After pledging themselves to each other, Jim and Cassandra face the challenge of telling her parents, but Cassandra must also end her relationship with another boyfriend.
Saying yes to Jim meant that I had to take care of some serious problems right away. First, my parents would raise a host of objections that I would have to counter. I had a choir trip and some important exams coming up the following month, so I wanted to put the inevitable confrontation behind me as soon as possible. My parents needed to meet Jim, invite him to dinner, just as his mom had done for me. Up to now, they hadn’t said anything more than hello to him and so didn’t really know him at all. His coming for me in a farm truck didn’t help either.
The second problem was my other boyfriend. Once I started dating Jim, always on Saturdays, I gradually reduced the other boys I saw to just one, Frankie Preston, whom I had started dating the summer before our senior year and continued to date off and on, mostly on Friday nights. Frankie was the son of the town’s best car salesman, and like his father, had a very assertive and persuasive personality. To Frankie, no was always just a temporary obstacle along the way to what he wanted. And I was one of the things he wanted. But I knew that he dated other girls as well. In fact, the school rumor mill linked him especially with Elena Cummings, the daughter of a wealthy banking family, one of our town’s oldest families, in fact. Conquering Elena would be a perfect fit for Frankie, satisfying both his competitive nature and his social ambitions, for Elena was a beautiful girl with many suitors and immediate access to lots of money.
If I had been more honest with myself, Frankie should have been the first boy I stopped seeing, but he wasn’t because he was the only one with whom I had been intimate. Other boys had tried, certainly, but only he succeeded. How I began having sex with him is, I suppose, an all too familiar story. Frankie’s advances were always accompanied by lavish flattery—praise for my face as he kissed me, praise for my breasts as he touched me, and claims that I was his favorite girl amid a torrent of love names in the backseat of his car or on a blanket that he stored in the trunk and would spread on the grass in one of our favorite secluded spots. But each time, after he encouraged me to extol his performance, I knew nothing was really different. He didn’t love me before, and he didn’t love me after he’d finished. He lied to me each time, even as I told him lies of my own.
For even though I recognized his deceit, it was still important to me that Frankie wanted me and would even risk his relationship with Elena to be with me. For my being with him meant that I was considered a popular girl, at least that’s what I thought at the time. After all, in our teen society, that’s how things worked: Through association, popularity became fungible. Besides, my parents thought Frankie was wonderful. They were always asking me about him, encouraged me to date him, and were perfectly satisfied with the half-truths I told them about him, especially my mom. Unlike Jim, they had made a point to meet Frankie, and when they did, he flattered them just as he did everyone else who could give him something he wanted.
But behind the guise of flattery was a very pompous, self-centered boy who continuously promoted his own inflated image with the same kind of exaggerations he used on other people, including me. His chosen sport was wrestling, and even though he rarely won a match, to hear him tell it, he was invincible. His losses were always due to some vague injury he claimed to be bravely concealing or his opponent’s cheating or a referee’s quick count. He posed proudly for the team’s championship pictures, taking credit as though he were the real reason for his teammates’ success instead of a burden they had to overcome to win state championships.
Even though I knew all of this about Frankie, I had no reference point for really judging just how dangerous he was for me, until I met Jim. But even then, I only came to this realization gradually. Frankie’s idea of planning for the future was choosing a spot for our Friday night trysts, and even doing that at the last minute, if at all. He would only share his decision with me on Friday afternoons after our last class. As late as the spring of our senior year, he still had no idea where or whether he would go to college or what he would study if he did go.
Moreover, I never realized the full extent to which he just used people until I saw his opposite in Jim, who, having to support his mother and sister, had little time or inclination for self-flattery. Seeing that, I learned just how considerate Jim was and how he managed his life, a life that had a very narrow margin for error. And with me, Jim didn’t just say that he loved me; he showed me that he did, much more so with his manner than with his words or with flowers or expensive gifts, things he couldn’t have afforded anyway. In contrast, Frankie and I simply used each other for our own individual pleasure and plastered over that ugly sore with the salve of teen innocence.
So, I knew that I had to drop Frankie. And I was sure he would not accept my rejection easily. I waited until Friday, since I rarely saw him until then anyway. He was waiting by my locker after the last class.
“Cassie girl, movie good for tonight? We can leave whenever the mood strikes and park out by the cemetery.”
“No, Frankie. I’m sorry, but from now on we have to stop seeing each other.”
“What! What are you talking about? We get along great. Surely it’s not that hick kid you’ve been seeing on Saturdays.”
For a moment I was surprised that Frankie had even bothered to find out about my relationship with Jim, but I knew I had to be wary because his next move would be to use flattery.
“Look, Cassie, we’re the best there is when we’re together. You know that. Why throw all that away for some no-name loser that nobody cares about? You’re too great a girl for somebody like that. Just look at you. Why, every guy in school would love to be with you tonight.”
“I’m giving up on us to be with Jim because he’s a wonderful person, and I really care about him. So, to be honest with him, I can’t see you anymore. It wouldn’t be right. I’m sorry if that hurts you, Frankie, but we have to stop.”
Then Frankie grabbed me by the arm forcefully and pulled me to a corner of the corridor where there weren’t so many other students nearby. “Now listen to me, Cassie,” he said in a lowered voice with a sinister undertone. “Do you want me to tell this Jimmy hick boy about all that I’ve done with you?”
I had seen Frankie jump from flattery to threats before, so I was ready for him.
“Go ahead and tell him anything you want. He already knows anyway,” I said, even though I certainly didn’t think that was true. “And while you’re at it, tell Elena Cummings about us as well, won’t you?. Or shall I do that for you? Then you’ll have to get out of line for dating her on Saturdays.”
Now that threat touched Frankie’s most vulnerable emotion. I had never so much as mentioned Elena’s name to him before, just as he had never mentioned Jim’s to me. His eyes widened and his face turned pale, but his anger quickly returned quickly. “You’ll be sorry,” he said menacingly and then, releasing my arm, stormed off. But I never was. I was only sorry that I had continued for months in a relationship that I now realized I should never have started to begin with. This confrontation did serve to show me that there was a third thing I had to do very soon—namely, tell Jim about Frankie before someone else did.
The next step, however, was to break the news to my parents. For this event I needed to wait until my dad was home since he usually had a moderating effect on my mother. That evening as we finished dinner, I began the conversation that I dreaded but knew must be started.
“Mom—Dad, I want to talk to you about something, something serious.”
Dad gave me a concerned look and said, “Really? What’s that, sweetheart?” Mom just stared at me in menacing silence.
“You know that I’ve been dating Jim Russell for some months now,” I said, folding my napkin slowly and placing on the table. “Just about the whole school year in fact. Well, he has asked me to consider marrying him when we’re finished with college. And I’ve agreed.”
Now Mom launched. “What! That’s ridiculous! That boy is no good for you! And why are you making a decision like that without talking to us first?”
“Because it’s my decision to make. I’m nineteen. No one else can—or should—make it for me. You need to meet Jim and get to know him and then you’ll understand why I said yes to him. Besides, I could have said yes and just not told you about it.”
But Mom was having none of this. “What about Frankie Preston? That’s the boy you should be saying yes to, if anyone.” (Thankfully, Mom didn’t understand the irony of her remarks about Frankie, and I wasn’t about to explain it to her!) “Frankie’s going places in life. This Jim has nothing and never will amount to anything. From what I’ve seen, he’s just a poor farm kid driving a beat-up truck! What can he possibly give you?”
“Marriage shouldn’t be about what a boy can give a girl financially, Mom. It should be about love and respect. And that’s exactly what I get from Jim but have never gotten from Frankie Preston. And so, I’ve already said goodbye to Frankie. Besides, as you’ll see, Jim’s already busy building our future success right now. Frankie hasn’t even started to think about his own future, let alone anybody else’s. Also, while I’m at it, you might as well know that Jim’s family is Catholic. They attend St. Benedict’s downtown.”
“So, you’ve already burned your bridges with Frankie Preston to marry someone who’s not even Protestant! What a foolish thing to do!” Mom persisted in berating me. “Well, I don’t support this! It’s far too soon for you to be making such a commitment anyway. If not Frankie Preston, then you could meet far more suitable boys in college.”
Dad finally joined the fray in his calmer manner. “Cassie, I agree that we should get to know your Jim better. That’s probably a shortcoming on our part anyway since you’ve been seeing him for so long. If you think he’s a good boy, we owe him a chance, even if he is Catholic.” Dad threw in this last part about religion with a bit of a smile, trying I suppose to placate Mom, for he didn’t care that much about religion himself—Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise. Then he added in a more serious tone, “But you shouldn’t have been so rash as to agree to marry him at this point.”
“Look, I appreciate you’re both being concerned for me,” I said, more calmly now, “and I thought about the same things that you’ve brought up before I said yes to him, but I’ve become positive that Jim’s the boy I want to marry, and I know that he wants me too. You just need to talk to him to see how practical and reasonable a person he is. And considerate too. Then, I think, you’ll understand why I said yes to him.”
Mom interrupted with “Getting married when you’re still a teenager doesn’t seem very practical and reasonable to me!”
“What we’re doing is not as rash as you think. In fact, we’re committing to each other now and telling you about it so that we can make better decisions about college and finances before we marry.”
Then Mom really lost all control. “I just hope you’re not going to tell us next that this boy has gotten you pregnant.” She was almost screaming at me now. “Is that it? Is that what’s really going on here, young lady?” she asked, ignoring everything I had just said.
“Helen, give Cassie a chance!” Dad said sharply.
“No, it’s not,” I responded angrily over Dad’s admonition, but did not mention the lengths I’d gone to avoid getting pregnant by Frankie Preston. “Not at all. Just listen,” I said. “I want you to invite Jim to have dinner with us. To have him come here and tell you about himself and his plans, which are now our plans. You even need to go see his farm sometime. This is a serious boy, a young man who works at something important now, not some vague dream off in the distant future. If you’ll both do that—and do it with an open mind—then I think you’ll understand why I said yes.”
“When would you like to invite him?” Dad asked calmly. “I really would like to talk with him.”
But Mom wasn’t giving up. “You expect me to fix dinner for a boy who is trying to take advantage of my daughter? And be nice to him while he’s doing such a thing?”
“I expect you to at least give him a fair chance,” I retorted. “By the way, we just ate lettuce from his farm. Did you realize that, Mom?”
“We did no such thing!” Mom shot back. “I bought that lettuce right here at our neighborhood grocery store.”
“Yes, but the grocer’s alliance bought it from Jim.” I stomped off to the kitchen and quickly returned with the lettuce wrapper. “Look here on the label, look what it says, ‘Locally Grown—Locust Hill, WV.’” I jabbed at the label vigorously. “That’s Jim’s lettuce. I saw it growing on his farm just last Saturday. And if you don’t want to prepare dinner for him, then I’ll gladly do it.”
Finally, Dad intervened again. “We can at least host the boy and listen to him, Helen. If Cassie thinks so much of him, as she obviously does, then both you and I owe the two of them that much. Next Friday then, Cassie?”
“Thanks, Dad, but Saturday would be better for Jim, if that’s okay for you guys. He has to catch up on his farm chores on Friday evenings after being in school all day.”
“Okay, Saturday it is. And your mom will cook. Won’t you, Helen?” Dad said firmly staring at Mom. She just glared back at him and said nothing.
I also broke the news about the engagement in a phone call to my brother Eric, who was already at WVU, a junior majoring in business. Big brother Eric had always been a support for me, so I wasn’t surprised at his response.
“Well, Sis, I think it’s great that you’ve met someone you’re so sure of. I can’t wait to meet this Jim myself. He sounds to me like a big improvement over the other guys you’ve been seeing. From what you’re saying he seems at least to be able to think above his belt. That’s more than most nineteen-year-old guys do these days, especially some of the ones you’ve dated.”
“Thanks a lot for the compliment,” I said, larding my words with so much sarcasm that even a long-distance call couldn’t disguise it.
“Hey, I might even come home this summer just to meet your Jim. As for Mom, don’t give in to her. Sounds like you’re sure of this guy, so stick with him. Mom will always try to badger you out of anything you decide if it wasn’t her idea first. Besides, I always knew Frankie Preston was a jerk!”
Eric and Mom did not get along well, so once Eric left home for college, he stayed away as much as possible, working summers at various part-time jobs in Morgantown and coming home to visit for just a few days in the summer and at Christmas. And now that he had a girlfriend, he sometimes spent holidays with her family in western Maryland, which also did not please Mom. At the very least, my conversation with Eric made me feel better about my decision and gave me some extra confidence.
Still, I knew Mom would continue to be a problem. When she was younger and much better looking, she had apparently also been a much more pleasant person. But the pretty, happy young girl in our family photo albums had gained a lot of weight with her two pregnancies and never lost all of it, the blame for which she seemed to place on Eric and me, and when we weren’t around, on Dad. Now that Eric was gone most of the time and Dad spent extra-long hours at work, I mostly got the brunt of her angry moods.
Curiously, as she became more difficult to live with, she also became more devoutly Baptist. Dad, who was by nature a much quieter and calmer person than she, tolerated her outbursts more than he should have, at least that’s what I always thought. But in really important situations he would put his foot down to restore order. He worked late nearly every day at his job as a materials manager for a plant on the South Side and was constantly worried about losing his job since many of the area plants, including his own, were either laying off workers or in the process of closing down completely due to the work going overseas. As a result of the stress, I supposed he just didn’t want to deal with problems at home as well as with those at work, unless he just really had to. No doubt, too, he still loved her, remembering perhaps the pretty girl she was in those old photos before Eric and I came along.
Before Saturday came, another interesting thing occurred; Jim acquired a different truck, though not a new one by any means. Seems a neighbor who liked to do auto restorations made an offer for Jim’s antiquted Ford, and since Jim was having trouble getting parts to keep it repaired, he agreed to sell. Of course, he immediately had to apply the money toward another truck—a larger Ford pickup, a blue one this time, with the shifter on the steering column. Really modern! He was ecstatic about the truck’s larger size and greater reliability since he had been losing valuable time and money keeping the old one going.
So, with his newer truck and an upbeat mood, Jim came to dinner at my parents’ house. I had warned him again about my mother’s temper, but he still seemed unfazed and in fact said he was anxious to get to know both my mom and dad. Dad and I greeted him at the door, I with a discreet kiss on the cheek and Dad with a firm handshake. But Mom stayed in the kitchen, pretending that she was still busy with the spaghetti dinner, even though I knew that all she needed to do was put the pasta and sauce together, plunk the meatballs on top, and shake some grated parmesan and parsley flakes over it all.
As I looked at Jim standing beside my dad, I thought, how handsome he’d become, dressed this evening in a blue chambray shirt (an upgrade from his polo shirts), his freshly pressed khaki slacks, and his face so relaxed and happy. Tonight he was standing distinctly upright with his shoulders back, no trace of the sadness I had seen so many times before. I wanted to think that I had more to do with his changed demeanor than his blue Ford truck. But since Jim was a farmer and a very practical boy, I couldn’t be sure.
What I did know was that my farmer had a vision. Jim planned to do a lot more than just keep his farm going. He had told me about his hope to buy more land to grow more crops to make more money in order to buy more still land to grow still more crops to make still more money. Not only would this plan build our success, but he also said, he hoped that it would help keep Locust Hill the rural community it had always been, for he feared encroachment of residential developments into rural areas, a phenomenon that was becoming common in rural communities all across the whole country and had already begun as well in Locust Hill. And he had told me that tonight he would explain this vision to my parents as he had already explained it to me.
Mom finally appeared, colder than the iced tea she served. (Chianti to complement the spaghetti, of course, was out of the question; her Baptist hands would never touch it.) Jim pretended not to notice Mom’s icy manner, remaining restrained and polite while continuing to field probing questions from Dad, like a boxer blocking his opponent’s jabs. We sat and munched on a salad (more of Jim’s lettuce). Mom and I then retreated to the kitchen and returned with the plates of spaghetti. (The pasta sauce contained Jim’s mushrooms and maybe his garlic as well. It was still too early for his tomatoes.) Dad continued to dominate the conversation with questions about farming and comments about how hard and precarious the business world can be. I was beginning to worry that Jim had lost his nerve about explaining his plans, but apparently he was just waiting for Dad to ask the right question.
“Do you really think you can continue to make a living at farming, Jim? I mean long term, can you really?” Dad continued to jab away without giving Jim much of a chance to answer. “It’s always been a pretty tough way to live, especially in this state,” Dad said as he twined some spaghetti with his fork. “I hear that most farmers in West Virginia have to work at some other job, like coal mining, just to make ends meet. Subsistence farming, isn’t that what it’s called?” Dad spoke with a somewhat haughty skepticism that I’m certain was based on some quick research he’d done into West Virginia farming. Also, I think this stream of questions, or at least the tone of it, was asked as much for Mom’s benefit as for his own.
“I do think I can continue to farm,” Jim replied tactfully once Dad was finally busy swirling spaghetti onto his fork. “In fact, I think there will be some great opportunities for farmers who are alert to new trends, such as intensive gardening and organic crops. Also, farmland here in this county should be available in the future at increasingly lower prices. With the plants around town closing up or at least cutting back, our population has already started to drop. I’m sure you’ve noticed that too.” Here was a new dimension in Jim; he seemed to be saying, “Beware, Mr. Clark, I too have fangs and claws.” For the first time I began to realize that Jim had toughness to him as well as resilience because he knew very well from our conversations that the remark he’d just made about the decline of the local plants would strike a nerve in my dad.
With a concerned look on his face, Dad sat back in his chair silently, swallowed his forkful of spaghetti, and then nodded in agreement. “Yes, I have noticed,” he said rather gravely. Jim had thus politely but pointedly touched on Dad’s greatest personal fear and put him on the defensive.
Then Jim continued. “Well, that means that properties will be for sale. Not always farm properties, of course, but the overall trend will be for property values across the county to fall. We’ve already seen a bit of that in Locust Hill. In fact, the only thing still propping them up is people leaving the city and moving out our way.”
“Okay, I agree about the real estate prices,” Dad said, recovering a bit, “but how will that help you?”
“We’ll expand our operations in three ways,” Jim replied, really hitting his stride now. “First, by use of intensive gardening techniques to get more production from the same land—I’ve already started that. Second, by acquiring and cultivating additional land; and third, by using greenhouses and cold frames to extend our growing seasons. I’m already using some cold frames. In fact, this lettuce was growing in one of them just three days ago.” Jim pointed to his salad bowl; Mom glared at it, then at me, but Jim went on. “Some people are even starting to talk about designing special buildings in which crops can be grown year-round in a controlled environment with special lighting, protected from loss to insects and plant diseases. Plus, the crops that we grow organically will bring above market pricing as organic crops become more popular, and I believe they will. Growing organic should boost our profit margins a lot.”
Dad gave Jim a skeptical stare. “You really think you can pull off all of that by yourself?”
“No, not all at once, but over time we can. I’m certain that Cassie and I can do it. First, we’ll need to build a cash reserve to purchase land when it’s available and to build greenhouses. Then the additional crop sales will replenish the cash reserves to allow us to purchase more property and grow more crops, and so on. The good thing about farming is that people still need to eat, whether fresh or canned food, and most of them can’t or won’t grow their own food anymore.”
“So, you see yourself as having multiple farms, then, not just the one you’ve inherited? Is that it?” Dad asked.
“Absolutely. And another thing that will help is that most young people no longer seem to be interested in farming, not even my own cousins, who have told my Uncle Ed that they don’t want to keep up his dairy farm when he retires. He and Aunt Evelyn have two daughters. One is already married and moved away, and the other one is engaged and about to move as well. If they inherit Uncle Ed’s farm, as I assume they will, they’ll want to sell it to a real estate developer instead of working it.”
“And how does your Uncle Ed feel about that?”
“He’s disappointed and very much against the idea. He wants to see the property continue as a dairy farm. It’s been in our family and a home to dairy cows since the late 1880s. Also, Uncle Ed helped found the Locust Hill Farmers’ Cooperative through which he sells the milk from his farm. So, I’m positive that he wants to see the land farmed, not sold. And I’ve told him that I would work it for him when the time comes for him to retire—for a fee, of course. My cousins can share in the profits and so could have an income without doing any work at all. They’ll go for that idea, I’m sure.”
Dad leaned back again and rubbed his chin thoughtfully before saying, “I can see that you’ve put a lot of thought as well as work into farming, Jim. Still, this sounds awfully ambitious to me for someone who’s only nineteen. What are you doing to prepare for this future, other than asking Cassie to marry you and join in your plans?” Mom now sat upright, alert for Jim’s response to this question after having ignored his answers up to now, except for the one about the lettuce, while staring scornfully at the one remaining meatball now grown cold on her dinner plate.
“Well, first of all, I don’t plan to be nineteen forever,” Jim said with one of his sly smiles on display. “And I already have a contract to supply produce—mostly lettuce, potatoes, spinach, root crops, and mushrooms—to the local grocer’s alliance here in town. Your neighborhood has one of those stores close by here, I believe, probably where you bought this lettuce.” Mom winced; Jim ignored her. “Next, I’m going to expand on that contract to include summer crops such as cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, sweet corn, green beans, and squashes. The local grocers need that kind of fresh produce to compete with all the roadside produce stands that pop up around here every summer. But to go really far with this, I will need more land because I still have to supply my Uncle Ed with corn and hay, and those take up way too much of my thirty acres. I have to admit that I’ve already started cheating on him a little in order to have more room for the higher profit vegetables. But I can’t go too far. If he ends up having to buy fodder one of these day because I’ve run out, he won’t like that.”
Then Jim paused and his tone saddened a bit when he resumed, “What I have not been able to figure out just yet is how to get the degree in botany that I really want. I can go to the local WVU campus for two years and still work the farm, but that will only cover the typical required courses, nothing in botany itself. How to leave the farm for two years and still have income from it to support my mom and my sister is my big problem. Uncle Ed has enough to do to run his own farm, so I can’t expect him to do it for me.”
“Well, it seems like you’re stuck then,” Dad said with a somewhat satisfied tone.
“No, I’ll figure out something, I always do,” Jim quickly responded. “Obviously, a person doesn’t have to have a degree in botany to be a good farmer. Nobody I know in Locust Hill has a degree of any kind beyond a high school diploma; some of the older farmers don’t even have that. But the long-range challenge for us is to become a supplier to some of the regional or even national grocery chains since they are gradually replacing the local grocers. You can already see that coming. And to land a contract like that, I think I’ll need a proper college degree.”
“So, what about this ‘marrying Cassandra’ idea?” Mom finally chimed in after having finally given up on her tepid meatball. “Just how is this marriage supposed to happen?”
Now it was my turn. “When we graduate from college, that’s when; and just like other couples do it, that’s how. Except that in the meantime we can be working together to make these plans come true and so give ourselves a big head start on our marriage, which most other couples don’t do.”
When dinner and the interrogations were finally over, Dad took Jim into the backyard to show him our pathetic little city garden and get some free advice on how to improve it while Mom and I cleaned up the dishes. All that Mom said was, “Are you still sure about all these big dreams? I don’t see at all how they can work out. Pie in the sky stuff, if you ask me.”
I told her emphatically that I was sure and suggested that a life with Frankie was not the wonderful option she thought, although I was still careful not to go into specifics.
After putting away the dishes, I joined Dad and Jim in the backyard but found Dad alone. “Where’s Jim?” I asked.
“Oh, he went to get a soil test kit out of his truck,” Dad said with a satisfied voice. “He’s going to check the fertility and pH of my garden soil. You do have a fine young man there, Cassie, I have to admit it, I really believe you do. But he’s awfully ambitious. That’s all I’d worry about. Awfully ambitious.” Then Dad gave me a big hug and said, “But I really like him.”
Just then Jim reappeared. I smiled a smile of relief and thought, Frankie carries a blanket and condoms in his vehicle, but Jim—he has a soil test kit!
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)