Excerpt from “After the Harvest,” published in Fourth Genre, Fall 2007
Harvest had always been my favorite time of year. Even though we worked fourteen-hour days for two or more weeks straight without a day off, I didn’t mind. While my father enjoyed almost all aspects of working on the farm, he enjoyed harvest the most, even when the crops didn’t do well. As July neared, I began to wash grain trucks, tractors and the combine. My dad tested the moisture level in the wheat. When the wheat was dry enough, we started harvest.
At fourteen, I learned to drive the grain cart—a precarious job. Ideally, you want to unload on the go, meaning the combine and the grain cart move at the same time. You have to keep the tractor tire parallel with the combine’s sickle and stay about five feet to the side of the header. The combine’s augur extends out to the grain cart pulled behind the tractor and transfers the wheat from its bin into the cart. But as the combine circles the field, the wheat is cut in an uneven line. You have to watch the line of wheat and stay parallel with the header, anticipating the combine driver’s actions. If you make a mistake, the tractor tire could run over the header causing thousands of dollars of damage not only in the cost of repairs but also in time out of the field.
Always a nervous driver, I sometimes pulled too far away because of my fear, and grain would fall to the ground. My father never yelled about it. He said it was better to lose some grain than ruin the equipment. I eventually got better, more confident, less fearful.
But this summer, my dad drank all the time. He had a cooler of beer in the pickup. He had a cooler of beer in the combine. He drove erratically. I never complained, and he never apologized. When I’d catch a load of wheat, I feared he’d run into me. I constantly avoided an accident. In the past, I could watch the line of wheat, knowing the combine’s metal guide would be at its edge. I could trust my father. Now he swerved too far out, entirely too close to me. I would veer away, meaning more grain on the ground. He’d overcorrect and pull too far in, leaving a thin strip of wheat standing. I’d finally get back into position only to have him swerve out again. On a normal day, I’d unload on the go anywhere from fifteen to twenty times. The past six summers, I’d get the wheat from the combine, unload it onto a truck, park the tractor and read a book until I could see the metal extensions of the combine raise indicating that the bin was full. Usually I could relax, sit in the sun and enjoy the downtime. Usually I was excited to see the combine’s bin full because the less time I had to relax meant the better the wheat, and the more money my dad would earn. This harvest year, I began to dread the combine’s full bin. I was thankful when harvest was over.
I haven’t been home for harvest for fifteen years. The first few years were difficult. My father didn’t call and ask me to come back to help. Maybe he knew I would say no. Even still, July makes me more lonesome for the farm than any other month. I hope that every year he feels just as lonely as he hires other people instead of having his family there.
Yet, for the first time since the divorce, my sisters are considering taking their children back for harvest. They’ve each managed to create some sort of relationship with my father because of their children. While he’s gone to visit my sisters several times, he’s only visited me a couple times. I think I delayed having children because I realized it would force me to confront a relationship with my father. Perhaps he’s just as nervous about cultivating a relationship with me. He probably worries about doing and saying the wrong thing. He may worry that after years of strained relations, I could decide to have nothing to do with him. I could make sure my twin sons—Joaquín and Javier—do the same.