Rain Machine

Feeling estranged from my source,
I paid for my beer and left the dry end of history,
written as sunburned dumb with empty gins
or faded tractors without wheels.

Outside of Devil’s Den, the asphalt climbed
past the prison where Luthor Rollins used to teach;
and forklifts stood up new walls,
using the tilt-up construction technique.
Beyond the prison were hills with fenced grass
and grazing cattle, surrounding a tangled windmill frame.
I turned at the narrow gravel, thinking there are several Devil’s Dens:
There’s one at Gettysburg. This one had Noah’s house trailer
and a large muddy engine under a pole barn —
with the prison down below.

My first Water Buffalo came in a trade for a similar rain machine;
Noah must have gotten another out of the creek.
I parked the bike, and a few steers stumbled off
while I checked over Noah’s work in progress: he’s a metal sculptor.
His sculpture looked like a shattered engine, with a holed
block and weeds grown from the hole —
disinterred and still wrapped in retrieval chains.
Chain-scarred iron with a stench —
the entire thing smelled of pesticide.

I left Noah’s accidental sculpture for his wide-open door —
he was long gone and dust covered everything inside.
An old grimy desk was set against a shattered window;
one piece of wadded paper was still on the sill.
Without knowing why, I reached and unwadded it.
The opener read:
Robbin’ the Mars Drive-In …

Must have been one of Luthor’s.

I folded it into my pocket before sitting at the desk
and staying up late in an imagined journey.

Eventually, the big engine outside
reminded me of diggin’ out the rain machine.

I unfolded Luthor’s poem and started writing on the back
about the day Noah and I drove an old flatbed truck
away from the morning sun:

The desert was softer beige along the wash.
Water shed east, then to the north through the alluvial fan.
Fractions of rough tamaracks lined the banks;
old rusting cars were thrown in the gaps for erosion control.
Better land came from the creeks:
some pieces grew onions and garlic;
the rest were a nation of unfarmed squares.
Tractors showed distress and age.
Irrigators changed water on the quarter-mile line.
Westside sounds were strange and misunderstood for miles.
It was a muddy afternoon down in the wash.

I saw a camp kettle on the gas stove;
the sun went down while I lit the burner and thought it through.
After a while, the banged-up kettle began to boil;
I found some coffee crystals in the darkening trailer and did the pour.
Outside, it seemed chilly in the grass —
coffee warmed my hands; prison lights lit the town.
Noah’s accidental sculpture …

Inside, I sat at the desk again.
There was a candle in a drawer.
I lit it from the stove and continued writing:

A place on the edge of itself in a valley of the same name.

After crossing that out,
I kept writing. It was cold and dark at the finish.
I relit the candle and a cigarette,
and read aloud what I had written:

Engines were used to move water.

Not too bad. I tried it again …

Diesel driven pumps were mounted on sleds
and used to boost water from deep wells to distant fields.
They were ugly — jerry-rigged by people named Irvin or Woodrow.
Over seasons, heavy sled-mounted pumps
acquired a clothing of grime — a sheathing of smoke-oily mud —
housed between ditches in mud slums.

My Dad called them “rain machines.”

Cidro Ochoa farmed section 35 across from our place,
growing summer cotton and winter barley grain.
His aging stationary engine was lathed and assembled in Moline.
Most of its working life was spent around Cantua,
mired in years of distressed lifting — rings and bearings almost
memories — unable to restart, living a lifetime pumping sentence:
It had no sense of self, knowing only internal explosive strife;
bound to move water, and the end was coming.
With no future after that — not even reformation
into a ship or something.

With Cidro watching through June, July, and into August,
the machine staggered, drinking oil to stay alive.
It died in an agony of expansive hot metal on August eleventh.
A thrown rod shattered the crank and block.
But the dawn-side deep well kept pumping, bursting the iron flanges —
making a cooling wash for the death boil of the Rain Machine.

Enraged, Cidro rolled it end over end.
Bulldozing, screaming, he shoved it over the bank —
joining old cars serving as erosion barriers in flood times …
eventually covered in a silt and mud grave … forgotten.

Holding the bank a generation,
the iron scarred and valleyed from rust.
The Rain Machine resurfaced after the creek changed its course.
Downstream litigation cambered the channel,
exposing the pitted iron to light on our Cantua Ranch.

Noah and I retrieved the scarred old junk
and hauled it to his pole barn.
It sat a little while before the sculptor was ready.
He restored and painted half of the engine block sun yellow,
and welded Murphy switches and Go-Devil blades to the flywheel.
Inserting shanks in the holed block,
a flat bar was added, clamped tightly as mast and crossbar —
all remounted on a drag sled and named “Moving Water.”

Noah sold it to an art dealer on the coast.
It fountains quietly in front of a bank in Mill Valley now.

In his later years, irrigators said Cidro Ochoa
reformed old tools for pleasure, though they seldom worked well.
Abusing the grinders and vises,
he died beating disc spools with a sledge —
just prior to Noah’s resurrection of the Rain Machine.

Cidro was a cheater pipe of a man …