Marvin Torgerson wasn’t the sort to pickup hitchhikers but he was in a good mood today. He’d just picked up his 1946 McCormick Model W-9 tractor from the body shop in Dilworth and was thoroughly satisfied with its new paint job.
A man and woman hu
nkered underneath the exit crossover on Interstate 94 just west of Fargo. Marvin pulled his pickup and trailer onto the shoulder of the Interstate.
It was a fine fall day. The couple put their gear in the back of the truck and the woman, pretty smile and clean white teeth, shook Marvin’s hand and stepped up and slid over next to Marvin making room for the man, who Marvin assumed correctly was her husband.
“That’s a beautiful tractor you have back there,” the woman said. Marvin thought she was putting him on. “What did a pretty young thing like her care about tractors,” he wondered.
“You must be proud of it,” she said with wonderful sincerity.
Marvin shrugged then said the tractor belonged to his late grandfather who farmed with the tractor in the 1940s.
“It’s beautiful,” the woman said. “It reminds me of that poem by William Carlos Williams. You know the one about the wheelbarrow.” Marvin had no idea what she was on about. “Didn’t the woman know the difference between a wheelbarrow and a tractor for crying out loud.”
“Honey, how does it go?” Her husband was pale and his hands were white and thin and the black stubble on his very white face seemed unnatural and unseemly. Marvin thought the man looked very tired. “Honey, the William Carlos Williams poem you used to like so well, how does it go?” He shook his head without a shadow of expression on his face. He looked out the window not fixing his eyes on anyone thing.
“So much depends on, upon a red wheel barrow,” she said frustrated that she couldn’t recall the rest.
“Do you know it?” she asked Marvin so sweetly and genuinely that Marvin wished he did.
“I’m not much on poetry,” Marvin said.
“I just mean the color, the red color against the blue sky, it’s breathtaking, isn’t it? And a tractor is very much like a wheelbarrow. It’s solid, useful, strong like a tractor, you know what I mean?”
“Where you folks from?” Marvin asked.
“Detroit,” the woman said. Marvin fell in love with her honey-toned knees and her proper leather outdoors shoes and her very white socks that showed off her pretty, tan legs. “Just outside of Detroit, actually.”
“What brings you out her?”
“We’d always wanted to just up and take off, you know, hitch hike, and, so, when the opportunity presented itself we did it,” she said.
There were green combines in the fields finishing the wheat harvest.
“It’s lovely time of year,” the young woman said. “Don’t you think so, Honey? Isn’t it just wonderful, the colors, the cerulean skies?”
“It’s flat. It’s nondescript and forgettable,” he said. “I don’t get it.”
“Imagine it painted by Vermeer,” she said.
“Not even Vermeer could help this landscape.”
“Darling, you’re not being fair. Please be polite.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Marvin said. “I hear that all the time. I don’t care. I don’t need people to like North Dakota to love it myself. But I think it’s beautiful. No kidding.”
“I do too. It’s splendid,” the woman said and Marvin believed her.
“I was telling this professor from the university in Fargo about how I really liked North Dakota and he said I was a statist, which is someone who really loves his state, I guess,” Marvin said.
“Are you sure he didn’t say sadist,” the man said, suddenly looking slightly cheerful.
“Stop it, dear. You’re not so clever.”
Passing the Wheatland-Chaffee exit the woman said, “Honey, look at that cloud. It looks like a sad crocodile, doesn’t it?”
“You’re being silly,” the man told her.
“I apologize for Jerome,” the young woman said. “He’s not himself.”
“Oh,” Marvin said. “What do you do out there?” Marvin asked leaning forward and speaking directly to the man who was picking at his scalp with his fingernails.
“I ran an art gallery.”
“We ran an art gallery,” his wife chimed in.
“Oh,” Marvin said.
“It’s gone now,” the man offered dismally.
“Oh,” Marvin said.
“Burned down,” he said.
“No kidding. How’d that happen?”
“My son burned it down.”
“Our son burned it down,” she said.
Marvin lifted his eyebrows and took a deep breath. The woman became still and quiet.
“What did he do that for?” Marvin asked.
“I don’t know,” the man said itching the back of his neck.
“We don’t know,” the young woman said. “We just needed to separate ourselves from the shock of it all. It’s terribly wearing on Jerome. You know, the why, why, why.”
“How old is the boy?” Marvin asked.
“Just 17,” the woman said. “He’s a sweet boy. Has always been a sweet boy but somehow he’s drifted away emotionally, you know what I mean?”
Marvin nodded affirmatively but he had no idea. To break the strain on the moment Marvin pointed out that there was good pie in Tower City at the café and suggested they stop — “my treat” he said.
The husband and wife both ordered apple pie and coffee and Marvin ordered his favorite — coconut cream pie. He marveled at the flaky texture of piecrust.
“Man, that hit the spot,” Marvin said pushing the plate away.
“It was wonderful,” the woman said. “I shall always remember it.”
When they walked out of the café an elderly couple was admiring Marvin’s bright red W-9. The warm sun was on their backs and the woman listened intently as Marvin talked about the tractor and farm memories.
“My dad used to pull a tree-bottom Case plow with it,” Marvin said. “That tractor made our living.”
The air was soft and warm and a breeze fluttered across the back of the woman’s neck and it felt to her like the caress of an angel’s hand. An overwhelming sense of stillness and warmth came over her. Her mind was swaddled in a rare contentment and if she could have stood there forever she would have but she knew it was time to turn around and head back home and pick up the pieces of their life.
The elderly couple were on their way to Minneapolis to visit their son and grandchildren and they accepted the couple as passengers.
“They’re good folks,” Marvin vouched.
Before the woman got into the car she turned and kissed Marvin on the cheek. Those small, soft, cool lips. Marvin could think of nothing else the rest of the day.