Fiction Fiction 2011

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“I knew that all the things we’d gathered there so many years would be scattered and gone. All that had held it together would come apart and be gone as if it never was.”
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It’s about all finished now. I took sick in the night back in the fall, past frost. When Coulter Branch came over to see about me the next morning I was down and couldn’t get up. Coulter called Wilma on the telephone. He was afraid to leave me to go get her, and she had to come from their house on the tractor, driving with one hand and holding the baby with the other. That’s a good girl, I’ll tell you. They got me up and fairly dressed and took me to the hospital. The hospital helped me over my sickness, but seemed like I was old after that and not fit to look after myself. And so the old place and all had to be sold.

They brought me from the hospital here to the nursing home at Hargrave. Rest Haven they call it, the end of the line. It’s all right. I don’t complain. But I was the last in Port William of the name of Gibbs.

Before I married Grover Gibbs, I was Beulah Cordle. Annie May Ellis was my first cousin. She was Annie May Cordle Ellis. I was Beulah Cordle Gibbs. Beulah means “a land of peace and rest.” A preacher told me that, back when I was young. It made him blush to tell me, and I knew why. But I wasn’t cut out to be a preacher’s wife, and I reckon he could tell.

I didn’t have but one boyfriend, to say a real one, before Grover. But that one didn’t last. He was from down at Hargrave. He went off to Tennessee and sent me a postcard that said, “Hoping to be up in your parts by Sunday night.” You can’t love somebody you’ve laughed at that way.

I was seventeen when I married Grover. He was twenty-two. We couldn’t wait. We ran off to Indiana and waked up a preacher. He stood us in front of the fireplace and tied the knot. When he asked Grover to promise all those things “until death,” Grover said, “Would you go over that a little slower?”

That was him exactly. The preacher had to stop and laugh.

By both of us being gone, my folks pretty well knew why. They had some objections, but after while it got all right. And it was all right, pretty much, until death.

Well, I reckon you could complain about anybody you’ve married and lived with a long time. But then they’ve died and gone from you, and you look back, and you’re grateful.

Maybe it’s not that easy to tell about Grover. He was good enough at work—better than good enough, I think. But he was not hardly work-brittle. What it was, I reckon, he didn’t have what they call ambition, but he suited me. What we both wanted from this world was a living, our daily bread, if that means plenty to eat and a sound roof over our heads. Came a time when we had more, but we knew the more was extra.

Grover mostly never minded being delayed or interrupted. He couldn’t finish a day without going off after supper, still picking his teeth, to sit talking in Port William till bedtime. That was the old Port William schedule, you might say. The men would go to town after supper and sit in front of the stores in good weather, or inside somewhere in bad, talking and laughing and carrying on, the way people do who have always known each other and are telling a long story that they all know as far as the night before. Grover did his duty and held up his end of the conversation.

Well, I loved him. He could be the funniest. You could look in his face, practically all his life, and see that he was just waiting to be invited to have a good time, and that as soon as the invitation came, he was going to accept. He always looked ready to grin, if he wasn’t already grinning, even when he thought he was by himself. Because of that, maybe, when he was sad his face would be the saddest you ever saw. But he was always looking for fun, and just about always finding it, until he was almost dead.

When things went to drifting towards what Grover called fun, seemed like Burley Coulter and Big Ellis would sooner or later be into it with him. It would be hard to tell all the doings they did. And fun lasted them a long time, for after it had happened they’d be years telling each other about it, and the more they told about it the funnier it got.

As a usual thing, Burley and Grover didn’t work together. Burley mostly worked with his family or Elton Penn or the Rowanberrys. But Grover and Big Ellis often would be helping each other, at our place or at Big’s. Since they’d married cousins, they were sort of kin, and when one of them needed help the other one would likely go. And since Big Ellis and Burley were neighbors, sometimes Burley showed up too.

When it was just Grover and Big, they talked, probably, as much as they worked. Maybe they’d be in a tobacco patch with their hoes, where I could see them from the kitchen window. They’d hit a few licks and pretty soon stop and lean on the hoe handles. They’d look off at the sky and point and prophesy the weather. And then hit a few more licks. Or I would see Grover lean back and laugh at some outrageousness such as Big was always full of. Like that.

Grover would work as hard to play a joke as for a living. Well, I’ll tell you exactly how he would do.

After the pickup balers had been in the country a good while—this was after we had got settled finally on our own place—Grover and Big went in partners and bought a pretty good baler, secondhand. Big was worthless at anything mechanical, so Grover took charge of the baler, always pulled it with our tractor, and did the baling. Grover loved an old tractor. He liked to fix things and he liked to drive.

One summer Big had a field of red clover to put up for hay. He got it mowed, and in a couple of days Grover went over and raked it as soon as the dew dried. After dinner he went back with the baler. Big had got Burley to come to help with the hauling. They were sitting on the wagon, waiting for Grover to bale a round or two before they started to load.

It was a blustery day, and the wind blew Big’s hat off. He started after it but couldn’t gain on it. When it blew past Grover, he pulled out of the windrow he was baling, put the tractor in a higher gear and cut in ahead of Big. Burley was just paying careful attention to see how it was going to turn out.

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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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