Leni Reichmann found out about the death of her grandparents approximately one hour after celebrating the signing of a one-year lease for an apartment that, while in a horrible part of town, was near the hospital, which her boyfriend assured her would mean that he would see her more often as he could come home to sleep instead of crashing in the residents’ dorm rooms. How fitting that they had then celebrated the deal with sex.“Her mother’s voice came over the line, “Listen, I’ve got some bad news.”
Throughout the conversation, Leni stood absolutely still, the phone in one hand, the bed sheet wrapped around her in the other. Now and then she would murmur an indistinct response, but for the most part she remained silent, staring straight ahead at Paul’s med school diploma, which was framed in recently-polished glass and hanging on the opposite wall. She could see her reflection in it. The paper behind the glass made her lips look blue. She shivered.
“What is it?” Paul asked when she hung up the phone.
“My grandparents died,” she answered, still staring across the room at her blue lips.
“Both of them?”
“Yeah. I guess my grandpa died in his sleep and when my grandma found him in the morning she shot herself with his gun.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah, so,” Leni finally took her eyes from the wall and began putting her clothes back on. “I’m leaving in the morning. I have to go back to Kansas for the funeral.”
Paul sighed, rolled out of bed, and began dressing as well “Man, that is terrible, Leni. Was she the grandma you were named after?”
“Yeah.” She didn’t look at him when she answered; she hadn’t looked at him since what they’d done.
“Can I ask you something?”
“What?” She knelt beside the bed, looking for her socks.
“Where did she shoot herself?”
Leni stopped searching for a moment and sighed. She had known he would ask her that. “In her head. She put the pistol in her mouth.”
“Oh…well – that is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to die, you know. If it’s any consolation.”
“There they are.” Leni grabbed her socks, put on her shoes, and finally turned to face him. Even though he was only half-dressed, he still looked like a doctor; he always did. It wasn’t what he wore as much as it was the way he looked at her, especially now – his eyes narrowed and focused, inquisitive but dead calm. When he looked at her like that she felt like his patient, like she was laid out on an operating table, anxiously awaiting anesthesia. “I’ll call you when I get there,” she said, knowing that she wouldn’t, and hurried out the door.
Even as she crossed the Missouri border, Leni could feel the cold shadow of Chicago on her skin. For the first time in her life, she was eager to be in Kansas in the summertime. She had always felt uneasy growing up on the plains. Living on land so flat and wide that it seems to go on forever in every direction could be overwhelming, like seeing the ocean for the first time. The openness and enormity of it all made Leni feel uncomfortable and exposed, and right after high school she left her small town for the nearest big, crowded city she could find.
Chicago was comfortable at first, and so was Paul, but as the years began to slip away so, it seemed, did Leni’s chances of happiness. By the time she received her third award for a business story in the Chicago Sun Times, most recently for her objective and unbiased coverage of a local waste removal scandal, the city seemed more like a giant test-tube than the nurturing sanctum she had sought. Every day Chicago’s walls pushed closer and every day Paul took up more of the thinning air between them, until the two growing pressures finally culminated, like a tornado, an hour before her mother’s phone call.
The sun was setting when Leni reached her grandparents’ farm, where her parents were staying for the time being and where she would be staying as well. The vast fields of wheat surrounding the house were motionless in the stagnant air. The stalks were tall – ready for harvest – and glowing red and orange like fire in the dying light.
“Leni!” her mother called from the porch. “I’m so glad you made it here safely.”
Inside, Leni’s father was buried in a stack of papers. His eyes were bloodshot from tears not cried and lack of sleep, and he barely said “hello” when she came in. Though he had never been demonstrative with either of his parents, their deaths, obviously, had touched him in a way Leni had never expected. As she watched him, hunched over the desk, working with silent diligence, she realized how very much like his father he was – a reserved, hard-working man of the earth who devoted himself to the art of drawing nourishment from a seemingly dead and barren land, making his living by making things grow. Although he rarely spoke about life, her father’s existence was built on creating and sustaining it, which perhaps was the reason that death affected him so profoundly. His job was to bring the living up and out of the earth, not to put the dead back down inside it.
“I’ll help you take your things upstairs,” her mother said, seizing Leni’s only suitcase and ascending the narrow staircase.
“How’s Dad doing?”
“Oh, he’ll be okay. We were ready for Grandpa to go – he’d been sick for so long – but Grandma Lenore has been a little harder to deal with. I’m just glad no one in the family is Catholic. You remember when Jessie King killed herself. Her whole family was just devastated and that priest kept going on and on about how she was going straight to hell.”
Everyone in Leni’s family was German Lutheran, which meant that while all forms of pleasure were “frivolous” and therefore forbidden, shooting yourself in the head was okay, provided you had good cause. Grandpa Albert and Grandma Lenore brought this philosophy with them when they immigrated to America and, like their language, never let it go. They both led strict lives and expected others to do the same, but Grandpa was never as severe as Grandma – no one was.
Grandma Lenore had always lacked Grandpa Albert’s connection to the earth. She had worked with her father as a shopkeeper in Germany and had agreed to leave for America with her husband so that they could be shopkeepers in Kansas. They ran their own business for a few years, selling canned goods to the local farmers, until the Dust Bowl came along and many of the surrounding families were forced to sell their land – that was when Grandpa bought the farm and Grandma’s great depression began. She hated the dirt, heat, and sweat that accompanied both working and living on a farm, and she missed the clean, comfortable simplicity of stacking one can on top of another. Soon her tidy, red and white-checked kitchen became the only place she felt comfortable and she rarely left it, never once venturing out into the fields. Eventually, she stopped leaving the house altogether and became what Paul would have diagnosed as “agoraphobic.”
Growing up, Leni’s secret nickname for Grandma Lenore had been “The Untouchable.” Her face was as stiff and grey as a scowling, stone statue. She never flinched, never let anyone touch her, and within moments of entering a room, could fill it with nothing but awkward silence and the incessant grinding of her teeth. When she did speak, however, it was almost always in anger and directed towards Grandpa, who was too mild a man to ever speak harshly and too industrious a farmer to pay much heed when others did. He and the rest of the family tolerated Grandma Lenore, but Leni never ceased to be afraid of her and hated sharing her name.
That evening, during supper, Grandma Lenore’s presence filled the house and seemed to suck the air from the room and the taste from the food on the table. Chewing quietly on the badly-burned casserole that a woman from the church had brought over, Leni and her parents sat silent and still, staring straight ahead into nothingness. It was then that Leni truly realized she was home.
The funeral the next day was a blur. Afterwards, Leni could only remember walking down the center aisle of the church with her parents right before the service. Everyone else was already seated and watching them as they moved. Leni remembered thinking that it felt like a twisted wedding. Instead of walking down the aisle to a husband she was walking down the aisle to the dead. She wondered why funerals were done this way, as if the surviving family members were being wedded to the corpse. At that moment, she felt as dead as her grandparents, and was conscious of nothing for the rest of the day.
That night, however, Leni had a dream, and when she awoke she could remember every detail.
She was standing naked in a field of red wheat – the field to the east of her grandparent’s house that she had passed on her way in from Chicago – but she didn’t feel cold or realize she was naked until she saw Paul a few feet away. He was wearing a lab coat, had a stethoscope around his neck, and was examining a shadowy figure on the operating table in front of him. Leni stepped closer and realized that the patient was her grandmother, stiff and still as she had always been, and fully clothed in a long, black dress. She slowly turned her stone face to Leni and spoke.
“Ich war schon tot.”
Although she remembered some German, Leni could not process the words. She tried to cry out that she didn’t understand, but no sound came from her throat.
“Ich war schon tot, Leni,” her grandmother said again, raising her hand to reveal a small, black gun. “Ich war schon tot.”
As she watched her grandmother place the gun in her mouth, Leni suddenly understood her words. The shot cracked through the field like lightening and a million crows sprang up out of the wheat, screeching like bats as they flew away. Paul bent over the lifeless body, placed his stethoscope over her heart and, after a moment, gave a confirming nod and walked away.
Leni looked down at her own body and saw that she was no longer naked. Instead, she was wearing her grandmother’s black dress. When she tried to tear it off, she realized that she couldn’t move. Her entire body had turned to stone.
She awoke gasping for breath. Sweating all over but shivering with cold, she clutched her chest, feeling for her heart. It was pounding. Her grandmother’s words resounded in her ears: “I was already dead.”
“But I’m not,” Leni said out loud, surprised by the sound of her own voice. As she moved her hands from her chest to her neck, her pulse began to quicken and her skin grew warm beneath her fingers.
She quickly glanced at the clock on the table beside her. It was almost midnight, and hopefully not too late.
“Hello?” Paul’s voice sounded caffeinated. He was probably on his way to evening rounds.
“Hey, it’s Leni.”
“Oh, hey – how are you? How was the funeral?”
“Paul, I’m not coming back to Chicago.”
“Well, except to get my things from the office and move out of my apartment, of course.”
“Hold on a minute – you’re just – leaving?”
“No, I’ve already left. So, obviously, things aren’t going to work out between us.”
“Leni, you aren’t making any sense. What happened? Do you feel bad or something because you weren’t there when your grandparents died?”
“No. This is just where I want to be right now.”
“Is this about us not getting married yet?”
“That’s not the reason,” she began, but Paul interrupted.
“Well then–” his voice took on that familiar, diagnosing timber.
“I’m sorry, Paul. Goodbye.” Leni quickly hung up. After a moment, she took in a long, satisfying breath. She didn’t know exactly what she would do now, but she did know that she couldn’t write dispassionate articles about other people’s lives anymore. She wanted to face her own existence and live out her own stories. She also knew that she didn’t feel like going back to bed – not in that bed, not in that house. She needed to move, to stretch, to be a part of, instead of apart from the very real business of being alive.
Outside there was a breeze, but it was warm. As Leni began walking through the tall, thick wheat, she could feel every single stalk that scratched against her legs. She knew that tomorrow the harvest would begin. Workers would arrive early in the morning to work their twelve-hour days, driving machines to thresh the wheat and separate the grain from the stalks. Leni’s mother would prepare generous meals and countless glasses of lemonade, and the workers would bring high-spirited laughter and the familiar scents of fresh air and hard work with them into the house. When the harvest was over and nothing remained but bare and vacant land, Leni and her mother would grind flour, bake bread, and in the morning the planting would begin and the cycle would continue, eventually resulting, once again, in an empty, harvested plain.
When Leni approached a small area of flattened wheat, an indication that deer had used the spot for bedding down on a previous night, she stopped walking and lowered herself to the soft, brown earth. Lying peacefully on her back, she looked up past the towering stalks and gazed at the full moon above. The sky was as vast and endless as the land around her, but she was no longer afraid. She smiled, closed her eyes, and slept. Tomorrow would be a busy day.