My reverie of disaster is necessarily short lived. Jim’s already hooking, swinging and stacking. And I’m up here to show I’m one of the boys. There’s nothing for it. Pulling my leather gloves tight, I grab my two hay hooks and slam them into the sides of the bale at my feet.
Let me pause here for one word about hay hooks: lethal. Like all proper tools, hay hooks have been refined to suit precisely the work for which they’re designed. Although mostly used as a pair, each unit has a slightly different hook geared to its use not as part of a team, but solo. It’s a divine example of function defining form. In my left hand, I have a hook whose arm is short with a hook acutely angled, ideal for stabbing and lifting. In the other hand is one with a longer shaft and a more open hook angle, making it useful for dragging. When I slam the hooks into each end of the three-foot long bale, it’s like hugging a prickly object with sharp prongs. I can lift and place it just so next to the ones Jim’s already laid end to end, string sides up, on the trailer deck.
At least, that’s the theory. By the time I have moved one bale to its final resting place, Jim’s moved five. Before we’ve jointly repositioned and stacked the first fifteen, Bernard’s tractor is back with the next fifteen. We back our way down the 53-foot trailer, placing one bale parallel to the edge and the next two perpendicular to it. By the time we reach the end, we’ve jointly heaved, swung and shoved about eighty bales into place. That’s barely three tons, with seventeen more to go. Already I’m wiped out.
I set my hands on my hips and blow hard. Even though this isn’t a race, I’ve been keeping score. I know this is sad and distorted, and yet, I can’t help it. Even sadder is that it bothers me that I’m losing badly to Jim, who’s sweating like someone in a Turkish bath. That’s from exertion, since he’s set 75% of the bales so far.
A week ago I railed about how women’s work on a ranch seemed so strictly codified. Now I’m thinking the job of offering sweet rolls and a mug of hot coffee to the trucker sounds pretty good.
Before I have a chance to reconsider, let alone massage my quivering arms, fifteen more bales plummet to the deck. We bend to the task, slinging bales to form the next level of a stack that ultimately will teeter seven bales high. That’ll place me over five yard off the ground. If I do manage to stick with the task till the last level is complete, how the hell am I going to get down? It’ll be like standing on my second floor balcony, not a place from which I’d normally have to clamber with hooks in my hands.
Jim and I complete the second level. By now my shoulders are burning and my wrists are so tired I can barely grip my hay hooks. Every part of my back protests each time I grab a bale and I don’t know which direction I could twist that wouldn’t induce an echoing ache. My mouth and lungs are parched from the dust released from nearly seven tons of dried grass thudding onto the deck. Turning around to preserve some misplaced sense of feminine modesty, I hawk and spit, but come up dry. Whatever saliva I started out has evaporated.
I sit on a bale while Jim continues to stack. He’s got a delivery to make and he can’t do the polite thing and wait around for me to get with the program. I’m long past regretting my decision to help load his truck. Now I’m focused on how to secure myself a graceful exit. The notion of food and drink glimmers in the dusty recesses of my brain. Not being the morning baking type, all I can offer would be toast slices with jam. But I’m sure even that would be welcome, since Jim had to drive three hours to get here by 7:00a.m. And even a hardened hay hauler would welcome some cold juice to wash that down. Plus some strong sweet coffee to perk him up for the long drive down the canyon.
“Hey Jim,” I shout, waving to catch his attention. He places his bale, turning to me with a patient smile. “How about I stop interfering with your progress and go get some cold breakfast for you from the house? I can make you a sack lunch for the road, too.” Truck stop food varies from awful to poisonous, so anything I care to send with him will be appreciated.
Jim is all kindness and support. “Well, girl,” he says. “I don’t know if I can manage this without you.” We look at each other, while I smear dust and dirt around my cheeks with my dirty glove. Hay residue is ground into a fine pale green stain on the front of my jeans. And because I stupidly wore sneakers instead of high boots that would be covered by my jeans, my socks are full of prickly stems. My feet feel like they’re clad in hedgehogs. My hair is in scraggles, having lost contact with my original neat braid long ago.
I want to give Jim a hug, first for putting up with me and second for going along with my hastily conceived exit strategy. But there’s a jumble of bales between us. Bernard, who can’t hear what we’re saying since he’s in the tractor, is already on his way back with more. And I have a suspicion that Jim and I are not yet quite on hugging terms. Ever the gentleman, Jim extends his hand to help me over the bale mountain to where I can carefully climb down from the truck.
It’s official. I’m not a hay stacker. Doubtless I never will be. But I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. Because I showed that I’m game to try. And I make a mean jam sandwich.