“Everything changed the day Daddy left us and went off with Tillie Dugan, the one that worked down to the Purina Feed Store. Grampa took us in right quick, and that’s when Mama’s bitterness began spilling out, never stoppin’ ‘til we put her in the ground. Pretty soon after, little Mary went away too. Topeka some say, but I say Californy.
“That little sister of mine loved them movie stars. Her bedroom walls’re filled with pitchers of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and who all else I do not know. On the stand next to her bed is a record player. It works, too. On her pillow is a teddy bear with a red ribbon ‘round its neck. Everything’s been there since the day she left.
“It’s Mary I come back for onc’t a year, always on the day she left. I shouldda knew she’d leave. No future around here for a girl. Broke my heart when she left. But she’ll be back, I know she will. She’ll see me workin’ this old field, just like I was workin’ it the day she went away. In this broke down mind o’ mine, I know she’ll be back. I can see it happenin’, see her gettin’ outta one of them big cars. Cute as a butter bean she’ll be, and next to her will be a passel o’ kids. Behind her will be a young man holdin’ his hat in front of him, not knowin’ what to say.”
Buck went back to kicking the blunted tip of a rusted spade into hard red dirt. A faded blue bandanna tied loosely around his neck was dripping with sweat and his trucker’s shirt was soaked down the back. Denim jeans were stuck to his legs, all the way down to cracked rubber boots. He was digging a furrow that didn’t need to be dug. There’d be no planting in the furrow and no harvesting from it. The field had not been farmed since the day Buck packed his clothes in a cardboard suitcase and walked to Kansas City.
The sun was sliding to the horizon when Buck put the spade aside. He did not want to quit but it was time. He slung the handle of the spade onto his shoulder and walked toward the barn and the house. A hulk of rusted metal that used to be a John Deere tilted sadly among weeds on one side of the barn. On the other side and forward of the barn was the house where Buck had been raised. The Pickens house had once been handsome, two stories high, four columns in front and on each side a red brick chimney that rose from the ground to the peak of the roof. Buck remembered summer days when sparkles of sun bounced from the white siding and on days when wind sent the weather vane in a spin that never seemed to stop. But now the house was faded, silent and needy of rescue. The stones of the front steps had broken apart, the shutters were hanging crookedly from windows and the siding was split and rotten. Like last year, and every one of the twenty years preceding, Buck promised he’d come back and patch things up. But he never did.
Inside the barn, Buck hung the spade on two nails that had been driven into a supporting beam. After squeezing sweat from the bandanna, he draped it over the top of the spade. He slipped off the rubber boots and replaced them with Acme ropers. After swinging the barn doors closed, he tied them shut with baling wire. He washed his hands and face with rainwater from a trough made of galvanized metal.
Buck’s ten-year-old Ford 150 was waiting for him at the side of the dirt driveway. He had left plenty of room for a large car to park next to it, so that Mary and her children and her husband would have room to get out and greet him. But on this day, the large car would not pull up. Maybe next year, he prayed.
Twenty yards behind the barn was a waist-high wrought iron fence with a rusted gate. The land sloped up, so Buck dug a boot toe into the ground with each step. At the rusted gate he paused for a moment as if waiting to be invited inside. He pushed the gate forward and paid no attention to hinges that protested loudly.
Buck was not a religious man, but he bowed his head and templed his hands in front of his chest before entering. A toppled headstone lay on the hard scrabble in front of him. He stared at it for a long while before saying, “Mama, it’s time for me to leave. But don’t you fret, I’ll be back to visit next year.”
A second headstone, tilting back, lay to the right. Buck stopped before it and dropped to one knee. He kissed the headstone with his fingers and closed his eyes while a choke rose from deep in his throat. “I love you, little darlin’,” he said. On the face of the headstone were the words, “Here Lies Mary Pickens, Beloved Sister of Buck.”