The farm was thirty miles west of Wichita on the silty loam of southern Kansas that never asked for more than prairie grass. The area had three nicknames: “the breadbasket of the world” for its government-subsidized grain production, “the air capital of the world” for its airplane-manufacturing industry, and “tornado alley” for its natural offerings. Warm, moist air from the Gulf to the south clashes with dry, cool air from the Rocky Mountains to the west. During springtime, the thunderstorms are so big you could smell them before you see or hear them.
Arnie, a man I would later call my grandpa, bought the farmhouse during the 1950s to raise a young family. He spent days sowing, tending, and harvesting wheat. He eventually owned about 160 acres, which is a quarter of a square mile, and farmed another quarter he didn’t own. That might sound big-time in places where crops like grapes are prized in small bunches. But for a wheat farmer in the twentieth century, when the price per bushel had been pushed down by the market even as yields had been pushed up by technology, it was just enough to earn a small living.
When a wheat crop was lost to storm damage or volunteer rye, sometimes milo went in. Arnie raised alfalfa, too, to bale for his fifty head of cattle. He also kept pigs, chickens, the odd goat or horse. He had one hired hand, and his sons and daughters pitched in at harvest. For extra money, during the winter, when the fields were frozen, he butchered for a meat locker down the highway toward Wichita and sold aluminum cans he collected in barrels near a trash pile west of his pole shed.
When the old house turned quiet after his divorce, Arnie drank a lot of whiskey. On weekends, he liked to put on his good cowboy boots and go dancing in Wichita honky-tonks like the Cotillion, a small concert hall with a midcentury sign on Highway 54.
There, one night in 1976, country music played while widows and divorcées danced in Wranglers and big collars under a mirror ball. Sitting at a table with his friends, a butcher named Charlie and a farmer they called Four Eyes, Arnie noticed a skinny woman with short blonde hair at another table. She and her friend wore the paper-rose corsages given to all the women at the door.
“She’s not gonna dance with you,” Four Eyes told Arnie. “You’re too damn fat and ugly.”
Four Eyes himself got up and asked the blonde woman to dance. She said no. So Arnie walked over. His hair was a feathery brown comb-over and he wore carefully groomed muttonchops on his square jaw. His round belly jutted over his belt buckle. The woman, Betty, had overheard his friends making fun of him. So when he asked, Betty said yes.
Betty and Arnie danced two or three songs. He smelled like Old Spice aftershave, and she liked his happy laugh. They agreed that every Johnny Cash song was the same damn tune with different words. Arnie thought she was a looker. Funny, too. He got her phone number. But when the band packed up and the dance floor cleared, she wouldn’t let him take her out for breakfast at Sambo’s down the highway. She’d stick with her friend and buy her own pancakes.
In the coming weeks, Arnie called her trailer a few times, but she didn’t answer. Then the operator said the number was disconnected. Arnie went back to farming the land.
Betty wasn’t the farming kind. She’d spent her adult life moving among urban areas in the middle of the country—Wichita, Chicago, Denver, Dallas—and neighboring towns. She and her daughter, Jeannie, who would be my mom, first hit the road when Betty was a teenager. Their whole family, which consisted mostly of single moms and their daughters, was hard to pin down. By the time Jeannie started high school, they’d changed their address forty-eight times, best I can count. They didn’t count. They just went.
About a year after Betty and Arnie met, his pickup and her Corvette pulled up to the same highway intersection just west of Wichita. They waved at each other, rolled down their windows, and pulled into a nearby truck stop to get a hot drink. Arnie’s life was the same, but Betty had gotten married and divorced in the months since they’d last seen each other. She had a wildness—not so much a streak but a core—that other middle-aged farmers might have found off-putting, even scandalous. But he fell in love and treated her better than she’d ever been treated. For one thing, he didn’t beat her up. He didn’t even complain about what she cooked for dinner or did with her life in general.
“Mox nix to me,” he told her.
She stuck around.
During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her full-time job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse, in downtown Wichita, to Arnie’s farm. She took over the house, cooking for Arnie and his field help, driving tubs of fried chicken, paper plates, and jugs of iced tea to fields where yellow dust followed red combines. She learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated through the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms and sleep is possible only because of how hard you worked.
Jeannie was fifteen and going to high school in Wichita, old enough by our family’s standards to take care of herself while Betty was at work or at Arnie’s farm. She’d finally gotten into a social groove after changing schools twice a year for most of her life. She didn’t want to move this time, especially not to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Now that she’d been in one place long enough to turn in her homework, she was getting good grades and enjoying school. She preferred hanging out at Wichita’s little outdoor mall to fishing in pasture ponds. Her hobbies were reading and fashion, which she studied in magazines before sewing her own clothes. Fabric stores and public libraries would be in short supply on the Kansas prairie. Jeannie groaned. But her mom had decided they were going. They packed up yet again and moved west to Arnie’s farm.
After a few months, Arnie asked Betty to marry him. Betty thought she was done with all that, and anyway, Arnie was Catholic. She’d heard the Church didn’t take people who’d been divorced, let alone six times.
Father John, the priest of a nearby parish, assured her that none of those marriages counted since they weren’t in the Church. She figured she had to count the first two husbands, since they’d fathered her children, but otherwise she liked the idea of disavowing every one of the bastards. She and Arnie ended up marrying outside the Church anyway, in September 1977, at a little chapel on a highway next to a trailer park.
The newlyweds had constant company at the farm. Pickup engines could be heard down the road, followed by the sound of tires rolling slow on the gravel driveway, usually around dinnertime. Betty peeled untold pounds of potatoes, baked pies, fried meat, and stewed vegetables that grew outside the front door. She learned the isolation of rural life through a batch of cookies—she had everything she needed but the brown sugar. What was she supposed to do, drive ten miles west to Kingman just to get one damn ingredient?
“It wasn’t like when you lived in town, you’d bebop down to the QuikTrip,” she told me years later.
She learned to keep the basement overstocked with discount canned food, the Deepfreeze packed with every cut of meat, the cupboards filled with double-coupon deals. She and Arnie were the sort of poor who, whether by spirit or circumstance, found a way to feed themselves and whoever else needed a meal.
Betty’s city friends drove west to see her new country life. Arnie’s friends showed up to see his wild city woman. They partied at Cheney Lake, a few miles away along straight dirt roads and a curving two-lane blacktop. They fished
and swam in Arnie’s pond with its water snakes and leeches, the crusty earthen dam dimpled where cow hooves had sunk in mud after rain. They camped next to fires in pastures with hot dogs, Coors, and s’mores. They drove mopeds through fields and crashed three-wheelers into trees. They had butchering parties in the detached garage that housed a meat grinder, a sink, hooks hanging from rafters, and a bloodstained cement floor. Everyone got drunk enough to eat mountain oysters, and everyone who helped went home with a cooler of meat wrapped in white paper. They laughed when a pile of aluminum cans brought five times its worth at the scrap lot after Arnie, pulling them in a net behind his tractor, inadvertently filled the cans with sand and tipped the weight scales.
During one liquor-store run to Kingman, after skidding across an icy country bridge and rolling down an embankment in a small Toyota, Betty made her younger sister Pud mad by lighting a cigarette inside the upside-down car while she thought about how to get out. Pud named the place Camp Fun Farm.
It wasn’t long before Pud’s older daughter, Candy, moved into the farmhouse to escape some sorry situation. Next came Pud herself and her younger daughter, Shelly, after the inevitable divorce. Thus began a nearly thirty-year stretch of Betty’s nomadic, cash-strapped family members taking refuge there by necessity.
When Betty wasn’t cooking for people at the farm, she was working at the courthouse in Wichita. Or she was pulling weeds in the vegetable garden east of the house, cleaning, planting flowers, or digging for tools on the back porch that housed the washer and dryer and shotguns.
Betty was only ten years older than Arnie’s firstborn, a surly, long-haired twentysomething who was often drunk. During the summer, he played on a slow-pitch softball team of area farm boys who liked to drink beer at Arnie’s farm after games. One of them was Nick Smarsh.
That’s how teenage Jeannie met Nick, the farmer and carpenter who would be my dad. He had grown up working the fields and hammering roofs in hot sun and cold wind. In the summer, his thick arms were tanned a deep red-brown, darker than the brown in his plaid snap-up shirts with the sleeves cut off. He drove a white 1966 Chevy Caprice, which he kept clean as a whistle inside and out, with air shocks lifting the back end. Sometimes he shot road signs through pickup windows. He was always smiling, though, never critical or violent, unlike so many of the men she’d known. Nick turned out to be the one thing she didn’t mind about the country.
Even though Arnie wasn’t my blood relation, he played that big of a role in my life—Jeannie and Nick never would have met if Arnie hadn’t asked Betty to two-step. He was such a bright light for me. Grandpa Arnie and I were both born in August—the same sign, my mom would want me to point out. Grandpa and I used to butt heads something awful when I was in high school. That happens between teenagers and their family regardless of their birthdays. But I’d find out years later that he did see something of himself in me—a point he never would have told me himself, and a sure recipe for friction. I wonder now whether he might have been hard on me as I got older because he was sad knowing that I was about to leave the farm.
Arnie was not one to act sad or complain. He didn’t register his own goodness, which was effortless and reliable. Grandma Betty used to get upset thinking he let people take advantage of him. What someone asked for, he gave if he could. And it wasn’t because he was some salt-of-the-earth farmer. Plenty of farmers are jerks, and many favors went unreturned from the ten square miles or so that was our farming community. But Arnie didn’t keep score. He just did his best every day, and the laugh that Betty liked that night on the Cotillion dance floor was a healing sound. He’d laugh so hard, his eyes squinted shut and filling with tears, that his whole big, bald head would turn red. It makes me laugh right now just to picture it.
I saw that laugh many times. When I was a little girl, I loved following him around the farm. There are quite a few pictures of me back then wearing frayed denim overalls and the look of a seasoned farmer on my face, staring straight into the camera with my shoulders squared and my feet planted apart in a way that used to make my prim mother laugh. “Sturdy Gurdy,” she’d say and crack up.
I was small for my age but strong, and I rarely smiled at the camera—not because I was unhappy but because I didn’t know that little girls were supposed to perform like that. Nobody in my family told me to act dainty. Plus, it was before all the digital screens that show people pictures of themselves in an instant. You could grow up relatively innocent of your own image. I see now that I looked like the spirit of an old man in the shape of a little girl.
Being born female and poor were the marks against my claim on respect, in the world’s eyes, and I must have sensed it.
It would be unwise for me to claim I know how much growing up in a poor family shaped my words. My mother’s strong vocabulary, itself learned alone from books, probably has more to do with my language than any college degree I got. We can’t really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are.
I don’t think I’d ever heard the term “white working class” until my early adulthood. The experience it describes contains both racial privilege and economic hardship, which can exist simultaneously. This was an obvious, apolitical fact for those of us who lived that juxtaposition every day. But it seemed to make some people uneasy, as though our grievance put us in competition with poor people of other races. Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth. Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less-articulated problem was afoot?
When I was growing up, the United States had convinced itself that class didn’t exist here. I’m not sure I even encountered the concept until I read some old British novel in high school. This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it. Class was not discussed, let alone understood. This meant that, for a child of my disposition—given to prodding every family secret, to sifting through old drawers for clues about the mysterious people I loved—every day had the quiet underpinning of frustration. The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.
I started to wake up to the gulf between my origins and the seats of American power when I left home at eighteen. Something about my family was peculiar and willfully ignored in the modern story of our country. My best attempt at explaining it was, “I grew up on a farm.” But it was much more than that. It was income, culture, access, language, work, education, food—the stuff of life itself.
The middle-class-white stories we read in the news and saw in movies might as well have taken place on Mars. We lived, worked, and shopped among people whose race and ethnicity were different from ours, but we didn’t know any “rich people.” We scarcely knew anyone who was truly “middle-class.”
We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand—distasteful to better-off whites, I think, for having failed economically in the context of their own race. And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country as a monolithic cultural wasteland. “Flyover country,” people called it, like walking there might be dangerous. Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”
I answered the question of whether I deserved to exist by working hard: folding laundry before I could read, reaching on my tiptoes to wipe off the bathroom counter while George Strait sang on the record player about rodeos and pretty women. I was raised to not be idle. Our hard work was how we had a roof and enough to eat.
We were “poor” in official terms, but we didn’t think of ourselves that way since our basic needs were met. What I did hunger for sharply, what my life lacked most sorely, was in my mother’s heart—which had been scarred by the traumas of monetary poverty but carried a feeling of perpetual lack and discontent that knows no class.
The poverty I felt most sharply, then, was a scarcity of the heart, a near-constant state of longing for the mother right in front of me yet out of reach. She withheld the immense love she had inside her like children of the Great Depression hoarded coins. Being her child, I had no choice but to be emotionally impoverished with her. I offered to rub her back every day so that I could touch her skin.
One develops a cunning to survive, whatever the scarcity. My family excelled at creative improvisation: eating at Furr’s Cafeteria on the rare food outing since it was all-you-can-eat and required no servers’ tip; scanning garage sales for undervalued items that could be resold at higher prices; rigging our own broken things rather than calling an expensive repairman; racing to the grocery store to buy loads of potatoes at five cents per pound when the Wednesday newspaper ad had a typo that the company legally had to honor.
Similarly, I haunted hallways around the corner from where my mom sat reading Stephen King novels or watching soap operas as I tried to get up the courage to ask her if she loved me. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t know the answer as that I wanted to make her say it. Nothing was more painful to me than true things
When I asked, her answer had the right words but the same cruel tone as her silence. I wanted her affection, but more than anything, I wanted her to be happy. From what I’ve observed, a poor child’s agony is just as often for her parents as it is for herself. You could say that is still a selfish impulse, because in order for a child to survive, her parents must survive, too. But I felt my family’s burden as my own well past childhood.
I’ve never known a poor person who wasn’t creative and industrious, because that’s what the life requires. Mom and Dad both were good at coming up with ways to make a fast dollar. During the summer of 1984, Dad got one of his more ambitious ideas when Sedgwick County banned the sale of high-powered fireworks—
M-80s, bottle rockets, items known to blow people’s hands off. Dad knew that Wichita people would have to go somewhere else to have some real fun on the Fourth of July.
We lived past the county line, in Kingman County, where no elected official would dream of banning any class of fireworks. The people of our county were farmers who drove enormous combines with giant, sharp blades that cut the wheat; carpenters who built their own giant sheds by swinging hammers while perched high on wooden rafters; and women who held down calves to inject vaccinations before they drove four-wheel-drive pickups to office jobs on the brick streets of small towns. They could handle their firecrackers.
In June, Mom drove to a wholesale warehouse on a blacktop road through the prairie. She wrote a check for hundreds of heavy boxes of various fireworks manufactured in China. Strings of Black Cats, TNT-brand variety packs, M-80s, M-60s, bottle rockets, children’s sparklers and smoke bombs, little hens that shot glowing eggs out of their behinds, and cardboard columns that released quiet, pretty fountains of colorful sparks and had names like Springtime Sunrise.
Dad and Grandpa Arnie hammered together a vending stand with lumber out of a scrap pile Dad kept in our shed. They loaded the wooden stand onto a hayrack and pulled it down the county blacktop to the gravel parking lot of Kampling’s Live Bait Shop, which stood at the entrance to Cheney Lake, a draw for people over the holiday weekend.
The fireworks stand was a narrow rectangle with a roof, a counter for customers to approach, and a visible rack of shelves on the back wall. Mom and Grandma Betty lined the shelves with merchandise, taking breaks to smoke Marlboros and stare at the horizon with weary looks. I was almost four years old and held red-white-and-blue bunting to the counter as they stapled it in place, the thick, smelly plastic blowing in the wind and sticking to our sweaty, dusty legs.
Dad hauled his power generator from our shed to the fireworks stand. It would run electricity to lightbulbs strung overhead, and to the blinking arrow sign he had rented and situated in the prairie grass next to the blacktop road. When the sun set, the sign’s little bulbs flickered to life, and June bugs buzzed against them.
The morning we opened for business, the people of Wichita appeared from the east, pulling speedboats behind pickups and carrying wallets full of cash. They bought heaps of fireworks and headed off through the lake entrance for a long weekend. Grandma Betty, her short blonde hair darkened by sweat at the neck, counted the growing pile of bills in our cash box.
Dad and Grandpa Arnie spent the days in the fields, cutting wheat with combines or, after harvest, plowing wheat stubble under. In the evening, they arrived to help at the fireworks stand. Sunburned, eyes tired, whiskers full of dust and bits of straw, they moved heavy boxes and drank beer and laughed.
My older cousin Shelly and I played with bugs in the hot dirt and wrote fizzy sparklers across the dark sky until Shelly, who could be meaner than any boy and was tougher than most of them, shoved a firecracker up a frog’s butt and lit the wick, which made me cry. Shelly’s skinny teenage sister, Candy, stood near the ditch and waved in cars from the road, twirling a baton and wearing a stars-and-stripes bikini and garters. She had a paper Uncle Sam top hat over her short sandy hair. Neighbor farmers waved when they passed. Everyone was covered in a thin film of dust.
When the stand closed around midnight, Dad spent the night sitting in his pickup, a loaded gun on the seat beside him, in case someone had a mind to rob us. There was security in guns for good reason where we lived. What we owned wasn’t locked in a bank but sitting in a wooden stand with plastic bunting flapping in the prairie wind. “You can’t be too careful,” he’d say, holding his rifle with respect for the weapon but no pride about carrying it.
When it was all over, the morning after the Fourth, Mom and Dad counted and rubber-
banded the bills. Once they paid off the wholesale supplier, the county permit, and the family help, they had a fortune of a few thousand dollars. It would come in handy, as Mom’s belly was large with a baby that would be born in the fall.
Mom and Dad had their first fireworks stand the year Reagan was reelected—selling American pride in a field next to a two-lane blacktop while think tanks sold “trickle-down” economics. It’s funny that both of their children were born weeks before an election that Reagan won. We would be able to map our lives against the destruction of the working class: the demise of the family farm, the dismantling of public health care, the defunding of public schools, wages so stagnant that full-time workers could no longer pay the bills. Historic wealth inequality was old news to us by the time it hit newspapers in the new millennium. That’s the difference among the person selling the fireworks and the one watching them sparkle in the sky from a public park on a work holiday and the one watching them from a nice apartment in a city high-rise. You live in different Americas and thus have different understandings.
Dad didn’t own any stocks or follow any market other than agricultural commodities. But he knew something about the economy wasn’t right. Things were getting more expensive compared to how much money was coming in. That’s a ratio felt acutely when you have to calculate budgets to the dime.
Dad saved coins in a giant glass bottle that had previously contained Canadian blended whiskey. One night he reckoned it was time to count them. He poured them onto a foldout card table in the living room near the brick fireplace. I watched the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters trickle down into a pile. Touching the coins with great care, Dad separated them into stacks. He was not a materialistic man. I never knew him to buy anything for himself but work tools. But he lived in a materialistic world, a system of goods and services that required monetary compensation. He added figures on a notepad and a calculator. He left the family room for a while and returned to count the coins a second time. I walked past.
“Sarah, come here,” Dad said.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you have something you want to tell me?”
“Are you sure?”
Dad sighed and looked at his coins.
“I know what you did,” he said.
“You took a nickel.”
“No, I didn’t,” I said.
“Sarah, don’t lie to me.”
“I didn’t take it.”
“Just be honest, and I won’t get mad at you.”
Dad sighed again and put his head in his hands, agonizing over what the moment meant to him: A nickel was unaccounted for, and every missing cent was his fault. I stood there looking at him and the stacks of coins on the wobbly foldout table feeling like I could cry. I hated being misunderstood, and I hated when my parents were unhappy. This moment was all of that at once, and the air smelled like dirty metal.
I knew the weight of those coins, then. The big, silver ones were worth the most, but the smaller ones mattered just as much when you needed every penny. It’s a lesson I sometimes forgot. Grandma Betty had scolded me once for throwing a few dirty, sticky pennies in the trash.
Her mom and grandma had worked on the Boeing assembly line during World War II. Once a pay period shook out so that the company cut a check to her grandma for exactly one cent. After she died, the paycheck ended up among Betty’s keepsakes.
“Here’s a paycheck for one friggin’ penny,” Betty would say, holding it with reverence. “Can you imagine? But a penny is a penny. Every
Currency values used to be based on a gold standard, Dad would explain when I was a little older, but now they were based on nothing tangible. It was just a game, really, the whole money system. Grandpa Arnie watched wheat prices go up and down in the local newspaper or on the price board that hung outside the grain co-op. At the courthouse in Wichita, Grandma Betty made less money than men who did the same job with less skill. We didn’t own stocks, but the psychological underpinning of the market wasn’t lost on us.
“Paying retail is for fools,” Mom used to say. We could walk into a store and with one glance at a tag discern a showroom full of ridiculous markups. Mom would pick up a dish off a shelf, turn it over to read the number on the bottom. She’d raise her eyebrows and set it back down.
“I don’t think so,” she’d whisper.
Betty would raise her eyebrows, too.
“What a rip,” she’d say once we were outside the store, walking back toward our car but not holding any bags.
Money was what made the world go around, I learned fast. I knew how to compare prices on tags before I knew how to read words. Yet money was a lie—pieces of paper and metal suggesting prices for goods, services, labor, and human beings themselves in a way that often had more to do with profit than with true value. We were on the losing end of that lie no matter how many acres of wheat we farmed.
In that way, my family and our class might have been the least fazed by America’s obsession with wealth. As workers living at the taproot of the agricultural economy, we not only could grow and build our own necessities, we also understood the hard work a loaf of bread represented and thus put less faith in the money that bought it than in the bread itself.
Wealth and income inequality were nothing rare in global history. What was peculiar about the class system in the United States, though, is that for centuries we denied it existed. At every rung of the economic ladder, Americans believed that hard work and a little know-how were all a person needed to get ahead.
Unlike so many people of my generation, I did get a good life for my hard work and know-how. In addition to what I might have earned, there were strokes of grace along the way that I can’t take any credit for. Somehow I ended up with a better situation than my parents had.
But the American dream has a price tag on it. The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.
No matter who you are or what you started with, though, your fortunes are not assured. For decades, far more people fell down the ladder than climbed up it. The American economy is less like a dream supported by democracy than it is like an inconsistent god. Most of us, regardless of economic station, sacrifice a great
deal to it.
That can be a satisfying agreement. Grandpa Arnie loved working the land not for the price of wheat per bushel but because smelling damp earth at sunrise felt like a holy experience. Dad loved building something beautiful out of good lumber not for the paycheck but for seeing his own creativity turned into a sturdy, useful structure. The pleasure that Mom got when she sold a little house in Wichita wasn’t just for the small commission but for the tears in the family’s eyes when she handed them the keys.
Work can be a beautiful communion with resources, materials, other people. I have no issue with work.
Its relationship to the economy, however—whose work is assigned what value—is where the trouble comes in. My family’s labor was undervalued to such an extent that, while we never starved or went without shelter in a chronic way, we all knew what it felt like to need something essential—food, shoes, a safe place to live, a rent payment, a trip to the doctor—and to go without it for lack of money. That’s the sort of mess I wanted out of.
“The Weight of a Nickel” is adapted from Smarsh’s first book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (Scribner, 2018).