It was ten o'clock in the morning and already it felt like it was a hundred degrees. Mason knew he should've started two hours earlier than he did. The neat piles of alfalfa were already starting to dry out, and soon the grass tumbling in the baler behind him would start to break up. The last thing he wanted was to plug the machine, or even worse, break a belt.
Few implements are more finicky than swathers and balers. So many zerks to grease, joints to oil, belts to check, and yet the process of putting down and baling hay was one of Mason's favorite things to do. He continued down the line of mowed alfalfa, throttling the cabless John Deere tractor up and down along with the contours of the land. He closely monitored the gauge that informed him of the bale's shape, and maneuvered the tractor and baler carefully back and forth in order to keep everything in balance. A light began to blink, signifying a full and finished bail. Once it turned solid, Mason brought the tractor to a halt. The machine being towed continued to churn and bounce as the giant cylinder of grass inside remained spinning. An arm sliding back and forth under the belly of the machine fed twine around the spinning bale, forming the tight, finished product. Mason shut off the PTO mechanism that made the baler spin, and then he pulled a lever that raised the giant hydraulic door on the rear of the machine, allowing the bale to roll out where it would later be picked up and hauled back to the barn for winter storage. After everything was reset, Mason began the process all over again.
He began to sweat profusely. Mason's shirt was starting to stick to his back and it made him squirm in the yellow-cushioned seat. It made him wonder what it would be like to sit in one of those luxurious brand new tractors that the big farmers drove. Mason closed his eyes. He could feel the ice-cold air conditioning. He would actually have to shut it off from time to time because it got a bit too cold. He could hear the mundane Top Forty hits of the digital radio filling the cab and the pesky commercials that separated them. He could see what seemed like hundreds of levers, joysticks, buttons, switches, knobs, gauges, and meters. It was like the cockpit of a jetliner. Mason opened his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose. The alfalfa smelled as sweet as a freshly cut honeydew melon. A breeze picked up out of the west and made its way to Mason's damp back. It made him think of just two weeks earlier when he burned his ring finger on the exhaust vent of an air compressor. Colleen put the scalded finger in her mouth and then slowly pull it out. She blew gently on the irritated skin.
He turned his head back and angled it down to listen carefully to the sounds of the baler, just like his dad had taught him to do almost twenty years ago. He could hear friction, a slight squeal developing somewhere around the rear drive roller. It was getting to be just too damn dry. Mason popped open the storage compartment underneath his seat to search for a can of lubricant. He found a rusty metal aerosol can with no label, only a post-it note stuck on the side with nothing written on it.
He made it only another hundred yards down the windrow when one of the belts popped. Mason looked off to the west, down into the draw where his father was swathing in a separate field of prairie hay. He started down the hill towards his dad, pulling the disabled baler behind him. His day in the field was likely over.
"I don't know, Dad, seems like she's got her mind pretty well made up," Mason said, as he took a bite of his smoked turkey sandwich.
Once Mason's father had noticed something was wrong with the baler, he stopped swathing to see what the problem was. After some various cooperative diagnostics had been performed, the two decided it would be a good time to break for lunch. They took their water jugs and coolers over to a line of old abandoned bales that had never made the trek back home to the farm. They sat down with their backs leaning against the sagging mounds of hay. It was a good spot to relax, thanks to the shade that the run of towering cottonwoods provided.
"Well, sounds to me like you're just ready to throw in the towel," Mason's father said as he pulled a handful of fresh Bing cherries out of his cooler. He put them into his mouth one by one, plucking the stems and tossing them aside while hocking the pits as far as he could.
"That's not it at all. Hell no, Dad. It's just I don't have any damn idea what to do, or where to even start for that matter. I mean, how the hell do you bring something like that up?" Mason picked up his water jug. The ice inside sounded like a tribal instrument as he tossed it up to his mouth. Cold water ran down both sides of his chin and all the way down to his chest. He wiped his face with his forearm. "It's like she just doesn't want me to know."
"She's probably just in the same boat as you, Mason. Trying to find a way to talk about it."
"I don't know. Since I've known her I can't remember her ever having any trouble telling me what's on her mind. I always thought that was one reason why we worked so well together. She wasn't ever afraid to say the things that I couldn't. I just don't know what's so different this time."
Mason's dad rolled to his left onto his knees and then slowly stood up, bracing himself on one of the tattered bales. "Maybe it's not as bad as you think," his father said as he walked into the tall brush behind the bales to take a piss. "How do you know for sure she's going to take this job? She's been getting these letters for months now, right?"
"Yeah, she has, but it's just different now. And I don't even know how to explain how. It's just little shit. Like, and I know this is going to sound crazy, but she just sleeps different now. Like she's stranded in the cold somewhere without a blanket, all tense and coiled. Jesus, you'd never have seen anyone in your life sleep as relaxed as she used to, and now this."
Mason's dad had finished "watering the world" as he always liked to say, and took his seat back next to his son. After getting situated he dug around in his shirt pocket and pulled out a short dark cigar. Mason could smell the rich maduro wrapper before it was even completely drawn out of the pocket. He could recognize by the intricate red and gold label that his dad brought out a good one today. "There's another one in the cab of the swather if you want a smoke. Help yourself."
"Considering the situation, Dad, I doubt walking in the door tonight smelling like cigar smoke would help my case much."
"Aw, hell, your mom was the same damn way. She'll get over it."
"Sure, Dad, she'll get over it alright. Just before she hops a flight to Boston."
"Boston, eh? That's where you think she's going?"
"Hell, I don't know. It's where the last letter came from."
Mason's dad took an extended draw from the cigar. Mason could hear the crackle of tobacco leaves succumbing to the neon ember. His dad blew out a murky cloud of white smoke that smelled like the floor of a dense forest.
"Mason, I don't know what to tell you exactly. It's a tough spot you're in. That's for damn certain. And I really do hope for the best. Your mother and I love Colleen to death. We've been pulling for her to be a part of this family since the first time you brought her home a couple years back. That said, I think you're making things more complicated than they need to be." With his cigar clenched in his teeth, making the words a bit harder to understand, his dad continued, saying, "It's as easy as this. Forget everything else you've heard and just answer this question. Do you want her to leave?"
"Of course not, Dad."
"Well then, do you still have the ring your mother gave you?" Mason could see where his father was going with this and began to pack up everything from his lunch.
"God damn it, Mason, just calm down and listen to me for a second"
"Dad, I've told you again and again. That's not what she wants. That's not what I want. That's not what we want."
"Christ, Mason, how long are you going to keep telling yourself that? Maybe that isn't what she wants, but I have a hard time believing that you're fine with the fact that you're the only couple living together around here who's not hitched."
"Dad, do you really think I give two shits about what anyone else in this town thinks about my life?"
"I do. Yeah, I think you do a bit. Despite whether or not you want to. Fact is, it doesn't matter much whether or not you care. The same goes for her. Problem is, you both are surrounded by people in this community who do care, and right or wrong, that makes you both uncomfortable."
Mason sharply snatched up his cooler and water jug and said quietly without making eye contact, "I have to get going, Dad. Mary and Lonnie are coming over for dinner in a couple hours. I'll get that belt fixed in the morning and have the north forty done tomorrow." He headed back to the tractor.
From behind, Mason's father shouted, "Mason, whether it's what you think she wants or not, that ring is all you've got!"
The steaks were almost done. Mason went inside to get a plate for the meat. Colleen and Mary were at the kitchen sink, slicing cherry tomatoes for the salad. Colleen was picking them up one at a time, carefully sliding the knife all the way through to her thumb, letting each half fall individually into the large bowl already full of romaine lettuce. Mary was using the cutting board. She diced the tomatoes three at a time and used the knife blade along with her left hand to pick up the pile that had accumulated. She dropped the tomatoes in the bowl and then washed the knife and her hands off in the sink.
"Thanks for the help, Mary. I meant to have all this done before you guys got here," Colleen said while halving the last tomato.
"Don't even mention it. It's the least I can do. You learn to be pretty quick with a knife when you got hungry kids waiting at the table." Mason stepped in between the women and grabbed a platter from the cabinet next to the stove.
"I wish you would've told me you were going to get so dressed up, Colleen, I feel like slob over here in my jeans," Mary said.
"Mary, you look fine. We're just eating dinner; no one is dressed up."
"She's right, Mary, you look fine," Mason said over his shoulder as he walked out the sliding door to the back yard.
Mason thought it was funny Mary said what she did. Not because she thought she was underdressed; she wasn't. This really was just a simple get together. It was the fact that after knowing Colleen for almost a year now, Mary still didn't know that that was how Colleen dressed every day. It was never anything flashy, just simple. Simple, yet elegant. Like the light floral print summer dress she was wearing behind him in the kitchen. She never tried to get people's attention, but she always did.
"You plan on eating those steaks or you going to drive some posts with them?" Lonnie said from his reclined lawn chair a few feet away.
"I tell you what, you go fetch me another beer, and I'll rescue your steak from the flames."
After supper was finished, they all went outside and carried on in conversation for a couple hours over a few drinks. It was mostly small talk and gossip. Colleen didn't have much to say all night. She just laughed when she was supposed to, and occasionally chimed in with subtle nods and quiet replies. Several times Mason caught her staring into her glass. She rolled the braided glass stem back and forth between her thumb and index finger, gradually tipping the bowl lower and lower until the deep red Port that she loved to drink after dinner nearly spilled out on to the concrete.
After it had been dark for an hour or so, Lonnie and Mary decided they had better get back home to make sure their kids got to bed. They all stood up and exchanged pleasantries and then it was just Mason and Colleen on the back porch. Mason plopped back in his chair.
"I'm going to go clean up," Colleen said.
"Need any help?"
Colleen never answered. She just kissed Mason on the top of the head and went inside, sliding the glass door shut behind her.
The note on the table was written in manuscript, which seemed odd to Mason. He'd only ever seen her write in cursive. Something about the harsh angles of the disconnected letters spoke louder than any of their actual collaborative meanings. They were as cold as the new form Colleen's body took in the night.
"Hey Mace, I'm up at the cartwheel...meet me there?"
The pale blue post-it stuck to his ring finger as he consciously tried to drop it to the floor. Mason looked out the window toward the pond dam, toward Colleen. The phone rang behind him. He let it ring four times before answering. The voice on the other end sounded annoyingly intelligent. Mason listened courteously, responding in simple monosyllabic tones, and then he hung up. He looked back down at Colleen's note and folded it in half again and again until it was too thick to crease and then opened the front door. He let the easy wind take it out of his hand and watched it tumble down the long rock driveway. Every wrinkle in his neck and face was filled with dirt. It was a windy day in the field and the dust and sweat made him itch all over. He wanted to take a shower.
Mason went inside and changed into a clean white v-neck t-shirt and was ready to head back out to meet Colleen. He stopped at the front door and thought about the conversation with his dad the day before. Mason went back to the bedroom. He spun the dial on his gun safe and opened the door. There were three drawers. Mason opened the top one and removed his .22 caliber Ruger pistol, the one with the bull barrel, and the brick of ammo next to it. He set them both on top of the safe. In the back of the drawer was a small cedar box. Mason sat down on the bed behind him and opened it. He slid his finger into the dainty chain inside. On the chain was the ring that Mason's mom had given him. She told him that it was the wedding ring of his great, great grandma. He held the ring up by the chain and watched it swing gently in front of his eyes. The antique metal didn't shine, but it looked precious. The single small elegant stone was set in a tiny box elevated by six prongs that led the eye down to the skinny band full of elaborate sterling filigree. Mason fell into a slight daze, thinking about the women that had wore the ring. Then he thought about Colleen. He tried to picture her wearing it.
Mason snapped out of his trance as the alarm on his emergency weather band radio sounded. It was the same howl he dreaded hearing as a kid. Mason shook his head slightly and took a deep breath to pace his pounding heart. "Possible severe storms late tonight," he heard. He slid the ring and chain in his jeans pocket and left the bedroom. Mason walked out the front door and headed south toward the pond.
"Guess you found my note," Colleen said with her back turned to Mason. She was sitting in the tree, their tree, with her legs dangling and rhythmically swinging like those of a 5 year-old boy in a church pew.
"Yep. Were you hoping I wouldn't?" Mason said playfully as he walked over to the top of the tree. Over time, the old cottonwood had arched its back, like that of a prima ballerina. The trunk followed the contour of the dam forming a bridge of sorts with the canopy ending at ground level, partly submerged in the small spring-fed pond.
Colleen snickered and turned her head toward Mason who was working his way up the fingers, hands, and arms of the wise wooden dancer. "Did you get the baler fixed?"
"Yep," Mason said after finally getting situated in the tree. The two sat staring off into the west like they had so many times before.
"Good... that's good. What was wrong with it?"
"Oh, nothing was wrong with her. It was my fault. My stubborn ass . . . just pushed her too hard."
The next several moments went by in silence. The air was sticky and their sweat felt like sap. The only ones talking were the bullfrogs, a groaning amphibious chorus that, when combined with the steady buzz of crickets, sounded like home to Mason.
"See that dark spot out there where those two hills meet?" Mason pointed out towards a shale bed that was barely visible in the distant plains that were now little more than silhouettes in the setting sun. Colleen nodded her head.
"I used to spend hours out there as a kid, looking for sharks' teeth, and other fossils."
"Did you ever find anything?"
"Nah. I didn't have a clue in the world what in the hell I was looking for. I didn't care, though. It was an adventure every time."
The long line of elderly cottonwoods cast their soft tufts into the air by what seemed like the millions. It looked like a gentle snow falling on the deep green alfalfa.
"I tell you, sometimes I still feel exactly like that little kid out there, digging in the dirt, oblivious to the world."
"What do you mean?"
Mason didn't answer. Instead he snapped off a small dead branch from the tree and began breaking it into little pieces.
Colleen shifted her weight back and forth and then sat on her hands. She leaned forward and seemed to speak while exhaling, "When me and my sister used to go upstate to visit my dad on the weekends, we'd spend most all of our time there in this tree house he had built for us. It was in a kind of a secluded spot, out back behind the stables. We would just get lost in that thing. I remember one time, we had fallen asleep watching clouds or some damn thing, and anyway, we woke up and the sun had gone down completely. For a few minutes neither of us knew where we were." Colleen laughed out loud while rubbing her left forearm. "It was terrifying."
"I bet it was," Mason said.
There was another extended period of silence during which the wind picked up out of the north. It was completely dark now, and Colleen's teeth began to click slightly. Mason moved closer and held Colleen under his right arm beneath what was now a star filled sky. His left hand was in his pocket fiddling with the ring. He looked up and saw a deathly thin crescent moon, the kind that Colleen always referred to as a Cheshire cat smile when they stargazed from the cartwheel tree. The lunar slice gave off a great deal of light for as thin as it was, yet to Mason, it looked frail and weak, like at any given second it might flicker and disappear from the night sky altogether.
"I was thinking, Colleen, maybe we could set out for that shale bed tomorrow. Just for the hell of it."
"Maybe, Mace. We'll see." Colleen craned her head to the right and left, popping her neck, and then ran her hands through her hair. "It's getting too damn chilly. I think I'm going to head back to the house. You coming?
Mason didn't answer, and didn't even appear to hear the question. He just stared down at his feet while biting the inside of his lip.
"Mason," Colleen said louder as if to snap him out of a daze. "Are you coming?"
"Yeah, I'll be right behind you."
Colleen crawled over him and then maneuvered down the branches to the pond dam. Mason took the ring out and examined it for a few seconds. He rolled it between his thumb and forefinger while looking at the spot on the tree that Colleen had just vacated. Mason closed the ring tight in his fist and then slid it back in his pocket.
He didn't watch her walk away but listened to her steps crunching in the tall overgrown brush behind him, fading into the wildlife silence. The steps sounded slow, yet at the same time, definite. And then she was gone.
He had never seen her take a bath before. All they'd ever known was the shower. In a way, Mason was glad. This image of Colleen, half submerged in the steamy tub, was the only one he ever wanted. There were no luxurious drifting bubbles or soothing oils. No lavender candles or effervescent salts. Just Colleen.
She invited him in to the cast iron tub that had seen more years pass than the two of them put together. Mason's rough, sun ripened face, turned a new shade of red and the corners of his mouth rose slightly as his eyes dropped down to the corroding nickel clawfeet of the tub.
"Come on, Mace, how 'bout it?" she said faintly while swishing a few strands of her hair in the water.
Mason sat on the toilet lid leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. His eyes rose to Colleen's face, then drifted to where one knee jutted out of the limpid water like a flawless white glacier, showing Mason what he was missing.
"I guess . . . maybe not such a great idea," Colleen said, looking down into the reflection of her own face. She flicked water off her fingers into the mirror image.
He remained silent but didn't wait long before saying, "I'm gonna go put the vehicles away. I think it's supposed to storm late tonight." Mason got up and walked to the doorway, which was behind Colleen and around the corner of a small dividing wall. With his left hand on the doorknob Mason hesitated and said quietly, while looking at the grain pattern in the door, "Another one called you back today. I took a message. It's under the phone." Mason left the bathroom and gently shut the door behind him.
He could hear her frustration in the shifting water on the other side of the door. He stopped and sat down at the bottom of the staircase that was situated just a few feet from the bathroom door. Mason's throat tightened and his jaw seized as he listened to the gentle splashes seeping from underneath the door he had just closed. Mason put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes and temples simultaneously. He stood up and made his way into the bedroom. He took the ring and chain out of his pocket and held it in his left hand as he opened the safe with his right. Mason took out the cedar box from the top drawer and carefully dropped the ring and necklace back into the tiny crate. He stared at it for a few moments, taking note of how it looked, coiled alone in the emptiness of the wooden cavity. He could hear the water being drained from the tub. Mason slipped the cedar box back into the top drawer of the safe, followed by the small pistol and brick of ammo. Mason shut the thick steel door and spun the combination wheel as he thought about the treasure he might find the next day in the shale.