Broken Field: A Novel

Broken Field: A Novel

by Jeff Hull

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628729788
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 825,041
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jeff Hull is the author of the novel Pale Morning Done and the essay collection Streams of Consciousness. His articles have appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Atlantic, Fortune, FastCompany, Outside, Men’s Journal and many other national magazines. He has worked as a fishing guide in Montana and Tahiti and as a copywriter at major advertising agencies in New York and San Francisco. He lives in Montana and New York City.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

August

WHEN SHE SAW THE CAR — A DARK, low-slung Chevy sedan, its vinyl roof tattered and flaked — Josie thought of it only as a possible way out of her situation. She was a sixteen-year-old girl alone on a vast landscape, standing beside a broken down grain truck on a long and empty gravel road, miles from help or houses or a cell signal. This, Josie felt, was just another trial of harvest. The dark car slowed quickly, seemed to fishtail a little, as if the driver had not intended to stop and then suddenly changed his mind. The tires, Josie noticed right away, were too bald for driving gravel.

A long crack in the windshield read like the map of some twisted journey across a confined world. Josie Frehse wasn't naïve. She knew that sometimes trouble came from Havre or Lewistown or over the border from Medicine Hat or from the Fort Miles reservation and sometimes it came in cars like this one. But she didn't feel trouble. Josie had been driving a grain truck since she was fourteen.

She'd been riding along in one since she was five. This was the life she knew, and she knew what to expect from it: big red diesel-burning International Harvester combines in a staggered line chugging over a wheat field, powerhouses against the land and sky; chaff suspended in wafted layers, coloring the setting sun. The thickness of it in her nose, the chewing thrum of the engines.

A hawk racing low across the horizon. Bluish-green humps of mountains beneath bluish-white piles of clouds, the tawny gold and green squares stretching from her, the dips and curves of crop lines, black crescents of dirt under her fingernails. Grit on her fingertips, her jeans sweaty in the seat, the truck steering wheel trembling and jerking as she bounced along beside the combine, trying to keep the bucket under the gout of grain pouring into it.

A ballad blasted through her tinny phone speaker. Her father drove one of the combines. Her brother Jared drove another one. Her boyfriend Matt drove one. Matt was about to turn eighteen, and Jared already had. Josie was sixteen going on seventeen, and she had ideas about how fast that should happen and how much faster the rest should come, but felt still uncertain about whether those ideas made any sense. For days now, she had been steering her grain truck down the rows of the field, feeling the bumps bouncing her in her seat, wrestling the steering wheel, singing the good lines with the country singers, careful to maintain an exact distance while the combine poured its load out. And then she had honked and waved and peeled off across the field, headed for the elevator in Chinook.

Like she had a hundred times before. In Chinook, she would wait while the auger sucked the grain from the truck's hold, each load tens of thousands of dollars worth of hard, bouncy kernels, her family's whole year of life — cereal, shampoo, jeans, home heating fuel, tampons, trash bags, books, everything they would have in their house — augered into the fat, shiny silos along the railroad tracks.

The seeds would trundle down the parallel bend of railroad tracks to Seattle, then cross a sea she'd never seen to Korea to become steamed buns. The Koreans got very precise about moisture and protein content in their wheat, and these days the farmlands around Dumont were producing exactly what they wanted. Only this time, she broke down.

It was nothing she could fix. It wasn't oil, wasn't coolant. It wasn't the steering column, which she'd helped her father disassemble and repair the year before. This felt like transmission. This felt like the truck was twenty-seven or thirty-two- years old — who knew exactly? — and it was done. It had just stopped going. Josie could step on the gas, hear the engine ring, but the truck rolled to a stop.

She strong-armed it to the side of the road. She got out, got under the carriage, looked at the transfer case, saw the little glimmery metal slivers shining in the viscous liquid, didn't feel good about the truck going any further. They would have to get another truck here and transfer the loads. It would cost them time. There was nothing she could do about it.

Breakdowns come and breakdowns go. Breakdowns sometimes meant trusting strangers. Strangers were not ominous. Even if you were broken down all by yourself on a stretch of gravel road miles from the nearest house and beyond cell range. In this country living was hard, and no matter how self-reliant you were, trusting your neighbors was a part of getting through.

Nobody made it alone. What she was worried about — the only thing she had been worried about when she saw the dark sedan slowing to pull over — was time. The late August sun blazed and the sky seemed to ache blue with the effort of holding all the light above her. In every direction the land raced away forever, horizon and sky pinching the edges of distance down.

Standing in the middle of it all, nowhere near where she wanted to be, even the big grain truck looked tiny on the ground. Somebody, she'd thought while she waited on the gravel road, would come along. It might take hour, but someone would come. And then somebody did.

It was not somebody she expected. It was a man, she could tell, a man driving alone. Instead of pulling over behind her truck, the driver let the car creep up to where she stood beside her cab. Josie saw feathers hanging from the rearview — hawk feather or eagle feathers. The car stopped, and she saw that it wasn't really a man driving; he was a boy. A teenager, someone close to her own age. He wasn't wearing a shirt, just jeans and no shoes.

He looked Indian, maybe from the Fort Miles reservation. His face looked sharp, his eyes dark. His black hair held a tousled sheen, like it had been blowing in the open windows while he drove down the highway. It was longish and unkempt, like a 70's rodeo star. Josie felt a twitch of shame, because something about his seediness affected her in a physical way.

She didn't like her response. He seemed uncleaned in a raw sense. He was lithe and lank, his jeans loose and low, the band of black underwear apparent above their waist. He rested one arm on the top of the steering wheel, wrist bent, hand dangling. Josie noticed the smell coming from the car. Cigarettes.

Some pot, maybe. When she met his eyes for the first time, she felt exposed. Hunger, she thought. That's what she was reacting to. His naked hunger. Josie was a good-looking girl. She always caught boys — and, if she was being honest, some men — looking at her a certain way. They mostly laughed it off or looked embarrassed about being caught.

They almost always did something to soften what they'd been doing. This boy didn't. Josie wondered if she should tell him she was fine, didn't need help. That her people were on their way. She had pepper spray in the truck, a canister her father had bought her when they'd gone hiking in Glacier Park for grizzly bears. She thought about how close she was to the bear spray. A long scrape ran down the passenger side of the car, dented and scraped of paint. The fake leather on the boy's passenger seat was torn.

The yellow sponge guts of the car prolapsed from the rupture in the surface. He didn't say anything. He just looked at her across the empty passenger seat like he was waiting for her to tell him why he'd stopped. The sky looked so bright, the gravel white on the road, the grass in the borrow pit a green supersaturated with sunlight. Inside the car was a purple shadow. She saw the twenty-four-ounce can of Icehouse beer in his drink holder. Lots of people she knew had a beer while they drove.

And here was someone who might save her time. She and her family spent hours and days racing a clock they couldn't see the face of, the clock that ran until the next heavy rain. Working until midnight, working until two in the morning, working through the night when the bruisy thunderheaded clouds lined up in the west and started marching across the horizon, sleeping in the truck to be ready at first light, racing the rain.

Rain could make the difference between a million dollars and a year of eating off insurance. Everybody in this part of the world was doing the same thing. The men, the boys, they started harvest each year with such high spirits, heroes in their own cabs, but by the end their eyes grew unfocused from too many hours inside their own heads, too much jostle and vibration, too many miles of rows, and they swore quickly and quietly and always. Only her brother Jared stayed smiling — though Josie knew that was because his face was shaped in a grin, even when he wasn't anything but just walking around.

Though he was the one most likely to have a real smile for her when she peeled away from his combine. His smile came a lot like the hawks, swift and pure and never when you were thinking about them. She wished she could be that way. She wished she didn't have to think about so many things. Boys didn't have to think about so much. Sometimes when it was Jared and Matt and their friends, Jared would describe himself as "165 pounds of bone and sinew and cock," and that wasn't all wrong. Boys could act, do, clean up later. Working the harvest was this way.

You drove your truck, you could think anything. Josie planned her wedding driving the truck, though the ceremony — party, let's call it a party, she always thought — didn't necessarily feature Matt Brunner. She re-lost her virginity dozens of times driving the truck, in ways she wished it had actually happened, and wondered if it was bad that Matt wasn't always the guy she imagined being with. She made new friends she'd never met. She wandered pieces of Italy, though knowing nothing about Italy she patched together museums and cliffside villages and bike rides and enormous meals featuring little round pieces of cheese and skinny slices of meat.

Josie had a child in the truck. Some days she made the women's basketball team at Stanford, took heroic shots with the clock winding down. She won several important games. Sitting behind the wheel, she rethought and repositioned herself, imagining exactly where her feet would land, the precise extent of her shoulder fake, how the ball moved.

The flip of her wrist that sent the ball airbound, the rotation of the seams. Josie imagined whole lives in the truck, lives of her friends, lives of her family. She would get so bored she imagined her crazily vague distant future, a family she might have, a little boy, and she named him Rowan, and she let Rowan's bone-blonde hair grow long and fine over his shoulders, and she brushed it. Sometimes Matt Brunner was the star of her future.

Sometimes there were boys she didn't know yet. She sang the good songs on her play lists, loud, hitting every decrescendo, every bit of tremolo. When the light was low and fading and just right, the songs could mean so much. Josie loved harvest. She loved late summer, mass meals, sweat, and ball caps on grimy hair and thirty-two-ounce bottles of Diet Pepsi. She loved the sweet dry smell of cut wheat and the sweet nostalgia of a season not quite over, and she loved the approaching school year that would snap some order onto the long, shapeless days of summer on the northern plains. Most of all, she loved the time alone in her own head, the space it gave her.

She loved the doing. The not having to worry about next. Worrying was like praying for bad things to happen, her mother always said. Next made her queasy.

"I broke down," she said to the boy in the car, because she didn't feel comfortable not saying anything.

"Need a ride?" he asked.

"Are you from around here?" she asked. In the islands of paint where the finish on the car was not faded and matted, the high sun sparkled the way it did on deep water.

"I just moved," he said. His tongue slowly tapped each word. "You from here?"

"Yeah," she said.

"I can give you a ride," he said.

"There's another truck coming right behind me," she said. It wasn't a wish. One would be coming, but she didn't know when.

"Okay," he said. "But if you need a ride before then."

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said and laughed like the idea of going somewhere was funny. "I'm just driving."

Josie thought what the hell — he's a kid. And this was something different. Not much different happened in her life, not much changed from day to day or year to year. This kid was different, not like Matt, not like the farm boys she had grown up with. It could, she thought, go badly — though she had no real-life understanding of how badly, simply because it's impossible to imagine the reach of pain you haven't felt yet. But the alternative was sitting on the side of the road for — an hour? Three hours? However long it took the next vehicle to come along. And here was a boy she shouldn't want anything to do with, with a car she didn't want to get into and a big beer in his drink holder.

"Yeah, okay," she said. "I gotta go back this way. It's about forty-five minutes back ..."

"I got nothing but time," he said. "Time ain't no big deal."

"Let me get my phone," she said. "Maybe we can just drive down the road until we get service and make a plan then."

"Sure," he said. "Get in."

The door hinge shrieked at her when she opened it. She expected the car's dark interior to be cool, but it was only a closer sort of heat. She hadn't fetched her bear spray, hadn't locked the truck. She sat down, aware that her T-shirt was damp with sweat.

She unlocked her phone screen, brought up the dial pad and crooked her thumb over it, as if she was a touch away from finding other help. The boy barely waited until she'd sat before stomping on the gas. Josie heard gravel pinging all over the undercarriage. She could hear the engine deepen its throat, could hear it suck more gas. He lifted his twenty-four-ounce beer can, the aluminum shining on both sides of his fist, toward her. "Want some?"

"No thanks."

"I got another can."

"I'm good," she said.

He drove with the fingers of one hand wrapped tightly to the wheel, slouching, the wind blowing ribbons of his hair around his face. It seemed his chosen form of oblivion. He twisted the radio knob and rap music she knew nothing about battered the tin-can speakers buried in the dashboard, the bass cracked and fuzzed. Josie spent her whole life around men and boys and their love for engines and machines.

She lived in what everybody called Next Year Country. Dryland wheat farms were a race against time and weather and the market. You almost never got it right. You almost always went into winter saying, "Next year we'll hit it right." And when you did hit it, when you got a Next Year, when the profits came in long numbers, the first thing that happened was the men bought bigger trucks and combines and attachments.

This boy and his love for going fast in his beater car was nothing new to her. What was different was the way he held off speaking to her.

As if he had something to show her first. They tore across the gravel road. Josie knew how fast was safe; this boy wasn't being safe. There had been something about him from the first glance that had told her he wouldn't be safe. But she had wanted to come with him.

Over every rise, Josie felt the lift in the her seat before the heavy sedan stomped on its springs coming down. The car slid in the loose gravel, and she could smell the chalky dust they raised. He tilted the beer can at her again. She waved it off.

"What's your name?" he finally asked, not looking at her.

"Josie," she said. She had to yell over the roar of wind through both open windows and the rabble of the tires racing over gravel. "What's yours?"

"LaValle," he said.

"What?" she yelled.

"LaValle."

"That's your first name?"

"No."

Sitting next to this boy she should not be in a car with, they raced across the landscape she had known her whole life. Every second she was getting closer to where she was supposed to be.

* * *

Saturday, November

Before it all started, Tom Warner stared down at his foot in a black Nike cleat. He coached in cleats because sidelines got muddy and slick and because it made him feel closer to the game, made him feel like he'd felt when he played. A guy had damned few occasions to wear cleats in his early forties.

He loved the way they gripped the earth. He looked down at his cleat, toe planted on the mostly dead grass, heel resting in the white chalk of the sideline, and everything else fell away. Tom felt his weight on that foot. Thousands of steps a day without a thought, then comes one deliberate move, a plant, a push-off, a shift that alters direction. Without thinking, his eyes followed the point of his foot on the grass toward the goal line.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Broken Field"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jeff Hull.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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