Anibal, Stud, and I watched the burgundy tractor as it crossed the hayfield. The acreage was marked with green rows, loose clippings piled in lines that striped the flatness. Slow, the machine lurched like an elephant, dragging a baler that devoured the cuttings, churned the alfalfa into bales, bound them in twine, and pushed out the grassy deposits, defecating one every five yards.
My cousins and I had grown up like brothers, and there was a time when I was sure I felt what they felt, knew what they knew. I’d been away three years though, and now I wondered what it was they saw when they looked out on the field. For me, it was the strange, present nostalgia of being home and knowing I was leaving before long. But they’d lived all their lives in the counties east of the Cascades, and that was something different.
“Shouldn’t we go over, say hi?” I asked.
“Mom says he’ll talk your ear off if you give him a chance.” Stud waved at the man on the tractor, who drove straight ahead without seeing us, a handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth, his head engulfed in the black exhaust that smoked out of a pipe on the Massey Ferguson’s hood.
“Dirty air filter,” Anibal muttered, like he was quoting out of a manual. “Change filters every six to eight months.”
In his wallet, Stud had a check for two hundred dollars from his mother, my aunt, who had sent us to take fifty bales. She knew the farmer and usually came to get the feed herself, but she was sick and so I’d ridden along in her stead. Stud had insisted on taking his rumbling, patchwork Chevy that he’d bought out of a junkyard when he was fifteen and had been fixing up for the past seven years, and we’d driven a couple hours toward Colville, north of Spokane. In a week, he and I would take off in his pickup; he’d put his home behind him, drive me back to Seattle, and then head north on the Alaskan Highway and lose himself in a new life.
Stud finally caught the eye of the farmer, who, with a wave of his hand, seemed to indicate that we could buck our load and settle up after. We worked the end of the field opposite from where the tractor roamed. Anibal and I put our hips into it as we hoisted the fifty pounders and swung them up into the truck’s bed, where Stud organized them in a crosshatch pattern, so that the rows of one layer lay perpendicular to the rows above it. Once we’d taken all the bales from an area he’d climb down and drive the truck forward, and Anibal and I would walk to where he stopped the rig; open-mouthed and panting, we staggered after the truck like zombies doggedly pursuing a movie star. An hour into it, Anibal and I were glistening with sweat, but Stud looked as dry as the broken stalks of alfalfa that covered the field. When we’d taken the better part of our load a mutual need for rest grew among us, and, too spent to speak, we piled into the Chevy with nods of agreement and drove to the edge of the hayfield, to trees and shade.
Out of the sun, we huddled in a stand of Doug fir. Anibal leaned his bulk against the trunk of a mammoth, old tree, while Stud perched on a round knot that jutted out of the ground. From a cooler my aunt had packed we took granola, apples, and elk jerky, stuffing the chilled food into our mouths and washing it down with swigs taken off a pitcher of iced tea. When we’d finished eating, Stud reached in the cooler, brought out a translucent-blue pillbox, and opened the compartment marked SUN, emptying the contents—square, saffron, oblong, eggshell, hexagonal; nearly a half dozen altogether—into his hand. He held them out to Anibal.
“Mom told me to make sure you take everything. No bitching, no argument.”
“You guys want some?” Anibal asked, accepting the pills into his open palm. “It’s the good stuff. You just—shoom—fly away.”
“Shut up and take them,” Stud said.
“What about you, cousin?” He extended his hand with the meds in it to me, picked out one fat, circle-shaped pill, and held it to his eye. “Here, this one here: you can finish loading this hay by yourself, drive it straight to California if you want.”
He’d never liked the cocktail of pharmaceuticals that his various medical conditions had earned him, but it was hard to argue with how they calmed him, evened him out. Most of the damage had been done when he was still a baby in Guatemala, before the adoption, and it had taken my aunt years to understand what all he suffered from, what could be done to help it.
I might’ve played along with Anibal, but Stud’s face was granite, so I waved him off. “No, I’m good.”
He clapped his hand to his mouth, throwing in all the pills at once, and swallowed. He licked his palm, saying, “Thhheeeyyyy’re great!”
I was so used to Anibal’s quiet, the way he mumbled to himself and rarely spoke at full volume—he was on the autism spectrum, and that was in addition to the diabetes, the hep B, and his developmental disorders. During the last week he’d been having outbursts like this though, and I felt anxious as he looked me over with a jagged energy.
Stud pretended to pick at the moss between his feet, and my hand went to my shirt pocket, but I didn’t have any cigarettes because I’d quit smoking since I’d come home six months ago. The sound of the tractor roaring off in the distance had grown louder, and when I looked up I saw it inching in our direction. It pulled up beside Stud’s truck, and the tall, starved-looking farmer detached himself from the driver’s seat. He tugged down the handkerchief he’d been wearing over his face, and it hung in a loose circle around his neck.
“How many you get so far?” he asked, and listened to Stud’s answer. The man spat into the ground and leaned back, seeming to speak to the treetops. “You boys picked a hot one to come get it—they said it’s supposed to rain this week, but I don’t put any stock in that. You’re lucky my tractor broke down in June or I might’ve had it cut and bailed weeks ago. Probably sold too. With the drought this is some of the last hay in the state.”
Stud got to his feet, took the check from his wallet and folded it in half, handing it to the farmer. He didn’t even look at it as he slid it into his pocket. All was quiet for a while, and a rare breeze shook the foliage as we listened to the calls of a hawk turning spirals above the field. Eventually, the man turned to Stud, “I been out to Union Gap a few times, got some family out that way. Saw you play for East Valley once or twice. Saw that game against Grandview.”
“That was two years ago,” I said.
“Three,” Anibal corrected.
“You were something,” the man said. “Did you get a scholarship for college? I’m sure you had offers.”
“No,” Stud said. “I’m not big enough for the college game. Anyway, my time was up.”
“What you doing these days?”
“Moving to Anchorage in a little. Have a buddy up there who’s got a welding shop. Might do some guide fishing.”
“Man alive, you sure could sling it though.” The farmer dropped back and made a throwing motion, but his bony limbs robbed the drill of any grace. Stud was silent, and, saying he’d leave us to it, the old man wandered back to his tractor, shook it awake with a turn of the key, and rumbled out into the sun. Soon after he left we hauled ourselves up and started to our work. While we bucked the rest of the hay Anibal spoke only in cereal slogans: “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!”; “They’re after me Lucky Charms!”; “Kid tested, mother approved.”
I was exhausted, so as we started in I asked Stud if I could stand in the bed and arrange the load. “You know how to stack them?” he asked.
I told him I knew what I was doing and waved off his explanation. Catching bales and wrestling them into the pattern, I watched my mismatched cousins from the bed of the truck and thought about Anibal. He was working at an auto shop, but couldn’t deal with customers and my aunt said he was barely hanging onto the job. Though he didn’t seem it, he was older than Stud by several years, and this had always complicated their dynamic. I’d been an only child, but before I went to college and my parents retired to Hawaii, we’d lived in the detached apartment on my aunt’s horse farm; the three of us had grown up trail riding and hunting in the bush for invisible Vietcong—out on the paths of the forest, and then later at school, Stud and I had always looked out for Anibal. We were family, and as a boy I couldn’t have imagined this world would split us up. Other than his mom and us, Anibal didn’t have much of anyone, and I could tell it was going to be hard for him without Stud.
It took us two hours to finish with the hay. By the time we were done our skin was caked with specks of grass, and the salt from our dried sweat frosted us like the sand that clings to you after a day at the beach. When I looked at the stack I realized I’d done the top layer in the wrong direction, but I was too tired to fix it and we were going to tie the load down anyway. Anibal got the rope out of the cab and tossed it up to me, and I tugged it over the bales and threw it down to Stud on the other side.
Hopping down from the tailgate, I licked my cracked lips and, tasting blood, looked up at the bales in the truck bed: they were piled five high, the load seeming to take up more space than the rig itself. I couldn’t believe the Chevy would be able to move under that burden, but Stud got in, started the old girl, and put her in gear. She eased into a motion that looked unnatural, like a tugboat pulling a freighter ten times its size. Anibal and I went to the passenger side and climbed in.
On our way out the farmer walked over to us, and Stud stopped and rolled down his window. “Tell your mom I’ll have it ready a month earlier next year. Give you folks the same price, special discount for the East Valley legend.”
I remembered the game the old man had been talking about. I’d been a freshman at the University of Washington, but finished my classes early and came home in time for the 2-A regional, semi-finals. On the freezing metal bleachers I sat with Anibal, who’d insisted on coming when my aunt asked him if he could sit through the whole game but winced at the squeaks and honks of the visiting team’s band tuning up. Though later I would personally testify to Stud’s all-out, on-fire quarterbacking, I saw exactly one play of the first half: the opening kickoff, which ended uneventfully in a pile of bodies at the twenty-five yard line. Feeling an itch in my throat, I excused myself to the concessions; at the FFA stand down on the shredded-rubber track I bought a bird bath-sized coke and then stole into a restroom stall, dumped most of my drink in the toilet, and poured in a flask of Sailor Jerry’s. I’d liked drinking since my first can of Busch Light back when I was a student at EVHS; I liked the false feeling of control it gave me, and as I struggled to keep my head above water in college, to achieve the same kind of success that had come so easy back home, I’d started liking it even more. Returning to the stands I ran into an old friend: Ché and I had run cross-country together, and she was still in high school. After the last meet of my final season, she’d told me that she’d once hoped we would go out, but I was leaving for UW and it was too late. Her parents had immigrated from the Philippines, and she was the smartest kid in the senior class. Catching up, we walked away from the field, out the ticket gate, and into the gravel beneath the bleachers. I told her about the U—leaving aside the bad grades and black outs—and she told me about the East Coast schools she’d applied to, her early admission to NYU. When I offered her my spiked drink she took a whiff of the straw and hesitated before having a pull. When we started kissing, she embraced me for the first minute, but then pulled away, saying, “Okay, whoa now.” She put a hand on my chest and shook her head. “I should probably go.” Standing in the dark, I watched her walk towards the parking lot, then gulped down the rum and coke as a cheer went through the crowd above.
At the start of the second half I was back sitting next to Anibal, who picked his nose and flicked his findings at the backs of the visiting fans. My aunt didn’t seem to notice I’d been gone and she stared at the field, flinching every time Stud was hit or knocked down. People said the last quarters were less dramatic than the first, but over the years I heard enough talk about the game it became as if I’d seen the whole thing myself: the story started with how bad the East Valley O-line was that season, how stout the Grandview D; the linebackers slipping through holes and Stud scrambling in the backfield from the first possession of the game. To my glazed eye the blue jerseys chasing my cousin seemed to be spellbound disciples reaching for their messiah, arms outstretched, athletic-tape-wound fingers extended, desperate to touch him; and Stud, radiating light, always with one more twist, one more shim-and-jive move, slipped away and threw gorgeous parabolas down field that were so perfectly arced all his receivers had to do was hold out their hands and accept salvation. It was early December and puffs of white fog darted out of the players’ helmets as they fought up and down the dew-slicked field. At the end of the third quarter Stud broke out in a run, passing the thirty, the twenty, the ten, still going, jumping over a blocker, diving, ball extended. Touchdown.