In Part One, Tom Blethen is introduced, a super-annuated, overly educated farmworker who felt he was stuck in a rut, literally, digging potatoes on Bessie Blume’s farm in Ventura. But there was an undeniable and unspoken attraction between Tom and Bessie building up and they finally made a night of it together, in her bedroom at the farmhouse.
The next scene will have Tom and Bessie waking up at 4 a.m. in her bed and beginning a long conversation. They had avoided talking to each other all these months, for fear of what might happen, but the door is open now. It's the magical quiet of the night when everyone else is asleep.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
It was the quiet of night, four a.m., they lay in Bessie’s bed on the second floor. Through the broad window the half-moon made a blue light and strong shadows. There was no sound anywhere. Tom’s right arm was numb from lying under Bessie’s light body. He tugged it away. She stirred. “Are you awake?” he asked.
“Mmm,” she murmured, “awake and alive.”
Minutes passed. The jostling of small leaves in the field somewhere -- it was the air moving. It was the night beginning to end.
“Let’s talk” Tom said, lying on his back. Bessie moved up on her pillow and looked over to him, seeing his profile.
“You start,” she said.
“No, you,” he said.
“My father’s name is Isaac, “ she began, as if reciting, as if she had waited years to say out loud what she had chanted in her dreams. “He was a dealer in dry goods. That was in the old neighborhood in New York. Pencils, fabric, dinnerware, whatever he could buy, whatever he could sell for a penny more.
“He was a kind man and he didn’t hate his job. Life is with people he always said. You do honest work and the rest doesn’t matter.
“My father did not finish high school. There was trouble at home and he had to work, to find a job. His first job was at the biology lab at Rockefeller University, a big medical school, yes, but he cleaned out the rat cages and the monkey shit. That’s how he started…..Tom, are you listening?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “I’m not sleepy.”
She continued. It was the kind of long story you could tell late at night, with every detail. Bessie spoke quietly, but with an intensity that seemed to lift her off the pillow and bring her to scenes from long ago, a hundred years back, even five hundred years. She had the voice of a distant mountain. And Tom had an alertness of mind much greater than in the daylight.
“And so Isaac, my father, always wanted a piece of the land for his own and his children. But he never left the city. I became his dream. I was his son, not in gender, but I was his destiny. And I have this farm – because of my father’s dream.”
“You could have gone to Israel,” Tom said. “You could go there now and grow oranges and be a real Jew.”
Bessie stared at him. “You are a worse fool than I imagined. Look out the window. Do you see these acres?”
A fine line of light was rising in the east. Tom rose up on his elbow and looked to see the dimmest of dawn’s light. Then he looked over at Bessie’s glimmering eyes.
“My father died a few years ago,” she said, “He never came out here to California. He wouldn’t go. There were so many things that he wanted that he never got. He wanted the land, but something held him back. He was the link from the old world to the new world and the Lower East Side was as far as he could go. So it all came down to me. I was his Kaddish…..”
“Pardon?” Tom interjected.
“His Kaddish. A son, someone to say the Kaddish for him when he died. The prayer we say for our parents. It’s for a boy to say for his father, but I was the only child. His Kaddish.”
“So do you say the prayer for your father?” Tom asked.
“No, I don’t say a prayer for my father Isaac. I plant radishes for him. I plant gladiolas. I plant rue and lovage. And my father is here now. This is Isaac’s farm.”
“Bessie, I love you,” Tom said.
“You don’t,” she said, but she moved closer to him in the bed. “I’m old now, I’m not so pretty. I was never pretty….”
“I love you, Bessie,” Tom said again.
It was lighter now, with orange lights in the sky, a December morning in Ventura, the sky was free of clouds, with only a puff of wind, and a hint of frost settling on the fields.
“You don’t know me,” Bessie said. “I grew up in the city. I was very protected. My parents – I was the dream of what they wanted. And they weren’t selfish, we could have moved to the suburbs, except for their social causes -- to make the world a better place. I was no princess. My mother bought clothes for me at Alexander’s, on sale. My parents were so progressive with books and pamphlets. Then the sixties came along and it didn’t make sense to them.”
“So you’re that kind of girl,” Tom laughed. “But slow down, you’re talking too fast. Gentle is the rising light of dawn, my love.” Tom held on to her a little tighter and stroked her hair.
“That means you came out here to find your father’s dream, is that it?” Tom asked. “I mean, that’s good enough. Most people don’t know what they want.”
“I hitchhiked out west when I was 19,” she said. “My parents were frantic with worry to see me leave and to take such chances, but I couldn’t stay in college. I couldn’t read any more about someone else’s life. I had to do it myself….That seems so dramatic now, but I needed the energy to break out. My home was so loving and close, it was smothering me but I could not complain because my parents were not wrong. They just didn’t see….I left.”
“You don’t have to explain that to me. It’s the young lass who turns down her suburban future and becomes a hippie chick,” Tom said.
“Oh, geez,” Bessie said and pushed him away. The room got cold very quickly. Tom was backing up as fast as he could, and then he began to relax and took a deep breath, and figured he should not have mocked her -- he could have been a little more tender. But he was saved by the early light, only 5 a.m., and too early for Bessie to rise and make her coffee, too early for her to get out of bed, or to give farm orders. Bessie let it go.
“Tom, I don’t care if you categorize me. I’m like a lot of other people – a Jewish girl from Manhattan becomes an Earth Mother. She writes a book about making compost and cooking vegetarian, she has beautiful children. I’m in that group. You’re always in somebody’s group.”
“Sex ruins everything,” Tom said, by way of a response, in the short hand way that two lovers can talk. “I had my eye on you since I got here. I mean I tried not to have any looks at you. I felt a buzz, but it seemed like we could work together and live on the same premises and not end up here in your bed. You could lose a good farm hand after tonight. Things can get very complicated.”
“When is it simple?” Bessie said.
“Listen, we’re not angels,” Tom went on. “The angels live forever. They watch over us and guide us, but they envy us. We have sex and we die. We make love and it changes everything, and the angels watch over us, but they really wish they could be us. I’m not worried about what’s going to happen, but I’m sure glad to be here now… So what about your mother?”
“It was my mother’s idea to name me Bathsheba,” she said. “You didn’t know that, did you? People call me Bessie, but I am Bathsheba, and I just loved it when you told me about her in the book. I’ve read the book, I know who she is. My father was Isaac and I’m Bathsheba”
“And your mother’s name?”
“Rebecca, of course, but that’s enough for one night,” she said.
That was the end or her talking, but it seemed to Tom that it was the beginning of many stories, that Bessie knew many long, deep stories. He was glad for that.
Now came the tenderest moment, after the lovemaking late at night, after the soulful talk in the hour before down, now in the first light of day, there was no more denying what happened, so he looked in her eyes and leaned over and kissed her in a long way and very softly, and she kissed him and squeezed him with her body. They lay back for a time staying warm under the blankets, but then it was morning. They could see each other now.
Tom got out of the bed, put on his clothes, went downstairs and stopped for a minute to think. “No, I don’t want to think. Just go back to like nothing happened. This is still a farm.”
He walked out to the trailer and put on some coffee and cleaned up a bit. He thought about working as he drank his coffee, but he had to look it up, what Bessie told him. He got out a Bible in the box of books under the bed. It was in Second Samuel, Chapter ll, Verses Two and Three.
And it came to pass at eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
And David sent and inquired after the woman. And one said: 'Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?'
I need to get Bessie to take a bath where I can see her, Tom thought. I would have to climb up on the roof of the barn to peek into her bathroom window. She is beautiful in a homely kind of way. But I am not King David. Not by any chance. I guess I could be some kind of low rider, but a king? I don’t know what to do. Do I just go back to digging potatoes?
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