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Intractable Me

Like so many disputes through the ages, it all goes back to a tractor; specifically, a Farmall H. It was a gift from my father-in-law to his son. We lived on 80 acres of sand, and though Mark was never going to grow a crop of food to sell, he did aspire to a mighty big vegetable garden. He hadn’t let go of the idea of building a trout farm, but had long since given up on being the first pot-smoking president. By then I’d given the okay to raising goslings, and shortly thereafter, insisted they had to die. Having started their days in the nursery, the geese were forever trying to get back into our earth-bermed house, raiding the deck and pecking out all the window screens, me defending my infant son from their squawking advances. “Keep the geese away from the baby,” my African missionary/country doctor warned. After Mark acquiesced, I savored goose-liver pate. Some of us are not meant to be back-to-the-landers, as much as we appreciate sustainable farming.

Mark was an incorrigible alcoholic. By the time we had two little kids, I’d recovered from my own problems enough to give Mark the boot. He went off to the first or maybe the fifth of endless rounds of rehab. His father held the mortgage on our property, with something called a “quit-claim deed” that said if we ever got more than three months behind on payments, he could seize the property and kick us out. I had no doubt he would do this. Tom was quite clear. One of his favorite bromides was “You don’t do anything for your kids by giving them anything.” He was hell-bent on building our characters, at 9% interest. I was a freelance writer. My husband worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home, until he got laid off. You do the math.

After my divorce from Mark, Tom was rather insistent about me delivering the kids for visits at particular times and places. I had qualms, based on more than a decade of hearing Mark’s recollection of certain childhood events. I refused Tom’s request to put my 4-year-old on a plane alone to visit Tom in Florida, for instance. When Tom became insistent and badgering, I asked him not to call me for a while. I needed some space, I explained, what with the father of my children in rehab. Plus I was broke, receiving no child support, and two and a half months behind on the mortgage payments.

And there was the tractor. Mark had no room for it at the halfway house. When Tom came to pick up Mark’s things, he said the tractor was mine to deal with, chuckling almost warmly as he said it. As the months passed, I realized that as much as I like growing tomatoes, I’d never make good use of a tractor. I called a local auction company. They sold it. I paid Tom three months’ worth of mortgage payments and was able to stay in my home with my children. Sam was barely 5. Grace was 3.

But it was like Tom had some kind of radar. He was pissed about the kids, and my unwillingness to serve them up on a silver platter. Even though I told him I didn’t want any contact, he had his sister-in-law call on his behalf. He wanted to borrow the tractor, she said.

“Borrow it? That’s crazy." That would mean transporting it several hundred miles. It didn’t make sense. I saw no option but to confess to the sister-in-law that I’d sold the tractor in order to pay Tom the mortgage.

Soon after, I sold the house. Now Wells Fargo would be my mortgage holder instead of my ex-father-in-law. I settled into a split-entry in the suburb where I was raised. It’s nothing special except I have my own little garden where I grow tomatoes and basil, and my beloved turtle spends his summers. I’m married to a kind man who came with the turtle. The children are mostly happy.

But back to the farm equipment. Not long after settling in, I was served with a small-claims lawsuit over the tractor. Mark was the plaintiff, but I knew Tom was behind it. I was already embroiled in a grandparent-visitation lawsuit with Tom, and knew that Mark didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to fight over an antique tractor. Before the hearing, I got a letter from one of those court-TV shows, asking if I was willing to have my dispute settled on TV, in something like the Peoples’ Court. Lord, it was tempting, but I knew they would depict us as some dilapidated Hee-Haw couple, only Mark wouldn’t show up and it would only be me and my sad little defense for selling the Farmall. I didn’t respond.

Instead, I prepared my tractor-suit arguments on index cards, spelling it out in a logical sequence, quietly admonishing myself for not being one of those geeks on the high-school debate team. I already had some courtroom experience, thanks to Tom's lawsuit over visitation. Of course, Mark didn’t show up. So it was me and Tom, but only in spirit (which he lacks), fighting over a Farmall H that neither of us would ever put to proper use, on the land that would grow neither trout nor tomatoes, land that wasn’t mine or his, with only the ghosts of geese squawking on the deck, pecking out screens, my babies long-since removed to higher ground, to the unassuming suburb of my intractable youth, where geese fear us, not the other way around.
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