8:45 AM Wednesday, July 15th, 2006
It’s a delicate balance, really.
I want to be here early enough to beat the crowds of summer people. Early enough that all I can hear are the waves slapping against the shore instead of the screams of small children resisting sun screen applications. Early enough that all I can see when I look over the top of my John Grisham paperback are the water, the buoys that signal how far out you’re allowed to swim, and way out, across the miles, the faint, mist-enveloped outline of Long Island.
But I also want to be here late enough that the sun is shining in full force so that it has a fighting chance at blending the horrendous tan lines I’ve incurred this summer. There’s the obvious “farmer tan” or “truck driver tan” that ends just below the shoulder, and the not-altogether-uncommon “runner tan” that ends just above the ankle, and the “red-neck” tan, well, on the back of my neck, but then there are some purely strange ones too. The tan that ends just above the ankle doesn’t go all the way up my leg, because it isn’t from shorts. At my summer job I spend a lot of time kneeling down planting seeds and picking herbs, so I need to keep my knees covered. In an attempt to stay cool I roll my jeans up into pedal pushers, and hence I have a four-inch-long tan right in the middle of my calves. And then, of course, the mother lode of all ridiculous tans: the thin stripe on my lower back, in the gap between the top of my pants and the bottom of my shirt. The tan-line equivalent of a tramp stamp. Needless to say, this kind of adornment is not currently in high fashion, and I’d love for the marks to at least even out a little before the summer is over and I’m stuck with them until they fade.
Deep down I know that staying until the beach gets crowded and my moment of peace is interrupted is not an issue. Yesterday when I left work, Herman didn’t exactly tell me he’d see me tomorrow, but he didn’t exactly say “Take tomorrow off” either. It would be so much easier on everyone involved if he would just make a schedule for his employees, but he simply refuses to get that organized, and so I’ve sneaked a morning off at the beach, even though I suspect it will be cut short any minute now.
No sooner do I think such a thing than my phone rings. I know there’s only one person it could be at this hour. I close my eyes, grit my teeth, and brace myself for what I know is coming.
“Hello?” I answer, not looking at the caller ID, still praying that it’s a telemarketer. And there it is, the maddeningly cheerful sing-song of “Good morning, Miss Esther!”
I bookmark John Grisham and start pulling on my clothes. “Good morning, Herman,” I grumble in my best it’s-too-early-for-this-bullshit voice.
“Where are you, Miss Esther? The sun is shining, the tank is clean-”
For some reason, Herman thinks this line from Finding Nemo is always funny, and always applicable.
“I wasn’t sure what time you needed me this morning. I just thought I’d grab some beach time before work.”
“Would you drop by the Bean Counter and get me a double macchiato?”
Herman Cabot never seems more out of place in the world than he does when he’s drinking expensive, unpronounceable coffee concoctions. It’s like Joe Gargery in his Sunday suit instead of his leather blacksmith apron. However, I humor my boss because I have very little choice.
It takes me an hour of searching in vain at the farm stand, the field, and the greenhouse, all while holding his stupid macchiato in one hand as I work the stick shift and cut the wheel of my cup holder-less little Ford before I finally track down Herman in the haying shed and hand him his now lukewarm coffee. He drains the Red Stripe (“breakfast of champions”) in his hand and throws the empty can into the bed of one of the nearby pickup trucks, then knocks off the macchiato in one gulp.
“This shit’s cold, Miss Esther. How long were you driving around with it?”
“A while. You should try answering your phone.”
“I was afraid it was my wife. She’s always checking up on me when I’m alone with you.”
Sometimes I think he takes her paranoia as a personal challenge. I drop my eyes from his mischievous leer and pretend I didn’t hear the last part. “Ever hear of caller ID?”
“My phone’s screen is cracked.”
Of course it is.
“I think I’m gonna send you up on the tractor by yourself today.” Herman goes on. “I’ve got to get up to Bretter’s and see if I can sell him some tomatoes. You’ll be alright?”
“Have you fixed the brakes yet?”
I sigh, wondering why I even bother to ask him these things.
“I’ll be fine, Herman. Shall I just go back up to the stand when I’m done?”
“I’ll be back by then.”
He won’t be back by then. He’ll forget all about telling me that he’ll be back by then, he still won’t be answering his cell, and it would serve him right if I just went home when I finished haying and made him pay me for the whole day. He’d never notice the difference.
“All right, let’s see if I can get this thing started.”
I’ve only done this a few times and…did I mention the thing has no brakes? It’s about a hundred years old and on a good day it saves me a whole pile of trouble by simply refusing to start. Not today though. Herman’s been hard at work on the engine since God-knows-when this morning, and the John Deere starts up on the second try.
As vehicles go, a small tractor like this one at Stony Lane Farm isn’t terribly difficult to learn to drive. It operates almost exactly like a stick-shift car. Just…one with no brakes. And one that trails a giant hay baler. Now, if you’ve ever driven a vehicle that was trailing anything, you know it’s a tricky procedure. Everything is pretty much business as usual if you’re going forward in a straight line. But once you start trying to back up, that’s when things get hairy. Whichever way you steer the vehicle, the trailer will go in the opposite direction in relation to you. So you’ve got to keep that in mind. Also, as you might expect, you make some very wide turns.
You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? There’s no traffic, this is all happening out in the middle of a field! How bad could it be?” And for the most part, you’d be right. The field itself is acres upon acres of nothing much to bump into, and the ground is flat enough that the whole no-brakes thing isn’t an issue. You just take your foot off the gas, and friction and gravity team up to stop you pretty quickly.
That’s assuming you make it to the field.
Like something out of a macabre joke, in order to get from the shed to the field, one must first cross The Gulch. The Gulch is about four feet deep, and its surface is a two-foot drop from the bridge that spans it. No real threat of death by impact or drowning, only the possibility of getting trapped under a large piece of farm machinery.
The bridge over The Gulch is about three inches wider than the widest point of the tractor, and of course there’s no guard rail of any kind. This is where that business about the wide turns on the trailer comes in. The bridge comes up pretty much immediately after the exit to the shed, and at an exact ninety degree angle. This means that the driver of the tractor is left with two choices: The first is to just make the turn on the first try and hope that the trailer lines up in time to not fall off the edge. The second is to do a dance-like maneuver that involves backing up, straightening out, and backing up again to get the tractor and trailer fully aligned prior to arrival at the bridge.
Needless to say, neither of these options is particularly enjoyable, or safe.
I climb up into the black plastic seat of the tractor and try to get my bearings. Herman’s eyes follow me. In an ideal or even borderline rational world, he might have stood on the other side and talked me through the process, if not for my personal safety, then at least for the safety of the tractor neither of us could afford to fix, let alone replace. But instead, he simply turns to go, cracking the next Red Stripe. I grit my teeth and bend farther over the steering wheel.
Herman turns back for one last parting remark:
“I’ll bet that tan stripe on your back drives the boys wild.”
* * *
Jane Ward loves the act of writing and the mental exercise of getting to know her characters. She is working on her first novel, A More Elegant Solution. Jane has been a guest blogger for Boston Local Food Festival and Glenwood Garden, and more of her work can be found at her blog, Corn Free July, and at Jane Ward Press Folios.