Universal Harvester

John Darnielle

On the living room carpet in Crescent, Irene was trying to teach Lisa to play Parcheesi. Lisa couldn’t follow the action, but she loved the dice, the way they rattled in the little blue cup. Was three too young for board games? Her mother thought probably so, but Lisa’d arrived at every milestone early: weaned early, crawled early, and surprised everybody with her first word before she could walk (“bear!” while having The Little Engine That Could read aloud to her; the bear in question was scratching at a tree on the same hillside where the train stalled). As soon as she could say two simple sentences she began putting them together to tell stories about her dolls: “They stopped playing. They need a rest,” she explained to her mother once, sequestering a Raggedy Ann in one corner of the living room and a nameless blinking-eyed vinyl doll in the one opposite.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Barnes and Noble

In town there were only a few other little girls her age. Everybody knew everybody else. The kids would play together while the mothers visited, sometimes at one house, sometimes at another; there was a single grocery store that served as a social hub most mornings. It was a good life, small and navigable. Peter got home early; it was four. He wasn’t due home until six thirty. “Daddy!” Lisa yelled, running to hug his knees.

“I haven’t even started dinner,” Irene said apologetically, getting up, but this was strictly a formal protest: Peter’s commute, and the way it meant they only occasionally took the evening meal all together, was a hardship for her. She had grown up in a house where everyone met at the table at the end of the day.

“They let us out early to buy gas,” he said, in motion, picking up Lisa and rubbing noses with her before putting her back down. She ran back to the Parcheesi board. Irene knitted her brow.

“To buy gas?”

He took a folded copy of the Omaha World- Herald from the pocket of his fall coat. “Prices doubled overnight,” he said. “Cars lined up two blocks down the street from the station.” Irene read the headline and skimmed the story: it had a sidebar about the best times to avoid long lines. “That’s crazy,” she said.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “ People are bringing their own cans to carry away extra. The guys at the station were trying to discourage it, but people are determined.” Lisa was at the Parcheesi board throwing dice from the shaker again and again, saying the numbers out loud.

“What in the world,” said Irene.

“Politics,” he said. “All the oil used to come from Texas. I just paid twelve dollars for a tank of gas.”

“What on earth,” she said.

“Well, I know, but I can’t exactly walk to work from here,” he said: that light tone, the easy cheer. It was his strength. “Could get worse by next week. I filled it up. It’s an expense for now.”

“Nine!” said Lisa.

“An expense, sure,” said Irene, wheels turning: in two months they were supposed to drive home to Tama for Christmas.

“Just a short-term situation, most likely,” he said. “Back in July when the car was in the shop I rode in with Bill. We could try that some more.”

Irene started hurrying around the kitchen, pulling a few steaks from the freezer. “That will be nice,” she said.

“Sure,” he said. “Some company on the way in is nice.”

“Twelve!” Lisa cried in triumph.

“How many twelves is that?” her father asked.

“First one!” she said.


A lot of people have never really been to a small town, not even to stop for gas. They have ideas about how small towns should look: they’re supposed to have maybe only one building taller than two stories, usually the bank, standing tall in the middle of a two-block downtown. There’ll be a school and a high school and a grocery store and a library, and maybe a department store and maybe a Texaco and a Shell. More people on the sidewalks than cars on the streets. Several parks with swings and slides and baseball diamonds.

There are towns like that in Iowa, plenty of them; Nevada fits the bill. More than six thousand people live there, and the sign on the Lincoln Highway that welcomes you there declares Nevada the “26th best small town in America.” It has soil testing labs, water testing labs, a high school football team. There’s a little espresso and cappuccino place just outside of downtown. Java Time. People shoot scenes for movies on soundstages and try to make it look like Nevada, but the claustrophobia they’re trying to invoke is more native to a place like Crescent, whose length you can walk in a day.

The sign on the Lincoln Highway that welcomes you there declares Nevada the “26th best small town in America.”

It’s not a ghost town; there are a couple of motels, and a restaurant or two. There’s a church, and a bar. There are just fewer of these places than you usually think of when you picture a town where people go to live. If you were to visit for a weekend, you’d be able to see all of it on foot; and you might say, later, that it looked like there was hardly anything there—that you didn’t know what people did there, why they didn’t just move into Omaha. I don’t think I could live there, you might say. But it’s more likely that you won’t have occasion to say any of this, because you won’t visit Crescent at all, unless you maybe have family there, which, statistically speaking, you probably don’t.

The Samples were spending their Saturday morning in Omaha, down at the Old Market; for a while they’d been able to come in every weekend, but after the gas crunch hit they made it every other weekend. They’d had their usual big breakfast; Lisa finished about half of her pancakes and was presently running around in a toy store while her parents browsed the shelves. Everything seemed a little pricey. Irene remembered her mother telling her they raised the prices right before Christmas.

“Keep an eye on Lisa,” she said to Peter, retrieving her coin purse from her handbag. “I’m going to make sure there’s still time on the meter.”

“I don’t think they’ll ticket you if we run just a little over,”
he said.

“I’m just going to go check the meter,” she said.

There were still eight minutes left on it when she got to the car; she put another dime in. Better safe than sorry. On the sidewalk a few meters down she saw a young man with a beard reaching into a garbage can. He had a long army-green overcoat on; it was wrinkled and dirty. She could see the crust of a sandwich poking up from the coat’s breast pocket. The scene made her feel terrible; it was November now, and getting colder, and the shop windows were all lit up with Christmas scenes and snowflakes. In her purse was a doggie bag with the rest of Lisa’s pancakes from breakfast; they’d probably sit in the refrigerator for two days before getting thrown out, and Lisa wouldn’t miss them.

“There’s a little breakfast left,” she said, approaching—gingerly, without making eye contact.

He took the pancakes out of the bag and began eating, quickly, with his hands. She turned away, not wanting to stare, but he said: “Ma’am?”

“It’s all right,” she said.

“‘To knowledge, temperance; to temperance, patience; to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity,’ ” said the bearded man, delivering the verse very quickly, as if passing along a recipe he knew by heart. It was hard to understand him; he was still chewing. With his free hand he retrieved a crumpled tract from the pocket of his coat. “Here.”

“I’m sure, yes,” she said. She tucked the tract into her purse.

“We have meetings on Sundays,” he said, wiping his mouth on
his sleeve.

“That’s fine,” she said, turning now finally, heeding an uncomfortable feeling in her chest that told her it was time to go; the bearded man returned to his garbage can, rooting around shoulder-deep. But the exchange stayed with her as they rode back. She’d found a church in Crescent, but she seldom got the chance to go; she didn’t like to bother Peter on his days off. He worked so hard. On their visits to Tama she thought of her attendance at Grace
Evangelical as a sort of inoculation, a booster shot to carry her
through next Christmas.

Outside the car the wind was blowing; Peter had to focus on the road. Lisa sang a little song to herself whose melody Irene didn’t recognize, then nodded off to sleep, and then the car was quiet, except for the engine and the sound of the wind.

This is what it said on the tract that the man eating from the garbage gave Irene:

And if thy hand serve as a snare to thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having thy two hands to go away into hell, into the fire unquenchable; where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot serve as a snare to thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life lame, than having thy two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire unquenchable; where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye serve as a snare to thee, cast it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire, where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt is become saltless, wherewith will ye season it? MARK 9:43–50

We are called as witnesses to the wickedness of the last generation; as it was in the days of Noah, so also shall be the coming of the Son of Man (MT 24:37). We are called to be light unto the world, but the world apprehends it not (JN 1:5). He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me (MT 10:40). Many are called ones, but few chosen ones, says the Lord (MT 22:14). We seek not Jehovah in the earthquake, nor the wind, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice that speaks to us after these things have passed (1 Kings 19:12). He who hears the Word of God is of God. If God did not want to speak to you, you could not hear (JN 8:47). It is no accident that you have received this tract today.

Answer the call of the Lord who speaks to you and reject this doomed generation. You are invited to join us in worship at

—and here the print broke off, and there was a space for the zealot to rubber-stamp the name and address of his local congregation: but the space on this one was blank.

There was a drawer at the house in Crescent named after a similarly purposed drawer she’d known from the dining room service at her grandmother’s house: the anything drawer. Things went there that weren’t ready to be thrown away—savings account passbooks, bifocals, buttons. The day after their excursion to Omaha, cleaning out her purse, Irene read over the verse from Mark on the front of the tract. She scowled mildly—it seemed a little dour— but tucked the tract down into the anything drawer. It wouldn’t take up much space. It didn’t seem proper just to throw it away.

Universal Harvester

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John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a New York Times bestseller, National Book Award nominee, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and widely hailed as one of the best novels of the year. He is the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and sons.

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