In Northern Indiana the land is flat, the soil rich and black as coffee grounds. Any fool could grow corn or soy beans in this country, as long as it rains. In the last ice age, the glacier came south to about forty miles north of the Ohio River, leaving a strip of rolling hills along the river. But north of these hills, the land is flat. The glacier scraped the surface of the land clean as it traveled south, then left the soil rich with nutrients as it returned to the north.
The people are clannish and conservative, most of them children of German ancestors. Outsiders are looked upon with suspicion. Most of the farms have stayed in the family for over 200 years. I used to think I would be happy being a farmer, but I am a wanderer. I know now that I would have grown restless and bored. But sometimes in everyday drudgery, something comes along that you never expect. A cliche, but nothing more than a simple twist of fate.
It was 1983 and I was a young man then, twenty-five years old. I was a bit naïve, but still smart enough to know she was damaged when I met her. The economy was tough then, and I had left my home in the Ozarks to find work. It didn’t seem fair that a person would have to leave their home to find work, but as I said, I was still a bit naïve. I lived out of a suitcase, traveling from town to town, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa. Every hotel room looks the same. It was Fort Wayne that week, but it could have been Chicago, Des Moines, Toledo. Sometimes the only thing to look forward to was a nice meal at the end of the day. She was a redhead, a waitress at the café where I went to eat my dinner that night. It was the first time I had ever been propositioned by a woman. Her name was Layne, rhymes with rainy.
She was slender with long curly red hair cascading down her back, a narrow face, prominent nose, and green eyes that told me she was Irish. She walked with a mannish walk that made her seem taller than she was. A pretty woman still. Our eyes met several times as she walked back and forth carrying trays. There was only one other customer in the restaurant. I was the only one left in the restaurant when she approached me. “You have pretty eyes,” she said. “What are you doing after dinner.” “Oh, I have some paperwork I need to do” “ Can I come up to your room?” “Yeah, sure,” I said.
It was about 11:30 when I opened the door to the sound of a knock and found her standing in my doorway. She had changed out of her waitress uniform and was wearing blue jeans and a flowered top. “Would you like to go have a beer?” I asked.
“No, I just want to fuck.” I undressed her and held her from behind caressing her freckled shoulders and cupping her small breasts in my hands. I ran my hands down over her stomach and felt a small indention about the size of my finger over her left lower abdomen.
“What is that,” I asked.
“My ex husband shot me there.” “Why?” “It is a long story. Just fuck me.” I reached over and turned out the light. It is always easier for me the first time if the light is out.
We lay in the bed with the back of her head resting in my lap. “I have been in prison before.” “What for,” I asked. “Conspiracy.” “What is that.” “It means I was planning to do something.” “I didn’t know planning to do something was against the law.” “It is for some things,” she said. “What are you doing this weekend?” “Nothing really, I have the weekend off.” “Will you take me to Louisville,” Layne said. “What do you want to go to Louisville for.” “It’s actually a small Indiana town, west of Louisville. I need to see a man about a dog.”
The week wore on. I saw Layne every night that week, but still she gave little of herself away. Friday we lay in bed in my motel room again, her head resting in my lap. “Will you be my husband,” Layne said. “You want to marry a man you have only known a week,” I said. “No, I don’t want to get married, even though you are a sweet man. I just need you to be my husband for a day. Tomorrow.” I didn’t say anything. I guess my acquiescence was agreement.
We left early Saturday morning. It was a long drive to Louisville. Layne was quiet. About halfway between Fort Wayne and Indianapolis there is a prison set next to the Interstate. One would think they could have found a better place for it. Its cold brutality stands out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of the Northern Indiana cornfields. Layne spoke up as we passed. “My ex husband lives there.” “Is he a prison guard,” I asked, although I knew the answer. “No, he is an inmate.” The words begin to flow after that.
“ I have a daughter. She lives with my former mother-in-law. That is where we are going today. My husband came from a large family of German, Lutheran farmers in Southern Indiana. My husband’s name is Paul. His brother’s name was Alton, but everyone called him Dutch. They both inherited a quarter section of farmland from their father. I came from a farm in a little town in Kentucky named Elizabethtown.” “Yes, I know, I have been there,” I said. “Then you know there is not much there.” Layne said. “My husband was a jealous, abusive, violent man, but I didn’t see any way out. He was not well liked by the people of the town but most of them were afraid of him. Alton was a kind and decent man. He never married. He drove the school bus and the kids loved him. He was 32 years old when he died. At some point Paul became convinced I was having an affair with Alton.” Were you having an affair with him,” I asked. “No, But many nights I lay in bed and wished I would have married Alton instead. One night, in a jealous and drunken rage it came to a boiling point. He threatened to kill me and then took out his pistol and fired a shot at me. I really don’t think he intended to kill me, just scare me. But a drunk is not a very good marksman. The local police were willing to believe that it was an accident. The gun went off while he was cleaning it sort of thing. I was fortunate that the bullet did not hit anything vital. Paul wanted Alton’s farm. He knew he would inherit it, if Alton died. Paul told me several times that he would kill Alton if he thought he could get away with it. He ranted all the time, so I never really took him serious. One day, Alton came over to help Paul repair the roof on the barn. There was a fence about three feet from the barn. Alton leaned a ladder against the fence and climbed up the ladder. About three quarters of the way up, the fence wires broke and the ladder fell into the electrical line running to the barn. Alton was dead before he knew he was dying. It seemed to be a simple but tragic accident. A few days after the funeral I went to the barn to scrape up some soil for fertilizer for my roses. As I dug, my shovel hit something hard. I continued to dig and pulled a pair of wire cutters from the ground. I thought about the accident and Paul’s rants. I hid the wire cutters underneath the hay and went to look at the fence where Alton had been killed. Two of the strands had been cut. The local police were hopeless, as they were afraid of Paul, so I called the FBI.
A week later, three FBI officers and several lab assistants showed up. They gathered evidence all day and then they took Paul and I in for questioning. They questioned me for ten hours and I honestly told them all that I knew. A few hours later they came back, put me in hand cuffs and told me I was being charged with first-degree murder. After several days in the Clark County Jail without a clue as to what was going on, I received a visit from a FBI officer. He had reviewed the case and Clark County was willing to reduce my charge to conspiracy to commit murder in exchange for my testimony against my husband.” Layne paused and then sit back in her seat, quiet for a moment. “I don’t know that I had any choice. They made it sound so bad.” South of Indianapolis, Layne fell asleep.
I woke her in Seymour. I always stopped at a café for lunch when I passed through Seymour, boyhood home of John Mellencamp. Once I had asked one of the waitresses if she knew Mellencamp. Yes, she had gone to high school with him and her girl friend had married him right out of school. Unfortunately, the girl got tired of working at the phone company all day while John played Frisbee. She divorced him and a few years later, he was a rock star. Life is full of luckless draws. Before we got out of the car, Layne reached into her purse and pulled out a man’s wedding band. “Will you wear this for me.” I slipped the ring on my finger as she put a woman’s band on hers. “We are married for the day,” she said. “Its pretty tight,” I said. “It hurts.” “Wedding bands are supposed to hurt,” she replied. We had sandwiches and then continued on our way south to Clark County where we turned west on Interstate 40 into the rolling hills of southern Indiana.
After about 30 miles on the interstate we turned south onto a rural state highway, south towards the Ohio River. It was Indian summer in October and the leaves had turned, a delightful time other than one knew the prospect of a cold winter was near. We followed a gravel road about three miles and then went up hill to a farmhouse nestled among cornfields. Layne got out of the truck and when she did, a little red headed girl, perhaps nine or ten ran out the door and jumped into Layne’s arms. “Mommy” “Oh Ria baby, I am so happy to see you.” She settled Ria back on the ground as I walked around from the other side of the truck. “Ria this is my new husband, Kevin.” “Does that make him my daddy?” “No baby, he is just my husband.” We walked to the porch where a woman of 75 years or so stood. She was tall and slender, ramrod straight and the high cheekbones and blue eyes told me she had once been a beautiful woman. “Rachael, this is my new husband, Kevin.” “Nice to meet you. My name is Rachael Kopp. I am Layne’s mother-in-law.” We shook hands. “Please come in.” We settled into a weathered couch and Ria left to bring lemonade. Rachael inquired about my job, my family, and where I was from. She was polite, but I knew she was probing. “Ria, why don’t you and Kevin dig some worms and go fishing in the pond while your mother and I talk,” Rachael said. “Do you like fishing?” Ria asked me. “Sure,” I replied. “There are some really big perch in the pond.” I followed Ria as she skipped out the door.
Ria and I found a shovel and old coffee can in the barn and walked to some damp dirt in the shade by the barn. Each shovel full brought up a lot of black dirt and four or five worms. “The fat ones work the best,” Ria said and sorted through the worms to find the biggest and fattest. Soon we had a can full of black dirt and worms and we took two cane poles with bobbers and hooks and headed for the pond. Ria was right. The pond was full of big perch. We each had caught four or five when I said to Ria, “ It is getting warm, I think I should go back and get us some drinks.” “Okay,” Ria said, “But don’t be gone long, the fish may stop biting.”
I walked up to the back of the house where the kitchen was and listened to the two women talk through an open screen door. "He seems like a nice man.” Rachael said. “But he is a lot younger than you.” “He is a nice man and he is young, but he is a very mature man with a good job. He will be a good father for Ria,” Layne spoke. “Still Layne, I don’t know.” “Rachael, Paul is a horrible, mean bastard and will be in prison until the day he dies.” Layne said. “Don’t you think I know what my son is,” Rachael replied in a stern, but not angry voice. Layne spoke again “It has been three years since I have been out and I have suffered for seven for something I had nothing to do with. I want my daughter back.” Rachael’s voice softened and she replied, “I know and I understand. You have suffered enough in this life. I will sign the papers next week. You are a good woman Layne, and I have lain awake many nights wishing things could have been different.” I walked back to the pond and Ria was right, the fish had quit biting. We walked back up to the farmhouse where Rachael and Ria cooked us a dinner of fried potatoes, pinto beans, and cornbread. After dinner Layne and I drove back to New Albany where we checked into a motel. Layne was too exhausted to speak.
Sunday, we drove back to Fort Wayne from New Albany. It was a pleasant drive, the brilliant October sun highlighting the color of the trees. We limited our conversation to chitchat about the land and seasons. The tension that had been there the day before was gone and Layne slept from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne and was sound asleep as we passed the prison, the home of her ex-husband. We reached Fort Wayne about 7:00 PM, exhausted, but still we made love and drifted off to sleep.
I awoke at dawn on Monday morning and found Layne’s place in the bed empty, as I expected. There was a note on the bureau in the hotel room along with the ring I had worn on Saturday. “Dear Kevin, Thank you. You really are a good man. I am sorry I had to use you this way, but I am ever thankful that you helped me. I hope you marry a beautiful and loving woman and have your own children. I wish you all the best. Layne.”
I dressed and walked outside. The sun had come up and was casting its beauty on another beautiful October day. It had frosted the night before and the hint of a long cold, lonely winter marred the beauty of the day just a bit. I walked to the cornfield behind the motel. The corn had long since been harvested and the only thing remaining was the withered stalks. I reached down and picked up a handful of the black dirt and let it run through my fingers. When I looked at my hand there were streaks of dirt left on my hand that wouldn’t rub off. I walked back to the motel room, but I didn’t wash my hands for a while.
© Kevin Burgess 08/11/2007