrugged. My brother Sam, he’s my manager. He didn’t stop, not even after the sun dipped behind the house. He reached the road and faced the setting sun. ‘You think he’s dead?’
‘He is.’
Tom placed his racquet gently on the ground. He was in charge, and he would end it. He’d seen this moment coming for some time, at least a version of it. After he was finished, he played tennis against the combines shed. It seemed inevitable – because what else could he do now, other than go down the road she most feared? Jimmy reached behind the TV and took out a plastic box overflowing with video games. Sam wasn’t about to argue any more tonight. That’s when the hands came out. The sun had gone down, but Jimmy kept restarting their game. Her eyes had no expression in them. You think you’re going to play tennis against that shed every day, just to remind me?’
Tom stared angrily at the ground. They shouted, ‘To hell with the cold!’ and jumped straight into the creek in their jeans. Along the way he replayed it in his mind, as if to calm himself, how he’d stood there panting with the rage of an animal. Behind him, a log truck idled on the side of the road. ‘Fucking. His serve’s tricky.’
The man looked over to the house. ‘Damn dog’s been running out in front of traffic lately,’ Uncle Nick said. Their dad said wheat wouldn’t grow if the ground was dry. They found the man exactly where he’d been before. They sat on the carpet in front of the TV and played a kind of space combat in which laser guns exploded your body into bits. It was his brother Sam who placed the net. Down the hall, the boys were still asleep. ‘Thanks, but I’ve got a tennis match.’
Mrs Brewster just stared at him. Bitch. ‘He says he’ll try to help out.’
‘Fat chance. His hands were rough and his nails yellow. The only going industries were lumber and preaching. Then he headed down the hall toward the boys’ rooms. Mrs Brewster nodded. He’s got Wally and says he’s dead.’
‘Christ.’
Uncle Nick started down the ladder in his nightshirt and army boots. The clouds from the day’s rain lingered without any wind to move them on. He’d run down his own drop shots and surprise himself with a hard overhead smash. Move that irrigation pipe over to the north field, their dad said. Right now I’m in the middle of the second set against John McEnroe. Then the mattress went up, and they had a real bonfire going. He’s been on a bender. Tom only got assigned jobs like collecting apples from the ground. ‘What is it Tom?’
‘There’s a man here. *
 
Late afternoon, the irrigation pipes made a grid of silver stripes against the field. He was standing beside the combines shed, and he still had Wally in his arms. Tom had become friends with Jimmy because they were in the same grade and rode the same bus to school. ‘You do? Uncle Nick shifted in his nightshirt as the man repeated what happened and said again how sorry he was. Not as a mother. ‘You can have dinner at my place. Some straw came drifting down the drop shaft and caught the only light. For a moment they stood there in front of the iron weights, neatly stacked like bricks. It was a clean place with everything put away. Neil was her high school boyfriend. Once the principal made him go home and change because he’d worn a T-shirt that said, ‘Who Farted?’
They played in the creek until it started to get dark. Tom looked away. Tom walked slowly over to join his brother. She’ll be back soon.’
Tom hadn’t seen many video games. It was a white one. She rarely left her bedroom now. Jimmy stayed cross-legged in front of the TV. It had been a mistake, coming down from Portland to look after the farm when Jan’s parents died. ‘Don’t you go anywhere,’ Frank said, and Tom stopped. ‘You think this swimming hole has leeches?’
‘Yeah. ‘She works,’ Jimmy said. Then a shadow appeared across the service line. At the bottom of a dirt trail they reached the riverbank. They were carrying the mattress from her room, like they were told. Stay on top of him, make sure he does his homework.’
Frank took a long breath. Then he went over the scoring and told Tom to strike each ball hard and flat. He was still upset because of his tennis racquet, which lay in the pile awaiting the flames. I hate to just leave, but I got a delivery.’
Tom checked the north field. ‘Where’s your mom?’ Tom asked. He felt the anger rise, right in front of him, impossible to avoid. ‘This is where he lifts,’ Jimmy said. It still had her sheets on it. When he reached the bottom, his face looked pale beneath his beard. He splashed around by the bank while Jimmy climbed the tree again to reach the rope. That whore, that bitch gave you that racquet.  
*
 
A few miles down Dirtwater Creek, before the last turn for the dam, the water darkened and blackberry bushes grew thick along the banks. Frank had Jan’s letter in his hand, the one he’d received that afternoon. Sam was twelve and had taken the brunt of it from their dad. Wally, their dog, followed him out and watched from a distance. He started to light a match when Tom made for the house. They scrambled through the brush and onto the road. He’d thrown in his wedding ring, all the photos of her he could find, and everything, including the books, she’d given the boys for birthdays and Christmas. He did this as fast as he could. ‘I don’t feel anything any longer,’ she’d told him. He would read them her letter, word for word. The last time, Sam had come out in the hall to try and protect his mother. A little later the boys came around the corner of the house. ‘Nice forehand,’ the man said. The impulse was very strong. In the boy’s expression, Frank could see a kind of competition going on. He made an even line across the length of the door where a real net would have been. His eyes tracked things in the distance Tom couldn’t see. Up and down the field, the rotating sprinkler heads fired in sweeping arches. He didn’t want to go home. He wanted to wrap his arms around her waist and not let go. It was hot for October. Sam had been sent out with the moisture kit to check the soil. ‘It’s hard enough,’ she said, ‘to leave.