“I want to go to Miss Landry’s farm.”
Margaret looked at her brother quizzically. That was not the answer she expected when she asked Peter how he wished to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday.
Peter sat at the kitchen table of Margaret’s home, finishing a cup of coffee. He stopped there when his uniform delivery service truck route brought him to her neighborhood. After clearing his throat, he repeated the wish in his soft, precise tone: “I want to go to Miss Landry’s farm.”
Margaret wiped off the red counter trimmed in chrome. It gave the kitchen the look of an old diner. Instead of an expensive kitchen remodel that she and Clyde couldn’t afford, she decorated the whole room with nostalgic Coca-Cola and Hershey signs, red chair cushions, and chrome napkin holders.
“What is that?” she asked.
“You know.” He paused. She continued cleaning. “Seventh grade field trip.” Peter economized on words.
Margaret set the rag down. “Hmm. Do you remember where it is?”
Peter shook his head. “A bus took my class there. It took hours.”
Margaret gazed at Peter’s serene face that masked the other world that lurked beneath his detached demeanor. A different place existed somewhere deep inside her little brother’s mind and soul. While he functioned in this world, present enough to make a living and get along with people, another one played through his essence. A better one? Perhaps. Margaret didn’t know because it was a secret world. When they were children, Peter often traveled to this place.
The sound of a key in the front door distracted her. When Clyde walked in, Margaret tensed up. “Clyde! I didn’t expect you home. Anything wrong?”
“Don’t be so jumpy, Marg. I simply forgot something.”
She dried her hands with a red and white striped dish cloth, even though her hands weren’t wet. “Peter stopped by for coffee.”
Clyde nodded toward his brother-in-law and gave him a terse smile. “I can see, Marg.”
“Do you want a cup?”
Clyde started walking towards the living room. “No time. I’ve got appointments.” Margaret watched him walk towards the bookcase. She slid away from view as he reached inside the enclosed bottom shelf and grabbed a flask of whiskey. Tears welled up in her eyes so she stepped out of the kitchen into the enclosed sunroom.
A row of mourning doves perched atop the neighbor’s wooden fence. Margaret absently watched them. Clyde startled her when he wrapped his arms around her from behind. She turned around and embraced him, and he kissed her.
When he pulled away, he told her, “I love you so much.”
“I love you too.”
“I’ve got some good leads on these new electronic games. The Danny-Dean. Named after the two college geniuses that invented them. They’re a cross between the Merlin and the Simon, and they’ll blow both of them away.”
“Sounds super,” Margaret said.
Clyde sighed. “Nobody says ‘super’ anymore, Marg. It’s 1978 for Chrissake.” He paced around the sunroom. “I’m getting in on the ground floor. Believe you me, if I play my cards right, I’ll be in charge of the whole midwest territory.”
The Danny-Deans were Clyde’s latest “get rich quick” project.
“Ten—count them—ten games in one, and kids can also buy an attachment to make them a walkie-talkie.” His small green eyes shined like tiny emeralds. “Nothing else on the market comes close.”
Margaret feigned a smile. “I hope they take off. I really do.”
Clyde stepped back. “You don’t think they will, do you?” he snapped.
“I didn’t say that, Clyde.”
His voice rose. “I can tell by your voice!”
“Nothing’s a guarantee, that’s all,” she said gently. She reached out and squeezed his hand. He drew her into another tight hug. When Peter walked into the sunroom, Clyde sighed and stepped back. “Well, I better get going. I’m running behind today.”
Peter walked outside in the backyard and picked up a small, skinny twig that lay in the mulch surrounding a birch tree. Margaret watched as he reentered the sunroom, stuck the twig between the partially-opened window and the screen. He dangled it in front of a mosquito hawk trapped inside.
“Come on, boy. There you go,” Peter cooed. When the rescued insect clung to the twig, Peter brought it outside and released it.
After Peter left, Margaret sat down at her typewriter in the corner of the living room that doubled as her office. Before starting on her transcription work, she telephoned St. Christopher Elementary School. She vaguely remembered a Miss Landry, the school librarian, way back when Margaret and her brother attended the school in the early 1950s. The “library” consisted of an old classroom in the back building that Miss Landry turned into a nice little reading nook for the students. Maybe someone at the school could help her find out about this fabled farm that apparently remained stuck in Peter’s mind.
Late that afternoon, Margaret drove her Chevette out to Cottage Gardens, where Peter rented a two-bedroom home. She admired the well-kept lawns reminiscent of English gardens; her brother performed the work for many of them. She walked up to the raised front porch and knocked on the door.
“Hello, Margaret. Come in, please.”
When she entered, she wondered why Peter lived such a solitary life. His home did not reflect that of a bachelor who stayed to himself. No clothes were strewn around the place, no dishes piled in the sink. He kept an inviting, comfortable place.
“I have two things to talk to you about if you have time.” She brimmed with excitement.
Peter turned off the local news. “I sure do. Would you like tea or something?”
He led her to the tidy kitchen and set two cups and saucers on the butcher block table. As he filled the kettle with water, she noticed the obituary section of the newspaper folded right where Peter usually sat. Whose obituary was he concerning himself with? Nobody she knew had died. She tried to read the names upside down from her vantage point. She couldn’t come out and ask Peter. No. If she got too inquisitive or pushy, he retreated.
“Here you go.” Peter poured hot water over the tea bags. “And here’s the cream and sugar.”
Margaret added the condiments to her cup, and Mr. Cuddles, one of Peter’s rescue cats, jumped up on her lap. Margaret stroked the feline’s head as he purred. “First, I found Miss Landry’s farm.”
Peter raised his eyebrows.
Margaret bubbled as she spoke. “I went to the school to see if anyone there might remember or know something about it. Anyway, Miss Landry’s niece now works at the school—she works in the office—a sweet lady. And guess what?”
“It’s now a hobby farm, and the Landry family still owns it.”
“Do they allow visitors?”
Margaret grinned. “They do! They have a blueberry and blackberry patch, and they let people come pick them, fill buckets, and buy them. There are picnic grounds and a walking path. It’s only about 90 miles from here.”
A contented smile formed on Peter’s face.
Margaret stirred her tea. “I’ll bet Dad wished he could have gone on that one. He grew up on a farm.”
Peter looked at her, started to speak, but then checked out into his own little world. A vague fragment of memory flashed in her mind as she recalled their dad getting angry over something to do with this farm. Maybe she just imagined it when she saw Peter retreat.
Margaret spoke up. “The niece….you know, Miss Landry’s niece that gave me the information?”
Peter nodded with his head; his eyes were far away.
“Like I said, she’s a sweet lady. I’d say she’s mid-thirties. Lovely smile.” Margaret shifted her position in the chair. She leaned forward and whispered, “And she’s single.” She blinked her eyes at him.
Peter shook his head. “I don’t know, Margaret.”
“How about just meeting her? I can arrange for you two to have coffee.” She paused. “What harm could it do?”
“I’m not that interested. Sorry.”
She sighed. Her brother feared the complexity of relationships. “I know Mom and Dad argued a lot. And Clyde isn’t exactly the Prince Charming I dreamed of as a girl. But he’s a good man at his core and he loves me, Peter. You don’t want to live out your life alone, do you?”
Peter shrugged. “Let’s just say I’m not a formula person.”
Margaret raised her eyebrows. “Formula person?”
“Graduate college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids. I don’t think that was ever meant for me. And I’m okay with it.”
Margaret sighed. “But you’re smart, you’re kind, you’re good-looking. I hate the thought of you being alone.”
He stroked the head of another rescued cat that rubbed against his legs. “I’m not alone. And I’m at peace.”
Margaret set Mr. Cuddles on the floor and stood. “I have to get home. I promised Clyde fried fish tonight, and I still have to go to the grocery.”
Peter stood to walk his sister to the door. “Fried fish disagrees with you.”
She paused and glanced at the newspaper on the way out. The name “Timothy O’Toole” struck her. She committed it to memory “Me? I’ll just heat up a can of soup. Would you like to come over for dinner?”
Peter shook his head. “No thank you.”
Margaret always dreaded leaving him alone despite the fact that he seemed to crave solitude. Before she finally got married to Clyde a couple of years ago, she dreaded evenings that turned into long nights alone; she joined book clubs, yoga classes, disco lessons, anything that got her out amongst people. “I’ll pick you up Sunday for a day at the farm then?”
Peter simply nodded.
When Margaret drove up to Peter’s cottage on Sunday, she stayed in the green Chevette for a few moments collecting her thoughts. She looked in the rearview mirror and touched up her face. Why did she always let Clyde drive her to tears? When would she learn to not let his fits upset her? He was a good man, and she smiled when she thought about their make-up sessions.
As she opened the car door, she saw Peter ambling down the steps in his khaki slacks and navy button-down shirt. Hardly gear for a farm, dear Peter! Her brother always dressed so neatly. In school, he was the kid that the teachers held up as an example of tidiness. She thought about this farm and the way Peter acted like she should remember it. His seventh grade field trip. She would have been a junior in high school.
Peter got in the car. “I can’t thank you enough for this, Margaret.”
“Anything for my little brother’s birthday,” she smiled.
They got on the Interstate and headed south to the farm. Peter sat quietly gazing at the stretches of farmland. She switched on the radio and hummed along to Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
When the song ended and a commercial advertising McDonald’s new sundae filled the airways, Peter spoke. “What do you think about Clyde’s Danny-Dean?”
It never failed to surprise her. For all of her brother’s apparent detachment, he absorbed everything around him.
“I didn’t know you overheard us,” she said.
“Clyde’s loud,” he explained.
“I see. Well, I think it could be good. It’s just that he gets his hopes up so high, and then when things don’t pan out…” Her mind wandered to the other schemes and disappointments. Life would not be easy if the Danny-Dean failed. She would not even let her mind go there.
“So what was it about this seventh grade field trip that makes you want to revisit? You must have had a super great time!”
Peter didn’t answer right away. The bright October day betrayed the chilly autumn wind that blew the wheat in the endless fields they passed. Was Peter simply watching the crops blow in the wind? Or did he not even really see the farmland?
Margaret continued. “My favorite field trip was fifth grade. Miss Sanders took the whole class to a dairy farm, and we learned how to make cheese.”
“It’s about making peace.”
“Making peace?” Margaret slowed the car down. “Making peace with who? With what?” Peter slouched in his seat and she scolded herself for peppering him with questions, but she couldn’t contain her curiosity. What was he talking about?
After driving a few more miles, she cleared her throat. “Did something happen on that field trip that I don’t know about?”
They passed a few more fields before he spoke. “I don’t think it’s necessary for you to know about it.”
Margaret’s heart beat faster. So something did happen, but if he wanted to revisit the place as a birthday present, it must have been something good. That’s it. He’s reliving a good memory. Making peace could be his way of seeking that boyhood happiness.
Margaret parked in a shelled lot near the entrance to the farm. When they got out, the fresh, brisk air put a smile on Margaret’s face. Peter gazed towards the northern end of the land. They walked along a path lined by wildflowers towards a cluster of buildings: an office, a barn, and a gift shop. A young lady dressed in blue jeans, and a checkered shirt tied at her tiny waist greeted them when they entered the office. Margaret paid the admission and the girl handed them each a large bucket for berry picking. She sparkled as she told them about the farm. “There’s a walking trail that leads back to the woods.” She pointed out of the window to another view of the farm. “We keep chickens and there’s a duck pond out that way. And there’s a precious little picnic area right past the berry patch. If you didn’t bring lunch, we sell scrumptious pre-made sandwiches in our little general store right next to this building.”
“Clyde just loves blackberry cobbler,” Margaret said as they walked toward the berry patches. “He devours it. When I make one for him, I’ll make one for you too, of course.” They passed in front of the general store. “I want to stop here on the way back. I’ll bet they have good homemade jams and preserves.”
She turned to Peter for a response, but he had apparently checked out. When they got to the blackberry patch, she set her pail down. Peter gazed toward the far end of the farm. “Would you mind picking some for me too? I’d like to take a walk.”
He handed her the bucket and trekked along the grassy path between the rows of berry bushes. Instead of picking berries, Margaret watched him. Where was he going? She barely slept the night before trying to figure out how Timothy O’Toole tied in with this farm and Peter. She had gone to the library to look up his obituary on microfiche. Not a whole lot of information was revealed. Timothy O’Toole, age 35, died of natural causes, and it listed his parents and siblings. Like Peter, he apparently had no wife or kids.
Peter disappeared from Margaret’s line of vision. She got busy with her picking. A young couple with a little boy and girl joined her in the berry patches. The kids squealed with delight as they chased each other through the bushes. After filling both buckets, she looked at her watch and realized a whole hour had passed. She lugged the buckets down the path in the direction of Peter. A breeze rustled through the bushes and trees, and she saw a wild rabbit spring across the path in front of her. The peaceful setting belied the anxiety building up inside of her.
When the path ended, she looked around. Where had he gone? She entered the woods and called Peter’s name. She spotted the dilapidated top and faded gray stones of a well. Peter sat on the ground, knees up to his chest, staring into the thicket.
“Peter, honey, are you okay?”
He looked up at his sister. “I’m fine, Margaret. I just had to come back to this spot.”
She placed the buckets down and sat crossed-legged on the ground next to him.
“Margaret, I’m not sure you’re ready to hear this, but when I was here in seventh grade, it was the last time I felt free.” He sighed. “It was fleeting. Very fleeting.”
Margaret waited for him to continue.
“It didn’t last long. His sister caught us.”
“Caught who?” Margaret asked. “You and who?”
“Caught you doing what, Peter? I don’t understand.”
Peter paused for what seemed like an awfully long time. “I think you do understand, Margaret. If you let yourself face things, it will be apparent.”
Margaret’s face flushed. “Come on now, Peter. You’re talking about two twelve-year-olds. Whatever you were doing couldn’t have meant anything.”
“But it did, Margaret. It felt right. It felt good. It was an epiphany. The two of us came back here to look at the well, and before either of us knew it, we were embracing each other, kissing, and—”
Margaret winced. “Oh, Peter, stop.”
Tears filled Peter’s eyes. “Don’t you see, Margaret? I’ve stopped it all my life. Buried it. When Timmy’s parents found out, he never came back to our school. They sent him to a psychiatric hospital.” His voice suppressed the outrage that wanted to burst out of him.
Margaret realized that’s why Timothy’s name was familiar. In their town, rumors spread about that young O’Toole boy going crazy. She had no idea he ever had anything to do with Peter. Timothy must have forced himself on Peter, and Peter coped by imagining it to be some wonderful thing. “But, Peter, just because that boy touched you and ended up in a bad way doesn’t mean you have to”—
Peter stood and started circling the well. “You’re my sister and I love you, Margaret, but you need to take those blinders off.”
Margaret looked up at him. She used her hand as a shield to block the sun.
“Timmy suffered greatly because of what happened here.”
Margaret sighed. “His parents were only trying to cure him, I’m sure.”
Peter leaned against the well. He dragged his fingers through his hair and moaned.
“How did he die anyway?”
Peter looked down into her eyes. “I lost touch with him. I couldn’t ask anyone where he was or how to contact him. I would have been cursed. But whether the official cause of death was listed as heart failure, drug overdose, car accident, or anything else, I know Timmy O’Toole suffocated to death.”
Margaret stood and leaned against the well. “But people aren’t supposed to be that way, Peter,” she whispered. “It’s not Christian. It’s not natural.”
“I hope you can still accept me because I’m not going to live the next thirty-five years of my life slowly smothering to death.”
Tears streamed down Margaret’s cheeks.
He spoke deliberately and with a certain command. “I put in for a transfer with my job. They have openings in big cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco. I’m going to move to a place that is big and busy and diverse as soon as I can.”
Peter talked a little more about his plans. Despite her shock over his confession, she couldn’t help but find her heart warming a bit because he sounded enthused and engaged. His admission would take some getting used to, but she loved her little brother no matter what. God, she could never, ever tell Clyde. Well, he didn’t have to know. She’d just tell him Peter got a promotion so he moved. Why go into all of the private details?
Peter stood and placed his hand on Margaret’s shoulder. She pulled him closer and they hugged. They walked back to the car, buckets in hand, in silence. On the long car ride home, they didn’t speak for the first part of their journey.
As dusk started casting shade over the wheat fields, Margaret started thinking out loud. “God, I hope traffic’s light. I promised Clyde fried chicken for dinner tonight since I would be gone all day.”
Peter raised an eyebrow.
“Well, he likes to hang out with me on Sunday while I cook us a really nice dinner. He knew this was important to me, though. He can be really considerate like that. What I might do is stop at KFC. They should still be open.”
Peter sighed. “Be careful not to fall in a trap so deep you can’t get out, Margaret.”
Trap? Poor Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. She liked her normal, traditional life. It’s the life she dreamed of as a little girl. She was happy. Yes, she had made a happy home. That’s what she kept telling herself.