Excerpt

Plainsong

Kent Haruf

May 27, 2015 
The following is from Kent Haruf’s 1999 novel Plainsong which was a National Book Award finalist. Haruf’s honors include a Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, the Wallace Stegner Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. He died in November 2014 at the age of seventy-one. His posthumous novel, Our Souls at Night, was published yesterday.

Maggie Jones drove out to the McPherons’ on a cold Saturday afternoon. Seventeen miles southeast of Holt. Beside the blacktop there were patches of snow in the fallow fields, drifts and scallops wind-hardened in the ditches. Black baldy cattle were spread out in the corn stubble, all pointed out of the wind with their heads down, eating steadily. When she turned off onto the gravel road small birds flew up from the roadside in gusts and blew away in the wind. Along the fenceline the snow was brilliant under the sun.

She drove up the track to the old house set back off the road a quarter mile. Beside the house a few low elm trees stood leafless inside the yard that was closed in by wire hogfencing. When she got out of the car a mottled old farm dog scuttled up to her and sniffed her leather boots and she patted his head and went through the wire gate up to the house and knocked on the screen door. Above the steps was a little screened porch, the mesh mended in places with white cotton string where it had been torn or poked through with something sharp. Beyond was the kitchen. She went up the steps onto the porch and knocked again. She looked in, the kitchen was more or less orderly. The table was cleared of dishes and the dishes laid in the sink, but there were stacks of Farm Journals and newspapers loaded up against the far walls, and greasy pieces of machinery—cogwheels, old bearings, shank bolts—were set out on mechanics’ rags on each of the chairs except the two that were placed opposite each other at the pine table. She opened the door and hollered in. Hello? Her voice echoed, it died out in the far room.

She came back off the porch and out to the car. Now there was the far-off sound of a tractor muttering and popping, coming up from the pasture to the south. She walked down to it and stood around the corner of the horse barn out of the wind. She could see them now. Both brothers were on the tractor, Raymond standing up behind Harold, who sat behind the wheel driving an ancient red sun-faded Farmall with the canvas wings of the heat houser bolted over the block onto the fenders for protection from the wind, pulling an empty flatbed hay wagon. They’d been feeding cattle out in the winter pasture, hay bales and pellets of cottonseed cake, scattering the cake in the feed-bunks. They jolted through the gate and stopped and Raymond got off and swung the gate closed and climbed back on, and they came banging and clattering past the corrals and past the loading chute up to the barn. The lid on the tractor’s exhaust stack flapped with bursts of black smoke, then they shut the engine off and the lid dropped shut and suddenly Maggie Jones could hear the wind again.

She stepped away from the barn and stood waiting for them. They got down and approached her slowly, calmly, as deliberately as church deacons, as if they were not at all surprised to see her. They moved heavily in their winter coveralls and they had on thick caps pulled low and cumbersome winter gloves.

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You’re going to freeze yourself standing there, Harold said. You better get out of this wind. Are you lost?

Probably, Maggie Jones said. She laughed. But I wanted to talk to you.

Oh oh. I don’t like the sound of that.

Don’t tell me I scared you already, she said.

Why hell, Harold said. You probably want something.

I do, she said.

You better come up to the house, Raymond said.

Thank you, she said. At least one of you is a gentleman.

They went back to the old house across the frozen lot in the wind. The dog came out to meet them and sniffed at her again and retreated once more into the open garage. They mounted the steps to the house. On the little porch the brothers bent over and unbuckled their manure-caked overshoes. Go on in, Raymond said. Don’t wait on us. She opened the door and entered the kitchen. The house was not warm but it felt better out of the wind. They came in after her, closed the door and took their gloves off and set them out on the counter where they looked as stiff as firewood curled open in the permanent shapes of their hands. They unzipped the tops of their coveralls. Underneath they wore black button-up sweaters, flannel shirts and long underwear.

You want any coffee? Raymond said.

Oh, that’s too much trouble, Maggie said.

It’s only what’s left over from noon dinner.

He set a pan on the stove and poured the coffee from the pot into it. Then he removed his cap and the hair stood up in short gray stiff shocks on his round head. She thought his head looked beautiful, had a clean perfect shape. They both looked that way. Harold had removed the greasy pieces of machinery from one of the extra chairs and had dragged it up to the table. He sat down solidly. When they were inside the house the McPheron brothers’ faces turned shiny and red as beets and the tops of their heads steamed in the cool room. They looked like something out of an old painting, of peasants, laborers resting after work.

Maggie Jones unbuttoned her coat and sat down. I came out here to ask you a favor, she said to them.

That so? Harold said. Well, you can always ask anyhow.

What is it? Raymond said.

There is a girl I know who needs some help, Maggie said. She’s a good girl but she’s gotten into trouble. I think you might be able to help her. I would like you to consider it and let me know.

What’s wrong with her? Harold said. She need a donation of money?

No. She needs a lot more than that.

What sort of trouble is she in? Raymond said.

She’s seventeen, Maggie Jones said. She’s four months pregnant and she doesn’t have a husband.

Well yeah, Harold said. I reckon that could amount to trouble.

I’ve had her staying with me in my house for a while, but my father won’t accept her being there anymore. His mind’s gone. He’s all mixed up and sometimes he gets violent. He’s made her afraid to be in the house with him.

What about her kinfolk? Harold said. Don’t she have any family?

Her father left her years ago. I don’t know how many years exactly. Now, lately, her mother won’t have her in the house.

On account of her carrying the baby?

Yes, Maggie said. Her mother has problems of her own. You probably know who I’m talking about.

Who?

Betty Roubideaux.

Oh, Harold said. Leonard’s wife.

Did you know him?

Enough to drink with.

What ever became of him, I wonder.

Nothing good. You can bet on that.

Well, he might of went to Denver, Raymond said. Then he might of went back to the Rosebud in South Dakota. I doubt anybody knows. He’s been gone a long time.

But the girl’s still here, Maggie said. That’s my point. His daughter’s still here. She’s a good person too. Her name is Victoria.

What about the sire? Harold said.

Who? she said. Oh. You mean the baby’s father.

Where does he come into this?

He doesn’t. She won’t even tell me who he is except to say he doesn’t live here. He lives somewhere else. He doesn’t want her anymore, she says. Or the baby either, apparently. Well, I don’t know if he even knows about the baby. Whether she told him.

On the stove the coffee had begun to boil. Raymond stood up and set three cups out and poured out the coffee, the pan hissing wildly as he tipped it up. The coffee was black and thick as steaming tar. You take something in it? he said.

Maggie looked in her cup. Maybe some milk?

He brought a jar of milk from the refrigerator and set it on the table and sat down again. She took the lid off and poured a little into her cup.

All right then, Harold said. You got our attention. You say you don’t want money. What do you want?

She sipped from her coffee and tasted it and looked in the cup again and set it back on the table. She looked at the two old brothers. They were waiting, sitting forward at the table across from her. I want something improbable, she said. That’s what I want. I want you to think about taking this girl in. Of letting her live with you.

They stared at her.

You’re fooling, Harold said.

No, Maggie said. I am not fooling.

They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.

Oh, I know it sounds crazy, she said. I suppose it is crazy. I don’t know. I don’t even care. But that girl needs somebody and I’m ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you—she smiled at them—you old solitary bastards need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to care about and worry over. It’s too lonesome out here. Well, look at you. You’re going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance.

The McPheron brothers shifted in their chairs. They watched her suspiciously.

Well? she said. What do you think?

They didn’t say anything.

She laughed. I believe I have robbed you of speech. Will you at least think about it?

Hell, Maggie, Harold said at last. Let’s go back to the money part. Money’d be a lot easier.

Yes, she said. It would. But not nearly as much fun.

Fun, he said. That’s a nice word for what you’re talking about. More like pandemonium and disruption, you mean. Jesus God.

All right, she said. I tried. I had to do that much. She stood up and buttoned her coat. You can let me know if you change your minds.

She went outside to the car. They followed her and went down the little walk and stood at the wire gate in the freezing wind, waiting for her to back up and come forward in the rutted driveway and drive back out past the house toward the county road. As she passed she waved at them. They lifted their hands and gestured back to her.

When she had gone they didn’t talk to each other but returned to the kitchen and drank down the coffee in their cups and put on their winter caps and gloves and pulled on their overshoes and buckled them, and then went back down the porch steps into the yard to return to work as mutely and numbly as if they had been stunned into a sudden and permanent silence by such a proposal.

But later, when the sun had gone down in the late afternoon, after the sky had turned faint and wispy and the thin blue shadows had reached across the snow, the brothers did talk. They were out in the horse lot, working at the stock tank.

The tank had frozen over with ice. The shaggy saddle horses, already winter-coated, stood with their backs to the wind, watching the two men in the corral, the horses’ tails blowing out, their breath snorted out in white plumes and carried away in tatters by the wind.

Harold chopped at the ice on the stock tank with a wood axe. He flailed at it and finally broke through into the water below, the head of the axe sunken helve-deep out of sight and suddenly heavy, and he pulled it out and chopped again. Then Raymond scooped out the ice chunks with his cob fork and flung the ice away from the tank onto the hard ground behind him where it landed among other frozen blocks and pieces. When the tank was clear they lifted the lid from the galvanized watertight box that floated in the water. Inside the box was the tank heater. When they looked inside they could see that the pilot light had blown out. Harold took off his gloves and withdrew a long firebox match from his inside pocket, popped it on his thumbnail and cupped the little flame and held it down into the box. When the pilot light took he adjusted the flame and drew his arm out, and Raymond wired the lid tight again. Then they checked the propane bottle that was standing out of the way. It looked all right.

So for a while they stood below the windmill in the failing light. The thirsty horses approached and peered at them and sniffed at the water and began to drink, sucking up long draughts of it. Afterward they stood back watching the two brothers, their eyes as large and luminous as perfect round knobs of mahogany glass.

It was almost dark now. Only a thin violet band of light showed in the west on the low horizon.

All right, Harold said. I know what I think. What do you think we do with her?

We take her in, Raymond said. He spoke without hesitation, as though he’d only been waiting for his brother to start so they could have this out and settle it. Maybe she wouldn’t be as much trouble, he said.

I’m not talking about that yet, Harold said. He looked out into the gathering darkness. I’m talking about—why hell, look at us. Old men alone. Decrepit old bachelors out here in the country seventeen miles from the closest town which don’t amount to much of a good goddamn even when you get there. Think of us. Crotchety and ignorant. Lonesome. Independent. Set in all our ways. How you going to change now at this age of life?

I can’t say, Raymond said. But I’m going to. That’s what I know.

And what do you mean? How come she wouldn’t be no trouble?

I never said she wouldn’t be no trouble. I said maybe she wouldn’t be as much trouble.

Why wouldn’t she be as much trouble? As much trouble as what? You ever had a girl living with you before?

You know I ain’t, Raymond said.

Well, I ain’t either. But let me tell you. A girl is different. They want things. They need things on a regular schedule. Why, a girl’s got purposes you and me can’t even imagine. They got ideas in their heads you and me can’t even suppose. And goddamn it, there’s the baby too. What do you know about babies?

Nothing. I don’t even know the first thing about em, Raymond said.

Well then?

But I don’t have to know about any babies yet. Maybe I’ll have time to learn. Now, are you going to go in on this thing with me or not? Cause I’m going to do it anyhow, whatever.

Harold turned toward him. The light was gone in the sky and he couldn’t make out the features of his brother’s face. There was only this dark familiar figure against the failed horizon.

All right, he said. I will. I’ll agree. I shouldn’t, but I will. I’ll make up my mind to it. But I’m going to tell you one thing first.

What is it?

You’re getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That’s all I’ll say. Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

 

 

From PLAINSONG. Used with permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 1999 by Kent Haruf.




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