The kitchen smelled like cat shit burning with coffee. Stale cigarette smoke. Fear. A baseboard heater clicked somewhere in the house, but the room was still cold.
The farmer put a Parliament between tobacco-stained teeth with tobacco-stained fingers. “So if I sign one of these conservation easements, no one can break up my farm?” We were sitting at a veneered kitchen table surrounded by stacks of newspaper, unwashed dishes, old bills. An obese tabby rubbed against the tattered cuff of his work coveralls. In the adjacent room a television droned cable news next to a desk with a monitor showing footage from security cameras around the house and barn. Empty Miller cans competed for space with stacks of old TV Digests on the living room floor.
“No one can develop it, or subdivide it, that is correct,” I said. “The easement gets attached to the deed, so the restrictions are permanent.”
He nodded, let the information settle over him like he could still hardly believe it, even after hearing it a second time.“Guess you need to see the place,” he said, lighting the cigarette with a tarnished Zippo, staring up at me through the red fluid in his rheumy eyes. Strings of greasy white hair jutted out from underneath an Atlanta Braves baseball hat. Blue veins branched along the nostrils of his pitted nose.
“Sure,” I said, though I really just wanted to return to the relative cleanliness and warmth of my office. I’d seen the place before. Or a hundred just like it. Ramshackle little crackerbox house, cheap particle board walls and flaking linoleum on the floor. Barn patched together with stray pieces of wood and metal, home to a few underfed cattle, maybe some chickens. Rusted vehicles and equipment scattered around the yard, guarded by a pack of lethargic dogs.
I was farm protection coordinator for the local land trust. I used to joke that my job was saving farms, but that was before I realized a lot of farms are too broken down from a hundred years of desperation and bitterness to be saved. Just plow them under and let the housing developers have them. That’s what the relentless grind of trying to save something that doesn’t make sense anymore will do to you.
We trudged through the shit-brown mud in his front yard and climbed into an old American truck. Rush Limbaugh came on the radio as the engine cranked. We drove down to the highway then along the border of a hay field. We got out for a minute and walked down through a wooded floodplain to a small branch swelling with turgid brown water from a recent rain. Then back in the truck and past a small pasture before parking in front of the barn, not far from where we started. That was it. That was the farm. There’s really not much to see after a farm gets cut up two or three times, after the siblings sell out to the housing developers and the suburbs slowly strangle it to death like an insidious, exotic vine.
“My map says Cooper Creek borders the property back in those woods,” I said, pointing off behind the house. “Mind if I take a look?”
He gave me that rheumy glare. Spat in the mud. “I reckon,” he said, heading off in that direction on foot.
Some tall trees were there, impressive specimens of oak and hickory perhaps a hundred years old. Then we came to a clearing, planted in fescue, with three or four old granite tombstones and one fresh, unmarked mound of red dirt. My blood ran cold when I saw it; my hands started to shake.
“Somebody die recently?”
“Yep,” he said, without looking up. “My wife.”
I took a few more steps before seeing the other two mounds, off to the side of the clearing at the bottom of a small hill. “Who’s that?” I asked, fighting the urge to run that was surging inside me.
“My son and his wife.” Now he was looking straight at me, the rheumy eyes even wetter than before. And I was still scared, scared of the evil monster that crawls into men’s hearts, but I didn’t think I was in danger. I could see he wasn’t going to hurt me just by looking at those wet eyes. “A couple of weeks ago a real estate man came by. Offered me two thousand an acre for the land. Twenty-five thousand for the house and the barn. Said he wanted to turn it into new houses.” He took a Parliament from the crumpled pack in his coverall jacket and pointed it toward the mounds at the bottom of the hill, then back over his shoulder at his wife’s grave. “They all wanted to sell out, but I told them there wasn’t any damn way they were going to break up my farm.”
We just stood there for a long time, paying our respects, I guess, or maybe thinking about how a farm always ends up breaking you, your will and your heart, even your sanity, every damn time. And how sometimes your soul is the thing that needs saving from your farm.
“I think I need to go back and call the police,” I said.
He just snorted, coughed up a ball of yellow, sickened phlegm and spat it to the ground, then started walking back to the house with me following behind. “One thing I forgot to ask back at the house,” he said. “Can you sign one of those conservation easements in jail?”
I’ve been asked a thousand questions about how to save a farm, but that was the only time anybody asked that one. “I don’t know,” I answered. “But I don’t see why not.”
Andrew Waters believes the apocalypse will happen on the Internet and wishes he could write like Raymond Chandler. He lives in Salisbury, North Carolina.