I ran as fast as I could to the principal’s office, which was the sixth-and-seventh grade classroom, where there was a telephone in the desk drawer with its cord hanging out like a rat-tail in the corncrib. Mrs. Mackie, the teacher, was the school principal too, and she had had the janitor put a little notch in the drawer-face with a penknife—a telephone had more importance then—so she could close and lock the drawer on it and nobody could get to it to play any kind of a prank.
The fourth-and-fifth grade teacher was not in her room yet. I ran down the steps of the school and out into the mean heat a second time. This time I had to row against the air with my arms while I was running, and I sweated, counting the porches with their empty wicker chairs and the neat sloping gardens of town that I had to pass, with peas tied up, and yellow marigolds already warm enough to lift their bitter smell in the air. There was nobody out in the gardens. I could have banged on an open screen door and yelled into the morning quiet within, but I didn’t, I ran on.
I hope to God some child today would have the wits to bang on a door if she were the one sent out.
The fire station was three blocks down the road, the same road with the whole town strung along it waiting to grow out to the sides the way the towns on either side of this one had done. Our farm was a couple of miles out that same road, and I thought if I saw someone I knew, the best thing really would be to flag him down and go get my father off the tractor. But it was still so early no car or truck passed by, so I ran on, to the firehouse. I saw the boy sitting outside it—a quit-high-school, no-account boy, as I knew because he was a neighbor. “Where’s the Rescue Squad?” I screamed, because the red station wagon was not even there.
“Gone to Burke’s,” he said. “Gone to bring Miz Burke up.” Mrs. Burke was due to have a baby, and she ended up having them all cut out of her, it was said.
“When? When did they go?”
“Gone a while ago,” said the boy, getting up and dusting off his pants legs. What kind of a person would walk into town and sit in front of the fire station at six o’clock in the morning?
“Cook up at school fell down!”
This was in 1955, a time before there was talk about blocked arteries the way there is now. Now every child knows the whole dark slippery world the heart, the physical heart, inhabits like a veal calf penned so it can’t turn around. They know “cholesterol,” some of them know “plaque,” they know if you have diabetes like Mrs. Cullen you had better be careful. I was shouting in the purest, most fantastic ignorance.
So the boy fell in, behind me at first, and the two of us ran the whole way back, uphill this time. I was panting, “I can’t. Can’t run any more,” the way my brothers said girls always did.
“Don’t then,” the boy said and he streaked ahead of me on his long legs.
When I ran down the basement steps the two males were squatting beside Mrs. Cullen, Mr. Winley fanning her with the cookie sheet and the boy prying her lips open with his little finger, pushing the tongue down so her breath could pass in and out. Then he bent over her and listened.
Suddenly her voice said, “Git me my…” but she never came out with what she wanted.
“Pills!” yelled the boy. “Go in her pocketbook!” I found her bag and tumbled the contents out on the floor, but there were no pills.
“Isn’t one soul in the building,” sighed Mr. Winley. At least there were three of us now, counting the boy, whose name was Cathcart Dahl, from the Dahl family that would have been ashamed of him running with the Rescue Squad all day if they weren’t all drowning in the bottle, as my mother said, down to the last one before Cath, his brother Mastine. “I guess that family used up all the surnames ever was,” my mother said with the peaceful wink she had, full of sympathy, that made nothing she said ever unkind.
She took the mail up to the Dahls when it spilled out of the mailbox at the end of their drive across the road from ours, and their newspapers swollen at the ends from hanging out of the open box in the rain. There were a couple of trailers in a patch of orchard grass at the back of their property, rented out to unmarried drinking men who hired out to do repairs or fix water gaps for pay when they felt like it. Two or three times a week you could see them from our clover field in the evening, heading up the hill to drink with Mr. Dahl and the older boys. Mrs. Dahl was dead. That was the cause of it.
Mrs. Dahl had dropped dead, in the house, in the middle of fixing breakfast, when I was in the fourth grade. She fell down while she was making oatmeal. All that work to raise so many boys, all the patience with which she called them from the porch by those names her husband took off the gravestones of his family, it did her in.
Mr. Dahl howled so loud when the boys called him in—he was up early back then, out discing before the heat of the day—that the boys all ran out of the house and cried in the yard.
We heard bits of it at school. They all, including the little one, who had found her, came in to school on the bus that very day, because Mr. Dahl didn’t know to keep them home, he was out of his mind. “Just knocking into things, going in circles like a cow trying to drop a calf,” I heard my father tell my mother. My mother would try for years to introduce some peace into that house in the form of a pie or a casserole, but from that morning on Mr. Dahl wasn’t going to notice, he wasn’t worth a thing, he was just a mouth to suck a bottle.
All morning, whenever somebody came in or out of our classroom, we would see the youngest Dahl boy sitting in the hall with Mrs. Mackie, with his face slimy and his shirt untucked.
Cath Dahl was up on his knees whupping Mrs. Cullen’s face softly from side to side in his palms saying, “Ma’am? Ma’am?” He had the apron off and her blouse partly unbuttoned. Mr. Winley said, “Let me take a turn,” and he squatted over and shouldered Cath, who was bigger, until he gave way. Then Mr. Winley put down one knee and took up Mrs. Cullen’s hands and rubbed them in a manner that had none of the rhythm or held-in roughness of Cath Dahl’s, while Cath yanked open the icebox and rubbed ice cubes on Mrs. Cullen’s cheeks and forehead for the shock of it.
All this took two minutes at the most.
You could see she was breathing but her big cheeks were loose with pockets of air in them and she was in bad trouble. The trouble had come into the kitchen with a greenish light when the sun moved into the bottle glass of the high-up well-window. Cath went racing up the steps and I heard him yelling.
Mr. Winley’s hands dropped Mrs. Cullen’s and hovered above her chest. Then he passed both hands over his fresh crewcut. “Leola Clay,” he said sadly. “Where you been since high school, Leola?”
“Nobody!” Cath ran back down the steps. “Get the doctor!” He pushed Mr. Winley out of the way and got astride Mrs. Cullen, and raised her several times by the ribcage and dropped her back again. Her head rolled to the side. Then he did something that shocked me. If he had stuck with it, it would have resembled the CPR we know how to do now, but he just struck down on her chest once, with his fist.
Mr. Winley thought Cathcart Dahl had hit Mrs. Cullen. That’s what it was, to him. His big eyes bugged and he yelled out, “Here now, boy!” That’s when Cath, just as fierce, stood up tall and said that was how you got a calf to breathe and his father had taught him.
This was the third time I was sent. When I got back out into the glare an amazing thing had happened, the school bus had pulled up. The boys were crowding down out of it first, just as they did every day, and I looked back up at the porch where two teachers had materialized to supervise their arrival.
So I raced up the steps yelling, “Miss Fayne, call Dr. Moss, call Dr. Chapin! Mrs. Cullen, she’s sick, she’s on the floor, Mr. Winley’s down there and Cathcart Dahl!” Miss Fayne didn’t even try to calm me down, she just went and unlocked the phone drawer and dialed, without even looking up the number.
I could tell Mrs. Moss was saying her husband was long gone, gone to the hospital for a delivery and a hard one. But Mrs. Chapin on the next call said she would send Dr. Chapin that minute. I was so relieved I leaned back against the blackboard with my eyes shut and got chalk all over my back—though everyone knew Dr. Chapin was an old, old man who would forget his bag.
He arrived no more than ten minutes later, but by that time it was too late. Miss Fayne made me stay upstairs.
The teachers had blocked off the basement stairs with wastebaskets, but finally they let me go down the outside stairs to talk to the doctor because I had been there, I was the Kitchen Helper.
I descended slowly into the still lunchroom, now filled with green light but with the trouble mysteriously evaporated from it. Mrs. Cullen was lying straight, with a big white flour sack over her down to the waist. Mr. Winley was standing by the counter with his head flopped sideways. It was the sack being put on her, I thought, that gave him that pale sick look. While I—I was not sickened, not afraid. I did not know to be afraid.
Dr. Chapin sat on a low chair, not doing anything except holding a pad of paper on his knee and writing.
“Clay,” Dr. Chapin was saying. “Leola Clay.”
“But it’s Cullen now, it’s Mrs. Cullen,”
I said. I was arrested by the sight of Cathcart Dahl putting one of the burned rolls in his mouth and chewing on it.
My mother always said, “Nobody feeds those boys. That little Mastine drinks beer to get nourishment.” Mastine at that time was six feet and a junior in high school.
What bothered my mother afterward was not so much that I had been present when someone had a heart attack in the grade school as the realization that one of the Dahl boys had been there too, after what they had gone through when their own mother died.
Though she did not really want me over at their place, she could not keep herself from sending me up their drive with a pie, and then a day or so later she would think about the pie plate. “If you don’t see Mister, just ask any of the boys to let you look for it. No, don’t you ask Mastine, come to think. Poor boy. He’s come into that hopeless heritage over there.” My mother came from Temperance people. She said “hopeless heritage” often enough that my dad used it as the name for the Dahl farm. “Took in 40 bales over at the Heritage,” he would say when he had been over helping make the measly hay for the Dahls’s thin straying herd.
I’m not sure my parents gave the word “hopeless” much thought, at that time. It wasn’t entirely a disapproving term. The Dahls had had a blow, and the blow had established their place in things. It’s true what is often said: We all had our place. And if something really was hopeless, it might not be what you first thought. It might not be the love of drink at all, but something the heart, the physical, mechanical heart, got read out to it in its first beat.
Once I came back late from the Dahl place. I had started back home, but I sat down by the pond to look at the pair of geese Mr. Dahl used to keep before his wife dropped dead. The geese stayed on and took care of themselves, looking none the worse for it, still big and mean. One of them clambered out of the water and opened his wings, beating them and shaking out a wide spray, to threaten me. I didn’t care. I wasn’t afraid of anything on a farm. I knew Cathcart Dahl was down a ways from where I was sitting. “What’s that dark salt you got?” I called over. “Magnesium salt,” he said. I already knew that. “Come on over I’ll show you.” He was lugging the block down to the cattle that were left. I walked down with him to the shade in the corner of the field where there was a broken-down stand for the salt. Cath had rigged up two new canvas rolls on it, for oiling the cows’ necks while they licked the salt, to keep the flies off.
I was 16 then. At their place Cath was the only one left working. Even the little one went bad before long. But a change had come over Cath; he had quit hanging around at the Rescue Squad, finished high school, and taken over the farm.
It was dark when I got back. “You were over there so long I thought maybe you married and raised a family,” my mother said, taking the pie plate, not all that clean, from my hands. But that would be some years later.