By Zoe Yohn
They met each week at Daylite Donuts and when that closed, they made the pilgrimage to The Over Easy. The diner wouldn’t be around much longer, either, but when the inevitable happened, there would always be the McDonald’s out near the interstate.
– You hear about Peltz’s alien?
– Bullcrap. What the hell are you talkin’ about?
– Said he found it in the dirt out behind the house. He’s calling it God.
– He ain’t. God? Really?
– It don’t matter what he’s calling it, he didn’t find shit out there.
They shook their heads, rubbed their palms across their eyes, still greasy with the exhaustion of a lifetime. Someone gestured for Debbie, for more coffee.
Dale Peltz used to join for hash browns and eggs, but he was a mean bastard. It was a blessing, they agreed, when Dale got sick, because he quit the diner when driving got too sore on his gut. He’d started to stink by then anyway, unwashed skin ripe with odors that weren’t polite to name.
– Swears he did. And whatever it is, he says it’s going to bring the farm back. He told you that, didn’t he, Jim?
– Like hell. He must be on some new medication, pain management. I had a cousin who gone the same way, near the end. Just lost it.
They were quiet for a minute.
– That farm is nothing but a weed patch. Won’t even grow stone.
– He was a damn idiot not to sell.
– Still can. Last plot north of town, and he’s got that good access road. Sensyus offered him a fortune for it.
– They’ll get it in the end, anyway.
– He’s got more dirt than sense.
– A fortune. For a plot of piss-poor land not fit for a feedlot. And he still won’t let it go.
They’d all sold years back, before the Sensyus announcement, before something like Sensyus even existed, when the factory farms had come in. Petrarch County was wiped clean for pennies. They traded their farms for homes in town. Then, town was gutted and after a few years, so were their savings. Their family land was long gone, too, turned to corn and soy for feedlots, sucking the nourishment from the dirt. Dale Peltz was the only one who held out.
– Dale wouldn’t know what to do with money like that, anyway.
– That farm’s the only place that can take the smell of ‘im. Stench would kill us all if he moved to town. The man is a walking biohazard.
– He can’t move his ass two miles down from that shack. What’s the point of selling?
Truth was, no one wanted Peltz to sell. They wanted him to die on that sandbar. He’d been too slow, but they’d been too quick, biting at the first offer that came. They watched as their land was parceled off and cashed the checks. Only a crystal ball could have predicted the arrival of Sensyus to the county, just a few years later, with its multibillion-dollar plans, handing out thick wads of techno cash that should have been theirs by right. It was their land, after all, and the only thing worse than missing payday would be to see Dale Peltz cash in.
– A coffee can. That’s what he told Jim, isn’t that right, Jim? That’s where he’s keepin’ it, God or the alien or whatever the hell it is – in a goddamn empty Folger’s can.
– Yep. That’s what he said.
– You seen it, Jim? The alien?
– Nope. Just know what he told me.
– There isn’t no alien, just a foolish old bastard with too much time.
They shook their heads. They didn’t like to think about if it was luck or smarts that kept them sane, because they worried they didn’t have much of either, really.
– Didn’t you offer to buy him out, Jim? Before you sold to QualityFoods?
A low, collective whistle sounded across the table, rippling paper napkins.
– Your land and his. Shoot. That’d be some money now, wouldn’t it?
– Sure would.
– Well, it won’t be long. Sensyus will get it. He ain’t looking good, is he, Jim?
The diner air was heavy with bacon fat. They could feel it on their tongues long after their plates were cleared. It took acid to cut grease like that. Clogged the arteries, mottled the heart. None of them were getting any younger.
– Peltz is the last of it. One damn farm between now and the future. Won’t be long.
– What is it again? 5G something?
– Somethin’ like that.
– All that’ll give you cancer. Or autism. Saw it on Facebook. My sister-in-law’s kid, somethin’ isn’t right there and it’s the 5G.
Their faces, stale with stubble, all orbited towards the clock hanging above the griddle. Their days were shorter without the rhythm of the land. Pink sunrise to lavender sunset, the scent of freshly turned soil and manure. It’d been a clockwork they’d set their bones to. That was gone, and now their eyes seared beneath neon hot cell phone screens.
– Well. It’s a shame anyhow.
– About Dale?
– About Jim’s land.
– Sure as shit is.
– … wonder if Sensyus will pay for deconsecrating the Peltz farm?
It was the dowsing rods that found Him. They found everything good in his dirt. Dale just got to dig it up.
– Water and blood son. That’s what his grandpa had told him. There’s water and blood in this dirt, you just have to find a feel for it.
His grandpa taught him how to use the rods, the right way to hold them and wander the land, paying attention to the slightest tremor in the metal. But there was more to it than that. Even now, laying in the dark on his back – because the lumps in his gut hurt like a son-of-a-bitch – a hum rang down Dale’s fingertips. He could feel copper, cool and smooth in his palms, the pathway of dirt-knowing that ran taut as electrified fishing wire from the rods to his wrists. There was a vein of something rich with moisture was trapped beneath the crust of his earth, waiting.
Folks in town didn’t think there was anything worth saving on his land. They were idiots, clogged and stupid with methamphetamine and WiFi, or foreigners, who didn’t know the land from the sky. Dale did, though. He held out, he believed. His tongue lapped across his gums and came away tart and metallic. Blood. Blood in the dirt, blood in his mouth, but it would be alright now.
Dale had been reared on the land. When he was a boy, the breeze rippled his blood, as it did the wheat in the fields. His fingers and toes froze along with dirt after the first frost. The boys in town thought he’d be better off selling, but they didn’t know worth from value.
He shifted to his side and groaned. The bed was rank with sweat, his sheets long yellow. If he had a wife, or some kids, they’d’ve told him to get his stomach looked at years back, when his belly first began to ache and the clods were only pebble-size. They’d expanded over the years. By the time he made the trip to the specialist, the doctors didn’t know if he’d fit in the cat scan machine. A nurse tried keep quiet on the phone to the Denver Zoo, asking if he might squeeze into the machine that scanned large mammals, but he heard. They got him in the hospital machine eventually, and all that just to tell him it was too late to operate.
Dale took a deep, painful breath in and hauled himself upright. He didn’t turn the lights on. The house was quiet, empty. Padding along the hallway, stretching longer than it ever had before, he palmed the wall to keep upright. Sweat pooled in the folds around his neck.
Not long, now. In the kitchen, he reached for the top cabinet and took down the coffee canister where his daddy used to keep folded bills and the keys to the tractor. Not long for him, but forever for the farm.
Dale opened the lid and was flooded with the glory of his Savior.
The Sensyus CEO was ready to rip it out of the ground, but the lead contractor was a Christian. He knew a miracle when he saw one, he said.
The CEO threatened him, told the contractor he could either clear it out or lose a crew and a paycheck. The contractor still refused. It was too late by then, anyway, because the news vans had turned up for the groundbreaking. The contractor, weeping on his knees, was a better image for TV than the Sensyus CEO and his golden shovel.
The air was metallic, a crisp April morning suddenly close and dense, like a late-summer thunderstorm was boiling across the plains. The folks in town felt it, too. They showed up in clusters, not long behind the news vans, some for the groundbreaking, some unsure of why they were there at all, except to say they’d felt they had to be. Something drew them from their homes and out to the old Peltz place.
By mid-morning, the access road was backed up all the way to the northern edges of town. Cars by the dozen, caked in dirt, were stitched tail-to-nose along the road, trucks, cop cars, mini-vans bursting with impatient children. Even the meth chefs found a spark for the rusted-out hunks-of-junk usually cemented to the cookhouse front lawn and joined the parade.
Rumors began to circulate that the National Guard would have to be called in. No one had ever seen so many people in one place in Petrarch County, not during the County Fair, not during the Octoberfest parade. They must have come from the surrounding Counties – Adams; Burlow; Monart. And maybe even further because there were cars arriving that were city-clean, gleaming and free of dust.
On the edges of the Peltz land, clusters of people waited for something to happen. Mothers perched on car bumpers and breastfed their children, high school boys jeered and jumped around, increasingly frenzied as the day baked hotter and heavier. Some folks were praying, rosaries knotted through their knuckles, and others wanted stupid and slow in long, looping circles of their own.
A barricade of bodies formed around the site where the ground was supposed to have been broken, surging outwards and circling the Sensyus construction trailer. The crowd heaved against it; meaty shoulders packed to metal rocking violently. Hiding inside, the CEO tried to keep his balance. Legal was in his ear, real-timing a plan of action.
– Monica, sorry, can you – can you just, repeat that? No, I can’t – it’s too – there are what, four thousand hicks out there fucking screaming, I just – e-mail it to me, okay? And the ‘copter? Is it on the way?
The crowd grew thicker, the sun bore onto the earth and baked it dry. Dust haze hung in the air, obscuring the densest depths of the group. It churned against itself, spitting folks out hard onto the dirt before they tried to dig back in again. Law enforcement couldn’t find the way through to the center. Rumors flew like hot oil. Antifa, a bomb, alien spaceship crash. The CIA and FBI were on their way, Air Force stealth planes had been seen circling the south field.
By mid-afternoon, the construction trailer and two news vans had been toppled and set alight. There was no sign of the Sensyus CEO. Not a hundred feet from where his abandoned golden shovel lay, a throng of wailing women in prairie garb flung themselves to the ground and clawed dirt into their mouths. Holy men of all sects – priests, reverends, bishops, rabbis, imams, Tibetan monks and more – circled the earth, chanting reverently in their own prayerful tongues. The National Guard hadn’t been able to tear through the order of nuns holding ground over the furthest reaches of the site and in their absence, a handmade infantry marched through the thickets of bodies, semi-automatics resting on their shoulders. They were the guardians, they told the crowds, the protectorate of the land.
Meanwhile, the lead contractor had never risen from the ground. The knees of his pants had worn as soft as wet paper, ready to tear. The muscles in his back spasmed and ached, knotted, refusing to unravel. Touring this same spot the night before, surveying the emptiness before it was to be ripped up and churned for the future, his boots had kicked dust from the bald earth, at the nothing before him.
And now, from the ash where even the heartiest high-plains grasses had refused to grow, bloomed a pomegranate tree, as rich, ripe and heavy with fruit as it had been in the Garden.
About the Author: Originally from the Nebraskan plains, Zoe Yohn is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She holds an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin. She has published short fiction in The Honest Ulsterman and her short story “Language Barriers” was long listed for the 2021 Exeter Story Prize. Zoe lives with her husband in Dublin, and is currently working on a novel.