ABOUT THE OLD MAN
By Skyler Nielsen
After months of begging Dad let up, and the day couldn’t have gone better. He said if I worked hard, I could come back tomorrow. I did OK. Swept the whole cold storage, even though my fingers went numb in five minutes. But I finished, and didn’t complain once. Then, when the fruit came out of the field, packing started, and I got the empty boxes ready for the line. I was in charge of something, and I didn’t screw up once.
Dad took me to Taco Corral for lunch, and bought me a cheeseburger with crinkle fries. I can’t tell mom about the orange freeze because they’re not good for me, but maybe I’ll get another one tomorrow. At the end of the day, I labeled all the full boxes for shipping. Dad said I got too messy, but I’ll do better tomorrow.
Now we get to drive home. My arm’s hanging out the window, and Dad’s playing the radio loud. All he has to do is tell a story. That’s what farmers like to do at the end of the day; they lean on their trucks, and tell stories. We have to get home because mom’s throwing a party for Amy’s birthday, so we didn’t get to hang with the rest of the crew. That’s fine, as long as he tells a story while we drive.
“Com’on Dad, a quick story before we get home.”
“Why don’t you tell me a story instead?”
“I don’t have any good ones.”
“Tell me about your last day at school.”
“We didn’t do anything. It was a short day and they didn’t even give us lunch. All we got was a treat and some milk. In the morning we had to clean out our desks. That took a long time.”
“Doesn’t sound like you were very organized.”
“This is why I don’t like telling you stories.”
“I’m sorry, go ahead.”
“I don’t interrupt you.”
“You’re right. What did you do after emptying your desk?”
“Turned in our books. When she called your name you had to take your books to the front, and she looked through them and wrote down if you messed anything up. I was worried because I spilled soda on my science book, but she didn’t say anything. Then she gave us our report cards. Before we left, Mrs. Chavez gave everyone a hug, even the boys.”
“She’s a good teacher.”
“See, that was a story.”
“Now tell me one, Dad. ”
I think it’s the only time it’s OK for Dad to smoke. I didn’t like it most of the time, but when he tells stories it’s different. At home he can’t smoke because mom gets mad, so it’s not the same when he tells stories there. If he quit, but smoked whenever he told stories, it’d be perfect.
“Did I ever tell about the time I went to the grand bazaar in Tehran?”
“What’s a bazaar?”
“It’s a fancy word for an outdoor market. Vincent and I had ridden buses since leaving Kabul, staying in a few small villages along the way. The people would let us sleep in their homes for thirty cents, but most of the time we were stuck on that damn bus. The first thing we did when we got to Tehran was rent a room, and buy some drinks.
“Somewhere in western Afghanistan we hooked up with this barrel-chested German named Niklas.
Every year he took a six-week vacation from his job in West Berlin and traveled the Middle East. Niklas was a lunatic, but when you come across a Westerner in the Orient, you’re honor bound to stick together.
“Before parting ways in Tehran, we asked Niklas to show us the Grand Bazaar. It was famous throughout the Middle East, but places like that can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Niklas spoke perfect Farsi and understood the customs, though he had an irrational hatred of Persians. He really liked Afghans, but not Persians.
“What sort of things did they sell, Dad?”
“Imagine it, and it was there. One row sold grocery items: meats, breads, and every type of produce imaginable, followed by a row that sold fabric and rugs. The rugs were incredible, and to this day I regret not buying one. Works of art on the cheap, but I didn’t want to deal with mailing anything back. At the time I followed the strict philosophy of living in the moment, but I learned something that day boy, and I want you to remember this.”
“It’s not about living in the past, present or future. You have to consider them all at once. The trick is understanding when to live in which. Point being, I should have taken an extra day and sent back a rug.
“By noon we’d been walking for hours, and decided to eat. We headed back the way we came, toward the side of the market where the food venders set up.
“I walked behind Vincent, not paying attention as usual. Next thing I knew, Niklas grabbed this Persian by the scruff of the neck, and slammed him into a booth selling precious stones. He was yelling at the man in Farsi, and the Persian shrieked back. Ruby’s and diamonds glittered as they flew through the air, and it was beautiful, except for the violence. Niklas started shaking the poor man viciously, and I expected the Persians head pop off, and roll into a gutter.
“While the crowd formed, Vincent and I tried to gage what would happen next. We stood at the Bazaars center, and if we ran we’d need to push through a mile of crowd to get free.
“Had Niklas taken it further things might’ve turned. Finally the Persian said something, and the German let go. He turned towards us, who probably looked ridicules standing there, wide-eyed and unsure. Then he said in his thick German accent, ‘Let’s move along now.’”
“Why did Niklas do that, Dad?”
“I never really found out, Boy. Once we got a safe distance from the mob I asked Niklas what it was all about. He answered, ‘that damn Persian said something rude to you, and I’m not going to stand for that.’”
Dad has the best laugh in the world, and it’s funny the way he laughs hard at things that nobody else does. I usually don’t get what’s so funny, but I go along anyway. It’s the way he bounces. That’s what makes it good.
Infuriating. Absolutely infuriating. I remember reaching the last game of the season. One win to sweep league. We could have been the first undefeated team in fifteen years. Man, to have one of those championship patches reading 10-0 on my letterman jacket; that would have been killer. When we lost by three points, I told Dad how it sucked. He just laughed in that condescending way of his.
“You still get a championship patch, and are heading to the playoffs. That’s all anyone’s going to remember.”
He didn’t get it then, so I shouldn’t be surprised now. I guess I figured he’d see the stakes are higher since we’re talking about the rest of my damn life.
“Are you going to sulk through dinner, Boy?”
I hate the new dining room, but Mom wants it this way, and Dad’s backing the change. She hated her childhood, and by randomly changing stuff, even the nice stuff, she feels she’s getting away. I could never say it; Dad doesn’t like it when anyone complains about Mom.
Still, I don’t get junking the big table. It was awesome, like those seen in the ancient mansions of Europe. She replaced it with this stupid round thing with a glass top that’ll always be doted with fingerprints. Then she’ll move the tacky, glass circle from one side of the room to the other, then to another part of the house altogether. She’ll eventually get bored, and replace it with something else that still won’t be as good as the old table.
The chairs are uncomfortable, but they match the glass table, plus she’s replaced all the old prints of impressionist art with horror movie posters. The one from the old Bella Legosi Dracula is cool. I complained about the rest before Dad told me to back off, and let Mom do what makes her happy. She’s working late because of tax season, and I’m trapped in the dining room with the Old Man.
“Com’on, let’s have a laugh or something.”
“Stop making fun of me, Dad.”
“I’m not making fun of you. But you’re acting like this is the end of the world. Believe me, it’s not.”
“I needed that class. It was key.”
“You have to make the best of it, because there are going to be worse roadblocks than this thrown your way.”
“Thanks for the advice, but this has nothing to do with random hardships of life. This is about Dale Trousdale’s mother going to the school board, fighting to get her son into that class, and getting me thrown out.”
“You think that’s fighting for her son.”
“That’s exactly what I think.”
“She cried and harassed everyone she knew would listen, that way she wouldn’t have to fight, and neither would her son. Fighting would have been to take that boy aside, tell him to work harder, but he could still get to the same place, and he’d be a better man for it.”
What a load of bull! Every time something bad happens, that’s what he says, that it’ll make me a better man. Welcome to the modern era Dad. What matters is that class, and getting ahead, not being a better man.
“Just go down to the school, Dad.”
“And do what?”
“Do what Mrs. Trousdale did.”
“So you won’t have to work hard to get where you want. So you won’t have to struggle a little. So you can go down the checklist, and have it easy like everyone else, while some other kid gets kicked out to make room for you, and it goes on and on that way until they arrive at a student who’s parents don’t have the pull to do the same, and that kid gets screwed. I’m not going to do that. You have to keep battling, keep working, because that’s the only thing you can rely on when the unfair things start stacking up.”
“So you’re not going to help me!”
“Did I every tell you the story about the night I won the MVP of my baseball team my senior year of high school?”
“I don’t care.”
All that time traveling the world, collecting wisdom from ancient civilizations, and what’s he do but use it to circle around things; to avoid facing anything. He never liked confrontation, that’s all it means in the end.
Sure Dad can be maddening, but I miss him. Four years down south learning high finance, but as days ticked off toward my final exam, all I could think about was spending time with the Old Man. That’s why I’m walking the long, dirt road that cuts the farm down the middle, leading from the front porch to the packing shed at the far end of the land.
It’s fitting that our first, true conversation in four years will be held under the bin dumper. It breaks down every few months, but he’ll abandon all his dreams before replacing it. He takes a liking to something, and all of a sudden it’s transmuted into something sacred.
“I think when it’s over we’re going to bury you under this thing, Dad.”
“Hey, there’s my Boy.”
“Need help, Old Man?”
He’ll give anything a chance unless it’s in his best interest. Even a proper pair of work boots would help that knee, but he prefers the cheapest shoes he can find. He’ll spend the rest of his days pulling himself up with a grimace of pain followed by a pop.
“Just hang around, I might need a second pair of hands.”
I can still hear him all those years ago, ‘You work all day Boy, and when you’re done, you do one more.’ So down he goes, suffering another pop, and back to the cool concrete of the packing shed.
“So how’s the job search going Boy?”
“I got an interview with an investment firm in San Jose next week.”
“It’s only entry level, but it’s a first step.”
“Well I hope it works out. I want to spend the rest of my life starting sentences with, ‘My Son, the investment banker…’”
“You got water running?”
“Yeah, on the south end. You want to take a drive, and check it after I’m done here?”
“Why don’t you start putting some of this stuff away. Then we’ll go move the water before heading home.”
I used to know the home of every tool, but four years of having my hands held at the University, and I’ve lost those instincts. At school, everything had its place, clearly labeled, and never far away was someone to help. This is the world, and you either know, or you don’t. I’ve learned many interesting things, but I was probably more useful to the Old Man four years ago.
“Looks like we got it all, Dad.”
“Let’s go check that water.”
“Alright. Oh what’s this now.”
Of all the superstitions that torment the farmer, none is more terrifying than a mysterious vehicle arriving late in the afternoon. They never come with anything worth knowing, only bad news, or because they want something.
“Who’s that, Dad?”
“When did he start driving a Range Rover?”
“My guess would be a week ago.”
Owning a gas station, and a quick-stop mini-mart makes him a successful man around town, but that car still has to cost fifty grand.
“Hello Joseph. It’s been too long,” George says with his customary summer sniffle.
“George. You remember my Son.”
“Of course. You visiting from your studies.”
“I just graduated.”
“Congratulations young man. What did you end up majoring in?”
“Economics and Finance.”
“Going to be a businessman are you.”
“We’ll see.” I look at Dad, methodically wiping grease from his hands.
“What can we do for you, George?”
“I was driving around with Elmore here. Have you ever met Elmore? He sits on the Fresno City Council. I’m sure I’ve mentioned him.”
It’s strange for Dad not to look into someone’s eyes when he meets them. Dad’s not like me, there’s nothing that brings joy to the Old Man quicker than meeting someone new.
“You know Elmore, these people are probably the best farmers in the Central Valley.”
“I got water running George, so if you need something, ask. Otherwise, maybe you and your friend could visit another time.”
“Oh, well I only wanted to bring Elmore to meet you, and was hoping to take you for a ride. Have you ever come across a vehicle so nice?”
“That’s a beautiful machine, George.”
“Well, it’s terrible I know, but I couldn’t help myself. Actually, I haven’t seen you since I closed the deal. Did you hear about it?”
“Everyone around town heard about it.”
“I told you to come in with me Joseph. You could have cleaned up.”
Dad tosses his wrench to the ground. Not in a violent way, but I’ve watched him work my whole life, and he never tosses tools. Not ever. He limps forward until he’s right in front of George Allard, before removing his sunglasses.
“I don’t like the way you handled that George.”
“What are talking about?”
“You’ve been bad mouthing Adelberto and his family all over town. Now, I’m only a dirt farmer, and I don’t know how much influence that had in driving him under, or pushing down the price so you could buy him out for nothing. Either way, it was wrong. What was sick about the whole thing is that I know the real reason you did it, and it had nothing to do with business.”
“Oh, and what’s the real reason?”
“You hate Adelberto. You’ve hated him since we were in school together, and that’s why you pushed him out. That whole business deal was personal, and I didn’t like it.”
George protests and I try to follow, but Elmore pulls me aside. The Councilman begins asking questions, trying to strike up conversation. All the while dragging me farther from George and Dad, the way students did when witnessing their favorite professor being unfairly challenged.
I don’t know what it’s all about, but Dad wants none of it. He’d prefer to keep working, ending the day driving his land, checking water, and catching up with his son. Above all else, Dad’s a simple man.
This is the great trap; happening right in front of me. Men like Dad function according to an uncomplicated set of standards, and I’ve always done the opposite, envisioning the path to truth as a complex, winding one.
Dad stands silently, his head down. Not upset or beaten; just tired. George can run through all that data. He’ll quote the rules of business, and give mathematical proof of why his actions were no less moral than purchasing something at a department store. He can get his friend, a respected local politician to talk about the big picture, and they’ll finish by regurgitating socially accepted adages.
Dad can’t hide behind such things, even if he’d like to. For him, there’s right and wrong, and even if the distinction is rarely clear, it’s the only one that matters.
About the Author:
Skyler Nielsen grew up on a family farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley. After graduating with a degree in History in 2002 his family lost the family farm and he began writing to fill the glut of free time he suddenly had, and didn’t know how to cope with. His work has appeared in Crack the Spine, The Literary Nest and an upcoming issue of Main Street Rag.