Chasing pigs. Maybe later it would become something funny, misadventure birthing anecdote. Big fucking sows, lacking only tusks. My shoes were not meant for this task—a muddy, stubby furrowed, harvested corn field dusted with snow. The sows were in their element, resolutely snouting into hummocks and chowing down on whatever was found. We were supposed to chase them back toward the gate they broke through. At the fence I had picked up a stalk to use as a flail, but I was afraid if I actually used it to hit a pig, it would just piss her off. If there was an appropriate thing to yell at a pig in such situations, I was unschooled in it. And because the Amish mother and her boys were out there with me, I couldn’t yell the swear words that I wanted to.
I am not a pig farmer; I’m an accountant. I work for MidWestOne Bank in Iowa City. I was there to assess property and stock value as part of a foreclosure proceeding. That’s not part of my job description, but no one else wanted to do it. No one likes foreclosures. They’re just a giant pain in the ass. I know they sent me out because I’m not a local. As I tried to cut off the escape route of a mud-splattered mini-hippo, I wondered what it was worth, dead or alive. The boys were a lot better at this than I was. They got their escapees close to the gate, where their mother got them through it. It was still flurrying. Very Grant Woodish Americana, in a tragic way. The mother had her long black skirt hiked up and tucked into her waist band—slender calves in black stockings. She was wearing a man’s brimmed hat.
It was early for snow. This was only my second winter in Iowa, so I’m no expert, but it wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet. I got my pig turned around. Maybe she’d eaten enough or had remembered her pen back in the nice warm barn. The Amish mother had caught me as I drove up and said there was an emergency. The next thing I knew I was in this stupid field with the boys. I knew the mother’s story from my co-worker Beth Ann, who lived out here in the county. It had been the hot gossip topic back in the spring. To bring in extra income, the Amish farmer had rented out the vacant hired hand’s house on the farm to a couple from the university. Over the winter, when the student husband was gone to the campus, the wife had seduced the Amish farmer. When the affair was discovered, the wife and the farmer took off together. It was hot gossip because that sort of thing just did not happen on Amish farms. With the farmer gone, mortgage payments, already in arears, had stopped completely.
I never intended to be a banker. I grew up wanting to be a judge. The robe, the gavel, the throne above everyone else. “May I approach the bench, you honor?” “Motion denied.” “I’ll see you in my chambers.” All we have left of true feudalism, aside from the church. And religion was way too whacky, illogical, the opposite of jurisprudence. But I dropped out of law school, too much to memorize and the woman I was living with decamped to Modesto and I followed her. A career with numbers was the next logical choice. When we had the sows corralled, I took some photos of them with my iPhone.
“You are from the bank then?” the mother asked. Up close, she seemed too young for motherhood.
“They asked me to come out, take some pictures, ask a few questions, if you don’t mind.” We were standing in the gravel driveway to the barn.
“I have no say about what you do,” she said. The snow had picked up and was swirling around us.
“Can we go inside?” I asked.
“No. I cannot have a man who is not family in my house when I am alone.”
The two boys, maybe six and nine, were standing together five yards behind their mother, watching us. I took their photo. Their mother did not approve of this and turned and walked with them toward the farmhouse. I took a snap of them walking away into the snow. Before leaving, I photographed all the buildings and livestock and equipment. I lingered out of the snow on the porch of what I took to be the hired hand’s house, looked into the empty, almost barren rooms, the scene of the crime. I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do.
There was no snow to speak of in the following month. It didn’t look like it would be a white Christmas no matter how many times Bing Crosby sang about it in the stores. A plus of being Jewish is that you don’t have to do Christmas. If you are a nonpracticing Jew like me, you can pretty much ignore religious holidays altogether, both Christian and Jewish, while still taking them all off from work. This affords you a favored nonparticipant observer status, and you can feel secretly superior. Like a smug anthropologist you can surveil all the novel—primarily commercial—customs of the benighted natives. The schlock decorations and music and hype are easier to endure if you can view them ethnographically. You don’t have to watch Jimmy Stewart yell his way through It’s a Wonderful Life.
The downtown restaurants were fuller than usual with Xmas shoppers. I ended up for lunch at a place where I rarely ate. Usually, I bring something to read at lunch, but recently my eyes had been getting tired, looking at numbers all morning, and I had to give them a rest. Otherwise, I would never have noticed her. She was not my waitress, several stations away. I couldn’t place her at first. That was disturbing. I knew her, but I didn’t know why. A face that wanted to be plain and unmemorable but couldn’t quite pull it off. She bent forward, bussing a table, and suddenly I saw her, her face beneath a wide-brimmed man’s hat in the snow, the same resigned expression. I didn’t remember her name. Had I ever known it? She was busy; she never noticed me.
I have a sister who is into interpreting dreams, always has been, way beyond Freud. In fact, she’s a shrink now in San Francisco, charging people to analyze their dreams and defang their nightmares. It’s a science to her. She taught me to pay attention to my dreams, take notes, try to pull a thread out to follow back in, watch for repetitions. That night I had a full-on Bergman dream of Amish mother. I won’t bore you with details. The next morning at the office, I found and pulled up the photos I’d taken and printed out a copy of the one of her sons. It was a good photo. They were so clear and alive against the white-scrimmed bleakness behind them.
I went back to the same place for lunch and sat at one of her tables. She showed no flicker of recognition when she came to take my order.
“Hi, remember me?” I asked.
“You’re the man from the bank,” she said. “What will it be?”
“A Rueben,” I said. “How are the boys?”
“Anything to drink with that?”
“Coffee and a glass of water. I brought something for you.” I had the photo in a manilla envelope. I pulled it out to show her.
She glanced at it. “Cream with that coffee?”
“Yes. It’s for you. It’s yours.”
She took the menu from my hands. “You can keep that,” she said, nodding to the photograph. She left. She hadn’t looked at me. When I left, I left the photo in the manila envelope with my tip.
I should have been a lawyer. When they screw up, they have plenty of excuses and other people to blame. Not like balancing a spreadsheet. I didn’t know what the holdup was this time, but that Amish farm foreclosure was still not final, and we were into a new quarter, and the court had sent something back, and numbers had changed. Always a pain in the ass. Part of the problem seemed to be the missing Amish farmer, who had disappeared, and, seeing as he didn’t seem to be dead, the court wanted his signature on some documents or something. To complicate matters, some irregular anonymous payments on the mortgage had been received, nothing close to the amount in arrears.
I was sent back out to check on the property. I have no idea how I became the farm reality inspector. The farm is down near Hills. Hills is on the Iowa River, no hills around. Farther south five or six miles, off the river, in some hills, is the town of Riverside. I never did figure that one out. All flat farmland thereabouts, with roads laid out in straight-line, square-corner grids. Another wet, cold day, but March now, the only snow on the north face of furrows.
The place looked empty but not deserted, a farm at rest. There were fresh tire tracks in the dirt drive, but no vehicles in the yard. I knocked at the farmhouse front door to no answer. The barns were all padlocked. I had no way of knowing what equipment was still there inside them. No sows about. Everything looked the same; there was no point in taking more photos. I was headed back to my car, when a pickup truck pulled into the drive. When it saw my car it stopped, then backed up onto the road and drove off. It was an old pickup truck, a veteran Ford Ranger. A man was driving. I never wanted to be a cop, just a judge. A robe not a uniform, a gavel not a gun. It never crossed my mind to try to stop him or to follow him. None of my business. I had decided that it was late enough in the afternoon for me to skip going back to the office.
I recently read somewhere that the total gross mass of manmade stuff—roads, buildings, cars, machines, plastics, junk—had finally eclipsed the total gross biomass—all living things including plants—on the planet. Way to go, Homo sapiens. Hard to believe, though, driving through endless Iowa farmland with only widely spaced homesteads of barns, silos, and farmhouses. Personal truth and greater truth. Extrapolate from what you know and get it wrong. If all you have known is Nebraska, you think the earth is flat.
All payments made after the formal foreclosure notice had been filed were pointless, null and void. But the lawyers and the court were interested in who had made them. If it was the missing Amish farmer, then he was around, and if he could be found then the whole thing could be quickly finalized. In any event, the money was not the bank’s and had to be returned. I was asked to try and find out to whom. Pain in the ass.
The payments had been made in cash to tellers, irregular amounts at irregular intervals. My first thought was the Amish mother, making what payment she could from her tips in hopes of saving the farm. I went to where she worked, but she wouldn’t talk to me, refused to even listen to my explanation. There are four MidWestOne Bank branches in Iowa City. I attached an action-alert notice to that loan account requiring, if a deposit was made, that a record of transaction form be signed by the depositor and reported to me. Tellers do not appreciate this kind of extra bullshit, neither do I. But ten days later I got a signed form and I took down my notice.
The depositor was neither the farmer nor the Amish mother. The signature was hard to decipher—Stephen (?) Br…something. The teller at the Keokuk Street branch remembered only that it was a clean-shaven Caucasian male, nothing exceptional about him. I got the feeling that if there was more to tell, she wouldn’t have told me. MidWestOne management likes to portray the bank as one big family, but it’s not a very happy family.
Well, that was it as far as I was concerned. I issued a new action-alert notice that no additional payments were to be accepted on that account. The lawyers and the court could play the rest of their game without my participation. It took a couple more weeks, but the foreclosure was finalized and an eviction notice issued. That left the limbo deposits. I wanted to get them off the books. I proposed to Van Buren that we give it to the Amish mother. He knew her story. He signed off on it, and I had a cashier’s check cut.
She wasn’t at work at the restaurant. I was afraid she had quit but learned it was just her day off. I drove out to the farm. I had an excuse—to make sure the eviction notice had been posted. It had. The fields, the yard, the trees around the house were all washed with the soft, water-color green of spring. A pickup truck was parked in the driveway beside the main house, so someone was home. A young man answered my knock. He gave me a look that said Yes? Behind him, from another room, a woman’s voice, “Who is it, Stephen?” The Amish mother came out of the kitchen. She was no longer dressed in black.
“It’s me, the man from the bank. I have something for you, a check.”
She came up and stood beside Stephen. “A check?”
“A remittance of improper payments,” I said and explained about the payments and the rules.
“But who?” she said.
“I think you can thank this man here for the effort. Am I right, Stephen?”
Stephen didn’t say anything.
She looked at Stephen. “But why?”
“I… I felt responsible. I mean, I brought her here. I should have known. I should have seen what was happening and gotten her away.”
There was an expression on the Amish mother’s face now, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I handed her the check. “Maybe this will help you get a new start.”
They were still standing there, looking at one another when I left. No need for a banker at swap meets.
Spanish California settlers measured the vast
boundaries of their stolen land by cigarettes
—so many cigarettes north, so many east.
Time can also be measured by cigarettes.
“Each done butt takes 14 minutes off your life.”
The firing squad target gets his last smoke.
And it is sort of Zen to live your life
from Camel straight to Camel straight.
Some nights like tonight—it’s chilled and clear—the sound of the trains working the switching yards a quarter mile south of us seems much closer. Nightshift crews at work. I can hear the cars connecting. A through-freight’s horn sounds for the grade-crossing at Pleasant Valley Road. A long consignment, the rumble of passing wheels on rails lasts long enough for me to ignore it.
On my mother’s side, all the first- and second-generation immigrant Irishmen worked on the railroad. My mother’s grandfather lived in the section foreman’s house between the tracks. Not all of them were in the country legally. There are railroad bridges between Buffalo and Canada (over one of which my dad had a part in moving Prohibition whiskey). I always had a thing for trains. I was of that generation when trains vanished from American consciousness. Boys younger than I did not receive train sets for Christmas.
At one point in history only Chicago had more miles of train tracks than Buffalo. I have firm boyhood memories of the bigger-than-life bronze bison on a high pedestal at the center of the rotunda in the vaulted deserted cathedral of Buffalo Central Terminal. Terminally empty, pigeons and their droppings on the bison’s stained back, a cold marble breeze. As a teenager I paid for steam-engine excursions on the CNR over in Ontario. In college, I survived a continental summer on my Eurail Pass, sleeping on trains, living on trains.
Anyway, I keep thinking of those guys working out in the switch yard. (“Guys” is gender-neutral, though the odds of a woman on the crew are pretty slim.) It’s not yet December, but the nights are getting nippy. I don’t know what railroad shifts are, but they are probably somewhere midshift. Can they smoke? I spend a lot of time wondering about people’s jobs and how they do them. I ponder who decided to make this cardboard box this way. Why did this shy woman choose to be a nurse? What do truckers think about on those long empty stretches? Can you care much if what you’re selling is worthless? I wonder what caused our mailman’s limp. I was in Ireland once with a doctor who only took photographs of men working.
One thing I like about this town is that the tracks run right through the middle of it, and traffic has to stop, backed up, to let the freight trains pass, no contest. Nothing digital about it. It’s like the past intruding, interrupting. Men working here. Stop and watch.
A 12-minute documentary from 15 years ago.
I Google Mapped your house tonight, satellite view,
and zoomed in as far as I could, a virtual fly-over
wagging my imaginary wings.
Strange world we live in.
Does isolation breed the past?
With the present stalled in its tracks
and the future a black hole, we go wandering
through the doors we never locked behind us.
True anonymity is to die in a plague.
Culture steam-shoveled into a common grave.
No chorus left to sing our hallelujah.
Your house from the sky is dark at night,
but on Google Maps the past sun never sets,
that truck in the drive you sold two years ago.
Do you remember duck and cover drills? Always a pleasant break. I recall us all crouched down like little Muslims facing Mecca on the floor of the marble windowless hallway of our convent-housed grammar school, boys on one side, girls on the other. The Commies wanted to fry us, a concept as abstract as the church’s triple threat of limbo, purgatory, hell. I found the purported godlessness of the bad guys alluring.
From duck and cover to shelter in place, not a bomb but a microbe this time. That macro/micro-spectrum thing again. One difference this time around is that the biggest threat to yourself is yourself and your neighbors, not some foreign impersonal power. Do not touch your fucking face! Your hands can kill you. Death by your own (unscrubbed) hand. Don’t crouch down together, keep your distance, a marble hallway’s width apart at least. And not just until the nuns tell you that you can get up, but for this present’s equivalent of forever.
A certain sense of pride of place. I was here first, nine months ago, in isolation. Alone with the minimalist worries of solitude. Enough cigarettes? How many days have I worn this shirt? One of those dilemmas today—the birds have returned, cardinals and robins, arrived as if booked on the equinox moon, welcomed, pairs chasing each other in foreplay flight around the yard. One robin—or is it two? each species has its own customs—decided to build its honeymoon nest on a blade of the overhead fan in the carport, right outside my study window. A bum idea. The fan is still today, but any fair breeze will revolve it, launching the nest. I am impressed by the bird’s relentless industry. I recently read an article about how architects have been mesmerized by the complex physics of nest construction. Blackboards filled with chalked formulas. A fair amount of construction material is discarded onto the hood of our silver Corolla below. The dilemma: do I switch on the fan and dislodge this labor-intensive piece of avian art, or do I allow its completion and await the inevitable tossing of the nest with its unhatched or tweeting inhabitants? How do you inform the innocent of their errors? Something ethical to ponder on an otherwise empty day. Connie doesn’t want robin shit on the car. I turn on the fan. The almost-finished empty nest survives its cement floor landing, a perfect round chalice composed of nature’s basest detritus. I want to apologize, but to what?
The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome;
engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay