I. Parts of a pie

Here is the pizza I promised, well, the start.

This is a slow roll out of stories about the place where I grew up and where I return to in May 2015. A lot of it is about my father who passed away 2 years ago. You'll hear a lot more about him.

Okay, installment one:

It had to be a hard enough day to order pizza for dinner, a sun up to sun down, put five wagons of haybales in the barn loft and and work all day in the garden kind of day.

Tonight promised the start of two rainy days. In the fields lay wagonloads worth of raked, dry hay ready for baling and then a trip into the hayloft. If not baled and put away today, we might lose the feed to a mildew the cows refused to eat or worse, a mildew that simmered in a stuffy barn loft, building heat until fire broke, a fire like we heard other farmers shake their head over, where a barn and the herd of cattle inside were just gone the next morning.

We packed Mason jars with water and orangeade, twisted rusty screwcaps over lids that smelled like the canned peaches they had previously sealed. My brother, sister, mother and I followed each other out the house door, heading to the paved road at the end of the driveway. As we found our stride, water made hollow sloshing sounds on the glass walls of the mason jars. Back in the yard outside the house, my father started up the tractor.

Hauling an empty hay wagon behind him, my father passed us just a hundred feet from where we all turned into the hayfield from the paved River Road. He waved hello to us even though we had all been speaking just ten minutes ago. Behind the steering wheel, my father let his shoulders slump in a relaxed fall. You could read the dips of the road in the way his arms jostled under a thinning white undershirt. His hands hung on the steering wheel. My father wore glasses that perched large and square between a full grey beard and eyebrows like whiskers that made his eyes beady and his smile wild. He downshifted the tractor to take the left turn into the hayfield. He signaled with his arm, the wagon hiccupping as he gassed the tractor and spun onto the field’s dirt road.

The rest of us walked over the same ground moments later and heard the squeak and groan of nails and wood talking as the wagon bumped over ruts in the dirt road beyond us. The garden lay at the base of the hayfield. We stopped midway along its length and fanned out; Ian headed to finish thinning the corn, Moira and Mom to mulch the onions. I walked to the trenches made from hilling the garden’s twelve rows of potatoes. The plants hadn’t flowered yet and until they did it was my job to fend off the black and white striped potato beetle and their soft pink grubs. Killing the bugs and their clusters of orange eggs set to hatch on the potato leaf undersides was the goriest and most repeated task in the garden. I tried to make the most of the assignment.  

A pair of beetles mated at the base of a potato plant under the canopy of its leaves. They looked furtive there. I scraped the pair into my empty mason jar. Their shells made a small, definite sound on the jar’s glass bottom. For a few moments the beetles lay on their backs, legs folded flat, their underbellies still. Playing dead. I picked a leaf off a potato plant and dropped it to the beetles. I meant the offering for food but when the beetles came to, they saw a ramp and started climbing the glass sides. I flicked the jar and the beetles lost their ground. But they rolled over and retried. They’d spend the rest of their time like that, trying to escape.

Several acres away I heard the rhythms of the hay baler eating up rows of dried grasses and alfalfa, ramming it into a shape to be twined and shot out the rear of the machine. The haybale soared into the air and landed in the wagon.  I couldn’t see this from my position in the potato patch, but I knew the routine. The whole machine vibrated with effort. My father bounced on the tractor seat according to the shape of the clay soil underneath the wheels. He would be looking forward, steady on the rows of raked grass ahead and then all of a sudden lash his head backwards to make sure the bales fell in the wagon and stayed put. When my father killed potato bugs he liked to squish them on the plant. He took their front end between his thumb and index finger and squeezed hard. The wet innards and occasional set of unlaid eggs squirted out the bug’s rear in an orange and black pool. Then he’d flick his thick fingers, flinging the dead bug back to the soil. But the grubs, the beetles that had no shell yet, didn’t die so neatly. The grubs overran the potato plants, came in all sizes, but always fat and bulbous. They had guts that did not come out neatly. My dad didn’t care. Watching him mash his way through the beetles and grubs disgusted me. I found other methods, ones I thought cleaner.