by Clint Cresawn
Much later on, when he told the story, he laughed and said, ‘I reckon all it takes is one near-death experience to bring somebody to life.’
There wasn’t much laughing at the time though. Jesse’s early life had been made of stern stuff – an orphan and dropout by the time he was 18, a childhood of free lunches and neglect, a love life shaded gray with complete disinterest. Or to be specific, disinterest on his part. He’d been a good-looking kid, so he got some attention now and again, but that all struck him as so far from important as to slide from his attention like water from a duck’s back. But, like he’d say later, ‘one near-death experience.’
All these years later, after seeing so much more of the world, Jesse can laugh at how he used to feel like this little town was so fancy. But, back then, when he’d hardly ventured out of an even smaller town, he’d felt it. And the McCalls’ place – That beautiful old acreage with its rolling meadows, fields filled with Christmas trees, red barns and outbuildings, and still-magnificent white clapboard farmhouse with green shutters, and maybe most symbolically, with Pepper, the McCalls’ close-cropped Standard Poodle that had taken up with him. Compared to what he’d been used to, even the ancient cabin where he lived far off in the woods behind the farmhouse felt like paradise.
And then, there was Press himself. Jesse didn’t notice much about what Press looked like on the day they met, but he’d always remember the way he made him feel – ‘Valued, I guess you’d say.’
Press seemed like someone who was comfortable in a way that Jesse was not, at least comfortable enough to be outgoing and kind to him. Given that Jesse didn’t really know what to expect at the McCalls' farm, he welcomed the kindness.
Even more important, Press wasn’t simply kind. It was Press who’d showed him the details of the job. Press was moving far off for college come fall of that year, and, as near as he could tell, Jesse figured his job was to do two things – take on the chores that Press had handled up until then and keep Dr. McCall from doing anything too stupid. As Press had explained it, ‘Dad’s a good man, and he cares about the place, but, by training, he’s a philosopher, not a farmer. A lot of times, his plans for the farm can be a little… undercooked. It’ll be your job to keep him on an even keel til I get back from school.’
As soon as Press showed Jesse the lay of the land and helped him understand what his basic duties were, hay season hit. In addition to owning their large farm, the McCalls leased pastureland all around the area, from ‘down the mountain’ in McDowell County all the way up to the peaks along the Tennessee border in the Tri-County. The growing seasons of these different altitudes allowed the boys, along with local day laborers, almost three months to get the hay in from different fields.
Haying was how the two spent most of their days from mid-June on. For the first weeks, they’d meet up for breakfast around six a.m. at the McCall farmhouse and then spend a few hours on chores around the farm – yardwork, gardening, mending fences, trimming Christmas trees. Then, around midmorning, just as the dew from the evening before dried off from the grass, they headed for the hayfields, often working until near dark. On these June days, they’d spend time in several nearby fields, cutting one field, raking a second, and baling and hauling from a third.
As they worked together, Jesse came to appreciate Press as a boss and coworker. Even though the McCalls could give Press anything he wanted, he wasn’t soft or spoiled. As the two began to get to know one another, Jesse learned from Press that even though he was going off to college at the end of the summer, he wanted to come back home once he made a doctor, to run the farm and to take care of the community. On top of that, Press proved himself a fair boss and hard worker. Jesse even began to think Press enjoyed the satisfaction of a good day of productive work almost as much as he did. And, grudging as he was to admit it, he could almost allow, as hay bales stacked higher and higher on the back of the trucks and wagons, that when it came to pitching hay bales, Press’s extra height might give him an advantage.
Over the first couple of weeks of working together, Jesse and Press’s relationship began to feel less formal. They began to feel more comfortable with one another and to share what was on their minds as they worked together. Then, one morning, as the two were hoeing Mrs. McCall’s vegetable garden, Press said, ‘Jesse, I sure am glad we’re doing this together. I’ll admit I can get pretty lonely here on the farm sometimes. Even Mom and Dad, they don’t get why I care so much about working the farm. They’re always on me to go out and be more social. And it’s not like most of my friends want to be out hoeing corn. Anyways, just wanted you to know I’m glad you’re here.’
Press paused for a moment, and Jesse didn’t know what to say, so Press continued. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘that’s enough about that. What about you? Do you miss living up in Cranberry? Your friends from home?’
‘Nah, not much,’ said Jesse. ‘Outside of one brother, my family’s gone, and outside of school, there wasn’t much time for friends. I mean, there was people I was friends with, but we didn’t spend time together outside of school.’
‘How about a girlfriend?’
Jesse, though he was uncomfortable with the topic, tried to laugh good naturedly. ‘Nah, I never was much in the romance department. I remember when my friends started falling in love. I just never was interested, or had the time, or whatever. Just always seemed like there was other things to get done.’ Jesse blushed, because he knew how weird this seemed to others, not to be interested in dating or love. To divert attention, he asked, ‘What about you?’
Press paused to consider what to say, and then said, ‘Well, sounds like we’re in the same boat a little bit. I’ve tried to explain it to people before, but nobody ever seems to get it. Mom and Dad keep wanting me to start dating, and I know that’s what kids our age do. I hate feeling like a freak, so I tell ‘em if I ever meet someone I care about that way, I will.’
‘Just haven’t met the right one yet, huh?’
‘I mean, I don’t know. I just don’t usually feel very close to people outside of Mom and Dad. They’re always pushing me to get out and be more social with kids our age, but most everybody at school treats me like a freak because I care so much about the farm and most kids around here treat me like I’m some kind of Richie Rich instead of a friend and neighbor. And I’ve never felt like it was worth much effort to get past that either place. Besides, it just always felt like there were more fun things to do. Baseball. Farming. Reading. Hell, flying kites…. Anyway, I feel like you get me more than about anybody.’
Jesse laughed. ‘Press, I swear you’re the only teenager I know who’d rather pitch hay than pair off with somebody.’
Press seemed a little taken aback, so Jesse added, ‘Only one but me, I mean.’ After a beat, Jesse said, ‘So, kite flying, huh?’
And so the conversation went back toward what felt safer to talk about, but both Press and Jesse felt a little more of a kinship with the other after the exchange, for both had felt a sense of alienation from their peers for failing to display an appropriate preoccupation with sex or love. It wasn’t that either of them would have been shunned, for both had qualities that others admired. It was truly that neither of them felt any inclination toward pursuing anyone and both of them felt constantly reminded that this was far outside the norm.
While conversations like this one, along with a newfound and growing sense of a bond permeated their thoughts, their day began in earnest when they began the haying – mowing, tedding, raking, baling, loading, hauling, or moving equipment from one field to another. They hired local boys to help with the loading and hauling, but otherwise, they did the work on their own.
Haying was never easy, with its heat, dust, uncomfortable machinery, heavy hay bales, and constant rush to get the hay in before the next rain. Even so, still there was an ease, a flow to this time that Jesse would never forget.
Come July, when they were bailing and loading the old Phillips place, Jesse and Press had haying down to a routine. On that first pass along the perimeter of the field in the hay truck, with the local boys pitching hay behind, Jesse smiled at a swath of wildflowers that grew close to the fence and the butterflies that flew among them. The red of the clover, the white of the Queen Anne’s lace, and the yellow of the Cloudless Sulphur butterflies, combined with the warm sun on his skin and the clean scent of the freshly mown grass gave Jesse a momentary sense of ease and contentment. He took time to enjoy the feeling of doing work he loved alongside Press. Just then, as Jesse crested a rise in the meadow, he gazed down across the meadow, with its golden windrows and hay bales sitting atop the freshly cut, silvery-green grass, and saw Press, who continued to run the baler round and round the field in ever tightening circles.
Most of the local field hands they worked with noticed nothing particularly out of the ordinary about either of the young men. Both were strong and lean. Both, though serious about the work, were friendly enough. And yet, on some level, it was clear to anyone who really looked that both displayed subtle differences from the field hands, and from one another. In some ways, Jesse seemed to be of a kind with the field hands. His mannerisms and accent were the same, as was his dress. Still, there was a depth, a quiet, to Jesse that would set him apart from the others. If pushed to, they’d describe Jesse as shy, but that wasn’t quite the right word. He got on fine with folks. It was just he didn’t often have much to say or seek out others to say something to. Still, they would have allowed he was a good feller.
Press, on the other hand, didn’t blend in as easily. His ways of speaking, his politeness, and his bearing all marked him as being someone different. While he too wore tee shirts and caps like the others in the fields, his were often mementos from college tours or faraway vacation destinations that most of the others in the field would never see in person. Most of the time, Jesse thought that Press tried to fit in as best he could, but he never seemed to be able simply to be with the hands. However, friendly, there was always something performative in his manner with them, and while the field hands respected Press – even liked him well enough – they couldn’t help but know there were miles and miles between them, even when they stood side by side.
That afternoon at the Phillips place, with Jesse, Press, and the field hands putting in their best effort, they were all surprised at how quickly the first load was on the truck. After the boys clambered up on top of the bales stacked on the back of the truck for the ride back to the McCall farm, Jesse began to carefully pull the truck out of the field and onto the gravel road. As he did so, a gully at the edge of the field caused a swaying of the truck bed. Jesse heard a holler from the truck bed and then a few loud thuds as several hay bales and one of the boys toppled a good 15 feet to the ground.
Jesse turned his head to Press, panic in his eyes. Immediately and quietly Press reached for the wheel and said, ‘Slide under me and let me behind the wheel!’ Jesse did as he was told, and from the driver’s side of the truck Press yelled, ‘I’m sorry!’ and jumped down to the ground to check on the fallen boy.
After a hushed and tense minute, the boy pushed up from the ground and looked around, somewhat dazed. He said, ‘I’m sorry about that, Press. I wasn’t holding on like I ought to have been.’ With that, he smiled ruefully and dusted himself off as the other boys laughed, relieved. Press smiled too, and drawing on his Boy Scout first aid training, checked the boy over. No broken bones, not even a bad scrape. He’d probably have a few bruises by morning, but overall, he seemed fine and reported himself as such. After the truck was reloaded and reassurances were made that the hay was tied securely and all the boys would hold on tight, Press got back in the driver’s seat and drove the truck on toward the McCall hayloft.
As Press was driving down the hard top toward the farm, Jesse quietly said, ‘He could have been paralyzed. Or killed.’
Press put his hand on Jesse’s thigh. ‘Yeah, but he wasn’t. He’s fine.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘He may be a little sore tomorrow, but he basically just rode down on one of the hay bales. He’s fine. And it wasn’t you. It could have happened just as easily if I was driving.’
Thinking about the injuries the boy could have had, Jesse, without warning, sobbed, ‘I was so scared! I just knew I’d killed him.’
‘He’s really just fine, Jess. I promise.’
After collecting himself, Jesse realized, ‘You didn’t have any way of knowing he’d be fine when you set yourself up to take the blame for it. Why on earth would you want to make it look like it was you who was driving?’
It was Press’s turn to collect himself. Finally he said, ‘Simple. We’ve got a boatload of insurance for this sort of thing.’ He paused, and then continued, ‘Besides, if anyone was going to get into trouble, well, damned if I’m going to let anything bad happen to you.
Purely on instinct and from the deep emotion that crashed over him, Jesse snuck his hand underneath Press’s, still on his thigh, holding on to it until they reached the hayloft. Press squeezed Jesse’s hand in return.
One might have supposed that Jesse, someone who had grown up in a religious and conservative community, someone who had little opportunity to explore knowledge that didn’t originate in or was filtered through local minds, might have a difficult reaction to the attraction that had suddenly developed or made itself manifest. And it wasn’t that Jesse had ever considered that he might be gay. Until he got to know Press, until Press had put so much on the line for him, that would have seemed just as implausible to him as his having a girlfriend. For Jesse, who had faced down for several years both the laughter of other boys who wondered why he didn’t pursue girls as they did and the knowledge that the vast difference of not having any attraction to girls implied he’d always be alone, finally being flooded with feeling for someone felt – to him – good and right. Perhaps those years of feeling so vastly different from everyone he knew had prepared him for an easier acceptance of the attraction he suddenly shared with Press. Given that Press had brought up the feelings, or better, the lack of feelings he’d had for girls as well, Jesse figured he felt the same.
Suddenly, at the stop sign where Press needed to turn to get to the farm, Jesse suddenly realized the truck had stood still for too long. He looked up, feeling Press squeeze his hand more firmly, and saw Press looking at him intensely. Press said, quietly, ‘We talked before about how neither of us had been much interested in pairing off or in love. Well, I think I should let you know that’s changing for me.’
And then it felt to Jesse as if a whole world had opened up; a world where he felt truly, gloriously cared for, and, as importantly, a world that allowed him the ability to care as well. Still looking in Press’s eyes, Jesse said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you.’ Press smiled, and turned the truck toward the farm.
‘And so,’ said Jesse, on the porch of the white farmhouse with the green shutters, sitting on the beautiful old acreage with its rolling meadows, fields filled with Christmas trees, red barns and outbuildings, with grandchildren and close-cropped Standard Poodles, sitting at his feet, ‘if that boy hadn’t almost died…’
‘He didn’t almost die,’ interjected Press.
Jesse smiled in Press’s direction and said, ‘Anyway, if not for that and for the kindness your grandfather showed me that day, we wouldn’t all be here today.’