CL Bledsoe: Rice Fields
CL Bledsoe is the Assistant Editor of the Dead Mule. This essay is part of his ongoing series of memoirs — published bi-monthly here on the Mule.
Timmy wanted to see this girl. He had some peach schnapps and was hoping she had some weed. There were three of us, Timmy, who was eighteen, and his younger brother and me, who were both fifteen.
“She likes you,” Timmy said.
Yeah,” his brother said, “she was talking about you.”
I had met her before. Her older sister was friends with my older sister. Melissa was the girl’s name. The thing about her was that she wasn’t good looking, if that’s what you were after. She was big and tall, with long black hair. And that was all, really, the hair. It swept down from her head like Morticia Addams. But Timmy didn’t care. That was the thing about Timmy. And if he didn’t care, why should I?
We waited until my father had been in bed for a couple hours before we stole his truck and drove out to the girl’s trailer. She lived down a gravel road lined with thin hardwoods. I didn’t know the way, so Timmy drove.
Her dad didn’t like Timmy so we drove on past her house until we came to a dirt track. Timmy turned in.
“It’s a field road,” I said.
“I’ll go slow,” Timmy said. “Just a little way down, then we’ll walk over to her house.”
He edged the truck along beside the field, sliding through the ruts.
“Timmy, that’s a rice field,” I said.
His brother was laughing and shaking his head.
Beside us, I could see a dark levee holding water. Stray stalks of rice marked the top of the levee.
“So what?” he said.
“So rice fields are wet. There’s lot’s of water,” I said.
“We’re on the road,” he said as the truck slid side to side.
His brother laughed some more.
We made it about ten feet in before the tires sank. Timmy gunned the engine, throwing mud behind us and not gaining an inch. He threw it into reverse, throwing mud onto us and tried to rock the truck free.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I’ll hut bottom in a second.”
He kept switching back, turning the wheel side to side until I yelled at him to stop. We got out and went to the back of the truck. The tail gate was sitting on the ground; the rear tires completely buried. It stank of smoke and burning oil and rubber.
We hunted around for sticks to put under the tires, but gave up pretty quick.
“My dad’s going to beat my ass,” I said.
“We’ll have to go to the house,” Timmy said.
“But doesn’t her dad hate you?”
Most parents, especially those of daughters, hated Timmy. He brought anarchy with him the way some people bring a bottle of wine to a party. It was difficult to tell what he would do in any situation. He had recently lost his job as a bus driver because it interfered, as he said, with him getting his necessary fourteen hours of sleep a day. Yet he already had another gig lined up, driving the bus for the Vo-Tech, which would involve longer hours. He got it through a friend. Timmy collected friends: if he needed something, he found someone who had it and latched onto him or her. I don’t mean to say that he was a manipulator. Calling Timmy a manipulator was like calling the sun big; it didn’t quit capture the complexities of the situation. Tommy would give you his last dollar if you asked him. You just probably shouldn’t ask him where he got it from. And he’d probably ask you for two the next day, reminding you frequently of his previous generosity. But he usually had booze and sometimes weed.
We went back out to the road proper and hiked down to the girl’s house. Her dad answered the door and glared at us for a second, then slammed it closed. Timmy reached over and knocked again.
“You better let me in. I’ll keep knocking all night,” he said.
“Shh,” someone said.
The voice was a female’s. There was a window beside the door. We could make out a darkness in the window that must have been her.
“He’s going back to bed,” she said.
She opened the door and came out, pulling it to behind her.
“Hi, Melissa,” I said.
“Hey Timmy,” she said, ignoring me, and hugged him.
She was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, her hair draped down her back. Her hair was compelling in its darkness, the way an unlit room draws the eyes. It implied a kind of mystery.
“I got some schnapps,” Timmy said. He pulled the bottle out of his back pocket and offered it to her. “Want to party?”
“Can’t,” she said. “Dad’s already pissed that you’re here. You got to go before he gets back up.”
She smiled when she said it, her eyes solely on Timmy.
“We need a ride,” Timmy said. “We’re stuck in the ditch over there.” He pointed. “Maybe you could borrow your sister’s car?”
“I’ll ask but I doubt it.”
She went back inside without even saying a word to me.
“I’m only doing this because of your sister,” Melissa’s older sister said. “And you will fill up my tank.”
We were crammed into her little black sports car, hurtling down the highway. The moon was coming out and the road was deserted.
“You’re not going to be able to get a wrecker this time of night,” she said.
“I know a guy,” Timmy said.
“What were y’all doing in a rice field, anyway?” She asked.
“Thought it was a road,” Timmy said. “They ought to mark those things.”
She pulled into the gravel lot beside the main building of my father’s fish farm.
“Pull up to that tank,” I told her.
My father kept gas for use in the farm trucks, and diesel for the tractors.
“Y’all stay out here, I’ll be back in a second,” I said.
The building was unlocked. My father grew up in a small town during the depression. He always left buildings unlocked, out of habit, and would come back to find them vandalized or burglarized. He’d complain for days and then leave it unlocked again.
I found the hidden switch for the tanks and turned them on. Then I went back out and pumped gas for Stacy.
“You going to tell your Daddy you took his gas?” she asked.
“He won’t mind,” I lied. “He lets me get gas here if it’s an emergency.”
After I filled her up, she told me to come to her window. I squatted down and looked into her pretty face. You could hardly tell she was related to Melissa. Her hair was brown, and in every physical way they were opposites. Stacy’s face was small and feline. I could see the tops of her breasts. They were cream colored and smooth. Her eyes were dark, almost black.
“I’m going to tell your sister you’re hanging out with these losers,” she said and drove off.
I watched her tail lights fade in the distance.
“So who’s this guy you know?” I asked Timmy.
“Well, it’s kind of a long shot. Guy I know from the Vo-Tech, but I don’t know if he’s around,” he paused. “Why don’t we just take that tractor and pull it out ourselves?”
He pointed. There was a red bodied Case International Harvester tractor by the building.
I shook my head. “I don’t know how to drive it, not really. My dad won’t let me touch it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Timmy said.
“Do you know how to drive it?”
“Yeah,” he grinned. “I can drive anything.”
I wanted to believe him, wanted to think that we could just drive the tractor over, pull the truck out, and no one would know. All it required was another leap of trust. “You sure?” I said.
“Yeah, no problem,” he said, grinning even bigger.
I was thinking I should walk away, take my lumps and be done with it. But my father, when he was angry, had a vicious temperament. Maybe he’d throw me out of the house, maybe he’d send me to jail. Maybe he’d make me work it off in the rice fields.
“Fuck,” I said. “All right.”
“Let me just try it out,” Timmy said.
“I thought you knew how to drive it,” I said.
“I do, I just want to take it for a test drive first, by myself. Once around the block.”
“Goddamnit, Timmy,” I said. I looked at his brother, who was stone faced. “Go ahead.”
Timmy climbed up into the tractor and started it up. His brother was grinning.
“Are you a fucking Cheshire cat?” I asked him.
Timmy flashed me a thumbs up and tried to shift gears with a grinding that made me wince. Though, to be honest, this wasn’t too different from the sounds it made when my father drove it.
The tractor jerked forward, lights still off, and Timmy screamed. He swerved around the gas tanks and barreled out into the road, turned sharply and disappeared into the darkness. We could hear the gears grinding in the distance, and Timmy’s screams slightly louder.
“That son of a bitch,” I said.
His brother started laughing. “It’s your own fault,” he said. “You knew he didn’t know how to drive that tractor.”
Timmy’s screams faded back into range and we could see the dark outline of the tractor flying back down the road, headlights still off. Timmy turned back into the gravel lot and raced towards us. I felt an emptiness beside me and realized that Timmy’s brother had run away so I joined him. Timmy was still screaming. He aimed the tractor more or less for where it had originally been parked and killed the engine. He rolled over two trash barrels, hit the brake and the tractor stopped. He climbed down, laughing.
“God damn,” he said. “All right, I lied. I don’t know how to drive it.”
He and his brother were laughing. Timmy held up his hands, palms toward me.
“I’ve got an idea, though, but I need a phone. I’ll get your dad’s truck out in twenty minutes. No problem.”
He wasn’t laughing anymore, but neither was I. “I don’t believe you,” was all I could think to say.
“Seriously. I promise. I’m going to call my friend from Vo-Tech.”
He nodded, watching me, as though coaching me to a decision. He was all business. I’d seen him pull salvation out of his ass when he looked like that.
“I thought you said he might not be around,” I said.
Timmy had a certain grin that meant things were going to happen. He cocked his head to the side and his eyes got real big and glazed. It was partly goofy, partly suicidal, but the baring of his teeth gave it a tinge of aggression. Maybe that was why it worked so well, maybe it shocked whoever saw it so much that they just let him have his way, out of fear that he’d keep grinning like that. Whatever it was, when he flashed that grin, the conversation was effectively over.
“I just remembered that he’s in town,” Timmy said.
The Vo-Tech guy pulled up in a blue Toyota and a cloud of dust. He was skinny with long sideburns, older, more Timmy’s age, and you could tell from first sight that he didn’t give a rat’s ass.
Timmy handed him the bottle of peach schnapps and we loaded up in his truck. Timmy’s brother and I rode in the back, Timmy up front. We could hear his high-pitched, almost cartoonish voice squealing as he joked with his friend.
We pulled into the rice field and stopped behind my father’s truck. The Vo-Tech guy had a winch on the front of his truck.
“Now, I’ve got to tell you,” Vo-Tech said. “This might just pull your rear bumper off. But that’s the best I can do.”
I looked at Timmy. He was grinning. His brother was staring at the chain.
“You got a better plan?” Timmy asked.
I didn’t. The sky was black, still, but it would be lightening soon. My father woke before dawn most days.
“Yeah, go ahead. Whatever,” I said.
I put my father’s truck in neutral. Vo-Tech hooked a chain to my father’s rear bumper and turned the winch on. The chain pulled taught and my father’s truck eased back toward us.
“Nothing to it,” Vo-Tech said.
I waited for the sound of rending metal but it never came.
We thanked him and he left, promising to meet up with Timmy later. We piled in my father’s truck, me driving this time. It started easily enough and I backed out into the road, threw it into drive and eased away.
“Sounds really ragged,” I said.
Something in the engine was thumping. The temperature was already rising and the exhaust was getting thicker and white. The gravel road met blacktop at a street light and we stopped. Timmy crawled under the engine.
“Oil-pan’s leaking pretty bad,” he said.
“What’s that noise?” I asked. “The thumping?”
“Don’t know. Bad, probably. Rod or something.”
We stared at the truck. We were miles out of town. Vo-Tech was gone, Melissa’s sister was gone, and the blacktop stretched away around a curve back towards civilization.
Timmy went to the back of the truck and rummaged around, returning with several plastic containers of oil in various states of emptiness. He popped the hood, poured a couple of them in, and turned to me.
“Let’s try to limp home,” he said.
“Can we make it?” I asked.
“Can’t make things any worse,” he said.
We were quiet most of the way back. We rolled into town after a couple hours and stopped at a 24-hour gas station. We bought oil and poured it in. We’d left a trail of it on the road back to Melissa’s house.
“There’s a car wash,” Timmy said.
At this point, I was docile as a sheep. We pulled in and tried to wash the field mud off the bottom of the truck.
“Probably the first time your Daddy’s truck has been washed since he had it,” Timmy said.
Timmy’s house was on the way. He made an excuse about needing sleep for work, so we dropped him off. I begged his brother, at least to come with me. “So there’s a witness,” I said.
“Long as there’s food,” he said.
We pulled up to my house as the sun started to rise, killed the engine, and coasted in so all that could be heard was the sound of tires rolling over gravel. We snuck inside, kicked our shoes off and lay down in the living room, covering our clothes with blankets. My father rose minutes later. We listened to him sip his morning coffee. His newspaper crackled and the sun was warm through the windows. Maybe he wouldn’t notice, I thought, somehow. I was scared but I was also exhausted. I drifted off and woke to my father screaming.
“Boy, what the shit did you do to my truck?” He stood, outlined by light in the living room doorway. His glare moved from me to Timmy’s brother. He didn’t like their family. They were MacMasters, a poor family considered low-outcasts by many in the town.
“I got stuck,” I said. I learned later that it was the washing that gave us away. As soon as he saw how clean his truck was, he knew something was up. This was confirmed when he started it and heard the damage.
“You stole my work truck,” he said. “I ought to call the law.”
My father wasn’t violent usually when he was sober, but I was terrified. “I’m sorry,” was all I could think to say.
He glared at me, menacing in the doorway. “I’ll have to take the camper to work.”
He stormed out, slamming the door behind him. I jumped as I heard the screen door slam closed behind him.
He was about to discover that the camper was out of gas. I had run it dry a few days before, joyriding. We’d left it on the side of the road, hiked to a gas station, and filled up a half-gallon milk jug (the only container we had) with gas, and coasted home on fumes. I’d forgotten to fill the tank up the rest of the way.
I heard the screen door slam again and my father stomped across the kitchen floor
and threw the door open again.
“What in the hell did you do to my camper?” he shouted.
“I ran out of gas,” I said.
“Boy, you are never driving anything of mine again.”
“I could siphon some gas from the truck,” I said.
He glared at me.
“I’ll just walk to work,” he said. “And use the green Dodge. You ain’t fucked that up, have you?”
“No sir,” I said, which was true.
“We’ll talk about this later. Now, I’ve got to get to work.”
He slammed the door closed again. I heard him stomp across the kitchen once more, through the screen door and outside. I could hear him trudging through the yard, around the side of the house.
The farm wasn’t far. Down the hill, around the side of the lake, and across the silage pit to the old barn. Then across the road was the Fish Shack, which was the main building of the farm. I imagined I could hear his angry footsteps fading down the hill.
“He was pissed,” Timmy’s brother said.
“Yeah, he’s going to kill me when you leave.”
“Thought he was going to kill me,” Timmy’s brother said. “Way he kept looking at me.”
I was surprised that my father hadn’t struck me. Of course, there was tonight. But my father could do more damage with words than he ever could’ve with a belt.
We lay there for a little while, trying to sleep. It would take over a thousand dollars to repair the engine on the truck. It would be six months before I stole my father’s truck again, and then I was much more careful. It would be over a year before he let me openly drive it. But by then, Timmy had acquired the use of a neighbor’s car and we drifted apart.
I had never been more afraid of my father than I was that morning. In the end, I think he was so mad he didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing. That night, I would make dinner for him and leave it on the stove, and hide in my room until he went to bed, but nothing more would happen.
I lay on the floor that morning, thinking how stupid it all had been. I had blown up my father’s truck, and for what? To see a girl who wasn’t even interested in me. And I wasn’t even interested in her, not really, no more than that she was a female. And really, it had been Timmy she was interested in and vice versa.
When the phone rang, I staggered to my feet, exhausted physically and mentally, and stumbled into the hall and answered.
“What the shit,” my father asked, through the phone, “did you do to my tractor? What the hell have you been up to with them Mac-Masters? You’re never driving anything of mine again. Ever. Shit!”
He hung up and I stumbled back to the living room. Timmy’s brother was snoring softly. I lay down and covered myself. I would come to realize that it wasn’t my father’s anger that bothered me as much as his disappointment. The relationship between my father and I had been mostly one of avoidance. My father had ignored me, and that worked for him. I was quiet. I could be trusted to be left alone. Now, I’d changed that, whether I meant to or not. It marked the beginning of a change as I asserted not so much my individuality as my existence, like a puppy who’s cute until it piddles on the carpet.
I replayed the morning in my mind. The whole thing felt like a running gag. Lying there, I started laughing. I couldn’t stop I laughed until I ran out of breath. Then I fell asleep.