The sun was already hot on the back of Robert’s neck and it wasn’t even 9 a.m. yet. He chose a wrench from the toolbox sitting next to the tractor and leaned over the engine, hoping to find out why the tractor had sputtered to a stop earlier in the day.
He knew the rest of this hot day would be a tough one, one that would leave him with a red, burned neck if he wasn’t careful. Annie was always after him to put on his sunscreen. He scoffed almost every time. Sunscreen? Really? He’d lived and worked on this farm his whole life and never wore sunscreen. That was until he met Annie and she ran around behind him with a bottle ready to squirt the cold, white liquid on the back of his neck, arms, ears, anything exposed to the sun. This morning he’d skipped out before she could catch him, but he knew she’d be out eventually, bottle in hand.
“You’re going to need this,” she’d say. “Can’t have you getting skin cancer on top of all the other stresses we’ve got going on at this place.”
Robert reached for a different wrench and bent over the tractor’s engine again. This time the wrench fit smoothly over the bolt and he started twisting, biting his lower lip like he always did when he was focused on a task. Annie was right. There were enough stresses on this farm. His health didn’t need to be one of them. Working the bolt loose he heard a car engine and looking up he watched one of his many stresses weave down the long driveway, past the farmhouse and up toward the barn. It looked like this day wasn’t going to be one of the easy ones.
Dust billowed around the car and rolled toward Robert. He squinted, keeping one eye on the bolt he was working on and one eye on the imposing figure climbing out of the drivers seat of the beat-up blue Toyota Camry. He may have looked imposing, but Robert knew there wasn’t anything imposing about Bill Eberlin, the man he’d known since high school who was more threatening to a plate of wings than he was to another man.
Bill Eberlin lumbered toward him in his familiar gate with a slight limp, button up shirt partially untucked from the top of a pair of oversized black dress pants, his large belly stretching the limit of the shirt. The collar of his ruffled suit coat had somehow gotten flipped up on one side, down on the other, and Robert could see by the sweat glistening on his foreahead that the air conditioning had broke down in his car.
Robert kept his eyes on the engine as Bill approached, tightening his jaw as he worked the bolt loose.
“Robert. How’s it going?”
Robert smiled, glancing briefly at Bill. Bill’s face, his cheeks slightly puffed, slightly sagging from age, was a mix of flushed red and pale white.
“Okay, Bill. How’s it going in the banking business?”
“I think you know the answer to that Robert. Been trying to get you on the phone. Sent you a couple of letters. Haven’t heard back from you, but figured you’ve just been busy. For the last six months.”
Robert’s smile faded. He straightened and focused his gaze on Bill’s. “Yeah, Bill, I know. Walter and I have been talking about how to take care of this. We’ve been meaning to call you.”
Bill let out a long breath, leaned back against the barn door. He rubbed his big hands against his eyes. “Listen, Robert, you know I don’t like being hard on you guys. We went to school together. I like you and your brother and I love to see farms thrive.” He looked up, his expression serious. “It’s my bosses. They’ve really been on me to get you back on track with payments. I want to work with you, okay? If I can just get you to talk to me, we can find a way to make this work.”
Robert wiped grease off his hands and nodded. “I know, Bill. I’m sorry we avoided you. It’s not like me, you know that. I guess I was just trying to buy us some more time. We were hoping for better milk numbers this month and that didn’t happen. We were also helping for a better corn crop and that’s not going so well either. I kept thinking things would get better and —”
Bill chuckled softly, sliding his hands in the pockets of his wrinkled dress pants. “That’s not happening either. I get it buddy. It’s tough for a lot of farmers right now. For a lot of small business owners for that matter. I’m beginning to feel more like a therapist than a loan officer.”
Robert nodded, walked toward Bill and leaned back against one of the tractor’s towering tires. He and Bill stood there in silence a few moments, looking out over the fields.
Bill sighed. “Times are tough, all over, Robert, is what I’m saying. You’re not the only one in trouble.” He looked over at Robert. “Don’t feel ashamed, alright? I’ve got a 3 o’clock Tuesday. Come in and we’ll work something out. Maybe we can even lower your payments, get you a better interest rate and get you caught up.”
“Thanks, Bill. I’ll be there.”
“Bring that lovely wife of yours too. She brightens up a room. Maybe she can charm the manager into a loan extension.”
Bill winked and stuck his hand out toward Robert, who took it and shook it.
“Be careful out there, Bill,” Robert said, pushing the door to Bill’s car closed.
Bill laughed softly as he slid the key in the ignition. “I know you’re a praying man, Rob, so pray for me. I’m on my way to Nelson Landry’s.”
Robert leaned back from the car and whistled. “You got your bullet proof vest?”
Bill shook his head, and smiled. “I don’t. That’s why I need the prayers. Heard the last guy who drove up there looking for payment had a bullet shot through the back window.”
“Nah,” Robert said. “I heard he just shot a warning shot in the air.”
Bill shifted the car into reverse, his foot still on the break. “Either way, I’m not looking forward to it.”
“Who knows. Maybe you’ll get lucky and this will be one of his hangover days.”
“Yeah, you know, I can’t figure out how he keeps that gas station open and keeps such late nights at the bar at the same time.”
Bill backed out and waved at Robert. “See you Tuesday. Hang in there.”
Robert watched the car disappear down the driveway, filling his cheeks with air and letting it out again. He walked back to the tractor and started working again, hoping Jason would get back from town soon with that part they needed.
“I brought you some lemonade.”
Robert looked up, his face smeared with grease and sweat and when he saw his wife standing there, her dark brown curls falling around her shoulders, the sunlight behind her creating a deep orange aura around her, his stomach flipped like it so often did when he saw her. She still had the same affect on him even after 31 years of marriage. He couldn’t look at her without feeling the way he had at the age of 15 when he’d met her on that merry-go-round at the fair; a teenage giddiness that sent ripples of pleasure through his chest.
Robert straightened from where he’d been bent over the tractor and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Thanks, sweetie.”
He took the glass from her hand and drank it in one long gulp, the cold of it spreading from his chest throughout this limbs,
“I needed that,” he said handing her the glass. “Thank you.”
She stood, smiling, holding the glass, watching him as he wiped the grease from his hands. “Have you figured out what’s wrong with it yet?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Robert said, avoiding her gaze. He knew she didn’t really want to know about the tractor. She wanted to know why Bill had been there and he knew he was going to have to tell her. He’d hoped she hadn’t seen the exchange, but he knew better. Annie didn’t miss much around this place and it wasn’t easy to keep secrets between them.
He knew if he looked at her she’d draw it out of him, the same way she drew so much else out of him – deep feelings he wouldn’t share with anyone else: worries, hurts, joys, sadness, fear.
He didn’t want her to draw this out of him, to have to admit he was failing his family; that even by working so hard every day on this farm he couldn’t pay his bills, pay his debts, and keep the farm going the same way his father would have.
“How far behind are we, Robert?”
He laughed softly. “You really do know everything that’s going on around here, don’t you?”
Annie smiled. “I’ve been married to you 33 years, Robert Patrick Tanner. I know when something is bothering you. Plus, when Bill Eberlin comes out to the house to talk to you in person, I know it can’t be good. It takes a lot to get him to move from that comfy chair of his.”
Robert studied her calm expression, listened to her evenly toned words, and felt a peace settle over his spirit that he hadn’t had a few moments before.
“We’re about six months behind,” he said bluntly. “Walt and I’ve been paying other bills and trying to figure out a plan to make payments on the loan at the end of this summer. We didn’t want to tell our families until we got it figured it out. We shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry we kept this information from you for so long.”
Annie sighed, stepping closer to her husband, and laid her hand against his cheek. “Robert, when will you learn that we are in this together? I’m sure Lauren would tell Walt the same thing. What about Hannah? Have you kept her in the loop on this?”
Robert smiled and shook his head, laying his hand over his wife’s as she moved it to his chest. He hadn’t told his sister, the farm store manager, about the financial struggles, but he had told her husband, Bert, even though Bert, a local mechanic wasn’t even technically part of the business.
“I guess we were a little sexist, us Tanner men and Bert,” he told his wife sheepishly. “Some kind of ancient instinct must have kicked in and we wanted to protect our women, so we discussed a plan to take care of it on our own.”
Annie leaned close and brushed her lips against her husband’s. “We are in this together, Robert. That means you and me, Walt and Lauren and Bert and Hannah. We want to help. Don’t shut us out.”
This woman is still way too good for me, Robert thought as he looked in his wife’s eyes, seeing compassion and concern there, not the anger he probably should have seen.
“We won’t do it again,” he told her. “I promise. We’ll figure this out,” he kissed her gently. “Together. I didn’t mean to lie. It’s just . . . there is so much to worry about. I didn’t want to add more to your plate.”
Annie slipped her arms around his neck. “I know why you did it, Robert. It’s okay. You did it to protect me, not to hurt me. What’s done is done. Now, let’s just start figuring out how to get this business back on track.”
Footsteps behind them pulled Robert’s gaze from his wife’s and he laughed as he saw Jason standing in the doorway with a look of disgust on his face.
“Guys, seriously? Aren’t you a little old to be doing this type of stuff?”
Robert scoffed, his arms sliding easily around his wife’s waist as he pulled her against him. “Too old? Really, Jason? What are you going to do when you get this age? Never kiss Ellie again and become a monk?
Annie laughed, pulled from her husband’s grasp and looked at her son, a hand on her hip. “Speaking of Ellie, when are you going to finally ask that sweet young lady to marry you? You’re not getting any younger and neither is she and this mama wants some grandchildren.”
Jason dipped his head, bright red flushing from the base of his neck up to his forehead, and walked through the doorway, turning a right and heading toward the pig pens. “Need to go check on Bessie and see if she’s ready to give birth to those piglets yet.”
Annie laughed. “Oh, I see how it is. Avoiding the subject, Jason Bradly. Well, you go ahead, but I’m not giving up. I’ll have you married by the end of this year yet.”
“Okay, Mom,” Jason called over his shoulder as he stepped into the mother pig’s pen. “Just go back to making out with Dad. I won’t look.”
Robert and Annie looked at each other and laughed.
“So, do you want to make out, Annie?” Robert asked, pulling her close again, kissing her neck.
Jason shouted from the pig pen: “Oh, my gosh! Guys! I was kidding. Get a room!”
Annie tipped her head back and laughed and then pressed her mouth against her husbands. When she pulled her mouth away several moments later she laid her hand against the back of his neck.
“Oh my, that skin is hot. I’ll go get the sunscreen. I left some right over here somewhere. . .”
Robert laughed, shaking his head as he watched Annie wander to the other side of the barn near the room he’d built to sleep in when one of the cows were calving or the pigs were in labor. She was nothing if not predictable.