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by Richard O'Brien
THE ALBRECHT FARMHOUSE was small; a large kitchen, a cramped living room, four boxlike bedrooms, an outhouse in the back. Bobby slept in the same room with his father now, having given up his bedroom to the two boys. Outside, the house was white and undistinguished, simply walls, roof, windows, and a small side porch. For the first time in its long life, the house’s coat of paint was worn. Garth Albrecht was known to be the best farmer in the county; he did everything with thoroughness and care; his home had reflected that. But as steady as he was, as solid as he was, even he had been caught up in the land boom during the War, buying another 100 acres, on credit, for Rudy, for Bobby. Now times had gone hard, and along with the hard times had come the droughts, and the winds, which lifted the parched topsoil away with them. Doggedly, Garth Albrecht had stuck to his plow, and just as steadily nature had struck impassively at his land, at his produce. Bob Blackner, over to the other side of Bellville, everyone knew he was the laziest farmer around, these days he had less trouble than anyone else. God, it seemed, had suddenly decided to repay the most earnest tillers of the land with the most troubles. Blackner’s soil was holding firm. He had barely got around to tilling it, and so it was barely affected. Those who did their jobs, who worked the soil as it should be worked, toiled only to see it blow away. All his life Garth Albrecht had been a religious man, a man who believed everything his church had taught him. He had not changed, not really, not on the surface, not even below that. Except somewhere, down deep, so deep that even he was unaware of it, there was an uneasiness he had never felt before, an erosion of faith as steady, as insidious, as the subtle havoc that was slowly being wreaked upon his land.
When the bank failed, it hadn’t hurt him much. Most of his wealth was in his farm, in the land, in the machinery. But his debt remained, and these days he was barely able to keep up the payments, not certain what February or March would bring, when the last of his money would be gone, and there would be nothing left to sell, except the very things he needed to keep the farm going into the spring and summer, when, if everything went well, if the rains came, and the soil hadn’t all been blown away, they could set things to rights, to the way things should be.
And so the house had gone unpainted. One year, two years, three years beyond its time. Not that anyone noticed. Most homes in the county looked at least as neglected. Who had money anymore, except the bankers and the lawyers? Not the banks, but the bankers, who’d often, during the moneyed years, sacked their own businesses, as reports in the daily newspapers were beginning to make clear.
Garth Albrecht, standing in the yard, contemplating all of this, looked up as the sound of the truck drifted toward him. Peavy Johansen’s truck. That would be Peavy and his three sons, and probably the Hoffmans. Albrecht turned toward the house. “Rudy! Bobby! Peavy’s here!”
Upstairs, in the small, sparely furnished room, Rudy Albrecht turned to Jean. “I’m sorry,” he said, buttoning the final button on his shirt.
“It’s all right,” she told him, soft sorrow in her eyes as she spoke, sorrow for him. “I thought maybe in the afternoon—a change—”
“It’s all right.”
“I do love you.” The sadness was there; always it was there, only deeper now.
Jean smiled up at him, quietly, healingly. “That’s all that matters.”
He took her hand briefly as he left, not looking at her, not even when he went out through the door.
He had thought it would be all right when she’d told him about it. Hell, more than all right. That’s what life was anyway, all of life; broken dreams, smashed ideals. At first it had even seemed to excite him, his jealousy goading him, inflaming him. And then slowly, the fire had diminished, and something else had stolen in. Disgust? Fear? Disgust at what she’d been, what she’d done? Or fear that he didn’t measure up? That the one before him—or was it the ones before him—he didn’t know about that, was afraid to ask—that the one before him was more man than he was, more man than he could ever be? He didn’t know, wondered if it were both, both disgust and fear, was afraid it was only the last, wished it were just the first, which only made him hate himself the more. He breathed freer when he reached the yard. He’d have other things on his mind soon.
His father was talking to Johansen. “What about the rest?”
“Far as I know, we’ve got ’em all. Should be more than fifty of us, all together, come the time.”
“That’ll be enough,” Garth Albrecht said, grimly. “Let’s go, Rudy, Bobby. Bob. We’ll follow behind you, Peavy.”
April Albrecht watched them drive away, the two truckloads of huge, bulkily dressed men, jouncing as the mud-caked, rusting trucks lumbered heavily along. Two months before, when Rudy and Jean and the two boys had arrived, there would have been more. Adley Carter and his five sons-in-law would have added to the caravan, along with the Muellers, all four of them.
But they were gone now. April squinted into the wind, then turned, as the dust pricked at her eyes. The banks had taken them over. Ten families in the county gone now, in the past two years, farm families, that is. Ten times that amount had emptied from the towns, probably, judging by the blank-faced shops, the boarded-up houses.
Shame oozed into her, and she sighed, tried to change the direction of her thoughts. But still. California. They’d all headed West, all the refugees, all the ones she knew of, all headed to a land where the sun never stopped shining; where the skies were always blue, the air unendingly warm, the constant, unchanging wind of Nebraska replaced by gentle breezes; zephyrs, or dancing warm currents swept in by the ocean, the Pacific. An ocean! How magical that must be; an ocean, vast, unplumbed, mysterious, sapphire blue in the sunlight. She glanced disdainfully at the shallow river just beyond the forlorn cottonwoods; the Platte. A name as ungraceful as the river itself.
If only something would happen to us. If only we could lose the farm and—she stopped herself for good. To lose his farm would kill her father, she knew. It was all he had left now, it and Bobby. She and Rudy were too much unlike him, and his wife was gone. She couldn’t take his farm away from him, even in dreams.
To distract herself, she stared at the soil that had become dust, stared at it streaming through the air, dancing, eddying, alighting, and when alighting, curving gracefully, magically transforming the unvariegated flatness of the prairie with its drifts and undulations. If there could just be more beauty here. Only in late spring and summer was there some; the corn waving sea-like in the fields, the trees and grapevines a bold green against the brilliantly blue sky, the wild sunflowers springing forth triumphantly, undauntedly, along the sides of the dirt road that led to town.
She had a date tonight. Once every week she had a date with Stephen Rourke. Until four months ago, it had been twice a week, but then her father had put his foot down; twice a week with one man was too much. She was too young for that; not unless Stephen Rourke had serious intentions.
His intentions were serious, all right. After almost every date for nearly a year now, she had had to fight him off at the end of the evening. Perhaps if she hadn’t grown up on a farm his attentions would have seemed romantic; but she had seen too many bulls, too many stallions, crazed by their desires, to view his yearnings as anything more than a physicality that merely had to be satisfied, with little heed paid to what sated it.
She wandered into the farmhouse, free for an hour before she and Jean had to start dinner. The dust had filtered through the closed-tight windows, had blown in under the door, so that it rippled over every flat surface in the kitchen. She stopped, eyed the graceful patterns, the curving shadows with their hints of mystery, enjoyed them, then sighed, seized a broom, and began to clean it all up.
Of course, she was an animal herself, she reflected, as she worked the broom across the floor, all humans were animals in that way she supposed. And in Hollywood—she knew how actresses, most of them, were supposed to get their jobs. Perhaps it would be better to get it out of the way here, with Stephen, with someone she knew, so that when she got to Hollywood—
She sighed, and stood motionless for a moment, before emptying the dustpan. If she got to Hollywood. The possibility seemed more and more remote now. She’d been out of high school for seven months, and hadn’t a dollar to show for it. There were simply no jobs, and if there had been, she’d undoubtedly have felt compelled to contribute whatever she made to the family. Things had been lean before Rudy and his family had arrived. They were even leaner now. She remembered the look on her father’s face when he’d found Rudy was returning. Relief, a kind of tired joy, and then uncertainty. Uncertainty as to how the farm could support them all, when it could barely manage the needs of just himself and Bobby and April.
Still. There had to be a way. There must be a way. She would find it. She put down the broom and turned to the stairway. Maybe this time Jean would be willing to talk. She climbed the stairs and knocked at the rough-hewn door.
“Oh. April. Come in.” Jean was standing at the window when April entered, staring down into the yard, at Rudy’s two sons. When she turned to her sister-in-law, her expression wore a quiet distress.
“They seem so lost here, the two of them.”
April walked to the window. Alex was standing in the yard, as he often did, not moving, his younger brother looking up at him. “They’re not used to it yet.”
Jean smiled sadly. “I never did get used to it.”
April looked at her. It was rare for Jean to speak this way, to open up at all. “Not even now?”
Jean’s lids fluttered, and she seemed to collect herself. “It’s different now. I’m married.”
April nodded, and wondered. She was married, a newlywed still, and yet so little affection seemed to pass openly between her and her husband. Of course, they were old, in their thirties, but still . . . “I’m going to take Alex and Frederick to the movies, soon as I get me some money,” she said, changing the subject.
“That would be nice,” Jean smiled. “They’d like that.”
April plunked herself down on the bed, her body falling naturally into graceful repose. “Tell me about Hollywood, Jean. Tell me about the movies.”
Jean looked down at her sister-in-law. Ordinarily she shied away from the subject. The memories were too harsh, too painful, still etched as sharply as if they had happened just hours before. But today was different; the greyness outside, the never-ending wind constantly whipping up the dust that choked one’s lungs, clung to one’s dresses, coated one’s shoes . . . Two months of this, and then Rudy today . . . one more failure. His failure, of course, but the weight of it was as much on her shoulders as his. Hollywood . . . how lovely it had been—some of the time.
“You’re still a dreamer, aren’t you?” she smiled at the beautiful young woman before her.
April made a face. “Not. I’m not a dreamer. Dreams aren’t real. Hollywood is real. Acting is real. Movies are real.”
“But you dream about them.”
April blushed, “Plan. Not dream,” she protested, knowing at least part of it was a lie, fearing all of it was. Don’t let it be just a dream, please. Please don’t let it be.
Jean’s smile resembled the same smile she’d worn just before Rudy had left her, minutes before—gentle, worn, caring, an aura of sadness ringing it. “Planning means taking action, too, April. You still want to be an actress—and yet you’ve never done anything about lessons.”
April colored again. “I was going to. But then money—” She stopped, confused.
Jean felt a stab of contrition. “I’m sorry,” she said, quickly. “I’d forgotten. Times have changed.” She forced a smile. “But then, look at me. I had lessons, and where did it get me?”
“To Hollywood,” April responded just as quickly. “Two movies. Starring roles in both of them!” Her eyes glowed, and Jean could see she meant every word.
“I felt that way once,” Jean nodded. “ But now that I’ve done it—”
“Tell me the good parts,” April interrupted. “Some other time you can tell me all that was wrong about it, but today—just the good parts, okay?”
Jean looked at her, studied her blonde beauty, the clear grey eyes, the sensual nose, the full lips, the cheekbones curving upward, hollowing her cheeks, the strong chin, thrusting forward, the young, slender, ripe body, the long curving legs . . . no wonder she dreamed. “Okay,” she smiled, and for a moment the care was gone, “just the good parts.”
~ ~ ~
Most of the others were already there when the two-truck caravan pulled up. Close to fifty already, Garth Albrecht judged, as he laboriously descended from the Ford, joined a moment later by his two sons. To the side he could see Karl Schneider standing, looking at him, hesitantly, a flicker of hope barely daring to show itself on his weathered countenance. Garth nodded briefly at him, unwilling to grant Schneider anything until it had been realized in hard, cold, fact.
There was a rumble, and Albrecht turned.
“That’ll be Knudsen and Anderson and the Irishman. That’s all of us,” somebody said. Albrecht nodded, and jerked his head toward the barn. “Let’s get to it, then.” There were maybe ten or fifteen men in the barn, a few of them townspeople, some of them strangers, out-of-towners, a banker, was what that one looked like, dressed the way he was, and the auctioneer. Albrecht and the other farmers pushed in through the door, into and around the tiny crowd, surrounding them, infiltrating them, staring at them, hard.
“We’re here to buy our friend Karl Schneider’s farm,” Garth Albrecht told the auctioneer, his words, slow, deliberate, edged with ice.
“It’s scheduled for two. It’s not yet two . . . lacks five minutes,” the auctioneer answered, nervously. He knew what it was. No doubt of it. He swallowed, his throat gone tight. This was the fourth time this year this had happened to him.
“Close enough,” Albrecht replied, staring him down. “You got enough of a crowd.” His iron eye fixed on the stranger next to him. “More than enough.”
The outsiders understood, most of them, and began edging away. There was trouble enough in the land, no need courting any more of it.
The auctioneer looked at the well-dressed man, cleared his throat, and said, trying, and failing, to control the quaver in his voice, “Shall I begin, Mr. Endicott?”
Albrecht had been right. The man was a banker. The banker who held the Schneider mortgage. He and the rest of the farmers directed their attention to him, awaiting his reply.
“That would seem to be the course presently indicated,” Endicott said, and if Albrecht had been in the mood to grant anything, he’d have granted that the man was cool enough. But already his eyes were back on the auctioneer.
“All right, then,” and the auctioneer, normally a man of spirit, but his tones and spirits were deflated now, raised one arm. “Let’s start with the thresher. Guess there’s no need to describe it,” he tried, feebly, to manage a smile, “Seems like all you men must be familiar with it.”
Albrecht nodded, and the small, stocky man proceeded, tugging a little at the neck of his collar as he did so. “All right, gentlemen, let the bidding begin.”
“Five cents,” Albrecht said.
“Five cents!” It was one of the outsiders, his voice exploding in laughter, vibrating with disbelief. He was one of the few who hadn’t yet caught on.
“I hear five cents,” the auctioneer husked. “Going, going—”
“Twenty dollars!” the outsider called. “Hell, if we’re going to get crazy, I can do that, too. I’ll be happy to take it at fifteen per cent of its value!” It was only with the last of his words that his head lowered, and he saw the farmers, now close-packed about him, pressing in, their scrutiny unwavering.
The auctioneer gulped hard, then, “Did I hear twenty dollars?”
One of the farmers, the one face to face with the outsider, burned a final stare into his man, then turned. “No!” he shouted. “That was a mistake.” He swung back to the intruder, who had begun to perspire, the sweat running freely over his forehead despite the cold of the barn. “Isn’t that right, friend?”
The man nodded, his head jerking rapidly up and down, as he simultaneously backed his way to the gaping hole that was the barn’s entrance.
“Um. Well.” The auctioneer glanced miserably at the banker, then, in a drained voice, resumed. “Five cents for the thresher. Five cents. Do I hear more?”
The quiet was complete, like the stillness just before the cyclone of 1928. Fifty pairs of eyes drilled into the unfortunate man up on the impromptu, rough-hewn stage.
“Going, going, gone! Sold to that man for five cents!”
Garth Albrecht nodded, and slowly, carefully, recorded the sum with a stub of a pencil on a scrap of paper.
“I’ve got a hog,” the auctioneer began.
“Two cents,” a voice called out.
For a moment, the auctioneer’s profession-trained instincts almost got the best of him. “Two cents! Oh, come on, now, gentlemen—”
“Two cents,” the voice repeated, and this time there was steel to its edge.
A pause, and then, “Two cents—do I hear—” the unfortunate stopped himself before shouting “three,” before shouting so embarrassingly low a number. “Is there another bid?”
Again the silence, and again the auctioneer turned to the banker, appeal in his eyes, but the well-dressed man stared stonily into the distance. He knew when to retreat.
“Two cents then. Going . . . going . . . gone!”
Albrecht nodded, and once more pressed pencil to paper, his huge hand looking absurdly out of place in so intricate a motion.
“I’ve got two cows next,” the auctioneer began.
“Why not auction off all the livestock at once?” a voice bawled, and it was not a question.
Again a look at the banker, again left alone, deserted, marooned, the auctioneer nodded, humbly. “The Schneider livestock, up for bid as one entire lot. Let the bidding begin.”
“Three dollar!” It was the same rough voice again.
“Three dollars.” There was no fight left in the auctioneer, no last vestige of exhortation. “Three dollars is the bid. Going, going, gone!” Albrecht’s pencil flicked again.
“We’re kind of busy, Lem,” a man called out, a man who knew the auctioneer. “Might as well put up the whole rest of it—land, house, barn, household goods, feed, whatever’s left over.”
Lem stared out into the crowd, till he found his man. “Yes. Oh yes, Jesse. Busy. Save time.” He collected himself, tried to come up with some semblance of his professional being for this final attempt, “The entirety of the Schneider estate, land, house, barn, outbuildings, personal property and everything else that hasn’t already been auctioned off—What am I bid, gentlemen? Shall we start with a thousand dollars?”
He saw his mistake at once. The faces were ungiving as they stared at him. Even the banker turned away in disgust at the gaffe.
A little giggle escaped before he could suppress it, and he did his best to mask it as a hiccough, “H—hm, well then, let us dispense with the minimum bid! Do I hear an offer?”
The banker sighed, drew himself together, and made his way out through the crowd, the farmers impassively giving way before him.
“Eight,” the auctioneer said again, the crowd forgotten, his eyes on the receding back of the man who’d hired him. “Eight dollars. Do I—Going, going . . . ”
He paused, his glance an entreaty. This was his job. He had to make good at it, or he’d be like the rest of them out there, out there in the rest of the country, the ones with no work at all. Four times. Four times this year. Four times the farmers had come in and crowded out the outsiders, saved one of their own, at four of his auctions. He was likely to get a reputation. An albatross, bad luck for anyone who employed him. He was barely making out as it was . . . even the loss of one auction, two auctions . . . And still their eyes returned his plea with coldness, indifference. Well then, get on with it. No need to antagonize them. Just do it, get it over with, and hope there’d be no more like these . . .
Albrecht’s pencil made one final entry, then he and the other bidders moved forward to settle up. The auctioneer—even his assistant had long since deserted him—took the money, not bothering to glance at it, much less count it, just stuffed it into his pocket and stumbled off to the woebegone Model T that awaited him in the yard. He dreaded the drive back to the bank.
Outside, the farmers crowded around Schneider, “Here’s what you owe us,” Garth Albrecht said, handing him the leaf of paper. “Pay us when you can.”
The farmer, he was thirty-eight at most, but in the last weeks he had aged to someone nearer fifty, sobbed openly, unashamedly. “I’ll never forget this,” he cried, “Never!”
“Nothin’ you wouldn’t have done for us,” Albrecht mumbled, uncomfortable, and with the rest of them, turned to go.
“Please! Stay for a while! The missus has made biscuits, and there’s plenty of milk—”
“No thanks, Karl,” Albrecht said, forcing the image of food, of something extra, out of his mind. “We’ve got chores,” and trudged away to the truck, never looking back at the weeping Schneider, now with his arms clasped around his tear-strewn wife, and their three young children, ragged in their overalls, bewildered by all that had gone on.
Fifteen minutes later, Endicott, the banker, was making a phone call.
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