By Milton T. Burton
I found it at an agricultural equipment dealership in a little town called Terrell, which lay about thirty miles east of Dallas. The moment I saw it sitting there a hundred yards off Interstate 20, gleaming brightly in the noonday sun, I knew that I was on the cusp of some great adventure. There were a dozen others lined up beside it, none different from the one that had caught my eye. But this was the one I had to have. This one was mine. The others didn't matter a bit. They were just window dressing.
Upon later reflection, I realized that how I came to be in Texas was a sordid story in itself. A week earlier I'd left my Hudson River Valley estate (which I had grown to hate) in my brand new $90,000 Beemer (which I was rapidly growing to hate) and headed west. Before I left, I had a tasteful, well-bred, little dust-up with my tasteful, well-bred, little thirty-eight-year-old trophy wife, Victoria. You can visualize her, I'm sure. Two decades my junior, petite and slim with an astringent body, perky breasts, and a firm butt. A well-exercised and expensive body: Pilates, Yoga, massage, personal trainer, the whole nine yards, as the kids say. A woman determined to maximize her assets for the specific purpose of holding onto what she has for as long as she can. And what she has is me and my money. Or so she thinks. She also has a worry line between her brows and a lovely oval face that always holds an expression of mild discontent.
"I can't take any more of this for a while," I told her. "I've had enough. More than enough, in fact."
"Enough of what?" she asked.
That was the problem. I didn't really know what the "what" was that I'd had enough of. She was part of it, of course, even though we almost never argued and she rarely nagged. Or at least she didn't until after I came back from Texas. I'd married her five years earlier, four years after the death of my first wife. I thought I'd wanted her, but I really hadn't. What I'd wanted was to get laid about twice a week and be left alone the rest of the time. Mistakes are made, you know.
I waved her off. "I'll call," I said.
"But where are you going?"
"The Southwest, I think. Probably Texas."
"But why Texas, for God's sake?"
I shrugged helplessly. "I guess because I've never been there."
I screeched off the Interstate and onto the access road and skidded into the farm dealership in a shower of gravel. I didn't wait for them to come to me. No sir. This wasn't that kind of day. Doubtlessly wild-eyed, I went to them, lunging into the building and then into the first office that was occupied. A young salesman rose from behind his desk, a bright, hale-fellow-well-met smile on his face.
"I'm Tommy Treen," he said. "Can I help you?"
I glanced around the room. The walls were resplendent with Rotary plaques and Kiwanis Club certificates; company awards and farm show pictures. For some reason I found it all terribly reassuring.
The kid had a firm handshake, and beneath his small town booster surface I could sense a hardness about him that I liked. I took him by the shoulder and pointed out the window. "There," I said. "The one next to the far end. I want it."
"Good choice. That's the John Deere 548 standard round hay baler. Makes two thousand pound rolls."
"A hay baler!" I said. "So that's what it does."
Tommy Treen's smile was still there, but now it seemed frozen on his face, and his eyes were a little puzzled. "You didn't know?" he asked.
"Hell, I didn't care. I'm buying the damn thing for its looks."
"It's looks?" He was definitely puzzled now.
"So you're not in the cattle business?"
I shook my head. "I run an investment company on Wall Street."
"I see," he said.
But I could tell he didn't really see at all. I took the chair in front of his desk and he settled himself into a big, high-backed executive chair. "That baler is quite an expensive piece of equipment, you know," he said.
"I should hope so. I'd hate for something that fine-looking to be priced cheaply."
"Well, we're always willing to talk discount if--"
"Let's not get tedious, my friend," I said expansively. "Round the price upward if you want. I like prices with a lot of zeros in them."
"Uhhh. . ."
"My sentiments exactly."
He seemed lost in thought for a moment. "I've never made a sale quite like this before," he said. "To be honest with you, I'm having a hard time believing you're not a practical joker."
"Me? No way. I'm as serious as death and taxes."
"Then I need to know what arrangements you'd like to make in order to. . ." He let his voice trail off.
"Pay for the thing, you mean?"
I flipped my American Express Centurion card across the desk and heard him gasp.
"The black card!" he exclaimed. "I've heard of these, but I've never seen one before."
"It's the apex of the apex, Tommy Treen. And you'll probably want a little identification." I tossed my New York driver's license and my passport, which was thick with added pages, across the desk. "And feel free to call my bank in Manhattan. You work on commission, I take it."
He nodded absently and stared euphorically at the Centurion card for a few moments. When he looked back up at me his smile was no longer frozen. It was alive and happy. "You don't fool around, do you, sir?" he asked.
"I see no reason to. You see, I'm on a quest, Tommy. I didn't realize it until the instant I saw my hay baler, but that's exactly what I'm on. A quest, just like the knights of old."
"And that 548 baler is your Holy Grail, right?"
I thought for a moment, then shook my head. "I don't think so. But I know it will help me get there. I know that in my heart. A man on a quest has to go by faith."
"I know a little about faith," he said and pointed proudly to a framed certificate from a local Baptist church that hung on the wall behind him."
"I'm aware that you do, Tommy."
We sat and basked for a few moments in the warm knowledge of our shared faith: his in the God of the Texas Baptists, mine in the purity of my quest. Then a mild frown appeared on his face.
"Yes?" I asked.
"Won't you need a tractor to go with it?"
That was a new wrinkle, something I hadn't considered. "You think I should have one?"
"Well, a hay baler is pretty useless without a tractor. I mean, you can't even move it around without one."
"Hummm. . ."
"I really wouldn't feel right selling you something you couldn't use, and you simply can't use a baler without a tractor."
"You're looking out for my interests, aren't you, Tommy?"
"I'm trying my best, sir."
"I know you are, so let's go for it."
"So you're saying you want a tractor, too?" he asked.
"You bet I do."
"Well, which one?"
"Why don't you pick one out for me? You know a lot more about them than I do."
Tommy Treen called around to several rental places and found me a semi-truck and trailer. Once the deal was cut on the truck, he directed me to his cousin, a recently laid-off trucker named Billy Don Pringle who was willing to drive the rig back to New York for me. Billy Don was in his early forties with a happy face and brown hair. His attire consisted of low-slung Levis, cowboy boots, and a seemingly endless supply of red checked gingham shirts, along with a weathered baseball cap with a feed company logo on the front. The cap was perpetual. It appeared to have been born there and matured there, and it gave every impression that it would probably go on to its final reward without ever leaving his iron ball of a head. He was also blessed with stumpy fingers on quick, competent hands that could fix anything. Twice the truck broke down on the way back home, and twice he got it going again without ever pulling a frown.
The first time he said, "Now don't you worry none, Boss-man. We'll be back to skippin' through the dew in no time at all."
The second time he waxed philosophical about my recent purchase as he delved expertly around in the innards of the truck's fuel system. "These round balers like you got here are amazing," he said. "What you sometimes find in the hay months later is amazing too. I knew an ole boy who had this low-lying meadow down by the Trinity River. He bailed up a two-hundred-pound alligator one time."
"Really?" I asked.
He nodded and closed the hood on the truck. "Didn't find it until that next December when he put the bale out in the pasture and the cows get down to the alligator. He hadn't noticed no odor or nothing. See, that hay's dry and all, and hot from being bailed in the summer sun. It just kinda mummified that damned gator. Beat anything I ever seen."
"Fascinating," I said. "Utterly fascinating."
So I brought it home and parked it right in front of my eighteenth century manor house where it sat surrounded by ancient oaks and chestnuts and carefully tended grass that stretched a quarter mile down to the river. My wife was not happy with this addition to the landscaping. She was even less happy that I had hired Billy Don Pringle as maintenance chief and all-round handyman for the estate. With Victoria it was loathing at first sight, an obvious fact to which Billy Don was sublimely indifferent. But I didn't care. Hiring the man had been one of the best moves I'd ever made. In three weeks he'd gotten the sprinkler system working better than ever before, rewired two of the outbuildings, and was in the process of installing motion-sensitive lights at strategic location all over the grounds. Much to my surprise, I was actually beginning to like my home once again.
The day I got the idea that it might be fun to actually make some hay, Victoria and I were sitting on the small patio-like courtyard she had urged me to have built on the front terrace not long after we were married---a courtyard on which she could sit and sip vodka Martinis and survey her domain on pleasant afternoons. In the early months of our union I had been eager to please her.
That afternoon we had a guest---an all too frequent guest, as a matter of fact---in the person of Reginald Van Nye, a neighbor from a couple of miles down the river. Reggie is a descendant of one of the oldest and wealthiest Valley families. Now in is 40s, he looks fifteen years younger. He has a handsome face and wavy hair that's going a little silver at the temples, a manly jaw, and dark eyes of the sort the old romance novels used to call "smoldering." He also has a habit of calling me "Old Boy" that I find deeply annoying.
Reggie keeps an office in the city so he can go in a couple of times a month and convince himself that he has business affairs that need his attention. The truth is that all he ever does is cash his trust checks, play tennis, and fornicate. The trust checks aren't much of a challenge, not even for a man of his limited wattage, and with his weak backhand he's only a mediocre tennis player. However, he is known locally as a terrific fornicator, usually choosing his partners downscale from among his social inferiors. Usually. But not always.
He bills himself as my best friend, but he's not. My best friend was a Kentucky farm boy who died in screaming agony in the Mekong Delta forty years earlier. But even aristocrats like to name-drop occasionally, and mine has been a good name to drop since not long after I came to the New York financial world out of a Cleveland blue color neighborhood by way of Vietnam decades ago. Because of my humble background, my fast success led me to be quickly tagged as "The Barefoot Boy of Wall Street, the man to know if you want your money to grow." So you can probably see why I hate the human race. Most of it, anyway.
"Strange thing for an impulse purchase, Old Boy," Reggie says. "That tractor business, I mean."
"You have your little hobbies, Reggie. And now I have mine."
"Are you just going to leave it there?" Victoria asks.
"I haven't decided yet," I reply. "But I do I like to look at it in the late afternoons."
"I hate that shade of green," Reggie says.
"So do I," Victoria chimes in.
"Tough," I say and dig my cell phone out of my pocket. I punch in a number and a few seconds later I mumble a few words into the thing and then snap it off and put it away.
"Who on earth did you call?" Victoria asks, exasperated for some reason.
"I don't like that man," she replies. "The other day he was making a lot of noise out back with that pump on the ornamental fountain. I asked him if he would tend to it some other time, and he just snorted at me and kept on working."
"Very perceptive of him," I say. "No doubt you could use a good snorting."
"Don't be vulgar," she hisses.
"In fact, why don't you and Reggie go on up stairs right now and just snort away until your hearts are content?"
"What?. . ." This from Victoria.
"Surely you don't think--" That from Reggie.
No, I don't think. I know. But I cut him off with a good-natured laugh. "Just joking, Old Boy," I say.
Reggie repeats, in an appropriately injured tone of voice, his oft-stated but rarely-followed maxim: "No true gentleman ever seduces a friend's wife."
Just then Billy Don Pringle emerges though a hitherto unnoticed gap in the lilac bushes, his round, ruddy face a mask of good humor. "Where I come from," he says, "a man with any gumption don't seduce nobody's wife except his own. Not unless he wants his ass shot off, begging your pardon, Missus." This last with a barely perceptible nod at Victoria.
Master of a dozen trades and never long without employment, Billy Don sees no reason to be deferential to anyone. Another feather in his cap as far as I am concerned. "What's up, Boss?" he asks, turning toward me.
I point at the tractor and baler and say, "I bought them for aesthetic reasons, but I've been thinking. I've got six hundred acres here, and about a third of it is in grass. I've been paying some people to mow it, but maybe we ought to make a little hay. What do you think?"
"I'm all for it," Billy Don says.
"Oh, for God's sake!" says Victoria.
I turn and look at her. "Do you begrudge me a few thousand dollars for my tractor and hay baler?" I ask.
"No, but I just don't see any point---"
"Here's the point, Victoria. What do I do? Think about that a minute, will you please? I go into the city and make phone calls and fool with numbers on computers and talk to people all over the world. I've done it until my accountant now says I'm worth a half a billion dollars. But I still can't find it."
"Find what?" she asks, clearly annoyed.
"Whatever it is that I do."
"You're a financier, Old Boy," Reggie says jovially. "Be proud of it."
"But where is it? What I've done, I mean. Where is my product? A hog farmer has his hogs. A factory worker can show you all the gimmicks and gizmos he's made. Hell, even a shoeshine boy point to the shoes he's shined. But I have no it to point to. Am I less than a Times Square shoeshine boy?"
"This identity crisis of yours is getting tiresome," Victoria says, impeccably miming upper class annoyance. She tries hard, Victoria does.
"Tiresome of not, I like my tractor and baler, and I plan to have some fun with them no matter what you say."
At that precise moment Ingrid Lawson, the seventeen-year-old belle of the adjoining estate, thunders across the far end of the lawn astride her coal-black Morgan, her long blond hair streaming wildly in her wake. Victoria watches with eyes that are cold and hard. Jealous and bitterly so, she slips easily into shrew mode. Her great unrealized ambition is to thunder across somebody's front lawn on a coal black steed. The only problem is that Victoria is terrified of any animal larger than a Cocker Spaniel. "You know what Freud said about young women and horses," she asks, her voice snippy. "Sublimated masculine power between her legs so forth."
"Sounds like a bunch of crap to me," Billy Don says. "Besides, that's not a stallion that gal's on anyhow."
"Oh really?" Victoria says.
"It's a gelding. Women can handle geldings a whole lot easier than they can stallions or mares, either one. See, Missus, a gelding his a male horse that's been---"
"I'm very aware of what a gelding is, Mr. Pringle," Victoria says distractedly, fruitlessly punching her little electronic gadget that she uses to summons the servants.
"Gimmie that thing and let me take a look at it," Billy Don says.
She hands the switch over reluctantly and says, "Won't somebody please go and tell the maid it's time to serve afternoon cocktails?"
Neither Billy Don nor I respond. Reggie smiles a manly smile and gets to his feet. "I'll be happy to."
"Thank you," she says softly.
As Reggie turns toward the house, Billy Don winks at me and then speaks in a happy voice. "Yep, like I said, women sure can manage them geldings."
For just a moment Reggie's whole back stiffens. Then he squares his shoulders and heads up the walk.
"Do we have everything we need to bail some hay?" I ask Billy Don.
He shakes his head. "We need a sickle mower to cut the grass and a trailing rake to windrow it with. The tractor can operate 'em both of them off the power-take-off."
Billy Don fiddles with the call switch while we say nothing. Then he tosses it back to Victoria. "Loose connection," he says.
She pushes the button and the light comes on. "Thank you," she says grudgingly.
A few moments later Reggie is back with the maid following closely behind. She carries a tray laden with an ice bucket, a bottle of single malt, glasses, and a stainless steel shaker full of vodka Martinis for Victoria.
I point at the tray and tell Billy Don, "Sit down and have a drink."
He shakes his head. "I better not. I'm going into town to see my lady friend in little while."
"A girlfriend already?" Reggie asks. "My, my. . ."
"Some bar girl, I suppose," Reggie says.
"Nope. She teaches English at the college."
Reggie's face shows skepticism at this statement. He pours a tot of scotch for each of us while the maid fills Victoria's glass.
"We need to head back down to Texas in a few days and get the rake and whatever else we need," I tell Billy Don.
"We can get all that here local," he says.
I shake my head firmly. "I like your cousin, Tommy Treen down there at the dealership where I got the tractor and baler. I'd rather spend my money with him."
"Fine with me, and I know Tommy will appreciate it. A sickle and a rake don't weigh much. We can just rent a flatbed trailer and I can tow them back behind my pickup truck. I need my truck up here anyway. I feel lost without it, and besides, Miss Suzanne says she ain't never rode in no pickup before, and she's looking forward to it."
"Suzanne Weiss?" Reggie asks in a voice that's both surprised and offended. "She's your lady friend?"
"Yep. . ."
Suzanne Weiss is a tiny, forty-year-old Jewish knockout with a sweet, ripe body, kind eyes, and a head full of brains---a full professor of American literature with a national reputation as a Faulkner scholar. Which is at least a partial explanation why she would be attracted to Billy Don Pringle. I say a partial explanation. I sense that a robust and competent country lad like him also has virtues that range far beyond his mechanical skills. I sense too that Suzanne Weiss was one of Reggie's downscale seductions that didn't come off.
". . . that's her," Billy Don says. "She's a peach." He turns to me. "I need to get some of my stuff, too," he says. "Mostly a few clothes and my guns."
At the word "guns" Victoria jerks like she's been hit with a mild electric current. "You own firearms, Mr. Pringle?" she asked.
"A few. Bird guns and deer rifles, mostly."
"Could you teach me how to shoot clay pigeons?" I ask him. "I got pretty good with a rifle in the army, but I've always had a yen to learn skeet and trap. Just never took the time."
"I'm your man," he replies. "Back when I was younger I won a passel of trophies shooting trap."
"There must be some fine gun stores in Dallas. You can advise me."
"We'll do it," he says and gives us a parting wave and vanishes back through the magic hole in the lilac bushes. The three of us sit for a while and say nothing as the day draws gently to a close.
"Are you really going to buy a gun?" Victoria asks, breaking the silence at last.
"I think maybe I'll buy several."
She shivers almost imperceptibly. I glance over at Reggie. Manly muscles contract in a manly jaw while dark eyes smolder. I sip my scotch and stare happily off across the lawn where my new toys gleam fetchingly in the last dying rays of the setting sun. Milton T. Burton was born and raised in East Texas. He has been variously, a college history teacher, a political consultant, and a cattleman. He have published two crime novels with St. Martin's Press, NY titled "The Rogues' Game" and "The Sweet and The Dead."