Should I Sleep With Esther Watson

Ten hours north of Austin,
I slept by an Arkansas cotton field.
At dawn a tractor working down ends woke me.
Couple of hours down the road,
a guy had a yard full of motorcycle frames.
My Water Buffalo’s chain was worn;
but the owner said the Devil Rays had taken his,
so my journey went on.

After sundown, a wide gray river came into view —
the Arkansas was dark water large,
and I paused to roll a few Drums.
Back on the bike, I crossed the river valley —
moonlight and wind — smoking Drums
one after another behind my hand.
My plan was to stop in Kansas and see my children,
but their mother told me
they were in Fresno for another week or so.
Rebekah also said my mother was still in intensive care.
At sunrise, I slept for an hour behind a hay stand.
Entering Missouri’s Bootheel by midday;
I crossed the Mississippi into Cairo, Illinois, by late afternoon.
Then east into a triangular region called Little Egypt.
Turning north, the rest of my evening became a swampland
past random shacks and a Golconda roadhouse.
I turned around for a beer.
Inside, regulars below the levee
said they did floodplain chores for beer;
and I drank a few, writing about Devil Rays and farm dreams.

After the bar closed, I slept on some straw bales.
Packing up under full sun,
I rode north on the Coal Road —
as lower Illinois rose and fell for forty miles.
Asphalt shimmered in afternoon heat,
dividing early corn from dry yellow grain.
I parked by the grain and walked in.
It waved on my way through, and the wheat looked ready.
Across the road, corn rustled, too.
Starting the bike, I threw the chain putting it into gear —
swore at myself and began walking north.
The Coal Road ran into a wilderness
of tangled oaks and vines, until a woman
in an old GMC passed … slowed … backed up.

Was that my motorcycle back there?

It was, and I told her its chain was undone.— “Get in.”
She had some — a good-looking woman like my wife,
in overalls with a baseball cap over chestnut hair.
Her truck muttered past rotting barns, rusting combines,
and shady forest around small, greasy lakes:
they were abandoned pits filled with black water.
She’d grown up around the holes and shacks.
The Coal Road led to a hardware store,
followed by a small grain elevator against railroad tracks.
Turning in where the sign said Amish Grain,
augers were pouring old crop down into a waiting train.

Parking next to a wooden shed, she went inside,
returning with parts for 80 chain.
I thanked her and asked her who she was.
She told me her name was Esther Watson
and that she was partnered in the elevator with the Amish.

Prior to Austin, I’d been married to a Mennonite;
had two children; and I was on the way there.
After another mile, Esther asked about my marriage.
“Well, Rebekah was a Kansas Mennonite,
who moved out to California to break up large farms.
Our children were Helen and Moses.”
Esther glanced at the mirror,
passing wilderness and familiar wheat and corn,
till the oily gray Buffalo was a half mile away.
She parked; we both got out to mend its chain.
Were my folks around? — I said my mother
had lung cancer in Fresno.
Had I seen her? — Last year.
She clipped the links and stepped back,
wiping her hands with a rag;
then gravely nodded good-bye and got in the cab.
Pushed the starter switch, but nothing happened.
Raising the hood, we found a loose coil wire.
I reattached it while Esther said her harvest started soon.
They could use me at the elevator,
and there was her ruin to sleep in, too.

So I followed her battered truck
down the Coal Road, crossing bottom land
and trees till we turned up a grassy slope.
Her hilltop house and grounds were a simple affair:
tethered goats called “Jack and Jill” quietly
cropped the grass around her rock house;
black oaks shaded its rough metal roof and wide porch.
The ruin was a stone barn overflowing with grimed engines
and tools; farm pits and old coal pits completed the view.
After putting my gear inside her barn,
we sat briefly outdoors at a table under a tall arbor
of wild roses sprawled across rusty yellow-flaked motors.
Those were Amish farms below — at least the first two were
and most of those engines pumped out the shaft
mines before they switched to pits.
She stood up and said she’d let me know
when it was dinnertime. A couple hours passed,
then she called out the table was laid.

Over soup I learned Esther was a widow
whose husband had restored turn-of-the-century engines
for museums around the world.
Thomas had been gone a few years;
so we kept on talking about his aging engines
over beer and stew, till she said
goodnight and left with the dishes.

Jack and Jill watched me all the way back to their barn.
The interior was gray stone and open, aging doors.
Night sounds and moonlight
lulled me to sleep next to iron shadows.

In the morning Esther brought coffee —
we drank it between an old reaper
and a mine pumper with a huge piston.
How come the open pits were closed? — Dirty coal.
Had the Buffalo always been mine?— No,
I’d traded a rain machine for it.
Did the bike ever go fast? — No,
Noah set it for slow.

The next few days she had me
thinning oak trees until the harvest began.
My job at the Grain became unloading wagons
driven by teenage girls, whose wagons
were combinations of farm wheels and red barn siding
strapped with leather harnesses.
Esther kept her distance through the first part
of the wheat harvest. Amish horses did too,
while the elders taught me quite a bit of profanity.
And my own desert farming
was handled like a different sect.

Harvest sandwiches were made by Amish girls,
who looked with direct blue eyes and liked my beard,
while I enjoyed holding their mules.

Six days into the harvest, the younger Amish
crowd invited us to a gathering; so Esther
prepared me before sundown: The Amish protocols
had the men buy beer, then wait for women
while drinking in front of the hardware store.
Young women would leave home in smocks,
change to jeans. Everyone gathered
where the horses and buggies are hitched.

After beer, couples spun off through the fields
toward the old coal pits —
they’ll sleep together in the woman’s home
and have breakfast with her family before going to church.
The congregation watches over the protocol:
Doing it twice leads to a proposal.

We rode the motorcycle there;
drank a lot of Amish beer; rode home;
and said goodnight at two in the morning.
Alone in the barn on the cool floor by the motorcycle,
the roof was mounted on hand-hewn rafters —
they were heavy, close-grained, on their third building or so.
Illinois days had dusty wagons and gathering clouds at dusk;
but the succession of thunderstorms left us alone,
while we made a better rack for the Buffalo
and attached a hydraulic hose to a sprinkler on a ground slide.

We’d just started the Rain Bird
when she told me: Thomas got crushed under an engine,
and his ashes were scattered there.
I wondered when. — Not long before … she was forty-one.

Our evenings were spent watching her Rain Bird,
trading grassland for desert stories under leafy trees.
Mornings, Esther wore nightgowns on her porch,
watering vines in the see-through.
Another week of horse-drawn combines
finishing final fields and left unhitched on the turnrows.
Amish plows turning the old crop in.
And Esther came out to the ruined barn to ask for another ride.
We rolled south past an old tornado swath,
with circling hawks nearing the river.
And along the Ohio, we watched a barge
barely make headway.

On our way back, we stopped at a country store,
bought a couple of beers, adding up my wages
with a couple of more. On the way out the door, she asked
what had happened before Austin.
I said, “Working a movie on Jack Ruby.”
Then we rode home through darkening vine tangle
and farms, till we parked by the barn,
where Esther asked me to wait while she went into her house.

Coming back with a small journal,
she opened it to a sentence about augered grain —
it was good, and I told her so.
But all she did was whisper
the cash in the journal was mine …
leaving me alone with muted colors in the dark,
except for a garden hose curving toward a Rain Bird.

After opening its valve, my return to writing
began with wet circles on the grass.
Then I packed my gear and rolled my bike
down to the Coal Road, which had taller corn
by gray-yellow stubble.

My Kansas children were a day away;
the road shimmer was in hiatus going over the rise …