The Cornfield

    Mark E. Lacy

The shoes in Jackson's closet were well arranged, cleaned and polished, except for one pair. Looking at the clumps of red mud on his wingtips, Jackson thought about putting a piece of newspaper under them so the crumbling clay wouldn't make a mess.

He wouldn't dream of cleaning them.

He could remember, of course, how the wingtips got so dirty.

* * *

With a sigh Jackson put his foot on the brake and slowly brought the station wagon to a stop. Rush hour traffic on I-71 was stretched out for miles ahead, disappearing around the bend and into the dusk, no doubt backed up behind Cincinnati's constant highway construction. He imagined he could see orange barrels standing guard along the side of the pavement.

In the pasture beyond the right-of-way a trio of Guernseys tore up mouthfuls of grass and chewed as they watched the cars creep by. Jackson envied them their peace. He was anxious to get home and forget his problems. A business strategy that he had to conjure out of thin air. A member of his research group who had not completed a single project in months. And the latest: being left out of a critical meeting and realizing he had to bring a new boss up to speed.

Watching the taillights dim and brighten ahead of him, Jackson took his foot off the brake and scooted up a few feet. He waited a while, scooted up a little again. Stop and go, stop and go, making slow progress. Losing patience, as he neared the next exit Jackson decided to take the back roads, hoping to make better progress. He put on his turn signal and drove up the shoulder, tires spitting gravel along the way. At the top of the ramp he glanced at the roadsigns and turned onto a little county highway marked Indian Creek Road.

The road wound its way through the country, bending at right angles to corner the farms. He was pleased to be moving, even if it turned out that this was a longer way to go. At least he had the illusion of progress. Jackson relaxed as the tension of commuting began draining away. Within minutes he had left his fellow commuters far behind.

As he steered the wagon through the next turn, his gaze was drawn to a small cornfield nestled beside the road, flanked by a steep, wooded hill. The stalks had just begun to come up, hardly even knee-high.

It looked quiet, and still, and redolent with promise. Peaceful.

Jackson slowed without realizing it.

But then he passed the field, headed home. His thoughts drew him onward to a simple dinner and a glass of merlot. He turned on his headlights and hoped he could ignore the pile of work in his briefcase when he got home.

* * *

Over the next few months, as the summer waxed with heat and humidity, Jackson began to make a habit of getting off at the same exit from I-71. At first he told himself that it was just because he wanted to avoid traffic and banish orange barrels from his restless dreams. But in time he was forced to admit to himself that he enjoyed seeing that one little cornfield, watching as the corn grew taller. As the corn grew, it became denser, and darker, a rich, deep green. Jackson remembered his grandmother talking about "black" corn. This must be what she meant, he thought. Corn at its peak, the leaves so dense with chlorophyll that they seemed almost black.

If I were to sit on the ground in the middle of that field, would it be dark? What would it feel like to lose myself among those green blades?

* * *

One evening, Jackson stopped in one of his favorite bookstores, hoping to find something to carry home and lose himself in. As he passed the coffee counter, empty-handed and feeling disappointment mounting, a familiar voice called his name.

"Looking for something?"

Jackson turned to see a woman drinking a cup of cappuccino at a table while she turned the pages of the latest issue of Bon Appetit. Laura's long, dark hair was characteristically slung over one shoulder.

"Hi. Taking a break?" he asked.

She nodded. "An extended one. Slow night. Care to join me?"

When he got his coffee and took a seat beside her, Jackson said little. He alternated between staring into his cup and gazing off into the receding distance of book-lined shelves.

"You look deep in thought," said Laura. "What's up?"

He finally looked at her. "Oh, not much, I guess."

"You sure?"

"No," he said, with a brief laugh. "I guess something is bothering me. But I'm not even sure I know what it is," he told her. "Sometimes I feel like I just need some peace and quiet. Other times, I get this nagging feeling I've lost contact with something important."

"Hmmm. I haven't had a guy use that line on me before. How many of your other women know this?" Laura asked, smiling.

Jackson's expression softened just a bit. "You're the only one that knows."

Laura took another sip of her coffee and pushed her magazine aside. Putting on her best clinical manner, she asked "When do you notice feeling this way?"

Jackson thought for a moment. "On my way home from the research center, sometimes I get off the highway and drive into the country a little ways. It seems so nice and peaceful out there, away from the traffic."

"Nothing unusual about that."

"Yeah, well, there's a cornfield I've been keeping an eye on. Every time I go by it the corn seems to have grown another foot. I like watching it grow."

Laura looked in his eyes. "Got a little bit of the farmer in you?"

Jackson grinned, feeling bashful. "I don't know. The other day I saw the farmer out there checking his crop. It seemed ironic to see him talking on a cellular phone." He looked off down the aisles of books, staring into his dreams.

"My ancestors were all farmers," Jackson continued. "But I know absolutely nothing about farming. In my research I plow through data, not fields of dirt. I harvest information, not corn. I deal in abstraction, sifting numbers through my hands instead of soil."

He paused and looked at Laura. Not for the first time he noticed how comfortable she made him feel. "You know what I ought to do? I ought to just get out of the car one day and walk through his corn."

Laura smiled. "Yes, you should," she told him.

Jackson looked at her, surprised. "Really?"

"Sure. Just do it!"

Again she succeeded in making him feel bashful. Jackson grinned. "Yeah, I guess I could. Seems kind of weird, doesn't it?"

"Not at all," she replied. "Not exactly what you see a lot of people doing, but it might do you some good." * * *

Though the rising sun had just cleared the horizon, late summer haze was already beginning to gather. A few splashes of crimson and yellow among the trees revealed which were the most anxious for autumn to begin. Jackson found himself turning the station wagon onto Indian Creek Road, on his way back to the interstate.

As he neared the cornfield, he saw the farmer starting up a large, hulking, green vehicle at one corner of the field. With a start, Jackson realized the corn was about to be harvested.

What will he say if I stop and ask?

Jackson pulled the car off the road as far as he could without getting his tires in the ditch. He opened the door and got out.

This is it. It's now or never.

He walked over, ignoring the sticky soil clinging to his wingtips, the damp grass brushing his slacks. The farmer didn't see him till Jackson was almost over to the machinery.

"Howdy!" called Jackson over the rumble of the machine.

"Hello! What can I do for you?" the farmer yelled back, scratching under his Willie Nelson T-shirt and pulling the bill of his blue Ford cap down a little on his forehead.

"Would you mind if I took a walk through your corn before you cut it down?"

The farmer gave Jackson a puzzled look.

"I'll only be a few minutes," Jackson continued. "Just something I've got to do."

The farmer took off his cap and scratched his head, then replaced the cap and tugged the bill down again. "Go right ahead," he replied, "but you city people sure are a bit odd. Why do you want to walk through my corn?"

"Kind of hard to explain. I've never walked through a field of corn before. I've been watching it grow for months now."

"Well, you aren't hardly dressed for it, if you don't mind me saying so," said the farmer, eyeing Jackson's suit and tie.

"That's okay," said Jackson, smiling. "It doesn't matter."

"Tell ya' what. It'll take me a while to get to that section by that oak near the end of the field, there," said the farmer, pointing. "If you head out that way, I won't have to worry about picking your ears by accident." There was mischief in his eyes.

"Deal," said Jackson with a smile, and he started down the nearest row. The sun was beginning to bake the moisture out of the vegetation. He took off his suit coat and slung it over his shoulder. The damp leaves brushed his pants and painted little stripes of dew on them till his pant-legs were soaked, but he paid no attention. He was intent on simply wandering through the tall stalks. Soon all he could see were green leaves, blue sky, golden tassels waving in the breeze.

For a moment he wondered about getting lost, but then he realized, as long as he followed the rows, he couldn't get lost. His feet sank gently into the moist earth. When one of his shoes stuck in the mud long enough and hard enough to nearly come off his foot, Jackson stopped and took off his shoes, then his socks, and proceeded barefoot. He was stunned by the coolness on his soles, the blades of grass and weeds between his toes, the cold dirt.

Shoes in one hand, coat in the other, Jackson walked among the cornstalks, his pace as slow and meandering as the trickling creek at the edge of the field. In the distance he heard the call of a red-winged blackbird. He pushed through spiderwebs and startled a rabbit.

Jackson stopped. He closed his eyes. He listened.

He smiled as he took a deep breath and filtered out the farmer's noise and imagined he could hear a faint squeak as the cornstalks pushed themselves higher by a fraction of an inch.

He opened his eyes and looked around him, lost in the experience, astonished that he had gone so many years without tasting this. He ran his fingers along the roughness of a cornhusk, through the softness of the proud tassel on the end of the ear.

By the time Jackson had wandered to the end of the field, sampling everything his senses could report to him, he had reached the oak the farmer had pointed out. Turning around, he took his time on the way back to the car, trying to prolong the experience.

The farmer, steering the picker up one side of the field, never saw Jackson's car slip away.

* * *

Now winter had the countryside in its bitter grasp. Jackson and Laura got out of the car and stood by the edge of the field. He needed this. He needed to return to the cornfield and share it with someone, and there was only one person he trusted. So he had picked Laura up at her apartment, and she had said nothing when she noticed he was wearing mud-caked wingtips.

Drawn, Jackson began to walk out into the field. The stalks were gray-brown, short and dead, like the old face of the world had a few days' worth of stubble on it, and they bent and cracked as he stepped on them.

Laura followed at a distance, giving him space, and watched.

A red-tailed hawk watched from a bare bough as Jackson stood in the middle of the stubble and looked around, knowing that, in time, the corn would return, he would return, and lose himself again. If only he could be patient, and wait for the cycle to repeat itself.

Laura came up behind him and put her arms around him. It felt good, and comfortable as only she knew how to make him. After a few minutes Jackson turned, squinting in the morning sun. He put his arm around her waist and they followed the rows of stubble back to the car.

In Posse: Potentially, might be ...