Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Price of Corn

“They say the eggs is good here.” Wardell stood at the table’s end looking at the couple seated in a window booth, their menus temporarily forgotten in the heat of a muted argument. All around them Lorna’s Big L sang with the normal early morning clatter of dishes and the jangle of dropped silverware. The see-through window into the kitchen framed an overloaded waitress complaining about her order of biscuits and gravy being late, while the jukebox crooned on about a rhinestone cowboy.

“Are you our waiter?” Momentarily confused, the woman looked blankly at Wardell and picked up a menu.

Ignoring her question Wardell raised his eyes to the sight of cars and trucks passing on the big highway outside. “I reckon most of them folks are headed up to Wichita. Y’all just passing through? I live up here a ways at the Bannerman Home, but I come down here for breakfast two, three times a week. It’s my wife’s place. I can’t think of her name right now, but she can cook up a good plate of breakfast. You’d be right pleased with an order of them eggs and sausage.”

They sat frozen, looking up at Wardell, their mouths parked open and round like bottle tops, unsure whether to order eggs and sausage, ask for a few more minutes or get up and leave.

Lorna suddenly appeared at Wardell’s shoulder, took hold of her husband’s hand and smiled at the seated couple. “I hope Wardell hadn’t been frazzling you folks. Let me get you some coffee and one of the girls to get your order. Wardell, why don’t you come on over to the counter and sit by me.”

They left the man and woman, moving back to the counter where Wardell sat meekly on a stool by the register. “You didn’t eat much of that eggs and toast Betty Ann made for you, Wardell. You want a piece of pie?”

“No, I’m awright. Not too hungry I guess. I thought about when I was walking down here to have me a plate of fried chicken at the place on the way, but they wadn’t open. Then I saw Charlie and Rita sittin’ up there in the funeral home.”

“Now Wardell, you know Rita’s off to school in Tulsa and Charlie’s down at his mother’s house.”

“I thought I saw ’em sittin’ up there.”

“I called Mr Holden and he’s going to drive down here to pick you up and carry you back to Bannerman.”

“Awright, then.”

Wardell had been living at the Bannerman Home for two years. That happened about eighteen months after he suffered a stroke. The stroke hadn’t affected him severely in any physical way, apart from some slowness about his movements after he came out of the hospital. This was nothing to compare with the damage to his mind. His memory was now scattered and his actions had become unpredictable. It eventually reached a point where he disappeared from the house one day, Lorna looking everywhere before finding him sitting at Olney’s gas station four miles away drinking Dr Peppers and smoking cigarettes. He never in his life smoked before the stroke. The next time it happened she found him sitting by an irrigation canal shucking an armload of corn he had picked from the acres of cornfields stretched out behind him.

There came a time when his wife could no longer put off going back to work at the diner. It never had been the kind of place that could be left to a manager, and Lorna soon caught on to the problem of staying home to look after Wardell while the girls at the diner ran things. The business just wasn’t as good without her there.

Lorna and Wardell had grown children with lives of their own, all of them living off in other places. Just the two of them now, and they had to manage themselves. Lorna hired a lady to come stay with Wardell while she was at the diner, but that didn’t last long. Not long after Mrs Tarper came Wardell got out the house and jumped in Cedar Lake with all his clothes on. The woman had to wrestle him out of the lake, but not before he pulled her into the water with him. She couldn’t swim a stroke and quit that same day, figuring she’d better get out while she was still breathing.

It was then that Lorna began thinking about the Bannerman Home. Her Aunt Mitzi spent the last five years of her life there and seemed happy enough. Lorna visited many times and saw the place as clean, well looked after, and somehow or other not like a real nursing home. In his present state Wardell didn’t have any objections, maybe didn’t even realize a big difference.

Lorna was adding up a check when the telephone rang at the diner later. “Yeallo. Lorna’s Big L. This is Lorna.”

“Miz Lorna, this is Bertie Holden at Bannerman. I’m sorry but I can’t drive down there to pick up your husband. Old Mrs Pickens is having a fit about being driven up to Emporia to see her daughter and can’t stand to wait another minute. You reckon he can get back here by himself?”

Lorna told him not to worry about it, go on and take Mrs Pickens, that Wardell could walk back to Bannerman. “That was Mr Holden, Wardell. He can’t get here to pick you up. You wanna just walk on back by yourself?”


“You want something to eat ’fore you go? Kinda hot out there. I’m gonna give you a cup of Iced tea to take with you. Betty Ann’s making a pot roast today. I’ll bring you a plate for your dinner tonight.”

“Ask her to cook me up some corn.”

Lorna took her husband out to the sidewalk, gave him the iced tea and pointed him off in the direction of Bannerman. “You go straight on back now, Wardell. Don’t be stopping along the way.” She told herself she would call in half an hour to make sure he got there without turning off somewhere.

Two hours later the folks at Bannerman still hadn’t seen Wardell and Lorna was out driving around to see if she could find her husband. She went to the places familiar from his earlier wanderings, but was told at each one that Wardell had not been around. Little by little her worry started building up.

No one had seen him by six o’clock that evening. Police sent their only three patrol cars out onto the auxiliary farm roads running around and between the cornfields, but found nothing. Mr Holden, back from Emporia, drove up and down the streets of town, stopping at each corner to call out the lost man’s name. Neighbors, shop clerks, children—none of them had seen Wardell.

Lorna walked about the house, praying that Wardell was nearby, that he had made his way home looking for something or someone. She called Bannerman again. With no news, she rushed out to the car but turned back when she heard the telephone ring. Nothing. Betty Ann calling to say that he hadn’t shown up at the diner. Lorna threw down the telephone cursing Mrs Pickens.

It took a little time. They found Wardell two days later stretched out in the middle of a ten acre cornfield, lost, unable to find a way out, dead of dehydration.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America