XOXO

By Katherine Gehan

At 3 am when I miss Pete most terribly, I feel my heart squeeze into a very small thing and then it just slips down, slides out of my rib-cage, and dissolves. The floodlights shining on the 12 x 40 billboard in our cornfield next to the farmhouse pester me through the bedroom curtains. It’s a blight on the property. Pete pushed for it, insisted on it, because we needed the extra money, and now it’s there and he’s gone. Currently the sign is for rent, and the management company’s phone number is up there, black numbers five feet tall against a white background. I used to nudge Pete in bed and whisper, “For a Good Time Call…”

I want to climb up there while the firebugs sizzle in the night and paste over it:

<Heart Vacancy>

The installation wrecks the bucolic scene of our modest property. It interrupts the charming view of our yellow, dilapidated, hundred-year old house snuggled in a grove of Ash and Gum, soft hills in the distance. But I can’t take it down now that there’s less money than before.

I’m renting out the fields to a neighboring farm because I don’t want to manage the corn and soy rotation. The garden, backside of the house, is producing a wealth of tomatoes and squash and I do set up my little stand at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in town.

Our last paid advertisement on the billboard was for a generic health cereal I never saw in the store. The sign was too fussy if you ask me—green and purple script over a close-up of what looked suspiciously like crushed pinecones. You can’t bark at people about being healthy. It never works—no matter how much fresh produce I offered him grown on his own damn farm, Pete subsisted on ham sandwiches on white bread with a side of Marlboros. He’s been dead two years now. After he fell off the mower and died on the spot of a heart attack, the image of that fibrous cereal shredded and peeled from the sign all on its own.

“Every farmhouse should have a defibrillator,” muttered the EMT as he dutifully tried to revive Pete.

I didn’t think that was very helpful. But I did like when the sign management company sent their crew to pull down the rest of the cereal image, stripping away the mess. They covered up the stubborn parts with clean paper and the phone number. A hard reset. No one’s called.

Way up along I65 a billboard screams JESUS IS REAL in real big lettering as you’re driving north to Illinois. The HELL IS REAL message is equally as loud on the backside when you’re going the other way. I don’t think a farmer is making any money on that. There’s an adult store warehouse an exit or two away from there, and I wonder which came first: the smut or the sign.

It doesn’t really matter though because you should never trust what you read on signs. For example, I might put one up that says:

<XOXO: We Are Fragile In a Terrible World>

even though I know that if you’re still here, you’re strong as thistle.

For a little while before he died Pete argued with me about going digital.

“Relentless messaging is where the real money is,” he said.

“No way,” I told him. “Too distracting to drivers.”

I didn’t like the idea of a bordello of light flashing into our bedroom. That’s not worth $500. Pete died before he could win that argument.

I think about our bedroom a lot actually. Men at the Farmer’s Market make me uncomfortable, though. I don’t understand the signals or if anyone is ever sending me any. Recently I’ve been pushing the boundaries of size, experimenting with white chocolate chips and pretzels, beer and avocado dip. Chips, too. It’s no kind of marketing plan for a fruit and vegetable peddler to be so doughy, to have fingertips marked with fake orange cheese dust. It began as an unconscious return to the asexuality of my teenage years—binge-watching terrible shows on television with my hand deep in a jellybean jar. Now it’s a deliberate middle-finger to middle-age, to all that the magazines that tell me I should be enjoying: A meaningful relationship! The best sex of my life!

But I am swimming again at the community pool in the mornings. The first thing I do is take a deep breath, submerge myself, and push off the wall to kick furiously until I reach the other side. Halfway there, my lungs are uncomfortably compressed and I can taste my agony. I tell myself, I am more than this.

And each Saturday I force myself to set up the market tent, to mark the crate overflowing with green beans and squash. Young couples scrutinize the tomatoes, weigh them in their palms like small worlds to which they might assign value, like they are buying a future. I want to shake them by the shoulders: You can’t imagine what’s to come. The girls want bundles of sunflowers, and I tie the stalks with little ribbons, make them pretty, then I add the ends of the grosgrain to the tip of my graying braid, talismans against certain decrepitude, for all of us.

 

 

 

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Pennsylvania is close to Katherine Gehan’s heart; her father was born in Lancaster and she went to college outside of Philadelphia, where her family owned a brewery long ago. Her writing has appeared online in magazines such as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Literary Mama, WhiskeyPaper, Luna Luna Magazine, The Stockholm Review, Sundog Lit, and Pithead Chapel and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions, and Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net Anthology. Find her at www.kategehan.wordpress.com or @StateofKate.

Art: “Bright Land of Ours” by Jenny Germann

Jenny Germann’s work is based on locations that hold significance in her life. She uses landscapes to convey experiences, often drawing influence from her travels and daily observations. 
She uses a blend of pyrography (woodburning) and painting to express her vision. Pyrography lends a controlled and physically satisfying aspect to the work, whereas the painting is experimental and evocative. She mixes the mediums as a way to communicate her perspective, using making as a form of introspection, and personal expression.

 
Born in Kansas, Jenny lives and works in Lancaster, PA.  She earned her BFA from the University of Kansas and is getting her MS from Eastern University.  She is married to furniture designer and cabinetmaker Evan Germann and together, they have two (adorable) dogs.