Forget Harold Shaw (part 4)On October 15, 2010 by Ryan Dennis
Harold Shaw sits at the edge of a bank that overlooks the dry cow pasture. He chews an unlit cigar until it becomes grit at the bottom of his gums and looks at the pasture, farm, and haze beyond the silos. He tells May that for these ten minutes everyday he comes here to check for cows in heat, and that’s what he does, because that’s what farmers are supposed to do. If a cow stands to be mounted by the cows around her Harold will breed her that evening, by artificial insemination if she’s good. What he doesn’t tell May is that he chews the cigar and leaves it wedged between two gangly branches before he goes back. It is his secret, one that he is both surprised and pleased and feels guilty that he kept. The dry cows clump together, lying in the grass. They chew their cuds mechanically, faithfully, flick their switch at flies that rest on their back. One Holstein is by herself, standing by the fence. Her udder is hard and swollen, and Harold knows she is restless to calve. If a tornado does come, Harold wonders what the dry cows will do, if they can anticipate enough to get away, break down the wire if they had to. He pictures cows picked up one by one and swung through the air, and he laughs out loud. Harold wonders why he isn’t worried about the tornado, if he is sure that it’s not coming, or hoping that it is.
Harold likes his ten minutes away to himself, but he has been starting to question why he has never brought May there to sit with him. He could never give her much time; when they were young the moments they spent together was her riding in the tractor or following him around the shop or feeding calves while he forked hay. She had to be active in fulfilling her needs that way, and Harold regrets that. She quit riding with him in the tractor. He suspects she quit needing.
He couldn’t afford to give her anything nice or special. There was barely money for feed. But he never let her see how bad things were, not on his face. He kept that from her, and it’s likely the most exhausting thing he does every day. She knows how much the farm suffers, but he hopes he has kept the worrying to himself. In this way he is able to be good to her.
Harold spits out the grizzle in his teeth and lodges the cigar back into the branches. They droop with the weight and hang limp in front of his face. Sometimes, standing on the bank overlooking the dry cow pasture, Harold lets himself wonder what he is doing here. He is the only farmer left in the valley, the only one that hasn’t sold out or been found dead. He allows himself to realize that it is hard. That it’s killing him and has been killing him for a long time. But then he must cut hay and change the oil filter on the manure spreader. He has to fix the watering bowl. Harold Shaw just hopes that after he’s gone and the farm is sold, May can buy something nice.
Harold has sat in the same spot at church for more than three decades: the end of the last pew. May won’t sit close to him because his fidgeting distracts her. He feels comfortable in this space because the red cushion, plank floor, and wood hymnal stand have not changed much. It is one hour of the week he is not plagued with what he has to do and what he should do, and more than that, he doesn’t have to feel guilty about it.
He is not as intent as May on swallowing every word the pastor catapults in his bouncy optimism. Much of what is said blows by and Harold picks up what he does. A picture hangs in front of him on the wall and he stares at it often. It’s Jesus and he’s laying outstretched on the ground. He’s lousy with cherubim-looking demons straining towards him and touching him with the tips of their fingers. Harold Shaw likes this picture because it secretly makes him feel better that someone had it worse.
Harold’s hand slides along the cushion and creeps towards his wife’s inner thigh. She sees it and slaps it away like a bug that could sting. She hates when he does that. A little boy behind him starts giggling. Harold winks at him.
The pastor is young and enthusiastic because he is fresh out of seminary and not beaten down by the world yet. But no one holds it against him. Harold hasn’t been paying close enough attention to pick up a message, but when he hears the name Elijah, he realizes he’s heard it before.
“And Elijah knew the time was coming when he could be taken from this forsaken earth. He knew he did all he could on this forsaken plane and that his time on this forsaken world was almost up. But he did not make a simple exit, oh no. He did not grow old in a rocking chair breathing until he could breath no more and he did not get gray and wrinkled and cramped and die of old age in a nursing home. No, no. Suddenly, it was time and suddenly, the winds began to stir and the heavens opened up with chariots of fire and a giant, I mean humungous whirlwind came down right down on him and carried him away. And that’s how Elijah was taken. In dignity. In honour. Redeemed from the act of dying first, redeemed from the power of eternal death next.”
Later, everyone chats at coffee hour while Harold still sits in the pew.