Carl Wycoff CC
When I got back outside, Dad was bent over, staring intently into the tractor’s insides. He grabbed the spark plugs out of my hand and sealed the wires and everything up under the distributor cap. He tried the crank again, and the old, rusty Farmall jumped to life. The fierce stench of gasoline and smoke filled the shed. Thick exhaust billowed out into the yard.
After pulling himself up into the seat, Dad drove the tractor in a languid loop around the shed two times and then parked it in front. He jumped off.
“Your turn,” he said.
I stared up at the quaking tractor. I was terrified. I was 11 years old.
“I don’t want to do it,” I said.
“Hurry up.” He pointed at the tractor and scowled.
I put my hand on the steering wheel and hoisted myself into the seat. Then Dad pointed at the clutch and the gearshift, and instructed me on what to do. He wanted me to drive the tractor up to the clothesline and then put it in reverse, and back it up to the shed again. He wanted me to repeat this activity until he’d determined I’d mastered it.
It was simple at first. I drove the tractor back and forth a few times. Dad stood through my initial attempts, making sure I didn’t screw anything up. Then he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and went inside.
“I’ll be back in a minute” is all he said.
So I kept going. It was tedious but mostly easy. Sometimes the rusty clutch would stick, and I had to work it out.
The driving and reversing got old after a while. Anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes passed. My leg started to cramp, and my left arm turned numb, yanking that rusty metal into place. Dad was likely inside managing Mom and her cooking—he’d forgotten about me.
He also hadn’t shown me how to park the tractor or shut it off.
I kept it going for a while longer. But eventually I put it in reverse and couldn’t get the shifter back into drive. The clutch was stuck and grinding. I couldn’t dislodge it. The tractor continued to roll backwards as I frantically looked all around, registering the things it could strike: a pile of old cinderblocks, the trailer we used to haul potatoes, the shed itself. I turned the steering wheel as far to the left as possible to avoid hitting shit.
Our house sat in a valley on top of a little hill that dipped further down into a bottomland where the crick ran. Turning the wheel so severely directed the tractor towards and into that lowland.
As it bolted downwards, the tractor picked up speed and began careening. Down there, alongside the crick, was a rusted-out swing set and a huge black walnut tree. The tractor was on course to crash into one or both of them. I couldn’t slow it down or think how to change its trajectory, so I knew I had to get off it. I moved to the edge of the seat and prepared to jump. As the tractor neared the swing set, I leapt off. Something went wrong though; one of the wheels caught my pants leg and dragged me down and under. It happened so fast. The tractor ran diagonally over my back and shoulder.
The only thing that saved me that day from broken bones or worse was how wet everything had gotten. It was spring. The crick had overflowed. It’d become a marsh down there, murky and soaked from all the rainwater. The weight of the tractor merely pushed me into the muddy ground. The tread of the tractor’s tire did tear up my back—which I discovered later—but the tractor couldn’t mount enough pressure to outright crush me.
It continued rolling on but never reached the swing or the tree. The tractor became lodged in the sludge, its wheels spinning, kicking out mud in all directions.
I jumped up from the ground as if nothing had happened. I was wired from the adrenaline and drenched head-to-toe in mud.
Dad came running over the hill a few seconds later, wide-eyed. He didn’t ask me what happened. He didn’t ask if I was OK. He ran past me instead. He got on the tractor and pulled it out of its rut. He drove it back up to the shed to look it over.
I wandered back into the house in a daze. In the bathroom, I washed the muck off my face. The shock began to wear off too, and I could feel my back was hurting—my t-shirt was stuck to it. Embedded, really. And as I peeled the shirt up, I could tell that it was all bloody underneath. I got it off, put peroxide on as many wounds as I could reach, and then put on a black t-shirt, knowing it would obscure anything that seeped through.
At dinner, no one asked anything. We never talked about it.
I knew to keep my wounds from the accident to myself. I knew I would be in deep shit if they ever found out. Allowing the tractor to go rogue was negligible so long as both the tractor and I had come out the other side of it unmarred. Physical damage, on the other hand, would’ve been a reflection on my parents’ hot-and-cold parenting style, and that would’ve been a punishable offense.
Years later, they became obsessed with identifying the person or persons who, in their opinion, had messed me up. I’d never settled down, had children, or moved to a hobby farm in the middle of the goddamn woods. They had been responsible, capable parents—paragons of family values. They’d taken me to church every Sunday to boot. Certainly, someone or something beyond their purview had spoiled me, corrupted me along the way.
Who was the culprit? Who could it be?
On visits home, Dad would shove a pen and notebook in my lap and instruct me to write a name down.
“Jot it down. Give us the name,” he’d say. “Tell us who hurt you.”
SH Woodgeard is a writer from Southern Ohio. Currently, he’s a Ph.D. student in Fiction at Oklahoma State University. Twitter: @shhhwoodgeard
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.