Blood and Dust

By Mitchell Nobis

Cal stomped the clutch, and the massive tractor lurched to a halt and disappeared in a tower of dust. There had been a metallic screech and a clunk, and he instinctually pulled it out of gear and eased back a hydraulic lever to raise the implement out of the dirt. He turned off the ignition, and in the new quiet, he could hear birds over by the creek. The dust billowed around the tractor. He sighed and put on his worn Tigers ball cap, took a swig of water from a dusty gallon milk jug, and once the wind blew the dust away, opened the cab and climbed down.

“Shit.”

The problem was obvious from fifteen feet away: The left wing of the front-folding bean drill had sprung a hinge again, causing the wing to drag at an angle. Any farther and the wing might have broken off altogether, let alone planted the beans in drunken, unsteady rows. It was a ridiculous breakdown, the result of inexcusably poor workmanship. Cal pulled out his cell phone.

“Ricky,” he said. “I broke down again. Same part. Yeah, I know, ‘reconditioned’ my ass. Yeah, get the old one and bring it out here so we can get rolling again today. I can’t move this one without screwing it up worse, so I’ll call Hector’s to let ‘em know they’re coming out to fix it here and for real this time. And for free.” He watched the birds and listened to Ricky. “Yeah, we’ll need both tractors here. I’ll stay and keep planting, so tell Dale to follow in a pickup so you’re not stuck out here.”

Irate, Cal made the phone call, reamed out the dealer, and when he finished, plopped down on the bean drill’s hitch bar. It was, by most regards, a perfect day. The sky was endless and blue with occasional clouds skirting past. Spring days like this used to elicit boyish excitement from Cal. He would stroll up to his workers in the morning and bellow, “We should be on the cover of a magazine today!” He must’ve said it a hundred times. Cal was still a good boss, a fair boss. He paid his workers well and treated them like professionals. One of his neighbors a few miles away paid his men low cash wages and worked them during planting and harvest seasons for 19 or 20 hours at a time without more than a piss break. Cal often wondered how the man could sleep after claiming to be a Christian in the daylight.

Gonna take Ricky awhile to get here, Cal thought as he watched a flock of Canadian geese fly overhead. Cal was working one of the distant properties, a good mile from any houses and about seven from the farmstead. Plus, a tractor pulling a bean drill can only go so fast in the first place. He knew he had to call his sister.

“Hey, we’re going late again. I’m broken down on the 80-acre way over by Johnson’s. I’ll have to go well past dark.” Cal was quiet for some time, listening to her and watching a fox skulk along the creek bank. “I know.” He paused and listened again. “Yeah, I know. Look, I’d like nothing more than to see her tonight, but I gotta get the beans in. We’re almost done. They keep saying rain’s coming, and without anything in the ground we get no money, you know.” His tone was dry. Cal went quiet again. His jaw tightened. “Dammit, I know she’s my daughter.  I also have to buy her clothes and food, y’know. Look, I’ll talk to you later.” Cal resisted the urge to see if he could throw his phone all the way to the creek. Instead, he set it down on a knobby tire and walked away, rubbing his head and kicking the dirt.

He made his way to the creek. Dry, sun-bleached stalks of last year’s pussy willows lined the creek bed on both sides.  A few trees grew along the creek too, and he watched a silver maple’s reflection ripple in the water. Cal wondered why everyone always said water was blue. The creeks were almost always brown. He remembered reading once about tannins leaching from roots into the water, or maybe he heard it on a field trip as a child. Either way, he had never seen a river or creek run more blue than brown.

Cal sat on the bank, rested his elbows on his knees, and stared down into the water. In the stagnant pockets behind branches or rocks, pollen gathered thick atop the water. He saw tadpoles dart about from under it and thought it seemed early for tadpoles, but there they were. It was spring again, and the world went on though he admitted to himself that until now, he hadn’t really noticed.

Cal realized he was tensing his muscles again, and he took conscious, long breaths. He’d had trouble breathing since the bank’s most recent round of calls. Several years of low crop prices were crushing the operation, so his advisor suggested doubling down, both playing the futures market and rotating crops based on those prices. This all made Cal’s chest tighten and stomach churn. Life only got more complicated over time, he thought, never less.

Thinking about crop prices made him antsy. He got to his feet and walked along the creek. He watched a turkey buzzard float lazy circles above a straggling oak tree out in the middle of the field, but he didn’t watch where he was going. His ankle twinged with quick pain as it caught and twisted into a hole. Cal barked and tumbled over. He grabbed his ankle.

“Goddamn woodchucks!” Cal groused to himself after sitting upright. He brushed the dirt off to check for swelling and left the boot on in case he had rolled the ankle or even sprained it. He moved his foot in circles against dull pain. On the rare afternoon that Cal was caught up with farm work, he brought his .22 to the fields and shot woodchucks. Their holes along the creek caused erosion and damaged his machinery. Since they were only doing what came naturally, he felt a moment’s regret when he plugged one, but it passed quickly. He put some pressure on the foot to test it. He couldn’t sit in this dirt all day, he thought, so he dragged himself upright. Cal stepped back tenderly on the foot, unzipped his fly, and loosed a steady stream of urine down the hole. It steamed in the spring breeze.

 Cal stumbled back to the tractor, walking off the tightness in his ankle. The ground north of the machinery was rough, but to the south and behind it, the soil lay furrowed with clean, straight rows, a fine seedbed for the beans if only rain would finish the deal. The ankle wasn’t badly hurt but ached enough to be an annoyance. He climbed up the ladder back into the cab, rooted through an oily cardboard box of tools, and pulled out a grease gun to freshen up the bean drill while he waited.

Climbing down gingerly, unable to put his full weight on the ankle, Cal wondered if Ricky was at least on the road yet. He hated down time when there was so much to do, especially when he was stranded out in the field. Cal ran through a mental checklist of everything that needed to be done before he could quit for the day. It was good that his sister could help because he wouldn’t be home till long after nightfall. Were he at the farmstead, he had plenty he could be doing. Ricky or Dale could grease the drill while he crunched numbers, he thought. But he wasn’t at the farmstead, so he turned his attention to the broken implement’s grease fittings.

He started at the front and then worked his way across the machine, crawling on the dirt and contorting to reach the secluded spots under the drill, a sprawling contraption of steel, tubes, discs, wheels, seed bins, grease, and magic. A horsefly buzzed nearby, so Cal pulled up his collar to protect his neck. He avoided the broken hinge but was pumping new grease into the other fittings when he realized he needed to lower the drill to prevent extra pressure from breaking off the hinge altogether. As he hurried himself backward and out from under the machine, Cal spotted a length of wire wound around an axle. This plot had turned up all sorts of discarded bits over the years. Lord knows what used to be here, Cal thought. Farmers could turn anywhere into a junk yard. He paused and yanked at the heavy wire to loosen it enough so he could unwrap it from the axle quickly, but it was a thick gauge and sharp on its broken, pointed ends. Cal braced his foot on a cross-bar and pulled harder. The wire jerked and slipped from his hands, gouging his right palm and the fleshy pad of his thumb. Cal inhaled between gritted teeth. The cut was deep. With the instant first look, he saw skin and muscle tissue separated cleanly in a straight line about three or even four inches long. He didn’t think he saw bone. The blood pooled and overflowed the cut’s ravine. Cal pressed his hand in his left underarm.

He pulled himself upright with his left hand and hobbled into the cab. His shirt wicked and spread a darkening expanse of blood. Using his unsure left hand, Cal dug through the box of tools and pulled out a utility knife. He also grabbed the thin roll of paper towels from behind the seat. After tearing off the dusty outside layer, he ripped off three feet of towel. He poured water from the jug over the cut, and quickly and clumsily, he folded up the paper towels and compressed the wad on his cut. The blood grabbed hungrily at the paper and stuck it to his wound. Cal then used the knife to cut off a shirtsleeve. He wanted to cut off his left and leave the right to keep the injured arm covered and warm, but that meant using his sliced hand to maneuver the knife. The thumb was useless. It couldn’t move, and he feared severed tendons. He laid the knife on his thigh and used his index finger to slide out the blade. Then, he gripped it with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers, directing it between his index and middle fingers to avoid putting pressure on the thumb.

He managed to hack off the left sleeve and tie it tightly around his right hand. To make sure it stayed put and to help seal if off from dirt, he wrapped it all with a few layers of duct tape. It wasn’t pretty, but it was better than nothing.

Cal realized his jaw was starting to spasm from gritting his teeth this whole time, so he took a steady, deep breath. Ricky’s on his way; he can plant, and Dale’ll be right behind in a pickup, he thought, so I’ll just head in with him and go get stitched. Cal cursed himself under his breath for not grabbing leather gloves out of the cab before greasing the drill. All he could do now was wait.

He turned the key and clicked on the radio. He punched the buttons until he got news. The market was down for the day. The governor announced new regulations at a press conference earlier. There were traffic jams over by Detroit. And the weather forecast remained the same as it had been all spring: warmer than average and dry but with rain on the way. The forecast had yet to manifest in actual rain. Cal sighed and clicked off the radio. He climbed back out of the cab and calculated that he had at least thirty more minutes until Ricky and Dale would get there.

The initial shock of the injury began to ebb, and the pain made Cal wince. In the bright sunlight, he inspected his bandaging job. It appeared to be staunching the flow, but it wouldn’t stay clean. Dust stuck to the bloody residue on his shirt, jeans, and makeshift bandaging. He had forgotten about the ankle, but he hobbled back to the creek’s oasis of moist green and lay down in the new-growth weeds and grasses. A dragonfly hovered over him for a long moment. Cal wondered how he looked to the bug, what the bug must think of him, but he decided the bug probably didn’t much care about him one way or the other. The wound throbbed.

Each pulse brought new pain, and Cal started to consider the possibilities. He didn’t think the cut was bad enough that he could bleed to death, but it could cripple his hand if he’d sliced tendons. A man can’t bleed to death from a four-inch cut, can he? Cal thought, and he wondered if he should stumble the mile to Johnson’s. The wind picked up, and Hal grew reflective lying in the grass. He hadn’t been a good father, in his estimation. He was practically an absentee parent, trying to raise their daughter alone while operating the farm. He worked 365 days a year and he knew that if it weren’t for his sister, he would’ve had to sell the farmstead and seek new work. Either that or make his daughter drop out of school to work for him. That would’ve been the only way he could see her and raise her in those circumstances, the only way he could be sure she was okay. Cal wasn’t sure if her staying at his sister’s so often wasn’t actually a good thing. He never felt like an adequate parent anyway, and this way she had a female to look up to, to learn from. Still, Cal ached when he thought of his child. The only thought he allowed himself of her mother was that it was a clear, dry day like this when they buried her. Yes, it was a day just like this, he thought. Cal snapped his head to the side, looking for more bugs or a plant or anything to prevent his thoughts from going down that road. He spied the dragonfly again. He watched the bug and watched the bug and breathed deliberately and evenly for several minutes and watched the bug. In time, Cal dozed off.

The horsefly’s buzz by his face jolted him awake. Cal leapt up, screamed from the electric pain in his hand, lurched away to avoid the horsefly, and tripped from his own sudden momentum. He fell and rolled down the bank, rolling over his hand twice. He doubled over and screamed again from pain. The flesh around the bandaging looked discolored, but that could just be blood and dust. When the pain subsided enough that he could breathe, he lifted his head and saw water. Had he rolled another foot, he’d have been soaked.

Then he couldn’t keep it back anymore. It was a day just like this when they buried her, a day just like this, and he looked at himself in the water. He clenched his teeth again and breathed rapid, shallow breaths. His eyes swelled and spilled for the first time in months. The tears coursed down his filthy cheeks, dripped off his chin, and fell into the creek. He gulped air and howled an unearthly, guttural wail as the day rolled over him.

After some time, he caught his breath and wiped his face with his right sleeve. He stared at his reflection for several exhalations, tucked his wrapped hand behind his back, and dunked his entire head under into the water. He kept it there. His cap floated off down the creek, and two deerflies zipped around it like scavenging satellites. Finally, Cal lifted his head out and water streamed off him, soaking his clothes and leaving trails in his dust. A shudder passed through him. He stumbled and rose.

Cal climbed up the creek bank. He saw dust rising to the north. It had to be Ricky and Dale, he thought. His hand pounded inside the wrapped sleeve and duct tape. He needed medical attention. He needed to hug his daughter, to thank his sister. He needed to get these beans in the ground, and he needed to figure out the market, how to buy or sell the future. The rain was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the new green of the creek bed all about him and thanked God that the dust cloud was getting closer.

About the Author: Mitchell Nobis is a writer and K-12 teacher in Metro Detroit. His poetry has appeared in HAD, Roanoke Review, No Contact Magazine, Porcupine Literary, and others. He is a co-director of the Red Cedar Writing Project and hosts the Wednesday Night Sessions reading series. Find him at @MitchNobis or mitchnobis.com.

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