There was a farm off highway 32, just north of the road, that the Linwood High School cross-country team drove past every Tuesday and Thursday during the fall semester on their way to the six-mile course near Lake Archer.
The farm was just a two-story cabin with peeling white paint and a collapsing barn out back. The silo’d been stripped of its tiles and looked like nothing more than a fat concrete smoke stack, and a massive old cottonwood shaded a pond covered in lily-pads. Between the silo and the tree was a fallow field a half-acre square, full of junk. It was organized in haphazard rows, and varied from tin can sculpture and tire flower beds, to trunks of porcelain baby dolls and old rotary telephones.
A hand-painted plywood sign declared JACK’S FIELD OF BARGAINS.
Tom Vanderpoel sat in the backseat of his teammate Evan’s rusty Chevy, forehead pressed to the cool window, as they sped at least ten over the highway limit. He’d only been running cross country for a couple of weeks, having moved to Linwood with his mom after she and his dad divorced over the summer. Up front was Evan’s girlfriend and star of the women’s team, Mary Jo. Her feet were up on the dash as she hummed along with some emo singer-songwriter and Evan performed a monologue on the injustice of Mr. Summers, the U.S. history teacher’s, epically long final exams. Tom didn’t mind, since it kept him from having to talk back, and he was struggling with himself for thinking Evan in no way deserved Mary Jo.
When he saw the sign, he interrupted. “What kind of bargains?”
Mary Jo set her feet down into the well and twisted around. “Oh, Jack’s. My mom says her dad used to be friends with Jack Dalling, and he used to say you could find your destiny in his field.”
Evan snorted. “It’s junk.”
She narrowed her eyes dangerously at her boyfriend, and Tom said, “Pull over.”
There was a dirt turn off about fifty yards down, and Evan swerved as his wheels fell off the pavement. He cursed, but continued on. The car filled with the crunch of gravel as the wheels kicked up a solid cloud of dust as they backtracked. He pulled to the side, the square nose of his Chevy pushing at tall yellow grass. Tom and Mary Jo shoved their doors open immediately, spilling into the same grass. It scratched at Tom’s track pants and he considered the likelihood of ticks.
Mary Jo was in shorts, and squealed as she dashed to the tractor path where all the grass was flattened out. “Asshole!” she called back at Evan, who snickered as he stepped onto the safe gravel and came around the car to join them.
Crickets chirped and tiny winged bugs scattered around their heads, buffeted by the dry breeze. Overhead the sky was pristine blue, unbroken by clouds. As sorry as Tom usually was to have come here instead of going with his dad to Wisconsin, he had to admit at least to himself that this much sky was awesome, in that old sense of the word his Junior High English teacher had tried to get her kids to understand.
The three of them stopped at the junk field, near where a man sat in a beach chair. His face was tanned and cracked with wrinkles like a dried up riverbed, and an old John Deere baseball cap shaded his sharp blue eyes. “Hey there, you kids. You come to trade?”
“Trade?” Tom said.
The man stood up by pushing his hands against his knees. “I’m Jack Jr. Here we’ll trade money, but better than that is goods. You take something, you leave something behind, that’s where the magic is.” Jack Jr. gave an exaggerated wink.
Evan laughed, but Mary Jo smacked his arm. “Thanks, Jack Jr. We’ll take a look.” She grabbed Evan’s wrist and dragged him into the first row of the field.
Tom stood by, just watching the glint of sunlight across the lines of junk. He saw a hollowed out TV full of candles and a framed print of that famous Van Gogh night sky. There were metal boxes of costume jewelry and crystal wine glasses and unopened bottles of amber liquid – probably moonshine. Leather bags, footstools, dog dishes, a toilet, stained glass, brass lamps, a couple of violins… all kinds of random things. “What happens when it rains?” he asked.
“Everything gets wet.”
Startled at the new voice, Tom nearly stumbled in the matted grass. There was a younger man beside him, Tom’s own age, and Jack Jr. was at least fifteen feet off, headed back for the farmhouse.
“Sorry,” the new teen said. He held out his hand. “I’m Jack, Jack Jr.’s son.”
Tom shook Jack’s hand slowly. “Your dad is Junior?”
Jack laughed, and it was a thick sound, which wasn’t normally the kind of thing Tom noticed. It sort of wrapped around him though, and Tom smiled, too. Jack explained, “Granddad was Jack, Dad’s Jack Jr. and he didn’t know how to respond to anything else when I was born, so, it was back to just Jack for me.”
“Not very creative though, you gotta admit.” Tom shaded his eyes with his hand to study Jack, as Jack nodded his chin at the field.
“All our creativity goes into that.” He was in jeans and the kind of cowboy boots with the pointed toes, and an old t-shirt that read Jayhawk 1978 in faded blue letters. Tom supposed he was good-looking, especially with those same blue eyes as his dad. But what the hell was it like to grow up with this kind of junk field in your front yard?
Mary Jo came skipping out of the field with a can that shook with metal as she skidded to a stop. “Oh, hi.” The smile she put on was flirtatious enough Tom was sure he was right about Jack being good-looking.
“Hi, there. You want a ring?” Jack took the can from her.
She held out her hand, fingers splayed. A giant silver ring covered her forefinger from base to first knuckle. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“What do you have to trade?”
Evan tromped out behind her. “I only have about ten bucks with me.”
Jack cocked his head, ignoring Evan, eyes straight on Mary Jo. She sighed deep enough to lift her shoulders. “I’ve got these old cleats in the car, will that do?”
“Sure thing,” Jack drawled and Tom felt like there was something pinching between his shoulder blades. As Mary Jo ran back to the Chevy, Tom put his head back and stared up at the all-the-way-blue sky so he didn’t have to look at Jack.
He kept up his ignoring while Mary Jo made her trade, and Evan pointed out dismissively how the ring was just gonna turn her finger green.
They piled back into the Chevy, and as they left, Tom glanced out the window to see Jack lift a hand goodbye.
That night, Mary Jo called Tom, and the moment he picked up she said, “Tom do you know what? I was getting out of the car when Ev dropped me off and was leaning in to get my bag when he slammed the door right on my fingers – but that ring! It saved my whole hand! It’s bent just a little bit, and I felt that vibration all through my entire body and I just know if I hadn’t had that ring on all four fingers would be just in pieces! I’d never be able to write again or beat my brother on the X-box.”
“Wow,” was all Tom said.
“I know! And Evan just said how lucky I was, but it wasn’t just luck, I know it. It’s this ring. I’m going back tomorrow, and taking Casey and Delia, you want to come?”
Tom thought about Jack and that silent wave, and the pin-prick between his shoulder blades. “Yeah, sure. After school. I’ll drive.”
For a week Tom drove different people out to that farm, every day after school, and it wasn’t long before they were a whole caravan from the parking lot. Casey Parks traded a set of plastic bangles for a little dog statue exactly like her puppy who’s been hit by a car a few months back. David Sanderson found a baseball signed by his favorite player Tom had never heard of. Amanda Chopin took home a hand mirror just like one that had been her great-grandmother’s and Amanda shattered it when she was five. Every day at least one kid discovered something they’d never thought to find.
Tom tended to just stand and wait while the others scoured the Field of Bargains, and Jack stood beside him, talking a little bit, but mostly not.
It was always Jack there, too, or if Jack Jr. started out, as soon as the high school kids showed, father and son traded places for the duration of the teenager’s stay. On Monday afternoon, while he looked up at a bunch of haphazard clouds, Tom asked, “Your dad doesn’t want to be out here while there’s a bunch of kids around?”
Jack laughed his thick laugh and clapped an arm around Tom. “About twenty years ago, he was sitting out here next to the sign and my mom pulled over. She got out of that car and touched foot on the land and never left again. It’s how my grandma ended up here, too. So Dad says, ‘Jacko, get out there and see if any of those pretty girls takes a shine to the place.’”
“God.” Tom shook his head, and accidentally caught Jack’s look. Embarrassed for no good reason, he stepped away, then crouched as if he just wanted to stretch.
Crouching beside him, Jack said in a quiet, conspiratorial voice, “I’d rather somebody take a shine to me than to the place.”
Everyone who wanted to had the chance to stop, and the senior-class fad for Jack’s bargains passed by late October. They all told wild stories about it, and even Evan found, on his third trip through the rows, an old stuffed dragon with the initials E.B. sewn onto the left foot. He hadn’t seen it in ten years, and he wasn’t too proud to trade his watch for it.
It was only Tom who never traded anything.
For two weeks he stayed away, sinking down into the back seat when he rode with anybody out to Lake Archer for cross country, and on the occasion that he drove himself, Tom turned his music up until it shook the windshield and looked straight ahead.
But Mary Jo asked, out in Topeka at the regional cross country meet, what it was that Tom ever found in the rows of junk. “Nothing,” he said, and she looked at him for so long he promised to head back out there.
The afternoon he showed up was gray enough to make all the prairie grass as yellow as egg yolk. The massive old cottonwood had spilled its leaves into the bargain field, and the pond was stiller than stone. Jack sat in the beach chair, slouched down and reading a thick paperback, but he popped up the moment he saw Tom get out of his mom’s Toyota.
“Tom!” Jack strode to meet him, but Tom nodded without smiling and said, “I just wanted to look for myself.”
Frowning, Jack backed out of the way and watched as Tom escaped into the field. For twenty minutes Tom paced along the rows, not really looking at the radios and folding chairs, the brooms and teacups and silk flowers. When he’d moved too quickly through the last row, he hurried out and said, “I’m late, sorry,” and got back into the car, driving off without another word.
He went back, though. For days after, Tom felt guilt gnawing at his backbone for being rude, and every time he closed his eyes he saw Jack in those jeans and cowboy boots, in a tight t-shirt, covered now that it was cold with a flannel jacket.
He went back and walked the rows, picking up a tangle of beads or a bright red Kitchen-aid mixer. Then he’d walk out empty-handed and Jack would ask, “Did you find anything?”
“Not today,” Tom would reply, watching Jack’s face for some sign the other boy knew what he was feeling.
The last day of school before winter break, Tom almost couldn’t get the little Toyota onto the gravel road because of the thin layer of snow. The sky was brilliant and the sun low enough in the west to make the ice shine. He tromped through the frozen grass in scuffed old combat boots, his fingers cracking in the cold and his breath surrounding his head with thin mist. The limbs of the old cottonwood creaked in the wind, and when Tom saw the field of bargains it was like the North Pole’s own landfill, with everything covered in a thin sheet of ice and perfect white snow.
There was Jack, standing at the end of a trail of footprints, in gloves and a long duster like he’d just come off some cowboy movie set. “Tom! I didn’t think you’d come.”
“I’m not coming back,” Tom said. Every word was visible in the frigid air, and his voice seemed to hang there just as long.
Jack didn’t say anything for a long moment, and Tom noticed how ice pellets clung to the ends of Jack’s shaggy hair like he’d been waiting all day while it snowed.
Finally, Jack sighed. The hot air make him look like a dragon about to breathe fire, but his expression wasn’t so fierce. “Why not?”
“I don’t have anything to trade for what I want.”
“What do you want?”
Tom dug a fist into his stomach as if he could hold in everything just with one hand. He didn’t say anything, but tilted his head back to look at the sky. But he squeezed his eyes closed.
Then Jack’s bare hands were on his face, pulling his head down again. Up this close, there were flecks of gray in those sharp blue eyes, just like tiny little clouds or icicles or maybe fragments of a mirror. “Tom,” Jack said. “I’m not sure you understand how trading works.”
That made Tom smile, and then laugh, and then before he could change his mind, he leaned his cheek ever-so-slightly into Jack’s palm.
When Jack kissed him, Tom kissed back, and understood.
Author’s Note: about 5 months ago I was driving along highway 32 outside my town and noticed a hand-painted sign that said, “Jack’s Field of Bargains,” but there was nothing there except for a tree and an empty meadow. It made me unaccountably sad. I let the idea steep for a while, knowing it would be a story some day. Voila!