The Great Depression is well underway and a days-long FBI stakeout on Kansas farmland is about to come to an abrupt and tragic end.
The tedium of both farmland and stakeout is shattered when “a glint of chrome radiator … turned into a full-blown automobile, swinging alongside the house, roaring to a stop, rocking heavily as it disgorged three men.”
. . . As [the bank robber trio] charged forward, they felt keenly, albeit intuitively, the way surveillance compressed time, tightening it in — days of inaction punctuated only by occasional shit breaks, piss breaks, smoke breaks and drink breaks, food breaks and stretch breaks interrupted only by small, inconsequential peripheral actions observed. (City men came into a farm scene like fire through ice, [the agent] would think later. They had that city jaunt, whereas we had forgotten the way time worked outside the confinement of the farm.)
(David Means, “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”, in the New Yorker, October 25, 2010)
This small-time gang is out of place, overpowering the countryside’s calm. The men are looking for old buried loot and will brook no opposition to their quest. Their brash city manner is made up of equal parts attitude and ammunition.
And yet, despite the use of deadly force, their inherent vulnerability (pitiable in contrast) is revealed:
They had an elegant disregard for the landscape that came from the fact that most of them had been born and raised on farms or in dusty small towns, and had pushed that part of their lives behind them, learning how to stand in the city, adjusting cuffs, snapping hat brims, touching ties while shrouding their true intentions in wisecracks, moving around constantly in order to belie the static silence of the scene at hand.
Would anything grow on a farm without roots? Does anyone flourish by denying theirs?