Something for the Poker Table

Bruce Machart

You’re impatient, sometimes thoughtless-a little cheap, too-so when you snag your worn and weather-checked water hose on the jagged bumper of your fifteen-year-old truck, you don’t think a thing about it. You pull. You throw yourself into it, two-hundred-some-odd pounds of man versus a single-braid hose-SBR cover, SBR tube, cheap rubber atop cheap fabric atop cheap rubber, the whole thing made by mandrels and little Korean men whose older brothers your older brother chased through jungles wet and green and alive enough to outlive them all. You curse and pull but the sharp steel of the bent bumper digs in, won’t let go. Your bum knee is giving you hell these days, you’d rather not walk the fifty paces back to the truck to free the damn thing, so you plant your good leg and lean into it. You heave and the hose squeaks and pops, tears clean in two, and when you look up again you’re square on your ass between squat rows of July cotton.

Be got-damned, you think, if I’m buying a new hose, so you don’t drive into town and call Jerry Curlee, the balding Bohemian salesman who puts forty percent into hose and baler belting and roller chain before he sells it to you. No, you go into the truckbed toolbox and fish out just what you need-a hose mender. A quick fix, by damn, so you can run this hose tonight, so you can get the creek water from the pump house to the irrigation lines, so the plants will come up green and thick despite this south Texas heat.

A hose mender, a marvel of the modern world, you think. One seven-inch length of tubing, galvanized steel or, like this one, cast brass, barbed on the ends like a tomcat’s pecker. What goes in must not come out-not till the job’s done, anyway. Ram one shank into each end of your ripped-in-half hose, screw some Dixon worm-gear clamps down tight on each side so it holds, and off you go. Couple it to the pump line, open the gate valve and you’ve got a working hose, holding pressure the way the doctors up in Houston say your anterior arteries will now that they’ve mended you with stents, their handiwork holding you open from the inside out, your blood slurping past that stainless steel the way now this water’s starting to sluice through that brass mender.

And that deserves a cigarette. You bend yourself over one slow time, checking a plant for the tiny pearls of weevil eggs, and then you head back to lean on the truck while you light one up. You suck the smoke in deep and work your tongue over your teeth while the hose holds its own and the sun leans west to kindle the horizon. When a duster buzzes in from the south, crows launch themselves from telephone lines. The plane banks hard just the other side of the farm-to-market road, dives, and you can see the pilot in there, a young guy in a baseball cap, glancing back at his wake of Malathion spray. He’ll dust today for the weevils, then he’ll be back in September to defoliate before the pickers move in.

It strikes you, as he cuts his spray and throttles up into his steep ascent, that we’ve got a reliable fix for damn near everything these days, and before you know it you’re adding up all your success stories. The weekend you spent with grease to your elbows, replacing the cam bearings and hand clutch on the old Allis-Chalmers tractor you’ve had since you bought your first hundred acres. The barn roof you rebuilt and shingled alongside your father in a single scorching day after Hurricane Carla sucked the old one off and delivered it half a mile west to the banks of the Navidad. The calf you saved one humid night when the moon forgot to rise and Doc Vacek didn’t answer his phone, the way it took you half an hour just to scare that damn heifer into the light of the barn; the way, when you saw the blood coming hard from her and the single hoof showing, you cursed yourself for cursing her. And then your boots kept sliding in the warm slop of shit and hay on the floor, sliding until you called your wife out there to help you tie the heifer off and hold her head, until you wedged yourself between the poor girl and the loft ladder and found enough purchase to work your hand and forearm up inside her. And this, this was something for the poker table, something for the feedstore loading docks, something for your pal Grady Derrick to shake his head at. This one was made to be told. The real thing. You know it now and you knew it then, knew it as you worked your arm around and felt the insides of her, the slick and squeezing heat of it, knew it while you followed the soft leather of the shoulder down to the hoof and worked it out alongside the other one. Knew it as you got the calf puller rigged up, with every turn of the ratchet that set the young mother to moaning, with every quiver of her hide. And then the calf came, wide-eyed and alive, and with her more work.

You cleared the cavities, put down new hay, got the mother washed out and sewed up and the little one sucking, and then, around midnight, you could stand there smoking awhile before stripping down and hosing off just out back of the house. Afterward, on the porch in a towel, while your wife shook her head at you and handed you a cup of coffee, you told her you were sure enough glad you didn’t raise elephants. You remember her laugh. You remember how it cut itself short, how she seemed always sad in the eyes those days, even that night, despite the calf you’d kept alive.

And now, now your cigarette’s out and you light another one, because there’s nobody around presently to tell you just how surely you’re killing yourself. Thirty-nine years now you’ve been sucking on these things, and you guess you might as well pencil them into the Can’t Fix side of the ledger. You lean against your truck awhile and blow smoke from your nose while the duster makes another low run, its engine drowning out the sound of the water you’ve set to flowing. And then it comes to you, something you haven’t thought of once in your life without laughing. Until now. Somehow, even with the work all but done for the day and the sting of Malathion spray swirling familiar as cottonseed in the air, you don’t so much as smile.

Fifteen years ago, when you could still polka three songs in a row without stopping to catch your breath, in the truck-brand new that summer, and shining-with your better half, stuck in traffic on a trip to the city, your wife, she points and laughs at a billboard above. Vasectomy Reversal, it reads. Guaranteed. “Look, sugar,” she says. “Your sperm or your money back.” You smile at the thought of something so silly, a fix for something that’s already been fixed, and you remember that weekend some years back, after the birth of your second son, when the doctors had sliced and tugged and tied and sent you home to sit on the couch with your nuts propped up on a towel full of ice, your newest, most daring shave itching like chiggers dropped down your underpants.

You ease ahead in traffic and shake your head. She puts a hand on your knee. She’s getting older, the lines cut deeper in her knuckles, but the question she asks and the shine in her eyes let you know she’s not too old. Not yet, she isn’t. “So what do you think, my little gelding,” she says. “Wanna untie the knot?”

It’s in her eyes. It’s there and you don’t see it.

But now you do. Now that it’s fifteen years too late. Now that your second cigarette is ashed down to the filter and there’s nothing left but to drive home and let this water you’ve set to flowing drain itself into the earth. Now you see it just fine. Through all the long days and short nights, you see it. She’s in the truck, telling you with her eyes. One more, she wants. A girl this time. Someone to dress up Sundays in frills and patent-leather shoes instead of Wranglers and ropers. And the answer you need is right there in the cab with you, no need to root through the toolbox out back in the bed, but you don’t give it. No, you shake your head and write the whole thing off as a joke. You sit there in traffic with her for an hour and it never hits you. You stand all-but-naked on your back porch less than a year later. You’re sipping coffee after pulling a calf into the world, you’re making jokes and still her eyes won’t light up. You’re waiting-just this week at the feedstore loading docks-smoking and spitting and swapping stories with Grady Derrick, your friend of forty years. You’ve been farming your whole life, you tell him, but you’ll be damned if you can get a lasting smile to grow on that woman’s face.

You’re getting back into your truck and you’ll be damned, but you’d always believed she never lacked for what she needed. The crop duster makes one last pass out toward the blazing horizon, and you’ll be damned.