Post Road Magazine #22

The Coffin Handles Were Stalks of Wheat

C. Ronald Edwards


Trapped at the end of a chute constructed from old fencing materials and freeway signs was a black and white Holstein calf. It was nearly young enough to slip through the green metallic vise gripping its neck.

Grandpa's right hand held a pearl-handled pocketknife. The blade was wavy and worn from being spit on and dragged across a whetstone. Grandpa's thumb and forefinger massaged the calf's scrotum until grapesized bulges were contained in the sack of skin. He placed the tip of the blade at the bottom of the sack and drove it home. The calf bucked; dust rose from its hide. The sound of something being torn is what I remember best. Ribbons of blood crisscrossed Grandpa's forearm and painted the blade. He crouched on his hams, back arched. His leather boots were caked in dirt and manure, the heels angled like they'd trod many more miles than I ever would.

My right hand held up the calf's tail. My left held a Hot Shot, an electric cattle prod with a red handle and a metal shaft. Earlier, Grandpa instructed me to "zap" the calf if it got out of hand. "Place the end on his back side and push the button," he said. I nodded, unaware that he was going to castrate while I sent voltage through the bellyachers. I was nine. "Simmer down, damn it. I ain't hurting ya," Grandpa said angrily, like

he had experienced a castration and could only recall a little pressure. This was the summer of '91. Other farmers in West Provo were probably using the Burdizzo, a hand-held clamp that breaks the blood vessels leading into the testicles. The Burdizzo is bloodless, and a little more humane, but Grandpa rarely adopted new farming techniques. "The world's always a-change'n," he often said, and slicked his hair back with Pomade and wore the same western-style shirts he did in the 50s. He preferred Coke to Pepsi, and kept his savings at the bottom of his sock drawer.

Part way through the castration, the calf kicked, forcing a hoof through one of the faded highway signs of the chute. Stepping back, shoulders down, blood dripping from his palms, Grandpa examined the hoof caught and struggling in the busted lumber. "Damn it all to hell," he said, thrusting his bloody fist. His broad shoulders heaved and circles of sweat darkened the polyester between his love handles. "Zap him," he said.

This was the first time he'd asked me to zap the calf. I wanted to impress him and act strong, but I froze, horrified and sick to my stomach. Fear sat squat in my gut. My hands shook. "Damn it boy, zap him," Grandpa said.

I remained motionless. My parents never told me much about Grandpa, and he never talked about himself. I didn't know if I could trust him. At nine years old, I knew Grandpa was a farmer from Charleston, a rural town in central Utah, and that he survived the Depression by farming. What I learned that summer was that he smelled of sweat, dirt, blood, aftershave, and burning wood; that he controlled his surroundings by roping and wrestling cattle, by carving calves into steers, and by harvesting crops. To him, farm work was survival and the western landscape had a voice. He knew by the snowfall if the rivers would run high, and he could smell an approaching thunderstorm. He was masculine, and stubborn, and timeless as a marking stone.

For two weeks, I'd been helping Grandpa, and I still hated every moment. I looked at Grandpa's bloodied hands, and longed to be inside watching television. Behind me were generations of land and bovine knowledge, but I didn't know about that yet. The plains of farmland surrounding my home were isolating. I didn't cherish the dirt or respect its ability to bear life. Before those two weeks, I'd driven a tractor a couple of times and once rode a horse. I knew beef as frozen and mobile. I knew alfalfa as plants and as bales. I was ignorant of the steps in between, blind to the refining process. Wandering Grandpa's fields were cows, bellowing and whipping their tails, and rarely did I consider that these eyesores made up my steak. My house was three miles from a cul-de-sac and a town away from a mall; to a youth of the nineties, this distance was solitary confinement. Summer days were spent alone, watching Maury Povich and The Price Is Right, and eating gummy worms. Barbed wire fences boarded the acres of farmland surrounding my home like a prison yard, and I often looked at the sea of dirty green pasture and longed to toss a rope to civilization and drag it closer.

Dad had been gone a year, and I think it was my longing for a father that kept me working on the farm. As I stood before the chute, next to this large man who could crush a walnut one handed, I thought about how he was my father's father. Sometimes I wonder if he knew that Dad never called, or wrote, or stopped by spontaneously to see a movie or get a soda. Truth is, the isolation I felt held no comparison to my feelings of abandonment. Did Grandpa know I longed for a father? Did he know that when the phone rang I shook with anticipation, hopeful that it was Dad? I don't know what he knew, but what I do know is that my time with Grandpa was the closest I'd felt to having a father.

I dropped the calf's tail as Grandpa tore the cattle prod from my hand. With white knuckles and frustrated shoulders, he placed the cattle prod between the calf's ribs, and zapped, zapped, zapped. The calf released a fat tongue and bellowed. Cords of saliva hung from its jaw. Grandpa swelled his barreled chest and leaned through the chute pinning the calf. The last sliver of flesh fell as Grandpa twisted the blade. Blood dripped from the

incision. Grandpa rolled the cavity with his fingers until a slick, off-white, lima bean shaped testicle fell. He gripped and jerked, breaking the cord like a sewing thread. The actions were repeated, and then Grandpa coated the opening with iodine and fly repellent.

"Pick those up and put'em in the trash," Grandpa said, his calloused finger pointing.

The testicles sat in small puddles of dirty blood. No way in hell was I going to touch them. With a stick, I balanced one of the testicles. When that failed, I tried skewering it but the flesh was too slippery. The calf moaned in the foreground, and behind me Grandpa held a contemptuous look.

"Ah hell, just pick'em up," Grandpa said.

With the stick, I batted them toward the oil drum holding a garbage sack. Grandpa exhaled and rolled his eyes; he was clearly put out. He gripped the testicles and tossed them into the garbage. I began to speak but he cut me off: "Quit your bellyaching."

To the south Grandpa grew crops, and to the north he grazed cattle. My backyard bordered the north side of his farm. Grandpa perched atop a red Massy Ferguson Tractor, dragging harrows or a hay baler, was the backdrop of my childhood. In the fall he filled our freezer with beef wrapped in white paper, and on summer afternoons, he parked his tractor in our driveway, motor noisy and leaking oil, and offered me a ride.

In the summer of '90, Dad left Mom for a pancake house waitress. He didn't pay child support and he never called. Nine months after the separation, Grandpa said, "What your Dad did was horse shit. If you do something like that, I'll knock you upside the head." He pointed a finger at my chest like it was a nail being driven by his forearm. This was the first time I can recall being with Grandpa without a noisy tractor muffling our conversation or another grandchild begging for his attention. We were sharing a Sprite but it felt like we were sharing more. Eventually Grandpa tipped his head and mumbled, "I should've knocked your Dad upside the head."

A week later, in April, I stood in the yard next to Grandpa. The field where Grandpa grew alfalfa was little more than dark earth. He gripped the soil and rolled it.

"What are you doing?" I asked. "Just feeling the soil."

His fingers were thoughtful, like they could feel the nutrients and understand each grain. Grandpa crouched and asked if I'd like to help on the farm. "It'd be good for you," he said. "Teach you responsibility. Make you into a man." Sometimes I wonder if what he really meant was, "Make you into a better man than your father."

From what I understand, Dad was his father's favorite. Grandpa had three stepchildren and one biological son: my father, the youngest. My uncle once said, "Your dad didn't do shit. Most of the time he just dicked around with his Ford while the rest of us fed cattle and tossed hay bails." I have never known if this was true, or something said by a bitter half-sibling. When Dad started his heating and air conditioning business, Grandpa gave him land and money to get started. None of his siblings had seen such generosity. Was Dad really as lazy as my uncle described him? Had Grandpa been too soft on his only son? Too charitable? Did he feel responsible for Dad abandoning his family? Sometimes I think about Grandpa asking me to work on the farm, and wonder if he was trying to make up for whatever mistakes he made raising my father.

I remember feeling special. Grandpa asked me to work on the farm but not my brother. Thinking back, Ryan had just turned thirteen. Perhaps Grandpa assumed he would be too busy hanging out with friends. Those special feelings faded the first day of summer break when Grandpa knocked on my front door at 6:00 AM. We loaded into his gray

'79 Chevy pickup. I suggested that we might work more effectively later in the morning. "Work is done early," he said, "and men do work. Quit bellyaching."

During the first week, Grandpa placed me in rubber boots he called Shit Kickers. They were faded black with reinforced toes. The boots were large and fit like fishing waders. On the farm's south side was the corral, a

2,000-square-foot pen for cattle. It had a lean-to on the north side made of lumber and tin. On the east side was a crooked wooden feeding trough next to a bathtub that held drinking water for the cows. The ground was a foot of watery yellow and green manure. I was to direct calves through an open gate and out of the corral, but I tripped face first. The cool manure seeped into my Shit Kickers. Grandpa hauled me from the bog. "Ah, hell," he said, "it's in your mouth."

I could taste the grit. I spit and coughed. Tears welled up, and Grandpa said, "Quit your bellyaching." I tried to oblige him, but it was no use. Before long I was bawling.

He pronounced it bellyach'en. It was the way he lived, not slowing down for pain or heartache. When the hammer smacked his thumb, and when the branding iron burned his leg, the reaction was the same. He stomped, cussed, and threw what was in his hand like it could transport the pain from his body. If his hands were empty, he threw a rock. When my cousin died, he threw three rocks. "Stop bellyaching" was his motto, his slogan, his embroidered message. Sometimes I wondered if stop bellyaching was the motto he used with Dad, or if it were something new. A motivator that would keep me content regardless of the stress and

heartache my future might bring. Perhaps if Dad had quit bellyaching, maybe thrown rocks, he would have stuck around.

Grandpa called stubborn cows "worthless sacks of shit," and sagging fence posts "dirty bitches." One morning the truck wouldn't start. He called it an ass. It rained later that day and he said, "shitty damn weather." Strong language was part of who he was, and thinking back, I hardly noticed it because it was part of me, too. I have often suspected that Grandpa's foul mouth developed through his dialog with the land. The cows didn't disapprove, and neither did the fence posts. He was baptized into the Mormon Church as a child, but didn't truly accept the Church until after he married Grandma. She used to tell stories of him sleeping while the family went to sacrament meeting. Strong language stayed after his conversion. Cursing and Mormonism were passed down to Dad, and eventually to me. Because of our foul mouths, our families sat alone at church barbeques, were rarely asked to teach Sunday school, and were encouraged to pray privately. We were called Jack Mormons behind our backs: an ambiguous term that our congregation felt signified this strange binary.

If this title bothered Grandpa, he never showed it. In fact, sometimes I think he used it to his advantage. Once while shopping at the Intermountain Farmers Association, Grandpa and I ran into Brother Taylor, a local beef farmer and member of our congregation. After an hour of chatting, Grandpa started swearing. The conversation ended quickly. Once back in the truck, Grandpa said, "that son of a bitch will blab your damn ear off." I think he started swearing to end the conversation. Our family spoke in a tongue that we understood and outsiders found repulsive. This common language bonded the Edwards men, but in the case of Dad, it attracted poor company.

Grandpa often said, "Show me your friends, and I'll show you your future." Similar to Grandpa, Dad's Mormonism waxed and waned until he met Mom. As a teen, he hung with the troublemakers of West Provo, the type who drank and smoked, because they were the only kids in town that spoke the way he did. During my parents' fifteen year marriage, Mormonism fit Dad like a suit coat with tight shoulders. Mormons don't drink, but I think Dad always felt restricted by this rule, so he drank and abused prescription painkillers on the side. Sometimes I wonder if his drug abuse and infidelity all started with swearing. And sometimes I wonder if Grandpa ever considered the effect of his foul mouth.

That summer with Grandpa, my mornings were spent perched atop a thick red tractor fender, my teeth clanking with the vibration of heavy black wheels. We dethatched, spread manure, and irrigated forty-five acres that summer. Afternoons were spent walking property borders,

Grandpa gripping a red bucket weighted with the pliers and snips we needed to mend fences. Mid-July, we stuffed Holsteins into a red and blue cattle hauler and drove south to Bartholomew's Slaughter House. I sat in the passenger seat, the hauler wobbling like a muffin on wheels, as we turned on to Provo Center Street.

Outside of telling me to stop bellyaching, Grandpa didn't talk much. His life appeared solitary as we wandered from one corner of the fields to another, but at the end of his labors his face always held a satisfied look, like the day had been spent in rewarding conversation, and I often wondered if he conversed with the soil, or the fencepost, or the irrigation ditches in some language I couldn't understand.

In early August, I stopped bellyaching and started looking forward to quiet mornings on the farm. My change happened gradually as I studied Grandpa herding calves, waving his hands in large circles, sweat pooling under his arms, or as he hopped over soaked ditches in large black rubber boots. Through his example, he taught me how to listen to the land as a compilation of sounds, the way carpenters understand texture or culinary artists experience taste. I could hear sounds in what would have previously been silence. I knew the cows were hungry by their bellows, and heard music in the whoosh of a desert gust.

In the year since he'd left, Dad and I had spoken four times. I always called him, the copper wire filtering out all but his voice. The conversations were superficial and forced. He asked about school and friends, when what I really wanted was to know that he was still around and that I was not forgotten. I longed for a deeper connection than the superficial father and son chitchat and long stretches of silence we occasionally shared.

I thought about Dad a lot while with Grandpa. We were working the same land my Dad worked in his youth. Grandpa and I walked the same borders, mended the same fences, and herded cattle through the same corral. We drove the same cattle hauler, tractors, and tilled the earth with the same harrows. And as we dug postholes, cleared ditches, and hauled hay bales from the barn to the corral, I think Grandpa also thought about Dad. He leaned against the barn, thumbs hooked in his jean pockets, and commented on the sweat darkening my clothing, and my neck browning in the desert sun. Reminding me to stop bellyaching was replaced with a straight-mouthed look of satisfaction.

I received no payment for my labor, but sometimes Grandpa pushed the bench seat forward and let me drive on county roads. Pieces of lumber sat in the bed and Grandpa leaned them against the accelerator and the brake to make up for the inches I lacked. These were my favorite moments. They felt like compensation for my hard work. I trusted him, and he trusted me. One day, as I drove, dry summer air roared in on

Grandpa's gruff, sun-hardened face. He appeared content, childlike. I wondered if he was reliving some moment. Perhaps this was something he had done with my father.

One day, as we drove, I asked Grandpa what my dad was like. It was a strange question, something someone might ask if his father were dead. At the time, it seemed like that. Like Dad died at some time and in some place that I was unaware of. Grandpa didn't respond for a moment. Sometimes I wonder if he was aware of the question's peculiarity.

Grandpa didn't tell stories about Dad. He didn't give a list of likes and dislikes or past hobbies. All he said was, "He was a good kid." Silence. Eventually Grandpa said, "Why do you ask? Don't you two talk?" I didn't answer, and Grandpa didn't pursue it.

A few days later, after I'd finished working in the fields, and before Mom got off work, Dad stopped by our house. He wore a pink and light brown western-style shirt with Wrangler Jeans and work boots. I'd never noticed how much he dressed like Grandpa. He even hooked his thumbs into his jean pockets. His voice was strange, unfamiliar. Cracking like the lumber in Grandpa's corral, his face looked older than I remembered. Were it not for his red Ford pickup and his barreled legs, I wouldn't have recognized him.

We didn't talk about the divorce, or his girlfriend, or my mother working three jobs; nor did we talk about him leaving the Mormon Church, his drinking, or his addiction to Vicodin. We spoke of school. There were pauses. Then Dad said, "I hear you've been working on the farm." Things picked up. I told him about the corral, and the fences, and the hay bales, and he told me about castrating calves, alfalfa, and driving the pickup. "I was eleven. Drove it right in the ditch," he said. "Your grandfather was fit to be tied." We spoke of the farm for over an hour. We smiled. Then Dad said something that I will never forget.

"Has he told you to stop bellyaching?" I nodded.

"Yeah, he still tells me that."

Dad placed his arm on my shoulder, pinched it, and smiled.

The next evening, Grandpa and I watched acres of alfalfa sway in desert gusts. The tips were full bloom, purple and heavy. The stems were rigid, and the leaves looked off white as the sunset. Grandpa breathed in deep, the kind of breath a person takes after an accomplishment. "What you think a' that crop?" he said. I didn't know how many hours we'd spent clearing ditches, spreading manure, and irrigating. And I didn't know how many seasons Grandpa labored before he learned to produce something so immaculate. Those tight crops, all in equal slender rows, appeared like the work of many men.

I couldn't answer his question. What more could I add to what we'd done that summer, so I told him about the day before.

"Dad stopped by," I said. "I know."

I have always assumed Grandpa called him. It was not beneath him to meddle in the lives of his son and grandson. If he did, I am grateful. By reliving Dad's childhood, I began to understand my father. And I think he better understood me. Like priming a pump, our relationship flowed smoother after that summer. Sometimes he called, or stopped by my house, and when we spoke, we often laughed, something I cannot recall happening before.

The next spring, Grandpa died of a stroke. It was a modest funeral, held at a Mormon chapel. He was buried at the East Provo Cemetery, fifteen miles from the land he farmed most of his life. I was asked to be a pallbearer. The coffin handles were stalks of wheat, and when I asked why, Dad said, "Because they didn't make'em in alfalfa."

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