An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Pamela Russell Bejerano
I stand in the Food Emporium parking lot, stupefied that I could spend 17 years of my life running away from a place and five minutes crashing back into it. I force my Italian leather shoes to move, feeling like the out of towners we used to call spotted OWLs (spotted, because you could spot them a mile away, OWL meaning Outsider Without Land). Instinctively I wander back to the bakery and laugh when I see the same old doughnut case filled with the same old three flavors – chocolate, glazed and maple bar. Definitely not Voodoo Doughnuts.
“Well I’ll be gosh-danged,” a familiar but wrinkled face says to me, “if it isn’t little Lukey Stephens, back from the big city. Oh honey,” her voice suddenly changes as she walks around to the front of the case and takes my arm. “How are your parents holding up, what with all that going on and all?”
Mrs. Appleton, manager of the bakery and town gossip control center.
“All what going on?” I say, curious to know what the talk is.
“Oh you know,” she whispers in my ear, looking around to make sure no one and everyone can hear, “that stuff with the b-a-n-k.”
“They’re fine,” I say, not encouraging her. All the farmers out here have ‘stuff’ with the bank. “How about one of those doughnuts,” I ask, desperate to be out of her grasp, and out of this store.
“Plain glazed,” she asks, her voice returning to normal, “same as always?” She drops my arm and waddles her oversize self around back. She hands it to me with a napkin. “This one’s on the house.”
Before I can thank her a voice hits me.
“Don’t eat that.”
I turn and see yet another familiar face, this one showing no wrinkles. “Jordan Hughes,” I say. “Still bullying the boys, I see.”
And still a farmer. She wore the Wrangler jeans better than any other girl in school, and somehow even made baseball hats look sexy. That, too, hasn’t changed.
To my only partial surprise, she rips the doughnut from my hand and slams it on Mrs. Appleton’s clean counter.
“Why don’t you tell him what you put in those doughnuts now, Mrs. Appleton?”
“Jordan,” Mrs. Appleton says, “your mama would be ashamed of you acting this way.”
“My mama died of cancer, remember?”
Jordan’s stare turns back to me and I suddenly feel 16 again under her sharp, green eyes.
“Nice shoes,” she says. “You look like a spotted OWL.”
“Thanks,” I say, amazed that I still get tongue tied around her.
She is gone and Mrs. Appleton at my side. “You never mind her,” she says, forcing a new doughnut on me. “Stop by again, soon, and tell those parents of yours hi.”
When I am around the corner I toss the doughnut in the garbage, unwilling to face the wrath of Jordan if she appears again. She does, this time in front of me at the checkout stand.
“Fifty-three-sixty-eight,” the clerk says as I walk up. I realize it’s Joe, from high school, and I say hi.
Jordan looks over the pile of groceries then hands him back a bag of flour. “Take this back,” she says, and hands him a $50 bill.
“Jordan,” I say, “I’ve got $4.” I reach into my wallet but pull my hand back when I see the look on her face.
She is out the door before I can find my tongue and a word to say.
I throw my grocery bag in the back of my truck. I want to get out of here before I hit something, or someone. Luke Stephens back in town can only mean one thing – his parents are selling. His parents sell, we’ll be next. I turn around and there he is, leather shoes and all.
“Jordan, I’m sorry,” he says.
“For what?” I say, wanting nothing to do with this slick spotted OWL. “What are you doing here, Luke?”
It’s not really a question I want answered, so I climb in my truck and slam the door.
“I was hoping we could – ”
I gun the engine, cutting him off and pull out of the parking lot. By the time I get home, I’m still mad. I slam the door on the truck but catch the front screen door with my boot, not wanting to startle my dad. He is in the living room, looking at me with the blank stare I’m starting to get used to. “Hi dad, it’s Jordan,” I say. I set the groceries down and walk to him. “Jordan, your daughter.”
“Jordan?” His brows furrow at me. “My goodness, when did my little girl get so grown up?”
This is the last conversation I want to have right now.
“You need anything?” I say, standing and heading in to the kitchen.
He doesn’t answer, but I bring him a glass of water.
“Anybody call while I was out?” I ask.
He wouldn’t remember even if they did, but I ask anyway. I’ve tried to get him to quit answering the phone, but he forgets. Still forgets mom is gone, too, and that happened ten years ago. Back in the kitchen, I flip through the mail. My breath stops when I see the large envelope, the one with Oregon State University in the upper left corner. I go back in and turn on the TV, knowing it will keep dad from wandering into the kitchen. Back in the kitchen I pull out a stool and sit, slowly, staring at the envelope and trying to muster the courage to open it. If the tests are confirmed, the trouble I thought this farm was in is going to be nothing. Thing is, I know the answer, known it in my gut since I found the seeds in our cornfield last month.
I take a deep breath and rip open the envelope. My hands shake as I scan the letter. I see it, there, in the third paragraph.
Immediately I grab all the papers and hide them in my room, under my sports bras in the bottom drawer. I take a long, hot shower, willing the news to float off me and down the drain.
Dried and dressed, I slowly make my way downstairs, trying to keep my knees from buckling, trying to think what, if anything, I’ll tell my dad.
“Well, I’ll have to think about it.” My father’s voice floats up the stairway, and I am now running down into the kitchen.
“Dad?” I say.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.” He hangs up the phone and turns to me.
“Dad, who was that?”
He reaches up to pat my shoulder, like he used to do when I barely came up to his waist.
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about this, honey. You let your mama and I take care of the farm. You just focus on school and keeping that Luke boy in line.”
“Luke? You remember Luke?”
Alzheimers, the doctor told me, makes a person go back in time. Eventually my dad will even stop remembering me. It scares the hell out of me, his thinking Luke still lives next door and I’m chasing after him like we’re both 12. Scares me almost as much as the letter hidden up in my drawer.
I drove all the way out here yesterday to help my mom and dad sell the farm, help them retire early out in Astoria, like they had always dreamed about. But today I can’t do it, and I find myself telling the bank manager that we will have to think about it some more. He stands and shakes my hand, telling me he’ll be here when we change our minds. I’m mumbling to myself, trying to figure out what I’ll say to mom and dad as I head out of the bank.
“Did you sell?”
I almost drop the papers at the sudden sound of the voice. Jordan stands by the front door, a thick, legal sized manila envelope in her hand.
I shake my head. “No, actually.”
Her eyes narrow at me. “Your parents changed their mind?”
To my shock she asks me if I want to have dinner.
We end up at the bar on the edge of town, sitting in the booth in the back corner, a mountain of nachos and two cold beers between us. I fight the urge to wipe the sour cream off her cheek. She beats me to it, using the back of her hand.
“You heard about the Oregon wheat farmer?” she asks. “The one that found genetically modified seeds in his crop?”
“Yeah.” I know the story, but I decide to lead her on a bit, wondering what she was doing at the bank. “My dad sent me the article. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, though.”
She narrows her eyes at me. “How is it your grew up here and don’t know shit.”
“Ha,” I laugh, wiping my face. “I’m an animal trainer; believe me, I know shit.”
Jordan laughs. “I heard that rumor, but I didn’t believe it. Seriously?”
I nod. “Did you see the movie True West?”
She smirks at me in reply. “You mean at the megaplex they built for all us farmers?”
“See, who doesn’t know shit now? It was a box office smash. Anyway, all the horses in the movie were mine.”
A smile appears on her face for the first time. “Little Lukey the Horse Whisperer, a big Hollywood hot shot.”
“Ha, far from it. Anyway, back to the farmer?”
The smile is gone from her face and I take a drink of my beer, uneasy under the sudden weight of her stare. She finishes hers and waves the bartender for another round. My beer is still half full so I bury my face in it again, as if catching up will make me feel less like an OWL. The bartender comes and deposits two more beers along with hamburgers the size of my head. When he’s gone, Jordan sits forward and rests both elbows on the table, staring at me. “You heard of Monsanto?”
“The big, evil corn company? Of course I have. What’s that got to do with the wheat farmer?”
“You remember those seeds they tried to force farmers to use that were genetically modified so they couldn’t reproduce?”
“They lost that battle. FDA wouldn’t let them use the seeds.”
She takes a bite of her hamburger, this time leaving catsup on her cheek. I resist wiping it off and hand her a napkin instead. She makes a face at me, but uses it.
“They made them anyway; that’s what got into this farmer’s field. You saw what the price of wheat did when they found out?”
I nod. So far, this is nothing new. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Monsanto owns practically all the corn grown in the country. They make sure corn and corn syrup are in everything, including Mrs. Appleton’s doughnuts. But it’s not just food. Want new spark plugs? They’ve got corn syrup.”
“C’mon, spark plugs?” I didn’t know this.
“Spark plugs, fabric sprays, hand sanitizer. Probably even in this drywall,” she says pounding the wall above her head. “Make sure corn is everywhere, and you control everything.”
“I thought Coke owned everything,” I say, trying to lighten the mood.
“Monsanto owns Coke. Pepsi, too.”
I sit back in my chair. “What’s going on, Jordan? What are you not telling me?”
Suddenly her eyes turn red and she looks away. When she sits forward again, there are tears welling in her eyes.
It takes me a minute to register what she said.
“I need to tell you something, neighbor to neighbor, but you have to swear to God in
heaven you won’t tell another living soul, not for a few days, at least.”
“Okay,” I say, weakly. “I promise,” I add with more assurance.
“I found their corn seeds in our field, out on the back side.”
“Back side, by the coop?” I ask.
She nods. “I traced the coop. Guess who owns the company that owns it?”
“Monsanto.” I didn’t know this either.
“When word of this gets out, our farm is ruined. You could very likely get dragged into it, too. That’s why I’m telling you. You need to sell, now.”
We sit in silence and finish our beers and hamburgers. It takes us a fourth beer to finally change the topic. We start talking about friends from high school, and where they all ended up.
As if on cue a bunch of them start showing up. Jordan and I end up staying until closing time, drinking and laughing with everyone. When the bartender kicks us out, Jordan and I slowly wander out to the parking lot where I walk her to her truck, trying to ignore winks and thumbs up I get from a few old friends. Finally they leave, and she turns and looks at me from under her hat.
I can’t help myself and take her face in my hands and kiss her. I hold her there, knowing a black eye is likely to follow when I pull away. To my absolute delight, she kisses me back. We end up on a dirt road a half mile from the bar in the bed of her pick-up truck. The only thing that peels me from her side is my beer-filled bladder, forcing me to find a tree to relieve myself. As I button up my jeans I hear the sudden roar of her engine. I take cover as dirt flying out from under her tires hits the tree. When I walk back out my smashed cell phone sits in the tire track.
I’m wishing I had my hat to hide under as I lock my rental car and head into the Food Emporium. I’m amazed at how much the town has changed in a year. It’s possible I am the one that has changed, which is evident when Mrs. Appleton doesn’t recognize me.
“What can I do ya for, hon?” she says, standing behind what I realize is a new bakery cabinet.
“Mrs. Appleton, you have a new case!” That’s when she recognizes me.
“Jordan? Jordan Hughes, is that really you? She waddles around the case and gives me a big hug, then holds me at arms length. “Oh my, but don’t you look quite the world traveler!”
I smile. “I wouldn’t call South America the world.”
She takes my hand in hers and pats it. “I am sorry about your papa, love, and your farm. Never did get a chance to tell you that. Your papa was such a good man, did so much for our community.”
“Thank you,” is all I can say.
“You here to stay, or you just visiting?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, so sweet of you to drop by.” She pats my shoulder and returns to her station behind the doughnut case. “You be sure, now, to head out and say hi to that Luke. He’s got quite the operation out there, you know. All kinds of important people come through here now, Hollywood people. And do they like their doughnuts! That’s why I finally got me this new case.”
“You must have switched back to sugar,” I say, teasing her.
“Matter of fact I did.”
I drive my rental car slowly out to Luke’s. He is the reason I came back, mostly to get an explanation for what happened that night since my dad never could tell me. When I pull up, I hear voices out in the barn, so I head over that way. When I step in I see Luke standing with some other men, holding a horse. The horse shakes its head at me, and that’s when Luke sees me.
“Wow,” he says, walking towards me with the horse. “Didn’t expect to see you here. Jordan, this is Hoof. Hoof, this is Jordan.” Speaking to the horse, he says, “She’s a nice person, just don’t leave your cell phone or doughnuts unattended and you’ll get along fine.”
“Yeah, about that,” I say, glad to get to the point.
He looks at me with a raised eyebrow, apparently waiting for an explanation from me. Fine, I’ll start. “Your cell phone rang while you were peeing. It was my dad.” He says nothing, again waiting. “I answered, said I was your secretary. He said he was ready to sell.”
“And he should have,” Luke says.
“Yeah? Why’s that? So you could build a bigger animal farm out here?”
“I knew about the seeds.” He pauses, letting it sink in, which it finally does.
“You knew? How?”
“You remember Heath, the Principal’s son?” I nod. “He and I went to Oregon State together. He works there now, in the ag program. He saw your report and called me, told me I needed to get out here and convince everyone to sell our land as soon as possible. I offered to buy yours because the bank told me they’d pay me triple if I could get it and sell with mine. Said a big corporation wanted to expand in the area but only if the two pieces of land came together. I planned on giving the profit back to you. I explained it all to your dad, but…Jordan, I had no idea he was sick. I’m sorry.”
“Monsanto,” I say.
He nods. “I didn’t know until you told me that’s who owned the coop, the day you ditched me. That was a long walk back to town, by the way.”
“Please, the bar was a half mile – ”
“Serves you right. You should have talked to me about buying the farm. Not my dad.”
He smiles and nods his head. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t sell,” I say, stating the obvious.
“My folks did. They sold to me, and I moved my business out here.”
I pet Hoof, not knowing what to say.
“I think he likes you,” Luke says.
“I think you need better names for your horses.”
“Agreed! My handler quit last week. He was the one that named all the horses.”
I hold the horses head in my hands. “Semilla,” I say, looking her in the eye. “I think that’s a much better name than Hoof, don’t you?”
“What’s it mean?” he asks.
“It’s Spanish. It means ‘seed.’”
“Semilla,” Luke says. “I like it. I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job?”
I pet the horse again and smile.
© 2013 Pamela Russell Bejerano