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Why I Can't Listen to Country Music


Summers in high school I worked on a farm. I moved sprinkler lines, bucked hay, dug ditch, and drove a swather. Hot dirty work. Sundays I got the afternoon off, but the other six days I worked fourteen-hour days. Farm work is never done; you’re always behind. Sometimes, in the evening, just as I was about to call it a day, I’d see the farmer’s son driving out along the ditch bank. He’d get out of his truck and walk over with a cold bottle of Coke. I always knew what that offering meant, but I let him say it anyway. I liked to watch him squirm.

He handed me the Coke, real sheepish. “Dad was wondering if you wouldn’t mind doin’ some balin’ tonight.”

I’d take a big swig of my drink, and while it burned down my throat I’d look across the wind-rowed hay spread out under the dusty summer sunset. Baling was generally done at night, or in the early mornings when there was more humidity. That way the alfalfa leaves wouldn’t dry up and fall off the stems. I didn’t want to do it. I had other plans. But I was also looking beyond the summer, to even bigger plans. More work meant more pay.

I handed him my empty bottle and inevitably said, “Sure.”

I sat on the tractor pulling the baler through the rows, shaping them into bales. Noise. Dust. Moths in the headlights. Sometimes the eyes of a jackrabbit. At midnight I would stop wherever I was and go to my truck. The pick-up I drove belonged to my grandfather – a 1950 GMC. It was a relic even then. It didn’t go fast enough for my taste. And sometimes it took about ten minutes to get it started. But at night the dials on the dashboard glowed with a sort of Martian green light and it always felt like it was transporting me to another world. I’d drive to where a mailbox sat at the end of a long lane, and then I’d park, turn off the engine, and wait.

The lane was lined with poplar trees and I’d sit with the window down listening to the breeze in the leaves. Pretty soon, I’d hear her footsteps in the gravel, and then she’d climb into the cab and give me a kiss. She always brought me a sandwich, or sometimes a jar of raspberries in cream with a piece of white cake. She always brought a blanket.

There was an artesian well out on the edge of an old farm and it bubbled up out of the earth into a small pond with more poplar trees standing at its bank. The water was deep earth cold and clean and we’d swim and then lie shivering and laughing wrapped up in the blanket. We’d watch the sky and talk about who God might really be. We made plans for when we got out of school, how we’d live in a little cabin in the mountains, maybe by a lake, and write books and be photographers. I was saving my money to buy a new camera. Her voice melded with the water sound of the well like music. Those were the first conversations I ever had about anything that really mattered to me. I felt to be falling through the stars.

About three, I’d take her home, the Martian lights on the dash illuminating her like an angel.

She left me the blanket, and back at my tractor I’d throw it out on the ground and wrap myself up against the chill, trying to take a nap before the sun came up. The blanket smelled like her. I’d think of our someday cabin in the mountains and of her blue eyes and of what life was and stars and then it would all get mixed up in a great big dream that sort of clenched around my heart with a feeling that was both happy and sad.

At some point a rooster pheasant cackled in the dawn and woke me up. The sky glowed pink and fuzzy in the east. I sat bundled up in my blanket for a while, just watching. Then I climbed onto my tractor and started baling while the dew was still on the hay.

I don’t remember ever being tired.

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