It was unusual that Chet Winters drove his tractor into a rut because he had plowed the field for more than half of his fifty-five years. He knew the location of every rut, rock, and fence post in the field. He tried restarting, but the engine stalled.
“Flooded! Dag gone it!” He thumped the stirring wheel.
He leaned against the back of the seat and propped his foot against the fender, waiting until it could be started. The sun in his face exposed every wrinkle like a sun-baked apple. Years of hard work and anxiety were etched on his forehead. His thick callused hands with fingers like little sausage links combed through his long gray strands of hair.
Peering over the tops of the spring foliage, he squinted at the most incredible sunset he had ever seen. He seldom watched the sunsets. There was always simply too much to do. The sun hung like a glowing ember behind blazing wisps of light pink and lavender. The clouds stretched above the horizon like silk scarfs freely fluttering in the wind.
“How magnificent!” he whispered. Chet jumped from the tractor and walked toward the house like a field hand late for supper. He stopped to examine the field and the work he might miss. He waved it away with his hand and continued walking. A pickup truck stopped on the road next to the field. The man inside leaned toward the passenger’s door, rolled down the window, and said, “I got a chain in the back. I can pull you out.” “That’s ok. It’s flooded. I’m just walking up to the house.” “Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.” “Sure, thanks.” Chet climbed in the truck.
“I don’t believe I know you,” Chet said. “You’re trying awful hard to look like a farmer, but you got city written all over ya.”
His clothing was new and stiff.
“I’m Bill Thies,” he said, extending his hand. “My uncle Drew lives down the road from you. I’m on spring break from college. Uncle Drew broke his leg and I’m plowing for him.”
Chet shook his hand. “I know Drew. Known him all my life. How’s his leg coming along?”
“He’ll be back on his feet in a month or so.”
“Chet Winters is the name, and thanks for the lift.”
“You’re a little old for college, aren’t ya?” “I teach there.”
Bill pulled the pickup onto the road. “I see, a professor. Well, I’m farm-o-cologist,” Chet grinned.
Bill laughed and said, “Chet, glad to know you. I hope you will not hold being a professor against me. I was raised on a farm.”
“Nah, just never knew a college professor before,” Chet said. “Well, that’s nice of you to help your uncle out. You ought to know if ya want to fit in, ya better dirty those jeans up a bit and get some cow shit under those fingernails. The lady cashier at the elevator don’t have nails that clean.” He scratched his cheek. “What do you profess?”
“I teach a course in poetry,” Bill said. “Writing it, understanding it, and studying it.”
“Claire, my wife, reads and writes poetry,” Chet said. “I got opinions about poets; they’re all perverts and misdirected liberals. Most are communists. A—Claire’s not one of them though.”
Bill chuckled and said, “Perhaps some of them are. Sure I can’t help you pull the tractor out?”
“Nah, I can get it myself. Just give me a ride to the house.”
“Just a half mile down the road. I want to get home before the sun sets and show it to Claire.”
“It is very beautiful,” Bill said.
“College professor, humph! You can do better than that,”
Chet said. “That certainly is resplendent!” Bill smiled.
“Claire’s got a calendar picture from a few years back of a Pacific sunset. She hung it in the kitchen. She says it is the most beautiful sunset she has ever seen. We were supposed to go to California a few years ago, but I had a heart attack. Took nearly all we had saved to get me back on our feet. She said the Ohio sunsets are just fine with her, but she’s never taken down that calendar either.”
Chet gazed at the sunset as they rolled down the road.
“Bill, ya married?”
“Been married for forty-four years this June.”
“You don’t see many lasting that long,” Bill said.
“It’s easy with a woman like Claire. That sunset reminds me of Claire’s smile. It makes me feel warm. Her smile unfolds like a blooming flower and satisfies like a soft summer breeze that rolls and rustles across a wheat field.”
“You’re a poet, Mr. Winters.”
Chet squirmed and ran his hand down his face and said, “I ain’t no poet.”
“There’s nothing wrong with seeing beauty in the things around you and expressing it in words.”
“You’re right, there. Claire’s as wonderful as they come. She’s the only woman I’ve ever known. Ain’t kissed nobody but her either.”
The truck pulled into a stone driveway beside the house. It was a white two-story house, typical of midwestern farms. A rusted windmill next to the house twirled madly, sounding like the rumble of a crop duster.
“Come on in, Bill. I’ll introduce you to Claire. She’d like to meet you. Did I tell you she reads and writes poetry?”
“Oh, that’s right. Maybe she could show you some. If it don’t embarrass her.”
“I’d be happy to meet your wife and read her poetry.”
Chet walked through the back porch door, with Bill behind him. Chet turned and whispered, “Better wipe our feet.”
Then he called, “Claire, got company. Drew Thies’s nephew. He’s a poetry professor.”
Chet spotted a stack of newspapers and said, “Should have been burned this morning. I better take care of them before Claire gets on me.” He sniffed, smelling the garbage overflowing the basket next to the door. “Better take care of that too.” He sat it outside the back porch door and fanned the door open and shut a few times. “Gotta get that smell out of here.”
“Claire!” Chet called, “Claire! Come on out here and take a look at this sunset! It’s as pretty as that Pacific sunset! You just got to see it.” He turned to Bill. “Any minute now she’ll say, ‘Chet, hold your horses. I can’t drop everything every time you call.’”
“Claire! Claire! Claire?”
He searched the house.
The professor went only as far as the dining room.
The sun cast a dull light through rain-specked windows. Although the room was cluttered, it seemed empty, void of care or breath. Bill noticed discarded unopened mail in disarray on a mahogany table covered by a white lace tablecloth. An artificial red rose centerpiece laden with dust and entombed by cobwebs. The constant tick of an oak tabletop clock on the buffet slowly relinquished its seconds. Powder blue candles in silver holders stood like sentinels at each end of the buffet. A silver knife wrapped in a white ribbon lay in front of a picture of a woman and Chet. The woman was stunning. Bill starred at the woman. The vibrant eyes, wide smile, and graceful flowing hair with silver strands made her irresistible. In the picture, they were holding the silver knife and cutting their twenty-fifth-anniversary cake. The picture had a thin layer of dust as well.
Chet entered the room with his head down. He picked up the picture, cradled it in his hand, and wiped the dust from Claire’s image with the sleeve of his shirt. He stood idle and tranquil. “What did I tell you, that’s some smile-right?”
“Yes, it is indeed an exquisite smile,” Bill said.
“I’m sorry, Bill, you must think I’m crazy,” Chet said, “but she’s been dead for just over a year. Sometimes it gets like this—you just get so used to her being around. I don’t feel crazy—just lonely.”
The buffet clock loudly ticked away the seconds, but it did not drown the quiet whimper of a broken, lonely man.
“Of all the poetry I have come to memorize and instruct—the very moment for which such lines were written, none come to mind and nothing seems more appropriate than. I’m so very sorry, Mr. Winters. You must miss her terribly.”
Chet cleared his throat. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Claire’s grave is a mile from here. I want to be with her right now. Can you drive me to it for just a minute and then maybe you can give me a hand getting my tractor out?”
“Let’s go, I’ll take you there.”
At the graveyard, Bill leaned against the front of his truck.
Chet stood next to Claire’s gravestone. His right hand stroked the top of the stone. There was a nip in the westerly breeze, but the stone still held the warmth of the setting sun.
“Claire,” Chet said, “You ought to see that sunset. It ain’t the Pacific, but the Pacific ain’t Ohio either.”
Chet walked back to the truck.
“Thanks, Bill,” Chet said. “Can you take me home now? Let’s forget that tractor.”
“Sure and how ‘bout I read some of Claire’s poetry to you,” Bill said.
“She wrote one called Sunset. I think I would like you to read that one."