Ordinary Soil

Greenleaf Book Group
5 min readOct 23, 2023

The following is an excerpt from Ordinary Soil, by Alex Woodard, available now from Greenleaf Book Group.

FEBRUARY

A frigid wind howled through the frayed weather stripping of the truck, rattling the windows in concert with his vibrating phone. Jessica.

He wasn’t going to answer, not now.

Not anymore.

His focus shifted from the full-moon midnight abyss of the pigweed-infested wheat field to the fine layer of dust coating the idling truck’s windshield. The cracked glass morphed into an unwelcome mirror, where a stranger, lit by the harsh, artificial glow of the phone screen, stared back at him.

Two chins too many. Lifeless eyes, weighted by sandbags filled with worry. Pale, loose cheeks, hollowed by pills and creased by bourbon.

A ghost of himself at thirty-two.

He’d touched his nose to the cheek of his sleeping wife a moment longer tonight, as he tucked the top sheet around her shoulders and whispered a hopeful goodbye.

The money would help her, more than he ever could.

He’d made sure of that, forgoing farm maintenance these last few months to pay the life insurance premiums. The policy was tucked into the laundry pile, along with a letter to her and the wheat subsidy claim.

A light flickered a few hundred yards to the west in the old bunkhouse, where he’d moved his parents last year when the tremor in his dad’s hands didn’t go away. His mom could still handle the cooking and cleaning. For now, anyway. About six months ago, sometime in August, she’d started flipping the light switches on and off in the bunkhouse every night, in a search only she understood and rarely remembered. And since then, the widening gaps in her memory were just being filled by more and more confusion.

When it rains on the plains, it pours.

Jake’s gaze turned back to his reflection in the windshield, the barely recognizable face mercifully reduced to a shadow in the darkness of the now dormant phone. He slouched into the bench seat until the moon pierced the dim outline of his forehead, like the all-knowing third eye on the cover of the hippie book Jessica had bought him when he stopped going to church. Only good use for that self-help bullshit was to help hold down his nightstand. He hadn’t been back to church since last fall, when he’d confronted the pastor in the receiving line after the service.

“Tell me, Reverend. What kind of God would punish an innocent child? Hailey, our little girl? Remember her?”

The canned “Trust in Him” response — one he’d expected — had opened a line of questioning he’d been rehearsing for months. “You mean trust the Him who blessed our girl with leukemia, and then — ”

Jessica had dug her fingernails into his forearm and dragged him away, but he’d kept calling over his shoulder. “Or trust that devil you’re always railing against? Which one of those fellas kills little — ”

She’d stopped in the grass bordering the church parking lot and covered his mouth with her other hand. “Jake. Enough.”

He remembered the drive home, how that same hand had steadied his shaking leg.

How he’d been staring vacantly into his reflection in the passengerside window, much like he was doing now, and shut his eyes tight against the tears starting to leak out.

How her gentle fingers moved to and through his hair, as she spoke calmly, always the deep, quiet ocean to his raging storm on the surface. “Everything’ll be okay, baby.”

How he wanted to believe her.

How that was then.

And this is now.

A shotgun would be too obvious. So would a rope or a belt or a handful of the Oxys hidden in the glove compartment. This had to look like an accident . . . his old F-150 with the sticky clutch, wrapped around the elm by the dry creek bed, during a late-evening check on the wheat.

He took a long pull from the bottle of bourbon stashed under the seat, to both steel his resolve and sell the story. Bitterness lingered from the pill he’d chewed on the way out here — he’d heard doing that could speed the opioid release, and he was out of time — so he hit the bottle one more time to kill the aftertaste, before shoving a cassette into the ancient tape deck. He cranked the radio volume all the way to the right and waited for the first tentacles of numbness to creep behind his eyes, and within a few labored breaths, scenes started playing on the movie screen draped over his brain.

Hailey, chasing a butterfly through the wheat, bathed in late-afternoon light.

Foot slipping off the brake, truck rolling in neutral.

Jessica, tears dancing with the early spring rain on her cheeks, the morning he proposed.

Dropping into first, hitting the gas, turning away from the house, lurching toward the creek bank.

Grinding the gears into second, then third, and then the old elm taking over the frame.

In the final, blissful detachment of no past and no future, a muted present-tense washes over him. His spine turns to rubber as his head nods to the right, and there, in the half-breath before the truck hits the tree, he sees what has truly driven him to this opiate-addled madness.

The figure with the braids, in a fringed leather shirt, with deerskin breechcloth and leggings, raising a translucent hand, reaching to the passenger window . . .

Windshield shattering, engine pushing into the cab, gravity escaping the creek bank against a grinding orchestra of metal and glass.

And, as suddenly as it was stolen, the quiet peace of the open sky returns, save for the warbled playback from the thin reel of the cassette tape, echoing through the dead night of the prairie.

See this hole, I dug her deep

With these two hands

Black as coal like forever sleep

I hope you understand

I’m a working man tired of fighting the land

Gonna let these bones turn to oil

In this ordinary soil

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