I worked on a hay farm in high school. My boss, I’ll call him Adam, was a towering man from out west, a man whose silence about the west gave you the impression that he didn’t just leave it, he fled.
You could find his old life lying quietly in one of his farm buildings. There, you discovered woodworking tools, ornately-carved bedposts and cabinet doors, and the arms and legs of antique tables and chairs. That had been his business: old and beautiful furniture. But something about the way he ran this business forced him to get himself thousands of miles away from it.
I would later learn that Adam could practice bad business in the east as well as the west. Last I heard, he was being hunted by about twenty farmers. He owed them money. I imagine them sending him a haybale with a dead fish inside. The message is clear: “Pay up or you will be baled.”
Farmer Adam could have avoided all this trouble if he had paid more attention to the Bible:
“Thou shalt not shit where thou eateth.”
When I imagine Adam’s getaway from the west, I picture a trail of chair ankles, headboards, and drawer knobs that look like nipples all the way across the continent. And when Adam inevitably runs away from the farmer army of the east, I imagine a trail of hayforks, balers, wagons, tractors, and barns all the way to Mexico.
My parents called him a “Gentleman Farmer.” I don’t know what this means, but I think it means he wasn’t really a farmer, but merely a man playing one in real life. Picture a prince deciding to secretly work among his subjects. He wears a costume that makes you think he’s a sandwich artist. Eight hours a day, he constructs sandwiches for commoners, but all the time, he gleefully reminds himself, “I am a prince.”
But I didn’t know any of the bad stuff while I worked for him. Hindsight calls me an idiot for this, but I can’t do anything about old blindness. All I saw was an impressive man, a childlike giant who went about farming like it was an adventure, and that’s how I wanted to go about farming, about everything. He saw this, the spark in me, and gave me a knife. He called me his foreman.
My allegiance belonged to the big man from the wild west.
Shadiness was responsible for the ramshackle state of his farm, but I thought it was just carpe diem that made it a place of madness. All the buildings stood at severe angles, as if leaning into winds of doom. Windows and roofs were broken. The manure was a century deep in the stalls. The place was dead, but alive. Oh beautiful, my zombie farm. Wonderful disorder and a violence I adored. Even the chickens were amped up on the spirit of lawlessness that walked abroad there.
I remember stepping into one of the little rickety buildings one morning. I stopped. A chicken blocked my path. She seemed to be waiting for me. I stared at her. She stared at me. I almost had time to say, “What?” but before I could, she ran at me, screaming.
I screamed. I ran.
I ran from the chicken down the muddy path between the other buildings, down the long driveway, past the mushroom garden of mobile homes, Lord Adam’s slum (yes, he was a slumlord), homes flickering like mobile ghosts under the trees in the green florescent lighting that hung over them always like gallows, a green glow making the chicken look like she was from hell. I ran to the main road and would have run all the way to town and beyond if she had kept chasing. But when I looked back again, she was gone, returned to nest and howl in the womb of her mother, Sin.
We had horses too, and cows, a couple cats, and I’m sure there were plans to acquire sheep, goats, hogs, and a herd of Old MacDonalds eventually. Though my boss was a hay farmer, he also wanted to be every other kind of farmer, to collect the whole set.
Two of the horses were skinny, and one was gigantic, so big it looked like a costume operated by a whole family of horses.
One evening, my boss wanted to go for a ride. He took one of the skinny horses but made me pick the beast. Picture the Trojan Horse. Now picture a farm-stained high-school boy perching on its back like a ladybug on a hippopotamus. Though this looks funny, it feels terrifying.
My boss’s horse wore a saddle. My horse’s saddle was a blanket. Why? Because they don’t make saddles that big, saddles big enough to be worn by the space shuttle.
Farmer Adam tossed me onto the horse. Imagine a monkey sitting on a big bald hill that hates the monkey. Adam told me how to use my heels to kick the hill, so I kicked it, and off we went flying across the field. It wasn’t romantical like I thought it would be: me a hero on his steed, riding out into evening meadow mists, a knight, a cowboy poet, a backwoods Batman maneuvering his Bat-horse and singing in grunts to echolocate his damsel.
Instead of making me glamorous, the horse made me connect intimately with his backbone. The blanket was no protection at all. With every one of the horse’s mighty steps, the backbone smashed my young manhood. It was like in the Roman days when a victorious general returned from war and one of his servants stood in the chariot with him, whispering in his ear, “Memento mori,” which means, “Remember, you will die one day,” and while whispering this, the servant also kicked the general in the nuts repeatedly. Why did the generals want this? I have no idea. Ask a historian.
My boss laughed at me for getting my balls ruined, but I was used to this. He often laughed at me. He laughed when I got so covered in poison ivy I couldn’t fit gloves over my hands. He laughed when poorly stacked haybale mountains fell on top of me. And he laughed when a hornet flew up my pantleg and stung me so close to my descendants that killing the hornet made me look like a man punching the patriarchy.
My boss also laughed when we went to battle with Junior the bull.
Junior was a heavyweight man-cow who began his career on the farm as a wimp. You could climb over the fence and walk right up to him, look him in the wild eye, then march toward him, and he would back up. With his head alone, he easily outweighed me, but I could drive this leviathan backwards all the way across the field.
It was odd to watch Junior go in reverse, which didn’t look like a gear that he should have. It was like watching a bear ride a bike, or a great white shark jump up and body slam a boat.
And like biking bears and jumping sharks, Junior was full of hate. You could see it in his eyes. The whole time I moonwalked him across the field, he kept his eyes on mine, and those eyes said, “Dear, God, if you help me kill him, I promise I’ll stop asking Satan to help me kill him.”
One summer, as if God or Satan answered the prayer, Junior’s mind began catching up with his body. The result? He gradually shed his fear of people.
When I first experienced this, I was in his field with a chainsaw, cutting a fallen tree into firewood. Junior was there, and he was yelling at me.
Have you ever been yelled at by a bull? I know you’ve been yelled at by a squirrel, so I need you to close your eyes and see the squirrel. Remember his fury. Now add thousands of pounds. No tree can hold this squirrel. He breaks the tree, hits the ground like a meteorite, then races up and yells in your face. It’s like the Earth itself is yelling with outrage, driven insane by the fact that its mudslides, hurricanes, and polar vortexes have somehow failed to eradicate the human fleas.
As I worked the chainsaw, Junior wouldn’t leave me alone. He stood on the other side of the woodpile, and every time I turned my back, he pushed the pile over with his head, then he yelled some more. He kept doing this even though I screamed at him, even though I screamed and held up the chainsaw like a megaphone and it screamed too. He merely swung his huge head back and forth like he was saying no to my existence. While he shook his head and yelled, he glared at me with one eye then the other, and the whole display looked like laughter. I was a joke, and he couldn’t wait to wipe me from the world.
Farmer Adam knew of my growing fear, so some evenings he would invite me for a stroll in Junior’s field. He did this because he liked laughing at my fear as much as he liked laughing at my pain.
The Running Of The Dan
I remember it was twilight, dim enough that the far end of the field blended with the woods surrounding it, and somewhere hiding in all that gloom was a bull named Junior who hated me.
My boss gave a great war whoop to rouse the bull and we almost immediately heard Junior’s answering roar. Then the sound of his horribly heavy feet thundering across the field.
At that time, Junior was still afraid of Adam, so when Adam hopped the fence and I did too, I felt relatively safe.
We walked into the field, heading for Junior while Junior was heading for us, fast, so fast that he didn’t just stop in front of Adam but skidded to a stop. Adam laughed, enjoying his power, and I laughed, enjoying standing behind him and being alive still. Junior swung his head back and forth as usual, and it was like he was trying to hook his vision around my boss so he could hate me without obstruction.
“Think we can outrun him?” Adam said.
“No,” I said.
Then Adam started showing off. He waved his arms like he was spooking a flock of birds and walked toward Junior. Grudgingly, Junior did as he was told and backed up, but his shaking head seemed to say, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Adam pushed Junior back and back as if he was cranking up a monstrous windup toy. Soon, we were in the middle of the field. Then Adam stopped. I stopped.
After smiling for a moment, Adam turned slightly and looked back toward the fence. “Well,” he said…
Then, without warning, he ran.
As soon as he started, so did I. So did Junior. I ran as hard as I could, too afraid to look back. But if I had looked, I would have seen my boss still at the starting line, doubled over with laughter. He had only run a few feet, enough to make me run, and it had worked.
I was running for my life. So was Junior.
I didn’t aim for the fence. It was too far away. Instead, I headed for an empty hay wagon standing in the field. It was a metal wagon, its vertical pipes making it look like an anti-shark cage, good at protecting people from animals, but it works best if you’re inside the cage, and I wasn’t yet, not by a long shot.
As I ran, I could hear Junior’s feet behind me, feel the presence of his colossal skull plowing through the air at my back. I was seconds from being struck, but I still had a ways to go, and though I could practically taste Junior’s breath, I didn’t look back. I couldn’t afford to. I’m certain if I had, Junior would have grabbed me by the face with his mouth, thrown me down, and then stomped me to death.
I ran with the speed of anyone who is about to die badly, and when I came within jumping distance of the wagon, I leapt for it, threading myself between the bars, then I crashed onto the grated floor, screaming silently for air, and more alive than a stampede of Walt Whitmans.
Junior, realizing the little man he’d been chasing had somehow transformed into a giant metal thing, veered around it and stomped away.
And out there, somewhere in the dark, I could hear my boss laughing.
In the end, Junior shed the rest of his fear. He decided one day to attack Farmer Adam, knock him to the ground, and break several of his ribs.
That was that: Junior had to go. A call was made. And people from some other farm came to take him away.
I wasn’t there when it happened, but I stood at his fence after he was gone, looking out at the empty field, thinking about the thousands of pounds of adventure that had just walked out of my life.
Some evenings, before heading home, as I glanced into Junior’s field, I almost expected to see him out there, being a jerk, stabbing the ground with his dangerous feet, speaking in shouts, searching for the boy. Nearby, my boss hummed mysterious songs of the west; the chickens murmured murder in their sleep; the giant horse sharpened its spine against a barn ceiling; and the green florescent lights over the slum flickered their ghostly life.
If a genius was telling my story, he or she would know exactly what to say at this moment. She would imagine me standing at the fence, looking out into the darkness, my eyes following something that isn’t there, and after a sigh, she would say about me,
“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal living inspired by that departed bull had now vanished forever…
“His count of enchanted friends had diminished by one.”