If you happen to read The Orchard, you’ll know that I lived just outside the town of Burlington, Iowa, before moving to St. Paul, Minnesota. My place was located four miles out of town, up a steep and rutty dead-end road. At the bottom of the hill, before the challenging road, was a farm owned by a strange little man who wore nothing but brown jockey shorts that had once been white, striped tube socks, and tennis shoes. His name was Dewey, and I never saw him in anything but the shorts, although I assume he wore more clothing in the winter.
Dewey’s style of undress wasn’t unlike that of the Naked Bookseller immortalized by Lee Goldberg back in 2006.
Lee is the one wearing clothes.
Dewey sold ear corn out of his barn. A person could just drive into the barn, put a bag in her car, and leave money in a wooden box. I never ran into Dewey while buying corn to feed the squirrels. There were times I was sure he was in the house, and times I could tell he’d just been there. Like a bowl of milk left for the cats. The best way to get a halfway decent look at him was when he was walking his dog along the road, or when he was in the field on his tractor. I was told he wore the underwear to town, and that he’d been escorted out of the mall on more than one occasion. I was told the only person he liked was his mother, and she was dead.
He and I were both antisocial misfits, but I liked to think mine was temporary. I was healing, and I knew that one day I would emerge from my self-imposed exile ready to reconnect with the world. For Dewey, it wasn’t a phase. And I imagine when he was kicked out of stores, he didn’t see himself as the one who needed to conform.
One day I notice a lot of activity just across the road from his house, on the edge of a cornfield.
Dewey was building something.
Every time I passed, he was working away. Digging and prepping the ground with an end loader. Pouring cement. Tractoring in huge cement crosses that eventually made a fence. He painted them white. It took weeks. A monument? It looked like he was building a monument of some kind.
And then one day a metal archway arrived.
Dewey Byar Farms Forever.
I still wasn’t sure just what I was looking at. A monument to his farm?
A few weeks later, I drove by and saw something new inside the square of white cement crosses. A fresh mound of dirt. A grave. Flowers. And I realized Dewey had built a cemetery for himself. At home, I checked the obituaries and found that he'd died of cancer.
The evening before I moved from Iowa to St. Paul, I thought about the cemetery and rushed down the hill to take some photos before it got too dark.
Isn't it equal parts sad and fantastic?
And aren't people weird and wonderful?