The world caved in on Robert Sutherland one April afternoon when he discovered his father face down in the field of peach trees. Having just driven home from high school he at first did not recognize the slumping figure that was his father, Stuart Sutherland. His father was lying on his side down by one of the irrigation pumps. When he ran over to him, he was dead as a politician’s promise. Kneeling next to him, he checked for a pulse in his neck; there was none. His body was all askew, his head turned to the heavens in the west, his body turned embracing the earth. His vision no longer extant, no longer glistened. His face was blue and mottled. “Oh, pa!” Amos Zamora, the wetback who had been with his family for the past three years, came running over. When he reached them, he realized what had happened, he made the sign of the Cross, held his ball cap in both hands in front of him. He put a sympathetic hand on Robert’s shoulder as he stood next to him.
“Should I call a priest?”
“No…It’s too late. Amos, go in the kitchen and call the coroner.”
“Señor Robert, I can’t be dealing with the police. If I am caught, they’ll send me back to Mexico.”
After Robert’s brother, Kyle, was killed in Iran, Amos was the linchpin that held the farm together. “Call the coroner and then hide in the bunkhouse. I’ll come get you when everyone’s gone.”
“Lo siento. Muy siento, Señor Roberto. He was like a father to me.”
“He was like a father to everyone he ever knew. He loved you like a son, Amos. Better make that call. I’ll stay with him until the coroner arrives. Call his brother, too.” Gene Sutherland, the older brother, owned the adjacent farm. When Amos had left, Robert brushed away a tear from his eye. He reached down and flipped his father to his back. Taking off his faded Levi jacket and covered his father’s head and upper torso with it. Robins sang on the bare limbs of the trees. He was two months shy of graduating, and the farm was now his.
Father Diaz kept his sermon short. They buried Stuart next to his wife and his eldest son on a plot of gently rising ground on the property, one that looked down at the house. Gene Sutherland showed the mourners who had gone through the line to the farm house where friends’ wives placed dishes of food and beverages, not hesitating in putting out many bottles of various liquors. At the reception, fellow farmers of the valley recounted their favorite stories about the deceased. People gradually drifted off, leaving Gene alone with Robert. “You know, your father wanted you to take over the farm, at least after Kyle died, but it’s your choice to decide. Do you want to sell it? Maybe you need to think about it?”
“No, I don’t need no time to think about it. There’s nothing more appealing to me than taking over the farm and being a true steward of the earth.”
“I understand. I feel that way about my farm too. If you ever need my…”
“If I do, I’ll come running.”
“Your pa’s farm is a two man operation. You should keep Amos.”
When Gene had finally left, he strode over to the bunkhouse and called to Amos, “You ready for dinner? We have things to do to the place.”
Though he missed the last two months of his senior year, the principal gave him a diploma. Between the time they buried his father and his high school class graduation, farm life was a struggle, frequently keeping Robert and Amos up to eight or nine at night. Robert, who had moved into the master bedroom at the top of the stairs, had Amos move into his old bedroom.
That first season with Robert in command went well. The peaches all were healthy and the price of a bushel was near an all-time high.
It had been over a year since he began seeing Rachel Roberts, who was a lithesome redhead, yielding only an inch or two to Robert. No one was surprised, when they became engaged. They waited until she had graduated before tying the knot, Father Diaz reading the bans for the couple. A farm is just not a farm without a farmer’s family. Amos retreated to the bunkhouse despite their entreaties to have him stay.
With a farm, the earth would not wait, so the newlyweds never had a proper honeymoon. Rachel, having come from a farming family, knew what she was getting into when she married Robert. For a young woman so soon under the yoke, she worked nearly as hard as her husband and never complained. In the spring, she helped her husband plant saplings in fields that had been fallow; later, in the middle of the summer, she would help irrigate the peach trees; and, she was with him during the harvest in late August or early September. During harvesting season, there was always a crew of wetbacks, to help with the tedious operation.
Time passed. The world continued to go round, the beginning and end of the years marked by the harvest. The Sutherlands had been married for over four years when Rachel first missed her period. Both Robert and Rachel were ecstatic. Not quite nine months later, in the winter when things were much slower on the farm, Rachel delivered a healthy six-and-a-half pound male that they would name Stuart, after Robert’s father. Rachel had built a nursery for the infant in Robert’s old room. During that long winter, Rachel and Robert seemed to grow closer as they shared the parenting duties of raising a child. Robert never thought he’d be changing diapers, but he did indeed.
“Whom do you think he looks like the most, me or you?” Rachel inquired of Robert.
“I don’t know. If people asked, though, I’d say you.”
“You know, somewhere I read that an infant looks more like the father than the mother.”
“So the father won’t kill them.”
Rachel carried Stuart on her back as she fed and mucked up after the horses. He was a placid, cheerful child, who seldom cried or seemed irritable. Robert, who had just dispatched a chicken for dinner, said, “He couldn’t have a better mother.”
“I know so.”
And then came another, a baby girl they named Claire. With the new addition to the family, Robert and Rachel had precious little time to themselves. Precious little time to discuss the affairs of their life or their community; precious little time to argue. In the hurly-burly world of running a farm, they seemed to drift apart, just the least amount. Neither a matter of lost devotion, nor any subterranean shift in their relationship, by the end of each day, the candle’s wick had just worn down to a wisp from exhaustion.
By the time he was four, Stuart followed his father around like he was his father’s right hand man. But what Stuart loved the most was riding on the John Deere tractor when Robert took it out. Stuart would ride on his father’s lap. Holding the boy tight to him, his arm across his midriff, they drove the tractor everywhere on the farm.
One hot August day, shortly before the harvest, he was riding with Stuart on his lap, when the boy suddenly wrestled out of his father’s grasp, landing for just a second on the gas pedal. That caused the tractor to lurch, precipitating Stuart’s tumble to the ground.
The last thing that Robert saw of his son, before the large tractor’s tires ran over him, was his head, full of light brown curls.
Again, Father Diaz performed the services. Though the eulogy was brief, the grief was great. At first mourning the tragedy together, soon both Rachel and Robert were grieving by themselves. It was not long before he saw the recriminating look in Rachel’s eyes. He could not touch his wife without her darting away like a startled fawn. They turned to the Church, but when Father Diaz said it was in God’s plans, Rachel stood up and stormed out of the rectory office, saying, “Not one I know.” Marriage counselors only reminded them of the terrible particulars of the day their boy died.
By January, she asked him for a divorce. Robert, tormented by the fact he felt responsible for the death of his son, couldn’t stand the cold silence of his wife turning away from him. He was almost relieved when she left. He couldn’t take her recriminating eyes any longer. To die and not be dead. Somewhere the dead were more alive than the living. Their spirits still roamed the earth, invisible, but unvanquished. Never forgiving. Never allowing surcease in one’s sorrow.
By Joseph Dylan