“Wake up, Con, are you sleeping?” The hayloft in the August moonlight was filled with the simple, even rhythm of sleeping, breathing. It was past midnight, with dawn and the morning’s harvest speeding on. “Con?” Michael whispered, and his hand extended across the darkness, cut at once into vision by the slant of the moon’s rays through the gap-spaced walls of the barn. “Are you sleeping, Connie?” So familiar, his twin body, his bare chest silver with the moon. “Look at me.”
Conrad pretended to sleep as he watched Michael’s form in silhouette at the open loft door, the stars behind him like a quilt of light. Morning would come anyway, so why sleep? There had to be a way to feed desire and hide from it at the same time: only pretend, and he would be safe, and Michael would stay, and everything within the night’s reach would rise and fall with the dawn.
“Con. Look at me.”
He wanted to, and through the slits of his half-closed eyes he saw Michael moving toward him, tender and inevitable. But no. He had no words for this. Not yet. Hurry, dawn.
“Tie it tight, Con. The road’s rough, and we don’t want to lose anything.”
Conrad nodded and continued to loop the rough rope around the steel luggage rack that topped his family’s rusting station wagon. He’d already pulled the rope tight over the mound of furniture and trunks stacked in chaotic order on top of the wagon. Now he tied intricate knots, hoping their complexity would be enough to guarantee that his family’s possessions wouldn’t jostle and fall as the car made its way along the aging, uneven highway from Nebraska to their new home in Alma City, Minnesota. The knots would have to hold; he wouldn’t be there to retie them.
Jacob Hoffman paced around the vehicle, glancing impatiently from the tarp-covered furniture to the ropes his son Conrad was securing, then across the yard to the small, slope-roofed house where his wife stood, holding a basket of fruit and sandwiches in one hand and a small cat in the other. She didn’t smile or even seem to notice her husband, but instead stared out across the even Nebraska plain. Jacob gave her a questioning nod but didn’t wait for a reply.
“Your mother’s ready.”
From the back yard, Conrad heard the voices of his two younger brothers. They were shouting, running, and suddenly appeared at the corner of the house, August in pursuit of Robert. Conrad laughed at the mock-furious speed of their game until a look from their mother, leveled first at the boys, then at Conrad, caught all three short. They stopped abruptly.
“You’d better settle down now,” Mary Hoffman said. She set the lunch basket down and slowly and gently began to stroke the neck of the dusty tabby cat. “It’s a long trip, and we’re about ready to go.”
The boys looked at the ground for a moment, trying to summon up the control they would need to keep their excitement and anxiety in check for the duration of the long trip, then shuffled slowly toward the station wagon, still pushing at one another but in smaller, more covert gestures, which they imagined their mother couldn’t see. She watched from the doorway and raised the cat toward her breast, nestling her face in the animal’s fur. For a moment, her breath and the cat’s breath joined, and from the roadside Conrad saw his mother’s chest and shoulders break in a single, jarring convulsion. Suddenly she stooped down and let the cat go, trying to brush it away and into the house, but the animal curled around her ankles, purring and rubbing against her legs. Conrad watched her, the way she stood stiffly upright, ignoring the cat’s small cries for attention, until it slowly wandered into the house. When it was out of sight, she moved quickly toward the car.
Conrad turned to his brothers. “Time to get going,” he said, trying to sound authoritative as he motioned the boys up toward their seats. “Come on.”
As his mother waited, Conrad took August by the arm and tried to steer him into the back seat of the wagon, but August was twelve now, and not so light or easy to maneuver as Conrad had thought.
“You mind,” he warned, and August gave him a look at once obedient and defiant. When Conrad arched an eyebrow and growled, “You watch out,” the boy giggled and jumped away from him into the car.
He was reaching for Robert when he heard his mother say “Con,” and he knew from the tone of her voice that he shouldn’t turn around. She was standing behind him, and Conrad knew it would be too hard to look at her now; her powerful, constrained expression would trigger his own barely contained emotions, and he was of an age where emotion in a man was considered an embarrassment and a liability. Instead of turning toward his mother, he reached out for Robert.
But the boy jumped away. “No!” he protested, “I can do it myself!” Robert was ten and agile; he ran at the wagon, scrambling into his seat, grabbing onto the ropes that his brother had just secured. He landed next to August and grinned. “See?”
“Conrad,” Mrs. Hoffman said again.
He didn’t know what it was in his mother’s voice, an element of pain or compassion worn smooth by life on the plains, but it pulled at him, insistent and sure, with a power he couldn’t ignore. He turned around.
His mother held her right hand in a closed fist out toward him, and her face was even, still, blank. She seemed to Conrad to have run out of emotion and energy, though he remembered her another way, a time when she had been more animated, more apt to smile or rage, before the prairie settled into her and left her smooth and quiet. Now she was always whispering, the way the prairie grass whispered in the constant wind.
For a moment now she did smile, then opened her fist to reveal a small, worn, leather wallet. “Just in case,” she said, pushing the wallet toward him. “Maybe once we’re settled you’ll come up to see us.”
Conrad took the gift and felt the smooth, rounded edges of the wallet into which his mother was always squirreling away a few dollars for some unspecified future necessity. He smiled and nodded and stuffed the money into his pocket, where the wallet’s weight tugged down on the bottom hem of his jacket. He looked briefly at his mother, though she wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he felt the urge to hug her, to thank her, though he knew she wouldn’t bear up under the weight of such strong emotions, and he had no desire to smash the composure she worked so hard to maintain. Instead he took his father’s hand, and as he shook it he allowed his hand to remain in the protective cup of Jacob’s palm for just a moment—long enough to record an impression of his father’s strength across his own unsure skin.
“You’ll call as soon as you get there?”
Jacob calmly nodded. He wasn’t a man given to emotion, either anger or joy, and his face betrayed nothing of what he might have been feeling. “It’s not a long trip,” he said. “But it might take a couple of days if we stop over in Iowa.” Here he nodded at the station wagon, where August and Robert were pushing at one another in a mock battle. “Those two will probably need a break after a few hours, and there are plenty of places to stay between here and Alma City. I already told your uncle we’d arrive at our new place sometime late tomorrow.”
Conrad had only met his uncle once. He was the first Conrad, the one for whom Jacob had named his eldest son, and Conrad knew his father held his elder brother in reverence. Uncle Conrad was the first of the family in three generations to leave Nebraska, after their great-grandfather had settled on the prairie early in the century, and he had made a success of himself in Minnesota, building a thriving lumber business out of an increasing population’s demand for housing and thus for timber. What the endless prairies and his staunch family had never been able to provide, he found in the endless northern forests. Now Jacob, worn down by an increasingly unfertile farmstead and the unceasing Nebraska winds, was going north to take over the management of some of his brother’s mills. Only Conrad, twenty-two now and wanting a life of his own, was staying behind. He would take on the farm alone for a year or two, and if the land remained bitter and stingy, the way it had already been for too long, Conrad would pack up what was left of the farmstead and join his family in the north.
Jacob briefly touched Conrad’s shoulder, as if passing on something intangible but necessary, then swung himself into the station wagon. Still feeling the heat of his father’s palm burning down through his jacket, into his skin, Conrad turned back to his mother and offered his hand.
Her face was willfully expressionless but hid nothing. She looked hard at him, from his hand to his face and back again, then reached out. Her skin was cool, dry, and she grasped his hand in hers for only a moment. Then, in one swift motion, she was in the car and seated next to her husband. She didn’t look up at her son but instead stared straight down the long driveway. “The cat’s in the house. You’ll need to look after her.”
Conrad glanced over and saw his mother’s cat lingering in the doorway. He knew that leaving the animal behind was a bitterness to her, but Jacob had insisted that he wouldn’t take a cat on a long trip, wouldn’t put up with the kind of howling the animal was apt to make; and he would not bend in this decision. Having watched his mother with the animal when she thought no one else was around, Conrad knew the cat was the one confessor in whom she confided her true emotions, her wordless, sometimes desperate gestures. Now she was leaving that quiet witness to her true heart behind.
Growing up, Conrad had heard stories about his mother from people in Grand Island, when he and his father made trips into the town for supplies. She had been raised there and had known everyone. The old men at the seed store still smiled when they spoke about her. “That Weber girl,” they called her, “the brown-eyed girl with prospects.” She had married Jacob Hoffman young, and the long years on the prairie had stolen something. The wind, always hungry, ate away at the woman until some days she couldn’t get out of bed, wouldn’t look at anything beyond the small, stingy window near the wood stove.
From the doorway the cat mewed, and Mary looked over at it, then quickly away. “Con, remember to feed her,” she instructed, her voice tight, its tone as flat as if she were reminding him to clean the chimney before winter.
Conrad smiled and nodded. “I will,” he said. “The cat’ll be fine. I’ll look out for her.”
In the seats behind their parents, August and Robert were restlessly pushing at one another. Without looking back, Jacob Hoffman said, “Stop now,” and his voice left no room for argument. The two boys quieted immediately.
August looked up at Conrad. “How’re you gonna live here all alone?”
Conrad laughed. “Same as always. But with more room.”
Sticking out his tongue, August giggled, then turned toward his younger brother and pushed at him, trying to throw him out of the car. “Here,” he said to Conrad, “you keep him. That way there’ll be more room for me.”
Robert pushed back until their father raised his hand in warning and August retreated to his own end of the long back seat. Pausing to catch his breath, Robert glanced up at Conrad. “Did anyone ever die of loneliness?” he asked.
At first, Conrad could say nothing. He didn’t know how to respond to such a question—a stupid child’s question.
“You’ll be alone,” the boy continued. “It’s so big out there.” As he spoke he pointed out across the prairie, at nothing in particular because there was nothing in particular to point at, only the wide, undifferentiated space of plain, horizon, and sky.
“You don’t—” Conrad started, then stopped. No one ever died of such a thing; his brother didn’t know what he was asking. Yet Conrad felt the question resonating through his chest, and he was filled with an inarticulate rage that flared up quick and hot. He opened his mouth again and said, “I—” but didn’t know how to go any further. What did a child know? When had this child ever experienced loneliness? “I’ll be fine,” he said at last, but he didn’t believe it. How could he say so, when he didn’t know it to be true? What comfort was there in the prairie, in that constant, insistent wind?
Their mother turned around and flashed Robert a quick, severe look. The child started to protest, then closed his mouth, only a small, inarticulate grunt escaping from him. Slowly their mother turned back and looked out over the fields, which were now turning from red to yellow as the dawn light grew into daylight. “We’re losing time we shouldn’t waste,” she said. “And your brother’s a man.” Robert nodded in agreement but remained silent. Mrs. Hoffman looked back at her home, her cat sitting in the doorway. “No one ever died of loneliness,” she added. “Not when there’s work to be done and a television to watch.”
Glancing at his mother, at the lessons of loss and consolation drawn across her weathered face, Conrad didn’t know whether or not what she said was true, but he did know that she herself didn’t believe it.
His father turned to him. “There’s always the phone, and you know where the gun is if you need it. There’s plenty of bullets.” After a pause, he added, “You watch those jackrabbits. They’ll eat up a whole garden, and then what’ll you do in the winter?”
Conrad laughed and nodded.
“You’ve got the Martins across the way,” Jacob went on. “You can call them if you need any help. You’re not alone.”
Conrad nodded again. The Martins, whose farm was five miles to the east, were their closest neighbors, and Michael Martin, their eldest son, was the only friend he’d ever known or needed, insofar as he had friends outside his family. Living on the isolated farm, working every day from the time he was old enough to carry a bucket, Conrad hadn’t learned how to be around other people. School hadn’t done much to change that—his years in the classroom had been merely a mild, sometimes pleasant distraction from the real work of life, the endless routine of planting and harvesting, animals to feed and slaughter, crops to be sold, seed and supplies to be bought. He and his family, for as long as he could remember, had held a kind of mute communication, just nods or brief flashes of expression that carried in them the essence of conversation or command, and this silence was difficult to navigate with outsiders. But he and Michael Martin were the same age, born only a day apart and in the same regional hospital, attended by the same doctor. In the autumn, when their families worked together, harvesting first the Martins’ fields, then the Hoffmans’, the two boys would spend days side by side, speaking little, often only glancing up at one another, sometimes grinning or laughing when the work was almost too hard to bear. In the evenings, when supper was finished, they would occasionally relax into conversation, discussing farming, school, weather, trips into Grand Island and what there was to do there. Conrad had grown up knowing Michael someplace deep in his body where thoughts needed no words; they carried within them a singular quiet bred on the prairies, forging a bond that their mutual silence didn’t diminish.
Sometimes in the winter, when there was little work to do and the frequent and heavy snow storms had trapped his family in the house for too long, Conrad would venture out and cover the five blinding white miles to the Martins’ farm. Traveling in such weather, even with a snowmobile, was difficult, and he often spent the night on a cot in Michael’s room. It wasn’t that the Martins were different from his own family; in fact the two families were so similar that Conrad sometimes found himself beginning to say “Ma” when he spoke to Mrs. Martin. It was simply that the Martins were not his family; they were other people, with other lives and histories. Conrad craved them and their company with an urgent hunger, especially the company of Michael, who had the same lanky body, the same heavy black hair, the same unsteady assurance that Conrad had. When he was with Michael, Conrad felt calm, sane, and satisfied with his connection to a world that, without the presence of Michael, he wasn’t sure existed.
Jacob Hoffman looked out over the horizon and nodded, as if agreeing that a new day was beginning and giving his permission for it to do so. Without looking up again, he said, “We’ll call when we get there. Don’t let the fields go to weed. You’ll have to walk them to keep them weeded.” Then he pulled the car door shut. “We’d better get going.”
Mary Hoffman turned suddenly toward her son, staring at him with a face which, for an instant, registered grief and some trace of disbelief, then went blank again. She nodded her head as if saying, “Yes, yes, we are leaving,” and said instead, “Don’t let the cat starve. There’s plenty of canned goods in the root cellar. You let us hear from you.”
Then the station wagon moved away, progressing slowly down the drive. Conrad stared hard at his parents, their faces turned away from him now and looking straight ahead at the horizon, as if they could already see the streets, the lakes, the parks of Minneapolis. August and Robert waved back at their brother in desperate gestures, as if, the faster they waved, the more memories of the farm they would be allowed to keep with them. Conrad followed, half running at first, trying to keep up. But as the car progressed he let his pace slacken, and his family disappeared into the prairie, leaving only their sound, for a time—the steady rhythm of the station wagon’s engine, August’s and Robert’s voices rising and falling as they fought with each other for space on the seat. After a while even those sounds disappeared, eaten up by the constant wind in the wheat.
I wrote Sun, Moon, Stars after a friend told me about her great-uncle. He had grown up on a farm in Nebraska. His siblings matured and left home, but he stayed to help his parents and then took over the farm. He never married, dated, or expressed interest in women. He was reclusive, and when he was in his fifties he committed suicide. My friend said that her family never understood what had happened to him, but I thought I knew.
I grew up in south-central rural Minnesota. I knew I was gay at an early age. I didn’t have the language to describe myself, but I knew that I was different from the rest of my family. I always knew that I’d have to leave home and find a life for myself in an urban area with an active queer community. This was in the 1970s, when children usually didn’t come out to their parents.
At age eighteen, I moved to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul). I went to college, continued writing, and came out. I built a happy life, though it was separate from my family. I came out to them when my first book, a collection of poetry, was about to be published. Like many first books, it was full of autobiographical work, and I wanted to come out to my family before they read it.
When my friend described her great-uncle, I knew he was gay. I had grown up around men like that, bachelor farmers. These men couldn’t come out and so remained alone. I could see myself in her great-uncle. If I hadn’t known I was gay, hadn’t moved to an urban area with an active queer community, I might have been one of those lonely farmers.
I wanted to write about my family, and I wanted to write about growing up as a queer kid in rural Minnesota. When I heard my friend’s story, everything fell into place. The great-uncle’s story would become a part of my novel, as would my own childhood experiences. But these two narrative strands, on their own, formed a bleak story. I wanted to write a novel that would provide some hope for its readers, particularly its queer readers. So I wrote the novel in three parts. Part One, from which this excerpt is taken, focuses on the uncle figure, but with major changes. Part Two focuses on the childhood of the main protagonist, a nephew of the gay Nebraskan farmer. Part Three focuses on that nephew as an adult, going through the end of one relationship and the start of another. It also focuses on the nephew coming to understand his uncle and the struggles of his queer forefathers and mothers.
This is how my novel came into being. Like a lot of fiction, it uses real people and their lives as a launching point, then gives the characters a chance to evolve on their own.
William Reichard is a writer, editor, and educator living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His sixth collection of poetry, The Night Horse: New and Selected Poems, will be published by Bright Horse Press in 2018.
Embark, Issue 3, January 2018