Stoughton, WI

Sal watched the girls load their instruments and gear in from their minivan which was parked outside of the old opera house.  Their movements were punctuated my loud shrieks and laughter, and he felt a mild headache building at his temples as he walked into the dark building. It was chilly outside and the sky was a beautiful cloudless blue, a perfect northern May afternoon.  He yearned for the desolate quiet of his land, for the long stretches of flat fields with nobody in sight and cows bellowing softly into the wind.

As long as he could remember, he had known himself to be a farmer.  He knew it the same way he knew his own name, not that he could specifically remember anyone telling him, he just existed in the fact of it.  His family kept cows and a few horses on their 500 acres of land. Even on the coldest days of winter, when three inches of ice walled the inside of the barn, and he’d had to throw down hay and extra feed with his numb hands and separate the calves from the cows to prevent them from getting Pneumonia, he’d loved the work.  He’d taken pride in caring for the animals and the soreness of his muscles. He slept deeply every night and consumed huge meals at midday, feeling the calories convert to energy almost instantly.

It didn’t get so cold in the winter anymore.  It used to stay below zero for two weeks at a time, maybe more. Now those breathtakingly cold days that knocked the wind out of you as soon as you opened the door were few and far between.  

Now he reluctantly abandoned the beauty of the day and slowly plodded through the entryway of the theater and up to the stage, where he laid out XLR lines for each microphone, and found and unfolded five tired and taped up mic stands from behind the velvet curtains.  He felt a sharp complaint in his lower back as he dragged monitor blocks to the front of the stage and positioned them in what he hoped would be the desired spots.

In high school, Sal had started a rock band with two of his classmates. They practiced in his family’s barn through the Spring and Summer, and Sal had slowly pieced together an entire PA system from various parts he found at the local junk shop and at various garage sales.  He was never really more than a mediocre guitar player but he became the go-to guy for sound equipment repair, record players, tape machines, CD players, speakers, and mixing desks, although there really weren’t too many of those around Stoughton.

Around the time that his bandmates had left town, one for college in Madison, and one to Minneapolis with a girlfriend he had gotten pregnant, the town had rallied and raised funds to restore the old opera house, which had been abandoned for twenty odd years.  Excited by the idea of live music coming through the small town, he had volunteered to help purchase and install a world class sound system, and he soon found himself employed by the venue, working sound for touring bands that did not bring their own tech.

Through the years, as his parents aged and his siblings moved away, one to Chicago and two to California, he had watched the farm slowly go into disrepair.  He did his best to keep up with it, but milk prices were so low, and they were reaching their credit limits almost every year. The trade war with China was impacting soybean exports, and the farm barely brought in enough income to keep itself afloat and pay for the hired help, let alone support his parents in their old age. So, as it turned out, all those years spent tinkering with gear in the barn in hopes of blaring AC/DC into the rafters had been a lucrative education.

As the band set up and he began to dial in the monitors, he imagined being out in the fields on an afternoon like this, riding around on the green tractor, feeling the sweat on his back and a cool breeze across his face, smelling the scent of cow shit and mowed grass.

Can I have more guitar? Said the fiddle player

He didn’t even hear her. He stared at the wallpaper, a royal blue with a gold fleur de les pattern, imagining raising a family in the old farmhouse.

Excuse me, said the dark haired girl again.  I need more guitar. She sounded annoyed

OK! He barked. Hold your horses.

The dimly lit room made him feel sad and sleepy.  What he wouldn’t give to feel the sun on his face right now.