A Madison County Journal
Now that The Bridges of Madison County is a major motion picture, even more millions will be moved (one way or another) by the story of the romantic interlude between Francesca Johnson, the lonely, semi-Italian Iowa farm wife, and Robert Kincaid, the hard-bodied bridge photographer. Not many know, however, that Richard Johnson, Francesca's husband, also left a record of his perspective on those events, in a journal dated April 1, 1967. It stands as a poignant midwestern counterpoint to the hedonistic events celebrated in Robert James Wallers's "novel." It had been going on for a few years, ever since I started showing our livestock over at the Illinois State Fair, back in the early sixties. One time it was a softball player, lost, looking for the Madison County Slow-Pitch tournament that was held in early August back in those days. Once it was a bible salesman. Once, a Fuller brush man. There may have been others. I'm not sure, but I usually chalked it up to her drinking problem and the tough life she'd lived after she came over here from Italy with me after the war. Besides, I didn't want to let the kids know there was anything wrong. There'd never been any mental illness in the Johnson family before, so I may not have handled it right; but I tried, I really did. But '65 was the worst, and I had to quit going to the Illinois Fair after that. In '65, it was some hippie photographer from Washington State. I could have figured that out later, but the guys down at the cafe told me about him: said he had a beat-up pick-up that ran rough; hair down over his ears and collar; a gold chain around his neck; wearin' one of those forty-dollar designer work shirts and big bright orange suspenders, like some urban cowboy. Sweated a lot, the guys said, even when he came in the air-conditioning at the Rodeo Tap to buy those bottles of Bud, and when he sat out on the square and ate those weird lunches--apples and cereals, mostly, with Cokes from the cafe, to go, with no tip. Anyway, I knew something was up as soon as Michael and Carolyn and me got back home that Friday night from Springfield. The house smelled like a smoke-house, first of all, like Frannie had maybe had her AA group over every night for a week while me and the kids were gone. I knew she hadn't had a cigarette in years, although she used to smoke quite a bit over there in Italy, and here, early on, when she was homesick and moonin' a lot and drinkin' quite a bit. But I knew it wasn't any AA group. There were those Bud bottle caps all over the back yard, and half a bottle of brandy gone, and one dead wine bottle in the garbage can, and a full one out in the spring house, cooling off, I suppose, which Frannie probably forgot after she started in with the hippie. And, of course, another new dress in the closet, just like the other times. She'd gone to Des Moines again, it looked like, and got a pink one this time, with this low neck line, like she was goin' to the prom or something, and another pair of fancy sandals, and the bedroom smellin' like a whore house from all the fancy perfume, even over that sickening smell of old cigarettes. I got the bills for all this stuff later, of course, which Frannie always seemed to forget would happen. And the left-overs in the fridge: those awful stuffed peppers without any meat in them; spinach, not even cooked, in a salad; some kind of fancy applesauce dessert. Not a scrap of food you'd even want to feed your dog. I knew Frannie hadn't been eatin' alone all week. Just like the other times, Frannie was "too tired" to come to bed with me when I got home. 'Course, she always claimed she was tired, or headachey, or whatever, except for the times she'd just push me away and say my hands were too rough and calloused and my belly was so soft it made her sick. You try bailin' and diggin' fence posts and wrestlin' live stock all day and see if your hands stay soft, I'd say; or maybe try havin' a decent breakfast ready in the morning, so I don't have to go into town every day and load up on biscuits and gravy so I can keep at it through lunch time without my stomach growling. So I just quit tryin', a couple years earlier. Just turned on the TV to make me sleepy every night, while she sat out in the kitchen readin' poetry. Yates, I think she said, was the one she liked best, which I could never understand when she used to read it out loud to me, when we first got married. The boys down at the cafe said the guy was a photographer--that he'd asked where all the covered bridges was, and ran around with these knapsacks full of film and cameras and stuff. Said he'd booked a week at the Hawkeye Motor Court, but only stayed there about two nights even though he'd paid in advance. So I wondered what was gonna end up clutterin' up our bedroom and closet this time. A month or so after the softball tournament (back in '62 I think it was) we got this big box, with an old first baseman's mitt and a Louisville Slugger in it, only where the players' names should have been on the mitt and bat, the guy had burnt 'em out and wrote "Francesca," like she had endorsed 'em or something, and a little note attached to the bat that said, "for whom my hardness is like a bat. I am the diamond and a peregrine, and all the balls that sail over the fence." And tucked up in the webbing of the mitt was a Xeroxed copy of the note she left on the corner of the dug-out, before the quarter-final game of the tournament: "If you'd like supper again when `white moths are on the wing,' come by tonight after the last of the ninth." Same basic note she left for all of them. And the bible salesman had sent some special edition of the Good News bible, along with some pamphlets and "Portals of Prayer," and the bible was inscribed "To Francesca, who made my hardness holy," and a Xerox of her dinner invitation tucked in between the Old and New Testaments, only to him she wrote to come by after the evening prayers. The Fuller brush guy sent this box of samples--all kinds of brushes and waxes and a convertible mop/broom--with "To Francesca" burnt on to the mop handle, and a note taped to an all-purpose cleaner bottle that said something about how he wanted her to travel with him and make love in a soybean field and drink whiskey sours on a patio in Cedar Falls and watch fishermen wet their lines in the first winds of morning on Lake Panorama (that's clear over in Guthrie County) and travel the fertile plains of Indiana and stay hard by doing a hundred push-ups a day. And how he was the last of his breed, which I think was true, because we haven't seen a Fuller man around here for a couple of years now. Well, in a few months after that '65 fair, I saw how it would be this time. We started getting the National Geographic all of a sudden, which we hadn't got since the kids were in grade school when we thought it would broaden their minds. I asked Frannie what she wanted that for, since she had never read it when we used to get it. Then I see on the cover of the latest one this picture of Elmer Vander Ven, from over near Patterson, drivin' his team of Belgians over Hogback Bridge, and it all clicked into place. "Story and pictures by Robert Kincaid," it said, and there was this picture of him as a contributor--the long hair, and the designer shirt and the gold chain and those dumb orange suspenders. And sandals! The guys down at the cafe hadn't said anything about the sandals. "Franny," I said. "Where you gonna put those? You know how Geographics are. They keep coming in and piling up, and nobody will throw them away because they look too pretty and you think you'll read 'em but you never do. My god, between the baseball stuff and the bibles and the Fuller samplers, we won't have any room to move up here." So she promised she'd make room. She put the box with the first baseman's mitt and the Louisville slugger up in the attic, and the bibles and "Portals of Prayer" in the basement, and the Fuller collection out in the shed. I put all those dresses and sandals that had only been worn once into a box, and I took them down to the Goodwill on my way down to the Rodeo, to get the deposits on all those empty Bud bottles. I figured someone should get some wear out of the clothes, at least, since Franny would never let Carolyn wear any of the dresses. Now, for a while, there's room for the Geographics, but that won't last long. I think they reproduce if you leave them in piles too long. I'm not sure how it will turn out, but I do want to make life easier for Frannie, since her mind seems to be going pretty fast. That's why I quit goin' off to Springfield for the fair, though. The house was gettin' too junked up, and the neighbors was feelin' more and more sorry for me, although they understood about Frannie, who just kept gettin' weirder and weirder, talkin' about messages from some guy called the ice man, from some place called Dimension Z. I'll try to stick it out for the kids' sake. But pretty soon they'll both be off to college and on their own, and maybe I can get Frannie into some place where she can get some professional help.