Jim is the only child of a Catholic farm couple in a farming county. Tearfully he asks, “Why’d they buy me a Monopoly game?” There was no one to play it with. When he was seventeen, his father died. He went crazy—“No, no, not like that,” he says. “I bought a tractor.” Then a backhoe, a forklift, and so on. Farm-boy crazy, buying boys’ toys.
There was this cute girl in high school. She had a horse that he helped take care of. He bought a donkey for the horse because animals need company. “Even the human animal,” I say. He married the girl, and his father-in-law was going to buy him a farm but he got screwed on that.
They had one child, a daughter, then his wife started running around and, after sixteen years of marriage, left him. He was left with nothing but a big, empty house. He drove truck for a while—“That’s all us farmers are good for, farming or driving truck”—but he became an alcoholic and lost his license.
He started working construction, road construction, but these kids he has to work with—“They’re so dumb. This one kid has a cell phone in his ear all the time and doesn’t even know we landed a man on the moon.”
“They make fun of me,” Jim says.
“Like how?” I ask.
“Well, like I haven’t been with a woman in fifteen years,” he says.
“I was without a man for twenty-eight years,” I say.
“It didn’t stunt your growth, did it?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m only five-foot-one.”
Jim tells me that he’s currently working in W—-, and he really likes the people. “Usually people are mad at you for tearing up their street, but these people—it’s like they really want it. They’re happy about it,” he says, sounding happily perplexed.
He tells me that when he sees somebody out being pulled along the street by a little, grinning dog, he tells the person, “You’re really lucky to have a dog to take you for a walk.” I start laughing. We laugh uncontrollably together for several minutes. He says the kids on the work crew don’t think it’s funny.
Jim moved his mother in with him. They have a big garden. She has home health aides who don’t know anything about anything. I tell this old farm boy about my aide, who asked if I wanted toast. I said I couldn’t eat wheat. She said, “This isn’t wheat. This is just regular bread.”
“What do you think bread is made from?” I asked.
She said, “Uh, do you want cereal?”
Jim laughs uproariously.
Last month, for his fifty-fourth birthday, his twenty-eight-year-old daughter sent him a birthday card. In it, she wrote, “Have you matured yet?”
“How can she do this?” he sobs. I tell him maybe she’ll grow up some day.
It is noon on Saturday and he is drunk, but is drinking coffee because he has to take his mother grocery shopping. He knows he shouldn’t drink but says he lacks enough self-discipline to stop. About the drinking he says, “It helps, you know? It’s some comfort, makes things easier.” He talks about killing himself, as drunks do, going from cruel daughters to grinning dogs to suicide in a random ramble.
Jim is isolated and separated from his spirit, the land, his father, his wife and daughter, his work crew and his neighbors. He drinks and talks of suicide. “I’m not a real social person,” he says.
I learn that he likes to play chess and propose that he join a chess club. He says, aw, he couldn’t do that.
“Why not?” I ask. “You’re intelligent, you speak well, you have a good sense of humor and a pleasant attitude. You don’t have to be a party guy. You could just go and be silent.”
I ask him about his spiritual separation and he starts to tell me about the Mennonites who are moving into the area. I tell him that my people were farmers between Philadelphia and Lancaster and we had Mennonites. He says, “Oh, you had Amish there, too—the real thing.”
Jim says he’d like to go to a Mennonite service, and then asks, “They don’t drink, do they?”
“Nope,” I say. “You’d have to get sober and stay sober with them.”
“Aw,” he groans, “I can’t even think about that.”
“One day at a time,” I say. “One day at a time.”
I ask him about his separation from the land. He tells me his father had 188 acres. I tell him my grandfather had a hundred acres and milked about thirty head. He talks with comfort and curiosity about the Mennonite farmer down the road from him. He’s been down to talk to the farmer about his goats and sheep.
I propose a solution to him: what about going to work for the Mennonite farmer?
“Aw,” he groans, “I’m a drunk.”
“Well, you know,” I say, “you might consider just being up front with the man. Tell him you’ve got a drinking problem but want to get sober. Tell him you need more self-discipline. Maybe they’re the kind of people who’d want to give you a chance, maybe help you.”
I talk to him about how good it would be to go back to the land, do an honest day’s work, work with people who share his values and ideals, people who understand without a whole lot of talking.
When I tell him that we have to end the conversation soon, he tells me that I’m a really nice person. I tell him that I work on Tuesday evening and I’d be interested in hearing how he’s doing.
I do not tell him about my youngest uncle, the black sheep who took to gambling, strong drink and wild women. Middle aged, divorced, broke and drunk, he came home to the farm, back to the land. His brothers gave him a two-week rest, then laid down the rules. Get up in the morning and go to work. Be in for supper with your mother at 5:30. Don’t go out after 9:00. Be in church in the pew next to your mother every Sunday.
He straightened out pretty quick. He is old now, and wise. He sits in the sun and dandles many grandchildren on his ample knees, satisfied after a long life that is ending well.
I think of Jim, think about how there is nothing more heartbreaking than a farm boy who’s lost his roots, think about how there is hope, and wonder if he’ll make it.