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2009 Short Story Contest: First Place Winner

Lydia Fauerbach ladled chicken noodle soup into two bowls, her everyday ones with the roses faded from years of hard washing. She had made the noodles this morning, drying them in long strands on the back of a wooden chair.

Two days ago, she'd killed and dressed an old, tough hen that needed to boil a long time before softening to a rich flavor. Carrots and celery and a bit of seasoning would make a fine soup that she'd serve with thick slices of homemade bread.

While the soup was simmering, Lydia had written a letter, using the fountain pen and linen stationery her sister sent years ago for her birthday. There were many false starts. Lydia wondered how to address them: Dear Draft Board or Dear Sirs? The rest of the letter she'd been composing in her head for days, spelling out why Nelson was needed on the farm: Lydia, a widow, simply could not spare him, despite the patriotic cause in Vietnam. But this morning she was easily distracted, staring often out the rain-streaked window at the field next to the house. It should be seeded as soon as the soil was dry enough to work. The garden needed to be tilled as well, and the chicken coop cleaned.

She formed each sentence slowly, fighting a knot of fear like the one she'd felt years ago, when she and Bob had packed up the Ford with a couple suitcases and driven 500 miles to Wisconsin. She could still taste the disappointment at seeing the place--muddy driveway full of potholes and frost boils, barn with peeling paint and boarded-up windows, corn crib collapsed. The grim concrete steps of the house led to a front door that opened directly into a kitchen with an old-fashioned sink, wood stove, and icebox. A broken-down farm in the Northwoods; the only place they could afford.

When Bob saw her tears, he took her hand and walked with her to the field behind the barn. He picked up a handful of soil and held it in front of her. The dark loam smelled as sweet as chocolate. She saw hills stretching to the horizon, covered in late-spring green, beautiful. But they were steep. How could you get machinery over them? Keep the soil from washing into the creek? It was no wonder the owners before them went broke.

That first winter she hated the farm. But it kept Bob out of the war. They didn't draft farmers then. She felt fortunate her husband was safe when she read about the bloodshed in Europe, heard of friends who'd been killed or lost in action.

Now Lydia hoped the farm could save them again. In the letter she tried to sound not emotional, but sensible-reasonable-and she embellished the argument with a little testimony about Nelson's love of the land. She cared more about the farm, and knew more about farming, than Nelson ever would, but she refused to lose him to some foolishness concocted by worthless Washington politicians. When she'd finished the letter, Lydia set it at Nelson's place before calling him to the dinner table. She hoped he'd be pleased.

Nelson had spent the morning studying Webster's Dictionary. He liked to think of himself as an aficionado of words. Folks might accuse him of sententiousness, occasional tendentiousness-even pretentiousness- but, as he had told his mother, to do so was just showing their ignorance.

Today the word dandle caught his fancy. He wondered how one would "move a small child up and down on the knees." Were they dancing? Would the child stand or kneel, knee to knee? How would the child stay put? And what dance would they do? Not a polka, he hoped, or tango. Maybe a dignified box step, the dance they'd taught him in gym class. Imagination soon carried Nelson beyond dandling to a waltz with a blue-eyed girl in white chiffon dress. They float over a polished floor. Bathed in the reflected light of a chandelier, a hundred-piece orchestra plays Strauss.

Nelson decided to use this image in the novel he was developing, which was based on Catcher in the Rye but with a rural setting and agrarian hero. His mother's call to dinner interrupted his thoughts. Her voice sounded to him like the bray of a donkey. Storing his notebook in the desk drawer, Nelson silently railed against this harpy who tied him to a damnified life on a farm.

From its own pigeonhole in the desk, Nelson pulled out the letter from the university. He reread it slowly. The letter promised scholarship money for tuition and books, and guaranteed a job to pay for housing. If he did well, the scholarship would be renewed annually until he earned a degree. He folded the letter and returned it to its slot. At the right moment--if that moment ever came--he would talk to his mother about it. His mother brayed again, threatening to haul him downstairs herself. Nelson locked the desk and closed the door behind him before descending to the kitchen.

Entering the kitchen, Nelson saw an envelope on his plate. He grunted, set the letter aside, and refused to acknowledge his mother. " Now don't lose that letter. I spent all morning on it," Lydia told him.

He chewed each morsel of the tough chicken and rubbery noodles with deliberate detachment. "Aren't you even going to read it?" she said, pushing the letter toward him, "it'll save your hide if it works."

Nelson set down his soup spoon and reached for a slice of bread, staring straight ahead at the battered kitchen door. The door was a kind of mint green, coated in leftover paint his mother had gotten on sale at the variety store. Nelson loathed the color.

"Well, suit yourself. A mother can only do so much." She left the table only to return in a moment; in her left hand was last week's Barron County News-Shield. "I want you to just look at this. That boy you went to high school with, Fred Knutson, he got shot down last week in Vietnam--and they don't know where he is. That poor family must be desperate. And the Slagstad kid, he lost both his legs. He'll be in a wheelchair the rest of his life."

Nelson snatched the newspaper from her hand and placed on top of the letter. He violently ripped a piece of bread in two before shoving it in his mouth.

Lydia sighed, returning to her place at the table. "I hope you don't plan to waste your time this afternoon. The rain's stopped, and it's dry enough for you to work on the fences in the pasture. Next thing you know some fool cow will knock down a post, and half the herd will be chewing up the lawn."

Quickly, so fast he even surprised himself, Nelson pushed back his chair, knocking it sideways on the linoleum floor. In a moment he was outside the house, slamming the door behind him. His head pounded. Why couldn't he talk to her? Tell her about the university? She never let him get a word in edgewise. She didn't understand him. Maybe he'd say something after supper. Maybe he'd also fly to the moon.

Inside the machine shed, Nelson methodically stacked fence posts against the back of the wagon. His headache started to ebb as he secured the last post by using his father's wooden tool chest as a wedge to keep it in place. He pulled on leather work gloves before pushing the wagon out of the shed. Nelson started the tractor, turned it in tight counterclockwise circle, and backed it up near the wagon hitch.

He put the tractor in neutral, jumped off, and lifted the wagon tongue onto the hitch. It would have been easier if he'd asked his mother for help. But then she'd go off about the draft board, about how to doeverything. That would be just about as bad as her telling him how much better things were in Iowa. Who's ever come from Wisconsin that amounted to anything? He just knew she'd go on and on. Then his mother would start in about Donna Reed, the Hollywood star who, like her, had come from Denison, Iowa. Nelson was sick to death of Donna Reed.

As Nelson drove to the pasture, an ugly scene flashed into his mind. He imagined telling his mother about the scholarship. In the kitchen, he saw himself tied to a chrome chair at the Formica table. Overhead lights blind him as he struggles against a gag in his mouth. His mother's high-pitched voice echoes over and over, No, no, no . . . 

His hands were shaking as he unloaded his tools from the wagon. Nelson set down the toolbox in the pasture next to the woods. Working on the fences calmed him. Nelson imagined living in Tripp Dorm, the one that looked like it belonged in Oxford. He'd take up a pipe and buy his own stein to drink beer at the Union. He'd meet with friends to debate politics in the Rathskeller. Nelson worked as if in a dream, pausing only to turn his face toward the sun. He inhaled the earthy air, all the while hearing insects in the grass and sensing the movement of leaves on a nearby maple tree.

Late in the afternoon, his mother walked out to the pasture carrying a basket with chocolate cake in a folded dishtowel and a thermos of coffee. Nelson tightened his grip on the post hole digger and jammed it into the ground, his shoulders jarred by the impact.

While Lydia stood next to him, he continued to work, twisting out chunks of soil before thrusting the digger back into the hole, bracing himself for his mother's sharp voice. "I know you don't want to talk about it, Nelson, but we've got to do something about this draft board stuff."

"You're right. I do not want to discuss it, especially now. Can't you see I'm a little busy?"

"I know you're busy. We're all busy. But that doesn't mean you don't have to go in front of those fat old men and get yourself out of the army. I can't have you going off to some foolish war. I need you here on the farm."

"Mother, I have my own plan to get out of the army." The back of Nelson's throat closed, the words refusing to be released. "I can't talk about it now, but it's better than farming the rest of my life."

"What do you mean? Farming is a good life. It's the most important job in the world. You can't have a better life. Unless you weren't up in this God-forsaken part of the world. I'm sorry we had to leave Iowa, but the place we've built up here is pretty good. And I need you."

"Don't I have a right to my own life?" Nelson's voice cracked.

Lydia bore down on him, "You aren't thinking of leaving? Is that why you're so secretive, poring over those useless books?" She clasped her hands over Nelson's, stopping the motion of the post hole digger. "You're needed here. Dad is gone and I can't run this farm without you." She held his hands firmly, and he knew he had to look directly into her dark brown eyes before she would let go. "Tell me you will take my letter to the draft board and explain to them why you have to stay on the farm," she demanded.

Nelson met her eyes, but he couldn't speak. His tongue felt fat, glued to his teeth. When his mother finally released his hands, she walked slowly back to the house, leaving behind the cake and coffee. Nelson ignored her offering. Trying not to think, he worked ferociously the rest of the afternoon until he'd finished the fencing.

As he walked back to the tractor, a curious thought struck Nelson. He imagined his mother, seated at a chrome kitchen chair in her Sunday dress, holding a miniature Nelson by the hands and lightly bouncing him on her knee. "Dandle," he said out loud. Nelson was no ballroom dancer; he was a child dandled by his mother. Spotting the basket with his mother's food, Nelson tore off the dishtowel and flung the piece of cake at a startled crow.

In the evening Lydia liked to work in her gardens. Certainly the vegetable patch was a chore, but the terraced rock garden Bob built for her the second year they were in Wisconsin was her joy, a consolation prize for the difficult move. He had worked on it for days, digging the terraces by hand and hauling rocks from piles scattered around the farm. He fit each rock into place according to color and size, and helped Lydia plant sedum, lilies, primroses and mums. Everything flourished. Weeds as well, of course, but pulling them could be a pleasure, too. Lydia did a lot of thinking while she worked, and a lot of remembering.

She'd been awkward as a girl, always tallest in her class. Lydia learned to slouch to disguise her height. It had been a surprise when stocky, handsome Bob Fauerbach asked to take her home after the Luther League picnic the summer they were both seventeen years old. He had his father's 1932 Ford, and she felt like a queen, perched on the upholstered front seat, waving goodbye to her friends. They talked a long time before he walked her to the door and asked her to a dance at Rainbow Garden Dance Hall the next Saturday. They'd kissed then, too; she bending down--a full head taller than he--to reach his lips.

Lydia's father distrusted Bob, called him a "pushy Kraut." But she knew the truth: he was afraid Bob would take Lydia away. Her father would never admit that he needed her. In the middle of the Depression, Lydia's mother had died, leaving her father with seven children. Lydia quit school to help run their farm and raise the younger children. She could work hard as any man, planting and harvesting, milking cows, raising pigs and chickens, as well as cooking and doing house chores. In the beginning, she'd been happy to stay home. But after a few months of dating Bob she grew restless.

The day after Lydia ran away from home, she and Bob were married by a justice of the peace. For their first year of marriage, the couple lived in a converted chicken coop on a farm Bob rented. The next year they moved to Wisconsin. After ten years without a child, Lydia secretly worried that she was being punished by God for leaving her home, for disobeying her father.

Then, like a miracle, Nelson came. She loved him so much it scared her. Her life came to revolve around him. The curly hair surrounding his round face looked to her like an angel's halo, his tiny mouth like a butterfly. In his Sunday clothes--dark blue suit, white shirt, red tie--Nelson looked as handsome as any Kennedy. But she loved him most in his Sears overalls and checked flannel shirt, his work boots laced up to the ankle: a true man of the land.

Of course, Nelson had some flaws. His habit of reading instead of working irritated her. But Bob always defended him, saying he had a good mind, a mind Lydia didn't understand. Farming was hard for Nelson, he told her, because he was so sensitive, so "inside himself."

She knew about the letter. A week ago she'd found the key to his desk when she was putting his clean pajamas in the nightstand. Lydia looked through his notebooks, where she found lists of words; the novel he'd started about some kid rescuing people from cornfields; and clippings from the News-Shield about the raccoon who attacked Orville Sloane, the escapee from the county jail captured in Johnson's raspberry patch, and Deputy Woods shooting a tarantula in a shipment of bananas at the Clover Farm Store.

In one pigeonhole she discovered the letter from the university. After she read it, Lydia knew she had to do whatever it took to keep Nelson with her. Today's confrontation in the pasture had left her shaken. But pulling mulch off the mums calmed Lydia, gave her hands something to do. She worked until darkness, when she saw a light come on in Nelson's room. She hoped he'd put aside this university nonsense. After she'd washed up and changed her clothes, Lydia took a bowl of ice cream to Nelson's room. She knocked and entered. Nelson didn't say a word. His eyes looked red. Lydia set the bowl and spoon on his desk.

The next morning the bowl was washed and back in the cupboard. The spoon lay with the others in the drawer. Her letter to the draft board was no longer on the table.

On Friday morning Nelson went to the courthouse. He sat on an orange, plastic chair outside a first-floor meeting room and waited. Taped to the frosted glass of the door was a hand-written sign: DRAFT BOARD MEETING. Six other men hung around the door. They too were appealing their cases, and Nelson passed the time by studying them, trying to figure out who would get a deferment. Deferment, another word he'd researched. Its original meaning was "the act of delaying or postponing." The military definition was stronger, meaning "an official postponement of service." It came from Latin words for carry and away and was related to the word defer--the act of submitting to the opinion or decision of another. It was also similar to deference, which meant "respect for elders" or "regard for another's wishes."

Nelson examined the man in the chair opposite his. The guy had black, threadbare jeans and his red T-shirt showed a bearded man in a beret smoking a cigar. Nelson couldn't quite read the title of the paperback he was hunched over; his long hair covered his face and most of the book. Nelson wondered if he went to college somewhere. Did he know he was making a mistake with that T-shirt and hair? He'd tick-off the conservative old men on the board for certain. Nelson had heard that they taunted college kids by asking them questions about what they'd done at school: Had they taken part in demonstrations? Harassed the National Guardsmen? Thrown any rocks? He might look cool, Nelson thought, but in Vietnam his cool wouldn't do him a lot of good.

The long-haired man looked up, saw Nelson, and said, "Nelson? Nelson Fauerbach?"

Nelson studied his face.

"Yeah. Do I know you?"

"Steve Anderson," he held out his hand. "You were in my gym class a couple years ago. I remember you always readin' a book behind the bleachers while the rest of us were shootin' baskets."

Nelson now recognized him. Steve Anderson was the cocky kid, the one picked first when they chose teams for Phys Ed class. Steve always called Nelson bookworm. "Steve, yeah. What are you up to these days?"

"I went down to Madison to study engineering, but shifted into philosophy. That calculus shit got to be too much for me."

"Philosophy? Wow. Is that what you're reading?" Nelson felt his heart quicken. His grades in high school had been twice as good as Steve's.

"Yeah. I'm getting into the Existentialists. Sartre really had his act together. What about you? What are you doing now? You were such a bookworm."

Nelson became aware that his palms were sweating. "I'm still farming," he said, pausing a moment before continuing, "my dad died last year, and my mother needs me to keep the place going."

"What a drag," Steve said with a wince. "You don't seem like the farm type."

"It's okay."

"Really? I hate farming. Get up at the crack of dawn every morning, work like a dog all day, and then go back to the barn to do the cow thing all over again. It's murder on your social life."

"Yeah, well, it's not so bad," Nelson lied. He'd only been on one date. Nelson had taken the neighbor girl, Cindy Connors, to a terrible movie at the El Lago Theatre in Rice Lake. Over the course of two hours they didn't speak a word to each other; Nelson could hardly wait to get her home. He hadn't tried dating again. "I guess I'm used to it now."

"I really hate winter, too," Steve continued, "when you have to chip the ice out of the drinking cups and plow through snow in the pitch dark at forty below."

Nelson felt desperate to change subjects. "What's it like in Madison?"

"It's pretty good, man. My first class is at eleven, so I can sleep in. I like to read until midnight and then have a beer with some of the guys."

"Sounds great. I bet you spend some time in the Rathskeller."

"Too much, probably." Steve leaned forward and lowered his voice. "To tell you the truth, Nelson, it's not all a bed of roses. The first year was pretty rugged."

"What do you mean?"

"I flunked two classes. Wrecked my grade point average. That's why I'm in trouble with my student deferment. Some of the classes you get into are so big--like hundreds of people--and the profs don't know you from Adam. The campus is huge, too. One kid in my dorm left after a week because he couldn't figure out how to get to half his classes. He just packed up and went back to Menasha."

"Are the classes hard?"

"Not bad. But I screwed myself when I didn't study for exams. One final was murder. The guy next to me took one look at the questions, walked up to the front of the room, and threw his blue book in the trash." Steve squinted his eyes and leaned in closer to Nelson, "I've heard they let in too many students and weed 'em out with killer courses."

The door to the draft board room clicked open and a red-haired woman appeared in the doorway. "Nelson Fauerbach?" she announced, looking at the men assembled in the hallway. With one arm she held a sheaf of papers against her chest. Nelson rose from his conspiratorial crouch with Steve and cleared his throat.

"Here's the paperwork for the deferment the board granted you this morning after reviewing your letter of support," said the woman as she strode toward him. "Just fill this out and mail it in as soon as you get a chance." She handed Nelson the form. "Steven Anderson? You're next," said the woman as she turned toward the door.

Steve rose, holding out his hand, "Wish me luck."

Nelson sighed, "I hope you don't get drafted, Steve. I really do."

"You and me, both. If I don't end up in 'Nam, I'll buy you a beer sometime." Nelson flashed a crooked smile and shook Steve's hand a second time.

Walking through the parking lot, Nelson noticed that the air had never felt so fresh, the sun so warm, as it did at that moment. His mother's letter had worked. What if she was right about staying on the farm? What did he know about college? If he went to Madison he'd keep running into guys like Steve who'd make him feel like a fool for sticking it out on the farm, for having no social life. They knew a lot more than he did. What the heck was existentialism anyway? Who was Sartre? What was a blue book? What if he got into some class he couldn't hack? He might flunk out, get drafted, and then ship out to Vietnam. Return legless. Or crazy. Or worse.

Working on his novel was what he really wanted to do. Maybe staying home was best for him. He had his deferment so he didn't have to worry about getting drafted, at least for a while. "Deferment," he thought. "Deference. Respecting the wishes of an elder." He suddenly felt very hungry and hoped his mother had kept dinner warm for him. How pleased she'd be by his news.

As soon as Nelson had pulled out of the driveway that Friday morning, Lydia went to his room. She'd wanted to drive him to the courthouse, but he'd been pigheaded and insisted on going alone. At his desk, she found his notebook open to "flamenco: a vigorous rhythmic dance in the style of the Andalusian gypsies." Nelson had drawn a picture of a figure in a black suit with a ruffled shirt, a string tie, dark hair. Arrows illustrated how the figure was twirling and leaping in the air. At the bottom of the page was a sketch of a woman looking suspiciously like Lydia, holding what appeared to be strings attached to a puppet; the puppet was in heap, collapsed to the floor. The strings were drawn in red ink. Lydia had to resist the urge to rip out the page, ball up the paper, and throw it into the stove.

Her anger quickly gave way to an image of her father the last time she'd seen him. In one hand he had a letter from Bob, in the other a strap he used to punish the children. She'd been picking beans in the field next to the barn. When she heard him shouting, she ran to the house and up the stairs. Her father blocked the door with his body, his face flushed. Childrens' faces crowded around the front window. He raised the strap, but Lydia stood her ground. "You can hit me all you want," she told him, "but I'm marrying Bob and that's that." Lowering the strap, her father said that as far as he was concerned she could go to hell. He turned away from Lydia and walked into the house, closing the door behind him. She heard the click of a lock. Lydia walked six miles to Bob's farm without looking back.

Remembering that day, Lydia's mind replayed a series of images: Her father's face. The raised strap. A clenched fist. The vicious words. What a fat-headed fool, she thought. To calm herself, Lydia picked up the scholarship letter. She saw the deadline for acceptance had not yet passed. The university could keep him out of Vietnam, too. Maybe she had been too heavy-handed. He'd been so unhappy lately. Moping around all the time. Not talking. He must really want this. Maybe she should let him go. It didn't have to be forever. She'd figure out something. Lydia slipped the letter into her apron pocket.

While she planted lettuce and peas in the garden, she imagined Nelson at the university, wondered where he would live, what his life would be like. She pictured a ballroom in Madison, some fancy place--like the one they have in Des Moines, where she and Bob had spent their last New Year's Eve--with mahogany-paneled walls and leaded-glass windows. There's Nelson in a black satin suit, a ruffled shirt with ebony buttons, and a string tie. An orchestra plays under a shimmering chandelier. Nelson dances a solo flamenco, clicking his heels together and rising from the polished floor like a celestial creature.

As Nelson drove into the garage, he saw his mother bent over her plantings. She looked up and waved. He decided to tell her his news later, keep her in suspense a little while longer. In the kitchen he smelled pot roast, his favorite. Two stairs at a time, he raced to his room where he found the notebook, but not the scholarship letter that he had left there that morning for his mother to find. He figured she'd already read it once when he planted the key to his desk in the nightstand. This morning he was hopeful she'd read it again and see the pictures in his notebook, maybe even change her mind about the university. Now he wasn't sure what he hoped for.

Nelson put on his work clothes and walked out to the garden. "Your letter," he shouted, "it worked! I got the deferment."

"Good," she stood up from a row of lettuce and walked toward him. "I've got news for you, too. How'd you like to go to the university in the fall?"

Nelson frowned, "I can't. I gotta help you here."

Lydia stood in front of Nelson, dirt-caked hands on her hips, "I've been thinking about that," she said. "I bet I could get the fall crops in on my own as long as we finish the haying by August. And the Schmidt kid could help me with the milking while you're gone."

"But what about the letter you wrote? You told them I was your support and mainstay since Dad died?"

"I wrote that to get you out of the army. If you come home school vacations and summers, you can help me with the chores I save up for you. I think I can handle the work for while. Besides, you don't have your heart in it."

"But, Ma, I'm not so sure I want to go to the 'U' any more."

"Why not? All you do here is read and mope around the house, flinging those big words at me. What happened to you?"

Nelson felt that hard spot in his throat, "I got talking with Steve Anderson who's at the 'U'."

"Is that Bud Anderson's kid?"

"Yeah. He made it seem pretty hard. He's flunking out."

"I'm not surprised. That whole family doesn't have a brain among them. You're twice as smart as he is, and you've got twice the sense. When you use it. I found your letter from the university." She pulled it out of her pocket. "If you want to go, I'm behind you. Just help me out as much as you can."

Nelson shook his head; his arms were tight against his sides and his fists clenched.

Lydia's voice softened, "I know your father wouldn't want you to miss this chance. They're offering you a nice deal. He'd be proud of you: the first to go to college in our family. But it's up to you. The mailman hasn't come yet. If you go fast, you can get it in the mail today." She stuffed the envelope in Nelson's front overall pocket and walked toward the house. "I'm going to set the table and get dinner ready. Afterwards, we'll finish planting."

Nelson trudged into the garden, his feet mired in mud. The urge to cry rose up in him. He wanted to shake his fist at the sky. The envelope in his pocket felt heavy as a boulder from the moon. When he turned toward the house, he saw his mother watching him from the kitchen window. She seemed to be waiting for him to do something, but he couldn't figure out what.

Nelson woke at 4:00 am the next morning. He wondered if he would get used to city life, when he could lie in bed until 6:00 or even 7:00 am. If he got up now, he'd have almost an hour to write a scene in his novel. He'd finished his dictionary work, and liked a lot of the "Z" words: zeitgeist, zealot. His favorite was zymosis, meaning "fermentation" or "infection." Nelson felt acutely at this moment the meaning of zymosis, as if he were infected with some emotion he could not name.

He couldn't believe his mother had changed her mind--just when he'd given up hope.

Nelson had an irresistible urge to leap in the air; a bit of foolishness that Lydia would certainly disapprove of. Standing between his bed and desk, he tried a tentative jump. Then a second one, this time knocking his bare heels together. On the third try, Nelson leapt in the air and felt himself rise from the bare wooden floor like some celestial creature that has just slipped its earthly bonds.

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Nancy Jesse grew up on a dairy farm in Barron County, studied English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and worked for over thirty years as an educator. She lives in Madison and has published both prose and poetry and co-edited two anthologies.


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