Tractor Incident

Eric Ramseier

            The twenty minutes it takes me to drive from the garage to my house were always the best part of my day. It was real dry that summer, and the fall didn't hold any new promise of rain. I put the long pedal to the floor just to see how much dust I could kick up on the county road to my house. I turned the radio off when I went that fast so I could hear the truck when it was stressed like that. The springs bounced, the doors rattled and hidden bolts squeaked. The engine coughed like it wanted to quit, but I knew it wouldn't. TJ's farm was at about the half-way point between my house and the garage. I saw his tractor out in the alfalfa field. It was doing donuts and creating a cloud of dust to rival mine. The cloud of dust was too dense to clearly see the driver, but I knew it wasn't TJ behind the wheel.

TJ was a deputy with the sheriff's department, and that took him all over the county, and in them days, he was mostly on the western side of the county by White Cloud and the Reservation and down to Leona. He wasn't anywhere near his house most of the time. That usually left his son David on his own. David was the same age as my youngest, and from what I heard from the mechanics and some customers, was a bit queer in his ways—kept to himself, didn't much talk in school or to girls or run around with the guys. I didn't think that particularly strange since he still went out for football and had a job.

I reached the tractor right as it got too close to the culvert. If I were driving a tractor that fast, I'm not sure I could have avoided tipping over. I told myself:  TJ's tractor is one of them Fords—they were built not to tip over. The dust cloud obscured everything. I tried to keep my eyes trained forward, tried to lose myself in the squeaks and squeals of the truck, tried to convince myself that David had some sort of maniac ability to drive a tractor while avoiding all danger. My imagination bested me, and I pulled my foot off the gas and slammed it into the brake. The back end of the truck stuttered and bucked and the cloud of dust enveloped the cab of the truck. I wished the cloud were like a cloud of locusts, erasing from existence whatever occupied the ground they'd just covered. I just didn't want to have to deal with it.

That whole scene was a god-awful racket between David's high-pitched yelps and that tractor mechanically gulping in air and fuel, trying to keep chugging along. I took the shop rag out of my pocket and mopped the back of my neck. I looked at the rag. It was caked with mud. I was sure David was two steps from death, but I went over to look on him. I didn't really run, though—it was more of an amble. I was still hoping the whole thing would disappear. I didn't think calling an ambulance would do any good at all, and there was nowhere even close to call from, anyway. But when I saw him, his left leg turned in a direction it wasn't meant to go, his face covered in blood and mucus, he hadn't given up or realized the inevitable. It felt wrong to watch, even though that's what it felt like I was doing for god-knows-how-long. I eventually blinked myself back to the situation and cut the tractor's engine. I regretted that because then all you could hear was David's screaming. And he just wouldn't stop.

If he were an animal, it would have been easy:  just put my boot over his neck and press until he was snuffed out. I even considered it. I stood there staring into the tangle of metal, bone, skin, blood, and oil for what seemed like hours. I'm not sure what possessed me, and I don't know how it happened because even then I had a poor back and a set of bad knees, but I pushed my back against tractor's body and it lifted up just slightly. As soon as I had that tractor's weight on my lower back, I could feel the loose-packed soil shifting and crumbling. I thought every blood vessel in my head was about to burst. I yanked David out between my legs and let the tractor drop back down. We both collapsed in the culvert. After that, he stopped screaming and just wheezed horribly, blowing snot bubbles out of one nostril. It was like he didn't have no more muscles or bones in his body. He was just limp. When I went to pick him up, though, he was the heaviest thing, like a bag of cement, and he smelled like fresh-killed game. He looked me right in the eye. It was unsettling, like I was looking at a ghost. He opened his mouth, but only a hoarse wheeze came out. I thought he was cursing me and thought about putting him back down.

I'd gone this far, though. It was one thing to be crushed to death by a tractor. It was something completely different to be beaten and bloody but have that weight lifted off you. I looked around, hoping someone else would come along, but I knew that wasn't likely out this far. I didn't know how to provide any comfort. I tried to think back to times when I was his age and was hurt and what words my mama or daddy offered me. There was nothing, though. "You look pretty bad, so I don't know if it'll do much good, but I'll take you to the hospital anyway,"  I whispered to him. He looked into my eyes again, and I nearly dropped him. I put him in the bed of my pickup and got in. From the rearview mirror he was a heap next to the tailgate. Like a bag of seed or a fresh-killed deer. I got out of the cab and put a tarp around him. It would keep any road dust off him, but really I was just trying to put him out of my mind. I swung the truck around towards St. Joe.

I kept looking back through the window, making sure he was still there. I hoped he would just fly out without a trace. I was that committed to wanting this responsibility lifted off my hands. The good thing was that I could only see the tarp being whipped by the wind on the highway. I had an aggressive enough tread on my tires that the noise would have drowned out any kind of screaming David might have done.

I pulled up to the emergency room entrance and was surprised to find David laying, docile in the back. I started to pull him out when a couple of nurses came out and stopped me. They went back in and reappeared with a gurney and a wheelchair. The wheelchair was for me, but I got back in the cab. "Sir, where are you going?" a nurse asked.

"He ain't mine. I'm going home," I replied.

"Sir, we'd like to ask you about what happened."

"Hell, he rolled under a tractor. That's just about the limit of what I can tell you about the whole matter. The rest ought to be figured out by a doctor."

"Sir," she said, placing her hand on my arm. She wouldn't let me go, so I just followed her inside.

They asked me a few questions about David, but nothing they couldn't already guess at. The main reason they brought me in was so they could treat a burn on my lower back. Without realizing it, I had put my back against the engine manifold. As soon as they touched the burn with a cotton swab, that's when I felt all the pain that I should have from the beginning. They put a bandage on me and doped me up full of pain killers, but I was otherwise free to go.

I thought about leaving, but I didn't know what was required of me, so I stayed in the waiting room next to the OR, leaning forward in the seat so that no pressure was on my back. A few crying, sniffling people cycled in and out through the day while I sat there lacing my fingers in different orientations after I read through the one fishing and hunting magazine. No one came to tell me anything about David, though I guess that's about right since we weren't related, so that left me to guessing whether or not they could put him back together.

That drive home was one of the few things in my life that didn't have some memory attached to it. When I got home, in the summer, I would prepare an easy supper and then just sit on the porch where I used to horse around with my kids in the crotch-smell humidity that blanketed my house next to the cut in the Missouri River. In the winter, after supper, I would just give up and lay in the same bed I shared with my wife, the covers up to my chin in the pitch-black bedroom, watching my steaming breath disintegrate in the icy air. On the porch and under those sheets I was always alone. My wife left me and took the kids with her. She said I was never around and when I was around, I wasn't really around. I couldn't argue with her, but I did miss those kids. It had been years since I'd seen any of them, so complete was their break from me. But that drive home. I would have to pay attention to where I was driving, the windows were down in the summer—the heater rattled in the winter—and I always had a cassette tape of duets from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson stuck in the tape deck. It was the only time in my day where my mind was occupied by nothing. I didn't have to think about the automatic transmission I'd have to rebuild or listen to the other mechanics talk about what position they thought their kids were going to play for the high school football team and how I missed seeing my kids grow up. I didn't have to think about every horrible or boring thought during those empty nights.

I slept until morning when TJ finally showed up. He came rip-roaring in and told me he got in past dark and slept at his house not knowing anything was wrong until he saw his tractor overturned in the ditch. It struck me as peculiar that he wouldn't notice a missing person from his house when it was just the two of them. I told him I passed out and couldn't have told him anything until just then. He asked where David was and I couldn't answer that, either.

He shot straight past me for the nurse's station. "You need me?" I asked TJ, but he just left. He didn't answer me, but he also might not have heard me. I ended up following TJ back to David's room since TJ was looking wild-eyed and I was the only one who really knew anything about the boy got in this situation.

That room smelled like steaming sick. The air was real still and the lighting was dim. I could taste the antiseptic in the air. It just felt all wrong. TJ was talking to a doctor in the corner, his arms flailing around while the doctor pointed out things on his clipboard. David didn't look real bad, to tell the truth. He had a bandage wrapped around his head and his pelvis and left leg were in a cast, the leg elevated. He stared at me as I stood in the doorway. I will always remember that stare. It was vacant, like a dead body. Just like in the alfalfa field. It made me feel guilty. It made me feel like I did something wrong, like I shouldn't even be there—as in alive, not just in that room.

TJ grabbed me by the arm and led me out of the room, giving David a glance back as we left. He walked me down to my pickup, which had a ticket on it since I parked illegally, but he said he'd make it so I wouldn't have to pay. "I gotta thank you," he said. "You saved my boy's life."

"He don't look all bad," I replied.

"Well, he's done with football and baseball is what the doctors say."

"He weren't going to be making the team young as he is, anyway."  It probably wasn't the right thing to say, but it was all I could think of.

"I suppose that's right."  His head dropped. "Thanks again."

TJ was looking around and fidgeting. He was fumbling with his sheriff's hat in both hands. "So, what's next?  For the boy," I said.

TJ walked a small circle and kicked a pebble across the pavement. "Damn it all. I'm sorry," he said, "I'm a bit preoccupied. I got to get into work. I can't be taking off just to sit in a hospital room. Shit, I don't know what's next for him." He thumbed towards the building. "Observation, they say. Whatever that means. Hey, thanks again. I'll talk to you soon."  He left me standing there and got in his cruiser and left.

I sat in the cab, letting my body melt into the seat. I really felt sore then. I started the engine and drove towards the highway. I crossed the Pony Express Bridge and turned off on the dirt road to the house. The whole way, I couldn't shake that stare. I stopped the truck next to the overturned tractor. Oil was dripping out of the carburetor. Dark blood stains coagulated with dust in the brown grass of the culvert. The kid had ruined my drive home.

I turned the truck around, back to the hospital. I walked up the four flights of stairs to build my vitriol as high as possible. I felt the bottom of my spinal column being smashed to bits with each step. David's room was empty except for the electronic beep of his heart. He had seen me come in and met me with the glare that I couldn't forget.

"You didn't have no right to do that. You're damn lucky they were able to fix you up," I said. "If I hadn't decided to give it a try and help you out, that would've been a pretty miserable death you would've suffered out there."

He answered me with the blank stare. He was perfectly still—not that he could have moved too much, but it was still eerie, almost sinister.

"Every day I drive home without having to think about anything at all. When I get home to my empty house, all I can do is think about things. You get yourself killed or you don't snap out of this whatever-it-is-you're-doing-now, and I'll have to think about that on my drive home. You won't ruin it."

Blank stare. But I thought I understood it finally. It was the same sort of look I see in the mirror every day. That emptiness. The kid was giving up. I was never much of a father—never really had a chance. I knew, though, that this kid was too young to be like me. It made no sense. He couldn't have made the kind of mistakes you can't go back on. He had time on his side. "This is what you'll become," I said. "You can't see the consequences yet, and that's to your advantage in most situations. But let me tell you, this is what you become. And you don't want none of it." 

The boy closed his eyes, and I don't know what it was, but the room seemed to change just a little bit. Like something happened to the air and the way it hung. I eased away from him and walked over to the window. A thunderstorm was coming in from the west—just like any other day in the transition from summer to fall—and the room was getting dark, the fluorescent lighting turning the room the color of the river. "Your daddy asked me to stay here and look out for you until he comes back," I lied to him. I wasn't sure, though, that I accomplished what I set out to do. I wasn't sure if my drive home would go back to the way it was.