I knew I had taken a wrong turn after the last rush of road signs. The realization began to slide down from my head into my stomach as I peered about me. I saw nothing but rolling green hills, trees in full foliage, and a few farms dotting the distance. Pure country. Nothing that I considered civilization in sight — no motel, no drugstore, no diner, not even a gas station. I checked the fuel gauge. The red needle was making its home at “E.” Irritated, I looked around for a farmhouse where I could inquire directions to the nearest gas station, where, I told myself, I would buy a map.
I spotted a graying wood sign that said, “Joe’s Dairy Farm.” The letters were roughly carved and painted in pink. A pink arrow pointed to my right through a dense stand of trees. I debated with myself for a minute but I desperately needed gas so I made the turn off the highway.
The road wound erratically through the countryside. The farther I drove, the more ridiculous the situation seemed and the more annoyed I became. I began to curse Joe for the road that meandered for no obvious reason. So far I hadn’t seen anything in the landscape that had to be avoided or preserved – no reason for the excessive application of asphalt. I pushed that thought aside and began to worry about running out of gas before I found Joe.
The deeper I drove into the landscape, the brighter the colors became. The lush greens of the trees and the pastures seemed saturated, like scenes from a colorized movie.
At last, buildings appeared, signs of human life. As I got closer I noticed most of the buildings were brightly colored barns bearing signs that indicated their functions. They sat in a neat row facing the road in an immaculately manicured green field. The first was a yellow barn that was labeled “horse house,” next to it, a blue barn named, “pig palace” and after that, a pink one called “cow cottage.” I chuckled. Joe apparently had a wacky sense of humor.
The paved road suddenly ended and I was bumping along gravel until it too ended at the bottom of a hill. At the top sat an orange farmhouse, bright and cheery, and a welcome sight.
I cut the engine and began trudging up the hill, wondering at the silence. No cows mooing, no hens cackling, no tractors mowing. I sniffed the air. Not the faintest trace of manure or other expected farm odors. In fact the air smelled like blueberry pie or muffins. I figured I was downwind from the house. I visualized a pan of freshly baked blueberry muffins sitting in the kitchen, a possibility that compelled me to trot up the rest of the hill.
I made my way up the porch steps and rang the bell. I glanced to my left and saw a field of black and white cows, all with their heads down, grazing peacefully on what looked like clover. The door opened and before me appeared a rotund woman wearing an oven mitt on each hand and a wide grin on her face. She showed no hint of suspicion or even surprise at my appearance.
“Good afternoon, traveler,” she exclaimed in a bubbling voice. “Joe, come on in here, we got company! Come in, come in,” she urged, pulling my arm with her hefty hands.
Joe materialized in the room, smiling broadly, and planted himself next to whom I presumed was his wife. I stared at my welcoming party, standing together grinning like I were the mayor. Joe was at least a head a half taller than his wife. Wrapped snugly around his head was a well-worn baseball cap with a faded logo of the Dallas Cowboys. He wore wrinkled denim overalls that sagged around the knees and was too short in the legs, and his potbelly hung from his middle like a basketball. His rough cracked hand, absentmindedly rubbed his chin. His face was tanned and craggy from what I guessed were years spent in the sun.
Next to him, his short wife clasped her mitten hands together. She wore a sky blue and white polka dotted dress that fell to her calves. Her heels hung out of furry bunny slippers, the ears still at attention but with battered eyes and the missing noses.
They continued to stand there and smile at me, while I waited for one or the other to demand an explanation for what I was doing on their property.
“I’m sorry to bother you, ” I began to explain.
“No bother at all,” they said in unison.
“My car is out of gas, I’m not familiar with this area and I was hoping you could direct me to the nearest gas station.”
“Lost, are ya, son?” Joe asked.
I paused, caught off guard by the depth of concern in his voice.
“Well, I’m not sure I’m lost in the true sense of the word. Ultimately, if I continued driving in the direction I was traveling, I’d reach my destination, but okay, for the moment, let’s say I’m lost. Actually, my immediate concern is finding gas for my car.”
“Don’t worry, this happens all the time. Folks come by here all the time. Some folks have no idea how they got here and don’t know how to get out.” Joe spoke in a tone of commiserate understanding. His wife nodded her head sympathetically.
“We got plenty of gasoline you can use. We helped a lot of folks since our time here and we don’t expect nothing in return,” Joe said reassuringly.
“That’s some luck,” I marveled. “You know, driving up the road here I didn’t think I’d ever find your place.”
Suddenly, Joe’s wife frowned and put the mitts to her face.
“You must be tired and hungry. Sit down here at the table and I’ll fix you something to eat,” she said loudly, directing me by the elbow to the kitchen.
“Oh, no, please, I feel fine and I don’t want to trouble you—”
“Nonsense, it’s no trouble at all,” Joe said, following close on my heels and plopping down in a chair next to me.
“Iced tea?” the Mrs. asked, holding up a glass.
“Yes, thank you.”
“These here table and chairs, I carved them out myself from the trees on my farm. Solid oak.” Joe declared, patting the table, as if it were the family dog.
“Talk about luck, you’re in luck today because I just made blueberry pies, all fresh and from scratch, of course.” Mrs. Joe swung open the oven door and peered in, her rump facing square in my direction. I fixed my eyes on the grain in the table.
“That must be what I smelled coming up to the house,” I said.
Joe waved his hand across his face and chuckled. “That. That ain’t the pie, son, it always smells like that around here.”
“Yep. Outdoor air freshener like my wife says. It smells like berries morning, noon and night.”
I thought I shouldn’t ask, but I did anyway.
“Why? It just does, son. Ain’t no reason. Just like I can’t explain why my eyes are brown.” Joe leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head.
Something made me want to check the color of Joe’s eyes. I glanced at him as he stared straight ahead, seemingly lost in thought. His eyes were blue. Dumbfounded, I sat quietly and watched Mrs. Joe slice large pieces of pie and load them onto china plates. She poured tall glasses of iced tea and set them on the table.
“Now some folks serve this pie cooled off, but we don’t wait around here for fresh pie to age.” Joe’s wife passed around forks and sat down across from me. “You’re in for a treat. Eat up.”
I gingerly took my first bite of hot pie as I watched Joe out of the corner of my eye. In the last few seconds he had fallen asleep and was now snoring heavily.
Mrs. Joe understood my surprise and informed me heartily, “Don’t worry, he’ll wake up soon. He never sleeps for long. Just short little naps is all he ever takes.”
I swallowed the first bite of pie and felt instantly revived. It was absolutely delicious. I downed the rest of my serving in large gulps.
“My goodness,” the Mrs. said, her plump hand on her chest. She was smiling and looking extremely pleased. “More?”
“Yes, ma’am, if you don’t mind.”
Joe snorted and opened his eyes.
“Pardon me, son. It was time to catch a wink.”
I felt a twinge of sympathy for the man.
“I find it harder to sleep the whole night through, the older I get,” I offered as conversation. “Excuse me, that didn’t come out right. What I mean is that it’s common for people to suffer from insomnia these days, what with the stress of everyday life.”
“It’s nice of you to try to explain it, son, but it ain’t that fancy word you just used — I don’t sleep like ordinary folks.”
“He doesn’t sleep at night. Ever,” Mrs. Joe chimed in.
“That’s right. I just don’t go to bed.”
With this new piece of information, I took a closer look at Joe. He appeared healthy and alert for a man who never slept.
We ate our pie in relative silence. Strangely, I didn’t feel the least bit awkward sitting at their kitchen table, eating their food. They didn’t seem to feel imposed upon, in fact, they acted as though they were truly enjoying my company, like my visit was our regular thing.
“Let’s get your car gassed up and while we’re at it, I’d be pleased to show you around my farm,” Joe said, putting his fork down.
“That sounds wonderful.” I stood up from the table. “Thank you very much for the pie and for your hospitality,” I told Mrs. Joe.
She gave me an over-brimming smile and nodded. All of us made our way to the front door.
“Getting lost can be burdensome,” she called after me. “I hope you’re one of the lucky ones who finds his way back.”
I waved at her in appreciation for her thoughtfulness. Joe led me off the porch and steered us toward the field of cows. A mass of hens and chicks scurried across our path. There were so many that Joe and I hopped around in circles to avoid an accident as they ran underfoot. The hens didn’t seem to notice us and didn’t attempt to accommodate our presence. They flowed by us and disappeared around the house without a sound.
We approached the field of black and white cows, all still nose to the ground, munching away in unison like a vast piece of grinding machinery. Joe put his hands on his hips and gazed out beyond them.
“These here are my milk cows. They all got names and we treat ’em like part of the family.”
I looked at the stout bovines standing nearest me. They had identical black and white markings. Each cow was white with a large black patch between the shoulders and the left side and a black star on the forehead.
“How do you know which is which?”
“That’s an odd question, son. I know ’em like I know myself, just like you know who you are and who your folks are and everyone else you know.”
I nodded and squinted at the cows, trying to discern subtle differences that Joe must have memorized but that I couldn’t see.
“That there is Mary, named after my sister and the one up there is Sarah Belle, named after Grand Mama, may they rest in peace.”
An identical black and white cow loped up to the fence.
“And this here –” Joe patted the cow’s forehead. “– is Bessie. Named after my aunt Bessie, rest in peace. Bessie’s got the longest expiration date.”
“Yep. All my cows have ’em,” Joe said matter-of-factly.
“You mean how long a cow lives?”
“What’s that?” Joe raised the rim of his cap up slightly as if to get a better view of me. Then he shook his head and chuckled.
“No, no. The milk, son, not the cow. I never know when one of these is gonna quit on me. C’mon, I’ll show you.”
I followed Joe to a green barn, the milk storage barn as I learned. Inside, he led me to one of several giant steel cylinders that rose up to the ceiling. A long handle adorned a small door with a rectangular white label that read, “Bessie.”
“This here is Bessie’s milk. Her milk’s got the longest expiration date. Six months. That’s what we put on the cartons, see. Six months from milking date. Here, have some.” Joe reached for the handle.
“No, that’s all right. I really should be going.”
“Well, all righty then.” Joe sounded disappointed. “Let’s find you some petrol and we’ll reset you on your way.”
Joe disappeared into a red barn and reappeared with a silver canister. We walked down the hill to my car and Joe carefully emptied the contents into the tank.
I extended my hand to him. “Thanks for the pie and the gas, the tour. It’s a great operation you have going, sir.”
“Think nothin’ of it. Stop by on your way back. Most folks need a break from staring at the highway hour after hour. We’ll fix you up some delicious pot roast. It won first place at the county fair, you know.”
“That’s kind of you to offer,” I said, itching to get going. “Thanks a lot.”
The car started like a dream and I pulled away from the farm. Joe tapped his cap in salute as I buckled over the gravel. Through the white dust I caught sight of his plump wife scurrying out of the house and leaning over the porch railing to wave. I drove away as quickly as I deemed appropriate, away from Joe and his brightly colored barns and his cows with expiration dates.
The next part of the story is inconsequential. I got back on the highway and continued my route. I took care of a few things for the office and three days later, I was retracing my steps.
I drove past Joe’s pink sign. Then I glanced at my watch. I had time to stop by Joe’s farm if I wanted to. It was already after noon and the promise of a blue ribbon pot roast made me decide to turn around and meander again to Joe’s Dairy Farm. I took particular note of the colors around me. Sure enough, the closer I got to the farm, the more vivid they became. Strange phenomena of nature, I thought. There must be a mineral rich spring running underground on Joe’s property. I made a mental note to ask him about that.
It seemed to be taking longer to reach the farm this time. I looked around for the colored barns. I glanced at my watch and realized I’d been driving for over an hour which was far too long. I wondered if lost in thought I somehow got lost. Abruptly, the road ended and I was again on the gravel extension that ended at the bottom of Joe’s hill. I looked up in anticipation, and to my disbelief, the top of the hill was blank. The house was gone. In fact all of it was gone, the barns, the fences, the hens, the cows.
“What the hell,” I said aloud as I jumped out of the car. I sprinted up the hill and spun around at the top, searching the countryside. There wasn’t a single sign that anything had ever been here. No tire tracks, no holes in the ground, no footprints or marks in the grass of any kind.
“Where did they go?” Puzzlement was giving way to panic. “This has to be the right place. That pie was the best damn pie I ever ate,” I said to the trees.
“It must have been some terrific pie. I see you smacking your lips right now,” said a man’s voice, a distant, hum at first and then right at my ear by the end of the sentence, like a radio station tuning in.
“But I swear I ate the pie. I sat in Joe’s oak chair in the kitchen, I stepped around all those chickens, I met Bessie, I saw the barns, I shook Joe’s hand,” I insisted. “It was all here.”
“Yes, of course,” came the man’s voice, gentle and firm. “I’m sure they were.”
There was a short pause. Then a woman’s voice cut in. “Should we go overtime?”
“No, let’s wrap this up for today,” the man answered. A hand patted his arm. “Rest over the weekend and we’ll talk again Monday,” the voice suggested warmly.
I heard the sound of a chair scrape on the floor. A door opened and muffled voices sounded in a brief exchange.
“You should be more cooperative, this is a team effort, try not to resist so much,” the man’s voice sounded with a slight edge. Then the door clicked shut.
As I waited and listened, I became aware of the total darkness and felt the emptiness of the room filling my bones like a cold fog. I opened my eyes. I was lying in a narrow bed at an incline in a darkened room.
Something was sitting on the back of my tongue. Then the object nearly gagged me. I spat it out into my hand. A small, dark, round thing. I smashed it between my thumb and finger and sniffed. Blueberry.
This couldn’t be shelved until Monday – Mrs. Joe and her prized pot roast was waiting for me. There was too much work to do. I closed my eyes and got in my car. I was determined to find Joe even if it took me all weekend.