Death on a farm is the sound of housework. While the men gather in an outbuilding to discuss the problem of harvest—what he's got planted where, how long it'll take, and with how many combines—the women materialize in the kitchen and clean. They know the house won't be cleaned for months, that the simple logic of dusting will seem absurd to those who've surrendered to time. So they scrub the oven, inside and out. They wash the dishes in the sink and dry them by hand and return them to the cupboards. If there are dishes already in the cupboards, they wash and dry those, too. They take out the trash, they straighten the cookbooks, they pull everything out of the refrigerator and Windex the shelves, fugitive tears swatted with a rag. They shake the rugs and sweep the floors, forcing the vacuum over the spot where dirt fell from his boots just four hours before—when he'd come in for lunch, hungry and vertical, before time broke—knowing it will help blur the fracture. Meanwhile, the family sits scattered in chairs, anchored to earth by the squeak of towels on glass.
A month shy of his sixtieth birthday, my father-in-law died in his Iowa hayfield. The women cleaned for two days. Eric and I, married nine months, planted ourselves in front of the TV and lost time. Too numb to change the channel, we watched episode after episode of the 1990s series Northern Exposure, in marathon rotation on TBS. We surfaced only for plates of neighbor-brought casserole when our stomachs told us to. Then we would sit and try not to look out the kitchen window, where a dozen staring cattle waited to be fed, and whatever direction you looked there were corn and bean plants you couldn't decide whether to love because he'd planted them or hate because they were green.
The funeral home had a lending library, a few Lysol-greased bookcases of meticulously arranged hardbacks and bibles, but I couldn't see how people who'd gone from with to without in a matter of minutes could make their fingers turn pages or push their eyes along neat, printed lines. Books, I decided, were for the gradually bereaved. Suddenlies had to lose themselves in something that didn't depend on their strength to keep doing it. Staring, for instance, at wallpaper, ceiling fans, television.