The Odd Journey of Jonas Witherspoon
He didn’t really decide until he saw the sweet potato. It was there, buried in the back of the refrigerator behind the plastic tub filled with leftover macaroni salad and the decorated, three-week-old tray of cold cuts. Jonas reached in and removed the plate, peeled off the foil wrapping, and set it down on the table.
He sat in the stillness of the kitchen, staring at the sweet potato’s wrinkled brown-grayness, and at the faded orange holes where his brother, cooking, had poked the skin to let the steam out. Soon, he raised his eyes from the plate, and watched the blowing traces of snow weave in and out of the cone-shaped funnel of light coming from above the barn door. Beyond the barn and barely visible, the early light, gray and cold, was beginning to show itself beyond the far line of trees at the edge of the pasture. He guessed it was time.
The morning was bitterly cold. He bundled himself with his wool coat and tightened his dirty cap down on his head, and headed outside. In his hand was the satchel they had packed for him almost two weeks ago with clothes, and with the papers he was told to bring.
The rolling, metal hinge on the barn door sounded its rust song as he struggled to slide it open. Musty, earthy smells, of mold-filled hay, wood and of damp dirt that had not seen the sun for some time, reached out for him as he entered. Jonas felt for the light switch along the rough planks, but could not find it, could not remember where it was. He stood there in the dark waiting for his eyes to adjust to whatever light was able to find its way inside.
When he could see again, Jonas walked over to the pickup and got inside, his breath floating up and clinging onto the cold, icy windows surrounding him, and there he stayed, holding the handles of the satchel, wondering why he was sitting there.
Using his handkerchief, Jonas wiped at the freezing mist that had formed on the driver’s window, and stared at the line of empty stalls along the far wall, empty now for many years, listening to the horses. Also, there were dogs and from behind, the sounds of the cattle coming in to the milking rows, the snorts and barks, the sounds of the hoofs against the stalls, the chewing of hay, the life sounds that echoed off the high, wooden planks and filled the space between the shadows and the cupola above, then, slowly, fell still in a blanket of silence, all that remained was the sound of his own breath.
Jonas unzipped the satchel next to him, reached inside, and lifted out a small leather photograph album. He held the book out in front of him so he might see, his calloused fingers tracing the painted letters across the cover, which formed his family name. Then, opening the cover, he stared at the first yellowed picture, but did not recognize any of the faces. Jonas reached for his glasses, then held the book up closer, turning it to catch more of the light filtering in from outside the barn, but the light did not help, nor did his glasses, in his recognition. He flipped the page and held the book up again. Strangers in black, gray, and winter white smiled and stared back, unknown now and forever more. It was the same with the next page, and then the next, and the next. He closed the book, and placed it back in the satchel.
He suddenly felt hungry, remembering now that he hadn’t eaten breakfast, or was it dinner. Maybe it was breakfast. He didn’t know. It was too late anyway. He needed to get on the road if he was to make it to Denver by sundown.
Someone came into the light of the doorway. He knew in the way the figure stood, leaning and bent to one side, holding the rope lead of the milk cow, that it was his brother.
“Jonas… you’ve slept late” His brother said.
“Yes… I know it,” Jonas said.
“Remember the back lot, you said we’d git er done this week.”
“I know…we’d better get it done before the rains.” Jonas said.
His brother walked over and Jonas rolled down the window.
“We’ll git er done, then.” His brother said, turned, and was gone in the swirls of snow and light.
Jonas looked down at his watch. It was getting on seven. Getting late, he thought. As he raised his head, he saw her big shape and the braided knot of her hair. She was walking slowly toward the green brilliance of the field, bathed in soft yellow light. Her loose floral dress, the worn yellow strings of her apron, danced in the sun. How many times had he seen that dress, pulled at the strings in play, and hid behind her shadow. He ached to reach out and grab hold of her waist, bury his face in her back, to squeeze tightly her wide body and feel her hands upon his. He wanted to know again the scent of the fabric apron, the smells of the food, and the dirt from the garden, feel the soft velvet strength of her arms. He moved as best he could, walking toward the field, reached for her, and in the moment between getting there and not getting there, she was gone, pushed aside as the soft yellow light faded gray and cold. Jonas stood silently and gazed again at the far line of trees behind the field. Dusty, dry snow drifted over his feet, forming patterns of white and brown in the bare ground. He shivered.
Jonas walked back toward the pickup, but did not make it very far. He looked up at the old house where it stood dark and silent and tried to remember. He was lost. The shapes of the buildings and the sounds of the wind swept farm were as unknown to him as the strange people in the photographs were. Turning, he heard the faint sound of whispers coming from inside the barn, then, stronger, laughter coming from outside beyond the house. He made his way toward the laughter.
Behind the house, at the top of the hill, his brother played with another boy. Both were shirtless, laughing, sweating in the heat. He walked over and stood at the base of the rise, watching as they took turns rolling down the hill in an old truck tire, crashing into a pile of hay bales. Jonas, standing there, felt the warmth of the summer sun on his face. He removed his coat, then the worn and ragged cap, placing them on the garden fence, opening the top buttons of his shirt. The boy in the faded blue jeans walked over to Jonas. His dirty face was streaked with dark lines where the sweat ran down from his hair. The youngster stood there, wiping at the wetness, staring at him through squinted eyes. When his brother’s voice called out from above, the young boy turned and ran back up the hill without looking back. Jonas heard his mother call out from the kitchen window, turned to look for her, but all he saw was darkness behind the window. When he turned back, the hill was empty, the laughter a distant echo racing toward the clearing.
Jonas walked toward the big sugar maple his grandmother had planted. He recalled how, in the fall, when the sun would hit the leaves just right; the old tree looked like it was on fire. He remembered walking, kicking, falling into them, lying in them, smelling them, covering himself with color.
It was mostly bare now, the twisted gray limbs held onto the last of the crumpled leaves, which were too stubborn or too scared to let go of the branches. Jonas stood under those twisted limbs now, and, looking up, tried to remember more about the tree, about the window on the second floor and the boy who grew up there, but could not think of anything else.
In the distance, in front of the far line of trees, Jonas spotted the peeling white fence that he and his brother had built for mom and dad in ’69, and, with feet kicking up snow on the hard earth and no coat on, Jonas walked over, pushed on the rotted wood of the once strong gate, and stepped inside.
He leaned himself against his father’s headstone, bending his body down on top so his arms dangled on either side, his head turned to the side, Jonas then raised a freckled, old hand onto top of his mother’s marker, and felt the roughness of the stone under his calluses. He stared at the top of his hand. In the bare, unforgiving cold steel of daylight, it was unrecognizable to him, paper-thin, unconnected. He could almost see through it.
Jonas Witherspoon now focused past his upheld hand, to the pasture thick with the early spring wheat. There, standing behind the mule, he saw his pa, strong and tan in the sun. He wanted to cry out to him, to join him where he was, but could not find the strength to lift himself up. His arms felt glued where they rested on the cold stone. Jonas turned away from his father, to his right, and saw the dirt mound that held his brother. There was no marker there, only the stiff dry dirt of three weeks underneath the scattered, dancing snow.
Jonas didn’t know how long he had been there on his father’s headstone. His arms and chest felt stiff and there was pain in his back and neck. He rose slowly and looked around, not feeling the cold, not feeling anything certain. Then, in a moment of clarity, Jonas straightened himself and walked toward the house.
Stepping inside, he made a beeline to the garbage pail. Reaching inside, he removed the discarded foil and the baked sweet potato with the gray skin and the faded orange of the fork holes. Jonas got out a fresh plate from the cupboard, and placed the sweet potato on the clean plate, straightened the foil against his shirt, and covered the potato as it had been, and placed it back in the refrigerator.
He left the house, door wide open, and walked over to the barn and got into the pickup. He saw the satchel next to him, and for a long while, he tried to concentrate. Through the windshield, on the edge of the summer-green pasture, he saw his brother running in the brilliant summer sun, his shirt and shoes only a memory.
“Come on Jonas, Your turn to ride.” His brother called out
Jonas Witherspoon climbed out of the pickup for the last time, removed his shoes and socks, threw off his shirt, and ran after his brother.