Author: Jeff Burt
Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California, with his wife. He has worked in electronics and mental health administration and contributed to Brazos River Review, Gold Man Review, and New Maps.
Twenty-year-old Benjamin Jude took County Road X, but instead of going around Big Slough onto Anacker Road, he steered his Volt east to a dead-end strip that paralleled the water. He meant to park on the remains of a bridge farmer Sturtevant had started, who had desired to connect the sides of his farm on each side of the slough to save him a 5-mile trip on tractor. Sturtevant had never finished it, failing to receive approval for putting twelve posts in the slough. The up-sloping start to the bridge remained a spot for people fishing and children on bikes to launch themselves into the slough on a hot day.
Benjamin drove with more than a little inattention. He had lost his job for a second time, lost his girlfriend for a second time, and needed to move back home from the city for a second time. When he came to the turn to the bridge, he drove too fast and had to swerve to make the turn, and in so doing his foot jammed the accelerator and stuck, and in two seconds found himself airborne over the slough without a prayer of reaching the other side.
The car thumped in the water, floated in the blue, stagnant flow of July, but it was of little importance. Benjamin had hit his head against the ceiling of the car, knocking him unconsciousness.
As the car began to sink, Espen Sturtevant, farmer, seventy-seven years old, widowed, out in his corn field inspecting the high heat’s damage to his crop, ran to his tractor first, then stopped, did a double-take, and sprinted, as only an old man can sprint, with as much effort extended to remain upright as go forward to the slough. His Labrador led.
Sturtevant could not swim anymore, so grabbed an unused fence post and held it in front of him and kicked toward the car. When he arrived, the car was beginning to fill, but he pulled the door open, unhooked the seat belt, all the while having to push away his dog. He felt the water suddenly stop its tug, pulled Benjamin free, and laid the young man’s head facing the sky against the post, put his arm over the Benjamin’s shoulders against his neck, and kicked toward shore.
Sturtevant’s pants and boots had become heavy, and he strained to kick. The Labrador made the shore and wagged as if playing. Sturtevant could feel his heart beating through his entire body as he kicked. He reached shore but had no energy left to do anything but check the breathing of Benjamin. The young man’s lungs moved unevenly, quaking, but the measure was full. Sturtevant rolled the young man to his side. Sturtevant’s legs shook so badly he could neither kneel nor stand. He lay next to Benjamin to keep the young man on his side so that he would not drown on vomit, if that was what Benjamin’s body intended. Sleep came over him like a heavy rain.
Sturtevant became conscious to the sun moving in and out of clouds, or so he thought. But as he focused, he saw the young man weaving and bobbing over him, inspecting him.
“You all right, son?” he asked.
“God,” the young man yelled, “I was hoping you weren’t dead. You had breath but even when I shouted at you, you didn’t move.”
Sturtevant ran his hands over his torso, and then reached down to his legs.
“Nope. Everything’s here. My brain works.” He sat up, his head pounding as if he’d had a hangover.
“I guess you saved my life,” Benjamin whispered.
“Figured it was easier than saving your car,” Sturtevant laughed.
“It’s gone, huh?”
“It was last seen floating downstream. Probably got walleyes in it already.”
The two sat wordless for several minutes.
“You trying to kill yourself?”
Benjamin snorted. “No. Hell no. I think my foot missed the brake. That’s all.”
Sturtevant snorted, and then laughed. “I can’t swim, you know. Came out of the corn fields to jump in the river. Can’t swim a lick.”
Benjamin looked Sturtevant up and down. “How’d you save me then? I was in the middle of the water.”
“Took a post, kicked behind it like a six-year-old. Collared you, got back to that post, and kicked to shore. I thought I’d kill you with how I was holding you against the post. Be a fine thing, saving someone from the middle of the slough but killing him on the way to the shore. You swim?”
“Yeah, like an otter.”
Again, they sat in silence for a few minutes.
“What do I do now,” Benjamin asked, “you know with the obligation and all that.”
Sturtevant shook his head side to side. “You’ve got to pay for the car. Bank will require it. You’ve got to pay for winching it out of the water, too. No two ways around it.”
“I don’t mean the car. It’s paid for. I mean my obligation to you.”
Sturtevant shook his head side to side. “You’ve got no obligation to me. Anyone would have done what I did.”
Now Benjamin shook his side to side. “No. No one would have jumped in the water not knowing how to swim. No one. Just you. And now I owe you my life. I need to know how that’s going to work.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Sturtevant said. “Just go live a good life, love someone, give it your all, remember the gas pedal from the brake. That’s all.”
“But I owe you. I’m supposed to serve you, you know. Watch out for you, watch out for a time I can pay you back.”
“Well,” Sturtevant said, drawing to his feet. “My legs are wobbly, so if I could jump up on your back and you could take me home, I’d appreciate it. I go about 240, and you, about 160, right?” He laughed, and punched Benjamin in the shoulder. “No debts. We just move along. I’m happy you’re okay and I’m okay. What was it like, flying off that half-a-bridge?”
Benjamin screwed up his face. “I don’t even remember. It happens fast, not like in a movie. I didn’t have time to enjoy it, or anything like that. I panicked; my stomach felt enormously empty. Then I was in water. Then it’s all a blank.”
“You didn’t look left or right at the slough?”
“I might of, but I don’t remember seeing anything in particular.”
“Fear can make you blind, you know. But you remember the splashdown, right? Like an astronaut?”
“No, I honestly don’t. The first thing I remember after taking off is waking up next to you all wet and my chest kind of aching and wondering where the seat belt was. Then I figured out the car was gone, and you pulled me out of the water. Looks like you got all the drama.”
Sturtevant lurched two steps, staggered, and then stopped. “We need to get back to my tractor. I’ve got a cell phone there.”
“I’ll need to get to the other side of the slough,” Benjamin said. “I can walk from there.”
“There are miles of bad road on a tractor to get you to the other side. Better we can call someone with a car. You’ve been through a lot, your body aches, you need to be with someone, right?”
“Right, I guess,” Benjamin said, folding and unfolding his hands.
“No guess about it. It’s trauma. You don’t do trauma by yourself.”
They began walking in the rows of the cornfield.
“When I was your age,” Sturtevant started, “I had a VW bug, used, yellow, rusted floorboards you could stick your leg through. But I could fix it, you know. Once with a buddy we were driving home from Council Bluffs, Iowa, 500 miles in one night, and just at dawn had three deer standing in the road and swerved off and into a cornfield just as tall as this, and I kept on driving for some damn reason until we flipped over, and the roof crushed and glass broke and spread all over. And the engine kept on running. The clutch had stuck in neutral. It was upside down and the engine was running. We weren’t going anywhere so I let it run. We crawled out through the windows and brushed off the glass and neither of us had even a scratch. We were hysterical and I don’t know if it was fear or not but we both had to take a piss really bad. We flipped that little VW like it was a mattress and the engine kept running.”
Benjamin started to say something and stopped. Then he started again, and again stopped. Then he said, “I don’t really get how that story is tied to what happened today. Is that what I have to do the rest of my life, listen to stories like that when I come to visit?”
Sturtevant laughed so hard he had to kneel in the corn, and the laughter brought fits of coughing and water from his lungs, so he hung his head low and then he barfed, barfed so quickly and hard that he felt emptied in a bad way, weakened. When he stood, he looked at Benjamin, who was looking at the sky over the corn the way a spaniel looks, transfixed by things in flight.
“Guess you swallowed part of the slough. Bacteria and fish viruses in that water,” Benjamin said.
“It wasn’t that,” Sturtevant said. “It was you saying you were going to visit me. I had this image of cookies on a platter, or a six-pack. The six-pack—that’s when I threw up.”
Sturtevant pointed. “The tractor’s just up ahead. Down this knoll. Up the next one. Then down.”
Sturtevant took steps into the cornrows, and Benjamin followed, holding up both arms near his face to prevent the sword-like blades of corn from swiping his cheeks. Sturtevant plowed through like a tractor, the beads of water from the leaves of corn splashing like a sprinkler. He had only taken about forty steps when he stumbled.
“Damn water in my face. Little beads of perspiration, or aspiration, I call it. The corn sweats so it can grow up.” Sturtevant rose and fell.
“Can’t get my legs straight,” he laughed, holding a few stalks, and easing to the ground. “Too much kicking in that water. Never much one for exercise, you know. You work out?”
“Yeah, sure,” Benjamin said. “I go to the gym three or four times a week.”
“What’s that like? You one of those body builders or one of those who gets on a conveyor belt going nowhere?”
“I guess the conveyor belt going nowhere. Like your bridge,” Benjamin said, making a fist with his hands and releasing them.
Sturtevant laughed. “This water here goes nowhere. Did you know that? Doesn’t connect with other rivers or lakes, but it has flow to it. It’s a dam, a dam of water. It keeps the Wisconsin from flowing into the Fox cause it’s higher than both. But it flows like a river. Got a current as you could see from your car floating downstream. What a chance meeting, huh? This slough, my bridge, you on a treadmill. All going nowhere. The fan on your car was still running in the water. Like a propeller. Like the car had a mind and knew it was sinking so it tried to keep running.”
“Like you trying to keep farming. You’re old,” Benjamin shot back.
“Well, I’m thinking maybe it’s more like you thinking you’ve got no future, so you just keep whirring away. Maybe you should stop, stop everything, and get a good idea of where you are and where you want to go. Take a little time, maybe solid hour.”
“My VW can float, you know. Never tried it, but I’ve seen a news report where one did.”
“That’s reputation. It’s not true. They sink.”
Benjamin said, “You got enough energy to get going?”
“If you help me up.”
Sturtevant struggled to one knee, then rose with the healthy two-handed tug of Benjamin. He wobbled, swooned, but steadied.
“Just let me get my legs.”
“You’re breathing really hard,” Benjamin whispered. “You should stop talking.”
Benjamin took Sturtevant’s left arm, but Sturtevant dragged his right leg and leaned like Pisa in that direction, so switched to the right arm. At times Sturtevant leaned his head into Benjamin’s chest trying to take another step. The pace slowed.
Finally, Benjamin stopped. Sturtevant crumbled, clutching a cob on the way down.
“You’re a city kid, aren’t you,” Sturtevant said. “Can tell by the shoes. Expensive tennies.”
“I live in Milwaukee, near the university. I’m out of work, though. Got laid off, so I might be moving back up here.”
Sturtevant smiled and swept his hand as if he were bowing. “Welcome to the end of rural America—it’s not rural anymore. Rural used to mean in the countryside. Now it means tossed aside, poor, or it means where rich people live so they can drive an hour through the greenbelt to end up working in the gray buildings, and corporations from all over the world, U.S., U.K., Germany, France, China, they own the fields.”
Sturtevant struggled to speak, almost gargling the words. “I’ve got a job opening on the farm if you want it. Can’t seem to get anyone anymore.”
“You mean the undocumented type? I tell you, I have more in common with an undocumented Salvadorian or Guatemalan farm worker than a city person like you. We don’t have to speak, just know the job to get done and we do it. The work on a farm explains itself. The cow bawls for grass, you let it out. The field lies fallow, you plant it, and take down the heads in the fall. Something breaks, you fix it.”
Benjamin hung his head, lifting and dropping his shirt as if trying to dry it.
“I need to stop talking. Running out of breath,” Sturtevant grunted.
This time Sturtevant rose with animation, the kind a person does jumping from a cliff into water, arms spastically waving, feet kicking back and forth. Benjamin grabbed him by the waist. Sturtevant rose and his feet stood ably beneath him.
“I’m sure a mess. What a sweat, eh?”
“Yeah, your forehead’s pouring buckets.”
“Suppose I should take off my hat, but the sun’ll burn it. Hardly hair left up there.”
They walked the aisles of the cornrows, occasionally lurching unplanned into an adjacent furrow. They had walked, Sturtevant said, about three quarters of the way to the tractor, when he clutched his throat, went down in a clump, his legs twitching and his arms limp.
“Heart attack,” he murmured.
Benjamin placed both hands on Sturtevant’s hands. He felt the grit of the soil, the sweat, the tremors passing from Sturtevant into his own body.
“Don’t want to die out here,” the farmer whispered. “Get to the tractor, cell phone on the seat. I’ve got a dog,” he grunted. His sucked in a breath but it came out with a stutter.
Benjamin pulled Sturtevant ahead.
“He’s a smart mutt. He’ll be under the tractor, in the cool of the shadows. Where I would have been except for your big splash.”
“He’s a lazy ass,” Sturtevant said. “He was with me at the slough, but got bored when we were passed out, came back for his own siesta. When they come for me, you think you can drive the tractor? My legs aren’t up to it. And my ticker’s getting balled like a fist.”
“And don’t worry about the difference between the gas pedal and the brake. It can’t go fast enough to make any difference. In fact, you can just set her in gear and just let her run unless we get to stop signs. At high gear, she just runs, like that VW bug I was telling you about. I’ve got to stop talking."
Sturtevant lurched, spun, and fell first on his side with a thump, tried to rise, and then fell on his back, a spray of corn sweat and dry soil like fine talc scattered in the air.
“Sorry about that. I’m gonna die out here. I’ve got to leave something before I go.”
“You’re not gonna die,” Benjamin said, though he saw no other option. “Don’t be sorry.”
“I’m not,” Sturtevant puffed. “Everyone has a legacy. Mine can be I died saving you so you could have a legacy of your own. Still got that VW. You want it? Give me a slip of paper to write on and I will give it to you. The keys are in the glove compartment.”
“You need to save your breath. And I don’t want your car.”
“You will, believe me,” Sturtevant said, each syllable squeezed through gritted teeth. “You’ve got no car now except what’s in the water, and if you make the same mistake again, the VW will float. You can carry paddles.” Sturtevant began to chuckle, but the chuckle brought another round of intensive stuttering audible breath from his lungs. His legs kept shaking.
Benjamin’s voice rose, as if annoyed, as if mad at Sturtevant. “You’re not going to die. I’m going to run ahead and get your cell and call 911. You’ll be all right.”
“No,” he said, tugging on Benjamin’s pant leg. “I’m gonna die right here. I can’t get up one more time. I can’t feel my legs or my hands. My throat’s gripped. My tongue’s swollen.”
Sturtevant paused, gulping for breath.
“You stay here. I don’t want some crow to come and pick my eyeballs outs before you get back. The EMT’s will make the same mistake in trying to get here as you did. Think there’s a shortcut to take. Then drive five miles around. They’ll lose ten minutes.
So, you're it. There's no one else. Why did I build that bridge? To gain a few minutes. To do what? Get in 15 minutes more of plowing? I saw you today, that car elevating into the sky and then kersplash! All my life I wanted to fly, and there, you did it, you did it by mistake, but you did it. I wish. I wish. I wish.”
Sturtevant had pushed out his words, a pant followed by a slow rush of air, as if doing yoga or Lamaze.
He went quiet, and then went still, his limbs stopped twitching, his head slumped forward. Benjamin checked his neck for a pulse. It was wild and strong, then weak, random. He ran to the tractor, the dog wagging. He found the cell and called. He warned them about the road, the pointless bridge. He ran back into the corn but could not find the right row or the right depth of a row. He thrashed and knocked down corn stalks, covering himself with beads of water and dust from the tassels. Flies buzzed along with his fury.
When Benjamin found Sturtevant, the farmer’s pulse was erratic, at times missing. He’d gone blue, the color of the water. He struggled to lift his head, looked at Benjamin, and winked. He mouthed thanks for coming. Like the water escaping into some uncharted hole in the earth, Sturtevant’s pulse weakened further, and was gone. Benjamin waited for a death rattle, a final expelling of air from the lungs, but none came.
The ambulance arrived, and the gurney could not make the cornfield, so Benjamin helped the two EMTS with a litter and they dragged Sturtevant to the clearing. The dog remained under the tractor in the shade.
When the ambulance left, Benjamin stood by the tractor with the dog. He had no way home. He started up the tractor, the Labrador jumped in, and Benjamin slowly turned the tractor back toward the gravel road that would lead to a junction to where he could find Anacker’s Road and then County X. He could only go ten miles an hour and had twenty miles to go. He had a lot to think about, and two hours seemed like the right amount of time.