Excerpt from the title story, “The Paper Life They Lead”
The Paper Life They Lead: Stories by Patrick Crerand
Morning on the Pepperidge Farm box is not all chocolate and cheese. The three of them—the farmer, his wife, and the boy—dot the whiteness like breadcrumbs on an apron. It is always cold and it is always morning. When the farmer walks, his feet leave no tracks in the white powder. He is on his way to cut and winnow the tufts of winter wheat that strafe the land below the hill. His hands are small and weak. The wind blows in cold streams and stops him. He scans the horizon and stomps his feet warm. The ache in his knee keeps his leg crooked at a painful angle. It throbs and with each step the ache seeps up his leg and into his groin, then to his heart. He daydreams in the pink reflections the white field leaves on the undersides of his eyes. He can see the day ahead of him: The boy and he will scythe the wheat flat, remove the stalks and then throw the heads in the air, letting the wind take the husks, catching the heads in a basket. They will eat a few to check for blight. The jagged berries will cut up the roof of his mouth if it is a healthy crop. The blood will salt the blandness of the wheat. He can already taste the blood. He limps off again.
At dinner, his wife rolls out dough and melts shards of chocolate in copper pots while the farmer eats wheat cakes. His boy, a wiry hand, almost a man, sits next to him. He sleeps in the barn to keep the animals from danger, but the farmer knows there is nothing more dangerous than a lazy hand, so the boy does the morning milking before helping in the field. The boy eyes two white cookies striped with lines of chocolate on the farmer’s plate. The farmer lets his mind drift and eats another wheat cake. The bitter scent of cocoa taints the air between them.
“You don’t got a sweet tooth, do you?” the farmer says.
The boy looks off through the window where a few Holsteins mingle and swing their udders against piles of chaff near the flour silo.
“Nopet,” the boy says, gritting his teeth. “Tooths I got don’t taste like nothing.”
“Good,” the farmer says, looking at the cows.
The boy smacks his mouth as he chews on a brown tobacco leaf.
“That way you ain’t got nothing for a wife to spoil cept the rest of you.”
His wife raises her brow and spits into the copper pot in her hand. She is a stout woman with thick wrists and tight brown lips. She bakes when he sleeps and fills the huge white ceramic jars in the foil-lined basement with finger snacks: chocolate shortbreads with sugared cheeses, frosted ginger cakes, mint drops, lemon snaps dipped in raspberry jelly. She scrawls the name of a city in black script letters across the belly of each jar. Each city has a story that she tells the boy before he goes to the barn. The farmer does not listen. He allows the boy to eat two cookies after dinner.
“Those are too rich for my stomach,” he says after finishing his wheat cake. “Too much chocolate.” He wipes the chocolate from the round face of the white cookies on his plate. They look like dying suns, he thinks.
“Feed them to the cows to sweeten the milk,” the boy says, grabbing them.
“Too rich for cow’s blood, too,” the farmer says.
“The beast doesn’t smell the sweet milk,” the farmer’s wife says. “But he’ll smell the stink on you.”
As she moves past the boy at the table, a thin veil of flour lifts from her apron and into the air around him.
“No beast I ever seened whoop me,” the boy says. “I’m ready for him when he comes.”
“No beast I’ve ever seen at all,” the farmer says. “Sweet food like that rots your mind. Turn shadows into nightmares.”
“The flour silo’s running low,” his wife says. She lifts two paper bags full of shortbread and stops near the door to the basement. “You boys rest so you can fill it directly tomorrow,” she continues.
A cookie drops from her bag and she eyes the boy before shutting the door. The farmer ignores the look and eats the rest of his wheat cakes in silence.
“Sure is a waste of a cookie,” the boy says.
The farmer stares at the orange flame in the seam of the cast iron oven door.
“Just as well if you never ate one.”