I’m sixty-two years old. Like most my age, I suppose, there are a number of things I regret. For some reason, one occupies a particular place for me. It’s not the most significant or memorable in my life, or even very notable in and of itself. But, when I think of it, something different falls in me, something irretrievable.
It occurred between my junior and senior years of college at UC Santa Cruz. I shared a rambling old rental house downtown with four other guys who played with me on the school’s basketball team. One was my best friend Mike. We’d been high school teammates over the hill in San Jose, and then were happy to keep playing together in college. The house had four bedrooms; Mike and I had our own and the other guys shared. We all became pretty close spending that much time together. We kept the place over the summer, but except for Mike and me, the rest of our housemates left during the break for jobs at home or to travel. He and I stayed to keep up the yard service business we’d started when we were sophomores. It wasn’t much, but it helped pay the rent, and we could build a flexible work schedule to accommodate classes and practices.
One of our housemates, Drew, grew up over the hill, too, in Menlo Park. Our high schools had been in the same league, so we’d played against each other before becoming college teammates. He was a nice, easy-going guy who’d had the same girlfriend, Claire, since middle school. She’d just transferred to UC Santa Cruz the semester before so they could be together and rented a room in a house around the corner with some other female students from school. Drew was spending the summer at home working for his dad, as he had for years during school breaks, painting houses. But he was about to take his annual July trip to Montana to help bring in the hay on his aunt and uncle’s farm. He asked me if I wanted to come with him to help, and I said sure. Mike was fine with handling the yard business alone for the ten days or so that I’d be gone.
We were scheduled to leave early on a Saturday. I was going to drive over the hill, pick up Drew, and then we’d make the trip in my old Volkswagen Beetle. I went to a party the night before and came home late. The light was on under Mike’s bedroom door when I passed it, and I could hear voices laughing quietly inside. One was a woman’s. That surprised me because of Mike’s shyness; to my knowledge, he’d never had a girlfriend or even been intimate with a woman before.
Later that night, I heard a rustling in the kitchen and got up to see what it was. Mike and Claire were standing with their arms around each other and their backs to me looking into the refrigerator. They were both naked. Their heads turned when I came into the room, but they made no movement to cover themselves.
“We’re looking for something to eat,” Mike said.
I stood blinking. The white light from the refrigerator’s interior was like a beacon across them in the darkness. Claire pulled a stray strand of blonde hair behind an ear.
“We were hungry,” she added.
I nodded, then returned to my bedroom and shut the door.
I left in the morning before they were up. Drew was waiting on his front step with a rucksack and sleeping bag at his feet as I pulled into the driveway. When he climbed in the car, he gave me one of his big, goofy grins and tossed his stuff in the seat behind him.
“Ready for this?” he asked.
He pointed up the road and said, “Tally ho.”
His brown eyes were clear and, like always, full of hope. He’d told me often before how much he looked forward each year to this trip. He’d been making it since he was thirteen and had become big enough to help.
“Wait until you see those mountains,” he said. “The Beartooths. They look like they’re biting right into the sky. Unbelievable.”
He kicked off his sandals, leaned his mop of sandy-colored curls back against the headrest, and put his feet up on the dashboard. I watched him close his eyes. I was glad because I didn’t want to engage in more conversation with him; I didn’t know what, if anything, to say to him about the night before, and I was afraid my words or expression would indicate that something was amiss. By the time I got on the freeway, he was sound asleep.
We spent that night in a cheap hotel outside of Wells, Nevada. It began raining the next morning as soon as we crossed into Idaho. The big canopy of sky was solid gray in all directions.
“Well, there you go,” Drew said. “My uncle told me they’ve been battling this on and off for weeks. Wettest summer in as long as he can remember.”
“Can they hay in this?”
“They’ve been cutting and baling in little windows when it stops and the sun dries things out. They staggered field planting in the spring so they don’t have a single window when they have to bring it all in, but he says timing things has been a real challenge. They started on it earlier than usual because of that, even before some of it was full height.”
It kept raining most of that day. We stopped for lunch at a lookout along the western edge of Yellowstone National Park but were planning on camping there on our way back, so we stayed steady afterwards until Bozeman where we had dinner. It was already getting dark and the rain had stopped as we came upon the outskirts of Livingston.
Suddenly, Drew said, “There they are.”
I looked into the distance where he pointed. The dark gray sky had cleared a bit in the gloaming, and snaggly tips of mountains that did resemble teeth emerged as we rounded a bend, still snowcapped on the highest peaks and expanding off towards the southeast. They seemed impossibly high.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I know.”
We followed the Yellowstone River for the next couple of hours, then headed south at the hamlet of Joliet through endless fields and finally entered the one main street of Red Lodge at the base of the mountains. His aunt and uncle’s farm was ten miles farther on, heading towards Billings, and down a long gravel track. It was well past ten when we arrived, and the farmhouse was dark, the barn was dark, all the outbuildings were dark and still. I parked off the turnaround under a maple tree. We stepped outside where light rain had resumed. I followed Drew between the house and a barnyard with its sweet-sour stink of manure and the sound of cows’ tails swishing from inside the barn. He led us to a little silver tag-along trailer where the backyard met the fields alongside a big mounded vegetable garden. We ducked inside the trailer through its screen door and both had to stay a little stooped to avoid the ceiling. Drew switched on a light over a small kitchenette sink. All the little windows had been slid open, but the cramped space smelled moldy.
“Here we are.” He grinned. “Home sweet home.”
Drew was up early before me the next morning. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still a sheet of gray. I headed towards the barn where I could hear Drew’s voice along with an older man’s. They were walking toward me together in the dim light when I came inside, each carrying a tall pail of milk thicker and more yellow than what was sold in the store. They set their pails down when they got to me. It was already warm, the air thick with humidity.
Drew said, “Uncle Onni, this is my friend, Adam.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said and stuck out his hand. I shook it. He was a small man, perhaps sixty with a dusting of salt and pepper hair. He wore wire-rimmed spectacles stretched over his ears, coveralls, and black rubber boots. He smiled and said, “You got up at the right time. We just finished. Elli should have breakfast ready.”
I recognized the faint Finnish accent that Drew had told me about and that he said neither his aunt nor uncle had completely lost even after forty years. A few minutes later, the three of us were seated around a table in the farmhouse’s dining room eating from plates heaped with scrambled eggs, pork chops topped with brown sauce and scallions, rutabaga casserole, and rye toast. Elli didn’t sit with us, but busied herself back and forth from the kitchen bringing more food, refilling coffee cups from a percolator, and clearing dishes. She was the same slight size as her husband, her gray hair tight in a bun, and wore a faded housedress with a pattern of flowers. She moved quickly and with purpose.
“This is delicious,” I told her.
She gave me a small smile.
“Those rutabagas came from her garden.” Onni gestured with his fork towards the backyard. “And the pork chops were running around the barnyard last fall. We harvested the rye, too. She bakes new bread every morning.”
I chewed in a manner I hoped looked appreciative and nodded to them both.
“But, you wouldn’t often have eggs for breakfast in Finland,” Onni said. “We’ve adapted. Maybe piirakka or cranberry pudding instead.”
His wife nodded, kissed his cheek, and hurried back into the kitchen. A rumble of thunder came from the near distance. Onni turned in its direction and shook his head. Drew and I turned and looked, too, until he resumed eating and we followed his lead. A few minutes later, the first raindrops splattered outside, and soon after, a soft downpour began.
“Shucks,” Drew said.
His uncle’s lips pursed into a tight line.
Drew asked, “How much have you been able to bring in?”
“Well, all the timothy,” his uncle said. He spoke quietly. “There was a little dry spell at the end of June when we got that. And most of the rye a couple weeks later. But the big fields of alfalfa are still uncut. And that’s where most of the money is. We’ve sold it all, if we can get to it.” He set his fork down and gazed outside the window. “We aren’t going to do any today, that’s for sure. So, why don’t the two of you get Leo to take you fishing up in the mountains and bring us home dinner?”
As if on cue, the front door opened, and a man about thirty and a head taller than Onni came inside. He closed the door and stomped his work boots on the mat. He wore jeans, a plaid shirt, a faded ball cap with a John Deere insignia on the front, and several days of stubble across his cheeks and chin. He had the same blue eyes as Elli and Onni’s small smudge of mouth.
“Leo,” Drew said. A big grin had spread across his face as he stood. The two of them embraced, clapping each other on the back.
“Son,” Onni said. “I was just saying that you ought to take Drew and his friend fishing today. It’s supposed to rain again steady, so we won’t be seeing the fields.”
“But I was going to help you with that machinery.”
Onni made a face and waved him off. “Nothing I can’t do myself.”
Leo’s own grin grew. “Well, you don’t have to convince me.” He looked my way. “So, you’re Adam.”
I nodded and we shook hands.
“Take them up West Fork Road to Wild Bill Lake,” Onni said. “I heard they’re biting there or any of those tributaries along that stretch.”
His son nodded and said, “Sounds good.” His eyebrows lifted. “Fellas?”
“Sure,” Drew said, and I nodded, too.
“I’ll go get the gear ready.” Leo clapped Drew on the shoulder, and walked out the way he’d come.
The three of us returned to our breakfasts. After we finished, Drew asked if he could make a collect phone call. His uncle said sure and pointed to the phone on the wall just inside the doorframe that joined the dining room and kitchen. Onni and I sipped our coffee while he dialed. Drew stood just behind my shoulder, close enough that I could hear the operator say that she had a collect call for Claire Douglass. I heard a young woman’s voice respond that Claire wasn’t there and decline the charges. Drew hung up, and I watched him frown.
“That’s funny,” he said. “It’s hardly past seven. She’s never up this early.”
I looked away, sipping at my coffee cup.
Two hours later, Drew, Leo, and I were spaced out on a stretch of champagne-clear stream that was bracketed on both sides by boulders and tall pines. We all wore chest waders and ponchos that Leo had provided and were casting with small lures against a dark, deep bank littered here and there with fallen trees. The hoods of our ponchos were up against the light rain.
We worked our way upstream as the morning went on. Leo got the first hit a little before ten. He set the hook with a little yelp, and we saw his rod bend into a quivering arch. Drew and I brought our own lines in and watched him fight the fish for five minutes or so, backing it up to a short, pebbly beach. Drew netted it when it was almost to shore. After Leo dislodged the lure, he lifted the fish by a gill. It was a fifteen-inch rainbow, its firm belly glistening with color even in the rain.
“That’s a nice fish,” Drew said.
“It’ll do,” his cousin replied, but the look on his face showed pride.
Drew asked, “Just rainbows here, then?”
“Mostly. But, they’re getting some brownies, too.”
He bent down, whacked the trout’s head with a palm-sized rock, and the fish went still. He dropped it in the creel that was strapped around his waist, closed its flap, and we waded back out into the cold, fast-moving water.
By one, the rain had stopped, and a corner of sun had peeked around the jumble of clouds. We’d each caught fish by then and had accumulated a half-dozen rainbows and one fat brown trout in the creel.
For lunch, we sat leaning against flattened boulders at a spot where the stream entered a wide meadow fronting a wall of mountains that climbed almost vertically into the sky. The meadow’s grass was deep green and ankle high, sprinkled with wildflowers, shimmering wet and wafting a fresh scent in the brightening sunlight. The stream narrowed through the center of it, flat, quiet, and gentle-flowing. Several birds lifted from the grass and flew off towards the mountains disappearing into the mass of granite. I couldn’t remember seeing anything lovelier. We ate the thick sandwiches and sipped the lemonade that Elli had packed and looked out over the expanse in silence.
“Well,” I finally said to Leo,” you live in quite a place.”
He nodded. “Yeah, we’re lucky.”
“I told you,” Drew said to me.
I nodded slowly, gazing back and forth. “You were right. You were definitely right.”
We were quiet again as the early afternoon continued to warm. We’d taken off our ponchos. A little steam had begun to lift off the meadow.
Drew pointed towards the sun that had emerged fully between clouds. “You think this will last?”
Leo shrugged. “Not supposed to, but you never know.” He balled up the wax paper his sandwich had been in. “What say we walk back and head up to Wild Bill Lake? Try our luck at the intake. We’ve done okay there before.”
“I remember,” Drew said, his hopeful eyes widening.
We only caught another couple of fish at the lake before calling it a day when it began raining again mid-afternoon. We packed the fish in a cooler of ice in the back of Leo’s pickup and drove into Red Lodge where he stopped at one of its handful of bars. All of them along that lone street looked the same: narrow, long, with open doors dark against the daylight and heat. We drank beer while Drew and Leo caught up on family news. Drew’s father had followed Onni over a couple of years after he and Elli immigrated; he’d helped on the farm for a short time before marrying Drew’s mother and moving to the Bay Area where her friend’s husband had the house painting business.
At one point, Leo asked Drew about Claire. I knew she’d come with him there on a few of his trips over the years.
“She’s good,” Drew said. “Taking summer classes right now. She transferred to our school.”
“That’s what I heard.” Leo took a sip of beer. “So, how long have the two of you been together now?”
Drew moved his fingers counting. “Seven years. No, eight.”
“Hell, that’s longer than most marriages.”
They both chuckled and clinked bottles. We were sitting together on stools at the bar, Drew in the middle. Leo leaned forward to look over at me. “Adam,” he said, “you know Claire?”
“What do you think?”
I nodded a couple of times, then said, “She’s great. Terrific.”
“Too good for this big lunk.”
Leo cuffed his cousin on the arm. The two of them laughed some more. I swallowed off the rest my beer and signaled the bartender for another round.
We got back to the farm a little after five. Leo pulled his truck up in front of his mobile home that I hadn’t noticed when we drove in the night before. It was tucked back onto a little patch of grass next to a tall rectangular stack of hay the size of a couple of eighteen-wheelers. The stack stood just up the gravel track from the barn with tarps across the top that were cinched down with a collection of ropes and bungie cords.
Leo’s wife, Debbie, came out to meet us with their baby boy on a hip. She was big-boned and dressed in shorts and a sleeveless blouse. She clapped her hands when she saw the fish we’d caught, and the boy did the same. Leo lifted his son into the air and nuzzled his tummy with the tip of his nose; the boy squealed with delight. The rain had become a drizzle but hadn’t stopped since we’d left the lake.
The three of them joined us at the farmhouse for dinner. Along with the fish, Elli prepared beetroot salad and boiled potatoes from the garden. After dinner, the men all headed to the sauna that was built against the far side of the barn. Even at eight o’clock, the temperature was still in the mid-seventies, but Drew had told me that it was a nightly tradition. Onni ladled water liberally and often over the heated rocks inside the close, redwood-paneled room where we all sat sweating on benches with towels draped across our thighs. He told me that in the winter, they’d sometimes go back and forth outside to hop in the snow.
Afterwards, we took turns showering in the two stalls that adjoined the sauna, changed into clean clothes, and gathered in the living room again for rhubarb pie and cold, fresh milk. It was a little past nine when Leo and his family left. Before we went to our trailer, Drew asked if he could use the phone again.
“Sure,” Onni said. “But don’t worry about reversing the charges. Just go ahead and make your call. Say hi to Claire for us.”
We all said goodnight and the two of them climbed the stairs to their bedroom. I walked out through the kitchen door leaving Drew alone inside. It was still drizzling, but there were a handful of stars in the wide, wide sky off to the east. I hadn’t even completely undressed before Drew came into the trailer.
“Hell,” he said. “Not there again. Another housemate answered this time.”
He sat down on the edge of his own bed. He lowered his head and clasped his hands between his knees. I thought again then of telling him something about what I’d seen in our kitchen the night before we left. But I was hoping that it would be over by the time we got back, that he and Claire would be together again, and that he’d never have to know anything had happened. My reasoning, as faulty as it may have been, was that it would be better not to upset him with something he might not ever have to deal with.
He looked up at me. I just shrugged, continued undressing down to my boxers, and climbed under the sheet. I left the light for him to turn off. The rain falling on the tin roof sounded like tiny grains of sand.
Except for the twitter of birds and the rustle of a stiff breeze, I awoke the next morning to stillness. When I opened my eyes, I could see white-blue sky above the line of pink dawn through the window above my bed. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and smiled.
As I came into the farmhouse kitchen, the radio on the counter was playing low. I joined Onni and Drew at the dining room table. They were already eating breakfast; Leo was there, too, drinking coffee. There was excitement on Onni’s face as well as his son’s. Elli put a plate of food down in front of me and poured me coffee. I thanked her and said, “So, the weather…it’s good, right?”
“Damn right, it is,” Leo said. His grin showed crooked teeth. “Radio report says it should keep up like this about three days before we get more rain. That’s not much of a window, but it’s supposed to stay hot and this breeze will help a lot.”
“Let’s finish eating and get all the machinery checked over,” Onni said between chews. “Grease up what I didn’t get to yesterday. I finished the mower, all the cutter bar parts. But, we need to do the rake and the baler. And the big conveyer. Drew, you and Adam walk up to our neighbor Hank’s. He’s done bringing in the little bit of acreage he keeps for hay and is just waiting on his wheat. He can’t help us because he busted his wrist, but he’s lending us a tractor and hay wagon. That will speed up our operation. The two of you bring it over. Called him earlier and he’s expecting you.”
“The Culbert twins ready like last year?” Leo asked.
His father nodded and took his last bite. “I called their dad, too. They’ll work the conveyer here and build the big stacks again; Deb can help when she’s not tending to the baby. Drew and Adam will be on the hay wagons; Elli will shuttle those back and forth with my pick-up. If all goes well and the fields dry out enough, you and I can try cutting a few acres around noon, rake before dinner, and see what we’ve got. If it’s dry enough, then you’ll run the baler tomorrow morning while I cut and rake ahead of you. Providing the weather holds, that is.” He looked out the window. The curtains there blew inside the room on the warm, sunlit breeze.
Elli’s voice came from the kitchen. We heard her say, “God willing, it does.”
When we got back to the farm later that morning with the loaned tractor and hay wagon, Onni sent Drew and me out in his truck to repair some barbed wire fencing that the cows had damaged. That was something Drew had done before, so I just held wire taut or fence poles in place while he did the rest. We got back to the farmhouse about the same time as Onni and Leo returned from cutting their trial acres.
After lunch, we helped Elli weed the garden and harvest a few vegetables, then drove into Red Lodge to the hardware store to pick up baling wire and a few other supplies. The heat had stayed intense with a dry, furnace-like breeze all day, so Drew made a turn on the way back on an empty sidetrack where we stopped, stripped off our clothes, and took a dip in one of the irrigation ditches.
A little before five, Onni and Leo chugged off in their tractor with the rake hitched behind them. I helped Drew with the evening milking, though I wasn’t much assistance because I could rarely get the right tension pulling the teats. The cows quickly became restless with me, so I mostly lugged the pails Drew filled to the holding tank, tossed new hay into the feeding troughs, and fed the pigs and chickens.
We heard the tractor returning maybe an hour and a half later as we were finishing. We walked out in front of the barn and watched Onni and Leo approach. Onni drove, and Leo stood on the running board next to him holding on to the back of his father’s seat. Their faces were in shadow, but both gave us a thumb’s up; Onni shook his.
Drew took the first shower after the sauna that night so he could try calling Claire again. We were all heading off to bed right away because of the early start we had planned for the next morning. But Drew was already in the trailer after I finished showering, sitting against the wall on his bed writing in a notebook. He looked up at me as I closed the screen door.
I asked, “Any luck?”
He shook his head. “No, same as the last two calls. I know she has midterm papers due, so she’s probably spending all her time up at the university library. She likes to do her studying there.”
I nodded and said, “Sure.”
“So, I’m writing her a letter instead.” He showed me the page he’d been writing. Even glancing at it quickly, I could see the words “miss” and “love” written several times.
I nodded again, then undressed, and got in bed under the sheet. I turned away from him and could hear the scratch of his pen on the paper.
“That light bother you?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it.”
I heard him resume writing and pulled the pillow up over the side of my face.
By eleven that next morning, we’d finished baling most of the trial acres. Once Drew and I finished stacking and filling a wagon, Leo stopped the tractor and used a yoke stand they’d welded together under the wagon arm to exchange the full one with the empty on the back of the big pickup that Elli drove. Then she shuttled the load back to the farm where the teenaged twins and Debbie were building the first big stack, and an hour or so later, we’d do the same thing over again. We could hear Onni cutting in another field not far away but couldn’t see him.
The day was even hotter than the previous one. The rectangular bales weren’t completely dry, so they were heavier than normal, sixty or seventy pounds each. They gave off a musty, dank odor. The work was hard but had a steady rhythm to it. The cut and raked alfalfa lay in neat, straight rows about two feet wide, and those rows lay the width of the mower apart in the stubble. Leo kept the tractor crawling forward over the center of the row, and the baler behind him collected the hay, compressed it into a rectangular block, wrapped and secured it in baling wire, and then pushed it onto the teeth of a short conveyer belt that inched it along to where it met the hay wagon. Drew and I took turns meeting the bales there, swinging our baling hooks into the middle of their two short sides and lugging them back to the next spot on the hay wagon. From field to its place on the wagon, a bale took about twenty seconds to finish, which, except for an occasional pull off the ice water thermos Elli kept refilling for us, kept Drew and me in constant, plodding motion. We built crisscrossed rows with gaps of an inch or so between each bale to allow for airflow and further drying because of the extra moisture. The stack reached as high as the rear framing and then descended by a row each like stairs as the stack approached the front of the wagon. I’d sweat through my T-shirt before we filled the first wagon and the sun hadn’t even reached the tops of the cottonwood trees in the distance.
We stopped for the lunch Elli brought out about noon. She, Onni, and Leo went off in the truck to check on how dry the hay was in the first field that had been cut and raked that morning. Drew and I found a little spot of shade on the side of the tractor and huddled together in it sitting against the running board to eat. Before he lowered himself beside me, Drew poured ice water over the back of his head, shuddered, and shook it.
We ate slowly, looking out over the field’s remaining unbaled rows in the stubble. The mountains loomed off in the distance, craggy, stretching up into a cloudless blue sky. Neither of us spoke until we’d finished our sandwiches when Drew said, “You know, I really love her.”
I glanced his way. He was looking straight out at the fields and mountains. He nodded a few times, then said, “This spring and summer have really cemented things for me. First, being together at school, then apart when I went home to work and she stayed in Santa Cruz.” Without warning, he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Claire, I miss you so damn much!”
There was no echo afterwards, just the soft, hot breeze and the sound of him blowing out a long breath. He turned and looked at me. “I’m going to propose to her.” He said it evenly. “I am. As soon as we get back. I bought a ring just before the term ended. It’s in my bedroom bureau in Santa Cruz.”
I felt myself staring and my eyebrows beginning to knit together. I turned away, shook my head, and mumbled, “Wow.”
“It’s time,” he said quickly. “Hell, you heard Leo in the bar: we’ve been together longer than most people stay married. We both graduate in June, so then we’ll be ready for our next chapter.”
A feeling of dread had spread up through me. I felt numb. I heard myself ask, “Do you really think you’re ready? I mean, you’re barely twenty-one.”
“We’re older than our parents were when they got engaged.”
I looked over at him. The usual hopefulness was in his eyes, but there was certainty there, too. I said, “You’re sure about this.”
He nodded. “Never been surer about anything.”
I was vaguely aware of Onni’s truck emerging then and approaching over a rise in the track, a long ribbon of dust trailed behind it.
We didn’t quit that day until the sun was beginning to set behind the mountains. Onni said he wanted to squeeze every dry minute we had out of the window in the weather. I’d never been more bone-tired. It was after eight when we sat down to dinner. Elli told us that the last weather report on the radio said rain might be returning sooner than first thought, so we skipped the sauna because Onni wanted to start even earlier in the morning. Drew and I showered in the stalls next to the sauna, and I headed straight to bed, while he went into the farmhouse to try to make another call to Claire. He came into the trailer shortly afterwards, too quickly for the call to have been successful. I was glad to already be in bed and turned away. I kept my breathing slow and deep, feigning sleep.
From our spots on the hay wagon, Drew and I watched clouds slowly gather way off towards Bozeman throughout the next afternoon but didn’t hear the first distant tumble of thunder until after seven o’clock. By that time, we’d finished baling more than three-quarters of the remaining fields. All the cutting and raking was done, and Onni had joined us to help on the hay wagon. He looked briefly in the direction of the sound, then lowered his head and went back to work.
Perhaps an hour later, we were changing hay wagons, and a flash of lightning split the sky over the westernmost mountains. We all saw it except for Leo, who was fastening the clap on the ball of the pickup truck’s hitch.
Elli stood with her hands on her hips and began counting quietly after the lightning flash. She got to eight before the next round of thunder tumbled. The clouds over the mountains had darkened, and several of the larger ones were heavy-bellied.
“Getting closer,” Onni said. “We might have another hour. With the mountains, maybe a little more.” He looked at Drew and me. “You boys okay with a late dinner? Even later, I mean.”
“The twins and Deb are keeping pace,” Elli said. “They’re ahead, actually. I’ll have them take turns eating when I get back.”
She left, and we kept at it. The sunset hadn’t been visible because the storm was coming from the west, but the clouds there briefly streaked red against the mountains giving them the appearance of a bruise. They quickly darkened again. A few stars had begun to dot the moonless eastern sky. The temperature continued to inch lower.
Elli brought a camping lantern with her when she came for her next exchange. Onni turned it on and hung it from the side of the wagon’s framing. A flock of birds flew off low over the fields on the cool breeze that had risen from the west. Another streak of lightening lit the sky, followed shortly by the roll of thunder. The clouds now obscured most of the mountains and seemed to be funneling around them where I imagined Joliet to be.
Once the wagons had been exchanged, Onni turned to Elli and said, “Don’t bother coming out again. We’ll get what we can for a little longer, then bring what we have back with the tractor.”
“Be safe,” she said, “Don’t push it.”
We all followed Onni’s eyes over the remaining fields. There were perhaps a dozen acres left, their neat, straight rows of cut alfalfa still in the gathering darkness.
He turned back to his wife and said, “Pull that load into the barn, cover the big stack, and then run the twins home. We’ll be along.”
Elli’s truck wobbled away, the full wagon rocking in the stubble, and we continued baling and stacking. Leo had turned on the tractor’s headlights. We weren’t even able to finish another full acre before the next round of lightning and thunder came, closer still. Onni shouted and called Leo’s name. His son’s head swiveled, and Onni made a slashing motion across his throat and pointed towards the farmhouse.
We started our slow way back. The three of us sat on the last row of bales we’d fashioned, while Leo rumbled us along. It was almost completely dark, just a milky streak on the horizon above the cottonwoods. The lantern jangled and threw a dim globe of light over the side of the wagon. We felt the first raindrops splat when we could just make out the farmhouse’s lamplit windows a few hundred yards away.
It was after ten-thirty by the time we’d finished eating and showering, too late for Drew to try another phone call. We both hit the sack right away. Each time I awoke during the night, the rain was a strong, steady clatter on the trailer’s roof.
Neither of us got up to help with the early morning milking or feeding. By the time we came into the farmhouse for breakfast, Elli told us Onni and Leo had headed out to the fields in an empty pickup truck; they had pitchforks and a tarp with them and wanted to see if they could find hay dry enough underneath the remaining cut rows to use for feeding the cows that day. It was still raining, but more lightly. The forecast, Elli told us, was for it to continue without interruption for at least the next few days.
After breakfast, Drew made another fruitless call trying to reach Claire, then we headed back to the trailer. We both stretched out on our backs on the beds.
I said, “I hurt all over. I hurt in places I never even knew I had.”
I heard Drew chuckle. Then he sat up suddenly and said, “Look, why don’t we start driving home? I know it’s a few days earlier than we planned, but there’s nothing special left here that we can help with, and I’m not interested in camping in the rain.” He set his jaw and looked at me with those eyes. “That way I’ll have time to go over to Santa Cruz with you and surprise Claire. Do the deed.”
My stomach sank. I looked at him as evenly as possible and tried to think of a way to object. But, I couldn’t come up with anything, so I just said, “Fine with me.”
So, that’s what we did. We packed and waited until Onni and Leo got back, then exchanged hugs and goodbyes with all of them under the maple tree out of the rain. They made a special fuss out of thanking me and inviting me back. Elli gave us a big lunch she’d packed. It was about eleven when we made a last wave to them from the end of the turnaround and headed up the track towards the highway.
It rained all the rest of the day. We finally left it behind for good towards dusk in Pocatello, where we stopped for dinner. Then it was mostly fields, high desert, and small towns across Idaho and Nevada throughout that next section of the night. We took turns driving and reclined the passenger seat as far as it would go to sleep. We didn’t talk much. I kept chasing away the dim sense of dread that never completely left me. I tried to stay hopeful that things had somehow resolved themselves and ended with Clare and Mike back home while we’d been gone. I didn’t know what else to do.
We entered the Sierra Nevada mountains after Reno a little before midnight, made good time over the pass, and were in Sacramento by three. We were early enough to beat most of the morning commuter traffic through the Bay Area, and got on Highway 17 at Los Gatos for the last stretch over the hill around seven just as the sun was coming up.
We were both awake then, Drew in the passenger seat. We watched the familiar stretches of dense trees and other markers on both sides of the car. When we were going over the summit, Drew asked, “What do you think about us keeping our own last names? Lots of couples do that now when they get married.”
I cocked my head and said, “Never gave it much thought, I guess.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure that’s what Clair will want to do. Or maybe we’ll do that hyphenated thing and use both.”
I nodded and kept my eyes on the road. A few more minutes passed before he said, “The ring just has a tiny diamond. That’s all I could afford.”
I paused, then said, “I don’t think the size of it matters.”
“Nah.” I shook my head, but still didn’t look over at him.
The commute going the other direction towards San Jose had already begun, the cars there crawling along. I almost wished we were in it so something would slow us down. But we drove uninhibited past Scotts Valley and into Santa Cruz where I got off the freeway and onto Chestnut Street. It wasn’t quite seven-thirty and there were few people out downtown. I turned onto Locust and saw our house midway up the block. There it is, I thought to myself. Here we go.
I pulled up in an open spot at our curb a few cars down but kept the car idling. Drew had already turned in his seat and was stuffing things in his rucksack. As he did, I looked through the side window of our house and saw the back of Claire go by. She was carrying two steaming mugs and was wearing Mike’s basketball practice jersey. I knew it was his because of his uniform number. The bottom of it didn’t quite cover her bare buttocks. I could see the glow of the television through the living room window where she was heading. The couch in that room faced it and the front door. I knew the sound of the television would cover Drew’s footsteps on the porch, and the door was cracked ajar. It wasn’t a big room. I swallowed and shook my head.
Drew yanked his rucksack and sleeping bag over the seat onto his lap. He glanced once at the house, then back at me, his eyes happy and expectant. “So, turn off the car,” he told me. “Let’s head in.”
I hesitated, then said, “I think I’ll run and get gas first.”
He shrugged, then opened the door. He gave me one of his grins and said, “Suit yourself, big guy.”
Then he was out of the car, and the door closed behind him. I waited just long enough to see him get to the front steps and then drove away quickly. My heart hammered as I sped up the street. I slammed the heel of my hand against the steering wheel and swore. I didn’t know where I would go or what I would do except that I was sure I didn’t want to be back in that house for a long time. I thought about going down to the beach, jumping in the ocean, and then heading up to the university gym to shower and change clothes. Maybe get breakfast at the cafeteria up there and then take a hike on one of the fire roads through the woods behind campus. I wasn’t sure. The only thing I was certain of was that I’d let my friend walk into what waited for him unprepared in any way. And unlike the previous days, I’d made that decision knowing without doubt what awaited him when he pushed through that front door. I’d let him do that. I’d done nothing to prevent it.
As I said, I’m sixty-two, and I’ve had my share of regrets. Some involve acts of commission and others of omission. This was one of the latter kind, and I still think of it from time to time. I can’t quite understand why it holds such a special place inside me, but it does. I wish I could do it over, make a different decision. But I can’t. That hay, as the expression goes, is in barn. It’s been there a long time now. It’s never going back into the field. It can’t be undone.