Delphia stood in the middle of the yard and studied the farmhouse. The porch sagged to one side and paint was peeling off after years of neglect. There hadn’t been any money put into it. All the money went into the ground.
“To make more,” her father explained, “It’s called investment. Everyone is doing it.” The crop prices were going up. Each year he wanted to till out further. He sold the animals and tilled the pasture. All the way out to the edge of the property. He cut down the trees whose shade she had played under as a child. Then he tilled up that land too. He paid the neighbor for use of his tractor, he bought more seed on credit. His harvest was going to be bountiful.
Instead the crops he grew were stunted and dwarfed. In the original field plot, they barely grew at all. Nothing had been left fallow for years.
Delphia had awoken the night before to the sound of shuffling below. She crept out of bed and found her father wrapping bread in a handkerchief. She remembered rubbing her eyes in the low lamp light.
“One of Mallory’s cows is down with a bad calf. He asked for help.” Her father didn’t make eye contact as he shuffled around the kitchen. “Go back to bed, girl. I’ll be back after sun up.” Obediently and without question, she returned to bed.
In the morning, she told her mother, Mary, about the incident as the woman settled herself near the woodstove. Mary momentarily froze when Delphia had said it, but tried her best to hide the dread.
He was still gone as Delphia washed the dishes from breakfast. Delphia noticed her mother’s eyes droop further and further. Her mouth a hard thin line. Her fingers pressed to her chin as she peered out the window as if she’d see her husband driving back down the road. Delphia didn’t think anything of it as she worked her way through her outdoor chores. In the afternoon, her mother limped outside with her cane. She held out a sandwich for Delphia to take.
“Walk down to Mallory’s and see what’s keeping him,” she ordered.
“Sure, Mama. It must be some calf,” Delphia said, which in hindsight she realized had been a stupid thing to say. She walked a few miles down the dirt road to the Mallory’s farm, eating her sandwich as she went and thinking about how much faster it would have been had her father not sold the plow horse last year. She had always ridden it over the fields to wherever Junior Mallory was working. They had grown up together and Delphia had thought one day he might ask her to marry him. Instead he enlisted, went to war and was never to return.
Delphia turned down the dirt road to the Mallory’s house. Two young boys tussling in the grass stopped and hollered excited greetings as she approached. Mrs. Mallory stepped out on the porch to see what the fuss was about.
“What brings you by, Delphia?” she asked more reserved than she had been the years previous.
“I’m looking for Pa. Is that calf sorted out yet? Isn’t it a bit late for one?” Delphia knocked a stone out of the hole in the toe of her shoe.
“We were done with calves last month,” Mrs. Mallory replied baffled. She turned her attention to the boys, “John, go get your father.” The boy immediately ran off around the house.
“I suppose I was half asleep when I talked to him,” Delphia was trying to recall her father’s exact words, but she wasn’t mistaken. Mrs. Mallory’s brow furrowed.
“When was this?” she asked.
“Sometime last night. I got up and he said he was coming here to help with a calf,” Delphia explained. Mrs. Mallory couldn’t bring herself to say it. Mallory came around the corner just then.
“Jerome, has Fitz been here? Delphia said he left last night. He claimed he was coming here,” Mrs. Mallory’s words stopped the farmer in his tracks.
“He’s not here, Delphia. Why don’t I give you a ride home?” Mallory said. He ushered her over to the truck.
“I don’t understand, Mallory. He said he was coming here and would be back after sun up,” Delphia protested as she got in the truck. Mallory pulled back out on the road before he replied.
“Has your father ever talked to you about the farm’s finances?” he asked. Puzzled, Delphia shook her head. Mallory sighed.
“He was in deep. He told me they wouldn’t extend him anymore credit this year. He wanted a loan, but things are tight enough for us as it is,” he explained.
“But where is he?” Delphia exclaimed.
“He’s gone. Only the Devil knows now.” Mallory pulled into the Fitzgerald farmyard. Delphia’s mother was already crossing the grass from the house. Hot tears had begun to stream down Delphia’s face as she slammed the truck door. She hung her head as she bolted past her mother and into the house.
Hours later, Delphia lay on her bed, her finger nervously worrying the fabric of a worn-out ragdoll. She watched the sunlight weaken as it turned gold, then pink along the floorboards. The door creaked and she felt the mattress sink.
“Delphia,” her mother leaned over. She paused as her eyes fell on the ragdoll. She reached over and delicately picked it out of Delphia’s hand with a sigh. “You need to put aside such childish things. Put your faith in the Lord and he will give you strength.”
“That’s your answer for everything,” Delphia mumbled.
“That’s because it is the answer for everything. You’re a young woman, not a girl. When men fail us, we, women, must solve our own problems.” Her mother’s voice didn’t even waver as she spoke. Delphia sat up and looked at her.
“How can you be so calm?” Delphia asked. “How can you act like he didn’t abandon us?” Her mother forced a smile and shook her head as her eyes began to tear up. She reached over and brushed the hair out of Delphia’s face.
“There is no such thing as a perfect man. You have to accept people as they are, not how you want them to be,” her mother said as her voice cracked. “In this case, your father was a fool.” Her mother stood up to leave. “Our paths are going different ways now. Cry if you must and pray. Pray, Delphia. Tomorrow we will wear our best, go to town and figure out just deep we are.”
Delphia stayed in her room as darkness fell. She heard the soft shuffling of her mother’s feet as she finally retired to bed and waited for the stillness to swallow the house. Delphia crept downstairs and into the yard. She stared up at the dark house, the sagging porch and peeling paint.
It’s called investment, she remembered. All the money goes in the ground.