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Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 14.2

Fiction

 

Darin Cozzens

Just Between God and Ferrill Ray


Darin Cozzens (Ph.D. Oklahoma State U) teaches writing and literature at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher.

 

My brethren and sisters! My dear cherished brethren and sisters! I would indeed be remiss as a husband, father, and Latter-day Saint, if I didn't stand on my feet this beautiful Sabbath morning and thank God for my myriad blessings. I couldn't sit by one more second without making my gratitude vocal.

That's the way my Uncle Ferrill Ray Pratt, hog and potato farmer, launches into his testimonies at church, almost yelling with zeal and joy. His booming nasal tones—because of the bum earring in the chapel's sound system, like talking louder and louder makes things truer and truer.

Good old fast and testimony service, first Sunday every month, all my life. And every week of it in the same ward as Uncle Ferrill. My folks and I sit in the back, but you'd find out soon enough my uncle is a front pew kind of guy. And he doesn't need to fast. Even his kids call him Jack Sprat when Aunt Naomi can't hear them. She's the big one, well over 220 on her trimmest days, sits through church with that smile—hair piled up, flower muumuu, Kleenex to mop up tears of joy when the spirit burns in her bosom. There's plenty of expanse for that fire to take hold, I tell you. She could fast forty days and forty nights, no problem whatsoever.

"Wasn't the spirit just so strong?" she always asks my mom. They're sisters—by blood, not just church. "Wasn't it wonderful? Weren't all the testimonies fantastic? Weren't the flowers gorgeous?"

Most weeks Aunt Naomi beautifies the podium with floral arrangements. Overdoes it, if you ask me. It looks like a greenhouse up there.

"We do thank Sister Pratt for these lovely flowers," says Bishop Boyce in his kindly tone, "for her and her good husband's faithful devotion to the Kingdom. They're a wonderful family, and we're blessed to have them in our midst."

And if you ask me, he overdoes the compliments.

Their wonderful family sits on that front pew, organ side of the chapels—even blessed spirits wedged between Uncle Ferrill Ray on the aisle and Aunt Naomi at the other end, hip hollows worn from ten thousand Sabbaths of faithful devotion.

Multiply and replenish. They are a fertile pair, asking my folks the whole time I was growing up when they planned to have more than

just me and my little sister. My dad tried to laugh. "We're doing all we know to do, Ferrill."

Uncle Ferrill Ray gives thanks for his seed every time he bears his testimony. He doesn't wait for either youth usher to string microphone cord over to him, either. He stands, clears a month's phlegm from deep in his throat, swallows hard, dabs at his nose, bottom lip trembling—before he's even said anything! Good heavens, what a production. And the whole time he's running a hand through that slicked-back Vitalis hair.

Aunt Naomi smiles up at him, that pew begging her to heave to her feet after him—which she always does—and offer some relief to its strained oak fiber. While her beloved spouse bears his longish testimony, she grabs the closest child in a headlock, kisses it, wipes her eyes, the whole show.

My beloved brethren and sisters. I feel so very blessed this day when I consider the bounteous blessings of parenthood, of rearing righteous posterity in Zion. I would indeed be most negligent if I didn't thank the Lord publicly for smiling on me and my dear sweetheart in such a glorious fashion.

Twenty-odd years I've listened to Uncle Ferrill Ray brag about his blessings. All that bounty gets awfully old.

***

He and my dad started farming the same year, famous Idaho potatoes going to prosper them both. They knew each other way back, when Burley played Rupert in football. It was a highlight of my dad's life when Rupert beat them one time in four or five years. They both took FFA, wanted to farm, started out with little bitty places over here at Heyburn, a mile from each other. They used the same kind of machinery—old double-lung John Deere tractors, two-bottom trip-spin plows, mowers, rickety hay rakes, threshers, potato diggers. They actually owned a grain drill together, bought it for a hundred dollars at an auction outside Jerome back in 1951.

My dad tells this story all the time. "Uncle Ferrill's humble beginnings," he says with a look in his eyes like it was yesterday they brought that drill home. He had to put up the whole wad because Uncle Ferrill didn't have fifty dollars cash. They chain-lashed the drill's tongue to my dad's car bumper, trailed it home at ten miles an hour.

One time I asked Uncle Ferrill how long it took to come from Jerome at ten miles an hour.

"Now what's this, nephew?" he says. I reminded him—the drill, the auction, the fifty dollars. He shakes his head, smiles that spiritual smile he's learned from Aunt Naomi. "You sure your daddy's got the story square?" Pats my shoulder like I'm nuts. "You best check it out with him. I don't hardly recall any fifty dollars. But I could be mistaken."

The story's right. You bet your blessings it's right, Uncle Ferrill. My dad can't doctor up his life for testimony meeting, wouldn't if he could. He knows how it was. He married my momGwen. But Uncle Ferrill married Aunt Naomi even earlier, got a jump on the multiplying, and a lot of other things. That's when this all started. He'll tell you different, talk about how the Lord opened doors for him, but that's not exactly how Uncle Ferrill Ray got in the hog business.

When my dad got drafted to Korea, he turned over ten pregnant sows, ten of them, and some York gilts, a registered Duroc boar—his whole bunch—to Uncle Ferrill for some measly percentage of the first litter. And he rents his place to him for next to nothing. The land isn't much to brag about, I admit. But those pigs were a gold mine. Hard to beat a York-Duroc cross.

My dad was desperate. That was his big blessing. He didn't know if he'd even come back but wanted something to come back to. And Uncle Ferrill Ray could take fine care of the sows because he didn't get drafted. They said his hearing was bad in one ear, but the guy hears what he wants to hear. And he remembers the same way.

My faith waxes strong, my dear fellow saints, when I realize how God opens the windows of heaven on even the least of his children—as long as they try to walk in his paths. The Lord is no respecter of persons. I know that for a fact!

None of my mom's brothers wanted to farm Grandpa's place over by Declo. Same time my dad's driving trucks in Korea, Grandpa gets shingles real bad, decides he's too old for farming, scared to death he's got no family to work the place—three hundred acres of prime flat fields, neighbors drooling for a chance to sink their plows into it.

Whatever's fair, says Uncle Ferrill Raybless his generous heart. Write Lester. See what he wants to do. See what he says. After all, Gwen is the older sister.

And my dad said, Go ahead, Ferrill, my brother, my friend, my fellow farmer. Go ahead and do what you think's best, especially for you. You're there and I'm not. My future is uncertain, and I can't ask Gwen's father to risk his life's work on an uncertainty. What's money, anyway? Dross, chaff, rust and moths. Right?

My mom has told him a million times how big that was, how God has blessed him in less visible ways for his generosity in a delicate situation, for keeping peace and harmony in the family. If you ask me, he could have been just as peacemaking with a thousand acres of his own—plus ten sows and their posterity.

My dad's letter was barely out of the mailbox when Uncle Ferrill started moving onto Grandpa's place in time for planting in 1952. He and Aunt Naomi sent a Christmas card to Korea after their wheat and potatoes—and thrifty crossbred feeder hogs—all sold at top dollar. A model card for all the years since.

May the good Lord bless you as richly as he has us, and may we always keep in mind that which is truly important.

My dad came home a couple years later to his rocky plot in Heyburn, empty hog sheds, machinery even more worn out from sitting idle than from hard use. In another letter he'd offered to loan it all to Uncle Ferrill Ray when he and Aunt Naomi first took on Grandpa's three hundred acres. But they didn't want it. No sooner does Dad get home than Uncle Ferrill trails the old grain drill into his yard behind a brand new pickup, says it won't cover near enough ground in a day. Besides Grandpa's, he's renting eighty acres of corn and wheat along the road to Albionno more buying hog ration from somebody else—says he needs some big equipment.

But he still wants my dad to buy back his half of that darned drill, when my dad's not so sure Uncle Ferrill ever paid a half in the first place. But my uncle knows how to talk.

My dad never badmouths Uncle Ferrill. But I've heard him tell this story enough to know who he thinks got the better end of the deal. He'll say you got to treat business as business with family and nothing is worth a feud over money, especially a lousy fifty dollars. But I know he wonders how it might've been if he'd come back from Korea to everything he left. A good sow farrows a dozen or more babies twice a year. In the time he was gone, he could've had a whole lot full of pigs, and he knows it.

When he got out of the Army, he really wanted to get back into hogs. So he asks Uncle Ferrill how much for five pregnant sows. Uncle Ferrill assures him everything's gone way up, but he'll be fair as anybody.

And then look what happened. Except for one year, one season out of almost twenty-five, Uncle Ferrill gets blessed with the good things of the earth, and my dad gets blessed, as Mom says over and over, with things you can't put a price on.

***

There's nothing fair about blessings. But people will never admit that. They got to have a reason for the way things are. God wants you a big rich farmer, or he wants you to muck through all your life. And either way's fine, just so that's what God wants. It's nothing but hog soup.

For five, ten years after Korea, my dad works his butt off to make his place pay. He buys a chip of ground here or there until he's got pretty close to two hundred acres. I remember him saying a man has to have two hundred acres in this age and time just to make a decent living. He told me that when I was eleven or twelve, getting up with him in the middle of the night for our water turn. For three or four hours at a stretch, we were out there crossing soaked rows into dry ones. With a full moon, I could see him across the potato field, digging hard, then resting on his shovel, digging, then resting, looking like there was nowhere else on earth he'd rather be at two in the morning than irrigating his crop.

But every time we got another ten acres or twenty, and I think we're going big-time, my cousins tell me they got another hundred somewhere. Every time we save seven pigs in a litter, Uncle Ferrill weans fifteen or twenty at top weight.

When I was fourteen my dad finally got a tractor with a diesel engine, a McCormick Farmall 566. It was used, but I really loved that tractor—power steering and a seat with a real cushion instead of an old rug or gunny sack. And I'd never seen a steam-cleaned engine block, all the grime and wheat chaff gone. That tractor could pull a three-bottom without tearing its guts out, go all day and not burn a drop of oil. And it was painted fresh red with white trim, rubber grips still on the throttle and hydraulic levers.

When I told cousin Harley about it in Sunday school, he almost snickered. He's trying to be polite—"No lie, a 566?"choking back a big laugh. I know Aunt Naomi ordered them to be polite to me and my sister. "That's good. Daddy says they're a real good old tractor." He's just as humble as his folks, waits a proper second before he tells me they just bought a brand new John Deere 3440.

It was always that way. If we get a Plymouth, they get a Chrysler. We finally get aluminum siphon tubes so we don't have to shovel notches in our ditch banks, and Uncle Ferrill converts two thirds of his operation to wheel-line sprinklers. We get a badminton set for Christmas, they get a pool table. We finally get a decent black and white TV, and they're inviting us over to see Ed Sullivan on their new color console. We're thrilled to get a double stainless steel sink in the kitchen, and they buy a dishwasher. We take a trip to tour the capitol in Boise and think it's a big deal for our motel to have a heated pool. Uncle Ferrill and Aunt Naomi take their whole gang to Disneyland and get pictures with a movie star in Hollywood. It just never stops. That's the pattern. Everything they have and do and say and think and dream and lie about has always been bigger and better than anything we can come up with. Aunt Naomi raises strawberries, raspberries, has peach and cherry trees bearing heavy every summer. And she has flowers. My mom loves flowers, can't get anything but a few weakling irises to grow around our patio—in dirt I wheelbarrowed from the floor of our irrigation lateral when the water was out.

"That Naomi sure has a green thumb," she says.

Same tone as my dad's when he drives real slow by Uncle Ferrill's fields, sees potato vines thick and bushy as far as you can see. And the wheat. Uncle Ferrill does the humility bit and claims some crazy yield like a hundred and eighty bushel an acre.

Modern-day manna, my fellow Saints.

He probably really does get a hundred and ten. You've never seen wheat so high and even, especially out on his River lease, thirteen hundred acres of paradise for a farmer.

But he never says anything in his testimonies about lucking into that lease, how he got it from a guy going bankrupt. A trained monkey could sow crop on that soil and make a good harvest. Jumbo spuds. Grade-A bakers. It's the ground out there—and plenty of water fresh from the Snake, and later freezes. That's what's on Uncle Ferrill's side. He's a good farmer, and he works hard. I know all that. But my dad thinks it's something else, special and secret, something he's decided he'll never have.

"How does the guy do it?" he whispers. "How?"

And every month of every year, my aunt and uncle say it's God who's done this for them. They're real meek about it, of course. In their whispery spiritual voices they say they know beyond a shadow of a doubt the good Lord has smiled on them far beyond what they could ever merit before the judgment bar. And they don't have any idea why God has flung open the windows of heaven and poured out his bounty on them.

In my opinion, the Almighty wants—and expects!—his humble followers to enjoy the fat of the land. For it's all his. All of it! And he could snatch it all away in the twinkling of an eye. Then, my dear brethren and sisters, what would we do?

Who could say that stuff seriously when a lot of people listening will never in their lives be anything but mush-and-beans poor? He wouldn't say it if he was as dogged by bills as most people. I've seen my mom yell at Dad for buying candy bars and pop because she knew there wasn't money to go around as it was. All I really need to be happy, to be at peace with my Maker, is my family and my faith.

Sometimes he has his kids stand up beside him in the pew, Aunt Naomi holding a baby or two. He points to them one by one, gets shaky with emotion.

This, my good fellow Saints, is the source of all peace and bliss we can know in mortality.

And who could say that when there's people listening who want babies and can't have them?

Then he goes into the poverty story, says he could be just as happy living in a tent on the Snake River or a sod hut like his brave pioneer forebears as he is farming two thousand acres—just as long as he has his seed with him. I've been to enough testimony meetings to know the only people getting off that kind of swill are the ones with big houses.

***

You can bet Uncle Ferrill Ray's new house is no sod hut. He invited the whole ward for a housewarming barbecue in late May one year, even sent out invitations—to us, too. Mr. and Mrs. F. Ray Pratt request your presence. The whole week before the barbecue he had eight or ten of his hired Mexicans hauling furniture and boxes into the new house for the show-off tour.

He didn't want Aunt Naomi lifting one pudgy finger. She was great with another child, waddling around their lawn sod—fresh laid, hauled clear from American Falls—asking people if they were finding anything at all to eat.

She said this standing between two long rows of fold-up tables heaped with food. Besides the fold-ups—borrowed from church—there were half a dozen sheets of plywood set on barrels and sawhorses to hold extra Jell-O and green-bean casseroles. More potato salad and crocks of baked beans than any Mormon will ever again lay eyes on. Baskets and baskets of rolls, other salads, tanks of lemonade. And a whole York-Duroc barrow turning around and around on a big pipe and sucker rod spit. It had to take one of those hired hands a long time to weld such a thing.

Uncle Ferrill goes first class, that's for sure. Mesquite coals shipped from Texas and sauce everybody crowed about because they saw the price sticker on the bottle. He cooked a side of beef, too, slow simmered in a big steel drum—somebody else's welding project for a week or two.

People teased him. Since when does Brother Ferrill Pratt worry about any animal except hogs? He laughs right along, says he doesn't want any of God's edible creations feeling slighted.

And his prayer to commence the whole affair dragged on a good ten minutes. He stood in the back of his pickup, held out his arms like Moses, to shush everybody, spread his hands on the cab, pinched his eyes shut, gave one of his windbag prayer-sermons in the usual booming nasal voice.

Lest we be ingrates, Father

On and on about this land of milk and honey, God's favor bestowed on his modern pioneers, the righteous toil of his people, nature's tempered spirit, full reservoirs, bright sunshine, harvesting two and three hundred-fold from the sweat of the Pratts' brow.

Uncle Ferrill Ray always acts that way, does the long holy prayer display with any kind of audience. Prayer and wisdom. He gives a lot of counsel to anybody who will listen. When he takes the youth group out on Lake Walcott in his boat, get ready for the counsel. Or drives the young marrieds to West Yellowstone to try out his new snowmobiles. What a treat for them to hear his great wisdom. He probably gives them his special sermon on being blessed, works in some story about how righteousness—especially his and Aunt Naomi's—pays dividends in the end.

And he isn't talking about heaven and eternity. He means it really pays off here in the mortal sojourn. Deep down, that's what people with big houses and Chryslers always mean.

I remember the cookout. Aunt Naomi kept licking barbecue sauce from her fingers, and my cousins Harley and Darrell gave all the girls rides on their motorcycles. And I remember something else.

Bishop Boyce loaded his paper plate—the good thick kind—and sat by my folks on a brand new lawn chair.

"How you doing, Lester—Gwen?"

Fine, fine, fine, just fine. Super. That's nice. Beautiful evening, pleasant weather for May, not many mosquitoes. Plenty of cheerful talk.

Then Bishop Boyce's wife walks up, says she's never tasted pork so tender. "I don't know what Brother Ferrill Ray does to it, but this is nigh unto perfect."

Talk, talk, talk. Then the bishop turns to my mom, gets a little more personal.

"You and Sister Naomi are family, aren't you?"

He knew they were because he asked the same thing a year earlier when he came to our house for a shepherding visit. What he really wanted to know was how my dad and Uncle Ferrill could both be farmers of the same crops, raise the same pigs, in the same country, and one be rich, throwing barbecues for the whole ward, and one be the same as poor. That's what Bishop Boyce was curious about. And who could blame him? We've all asked ourselves the same thing.

"Isn't this grass lovely?" Sister Boyce says. She's sitting on another new lawn chair, tough paper plate in her lap. The bishop doesn't answer except for a little nod. During the shepherding visit, he saw our scraggly patch of grass between the house and Russian Olive windbreak. He's not blind. He saw the junk machinery, the old chicken coop my dad made into a work shed. You can bet he noticed all of it, wrote us off as modest. Our grass won't spread or thicken no matter how many springs my mom re-seeds.

So Sister Boyce is chewing, just blabbing while she eats, doesn't mean anything, isn't thinking too serious about much except how tender her pork is.

"What do you suppose Brother Pratt ever did to deserve all this?"

She waves her arm and lumps everything in her question. New house, giant metal shop with cab-tractors and big bright machinery parked all around it, fuel tanks, shiny hog sheds down the road—stink blowing away from the party, fortunately. And all two thousand acres spread over Idaho creation.

She laughs. "All I can say is he must be in pretty good with God. That's all I can say."

Bishop Boyce looks antsy, smiles at my folks. "We never know," he says, "what the Lord has in mind for us."

And then his wife looks at Harley and Darrell still buzzing around on their motorcycles and the other seed of my aunt and uncle's loins running everywhere and Aunt Naomi wearing her fertility like a halo along with that maternity muumuu—if there is such a thing. Then she half-turns to my mom and dad, chawing all the time on that tender pork, and asks the dumbest question in the world.

"Why didn't you two ever have more children?"

My folks didn't say a word. It was the same thing people said all the time about Uncle Ferrill, trying to figure out him and his blessings. And the same stupid question my folks had to bother with ever since my sister was born and the babies stopped coming.

Sister Boyce laughed, had no way of knowing the hurt she was bringing to mind.

"You must've decided to let Ferrill and Naomi do the rest of your multiplying."

My dad didn't even finish his meal. He folded that plate around his beans and salad, poured his lemonade on the grass, threw it all in a big trash barrel by the dessert tables and walked toward our car. "Where you going?" Uncle Ferrill Ray yells after us. "There's a lot of hog need's eating yet."

"I believe I've had plenty," my dad says. "Thanks just the same."

***

After quite a few years, I started to think the only thing to change Uncle Ferrill Ray, shut him up in testimony meeting, would be something tough happening to him. No car wreck or choking to death on a piece of meat, no accidental shooting or falling into a machine of some sort. Nobody dying. Not that.

Although he and Aunt Naomi would learn a thing or two about blessings if they ever saw the look on my mom's face—and my dad's, too—when she had that last miscarriage. I wish Uncle Ferrill could learn from such things. Maybe then his testimonies wouldn't be so hard to swallow.

My folks wanted another baby bad. Mom never told anybody but us when she got pregnant because she was tired to death from the other times, having to explain to church people why she never got any bigger. Once Bishop Boyce even announced for everybody to keep us in their prayers, and the ward dedicated their fast to us.

I tell you the truth, though, the sympathy was almost as hard for my folks to take as no baby. Tuna noodle casseroles, loaves of bread, stuff in mason jars, cakes, pies. Phone calls and shepherding visits and questions in the church foyer.

If there's anything we can do.

Five hundred women from Relief Society said that.

I know just how you must feel.

Guess who said that?

My mom cried after Aunt Naomi's visit, bit her lip and clenched her fists at my dad and sister and me, and at God and the whole world.

"How can she say such things? It's almost more than I can bear, Lester. Almost more than I can bear."

When she finally had to have a hysterectomy, she didn't tell a soul. She even went to the hospital in Twin Falls so nobody would see her name in the paper, said she was visiting an old school friend.

Aunt Naomi wanted to know who it was.

"You wouldn't remember her," my mom said.

"You understand this is just between us and the good Lord," my dad told me and my sister.

Our trials and afflictions make us strong, my brethren and sisters. They refine us in the crucible of faith.

What would Uncle Ferrill know about affliction? My folks are the ones should talk about trials and crucibles. All I wanted for Uncle Ferrill was some real first-class hard luck. His life was no fairy tale. Nobody's really is. I'm not saying that. When fungus or blight came along, Uncle Ferrill always got a taste of it. He's got nipped a few times with late frosts, same as my dad or anybody else. And you don't farm over two thousand acres without getting hailed on somewhere, sometime.

But his afflictions never made him clench his fists and cry desperate to God for want of anything else to do. They never really hurt him, don't you see? Never made him pray his grief like I've heard my dad and mom pray theirs when they were sure their only audience was God.

Even when my cousin Rona poked her eye with a sharp willow and Darrell broke his leg bad falling off a horse—had to wear a brace for nine months—it all turned out okay. Even when they found a lump on one of Aunt Naomi's sizable breasts—in one of his testimonies, Uncle Ferrill told us all about the discovery—everything turned out better than ever. Rona's got twenty-twenty vision, honor roll student and piano whiz, and Darrell's a football hotshot. And the lump? I'm not sure how you'd tell with her, but it was a fatty cyst, no threat whatsoever to the giant bosom. And to hear their testimonies, the happy endings were sort of guaranteed, and it all happened mostly to give them something fresh to say in fast and testimony meeting.

Just for once, I wanted something not to be so guaranteed for Uncle Ferrill Ray.

When his hogs started dropping dead from cholera—that came close. He bulldozed a burial pit and shot about two hundred of them himself before it could spread to his other sheds and pens. I remember the rifle blasts that morning. It takes a long time to shoot two hundred scared pigs milling crazy from the smell of blood.

What ruined the cholera, though, was my dad's hogs got it, too. And we couldn't afford to lose near as many. It was a sickening sight walking through those pens, animals hunched from belly pain, squirting scours, rolling over to die right in front of you. And the smell gagged us both.

My dad kept rubbing his jaw, saying, "Now you've done it to me, pigs."

We dug our pit with an old blade behind the 566, scraping and scraping in nasty gravel, hitch linkage groaning, tires spinning and shuddering in cobble, chalky dust and black exhaust thick enough to choke you. Between passes, I rolled the biggest loose rocks out of the way.

After a morning of it, I was ready to borrow the bulldozer—Uncle Ferrill had offered—and even suggested it. "We don't need a damn bulldozer," my dad yelled over the engine. "I'll bury my own mess."

He would've dug that pit with a bar and shovel before he took help from Uncle Ferrill. He wouldn't even borrow his 30.06, killed our couple of dozen hogs with a single-shot .22. It took me two weeks with a bucket of bleach water and hard scrubbing to disinfect all our panels and feeders.

So the cholera wasn't what I had in mind.

But finally, finally there came a season when something happened to Uncle Ferrill that had never happened to him before. His potatoes got core rot. And this wasn't like other years when he planted only a quarter of his ground to spuds. This time he had almost his whole place—eighteen hundred acres—in them. Potatoes everywhere. And up until August it looked like they were going to make him even richer. Eight-fifty a hundred for more hundreds than you can count.

Until one morning he digs one when he's checking his water, washes it in a sprinkler nozzle, cuts into it with his big pocket knife and finds a brown stain at the core. A lot of things can rot one potato, but Uncle Ferrill pretty quick found out something was rotting all eighteen hundred acres of his.

He rushed over to our place in a panic, only the first or second time he'd set foot in our yard since his barbecue two years before. He held two halves of a potato in his hand, wanted to know if my dad had found any rot in his crop. My dad says he sure has, says it looks pretty widespread and bad and costly and dangerous for the whole valley. Processing plants were talking about the worst disaster in half a century. Once you notice the rot, it's too late to do anything about it. Some farmers were already disking their crops under.

In a sweat, Uncle Ferrill says, "My Lord, we could be wiped out." And he says this with real trouble and pain and worry in his voice.

Such a moment doesn't come up very often between us and Uncle Ferrill Ray, and I wouldn't have traded it for motorcycles, snowmobiles, the pool table or any of the rest.

"I should be all right, Ferrill," my dad says. "I don't have but ten acres here behind the house, so we won't be out much."

Uncle Ferrill Ray stared at him, and I tell you, the smile was gone. That Aunt Naomi testimony smile was gone without a trace of fake meekness or wise counsel waiting to spill. I know he wanted to act like he didn't hear quite right, but we all knew better.

"Well, ain't you the lucky one," says Uncle Ferrill Ray Pratt, half mad at our little house and clunker tractors and two hundred acres growing crops worth at least something. For me that was a highlight. Harvest that year was one of the sweetest times of my life. No, it was no delight watching Uncle Ferrill try to dig those rotten spuds—so mushy they broke open on the digger's conveyor chains, left nothing but a putrid mess. And it was no enjoyment driving out to the River lease and finding the banker's car next to Uncle Ferrill's pickup. I don't know what they were talking about out in the field, but you better believe they both knew the spuds underneath all those vines were worthless.

But the testimonies stopped. And I did love that. Not a peep from the front pew during fast meeting, September, October, November. Not one whispery breath about myriad blessings and the fat of the Lord. Aunt Naomi still smiled, but now it was a smile to keep from crying—a whole lot different from the kind she was used to.

***

If that was the end of the story, I could make sense of Uncle Ferrill Ray and my dad and farming and this world. But what happens? Because Uncle Ferrill's loss was so horrible and crushing all at once—having meetings with his banker every other day, selling off hogs way too early in a glutted market, Harley and Darrell talking sorrowful about maybe having to get rid of the boat and camper, the whole sad song—the government comes in with some kind of disaster insurance they pay only when you get wiped out like Uncle Ferrill did two seasons ago. Little year-to-year hails and winds on small acreage don't count. My dad's never got a red cent from government insurance. And they don't just cover Uncle Ferrill's loss. They pay the guy for his grief. He ended up making more than he would've with healthy spuds at eight-fifty a hundred.

Before I knew it, the miracle silence ended, and he was standing again on fast Sunday, accounting to the Lord for blessings too numerous to mention in that setting.

I remember the testimony just after his first insurance payment. That slicked-back hair looked just a fleck or two grayer under the Vitalis, but he was in top spirits.

My brethren and sisters, I can personally affirm: the morning does break, the shadows do flee—if we just hold fast to our faith. Verily and truly, God blesses us according to our needs.

What do you say to a guy like that? Amen, Brother Ferrill, Amen? I can't do it. Not sitting there next to my mom and dad. There's no kind of insurance or even money enough to bail them out of their hurts. I was glad for Uncle Ferrill Ray's hardship and problems, found something awfully damned fair in his few months of misery. That rot made him humble for the first time in his life. Then he couldn't talk about it any more because he was living it. And there's a big difference.

There's nothing you can really say about hard things. Do you see? There's nothing in the world you can say to explain why things happen or don't happen. So people go for what they can say. Nice endings and holy-Hank talk. That's what they go for. And God knows that's not

 

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