BY MICHAEL DONNELLY
The promise was easy. If they go to City, they write and make it. If they do make it, they live in City. If they don't make it, they live in Country, raise potatoes and chickens.
There they stand, a porch, a plain, before forty acres of Country -- someone's American promise deferred (not theirs), reparations deferred. President says the mule is "in the mail," sealed envelope, ballot, et cetera. Here are Elwyn and Katherine White, unintentionally white like two sheets of bleached writing paper, but white still. They never went, wrote, not even tried to make it. They chose an easier promise, went to the bank for a loan on good faith. When leaving, Deed in tow, bank manager slapped Elwyn on the back for good measure. He doesn't get it, the slap. Katherine asks him why such small acreage? He replies be grateful, the bank didn't loan nothing to that Other man!
She holds his bicep, humble muscle. He looks down toward her and she toward him into the difficult brown of his eyes; he says do we have everything now? She says the barn is stocked with chickens, the tractor rests in the field, the combine sleeps in the storage, the seed and the feed wait in the barn too, one month has passed, and the sun will rise soon. I need to go look beneath the chickens; p.s. the gas company came today; please go fill the tractor; please go out today and till the field. He coughs into his fist, pats his heart twice, and rubs his hands. He watches her walk away, her blond hair undone upon her shoulders, golden in the dawn. His eyes dilate, chest rises and exhales, drops his shoulders as he walks into the field.
* * * *
The tractor muffles as it slowly turns up the earth. The sun settles lower and lower beneath an expanding sky of deep rouge. The damp sweetness of spring and life waft in on the breeze through the open door and the open windows. On the porch, she removes her boots to clap out the sod. She enters through the open door. Didn't ask for much, she says, don't have much acreage to till. He crumples what he had been writing, tosses it onto others, and walks to the door. They stand there, before a porch, a plain. He puts his arm around her waist and she looks up toward him, says we can have everything now; I was out in the field today; may not be easy, but we can raise it. He looks out past the field, past country, the miles, toward city: never dared went. He looks down toward her into the vast ocean of her eyes; she stares into his eyes, brown as any earth yet to be tilled. He grabs her and presses her into him; his lips upon hers, his lips talking more by not talking than all he can think. They move onto the couch, his lips upon her neck, her fingers mussing his hair, and proceed like a fever.
She wakes up at midnight, sits down at the desk under a small light, looks into the filled wastebasket, filled with his crumpled writings. She unfolds each one he's put there, the one on top she reads:
One month has passed. I have a barn, chickens, a tractor, a combine, too much seed and the feed, all useful things. This is hopeless. We are not farmers. I need to go out today and till the field. I need to go out today and walk past the field. I need to write, make it, live in City.
She places the papers into a box inside the closet. Tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, she thinks, maybe tomorrow he will go out into the field and see; we can raise it. Maybe tomorrow he will step into the barn and find the eggs have waited for him beneath the chickens. Maybe tomorrow the promise will make sense. He wakes, hears the tractor tilling the field. He sits down at the desk. He reaches into the wastebasket, again filled, but not by him, uncrumples her papers and, before he puts her papers into the box, the one on top he reads:
This is where we are. A porch, a plain, before forty acres we never really wanted, a loan on strange good faith. We must make good on it, as if misplaced residents, stand-ins for the real McCoys. Maybe we make it, maybe we don't. Maybe tomorrow my soul will burn under the setting sun into the enlarging sky. Maybe tomorrow my soul will set out past my body, this tractor, the field, the miles, past Country.