The album cover leaned up against the dark wood of the stereo. From the cover, Willie Nelson peered into the beat-up old farmhouse. The 33 spun round and round as his familiar voice floated out and rode the chilly fall air streaming in through the cracked window. She liked his voice. It soothed her. Her musical taste had mellowed quite a bit in recent years. She’d never been a fan of country music. Three Dog Night provided the soundtrack of her youth. Yet, Willie was slowly working his way into her taste. Maybe it was his voice. Maybe it was the way his lyrics drew a lump in her throat every time. Maybe it was nothing more than the solace the music provided her as she passed out of her twenties and into her thirties. Maybe she felt it was just time to grow up and move on to adult music. His voice filled the room with the soul-ripping words, “If I made you feel second best, girl I’m sorry I was blind, but you were always on my mind.” The words were like an excerpt from her life story. He was always busy this time of year.
Fall was demanding on a farm, that was a well-known fact. She knew it. She didn’t grow up on a farm, but she’d lived in Iowa all her life. She was a city kid, but remembered how school would close for a week in October so the farm kids could help their fathers harvest. It started the first week in October without fail; every morning he left before dawn and returned after dark. She waited for him. She always waited for him. She’d pass time by feeding the kids, helping with homework and getting them to bed. She never ate without him. She didn’t want him to eat alone, besides, these forty-five minute meals provided the string she clung to until the next night’s meal. She took what time she could get when she could get it. They had lived out this autumnal routine year after year for the past twelve. She’d become rather accustomed to it. The repetitiveness of this rigid schedule made his afternoon appearance even more surprising.
She was washing up the last of the bowls she’d used to make him fuel for the evening. Later she would pack these chocolate chip cookies into a bed of papertowels and drive them out to him in the north field. After dinner, while the kids were busy with homework, she would hide away in the cab of the combine with him, just for a few rows. The hum of the combine hitting the dry corn stalks played them its own ballad. The drone was too loud to speak over, but there wasn’t really anything to say. She just wanted time with him. These clandestine combine rides weren’t much, but it was a tradition she had become accustomed to and, truth be told, she found it romantic. As her chapped hand rounded the edge of the glass mixing bowl removing the last bits of batter, she gazed out the kitchen window and lost herself in contemplation.
How did she ever get here? She never intended to become a farmer’s wife. She had plans to go to college. She had plans to become an English teacher. She had plans to make something of herself. Yet somehow, here she was in the warn-out kitchen of a rented farmhouse baking cookies and helping her kids with math. This wasn’t what she wanted. This wasn’t in the plan. Then again, lots of things weren’t in the plan, like her oldest son. She was sixteen. That was where the plan changed. Over the past years her resentment had faded. She had become accustomed to the life. She’d learned to drive the truck, learned how to check the cattle by herself at calving time and what to do with a cow in distress. She’d learned to can vegetables from the garden to feed them through the winter. She learned how to do his bookkeeping and she learned how to juggle the various loans from the FmHA and the two local banks. Most impressive though was her learned talent for budgeting. As a kid she was well off. She and her siblings never longed for anything, but somehow she learned how to feed a family of five on two hundred dollars a month. While all of this proved her ability to assimilate rather well, given the choice, she wouldn’t have learned any of it.
This was exactly where her mind was as she washed the last bowl. She was about to celebrate another birthday and she found herself becoming more and more melancholy, more and more contemplative. She loved him. She loved their children, all three of them. But this wasn’t the life she wanted. It was getting clearer and clearer with each passing milestone. She wanted to hide it from the kids. They weren’t the ones to blame. They weren’t the ones that lost track of their plan. He wasn’t to blame either. He adored her. He always had. He needed her and so she stayed.
She didn’t hear the back door close. He left his boots at the back door. She had just finished scrubbing the orange and yellow kitchen linoleum on her hands and knees earlier. Mops never fully did the job. She’d learned that from her own mother’s cleaning lady as a child. He knew if he put one muddy boot on that linoleum he would endure a wrath that was normally reserved for his sons. She didn’t hear the footsteps on the clean linoleum. She didn’t hear him signal the kids to be quiet, or their silent giggles. She didn’t feel his breath on her neck until he reached around her, grabbed her soapy hand and spun her around to him. She met his pale blue eyes with a look of panic that soon turned to reassurance. She dropped the plaid dishtowel onto the yellow and orange linoleum and began to laugh. He grabbed her clammy hand and began to whirl her around the kitchen table, past math books and Civics notes. He danced her from the sink to the stove and back to the counter before finally heading onto the green shag of the living room. Willie’s voice was straining to surface above her laughs and his tone-deaf singing. “Crank ’er up” he called to the middle one. She was more than happy to oblige.
As Willie hit the bridge of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” he two-stepped her past the sofa and the orange recliner, toward the front porch, and though it was shut-up for winter, it didn’t stop him. Through the door and onto the weathered wooden porch, past the swing and back into the living room, stopping near the enormous wood paneled television set for a brief dip. He swept her around like he might never do it again. He danced like it was 1969 and they were getting married once more. He whirled her without a thought of his brother waiting in the truck, his hired help waiting by the corn bin, or the past due loans waiting at the bank.
The flurry of excitement had put all homework on hold. The boys mocked him with gagging sounds. The middle one watched the fairy tale moment unfold in front of her. She’d see this scene again and again in her mind, as she grew older. The three took positions on the orange velour sofa and watched. The oldest one hoped he could someday be that smooth. His mind flashed back to last week’s 7th grade dance where he stepped all over Suzie Archer’s feet. He hoped this was genetic. The youngest one couldn’t stand to see his parents kiss, but still thought it was better to watch this than do his homework. The one in the middle wondered if everyone’s parents behaved like this. She wondered if this was what married people did. She wondered if this was someday going to be her - two-stepping across the living room of her own home. She had barely come back to reality when it was over.
He gave one final dip punctuated with a kiss and made for the door. The help was paid by the hour and there wasn’t any money to spare this fall. They were barely going to pay off one past due notice this year. But for that moment nothing else mattered. Nothing else was more important than making her smile. Nothing else was more important than letting her know that she really was “always on his mind.” He gave the middle one a kiss on the head, the youngest one a tussle of the hair and the oldest one a punch in the arm, then headed back out the door. Within minutes homework and dishes resumed. Within minutes she had forgotten her resentment. Within minutes she had forgotten her failed dreams.
Two years later he was gone. The farm was gone. It was October again. The school closed for that day in October again. The farm kids went to the funeral and then home to spend time with their own dads, each glad it wasn’t their dad they’d just buried. The oldest one was angry. The youngest one didn’t understand. The middle one saw her fairy tale shatter. She would never two-step through her own living room. She would never two-step at her wedding. She didn’t have a dad anymore.
They went back to their small house in town. The oldest one left. The middle one hid in her room. The youngest one went outside to play. The Willie Nelson album was playing. She ran her hands over the glass bowl in the sink. The same one she’d used to make his cookies time and again. As she gazed out the window into the concrete parking lot behind the new rental home, she realized she’d been given her second chance. The backdoor creaked as the wind blew it open. She spun around, hoping it was him. She wanted to be danced around the small, rented home. Instead, the record ended. The needle skipped on the album. It was over.