The Hansons were nearly finished harvest by early September.
“Haven’t been done this early in years,” Dale said to his wife Donna while they finished their toast.
“It’s faster when there’s not as much to bring in,” Donna replied, finishing her coffee and getting up to put their breakfast dishes in the dishwasher.
“You’ve got that right,” Dale said.
The crops had looked healthy through the spring, but as the summer sun beat down, day after dusty day, and as any rain cloud they spotted just circled around and passed them by, everything suffered. One afternoon in late July, Dale swore he’d watched the spring wheat crop turn white right before his eyes while he drank a beer on the deck.
“How did we go from full-on flood to drought in six years?” Dale’s son Jeff had asked the evening before while they were putting the combine in the shed. “What happened to ‘average’?”
Mark, who’d been working for the Hansons for over a year had an answer. “My new girlfriend has a theory… ” he started.
But Jeff had heard Mark’s new girlfriend’s theories before, and the low-yielding canola field he’d been in all day hadn’t left him in any mood to hear another. “If you’re even thinking of saying ‘climate change’ I’ll string you up from the yard light.”
“I’ll go empty the truck,” Mark said, making a quick exit.
“Not sure we need both of these combines,” Jeff admitted. “This second one might’ve been a mistake.”
“Hard to know,” Dale said. He’d never been sure a second combine was a good idea, and with this year’s light crop, they definitely didn’t need it. He was doing his best not to let Jeff see how worried he was about how the farm could make payments on two combines, especially with this year’s crop, and with interest rates on the rise.
“At least you didn’t pay extra to put tracks on it,” Dale added, trying to lighten the mood.
“Ha. Yeah,” Jeff said. “But who knows anymore. Maybe we’ll have a record snowfall.”
But this morning, for a change, Dale had something else to worry about besides the farm: his father.
Ed hadn’t been feeling well for a few weeks. Never mind running machinery or even running errands like he’d done last year, for the last three days running Ed hadn’t even left his condo to drive out to the farm. Ed didn’t say anything about his health when Dale called, but if Ed was missing out on harvest, Ed was not well.
“Wonder if Dad’ll make it out to the farm today,” Dale called to the kitchen, where Donna was pouring the last of the coffee into two go-cups.
“At least we don’t really need an extra person with this crop,” Donna called back.
“True,” Dale said. “It’s a good year to be a trucker.”
For most of the week, with Donna and Jeff’s wife Elaine running the Hansons’ two combines, Dale, Jeff and Mark had taken turns stretching out on the seat of the grain truck, napping in the heat and waiting for a combine to be full enough to bother dumping. On Thursday, Dale had accidentally fallen asleep with his phone on “silent” mode, and Elaine had had to stop her combine for 15 minutes while she waited for a truck.
Today, Dale was careful to keep his phone ringer on, and by late afternoon everything was going as well as could be expected when Ed’s wife Helen drove out from town with supper for everyone.
“You go ahead and eat first,” Dale said to Donna over their cell phones. “I’ll run the combine while you take a break.”
Donna climbed into the passenger seat of Helen’s SUV while Dale took over the cab.
It took Dale a few minutes to find his bearings, and it occurred to him that this was the first time he’d been in a combine all season. “How many years has it been since I wasn’t in the combine?” he wondered. Before long he had the GPS running like clockwork, he’d adjusted the monitor to his preferred view of the yield maps and he’d turned down the air conditioning. Then he reached up to switch on the radio. And heard a clunk.
Dale looked down at the feeder house just in time to see a large grey rock making its way into the combine.
Trying to stop the feeder, Dale searched the controls for one disastrous second too long, and a rumble of horrifying thunking and banging noises thundered through the whole machine. Dale turned off the engine and the combine shuddered to a stop.
He phoned Jeff. “Son,” he said. “I think we’re all going to be happy you bought that second combine.”
Jeff rushed straight to the field, and it didn’t take the two of them long to realize that this problem was too big to be dealt with in the field. Dale climbed back into the cab, turned the key and drove the limping combine home for repairs.
Back at the shop, the problem looked even worse. Dale started to feel dizzy just looking at it. Then he remembered he hadn’t eaten supper, and went home to have a quick bite.
Donna was sitting out on the front step.
“Sorry,” Dale said, sitting down beside her. “I guess I left you out in the field.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, handing him a Tupperware container. “Helen drove me home, and she left this for you. That woman is a saint, putting up with your dad, and all the rest of us. What happened?”
“Rock,” Dale said, opening the Tupperware and looking into the plastic compartments.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Donna smiled. “Helen made your mom’s raisin spice cake,” she said. “She’s trying to get your dad to eat, so she dug some of Jean’s old recipe books out of the closet so she could make his favourites. Helen said your mom wrote ‘Dale’s favourite’ in a book next to this cake recipe.”
“That’s nice,” Dale said, tucking into his beef-on-a-bun, his mind still in the field.
“I don’t know how the hell I didn’t see a rock that size in a crop this thin,” Dale said. “I must be getting old. It could be a week before we get that machine running. I don’t even want to know how many parts we’re going to need.”
“Good thing I was on my lunch break,” Donna said.
“The thing is, just yesterday I almost told Jeff he shouldn’t’ve bought that second combine. Now we’d never finish harvest without it.”
Donna put her hand on Dale’s knee and he kept talking. “Success. Failure. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have or even how hard you work. In the end it always just seems to come down to luck.”
Dale shook his head and looked around the yard, taking in the brown, dead grass and the wilting flowers that Donna was doing her best to keep alive.
“This hasn’t been the year I expected,” Dale said.
“They never are,” Donna said.
“You’re right about that,” Dale said, pulling more food out of the Tupperware. Then he looked down and his face lit up. “Hey! Mom’s raisin cake!”