Fiction Fiction 2008

Stand By Me

What Jarrat had in his life were sorrow, stubbornness, silence, and work. So when his sons needed him most, their daddy didn’t have much to offer.
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By the time he went to the Russets, Tom was probably as near to the right young man as the country had in it. He had got his growth and filled out, and confidence had come into his eyes. He was a joy to look at.

One Sunday afternoon after the weather was warm and the spring work well started, he paid us a visit. Grandpa had died the summer before, so now it was just Grandma and Nathan and me still at home, and it was a sadder place. But we were glad to see Tom and to be together; we sat out on the porch and talked a long time.

Tom got up finally as if to start his hitchhike back to the Russets, and so I wasn’t quite ready when he said he thought he’d go over to see his dad.

That fell into me with sort of a jolt. I hadn’t been invited, but I said, “Well, I’ll go with you.”

So we went. We crossed the hollow, and clattered up onto the back porch, and Tom knocked on the kitchen door. Jarrat must have been in the kitchen, for it wasn’t but seconds until there he was, his left hand still on the doorknob, and with a surprised look on his face. Myself, I wasn’t surprised yet, but I was expecting to be. I could feel my hair trying to rise up under my hat. I took a glance at Tom’s face, and he was grinning at Jarrat. My hair relaxed and laid down peacefully again when Tom stuck out his hand. It was a big hand he stuck out, bigger than mine, bigger than Jarrat’s. Jarrat looked down at that hand like it was an unusual thing to see on the end of a man’s arm. He looked up at Tom again and grinned back. And then he reached out and took Tom’s hand and shook it.

So they made it all right. And so when the war broke out and Tom was called to the Army and had to go, he could come and say freely a proper goodbye to his dad.

It wasn’t long after Tom got drafted until Nathan turned 18, and damned if he didn’t go volunteer. I was surprised, but I ought not to’ve been. Nathan probably could have got deferred, since his brother was already gone and farmers were needed at home, and I reckon I was counting on that. But he had reasons to go, too, that were plain enough.

Nathan and Jarrat never came to an actual fight. Nathan, I think, had Tom’s example in mind, and he didn’t want to follow it. He was quieter turned than Tom, less apt to give offense. But Jarrat was hard for his boys to get along with. He just naturally took up too much of the room they needed to grow in. He was the man in the lead, the man going away while everybody else was still coming. His way was the right way, which in fact it pret’ near always was, but he didn’t have the patience of a yearling mule.

“Let’s go!” he’d say. If you were at it with him and you hesitated a minute: “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

When we were young and he would say that, I’d say back to him,

Les Go’s dead and his wife’s a widder.
You be right good and you might get her.

But nobody was going to say that back to him anymore, not me, much less Nathan.

After Jarrat’s fight with Tom, I would now and again try to put in a word for Nathan. “Why don’t you let him alone? Give him a little head room. Give him time to be ready.”

And Jarrat would say, “Be ready, hell! Let him be started.”

It didn’t take much of that, I knew, to be a plenty. When Nathan came back from the war his own man, Jarrat did get out of his way, and they could work together, but for the time being, Nathan needed to be gone. Of course he got a bellyful of bossing in the Army, but it at least didn’t come from his dad. He also had a brotherly feeling that he ought to go where Tom had gone. Grandma was dead by then. There was nothing holding him. I reckon he went because he thought he had to, but I didn’t want him to. For one thing, we’d be left shorthanded. For another, I would miss him. For another, I was afraid.

As it turned out, Nathan never saw Tom again. They kept Nathan on this side till nearly the end of the war, but they gave Tom some training and taught him to drive a bulldozer and shipped him straight on across the waters into the fight. He was killed the next year. I know a few little details of how it happened, but they don’t matter.

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Wendell Berry is a farmer, an activist, and the author of numerous essays, poems, novels, and short stories. He has received the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award, among other honors. He lives in Kentucky.

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