Rays of sunshine beamed on Lottie's back as she pulled up carrots in the garden. Lottie loved the heat, its warmth curled into her like wisps of smoke, filling the hollow space inside. That empty place where nothing rested for long.
She and Hank had been married for two years before discovering she was barren. When Lottie received a pamphlet in the mail from "Save the Children" she smiled up at Hank, stroked his hand and slipped the glossy picture of a malnourished child under his eyes.
"We can afford to sponsor one. I've got savings from bingo," she told him.
Her husband looked down at the image. "Send 'em here so they can work for me on the farm," he said, "see how it is to feed themselves."
Whenever she left one of these brochures out -- pictures of naked children drying in the sun like fallen leaves -- it would end up in the rubbish.
"I don't like seeing them pitiful eyes," he'd say, shrugging. After he left the house, she'd rescue the child from the bin, smooth out its crinkled face and put it between books to flatten out.
So, this is it, she thought. Me, Hank, and the carrots. She changed from her housecoat into old jeans and a work blouse, rolling up her sleeves and looking out at the expansive garden. This is it, the life Mama planned for me. Even after leaving this world, she got her way.
Her hands wove through the frilly greens, scraped into the peaty soil, and dug around the top of each vegetable before giving it a good tug. I should have married Gus. Lottie pulled up carrot by carrot. We'd be on the road now, exploring the country in his truck.
She remembered a barn dance when she was 18 and Gus had grabbed her around the waist and lifted her up high in the air above the crowd, his cowboy hat whirling off like a Frisbee. Gus with a hand-rolled cigarette stuck to his fleshy bottom lip. Gus leaning against a wall, hat tipped forward, winking at her with eyelashes so long they brushed his cheeks. Gus nodding when he first saw her in a pink summer dress.
"Pink suits you like it suits a rose," he'd told her in a low voice, tracing his finger along the scooped neckline while the heat rose in her face to match the word pink.
She spent the rest of her senior year unable to concentrate on the exams. She couldn't clear her mind of what he'd promised: "You know it's my goal to see the world, and you -- my Lot -- are coming with me!"
When the summer arrived and it was time to follow him, her mother grounded her, for failing Geography and Math. She added ironing and dusting to Lottie's list of chores and harassed her when she forgot to do them. Mother found so many reasons not to let her daughter go, especially with a man who would willingly abandon his family's land and take to the road. So Lottie had refused the one who would, looking back, have been the love of her life.
After he left she floated around the house like a phantom. Then her grief changed to fear when both parents developed cancer: mother in the stomach, father in the lungs. If Lottie had ever had the courage to leave with Gus, she knew she would have raced back home to nurse her ailing parents. It was the duty of an only child.
In the garden, she readjusted her aging bony knees between rows of Amsterdam Sweetheart. Yanking one out of the dirt, she dangled the stubby orange vegetable in the air. It was full of white holes, a sign of over-watering. The holes reminded her of eyes -- big blank eyes watching her. Hank would drench the plants with the hose once a day so he didn't have to go out twice a day, which was what they recommended.
"Hank!" she called out towards the orchard beside the garden. She had to call again before he responded. "What's up?" he yelled with one foot planted on the ladder, about to climb another tree.
"About the carrots…" she began.
"When's lunch on?" he hollered, cutting her off.
Oh darn, she thought, Lunchtime already? We've only been out for three hours, with barely the morning gone by. She squinted into the sun and waved a finger in the air at him. One finger, one hour. His broad-rimmed hat didn't cover a neck going pink from the summer sun. A cotton shirt burst open over his bulldog chest and his beer belly jellied over the waist of his jeans. He must be sweating, she thought, as the heat prickled her own back. I'll sit him in the bath tonight.
Then, out of the corner of her eye she saw something move -- a flash of brown -- but when she looked over there was nothing there. All morning she'd felt like she was being watched, but not by her husband. She dabbed her forehead with the end of the apron then continued digging and pulling at the stubborn vegetables, snapping off the green tops and throwing the carrots into a bucket. Hank was in charge of the orchard's apples and pears, while Lottie tended the vegetables: carrots, beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. It was a good year for fruits, and an improved year for vegetables. They had covered the carrots in netting this time, after losing the last crop to the hungry root fly.
When Lottie looked back over, her husband was leaning against the apple tree, smoking a cigarette. She thought of how different the farm had been when his whole family worked it. It was Hank's inheritance from his father and grandfather. Their family had survived on pigs and produce but now that his grandparents were gone, his mom had run off, and Dad was in a retirement home, it was all up to Hank. First thing he did was sell off the noisy, stinking animals and concentrate on fruits and vegetables instead. "Now, I can do what I like with this place," he explained to her one night at dinner. "Meat goes through bad phases, but no one, I mean no one, gets tired of fruit and veggies," he said, smothering butter over his carrots.
Two years of marriage and living on the farm without family pressure had shown Lottie that her husband could find any excuse to sit on the front porch and tilt back a beer, staring out at nothing.
"How many crates you pick so far?" she yelled out to him.
Without responding, he hoisted the ladder around to the other side of the tree, where she couldn't see him. But she had found ways to motivate him. The neighbour's gossip was one. She fanned the flames on that topic until he had no choice but to prove to those disbelievers, who were just waiting for him to run the farm into debt. Her morning fry-ups of eggs swimming in bacon fat gave him the energy to get out of bed each day, and her soothing pep-talks and tireless hands kept them both going.
Lottie made a deal with herself that after she dug up ten more edible carrots, she would move on to cucumbers and tomatoes. That morning, she'd only found twenty-five good ones and nearly twice as many rotten but there were rows and rows of green tops ahead of her, just waiting for attention. Scooping up the damp soil, she let the earth fall through her thin fingers.
Moments later there was another movement at the edge of the garden and a brown furry creature popped his head out of a burrow and scampered to the surface. Sitting back on his haunches, he cleaned his whiskers with tiny little paws that reminded her of furry gloves. The groundhog stared at her with beady black eyes and she stared right back. He seemed mesmerized by her red and yellow striped blouse. His tiny nose twitched and his whiskers danced, then he scampered back into his hole.
Once, they had seen nearly a dozen of them sitting on the gravel driveway, chattering away. It had looked like a groundhog reunion.
"They're overgrown rats," Hank had told her.
"I think they're cute," she'd said.
"Watch this." He had stamped the ground with his heavy boots. "See how scared they are?"
She had never seen these animals before she moved on to the farm and now there was an entire village of them living below the soil. Lottie would scrunch down to peer into their dirt holes. While they lived in tightly-packed dens under the ground, she and Hank rattled around in their four-bedroom farmhouse.
Lottie served up a heaping plate of lunch and they sat down at the red and white Formica table. "That's mighty good grub, honey." Bits of carrots spewed from his mouth while he spoke. "I remember when you used to cook from cans. You're gourmet now."
"I'm trying out that new cookbook," she told him. "It's giving me ideas on how to use herbs and things." Lottie pushed her peas and carrots into a line on her plate. Hank eyed her untouched food. "If you ain't eating your veggies pass them over, I've got room."
The book recommended lunch to be the hearty meal of the day so she always made enough for four: two hamburgers with spicy marinade, brown beans with pork, steamed carrots, stewed tomatoes, canned peas, corn bread with molasses, and berry pie and ice cream for dessert.
Hank used a slice of spongy bread to mop his plate clean. He sucked back on a bottle of beer while she sipped a glass of cool water. The lacy curtains caught gusts of wind and batted at the window frame. The grandfather clock killed time. Lottie had barely touched her meal by the time he was finished.
"You've got to get more in you. Before you disappear," he said, reaching over to tilt her chin up so she'd meet his eyes. "It's important you fill up."
"Oh, I've never been one for food, you know that," she shrugged. "But ice cream. I could eat ice cream all day." She reached for her empty dessert bowl as if to prove it.
"You'll rot your teeth, sweetheart," he said, grabbing the table with his man-hands. Hands he used to climb up rusty ladders, twist apples off sharp branches, mix chemical fertilizers and turn soil over in the garden. "I'm going to lie down," he told her and pushing his chair back, shifted his body weight to rise. "You tired?" When he stood he towered over her at 6'1. She shook her head. He smiled, showing off pink glistening gums. "You're a gem, you know that?"
"You're not so bad yourself," she replied, and looked away because she couldn't help but replace his face with that of another. Hank walked up the creaky, wooden stairs to the bedroom while Lottie scraped her leftover lunch into a Tupperware.
Some nights she would cook dinner later to force him to work longer and then reward him with a game of cards in the evening. The most they'd bet was five dollars but whenever she won he called her "my little Queen" over and over, teasing her until she pinched his arm to make him stop.
Most nights he'd sit beside her on the sofa holding her hand until the end of the ten o'clock news. Then they'd get into his parents' old bed, the one he was born in thirty years before, with its squeaky springs and tarnished copper bedposts. Hank would take her body into his calloused hands and bore into her small frame.
So this is it, she thought. This is it, it, it.
If she let it, the rhythm of his movement relaxed her and she pictured the garden in her head, full of feathery carrot tops shimmering like floating sea-life. And the secret chattering of the groundhogs was there, right under the house.
After Lottie's second miscarriage she began to dream even more about Gus. It had been nearly five years since his eyes had burned a goodbye tattoo into hers. Since he'd tipped his suede cowboy hat, honked the horn and pulled out onto the highway. Then Lottie had walked away from the empty road and into her mother's open arms. "Shh," her mother had whispered in her ear, "you'll find a local boy, dear."
And her prophecy came true. Over the next two years while Gus was out west delivering canola to Alberta and B.C., Lottie lost both her parents to cancer, one after the other, and at the age of twenty became an orphan.
"We're so sorry for your loss," a local farmer's wife told her during her mother's funeral. The woman patted Lottie on the back, and then pushed her overweight nephew towards her, leaving them alone in the funeral parlour. Hank had been only two years ahead of Lottie in school, so she recognized him. She remembered hearing how his mother had run away, leaving an elderly father to take care of two sons. How Hank's elder brother went to the city to try to find their mother, and never came back.
"I'm sorry about your parents," he'd whispered, looking down at the floor.
"Thank you," she'd said, gripping onto her mother's casket. "I don't know what..."
"To do?" he asked, glancing at her face all shiny with tears.
Lottie held a tissue up to her nose while Hank stood as still as possible beside her. He looked down at the waxen figure in the casket and saw the bright pink cheeks and lips, as if she were blushing with shame at her own death. This woman who had never worn makeup when she was alive.
"They seemed like, like real nice folks," he said.
"I didn't think dad would go first," she said, looking at Hank through blurry eyes, "but when mom got worse it was too…" She bowed her head down, rested her forehead on her mother's stomach and stayed like that for a long time.
"You know," he took a deep breath. "I don't really have my folks either," he explained. "I guess that puts us in the same boat."
Lottie held a tissue to her nose and looked up at Hank. He moved a step closer.
A couple of months later she married him in the town chapel, and the same people who'd been at the funeral attended the wedding. Then the couple moved into the farm house.
Half a year after the wedding, she got a postcard all the way from Vancouver, British Columbia which she hid behind the spice rack in the kitchen. It was a picture of mountains and the ocean and looked like a setting for a movie. On the back, he'd written in a small scrawling hand:
Dear Lot, I have found my place in this world and it's on the road. I've seen Canada from coast to coast! It's lonely sometimes but you're always on my mind and the CB radio helps too. Yours, Gus.
She often imagined herself sitting in the cab with him, up high above the other cars and barreling down the freeway. The road would be a wide band of shining silver stretched out in front of them. Gus's warm, heavy hand would rest on her thigh. Instead, every Saturday, she and Hank drove in his spitting Chevy to the market to sell their produce. Hank liked to turn on the CB radio rather than music, and Lottie would listen to the voice snippets cross each other in the crackling air.
"Farmer Joe, here," Hank announced his nickname. "Is that you Bill?" he said, connecting to an anonymous pal. Sometimes they'd only speak a few words, and at times it was in a code language that she didn't understand.
"I thought that radio was used only by the locals?" she asked him after they heard someone speaking a foreign language she thought was Russian.
"That's right. It usually covers the local area but it's been known to pick up talk from across the country." He explained to her, his eyes alight.
"So, would truckers use it then? To talk to each other?" she asked, conscious that her hands were trembling. Hank didn't know the story of Gus.
"You're a smart cookie," he replied. "That's the best use for it, in my opinion, but it's good for emergencies too. I just like to play around on it."
Lottie's dreams became more vivid and whenever she heard a deep voice on the CB it made her shiver with pleasure. "Where do you think that one's from?" she'd ask. But there was no way of knowing. She convinced Hank to take her on regular Sunday afternoon drives and besides the foreign sounds of cracking and popping, they'd keep quiet in the car. She was sure if she listened hard enough, she could will Gus to speak to her.
"Lottie…blip bleep…Lot McPhee…buzz," she thought she heard once. "You are the prettiest…bleep bleep." She looked over at Hank to see if he had heard, but he was staring ahead at the road.
On each ride, Lottie collected sounds as if they were precious jewels she could hold in her hand. Piecing together mumbles and sighs, she assembled them into a puzzle. Once, when Hank wanted to listen to music and couldn't tune into a radio station, he banged the dashboard with his hairy fist. "I'm getting tired of listening to other people's business," he told her. But since he couldn't tune into music, he left the thing on. All at once there was an explosion of bleeps and Hank sped up, while Lottie looked out the window. She heard a male voice, loud and clear, "I'm gonna… git ya." She looked out at the passing fields and heard: "…in my arms…" She looked at the broken-down farmhouse. "Where you belong…buzz." Then she saw a group of horses cantering. "I'll throw ya in my truck and we'll…" She twisted her fingers in her lap. "…we'll drive the world over." That was him alright, she was sure of it. She felt her stomach burning and the heat spreading up her neck. "Did you hear that?" she asked Hank in a casual voice, while her heart splintered in her chest.
"What's that?" he replied, slowing down to open a pack of chewing gum.
"A voice… someone saying… something. I don't know," she told him.
"Wasn't paying attention," he said, flicking the CB off. "Might get rid of that damn thing. Too much noise, not enough talk." Lottie opened her mouth to say something, but stopped.
That night, when they got home from visiting Hank's aunt and uncle in the next town, he skidded the Chevy into the gravel driveway and dashed into the house; after half a case of beer he was desperate for a toilet. Lottie stayed in the car, fingering the silver keys that dangled in the ignition. She thought about how easy it would be to start, even though she'd never learned to drive. Her father believed that women weren't made for driving, but that wouldn't have stopped her. She could hitchhike or take a bus; there was no excuse why not. She wondered how long it would take her to find the truck -- with the outline of a naked woman on its mud flaps -- and the man with the brown cowboy hat at its wheel.
Lottie turned the key in the ignition, picked up the CB and blew into it, scattering dust. Keying the mic, just as she'd seen Hank do it, she imagined Gus's broad hand shuffling the hair out of his eyes, his grin cracking open. Maybe, she thought, he'll have his radio turned on too. She made up her own nickname, remembering that Hank had called it a "handle," and it was needed to communicate with others. She spoke her nickname, Groundhog, into the CB and the lights on the radio flashed. At first she spoke only in a whisper. "Gus, are you out there?" A thin strain of sound came out of the speaker.
"Can you hear me?" There was a low hum.
"It's been five years." Her knuckles turned white from gripping the device. Outside, twilight arrived and turned the sky from a light blue to a faded grey. Looking out the dashboard window, she saw little groundhog heads popping out of their dens. Then a current of voice came out of the radio: "Burr… lil' missy… burr… buzz," and a hundred other mixed-up sounds. Lottie smiled at the crossing strains of buzz and whoosh and fuzz.
"It's me, your little Lot calling," she said loud and clear. "The love of your life."
She hunkered down into the Chevy, making the upholstery squeak, and talked on and on until she felt the hollow space inside her filling up with warmth. When the windows steamed up she drew circular patterns on the foggy glass.
"I've wanted to tell you… to say…" She put a fine hand to her cheek and stroked it the way he used to. "I was only a girl and I didn't understand." She nodded. "But now I do."
Hank had not come out to get her, and the lights were still off. All she could see was a dark shadowy outline of where they lived. There were still pots to scrub and the ironing and laundry to put away. She gripped the CB and swallowed the soft plum that had caught in her throat.
"My parents were..." Her voice quickened. "They needed me." Her face was bathed in tears. "I wish I … could go back in time… I wanted to." She licked at the salty drops around her mouth. "I wanted to… to be… on the open road. With you," she said in a choked voice.
When she rolled down the window to get some air, she watched the designs she'd drawn in steam disappear. The sky had turned from a light grey wash to a deep purple stain. The outline of the barn in front of her and the grove of apple and pear trees beside it were just barely visible. She heard the groundhogs' chatter, but couldn't even see them now.
After Lottie told Gus everything she could imagine telling, she took a deep breath and heard the static-free hum on the radio. The night air wafted in the window, cooling her face. Then she smoothed out her skirt, looked at herself in the rear-view mirror and was surprised to see her eyes so shiny. She released herself from the car and stepped gingerly onto the gravel drive.
Closing the car door, she thought of the next afternoon when Hank would go to town for a Farmer's Union meeting. She could check the bus schedule. She thought of what she would pack and how long it would take her to get ready. But first she'd make Hank a pot of beef and carrot stew to last the week. Until he could make other arrangements.
Lottie crept up the drive towards the dark house, and the groundhogs scurried behind her. When she turned around to catch them out, they stopped and looked away, all except for one little guy. This one raised his dark eyes to hers and under the light of the moon she saw his tiny mouth moving. This one wasn't afraid to communicate with her in his language. Telling her to go.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Elena Kaufman. All rights reserved.