The sound of the old rusted ’47 Fordson Stegamajor tractor drowned out the thoughts of Lynn Franklin as he started down another row of tobacco leaves. One giant, ancient looking leaf after another was ripped from the stalk and tossed into the cart being towed behind the rumbling, rusted tractor. The sweat from Lynn’s forehead had begun to turn his grey Farm Bureau hat to an almost navy blue. It was not even 9:30 in the morning and the North Carolina summer was already taking its toll. Sweat poured down Lynn’s back as the sun slowly baked his shirtless torso. The palms of his hands were stained black from the leaves and each time he went to wipe his face he left black smudges on himself. As he stopped to bend over to stretch his back, he could hear one of the primers call for a break, and all at once, each worker headed towards the old pickup truck loaded with coolers of soda and boxes of snacks.
Lynn joined the rest of the field hands in walking to the break site as he brushed his hands on his Wrangler jeans, attempting to clean them off just enough for a snack. He grabbed a Dr. Pepper and MoonPie from one of the boxes sitting on an opened tailgate. He dropped to the ground, inhaling his hard-earned bite and enjoying his last break until lunch. Most of the men working sat in groups, laughing and carrying on, enjoying the few blissful moments they had until they were told to head back into the fields. Lynn found a spot by himself on one of the trailers that would soon take its load of tobacco to the barn. He had been happy to land a job working in the fields for the summer. Richard Jones, owner of most of the tobacco fields in Denton, had been in school with Lynn’s daddy, and told him after his parents had died that he would help him out anyway that he could. He gave him a job as soon as Lynn returned. He was one of the few people in town that didn’t treat him any different now that he was back. Most days, he would catch the other workers watching him. He had even overheard a few of them asking one another what the hell he was doing there. He had caused a big racket leaving town. It was an even bigger deal when he showed back up.
Everyone in the town of Denton had ideas of where he went. Old Mr. Lacey, who owned the gas station at the crossroads, told people that he had gotten hooked on meth and moved out to the coast. Mrs. Sue, who ran the daycare, said that he got some young girl pregnant and they moved to Virginia so he could marry her and work for her daddy. Almost everyone in Denton, North Carolina had heard one story or another, but not one of them ever went up to ask where he was.
After another nine hours in the field the day’s quota was met and everyone was able to head home. Lynn pulled his white tee shirt out of his back pocket and slid it on over his head as began the long walk to his truck. The sun was finally starting to disappear behind the pines and the temperature had dropped just enough to become bearable outside. He arrived at his truck exhausted, but content. He enjoyed doing the same kind of work his daddy and granddaddy had done when they were his age. To Lynn, he was carrying on a tradition. He pulled the keys out of his front pocket, got into the burgundy 1992 Chevy S-10 his granddaddy left him, and headed for home.
He had made it home just as the sun had completely disappeared. He parked the truck in its normal spot under the carport, next to his grandma’s Grand Marquis, and headed inside. He could hear her in the kitchen making dinner but it was the smell of her chicken pastry that caught his attention first.
“There’s my boy,” she said as she brushed her hands on her apron before going for a hug.
“Hey, grandma,” he said after kissing her cheek. “I’m going to go wash up."
“The biscuits will be out just a minute,” she said.
Lynn walked into the bathroom and began scrubbing the palms of his hands. He cursed himself for not using more lye before leaving the field and he knew his hands wouldn’t be as clean as he wanted. A fact his grandma would surely bring up after he left grey stains on her perfectly clean hand towels. He turned the knob of the sink off and looked at himself in the mirror. His skin was significantly darker since he’d moved back home. He’d allowed himself to neglect shaving for a few days and his stubble had turned into more of a legitimate beard. A kind of crimson red, just like his dad’s. His brown hair was also a bit lighter after days in the sun. Just a few weeks back home, he thought, and I already look like a different person. He flicked the light switch and made his way to the dining room where his grandma had already set the table.
“You look tired,” she said to him.
“So do you.”
“I’m an old woman. What’s your excuse?”
“I guess I don’t have one.”
The rest of dinner was more of the same. Small talk about his day in the field and her day cleaning the house. Tomorrow she would walk up the dirt path to her sister’s and clean up around there. Then come home and pick peas from the garden and shell them under the carport. He would head back to the tobacco field and do the same thing that he’d done for nearly a month. After dinner was over, the two watched Dancing With The Stars. Neither one of them liked it. In fact they both hated it but she watched it because his granddad loved it and even if he only enjoyed it for the outfits the girls on the show wore, it made her feel closer to him. Lynn sat on the couch, content with keeping her company. After the show ended, he stood, stretched, and kissed her goodnight. He started walking to the door, heading out to the barn where an apartment had been made up for him.
“I wish you wouldn’t sleep out there,” his grandma said to him.
“I know, grandma. But we talked about this.”
“You’re right. You know I just worry about you. You were gone for so long and I just want to make sure you’re all right.”
“I know, grandma. I’m fine. I promise. Night.”
He walked out to the barn and opened the side door which led to the apartment. Nothing fancy. Just a small room with a couch, bed, TV, and kitchen table. It also had a small kitchenette and an even smaller bathroom. It was all he needed. He stripped off his clothes, tossing them in the hamper, and got in the shower. He felt much better after he cleaned a day’s worth of sweat and dirt off of himself, and was looking forward to a good night’s sleep when his cell started vibrating on his bed. He opened it up to see a text from his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer. Can I come over was all it said. After telling her that the door was unlocked, he knew he wouldn’t be getting as much sleep as he’d hoped for. He and Jennifer had dated for three years before he left. He was pretty serious about her. Even thought of asking her to marry him once or twice. Once she had found out that he was back home, she had come over ready to raise hell, but having sex seemed to be the better way to get out all of her aggression. Now, she would text him and come over at least once a week.
Lynn was sitting on the couch when she opened the door. She was wearing rolled up Soffe shorts and a white tank top. Her dirty blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail and she hadn’t bothered putting on makeup. She closed the door and walked towards Lynn who was already on his feet. I’m not going to get any fucking sleep, he thought as she walked toward him.
The unwelcoming beep, beep, beep of Lynn’s alarm clock let him know that it was 5:00am and he had an hour before he was supposed to be at work. He turned the alarm off and swung his feet over the side of the bed. Jennifer rolled over.
“Good morning,” she said sitting up and wrapping her arms around his waist.
“Morning,” he said as he stood up and began searching for a pair of jeans clean enough to wear to work. He turned on the lights, momentarily blinding himself and shuffled about, looking for clothes. He slid on a pair of Wranglers that didn’t smell completely horrible and sat down, sluggishly putting on his socks. He glanced back at Jennifer who was giving him a look that already told him what she was thinking.
“You never called.”
“You didn’t write. You didn’t leave a note. Or a voicemail. Or a text.”
“You still haven’t given me a reason. Or an explanation. I still have no idea where you were for three fucking years, Lynn.”
“I told you I wasn’t getting into this.” He was now tying up his work boots, trying to finish getting ready before this unwanted conversation.
“Why won’t you tell me?”
“Because it ain’t nothing for you to worry about. I’m back. That’s all you need to know.”
“Yeah, you’re back. And I only see you when I ask to come over.”
“If I remember correctly, you’re the one who started this little routine.” He was now tucking his white tee shirt into his jeans. He hoped that this would let her know that he was done talking. Jennifer was now sitting with her head down and he could tell that she was crying. He grabbed his keys from the kitchen table and started toward the door before turning around.
“Look. I know what I did was wrong. I’m sorry that I hurt you and I’m sorry that I still haven’t told you everything. It’s just not the right time.”
She looked up at him, tears still running down her cheeks.
“One day, I’ll make things better.” She gave him a halfhearted smile and he walked back and kissed her. She held onto him for what seemed like an hour before she finally allowed him to pull away. She laid back down on the bed and watched him walk to the door before turning to her and saying “You’d better go ahead and get out of here. I’m not trying to listen to my grandma complain about finding you in my bed again.”
The sun was not yet up, but the humidity was already making its presence known. Lynn opened the door to his truck, cranked the engine, and began backing down the driveway. He enjoyed his early morning drive. He loved the way he could cruise on the back roads, knowing that his would be just about the only vehicle on the road. It was quiet, and peaceful, and allowed him to get his mind right before a long day of work. He knew he would have to work at a quicker pace today. The tobacco worms had been bad this season. The worst most of the old-timers had seen in a while. They would get off work early today to allow the crop dusters to fly over but whatever work they didn’t finish would be left for Saturday.
Lynn pulled his S-10 into the parking lot of the Texaco, just down the road from the field he would be working in. It had a White Swan in the store and he figured it would be a good idea to grab him some breakfast. Before he’d left, he was a regular customer and after a while, he didn’t have to give his order. They knew he was getting a chicken biscuit with a large sweet tea. He hadn’t eaten there since he moved back and he was eager for the only breakfast he preferred over his grandma’s. He walked through the automatic sliding doors and headed to the counter. He was pleased to find Mrs. Pat, the cashier and mom of his childhood friend, Daniel, still working behind the counter.
“I need a chicken biscuit and a large sweet tea,” she yelled out before he was able to open his mouth. She smiled as he arrived at the counter, pulling his wallet out from his back right pocket.
“How’re you doing, Mrs. Pat?”
“I’m just fine, shug. How are you? I’d heard you’d moved back home.”
“Yes, ma’am. Been home for about a month now.”
“Well, you know you’re going to have to see Daniel. He’ll be working at the Draft House tonight. You should go say hey.”
“I might have to do that,” he said handing her his money. She made change and gave him the biggest smile he’d seen in a long time.
“We’re glad you’re back, shug. Don’t be a stranger.”
He took the white paper bag and Styrofoam cup and made his way back to his truck. He still had time before he was supposed to be at work so he decided to wait and eat his breakfast after he had driven to the field. After he parked his truck, he began eating his chicken biscuit, stopping only to grab large gulps of sweet tea. He watched as other cars and trucks parked all around him. One worker after another stepped out of their vehicle, eyelids weighed down with early morning exhaustion. Yawns filled the morning air and finally the clock on his radio told Lynn that it was time to get going.
Much like the day before, sweat poured out of his body as he worked his way down row after row of the seemingly endless tobacco field. He pulled leaves and loaded wagons. It was more natural than breathing. He thought his dad and granddad would be proud. He knew both of them had done this same work and knowing made the work easier. After a few more hours, it was announced that they would be done for the day and he was ready to go home.
Lynn had remembered to clean his hands with lye soap which removed the black from his palms. Once he was satisfied, he was ready to head home. On the road, he checked his phone. He had three missed calls from a blocked number and a text from Jennifer, wanting to know if he would meet her at the Draft House. He never could figure out how she knew his plans before he had even made them. He arrived home and parked under the carport. His grandma’s car wasn’t there. He went to his room in the barn.
He opened the door to his room to find his clothes had been washed and folded for him along with a note from his grandma telling him that she would be at her sister’s longer than she thought. After a long shower, he decided to trim up his beard. While he couldn’t understand it, he found himself anxious and nervous. It had been the first time that he thought about going out since he came back home and even though it was just a drinking at the Draft House, it was a chance for him to relax and enjoy himself. After he got his beard looking the way he wanted it, he picked out a plaid button-up to go with his best pair of jeans and his favorite pair of dress boots. He rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, sprayed himself with cologne, and left.
He pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Draft House and found a spot to park. He walked through the doors and was greeted by country music, loud patrons, and a dozen big screen TVs all showing the Atlanta Braves game. Married couples, college kids, fifty-something divorcees. Eventually, everyone ended up at the Draft House. Lynn spotted Jennifer sitting at the bar, talking to his friend Daniel who was pouring a beer for her. He joined them and immediately realized that he was glad that he came out. While it was still early in the evening, the Draft House was energetic. The music blared, the drinks flowed, the Braves lost, and several people had to be escorted out. It was a good night. Lynn still found himself getting looks from a few of the regulars, but it didn’t bother him. He was happy. He knew that he had made the right decision.
The clock struck 2:00am and everyone was made to leave except for Lynn and Jennifer. Daniel allowed them to sit at the bar while he began his closing routine.
“So where you been, man,” he asked.
“Don’t bother,” Jennifer answered for him. “He won’t tell you a damn thing.”
Her words were slurred together and Lynn could tell that she was going to need to be driven home.
“Just got away for a little while,” Lynn said.
“Heard that. Can’t blame you for wanting to get out of here. I just can’t understand what the hell made you want to come back.”
“Who wouldn’t want to come back here?”
“I know I sure as hell wouldn’t. If I ever got away, it would take some serious shit to get me back in Denton.”
Lynn said nothing as he downed the last of the beer in his glass. He helped Jennifer to her feet and she repaid him by leaning the full weight of her body on him.
“Well man, I’ve got to get this one back to her place and then get some sleep myself. I’ve got work in the morning. We need to get together before too long. Grill out or something.”
“Sounds good,” said Daniel. “I’ll give you a call soon.”
After a longer struggle than he was anticipating, Lynn was finally able to get Jennifer sitting upright in the passenger seat of his truck. As he walked around to the driver’s side, he pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time and noticed that he had six missed calls again, all from a blocked number. He got into the truck and something across the parking lot caught his eye. Two brand new, blacked out Ford F150s were backed into their parking spots, and right next to each other. He thought how they seemed out of place for a bar like this. Nobody he knew could afford those trucks and if they could, they wouldn’t drink here. He cranked his truck and began his drive to Jennifer’s house.
By the time they had arrived, Jennifer was still pretty buzzed and had that all too familiar glazed over look in her eyes. Lynn had gotten her inside and placed her onto her bed. He took her shoes off and laid them on the floor before pulling back the comforter and tucking her in. He brought the trashcan out from her bathroom and set it next to her and positioned her head for when she would need it. He headed toward the front door and turned to look at her one last time. Finally, he made sure the door was locked before closing it behind him.