Reprint: Bethlehem Writers Roundtable 2015
“This is where I buried my wives,” Biff said. He stared beyond the two marked graves down the hill at the orchard and lush pasture that divided the land between a few worn chicken houses and the newly fenced horse ring that abutted the main house.
“Present company excepted, I hope.”
“I certainly hope so.” He drew Julie closer to him with the arm that wasn’t carrying their picnic basket. “To me, this is the prettiest spot on the farm. I know it may seem morbid, but I come up here when I need to think or bounce an idea off someone. There aren’t a lot of people in these parts and sometimes I just need to talk things out.”
Julie raised her head and kissed his rough cheek. “You won’t have to talk to the dead anymore. You’ve got me now.”
She took the picnic basket from his hand and bent down to smooth out their blanket, positioning it so their backs would be to the graves. She pulled some flowers from the basket and arranged them on the side of the blanket. As Julie set out napkins and utensils, she paused and looked up at the sky. “It feels like there should be a big tree shading this hill.”
“There used to be a giant elm back there. Some disease got it right around the time Margie died.” Biff plopped onto the blanket. He accommodated his six-foot frame by extending his booted legs onto the grass. Julie snuggled against him.
“Margie brought me up here shortly after we met.” Biff hesitated. “It was her favorite place in the world, so it seemed only right to bury her on the hill. Besides, if it hadn’t been for her leaving me all the land you can see between here and the main house,” he said, pointing, “I’d still be living by those egg houses.”
Julie’s eyes followed his finger to the small parcel on which the chicken houses sat. It was definitely a tiny space compared with the rest of the farmland. She put her hand on his arm. “Was that the land your family owned?”
“No, we squatted on that small patch and were tenant farmers to Margie’s grand-parents on the rest of it.” He watched Julie’s face. “Like I told you, Margie was married and lost her husband and daughter well before I came to work for her. She may have been getting on in years, but somehow we clicked. I like to think I made those last few years of her life happy.”
“You’re making my life pretty happy.” Julie handed him a sandwich. “Turkey and parsnip.” He mad
e a face, but took the sandwich and bit into it.
“I want you to know everything,” Biff said. “You’re going to hear people say some mean things like Margie was old enough to be my mother and …”
Julie hushed him by pressing her hand against his lips. “I won’t listen to them as long as you don’t pay attention if someone talks about me being eighteen years younger than you.”
“Heck, I’m proud to have a trophy wife.” Biff grinned and hugged her. “Just so you know, I never asked for this farm. I was as shocked as anyone when I found out Margie left it to me. “He glanced behind him. “I buried her up here because she loved this place.”
“It probably also reminds you of how far you’ve come.” Julie noticed that the smile lingered on Biff’s lips, but was no longer in his eyes. She quickly added, “Not to mention how lonely having this big a farm must have been without someone to share it with. I’m so glad you decided to take another chance on FarmDatesR4U.”
“Me, too.” He raised his shoulders and turned his head toward the second grave marker. “I almost didn’t. After Annie and I got together, I didn’t think I could ever be happier. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was to find a city slicker willing to give up the big city for life on my farm. When our time together turned out to be so short, I was scared to try again.” He finished his sandwich and sidled closer to Julie.
“You don’t ever have to worry,” she said. “I may only have spent a few summers on my grandparents’ farm, but the experience ruined me from ever being a pure city dweller. I can remember riding my granddad’s tractor as he did the planting, feeding slop to the pigs, rocking on the porch at night with granny, and best of all climbing a tree like the elm you told me was here. I’d sit in the crook of that tree, looking out as far as I could see, unaware of how perfect my world was.” She kissed him again. “Thank you for giving me my farm life back.”
Biff leaned back on his hands. “What happened to your grandparents’ farm? Did they sell it?”
Julie turned to rummage in the picnic basket. She pulled out a tin with dessert in it. “Apple pie?” She cut Biff a large slice.
“You didn’t answer me,” he said, gobbling down the pie.
“Oh, there isn’t much to tell. Like her mother before her, my mom had me when she was sixteen. Dad enlisted to pay their bills. Until she died when I was seven, we lived wherever the Army assigned him. After her death, Dad sent me to spend a few summers with my grandparents, but once he remarried, I went to boarding schools and camps. My grandfather died and somewhere along the way, my grandmother gave away the farm.”
Julie brushed a crumb off Biff’s shirt. “Like I’ve told you, try as I might, I wasn’t meant for the bar scene, concrete sidewalks, and cars and people everywhere. A friend told me about FarmDatesR4U.com. I debated it for a few months, but as a twenty-sixth birthday present to myself I signed up for a two-week trial subscription. Your profile popped up on the thirteenth day.” She waved her hand all around her. “And, as they say, the rest is history.”
Biff tried to kiss her again, but she blocked his efforts by putting both hands on his chest. He sat back. “Biff, one thing we never talked about. Our relationship and marriage happened so quickly. I mean, it was only a matter of months between our first messages, your proposal and my moving out here for good.” She paused before the words rushed out. “Your profile was online for a lot longer time than mine. Were there any other girls you dated?”
She swallowed. “Were you serious with any of them? Did you bring any of them to this hill?”
He looked away from her toward a pile of rocks near the bottom of the hill. “You don’t really want to go there.”
“I do. I want to know.” She moved away from him.
Biff ran his hand through his hair. “That’s what Annie said. Why can’t we simply be happy as we are?”
Julie pulled her knees close to her and put her arms around them. She tried to wait him out and finally said, “Biff, I need to know.”
Biff again glanced at the pile of rocks and back at Julie. “A few came to the farm, but they weren’t like Annie or you. Oh, they said the right things about being willing to try farm life. And, at first, they admired the wide-open spaces, the crops and animals, and the stream running through our property, but then they started complaining. They refused to help with the chores and couldn’t appreciate the songs of the coyotes. One didn’t like the smell of the egg houses, another refused to throw slop in the pig trough, and a third said planting in the sun wasn’t good for her delicate skin. I realized pretty quickly that none of them would ever be able to earn a place on the top of this hill.”
“So, they had to stay at the bottom?”
“That’s right. I thought you were going to be different.”
“Oh, I am,” Julie said. “I’m not going to end up at the bottom of the hill.”
“No, you’re not.” Biff stood and took a step toward her, but stumbled. He sat back down on the blanket and held his head. Julie inched a little further away from him as he attempted to stand again. He tried to focus his gaze on her. “Julie, what’s going on?”
“Nothing a farm boy can’t understand. You should have looked at the parsnip a little more closely. We city slickers sometimes confuse parsnip and hemlock. Sorry.”
He reached for her, but missed. “You might want to lie still,” Julie said, as he grabbed his stomach and doubled up from a wave of pain. Turning away from him, Julie took the cut flowers she had left on the blanket and walked up the hill toward the two graves. She placed all but one on Annie’s grave before moving on to Margie’s spot at the top of the hill.
Carefully, Julie knelt and put the remaining single white rose in front of the simple white marker. She ignored the sounds behind her, but spoke loudly enough that her words carried downhill. “I never stopped loving this farm or you, Granny. When Dad took me away, I told you I’d come home one day. I’m sorry I was too late, but I’m making up for it now. You don’t have to worry, I’ve made sure the farm is back in the family.”
Debra H. Goldstein writes Kensington’s Sarah Blair mystery series. Her novels and short stories have been named Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Claymore, and Silver Falchion finalists and won IPPY, AWC, Silver Falchion, and BWR awards. Debra served on the national boards of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, was president of the Guppy and SEMWA chapters, and was recently re-elected to the national SinC board. Find out more about Debra at https://www.DebraHGoldstein.com