Kenneth Vanderbeek, “Planting Season”

It was nighttime when they boarded the train.

Beforehand each had received a breast patch containing a letter and number, starting with A1, along with instructions not to remove it. Now they were paraded through the depot in groups of one hundred. There were thousands.

On the platform, men in green suits and caps directed them with blinking flashlights like giant fireflies. Searchlights towering above the first, middle, and last cars also guided the human flow.

It was already May. The air was dead. Rain was falling, nothing more than an intermittent drizzle, one could see against the lights. Hardly any thought about it, and, except for those who were particularly sensitive to the heat, hardly any felt it either. In most parts rain was like horses and buggies: prevalent once, now hardly recalled, buried in the furrows of memory. Some flicked the droplets as a nuisance, as they swatted flies.

There were more instructions. Couples together: women at the left, men at the right, singles paired randomly. Considering the heat, they’d been permitted to wear hats; otherwise, they were to bring nothing else but the clothes they wore — no suitcases. All their needs would be provided for.

The women, used to overpacking for vacations and feeling somehow less than human without their makeup, felt disoriented, but the men were thrilled. Many boarded the train wearing their favorite hunting caps, others fedoras, sombreros, and other types of warm-weather headwear they’d purchased especially for the trip, of its particular ‘outdoor’ theme; and it was they, many also in sandals and moccasins, who gave to the gathering its odd note of feet slogging, as if on a long march. Although those overly aroused made the going a bit claustrophobic for the others, for the most part decorum prevailed and the boarding proceeded fluidly — not surprising, considering that The Sweepstakes had been open only to adults (‘21 years and older’).

The Sweepstakes had appeared one Sunday in February in all the newspapers, from the metro dailies to the suburban journals and community weeklies, from farmers’ market circulars to the Agricultural Almanac. It was promoted in the towns and villages, and in the cities as well. Flyers were rubber-banded to mailbox grills and door handles, and a sultry female voice on the radio proclaimed “the vacation to end all vacations!” The Sweepstakes featured just one prize, yet an attractive one, an ‘All Expenses Paid Trip to the Country!’; its hook: ‘The Perfect Opportunity to Get Away From it All!’ Bold text declared that, though no purchase was necessary, for every kind of vegetable sold, fifteen percent of each sale would be donated to farmers. The Sweepstakes had signed off with a stunning logo of a human being rendered in the form of an upright generic crop, poised against a full-moon backdrop. Participation had been extraordinary; due especially, it seemed, to a recent harrowing sidebar in the recurring news of the drought: that even before this present crisis crop yields had been declining for years due to fully one-third of the country’s rural land base having been compromised by overproduction. What The Sweepstakes participants did not know (nor the populace at large) was that, but for at least a twenty-seven percent yield upsurge during the next two planting seasons, millions would starve. It was already nearly two months into this first planting season under the government’s hastened plan, and much of the country’s sown fields were still barren. Wheat, oats, barley, sorghum, corn, soybeans, rice, alfalfa — the seeds of all lay mostly dormant, already starving….

Boarding was nearly complete. For the most part it had been orderly, though stragglers, harried by their delinquency, were still filing in as late as five minutes before departure.

“They’ll be late for their own funerals,” laughed one of the porters.

“Ha, ha, that’s a good one!” laughed another.

Standing beside the last of the fifty cars (they’d needed every one) these two now hastened with others to shut the doors. A shrill whistle blew, followed by a metallic cough, and the vintage black engine began to move. As the train passed children and their interim guardians, thousands of arms sprouted out the open windows flailing goodbyes. To an onlooker removed, the left-behinds might have seemed, in the bath of light, as characters in an old film flitting like apparitions in the train’s intermittent spaces. “Have fun!” they cried. “And don’t get sunburned!” From one of the open windows a pop sounded: the jettisoned cork of bootlegged spirits.

“Eddie Fairgrave put that down this instant! You wanna get us the boot?” said his wife, Hope Fairgrave, as she tried to grab the bottle of whiskey he’d started guzzling as soon as their six kids had passed.

“Oh live a little!” he squawked.

More than for the fun and respite, the young Fairgraves had looked forward to this getaway for the chance to get married and make their next kid. Hope Fairgrave gave her big ‘Hope’ tattoo a kiss again for her having thought to wear baggy jeans so that their ring cases wouldn’t show. Now as a porter stepped into their cabin she made another prudent decision: to dispatch the whiskey bottle out the window.

The porter was a deathly thin man, his little black button eyes sunken, his whole face skeletal, and as he ambled down the aisle mass stares ensued. “Ticky, ticky, tocky,” he said in an endless loop, to no one, it seemed, but himself. With his arms uplifted, like castanets he worked two ticket-punchers, his little head jutting like a hungry chicken’s. Hope Fairgrave shivered. Even so, as soon as the man reached her she tugged his sleeve.

“Excuse me, sir, but we don’t have tickets,” she said in a tone of concern. “Rules didn’t say anything about tickets.”

The porter proceeded in silence, soon exiting into the next car.

“Well that was different!” said Hope Fairgrave.

Derelict, you ask me!” said Glenda Loveless, a few rows behind.

“No more derelict than those airline attendants who toss levity into safety instructions,” said Phil Smith, a few rows ahead.

The door opened again and now two porters entered, one hopping like a string puppet, flinging green confetti into the air; the other banging a tambourine. As they exited, chatter and giggles abounded.

“Oh, so festive!” chirped Hope Fairgrave’s best friend, Emily Harris. Her husband, Bill, and several others had managed to touch these porters as they passed.

Eddie Fairgrave got the next one’s attention. “So what all’s up anyway with this vacation to end all vacations?” he said. “And what’s with the late start? You couldn’t wait till tomorrow morning to—?” Hope Fairgrave cupped his mouth. The porter stopped. Stretching, he pointed out the window to where stars should have been. “What’s the moon got to do with this?” said Eddie. The porter withdrew. That’s when Hope Fairgrave noticed the green cross engraved on one of his teeth.

Now, except for the train’s throbbing wheels, the car was quiet again, and Glenda Loveless decided this was the proper time to chastise the loudmouths.

“Excuse me, but did you bother to read your itinerary? Because if you had, you wouldn’t have to ask all these ridiculous questions,” she said. “‘The sun in your lap! The moon draping a beautiful hilltop view! The world’s largest water cannon!’ — it’s all in here if you just bother to read the damn thing!” Her white dress dotted in hearts and her hair stuffed in an old-fashioned bonnet, Glenda Loveless looked like a throwback to a time before there were sweepstakes. She was making the trip alone. Her husband hadn’t bothered to enter. “Nobody ever wins,” he’d said.

Hope Fairgrave turned and cast dagger eyes at Glenda Loveless. At the same time a porter confiscated her itinerary, which he crumpled into a pocket.

Now another feeling gripped Hope Fairgrave: suddenly she felt put off by these train dudes and their constant intrusions — and especially their weird green suits, more like carnival uniforms, which, besides being incompatible with the heat, projected an air of haughtiness.

“Well if it’s any interest to you first-timers,” came the voice of an elderly man up front, “I go to these things all the time.”

“Sure you do,” said Glenda Loveless.

“Pardon me,” continued the old man, “but just last December I won one of these things compliments of a chaw can. All-expenses-paid trip this July to an Indian casino — actually, not far, it seems, from where we’re headed now. Only difference with that one,” he chuckled, “is at least they throw in some cash!”

“How much, how much?” asked Emily Harris.

“A pittance!” said the old man. “Hey, but who doesn’t love free?”

With this, every hat went up into the dead air; that is, except Phil Smith’s. He was a bespeckled young man, his glasses tiny and round as those of an intellectual or charlatan, tattoos scaling nearly every inch of his exposed flesh, and atop his head was a derby he deemed too important to shed. The train made a wide arc left.

“You know, that’s the problem with everyone,” said Phil Smith. “Money. It’s all about money.”

“You have something against living comfortably?” said Eddie Fairgrave.

“I’m just saying,” said Phil Smith. “Look, we’re all embarked on a gratis vacation. That’s cool. Let’s just not forget the bigger issue—”

“Ooo, the bigger issue!” chirped Glenda Loveless.

Hope Fairgrave leaped from her seat. “Stop it! Everyone stop it!” she cried. “We should be ashamed of ourselves! This young man’s right! Have we forgotten why we’re here? — have we forgotten that we gave thoughtfully, humbly, for a cause greater than ourselves?”

“Yep, that cause being me,” said Eddie Fairgrave. “Please kindly make your checks payable to—”

“Oh shut up, Eddie!” said Hope Fairgrave.

“So who thinks this awful heat might ever end?” Emily Harris changed the subject. She’d extracted a handkerchief from her bra and was dabbing her nose. “I mean, it practically starts in January anymore and lasts past Halloween!” A porter confiscated the hanky, so she switched to sniffling in a sleeve.

“Well I for one have stopped fretting about the heat,” said Glenda Loveless. “You can’t fight Mother Nature—.”

“Not so fast,” interrupted Phil Smith. “Recycle, turn off the A/C, ride a bike — buy more vegetables! That’s how you fight — for Mother Nature!”

“Oh we Fairgraves just love our bi-cycles, don’t we Eddie!” said Hope Fairgrave.

Suddenly the lights went out. Someone pulled a Braille book from a vest. When, a moment later, the lights went back on, the cabin door opened and in skipped some dozen merrymakers, the first wave fingering recorders and lutes, the next tossing rice, corn kernels, and wheat heads, the last of them serving wine and bread with dipping oil. To the accompaniment of the instrumentalists all launched into a rendition of Kumbaya:

Someone’s laughing, my God, kumbaya;
Someone’s crying, my God, kumbaya…

Soon the passengers joined in. “It’s a festival!” cried Emily Harris.

Since the merrymakers still had the cars ahead to serve, in all, their revelry here lasted but ten minutes; yet as the instrumentalists departed, they who had been pouring the wine and breaking the bread remained a bit longer, until, pour after pour in the gold goblets on moon-shaped napkins, they had sated their guests; the ample bread torn, to the very end, as boar meat off the suckled breast, and dunked voraciously in the chalices of vegetable oil, the awful rain of tipped glasses and crumbs mattering to none.

Finally the virginal beauties arrived, attired in finest white silk dresses, circlets of wheat stems — candle-tipped — crowning their long tresses, all pirouetting in a serenade of corn tassels. Midnight had come; upon their leaving the lights ceased.

 

The train arrived right at six the next morning, a beautiful spring day, the sky already blue as a sapphire. Just over the horizon the moon, full and wax-white, peered like a blind eye.

Where they stopped there was no station or platform. There was no rental carport either, or shuttle. No eatery, no hotel. For as far as one could see, only fields. Hope Fairgrave wondered where they’d put the world’s largest water cannon.

Those who had serenaded them the night before, and then some, were gathering outside in a lineup which, when it was complete, spanned the length of the train. In solidarity the lot of them grabbed hands; they looked like paper dolls.

Thankfully the new sun had brought with it a breeze, and as the passengers wallowed in it, awaiting instructions, they marveled at the vast prairie which seemed to disappear over a ridge. Now, too, their hearing was aroused by a distant sound like wailing, as if (to a knowing ear) of seagulls or seals — though not a single animal was to be seen except now and then some great bird circling. Emily Harris asked, “Have we come to the sea?”

Now whistles blew, and with flagging hands the porters beckoned all to disembark. Of her group, Hope Fairgrave was the first to step out (some adrenalin having usurped protocol to wait her turn), and the stunning air she breathed in as if it were a freshly baked corn muffin. Looking up at her husband she cried, “How wonderful! Do come down, Eddie. Now, Eddie!”

The Sweepstakes winners were gushing out of the cars like floodwater over a broken levy, whistling, humming, many singing, their feet shuffling anxiously; all inhaling deeply the country air.

Suddenly a sultry female voice quelled their energy. Silence fell.

“Welcome,” it said, “we are delighted to have you. As you know, you are here today because you are winners. For that cheer yourselves; this is your destination!”

Instantly the valley echoed with thunderous screams, hoots, and clapping. As if a cued recording, the sultry female voice continued only after the noise had subsided.

“Look. See your caretakers reboard the train. Please continue to heed their instructions, as this will ensure that your visit proceeds seamlessly. We appreciate your patience.”

The porters returned carrying duffle bags.

“To commence your all-expenses-paid country outing, it is our pleasure to present a special treat compliments of our mother, nature. Caretakers, begin serving!”

Earnestly the porters began pouring and distributing a thick fruity drink in paper cups.

“As you enjoy your ambrosia, you will be arranged in your original groups of one hundred based on your breast patches. As before, couples shall remain together; as well, singles according to your pairings. As your caretakers complete their preparations, we encourage you to take in the beauty of God’s country. Thank you, from all of us at The Sweepstakes!”

The sultry female voice went silent.

As she sipped her “milkshake,” Hope Fairgrave looked around. In all the excitement she was overjoyed to still be among her peers, especially Phil Smith, whom she liked for his chutzpah, her best friend Emily Harris and her husband Bill, and the nice old man, who gave her a thumb’s-up. Thankfully, Glenda Loveless was nowhere to be seen.

The porters, having repacked the duffle bags, reassembled in their formation. Hope Fairgrave noticed at the head of her group the one with the green cross on his tooth. A moment later he gestured them to follow him toward the ridge.

In many of the groups, ladies clasped each other’s hands and commenced frolicking like schoolgirls. In their own group Hope Fairgrave and Emily Harris had suddenly started swinging each other’s arms to avoid fainting from anticipation of finally beholding the world’s largest water cannon.

Then what? A lovely waterhole with rope-and-tire swings all around! Boats for fishing, waterskiing, pleasure cruising! Romantic hiking, endless shopping, games on pristine lawns!

Hope Fairgrave’s legs buckled. (She’d probably just stepped into a rabbit hole.) Gazing left, then right, she saw that all the other groups were moving forward just as theirs, behind the green men in formation. Recalling her favorite subject in school she suddenly laughed, imagining in their caretakers’ place the bumbling Redcoats who, on account of their own elegant lines, had been such easy pickings for the American Rebels.

Her group was the first to reach the ridge. There, beyond its rolling descent, stretched farmland farther than the eye could see. She noticed a torrent of activity: in the furrows, a veritable legion of workers tending crops; at the perimeters, more workers who were loading flatbed trucks with bundles of something that appeared like cocoons: hay bales probably. Though from this far it was impossible to ascertain the crop, Hope Fairgrave was fascinated that on this, only the third day of May, the crop had already achieved an autumnal height — and what’s more, in rows utterly even and symmetrical, like the pins of a pin point impression board! She leaned into her husband. Indeed, if not for some dizziness, the mystical scene would have been perfect!

As the remaining groups reached the ridge, someone was seen to fall. A porter laid her out. Another fell, and another. All around people were suddenly stopping. In response the porters regrouped such that they proceeded now behind their charges, and to resume order commenced to push them forward. Those that fell, the porters pushed down the hill.

To all the sojourners now the sun was spinning, and those still upright tried vainly to get back up hill. Those who had succumbed were convulsing; those who had not were soon felled by the force of water from a giant hose.

The surge ripped Hope Fairgrave’s hand from Emily Harris’s. “Eddie!” she cried. In the terrible swell she could not find her husband, who, but a few feet away, was crouched over his knees puking. Through the torrent she heard Glenda Loveless and soon made out her figure, which, some distance away, was laid out under the weight of an eager assemblage. “This is madness, madness!” she screamed. Hope Fairgrave crawled toward her and suddenly recoiled.

Glenda Loveless’s ankles were so small, her captors had had to call for assistance. The fieldworker who joined them finally got the metal rod in.

Now, at each hammer stroke, the rod went up the leg, passing through the fleshly thigh and on to the pelvic girdle, where next it passed the spleen and continued up along the ribs, finally popping out of the shoulder like Jack out of the box.

They propped her up, the full moon with the sun making a perfect backdrop, and carried her down to the first furrow, where they staked her just behind another: her raining blood already nourishing.

It had taken less than a minute to do Glenda Loveless. Now they turned on the others.

 

 

 

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