Rupert carried his cup of strong black coffee to the kitchen table. Outside the window, in the pale light of an early March morning, the bare snow-dusted fields stretched toward the southern horizon. Soon it would be time for planting corn and soybeans; but this year, someone else would be doing it. Last fall, after the harvest, he had sold out to one of the agribusiness corporations buying up farmland all over the Midwest.
This land had been in his family for many generations, going back to prairie settlers in log cabins. He never would have given it up if his children had shown any interest in farming. Even after all three of his daughters had moved to the city, he had expected to pass the farm on to his son, the youngest of his children. Gilbert always had been fascinated with machinery; even as a small boy, he had asked endless questions about how a tractor or a combine worked, his big blue eyes wide and eager in his tanned face. Now, with his broad shoulders and strong arms, Gil looked just like his grandfather, for whom he was named.
When Gil had decided to study mechanical engineering instead of agriculture at the state university, Rupert hadn’t been overly concerned. After all, teenagers often had notions of one sort or another before they settled down to farming. In his own youth, Rupert had dreamed of traveling to Central America and working to save the rainforest. He’d picked up Spanish fairly well from the migrant workers as a boy. What an adventure it would be, to live and work in another country! But his dreams never had reached the point of action. Like his father before him, Rupert had ended up marrying his high school sweetheart and raising a family in the old farmhouse.
Selling the land felt like betraying his ancestors, but there had been nothing else to do. After Gil graduated with his degree in mechanical engineering and took a job in the auto industry, Rupert didn’t even have any cousins interested in farming the land. They had all sold out to the big corporations, too.
He had gotten a fair price, and now he could look forward to a comfortable retirement. By most people’s standards, he ought to count himself lucky, having become a man of leisure when he wasn’t yet sixty. But it just didn’t feel right to him, somehow. His pioneer ancestors hadn’t put in all that backbreaking labor so that he could spend the next few decades idly lounging around, with no concerns beyond his golf score.
Besides, he didn’t even like golf.
Soft footsteps interrupted his brooding as his wife, Helen, padded into the kitchen in her pink robe and slippers. She poured herself some coffee and cream, stirring absently as she, too, gazed out the window. Helen’s golden-brown hair still looked much as it had in her youth, kept that way with regular visits to the beauty shop. There wasn’t much left of Rupert’s hair, which was a short, iron-gray fringe.
Helen put her coffee on the table and sat to his right. “A lot of good years,” she said quietly. She was looking at him now, rather than at the farmland; but he knew that she meant both.
Rupert put his hand on top of hers, thinking that at least Helen had a regular schedule to keep her busy in retirement. She played bridge twice a week and volunteered with the church. Sometimes she tutored children after school, though there weren’t many children left in town. Every year more of the small shops along Main Street closed down for lack of customers. Helen now had to drive twenty miles to get her hair done.
“I was remembering when we were in high school,” he told her, revealing only some of his thoughts. “Back when I wanted to save the world by doing conservation work in Central America. I thought it would be a grand adventure. Gil feels the same way about his job, designing small cars to save energy and cut down on pollution. The only difference is, he actually went and did it.”
Helen sipped her coffee slowly, holding the cup in her right hand while her left hand remained in Rupert’s grasp. He expected that she would say something about Gil, or the farm, or raising children in general. As far as he knew, Helen had no dreams of saving the world, or even exploring it. She was conservative and always had been content with life on the farm. The most adventurous she’d gotten was when she started using fingernail polish a few years ago, having grown frustrated with how often her aging nails chipped and cracked without it.
But instead of the ordinary conversation he’d been expecting, Helen asked, in a calm, reflective tone, “Are you thinking that we could go somewhere and do conservation work now? There’s nothing to keep us here, with the land sold and the children grown.”
Taken by surprise, Rupert struggled for words, his thoughts full of those imagined journeys from so long ago. Surely Helen hadn’t dreamed of anything similar? No, she must have said it only to make him happy. He couldn’t take her away from the community she always had loved.
“But your friends,” he began, “the church, all the things you do…”
Helen laughed, a sound more unexpected than her words. Soft, musical, and filled with joy, it reminded him all over again of why he had married her.
“Rupe, if I didn’t have anything else to do for the rest of my life besides listen to the church ladies gossip at the bake sales, I’d surely die of boredom.”
In answer, he clasped her hand more tightly where it lay under his. Both of them had farmers’ hands, roughened by many years of hard physical work. These hands never had been meant for a quiet retirement. When the light glinting off the snowy fields drew Rupert’s gaze to the window again, he saw not just the farmland left behind, but all the possibilities that the future still held.