This time, because it's February, the assignment was to write a love story. I don't do well with love stories. Can't really make mush work for me. So, I wrote this. It may be just a little shy of a real love story, but there's a girl and there's a boy and there's a decision. Maybe it will do.
by Beth Muse
He almost passed her by. Hitch hikers were discouraged around here, especially those sporting worn leather jackets and long braids. A young boy, that's what he'd thought. And he'd almost driven on. But in the end, it was the hips that made him change his mind.
She was walking away from what appeared to be a broken down motorcycle, a Honda with bright yellow trim. Her legs made long strides like a man, but her hips swayed in a rhythm that was unmistakable.
He pulled the truck over to the side of the road and she took several running steps to catch up. She poked her head in the passenger's side window.
"Broke down," she said. And that was all.
"Yeah," he agreed. "Hop in."
"I, uh." She glanced back at her bike. "I really hate to leave it here."
He put the truck in park and together they wrestled the sleek little bike into the bed of his sky blue 1972 Ford pickup, a farm vehicle with plenty of miles and dirt on it. Still ran like a charm. He always felt like a character in a country music video when he drove it.
"Just me and my Daddy and that old truck..." Lyrics like that.
She climbed in and stuck her feet fearlessly into the pile of trash that had accumulated on the floor board. Her presence made him self conscious and he flipped frantically through his brain for something to say that would put them both at ease.
He came up with nothing. Women made him nervous and overly polite, which made him all the more self conscious and fed his natural awkwardness.
The girl told him her name and wiped her hands on her jeans, stuck out the right one. He shook it and told her his.
"I can't thank you enough for the ride. Is there a mechanic in town who can work on a bike?"
Not that he knew of, but it didn't matter. He knew exactly where to take her. "More or less," he said, then changed the subject. "Where you have to get to?"
"I'm making my way to Phoenix," she said.
"Aren't you a little off course?"
"I'll find my way."
He gave her a dubious glance. Recklessness had never been a thing he admired.
"Do you live near here?" She gazed at the wads of paper at her feet and picked up an old newspaper. "The Copperfield Gazette?"
"Copperfield's the next town over," he explained. "I live between Copperfield and Jonesboro. That's the only paper, though."
"You live on one of the farms?"
She looked ahead at the straight road, the endless flat fields of milo and soy beans. How long she'd been traveling down this road, he didn't know, but the scenery had likely been exactly this bland for hours. The occasional silo or barn broke the horizon. Nothing else but endless sky and field after field. Sometimes he dreamed of driving the old truck until the flat lands buckled into forests, hills or mountains.
The long driveway that led to his family's farm house appeared on the right and he turned in. She jerked a quick glance at him and stiffened a little. "We're not going into town?"
"Not if you want that bike fixed," he said. "My Dad can fix pretty much anything. Farm equipment, cars, motorcycles. Anything."
He could see her relax in the seat beside him. Trusting.
The drive way curled around and the house came into view. It was a white clapboard farmhouse with a long porch across the front, symmetrical windows on either side of the front door. If you took a picture of it and then compared it to every other farm house in the area, you'd lose track of which was which. Only the people who lived out here would know the difference. Simple, unadorned, practical. That was their way of life. He took pride in the fact that he had chosen to hold onto it, champion the small farmer, reject corporate farming, conserve the traditions of his parents and their parents and so on. Let his younger sister and brother find their way in corporate America, struggling with the isolation of city life. He had responsibilities they couldn't understand.
He gripped the wheel of the truck, felt his neck tense and rubbed the back of it with his left hand as he put the truck in park.
"Home, sweet home," he said and tried to smile.
She unbuckled herself and jumped out of the truck like a cat. Together, they unloaded the bike and rolled it around to the back yard where several old cars, a tractor, and a partial engine decorated the shade of an oak. 'Yard ornaments' he called them. Everybody around here knew how to fix an engine. Everybody but him. It was the one thing he'd refused to learn about farming. I'm not mechanical, he'd told his father. Then how you plan to keep the farm going? his father had retorted. Every time something breaks down, you'll have to have help.
Having to get help said something about your manhood, he supposed. All he knew was that he hated mechanical work, and in this way alone he rebelled.
No one came out of the house to meet them and his father was likely still in the fields.
"We'll have to leave it here until my Dad gets back," he said. "I'm afraid I'm no good with this kind of thing."
She nodded and gave a grunt of agreement. "Me neither. Guess I should have learned a little something about them before I bought one. I needed wheels and I needed something it wouldn't cost a lot to drive."
"You want to come in?" he asked. He held up his hand toward the back of the house and a simple door with cinder block steps leading up to it. No porch, no railing. She started toward it without further conversation. He had to reach around her to push the door open.
In comparison to the bright sunlight outside, the room was dark, light filtering weakly through venetian blinds. She stood by the dinner table and looked around, letting her eyes adjust.
The entire scene was very simple. Red checked oil cloth on the table, white chairs with chipped paint tucked neatly under, a bouquet of artificial daisies as a center piece. They'd been there since he was a kid. A rag rug spun in spiraling circles centered the living room floor with faded blue couch and chairs surrounding it. A floor lamp, a recliner, a coffee table. That's it. All very neat and clean, though showing it's age. The kind of stuff you'd expect to see in a farmhouse. He felt like a cliche.
He stepped around her. "So, would you like some tea or something? A soda maybe?"
"Sure." She ran a finger along the oil cloth as she walked slowly toward one of the blue chairs. "You mind if I sit? When you've been riding all day, you just want to be still for a while."
"Be my guest," he said and backed through the kitchen door.
Now in the quiet of the kitchen, he wasn't quite certain what he was doing. Who, exactly, was this girl? He hadn't even taken a good look at her yet. She might be some sixteen year old run away and he was offering to fix her bike so she could continue on her merry way. Or she might be much older than that. Was this some con she pulled? Was she casing the house so she could come back later and... .
What an idiot, he thought. Her bike broke down, she needed a little help, that's it. Hell, she was probably a lot more nervous about him than he was about her. In fact, what she was doing was dangerous. She'd gotten lucky, finding him. Anybody else and...
He decided to concentrate on the drinks and he popped open a couple of soda cans and took them to the living room where she was propped on the arm of one of the chairs, her booted feet barely scraping the rug. His mother had always told him not to sit there.
He handed her the soda and warm moist fingers brushed his hand. He looked at her with a more discerning eye. If he ever needed a description, he should have one.
Long face, nose slightly bent like maybe it had once been broken, teeth all in a perfect row, eyes large and round, a light honey-brown. Hair straight with wisps of it falling into her face. Sienna. Pretty. Her face was dirty from road dust, but he could see the color in her cheeks and her lips, the glow of youth under the dust.
"How old are you?" he asked, not sure why it mattered.
She looked up at him and took a sip. "Guess."
"Games," he said.
"Fine. I'm twenty three. How about you?"
"You don't look like you're thirty two."
He said, "Good clean living," and she laughed. Maybe she thought that was a joke.
"Why are you headed to Phoenix? In the wrong direction, I might add."
She shrugged. "Friends there. I used to live there when I was a kid. I graduated from college last year and decided I wanted to take a road trip cross country. Just letting the bike choose where it wants to go. I'll eventually get to Phoenix."
He nodded. "That explains a lot." He walked around to the couch and sank into it, propped his feet on the coffee table. "Wish I could tell you what's wrong with your bike. My Dad should be home in a bit and he'll know right away."
"With any luck."
"Can't thank you enough," she said.
"If you need a part, you know, you could have to stay here for a day or two."
"Is there a hotel in town?" she asked. She got up and walked around to the seat of the chair and sat in it, leaning back, looking for all the world like a woman making herself at home.
"Nothing good. You could stay here, I guess," he offered. His father wouldn't bat an eye. His mother would have a nervous break down. He was fairly certain he didn't care.
"I couldn't intrude like that." She played with the sweat on her soda can.
"No problem, then," he said. "Whatever you want to do. You'll be welcomed, though." (Partially true.)
She looked up at the ceiling as if making up her mind. She took her time.
"I guess I could at least help you get dinner together. Earn my keep."
"Well," he said. It turned into more of a holiday feast than a dinner. He wasn't sure what was keeping his mother and his father was almost always home by now. But what the hell, it was time well spent and the girl was charming to say the least.
They dragged from the refrigerator a large chicken and he watched while she lifted the skin and stuffed it with pats of butter and sprigs of rosemary he harvested from his mother's herb garden. He put new potatoes in a pot to boil and freshly picked green beans in a steamer. He thawed a loaf of banana nut bread in the microwave and sliced it thick, slathered it with butter and put it under the broiler. He ground coffee beans by hand and showed her how to make coffee in a French press, his only snobbish habit.
It didn't occur to him until he heard the engine from his mother's car that this might look a little over zealous. He'd never really cooked before and here he was, setting the table for what might have passed as Sunday dinner with the preacher. He felt foolish, but giddy too. What did it matter what anyone else might think?
The back door flew open and he could hear his mother from the other side of the kitchen door, approaching fast. "Well, gracious!" she began. "I could smell that dinner all the way from the... " She stopped short at the sight of the girl. "The yard," she finished. "What's all this?" She wasn't talking about the dinner.
He ducked his head a little. I'm thirty two years old, he told himself, though not out loud. Definitely not out loud. If I have a woman here helping me with dinner, mother, what is that to you?
"Her motorcycle broke down," he said. "We're waiting on Dad to see if he can fix it."
"A motorcycle?" It was a foreign word in her mouth. She looked at the girl and shook her head. "Young lady like you?"
The girl smiled and looked around at the messy kitchen. "We promise to clean it up," she said.
It gave him a small thrill to hear her say the word "we."
His mother was not one to be impolite and she nodded her agreement. "Certainly smells delicious," she conceded and walked out without another word.
He walked out after her.
"She was broken down." He tried to get up close so the girl wouldn't overhear in the next room. "She's just making her way across country, you know? Just enjoying herself. She's OK."
His mother took him in. "I'd expect it from your brother, but not from you. You don't pick up road strays and bring them home."
He knew this. He knew the rule.
"I had plans for that chicken, you know," she said. "You'll have to get me another."
"And what if your father can't fix the bike this evening? He's going to be too tired to do work for some stranger. He's over helping at the Adams' farm right now. Won't be home until late. Sometimes you have to think of somebody other than yourself."
"Other than myself?" He made no more attempt at lowering his voice. "She's was broken down."
"And where will she bed down for the night?" his mother hissed.
He bristled and stepped away from her. "We do have a spare room. I've already invited her to stay."
His mother pursed her lips. "That so?"
They stared at each other. Usually, he gave in. She was old fashioned after all, of another generation. A stranger in her home might indeed feel uncomfortable to her. But in all of his life, he had never felt more desperate for anyone to remain a guest in his home. And it was his home too, wasn't it? Had he not earned the right to have a guest? It wasn't that he was falling for a girl nine years his junior. He was attracted to her. That was all. Something about her. Something about what she was doing and where she was going and how she was going there. Something.
His mother cocked her head to one side. "I'll be," she said. She turned on her heal and walked slowly to her bedroom.
He hustled back into the kitchen. The girl's back was to him and she was filling the sink with soapy water. "I'll find a hotel or something," she told him. "If you could maybe just drive me into town."
He walked toward her slowly and touched the small of her back with his fingertips. "Here's just fine."
His father was not home when dinner was ready. They ate in the tense air speaking cautiously of the girl's history, her plans, her life's dreams. Now, while she was single and young, she hoped to travel the country, see every part she could see, find odd jobs and work her way from one coast to the next.
"Your parents agree with you doing this?" his mother asked. She had barely touched her meal, though she'd given it a glowing review out of courtesy.
"They don't mind," she said. "I do as I please."
"I've always gone by the commandments myself," his mother said, a false cheeriness in her voice. " 'Honor thy father and mother so that thy days may be long in the land.' That's how farmers live," she said. "We live Godly lives, simple lives. We take responsibility seriously. You have to when you have animals to feed and land to work. People don't know how to live simply any more. It's a tradition we hope our son will carry on."
She stole a glance at him and he nodded his assent.
The girl looked at him. "You like to farm?"
He shrugged. "I don't guess liking it is as important as doing it. I mean, of course, I love the land and I want to farm it." He considered his words. "I've thought about other things, I guess. I've always wanted to-"
"He's the future of farming," his mother interrupted. "So few young people today want to keep this alive. We've always been proud that he stayed and didn't go flying off to parts unknown trying to be someone he could never feel good about. He feels good about this, about his home, about this land and what it does for our country. If it weren't for farmers, America would be-"
"Mom, I'm sure she's heard this argument before."
The girl smiled at them both. "I think it's great," she said. "If this is your... calling, then it's great you can stay and keep the tradition going."
The tip of her boot brushed his knee under the table as she uncrossed her legs.
It was close to ten when his father returned to a cold plate and watered down tea. He was a quiet man and nodded solemnly to the girl when his son introduced her. He promised to look at her bike first thing in the morning and he tucked into his meal.
Maybe his father was too tired to react or maybe he didn't care. Either way, he was glad that he hadn't had to justify the girl's presence. He set up the guest room with a towel and a fresh bar of soap. He showed her where the extra blankets were. He helped her bring her things in from the bag she'd left on her bike.
Then he went to bed.
He could not sleep.
He could feel her palpable presence in the house. He wondered what might have happened between them had the house already been his. His alone. Alone.
Thirty two, he thought, and sleeping in my childhood bedroom. Parents. Farm. All the responsibility. I have to take it seriously. And I do. Like a vow. I've made this vow. I've made it to the land as if the land were a living being. It is alive. Like a child I have to care for. Like a child that isn't mine. But it is mine.
His thoughts kept on like this until he heard a faint creak in the floor boards of the living room. She was up and wandering the house. Of course, she might not sleep as early as farmers. She probably wasn't tired yet. He got up and walked quietly to his door, listening.
The next footstep was much closer to his room. Perhaps she was going to come in. It would look strange for him to be standing here at the door, wouldn't it? He backed away and hovered near the edge of his bed, but the door never opened.
Morning came earlier than he'd wanted it to. He got up and took care of the animals, made preparations to spend his day in the back fields tilling between crop rows, getting the irrigation system ready to be used in the evening. His guest would have to fin for herself after breakfast.
When he came back in the house she was already up drinking a cup of coffee, her face shining and clean and her hair loose around her shoulders. His father sat at the table with her reading the Copperfield Gazette. They both looked up when he came in.
"Bike's good," she said and she held up her jingling keys.
He stared at her, unwilling to hear the news. "So, no parts? No wait?"
"It wasn't hard to fix," his father said and glanced up. "I imagine even you could have handled this one."
It was a direct insult, but he let it pass. He let it go. He always let things go. It was his nature, and it had served him well. Yet standing here right now, watching the girl twirl her keys on her finger and smile at her freedom, he felt... nothing. He searched again. Nothing at all.
"That's good," he said. "I'm glad you don't have to hang around here and be bored."
"I haven't been bored," she asserted. "Your father is very kind and your mom... she made me a bowl of cereal. She's in the kitchen, I think."
His father put down his paper and looked at his son. "The part I asked you to get yesterday. I didn't see it in the truck anywhere."
"Because I didn't get it," he said. "I picked up a hitch hiker instead."
"I'll need it this morning. It'll put me a full day behind if you don't get it now. Your mother's chicken too, while you're at it."
His mother came through the kitchen door. "Coffee's still hot," she told him. She looked at the smiling girl. "She's leaving this morning, son. You can quit procrastinating now."
He felt his face burning. He felt his nothingness bubbling under the surface, warming to a new name. Anger or loneliness maybe. Or it could have been the impenetrable responsibilities of farm and parents, of animal and land, of sky and water and wind and sea and forest and earth and all that laid itself in front of him telling him that he must take care. He must maintain. He must resist. He must be this forever and champion these causes and these alone. Just exactly how much was he responsible for? Just exactly how much?
The girl was inches from him and he could not remember her moving at all. His parents were statues in a scene that was happening in someone else's dream and the girl was really all there was.
She took his arm in her hand and pulled him toward her face. "You'll be fine," she whispered, but not so quietly that the entire universe with all it's demands couldn't hear. The words of the goddess cannot be ignored. "Anywhere away from here."
She kissed him with a soft wet mouth that tasted of coffee and cream. The kiss infused him with her words.
Then she was gone. He heard the motorcycle roar to life and he heard it fade. He did not know how long he stood there or when his parents came back to life or even if they did. They were plastic figures speaking without meaning.
"Gave her a good lecture on being responsible with a bike like that," his father was saying.
"Was the dumbest thing in the world," his mother was adding, clucking her tongue in her mouth.
"Can't believe she didn't notice," one of them told him.
"Just ran out of gas," the other one said.
"Out of gas?" He might have been the one speaking.
His mother spoke. "Not the brightest bulb in the pack if you ask me."
"No one asked you," he said.
He walked slowly to his room and shut the door. He could hear the tense silence and then he could hear them talking to each other in quick clipped phrases, anxious chatter.
"Don't worry, mother," his father said. "Just a pretty face. He ain't goin' anywhere. Got a good head on his shoulders. She was too young and reckless. That little kiss... just gratitude. He ain't goin' anywhere."
"Well, not before he gets me another chicken anyhow," his mother said and they laughed the nervous laughter of people who have almost lost everything and know it.
"Never mind, mother," his father said. "He had to be tested, didn't he? He'll stay and keep the farm going. Doesn't this prove it?"
In his room, he sat at his computer and pulled up a search engine. He typed in the word "motorcycle."