“The Ladies of the Plain”
[1968: to supplement my Assistant Professor’s salary at Illinois I taught a course in the extension school; my students were wives of farmers from the small towns south of the campus. I loved my “Ladies of the Plains,” as I called them, because they brought a practical, real-life, adult perspective to the plays we studied. In turn, I treated the women as people with minds and imaginations and so our weekly class was a welcomed break for them. One student, however, began to act strangely during the course of the semester; her comments in class degenerated to babble, her behavior became erratic. Her fellow students began gossiping about her, though being careful to hide their actual comments from me. Finally she stopped coming. At the end of the semester I received an invitation from one of my favorite “ladies” to have Sunday dinner with her and her husband on their farm. I was eager to see this world that was so far strange to me.]
A month after the course ended, I got a call from Millie, asking if I would come down and have Sunday dinner with her and her husband.
That distant grain elevator, seen from the windows of the clubhouse where we had held our classes, now served as my beacon as I drove to Tolono through the flat Illinois fields. Tolono itself was the generic small country town, its Main Street lined by a gas station, the county post-office, a grocery store, and four abandoned buildings, reminders of better days. Branching off from Main were four streets, lined with basic white-framed houses, that ended in dirt roads winding their way to the farms surrounding, indeed overshadowing the town.
Looking at the stark landscape, I thought of what one of my students, a free spirit who drove a Harley, had remarked a few months ago when he invited me to take midnight ride with him over the fields west of the campus. As we were racing along, rows of corn blurred on either side, a bright moon above, he said that, for him, the Rockies were “too beautiful, like some proud cat that’s indifferent to you,” and New England “too neat and conservative, like an over-landscaped garden.”
“But the Midwest, now there’s a place that puts you in your place. It’s flat, dull, ugly, and it says to you, ‘You’re only here temporarily. I’ll wait. I’ll be here when you’re gone.’”
Tolono’s main street was almost deserted. An unkempt man, doubtless the town drunk, leaned against a telephone pole, warming himself in the sun. Two women, still in their Sunday dress, passed by, halting for a moment to look at him and exchange knowing frowns before continuing on. A rust-eaten pickup truck, its cargo bed full of freshly-picked corn, turned right from one of the branch streets and headed toward Champaign-Urbana. A young boy, with a very prominent Adam’s apple, waved a greeting as he sped by. When I turned down the road leading to Millie’s farm, I could see families gathered together for early-afternoon dinners. “There’s not much to stay up for,” Mary had told me, “And then again, the work’s there waiting for you at five the next morning.”
The road to the farm was full of holes and traps of soft dirt. I felt very much like a tenderfoot navigating what was surely the only non-American-made car in the area. Punctual to a fault, I was a half-hour early–as always–and so, in order to arrive on time, I pulled over to the side. The weather was crisp but inside the car, with the sun beating down, it was so warm that I decided to step outside and stretch for ten minutes. Acres of tall corn grew in several fields abutting each other at various right angles so that the effect was of a green maze whose paths met at ninety degrees. With time to spare, I decided to explore, walking down a row of corn until it ended in an adjacent field, then making a right turn into a new row. Soon I was completely engulfed by the thick plants towering another two feet above my head. As the wind blew down the rows, the ears of corn, drawn tight in a cocoon of green overlapping leaves, bobbed back and forth; cutting against each other, the leaves on the stalk sounded like dry palms rubbed together.
Suddenly clouds covered the sun, and when I looked at my watch, I realized it was time to head back to the car. But without the sun in the west to guide me, I was soon lost. Although I had made six right turns, six left turns did not bring me back to the road. Being late for the Sunday dinner, or stranded in this field forever–the possibilities, either practical or melodramatic, were enough to make me panic. After a few halfhearted attempts to retrace my steps by repeating the pattern of six left angles, I started to run frantically through the corn, at right angles to the parallel rows, trying all four directions on the compass. An absurd figure, now sweating profusely, my heart pounding, trampling plants as I cut through the fields, I kept my eyes dogged ahead, hoping to spot the road’s slim clearing. Suddenly, the clouds blew off the sun. I had my guide once more, and in a few minutes was back at the car, with one minute to spare. A single-engine plane flew overhead, and I imagined the pilot, if he had looked down, would have spotted the insane path, a Sherman’s March of destruction I had carved through corn that now seemed as harmless as, minutes before, it had loomed sinister and alien.
I did not tell Millie and her husband Frank of my close escape as they met me on the front porch. Frank was an enormous man, slightly bent with age, but still several inches taller than me. Dressed in a heavily starched white shirt and farmer’s overalls, he bolted forward.
“So, you’re that cracker-jack professor Millie and all the ladies been raving about. From the big city up the road. I’m Frank Freeman, real pleased to meet’ya.”
Millie brought out ice tea and joined us as we sat on porch rockers and chatted. Conversation was easy with them. I was not the usual visitor–they made that clear–and they were determined to be the perfect hosts. We talked mostly about the class, as if Millie had waited for this moment in her husband’s education, having before her the living proof that professors were not only smart but sociable. For my part, I was determined to be the perfect guest.
“Frank, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d really like to see your farm.”
A wide grin came over his face. “Well, there’s not all that much to see, but I’d sure like to show you.”
“Perfect timing,” Millie popped up, “While you two are doing that, I’ll set the food to the table, and everything’ll be ready when you get back.”
A city boy, I was not all that interested in farms, but Frank’s passion for his place made me a temporary convert. We didn’t just look at the barn; we inspected the hayloft, the third floor where supplies were stored, the elevator, the stalls, the milking machines. I got a detailed history of the roof, the various repairs it had undergone, the additions made to the original structure. Then, it was off into the fields and wonderfully thorough accounts of Frank’s own personal system of crop rotation, his experiments with various grasses for the cattle, the trials and tribulations of the irrigation system. We made great circles around the thirty-acre farm, including journeys through the corn, wheat, and soybean fields. Tearing off the leaves on an ear of corn, Frank told me to bite down quickly, then withdraw my teeth from the kernels–a farmer’s way of testing for strength and sweetness. At one point, he bent to the ground and scooped up a handful of dirt, which he promptly put in my hand.
“Glaciers passed through this area three times. That’s why the soil’s so black and rich. Have to be a damned idiot not to grow something in this stuff, now wouldn’t ya?”
I thought of my student’s description of the inhospitable Midwest, waiting for man’s departure. Frank was here to stay; his father and grandfather had worked these same fields.
“You best keep an eye out, Sid. We’re in the cattle field now, and if ya don’t watch out those little dew-drops’ll jump up and bite you.”
“You don’t call them cow-chips? That’s what I heard.”
“Well, now, there’d be some that calls ‘em cow-chips. And some field-saucers, but when my Frankie was a little guy he called them dew-drops, and it’s been that way with us ever since.”
“That’s your oldest son?”
“Yeah, I had five.” He paused, then added, “but the moment they got ta legal age, they moved away. All of ‘em went to that university where you teach. I guess this place must’ve seemed too dull, maybe even too hard for them.
“Do they live near? Within driving distance?”
“The youngest, Sammie, lives in Evanston, and he comes ‘round once a month or so. But the rest, they’re scattered all over the country.”
We walked in silence for a bit. Then Frank continued.
“Yeah, this place probably’s too dull for them. Not to mention a little peculiar.”
“Yeah. You see, there’s been no new blood in Tolono for years. We’ve all grown old together. Know each other well, sometimes too well. Hell, for us Tolono’s the whole world–there’s nothing much beyond it. My neighbor Sanders? He and the misses thought they’d move to Champaign? Were there for six months. Just couldn’t get used to it, and now they’re back here.”
“But it must be comforting living in such a close-knit community? Where everyone’s your friend?”
“Well, way I look at it, you’re half right there. We sure don’t got no strangers. But sometimes it gets too close. Everyone’s knowing your business, making your business their own. That’s why the ladies enjoyed your course. Doing something you can’t do here in Tolono, and having to drive twenty miles up the road to do it. Of course, then, they always had to come back. Millie never said a hill of beans about the course until just now, when we was sitting on the porch.”
Just then the smell of fried chicken wafted through the air. I had been listening to Frank so intently, interpreting, in my own scholar’s fashion, his views about living in this country town, that when I looked up the farm house was right in front of us.
“Ya might want to use that outhouse there before dinner. We’re having new plumbing fixtures put in the house so we got to use the same old outhouse my dad used when he ran the farm. Now that was years ago.”
“Be careful now, Sid. My dad used to tell about a fellow who had to go to the facilities. A thin fellow he was, very thin, I gotta tell you. When he didn’t come back after a spell, Dad went out to look. Know what happened?”
“No,” I replied, suspecting the answer and barely suppressing my laugh.
“Son of a bitch’s so thin, he sits down on the pot and jackknifes through the hole and lands ten feet below. When Dad got there, he’s swimming in five feet of shit. Took fifteen minutes to get him out.”
“He have any appetite for dinner, after that,” I said, unconsciously lapsing into a country accent and now playing straight man to my host who was shaking with laughter.
“Dinner? Hell, he said something about suing Dad. Hopped in his car, drove away like a bat out of hell. Never came back, though. So, you be careful now. You’re OK. Dad never liked that skinny bastard anyway.”
The dining room had floor-length windows on three sides, and Frank explained his father had built them “so we can see where we are while we’re eating.” Millie had cooked a marvelous meal, just what you’d expect for Sunday dinner on a farm–fried chicken, new potatoes, green beans in a honey sauce, home-made bread and butter, and mint-flavored coleslaw, the latter billed as “Frank’s contribution.” With all three of us perfectly at ease, relishing each other’s company, they regaled me with tales of life in Tolono, the gossip, the rumors, the myriad of facts, some expected, others odd, which, taken together, define and circumscribe a life that for me, until today, had been little more that distant silo. I heard of the clothing store that had failed and of the woman suspected of having an affair with the mayor, the weekly pot-luck supper and the town drunk’s scamming the residents by pretending to be on an errand from the minister to collect moneys for the church’s new furnace, the community meetings where legal disputes were settled and maintenance bills authorized, and of Tolono’s refusal to pay part of the county’s sheriff’s salary. “When we got troubles, we settle them among ourselves. Never had no use for a cop,” Frank proudly informed me.
They feared they were boring me; I begged them to go on.
“Millie, if you learned something new coming up for that class, then I’m your student now, and enjoying every minute of it.”
Confessing she had almost forgotten desert, Millie excused herself from the table.
“Those women’ll talk your head off, won’t they, Sid?”
“Hey, Frank, you’ve been doing quite a bit yourself.”
We both laughed at that as Millie returned to the table, with three plates of strawberry short cake, topped with mounds of whipped cream.
“You don’t think we’d let you get away from here without a taste of Millie’s strawberry short cake, now do you?”
When the dishes were cleared and washed, we retired to the porch and sat there, cradling large cups of rich black coffee. The sun had set and the evening shadows softened the otherwise harsh landscape.
For a while we were silent, savoring the good day, the conversations, the successful meeting of town and country. Lights were going on about the town, the residents enjoying a short evening before that early bedtime about which Millie had joked earlier. I decided to break the silence.
“You know, I’ve been wondering about what happened to Ellen.”
There was no reply. I went on. “I’m worried about her. She was a good student–you were all good students. Any news about how she’s doing?”
Husband and wife exchanged glances. With that wordless communication between people who know each other so well that a mere gesture serves as a sentence, Millie seemed to be asking Frank’s advice. That advice taken, she said simply, “We’ve taking care of Ellen.”
“Taking care? You got her some professional help, I hope?”
Frank intervened. “No need for any fancy mind doctor, Sid. Poor thing, she was crazy, you know. We all knew it was just a matter of time. Had a town meeting about her, about what to do.”
“So . . . ah . . . what did you decide?”
Millie now spoke up, her voice firm, supporting her husband. “Fact is, Sid, she had become a downright embarrassment to herself . . . to all of us. So, we decided to keep her with Mrs. Andrews.”
Frank must have seen my puzzled expression. “Oh, she’s just fine. Got her living up in the widow’s attic. Widow takes care of her. Brings her three square meals a day, cleans up after her.”
“She can just stay up there, real comfortable like, for the rest of her days. Wouldn’t want her out on the street . . . outside. No telling what she might do. Just embarrass herself all over again.”
“And the town,” Frank joined in. As he scanned my face, he added, “Might not be the way you city folks would handle it, but things, you see, are a little different here.”
“We got our own ways.”
I managed to get out a startled “But,” for I wanted to say something about Ellen’s rights, about seeing a psychiatrist, about letting the court decide. But Frank, sensing my objection, jumped in.
“Oh, it’s all perfectly legal. Judge Winslow, he’s the county judge lives right here in Tolono. He got her to see that we’re only doing what’s best for her. I believe she signed a paper or something.”
“So, she’ll spend the rest of her life in that attic?”
“Yeah. Like I said, it’s real comfy. She may not realize that right now, but we know what’s best for her.”
“Sid, can I refresh your coffee?”
I stayed fifteen minutes longer, then made some excuse about its being late and my having to get back to Urbana.
They walked me to the car. I noticed that Frank had his arm around his wife.
We exchanged good-byes, and as I got behind the wheel, Millie poked her face through the car window.
“We’re just like a big family here, Sid.” Then she added, “And Frank and I sure did enjoy your visit. You’re a fine, fine teacher.”
They stayed waving good-byes until the dirt road turned toward the town. As I passed the cornfield, I shuddered at the memory of getting lost there earlier in the day. When I turned left onto Tolono’s main street, I could see the grain elevator to my right. Twenty miles down the road, due north, the lights from Champaign-Urbana cast a haze into the night sky.