This part is important.
About now I’ve left the hotel bar. Because even a single man in a strange town has to get up and move around a little. That’s what I’m doing. Walking the streets of downtown St. Louis. I’m thinking of my friends and because I’m out of New York City for the first time in a long time, I’m thinking about the Big Apple. We’ve all been out there about the same amount of time. Four years now. We all moved hoping to find cracks in the walls of theater, space for us to thrive. It hasn’t been easy, but none of us were asking for that. Whether we get famous or not doesn’t matter to us. That may sound like a thing to say, but it’s the truth. We know that “making it” doesn’t mean you’re any better than if you don’t. And, just as every platitude has its underside, not-making it doesn’t mean you’re any worse. We love what we do. My friends are all great actors in different ways. Tracy has enormous presence on stage. Karen has natural intensity. Morris is all raw talent. Rodney is precision. Connie has fire. Baum is a jewel behind the scenes. Ever will probably one day own the theater we’ll use for the rest of our lives.
Oliver had power. Like Tracy’s but unruly. Unpredictable. I so remember the night at the Fox Box when Oliver blew the roof off the place and changed our view of him. He’d been sitting in the back like he often did, away from the rest of us, though it wasn’t unusual to spread out, especially at the Fox Box where you want to get to know everyone and where you feel like you’re part of a movement, even when you’re standing still. And haven’t you heard? Perception is reality. If you believe you’re part of a movement then you are. This is happening all over the globe, artists and non-artists alike. Corners of the world where young people believe in what they’re doing, know they’re doing something extraordinary. And so they are. And so are we. The Fox Box is a conduit for this kind of feeling. And Oliver plugged directly into it that night.
It was a semi-improv gig in that it was preferred you had a monologue prepared and memorized but technically you could do whatever you wanted. Nobody really wanted to see anybody search for lines for ten minutes, but hey, if that’s what you did, you did. The real point was delivery, presentation, for being alone with the material on stage. Imagine an open mic night for actors. Singers sing their songs. The monologues we’d memorized were ours.
But that night, Oliver wrote a song on the spot.
It’s a hard enough thing to truly internalize any lengthy monologue and it’s sure as hell hard to put together a solid six minutes of your own material. Just ask any comedian. But that’s just what Oliver found within himself to do. Near closing he rose from the shadowy back of the club and sauntered with a slouch to the stage. The host, usually a stickler, seemed to sense what we all did: Oliver needed to deliver a performance and needed to do it now. Had he been working on something? Did he have something prepared? We didn’t know. How could we? Oliver and Donna had been fighting bad enough by then that Donna wasn’t with us. Where was she? We didn’t think in those terms back then. She wasn’t there. New York is a big place. But it was clear Oliver had some feelings to get off his chest.
The host didn’t stop him but he did flash the rest of us a partially admonishing glance; he’s yours after all.
What followed was perhaps too angry. Too sappy. If any other actor had delivered the same words in any other theater, you might’ve said it was lame. But sometimes even the cheesiest words are infused with soul. What floored us was that Oliver didn’t stammer once, didn’t search for a word, any word, for close to ten minutes. He whispered and he howled and he never lost track of it, never fell out of focus, didn’t rush a thing. He built to perhaps a juvenile climax (young love on the rocks), but the arc was complete, the story whole, the emotion palpable in the otherwise silent room. When he finished, everybody cheered like mad. Even the host. Oliver did that night what we all, always, set out to do: he moved us. And while his performance might not have worked on film and was perhaps too much even for theater, we all knew we’d seen his truth.
So, yes, even Oliver could act. And, guess what, so can I. The question becomes: what am I doing at a conference in St. Louis as my best friends are sitting down to dinner in the middle of Michigan? What the hell am I doing with myself? Where has my life lead up to? You ever think of things in those terms? That everything you’ve ever done has led up to this moment and if you don’t like the moment then maybe you don’t like everything you’ve done?
Time to be someone else, I say, traipsing from one St. Louis street corner to another. Time to start saying no. And while I’m walking, I see a guy, about my age, and he’s wearing a blazer and so am I and we nod and I think, He wants to be someone else, too.
But does he? And do I?
Would anybody really want their core to be swapped for another? Or is it the decisions we make, we, you, me, that we question? Are we dissatisfied with… us?
Or us right now?
So while I’m freaking out on the streets of St. Louis, my friends are sitting down to eat a meal put together by another friend who doesn’t resemble in any way the man who took that stage by the balls that night and delivered one of the oddest, most remarkable, on-the-spot monologues any of us have ever seen. The man who fills their glasses of water doesn’t appear to have an ounce of that aggression, that anger, that improvisation inside him.
This meal, this moment, feels long prepared.
Tracy, Ever, Karen, and Baum sit on the wall side, facing the French doors and the darkness beyond. Across the table are Morris, Rodney, an empty seat, and Connie. Classical music plays from the living room; Tracy saw Oliver stack some records on the player just prior to entering the kitchen.
So here they are. And it feels like a big moment. Because it’s no longer a sense that Oliver is hosting, now he’s flat-out doing it.
“You’ve all heard of farm-to-table,” he says. “It’s becoming a big thing in the city, isn’t it?”
“For sure,” Morris says, sipping some of the wine he has stationed beside his water. “Every restaurant claims to do that.”
“Whether they do or not,” Rodney adds.
“Who would lie about something like that?” Connie asks.
Oliver opens the refrigerator door and removes two dishes, already prepped with salad. He places one in front of Karen, one in front of Baum.
It’s mostly greens.
“You grow this yourself?” Morris asks.
Because it looks like that. Unruly. The lettuce. The greens.
“Not me,” Oliver says. “But yes, this is all from these very fields.”
He fans a hand to the French doors, to the brick of blackness beyond.
He removes two more salads, places one in front of Morris, one in front of Rodney.
It all has the feel of DIY. If food could look the part of a homemade quilt, these salads are doing just that.
“Sweet,” Morris says. He forks a load of greens and makes to bring it to his mouth but Rodney lays a gentle hand on his wrist. He nods over his shoulder and eyes the empty places remaining on the table as if to say, It’s rude not to wait.
Oliver returns from the fridge with two more. He sets one in front of Ever, one in front of Tracy.
Tracy eyes the greens and yellows. Peppers? Some of it looks like straight grass. She’s certainly seen and eaten weirder in New York City restaurants, but this feels different. And maybe it shouldn’t. Oliver’s right, right? Isn’t this the ultimate in farm-to-table? The walk to the fields would take two minutes.
Oliver brings one more for Connie.
He closes the refrigerator.
“A toast,” Morris says, raising his glass high. Everyone else follows suit. Oliver takes his seat and raises his glass, too. “To you, Oliver,” Morris says. “I gotta be honest when I say I never in a million years would’ve predicted Oliver Carpenter slipping so elegantly into farm life. It’s good to see you, man. We missed you.”
Everyone awwws and Rodney gives Oliver’s right wrist a little squeeze as Connie wraps an arm around his shoulder.
My best friends all clink glasses, sure to look one another in the eye as they cheer, a thing Baum learned is a matter of respect all over the world.
“You’re not hungry?” Karen asks Oliver, nodding to the empty space in front of him.
Oliver doesn’t break the connection with her eyes when he says, “I already ate.”
“Okay then,” Connie says. “I’m fucking starved.”
She digs in first, forking the freshest green leaves any of them have ever seen. Everyone else does the same.
All but Tracy. Not yet. Rather, she eyes Oliver over her wine glass, sees it as he closes his eyes and breathes deep, as if he’s been waiting to serve dinner to his friends for a very long time. All his life, Tracy thinks. Because, yes, that’s what this feels like, like a man finally coming into his own, finally having found his stride. It’s not hard to recall the slumped form of him in the back of so many New York bars, as Morris or Karen held court. How long has Oliver Carpenter wanted to take the stage, the real stage, to stand front and center in life?
When he opens his eyes he’s looking at her, smiling. She angles the glass toward him, to silently cheer him again, because this is a friend, dammit, a best friend, who has improved his lot in life. Through the glass, half his face is warped, and his slight smile appears to be a straight line instead.
“Fuck this is good,” Rodney says. Everyone agrees.
Tracy eats, too.
It tastes incredibly fresh. Oddly fresh. She isn’t even sure there’s any dressing on it. She wonders what this is, what could this possibly be. She looks to the darkness beyond the deck and knows they came from back there.
“What’s in this?” Karen asks. She asks it the way someone does when they’re looking to make the same thing at home one day.
“Fiddleheads,” Oliver says. “Lettuce and green beans. A lot.”
“This is the best fuckin salad I’ve ever had,” Morris says, his mouth mostly full.
“Excellent,” Ever says, his voice close to Tracy’s ear. She agrees. It tastes as fresh as Oliver seems new.
They go silent for a minute. Or without words anyway, as they each eat their salads and sip their water and sip their wine. Connie is downright wolfing the greens. Baum sets his fork down, looks Oliver in the eye, and says, “This is rather fantastic, Oliver.”
Connie laughs first. Cause it’s funny. The word. Rather. Tracy feels a pinprick of laughter, too, the sort of rush one gets when they’re stoned and about to laugh uncontrollably at an otherwise every day joke.
“Rather,” Karen says, mocking her lover.
Rodney giggles. Then Morris outright cackles. Tracy laughs too and fuck if it doesn’t feel good. How long has she been so serious? Has New York City done this to her, kept her so pent up, wound so tight? It shouldn’t feel this good to laugh! And she can admit it now. How dramatic she’s been. Oliver’s been scaring her since even before they arrived and that fear had doubled and tripled since showing up at his farmhouse and observing him up close. Here’s a friend. Here’s a friend who ran into some seriously dark matter in the big city then inherited a farm from his dead grandfather and decided to do something about it. He proactively left town and made conscious changes to every aspect of his life. He has clearly reinvented himself, just look, here he sits, here’s a friend, done well for himself, here he sits, here. Oh who is Tracy kidding, trying to ignore the fact that every group of friends who move to New York City to become actors experience the loss of those who either give in, give up, or simply change their minds and don’t want to circle the wheel anymore? It isn’t easy out there. Oliver got chewed up a bit. That’s okay. Tracy not only knows this but she really feels this, right now, halfway through the salad Oliver’s made, the best fucking salad of her life. And everybody’s happy. Baum and Karen are laughing beside her and Ever is smiling as he sips his water, pure contentment in his eyes. It’s like they’re all realizing at once that it’s okay for a friend to go through changes. It’s okay for people to give up on the “dream” and realize it wasn’t even a dream in the first place, not theirs anyway, drop it in search of a legitimate valued peace of mind on a farm in the middle of fucking Michigan instead.
Oliver stands up.
Tracy’s feeling like he’s going to give a speech. It’s the right time. Something like that. Or, no no, she’s got it: he’s going to open the stove and miraculously pull from it the next course. Oliver hiding food all over his house, the new Oliver.
“I can’t stop laughing,” Baum says.
“Rather,” Karen says and they start all over again. Tracy, too. Morris and Rodney are losing it across the table, Connie’s whole face a smile. They can’t stop. It’s just…
It’s perfect is what it is.
A communal manifestation of the right way to feel, how they should’ve felt about their friend all along. Like in that one book where the group of people attempt to contact a ghost they made up, to test the boundaries of mob mentality, here Tracy and our circle are arriving at an epiphany all at once. All of them! It doesn’t matter that Morris is looser than Ever or that Baum is more skeptical than Connie. They’re all coming to the concrete conclusion that Oliver Carpenter has bettered himself and there’s absolutely no reason to feel weird about that ever again.
“Someone’s standing in the corner,” Karen says.
“Rather,” Baum says.
And it’s laughter all over again. It feels so good. This is Tracy’s dream. This is why she came out here. Friends again. Every one of them.
She looks to the corner. Sees an old man standing behind the stove.
She nearly knocks her wine glass over as she grips Ever’s wrist.
“Ever,” she says.
But Ever is laughing too hard with Baum, like they’re wasted at the Fox Box. Like it’s the end of the night and someone is about to holler last call.
“Guys,” Oliver says. He’s standing behind his chair now, hands on the back of it. He’s blocking Tracy’s view of the stove. “I hope you like my cooking.”
Even he laughs at this one. Hell, even Tracy does, Tracy who, while laughing, feels a thread of black yarn curling up through the laughter, stretching form her belly to her brain, a thread of fear, no, more, legit horror, at the memory of an old man in this room, quickly fading.
“So here’s what’s going on,” Oliver says.
“Oh really?” Morris says. “Is something going on?”
Rodney loses it again. Flat out cracking up. Oliver places a hand on Rodney’s shoulder. When he talks, his voice comes a little fuzzy to Tracy. Tracy who is still trying to look around him, recalling something behind him that wasn’t supposed to be there. Was that a shovel? A rake? Whatever it was, it didn’t belong in the kitchen.
“You’ve all just eaten the crops that grow out here, the crops The Farmer tends. Now, I don’t expect you to believe this right off the bat, I didn’t, but my grandfather knew about it and my grandmother knew about it, too. It’s really incredibly exciting and so I expect some of you are going to feel almost afraid of what I have to say.”
He looks at Tracy and Tracy feels that black yarn thicken a bit. Why did Oliver say the word “afraid” and then looks at her? Can he tell she’s afraid? Is she? But she’s laughing…
“This part of it feels good,” Oliver says, still standing behind his chair, no longer gripping the back of it. “Change feels good. I know that as well as anybody now. But I don’t mean to boast. That’s the not the point of this. The Farmer is quiet about it and maybe I should be, too. The important part is…”
Tracy’s laughter trails to an end and she realizes the others stopped laughing before her. They’re all looking at Oliver, legitimate concern in their eyes.
Are they worried? What just happened? Weren’t they all just laughing?
Tracy feels a little uneasy. A little sick.
“Perspectives,” Oliver says. He’s more than just a little smiling now. He’s flat out revealing. “Points of view. Moods. Worldviews. Feelings.”
Morris and Rodney exchange a look, Rodney with his customary what the fuck and Morris with a scrunched brow. Baum kindly smiles but Karen’s face is stone. Tracy notes this. She notes it all.
What did Oliver just say? What did he really say?
She looks to her plate, to what little remains of her salad.
Poison, she thinks. Oliver poisoned us.
She looks to Ever and sees on his face an expression she doesn’t believe he’s ever worn. He looks less naturally aloof, more focused instead.
“I gave you what I thought each of you could use,” Oliver says.
“Olly,” Rodney says, “what the fuck are you talking about?”
Oliver holds up two empty palms, like clam down, calm down.
“Believe me. It takes some getting used to. In a good way. In a great way. But the crops that grow out here, they aren’t like–”
“Karen?” Baum asks.
Tracy sees Baum and Karen are looking at one another, studying each other’s faces, searching each other’s eyes.
What are they looking for?
When Ever turns to her, she feels a jolt. It’s him, of course. And a lover knows a lover. But what is this look in his eyes? Who is this?
Tracy stands up.
“Oliver, I think you’re scaring us.”
Is he? Is she scared? She doesn’t feel scared. But there’s a far away part of her that believes she should.
“Justifiably so,” Oliver says. “But let me tell you a story. Let me tell you how I was shown what grows out here and what it did for me. Will you guys let me do that first?”
Tracy looks to the window. To the darkness. To the fields.
“Sit down, Tracy?” Oliver asks.
Tracy, feeling a little dizzy, a little a lot, sits down.
“I came out here because I had to,” Oliver says. “You all know that.” No shame here. No embarrassment. Like Oliver Carpenter has been on the self-help talk circuit for decades and his closest friends are just finding this out. “The city got to be too much for me. Lost whatever money I had. Drank some away, bet the rest. I realize some of you didn’t know that part. I know Baum did and I thank you Baum for keeping that to yourself. But yes, some of it was gambling. And there was Donna of course, that was just a mess, Donna who I simply should never have met and who should never have met me. Definitely not the me I was then. Morris once said we were like magnets, her and I, we repelled, but still, magnets, a thing you expect to attract. Whatever it was it was poison, and while I’ve given those days, and that relationship, a lot of thought, that’s not what I want to tell you about right now.” He looks to the French doors. “As you all know, I took a greyhound from New York City to Detroit, a second bus from there to Mt. Pleasant. With the money Rodney lent me,” he nods to Rodney, “I was able to take a cab from Mt. Pleasant to Gibbons. Here.” He fans a hand to those French doors, to the blackness beyond them. “I had no guide, no father, no mother, no grandfather to tell me how to run a farm. My first few days were spent sleeping on the exact couch we were all sitting on just moments ago. An old friend of grandfather’s knocked on the door the third day I was here and asked if I needed any help ‘setting things up.’ In a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, I told him I most definitely did and so he more or less inspected the farmhouse and barn. He told me I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. While the electrical looked good and the roof wouldn’t need to be changed for another five years or so, there was a lot of work to do. I told him I didn’t need the barn. He agreed. So he helped me set up a plan to get the house up and running. He called a local electrician, heating and cooling, all from in and around the area. But while he did all this, we got to talking, and he asked me if I knew what kind of farm this was.” Oliver looks around the way someone does when they’re describing the moment they met the love of their life. Connie yawns. Oliver, not missing a beat, points at her. “You’re all going to need to sleep soon. It’s why I made sure to show you your rooms before dinner. But first, the kind of farm this is. I told Howard I had no idea. In hindsight I must’ve looked like a know-nothing kid, right? Not even caring what grew in the fields behind the farmhouse I’d inherited. But Howard seemed worried about the crops, the fields, and it made me curious so I asked him what was up? Was there something bad back there? Was I going to have to sell the place because there were rancid lots? He didn’t give me much of a response at first. He just opened these very doors behind me and stepped out onto the deck and I understood I was supposed to follow. It was good weather, I remember that. I also remember feeling weird for not having looked the fields over at all for the three days since I’d moved it. Christ, it was like I was getting over drugs without even being on any. But that’s the place I was in. And Howard seemed to understand that. He pointed to the fields and he said, ‘You see that line of willows way out there in the distance?’ I told him I did. ‘That’s the end of your property. We could take a walk out there if you want to.’ I told him that sound okay but I think he could tell I was still only half interested in what he was saying. ‘Listen to me,’ he said, ‘because what I’m about to tell you is very important. If you never touch those fields, if you leave them exactly as they are right now, they won’t grow over, they won’t overgrow, and you’ll never have to worry about them again. If you choose, right now, never to give a shit about what’s buried out behind your farmhouse, you can live here as long as you want and you’ll live a long and happy life. But if you follow him out there–’ I stopped him there. ‘Follow who?’ I asked. ‘Wasn’t I supposed to follow you?’ He shook his head like he’d already said too much. ‘How long do you plan on staying?’ He asked me. And in that moment I believed, fully, that Howard didn’t think I was the type of man who could make the right decisions living on a farm this size and that he had begun the deliberate process of advising me to sell it and leave. Some of you suggested the same. Karen, you brought it up once, said I could sell my inheritance, go to any city I wanted, take root in California, Texas, whatever. I didn’t have to come to the middle of Michigan, didn’t have to go from the unfathomable cacophony of New York City to its opposite, a place like this. I think you referred to that as ‘potentially traumatic,’ Karen. And I got it. And I get it now. Change is traumatic. But not all trauma is bad. Not in the end it’s not.”
Connie mumbles something and lays her head down on the table.
“She’s asleep,” Tracy says, pointing. Her finger feels heavy. Ever sounds tired. Is she tired, too?
“I’ll help everyone to bed in a second,” Oliver says. “I just need to tell you the rest of this first. It’s something I really need to do. You were right, guys, I have been alone out here. Really really alone. The only other person I ever see is the same one who showed me what grows out here and so I can’t tell him the story. So… give me a few more minutes?”
Tracy looks to Ever, sees he’s having trouble keeping his eyes open. She looks to Karen but Karen and Baum are fixed on Oliver.
“The electrician came out. Suddenly I had light. Then heat. And air. And the water was clean. A broken window was fixed. Stains on the kitchen floor removed.”
Tracy looks to her shoes under the table. Sees bare feet next to her.
She looks up to see it’s only Ever.
Under the table, all shoes again.
“Jesus, Oliver…” she says.
“And the whole time the place is getting fixed up, Howard is advising me to sell. He’s saying stuff like, ‘Now nobody can say the window is broken. Now nobody can say the bedrooms aren’t clean.’ And the whole time I’m considering it. Howard thinks I could get close to two hundred for the house, barn, and lot and believe me, it’s not hard imagining depositing an amount like that and taking off for Brazil. Start over again. Forget New York. Forget Donna. And Howard almost has me there, he’s almost got me agreeing to this when I meet The Farmer.”
Tracy looks under the table. Only shoes. Still.
Across the table, Connie is practically snoring. Morris’s eyes are red and the fact that he hasn’t talked in five minutes means he’s about to pass out. It was a long drive, Tracy tells herself. But she knows that’s not what’s happening here.
Ever lays his head on Tracy’s shoulder.
“Honey,” she says. “Stay awake. Please.”
Again, that black yarn rises, a snake waking to the song of its charmer.
Something is wrong.
Rodney is still seemingly as awake as she is, though she is fading a bit herself. He has his forefinger and thumb to his chin like this monologue of Oliver’s tops even his feat at the Fox Box. Thing is: she doesn’t feel like something is wrong. Not really. That’s the funny part, isn’t it? She can easily remember thinking there was something really wrong back when they were playing CUE but that feels like a long time ago now. Isn’t it okay for Oliver to tell them the story of how he settled in? And isn’t it a little overly dramatic to keep repeating something is wrong when you don’t really feel like anything is?
Even if you remember thinking the opposite before?
“I found him upstairs,” Oliver says. “Sitting in the room Morris and Rodney will share tonight. I thought I’d heard something, an animal maybe, life. You ever notice how readily life recognizes life? How you could be hiking a path and just suddenly sense something living is close? Most people describe that as a feeling of being watched. But I don’t think that’s what it is. It’s more like all of you is seeing something else. Life recognizing life. We could see one another in a cold, dark, empty space, without anybody telling us the other was near. That’s how it was for me with The Farmer.”
“Oliver,” Baum says. “I may need to hear the rest of this story tomorrow. I can barely keep my eyes open.”
“Head upstairs, Baum.”
“But wait,” Tracy says. “Didn’t you just say you found the… Farmer up there?”
“He’s not upstairs right now.”
Tracy yawns. Can’t stop it from happening.
Baum gets up. “You coming?” he asks Karen.
But Karen is stoic, staring ahead, and Tracy wonders if maybe she’s not looking at Oliver at all, only facing him.
Baum sits back down.
“I was on the back deck when I felt him,” Oliver says. “First time. Gave me a bit of a chill. That’s how it works, right? Any change, really. Scary at first. But I followed a deeper instinct. I’d started thinking of this place as my house, at least mine to sell, and I wasn’t going to let whatever was upstairs stop me from doing that. I was a little worried about a squatter, truth be told, we all knew people like that in New York. Could someone do that here? I don’t see why not. And so I readied myself. I took my keys from my pocket and put one between each of my fingers, like brass knuckles but meaner.”
Morris nods, eyes closed.
Tracy knows she should get up, they all should. They should leave this place right now. Yet, she just doesn’t want to. The side of her that says leave is smaller than the side that says stay and she thinks,
Oliver is your friend. What are you thinking he did?
“I saw him through the door,” Oliver says, worship in his eyes. “He was sitting in that little green chair next to the bed, the lamp on, showing me most of his face and hat.”
“Hat?” Baum asks.
Tracy remembers seeing an old man in a hat. Was that here? In this house? In this room?
Oliver nods. “Scared the shit out of me. I said, ‘Get out of there, this isn’t your house.’ I thought maybe he was senile. He had that look about him. And he didn’t say a word. Didn’t move to get up. He only sat, his eyes shadowed by the brim of that hat, like he was looking somewhere I couldn’t see. I entered the room and told him again, I said, ‘You gotta go. I don’t know you. This is my house.’ And then he spoke.”
Oliver has the look of someone who believes his audience is in lock step with him. Like Tracy and Ever, Morris and Rodney, Baum and Karen are all excited to meet The Farmer, too.
Or like they’re going to be.
“He told me I couldn’t sell a place this special. Told me I owned the most special farm in the world. Told me he’d been tending the crops for what felt like a thousand years and I needed to see what was growing out there, the potential I had, before I did something stupid like sell it. I listened to him. And I wasn’t scared. His manner, the way he talks, I believed him. And I was right to. He held out a hand for me to help him up from the chair and I did and I saw what looked like a thousand years of work in the effort he used to get up. Saw it in his fingers, too. I asked him if he needed help getting downstairs and he said no and I followed him out the bedroom. The Farmer is an old man. Very old. But he was okay on his own. Took a long time, but we got down to the ground floor and passed through this very kitchen, out onto the deck.”
Morris’s head falls to the table with a soft thud. He is asleep.
Tracy looks to Karen but she’s still staring in that funny way and suddenly Tracy wonders if Karen is looking inward after all. Like this whole time she’s been staring inside herself. Like she has a stranger of her own sitting on a chair in her upstairs bedroom.
“It was on the deck where he told me what grows out here. Not radishes or cabbage, not potatoes or corn. There is no smell to what grows behind this house. The Farmer described for me how he farms, crawling around out there, digging his fingers into the dirt, pulling traits straight out of the earth.”
“Traits?” Rodney asks. “What are you saying?”
Tracy, hazy, is surprised to see Rodney is still awake. Baum and Ever are out.
“That’s the first word he used to describe them.” Oliver says. “He worked his way down the deck steps and I followed. Then out into the fields where his bare feet crunched what sounded like dead grass and dead leaves and I didn’t worry where I was stepping because he didn’t seem to be worrying at all. It was dark but by the moon I saw we were pretty far from the house, pretty fast, and approaching what looked like, and what must have looked to you guys like, the end of my property.”
“Did you say bare feet?” Tracy asks.
Oliver looks to her, entire worlds spinning in his eyes. He’s reached an important part of his story, she can tell. Important to him, yes, but possibly important to her now, too.
“It wasn’t the end of the property is the thing, Tracy. In a way, it was the beginning. Out there where the willows drape over the end of the dead grass and what looks like unfarmable land, there’s a lot of dirt. And in that dirt…”
“Traits,” Rodney says. He might be awake, but he’s leaning far back into his chair.
Karen falls against Baum. She sleeps. Connie is breathing heavy in, heavy out. Tracy looks to Rodney who looks to her. Then they both turn away. As if they’re both ashamed of listening.
“The Farmer couldn’t show me where everything was in one night, of course. That would be like believing you could read every classic book in a day, or get to know every person on the planet. He showed me courage, first. Because he knew. I don’t know where he got the jar from, but he had a jar and he bottled up some courage and handed it to me. I’ve never seen The Farmer’s eyes, not exactly, but I came close then, with the moon hitting him the way it was, and I understood he was telling me to try some.”
“Oliver,” Tracy says.
“So I did. I tried some out there where the real fields begin.”
“Oliver,” Tracy says again. “I think we’re all too sleepy for this story right now. I think–”
“I’ll help you to bed,” he says. “But just one more thing. What I gave you tonight is what I know you need–”
Karen falls face first into her plate. Makes a loud sound as the dish cracks against the table. Tracy makes to get up to help but she’s just too tired.
Rodney points to the pantry.
“Who’s in there?”
Tracy, sensing that black yarn once more, looks.
“In the pantry?” Oliver asks.
Tracy looks to the slats in the door.
Life, she thinks.
“Who the fuck is in there?’ Rodney asks, but his words are heavy. Tired.
Rodney gets up. The movement is so violent to Tracy as to scare her. How can Rodney stand right now?
Turns out he can’t, not entirely. Oliver has to support him.
“Time for bed, I think,” Oliver says. “Come on.”
Things are blurry for Tracy. She closes her eyes. Opens them to see Oliver and Rodney are no longer in the kitchen. She senses someone behind her, makes to turn, closes her eyes again. Opens them, Connie is gone. She hears music coming from the living room. Old music. Country music. She closes her eyes. Opens them. Baum and Karen are gone. Did she just see Oliver leaving the room? She closes her eyes. Opens them. The old man is entering the kitchen by the living room door, his hat shading his eyes, a wrinkled chin below. She closes her eyes. Opens them. Morris is gone. Oliver is helping Ever out of the kitchen. She hears creaking upstairs. Creaking from inside the kitchen somewhere, too. Is Oliver speaking? To Ever? She closes her eyes, opens them. Oliver is standing beside her. A jar in his hands.
“You might need some of this,” he says. “I think you will.”
She sees a label on the jar. Handwritten.
His fingers vanish into the jar, then reappear in her mouth. She tries to say something, to turn away. Then she’s swallowing, and his fingers are nowhere near her face again.
“Come on, Tracy, let me help you.”
“Traits,” Tracy says, just able to see the jar on the table. Just able to see the old man sitting where Connie was sitting before. “Oliver… what’s…”
“You’ll see. Tomorrow.”
“Does your grandfather still live here?”
The words are so heavy.
“No, no,” Oliver says, helping her to a standing. “He’s dead, remember?”
It’s not as difficult to stand as she thinks it should be. In fact, it feels like she’s slipped into a glove. Like she should’ve been standing all along.
“Come on, Tracy…”
Oliver is guiding her into the living room. They pass the picture of one of Oliver’s relatives on the wall. Hard to tell what this guy was thinking at the time. He could be happy. Could be not. It’s starting to make Tracy sick, this picture. Like the man behind the glass is more than one person at once. Not that she’s seeing double, but that this man has had to make room for more.
“You’re going to be okay,” Oliver says.
“Why do you say that?”
They’re walking again, at the foot of the stairs now.
“Because you made a sound like you might throw up.”
“It’s okay. Everyone else is asleep. This is how it works. It feels good when it takes hold, makes you laugh.”
“Then you get tired.”
“Oliver… what did you do to us…”
Up the stairs, almost to the top.
“You’re gonna fall asleep now,” Oliver says. “See Ever there? That’s where we’re going.”
Tracy looks, sees Ever out on the bed.
“Is someone downstairs?” Tracy asks. “In the kitchen?”
“Right in here,” Oliver says. “That’s it. Okay. Lay down. Next to Ever. We’ll talk tomorrow. About a lot of things. You’re going to fall asleep now.”
Oliver becomes a mess of whites and blues and blondes, and the paint on the walls is the paint on all walls, and there’s the possibility of a hat, eyes shaded, peeking over Oliver’s shoulder, all a whirling blur that follows her into the deepest, darkest sleep of her life.
And as Tracy goes there, as all my best friends are now sleeping at Oliver’s farmhouse in Michigan, I’m returning to the hotel in St. Louis, still unsure who I want to be, but knowing I need to make changes, knowing that I’m not in the right place, that this job, this conference, this life, is not me.
As Tracy begins a dreamless, black sleep, I enter the hotel thinking, This isn’t me. This just isn’t me anymore. Not anymore.