Strange Undulating Body of Land

The “Cheney Spoken” was mostly done,
and Luthor was still away, while warm winter rains
kept pounding the Sierras from the south.
When the storm cleared, all the snowpack was gone.

But needing to see if the poem was right,
I rode an hour west past the Russian town and salt flats.
Bridges still held across the slough,
and people were retrieving their things.
Stopping to roll a Drum on the last bridge —
the cemetery was covered in water
and the only tree was missing.
Smoking, I leaned over the rail
and found it against the pilings,
with quiet water lapping at the leaves.
I left, shaking my head at mobile pepper trees.

Climbing fifteen miles further west
through winter grain and sugar beets;
then I made a southern turn along
the water right-of-way to L.A.
Every couple of miles were bridges across the canal,
and my parents’ old shack on the Cheney Ranch
was twenty minutes away.
Mist ahead sheathed the Coast Range,
and the land below was made by wandering streams.

I passed gently rolling tomato beds
into the subsidence country.
Unnatural hills had vacant labor camps,
and the junkyards grew weeds.
Several fields of unplanted cotton beds
used lines of golf course guns,
shooting evaporative rainbows halfway into the next day.

In the heavier land to the southeast,
my aunt’s unhappy groves cleared the horizon.
Most of my people were alive in the desert —
or dead under shady trees.

Stopping to roll Drums, I smoked one,
and continued past a row of red tractors for sale —
the International kind that don’t shift well.

The canal veered slightly for constant grade;
ahead, someone was fishing for carp.
I smiled because Woodrow, my father’s old welder,
used Camel butts for bait.

Riding closer, I saw it was a friend, Earl Rollinherd,
who’d worked the parts counter for International Harvester —
you know, those red tractors for sale.

“Hey ya, Red Earl, how ya doin’?”

“Goddamn, is that you? We heard you were dead;
heard lots of things — trouble, Roy. You all right?”

“Been off and away doing motorcycles around, Earl.
I don’t farm anymore — been thinking about writing.”

“You ought to, goddamn right —
the dust’s coming, Roy, and your people did so much —
it’ll all go to hell.”

The south wind gusted a little more.

“It’s there now, Earl. Gotta punctuate it somehow.”

Earl was as wrinkled as the land.
His suntans looked holed and worn,
and his glasses were askew.
Said his wife had passed three years before —
buried her outside of Russian town by the pepper tree.
I just nodded at the canal,
while Earl shaded a color grayer at the water —
pulling at his line, as he kept winding it in.

“Roy, I got my yellow Buick working for your dad,
and met your mother as a young woman
wearing pearls in the hell hole.
Rains came, and our cars screamed the Christ outta there.
Tires chained to go in the mud: pavement’s twenty-one miles away.”

Pausing to throw his line, he watched it land.
Then he asked if Mom survived.
I said no.

“Your mom’s gone — that’s too bad.
She was a good one: woman had dust — that shack.”

My mother’s death embarrassed him a little;
so he waved his cracked hands, a finger missing on the right one …
so he wove into his sense of how jerry-rigged things were.

Working every day in the heat, irrigating off hill ditches —
a fuckin’ nightmare. Goddamn nights spent fixing ditch breaks
with lost bulldozers in the salt mud — or plowing the
shit outta the ground, then dragging it to smooth.

“You weren’t alive for those old cart planters
tied behind a crawler and taken out to flat plant:
tool bars, six gangs of two rows behind the pull crawlers.
Those twelve rows looked a mile wide,
with twenty-foot hanging markers outside.
Don’t kill the power pole turnin’, man.
Good day, thirty poles flat planted, sundown.
Hope the wind don’t blow up your butt crack, take it away.”

Always behind the smell of beer, old kinds as Earl talked on.

“Roy, you know the story of Ostraller’s Big Kid?”

“Yeah … yes, I do. Gotta run, Earl. Take care. Good-bye.”

Clouds gathered as I came off the canal …
circling hilly sections one by one, half of them fallowed
because of redefined surface water rights.
Deep wells were groaning for cotton and small grain.

Then the Cheney undulated through
unpruned vineyards and a section of garlic.
Enduring wet lines of ambiguous garlic,
the clove divides became mud-rutted middles,
and a few led to the broken shells of twin gins.

Old men with garlic dangling from their necks to stem the evil.
A nation needs garlic in the rotations.

I rode up above the 500-foot mark across I-5.
Weather building both ways over the land
forced me to time the storm break.

Deep loam falling away into several farms.
I saw too much lease to hold and not a good place to farm
since the water rights had gone to L.A.

That shack — my parents’ first home —
leaned with the wind four miles southeast of me.
I remembered split pictures of a hard dirt road
lined with thousands of barley sacks,
leading to the two rooms of that flat shack.
The air was clearest then — not a tree for fifteen miles.

I wondered if the legs still showed inside old boundaries.
In those days, the Cheney grew skip-row cotton —
four rows in, four out; the Feds paid us for the outs,
we sold the ins on the domestic market.
Half the ranch cotton striped. Four-row cultivate
on the ins, and run a disk up the outs to get the weeds.
Good men could do six poles a day, sundown.

When the sprinklers arrived,
it was productive — but still hard farming.
The Cheney was known for its exotic crew.
I remembered morning gatherings at the shop —
Hindus, and Leo, and Cleo, and Woodrow Wilson Jones.

Woodrow was a butt crack who welded when things broke.
If that didn’t work, he cut it with a torch; if that didn’t make it go,
Woody spit a mouthful of snuff on it and called it “a mare’s ass.”

The Cheney tried growing cannery tomatoes,
sprinkled up from tiny seed down on your knees
as spring winds crossed beige ground.
Checking brown seed rows.

The summer harvest was hard.
Tomato harvesters were shaking machines
full of belts and chains driven by Model-A engines;
dusty forklifts; huge crews sorting out greens;
breakdowns; wheel tractors and harvesters stuck on ditch lines.
Six weeks of sunrise to sunset.
Endless repairs to machines parked in mudholes,
after Hindu boys washed them down with fire hoses every night.

Our first year was all right,
so the tomato acreage expanded.
Cannery died the second year,
leaving the Cheney unpaid after the harvest.
Summer rains brought crop failure the third year.
Tomato scald and a weak world cotton market followed.

… And we’ve almost come to Ostraller’s Big Kid —
a civil, evil kind of guy.

The Westside ranch was staggered by two disastrous tomato crops —
also wallowing in a bad cotton market, with all its cash
tied up in immature Eastside citrus.
In the wake of tomato failure,
a tenth of the Cheney cotton acreage
was on the right-of-way sold to the Bureau.
They owned the crop within, and the Cheney acted as agent
to protect the Bureau’s interests.

Ostraller’s Big Kid’s idea was a stroke of genius —
the only one he ever had: Steal the federal cotton …
my father was away, and it’s a big ranch.
Go in at night for the confusion.

The Big Kid’s problem was gettin’ to the inside man;
and he had to have cash and machines, drivers, trailers.
So the Kid found Cidro Ochoa,
a local contract picker and bar owner.
Cidro’s cash paid off the inside man,
Gene — the Cheney comptroller.

Running Cidro’s machines,
they started picking on a Friday evening,
picking late in the breeze
and again all of Saturday night — with no dew.
They left Sunday morning.

That afternoon, my father
followed cotton-trailer tracks down dirt roads,
which was easy since their aircraft tires left distinctive marks.
In the evening, he got to a windy gin yard —
a single cotton bale left behind in the gin moats and trash …
grown and stolen from the Cheney Ranch.

Hackman, the ginner, never split the sale money
and left the country, which enraged Cidro —
who proceeded to beat Ostraller’s Big Kid blind.
Old man Ostraller paid the medical bill before he threw his kid away.

My father fired Gene on Monday.
Our lenders almost owned the Cheney.

The following year the entire ranch was planted to cotton.
World markets crashed as constant south winds changed the pattern.
The Cheney got unloaded at a fire sale that wet winter,
to a Pittsburgh man who died three months later.

Gene cuts hair in a barbershop in rainy Susanville now.
Cidro Ochoa almost burned to death
in his underwear in a topless bar in Fresno.

They say I came along after Dad took Mom to the hospital —
born on a May dawn with snow in the desert,
as our cotton died and everyone worked like hell replanting:
it’s a wonder they didn’t name me Jonah.
I became the boy searching tool-yards
of faded junk cut by Woodrow’s torches —
farming shapes and farming names that Woodrow reformed
with acetylene and oxygen into simple wheel weights or float drags.
Years passed before we survived on better land.

Below me, the wind misused sprinkler water.
A broken mainline valve spewed fifty feet in the air —
the wind took it a ways, and the Cheney’s odd every day.
The spume’s a rainbow.

Away from the rise, back downhill into storm time,
as the sun crept behind the mountains,
the wind-borne sound of motors and sprinklers
caused me to remember sprinkler nozzles —
with big-ass orifices allowing the sand and salt through.
Drops as big as windshield bugs,
which shook the cotton on impact — I could see that.

I sat listening to chattering Rain Birds
while the south wind whipped that spray.

Nearing the end under clouds stacked above the evening,
I turned toward that shack leaning shaken by the south wind;
stored junk inside kept the walls from falling in.

I withdrew a salt-encrusted Rain Bird — a fine gray one —
and rode a half mile up to the metal pump station.
It’s badly holed; pocked metal sheets rattle,
reflecting the Cheney at dusk.

The oil companies’ stationary ship engines were sold,
leaving a ruin of pitted cement and ribbed walls
beneath the metal pound. What’s left
is a cracked north-south lonely chapel on the west rise.

We should be grateful, gone from the Cheney trap —
where the surrounds are other remains and Dave Cheney’s legs.
The legs … the legs are around somewhere.

I tossed the Rain Bird onto a rusted pile,
while the wind made noise and rain poured.
Wild Cheney’s legs had gotten away.
I slept wet that night in the pump station,
and the storm cleared late the following morning.

Going south along the canal away from Cheney’s trap,
I spent the afternoon in Devil’s Den drinking beer …