Tractor

Beaver’s Pick
Jacoba Mendelkow


I am twenty-three. I leave the cool darkness of the house and step into the heavy sunshine. The light stings my eyes, and I shade them. I walk across the over-watered grass. I cross a patch of heavy clay dust, toward my grandfather’s tractor. The domed robin’s egg blue shed layers shade across the yard. Surrounding me are pieces of machinery, long since broken, littering the space just beyond the grass and the driveway. The combine my father was nearly killed in is hunched in the corner, ancient and broken. Old trucks, parts of tractors, pieces of sheds, and piles of trash litter my grandmother’s Nebraska farmyard. The old tractor stands alone. Rusted in places, majestic.

Tractor comes from the Latin, tractus, to draw. All of my life I have been drawn to the tractor and the world it represents. I don’t want to live on a farm or marry a farmer, but I know that there is a part of me so deeply ingrained that I can never really escape it. Somehow I am attached to it. I honestly don’t know why. I don’t know how hydraulics work or how much horsepower it takes to do a task. I don’t know what makes one person’s hay better than another’s when they look the same. I know nothing about the different brands of tractors and I don’t understand the difference between a combine or a swather. I do know that where there are tractors and men who know how to run them, this is where I belong. And even though I am lost as to the reasons why, this is my home.

I am three years old. We have left the farm, moved to Utah, and returned to visit. Grandma takes my picture. My brother is with me, along with one cousin. We climb the metal tires of the tractor and we fight over the seat. Grandma threatens us, and we all smile our genuine smiles for the camera.

I am six years old. We are home because Grandpa is dead. We wipe the tears from our faces and Grandma follows us out into the yard. We pass our dust hills where we play Matchbox cars; we look down as we walk to not step on one of Grandma’s beloved toads. Grandma loves her toads; she says that they keep the bugs down and keep her flowers “purty.” We cross the driveway, pass the sky blue shed, and soberly climb onto Grandpa’s tractor. My Grandpa is dead, but Grandma wants to mark this day. There are more than three of us now. There are seven. Our parents sit in the darkness of the house, talking about how to divide Grandpa’s things. Daddy will take his gun, the muzzle loader. His brother will take a shotgun. We children each get a keychain: “Mack R. Nutt, McCurdy Seed.”

Farming is a risky career choice. A farmer must rely completely on the weather during the entire year. A beautiful thunderstorm with lightning and hail can devastate a farmer, completely wiping out months of effort and draining bank accounts. A winter with too little snow will cause irrigation problems the next summer. The National Safety Council’s 1999 “Injury Facts” reports that agriculture is the second most dangerous industry in the nation. Deaths on farms are more than 22 per 100,000. Tractors are involved in 19% of the deaths that occur on farms each year, and seven percent of injuries require time in the hospital.
     My step-uncle was killed by his three-year-old daughter more than twenty years ago. The swather was broken and he was fixing it. While under the blades, his brown-eyed daughter kicked a lever. The blades fell and he was crushed. His eight-year-old son found him, his innocent daughter crying alone in the cab.

I am twelve, and my father has moved out. It was shocking and heartbreaking the day my blue-eyed, mustached father moved out of our log home. He had found a new woman to love, a woman with a new family, with an infant daughter who looks so much like me. My parents still fight, screaming at each other on the phone, name calling and swearing.
     My mother calls me at the neighbors, she tells me to pack myself a bag because we are going home. We drive through the night, my mother taking caffeine pills to stay awake. The “home” we find in the early morning hours, twelve blurry hours later, is my father’s childhood home. My grandma—the one my mother still calls “Mom”—embraces each of us. We all cry like there has been a death, and for us, there has been. My mother and father exist no more as they had for thirteen years. But we are comforted by the things that we remember: the flowers and the toads and the mounds of oat-colored clay, the kittens and the fields and dinners of Swiss steak and mashed potatoes. The blue shed has faded, but the turquoise steel still stands. The house is sticky, and the crickets sing at night. My mother cries in her former mother-in-law’s arms. We children play with newborn kittens wrapped in dishtowels. My grandfather’s grave is gaudy with silk flowers: blues and pinks and yellows. His headstone has a tractor engraved next to his name while Grandma’s name is alone except for her birthday. We stay only a few days but as children we know why we have come home. This is the place my mother remembers as her home. She needed to see the corn fields and breathe the moist air. She needed to be reminded. It reminds me of my father.
     Before we leave, we climb onto the tractor. I stand in front surrounded by my four brothers. The sky is grey with rain clouds that are threatening to cry, heavy with rain clouds threatening to release their weight, baptizing us with their cleansing and violent bursts. Grandma asks us to smile and we do, but our eyes are glistening because we are sad. Our smiles are no longer genuine but pained. We are missing something. Someone.

I am sixteen. My parents are divorced, and my mother has found out that a neighbor’s wife has left him. He is handsome and vulnerable. He is also a farmer and farms the patch of property west of our house in northern Utah. My backyard is large, weedy grass and few trees. The trampoline sits on the only level piece of the property. My mother wears a red bathing suit; she lies on the trampoline, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man in his tractor as he cuts the alfalfa. She hopes that he sees her—as near to naked as her strict morals will allow. She wants him to move first. I am forced to watch my mother want this man. I am subjected to her foolishness; I watch her, I call my friends, and we laugh at my crazy desperate mother.
     The man enters the piece of land next to our home. His tractor is red. The tractor ambles slowly into the waist high alfalfa and he begins to cut it. The grass falls in rows to dry; the sweet summer vapor fills the air.
     My mother has had enough waiting. She climbs off the trampoline and enters the house. Some minutes pass, and she is walking toward the shed to saddle her horse. She climbs on and rides into the field, her chestnut hair bouncing with each step the mare takes. Woman and horse trot up the hill and the man in the red tractor follows.

A country singer named Kenny Chesney recorded a song when I was a teenager. The song is called “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” “She thinks my tractor’s sexy” is repeated eight times in the song. The woman in the song brings the singer “a basket full of chicken and a big cold jug of sweet tea.” She is later mentioned as having a “dream,” a dream that consists of “a small farm and a yard full of kids.” I am not drawn to the dream of a farmer’s wife. I don’t want these things, yet I feel as though I am bound. I lived by the ocean for three years. I miss the smells of salt and fish and rotting sea weed. I miss smog and unsmiling, unfamiliar faces. And yet I came home. I came back to dirt and wheat and open acres of wild land. I cannot escape this.

I am a child at seventeen. My boyfriend drives a tractor. His tractor is new and is the color of over-watered grass. He farms for his aunt who allows him to live there as long as he stays out of trouble. No more beer parties, no more cigarettes and chewing tobacco. No more pot. He drives straight rows through the fields, cutting and chopping, slicing the sweet grass down like wounded soldiers. He sits in an air-conditioned green tractor and listens to the stereo play a Metallica CD. I see him at night and I smell his sweat and his hands. I search for the smell of the summer—the smell of cut alfalfa.
     I call him one day when he does not come to see me. I call to make sure that I am not forgotten. After all, I am in love. I call him again, again. My messages become angrier, each one shorter with more bite in my voice. He does not call back.
     My car drives fast, 75 miles an hour. 85 miles an hour. I am viciously angry, hating him because I know he is cheating. I can feel the knot in my stomach grow, and soon I am at his farm. I see his truck parked in the driveway, but this does not stop me. I want him to know how angry I am. I drive around the back of the house, past the feedlot of black and white cows. I spot his green tractor, dancing in the large alfalfa field with no trees. My stomach unknots. I turn the car around and go home. I wish that I could erase the messages I have left on his phone; I want the messages to disappear like the feelings of biting anger I felt only minutes before. I drive home slowly, my mind somewhere else. I am thinking about my mother on her chestnut mare. I hate that I am her, I hate her motivation and her love of farmers, I hate her temper and her persistence. I dread the phone call where I will be answering my lunacy—what am I going to say?

According to Vintage Farm Tractors by Ralph W. Sanders, the first tractor to use gasoline as fuel was invented by the Charter Gasoline Engine Company of Sterling, Illinois. The Charter Company, in 1887, developed a “gasoline traction engine”; the term “tractor” was later coined by other companies who manufactured this piece of farm machinery. The John Deere Company began manufacture of its most famous tractor, the Model B in 1934, as a 1935 model. This is the tractor owned by my grandfather. This is the tractor that stands alone rusting, documented each passing year with pictures, showing the passage of time like an elementary school student’s yearly photograph.
     My grandfather’s tractor allowed him to breathe the air he was affecting with the vapors of his tractor. I imagine a straw-hatted farmer wearing overalls as he leaves his home and climbs onto his tractor. I imagine him floating over Nebraska farmland with wheat-straw hanging from his lips. I see the seas of greens and golds, and I smell the air he breathes. His nostrils and lungs expand, his pores bleeding sweat and purity from the sweet summer air. Instead young men and women drive air-conditioned enclosed tractors. Music blasts in their ears while the science of harvesting sustenance follows behind them. Large rectangular summery bales drop from mechanized balers—sweet honey green bricks of animal feed.

Wendell Barry, agrarian writer and proponent for a return to the older ways of agriculture, says: “No matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the Earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh.” He beautifully describes his feelings as well as his argument in “Staying Home”:
     I will wait here in the fields
     to see how well the rain
     brings on the grass.
     In the labor of the fields
     longer than a man’s life
     I am at home. Don’t come with me.
     You stay home too.

I am twenty-three and my daughter is five. We have gone home to see Grandma, who is aging fast. Her mind and her body are strong, but her blood is old and her eyes are tired. She is suffering from macular degeneration. She has sold her cows and her hogs; she says that it is just too much for her anymore. But she is strong. She cleans offices once a week and runs the Senior Citizen Center. She meets her sister-in-law every day at four for a Coke at the Co-op. She watches TV from far away, never really knowing what is going on, and plays Frisbee with her dog, Spook.
     The house smells like dust and Lysol and Dove soap. It warms me and reminds me of Thanksgivings, and Matchbox cars, and oatmeal mush for breakfast. The flowers bloom without care every year, reds and pinks and purples and lush greens exploding from the fertile soil. The toads, perhaps the children or grandchildren of my childhood toads, lie on the cool earth beneath the flowers. When it rains, it is necessary to look down before each step—Grandma gets angry when you hurt a toad, especially if you step on one. My daughter dances under the same sunshine and on the same grass I knew when I was a child. She runs with the dog, she catches the wild kittens, she plays in the fine dust of the driveway. She climbs the old tractor in the yard and sits on the rusted metal seat. She always gets the seat, she is the only one left. I stand next to the tractor to watch my child play with the levers. I laugh as she tries to force the rusted steering wheel to move. We look up, and we smile at my aging beautiful Grandma without being asked. Snap. One more year together and another (perhaps the last) visit is recorded in a photo.

pencil

“I am a graduate student in American Studies at Utah State University where I am the editorial fellow for Western American Literature and the editorial assistant for Isotope: A Journal of Literary Science and Nature Writing.” E-mail: jmendelkow[at]english.usu.edu