This piece is by Craig Hartley.
Some folks who visit Alachua County, Florida, from up North say they miss the change of seasons. To people who need sudden, extreme shifts of weather to tell them what kind of clothes to wear or sports to play, the placid, unhurried drift of the North Florida climate might seem confusing. It was just such a Saturday evening in mid-November, 1975, when a light wind rustled the Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks that lined the drive from highway 236 to the Parsons’ spacious ranch house. It was cool, just short of being brisk. The setting sun painted the bottoms of low-hanging cumulus clouds a vivid orange, contrasting with the deep blue of the surrounding sky.
Inside the house Ellie Parsons was clearing the table in the dining room after an early candlelight supper. Her husband Sam was in the adjacent Florida room opening their second bottle of wine of the evening.
“Could you open that side window?“ she called to him. “It’s probably getting warm in there.”
Sam, a rangy six-footer who looked out of place in the white shirt and tie he wore with his jeans and boots, sat on the sofa pulling out the last bit of crumbled cork from a bottle of Blue Nun.
“Damn!” he muttered as he flushed out the rest of the debris by pouring some into a glass on the coffee table between the sofa and fireplace. “Where did you get this wine?” he asked, holding up the bottle as Ellie entered the room carrying a plate of cheese and crackers. She had removed her apron exposing a white sateen blouse tucked into a simple, straight skirt.
“Don’t you remember?” she replied. “We bought two bottles when we got married and put them aside for our silver anniversary. I’ve kept them in the old icehouse ever since.” She sat next to Sam on the old overstuffed sofa, placing the plate of cheese and crackers beside the wine on the coffee table. The fire roared and crackled as the burning live oak logs cast a cozy glow on the scene.
Handing the bottle to Ellie, Sam remarked, “Well, the first bottle was OK, but this one didn’t keep too well. Have a sniff.”
Ellie brought the bottle to her nose and inhaled the familiar smell of mildew. She wasn’t familiar with the term “corked” but she knew that wine wasn’t supposed to smell like a pile of wet newspapers. “I guess it wasn’t a very good wine cellar,” she said, handing it back.
“Ah, that’s OK. I probably can’t tell the difference, anyway.” Sam took the bottle and filled the two glasses on the coffee table.
“A good wine is supposed to get better with age — like a good marriage.” Ellie smiled.
“Some wines.” Sam replied. “Gonna taste like cork, this one.”
“I don’t mind — tonight.” Ellie picked up the glass from the table. “When we were courting we used to drink this on special occasions. Remember?”
“Yeah, I remember driving to Jacksonville to buy it and sneakin’ it across the county line in the trunk of my car.” Sam chuckled. “Them were the days — we were dry and Duval County wasn’t. The law in Jax would stake out the liquor stores and if they saw somebody leaving one and getting into a car with Alachua county plates, they’d call ahead to the sheriff here and give him the license number. Then he’d be waiting for you when you crossed the county line.”
“You never got caught, did you?” Ellie knew the answer; she also knew that it was one of Sam’s favorite stories.
“Never.” Sam replied. “ Every year I’d get a last year’s Georgia or Alabama plate from some junker and slip it on just before I got to the store. The Jax police would see the out-of-state plate on the car and not bother with it. When I picked up my supply, I’d drive out of their sight and remove the plate. And I knew when that dumb deputy, Walt, was going to be on patrol and where he always stopped for a nap about halfway through his shift. Same time, same place. That’s when I came back. Just to make sure, I’d go on to Fort White out of Lake City, then come in from the northwest on 27 instead of from the north on 441 like you would if you were coming from Jax. He never caught on.”
Ellie raised her glass. “To the next twenty-five!”
“To better days,” Sam replied, taking a long sip. His response hung in the air like a fart in church.
It was a while before Ellie could respond. “That’s a strange thing to say — on our silver anniversary. Better than what?”
“Better than the ones we’ve had.”
“I think we’ve had some good days.”
“I didn’t mean that we haven’t.” Sam rose and picked up the poker from the fireplace tool stand. “I just drank to better days, that’s all.” The coals burst into a flurry of flame as he stirred them up.
“Oh. Seems like on our silver anniversary we should be thinking more about the good times we’ve had.” Ellie put down her glass on the table and looked at Sam. “We’ve raised three fine children: both boys have college degrees. Cindy is a cheerleader and one of the best students in her high school class. I think that’s pretty good for twenty-five years.” Ellie’s eyes moistened as she turned towards the fire.
Sam turned to face her as he replaced the poker. “Look, I wasn’t talkin’ about family,” he said. “I’m proud of them, too. I just meant that after all that time we’re still here, living from year to year hoping we can make enough from selling those cracker cows to pay for their feed and raise enough on the farm to pay the bills and feed ourselves. Seems like it’s the same thing year after year.” Returning to the sofa, Sam sat and put his arm around her. “That’s enough of that. This is our night.” He kissed her gently on the forehead.
“Yes.” Ellie replied, resting her head on his shoulder.
Ellie finally broke the long silence that followed by looking away from the fire. “That fire’s too warm for me. Could you open that side window some?”
“Reckon I could. Why?”
“I just said. Fire’s too warm.”
“We could take off our clothes.”
“Later.” Ellie smiled and moved away. “Seriously, it’s a little early for a fire.”
“November’s not all that early. It’s almost Thanksgiving. I thought it’d be nice.”
“It is. It’s just too hot.”
“OK, if you don’t want to be romanced by the fire …”
Sam rose and crossed towards the window “Our night, remember?” Sam turned back to look out the window. The wind outside was blowing directly from the barn towards the house and as the jalousie panes parted, an unmistakable odor began to fill the room. Sam sniffed the air as he cranked them open about halfway. “Damn!” he swore.
“What’s the matter?” Ellie inquired.
“Wind’s shifted.” Sam replied as he quickly cranked the window shut.
“When we’re downwind of the barn, it smells like we’re sitting in the middle of the cattle. Damn that smell! Never gets out of my clothes, can’t even wash it out of my hair — sometimes I think it’s in my bones!”
“It’s just farm smell. You ought to be used to it by now.”
“Well, I ain’t!” Sam exclaimed as he crossed back to the sofa and sat next to Ellie, staring at the floor. “Anybody who’d get used to the smell of cow shit has got to have rocks in his head.”
The vehemence of his reaction puzzled Ellie. She thought his grumbling about farm work from time to time was just routine griping, not some deeply felt revulsion.
“It’s still hot,” Ellie said after another silence.
“Fire’ll burn down soon,” Sam said without looking at her.
“The coals still give off heat.”
Turning, he gazed at her steadily for a moment before replying, “God damn it, Ellie, I’ll pour a bucket of water on it if you want, but I’m not opening that window!”
Sam’s steady look made Ellie uncomfortable. “No need to get upset.” She looked down into her lap. “I just wanted to cool off.”
He continued staring at her for a long moment then turning away he said, “You want me to put the fire out?”
“No.” Ellie paused, and then ventured, “You never minded farm smell before.”
“Always hated it. Reminds me of farming.”
“Standing out there in the muck, pitchin’ hay, rakin’ straw, feedin’ them damn, dumb animals…”
“Not tonight, Sam. Please.”
“Well, that’s the way I feel.”
This was unfamiliar territory for Ellie. Sam’s replies had a force and passion behind them this time that was unusual for him — and reacting this way tonight, of all nights. While he wasn’t the most sensitive of men, she was aware that he had tried to make this a special occasion, as had she. This exchange just came out of nowhere, as far as she could see.
Making an attempt at closure, she remarked, “It doesn’t keep you from being a good farmer.”
Sam turned back to face her. “What the hell is a good farmer? Goin’ on year after year wondering if there’ll be any money left after you finish selling what little you’ve been able to raise? Wonderin’ when the bank’s going to own the whole place instead of just a few pieces? That ain’t no kind of life!”
“We do better than most,” she replied defensively. “The house and all but a few acres are ours.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as we’re willing to work it together. We’ve done well. We’ve put two boys through the University…”
“Neither one wants to have anything to do with the place, either—too smart for that. I don’t know. I just don’t want to do it any more.”
The silence that followed was punctuated by the intermittent cracking of the fire as the glowing logs shifted and shot sprays of sparks up the chimney. The heat became oppressive as the dying embers gave out their final bursts. Ellie could think of nothing to say. She had lived on a farm all her life. Her family had owned a small spread next to the Parsons’ that she had inherited after her parents died in an auto accident. That property was now virtually incorporated into the original Parsons place.
She and Sam had known each other since childhood. He was two years older and she had loved him for as long as she could remember. They married just after she graduated from high school and she moved directly from her parents’ home to the cottage that Sam’s dad, Pete, had built for them on the Parsons’ farm. After Sam’s mother died, they moved into the main house and merged households with his father. By that time the boys were both away at the University in Gainesville and it helped fill the void. Pete had died of a heart attack last year.
Up to now, everything that had happened in Ellie’s life seemed natural and inevitable. She wanted nothing more than she had and she thought that Sam felt the same. She had never given much thought to how Sam felt about how their lives had turned out. He handled all of the finances. Since they never discussed such matters, she had to admit she wouldn’t have known if there were problems on that front. There were some years tighter than others, it’s true, but they always seemed to make do. Apparently the toll on Sam was highe than she realized.
“You’ve had too much wine tonight.”
“Will you listen to me?” Sam rose and crossed to the fireplace before turning back to face her. “Bill Reynolds made me an offer last week and I told him I’d think about it.”
“Bill Reynolds! But he’s a builder!”
Ellie was stunned. “Why?”
“There’s that thousand feet on the river he wants to break into lots and there’s more that could be made river access…”
“But — but then it wouldn’t even be a farm any more!” The idea that the land would no longer be farmed as her family and Sam’s family had done for three generations was just not in Ellie’s universe of possible events.
She imagined that the room moved slightly. Straight lines of the walls tilted and became fuzzy and corners of the windows were no longer square. Slowly, her disbelief turned to outrage. “This was your grandpa’s place — and mine. How could you think about selling? To a builder!”
“Everything’s got to change sometime.” Turning away from her Sam added, “He offered two thousand an acre.”
Ellie closed her eyes and was silent for a long time. “I won’t let you do it,” she said without looking at him.
Taken aback, Sam replied, “Nothin’ you can do. The farm’s in my name.”
“Not all.” she replied. “Not that twenty acres Daddy gave me when we got married. That’s mine. It’s in my name.”
Sam pondered this development a while before he responded. “Remind me again just where that is.”
“It’s on the river. Where the spring boil comes out. Where we used to swim.”
“Damn! That’s prime river frontage.” Sam sat in the armchair next to the sofa and stared straight ahead.
Ellie broke the silence. “Sam, let’s talk about this.”
“We’re talkin’ about it now.”
“I mean when we’ve had time to think.”
“I’ve had time.” Sam resumed staring into the fire. “All my life this place’s been holding me like an anchor. It’s time to go.”
“Go? Go where?”
“Wherever we want. I been thinking about a couple of things.” Sam turned to face her. “I’d like to buy into an oil distributorship in Jacksonville. Selling the farm would give us enough of a stake to go into partnership with Jimmy Martin. He has connections all over North Florida.”
Ellie held his gaze wordlessly, trying to comprehend this development. Jimmy Martin was a high school classmate of Sam’s. He’d moved to Jacksonville after dropping out of the community college in Gainesville. She didn’t know Sam had kept in touch with him all this time. Nor did she know what an oil distributorship was. But she was certain that it wasn’t anything like a farm.
“This is our home. Our children were born here; you were born here. Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Look at Susan. When her folks died she moved back here from Atlanta and took over the River Hut herself. She didn’t sell out to some builder.”
Susan Booth, a childhood friend, was a year or so younger than Ellie. Her family owned the River Hut, a small restaurant on the Santa Fe River. The menu was strictly fish and Cedar Key seafood, fresh daily. It made up for a lack of elegance with its quaint ambience and high quality cuisine.
Susan married before graduating from high school and moved to Atlanta. Her marriage failed years ago and she had no children, so after her folks died about three years ago, she moved back to their small farm and continued to operate the restaurant with the help of Bob and Maureen Rogers, a retired couple from Michigan.
“I don’t know. I just want to start over; to do something different — something important.”
“What about me? Doesn’t it matter what I want?”
“I’ll need you whatever I do — just like I always have.”
Sam moved over and sat on the couch. Putting his lips to her ear he whispered, “We can do it. ”
“Wish I knew what ‘it’ is.” she replied.
“It don’t matter. I love you.”
Ellie picked up her glass from the coffee table and drained it before putting it back. Without looking at Sam she said, “Happy anniversary.”
Sam refilled his glass and returned the toast. “Happy anniversary.” Ellie rose from the sofa. Smoothing her skirt as she looked into the fire, she announced, “I think I’ll turn in now.”
“I’m sleepy, though. It must be the wine,” said Ellie.
“Yeah.” Sam responded glumly. I’ll just finish the wine.
“Good night,” Ellie moved towards the door to the hall.
“I love you,” Sam murmured softly, to her back.
“Don’t forget to lock up,” Ellie called as she closed the bedroom door.
After staring into the fire for a while Sam rose and crossed to the window he had opened before. Cranking it open a crack, he sniffed cautiously before returning to the sofa.
“Wind’s shifted again,” he murmered, pouring the last of the wine into his glass.
Sam stayed up until after midnight and decided to sleep in the next morning instead of going to church with Ellie — something he did less and less frequently of late. So Ellie went by herself to the Bible Study class and the 11 AM service after making sure that the midday meal was prepared and in the oven.
At the morning service Ellie encountered Susan Booth, who revealed that she was selling her riverfront restaurant and moving away. She had had enough of the family business and wanted to move on. Her managers seemed keen to continue the operation, so she agreed to sell the property to them. Nothing was said about whether the new owners would keep the Booth farm.
Recalling that Ellie mentioned that she had recently broken her only cake platter, Susan offered to give her one from the restaurant. They arranged a meeting the next day for coffee about mid-morning when Susan could deliver the platter.
Ellie wasn’t used to having neighbors in for morning coffee. It took more time than she thought to make decisions about things like what kind of flowers to put on the table and whether to have biscuits and honey or crème-filled cookies. Sam was out in the pasture mending a fence when Susan rang the front doorbell.
Ellie opened the door to find Susan holding the platter wrapped in tissue.
“Let me take that off of your hands.”
Susan followed Ellie into the kitchen and placed the platter on the center island. Susan’s matching blazer and skirt showed the difference a few years in the city can make in a country girl’s taste in clothes. She removed her blazer to reveal a stylish blouse and colorful scarf.
“Can I take your jacket?” Ellie asked. “It may be a little warm in here.”
“Oh, I’ll just put it in the closet, if that’s OK,” Susan replied, turning towards the small closet by the front door. “Will that be big enough?” she called, indicating the platter as she closed the closet door. “I know you have the boys for dinner sometimes.”
“Oh, it’s just fine,” Ellie responded. “Let’s sit over here,” Ellie said as she carried the coffee pot over to the kitchen table by the bow window overlooking the pasture.
Well, to paraphrase the immortal Forrest Gump, coffee klatches are like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re goin’ to get. After one cup of coffee and some gossip about mutual acquaintances, Susan excused herself, saying that she had to get back to help with the pre-sale inventory of the restaurant. As Ellie helped Susan with her blazer, she asked, “Do you know where you’re moving to yet?”
“I was thinking about Jacksonville.” Susan adjusted her scarf and continued. “There’s a nice restaurant there on the St. Johns that just lost its manager. It’s bigger than the River Hut, but it might be a nice challenge.”
“Oh,” Ellie responded without thinking. “Sam was just talking this weekend about a business opportunity in Jacksonville. He says he’s tired of farming. Never got used to it.”
“Well that’s not surprising.” Susan laughed and continued. “Anybody who’d get used to the smell of cow shit has got to have rocks in his head.”
Turning to wave as she reached her car, she called “Enjoy the platter.”
“Yes, thanks,” Ellie called after her, waving back.
Susan turned the car around in the broad driveway and headed for the highway as Ellie looked after her distractedly and continued to wave.
What did she say?
Ellie shut the front door behind her as she entered and leaned back against it, closing her eyes. Susan’s words echoed in her head as if in a cavern, the sound seeming to bounce off irregular surfaces, getting all jumbled up and out of order.
“Jacksonville. Anybody…cow shit…rocks….”
Slowly she slid down the door until she was sitting on the floor with her back propped against it. She tried to shut out the echoing phrase by holding her hands over her ears, but it just got louder. Her forehead dropped onto her knees and her shoulders began to tremble.
And then the tears began.