They nuzzled against each other in sleep. Their snores stuttered like the beginning of a dirge, broken now and then by the grumbling of their empty stomachs. Sorochi watched their profiles in the light of the kerosene lantern. There were trails of tears crusted on their cheeks like scars. Somehow, the twins had resigned themselves to this: to cry as much as their limp strength could carry them, and then drift to sleep while locked in each other’s arm. As if to animate the drab atmosphere, the lantern flickered, casting floating shadows on the hole-ridden wall.
Sorochi leaned against Akudili’s broad chest. She could feel his strained breathing. The way his heart dragged up and down as though struggling to pump blood while holding back a torrent of sobs. His chin was grazing her frizzy hair. It stirred a million itches in her scalp. She clenched her teeth to keep from itching. It had been regular these days, the itching, her braid having been on her head for months, like an African president refusing to leave office. She scratched it only when Akudili was not watching, for she didn’t want him adding it to the truckload of his worries.
They’d been in this dark cloud of gloom since armed men robbed Akudili of the motorcycle he used for taxi business. The children now ate cooked food once every three days. Four months back, the police started mounting roadblocks on every major road in the city because of the lockdown — a radical decision from the Governor to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the state. Mobility was clipped; okada riders could no longer work. With the markets also locked down, there was nowhere Sorochi could ply her okirika trade. Even without the lockdown of markets, it was unlikely that anyone would buy imported used clothes at a time when everything coming from outside the border was suspected of housing the virus. The streets lay sprawled out for goats and fowls. Since Akudili could not work during the day, he worked in the night, carrying people and navigating the hidden corners of the town where the patrol would not apprehend him. By this means and with the occasional paltry stipends he got from tending the livestock in the parish house, he fed his family. Until last month. Hoodlums waylaid him. He woke up later by the bushy roadside, the side of his face caked in blood, his motorcycle gone. Unable to report to the police, (since they’d arrest him for violating the curfew), he dragged back home a deflated soul.
She turned to look at the expression on his face, to refill her draining hope with the optimism that never faded in his face. But his expression was blank like the sharp darkness outside. Her tongue lay in her mouth like a piece of flab. These days they said little. Sometimes fractured gestures and sighs were enough.
Akudili sat up, causing her to recline back in her seat. He said nothing but kept shaking his head. She pressed her hand around his. “Let’s go to bed,” she said. “It’s late.”
He snatched his hand away. As though to apologise for startling her, he lowered his voice and said, “I can’t just watch and do nothing. I’m a man, for Christ’s sake.”
“Obim, no one is saying you’re not a man. God knows you’re trying your best.”
“No. I have not tried my best.”
She collected her breath and adjusted on her seat so that she faced him squarely. There was the outline of the scar on his forehead, like an upturned question mark. Tears welled behind her eyes. She shut her eyes quickly. “We shall get through this. Trust God.” She opened her eyes to find him shaking his head again. Something about the way he now shook his head — not out of defiance but remorse — wrung her insides. It was as though he felt contrite for something he was yet to do.
“Let’s go to bed,” she repeated, now standing and dragging him by the hand.
Akudili was not in bed when she woke up the following day, strange for someone who almost always needed a bath of water to rouse him from sleep. Where could he have gone? And he never went to the parish this early. Dawn was spilling in through the gaps in the wooden window. It draped over the children like a transparent blanket. Outside, neighbours traded greetings and compliments. She entered the kitchen — a small space carved out from the sitting room by a wall of plywood. Rats scurried about in the corner. Akudili did not leave any money on the cupboard. They were supposed to cook today. Did he forget or what? She dug out her phone from the knotted end of her wrapper, but remembering she had no airtime, she slouched on the couch. How she wished the children could sleep a little longer; perhaps, drift into a coma until all this was over. The thought of seeing them writhe under the bite of hunger chafed at something delicate in her.
The children woke up later. In their eyes was a vacant look. The look of someone waking up to realize there was nothing to wake up to. She couldn’t stand it. She had to do something. Mama Caleb! How could she forget the woman in the next block? She’d moved her provision store to the house since the lockdown. But they were just neighbours whose daily conversations did not extend beyond the perfunctory exchanges. She’d often turn up her nose at the way the woman walked with erect shoulders and swinging hips, as if she owned the earth and all therein. God, let her be kind enough to sell to her on credit. Without as much as a glance to the children (who still sat on their mat staring about), she took a large nylon bag from the kitchen and left.
Minutes later she was knocking at the woman’s door. Who was knocking? the woman asked from inside.
“Mama Caleb, it is me, Sorochi, Mama Ejima.”
Approaching footsteps, the clatter of a metal lock, then the door squeaked opened to reveal the 5’4, freckle-faced Mama Caleb. She didn’t do much to conceal her surprised at seeing Sorochi at their door; it stretched her face so that her high cheekbones became prominent, her tiny lips pinched into a straight line.
“I want to buy garri,” she said nervously.
“Please,” Mama Caleb held the open door wider, “come in.”
The smell of slightly burnt fried plantain thickened the air in the sitting room. a sizzling of heated oil was coming from somewhere inside. She asked Sorochi to the seat. The couch was velvety as she sat and secretly stroked her palm on the armrest. The formica table reflected the light streaming in through the louvres. Papa Caleb stepped out from the corridor, little Caleb on his hip. Sorochi curtsied to him. He sat beside his wife. He said they were about to have breakfast could Sorochi join them. She smiled her thanks.
“Actually, I need some cups of garri,” she said. “I will pay once the lockdown is over.” As if to impress upon them, she added, “I just need to get something for the twins.”
The couple exchanged knowing glances. Mama Caleb took Sorochi’s bag and disappeared into the room. The woman came out later with a bagful. Sorochi felt something kick in her chest. She’d not remembered to tell them the amount of garri she could afford. She opened the bag and her mouth dropped: Two small bags of rice and garri, tins of tomatoes, a bottle of red oil, tiny containers of curry and thyme, and other things beyond her eyeshot.
“It’s for the twins,” the man said. “Don’t bother paying. It’s a hard time we’re in and the least we can do is to be there for one another.”
Sorochi dropped to her knees but the woman quickly held her up by the arms. “You don’t have to kneel before us, please, we’re not God,” she said. What Sorochi felt was not so much gratitude as regret for thinking ill of the couple.
Akudili returned late in the afternoon. The children were playing about in the sitting room. He stopped at the doorway, briefly taking in the glee in the hitherto drab house. In his hand was a two hundred naira loaf of bread in black nylon. The children paused in their play. Moving his hand from behind, Ugonna handed Ogechi her doll, their eyes trained on their father. He had once spanked Ugonna’s buttocks for playing with dolls. “Dolls are for girls, not for boys like you,” he told the little boy who couldn’t cry for fear he’d receive another spanking. The toy gun and brick house Akudili bought for him were always with Ijeoma. It worried Sorochi to no end, Ijeoma playing with toys meant for boys, for she feared her only daughter might turn out a tomboy.
Sorochi stood to welcome her husband. Her face twitched with a shivering smile.
“Daddy, we eat and eat plenty food. See … ” Ijeoma pulled up her shirt to display a belly so round and tight a kiss of a needle could puncture it.
“C’mon, pull down your clothes!” Sorochi slapped down her hand. “Don’t you know you’re a girl?”
Smiling, Akudili herded the children towards the front door. “Ngwa, you can play outside,” he said.
Sorochi could tell he was about to attend to a pressing matter. Ijeoma opened the door. Hand in hand the children shuffled out.
“How did the food come about?” he asked once the door was shut. Not waiting for her to answer, he tossed the bread to her and strode into the kitchen. She had left the foodstuff on the cupboard, hoping to show them to him when he returned. “Sorochi!” he shouted. She slouched to the kitchen. Her mind revved for an answer that wouldn’t scotch her husband’s pride.
“Where did you get these?”
She cracked her knuckles. “I bought them on credit from our neighbour. She agreed that I should pay after the lockdown is over.” She held her arm over her face to clock off any sudden swipe of his hand. It was true that he didn’t beat her that often, but sometimes his hands could do things on their own.
“And you didn’t think you should get my permission first?”
“I know but … the children were very hungry. You needed to be here to hear how they were crying down the roof. I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“The children were crying down the roof and the only thing you could come up with was how to disgrace me, okwa ya?”
“Mba-o!” Her hand flew to her mouth in shock.
“Please, don’t say that. You know I can’t do that. I was only trying to help — ”
“Thunder fire that your mouth.” He held a clenched fist in the air and swayed with rage, his upper incisors sank into his lower lip. He dashed out. He returned in the late evening when the children had slept. Sorochi eased herself next to him. She could perceive the odour of trapped sweat on his shirt. She admired this about him: he never struck her intentionally; instead, he’d take a long walk to burn out his anger. She perched a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want the neighbours to notice that the children were crying because of hunger.”
“I am not angry,” he turned to look at the children on the mat. “At least the children slept with food in their stomach. I just don’t like that you had to go to the woman. You know how you women can gossip. I would have gone to the man myself and discussed it man to man.”
“It won’t happen again,” stroking his arm. “So, should I bring your food?”
“Eat which food? Please, let me rest. I’m tired.”
It was 5:30 in the evening. Thirty minutes past the time Akudili usually returned from his work in the parish house. Sorochi’s eyes stayed outside until the sun dipped below the horizon and the fleeting colours of dusk began to fade away to usher in the night. She was gripped by pangs of premonition. The last time Akudili didn’t sleep in the house, he’d returned home in pieces. How could she contact him now when he left his phone on the couch? What would be her fate if something happened to him, a widow with four-year-old twins? God forbid! She shook off the thought. When next she peered outside, the darkness stuck to her face like a thick paste.
Floating between sleep and wakefulness she heard a clicking sound from the door. The lantern was off. She scrubbed at her itchy eyes and squinted her way to the door, hands stretched out before her. “Who is there?” Her voice came out like a crackle in the disquieting silence.
“Open the door, osiso.”
She could not mistake the gruff voice. She reached the door and, groping, unlatched it. He walked in. She threw her arms around his neck and held tightly. She noticed things were weighing down his shoulders. Feeling her way down his arm, she touched two bags in his hands. She smothered the urge to ask him what he was carrying. He seemed tired and the last thing he needed was a nosey wife. He freed himself from her. She heard the door lock. “I don’t know why of all nights it’s this night the police know to patrol our area,” he said, walking into the kitchen. Double thuds of heavy sacks on the floor.
“I thought something bad had happened to you,” she said when he came out.
“I’m fine.” He held her waist and guided her into the bedroom. She let out a short gasp when he yanked off her wrapper. He rested her in the bed like chinaware. He began feeling her up, rapidly, as though starved of her body. His hands, lips, the thing between his legs, ambled through every part of her body — the hills and wells, the plains and gullies, the soft and hard, the wet and dry. What a feeling! Since the robbery incident. She sprawled herself under him and encouraged him with a slightly exaggerated moaning. No sooner did he start to thrust than he dropped on her. Then he slowly heeled over to the other side. She was still horny and wanting more. But Akudili was already snoring. She stuck her fingers between her legs and searched for pleasure where they crammed in abundance.
In the morning she saw what he had brought the night before: two bagfuls of foodstuff, enough to last them for days if not weeks. That day they ate to their fill. Mirth reared up from where it’d been relegated.
Every weekend Akudili continued bringing foodstuff to the house, always late in the night. The late nights frightened Sorochi, but she worried greatly about the source of the foodstuff. She couldn’t find a way to ask Akudili about it without scraping at his temper. So she decided to keep quiet for the meantime.
Things seemed OK in the house. The children did not have to double over in hunger before she could get something to eat. Akudili no longer had a fit. But the beast of suspicion kept growing ever so slowly within her. She knew of only one place her husband could be getting the foodstuff: the pantry in the parish house. He had once complained to her about how the parish priest hoarded foodstuff in the pantry until they spoiled and were thrown away. “He doesn’t even care to share with those working for him,” he said. She tried to explain to him why the priest could not share the foodstuff with ordinary people like them. They were sacred — things sacrificed to God. Only the priests could eat from them. It’s there in Leviticus 22:14: “If anyone eats a sacred offering by mistake he must make restitution to the priest,” she quoted.
Could this be what Akudili was doing, stealing from God? God please, he’s a desperate man. Forgive him. He didn’t know what he’s doing. She feared his punishment would be severe, for he wasn’t just taking them mistakenly; he was stealing them. Confronting him with this would only dust out troubles from where they nested. But she couldn’t just lie about like a python after a heavy swallow, doing nothing.
She had to see the parish priest.
The church had the look of an emerging forest. Grass sprouted from every crack in the walls. Dust covered the paved footpath. Sorochi saw the priest ambling down the path to the sacristy. Twenty-six years a priest, the priest had not lost any vigour of his youthfulness; he walked with the deliberateness of one who knew the importance of each step he took and was bent on giving his best to it. She approached him. He stopped when he sighted her. “Madam Akudili,” he called. The corners of his mouth slid upwards as his eyes sparkled.
She curtsied and stood a mile away from him. Though she didn’t believe the priest had the coronavirus, she feared the priest might not want her to get any closer.
“You’re already missing your husband,” he joked.
She shook her head and said she actually came to see him, the priest. His face collected into seriousness. Hope there was no problem? he asked.
“It’s about my husband … ”
The priest gestured for them to walk. As they started down the path, still keeping a safe distance, she narrated her story, how her husband had been returning home in the middle of the night with bags of foodstuff. “It has been happening for almost a month now and he has refused to tell me anything about the source of the foodstuff.” She paused, and then added rather subserviently, “I was wondering if you know about it so I can at least thank you.”
The priest’s face was scrunched up as though in deep thinking. Hands in his cassock pocket. For a while, they walked in silence. He broke then when they got to the front porch of the parish house.
“You’re a good woman,” he said, steering his gaze to her. “So very few women would do what you’re here to do.” He asked her into the house.
The harsh smell of air freshener rushed into her nostrils as she stepped into the sitting room. She pinched her nose to keep from sneezing, which would raise suspicion in the priest’s mind, what with corona and its many symptoms. The two rotating ceiling fan held two large globes in their belly. They were giving out a bright white light that bounced off the glittering furniture in the room. Elegance shimmered in every corner. On another occasion, she would reach out to check whether the bouquet in the vase on the centre table was live flowers. The priest asked her to a seat.
“Chioma,” he called. A teenage girl popped out from the back door wearing an apron. “I have warned you severally not to enter here wearing that apron,” the priest said.
“Sorry, Father,” the girl mumbled, bending slightly on her knees.
“Tell Mr Akudili that I want to see him here — ”
The girl turned on her heel.
“Come here, I’m not done,” the priest shouted. “Is the catechist still in her office?”
“My friend, stop nodding like a lizard and answer the way a human being should.”
“Yes, Father, the catechist is in the office.”
“Good. Now, tell the seminarian to call her. Let both of them come here at once, you too … and keep that apron in the kitchen.”
His voice had turned gruff. Why was he calling everybody? She thought it would be something between the two of them. Regardless, she tried to wear a casual front. They soon walked in. The catechist and the seminarian, the girl and Akudili. Sorochi hugged herself. You’ve come to disgrace your husband finally, a voice echoed in her head. She tried to shush the voice: she had to do this lest her husband should bring a permanent curse on the family. It was obvious the priest didn’t know about the foodstuff. Meaning Akudili must have been stealing them. She — and only she — had to stop him, to save the family from an imminent curse — with the hope that the curse had not already been released.
“Sorochi … ” Akudili stopped himself, as though suddenly sensing something ominous in the air. Sorochi could hear his uneasiness screaming out to her, asking what she was doing there. But she concentrated on picking out dirt from under her fingernails.
“Sit down” was the only thing the priest said when they greeted him in unison. He turned to Sorochi: “Please, Madam Akudili, could you repeat to the hearing of everyone what you just told me some minutes ago?”
From the corner of her eyes, Sorochi saw Akudili wiggle so that he was sitting on the edge of the seat. She repeated what she told the priest.
“Mr Akudili, is your wife telling the truth?” the priest asked.
“F-father,” Akudili’s voice quivered, “I sometimes return home with foodstuff. But they are — ”
“One at a time,” the priest held up a hand. “Pardon my curiosity, but where did you get the foodstuff from?”
“To say the truth, Father,” he cleared his throat, “I got them from the parish storeroom. But before God and man, I took only the ones about to spoil.”
The priest’s eyes swept through their faces, taking in their surprise as the realization dawned on them. The teenage girl’s hand flew to her mouth. The priest stood. Akudili pulled back into his seat. His chin dropped to his chest like a chastised child.
“Did you hear yourself?” the priest said. “So, you’re telling us that your family has become a dumping ground for” — he made a quotation sign with his forefingers — “‘about-to-spoil’ foodstuff, eh?”
Sorochi’s bladder got heavy. Hot air flooded her chest. Akudili took a glance at the priest. Deep furrows spread across his face. The sight of him sent prickles to Sorochi’s skin. She couldn’t have come here. Better that they had quarrelled and fought in the privacy of their bedroom than this public disgrace.
“I am asking you a question, Mr Akudili.” The priest sat down with such calmness that frightened Sorochi the more; it was as though he’d concluded on a fitting punishment for Akudili. “What you did was stealing, and I’m sure the vigilante will be happy to handle your case.”
There was a collective gasp from those seated. Sorochi fell to her knees. “Please, Father! Have mercy,” Turned to others in the room, “Please help me beg father. It is condition-o.” Her arms splayed.
“Condition, you say?” the priest asked. “You think your husband is the only one with conditions? Every one of us here,” pointing at those seated, “has conditions.” He stood, dug out his phone from his pocket and began swiping over the screen.
Sorochi grabbed the priest by the helm of his cassock, causing him to stumble. She was screaming, “Father, please! For the sake of our little children … ” Sob mounted in her throat, her wild emotions clashing like a flood. The catechist and the girl started pleading to the priest. The seminarian knelt down but said nothing. Sorochi held on to the priest, despite his failed effort to kick her off like a whimpering puppy. Seeing everyone now joined in pleading on their behalf, she couldn’t help the sob that shook her chest that had her gulping for air.
“That’s enough,” the priest shouted. He managed to snatch his cassock from Sorochi. “I have never treated any of you badly to warrant one of you stealing from me.” His eyes were trained on Akudili, who was now sitting on the floor. “Why didn’t you come to ask me? You should have told me that your family is starving. I know I can be harsh but I am not a heartless beast that if you told me about such a problem I wouldn’t help.”
Sorochi sensed a slight shiver in his voice. His eyes misted. His forehead was covered with sweat. Meanwhile, Akudili held his face in his palms. He was obviously hemming in a tremor. But the tremor moved up his body, and his shoulders rocked.
His face kept away from them, the priest made his way out the sitting room. At the door, he said to the girl, “Make sure to lock the door when they leave.” Soon, Sorochi heard a door bang inside.
It was over. She had shattered with her own hand what she was trying to save. The only thing between her and Akudili was an end with rough edges. How could God let things go this way? To whom would she go to, in this lockdown?
From behind a hand rest on her right shoulder. Another hand shoved under her armpit. They pulled her to her feet. She knew the hands. But the weight of guilt held her face down; she could not look at the face of the one who owned the hands.
Featured image: dariodraws on Shutterstock
Oma Almona Davies was a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post throughout the 1920’s. For “A Ring With Rubies At”, we find her collaborating with the iconic post illustrator Tony Sarg to tell a story of romance, robbery, and danger, all centered around a magazine advertisement similar to those found in the Post at the time.
Published on May 10, 1924
Elisha Maice was on his way to kill the Hepple girl. His thoughts were as fiery as his hair, as deep as his blue, green-flecked eyes, as purposeful as the forward jut of his chin.
In amorphous hunch upon the seat of the top buggy, he pestered the horse’s rump with an ineffectual peach shoot while he passionately reviewed the previous half hour of his history. The galling thing was, of course, that he had been yanked upward by the neck scruff at the momentous instant in which he had decided his financial destiny.
For there he had been, a half hour before, with elbows taut upon the warm kitchen table, a 15-year-old man with twelve dollars and seventy-five cents banked in canvas bag upon his bosom, in travail as to whether he would become a cattle king or a hog baron. There had he been when he had rendered final decision in favor of the barony, the superior eagerness of the hog tribe to reproduce its own being the unanswerable argument in its favor. It had been at that climactic moment that Adam had leaped in, ox goad in fist, eyes wild.
“The bull’s outbusted the hind fence! You got to make me an errant. Make quick now!”
And as the potential baron, with hogs teeming by the thousand about him, had sat staring, he had been dragged from his chair, hoisted across the freezing ruts of the barnyard and dumped over the wheel into the top buggy.
“You got to git my girl from Schindler’s to Hoopstetter’s! Make hurry quick! And you fix a dates fur me — you tell her I’m a-settin’ up Saturday night agin!”
Oh, Elisha had protested at mention of the Hepple girl of course! He had started to kick out of the buggy. But Adam had plastered his eighteen-year spread of hand against Elisha’s middle and had pasted him against the seat again.
“Dast you! And you take good care to my girl or I’ll — ” And then, because he was Adam, and Elisha’s mother as well as his brother, he had grinned, rammed a huge paw into his pocket and had flung a dime upon the buggy seat. Then he had run, gripping his ox goad and hallooing to their father, who was already lunging toward the far end of the field.
In the clear flame of his anger against Adam, the bull and the Hepple girl, Elisha saw the problem of his life distinctly. His problem was to put into word and into action the fact that he was a man. Never before had he objected to being Adam’s younger brother — being anything to Adam had been enough. But now that he was being dragged into entangling alliances with Adam’s sticky girls, the relationship, as such, must cease
Here he was on his way — on Adam’s way — to the Hepple girl. He had to get her from her Schindler uncle in the village to her Hoopstetter uncle in the country. Why couldn’t Adam have let Schindler get her to Hoopstetter? And, back of all that, what did she want to come visiting around Buthouse County for anyway? If she was in a factory in the city, why didn’t she stay factor-ing then?
A groan escaped him as he beheld the red top of the Schindler house above its fir hedge.
From Schindlers of assorted sizes and sexes who swarmed into the side yard emerged finally the Hepple girl. She was supported toward the vehicle by a slender male Schindler with thin damp-looking hair. Supported is a carelessly chosen word, however; the young man’s legs seemed scarcely adequate to support his own frame — they gave the impression of being just on the point of swaying from beneath him. He nested his twiglike fingers about the girl’s elbow and she sprang lightly into the seat beside Elisha.
“This here’s Adam’s brother, ain’t? This here’s Elijah Maice, Herbie.”
The Herbie young man flicked an eyelash toward Elisha.
“Elijah, huh? Well, don’t let his ravens get you anyway! And don’t go forgetting your little city cousin while you’re out there among the hog raisers!”
“Oh, ain’t you awful?” giggled the Hepple girl. “Gid dup!” shouted Elisha. “Ain’t he awful yet?” The Hepple girl was the twitchy kind. She twitched at her glove, at a magazine, at the laprobe. “We ain’t relationed together. He just plagues me. He’s Uncle Jacob’s nephew, and I’m Aunt Mat’s niece.”
“Course he’s high educated that way. He’s got a decree, or whatever, at the law. He’s the leading and only lawyer at Heitwille a’ready.”
From the corner of his eye Elisha appraised that she was thin enough to be bounced out by a sizable rut. Suppose he maneuvered the wheels at just the right angle — she wouldn’t land hard, there wasn’t enough to her. Even if he did finally go back for her — if he did — the breath might be jolted out of her so that she’d be quiet anyway. He could see her sitting there by the side of the road.
What he really did see at that moment was another appraising eye. Upon him! A gray eye with an astonishingly black pupil. A pupil astonishingly penetrating!
He raised the reins high and slapped them down mercilessly. Old Bess flipped backward an outrages ear and lunged into a resentful canter. The Hepple girl bounced forward, then back—and settled closer to Elisha.
“Ain’t it kind o’ crispy though, now the sun’s gettin’ ready to set on us?”
Elisha heaved violently to his own corner. He felt the black pupils again turning toward him.
“It wonders me still,” pursued the Hepple girl, and her voice was soft now in meditation; “I thought Adam was sayin’ where he had a little brother. And here you’re a man a’ready. That does now make a supprise fur me.”
“Huh?” Elisha snorted, and was immediately sorry. He had made an iron resolution to suffer in silence his three miles of humiliation.
“Yes, I would guess anyhow! But mebbe he was playin’ off a joke on me. Or else, was you, mebbe, his big brother?”
“He ain’t got but one,” grunted Elisha. He surreptitiously glanced down the length of his arm, flexed its muscles. His secret shame had always been that he was not huge, like Adam!
“Now me, I’m so runty that way,” sighed his companion.
“You are that,” muttered Elisha.
“Course a body can’t help fur their size. But I guess that’s why I always take to big men mebbe.” Elisha shuddered. “Well, and women too. Aunt Mat always says, ‘My, I wisht if I wasn’t more’n two hunert, so I could be stylish like you,’ she says. But I say back always, ‘Well, what does it fetch to be stylish? Look oncet at Cousin Herbie. He might be stylish, but he’s awful skinny. Them kind don’t make nothing with me. I like fur to see ‘em heartier and more, now, comfortable lookin’,’ I says. ‘Comfort yet is what makes with me,’ I says.”
Elisha looked down distrustfully at an extremely pointed shoe slanted upward from beneath the robe. His companion immediately gave a wrenlike nod.
“I know. It looks some squinchy. But it ain’t. I’m just natured to that shape a’ready.”
Elisha again went sharply in search of his breath. What was this he had in the buggy with him anyway? He had never seen such swift reaction, such uncanny divination. He had always thought you had to tell a girl anything twice over before she got it. And here, almost before he had a thought, she was expressing it for him! And that foot now — was it possible that a woman’s foot really did grow into a point? Could it be that a girl did quicken into some strange new thing somewhere along? That she wasn’t just a meager edition of a man, weaker in both mind and body?
He squared heavily about and looked full at the Hepple girl. She twitched lightly about and looked full at him. Her eyelashes rayed out, very black and very long; their tips seemed caught together by twos and threes — caught together — caught — He gasped; his foot jerked heavily upward as though from some entanglement. The jerk pried loose his eyes.
He wouldn’t look at her again. What was the matter with him? A rein dropped from his demoralized fingers. He swooped after it. And as he came up, something slowly pushed his head around so that he looked at her again. Her eyes were still upon him. Her very soft, very red lips parted slowly, slowly curved.
He definitely clutched at anger. He grabbed the peach shoot and sliced blindly. It broke over the dashboard, dangled. He hurled it away and hissed wrathfully after it.
“What you intrusted in?” Should he answer her? “Poland Chinas,” he grudged. “Me too! I do now take to them Oriental things till it is somepun supprising. My, ain’t you up-to-the-minute though?”
“Pigs!” shouted Elisha. “Hogs! Boars!” She was a dopple after all! Didn’t even know Poland Chinas!
She considered. Then she gazed at him, gently forgiving.
“To be sure, pigs. Polish Chinas. But they come from China first off. And if they come from China, they’re what you call it Oriental, ain’t not?”
Each hair upon Elisha’s head rose in fiery curiosity. “China, still? From acrost the oceans over?”
The Hepple girl nodded decisively. “In such ships oncet.”
Elisha pondered this revelation of porcine genealogy. The girl gave a little sigh.
“But, anyways, what does it make? This here is what makes with me: Fur to find somebody where has the same intrusts like what I have a’ready. I do, now, take to such little pigs. I can’t otherwise help fur it. And I would bet, now, you’ve decided to go into pigs!”
Breath-taking! Elisha leaned back somewhat weakly.
“Well, anyway,” he admitted, “I took the prize for Juniors at the Grange two months back a’ready. Twohunert-and-sixty-pound shoat. Ten dollars.”
“Ten dollars still!” gasped his companion. “Since I am born a’ready, I ain’t hearing of nothing so intrusting!” She snuggled closer.
Elisha tipped his cap rakishly. He tossed off, “That ain’t nothing. I’ll git mebbe twenty, twenty-five, more on her yet. Till it comes next week, pop will be loadin’ stock fur the market onto a box car, and I’ll be a-fetchin’ off my share alongside the other — the other men.”
Then said the Hepple girl an amazing thing. “Before ever you was turnin’ in at Schindler’s, I seen it at you. Yes I seen it at you where you was one of the money men of Buthouse County a’ready.”
And she wasn’t joking! He swung upon her quickly to catch her. She was gazing up at him as innocently as a babe, and as helplessly, as helplessly. Her lips were parted as in breathless adoration, her eyes upturned deep pools, into which one might slip — or plunge —
“Whoa!” yelled Elisha, and subdued his steed from a gentle trot to a walk. “Whoa, anyway! What do youse want to make such hurry fur?”
His left side was growing very warm; oh, very! The girl looked bony, but she wasn’t. She flanked him closely, softly, like such a hot- water bottle; or, no, hotter, hotter, like one them mustard plasters now. His heart thump-thumped, thump-thumped. She lay against his heart! He had a sudden conviction, all pain, all pleasure, that he could not move if he tried! He was terrified, he was paralyzed; he had never been so desperately happy in his life.
As though soft veils had been laid over his ears, he heard her voice coming up, coming up, as though from far below: “Yes, well. I guess I would up and give it away if I would ever get such a ten dollars. Yes, I guess I would go to work and make some such inwestment at friendship, like I read off somewheres. And that would be awful silly, ain’t?”
“Yes,” agreed Elisha hoarsely.
Elisha, in fact, was in mood to agree with everybody. A half hour later when Mrs. Hoopstetter swam into the periphery of his bedazzled vision, he agreed with her. Mrs. Hoopstetter, with hairpin antenna emerging from the black coil upon the top of her head, her rounding form incased in black calico with red polka dots, bore an unmistakable resemblance to a potato bug as she ambled toward them from her kitchen door.
“Well, was this, now, Cory Hepple? Ain’t you growed though, since you was a baby a’ready? And if this here ain’t Elisha a-fetchin’ you! Come insides and set along fur supper, Elisha. The Wieners is all made and the coffee’s on the boil.”
Still later he agreed with Cora Hepple when she indicated that he was to sit down beside her upon the settee and to devour with her the magazine which she had carried from the Schindlers’.The name of the publication as it was emblazoned above a polychrome pirate rampant upon its cover was Up to the Minute; and its date was the month previous.
That Miss Hepple was a devotee of literature might have been inferred from the general indication of wear and tear upon the publication; but she disclaimed any tendencies in this direction when Elisha cast a gloomy eye upon it and gloomily shook his head in answer to her question.
“Nor me neither,” she confessed promptly. “I ain’t addicted to readin’ off just one word and then another. That there’s a waste of time, ain’t? But I do sometimes go to work and read what it makes at the adwertisements. Now, fur instinc’, it wouldn’t wonder me none if we was to run into some such pigs over behind.”
Fascinating as were pigs, however, they were not so fascinating to Elisha at that moment as the fingers which were flying in search of them. The lamplight coruscated over the nails which tipped them like they were—well, like they were freshly shellacked, now. He drew his brows as he gazed from them to his own, dull and spatulate, and finally queried bluntly: “What is it at them? Warnish or whatever?”
She looked up at him inquiringly, then laughed softly, tipping up one shoulder, then the other.
“Oh, I’m just natured that way at the nails. It’s fierce, ain’t not?”
“Yes,” breathed Elisha. Pointed feet — shining nails. He slid from her. And why not? It is an awesome experience to discover a new creation.
She uttered a sharp exclamation, laid the magazine flat upon her knees and placed five of her amazing finger nails upon her heart.
“Och, my! That there makes me dizzy at the head! Why, it’s just what I been always dreaming about!”
Elisha looked down at the page. He saw nothing remarkable. “It ain’t nothing but a ring,” he said.
“A ring!” gasped Miss Cora. “A ring with rubies at!” She thrust the publication into his hands. “Read it oncet!”
Above, below and surrounding a particularly angry-looking ring from the stone of which fiery rays darted to the bounds of the column were the words:
STARTLING GEM OFFER
Our exclusive MILLENNIUM RING, known to satisfied thousands. Blue-white stone, perfect cut, set in elegant white-gold cup, surrounded by
CHOICE OF EMERALDS OR RUBIES CREDIT TO OUR FRIENDS This means you!
at $29.50Simply enclose $10.00. Balance $2.50 per week. Our investment in friendship. We take all chances
LIMITED SUPPLY ORDER NOW
Elisha shook his head darkly and handed back the magazine.
“Say, now,” he warned, gazing down at the innocent little creature curled up beside him, “don’t go fallin’ ower this here! It might be some such trick in it. Them city sharpers — ”
But look who it is a’ready! The Old Honest Goldsmith, H. Chadwick, Inc. I’ve knew about Mr. Inc since I was born a’ready. But what does it make to talk?” She spread her ten tiny empty fingers in a gesture of resignation over the piercing rays of the ring. “It ain’t nobody where would go makin’ such expensive inwestments at friendship just ower me! Eut och, my! If anybody up and got me such a ring with rubies at I wouldn’t have eyes for nobody else, it would go that silly with me. I have afraid anyway — ”
But she was not so smitten with fear at that moment as was Elisha. He sprang up, kneecap cracking. His body slanted tensely toward the closed kitchen door, through which a voice was thundering:
“What does he mean by somepun like this anyhow? Lettin’ the cow to milk fur me! It should give a good thrashing fur that one!”
“Your pop!” gasped the girl with lightning intuition.
Elisha did not pause to identify his parent verbally. He was already wresting open a door on the opposite side of the room. He whizzed through the chill dank of a parlor, wrangled a huge brass key at the ceremonial front door and zoomed out into the blackness of a porch.
“I got to go. It’s gittin’ late on me,” he clattered back over his shoulder.
But he had not counted upon the celerity of his hostess. She was there beside him. Even as he landed upon the top step she thrust something beneath his arm.
“Take it along with! We ain’t looked fur them China pigs!”
Elisha had no need to urge upon old Bess that time was the essence of their contract; she had not yet had her supper. She legged off the mile and a quarter between the two farms with such impatience that Elisha had fed her and had bedded both her and himself before he heard a door slammed in paternal wrath beneath him. He lay quivering in the bed beside the sleep-drenched Adam until he heard his father’s footsteps clanking off to their own room; then he nested down with a great sigh.
It was long before the boy Elisha really slept. And yet, was it the boy Elisha who lay taut between the blankets that night, his forward jut of chin thrusting upward into the crisp air, his deep eyes matching the depth of shadow in the room? Had not the boy Elisha gone to sleep, beyond recall, two, three hours before? It was a naked soul, an elemental, at grips for the first time with the most powerful of the powers of the air. For assuredly it was not a man, this skinny thing which had finally much ado to keep from blubbering, from clutching at the big warm Adam and blubbering that he hadn’t meant to do it, he hadn’t meant to take Adam’s sweetheart from him; but she just would have him, she just would!
Between his tossings, as he lay still-eyed, came again and again a memory seemingly detached from all he was thinking and all he was feeling: A long, long time ago when he was six and Adam was nine, the two of them, stumbling down the hill, behind their father, from the new grave under the beeches — Adam clutching his fingers until they hurt and whispering thinly: “You got me anyway! You got me anyway!”
And this was the Adam the was hurting! This was the Adam he was robbing!
He awoke, as usual, to the vigorous rattling of the stove in the room below. Adam did everything, not quickly, but vigorously. No brighter pans than Adam’s in any kitchen of Buthouse County; no straighter furrow in any field. No better corn cakes turned for any table; no cleaner garden patch behind any house. It always had been rather fun to keep house with Adam; it had seemed no woman’s task as Adam had carried it on, with slashing broom and swishing brush.
But today it was no fun. Elisha slunk about, with eyes down. Oh, he was heartbreakingly sorry for Adam!
And yet his heart beat with terrific triumph. Triumph that took him spasmodically by the legs and flipped him into a handspring. Triumph that took him by the wrist and made him shy a hatful of duck eggs, one by one, against the corncrib.
But there was no compromise in him. The jut of his chin was thrust definitely toward manhood — manhood symbolized, curiously enough, by that girl a mile and a quarter distant. A mile and a quarter? A world distant! And time — this was Friday — tomorrow Saturday. Well, Saturday night, then.
Upon his shoulder fell a heavy hand.
“Now, what about Saturday night?” demanded Adam. “Was you tellin’ her a’ready I am keepin’ comp’ny with her Saturday night?”
Like a bronze frog Elisha squatted, motionless. The hand twisted impatiently. Elisha slowly reached for a weed, slowly plucked it.
“It’s somebody else — settin’ up, keepin’ comp’ny — Saturday night,” he brought out. The hand jerked him, dangling slantwise, to his feet.”Somebody else?” roared Adam. “Who else, then? Answer me up now! That sleazy Schindler?”
“She — ain’t sayin’.”
“She better not be sayin’!” gritted the terrific Adam. When he knotted his fist like that the wrist tendons whipped out like live cords. “He’ll git the right to git his neck twisted off fur him.” He stalked away, kicking the clods.
Elisha oozed down upon the ground. He gazed after Adam, then he knotted his own fist and stared down upon his wrist; there were no cords there! Well, maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t interfere with Adam, Saturday night. But at that moment between his young ribs began to creep and whimper an alien thing, a spawn of distemper which was finally to strangle—and strangle—his love for Adam.
Hot of eye, hot of heart, he watched Adam on Saturday night as he bathed in the zinc tub behind the kitchen stove, as he covered his long clean muscles with splendid raiment, as he carefully parted the bronze glow of his hair and carefully curled up the lopside of it over his finger, as he donned his hat with slow deference to this same curl that it might follow the upward tilt of the felt. Adam never knew that when he closed the door upon his festive person, a man with the ache to kill shot to his feet with clenching fist and kicked murderously the leg of the table with the brass toeguard of his shoe.
But — he couldn’t endure it! He cast a quick glance upon his father mumbling over the livestock quotations, raped his hat and coat from their nail and let himself out of the door. Down the lane crisped Adam’s wheels upon the frozen ground; down the lane sped Elisha. He caught the tail of the buggy at last, jerked along agonizedly with it for a moment, then with a mighty heave landed in a clutching heap upon its narrow tail.
Ignominious, of course, jolting along back to back with Adam, the tailboard bruising into his flesh with every rut. But he was going, at any rate; he was getting there!
He got there, and he crouched like a the Hoopsetter wagonshed while Adam blanketed old Bess. Like a mouse scurried to the window of the living room.
There, there she was—upon the settee just as he had held her in memory! The light from the hanging lamp made a nimbus of her dark curling hair. Her little feet, those pointed feet, were tipping gently this way and that. And her eyes, those wide innocent eyes, were also turning, first this way, then that. Upon whom? Upon the male Schindler and upon Adam, upon a disgruntled Schindler and upon a glum Adam with arms upright like stanchions upon his knees. There they sat, the three of them; and outside, loving, hating, Elisha. Outside, feasting, starving, Elisha.
Outside, that was it. Shivering’ for a quarter of an hour, there, outside. With a hard gulp he swung from that window at last. He had determined what he would do. He would do that which he had told himself for two days that he could not do.
He could not do it fast enough now. He lunged into a run, the aroused Hoopstetter hounds in full yelp behind him. The whole universe seemed in clamor. He liked it. It seemed right, considering the momentous thing he was about to undertake.
The house was dark, as he had expected, but he paused for an alert moment inside the door, his ear cocked cannily upward toward his father’s bedroom. Then he tiptoed into the parlor and abstracted from the paternal stock of stationery between the leaves of the family Bible an envelope, a sheet of paper and a stamp. There was no need to withdraw from the lair beneath his own mattress the phrenetic pirate guarding the Startling Gem Offer of H. Chadwick, Inc. Did he not know by heart every syllable of the Old Honest Goldsmith?
Under slowly weaving tongue Elisha composed his first business letter, which for brevity has probably never been excelled in all the annals of financial correspondence:
Heitville Rural F D
Dear sir Mr Inc I send you still ten dollars. You send me Milennium Ring A3035 as per
stricly confidential. With rubies at.
The letter was only the husk of renunciation, of course. He swallowed the bitter kernel when he gazed his last upon the ten-dollar bill which had lain so warmingly above his heart. It dimmed into twice, thrice its size as he bungled it into the narrow white casket of his hopes beside the letter to Mr. Inc.
Well, anyway, the little canvas bag was not empty; it still contained two dollars and seventy-five cents — no, eighty-five, with Adam’s dime. Two fifty for the first weekly payment, and something over. And within the week his father would be back from the stock market. It was all so safe, this investment in friendship in which Mr. Inc took all chances.
What really troubled him as he set out at once on a trot to the mail box at the crossroads — for had not Mr. Inc warned that he had but a Limited Supply? — what really troubled him on that half-mile trip was that he had not been able to accept the Old Honest Goldsmith’s Sacrifice to the Public as set forth upon another full page of the magazine: The Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring; a Constellation of Seven Large Diamonds: Only $49.50, $15.00 down, $5.00 weekly. But, anyway, she had said she liked rubies. He saw again her ten tiny empty fingers spread above the pictorial rays of his ring — her ring — their ring. How surprised she would be when she opened the Royal Purple Plush Gift Case!
He could keep his secret, Elisha could! But he kept it at fearful odds when he sat once more upon the settee and proffered the portentous magazine to its owner.
“And was you findin’ pigs at? Or, mebbe, somepun else intrusting?” she queried softly.
Elisha dug his heel into the carpet and shook his head. But she looked so concerned, so unutterably downcast that he found himself encouraging:
“Not anyways pigs. But I’m a-findin’ somepun else. I’m a-findin’ somepun else yet in that there book.”
She looked up at him quickly. Then she trilled into gratified laughter. “What, anyway?” she whispered. “Tell me oncet!” He could feel the little confiding heap of her against his elbow. He heaved chastely from her.
Entered Mr. Hoopstetter with rattling newspaper and clanking boot.
“Is Maice a-loadin’ his hogs Monday, then?” he queried grossly as he turned up the wick of the lamp. It reads here where the market goes draggy at the soft pigs. I ain’t a-lettin’ mine till the price stiffens at them, that I give you.”
Ominous words over which Elisha might well have felt apprehension, considering that his own financial solvency depended upon the prompt conveyance of his shoat to market! But all he was feeling for the moment was an intense dislike of the Hoopstetters; for Mr. Hoopstetter, who scraped his chair noisily underneath the hanging lamp; for Mrs. Hoopstetter, who ambled in with gingham apron overflowing with woolen socks, a darning needle stilettoed into her bosom.
They were always there, the Hoopstetters. It seemed as though Miss Cora Hepple was the only person in the world who recognized that he was a man.
“You ain’t gittin’ stuck after Cory, ain’t you?” Thus Mr. Hoopstetter with ponderous playfulness during that first week of Elisha’s daily visits.
Oh, yes, sometime during the day or during the evening Elisha managed to cover that mile and a quarter between the two farms. Sometimes he had only the two Hoopstetters to contend with; sometimes he had Adam, sometimes the damp-haired Schindler; sometimes he, Adam and Schindler sat in a jagged semicircle of hate beneath the hanging lamp. But Elisha gritted his teeth and held his place; he was openly in the running; he was shamelessly sure of his position with the lady. He knew that she simply endured the others because she was too gentle to rid herself of them.
If he was sure of the eternal bond between them during the first five days of their acquaintance, he was doubly sure after that. For on the fifth day appeared beneath the rusty tin flag on the Maice mail box, the ring. Be it said in honor of Elisha’s rare restraint that he had it in his possession, in a hot lump, in a cold lump, in the canvas bag upon his chest for a full hour and a quarter before he delivered it. It came in the morning; he would wait until night. But night was an eternity distant; anything might happen; they might both be stricken dead! And with night might come Schindler or Adam or both. He dropped his ax at the woodpile, sauntered slowly under Adam’s eye to the barn and through it, then tore across fields.
Of course, though, somebody had to interfere! Elisha dodging from one door to another of the Hoopstetter domicile, buffed full into Mrs. Hoopstetter as she ambled around the corner of the house.
“Bei meiner seele!” she gasped, rocking tumultuously. “It’s Elisha oncet! But you look some pale, bubbie. Ain’t you anything so well? Did you got a pain at your stummick or wherever?”
Was ever swain in travail to present a love token interrogated as to the condition of his internal organs? Elisha groaned.
Appeared in the window behind him a pink sunbonnet. He cast upon it a glance of despair.
“I see a’ready where I have overstepped myself,” chuckled Mrs. Hoopstetter with obscene mirth. “He has got it at the heart still. Not anyways at the stummick.”
By lover’s guile Elisha abstracted his lady to a position behind the barn, and ensconced her upon a wagon tongue. His fingers, numb with ecstasy, fumbled forth the plush case. The sliding door crashed open behind them. Mr. Hoopstetter strode triumphantly forth, girt with a pitchfork, and bearing a large conical trap in which a small rodent squeaked frenzy.
Elisha rose in stiff-legged rage and retired his companion, squealing delicately, from the arena of slaughter. The animal in his trap could not have felt more baited than did Elisha as he cast a hunted eye about him. The landscape proffered no inviolable shelter; the fields, the flat garden patch behind the house, the family orchard with its leafless trees Toward the orchard strode Elisha with the pink sunbonnet in wake.
Arrived to the rear of these puny trunks, Elisha again brought forth the Royal Purple Plush Gift Case. For five days he had been framing verbal sentiments appropriate for the occasion, but the untoward circumstances of th’ hour and his own overwhelming emotions of the moment choked the words at the thither end of his Adam’s apple. He silently extended the box and leaned back pallidly against an apple tree.
The moment was more satisfying, much more, than he had even anticipated. She gave a little cry, then a gasp, then another little cry. She plucked the ring quickly from the box and slipped it upon her finger. “A ring — with rubies at!” she breathed; and kissed it!
She flung toward him and reached up her arms. Elisha backed blindly. He took one of her hands and shook it earnestly. She looked up at him, puzzled, a red curl swirling up into her cheeks. She laughed, as though uncertain what to do next; and stood, turning the ring this way and that.
“Ain’t it is wonderful? And such a supprise on me! Och, my! Since I am born a’ready, I ain’t seeing such a grandness!”
Elisha said nothing. He merely looked, his hand at his throat. It was his moment. Nothing would ever take it from him. He would see it always as he saw it then: The trees with their limbs naked in their sleep, and beneath them the girl, vivid, quivering, a slender lance of life, twisting this way and that upon her pointed toes, her bright glance flashing from him to the red stones upon her finger.
“My, ain’t you the swell feller though! And the good guesser yet! I was wishing long a’ready fur a ring with rubies at. It will git me proud to my head, I have afraid, anyway!”
When at last Elisha found himself treading the impalpable air toward the rear of the house, he halted her abruptly at the garden gate.
“Look here,” he panted, his greenflecked eyes upon her, “you leave me be your steady friend. Youse won’t be leavin’ them other two set up by you no more, ain’t not?”
The girl went slowly through the gate and faced him across the pickets. “Well, this here is how it goes with me. I am softhearted that much that I can’t, just to say, go sassing them off. Herbie he’s my cousin — from — marriages that way; and Adam he’s your brother, ain’t not?”
“No!” shouted Elisha, and added with dizzy penitence: “Anyways if he is, he ain’t no more.” He plucked at her sleeve as she turned from him. “But pass me your promise, anyways, where you ain’t travelin’ with him to the Ewangelical picnic. Nor with Schindler neither. Pass me your word you’re goin’ with me and not nobody else. Till it comes Saturday a week?”
“Saturday a week?” she mused, chewing the string of her sunbonnet. Then she laughed suddenly. “That I will oncet. I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with and I’ll come home with. I pass you my promise on that!” She glanced over her shoulder, twisted off the ring and clapped it into her pocket. “There’s Uncle Willie!” she whispered. “And this here’s our secert! Just us both two together! Ain’t not?”
For, of course, a Hoopstetter had to churn across that ineffable moment. Mr. Hoopstetter, angrily sideswiping at the ends of his mustache with his side teeth, crossed the back yard toward the tool house. He was carrying the large glass bowl of the hanging lamp.
“Such a wear on the coal oil!” he groaned loudly. “Sooner I git it filled, sooner it goes empty on me agin! I will give them mealymouths dare fur to pack their own oil along, that I will oncet!”
“Sh-h-h!” pierced Mrs. Hoopstetter from the kitchen door.
Scratching exultant ribs, Elisha hurdled homeward. She was going with him to the great social event of the year, the Evangelical Sunday-school picnic! Arm in arm they would parade all day, to the bitter envy of Adam, Schindler and other desolated suitors! And after that, there would be no question as to whom she belonged to; she would be sealed to him and to him only! As he vaulted the last fence he saw Adam swinging his discarded ax. After all, good old Adam! Poor old Adam!
Adam spoiled it all. Leaning upon the ax handle he smiled under frowning brows. “I’m a-goin’ to work and thrash you one if you don’t stop pesterin’ my girl. Now mind it! And here’s somepun else: You got to stop follerin’ me nights or I’ll give you a shamed face in front of her, for I’ll go to work and lay youse ower my knee yet. What do you conceit you are, anyhow, carrot-top? A man a’ready?” Elisha’s eyes darkened from blue to black. His shoulders drew stiffly upward; he lowered his fiery young head like a young bullock and dived straight for his brother’s middle. A second later he was being held at arm’s length like a helpless manikin. He saw haze. He hissed and drooled.
“Why!” gasped Adam. “Why!” He dropped Elisha. “Poor little brat!” He stared at him in amazed comprehension.
Poor! Little! Brat! Each one an insult. All three, a triple insult.
“I hate you!” stifled Elisha. “I — hate you!”
He did. From that moment he hated Adam as fiercely as he had loved him. And he hated most the things he had loved most — Adam’s strength, his good looks, his kindness.
The hate swelled within him as the slow hours of that day passed until it seemed that it was all of him, that there was room for nothing else. But there was. There was room for active apprehension. It was his father who introduced the new agony.
Maice Senior was a stern, silent man. Silent Silas, the county called him. His tongue muscles might have grown flabby had he not exercised them nightly over the newspaper. He invariably read aloud, mumbling the news, droning the quotations. He read even the quotations which did not financially concern him, such as Drugs and Dyes, Metals, Hides and Leather, Turpentine and Oils. He usually fell asleep midway of Turpentine and Oils, awoke strangling, blew his nose and went off to bed.
This night Elisha, somberly hunched over the stove with his back toward the others, would have been oblivious of anything unusual, had not Adam suddenly clanked down the tools with which he was half-soling Elisha’s shoes and inquired in a strange voice: “What was that now? Was the hogs fell agin?”
Mr. Maice droned again: “‘Slow, mostly 25 to 50 cents lower. Packer top $6.10. Shipper top $6.00. Packing sows, fairly active, $5.25. Few fat pigs, steady, around $5.25.’”
Adam did not take up his tools. After a moment he ventured: “Then you wouldn’t, mebbe, be a-loadin’ them — this week?”
Mr. Maice snorted grimly and shook his thick grizzled thatch. He adjusted his paper and started upon Hides and Leather.
Still Adam’s tools remained silent. Elisha turned startled, bloodshot eyes toward his father and shrilly challenged forth his one remark of the evening: “My shoat’s Packer Top, $6.10!”
“Wet Salted Markets Finn,’” intoned his father. “‘Skins Stronger. Tallow Markets Easier. Take off of. Butcher Pelts steady —’”
Elisha slept little that night, not at all in the early hours. How could he, with insolvency pressing upon him, blacker than the night about him? Soon, horribly soon, his first weekly payment would be due. He clutched at the canvas bag beneath his nightshirt and tried to imagine that it still contained two dollars and eighty-five cents. But it did not. It contained one dollar and sixty cents. Yet he could not regret the red tie and the red-striped socks which had so devastated his hoard. Had she not said she liked red? He could even, in that sorry pass, have laughed aloud at Adam. Adam had recently purchased a green tie and a hat with a green band. Oh, yes, he was hating Adam as he lay there! He lay on the edge of the bed; he would not have touched Adam’s body for the world; he had even considered sleeping in the barn. He started at a voice in the darkness: “Say, give me the lend of that there ten dollars, wouldn’t you? Just till pop goes comin’ back from the hogs?” Elisha lay taut. “No,” he finally brought forth. Adam tossed restlessly. “Aw, now, say!
Leave me git the lend of them ten dollars and I’ll put a dollar or whatever to it.” Silence. I’ll swaller back what I said about my girl, all, if that’s what’s eatin’ you. I give you dare fur to tag me to Hoopstetter’s ower.”
His girl! Tag him! Elisha projected his outraged self perilously over the edge of the bed. “Take another guess if you think it!” he sliced. “I guess youse couldn’t git nothing off a poor little brat’!”
He lay in tremble. For a few moments he heard nothing, felt nothing, tasted nothing, but his own bitter words. He was tense for Adam to speak again. Adam did not. That hurt.
He was surprised that Adam, also, was in financial straits. But it was easily accounted for. Adaam had purchased the top buggy a week after the girl had twinkled into Buthouse County upon her amazing little feet. Adam had gotten the buggy for the girl; and now he had gotten the girl from Adam. After all, poor old Adam! He began to hate hating. Loving, now, you just couldn’t help; it just came. But hating tore you. And yet you couldn’t stop.
There he was; and the fun was all gone during the days that followed. And yet he had never been so fiercely happy in his life. Fiercely, that was it, when he was with the girl.” I do now take to you that much! she would say; and Elisha would shiver hotly down his back. But away from her, that was different; away from her, fumbling at the limp bag and speculating as to how long the unknown Mr. Inc would be willing to take all chances; away from her, harking with smitten ears to the evening reports of a dropping hog market; away from her with a strange alienated Adam stumping glumly about house and field. Gone the martial slash of broom and shovel and brush and ax; gone the banter with which Adam the resourceful had imparted a tang to life. “It’s time fur to milk the milk!” he was used to yodel as he swung the pail from its high hook and tossed it to Elisha. Now Elisha reached for it in silence, in silence filled it and in silence slopped with it to the spring house.
Once he slanted his tormented forehead against the rough red pelt of the cow, bruised it there, as he thought that he would give anything, even the girl, if he could only tack back to the old happy days with Adam. But that was a black thought, treacherous to the girl; he knew it that night when she took the ring from her pocket, slipped it on and murmured: “My, I do now set awful store by this tony ring! And mebbe I ain’t settin’ store by youse, too, Elisha!” The rapture of the moment was chilled for Elisha by a curious defection of his eyesight. Glancing down upon the jewels he saw them as green instead of red.
“Why, what is it at them?” he stammered.
Miss Hepple giggled, thrust her fingers into her pocket, twisted from him, and a moment later the rubies flashed before him. “Was you blind or whatever?” she twitted him.
Mr. Inc did not keep him long in suspense — or did he only deepen his suspense? The Old Honest Goldsmith began to use stationery recklessly. Elisha, cannily meeting the mail carrier a full quarter mile from the house, had delivered into his prescient fingers once, twice, thrice, typewritten statements and letters from which emanated a chill formality lacking in the initial correspondence between them.
Stumbling homeward with the latest of these documents, Elisha read and reread the ominous statement: “If the obligation is not paid forthwith, we will take such other and further steps as may be necessary to protect our interests in the matter.” How long was “forthwith”? What would be the “steps”? Elisha sagged down under some sumacs to consider these momentous questions.
He was presently distracted for a moment. At a point where the mail man’s circling detour rejoined the main road Elisha saw Adam striding forth to meet the gig.
He was handed something; he went slowly up the road, head down. Was Adam, too, hailing the mail man surreptitiously?
Elisha returned home by way of the Hoopstetters’. His sojourn under the sumacs had yielded a single forlorn possibility. If it failed, ruin was upon him. But if he could get possession of the ring and return it in hasty loan to the importunate Mr. Inc, would not the jeweler be appeased until such time as he could redeem it? If he could.
But he couldn’t. He saw that at once when Miss Cora Hepple clapped her hand over her pocket and backed from him. “I’m that fond fur it, I would up and die if I was to lend it away!” she informed him.
“Just till it comes next week!” Elisha pleaded desperately. He shifted heavily from one foot to the other, then made terrific compromise with Fate: “Give me it oncet, and I’ll change it off fur the Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring. Seven large diamonds. Forty-nine fifty still.”
This gave Miss Hepple pause. Her red little mouth quirked, considering. “I tell you,” she confided, “I give you dare fur to borrow it at the picnic. Or was you, mebbe, fergittin’ to remember I was keepin’ cornp’ny with just only youse that day?
Was he forgetting? But — the picnic was still six days distant!
Under the barn rafters that afternoon, upon the haymow, he composed another frantic letter to his creditor. Adam’s voice came from below.
“Say, pop, market’s up a quarter cent. And the agent at the freight says we could git a empty box car off the siding. I could go drivin”em in this after; and youse could start behind daylight tomorrow. He says. Where he’ll go hookin’ the car at the freighter where pulls through at four of the A.M. The market might go to work and fall on us agin if we go waitin’.”
Elisha stiffened with his held breath. But he could hear only a discouraging mumble. Ordinarily in the Maice family that would have ended it. “But,” Adam’s voice whanged nervously, “we’re just throwin’ good corn into them! We’re a-losin’ at them day after day. We could git — ruined over them!” This last held the crack of hysteria. There was silence.
Even hating Adam as he did, Elisha could not forbear a grudging admiration. No one had ever stood up to his father like that. But — ruin! And Adam didn’t know, and his father didn’t know, how closely the ugly word was hovering over the peak of the haymow at that moment. It all depended upon the time in which Mr. Inc would take those portentous steps as to whether Elisha would be crushed beneath them or not.
And yet he did not recognize the steps when he finally heard them approaching. They approached, in fact, upon wheels. Three afternoons later when he was cleaning the stalls, he heard an increasing roar, then a series of dying bangs. He ran to the door.
The male Schindler throned in the barnyard in his small automobile. Adam stood rigid, shovel in hand.
The visitor was exaggeratedly slow as he unbuttoned his overcoat, unbuttoned his coat, felt in one inside pocket and then the other, and finally pulled forth a long envelope. No judge upon tribunal ever looked down upon the docks with more implacability than did Mr. Schindler as his gaze swept from Adam to Elisha.
“I have here a certain legal dokiment which authorizes me to replevy two certain properties described as follows and to wit in this here letter which I hold at the present minute in this here hand.”
He paused and again surveyed his quarry with judicial omnipotence.
Adam shook his shovel. “Git it through, then! But speak it in English!”
The visitor stiffened and scowled. “The H. Chadwick Company, Inc., has up and constituted me their attorney-at-law and as such I hereby make demands upon you and each of you for delivery of the possession of said two rings for which you have failured to comply with the contracts you have entered into with said company a’ready. And as aforesaid I now make demands for the conveyance to me of those two certain properties known and described in said letter as rings.”
“Rings!” roared Adam. “I ain’t never bought no two rings! If your bum comp’ny goes a-tryin’ to git any two rings off me, they’ll git their heads busted off fur ‘em. I went and bought a ring, yes, that much I give you. But I ain’t got it by me and I can’t git it, and that’s all to it.”
“There’s two defendants in this here action,” intoned Schindler imperturbably, “and they’re specified in this here interment as Elisha James Maice and Adam Charles Maice. And if you failure to yield up said rings into my possessions herewith, I will require you and each of you to pay me a large attorney’s fee all of which is provided for in said contracts — ”
He stopped, mouth open, and gazed upon his disrupted audience. At mention of their respective names, Adam had whirled toward the pallid Elisha.
“Look here!” he said hoarsely. “You ain’t up and bought no ring! Answer me up now! You ain’t bought no ring!”
Elisha wriggled futilely under his stout hand. “I guess I had dare to buy it if I wanted to,” he said stubbornly.
Adam took his breath on a hissing intake. “You little dopple! Give it up, then!” He shook him. “Give it up! He’s got the right to lawyer it off you!”
Elisha’s throat was beginning to hurt. “I can’t,” he choked. His agonized glance flew involuntarily toward the Hoopstetters’.
“It ain’t — there?” demanded Adam. “She — she ain’t took — a ring — off you?”
Adam’s hand fell. He, too, gazed for a silent moment toward the Hoopstetters’; and in that moment faith, hope and even charity died from his face.
He walked slowly toward the machine. “We got the two rings all right,” he remarked heavily. “But we ain’t got ‘em by us. They’re ower by — Hoopstetter’s.”
The papers crackling ostentatiously between the legal fingers lowered suddenly. The legal person himself metamorphosed before their eyes from the leading and only lawyer in Heitville to a Herbie young man with weak, very damp-looking hair.
“You don’t mean —Hoopstetters’? “he fumbled. His incredulous eyes wavered from Adam to Elisha. “Why, it ain’t true! I know it ain’t true! Why, she told me she ain’t got but one—and you never give her that!” He clutched at dignity, at authority. “Get in here!” he commanded. “We will see oncet!”
In the Hoopstetter lane Mrs. Hoopstetter was ambling about a small, freshly started bonfire, prodding it with the handle of a defunct broom. As the equipage with its freight of young masculinity ground to a stop beside her she chastely thrust further within the wreckage a pair of pink stays.
“Was you comin’ from seein’ her off, then?” she greeted them.
“Off?” squeaked Herbie. “Off?” bellowed Adam. Elisha merely formed the 0. Mrs. Hoopstetter reared back in amazement. “To be sure, off. Back on the trainroad to Stutz City. But ain’t she tellin’ youse? She had got only leave or what you call it fur two months. So, when her off was all, back she had got to go to the fact’ry agin. But, my souls” — her jovial gaze swept from one to the other of the stricken faces in the car —”don’t do it to go takin’ it so hard now! I ain’t a-crying none, nor neither is mister yet.” Mrs. Hoopstetter leaned like an oracle upon her staff and thus cryptically spake: “There’s comp’ny, that I give you; and then agin, there’s other comp’ny. Some such you cry somepun ower; and then agin, some such others you ain’t.” She turned and jabbed at a phrenetic pirate, who, though the flames were licking about him, still breathed polychrome defiance toward the faces above him.
“But — she can’t be gone!” gibbered the demoralized Herbie. “Why, she was going to the picnic with me!”
Adam leaped from his seat. “With you? I guess anyhow not!” He jerked, glowering, toward Mrs. Hoopstetter: “When did
she went, then?”
“Well,” calculated Mrs. Hoopstetter,
“I guess it was, mebbe, ten minutes back a’ready, or either eleven. The hired man packed her to the water tank where you make that way with the flag. Yes, mebbe you could ketch it, Herbie, if you make hurry plenty. But it does now wonder me terrible why she ain’t — ”
What she wondered was lost in the startled whir of the engine. But one remark was made during the journey. “She’s takin’ on water,” Schindler gritted as they whirled through a covered bridge and caught sight of the water tank, and at its base a huge dun caterpillar in three segments. Schindler was once more the stern exponent of the law; his fragile machine fairly careened under the weight of his Jovian frown.
Elisha numbly shunted his legs from the car and numbly followed the others around the end of the train. His middle went limp when he saw her. He knew she could explain; he had not lost faith in her for a momerit. She was leaning out of an open window; her head was turned from them; she was talking animatedly to the conductor.
“I should guess I ain’t from these here jaky parts! To see that, I guess it wouldn’t take no dummy. And, say, mebbe youre think I ain’t glad to git back where it makes more lively.” She saw them, then; at least she saw two of them; Elisha could not drive his wretched self forward. He saw her clap smitten fingers to her face. He saw Schindler grab his papers from his pocket and wave them before her. He saw her red lip curl back over her teeth—but it was not the smile he knew. And after moments he heard her—or did he hear her? — those strident tones!
“The law on me yet! I never heard the likeness! For just only takin’ such presents that way! Ain’t you the smarties, though? Well, I ain’t givin”em back, and that’s flat enough plenty!”
A red flag of defiance shot through her cheeks; but her eyes blinked with fright. They flew desperately toward the engine.
The conductor laughed. Others began to laugh. Heads appeared in windows, projected out from the platforms. Elisha could not bear it. He sprang forward.
“Don’t fault her none!” he choked. “I give it her fur keeps!”
Adam swept him back with a powerful arm.
If she saw him she gave no sign. Her trapped eyes swept him impersonally as they darted this way and that. Her knuckles clenched stubbornly against the window ledge. Then with one of her swift gestures she stripped.a ring set with rubies over a burnished nail, stripped a ring set with emeralds over another burnished nail, and dropped them like hot coals into Schindler’s upturned palm.
The antiquated engine gave a snort, ending in a long sigh. The train shuddered. The conductor with a cry of warning sprang upon the step.
“Here, you!” yelled Herbie Schindler. “That ain’t all! You give up that there other! My ring!”
He sprang toward the steps. The conductor sternly shouted him back. He ran along by the side of the moving train, screaming incoherence. From a window waved a hand with shining nails, and upon it a Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring. Schindler backed toward the tank, staring vacantly.
“Forty-nine fifty! In a lump! Forty-nine fifty yet!’
They all stared vacantly at the train as it puffed angrily from them. No one moved. No one spoke. They scarcely breathed. The tension grew, and grew terrific.
Emotions wound and tangled — tighter — tighter.
Schindler rasped in with a grinding swing of his heel and a scratchy laugh: “The little feist! I’ll fetch her yet and twist her that ring off! The skinny little devil!”
Elisha turned glassy eyes upon him. He slowly swelled; he slowly hunched. He lunged toward the legal ribs, striking out with both fists.
Schindler staggered; then with a backswipe of his long arm cut Elisha to the ground. With a roar Adam was upon him. They went down in tight crash.
They clenched and rolled there below the water tank. Elisha wound his arms tautly about his body and danced round and round them. He plucked at them, at Adam and at Schindler; he ached to be wedged between them, battering and being battered.
It was over in a minute, of course. Schindler was no match for Adam. Adam got up and stared down at the other.
Schindler waved his arms like feeble antenna and swayed to his feet. He felt of his nose, of his forehead. His fingers cruised his pockets. Adam whipped out a bandanna. “Here, the,” he said.
Schindler took it and mopped his forehead. He smiled, and looked down. Adam smiled, and looked down. Without another word they turned toward the machine.
But Elisha had had no relief. He made little whimpering sounds like a small animal in pain. He walked crookedly and he walked past the car.
Adam grabbed him and hoisted him into the tonneau. The fields seemed to tip up on either side and to make a dim funnel through which they rushed.
But it seemed to him afterward that Adam had reached out and had clutched his fingers until they hurt. It seemed to him he had heard him whisper thinly: “You got me anyway! You got me anyway!”
They got out. But the machine hesitated. The legal gentleman, with a red lump hoisting his damp hair in the exact middle of his forehead, hesitated. He looked down earnestly at Elisha.
“You know, there’s a proviso in those contracts. It says you can return the goods and select anything else from their catalogue. That’s fair enough. There’s watches and pens and things, I might, mebbe, hold onto them rings for a few days
Elisha walked on into the barn. He turned round and round in an empty stall and looked at it as though he had never seen it before.
Yodeled a voice behind him: “It’s time fur to milk the milk!”
Elisha for the first time failed to catch the pail as Adam tossed it to him. But it rolled with such grotesque purposefulness to his very feet that he smiled — crookedly.
Featured image: “I have here a certain legal dokiment which authorizes me to replevy two certain properties.”
Illustrations by Tony Sarg
Two days after closing on our first home — a classic farmhouse in rural New Hampshire with a large plot of unused, fertile land out back — and my belly a month away from popping, Charles lost his job at the bank.
“How can we afford anything?” he asked, our room packed and bare the night before the movers were to arrive. His eyes fluttered with mortgage payments, utilities, upkeep, hospital bills, and food.
“We have a savings,” I reassured. “And my dad won’t let us starve.”
For the rest of the night, he pretended to be asleep even though I felt his anxious legs twitch beneath the covers, his shallow breath and restless shoulders cold against the pads of my fingers.
The next morning, he stumbled into the kitchen with eyes sunken, dark and pained. Charles blamed it on nightmares and because I said nothing, he assumed I believed him.
We said goodbye to our one-bedroom apartment just outside of the city. We lived on the second floor of that boxy place for three years and had experienced a proposal, a wedding, and the news of our little boy.
“We need a bigger home,” Charles said one day, and I agreed, and later that year with the help of his bank, our wish-and-a-prayer offer got accepted for the farmhouse.
The bulky movers lugged boxes into the hall and down the steps. Their sweat soured the air like an unbrushed mouth. With the walls empty of art and flowers, it seemed like no one had ever lived there, that no one could ever live there, and so we closed a chapter of our lives without any fanfare.
Charles drove behind the moving van checking their speed and paying attention to turn signals. A man of numbers, of order, of precision, should the hired help step out of line, I feared he would phone them for discounts and refunds as a temporary fix to his out-of-work status.
But they were professionals and did no wrong. Boxes and furniture inside by three in the afternoon, I tipped the movers in cash while Charles roamed the yard, and off they went. The baby kicked and our new life together officially began.
The field behind the house spread into the horizon, far too big for any one family. I imagined rows of corn stalks, of wheat, hay, and vegetables. Shades of green to compliment the blue skies and white clouds. So much potential, so much beauty. Along the edges, a hand-built stone wall marked the property lines with our closest neighbor whose big red barn glistened under the sun. Branches from the trees in our front yard swayed in the breeze giving the birds a reason to chirp. The land felt alive, and quiet, and still.
I spotted Charles shooing away a dog, a brown and gold mutt traipsing around the rear entrance to our home.
“Must be the neighbor’s,” I said.
“Git!” Charles said, flailing his arms, but the dog continued to sniff unbothered. A man in large overalls and dirty boots stepped out of the shining red barn and waved hello. He wiped his hands on a towel pulled from the front pocket of the overalls and stepped over the stone wall.
“Sorry ‘bout ’im,” the farmer said. “He’s prolly lookin’ fer the old owners. Name’s Stanton. Bob Stanton.” Bob held out his hand and Charles shook it, then palmed the back of his jeans.
“Good people?” I asked.
“Kept mostly to themselves, but pleasant nonetheless. Where y’all from?”
“Boston,” Charles said.
“Proper, or burbs?” Bob asked. He tucked his hands into the front pocket and rocked from heel to toe. His body was an enormous thing, as though peeling back skin wouldn’t reveal bones, but boulders.
“Burbs,” Charles said. He said it like he missed it, and my heart shrank at the idea that I had done this to him, forced him into a life he didn’t want.
“Scooter here means no harm,” Bob said, nodding at the mutt. “Gentle beast. Curious thing. When are you due?”
“Soon, maybe three weeks,” I said. I folded a palm over my belly, warmed.
“Havin’ rugrats puts it all in perspective. Got three myself. Gonna be a grandad ’fore the years up. A young stud like me, a grandad! Ain’t that a thing!” He whistled for Scooter, but the dog sat down and eyed Charles.
“If we need anything, we’ll let you know,” Charles said in the tone he used when ushering clients out of the bank. He turned to the mutt. “Go, go with your master.”
“Word to the wise, sweet-ums,” Bob said, nodding at me. “Be careful. Something about the land, the water maybe, can’t say for sure but the previous owner was set to pop three different times. Never made it to one.”
I looked at Charles and Charles’s face reddened. The stillness of the land, the eclipsing beauty, it didn’t seem possible, but I had no reason to doubt Bob as he lumbered back to his plot whistling to the birds. Scooter watched Charles pace and wagged his tail whenever my husband got close.
“Guess we have a dog now,” Charles said. Saying it out loud made him laugh, and when he laughed, I laughed, and just like that all was right in the world.
The next day, Charles went into town to apply for jobs. A small community with one bank, a newspaper, a library, and one restaurant, the odds were low that he’d come home happy. Fiercely hot, the sun cooking the green grass yellow, I allowed Scooter inside and gave him a bowl of cool water from the tap. He sniffed around, probably seeking the old owners, and then lapped from the dish.
I put plates and flatware away in the kitchen wiping each piece down with a small yellow hand towel given as a wedding gift. That day had brought together our families, our friends, and the promise that life was a shared celebration. Thinking back on it made me feel that our little boy might grow up happy.
The kitchen took up half of the downstairs. Natural edge counters ran the walls into stainless steel appliances. Scooter wandered into the living room, sniffed the blue couch and loveseat, circled into the dining room checking beneath the table stacked with boxes, and stopped to peer upstairs. The bristles of his neck rose and his tail shot out straight. His mouth pulled into a snarl with large canines catching the daylight. He growled once, then looked at me with innocent eyes, then back up the stairs with another short warning. Then, he came back into the kitchen to nap.
I went to the stairs and looked up unsure of what I might find. A window screen in the bathroom vibrated with the wind and I reasoned it to be what Scooter had heard. The bedrooms on either side had creaky floors and I told myself that a person walking or an animal scraping would have been more pronounced.
Before I met Charles, I was attacked in my own home. A man followed me to my apartment after a shift at the car dealership my father owned. For years, I worked everything from receptionist to financing, to payroll, and one day a man came in asking about me.
“Does she need a man?” he asked, and my brother Duggy told him to beat it unless he planned on buying a car. When he came back the next day, Duggy said, “Do you know Julie or something?” The guy smiled and said “Julie, is it?” That night, the man shouldered through my door and put his hands around my throat and said he loved me and to take off my clothes. I fought him away and Duggy, who lived in the downstairs apartment, heard the commotion and showed up with a handpiece keeping him there until the police arrived.
The man was just a creep, which I know is minimizing the situation, but my father always said I was as tough as I was beautiful. That idea kept me going. It made me look at life through a different lens though, and when I met Charles, I thought here’s a guy that thinks about everything, considers possibilities. Nothing gets by. His anxious habits will keep us safe. And they did. And I fell in love. And while he knew about the incident, he didn’t know that my father keeps me on the payroll out of guilt and I have enough money tucked aside to last us two years.
Kitchen boxes unloaded and broken down into flat slabs of cardboard, I sat on the couch with a sweating glass of ice water and stared into the dark reflection of the unplugged TV. Scooter moped in and flopped to the wooden floor. The baby kicked and I considered calling Charles about the mutt’s odd behavior, but I didn’t want to stress him out more than he was. Instead, I called a company that checks for mold and they were out within the hour scraping black flecks from the vents inside the central air ducts.
“That’ll do it,” the first guy said, peeling off rubber gloves and pushing his facemask to his chin. “Glad you thought to check on those.”
“What’s your name?” the second guy asked. The question wasn’t friendly. “Can you get me a glass of water?”
Scooter leapt up barking and both men jumped. The gravel driveway crunched under the wheels of Charles’s car and I watched my husband step out of the driver’s side, hair askew, dark sweat stains blotching the pits of his blue button-up. His body looked thin, withered, dehydrated.
“That your man?” the second guy said. He smirked. The stench of their sour sweat swirled into the room pushed by the cool central air, the smell of physical labor.
“What’s with you?” the first guy said, shoving his partner. He pointed. “In the van. Let’s go. Sorry, miss.”
“Missus,” I corrected, and the guys both held out their hands in apology.
They left and nodded hello at my husband as they passed in the driveway. Charles watched them go.
“We can’t afford contractors,” he said. He didn’t say hello.
“Free of charge,” I lied. “Our inspector sent them.”
“Oh,” Charles said. Scooter wagged his tail and received a head scratch from my husband. “Country life is going to take some getting used to. Guess he’s ours now?”
“Guess so,” I said.
Charles cooked a pasta dinner measuring out the water, salt, sauce, and butter. He told me about the town, how he felt like a foreigner talking to people, how he considered extending his job search to new towns in the surrounding area.
“Something’s got to be out there,” he said, staring into his untouched plate of food. I asked him to eat, and he ate, and a glimmer of life returned to his eyes.
The sound woke us, the midnight of the land squeezing our sight into malformed shapes in the worried panic of sleeplessness. Scooter stood at the top of the stairs peering into the dark barking so hard that the yips squealed at their ends. He growled and snapped, loaded his weight on his hind legs and hung his head low.
“Do you think he hears something?” Charles asked. He scrambled for his phone and dialed 911, the glow turning his face ghostly and pale. “Yes, our dog is barking and I think someone is in our home.”
I listened for signs of intrusion — the creak of a floorboard, the sour stench of sweat, whispered voices plotting harm — but found only the crickets and distant owls of the New Hampshire fields. The baby kicked, and I tried to slow my breathing.
Scooter barked, growled, and snarled at the dark until Charles rose from bed telling me to stay put and joined the dog at the top of the stairs. They peered into the first floor together. All was quiet and still. Suddenly, Scooter snapped out of it and laid down on the cool wood sniffing Charles’s thin, bare legs.
“Hello?” Charles called. “We’ve phoned the police! They’re on their way!”
We listened for a reply. Only silence. The farmhouse creaked and settled. It sounded like walking if I wanted it to, but I knew the truth. Faintly in the distance like a feather caught in the wind, we heard Bob Stanton weeping, the sound coming from his big red barn gone gray under the shine of the moon.
The police arrived with flashing blues so bright, they rippled across the silent fields into the horizon. Charles spoke with them about the mutt’s behavior and the police took notes, told us to call if we noticed anything unusual in the morning. Charles asked about Bob Stanton and how we heard the sound of crying, and the small-town police said it was the anniversary of his wife’s death and how none of his kids had come to visit. The officers left and all was quiet again, the type of quiet that hurts the ears, a screaming silence so thick it’s maddening. We didn’t sleep and eventually the sun broke over the hills to usher in the day.
Charles didn’t want to leave me alone, so he spent the morning outside gathering wildflowers for a bouquet. I watched from the wooden porch; my eyelids heavy. Bob waved from his land and I waved back feeling sorry for the lonely man. He made his approach and Charles spoke with him by the drive.
“Perfect season ta’ grow,” Bob said, nodding at the garden beds near the bulkhead. “Work with your hands, I’ll show yas how.”
“Maybe later,” Charles said, and then went inside to wash his hands, put on a new shirt, and make some phone calls about potential employment. Scooter brought Bob a large stick and the man tossed it into the field for the dog to bound after. He nodded at me with a tight-lipped smile and headed back to his yard.
“Tell me about her,” I said. “Your wife, what was she like?”
Bob stopped cold, his profile hanging over his stone shoulders.
“Loved ’er like the crops love a rainstorm in July,” he said. “Had ’er issues, but don’t we all?” He pointed at our land, to the garden beds, to the long stretches of grass around the porch. “Soil needs to be tilled. Land’s gotta breathe, same as the rest of us. Packed too tight, nothin’ grows.”
The back of his neck had gone leathery brown from the sun. I apologized if the police lights woke him, kept him from sleep, explained that we thought someone might have tried to get inside.
“It’s a different world out ’ere,” he said. “Takes some adjustin’.”
And with that, he walked over the stone wall, into his field, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day.
Inside, Charles hung up the phone and put his face in his hands. The air cooled and crisp, the sunlight spilling through the windows giving life to dancing dust particles, I rubbed the back of his head and thanked him for the flowers.
“They’re something, aren’t they?” he whispered, admiring the vibrant purple, yellow, and white petals. “Maybe we should grow our own.”
The baby kicked. It was only a matter of time.
Later in the afternoon, Charles got a call from the local bank. He put on a tie and headed into town to speak with them. I spent the day with Scooter walking the fields smelling the sweetgrass and swatting at pesky flies. At sunset, we both returned and Charles looked defeated.
“Offered a teller position. Entry level. A dollar above minimum wage,” he said. “I don’t want to take it, but I fear I might have to.”
“Don’t take it,” I said, but Charles stared into the blank kitchen walls calculating the cost of the future.
That night we stayed awake in bed, neither of us speaking, both of us wondering if this new life of ours was the answer. A silence this thick made me miss the rumble of cars, of passing trains, of people stumbling home from the bars. Being alone with my thoughts proved a challenge because it forced me to confront them. I wondered about our child and the secrets we’d keep from him. Would he grow up to know his mother ran from her past? That his father followed their mother when perhaps he didn’t want to? Would he believe the distance of the land, of the house, of his parents was normal and form relationships more of the same? What if someone broke into his apartment and tried to hurt him? What if he grew to be a man that does the breaking in?
Scooter growled again, this time from the cusp of sleep. Charles sat up and snapped his fingers to break the dream. The mutt looked at him, then to the doorway. He growled again, barked once, then rolled to his feet and crept to the frame. I sat up and watched.
“Charles,” I said. “I’m scared.”
“Of what?” he asked, his eyes peering into the darkness.
“Everything I cannot see,” I said, and he turned with eyes filled with understanding, with validation, and held me the way he did when we’d first lived in that boxy apartment with art and flowers decorating the walls.
Scooter calmed and plopped himself in the doorway, a wedge between us and whatever he sensed. I fell asleep cradled like a babe, comforted by the weightlessness of confession.
In the morning, I crept downstairs to find Bob and Charles working in the garden. Bob struck the earth with a hoe while Charles, on his knees, ran his hands through the moist dirt. They didn’t know I was watching, but they worked until noon planting seeds, setting irrigation, and tending to the land.
When they came inside for lunch, they smelled of dirt and grass, their sweat filled with the pungent scent of promise.
“Bob says we can sell our flowers,” Charles said. “He said he’ll teach me crops later, proper care, and lend out machinery for harvest. Says we can make an honest living and, on good years, do better than I did at the bank.”
“Happy to pass on the learnings of ma’ life’s work,” Bob said, hooking his thumbs into his overalls and rocking heel to toe.
“Charles,” I said, doubling over and struggling to breathe. Wetness burst down my legs sticky and thick. “The baby is coming.”
We hurried to the car, Bob telling us to go, that’d he’d watch over things, Scooter wagging his tail so hard that he couldn’t keep balance. We sped out of the gravel lot spraying pebbles across the lawn and kicked up a dust storm en route to the hospital.
A few hours later, our son came blinking into the world, his blue eyes large and wet against the light. Charles asked to hold him. He still smelled like the earth, though his hands had been washed clean by soap.
All day, we sat with our child gooey with love until we let our bodies rest, falling asleep to the soft beeps of machines.
“I miss the crickets,” Charles said, and any fear about our child’s future washed away like a rainstorm in July.
When we brought our boy home days later, Bob greeted us at the drive with a handmade wooden crib rounded and painted soft blue.
“Made this for yas,” he said. He’d also cut our grass and the small green leaves of flowers sprouted from the garden beds. Scooter ran through the yard in celebration of our return. We carried our child inside as he looked around with the large eyes of fascinated curiosity. What a world he must have seen.
We all ate dinner taking small bites of our food and ogling over the child.
“He’s perfect,” Bob said.
“Like his mama,” Charles said, and wiped a smudge from the child’s pudgy cheek.
That night, Scooter curled up by the foot of the crib and slept, only stirring when the baby did. From the bed, I watched the mutt drift into a dream, his brown and golden legs kicking as though running into the fields out back, a green world gone silver under the watchful moon, content to chase away the pesky critters that encroached those fertile lands.
Featured image: Country Gentleman, October 1939
Don Marquis was most famous for creating Archy and Mehitable, the iconic comedic cockroach-and-cat duo. However, he was also a frequent contributor to The Saturday Evening Post, writing short stories and columns for the magazine throughout his career. “Two Red-Haired Women” finds Marquis at home in his humorist roots, telling the classic tale of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth from the perspective of a historically inaccurate — yet wildly entertaining — Irish-American father.
Published on December 8, 1928
Mr. Timothy O’Meara was a few years past sixty. He was bald, his countenance bore the scars of his youthful hard work and of the business struggles of his middle age. He was a building contractor, and he lived in Brooklyn.But in spite of all this staid and sober circumstance, Mr. O’Meara was essentially romantic, and would be so until dreams and visions ceased with him altogether.
He had never led the kind of life, in his own person, that he felt should have been his, but he was forever reaching out into the past and identifying himself imaginatively with heroic actions and colorful situations. From the world at large he concealed this strong propensity of his, but his two sons, Jack and Terence, who had gone into his business with him, could now and then goad him into narrations which delighted them. Like so many Americans of Irish descent, all the poetry in his nature was twined about his love for Ireland, and his sons had discovered that the surest way to get him talking was to pretend to depreciate Ireland. He thoroughly understood what they were at, but he could never resist the challenge; and his snorts of rage as he answered them, and the occasional touch of Irish brogue that stole into his speech as he grew more interested in his legendary lyrics, were all a part of the game not least loved by him and his sons.
“It has always been a strange thing to me,” said Terence to his brother Jack, one evening after dinner as they all sat about with their pipes and coffee, “that the Irish should fall down the way they do in the matter of diplomacy. Great warriors they have had in plenty, and great generals, great singers and great orators, but never one great diplomatist.”
And Terence winked at his brother Jack as their father’s bald head suddenly flushed pink.
“Yes,” said Jack, with an unfilial answering wink, “and do you know, I’ve about come to the conclusion that William of Orange was the world’s greatest diplomatist.”
The senior O’Meara dropped his pipe, and for an instant the young men thought that for once they might have gone too far. But after one dreadful glare their father turned his face away from them and addressed the empty air as if speaking of his sons to someone not present.
“Shame upon them,” he said — “shame upon them both for their terrible ignorance! And sorrow to me that has such sons!”
He picked up his pipe, refilled it with cut plug and then addressed his sons with dignity:
“The greatest diplomatist of all times, ancient or modern, was an Irishman,” he said — “not even barring Machiavelli, who was by descent an Irishman himself, as the name shows — nor yet Talleyrand.”
“Who was he, dad?” asked Jack.
“Timothy O’Meara was his name, the same as me own, and my ancestor he was,” said Mr. O’Meara. “But neither one of you two would he acknowledge as his descendants.”
The old gentleman’s “neither one” trembled on the verge of being “nayther wan,” and from this his sons argued that they had got him started. They settled themselves to listen, and presently, sweeping his mental eye back and forth along the ages, Mr. O’Meara descried a most attractive period and swooped upon it.
This great diplomatist, Timothy O’Meara, I’m telling ye about — me own name he had, and me ancestor he was, and by the word of him that’s been handed down from O’Meara to O’Meara for generations, he must have been pretty much the same figure of a man I was in me own youth — lived during one of the most ticklish times in the history of the world. ’Twas an epoch so known and noted for bein’ dangerous to everybody alive that ’tis a surprise, lookin’ hack on it, that anny wan survived that epoch to tell about it. Merely to kape wan’s head upon wan’s shoulders in thim days called for a constant exercise of tact and diplomacy of the first wather.
The main trouble with the British Islands at that day and date was that there was two quanes rulin’ at the same time, wan of them in England, and that was Elizabeth, and the other wan in Scotland, and that was Mary Quane of Scots. And added to all the other trouble of the world was the terrible fact that both of thim quanes was red-headed.
Red-headed Mary, she sat on her throne in Edinburgh and promulgated to the known world that if she had her rights she would be quane of England too. And red-headed Elizabeth sat on her throne in London and told the entire universe that she was quane of England, and if she had her rights she would be quane of Scotland as well, and thim that disbelieved her had better keep away from the swing of her scepter, be damned to them, says she. For she was a terrible talker and swearer, and a woman with two fists. A well-educated woman she was herself, but you could tell it on her that education hadn’t been long in her family, and altogether she was wan of the roughest ladies that ever wore a crown.
Whichever wan of them finally won out as undisputed quane of England, it went without sayin’ that she would claim Ireland too. Everywan always claimed it. None of them foreigners could ever get it into their heads that all Ireland ever asked for was to be let alone in peace and quietness, so that she could fight out her troubles for herself. Fire and sword and the bloody Sassenach was doing their terrible work in Ireland at the very moment I’m speakin’ of.
In the old and ancient days a thousand years before the time I’m tellin’ ye of, as ye would know yourself if ye were not both stuffed to the ears with ignorance and misinformation, Ireland was the world’s greatest country, givin’ her light and learnin’ to all the nations that gathered at her feet.
Most countries has but enough royal blood in thim to have but wan king and wan quane at a time, but in Ireland it’s always been different. There was the king of Ulster and the king of Connaught, the king of Leinster and the king of Munster, and over thim all was the high king of Ireland. And there was a lot more families that would have been sittin’ on thrones thimselves if they but had their rights. And all these kings of Ireland, being proud and unconquerable heroes, was naturally opposed to each other gettin’ away with annything; and that’s how the foreigners was always gettin’ in.
This Timothy O’Meara I’m tellin’ ye about — my ancestor he was — would have been high king of all Ireland himself if he had but had his rights. But you two are willfully ignorant and unworthy of the remarkable men from whom ye sprang, and I don’t know why I’m taking the trouble to enlighten ye.
Time and again Timothy O’Meara rallied his countrymen against the Sassenach, but always they came again, because there was so many of thim. And after years of warfare, during which he had become the most skillful swordsman the world has ever seen and the most sagacious and strategical general, he says to himself wan day, he says:
’Be damned to all this! It’s gettin’ us nowheres at all, at all! As soon as I have wan tin thousand of thim English well whipped and sit down to me bit of porridge and bacon, there’s another tin thousand of thim landed. ’Tis time to try diplomacy.”
And he sat down on the shore of Ireland, a figure of a man like Conachur MacNessa or Finn MacCool himself, and combed his red beard through his fingers, and looked over toward the shore of England and cogitated. And he took off his helmet and scratched the place on top of his head that was growin’ just a trifle bald, as was the premature way with me own hair, and he thought and thought.
“If I could but meet a king of England and talk this matter over with him, face to face and man to man, aquel to aquel and king to king, we might strike a bargain,” says he. “But with no lesser man below the rank of king will Timothy O’Meara bandy words. And I don’t like talkin’ it over with a quane. Women is the divil.”
If he had wan weakness in the world it was a weakness for women. By his appearance as well as his mental qualities and the great fame of his eloquence and warlike deeds, he was always and forever enslavin’ women, and scarcely knowin’ that he’d done it. But after he had seen the plight they was in, and their sufferin’s for love of him, his ginerous heart would always begin to pity the poor craytures and he would be aisy and reassurin’ with thim, and thin, if he wasn’t careful, they’d wrap him around their little fingers. And I hope that I’ll never find out that either wan of you has inherited that tendency.
“I don’t like it — her being a quane instead of a king,” says he. “But somebody’s got to save Ireland. So here goes!”
And with that he took his sword between his teeth and plunged into the wather, strikin’ out bold and strong for the English shore. I was always a great swimmer, and this Timothy O’Meara, me ancestor, was as much at home in the wather as Manannan mac Lir himself.
“Tact,” says he, rollin’ in the seas and spoutin’ wather like a porpoise — “tact is what will save Ireland. Tact and diplomacy!”
Hand over hand he clambered up the rocky coast of Cornwall — as ye’ve seen me, yourselves, go up the framework of a building — and then he batted the sea gulls away from his eyes and shook the salt wather from his beard, and borrowed the first horse he seen and galloped off. Early next mornin’ he was in London, and a surprisin’ city it was to him, what with the crowds and leanin’ houses and high towers and royal troops and all thim bannered palaces; but he was The O’Meara of that time, better than anny of thim, and he would not show his surprise to the Sassenach. He paused but long enough to trim his beard and dress himself in the latest style, and well before noon he set off to the quane’s palace.
’Twas no trouble at all for him to identify that same. If the two of ye were not sunk deep in ignorance and illiteracy, which ye are, ye would know that Quane Elizabeth’s palace in that day was the most splendid and stately edifice ever erected by anny monarch annywheres outside of ancient Ireland. Through all the outer magnificence strode Timothy O’Meara with his head up, and that in his eye that forbade a question by anny underling. Past the courts and guards and fountains tannin’ wine, and all the enginery and paraphernalia of great and royal luxury he went, till he came to a flight of broad steps that led upward to a most magnificent hall.
And all over thim steps, and at the top of thim, in front of the big gilded doors that led into the hall of state, was a crowd of the most risplindent courtiers on guard — English they was, most of thim, but with a sprinklin’ of Scotch and a few Spaniards and Frinch, and two or three Irish — bad cess to the traitors! Knights and baronets, earls and dukes and princes, ginerals and admirals, by the gay and splendid look of thim, with their jewels and velvets, that’s what they was, no less.
“And who are ye,” says wan swaggerin’ sprig of nobility, with his hand on his sword hilt as Tim laid hold upon the big door, “that thinks he can crash the gate of the quane’s own hall, without lave or likin’ from annywan?”
“I’m The O’Meara,” says Tim, and he gave the young popinjay a backhand swipe that tumbled him down the stairs. None of us O’Mearas has ever had great patience with empty impertinence, then or now.
Fifty swords were out in a second and they ringed him round.
“I’m here from Ireland,” says Tim, “to see the quane of England. If diplomacy was not me intintion I’d cut me way through youse. But if there’s anny of ye wishful for a little sport, now’s the time to spake up. Diplomatist though I be, I’m the man for ye!”
Siviral of thim proved to be wishful, and in less than ten minutes he decimated three of thim Englishmen with a Scottish claymore, and then he accommodated an aquel number of Scotchmen with an English broadsword, and thin he took in his fist wan of thim Spanish rapiers and gave a fencin’ lesson to a Frenchman, and then he says:
“Gintlemen, what man is the master of the British Islands at any form of fencin’ with anny kind of soord?”
“The O’Meara is!” says they all, with wan hearty voice.
“’Tis well ye English and Scotch know it,” says Tim. “But is there anny Welshman here has his doubts?”
But if there was anny Welshman there, he said nothing disputatious about it. And just then the lord chancellor flung open the big door to the quane’s hall, and he says:
“And what’s all this racket of weapons out here? Have ye no more sinse than to be scrapin’ steel almost in Her Majisty’s very prisince?”
“’Tis I that am the responsible party,” says Tim. “And who might you be?” says the lord chancellor. “I’m The O’Meara,” says Tim. “So!” says the lord chancellor. “The boldest rebel in Ireland! I’ve heard of ye!”
“I’m no rebel,” says Tim, “but a free man. And were I not here on a diplomatic mission I’d bloody your mouth for ye.” But as it was, he remembered his tact and did nothing but twist the old boy’s whiskers a swipe or two.
“Stop your blattin’, ye old goat,” sings out Quane Elizabeth to the lord chancellor from her throne, “and bring The O’Meara to me, if ’tis he indeed that has his clutches on you. ’Tis long I have wanted to meet that impudent warrior!” Timothy O’Meara — my ancestor he was — walked up the hall to where the quane set on her throne, and he made her the bow that anny gentleman of breedin’ makes to a lady, but divil the bit did he kneel to her, and he stood and looked her in the eye and she sat there and looked back at him.
“Ye’re the bold rebel, Timothy O’Meara,” says Queen Elizabeth.
“I’ve heard ye’re no coward yerself, Your Majisty,” says Tim.
“Do ye know anny reason why I should not have your head struck from your shoulders?” says the quane.
“Siviral,” says Tim. “Such as?” says she. “Faith,” says he, looking pointedly at her own red hair, “if ye had the same love for red hair in a man that I have for red hair in a woman, ye’d never think of it,” says he. “Besides which, ’twould be to the great detriment of me neck.”
“That’s what they all say,” says the quane.
And with that, they smiled at each other, and all the guards and courtiers and dukes and counselors that was gathered about smiled also. A high-tempered and imperious woman was this Quane Elizabeth, and there was something free and commandin’ in her that caught the fancy of me bold Timothy from the start. Not that she was anny great beauty; her nose was a trifle too long for that, but there was the divil’s own intelligence in her eyes, and a humorsome way about her mouth, and a kind of dangerous element about her altogether that made her fascinatin’ to Timothy O’Meara at wance, for he was wan of thim men that seeks out the prisince of peril for the pure enjoyment of facin’ it. Thim intelligent women has always had a great fascination for meself; and there was manny a beautiful woman that loved Tim O’Meara that he cared less for than Queen Elizabeth, for all her long nose and bad manners and the way she painted her face. As for Tim, there was never yet the woman looked at the big lad without her imagination was stirred, nor was she ever quite the same woman afterward.
“And for what do ye come here so bold and proud, with your neck so stiff and your hand upon your sword?” says the quane.
“I’m here as the discendant of the ancient kings of Ireland, rightful and historical,” says Timothy O’Meara — “them that had their high seats on the hill of Tara and was the masters of war and wisdom. I bear word to ye from the green island that’s never been conquered yet, and the word I bring is that ye might as well quit tryin’! For a thousand years we’ve been assaulted and tricked and massacred by the bulcheens of the world — the Dane, the Norman and the Sassenach — but we’re still strong-hearted in the field and fightin’ back. And in a thousand years from now, if there’s wan heart still beatin’ there, ’twill be a heart that’s free and strong, aven though it beats alone against a million tyrants. Ye cannot conquer us, quane, but ye can take away thim troops off a people that was never yours and never will be; ye can do that free and ginerous without conditions, and ye’ll find a ginerosity springin’ up to equal yours, and after while ’tis Ireland may forgive ye and be your friend.”
“’Tis I that am the quane of Ireland!” says Elizabeth.
’Twas on the tip of The O’Meara’s tongue to rejoin with heat, but he remembered his diplomacy in the nick of time, and all he said was: “Some dirty, lyin’ old fool of a prime minister has been stuffin’ thim beautiful ears of yours with nonsinse and falsehoods, Your Majisty.”
Quane Elizabeth sat and thought, and frowned at him and sized him up, the while she picked her teeth with the end of her scepter, for good manners was only an occasional practice with that quane. Then she sent everywan else from the room, and she says:
“Mr. O’Meara, in me heart I know ye’re not far wrong. But ’tis wan of the obsessions of this people of mine that the ruler of England should be the ruler of Ireland too. ’Twould not be so aisy as ye seem to think — doing what ye ask. But if I was to take the risk and give up Ireland to ye, tell me this: What would ye give me in return?”
“Annything ye want,” says Tim. “Scotland’s what I want,” says she. “’Tis yours in six weeks,” says Timothy, “if ye’ll give me but half the men ye have blunderin’ about Ireland, and I’ll take a few hundred of me own Irishmen that has learned thim English the rudiments of fightin’.”
Annything else?” says the quane. “France, if ye’d like it,” says Tim. “Annything else?” says the quane, speakin’ but little above a whisper this time, but with that tilt of the head that says:
Well, what about it?
Tim, he was wan of thim unfortunate men that’s cursed with a knowledge of what ye can do and when ye can do it, and he stepped up to the throne and dropped his arm about her. But he only kissed her wance or twice, rememberin’ his diplomacy just in time, and not wantin’ to commit himself with irrevocability.
“Tim,” says she, “can’t ye forget Ireland and stay in London for a while? I need men like yoursilf. Ye should be commander of me armies and admiral of me navies and prime minister of all me councils, and if there’s annything more than that ye might want, ye’d have but to put the name on it, Tim.”
Tim thinks quick and diplomatic to himself, wonderin’ whether it would be for the benefit of Ireland if he married her, or whether that would work out to the detriment of both Ireland and himself in the long run. “Marriage,” says he, tentative and judicial, and risking another kiss on her for the sake of Ireland, “is wan of thim yes-and-no games, Your Majisty.”
“Who said annything about marriage?” says she, twisting loose and frowning on him. “Be damned to marriage! The Maiden Queen was I born and the Maiden Queen will I die. I’m a broad-minded woman, with very few prejudices, but the wan strong prejudice I have is against a quane gettin’ married. What I was thinkin’ of was, maybe we might be engaged for a while.”
“I hear Your Majisty’s already been engaged a good deal to a lot of these noble gazabos,” says Tim, “including King Philip of Spain and siviral dukes.”
“Thim others is but statecraft, Timothy,” says she. “There’s little that’s personal in thim. With you and me ’twould be far different.”
“Well, now then, Your Majisty,” says Tim, “ye put me in mind of a funeral I noticed this morning as I came past Westminster Abbey. They told me they was buryin’ that part of the Duke of Norfolk from his collar down, and the part of him from his collar up is exposed to the wind and weather on Temple Bar; and between the two, where his neck ought to be, there’s three companies of royal halberdiers. Separations like that must be painful, followin’ a long engagement like yours and his was.”
“He wasn’t executed because he was engaged to me, Timothy. He was executed because of high treason. He went and proposed matrimony to that Mary Stuart, who calls herself quane of Scotland.”
And when she mentioned Mary Stuart’s name there came an expression on her face that made Tim more diplomatic than ever about getting himself engaged to her.
“And Scotland,” he says, getting back to where they was, “is yours, Your Majisty, within two months after ye’ve evacuated Ireland.”
She pushed him away from her, and she gave him a long look and she laughed.
“Ye trade too fast, Mr. O’Meara,” she says. “The way of it will be this: Me troops will leave Ireland the day after I’m crowned quane of Scotland at Edinburgh, with Mary Stuart’s head in a basket at me feet.”
And move her from that decision he could not, neither with the power of reason nor with the blandishments of his magnetic and affectionate personality. For three days, off and on, they debated that point, while she entertained him royal at her palace, but at the end of that time she was just as firm and fixed as at the beginning: Ireland she would not give up to him till first he’d conquered Scotland for her. And on the morning of the fourth day he leaped on his horse and galloped north to scout the ground over alone.
Through sun and moon and rain he galloped, day and night, commandeerin’ cattle in the quane’s name as he needed them, up the middle of England and through them Cheviot Hills, keepin’ his strategical eye peeled for military positions as he rode; and ’twas on an afternoon of blowin’ wind and streaks of sunlight through the clouds he topped a ridge and looked across land and wather upon the tall town of Edinburgh, wavin’ her plumes of smoke a dozen miles away.
And betwixt the sight of that and the reach of his mind there came the whistle of feathers and the scream of a bird, and right in the air forninst his station a falcon stooped with a whir of silver bells and struck all his blades into the red life of a heron. But no time had Timothy to think of thim rumpled feathers, for with a shout and a rattle of hoofs, a lady all in green stormed up the rise before him on a white palfrey, and a man, ridin’ after her, bent from his saddle and snatchin’ at her bridle.
“Ruthven!” she cried, and lashed out at him with her riding whip. And with that both reined their horses to a prancing stand.
“I have my Lord Murray’s orders never to let ye ride alone,” says the man, sullen and black.
“That for my Lord Murray’s orders!” cries the woman, and with the word she gave her horse the spur and was on him like the spring of a wildcat. Twice she cut him on the face, while the air danced with the forefeet of horses and the man swayed in his saddle; and if it had been a blade instead of a whip ’twould have been the fellow’s finish that instant. Back staggered his horse, and he caught his dropped reins again in one hand and laid the other on his dagger.
“Ruthven!” she cried again, and raised her whip once more. But me bold Tim spurred between them.
“Will ye draw steel on a lady!” he roared, whirlin’ out his sword with the word. The man let go the dagger and out with his own sword. Timothy O’Meara — me ancestor he was — was too distinguished a swordsman to trifle with a foe just for the mere pleasure of it, and now the blood of the ancient chiefs of Ireland was singin’ through him, and with one neat backhand sweep he sent that fellow’s head rollin’ down the hill and his horse galloped off with the rest of him.
“’Twas a good blow,” says the lady.
“I misdoubt,” says Tim, lookin’ after the horse, “but that I was a trifle hasty with him. But ’tis not in me character to see a man offer insult to a lady.”
“’Tis no great matter,” says the lady; “there’s plenty more where he comes from — sons and fathers and cousins.”
“Who was he?” says Tim.
“Wan of them Ruthvens,” says she. “They’re always in trouble. And who are ye, me bold knight?”
“I’m The O’Meara,” says Tim, “from Ireland.”
“I’ve heard of ye,” says she, “as who in the world has not? I’m Mary Stuart,” she says.
“The quane of Scotland?” he says.
“And France,” says she. “And England, too, if I but had me rights.”
“Be gosh,” says Tim, rash and impulsive, and clean forgetful for the moment of all his diplomacy, “but I’ll make ye quane of England the day ye say the word. And yes,” he says, says he, “and on top of that, the quane of Ireland too.”
For I had been lookin’ hard at her, and her at me, and it had come over me with a rush —
Mr. O’Meara suddenly checked himself, his bald head flushing, and gave his attention to his pipe but no notice at all to his two sons, who were grinning broadly and ironically at him. He cleaned his pipe with elaborate care, lighted it again and resumed.
Timothy O’Meara had been looking hard at her, as she at him, and it had come over him with a rush that if Ireland was to have a quane, this woman was the quane for Ireland. Red was her hair, and it was blowin’ in the wind — a brown red the most of it, but with streaks of gold red twisted through it — and hazel was her eyes, but there was glints of gold in them, too, and through that quane’s white skin ye could mark at times the leap and circlin’ of her blood. A golden woman she was, and there was the sparkle of red wine in her, too, and there’s been no language known to any bard could tell her beauty nor the wild intoxication from it — nor no harper to sing it, neither, since the old and ancient days when we chanted of the only woman that was ever more beautiful than she, and that was Deirdre herself, the Troubler of Ireland and the world.
“No man,” says he, “could look at ye, Quane Mary, and not want to give ye all the kingdoms of the earth.”
“Wan kingdom at a time,” says she, and laughed; and if he had not been already hers that laughter would have finished him. And as for her — I will keep back no secrets from ye — he had upon her the usual and instantaneous effect that he had upon all mortal women everywhere and always. “From what I’ve heard of ye,” says she, “and what I’ve seen myself, I think ye could make me quane of England in good earnest.”
“There’s but wan thing I ask of ye, Quane Mary,” says Tim, all his diplomacy coming back to him again, “and ’tis that when ye’re quane of England ye’ll let Ireland go her own way, alone and free. And I think ye’d better sign a paper to that effect before I put ye on the throne.”
“I’ll sign it the day I’m crowned in London,” says Mary, “and that’s a good deal to give up to you, Mr. O’Meara, for the fact is that I’m quane of Ireland by rights now, and I’ll have the double right when I’m quane of England.”
“Now, now, now,” says Tim, “don’t talk to me like that, or I’ll think there’s more honey than wisdom on thim lips of yours. We can’t deal on thim terms at all, at all,” says he.
With that she give him a look out of her eye. “And isn’t there anny other terms you and me could deal on, Timothy O’Meara?” says she. And with that look there went a smile.
Now Tim was wan of thim unfortunate men, as I’ve tried to show youse, who knew by instinct what wan of thim looks and wan of thim smiles called for — unfortunate, I say, because his impulses was forever gettin’ into the way of his diplomacy. He slipped his arm around her and lifted her from her horse to his own.
“Moira,” he says, “if anny woman in the world could make me forget me juty to Ireland, ’twould be yourself!” And with that he kissed her wance or twice. “But no woman could,” says he. And with that he kissed her again. “Not aven you,” says he. And what more was said and done in the next few minutes, he was always too much of a gentleman to tell annywan, and your father will lave it to your own imaginations.
“There’s wan other thing I would dearly love to have, Timothy darlint,” says she afther while, when she was back on her own horse again, “and that’s me Cousin Elizabeth’s head in a basket.”
“We’ll see about that, Moira,” says Tim, aisy and tactful, not wishin’ to commit himself to annything. And with that the rest of her huntin’ party, which she had outridden and lost, came jinglin’ up. ’Twas to Holyrood Castle they went, and there Quane Mary entertained him free and royal for three days. ’Twas on the second day the quane proposed marriage to him.
“I hear Your Majisty is married already,” says Tim, diplomatic.
“Didn’t ye hear that terrible explosion last night?” says Mary. “That was me husband getting himself blown up with gunpowder, out in the suburbs. He was always a clumsy fellow, that Darnley.” And she stooped down and fixed wan of the rugs on the floor. “Mary Livingstone,” she says to a lady in waitin’, with a kind of mist in her eyes, “you girls have got no affection for your quane! I have always to be straightenin’ out this rug for mesilf.”
“Your Majesty knows we love you,” says Mary Livingstone, with a curtsy, “but ye must remember we have not the same motive as yourself for rememberin’ what that spot on the floor is. There’s times when we forget just where it was Davy Rizzio was stabbed.”
“Nobody loves me,” says the quane, lookin’ at Tim, “neither man nor woman.”
If the whole court hadn’t been there, Tim would have showed her that minute she was wrong, as who wouldn’t? But he kept hold of his diplomacy.
“Your Majisty,” says he, being careful to call her that in public, “I’ve heard some talk that the Earl of Bothwell would be your next husband.”
“Why, I thought that the Earl of Bothwell had met with a fatal accident!” says the quane, looking surprised and speakin’ to a group of them noblemen standin’ about. “Lindsay,” she says, “or Douglas, or some of you that’s not too near related to him, won’t you be so kind as to go and bring the quane the very latest news about the Earl of Bothwell?” And six of them bullies started out of the room at once, lickin’ their chops. “Remember, now,” she calls after them; “bring back to me nothin’ but the very latest news of what poor Bothwell’s fate has been!”
And with that she turned a dazzlin’ smile on Tim, as if to say obstacles to their matrimony seemed to be eliminating themselves.
“And now,” says she, lookin’ around on the rest of the gentlemen, “is there anny wan else present I’ve promised to marry?”
“Your Majisty mentioned it to me wan day,” says the Lord of the Isles, feelin’ unaisy of his neck, “but I got the idea Your Majisty was just havin’ wan of your bursts of mirriment.”
“What,” says she; “is the man tellin’ me he don’t want to marry me? Speak up,” she says: “do ye want to marry me or don’t ye?”
“I’m willin’ to let bygones be bygones, please Your Majisty, if you are,” says the Lord of the Isles.
“Never in the world,” says Mary, turning a bright and beautiful pink, “was such an insult offered to a quane before in broad daylight, and her sittin’ on her throne. Don’t,” she says, covering her face with her hands”don’t anny of you gentlemen be too cruel with the man that uttered it, for ’tis plain he’s not sane and accountable for his actions. And don’t,” she says, peeking through her fingers—”don’t be too slow with him, neither!” And the wans that led him out wasn’t.
“Timothy O’Meara,” says she to him, “I’ll have a word in private with ye,” and gave him one of them looks and dismissed the court. Wan word in private between them two always led to another, and so on and on, in the way of love and logic. But at the end of two days’ discourse betwixt thim of this and that, there was wan thing that Quane Mary was just as fixed and firm about as at the beginning: She would sign no paper givin’ up Ireland to him till first he’d set her on the throne of England. And on the morning of the fourth day, wonderin’ about manny things, Tim got on his horse and rode away.
And he hadn’t rode many miles before it came to him like a flash that there was a good many diplomatic disadvantages in his situation along with the diplomatic advantages of it. “Suppose either wan of thim quanes should get the notion,” says he to himself, “that I’ve been makin’ love to the other wan, and each of thim after wanting the other’s head that way?” An’ he couldn’t deny to himself that, although he’d been careful not to commit himself to nothing much, yet at the same time he’d given both of thim a bit of encouragement. “I’m betwixt love and honor,” says Tim to himself, “and I’ve got to step aisy.” But the main point of honor with him was which wan of thim would herself he doing the most honorable thing for Ireland.
“They’re both of thim kind o’ foxy, too thim quanes,” says Tim to himself. ’Twas running through Tim’s mind ’twould be the better stroke of diplomacy if he could but get the promise of both of thim regardin’ Ireland before he handed another crown to either wan of thim.
If Ireland was out of the question he’d have married Mary in a minute, and be damned to Elizabeth, as annywan would. But thinkin’ how much him and Mary was in love with each other made him sorry for Elizabeth, too, and the more he thought of it the more he pitied her, and he says to himself he’ll have to be extra kind to her when he sees her, to make up to her for what she don’t know about, and ’tis just this kind of tinder-heartedness that kept me in trouble all through me youth.
And ’twas thus he was revolvin’ love and diplomacy around in his head when he rode into London early one mornin’ and sent word in to Queen Elizabeth to get out of bed and slip somethin’ on; he wanted to speak with her at wance.
“And how is Scotland, Timothy?” says Quane Elizabeth, sittin’ on the side of her bed with a cup of morning tay in her hand, flappin’ a pair of blue mules on her feet.
“’Tis still there,” says Tim, diplomatic and noncommittal.
“I suppose you didn’t see that Mary Stuart, now, did ye?” asked the quane.
“I did get a glimpse of her,” says Tim, still tactful.
“Tell me, Timothy,” says the quane very confidential; “what does the woman really look like?”
“There’s but one woman in the known world, Elizabeth, who has any advantage on her in the way of looks,” says Timothy, seein’ that this was not wan of thim times when a diplomatist could afford to be entirely frank.
“And who may that woman be?” asks Elizabeth, cocking her intelligint eye at him over the top of the taycup.
“’Tis yourself,” says Timothy O’Meara, telling the most outrageous and audacious lie that ever left the lips of mortal man. But he pardoned himself, for ’twas for the sake of Ireland.
“You’re full of blarney,” says she, giving him her hand to kiss; but she was not ill pleased, at that.
“They do be sayin’ in Scotland,” says Tim, throwin’ out a feeler to see if any of her spies had been busy, “that she’s in mournin’ for a husband and planning to marry another wan.”
“Be damned to the woman!” says Elizabeth suddenly, throwing her cup and saucer against the wall. “I don’t like her! There’s manny reasons why I don’t like her, but one of the chief ones is she’s always gettin’ married! Marriage! Marriage! Marriage! What way is that for a quane to be conductin’ herself? ’Tis not dignified! ’Tis a kind of a reflection on all us Maiden Quanes. A quane ought to be far and away above all that matrimonial nonsense!”
For days he discoursed with Elizabeth and debated, but he could get no further with her than the wan word: “Make me quane of Scotland first, and after that Ireland’s free,” and on top of that she was forever urging him to enter into wan of thim formal engagements she was so fond of. Back he rides to Edinburgh, and ’twas similar with Mary. “Make me quane of England first,” she says, “and I’ll see that Ireland’s no more bothered”; and on top of that she was continually suggestin’ matrimony. And afther half a dozen of thim trips, commutin’ back and forth, Tim says to himself: “I’m spendin’ me life on horseback, but I’m not gettin’ annywheres!”
And then wan day the inspiration come to him that if he could get the two of them near together and let aich wan of them get the idea he was maybe getting a little interested in the other, the jealousy arisin’ out of that would lead to both of them offerin’ better terms for Ireland, for the sake of holdin’ onto himself. So he says to Elizabeth that he’s concocted a scheme that will give her Scotland without great warfare, but there’s a conference between her and Mary necessary first. And he speaks similar to Mary.
And ’twas thus he arranged the most extraordinary meeting of royalties and nobilities for the purpose of negotiations the world has ever seen. Quane Elizabeth comes north with twinty thousand men, in pride and splendor, and pitches her tent in a valley in the Cheviot Hills, and Quane Mary comes south with twinty thousand men and camps on the other side of the valley, and Timothy, who was to be president of the conferences, seats himself on a mountain overlooking both of them.
And both them quanes brings all their courts and all their counselors and earls and dukes, and their ladies with them, and the tents and pavilions was all of silk and cloth of gold and there was feastin’ and frolickin’ and tournaments and dances and sports, and the blowin’ of trumpets and the squeal of pipes, and cannon boomin’ all day and all night long in royal salutes, and nobody but the two quanes and Timothy knew what ’twas all about, and only Timothy knew the rights of it, for ’twas long before anny of this nonsinse about open diplomacy began to be chattered about the world.
Tim, he wasn’t in no hurry, and the feastin’ and the parties went on and on for weeks before the negotiations started; and the word that there was something momentous doing in England spread all over Europe. And King Philip of Spain marches in wan day off his ships with ten thousand troops, and tells Elizabeth he’s with her through thick and thin, and then takes the same word to Mary. And the next day there’s a burst of French horns, and the Juke of Alencon arrives with ten thousand men and says his brother, the king of France, would like to be reprisented too. And the Emperor of Austria and the Czar of Russia and the King of Prussia was the next that come troopin’ over the hills with their drums beatin’ and their banners flyin’. And with every fresh arrival there’d be a shout from all that soldiery and the thunderin’ clangor of ten thousand bung starters beatin’ on casks as more wine was opened, and the smell of the barbecued oxen was wafted across the wathers as far as Norway and Sweden, and all thim Scandinavian kings and nobility sniffed it and came along too. And Tim O’Meara sat on the top of his mountain and looked down on the valleys round about him and rubbed his hands and he says, “By the saints,” says he, “I believe I’ve started something!”
Ye talk about diplomacy! Never was there so much of it gathered together in wan spot, before nor since. And ’twas Timothy O’Meara was the man that had the key to it all. Everywan could see that he was in the confidence of both of thim quanes, though nobody but himself knew to what extent, and everybody courted him.
“Mr. O’Meara,” says the Duke of Alencon to him wan day, “ye could do worse for yourself than be commander in chief of the armies of France, under command of an enterprisin’ young king like mesilf. And if ye’d arrange a marriage betwixt the Maiden Queen and me, that’s what I’d make ye.”
“But ’tis your brother is King of France,” says Timothy.
“He’s not feelin’ so well these days,” says the duke, twistin’ his mustache to hide a smile, “and the bettin’ is three to wan he won’t live out the year.”
“Mr. O’Meara,” says the King of Spain, “I’ve been engaged to Quane Elizabeth, off and on, for three years, but still she dodges the altar. The day you get her there for me Mexico is your own.”
“I’ll think it over, Philip, me lad,” says The O’Meara.
And ’twas much the same with all of them kings and princes. Some of them wanted wan quane, and some of them the other, some of them this and some of them that, and sooner or later every wan of thim came to Tim. And thim two quanes kept him busier and busier. As yet, they hadn’t met each other, but their jealousies was runnin’ higher day by day, and aven hour by hour.
And the diplomacy kept gettin’ thicker and thicker and thicker, with more and more of them monarchs puttin’ their plans and combinations up to him, until he was himself, in his wan person, the repository for all the statecraft of Europe. And what with all that buzzin’ in his head, and breakfast with Elizabeth, and lunch with Mary, and a drink or two with Spain and Austria, and tay with Elizabeth, and a drink or two with Norway and Sweden, and dinner with Mary, and card parties and dances, and late suppers with both thim quanes, and constant and continual love-makin’, and new plans for Ireland formin’ every day, the thoughts in Timothy O’Meara’s head was whirlin’ faster and faster.
Faster and faster spun the diplomacy, round and round, inside of him and outside, but no matter how fast it spun he kept himself the master of it, and he said: “There’s wan thing that must not be! This diplomacy must not sink annywheres to the level of vulgar intrigue.”
And then things took a turn that began to make him a little uneasy. Each of them quanes got the notion at the same time she ought to be provin’ to him how he had the first place in her affections.
“Timothy, darlint,” Mary would say to him, “why did ye not drop in to tay yesterday? I had the Duke of Hamilton executed just to please yourself, thinking maybe you’d heard the false rumor that he was to be married to me. Ye’re neglectin’ me, Tim; ye don’t love me like ye did!”
“Mavourneen,” Tim would say, “it’s me that am plannin’ statecraft for ye day and night, and ye say that to me!”
“And when will these conferences begin?” says she. “And when am I going to be quane of England?”
“Lave the diplomacy of it to me, darlint,” says Tim.
And he’d be getting notes from Elizabeth that said: “Timothy dear, ye’ve been absent from me nearly twinty-four hours, and ’tis well I know politics is not all ye’re talkin’ to Mary Stuart these days. I’ve planned a party for your especial benefit tomorrow evening, and ye must not fail me. The Earl of Essex will be beheaded — him that was wance engaged to me — and afther that there will be dancing.”
Tuesday it would be Essex to the block, and Wednesday it would be her old favorite, the Earl of Leicester, and Thursday it would be Sir Walter Raleigh. And Quane Mary runnin’ through the Scotch nobility in the same way, beginnin’ to work out of the earls in the Lowlands up through thim chiefs of the Highland clans.
For a while these executions was no great moment to Timothy in thimselves; he took thim philosophical, saying to himself: “There’s another Englishman gone, and that’s that,” or, “There’s another Scotchman!” For the most of thim were no friends of Ireland. But as it went on and on he began to wonder if ’twasn’t a bad habit thim two quanes was formin’ for thimselves, and a habit that might lead to dangerous consequences for himself in the long run. The date set for that conference betwixt the two quanes, and their first meetin’ with each other, was comin’ nearer and nearer, and the nearer it came the less aisy was it for Timothy to know exactly what was the best thing to do with all thim diplomatic situations he’d made himself the master of.
’Twas on the day before the wan the conference was set for that Elizabeth said to him:
“Timothy, me love, I’ve got joyous news for ye.”
They were sitting in her royal pavilion, and Tim was getting a bit unaisy, for ’twas in his mind that he was overdue on the other side of the valley at Mary’s encampment.
“What’s the news, Elizabeth, me life?” says Tim, kissin’ her tenderly on the back of her neck and thinkin’ of Mary all the time. And terrible sorry he felt for Elizabeth, too, and that was the occasion of his tenderness.
“’Tis just this, Timothy,” says she: “I’ve decided to break me lifelong rule against matrimony — for wance annyhow and marry ye!”
And with that she slipped a diamond ring onto his finger. Tim, the poor divil, he didn’t dare to show his face for a minute, so he grabbed hold of her and squeezed her, and hung his countenance over her shoulder.
And pretty soon she says: “Ye don’t say annything, Timothy.”
“I’m speechless,” says Tim — “speechless with delight.” And then he says: “’Twill be just as well to keep it secret for a few days, darlint, till we get some of these diplomatic matters settled.”
And he got away from there as quick as ’twas decently possible, for he wanted to think over all the implications and complications of this new matter. If he was to be king consort of England he could rule that country and assure Ireland a square deal, but his heart was sore in him at the thought of Mary Stuart and giving her up like that.
And he stepped into the long tent where the lads in their white jackets was busy, and put his foot on the brass rail, for ’twas there the royal boys hung out of an afternoon; and he called for a glass of usquebaugh with a drop of bitters in it.
“Ye look sad, Tim,” says Philip of Spain, edgin’ over toward him. “What’s eatin’ ye?”
“Ain’t women the divil, Philip?” says Tim, diplomatic and noncommittal.
“More especially thim red-headed wans,” says the Duke of Alencon, tactless and partially inebriated. And the Czar of Russia, who was wan of thim Asiatic savages with knowledge of no European language, so that he had to do his drinkin’ through an interpreter, came over and declared himself in. And in a minute there was a dozen of them clustered around Tim at the kings’ end of the bar, and the mere dukes and earls down at the other end was edgin’ up as near as etiquette would sanction, with their ears open.
And wan thing led to another, what with the latest anecdotes and everybody wantin’ to buy, until inside of an hour there was less discretion among thim than ye would think possible in the case of such seasoned diplomats. And as for Tim himself, the poor lad, inside of him was wan big heartbreak at the thought of losin’ Mary Stuart, and it kept getting worse and worse the more he tried to drown it; and yet, on top of everything there was swimmin’ the thought that maybe ’twould be the best thing for Ireland did he become king of England and protect her.
“What’s the jam ye’re in, Timothy, me boy?” says Alengon. “Ye know damned well that I’m with youse, money, troops or annything else.”
“I know ye are, juke,” says Tim, “but ’tis wan of thim cases where nayther money nor troops will suffice.” And he sighed.
“’Tis women,” says the King of Norway. And the King of Prussia nodded sympathetic, and they all had another wan.
“None of us would mention no names,” says the King of Spain.
“Of course not,” says Tim. “Ye’re all gintlemen, aven if ye are kings.”
And pretty soon Philip of Spain led him aside and says: “Tim, give me the lowdown. What’s due to break, in the way of diplomacy? Don’t let me be caught unawares, Timothy.”
“Things looks bad, Phil,” says Tim, speakin’ out of his heartbreak rather than his diplomacy.
“If hell pops annywheres, slip me the word quick, and I’ll know what to do,” says Philip. “I’ll take no risks. I’ll turn me guns onto the Frinch at wance. These peace conferences is always dangerous.”
“I’ll do that same,” says Tim. And wan after another, every monarch present led him aside private and put substantially the same question to him, and got the same answer. “If hell pops,” says Alengon, “I’ll cut loose on the right flank of the English at wance.” And so on, each naming his favorite enemy; and then they all went back to drinking with one another, the same as these modern peace conferences, and Tim sighed and went to see Mary.
Her being a female and feminine woman, it was natural the first thing she would notice would be the diamond ring on Tim’s finger.
“Oh, Timothy, darlin’,” she cries out, slippin’ it off before he had time to resist her, “’tis the first thing ye ever gave me!” And with that she put her arms around him. “It’s sweet, it is!” she says. “’Tis my engagement ring.”
“Mary, me love,” says Timothy, “’twas me own mother’s wedding ring” — and he was about to say that for that reason he couldn’t give it to anyone, not aven to her, but before he could get that far with it, Mary says, says she: “Oh, Timothy, that makes it all the sweeter.”
So Tim thinks to himself that he will get it away from her again pretty soon with some pretext or another. But talking about this, that, or the other thing, political and personal, it clean slipped away from his mind, and when he left there late that night it was still out of his mind. The trouble was there was so many political complications in Tim’s mind at this time that he had very little room there for anything else, and with both of them girls he had most desperately tried to postpone this conference that was coming tomorrow until he should get the opportunity to meditate more profoundly on the situation. But nayther one of them was willing for any more postponement. Each one of them wanted that other crown as soon as possible and each one of them wanted Tim united with her in the holy bonds of matrimony.
And the next afternoon Tim sat alone at the table in the conference tent before ayther one of thim arrived, with considerable apprehension on the inside of him. One of thim came in through one door and one of them came in through the other, and both of thim had their crowns on, and aich of thim had a tea-party smile on her face, but what was underneath that smile Timothy trembled to think of.
They bowed formal to each other, with that smile, and Elizabeth was the first to speak. “You’re Mary Stuart,” says she.
“And you’re Elizabeth Tudor,” says the other wan. “I’ve often heard Mr. O’Meara speak of ye.”
“Girls,” says Tim, “sit down. And we’ll be getting on with our statecraft.”
But, as ill luck would have it, the first thing that Elizabeth noticed was that ring. “Statecraft be damned!” she cried out, pointing to it. “Mary Stuart, where did ye get that diamond ye’re wearin’?” “’Tis wan of the crown jewels of Scotland,” says Mary. “Ye lie!” says Elizabeth. Mary drew herself up proud and regal.
“Ye speak to me like the daughter of Anne Boleyn, that everywan knows was never married legal to your father, the king.”
“Ye answer me like David Rizzio’s mistress,” says Elizabeth, “that everywan knows was wance married legal to me Cousin Darnley.” And with that they stood and looked at aich other in such a way as ye could feel the silk walls of that tent crackin’ and snappin’ with electricity, whilst they themselves turned every color of the rainbow.
“Now then, ladies “Tim says.
But they both turned on him. “As for you, Tim O’Meara “says Elizabeth, and choked with rage. “As for you ⎯ “says Mary. ’Twas in that instant that the red hair of Tim O’Meara began to show streaks of gray. And slowly they turned back toward each other.
And ’twas then that Timothy O’Meara caught the sudden inspiration which was wan of the greatest strokes of diplomacy the world has ever seen. With thitn two redheaded queens still locked in that terrible look, each strugglin’ for the word that would say her feelin’s, Tim backed quietly out of that tent and in a minute was standing at the door of the barroom.
“Boys,” he cried out to all them royalties and notabilities, “hell has popped!”
Startled, they dropped their glasses, and as they turned their faces toward him the thing he saw plainest and always remembered was twenty pairs of eyes sticking out like the eyes of snails.
“Hell’s popped!” he says again, and was out of there and took his way to his mountain. And he was scarcely there before he heard the drums beatin’ and the trumpets blowin’, and in a minute more the rattle and crash of musketry, and then began the roar of cannon. And in all the valleys and slopes beneath him there was the flash of steel and rollin’ billows of fire and the reek of smoke and the shoutin’ of men and the thunder of hoof beats. “The world’s at war,” says Tim — “all but Ireland!”
And for three days he set on his mountain, lookin’ down upon that strife, while reenforcements swarmed in from all sides, from all over the world, thinkin’ to himself with every charge and every volley that there went another hundred foreigners who would never trouble the freedom of Ireland. For ’twas the crown and glory of his great stroke of diplomacy that while the rest of the earth was at war and too busy to think of Ireland, out of that turmoil he would snatch the freedom of his native land.
And on the fourth day he took his way back home with the news that Ireland was free. And whilst he was organizing a stable government there, he died in camp. But before he died he got a note from Elizabeth in which she said: “Timothy, I have conquered Scotland and am now queen of the same, and I would sind ye the red head of that Mary Stuart by this same messenger, if I did not know that ye are more interested in auburn hair like me own than in plain red. A great manny of me counselors are urging me, now that Scotland and Mary Stuart are out of me way, to go after Ireland and Tim O’Meara, and go afther thim hard. But old frindships is not so easy forgot as all that, and if it was in your mind to come over to London and visit the Maiden Quane, I have no doubt that somethin’ could be fixed up satisfactory to England, Ireland, yoursilf and me. Think it over, Timothy, me dear.”
And Timothy wrote an answer in which hesays: “My dear Elizabeth, Ireland and me will stay whare we are.” And the shame and sorrow of it all was that with his death the fruits of all his diplomacy was dissipated because his successors was lunkheads, and the Sassenach came back again with fire and sword.
But there’s nothin’ can take away the fame of his merits, and if I ever hear either wan of you whisperin’ again that Ireland never had a diplomatist, I’ll take bothav youse acrost me knees and larrup ye well, as I am still able to do, praise God!
Illustrations by Tony Sarg, © Copyright The Saturday Evening Post
Her father died in the early days of shelter-in-place, stranding the two of them in his house within the Minneapolis neighborhood where she grew up. He left behind two cats and a boisterous fifty-pound rescue dog named Dinky, all very much alive and missing the man who fed them too much while asking nothing in return.
Except for houseplants that would die with or without her presence, not a whole lot waited back in Maine, the place she called home. One more divorced, unemployed marketing director wouldn’t be missed. Even in regular times there weren’t a lot of jobs like the one that had left the state as part of a business acquisition. During a pandemic, when the economy rocked like a small craft in the Gulf of Maine caught as weather fronts changed, jobs were collateral. Portland was a rough place to seek refuge.
So Belinda, formerly known as Beauty to her family and close friends, used meditation, white wine, and occasional sleeping aids to temporarily nest in her father’s house. Always a clean guy, the intensity of his second battle with leukemia lingered in a slightly offensive blend of illness, strong cleaners and pet odors. During the ten days she kept watch by his side, the smells faded under the immensity of watching the man she loved for her whole life die. In the two weeks since he passed, she kept windows open by day, bought fresh clothes, and littered the house with air fresheners.
His ashes waited in the trunk of his favorite 2008 BMW 325i for the right time when she could drive north and spread the remains in a field where he hunted turkey with friends. A pair of someone’s old hiking boots, a knife to cut tape on the box, a camp chair and the fleece throw from his bed would keep his ashes secure. When the weather was right, she’d pack a lunch, free him on the empty field and keep watch for a time to be sure all was okay.
Nine years earlier, during the days before her mother’s funeral, Belinda observed a web of numbness settle over her father. A son of the Iron Range, his normal emotions ran from quietly happy to bravely stoic. Witnessing the rawness of his grief not even six months later at the side of her brother’s broken body seared her tear ducts, made the act of crying too painful. He did not deserve to suffer the losses of the two they loved so much. She was a minimal substitute for what he had known as father and husband, but they found a way to be good to each other. His hugs felt like home even in the week before he passed. He laughed at her jokes, was thankful for the fruit juice ice pops she made, let her hold his thin hand for hours. At the end he told her not to cry, as if losing him was no more eventful than scraping a knee, moving across the country, or ending a marriage.
All decisions and responsibilities were now hers alone. The brief will of Deck Blake had only two directives: a generous gift to the animal shelter and transporting a drop leaf table to a friend of her mother who lived across the river. Shelter-in-place meant she literally lived amid his stuff with no opportunity to draw down the bags with trips to Goodwill. Yesterday’s hard decision, discussed with Dinky, was to contact a junk collector to carry the first piles away. Her father would have been upset if he knew that his recliner, his mattresses, the drapes and old tools in the garage had been downgraded to junk. There were no other choices.
She thought about adding the dozen boxes, child’s rocking chair and ugly metal sculpture in the basement that had remained untouched 12 years after she and Aaron moved to Maine. Her then-husband’s promotion, a beautiful old house near downtown and the crashing Atlantic promised new beginnings for a tired young marriage. College sweethearts, they had become best friends, then merely pals by the time they turned 30. Watching her parents, she knew there wasn’t enough passion left to start a family or grow old together. She got the house, he found a new spouse. There was no blame, but she carried the failure forward.
In Minnesota, routines developed in the absence of human contact. Each day after opening the windows, Belinda fed the animals, cleaned the litter boxes, snapped a harness on Dinky and battled with him about direction, speed, unnecessary pee stops on a two-mile route. Back at the house she ate her toast, cereal and diet cola breakfast on the three season porch where spring sunshine barely warmed cool air. Then she headed inside to the dining room table to execute her father’s estate.
His trust allowed Belinda the choice of a few years of financial independence, or a nest egg to build retirement savings. Her Maine unemployment benefits ended soon and money banked from selling her house there might stretch through year’s end. The tiny, freezing, studio above a family’s garage was about the cheapest Portland rental place available. She’d held off grabbing a retail job, but even if she had, the pandemic would have taken it away.
Dread of losing the ocean, the forests, her deep friendships hung as heavy on her mind as the scent of death lingered in her senses. This city of her family was where she grew up, went to college, got married. Walking along the riverbanks she felt air pollution and high density housing weakening the emotional well-being nurtured by connection to the Pine Tree State and its rocky coasts. Minnesota organic blueberries were subpar to Maine’s crop.
Dinky and the cats rushed past her as she opened her father’s bedroom door. While not of any religious following, she had honored his passing with a mixture of Shiva and other grieving traditions. For two weeks she had not touched this door, hoping his spirit would travel to a place of peace. No funeral, no memorial service, the barebones notice he allowed to be printed among the COVID-19-jammed obits kept her unsettled, as if the solemnity of his passing had been debased. A good man deserved a good send-off.
Stripped, the mattress showed its age. She spread a tarp over it, then brought in boxes and bags to pack the first load of her father’s things. Room darkening drapes came down first to give the sun a chance to pierce her sadness. The windows she had washed on her first day with him still sparkled. A cat jumped to the sill, eyes turned toward the yard.
Dinky stayed by her side. The other cat perched on top of the bed headboard watching everything from Belinda’s movements to dust motes. Beginning in the small bathroom, she carried medical equipment, a scale and portable storage rack to the mattress. Linens she divided into cleaning materials and pet towels. Medications filled two grocery store bags that she placed in the shower stall. She left his hair brush and razor in the drawer. Everything else was thrown away.
While she worked, she talked out loud to the animals. She could stay here until summer, find them homes, sell everything, and return to Maine. Maintaining Maine rent and utilities would swallow thousands of dollars. Pragmatically she spoke out loud about the price of closing down life in New England. Free housing with a marketplace that had history of recovering from deep economic downturns. She could revitalize her father’s vegetable garden, keep his pets, treat renovating the house as work. He hadn’t asked her to make his house or memory her future, but she needed purpose.
Dinky broke her concentration as dogs are likely to do. Rounding up the cats, she once again closed the door. Watching from the patio while Dinky explored his domain, Belinda drew out her phone and pressed a favorites name.
“Hey, Beauty, how are you doing? Coming home soon?”
“That’s what I’m calling about, Aaron. This is a huge favor, but I wonder if I could ask you and Jacie to close up my place and send everything here. Not the stuff in storage, just the apartment. I’ll find a mover and make all the calls. I know Jacie sometimes rattles you, but she’ll know what I need and what to throw.”
“This is quite a jump. Maine is where your friends are. We aren’t married anymore, but we’re still friends. That’s why you called me. I know you’ll find another job here when everything settles down. You said you could never be landbound again.”
“People say a lot of things before something hits them in the face. I’ve thought it through and this is what I’m going to do. Nothing’s permanent. Are you willing or does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Think about it overnight and call me back. Don’t be hasty, Beauty. But if this is what you gotta do, I’ll help out. We’re friends, Beauty, and don’t forget it. No need to bother Jacie. Annie and I can pack the place.”
“Jacie has a key and would be pissed if I didn’t ask her. You can be in the same room for a few hours. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“You want me to drive your car out and drag a trailer with your stuff. I can help you get settled. That house needs some updating. I’d like to visit the cemetery and pay respects.”
“No nonessential travel. Remember there’s a virus out there. I don’t need a dead ex. Let the professionals take the risks. Jacie’s brother has been interested in the car. I was waiting for the weather to change so I could get around on the scooter.” She sat on the wood Adirondack chair her father had built. “I’ve got Dad’s dog and cats for company. There’s some relatives near and he emailed friends to look in on me. So I find groceries I didn’t order on the front porch and neighbors waving when I’m outside. One’s coming to the fence now. Talk later.” She was still a lousy liar. Took after her dad that way.
Dialing Jacie, Belinda let Dinky lead the way back in. She closed the door, then the inside door which she locked.
“I’m staying here, friend,” she said before Jacie spoke. “There’s no ocean and more fields than forests, but Dad’s trust means there are four walls that are mine and more money than I ever had in the bank. I’ll be able to find a job when it’s all clear. One that pays enough for a decent living. Freezing in 500 square-feet above someone’s garage and settling for a seasonal retail job are too much to pay to eat lobster rolls with my friends. I love my friends in Portland, but there’s no special person, no stable housing, no job, no prospects. I’m scared of what’s going to be left when the virus is under control. ”
“I was waiting for this call. This is why the lifers don’t invest in relationships with folks like us.”
“You sound like a Maineiac, friend.”
“I’ve only lived here since high school. Became a nurse so I could make a living. Married a local.” Her voice quieted, “I can hear your heart breaking. I’m gonna miss you, Beauty. And I won’t be the only one. Give me the details. I’m hoping you aren’t planning to come back and pack your place.”
“I’m hoping you and Aaron might take care of the packing. Just the studio. I’ll hold off on the storage unit until it is safe to travel.”
“Is your dad’s place getting better? You’ve been uncomfortable there since he passed.”
Belinda looked around the kitchen her father remodeled in 2000. She’d replace a few appliances, paint, replace some cabinet doors with glass, swap out the pulls and knobs, remove the blinds. Maybe soon. Knock down walls later.
“It’s growing on me. I started pulling down curtains and cleaning out a room. This is going to be my job for a few months. You know me, I’ve got to have a reason to get up each day. No telling what’s going to happen in the world, but it feels damn fine to outright own the place where I sleep and have enough money to eat more than eggs and toast. Makes the starting over easier.”
“Amen.” Jacie cleared her throat. “Now tell me what you need me to do.”
“First I need you to stay healthy, Jacie. I can’t watch the news without thinking of you pulling down doubles.”
“We’re all doing our best, friend. You, me, everyone.”
Featured image: yuRomanovich / Shutterstock
When the doorbell rang, Henry was checking the Facebook. Again. His wife had posted a photograph that had him thinking. It was a picture of pastel-colored cookies. There were three, one on top of the other: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and a fourth, a green one angled against the cookie tower. Beneath the photo, a caption: “The art of macaron making … not to be confused with macaroon making.”
Henry had never tasted a green cookie. Was it pistachio? He wasn’t sure if such a thing existed, and he decided it shouldn’t. He cringed at the thought. But the bigger question, the reason he was on the Facebook for the ninth time that day, was where was his wife? Was she at their house only 4.7 miles away, or was she in Paris studying macaron making? And since when was she the type of woman to differentiate between a macaroon and a macaron?
Was she by herself?
With a friend?
With a man?
She wouldn’t be with a man, he decided. It wasn’t that kind of break, after all.
The doorbell rang again. Henry took a moment to think about who it might be. Nobody even knew that he had taken this condo on the edge of town, but Henry decided to answer the door anyway.
When he pressed his eye up against the peephole, Henry didn’t see anybody. And he was about to step away when he caught a shadow in his periphery. Then the bell rang again and Henry saw the top of a head.
It’s one of those little people, the ones featured in medical specials, Henry thought. And he’s standing too close to my door, that’s the reason I can’t see him properly. He’s probably selling something.
The doorbell rang again.
So, Henry opened it. He was ready to reject whatever sales pitch this little person began reciting.
But Henry quickly realized that it was not a little person, just a child.
Henry and the boy stared at each other for a moment.
“Can George come out to play?” the boy finally asked.
His thick black-rimmed glasses rested low on his nose and his dark hair stuck straight up like it hadn’t been brushed since the last time he slept. There was a large gap in the front of his mouth where teeth ought to be.
“No,” said Henry.
“Why not?” asked the boy. He reached down and pulled up one of his tall lime green socks. He was wearing them with black, slide-on sandals.
“Because there is nobody named George here,” Henry said.
“Did he go out?” the boy asked. “With his mom?”
“No. George doesn’t live here. You must have the wrong door.”
This was a reasonable explanation. The units in the complex were all identical. The only appealing feature Henry had found in them was the fact that they were partially furnished and allowed a monthly lease. He was hopeful he wouldn’t be extending his initial commitment.
“Nope,” said the boy, “it says number twelve. This is where George lives. I live in thirty-six.”
The boy looked at Henry and pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. He poked his finger in his ear and wiggled it around for a moment.
“I’ve been here before,” the boy added.
Henry stared at him.
“You sick?” the boy asked.
“No,” Henry said. “Do I look sick?”
“Your eyes look all sick and allergy,” the boy said.
“Oh, that. Yes. I have some allergies.”
Henry could just call his wife, he decided. Call her at the house and tell her he wanted to come back. He wanted to come home.
“I have allergies too. I’m allergic to sun, broccoli, shoelaces and cat fur. What are you allergic to?”
“Allergic?” Henry repeated.
“What gave you the allergy eyes?”
“Oh, right.” Henry had never heard of a person being allergic to shoelaces. Perhaps it was only certain laces, made of certain fibers. Or perhaps, Henry considered, the child was lying. “Macaron cookies,” said Henry.
“That stinks.” The boy shook his head and blinked his eyes rapidly. “I’d hate being allergic to cookies.”
He leaned to the right and looked past Henry into the condo. Henry stepped aside and peered over his own shoulder. There was nothing there.
“You got any pets?” the boy asked.
“Not currently,” said Henry.
“Never,” said Henry. “Why do you ask?”
“I thought maybe that’s why you have the allergy eyes. Being allergic to cats would be way better than being allergic to cookies.”
“It’s not all cookies,” said Henry. He could call Miriam and make her understand that he was devastated too. Just like she was. They were in this together.
“I don’t trust cats,” the boy said.
“I thought you were a salesman, you know. When you rang the bell,” Henry said. “A small salesman.”
“Ok,” the boy said. “Will you tell George I came over? I’ve been here before.”
“It’s only macaron cookies,” Henry said.
“I’ll come back later. Maybe tomorrow,” the boy said. He waved his paw-like hand, turned around and walked down the path, kicking at the ground as he moved away from Henry and unit number twelve.
The next morning, Henry did not open his laptop. He did this intentionally, wanting to prove that he didn’t have to check on her. Instead, he walked out his front door. The chill air bit at his bare arms and he realized he ought to have worn a sweater, but he didn’t care. He walked toward his car and saw a large Canada goose standing in a grassy patch.
The goose honked.
“Shut up, goose,” Henry said.
The goose took a few quick, waddling steps towards Henry. It cocked its head to one side. Henry glared at the goose then got into his car and drove to the grocery store.
He wandered into the floral section and accidentally bought a plant he thought looked a lot like the ones Miriam scattered around their house. It was a stalky thing, leafy and green. Difficult to kill, the woman at the grocery store told him. Those words lingered in Henry’s mind, although Henry suspected she used this line to describe all the plants. She had no idea what they implied to Henry. After all, who was going to buy a plant that was easy to kill? And her pitch worked. He wanted something that was difficult to kill, that could live in extremity. That something like that might exist was a comfort to Henry. So, he bought the plant. He also grabbed a few cans of tuna fish and some tomato soup. He debated buying the low sodium, organic variety. The kind that Miriam bought. But he reached for the regular, high salt, high chemical, condensed. He liked the taste better, and there was nobody around forcing him to do otherwise.
When he got home, Henry set the plant on the kitchen counter, next to the laptop. Then he lifted it and carried it to the center of the island. Only after the plant was settled did Henry give in, open his computer and log into the Facebook. His wife hadn’t posted anything new, although many of her friends had liked or posted clever compliments on her cookie picture. When he scrolled below the macaron photo he saw the condolence messages posted by her friends, their friends, all those months ago. But he didn’t read them. He’d never really read them. There was nothing anybody could say that would be of any interest to Henry.
There was nothing in between.
Cookies then condolences.
It made no sense to him. Henry snapped the computer shut.
That afternoon, when his doorbell rang again, Henry immediately knew who it was. He pushed his laptop, with the macaron picture that he’d been again trying to interpret, back and stood up. When he arrived at the peephole this time, knowing where to train his eye, he caught the boy’s head more quickly.
“Can George come out to play?” the boy asked.
“No,” Henry said.
“George doesn’t live here. Why don’t you try some of those doors,” Henry suggested, pointing.
The boy stepped back. “It says number twelve,” he said. “This is where George lives.”
He looked at Henry as if it were Henry’s turn to speak, but Henry just stared back.
Finally, “Your glasses are dirty,” Henry said.
The boy reached up to his ear and pulled off the glasses. “Yup,” he said. He wiped the lenses with his shirt. “That won’t work,” Henry said. “You need water.”
The boy spit on them and wiped with his shirt again.
“Not saliva,” said Henry. “Clean water. Do you know the difference?”
The boy looked up at Henry. “The difference between spit and faucet water?”
“Yup,” he said. “I do.” He nodded slowly. Then, “Can I use your sink?” the boy asked.
Henry knew of many reasons he should not let a stranger, even, or perhaps especially a child stranger, into his house. But the kid’s glasses were dirty. Grimy, even.
“Sure,” Henry said, “but be snappy.” He stepped aside and let the boy walk past. Henry pointed to the bathroom. “There,” he said.
The boy turned on the water and rubbed his fingers on the glass. He dried them on his shirt.
“Better,” he said.
But Henry saw smudges on them still. And those smudges grazed a memory in Henry’s mind he didn’t know was so near to the surface. Claire with her brown ponytail and turquoise reading glasses. She only wore them for doing her homework at the kitchen table. Henry would glance at her, head tilted over her book, finger marking a spot on the page and he remembered choking on the depth of the emotion he had for his perfect child. The magnitude of his luck in having her. He would be viscerally drawn to move towards her and lay his hand on her back or press his lips to the top of her head, just for the chance to breathe her in. Even now, the memory made him gasp.
Henry had a sudden and irresistible urge to clean this child’s glasses.
“Hang on a minute,” Henry said, reaching for and taking the glasses away from the boy. Henry walked down the hallway to his kitchen where he pulled open a cabinet door, pushed aside the ibuprofen and found what he wanted. Henry removed a lens wipe from a packet. When he turned, the boy was right behind him.
“I thought you said you didn’t have any pets?” the boy asked.
“I don’t,” Henry said.
“What about that?” The boy pointed at the plant.
“That’s a plant. Not a pet.” Henry wiped the lenses clean then did the frame.
“Is it alive?”
“Alive doesn’t make it a pet,” said Henry.
“I think, maybe. Maybe, it does.”
The wipe was almond colored when Henry returned the glasses to the boy.
“Wow,” the boy said, sliding them onto his face. “They’re brand new. It’s like I’m seeing rainbows. How’d you do that?”
“Lens wipes.” Henry held up the box. He began walking towards the door.
“You want to play?” the boy asked.
“No,” said Henry.
“Why not?” asked the boy.
“Because I’m an adult. I don’t play.”
“Okay,” the boy said. He turned to walk away but stopped and looked at Henry. “You know what?” he asked.
“You shouldn’t stare at those cookie pictures, if you’re allergic.”
“You were snooping on my computer,” Henry said.
“You can get a reaction that way. I know. It’s happened to me before.”
“Is that so,” said Henry.
“But with the shoelaces, not cookies. I was staring at them real hard, and I got itchy all over. My mom had to take me to the hospital because my throat started to shut up. I didn’t even touch them.”
“I was looking at a friend’s post on the Facebook, that’s all,” said Henry.
“Maybe we can play with your chess set next time,” said the boy.
“Next time?” asked Henry.
“Are you any good?”
“Were you snooping in my living room?” asked Henry.
The boy shrugged. “My eyes just sort of saw it when I walked past.”
“I’m okay,” Henry said. “I don’t play as much as I used to.”
Henry thought about it. “I guess I don’t have anybody to play with.”
“Because of you being an adult?” the boy asked.
“Not exactly. I’ve been busy lately,” Henry said.
“You ask a lot of questions,” Henry said.
“Ok,” said the boy. “Tell George I came over. Maybe we can all three of us do a chess tournament next time. If it’s ok with his mom.”
“Next time?” asked Henry, for the second time in not so many minutes. But the boy didn’t answer. He had already turned and started down the path, heading away from unit number twelve.
The next day Henry called Miriam. The phone rang six times before her pre-recorded voice came on, instructing Henry to leave a message. Henry’s eyes stung, he cleared his throat and got ready for the beep. But when it sounded, Henry couldn’t speak. He breathed heavily, and felt as if a boulder was being pressed into his chest. Henry remembered what the boy had said about his throat closing, and he hung up. He knew Miriam hated voicemail anyway and would see his name under her missed calls.
When the boy arrived that afternoon, he didn’t ask for George.
“I guess you’re here to play chess,” Henry said.
“Yup,” the boy said nodding. “But your goose almost chased me away.”
“I don’t have a goose,” Henry said.
“He honked at me and started to hiss. I tossed him some leftover granola bar and he chased that. He looks like a mean goose.”
“He should have migrated south by now,” Henry said.
“I think he wants to be your pet,” the boy said. “Like a watchdog.”
Henry stepped aside and the boy walked in. They went into the living room and sat in wooden chairs that Henry had assembled years ago. Henry had found them discarded in the basement before he moved.
“This is a cool set,” said the boy. He picked up the king and examined it. “He’s taller than my king,” he said, placing it back on the board. He tapped the wooden top of each pawn.
“It was a gift,” said Henry.
“It was a gift I gave,” said Henry.
“Who’d you give it to?” the boy asked.
“My daughter,” said Henry.
“Then you took it back?” the boy asked.
Henry cleared his throat. “She doesn’t really need it now. And it reminds me of her, so I like having it.”
“That’s cool,” said the boy. “I’d never get rid of a set like this though. I like how the pieces are fat and heavy.”
The boy played first and moved his pawn to e4. Henry bit his inner cheek. It was a good open, but was it luck or skill? Henry decided to find out and he moved his pawn to e5.
The boy didn’t hesitate and moved his pawn to f4. His little legs didn’t reach the carpet and they swung back and forth.
Henry was curious to see what kind of player the boy was. Henry captured his pawn with a move to f4.
The boy’s nose was running and he rubbed it with the back of his hand. He picked up a pawn with his germy little fingers. The boy moved his piece to g4. Henry quickly captured that pawn too, moving his own piece onto g3.
“Hey,” said the boy. “You’re cheating.” He looked Henry straight in the eyes.
“Mmmm … You don’t know this rule?” said Henry.
The boy shook his head.
“It’s called en passant.”
“In passing,” said the boy.
“That’s very good,” said Henry. “I captured the pawn attempting to pass by me as if it had only moved one spot instead of two.”
“Ok,” said the boy, examining the chessboard. “You sure this is legal?”
“Certain,” said Henry.
“Can you show me again?” the boy asked.
“Sure,” said Henry. He returned the pieces to their original spaces on the board.
“You moved your pawn here,” Henry said, lifting the white piece and moving it two spaces forward on the board. “But if you had moved it here,” he pointed to the square behind where the pawn now rested, “my pawn could have captured it. The en passant rule says that I can still take it. I just move my pawn to this square and remove your pawn.”
“En passant,” the boy repeated. “Doesn’t seem fair to take my piece when it’s not even in that spot.”
“It’s not fair,” said Henry. “But it is a legal move.”
The boy nodded and sniffed his nose.
“Let me get you some tissues,” Henry offered.
“That’s ok,” the boy said, reaching for his bishop.
Henry decided he’d have to disinfect the set when the boy went home anyway, and he let it go.
He now had a decision to make. Should he let the boy win? Henry wasn’t in the habit of crushing small spirits, and he didn’t like watching children cry. However, it might be embarrassing to lose to a child who was not his own.
These were the things Miriam was good at advising him on. She understood the nuance of situations that Henry couldn’t decipher. When Claire was young and Henry was just teaching her the game, Miriam told Henry to let her win. Initially, Henry bristled against this on principle. But he quickly found he enjoyed Claire’s glee, the way she giggled when she announced checkmate, far more than any joy victory could bring him. As she grew older and more skillful, Henry challenged her but still always let her win. When Claire was around 12, Miriam told him to stop doing that. She’d catch on soon. But Henry couldn’t. So, he’d take a victory occasionally but allowed her to put his king in checkmate the majority of their games.
Until the day when Claire said, “Daddy, you have to stop.”
“Stop what?” Henry said.
“It’s condescending,” she’d said. “You’re insulting me. I’m not a baby. I want a fair fight.”
So, Henry started playing real chess. And over the last ten years, Claire had come close to beating Henry many times, but she’d never gotten to announce checkmate. Henry so wished he’d let her win the last time they’d played. But of course, he’d had no way of knowing that would be the last game they shared.
Now, Henry couldn’t call Miriam and ask her what to do. And since this boy was nearly a stranger, Henry was even more confused.
Henry said, “How old are you?”
“Eight and a half,” said the boy. Henry thought that was still firmly in the let them win age range. Henry moved his knight.
“And where did you learn to play chess?” Henry asked.
“Hospital,” said the boy.
“The hospital?” Henry repeated.
“Yup,” said the boy, taking his turn.
What a terrible place to learn chess, Henry thought, moving again. The hospital. He remembered the phone call that brought Miriam and him there, the silent drive, the stark linoleum corridor with the swinging doors at the end, the glow of the blue-white light, and the permeating scent of ammonia.
“My mom’s there now,” the boy said, reaching towards the board.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Henry said. “I hope she gets better soon.”
“She’s not sick,” said the boy.
Henry remembered the look on Miriam’s face. The silent tears. Her lack of presence. It was as if she had turned into shell and the real Miriam had disappeared, dissolved into a dark tunnel.
“It’s your turn” the boy said.
“Right,” said Henry, looking at the board. “Why is your mother at the hospital, then?”
“Cause of my brother. He’s maybe gonna die. They’re trying to fix him.”
“That’s terrible,” Henry said. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah. Me too,” said the boy.
Henry could still see Claire in his mind. He remembered seeing and touching her that final time. He was supposed to identify her body. To confirm that his only child was dead. He’d been alone because Miriam was slumped down in the hallway, no longer crying, unable to move. A nurse had sat next to her and held her hand while she stared at nothing. The nurse told Henry to go ahead. So, Henry did. And when he saw Claire she was pale and grey and already cold. Yet somehow, she was still as exquisite and pure as she’d been on the day she was born. The thought of leaving her there was impossible, incomprehensible and Henry had begun to shiver and sweat all at once. If he’d been physically able, he would have lifted her off the bed and cradled her, carried her out of that frigid room with him. Even like that, he would have kept her forever.
“Doctors can do amazing things,” Henry said. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “I’ll bet your brother will be just fine,” Henry said. He didn’t really mean it, but it was the only thing he could think to offer.
“Maybe,” the boy said.
Henry had not made a final decision about letting the boy win, yet the child announced, “Checkmate.”
“Checkmate?” Henry repeated.
Had Henry let him win? His attention had surely slipped. Henry examined the placement of the pieces still on the board. He noted the pieces that had been removed.
He’d definitely gone easy on the kid. And he was distracted. But Henry felt a surge of relief in his stomach that the boy had won.
The boy stuck out his hand to shake Henry’s. “Good game,” he said. “Thanks for teaching me that move. I’m going to use that all the time.”
Henry shook his hand. It was small and warm and something about the way it fit so entirely inside Henry’s palm clutched at Henry.
“You’re welcome,” said Henry. “You’re a good player. We’ll do it again.”
The boy nodded.
After the boy left, Henry texted Miriam. I’m so sorry, he wrote. He was sorry for everything, even the parts that were not his fault. He was sorry he hadn’t made more cups of hot tea, brought her more boxes of tissues and sat quietly by her side in the weeks after. He was deeply sorry for cleaning out Claire’s room, donating those boxes to goodwill and planning that vacation. Even though he had been following the advice of a book on grief, a stupid book he’d bought online, he was very, very sorry.
Henry held the phone in his hand and watched the little dots dance across the bottom of the screen. Henry knew this meant she was replying. But then the dots disappeared, and the text screen remained blank.
Henry threw his phone against the wall.
The boy did not ring Henry’s doorbell again. After three days Henry noticed that he had never righted the chess pieces after his last game. He began moving each piece to its correct square. Quickly, Henry noticed that something was wrong. Something was missing.
The black king. It was gone. Henry scanned the floor. He peeked beneath the sofa. He stood in the center of the room with his hands on his hips.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said aloud.
A few days later, Henry decided he had to do something. He could wait no longer. He walked out his front door. He noticed the goose.
“You’ve missed migration,” Henry said. “You don’t belong here. You need to move on.” Henry motioned towards the sky and the goose stared at Henry. His tall neck was midnight bright against the grey day. He honked. Henry set his jaw and pressed his eyes into slits. He took a few steps towards the goose. Something rustled in the distance and Henry saw another goose fretting in the shrubbery. Both geese moved towards Henry. The bigger one began to hiss, the smaller one honked rapidly. “I live here,” Henry shouted. “Get used to it, geese.” Henry backed away a few paces before turning to trot down his path.
Henry rang the doorbell on unit number thirty-six. He heard a voice call out, “I’ll be right there.”
When she opened the door, Henry averted his eyes to hide his surprise. She was a hairless woman. He looked down, then back at her quickly, just to confirm. Indeed, she was bald with pale, sunken cheeks. Sick people made Henry feel nauseated. He looked at his feet again.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked.
“I’m looking for somebody,” Henry said.
“Anyone in particular?” she asked.
“I’m looking for … ” and suddenly Henry realized he didn’t know the boy’s name. He wondered what was the matter with him. He had never asked the boy his name. He decided it must be the situation with Miriam. Had he really never even asked the child for his name?
“A child,” Henry said. “The little boy who lives here. He has dark hair and is about this tall.” Henry held up his hand to mid-chest.
“There are no children here,” she said. “I’m here alone.”
“He had sticky fingers and smudged glasses,” Henry went on. “He doesn’t comb his hair.”
“I know what a child is,” the woman said. “I raised three of them. But there are none here.”
“He is a reasonably competent chess opponent,” Henry added.
“I think you have the wrong unit,” the woman suggested. Henry looked at the number on the doorframe. “No, this is unit thirty-six. This is where he lives.”
Or lived,” the woman said. “I just moved in yesterday.”
“I think he has my king,” Henry said.
“Your king?” the woman repeated.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Henry said. “You don’t look like you’re feeling well.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
Henry glanced at her for a moment before closing his eyes. Everything began spinning around him. The woman spoke, but her voice was distant, as if she were murmuring under water. Henry had a desperate urge to be back at home. His real home with Miriam, where things like this didn’t happen.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “Do you need to sit down?” She reached out and touched his arm. Henry stepped away. “I’m not contagious,” she said, shaking her head. “I was making a joke when I asked why you thought I was unwell. A bad joke, apparently.” The woman lifted both hands and rested them on her bald head. Henry looked at her then. Her eyes were filling with tears. Henry was making this sick woman cry. He looked directly at her head. It was well-shaped, Henry thought. He ran his fingers through his own, thinning hair.
“I know you’re not contagious,” Henry said. He cleared his throat.
“I’m living here while I get treatment,” she said, rubbing her fingers under her eyes. “This place gives a discount to patients who need an extended stay situation.”
“This was rude of me,” Henry shook his head. “That boy accidentally took a piece of my chess set. My king. You can’t play chess without the king,” Henry said.
“That is true,” the woman said.
“He may have stolen it. It might not have been an accident at all.”
The woman nodded her head. “He probably stole it,” she agreed. “Most children have thievish tendencies.”
Something about the way she said this made Henry laugh. There was a hint of mischief in her eyes, too. “But he was a nice kid,” Henry finally said, shaking his head. “Even if he stole it, I could tell he was a good boy.”
“Maybe,” the woman nodded.
Henry turned to leave but suddenly paused. “If you need anything, I’m in unit number twelve.”
The woman smiled, and that smile softened her eyes in such a way that Henry almost didn’t mind her bald head. It was no longer her most defining feature.
“Thank you,” she said.
Henry stared at her for a moment longer than was comfortable before waving goodbye.
Tomorrow, Henry would go to the store where he’d buy a few cans of chicken noodle soup, and a box of crackers. Sick people food. He’d select a few magazines that Miriam always read when she had a cold. Then he’d ring her doorbell, hand her the bag of groceries and ask for her name. He’d learn it was Elsie and he’d tell her his name was Henry. Elsie would invite him inside, but he would decline. He would remind her that he lived in unit number twelve, if she ever needed anything.
But he didn’t know any of that yet. For now, Henry began walking down the path. He realized that he never asked the woman her name and he vowed to do better with introductions. He saw that there was no car in her driveway and wondered how she got around. There must be prescription medication she needed. How did she pick that up? While Henry was thinking about all these things, it began to snow.
“Those geese better get moving,” Henry said aloud. Winter had definitely arrived. Maybe they’d be gone when he got back to his unit. He’d have to check. Snowflakes tickled Henry’s nose and cheeks. Quickly, white patches clung to the grass, lacing a doily over all the yards Henry passed. Henry tilted his chin towards the sky, opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue so that he could taste the icy cold. He considered the mystery of how countless snowflakes fell from the sky, yet no two were identical. It was a mystery he had pondered for years, ever since he was a child, yet another thing he’d never understand. And Henry decided that maybe that was okay. Maybe that was just the way it had to be.
Featured image: Shutterstock, Alexander_P
I hit my first deer a few weeks after my sweet sixteen party. I’d just gotten my driver’s license a few days before. It was a typical cool fall evening on a narrow bend, somewhere close by in this hollow. The chilly Southern Indiana breeze was blowing through, making the gravel road slicker than usual. A sort of freezing of the little pieces of stone in a way that they’d stick together like minute rice does if you don’t add enough water. I drove around that curve in Daddy’s yellow Ford Granada. Listening to a song from the Beatles — I think it was Let It Be. I sang along, my head barely above the wide yellow steering wheel. A taste of peppermint Chapstick on my lips.
The little doe just jumped out of nowhere. She came through the trees and some bushes, then introduced herself right quick to my large boxy headlight. I slammed on the brakes and felt the fishtailing of the backside. Daddy said later I’d kicked up a patch of Autumn leaves with the tires, which made it worse. Oh, I screamed and screamed as the car turned in circles. By the time I was done, that little deer was halfway to sandwich meat.
I felt bad afterwards. She was a mother. Her little boy came walking up to her body after I’d checked her out on the road. His tiny black eyes looked right through me. A sort of squeal from his insides and a tremble from that white fluffy tail.
I grew up real fast that day. Learned the consequences of a large automobile, and me taking too many loose risks with the accelerator. Well, I guess I learned some lessons like that. I sure did take that stretch of road behind me a little too fast this time too. Now, here’s another one, twitching on the ground off the side of my Lincoln Continental. The little squeal, although this time apparently from my radiator. The steam coming out from under the hood. A giant dent in the front bumper, which warps the reflection of the moonlight through them same fall trees.
I think I first met a deer back when I was five or six. We were in our nightgowns sitting on our living room floor playing a game of Put ‘n Take on the yellow carpet. That card game where you add pennies (we used buttons) to the pot if you got a match, and then at some point started doing the opposite by taking money back until the pot was empty. Mama always said it was me and at least three of my sisters that early evening: Marjorie, Loretta, and Junie. We were the youngest ones then except for Robby, but he would have been upstairs in the attic sleeping. The older kids either out with their friends or out of the house by then. All of us members of the old Schoettmeyer family.
Mama said she had her sewing kit out fixing a shirt that night. Daddy was probably a few drinks of whiskey deep laying on the couch. We girls were just sitting there in a circle, a warm fire in the wood-burning stove and maybe some music from the radio, which often broadcasted from the local polka club. We were probably giggling or maybe fighting over a button or two. Then, suddenly, a loud crash. A spray of glass all over us in that little room. The damn deer had plain jumped through the picture window beside the door. Must have gotten confused and thought he was running towards some warm shiny cave. He pranced around disoriented and covered in cuts of blood. We girls danced around too, all scared and screaming. Daddy thought he saw the devil that night, later blaming Mr. Jack Daniels.
It was Mama who took control. She set down her sewing kit and chased the deer out the kitchen side door. A trail of blood all across that yellow carpet. The smell of animal sweat and toilet-leavings. Daddy found the critter the next day towards the end of our gravel lane, dead. It took us weeks to get that picture window replaced. Months for us girls to stop having night terrors in our dreams (it didn’t help that the attic was crawling with a family of field mice). Southern Indiana has had a problem with deer for several years. There’s way too many of us, and way too many of them.
Of course, we Shoettmeyers weren’t the only ones getting attacked. Well, I guess attacked isn’t the right word unless you’re looking at it from the perspective of the animal. Irregardless, I remember that one weekend some spring when my friend Bette and her family were driving home from the high school basketball sectionals. Our team wasn’t worth the price of admission, but we’d all went to cheer on our school and then watched the annihilation of our little farm boys by those big players from Indianapolis. Bette’s dad made her leave that game early, I remember. Some sort of church prayer group that night, over in Millhousen. So, she loaded into the back of the family station wagon with at least two of her bratty little brothers who always seemed to have something sticky on their fat faces, whether it be ice cream or spilled soda or maybe snot.
Bette’s dad had a lead foot when it came to driving, and that station wagon was like a rusty old rocket with polished wood side panels. Bette said they were going over the crooked stone bridge at Cobb’s Fork pretty fast when they saw the group of deer standing in the middle of Millhousen Road. There were three of the hairy little white-tails, just staring wide-eyed at the oncoming headlights and frozen in place, much like our varsity squad on that basketball court that night.
Bette said the station wagon knocked two of the beasts off their feet, and the third did a ballerina spin straight into the air before landing smack dab in the center of the car’s roof. Bette got a big knot on the head from that collision, and I swear she just wasn’t right after that. A little weird twitch in her neck and moments in mid-conversation where she’d stop talking and stare blankly with a little bit of drool running down her chin. Her daddy laughed at that night for several years, and always bragged about how the county let him keep the meat from all three deer, even though I think the law back then only allowed one doe and one buck during hunting season. Well, he laughed until that head injury caught up with Bette. By the time we were in our thirties, she was in a nursing home barely able to speak her name. Soon after, she was gone.
It’s scary how quick time goes by.
My eldest sibling Alfred always had his favorite deer story, which he made sure we knew was better than any we had to tell. Alfred was 19 years older than me, my parents having started with the Catholic sex practices the first night of their marriage, popping out thirteen kids total before poor Mama’s uterus gave out in her mid-forties (she always said God gave her fourteen blessings in life — us kids and early menopause).
I was the third youngest, but still tried to challenge Alfred on the suspect nature of his story. After all, he had become quite acquainted with Mr. Daniel’s by then. But Alfred never backed down. He said anyone could hit a deer with a moving vehicle. He had knocked one down with his cold, bare hands.
I guess it happened when he was around 28, having returned from that Korean War and then setting up a farm next to Daddy’s. Alfred had quite a garden patch back then, in addition to the various corn and soybean fields. He liked to grow cabbage in that garden, for whatever reason, and made his wife Pamela cook the smelly weed twice a week.
But then one summer the deer took over. They ate through half the cabbage heads, coming out of the woods at night to make their feast. Alfred first tried to scare them off with aluminum pinwheels (ones he’d stolen from me and my sisters, which we’d picked up at the County 4-H fair). That didn’t work. Someone recommended a deer-proof fence, but he laughed off the suggestion, saying the damn animals could jump higher than any fence pole he’d met. So then one night he just sat on the back porch with his shooting rifle. Got bored real quick so he dipped into that whiskey bottle. A few rounds later he saw a whole family of spotted deer creeping into his garden patch. He shot the gun but nothing happened, then realized Pamela had removed the shells hours before (she always said he could have a gun and have a drink, but never in the same evening). He threw down the gun and went chasing after the deer through the garden, the shadows from the orange security light making it seem like there were twice as many. The deer started running in circles and trampling every other vegetable in the patch. Alfred didn’t care, he just wanted to save those last few heads of cabbage.
Alfred said he screamed and hollered and chased the deer back into the woods. But then he got knocked clear out of his boots and didn’t wake up till hours later, the moon at its highest point in the sky. He had his arm wrapped around what he thought was Pamela in bed, until he realized it was the cold broken body of a young buck. Turns out drunk Alfred and the panicked deer had run straight into each other, hitting so hard that Alfred lost consciousness (and control of his bladder, according to Pamela). The deer broke its neck. “Take that,” Alfred said, every time he told the story (in a more favorable manner). “I ran over a deer myself. Don’t need no stinking vehicle.”
Alfred was always such a character. He had that loud table-shaking belly laugh.
My dear sweet husband Phil also had his run-in with the pests. It was probably around the time our daughter Sammy was in kindergarten. It had been a rough few years for me and Phil, having tried everything to be with child. Then God surprised us with the gift of Sammy, a little baby sweetheart left at the local volunteer fire station, where Phil was captain. The County tried hard to find her parents, but came up empty. So, we eventually took her on, and that was that. I was a mother.
I think it was a summer night a few years later. I was at bingo at the Knight’s Hall with my seven sisters. Marjorie, Loretta, and Junie, of course, as well as Agatha, Rosemary, Greta, and Constance (Constance was visiting from Cincinnati, the rest of us girls never left Millhousen). We were laughing and drinking that Tickled Pink cheap wine that tasted like strawberries. A couple of us must have won a few games, as I recall a pile of cash somewhere in the direction of Agatha’s seat. But then old mayor George Harper walked over with a belt full of pull-tab tickets. He said he’d just gotten a call from the sheriff’s department. Turns out Phil drove his truck straight over a mailbox after smacking a deer sideways. I was panicked at first, until George pointed me in the direction of the house phone where Phil was laughing. “I took that damn deer fishing,” he said. I thought he was drunker than a skunk.
Course, I later heard the real story, or as real as a story from a man can be. Phil was driving towards the farm with a few buckets of catfish in the back of his pickup truck. He’d had a successful evening of fishing over there near Cobb’s Fork. Said it was easier to find the deeper holes in the creek now that the County had cleared away half the forest (for some new housing development, which never finished). I guess Phil took a turn near the old bridge, and he came upon a giant 12-point buck standing proud in the center of the blacktop. Phil hit the brakes and tried to miss it, but the animal charged his truck and they collided at thirty miles per hour. The buckets of water went flying in the air and dropped the catfish all around that deer, who had its antlers stuck under the front hood. Phil was lucky to survive that night, my dear sweet man. God sure gave him several extra lives, the old dog.
I think it was around that time the county noticed the problem with the animals. Too many deer and too many people slamming into them. The county went and got permission from the governor to do a culling, a so-called authorized hunt where the men could go into the woods on a Saturday morning and shoot around thirty-some white-tails in a mile or so radius. A way to thin the masses, since the deer had no natural predators (other than a Ford or Chevy on an evening drive). It sounded gruesome at first, and several people in town protested (mostly us ladies). But the county and old mayor George Harper persisted, and the hunt was on.
I still remember that morning. Little Sammy and I sat in front of the television watching a Puff The Magic Dragon cartoon while the sounds of gunshots came from the woods behind the barn. A constant series of pops, which scared Sammy at first until I gave her a few extra snickerdoodle cookies and told her it was just the sound of falling rain. Little love droplets from our heavenly father.
She was such a fragile little girl, that Sammy. A delicate little angel. Her hair was as red as Phil’s fire engine, and her cheeks were just as rosy. I loved her more than a man loves his football team. All the way into her forties when we lost her. A series of pain medications that she just couldn’t kick.
It’s crazy how life takes a turn now and then, just as sharp and crooked as this bend in this hollow. It’s enough to make you angry. To just go screaming in the night if you will, like Alfred went after those deer in his garden patch. But Mama taught us girls that you have to barrel through. Consider each day just as sweet as another cookie from the jar, and carry on. So here I am.
That deer still twitches near the front of my Lincoln Continental. The flashers blinking on the trees with their falling leaves. Casting everything into intermittent shades of red in this quiet cold night. I smell the crisp scent of burnt tire tread.
They decided the culling was so successful, they repeated it for several years thereafter. It’s funny, though, how it never really seemed to reduce the deer population. People kept running into the beasts at typical frequency. The collisions were so popular, it appeared other animals decided to follow suit.
Which takes me to my brother Dick, who always had to be the outlier. That man loved his dogs and chickens more than anyone I know. He was another one supporting that deep belly laugh.
Anyways, this was years before but it still proves my point. It was the night of the big dance in Judge Westerfeld’s pole barn. I was probably a teenager around then, but not yet old enough to drive that yellow Granada. People across town had been talking for weeks – the big regalia. Some kind of party that Junie, Robby, and I were too young to attend. A fundraiser of sorts for the local library, which was on its last donation. We snuck in anyways. The barn filled with bales of hay along the walls and different colored spotlights hanging from the rafters. A fiddler and a band set up in a corner. Tables of steaming potluck food along the back doors, with the smell of hot apple cider in the air. Women in long, frilly dresses kicking up their heels in the dirt at the center. Men standing awkwardly in circles wearing typical red flannel and blue jeans.
It was a simpler time back then, way before those cellular phones and internets. But it sure brought the community together. People from all different Protestant branches, and the crowd from our Millhousen Catholic Church. I fell in love that night. Not with Phil. He and I wouldn’t meet until a few years later at my cousin’s wedding. No, that night I fell in love with dancing, and it still is something I try to do now and then when no one’s looking. I wish people still appreciated a good two-step or square dance. I wish there were still places to go like Westerfeld’s barn to socialize with all the good folk.
Anyways, it was a chilly night and Dick was driving his daughters to a junior high lock-in before he headed over to the barn dance. The lock-in was sort of a slumber party in the high school gym, where the kids could play and bond under the watchful supervision of Principal Biddy (that’s what everyone called her back then, a sort of spinster lady that only laughed when it involved a kid getting spanked with a pig bone).
Dick was driving on County Road 3 between Millhousen and the school over near Westport. He saw the eyes first, reflecting in the rays of his headlights. He immediately thought “deer,” so he hit the brakes out of habit. But turned out it was young Junior Johnson’s prized heifer. She’d somehow escaped the pen and ran straight into the side of Dick’s blue van. The door buckled and manure sprayed across the vehicle windows. The girls screamed, probably haunted by that moment for years. Well, the trauma from the collision or maybe worse — arriving at the school lock-in in a van covered with shit.
I sure do miss that character. Dick, who probably was my favorite brother even though all five of them seemed to revel in making us girls miserable. Pulling our pigtails and hiding spiders in our shoes and such. But Dick would go out of his way to help a neighbor in need, whether it was lending a loaf of bread or helping rebuild a burnt-down farmhouse. That’s for sure. He was as good-hearted as any man can be. And it’s sad that the good Lord took him away a few years back.
That’s the problem as time passes. The slow loss of loved ones. The replacement of older family members with newer, distant generations.
It’s getting cold out. I think I’ll wait inside the car now until they get here. Surely, someone will drive down this road sometime soon. Just another happy accident. A deer and an old lady. The usual rhyme.
I think the most troublesome of the stories happened during my mid-fifties. Junie’s daughter Gracie had a Sunday morning paper route for that big news company up in Indianapolis. Every week she’d pick up the bundles off a truck that drove down to Millhousen around 4:00 a.m. Then she’d roll them up with rubber bands and spread them across her dashboard for easy handling. They were thick little suckers, full of inserts from the new fancy mall and grocery stores. I can’t imagine she could see the road good, driving that old Pinto she used to have. Not to mention the fog from the chilly early morning, spreading across the fields and those county gravel roads.
Now Gracie was a shy one, always was. As timid as a church mouse, and probably never spoke to a boy in her life. She was mid-20s around that time, and still working on her high school G.E.D. She lived with Junie and their three dogs, Junie’s husband having left them for some cheap casino waitress years earlier. Junie never was right in the head after that divorce, and neither was Gracie. It’s sad how us women sometimes only see ourselves through the eyes of men.
Anyways, poor little Gracie was driving down one of those less-maintained gravel roads over by Donnie Mae’s Beauty Shop, which was in the middle of the countryside on top of a steep hill. Gracie always wore coke-bottle thick glasses and had that stringy brown hair most of us Schoettmeyer girls had (if any of us had the nerve to show our natural color). They said the visibility was minimal, and she had her high beams on when everyone knows in a fog you use the low ones. Irregardless, the deer jumped in front of her Pinto near the big culvert just a few yards away from the lane up to Donnie Mae’s shop. Gracie hit the beast, and it went flying through her windshield. Next thing you know, she and the car and that animal were turned upside-down in the culvert. And that was that.
Another one gone.
It’s really quite startling when you think about it. The number of years that fly by, and the knocking off of loved ones one-by-one. It most always starts with the grandparents (mine were gone soon after I was born), and then the parents. A longer parade of time before the brothers and sisters and in-laws start to drop. Then in some instances even the children, like poor little Gracie and my dear sweet Sammy.
Of course, husbands are the least dependable when it comes to living. They’ve been known to go well before their wives in this small town. Old Phil left me for natural causes when he was 62. A little too much of the drink and his liver went out. I loved that man from here to Sunday. It left the biggest mark on my tired, old heart.
I lost Mama and Daddy in similar ways, to old age and mornings when they just didn’t choose to wake up. Alfred went about ten years after them, a victim of the cancer. Something that hit several of my siblings, including Loretta, Constance, Greta, and poor Agatha, who suffered the longest. Dick went by heart attack, as did little Robby (after too many years of party drugs that started at that fancy bible college down South). I didn’t even mention Randolph and Homer, who we lost to Mr. Nixon and that damn Vietnam War. That leaves Marjorie (stroke), Rosemary (a fall off the porch), and Junie (pneumonia just a year ago). My dear sweet sisters. Each one dropping off in sequence over a period of several years, along with various nieces and nephews (some of whom were older than me).
But that’s just the start of it. Old Mayor George Harper (shot dead), Judge Westerfeld (aneurism), Principal Biddy (ran over), Donnie Mae (sugar diabetes), and even Junior Johnson (opioids). All of them have passed into the Lord’s great kingdom, leaving me down here on Earth in this freezing cold. Me, sitting in this car at age 88. A stiff neck and bouts of mini-confusion. A tiny carcass of the woman I used to be. The last one standing.
Yes, the passage of time is the thing that hurts the most. The changing seasons and then the changing of times. Of habits (politeness switched to rudeness), community events (church fundraisers replaced with protest marches), and even ways of speaking (a friendly “hello” to that now frequent “f” you”). The things that people like, and how they spend their days, evenings, and weekends. An evolution of communication (in person to tapping on a phone), and how we socialize (used to be in person, now it’s through machines). It all changes.
I miss those times from long ago the most. The barn dances and high school sectionals. Junior high lock-ins and bingo at the old Knight’s Hall. Sunday drives through the countryside and the 4-H fair. Newspapers. A long conversation on the phone. None of that stuff happens anymore. Long since lost with the people who are no longer with us. The entire death of generations, replaced by younger ones with odd ideas. The folks I used to know when I was 16. The families. All of them gone to the soil and the hands of God. Populations of people thinned out through the mighty march of time. The sounds of their voices never heard again. Their memory likely lost. The same for me on that day I speak my last belabored breath.
It’s sad when you think about it. Terrible even. Just as painful as any run-in with these silly deer.
Well, here I sit. My teeth chattering from the creeping cold. The lights fading on my flashers from the diminished charge in my battery. The tall, skinny trees with their falling leaves. A shine of moonlight up above with the countless number of lost stars.
There’s a soft sound of footprints. Little crunching on the gravel. I look out the window and immediately fog the glass with my breath. I roll it down to see what’s all the ruckus.
Deer. At least five or six of them. A whole darn herd. Walking down the gravel road from behind me. Now surrounding my Lincoln Continental and this curve in the road amongst the forest. Each taking a whiff of the ripe smell of death from the critter at the front of my vehicle. A final salute, perhaps, to their fallen friend.
I look ahead and see the lights. Approaching slowly on the road before me. Blending into a shiny beacon. Perhaps finally here to take me home.
Featured Image: Shutterstock, oleschwander
As soon as Stella opened her front door, she wanted to close it. There stood her son’s new friend, Kyle, a gangling 14-year-old with stubbly, purple hair, an angular face, and a hostile expression. Beyond him, fog hid whatever route he planned to take.
She wanted to pretend that her son wasn’t home, but he’d start a row if she sent Kyle away. Undecided about whether to fib, she forced her lips to smile.
“Tell Dave I’m here,” Kyle boomed, too loud as always.
“You could say hello.”
Kyle mumbled, “H’lo” and bellowed, “Dave, I’m here, come on.”
Dave dashed to the door. Both boys were shorter than average but otherwise opposites in looks, Dave’s smiling face sweet and handsome, his jeans, shirt, and smooth hair all clean. Kyle was grimy, badly raised, a convict’s nephew, totally different from Dave’s friends in his previous school.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Away, away to the soccer field,” said Kyle.
Unlikely in fog.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really, really.” Kyle sounded mocking, and she wanted to shove him away and protect her son.
“’Bye, Mom,” Dave said.
Too soon the boys became invisible in moist, heavy air. She trudged upstairs to her computer table, where she needed to concentrate on her work designing theatrical costumes. Worries flooded her mind. Kyle had become a problem soon after her husband’s employer moved the family back to a town they’d left a decade ago. Dave had stopped telling enough about what he did. He’d tried to hide his newest online purchase, a mask that looked like a real man’s face. If Kyle asked for a costume, she’d create a coyote.
I need a way to separate them, she thought. She and her husband couldn’t afford private schools for their children. They could pay for a summer camp, but too much could happen before then.
Being hearing impaired, Dave and Kyle talked loudly to understand each other. When far enough from other ears, Dave said, “I got an idea. Let’s go to the cemetery and get eerie videos to post on YouTube.”
“I got another idea. Today’s our chance to explore the Millers’ mansion and learn how a rich scientist lives.” Kyle pointed to a house where only the whitish stone stoop was visible. “Mr. Miller’s a microbiologist, so you’ll find some science stuff. They’re on a trip, and no one’ll spot us going inside, thank you, Mr. Fog.”
“How are you sure that no one’s home?”
“Their car’s been gone and their lights out since Wednesday, and a little kid told me they’re driving to national parks, real far away. Have you ever been inside?”
“No, the Millers are mean grouches.”
“They treated my favorite cousin awful, abysmal, when she worked there.”
“Cheated her out of pay?” Dave asked.
“Yeah, they’re crafty.”
The Millers had paid his cousin Crystal less than they’d promised. They’d fired her and described her as lazy in references. Often moody and sad, she hadn’t found another job; she didn’t divulge how she got money to live on.
“Are we doing a Robin Hood?” Dave asked.
“Today we’re explorers like Marco Polo, or you can be Darwin and learn about the possessions of a scientist.”
Dave could be a lookout while Kyle searched for whatever his 19-year-old cousin’s fence could sell. The cousin had suggested using Dave as an accomplice, starting small; they’d begun with shoplifting chocolate cookies and handing some to a homeless man who huddled under a blanket on a sidewalk; they’d progressed to socks on a “dare.”
“How will we get in, through a window?” Dave asked.
“Just follow me. It’ll be easy.”
“Are you — ”
“Someone’s coming,” said Kyle, whose left ear was better than either of Dave’s ears.
They silenced until after a tall boy strode past them, his boombox blasting band music.
“How did you get the bruise?” Dave asked, staring at Kyle’s cheek.
“Can you see it? My mother’s ex-boyfriend, a slimy worm, he tried to beat me, but he ain’t going to mess with me again. I hate him, I loathe him, I despise him. He knocked my mom against a wall and tried to punch her, and we all fought, and I pummeled him real hard and got rid of him.”
“An evil monster. Did he injure you anywhere besides your cheek?”
“No, it’s not bad. He ain’t never coming back.”
The worst part of the fight had been a flushed face’s sneer when Kyle swayed and toppled, but the brute’s departure was a victory. Mom wouldn’t open a door to him again.
“Tell me if you ever need me to help you,” Dave said.
“Thanks, you’re my best friend. Let’s go.”
They tiptoed behind the two-story, brick house and stopped at the back door. Although cocooned by fog, Kyle felt surprisingly shaky. A few weeks ago, he’d suffered hours of sitting, sweating, in a courthouse, accused of shoplifting a necklace of fake pearls. A witness identified him because of his flamboyant hair. His punishment was fright and the requirement of enduring a warning.
From that experience, he learned to conceal his hair. His heart beating faster at the prospect of his first burglary, he took supplies from his backpack, squeezed a black cap over his head, provided gloves for himself and Dave, and worked on the lock.
“It’s taking too long,” Dave said.
“Shut up. I almost got it,” Kyle replied, embarrassed.
After a few more minutes, he succeeded, and they tiptoed into a gleaming, yellow kitchen with an odor of an ammonia-based cleaning fluid. Everything, from the fancy, brass drawer pulls to the hanging, blue pots looked expensive.
“Look and see if there’s food to give away,” Kyle said. “I bet they eat gourmet stuff.”
Kyle hurried into the dining room, where a breakfront displayed silver plates and bowls that could help pay for a semi-automatic. He slowly, soundlessly opened the breakfront’s glass door. As he touched a plate with an acorn-patterned rim, a warning wail became audible. A police siren.
“Cops, let’s go,” Dave shouted.
The siren became louder, coming toward them and for them. Kyle bolted through the kitchen and followed Dave out the door.
“My DNA — I forgot — I bit into an apple,” Dave said, turning back. “I got to get it.”
He fumbled the knob, and Kyle had to turn it and shove him inside. While warnings of doom came closer, Kyle waited for that amateur to retrieve evidence. If police caught them, Dave would get off with a warning, maybe probation. And his parents’ scolding, but they’d blame Kyle. For Kyle, confinement, misery, the end of all his plans. People he wanted to impress would avoid him. He’d never again enter a home like Dave’s.
Kyle and Dave had noticed each other during Dave’s first day in their middle school. When he hadn’t answered a question, their English teacher had scoffed, “What are you daydreaming about?” A few kids snickered humiliatingly. Having guessed that Dave needed to read lips, Kyle scribbled, “whom” on a note and passed it over his shoulder.
“The answer is ‘whom,’” Dave said.
The teacher snapped, “Kyle, no more of your tricks. That’s a minus.”
The next day Dave got appropriate revenge by hiding the teacher’s eraser, annoying her and amusing the class. Kyle congratulated him; they agreed on their feelings about their teachers and subjects, wanted to see the same sci-fi movie, and began spending their free time together. He preferred Dave to his previous friends, who’d become more interested in drugs than in him or anyone else.
Blinking and staring at a skirt pattern on the computer screen, Stella wondered how to rescue Dave from Kyle’s influence. Maybe a coach could develop Dave’s skills so he’d get on a team with popular boys. As she touched her fingers to computer keys to begin a search, she heard a siren, which screamed louder, speeding nearer.
Had a neighbor called police? She froze, listening to a wail that stopped near where nasty Mr. Miller lived. He’d shouted rudely at Dave, who might, with Kyle’s influence, try a prank for revenge.
She rushed downstairs, her heart beating faster, and opened a door to fog. No sound except sparrows’ chirps, no way to know what was happening at the Millers’ house. If she ran there, she’d make the police suspicious.
Clutching her phone in case Dave called from a police station, she returned upstairs, her mind groping for solutions — more weekend visits with friends from the old school, another lecture by her husband, a GPS tracker. A misfortune, that her son and Kyle had a disability in common. If Dave would consent to wear a hearing aid, he’d make more friends. If only she hadn’t let him stay, last summer, in the badly managed camp where lightning struck a tree beside him and thunder damaged his ears.
Mom had told her to blame the camp, not herself. The evening before Mom’s heart attack, she’d sounded reassured by Stella’s fib that Dave liked his new school. Twice since then, Mom had appeared in Stella’s sleep, simply looking at her.
“Mom, what should I do about Dave?” Stella whispered.
Dave and Kyle ran together across uneven grass to a low fence, climbed over it, and dropped onto a mushy lawn. They dashed along a cement driveway and, on a sidewalk, slowed to a walk to appear nonchalant.
“That was exciting,” Dave panted. “Maybe a housekeeper was upstairs and heard us.”
“Shut up,” Kyle said. “Give me those back.” He pointed to gloves, took the evidence of intent. and stuffed them into his backpack. “We’ll hide behind that hedge until we’re sure we’re safe.”
They crawled behind bushes and crouched on moist grass only seconds before a car rumbled past.
After waiting many minutes, Kyle stood, shook stiffness out of his legs, and said, “We’ll go to the cemetery now. The cops will be scared to search for us there.”
“Yeah, and we’ll get videos for our alibi,” Dave said. “I hope my grandma’s been enjoying a peaceful snooze and not watching me.”
“You gotta be quiet and go fast.”
After sprinting about a quarter mile, they reached a sign saying Vale of Rest. Tombstones, crosses, and skeletal trees faded in gray air. Oddly, some of the oaks leaned over graves as if trying to shelter them. The scene appeared otherworldly, eerier than Kyle had expected. The moist air muffled sounds until something unseen crackled, maybe a spook behind them.
“Let’s race to the saint’s statue,” Dave said.
They tried to run on moist ground. After several paces, Dave stumbled, fell to his hands and knees, and sprang up. Facing a stone cross, he said, “My grandma’s there. I’ll go say hello to her.”
Kyle accompanied him and waited while Dave mumbled, “Hi, Grandma, we all miss you, but you’ll be glad to know, we’re all okay.”
Nearby, a bouquet of gladioli, roses, and lilies adorned a pale tombstone. An opportunity for Dave to steal successfully and become bolder.
Kyle pointed to it. “Go take those for your mom. You said she was mad yesterday because you forgot her birthday.”
“She’ll ask how I bought them when I don’t have any money.”
“Say I lent you some.”
Dave stayed still. “Promise you won’t get a picture of me filching.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Kyle asked.
“No, you’re smart. I bet we’ll find flowers for your mom, too.”
“Her? She don’t do nothing for me. She don’t even fix meals for me.”
When he left home that afternoon, she’d been lying, drunk, in a faded nightgown, smelling of sweat and wine, on a filthy sofa.
“I’ll ask my mom to invite you to dinner,” Dave said.
“She don’t like me. Go, collect the flowers so she won’t keep crabbing. I dare you.”
Nearby, in shifting gray, rustles traveled like whispers from underground. Something chilled Kyle’s arms — what? Had a ghost or mere air touched him? Bravery was tested in this cemetery, where the trees were spectral and tombstones vanished in darkness. Even walking felt strange here, their feet squishing as they approached a marble slab with an inscription: Martha Witherwhile, beloved wife and mother, 1945–2012.
“She died a long time ago,” Dave mumbled. “She won’t mind.”
They leaned over lilies and roses, which gave an unusually powerful fragrance. Kyle wondered if a bouquet would improve his bad-tempered mother’s moods, which became more volatile after his stepfather, several months ago, raged away. Now she was so drunk, she wouldn’t know what he did. She cared about him but not enough to get cleaned up at a clinic. He’d been surprised that she woke enough to accompany him to court, where she made an incompetent effort to help him.
Dave grabbed the bouquet and lifted it triumphantly over his head.
“Congrats, you did it,” Kyle said.
One successful theft that day, anyway, giving Dave more confidence. A gust snatched a few petals from the roses, and raindrops spattered onto grass, an excuse to leave a habitat of the displeased dead.
“Rain,” Kyle said. “Let’s go.”
They ran through light drizzle to Dave’s home, where his mother exclaimed about their wet clothes.
To Kyle, she said coldly, “You can come in and stay until the shower ends.”
He entered a realm of comfort, where an aroma of a baking apple pie made him want to plead, “I’m hungry, can you share some of your dessert with me?” He wished his home had the same healthy air, colorfully upholstered furniture, and shelves filled with books and framed photos of loved ones. A picture of a baby’s face showed how welcome Dave’s birth had been. Several magazines were arrayed on a table of polished wood.
“You’re chilled,” the mother said to Dave. “Go, change your clothes. Would you boys like some hot cider to warm you up?”
“Yes, thank you,” Kyle said.
“Sure,” Dave said. “First, I have a belated birthday gift to present to you.”
She opened her mouth, her expression changing from surprised to pleased. Dave lifted the bouquet from Kyle’s backpack, bowed ceremoniously, and presented it. She accepted it gingerly, avoiding the thorns. Then she looked over Dave’s muddied clothes, her eyebrows rising to a skeptical arch.
“Where did you get these flowers?” she asked.
Kyle wanted to shout, You old hag, why don’t you thank him?
“Uh, I bought them.” Fidgeting, Dave didn’t lie convincingly.
The mother’s smile dropped. “From where, from what shop, where? Tell me.”
“I forget the store’s name.”
“Where was it?”
“Uh, not very far.”
She squinted at Kyle’s cap, which he’d forgotten to remove. Then her bosom heaved a sigh, her narrow shoulders slumped, and she gazed toward a window onto rain that dimmed the light and pounded away all the day’s fun.
Her jaw dropped. “Mom!” She stared as if she saw someone outside. “Mom, I’ve missed you,” she called, her voice strained. “Can you come in? You’re upset. What did Dave do? Why are you pointing at the flowers? Please explain — Mom, come back.”
She turned to Dave. “I saw your grandmother pointing to the flowers and wagging a finger at you for a reproach. I think she followed you from the Vale of Rest.”
You’re pretending, Kyle wanted to shout, but anything he said might make her dislike him even more.
“Dave, did you steal the bouquet?”
Kyle elbowed Dave, trying to communicate, lie.
“I didn’t think anyone would mind,” Dave mumbled.
“That was stealing. The family who bought them wanted them to stay there. You’ll return them as soon as the rain stops.”
“I didn’t see no ghost,” Kyle snapped.
“My mother didn’t come here for you. Dave, your grandmother left her resting place because she doesn’t want you to become a criminal.”
Dave stared at his muddy shoes.
“I’ll tell your father,” she added.
Kyle stepped backward, toward the door. “It was my idea, and I persuaded him because I thought you’d appreciate a gift.”
The mother’s eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth to blast a condemnation. Obviously, she wanted to order Kyle away forever from his only trusted and respected friend. Away from his only chance to glimpse a clean home and a normal family. Scowling, she craned toward him and squinted at his bruised cheek. Remembering that a floor had banged his face, and he’d physically lost a fight, he smoothed a finger over sore skin where drizzle had rinsed off a pasty concealer.
“What happened to you?” She sounded puzzled.
“A visitor in his house, an evil monster, struck him when he was fighting to defend his mom,” Dave said plaintively.
“That’s a bad bruise,” The mother spoke more gently than before.
“He dyed his hair,” Dave said, “so people won’t notice his bruises.”
The mother’s face saddened. “Has your mother called the police about the abuse?”
“The beast ain’t coming back,” Kyle said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, we’re sure. I got rid of him.”
“His mom lies around and doesn’t do anything,” Dave said. “She doesn’t fix any meals for him, and he gets hungry.”
“I could find a list for her of resources for abused women. Kyle, would you like to stay and have dinner with us? A roast chicken with stuffing and apple pie.”
Was she inviting him to a homemade dinner and pie, accepting him into this home?
“Say yes,” Dave advised.
“Yes, sure, thank you.”
“It’s time for me to turn off the oven, and then we’ll have a talk about the stealing.”
As soon as the kitchen door closed, Kyle whispered to Dave, “You told me she used to act in an amateur theatre group.”
“I think the ghost was real because I felt a spook touch me in the graveyard, and Mom has seen Grandma other times.”
“I guess the dinner invitation is for real.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to tell her we won’t snitch anything again.”
A roast chicken, homemade apple pie, and an opportunity to learn the ways of respected people.
Wanting to sound nonchalant, Kyle said, “I’ll do anything for your mom’s pie.”
Featured image: Red orange / Shutterstock
Trish pursed her lips and blew a long, thin plume of cigarette smoke out her bathroom window. She didn’t mind having to hide the smoking. In fact, she was pleased her children had been so brainwashed by the nuns. Cigarettes, booze, blow — it was all the same to them.
Outside the day was bright and silent, the rural street blanketed with snow. Carly, the baby, was asleep in her crib. John Michael, age 11, and the twins, 8, were out selling holiday candy for their school. She disliked these fundraisers even more than the bake sales and wreath sales. There was something indecent about children selling door-to-door. But her opinion carried no weight. At St. Michaels, the candy sale was a fact of life. Treats & Treasures, Season’s Delights, Holiday Cheer; cheap candy, fancy boxes, the same as she’d once sold.
Mayhem erupted all at once, Carly shrieking to get her out of her crib, the three boys yelling and pounding on the back door. Trish tightened the drawstring of her sweatpants, threw the half smoked cigarette in the toilet and flushed.
She scooped her 2½-year-old daughter up from her crib. Five years after she’d thought she was through having babies, then along came Carly. The thought of having another child horrified her. But Kevin dreamt it would be a girl and told her “God has his ways.”
She changed Carly’s diaper, trotted downstairs with Carly planted on her hip, and opened the door. The boys exploded into the kitchen. Under their woolen caps, they all had the same small diamond-shaped face as Trish, the same dark eyes shot with streaks of green. Carly was fairer, blonder, fleshier, like her father.
“Don’t you dare come any further with those wet snow boots,” said Trish, pining for the next cigarette.
At five-thirty, her husband, Kevin, manager and part owner of the Friendly’s in town, strolled in. When Mork & Mindy ended everyone headed for the dining room table: Kevin at the head, Carly and Sean on one side, John Michael and Lucas on the other. Trish served meatloaf and potatoes swimming in thick brown gravy. The children had plastic cups of milk. Kevin had Mountain Dew; Trish, her bottle of Perrier.
“I don’t want meatloaf. It looks like dog food,” said Lucas.
“It’s delicious,” said Kevin, raising his fork to his mouth. “Your mother is a wonderful cook.” When Trish got up to get the ketchup and white bread, he patted her on the rear end. She turned, ready to scowl, but his round baby-soft face and playful eyes made it impossible for her to be annoyed. The meal progressed with finger pointing and name-calling while Trish doled out the warnings.
“You know my cousin Eddie, the one who lived in Essex?” said Kevin. Kevin had hundreds of cousins. “The one with the earring. He called me. He lives in New York now, got a job at MTV. They’re having some sort of blowout Christmas party and he wants us there. To give him moral support, I guess. Anyway, I said okay.”
“You hate New York, Kevin,” said Trish, unable to ignore a stirring in her blood, a rich soft wanting of her past.
“I figured you’d be thrilled. Kevin smirked. “Hey, wouldn’t it be a hoot if we ran into Ethan?”
“That’s ridiculous, Kevin. There are ten million people in New York.”
“He’s some kind of famous sound engineer, isn’t he?”
She hoped her face wasn’t as red as it felt. Kevin got a kick out of teasing her about her first marriage. The little he knew about the time she’d spent in New York with Ethan titillated him. She suspected he was secretly proud of having a wife with such a thorny past.
“Who’s Ethan?” said Sean.
“Never mind. You have two peas left,” snapped Trish.
“Will you buy some candy from me?” said John Michael, breaking the silence.
“What are you selling?” asked Kevin.
John Michael whipped the brochures out from under his seat.
“And me,” shouted Carly, tipping over her cup of milk onto Lucas.
“Whoa!” shouted Lucas. Kevin sprang up for a dish towel and winked at Trish.
She scanned the brochure absentmindedly. How ironic, that the love pats and winks that first attract you to someone, inevitably become the gestures you dislike the most, thought Trish.
“I’ll take the Awesome Nuts & Chews,” she said with a weary smile.
They’d been married for 12 years. Trish had come back from New York to Wellsboro, devastated by her failed marriage, and there was Kevin, smiling in a doorway. He called her his ex-actress, Trish the Dish. They’d dated in high school. Even then, he didn’t make the earth move, but he was comfortable and dependable. A year after her return, she was married in the blue steeple church where she’d once taken communion. Within five years they had three boys. They moved into a sage green shingled colonial on a windy country road, two miles from her parents, three from his. She drove the station wagon; he, a tomato-red Mazda. Eventually the memories of her days in New York and the late nights got folded away like heavy blankets in spring. She’d packed away Ethan and the divorce until everything from her former life was safely out of sight.
Smoking in the bathroom, Trish mentally flicked through her closet for an outfit. She imagined the floor-to-ceiling windows, tea-lights and top shelf liquor. As the week ground on, the anticipation grew. On the night of the party she shaved her under arms and legs even though Kevin never touched them when they made love. (Five minutes kissing on the mouth, five minutes per breast, and five minutes of rubbing between her legs; he was always on top.) It wasn’t fear but worry that made her keep her resentment of Kevin’s lumpy lovemaking to herself. There were too many more important things at stake. His dignity, her home, their family. She tried on a paisley mini-dress, then a pantsuit with padded shoulders, before settling on a black cocktail dress she’d worn to several cousins’ weddings and her diamond studded cross.
The party was in a loft on Prince Street. Kevin and Trish stood at the open door staring into the darkness. Paper lanterns were strung across the rough wooden beams. Pat Benatar’s voice whined overhead, the sound seeming to emanate directly from the pipes on the exposed ceiling. Yep, thought Trish, Love is a Battlefield.
“Is it safe to go in?’ asked Kevin.
Trish pulled him through the heavy metal door towards two catty-cornered couches piled with coats. Kevin kept his corduroy barn jacket on. Despite the draft rushing in through the casement windows, she laid her scarf and coat onto the heap of clothes. It was when she straightened up that she recognized Ethan sitting on an armchair underneath the row of windows. Her head snapped back towards Kevin. She wanted to look but didn’t dare turn back. She gripped his hand and steered him through the clusters of people towards the back of the room, her heart thudding hard and fast.
“Jeez, it stinks in here,” said Kevin. “Something is killing my eyeballs.” Trish inhaled the pungent Vics Vaporub odor. She led Kevin past a row of chafing dishes on the red and green linen-draped tables to the bar in the corner of the room and asked for a tequila and coke for herself and a Budweiser for Kevin.
“I wonder what that smell was.” said Kevin.
“Poppers,” said Trish, sipping her drink. Kevin’s forehead wrinkled. “Amyl nitrate.”
“Oh,” he said.
Kevin had no idea what she knew or where she’d been before they married. He knew nothing about rooftop parties, the ecstasy, the blow. He thought she left Ethan because of the abortion. Kevin didn’t know Ethan became a different person with each person he met. When Trish became pregnant, four years into their marriage, so much of her love had already been tainted by the booze and dope and their long-standing argument about having a baby. She’d fantasized sticking a pinhole in her diaphragm. Then it happened — the diaphragm failed all by itself. She begged him to keep the baby. He said he would leave her if she didn’t get rid of it. I can’t give you the white picket fence you want, he said. It was when he insisted on the abortion, she realized he was incapable of being an adult.
Trish met Ethan right after she graduated Rosehill College for Women. She’d come to New York with the dream of becoming an actress. The first time she’d spent the night they made love again in the morning and he brought her breakfast in bed, fancy coffee, fresh squeezed juice and a cheesy spinach omelet. She literally skipped across Central Park to get to an audition. She’d never experienced that kind of intensity with anyone, whether they were making love or screaming at each other on the top of their lungs, their passion was absolute.
But she hadn’t known then, that someone who drinks every day and calls it his relaxation, is an alcoholic. One or two was never enough, whether it was Absolut or Tuinols or lines of coke. When Ethan drank, he became another person, loud and self-pitying. He drank the morning he came home from the Lionel Ritchie tour and discovered Trish lying on the couch with warm blood oozing onto the hospital pad between her legs. He hadn’t thought she’d take care of it so quickly. He cried as he drank, saying over and over that he wasn’t good enough for her, banging his head against the wall. It sickened her to watch. She closed her eyes, the cramps bending her in half, reminding her how much she’d wanted that baby. That morning, she let him drink until he blacked out.
“Are you all right?” Kevin said over the blare of Prince’s Little Red Corvette.
“Of course, I’m just checking things out. Another tequila and coke,” she said to the bartender.
“Honey, don’t you think you should slow down?” said Kevin.
“Another, please,” she said, winking at Kevin. “Come on, let’s find Eddie.”
They moved diagonally through the crowd towards the other end of the loft. Trish lit a cigarette. Kevin frowned. A waitress wearing a miniskirt and an MTV Santa cap held out a tray of bacon-wrapped shrimp. Kevin stabbed three with one toothpick. They threaded past a cluster of people getting high, someone held out a joint to Kevin.
“No, thank you,” he said, guiding Trish forward by the waist. “Are all New York parties like this?”
The tequila was starting to mellow her. “Only the good ones,” she said.
Near a side wall, Eddie was holding court. He slapped Kevin on the back and pumped his hand. Trish got an enormous bear hug and a kiss on the lips that lasted just a little too long, reminding her what it was she didn’t like about him. He asked about their kids, the mortgage, the Mazda. Kevin seemed visibly relaxed to be with someone he knew. Trish tossed back her drink and excused herself, Eddie pointing the way to the bathroom.
Out of their view, she lit another cigarette and headed back towards the bar. She was feeling good, but hardly good enough. Tonight she wanted to be a younger version of herself, the hot party girl she hoped she’d been years before when she had married Ethan. And she wanted to glow, for Ethan to know how content she was now.
It wasn’t long before she spotted him again, his back to her, at the opposite end of the food table. Though he no longer had a ponytail, she knew it was him by his short, compact build. His hair was clipped in a crew cut and he wore a tight fitting white T-shirt. A few years ago, she’d found out from a friend she still kept in touch with in New York that he’d given up the drugs and stopped drinking altogether. She also knew from his elderly mother in Albany, whom she still spoke to, that he’d become a health nut. Why not back then, when it would have mattered, she thought.
Trish stared at his back and willed him to turn around, to look at her, still eye-catching, still fun-loving, a mother of four children. A woman glided up to him and slipped her arm around his waist. She was petite and dark haired, like Trish, wearing a sleeveless red dress and thick gold bangles. Trish felt like she’d been hit in the head with a metal swing.
She walked into the bathroom holding her third, or was it her fourth drink? The room reeked of hairspray and smoke. Trish gazed at the women on either side of her, their faces reflected next to her in the mirror, heads tilted up as they painted their eyes. Three other women huddled together by the last sink near the huge window, getting high. Marijuana smoke snaked around her, rising above the stall doors. A woman with a masculine build, pancake makeup and fiery orange hair, turned and handed her a joint. She accepted gratefully, inhaled and closed her eyes. It was potent, smoothing out the heavy alcoholic high.
The first time she’d ever smoked weed was on a date with Kevin. They were both seventeen, parked in his Camaro in a deserted Dairy Queen lot. She remembered the way he carefully removed the tiny forbidden reefer from the baggie and presented it to her in the palm of his hand as if it were a rare, precious jewel. Everything became more. Their tongues in each other’s mouth hotter, the speckled stars brighter, the smell of the summer heat richer. She let him touch her breasts, and they rubbed each other over their clothes, all the while wondering whether she’d fallen in love.
“You all right, honey?” said the woman with the burlesque makeup plucking another joint from her cigarette case.
“I’m good, thank you. Do you think I could possibly buy another one of those from you?” she asked.
She ducked into a stall. The blunt felt natural in her hand. She smoked quickly, leaning against the stall door. An image of the three boys as toddlers crammed together in the bathroom with her flashed through her mind. By now, they would be on their third or fourth Goonies video. Kevin’s sister would be squirting whipped cream on their hot chocolates.
She wandered back into the loft. The air clung to her body. Her arms felt damp, her lips chapped, despite the Barbie pink lipstick. She needed a drink to dull the heightened sense of herself. “Hello again,” said the bartender. The tequila and coke disappeared in two gulps, transforming her into a carefree spirit. She turned and swayed, remembering this same light, dreamy feeling with Ethan, lying in the crook of his shoulder, sipping Dom Perignon, snorting grams at twilight on their rooftop, evenings at the Beacon, Village Vanguard, Arlene’s Grocery, Bowery Ballroom. He got comped for every show in town. She remembered his generosity, the instant parties with dozens of friends radiating around his inexhaustible stash. Making love on satin sheets in executive suites at the Fountainbleau, the Drake, the Wilshire Grand. Ethan used to say he knew when she was about to come because her tongue got cold and her fists tightened against his ribcage. She would never fit into someone that way again, never again come with someone’s face between her legs, never love anyone that much or be hurt that badly.
Now, where is my Kevin, she thought, peering into the oily faces of punk artists, roaming into another room where beams of colored light spun across the floor and a handful of people were dancing.
“Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you,” said Kevin, clutching the sleeve of her shrug. “I waited at the door of the ladies room forever.”
“I must have missed you,” she said, smiling at the crazy patterns on the dance floor. The lights made her dizzy, but she liked them.
“What’s the matter with you? You look funny.”
Eddie bounded his way towards them.
“Oh, there you two are,” he yelled. “Kev, dude, I want you to meet my buddies. This is Roger, the fastest drummer in New York. And this is Ethan, the most awesome soundman in the business. He did the show for Arcade Fire and Billy Joel at the Garden. Kevin and Trish came down from the boonies for our little holiday bash.”
Trish’s face bloomed red. “How the hell are you, Ethan?”
Ethan nodded with a kind of detached cool.
“You know each other?” said Eddie.
“Oh Eth and I go way back. Kevin, this is Ethan, the man you’ve been dying to meet. Ethan. Kevin. Kevin. Ethan.” The girl in the red dress strolled up to Ethan holding two bottles of Tab. “And this must be Suzie, or is it Sherry. Or is it Shirley bringing you a Shirley Temple,” said Trish stiffling a giggle. She snatched the beer bottle out of Kevin’s hand and threw her head back. The beer dribbled down her neck. “Whoops. No point crying over spilled beer, huh Eth?”
“Honey, I think it’s time to go home. It was a great party.” Kevin gripped Trish by the elbow.
“I want to dance,” shouted Trish, twisting away, out onto the dance floor. “Come on Kev, it’s a slow one, just the way you like it.” Be a man, she thought. I want to self-destruct.
Grudgingly he took hold of her. She gave him a wet sloppy kiss. He pulled his face away. Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you she sang along with the music. But then she had to stop. Her head slumped onto Kevin’s shoulder. Ethan stood like a state trooper watching her. She knew he was watching. She knew she was wrecked. The room spun around Ethan, the colored lights shooting out in all directions, exploding against him and the girl in the red dress. Aren’t I still pretty? Still amazing? she wanted to ask Ethan. The last thing she remembered was throwing up on the door of the Mazda.
Trish awoke in the family room feeling crumbs under the cushion where she’d buried her toes. It was bitter cold and pitch black. Her ears rang, her throat was raw, her head hot and prickly. Gradually familiar shapes emerged from the dawn shadows. Socks. Jeans. Chutes and Ladders. Double Trouble. An empty bowl. She let out a sigh. But the room started turning so she closed her eyes and hugged her purse, which was wet from her saliva.
Carly burst into the room demanding breakfast. Trish staggered into the kitchen.
Life, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Total, Special K. “Which one?” she mumbled with one eye squinting open. “That one,” said Carly pointing to the Fruit Loops on another counter. Somehow she opened the refrigerator. The gallon of milk shook in Trish’s hand, gushing into and over the bowl as she poured it.
“Mommy you spilled.”
“Shsh. It’s okay, Boo. You can help me clean it later. Go watch Scooby Doo.”
Fighting to keep her eyes open, Trish stumbled out of the kitchen towards the stairs. On the fourth step up her legs gave way and she crawled the rest of the way up. She fell onto the bed where she slept on and off until late afternoon.
When she awoke, she felt shrouded in guilt and, despite the hangover, turned into a cleaning machine, tearing through every room in the house, dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, sponging. She did three loads of laundry, cooked a tuna casserole, baked a loaf of banana bread, and later that night after the kids were in bed, sat on the white rocker in Carly’s room and rocked.
A week later, the candy arrived: three huge cartons of it. Kevin had sold at Friendly’s, Trish to relatives, both hers and his. Everyone gathered together in the family room to sort and label the candy. The toys and games had been neatly stacked on the shelves of the white, laminated wall unit. Not only had Trish dusted underneath the TV and VCR but she’d climbed on a chair to wipe off Kevin’s model cars and the boys’ soccer trophies. Through the sliding glass doors, it was snowing; snow zooming sideways in great sheets, the trees at the edge of the property invisible in the white wind.
“Where are they? Where are the order forms you dumb-butts?” said Sean, rifling through one of the small drawers in the wall unit.
Trish glared at him from the gingham couch where she’d been playing thumbsies with Lucas. “Dumbutts, dumbutts, buttmuts,” mimicked Carly, who was perched on her father’s lap in the chair at the desk.
“Get out of the way. Let me look,” said John Michael.
“Hey, I was sitting there,” Sean said, plopping himself directly on top of Lucas.
“No you weren’t. You were looking.”
“They’ve got to be there,” said Kevin calmly. “They’ve got to be here somewhere.”
“There’s plenty of room for both of you,” said Trish, rising.
“This is how you were sitting with your legs all spread apart. You’re taking up the whole couch.”
“I was here first.”
“Shut up. I can’t find the forms,” said John Michael.
“I saw papers in the wagon,” said Carly. The twins sprang up and dumped over the wagon full of Barbies and stuffed animals.
“Well they’ve got to be somewhere,” said Kevin again. “How will we know who bought what?”
“Half the people haven’t paid yet,” said Trish. She thought about her cleaning rampage, but she would never have thrown out the order forms. Or would she? “They’ve got to be somewhere!” She went over to John Michael and nudged him aside to search the drawers herself.
“Let’s look upstairs,” said Sean. He popped up, trotted out of the room, but before he reached the doorway, Lucas grabbed his sleeve, yanked him back and took off.
“I find them,” yelled Carly.
Trish felt like strangling Lucas.
“Look, if it comes down to it and we can’t find them, we can always put up a sign in St. Michael’s asking people to come and claim their candy,” said Kevin.
“What if they don’t remember what they bought?” said John Michael.
“What if someone claims they paid and didn’t?” said Trish.
“In Wellsboro?” said Kevin.
He’s so naïve, thought Trish. “Do you have any idea how much money we’ll lose if we don’t find them?”
“I’m making a sign,” he insisted.
“No you aren’t. You are not going to embarrass this family in front of the whole town. We’ll look like idiots,” said Trish. John Michael started yanking records from a shelf. Kevin swiveled around to face Trish. His usually happy eyes were hurt-looking, as if the blue had run out of them.
“Why’d you do it? Why’d you have to ruin everything?”
“What are you two talking about?” said John Michael.
“I already told you, I wanted to have a good time. That’s all.” She knelt down by the cartons and began removing candy boxes, stacking them in piles.
“A good time? You were shitfaced, Patricia.”
“Make a sign, Dad. You have to do it,” whined John Michael.
“He is not making a sign.”
“Where are those freaking forms,” cried John Michael flinging a record at the pile of boxes.
“Pick that up,” growled Trish.
“It’s okay for you and Daddy to yell and swear and wreck everything. But not me. Right? Right?” he shouted.
“That’s enough. Go to your room.” John Michael stared defiantly at her. “Now,” she shouted.
Trish turned to Kevin. “I can’t explain it,” she said.
“You disappeared and got stinking drunk and God knows what else, and you can’t explain it!”
Carly lay down in the middle of the doorway with her hands clapped over her ears, yelling. “Stop, stop, stop.”
“Not in front of Carly, okay?” said Trish.
“Of course not, honey. Never in front of the children,” said Kevin and stalked out.
They made the children go out in the snow, at least to the people they remembered selling to. Ten boxes went to neighbors and a dozen more went to family members. One night Lucas busted Sean’s lunchbox claiming the forms could have gotten stuck in it. Trish flew into a rage. “He’s your brother and you torture him,” she cried, slapping him hard on the bottom. She rarely hit her children, a pat on the rear every now and then. Having lost control, she was beside herself with shame and remorse. Forty-six boxes of unclaimed candy sat in four neat piles by the sliding glass doors in the family room.
Late that night Carly screamed out. Trish bolted upright. “I’ll go,” she said, throwing on a flannel shirt and racing into Carly’s room. Kevin patted her shoulder tenderly and rolled over.
The shrieking and thrashing didn’t stop, not after Trish bent over the crib to rub her daughter’s back, not after she turned on the overhead light and picked her up and paced the room, gently pressing her damp head against her shoulder, murmuring, “It’s okay Boo, it’s okay,” thinking don’t let it be a night terror like the ones Sean used to have.
Trying to calm her, Trish wandered from room to room on the first floor, balancing Carly on her hip, pointing and peering out each window, soothing her child, wiping her nose and mentioning several times that children around the world were asleep in their beds. Then, without warning, Carly dropped off to sleep. Too exhausted to climb the stairs, holding a limp toddler, she collapsed on the couch in the family room and fell asleep with warm little Carly lying on her chest.
When Trish awoke, the room was bathed in purple-pink light. The TV was on low. Carly sat on a candy box sucking her thumb, hypnotized by the TV.
“I want candy, Mommy.”
“So do I, Boo,” said Trish leaning over to grab a box. She tore off the cellophane and plucked out a peanut butter cup for herself and her daughter. Then another and another and another. Outside, the deck and backyard were covered in snow as fine as baby powder. Simple and white, all the edges gone from the world.
Featured image: Angel McNall Photography / Shutterstock
The front door was still cardinal red. Samantha answered it on the second ring. Her nose was bigger than he expected. Send me a picture, he had texted, so I recognize you. Which was obviously unnecessary, because who else would be living in their house, but he didn’t want to be surprised when he saw her. He wanted to feel like he was coming home.
“Is that all you brought from San Francisco?” She backed away from the door so he could drag in his suitcase.
Four years ago, before the divorce, when she was 9 and he was 11, they used to walk home from school together. She would tell him about the girl drama in her grade — who was fighting with whom, who had a crush on one of the boys. Sometimes he gave her advice, platitudes about sticking up for her friends, but most of the time they just laughed together and made fun of the Olivias. The two girls behind most of the trouble in Samantha’s class were both named Olivia. Once he got settled, he would ask if they were still causing problems.
He dragged in his suitcase and pushed the door shut. “I figured mom would have repainted the door.” He remembered staining it the summer before fourth grade, the summer his fractured tibia kept him off the pitcher’s mound for eight weeks. His father had let him choose the color despite his mother’s scowl, and he picked it out of loyalty to the St. Louis baseball team. Forever after, she threatened to have it repainted whenever either one of them annoyed her.
Samantha sat down on an armchair that he didn’t recognize, holding a textbook in her lap. “She never mentioned it again once you were gone.”
He left his suitcase and reacquainted himself with the house. The living room hadn’t changed much: same olive green sofa, same brown leather love seat that he’d gotten in so much trouble for writing on with his mother’s lipstick when he was 3 years old. Same glass coffee table, though it looked cold without his father’s fantasy baseball magazines all over it. The sameness of it all made him shiver. Pretty much the only thing different was the armchair with Samantha in it, over near the window beside the fireplace. And the biggest disappointment: the same old tube TV in the armoire. He’d gotten used to the huge flat screen that he and his father used to play Madden and Call of Duty.
He walked past her and said over his shoulder, “Just so you know, you’re still not allowed in my room.”
She shrugged. “I never go in there. It’s pretty much the store room. Mom never throws anything away.”
“I was told I’d have to cope with what’s there. It’s part of the ‘arrangement’.”
The arrangement had been worked out by Uncle Charlie, who had provided him a sofa bed for the last few weeks since his father’s heart attack. He could have tolerated the back pain, but he hated Dallas, hated the 20 consecutive September days of hundred degree heat, hated being served waffles in the shape of Texas, hated saying yes ma’am and no ma’am, hated the kids with their pickup trucks and cowboy boots, hated the way his Aunt Alice looked at him like a wild turkey protected by the endangered species ordinance.
Samantha looked up from her textbook. “Have you taken algebra?”
“Three years ago.”
“Really? Were you in advanced math or something?”
“Sort of. I was supposed to be in pre-Calc this year, but now I don’t know. I think they’re going to make me take some test.” On the foyer wall, where the photograph of the San Francisco cable cars used to be, there was now a poster of some impressionist landscape.
“Cool. You’re going to be able to help me with my homework.”
“Sure. Remember how I used to help you memorize your multiplication tables?”
Her eyes went big. “Six and eight went out to skate, when they came back they were forty-eight!”
It was strange to think he and this girl were the same people who used to take baths together, who walked around the house stuffed in the same oversized t-shirt, who once kept a balloon in the air by heading it back and forth 127 times.
“You think it’s okay if I have something to eat?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I don’t know. I’m still not sure how welcome I am here.” It helped just to say it out loud, if only to his sister.
“Brian, she’s excited to have you back.”
He squinted, looked at her out of one eye.
“Really, she is.”
He knew better. His mom had texted that morning to say she’d be working the afternoon shift and couldn’t pick him up from the airport. Her friend Denise needed the day off and she owed Denise a favor. You’d think she could have said my son, who I haven’t seen in four years, is coming home today, but whatever. He could explore the house without her watching.
A mishmash of magnet-hung paperwork clung to the refrigerator: lists of emergency numbers, programs from school plays and musical performances, photos of Samantha in her soccer uniform dating all the way back to kindergarten. Nothing of him. He hadn’t brought his baseball photos with him to San Francisco, so his mother must have taken them down at some point, put them away somewhere. Maybe they could find them, make room for them in the collage on the fridge. Assuming she hadn’t thrown them in the trash.
There wasn’t much food to choose from. No string cheese, no salami, no raspberry jam, no Kraft singles, no leftover pizza, no seven layer dip. Tons of peach vanilla yogurt. He’d forgotten all about that. He peeled off the lid, stuck his nose inside. Now it came back to him, the yogurt’s sweet smell reminding him of afternoons at the piano, his mother beside him, demonstrating how to shape his fingers as she held the spoon in her mouth. When he’d finally gotten the Mozart concerto right, she’d hugged him so tight she jabbed the spoon into his ear. He hadn’t thought about that in years.
He shut the refrigerator and went to look. Of course the baby grand was still there. They could never get it out of the room. In fact, it occurred to him now, they must have had to take it apart and rebuild it in order to get it into this room in the first place. Why had he never wondered about that before? Or maybe he had. Maybe it was one of those thoughts from his previous life, seemingly lost forever, that would now turn up every once in a while like the keys to his piggy bank or his Stan Musial baseball card.
Could he still play? He sat on the bench, placed his fingers on the keys. He imagined, if he could empty his mind of all the thoughts that had passed through it in the last four years, the notes would come back to him and his hands would know what to do. He had a momentary flash of hope: if he could sit down and play for her, wouldn’t that be a kind of peace offering? But he was so out of practice. And if he tried and failed, it would only make things worse.
He went back to the front door to collect his suitcase. Samantha hadn’t moved. She looked up when she heard the roller wheels scratching along the floor.
“Brian, can I ask you something?”
She hugged the textbook across her chest. “What did they say about Dad at the funeral?”
“I don’t know. The usual, I guess.”
“Have you been to one before?”
“Then how do you know what’s usual?”
He shook his head, started dragging the suitcase again. “I’ve seen them in movies, idiot. Everyone has.” The truth is he had little idea what the minister said. He was lost in his own thoughts, picturing his father in the casket, or envisioning him hovering above it, cross-legged like some kind of genie. He imagined his father granting him three wishes, but when Brian’s first wish was that he come back to life, he said he was sorry but he couldn’t grant that wish. Brian’s second wish was that he could stay in their house in the city, but his genie-father looked somber and said he couldn’t grant that one, either. At which point Brian decided there was nothing else worth wishing for.
Just before he disappeared into his bedroom, Samantha said, “I would have gone if Mom had let me.”
“You asked her?”
“She said we had a funeral for them four years ago. We don’t need another one. And it’s true. When the two of you moved away, we had a big bonfire. When it was burning, she looked at me very serious and said they are dead to us now. We will never speak of them again.”
“That’s sick. You know that, right?”
“Well, you’re here now. So I guess that proves she didn’t really mean it.”
He knows she meant it. She read the letter he wrote to the judge asking to be put in his father’s custody. From that day until the trial ended, she wouldn’t look him in the eye. And in the four years since, she’d never called. Never even sent a text.
In his room, the bed was pushed against a wall and covered with pastel cushions bordered by fringe. He sat on it, fingered the chenille throw. She hadn’t bothered to move much of her stuff out. A mélange of ceramics topped the dresser and the nightstand. Must be a new passion. His mother was always picking up and abandoning hobbies. The closet would have been plenty big enough for all Brian’s things if it weren’t also a graveyard for coffins full of photography, of stamp books, of terracotta figurines.
Buried in his suitcase, packed carefully within the cushion of his sweatshirts, Brian unpacked his own plastic bag of treasures. His mother had cleared space for him on the bottom row of a bookshelf. He lined up the three trophies he’d brought with him: the MVP award for freshman baseball and the two first place finishes for his team. All the rest — the participation trophies, the swimming ribbons, the middle school track and field medals — he’d left in a box in Uncle Charlie’s basement. He’d probably never see them again. He felt as if his life were drawn on strips of construction paper, and every few years someone took a scissors and snipped away the past.
His clothes didn’t fit into the two dresser drawers his mother had emptied for him. He simply had too many sweatshirts. There was no place to hang them either, with nearly all of the closet space filled by his mother’s once-worn gowns and out-of-season coats. He managed to find a couple of empty wire hangers, double up his sweatshirts, and jam them in there.
That left only one item. The 8”x10” photo of him and his father, taken at the World Series two years earlier. His father had surprised him with tickets for his birthday. The Cardinals were playing in it, and even though the two of them had moved half a country away, they both remained loyal to their team. If he moved the trophies close enough that they touched, if he staggered them, there was room for the photo beside them. It wasn’t visible from the bed — the dresser blocked the view, but he’d see it every time he came into or out of the room.
Samantha was standing in the doorway. She moved the flap of his suitcase open and closed. “I can’t believe you fit all your stuff in here. I told Mom she had to make more room for you.”
“It’s a little tight, but Uncle Charlie warned me not to bring too much.”
“Who’s Uncle Charlie?”
“Dad’s brother. You don’t remember him?”
She shook her head.
“He lived in Brazil when we were younger. But I’ve gotten to know him pretty well since he came back. I stayed with him when Dad died.”
“Oh. I don’t guess you’ll be seeing him anymore now, will you?”
He hadn’t really thought about it. Everyone on Dad’s side of the family, everyone he’d grown close to, his Aunt Rachel and Uncle Allen and his cousins Matt and Anthony, his great-Aunt Millie, his superhot second cousin Shelby, all those people would be yanked out of his life like garden weeds. That was part of the bargain. His mother did not believe in divided loyalties.
A sound rumbled in the background. Like a ghost, the memory appeared. The garage door, rolling up.
“That’ll be Mom,” Samantha said. “You ready?”
“Give me a minute. Tell her I’ll be right out.”
When he made it into the kitchen, his mother was holding a glass of ice water and saying something to Samantha, but they both froze as they saw him. His mother was taller than he remembered her, which made no sense, since he’d grown eight inches since then. For a long time, the three of them stood mute. Brian groped for something to begin with, other than “Hi, Mom,” which felt altogether insufficient. Nothing satisfactory came to mind.
Samantha looked back and forth between them as if watching a silent tennis match. Finally, she said, “Brian unpacked all his stuff already.”
“That’s fine.” His mother drank the last of her water, let an ice cube slide into her mouth, and swished it around. Her eyes fixed on Brian. Her teeth parted slightly, and when the ice dropped with a click to the bottom of her glass, it sounded to Brian like a door slamming.
Standing in this kitchen, under his mother’s harsh glare, his sister watching feebly from the side, he felt transported into the past. As if the last four years had been wiped away like an aborted TV plotline. But he knew it was not his past he was looking at. It was his future. His father was gone, San Francisco was gone, everything that had been his life since he last stood here was gone. And if he was going to survive, he had to do what needed to be done.
He gripped the back of a kitchen chair for support. The wood dug into his palms. He forced himself to look directly at his mother and said, “I’m sorry.”
His mother leaned her bony shoulder against the refrigerator, bumping one of the magnets. A picture of Samantha came loose and fluttered to the floor. “We’ll see,” his mother said.
When he returned to his room, he stood in front of the bookshelf for a long time. It doesn’t work, he told himself. The three trophies were too scrunched up. They’d look better spread out. Much more impressive that way. He picked up the picture of him and his father at the World Series, and with his other hand spaced out the trophies to fill the shelf.
He opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and placed the photograph upside down beneath a stack of sweatshirts.
Featured image: Shutterstock
How do I tell Chris he can’t be friends with Kevin?
“I’m not driving you to Kevin’s anymore.”
“Because I jumped off his barn?”
How do I tell him without him thinking it’s his fault?
“Because I fell in the gravel pit?”
Maybe I could call the school? Have them do something? Kevin’s unclean. He has bug bites. He lives out on the edge of the district.
“He lives way out of town. Chris, I don’t have time. Kevin’s welcome at our house.”
I pull past the lilacs into our driveway. I’m chewing a gob of Trident to quit smoking. Black walnuts pop under the tires. Chris runs inside and the storm door bangs shut behind him. The splatted walnuts smell bitter, like fall is bitter. It snowed last night. The sky’s pink behind the city where I have to drive for work tomorrow, and where I have to take Chris for counseling again after.
Our farmhouse has character the way an old dog has character. We don’t farm but Chris’s grandfather farmed. I remember Chris in the field picking strawberries, filling his little basket, covered in red. I remember brown grocery bags filled with corn shucks, and mashed potato craters filled with gravy. But my parents-in-law died, and my husband divorced me, and I don’t think Kevin Herendeen is a good influence for Chris.
* * *
When Kevin told me he had a pond on his land, I believed him.
“Let’s catch frogs,” I said. “Caught one with red spots last summer.”
“Watch out for snappers,” Kevin said.
We crossed the county road into a field and walked for a while.
“I can’t find it,” Kevin said. In the sun his blue eyes shone transparently. He wore a dusty tan shirt all the time, and his arms were darker than the shirt, not muscled but ready for them. He could lift a hay bale. His golden retriever plowed a path through dead corn stalks. “She’s flushing turkeys,” Kevin said. “Zelda’s a hunting dog. Watch out if she gets one.” The stalks tore like paper. Her fur matched the color of Kevin’s buzzed hair. I wore a mullet. Mom said it looked good. Years later I discovered a brown birthmark on the back of my neck.
The back of Kevin’s neck was red.
I pointed at a dimple in the land. “I bet there’s a pond down there.”
“That’s the gravel pit.”
The pit’s dull yellow walls had been scraped out by excavators. Sliding down we trailed ocher streaks in the sand while Zelda strafed the rim. At the floor we chased each other up crane-dropped conical piles of dirt and gravel. Pretending to ski I bounded down collecting pebbles in my shoes and sand in my socks. Rocks clacked under my feet. I tripped headlong, scraping over aggregate. Sitting in a pile at the bottom I examined my palms, the little flakes of curled skin. My left ear burned.
“Am I bleeding?” I asked, pointing to it.
“Yeah,” Kevin said.
“I gotta go home.”
We came through the neglected corn rows toward Kevin’s house — insulated around the exterior with hay bales, an empty silo towering behind. Mom circled her Astro Van in the driveway — a dirt-worn track in the yard between the house and the barn. I was late. Following Zelda I ran through the field and across the street to her. When I saw her scowling face I cried.
* * *
Chris showered. I’ll have to wait on the water heater before I can do a load. I set our meatloaf and lima beans on the counter. He likes my meatloaf but takes a small portion — he never eats enough — and joins me in the den. Chris used my Pantene. I see his ear is healed. He heals like he’s impervious. I remember gravel in the wound, fingers curled into claws, mouth opening like a dark doorway crying Why Mom? Why did you bring me here to suffer? We’re watching Urkel. I want him to smile with the laugh track, but he doesn’t. How could I have let him play at Kevin’s? His father’s a farmer. He’s always out on the back forty. I can never get him on the phone.
* * *
Sleeping over at Kevin’s wasn’t like other sleepovers. We had the house to ourselves because his dad made a bonfire out back and we weren’t invited. I never saw Kevin’s Mom. I think the school psychologist recommended all the kids of divorce play together, and that’s why Mom let me go there. We sat on the floor close to the TV. The braided rug smelled like dog piss and piss cleaner. Rough wood floors, walls sticky with cigarette resin. Things were left out at Kevin’s: toys, dishes, tools whose use I could never guess. At our house everything had a place. Alone with room-temp pizza and a two-liter, we watched The Leprechaun — rated R. The worst part is when the leprechaun puts holes in a guy’s chest jumping on him with a pogo stick. The leprechaun giggles the whole time. I’d never seen Kevin’s dad up close. He’d be riding a tractor or four-wheeler kicking up a dust wake, dog in chase.
Zelda barked behind the house.
“Let’s spy on the bonfire,” I said. I was sure we’d stay up all night.
Kevin stretched, yawned with his eyes open. “I’m tired.”
“Don’t you wanna sneak out?”
Kevin pressed a game into his Nintendo. The screen went blue, silhouetting his face. “We’ll get caught,” he said. He blew into the cartridge.
“But I’m the guest.”
Kevin glanced from the TV to the dark window. Cold air leaked through the pane. He went up and turned on his bedroom light, then clicked off the downstairs light. He opened the screen door very slowly. I was sneaky, too. Once, I followed my dad to our barn and caught him smoking after he’d said he quit. He flicked his cigarette into an oil drum full of butts.
Kevin avoided the tractor ruts and disappeared in high grass. I followed. The hazy sky glowed above the far city. Smelling sweet smoke and florid air left me half alert and half dreaming. Kevin crouched, pulled my shoulder down. “No talking,” he whispered. I flinched at popping sap. Kevin’s dad heaved on a pallet, and sparks swarmed the sky. We elbowed forward and Zelda barked. Kevin lay flat as though listening to the earth. I gripped clumps of grass as though the earth shook.
“I can’t see anything,” I whispered.
“Don’t!” Kevin said.
I inched forward. Darkness hid me beyond the fire’s circle. Zelda lay behind the fire, tail sweeping up dust. Hunched on a round, Kevin’s dad sat beside her. Through flame tips I studied him: ponytailed, bearing the same tight-tendon arms as Kevin, unshaven with imperceptibly blonde stubble. His glazed pottery eyes pierced the fire heart. Fueled by a clear bottle, his lips muttered. Zelda absorbed it. Melted glass shards glinted upon the ash bed. I listened over the rushing fire to strings of curses and nonsense. I’d never known anyone could get so drunk, so beyond words. I guessed at the bottle’s fullness, wondered how long until it would be thrown in the fire, shards tinkling like wind chimes. Zelda’s ghostly orbs roved, searching for me.
I backed away. Following his bedroom light I sprinted to Kevin’s and found him in bed sleeping or pretending to. I couldn’t sleep until after dawn, when the bottle broke.
* * *
We share a bathroom and Chris sprayed the toilet seat again. I can’t call him in to wipe it up because I’m worried. I rinse my face wishing sun damage washed out. I’ll run the dryer before work tomorrow. It shakes the house and I don’t want to hear it tonight. I only kept the old farmhouse for the district; I didn’t want to uproot Chris. That was maybe a bad idea. His father was handy. Chris used to have nightmares and come to our bed; when his father said no, Chris would sleep in the laundry basket.
I poke into his room to say goodnight. He has a galaxy of stick-on stars on his ceiling. “You okay?” I ask, settling on the bed. He’s under the blanket facing the wall. “That was reckless today. Do you know what reckless is?” He won’t shift to face me. Reckless is being suicidal without knowing what suicidal is.
“Kevin did it first,” he mutters into his pillow. I rub his back and he cries. Thank god he’s crying. “He dared me.”
“But you’re okay?”
“I didn’t want to. For ski season.”
Chris wants to go to the Olympics. I stroke his back until his tremors settle, then I rise and say, “Sleep tight,” but it feels sarcastic.
Before I shut the door he says, “Mom?”
“It’s fine. I don’t want to go to Kevin’s anymore.”
I shut the door and walk past the laundry basket. Later I dream of packing him inside it, like luggage, but his arms and legs keep growing.
* * *
The snow blinded until sun melted the dusting. I guess Kevin’s dad was excited to use the plow because he piled dirty snow against the barn. The barn was my favorite part of Kevin’s property. It had a hay loft.
“Wanna see a deer brain?” Kevin asked. It was hunting season.
I followed him behind the barn where his dad had strung up and flayed a deer. The gutted deer made an impression. It was just hanging there like an unzipped tent. Kevin stepped to a workbench where a brain like a small human brain rested on newspaper, as out of place as anything else at Kevin’s.
“Why’d your dad take its brain out?”
“Dare you to touch it,” he said.
I poked it. It felt solid — not mushy — and cold.
“Dare you to lick it,” I said.
Kevin grabbed it and raised it to his face. He sneered and threw it hitting me in the chest. I reached down and whipped it back, missing by a mile. The smashed brain rolled into sawdust. Kevin carefully wiped it off and placed it on its paper. Our hands were sticky as if from frog catching. We wiped them on our jeans and went inside the barn where nail pegs hung shovels, pitchforks and scythes. The ceiling was high to fit machinery. All the heavy wood beams reminded me of church. I followed Kevin up a ladder of 2x4s nailed to the wall behind a combine with unbelievable tires. We came through a square hole in the ceiling to the hayloft where it smelled less like oil and more sour like straw. Bluish sunlight entered through barn side chinks. Bales stacked to different heights resembled Kuwait City — squarely built here, bombed to jigsaw there. I’d seen it on TV. Kevin mounted the stacks and disappeared. Climbing on top I saw that bales had been removed from against the loft’s back wall, making a stairway down. Kevin rustled somewhere beneath my feet. “Come on!” he yelled. “Down here.”
Straw scraped my back as I crawled. The tunnel wound left and right, up and down, arriving at a chamber. He’d removed bales and set down plywood and replaced the bales. It might have taken years. “It’s booby trapped,” he said. I didn’t believe him. Kevin sat on a bale examining a Hustler. In dim light I saw a pile of them. They showed penetration. “I stole them from my dad,” he said. “He doesn’t know.” His eyes flashed. I think he meant the fort. Loose straw and blankets covered the floor, a couch pillow, a bag of tobacco with an Indian on it. Once, Kevin came to school with straw in his hair. “You want one?” he asked, lifting his chin at the reading pile.
“I’ll get caught,” I said. I sat beside him. I smelled my hands.
“You’re the guest.”
I knew I couldn’t lift even one bale; imagining the weight of twenty above my head, the plywood ceiling seemed to sag.
Kevin pushed past me and crawled out.
As I emerged, a stack of hay bales wobbled and fell clogging the entrance like a dynamited mine shaft.
“Told you it was booby trapped.”
I opened my mouth to swear but someone did it for me.
“Somanabitch!” The voice came from outside. We peeked through the slats. Kevin’s dad was at the workbench with the sawdust brain, mumbling, beyond words.
“Escape route,” Kevin whispered.
He tugged me and I followed him to the loft window. We climbed onto the old stable’s roof, which gave access to the upper barn roof. Our footsteps rattled the aluminum sheeting. We stood facing the driveway. My fingertips were numb, my nose wet in the cold sun. I thought Kevin wanted to show me the roof, show me that he could climb out here or anywhere he wanted on his thousand acres. I could see very far up there, to the city, but I couldn’t imagine a thousand acres.
Kevin jumped off. I crouched to keep my balance, as if the barn itself had suddenly thrust upward. Sliding my feet to the edge, I leaned out. Kevin wiggled out of two thigh-deep post holes in the snow pile. “Come on,” he urged. I considered lowering my body below the eave first. Would I tear my shirt? Kevin squinted at me, focusing the glint in his eyes. “Don’t wait too long or you’ll never jump,” he said.
He was right.
“I’m climbing down,” I said.
I slunk back from his view and went to the lower roof and from there to a fence. Walking in the silo’s frigid shadow, I passed the doghouse. I crouched and peaked in. She was balled up tight. I reached in to pet her. She was frozen to the ground.
Kevin stood behind me now, his jeans wet from snow.
“Your dog’s dead,” I told him.
He tilted his head. That was all. Sometimes death has to process. Or maybe Kevin already knew.
“Let me jump,” I said. “It doesn’t look high now, from here.”
Kevin stood below in his dusty tan shirt with his arms crossed. I tried to judge my landing so I wouldn’t hit his post holes. Mom’s Astro Van turned up the driveway.
“Better hurry,” Kevin said.
“Okay,” I said. I stepped off the roof, wind rushing in my ears.
Kevin acted funny whenever I left his house, like there was more to show me — something better than a frog pond or a secret fort. I lifted the van’s door handle prepared to see Mom’s scowl again when Kevin’s dad came from behind the barn holding a farm tool I didn’t understand. He shifted his trucker hat high on his head and smiled at my Mom (who still lives there in my memory, who still throws my ski boots, wrapped a month before Christmas, down the stairs at me, who still shoves me when I’m much too big to shove and I shove her back). I wish I could possess my child-self then, right there in the Astro Van, and tell her it’s fine, I grow up fine. I don’t become my father.
We left Kevin and his dad standing in the driveway.
Featured image: West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
I am talking to keep Dad from talking because he will want to talk about the smoking. The hand not holding the steering wheel is bobbing with its tiny torch, making my points for me in the near-dark as I string anecdote after anecdote together. His shoulders are pushed forward and his brow is set in a maze of tense lines. In a few minutes he’ll uncross his arms and try to pluck the cigarette from my dancing fingers. I’ll tell him to stop, that I’ll lose control of the car. When I picture the car scraped open off the side of the highway and our bodies in desperate angles, us bags of dead blood still strapped to our seats, I feel something unworthy. The truth is, I realize while taking in the last drag, that I want it. I want a good death. I want to be right.
When I flick my butt out the window into the wet Mendocino night he flinches, chokes back an admonition. The tide of my anger recedes with a twinge of guilt then surges back in stronger than before. I want him to say something that will let me shout. I’ve been preparing retorts in my head from the moment Dad called and asked to ride home to the funeral with me.
I wonder if he’s prepared a eulogy. It would be strange to hear him say her name. I don’t know that I’ll recognize anyone in our hometown. I hope we’re not expected to view my mother’s body. When I stop talking he doesn’t start, and the silence hums between us. I have never learned how to switch him back on when he turns off.
I find a voice that sounds normal and tell him about my roommates, how one moved his pile of dirty clothes and found a dead mouse beneath it. I tell him about a near miss I’d had on my bike. I almost tell him about the guy I’m dating, decide against it. The guy wasn’t going to last long anyway. I talk to the silence for at least a half-hour, long enough for my throat to go dry. With one hand, I try to twist the cap off my stainless steel water bottle in the cup holder between us. With a grunt that’s not quite exasperation, my father pulls the bottle from me, takes off the cap and puts the bottle in my reaching hand.
“Thanks,” I say. My voice is so quiet the word is more like an open vowel.
This act of cooperation makes the silence between us gentler somehow, and a few miles down the road he begins to speak.
“Got a cat.”
“Really? Boy or a girl?
“Don’t tomcats spray? Your landlord won’t like that.”
“That’s his name, Tomcat.”
He doesn’t offer any other information. I try to imagine my father with a cat on his lap, making it purr with cautious fingers. I can’t. He is growing a middle-aged man’s experimental goatee, and it’s carefully trimmed into a point above his chin. I toy with the absurd idea of asking him if he has a girlfriend. We are approaching Willits, my traditional rest stop.
Highway 101 is a lonely stretch north through Mendocino and Humboldt County. In the dark the mountains hulk over you, state-owned land, devoid of a single man-made light. The river’s wink in the moonlight is unfriendly and cold. I have always found reassurance in gas stations, in the smell of diesel and clean fluorescent light. There will be someone inside to ring up my cigarettes, powdered donuts and coffee. Someone who will fortify me before the last stretch of lonely, lightless highway. Someone who may or may not smile at my jokes. Someone who will prove that I exist.
“I’ll get the gas,” my father says.
I open my mouth, close it and walk into the station without looking back at him.
The bathroom is propped open with a yellow caution sign to air out after being mopped, but I nudge it aside and let the door close silently behind me. I pull down my jeans and sit on the toilet seat with my forehead propped against my folded hands. I realize that I don’t really need to pee, but I do need to sit here for a few minutes. If someone were to observe me, it would look as if I were praying. I’ve been doing this a lot lately. Sitting in a posture of prayer. I’m not talking to anything or anyone though, and I’m sure as hell not asking for anything. I can’t even think. All I can feel is a great white buzz all through my body, like I’m one giant limb that’s gone to sleep.
The woman who called to tell me Mom had died was a stranger. I didn’t recognize her last name. I hadn’t made it home to see her after the diagnosis. I hadn’t been back to see her much before then either. The stranger said she’d known my mother from church. I was still taking in the news that she was dead.
“Church?” I asked the woman. My mother didn’t go to church.
“Yes, we came to know her very well towards the end. She was very brave.”
“Brave?” I repeated, stupidly. This woman obviously didn’t know my mother at all.
“Yes, dear,” the stranger went on, “Oh, she talked so much about you. She loved you very much, you know.” Her voice was sympathetic but uncertain. ‘Shouldn’t someone else be doing this?’ I imagined her asking, ‘Didn’t she have any other family?’
I thought about the time I’d started driving north to see my mother but stopped in Willits and couldn’t go any further. I called and told her that my car had broken down, that I wouldn’t make it up to see her after all. In the static-laced silence I could hear her inhale reflectively on a cigarette. There was a long pause before she said, “Okay.” She said it like a question, and then she said it again like a statement, “Okay.” I drove back down to the City. At the time it felt like the right thing to do.
The church lady asked for my father’s number and I gave it to her. I hadn’t even realized I had it memorized.
Until Dad called and asked for a ride, I let myself believe that the call was a mistake, meant for someone else. Someone who had a brave mother that went to church. Someone who could make decisions about cremation vs. burial, invitation lists, newspaper announcements, final plans for her belongings. I pictured myself and Dad standing in the front room of her little apartment with its nicotine-stained walls, each waiting for the other to make the first move, start putting her things in a trash bag.
Trash bags. The clerk at the counter says they don’t stock them, but he’d be happy to give me one if it’s just one I need. I’ll need a box of them, I tell him. He’s cute in his little grey uniform shirt and second-day stubble. I smile my first smile in hours. Without prompting, he starts drawing me a map to the nearest all-night convenience store.
Outside, my father has spotted me through the glass. He catches my eye and looks down, begins to wiggle one foot in the air. Then he wiggles the other. He moves his torso rhythmically, as though twirling an invisible hula hoop. The Happy Dance. He’s doing The Happy Dance.
This is the dance that he invented for my childhood tantrums. Wiggle the left leg, wiggle the right. Shake the hips. This dance is the closest he can get to an apology. It stopped working the year I turned twelve. Now a laugh I didn’t know I had comes rolling out of me, startling me and the cute clerk.
“That old guy’s really going for it,” the clerk says.
Tears are running down my cheeks. My father has started the second part of the dance, where he rocks from side to side on bowed legs, arms twirling in complex configurations. I see that he is crying too. I close my eyes.
I open them. My father has put the nozzle of the gas pump to his temple. He waits a beat, looks at me.
“Holy — ” says the clerk. My father closes his eyes. Pulls the trigger.
The gas gushes over his face, his shoulder and side. He stands and lets it happen without flinching. It will sting his skin. It will stain the seats of my car. The final hours of our trip will be silent and bitter, cold air pouring in through the car’s open windows. We will use his gas-soaked clothes to start a fire. We will burn the things of hers we cannot give away. We will not talk. I will not smoke.
And I’ll understand the last words I heard him say to her, words that leaked from beneath a closed bedroom door alongside her sobs.
“What would you do?” My mother asked him. “What would you do to keep her?”
“Whatever it takes.”
Featured image: Shutterstock
Gatherings around the world are cancelled or postponed: Concerts, conferences, religious services, birthday parties, yoga classes, the Olympics, funerals. Almost all instances of people in proximity to one another have suddenly evaporated in the U.S. as many of us have been isolating in our homes.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has altered daily life for most everyone, Priya Parker thinks it has created an opportunity for us to reexamine the ways we connect with one another.
Parker is a trained conflict resolution facilitator who started using a process called “sustained dialogue” at University of Virginia to facilitate meaningful conversations and connections across racial and ethnic barriers. As a biracial woman, she noticed a lack of understanding around race on campus, and she decided to do something about it.
In 2018, Parker published The Art of Gathering, a book that calls on us to reconsider the gatherings we plan and attend, from celebrations to meetings to mass events to dinner parties. Parker’s book offers a new way of determining how we should shape these gatherings into meaningful experiences instead of routine events. She writes that “We spend our lives gathering … and we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another.” Parker believes that we can change this, though, even — and maybe especially — in a time of global crisis.
In our interview with her, Parker shared her philosophy of getting people together, socially distanced or otherwise.
SEP: You talk in your book about our “ritualized gatherings” and how they’ve been repeated so much over time that we’re attached to the forms of our gatherings even after they no longer reflect our values. What are we doing wrong when we gather?
Priya Parker: We skip over asking what the purpose is. So, we skip too quickly to form. If we’re hosting a baby shower, we assume it has to look a certain way and skip to buying or making the baby games. I wrote about the New York Times “Page One Meeting” in the book, which continued for more than 70 years even after it no longer made sense to have the biggest meeting of the day focusing on what goes on page one, since they now had this thing called the home page. Whether it’s a baby shower or an editor’s meeting, the biggest mistake that we make when we gather is to assume that the purpose is obvious.
SEP: To zero in on the purpose of gatherings, you suggest finding a “disputable purpose” and even excluding people if necessary, in the right way. A lot of us are rule-averse and want to at least appear laid back when we’re planning gatherings, so how do you think we can start to embrace rules like this?
Parker: I would differentiate between principles and rules. I think something like “know why you’re gathering” isn’t a rule; it’s a principle. It’s not controlling or uptight to be asking “why are we doing this?” It’s intentional.
But I do, in the book, write about pop-up rules. Something like practicing generous authority. Something we tend to do in our gatherings is “underhost.” In wanting to not seem too controlling or bossy, we kind of do nothing. This is an argument to say that if you’re interested in creating transformative, memorable gatherings, the way to do that is to have a specific purpose and to create a sequence or structure — that can actually be delightful and fun.
If the purpose of a baby shower is to help a couple figure out how they want to parent when they’ve never seen a model for that in either of their families before, having a baby shower with all women and pinning the diaper on the baby is not going to help you fulfill that purpose. Gathering is a form of power and it’s also the way we spend our time. I’m not so much an advocate of rules so much as I am an advocate of not wasting people’s time.
SEP: Let’s say you’re at a terrible gathering. You know it’s terrible, and everyone else does too, but you’re not the host. Is there anything you can do as a non-host to make a gathering better?
Parker: I called this book The Art of Gathering and not The Art of Hosting, in part, because I think guests have a lot of power. I know of this retirement party that happened pre-COVID, and the team of a department was invited to a retirement lunch, and everybody came and sat down and they were chatting. The person who sent out the invitations was planning to bring out a cake and a plaque at the end, but there were like two hours before that, so everyone was just kind of waiting around while nothing happened and it was a little embarrassing for the person being honored. Then, one of the guests stood up and clinked their glass and started a round of toasts and stories. It was a risk, right? But people went along with it. It gave structure, and completely transformed the event. Through their intervention, that guest transformed something that was mundane into something that was meaningful.
Sometimes it isn’t obvious who the host is, like if you’re at a conference or something and you’ve spontaneously come together with whoever you’ve bumped into. You can intervene and say, “I’m here because I’m new to the industry. Would you guys be up for a conversation?” and go around answering an interesting question. You have a lot of power as a guest to shape an outcome. Part of it is saying “there is a beautiful conversation that could happen here. How do we have it?”
SEP: I think it’s a little more common these days to come across the idea of introvertedness or social anxiety, and some people say they don’t like to be in gatherings or that they don’t like to be around strangers. But you say in your book that “everyone has the ability to gather well.” Does that run counter to the idea of introvertedness?
Parker: One of the things I found interesting writing this was that I interviewed over 100 people for this book who people described as transformative gatherers — in all different fields, a rabbi, a choir conductor, a hockey coach, a photographer — and many of them identified as introverts or sufferers of social anxiety. One of the things I found, at least anecdotally, is that often introverts — people who don’t like to go to gatherings — are some of the best gatherers. This is because they’re creating the gatherings they wish existed.
When you’re designing experiences for other people, I think it’s almost dangerous to rely on a very charismatic personality to lift the group and carry it through something. When you create thoughtful structure, you don’t actually have to do very much once people arrive. I actually think that often when people don’t like going to gatherings, they’re on to something. They don’t like them when they’re really awkward and they aren’t guided with care. They don’t like gatherings where you have to keep introducing yourself or try to prove your worth. It’s exhausting. But there is another way to do this, and, in my experience, introverts and others who are on the outside of communities are really amazing, thoughtful gatherers.
SEP: When it comes to family and friends with really polarizing politics (I think everyone thinks about this around Thanksgiving for some reason), a lot of strategies go around for gathering people like this and keeping conflict at bay. How would you approach gathering people where politics differ and maybe even values differ as well?
Parker: I think first, again, is know the purpose. Is the purpose to engage in politics? Or to have a good time? If you’re trying to interstitch a community and they’re divided on politics, as a conflict resolution facilitator, one of the things you know is that there are different tools for different conflicts. It may make sense to avoid conversation as a centerpiece of your gathering. It may make sense to do it in a sports league or volunteer together. There are a lot of ways to build relationships, and things that allow people to see different sides of each other are going to help to build that community.
When you’re bringing together people who are different, don’t try to make them the same; try to complicate each side. Krista Tippett said “We assume a monolith of the other that we know not to be true of our own side.” So we think “all evangelical Christians … ” or “all white women …” or “all Muslims … ” whereas we know that there’s so much difference even within our own families.
If you’re going to go for it, my suggestion is to ground a conversation around stories, not opinions. Or, don’t focus on conversation and find a meaningful activity that allows people to show different sides of themselves. People could think, oh wow, he is just as competitive as I am, or, she’s also superstitious. We all have different sides to ourselves, so part of loosening that knot isn’t to focus on stamping out the differences but to bring out the complications of each side because they have something in common.
SEP: I find it ironic that you’re book about gathering has just come out in paperback while we’re all social distancing.
Parker: It is an ironic time to deeply understand gatherings when the world is ungathering.
SEP: But you do have this podcast called Together Apart, so I want to know some innovative or inspirational ways you’ve seen people connecting during this pandemic.
Parker: People are finding really beautiful ways to gather even with social distancing. In this week’s episode, which was on birthdays, an aunt and her nephew organized a birthday party in a parking lot for all of the neighbors and asked them to park their cars in a circle and blare pop music and honk as the birthday boy was going to drive through. It was totally amazing to have a release of joy when people are cooped up in their houses, but in a safe way. One interesting thing I’ve been getting a lot of notes on is people living in neighborhoods all over the country who don’t know their neighbors, and all of the sudden, Facebook neighbor groups are popping up saying, “drinks on the lawn, 12 feet apart, 5 p.m.”
One powerful thing we’ve been seeing online is people whose gathering is unique to this time and wouldn’t make much sense in other times. D-Nice, this D.J. in Miami, started spinning sets three weeks ago, and some of his dance parties are 100,000 people. Michelle Obama stopped by, Bernie Sanders, Mark Zuckerberg stopped by, but it was literally open to everybody. It was a strange combination, that I think is difficult in in-person gatherings, of elite and deeply democratic while allowing these psychological V.I.P.s through the door. It reminded me of a quote from Studio 54 when Andy Warhol was criticized for the red rope, and he said “It’s a dictatorship at the door so that it can be a democracy on the dancefloor.” I think D-Nice is this fascinating example of being a democracy at the door and a democracy on the dancefloor.
There are virtual choirs, collective spin classes and knitting classes, Alcoholics Anonymous, happy hours, and everything in between. And I think families are trying to figure out how we can be together apart in a way that’s safe but still specifically marks a moment in our lives.
SEP: Do you think this is a good time to reconnect with old friends?
Parker: Absolutely. This is a massive, generational, global interruption, and it’s a painful one. It makes us pause and think, who do I love? What have I not been doing when I was overbusy? Beyond the question of reconnecting with old friends, it’s really a good time to reconnect with how you want to live. Part of that is who you want to be part of that life.
SEP: What do you hope people take away from your book?
Parker: My deepest hope is that people pause, at work or home or in the public square, and think more intentionally about how we do things together, and then have the courage and the permission to go invent that new way of being.
Featured image: Shutterstock
We have a huge traditional holiday get-together, and my mother, who passed away this year, always made (everyone’s favorite) apple pie. My sister and I both want to make the pie this year as a tribute to the longtime matriarch of the family, but we can’t agree on who will do the honors. It’s getting bitter, verging on nasty. Help!
—Casey Chalmers, Toluca Lake, California
The stress of such a great loss can bring family conflicts to a head, especially around the holidays. But you don’t want to let sibling tensions spoil such an important family gathering. Do the right thing and relinquish the pie-making duties to your sister. Focus on another tradition you can start all your own. Can you knit stockings for new members of the family? Bake a different classic dessert? And how about preparing a loving toast as your own tribute to your mother? Remember, it’s not about the pies, but rather about the stability she gave to the clan. That’s a responsibility you can easily share with your sister if you lead the way.
The Manners Guy is a former bartender who knows his way around awkward social situations. Send your questions to [email protected]
This article is featured in the November/December 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: (Lewis Tse Pui Lung /Shutterstock.com)
Writing young adult fiction in Boy’s Life, Child Life, and Boy Scout Magazine, B.J. Chute’s work ranges from fantastical romance to silly farce. In 1944’s “Come of Age,” her short story about a young boy coping with the unimaginable, Chute depicts the innocence of World War II-era America alongside devastating grief in the eyes of a child. As a product of its time, the story gives a snapshot of idyllic family life interrupted by the horror of war.
Published on September 30, 1944
Content Warning: A racial slur
Timothy crossed the road at the exact place where the tar ended and the dirt began, paused on the sidewalk, squinted up at the sun and gave a heave of satisfaction. He was too warm with his sweater on. He had known he was going to be too warm, and he had made a firm announcement to this effect to his mother before he left the house in the morning. Thousands of layers of woolly stuff, he had pointed out darkly, intimating that a person might easily suffocate.
Having barely survived this fate so far, he now decided to make a test case out of it. If an automobile passed him on the road before he had counted up to ten, that meant it was really spring and too warm for sweaters. His own internal workings were positive on the subject, but he was amiably willing to put the whole thing on a sporting basis.
“One,” said Timothy. After a while he added, “Two.” He then suspended his counting while he made a neat pile of his schoolbooks and lunch box, putting them carefully on a bare patch of ground, away from the few greenly white sprigs of grass that were struggling up into the sunlight. If the car came by, he would have to put the books on the ground anyhow, in order to take off his sweater, so it seemed wiser to do it ahead of time.
“Three,” said Timothy, looking up the road. There was nothing in sight, so he closed his eyes, waited, said “Four” and opened them again. This time it worked. There was a car coming. Timothy put his hands to his sweater and stood pantingly prepared to jerk it over his head.
The car swished by with a friendly toot.
“Five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten,” said Timothy rapidly, just to be perfectly fair about the whole thing, vanished momentarily into the sweater and reappeared with his hair standing on end and the expression of one who had been saved from total collapse in the nick of time.
He turned the sweater virtuously right side to again, with his mother in mind, and tied its arms around his waist, allowing the rest of it to fall comfortably to the rear, where it could flap without giving him any sense of responsibility. Then he tucked his schoolbooks under one arm, picked up the lunchbox and peered hopefully inside it. There were three cake crumbs and some orange peel. He licked his finger, collected the crumbs on the end of it and disposed of them tidily, then extracted a piece of the peel and took a thoughtful nibble.
It tasted vaguely like a Christmas tree, but rather leathery, so he put it back, felt a momentary dejection based on a sudden desperate need for a great deal of food, recovered rapidly, took another look at the sun and gave a pleased snort.
It was certainly spring, and for once it was starting on a Friday afternoon, which meant he would have the whole weekend to get used to it in. Also, by some great and good accident, his sixth-grade English teacher had forgotten to assign the weekly composition. This was almost incredibly gratifying, especially since the rumor had got around that she had been going to give them the dismal topic of What My Country Means to Me.
Timothy sighed with satisfaction over the narrow escape of the sixth-grade English class, knowing quite well the same topic would turn up again next week, but that next week was years away. Besides, she might change her mind and assign something else. One week she had told them to write what she referred to as a word portrait, called A Member of My Family. Timothy had enjoyed that richly. He had written, inevitably, about his brother Bricky, and it was the longest composition he had ever achieved in his life. He felt a great pity for his classmates, who didn’t have Bricky to write about, since Bricky was not only the most remarkable person in the world but he was at that moment engaged in being a hero in the South Pacific. He was a pilot with silver wings and a bomber, and Timothy basked luxuriously in the warmth of his glory.
“Yoicks,” said Timothy, addressing the spring and life in general. “Yoicks” was Bricky’s favorite expression.
“Yoicks,” he said again.
He was, at the moment, five blocks from home. The first block he used up in not stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk, which was not the mindless process it appeared to be. He was actually conducting an elaborate reconnaissance program, and the cracks were vital supply lines. By the second block, however, his attitude on supplies had taken a more personal turn, and he spent the distance reflecting that this was the day his mother baked cookies. His imagination carried him willingly up the back steps, through the unlatched screen door and to the cooky jar, but there it gave up for lack of specific information on the type of cookies involved.
Besides, he was now at the third block, and the third block was important, consisting largely of a vacant lot with a run-down little shack lurching sideways in a corner of it. The old brown grass of last autumn and the matted tangle of vines and weeds were showing a faint stirring of greenness like a pale web.
At the edge of the lot, Timothy paused and his whole manner changed. He became alert and his eyes narrowed, shifting from left to right. He was listening intently. The only sound was the peevish chirp of a sparrow; but Timothy was a world away from it. What he was listening for was the warning roar of revved-up motors.
In a moment now, from behind that shack, from beyond those tangled vines, Japanese planes would swarm upward viciously, in squadron attack.
Timothy put down the books and the lunch box, then he stepped back, holding himself steady. His hand moved, fingers curved knowingly, to control and throttle, and from his parted lips there suddenly burst a chattering roar.
The Liberator surged forward gallantly to meet the attackers. Timothy’s face became tense, and he interrupted the engine’s explosive revolutions for a moment to warn himself grimly, “This is it. Watch yourselves, men.” He then nodded soberly. It was a grave responsibility for the pilot, knowing the crew trusted him to see them through.
The pilot, of course, was Bricky. It was Bricky who was holding the plane steady on its course, nerving himself for the final instant of action. The deadly swarm of Zeros swept forward, but the pilot’s face remained impassive.
Z-z-z-zoom, they spread across the sky, their evil advance punctuated by the hail of machine-gun fire. The Liberator climbed, settling back on her tail in instant response to the pilot’s sure hand. As she scaled the clouds, the bright silver of her name, painted along the side, shone defiantly — The Hornet. Bricky had at one time piloted a plane called The Hornet. It was the best name that Timothy knew.
After that, it was short and sharp. A Jap fighter detached itself from the humming swarm. The Hornet rolled and the tail gunner squeezed the triggers. The plane exploded in midair, disintegrated and streamered to earth in flaming wreckage.
“Right on the nose,” said the gunner with satisfaction.
The Hornet had their range now. Zero after Zero fluttered helplessly down out of the sky, dissolving into the earth. The others turned and skittered for their home base, terrified before the invincibility of American man and machine.
A faint smile flickered across the face of The Hornet’s pilot, and he permitted himself a nod of satisfaction. “Good show,” he said.
Timothy sat down on the ground and drew a deep breath. Then he said “Gosh!” and scrambled back to his feet. At home, even now, there might be a letter waiting from Bricky, full of breathless and wonderful details that could be relayed to the fellows at school. A few of them, of course, had brothers of their own in the Air Force, but none of them had Bricky, and that made all the difference. He was quite sorry for them, but most willing to share and to expound.
Gosh, he missed Bricky, but, gosh, it was worth it.
A dream crept across his mind. Maybe the war would last for years. Maybe some one of these days, a new pilot would stand before his commanding officer somewhere in Pacific territory and make a firm salute. “Lieutenant Baker reporting for duty, sir.”
His commanding officer would look up quickly from his notes. “Timothy!” Bricky would say, holding it all back. They would shake hands.
For the entire next block toward home, Timothy shook hands with his brother, but on the last block spring got into his heels and he raced the distance like a lunatic, yelling his jubilee. The porch steps he took in two leaps, crashed happily into the front hall and smacked his books and his lunchbox down on the hall table. He then opened his mouth to shout for his mother, not because he wanted her for anything specific, but because he simply needed to know her exact location.
His mouth, opened to “Hey, mom!” closed suddenly in surprise. His father’s hat was lying on the hall table. There was nothing to prepare him for his father’s hat on the hall table at three-thirty in the afternoon. His father’s hat kept regular hours. An unaccountable sense of formality descended on Timothy. He looked anxiously into the hall mirror and made a gesture toward flattening the top lock of his hair. It sprang up again under his hand, and he compromised on untying the sleeves of his sweater from around his waist and putting it firmly down on top of his books. None of this had anything to do with his father, who maintained strict neutrality on the subject of his son’s appearance. It was entirely a matter between Timothy, the time of day, and that unexpected gray felt hat on the hall table.
There were a dozen reasons for dad’s having come home early. There was nothing to get excited about. Timothy turned his back on the hall table and the hat, opened the door and went through into the living room. There was no one there, but he could hear his father’s voice in the kitchen, and, because the kitchen was a reassuring place, he felt better. He went on into the kitchen, shoving the door only part open and easing himself through it.
His mother was sitting on the kitchen chair beside the kitchen table. She was just sitting there, not doing anything. She never sat anywhere like that, doing nothing.
The formal, pressed-down feeling returned to Timothy and stuck in his throat.
He looked toward his father appealingly, but his father was leaning against the sink, with his hands behind him pressed against it, and staring down at the floor.
“Mom — ” said Timothy.
They both looked at him then, but it was his father who answered. He answered right away, as if it had to be said fast. “You’ll have to know, Tim,” he said, almost roughly. “It’s Bricky. He’s missing in action.” Missing in action. He had met the phrase so many times that it wasn’t frightening. There was no possible connection in his mind between “missing in action” and Bricky …
Missing in action. It was a picture on a movie screen, nothing more. Bricky, the invincible, would have bailed out, perhaps somewhere in the jungle. Or he would have nursed his damaged crate down to earth in a fantastically cool exhibition of flying skill, his men trusting him to see them through.
A hot, fierce pride surged up in Timothy. He wanted to tell his mother and father not to look that way; that Bricky, wherever he was, was safe. He wanted to reassure them, so that they would be smiling at him again and all the old cozy confidence would return to the kitchen.
His father was dragging words out, one by one. “The plane didn’t come back,” he said. “They were on a bombing mission, and they didn’t come back. We just got the telegram.”
An awful thing happened then. Timothy’s mother began to cry. He had never in his life seen her cry. It had never occurred to him that she was capable of it, and a monstrous chasm of insecurity yawned suddenly at his feet.
His father went over to her and got down on his knees on the kitchen linoleum, and he stayed there with his arm around her shoulders, murmuring, with his cheek against her hair, “Don’t, Ellen. Don’t, dearest.”
Timothy stood there in the middle of the floor with his hands jammed stiffly into his pockets and his eyes turned away from his father and mother. He was much more frightened by their sudden unfamiliarity than by what his father had told him. “Missing in action” was just words. His mother crying was a sheer impossibility, made visible before him.
He realized that he had to get out of the kitchen right away, because it was the place he had always been safest, and now that made it unendurable. He couldn’t do anything, anyway. Later, when his mother wasn’t — when his mother felt better, he could explain to her about Bricky being safe. He slid out of the room like a ghost, and, linked in their fear, neither of them even looked up.
In the front hall, he stopped for a moment. The spring sun outside was shining, bright and warm, on the street, and he knew exactly how the heat of it would feel slanting across his shoulders. But his mother had thought he ought to wear his sweater today. He wanted very badly to do something to make her feel better. He frowned and pulled the sweater on over his head, jamming his arms into the sleeves and resisting the temptation to push up the cuffs. It stretched them, his mother said.
He went slowly down the front steps, worrying about his mother. The words “missing in action” still meant exactly nothing to him. They were only another installment in the exciting war serial that was Bricky’s Pacific adventures, and there was not the slightest shadow of doubt in his mind about Bricky’s safe return, though he was eager for details. He guessed none of the other fellows at school had members of their family gallantly missing in action.
No, it wasn’t Bricky that made him feel funny in the pit of his stomach. The thing was he hadn’t known that grownups cried, and the discovery took a good deal of stability out of his world.
His mother might go on being frightened for days ahead, until they heard that Bricky was all right, and he would be tiptoeing around her in his mind all the time to make things better for her, and what he would really be wanting would be for things to be again the way they had been before.
He didn’t want to feel all unsettled inside. The way he felt now was the way he had felt the time they had been waiting to hear from his sister in California when the baby came. He had known quite well that Margaret would be fine and everything, but just the same, the baby’s coming had got into the house and filled it with uncertainties. Now it was the War Department. He was suddenly quite angry with the War Department. Bricky wasn’t going to like it, either, when he got back. He wouldn’t like mom worrying. Timothy wished now he had stayed a little longer in the kitchen and asked a few questions. He would have liked to know what that War Department had said, and, as he went down the street without any particular aim or direction, he turned it over and over in his mind.
He had walked back, without meaning to, to the vacant lot with the old shack on it, and it occurred to him that, while he had been shooting down those Jap planes in Bricky’s Hornet, his mother and father had been there in the kitchen. Looking like that.
He left the sidewalk and walked into the grassy tangle, scuffing his shoes through last autumn’s leaves. He would have liked some company, and he toyed for a moment with going over to Davy Peters’ house and telling him that the War Department had sent them a telegram about Bricky, but decided against it.
He sat down on the grass with his back against the wall of the shack. He could feel the rough coolness of the brown boards even through his sweater, and the sun spilled warmth down his front. It was unthinkable that the shack should ever be more comforting than the kitchen at home, but this time it was.
He wished he knew just what the telegram had said. There was something, he thought, that they always put in. Something about “We regret to inform you,” but maybe that was just for soldiers’ families when the soldier had got killed. He had seen a movie that had that in it once, and it had made quite an impression, because in the movie it was all tied up with not talking about the things you knew, and for days Timothy had gone around with a tightly shut mouth and the look of one who is giving no aid and comfort to the enemy. He had even torn the corners off all Bricky’s letters and burned them up with a fine secret feeling of citizenship, and then he had regretted it afterward, when he remembered it was only the United States APO address and no good to anyone. It was too bad, in a way, because they would have made a good collection. On the other hand, he already had eighteen separate and distinct collections, and the shelf in his room, the corner of the second drawer down in the living room desk, and the excellent location behind the laundry tub in the basement were all getting seriously overcrowded.
He wondered if maybe later he could have the telegram. He could start a good collection with the telegram, he thought. He would print on a piece of paper, “Things Relating to My Brother Bricky,” and paste it onto a box. He even knew the box he would use. It held his father’s golf shoes, but some kind of arrangement could be worked out for putting the shoes somewhere else. His father was very good about that sort of thing, once he understood boxes were really needed, and, later on, this one could hold all the souvenirs and medals and things Bricky would bring home.
The telegram, which maybe began “We regret to inform you,” would fit neatly into the box without having to be folded. It would go on with something about “your son, Lieutenant Ronald Baker,” and then there would be something more, not quite clear in his mind, about “He is reported missing in action over the South Pacific, having failed to return from an important bombing mission.”
Timothy scowled at a sparrow. There was another part that went with the “missing in action” part. Missing, believed — Missing, believed killed.
That was when it hit him. That was the moment when he suddenly realized what had happened — when the thing that the telegram stood for took shape clearly before him, not as something that had frightened his mother and made his father hold her very tight, but as something real about Bricky.
Bricky, his brother. Bricky, with whom he had sat a hundred times in this exact place and talked and talked, Bricky who went fishing with him, who showed him how to tie a sheepshank, who was going to help him build a radio when he came back.
“When he comes back,” said Timothy aloud, licking his lips because they had unaccountably gone dry. But suppose now that Bricky didn’t come back? Suppose that telegram was the end of everything?
It was the vacant lot and the shack that weren’t safe anymore. In the kitchen, he had known, without questioning it, that Bricky was all right. It was here, out in the open, that fear had come crawling. Bricky was dead. He knew Bricky was dead, and he was dead thousands of miles from anywhere, and they wouldn’t see him again ever.
Timothy sat there, and the pain in his stomach wasn’t anything like the pain you got from eating too much or being hungry. He rocked back and forth, not very much, but enough to cradle the sharpness of it, being careful not to breathe, because if he breathed it went down too far inside and hurt too much. If he could just sit there, maybe, not breathing
He couldn’t. There came a time when his lungs took a deep gulp of air without his having anything to do with it, and when that time came there was no way of holding out any longer.
Bricky was dead. He gave a great strangled sob and rolled over on his face, sprawling across the ground, and everything that was good and safe and beautiful quit the earth and left him with nothing to hold on to. He clung to the grass, shaking desperately with fear and pain and loss, and the immensity and the loneliness and the danger of being a human rolled over and over him in drowning waves.
Behind him, the shack, which only a little while ago had been a shelter for the sneak attack of Zero planes, was immobile and solid in the sunshine. It was only a shack in a vacant lot. The tumbled weeds and vines above which The Hornet had swooped and soared were weeds and vines, not a battleground for airborne knights.
It wasn’t that way. It wasn’t that way at all. It had nothing to do with a gallant plane, outnumbered but triumphant. It had nothing to do with the Bricky who had flown in his brother’s dreams, as safe and invincible as Saint George.
A plane was a thing that could be shot down out of the safe sky by murderous gunfire. Bricky was a man whose body could be thrown from the cockpit and spin senselessly down into cold water. It was a cheat. The whole thing was a cheat.
The war — this vague big thing that moved in shadowy headlines, in a glorious pageantry of medals and flags and brave men shaking hands — wasn’t that at all. He had thought it was something like the Holy Grail and King Arthur, that it shone with beauty and was very high and proud.
And it wasn’t. It was fear and this hollowed panic inside him, and it was not seeing Bricky again. Not seeing him again ever. That was why his mother had cried.
That was why his father’s voice had been so rough and quick. And it wasn’t to be endured. He breathed in shivering gasps, there with his face buried in cool-smelling grass and earth and the sun friendly and gentle on his shoulders that didn’t feel it anymore. It would go on like this, day after day and week after week. Bricky was dead, and the place where Bricky had been would never be filled in.
That was what war was, and he knew about it now, and the knowledge was too awful and too immense to be borne. He wanted his mother. He wanted to run to her and to hold to her tightly and to cry his heart out with her arms around his shoulders and her reassuring voice in his ears.
But his mother felt like this, too, and his father. There was no safety anywhere. No one could help him, except himself, and he was eleven years old. He didn’t want to know about all these things. He didn’t want to know what war really was. He wanted it to be a picture on a movie screen again, with excitement and glory and men being brave. Not this immense, unendurable fear and emptiness. He couldn’t even cry.
He was eleven years old, and he lay there face down in the grass, and he couldn’t cry. He groped for anything to ease him, and he thought perhaps Bricky’s plane hadn’t been alone when it crashed to the flat blue water. He thought that other planes might have been blotted out with it — planes with big red suns painted on them.
But even that didn’t do any good. There were men in those planes with the suns on them. Not men like men he knew, not Americans, but real people just the same. No one had told him that he would one day know that the enemy were real people, no one had warned him against finding it out.
He pressed closer against the ground, trying to draw comfort up from it, but he kept shaking. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” said Timothy into the grass. “Now I lay me down to sleep. Now I lay me — ”
It was a long, long time before the shaking stopped. He was surprised, at the end of it, to find that he was still there on the ground. He pushed away from it and sat up, his head swimming. The sun was much lower now, and a little wind had sprung up to move the vines around him so they swayed against the shack. The sweater felt good around his shoulders, and it was the sweater that made him realize suddenly that he couldn’t go on lying there waiting for the world to stop and end the pain.
The world wasn’t going to stop. It was going right on, and Timothy Baker was still in it. He would go on being in it, and the thing inside him would go on being the thing inside him. He would have, somehow, to live with that too. He would have to go back to the house, to the kitchen, to his mother and father, to school, to coming home and knowing that Bricky wouldn’t be there.
Timothy looked around. He felt weak and dizzy, the way he’d felt once after a fever. The shack was there, with no Jap Zeros behind it. The place where he had stood when he was being Bricky and The Hornet was just a piece of ground. His mouth drew in, with his teeth clipping his lower lip, while he stared. There wasn’t any escape. He would have to go back — along the sidewalk, up the path, through the front door, into the hallway, into the living room, into the kitchen. There wasn’t any escape from his mother’s eyes or his father’s voice. He knew all about it now, and he was stiff and sore from knowing about it.
He saw what he had to do. He had to go home and face that telegram. He got to his feet. He brushed off the dry bits of grass that had clung to the blurred wool of his sweater, and he pulled the cuffs around straight, so they wouldn’t be stretched wrong. Then he walked across the grass, out of the lot and onto the sidewalk, holding himself very carefully against the pain.
He held himself that way all the distance back, and when he got to his own front yard he was able to walk quite directly and quickly up the path and up the steps. He turned the doorknob and he went into the front hall. It was getting darker outdoors already, and the hall was dim. It was a moment before he realized that his father was standing in the hallway, waiting for him.
He stopped where he was, getting the pieces of himself together. He wasn’t even shaking now, and some vague kind of pride stirred deep down inside him.
He said, “Dad” dragging the monosyllable out.
“May I see the telegram, please?”
His father reached into his pocket and took out the brown leather wallet that he carried papers around in. The telegram was on top of some letters and bills, and it was strange to see it already so much a part of their living that it was jostled by business things.
Timothy took the yellow envelope and opened it carefully. There it was. “Lieutenant Ronald Baker, missing in action.” The stiff formality of the printed words made it seem so final that he felt the coldness and the fear spreading through him again, the way it had been at the shack. His mind wanted to drag away from the piece of paper, and he had to force it to think instead.
With careful stubbornness, he read the telegram again. It wasn’t really very much that the War Department said — just that the plane had not returned and that the family would be advised of any further news. He read the last part once more. Any further news. That meant the War Department wasn’t sure what had happened. Bricky might have bailed out somewhere. There had been stories in the newspaper about fliers who bailed out and were picked up later. That was a hope. Timothy weighed it carefully in his mind, not letting himself clutch at it, and it was still a hope. It was a perfectly fair one that they were entitled to, he and his father and mother.
He held his thoughts steady on that for a moment, and then he made them go on logically and precisely. Another thing that could have happened was that Bricky had gone down somewhere over land that was held by the Japanese. If that was it, Bricky might be a prisoner of war. Prisoners of war came back. That was another hope, and it was a perfectly fair one too.
He had two hopes, then. They were reasonable hopes, and he had a right to hang on to them very tightly. The telegram didn’t say “believed killed.” Frowning, he went through it in his head again, adding up as if it were an arithmetic problem. There were three things that the telegram could mean. Two of them were on the side of Bricky’s safety, and one was against it. Two chances to one was almost a promise.
Timothy drew a deep breath and handed the telegram back to his father. His father took it without saying anything, then he put his hand against the back of Timothy’s neck and rubbed his fingers up through the stubbly hair. For just a moment, Timothy turned his head, pressing close against the buttons of his father’s coat, then he pulled away.
“Can I go outdoors for a little while?” he said.
“Sure. I guess supper will be the usual time.”
They nodded to each other, then Timothy turned and went out of the house. He went down the steps, his hands jammed in his pockets, and began to walk along the sidewalk, feeling still a little hollow, but perfectly steady.
His heart fitted him again. It had stopped pounding against the cage of his ribs, and it didn’t hurt anymore. The old feeling of safety and comfort was beginning to come back, but now it wasn’t a part of his home or of the day. It was inside himself and solid, so that he couldn’t mislay it again ever. He pushed his hair away from his forehead, letting the wind get at it. The air was cooler now and felt good, and he had a vague moment of being hungry.
Then he looked around him. He was back at the vacant shack, and the shack had been waiting there for him to come. He eyed it gravely. Behind the shack were the Jap Zeros. They had been waiting for him too. He knew they were there and that their force was overwhelming. Timothy’s fingers reached automatically for the controls of his plane. His jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth to let out the roar of motors.
And, suddenly, he stopped. His hand dropped down to his side and his mouth shut. He stood there quite quietly for a moment, as if he had lost something and were trying to remember what it was. Then he gave a sigh of relinquishment.
His fingers curled firmly around air again and closed, but this time they didn’t close on the controls of a machine. They closed on dangling reins.
“Come on, Silver, old boy,” said Timothy softly to the evening. “They’ve got the jump on us, but we can catch them yet.”
He touched his spurs to his gallant pinto pony, and, wheeling, he loped away across the sunlit plain.
Featured image: Illustration by Stevan Dohanos (© SEPS)
In 1918, Jesse Lynch Williams won the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play, Why Marry? The Princeton graduate wrote on the early century college experience — in fiction and nonfiction — and focused on conflict in families and relationships in his drama. His short story “Not Wanted,” an O. Henry Award finalist, follows a young man’s strained relationship with his father as he makes his way through boarding school.
Published on November 17, 1923
“And when at last they put his first-born in his strong arms and the little pink tendril-like fingers closed about his thumb a strange tenderness suffused the father’s frame,” and so on.
Phil had read it in a book. But life did not come true to literature. When they put his first-born in his arms a strange nausea suffused this father’s frame and he handed the warm little bundle back to his sister hastily, as if it were hot.
“Take it away,” he whispered to Mary. “I might break it.”
And he bolted out of the room, for the doctor said he could see Nell now. The only joy he felt was over a less vainglorious but more important matter than becoming a father. The beautiful brave mother was all right.
This young man had not wanted to become a father; not in the least. He and Junior’s mother had been happy together. Now they would have to be happy apart, if at all, for whole years at a time, until Junior was big enough to stand trips to the wilds of Alaska or Africa or wherever else mining engineers had to go. Nell had always gone along until this usurper spoiled their life together. So Junior was really doing a scandalous thing, coming between husband and wife. No wonder that Phil had not wanted him.
Well, Junior’s mother wanted him anyway. She wanted him terrifically, more than anything in the world except Junior’s father. And as her husband wanted her to have everything she desired, why, probably it was all right. There was not much else that she had lacked.
Junior did not seem to understand that he wasn’t wanted by his father, and took to Phil from the first. “All babies do,” said the jealous young aunt. “It’s a great gift and it’s wasted on a man.” Mary was a maiden, but she had hopes.
“He’s so big and so kind,” said the contented mother. “Children, dogs and old ladies always adore Phil.”
With Junior it was clearly a case of love at first sight, and he did not act as if he were a victim of unrequited affection. For example, unlike a woman scorned, he had no fury for his father at all except when Phil left the room. Then he howled. His father could soothe him when even his mother failed, and Junior would settle down into Phil’s arms with a sigh of voluptuous satisfaction, quite as if he belonged there; and, of course, he did. That was the dismaying part about it to his father, who scowled and looked bored. This made the young mother laugh; and that in turn made Junior laugh, too, and look down at her from the eminence of his father’s arms, as if trying to wink and say “Rather a joke on the old man.”
“I suppose I’ve got to do this all my life,” said Phil.
“All your life,” said Nell, rubbing it in; “but after a while you’ll like it.”
She had great faith in her son’s charm.
Junior was five years old when his father came back from the Alaska project. He could not remember having met this grown-up before, but he might have said “I have heard so much about you.” His mother had told him. For example, his father was the best and bravest man in the world. Also, according to the same reliable authority, he loved Junior and his mother enormously and equally. He was far away, getting bread and butter for them. A wonderful person, a great big man, six feet two inches “and well proportioned,” and such an honorable gentleman that — well, that was the only reason he was not coming home with a huge fortune, she explained. But at any rate he was coming home at last, and would be awfully glad to see what a big boy Junior had become.
He was, but Phil had always been rather shy with strangers, and he did not pay so much attention to his namesake as Junior had been led to expect. You see, everyone in this tyrant’s kingdom worshiped him, and Junior assumed that his father would follow conventions. For every night before he went to sleep his father’s name had invariably been mentioned first in the list of people and animals and playthings that loved him.
Junior, though quite small, was a great lover, and much given to kissing. On momentous occasions, such as the start for the picnic the day after his father’s arrival, Junior manifested his excitement by hugging and kissing everybody in sight, including the dogs. It was his earliest form of self-expression. His father, as it happened, was absorbed in packing the tea basket and had never been accustomed to being kissed while packing in camp. Besides, Junior had been helping his mother prepare the luncheon. That is, he had taken a hand in the distribution of guava jelly, and there was just one hardship in the life of this immaculate mining engineer he could never endure — sticky fingers. But Junior had not yet learned that, and so, taking advantage of his father’s kneeling posture, he tackled him around the neck and indulged in passionate osculation.
“Call your child off,” said Phil to Nell. She laughed.
“Come, precious, don’t bore your father.”
Junior did not know what that new word “bore” meant, but he released his father and transferred his demonstration to his mother. She never seemed to get too much and did not object to sweet fingers.
“Mamma,” said Junior as they started off in the car, “I don’t believe that man in front likes me.”
“He adores you, darling; he’s your father.”
Well, it sounded reasonable, but he remembered the new word. That evening when they came home the dogs, not having been allowed to go on the picnic, thought it was their turn and jumped up on Phil with muddy paws. Junior took command of the situation and of the new word.
“Down, Rex!” he said to the sentimental setter. “Don’t bore my father.” And he pulled Rex away by the tail.
At bedtime, when the nurse came to bear him off, he raised his arms to Phil.
“Can I bore you now?”
Phil laughed and kissed him good night.
“Funny little cuss, isn’t he?” said Phil.
“He’s a very unusual child,” said this very unusual mother.
“Unusually ugly, you mean.”
But he couldn’t get a rise out of Nell.
“Oh, you’ll learn to appreciate him yet.”
Shortly before Phil left for his next trip the paternal passion had its way with this reserved father, for once. Some little street boys, as they were technically classified by the nurse, had been ordered off the drive by Junior, who was playing out there alone. They did not like his aristocratic manner and rolled him in the mud. They were pommeling him in spite of his protests, when Phil heard the outcry and, getting a glimpse of the unequal contest from the library window, gave forth a shout that made the intruders take to their heels, the infuriated father after them.
As he raced down the drive he saw the wide-eyed animal terror on his child’s face and it aroused within him an animal emotion of another kind, one he had never felt before, though he had often seen it exhibited by wild beasts — usually the mothers. It was a lust to destroy those two little boys, to render them extinct. He might have done so too; but fortunately they had a good start, and by the time he caught up with them civilization caught up with him sufficiently to make him realize what century he was living in. So, with a few vigorous cuffs and an angry warning, he hastened back to his bleating offspring, recognizing with astonishment and some alarm how near blind parental rage can bring a man to murder.
Junior was not so much damaged as his white clothes were, but his childish terror was pitiful. He rushed into his father’s arms and clung, quivering. Phil held him close.
“There, there, it’s all right now. I won’t let anybody hurt you.”
Without realizing it, this fastidious father was kissing an extremely dirty face again and again. Junior, still sobbing convulsively, clung closer.
“You’ll always be on my side, won’t you, father?”
“You bet I will!” said Phil. “You’re my own darling little boy.”
He had had no intention of saying things quite like that, and didn’t know that he could; but it sounded all right to Junior. This moment was to be one of those vivid recollections that last through a lifetime.
With a final long-drawn sigh of complete and passionate comfort, the small boy looked up into the big man’s face and smiled.
“You love me now, don’t you, father?” he said.
“You bet I love you!”
The boy had got him at last. But perhaps Junior presumed upon this new privilege. The next morning, he awoke with a bad dream about those street boys, and as soon as the nurse permitted he rushed in to be reassured by his big father. Phil was preoccupied with shaving and did not know about the bad dream. Junior tried to climb up Phil’s legs.
“That will do,” said his father in imminent peril of cutting his chin; “get down. Get down, I tell you. Oh, Nell!” — she was in the next room — “make your child quit picking on me.”
“Come to me, dearest. Mustn’t bother father when he’s shaving.”
Junior wasn’t piqued but he was puzzled.
“But I thought he loved me; he told me he loved me,” he called out. “Didn’t you tell me you loved me, father?”
Phil laughed to cover his embarrassment. He had not reckoned on Junior’s giving him away to Nell, and knew that she was triumphing over him now, in silence.
“Your father never loves anybody before breakfast,” said Junior’s mother, smiling as she covered him with kisses.
Apparently fathers could never be like mothers.
Nell knew it was a risk, but she wanted to be with Phil as much as he wanted to be with her — the old life together they both loved. So they decided that Junior was big enough now to stand the trip to Mongolia. It was a great mistake. Before they had crossed Russia all of them regretted it — except Junior. He was having a grand time. At present he was working his way back from the door of the railway compartment to the window again, and for the third time was stepping upon his father’s feet. Phil had had a bad time with the custom officials, a bad time with the milk boxes and a bad night’s sleep. His temper broke under the strain.
“Oh, children are a damn nuisance,” he growled.
“Come, dear, look at these funny houses out of the window,” said Junior’s mother. “Aren’t they funny houses?”
That night when she was putting him to sleep with the recital of those who loved him, Junior inquired, “Mamma, what is a damn nuisance?”
“A damn nuisance,” said his mother, “is a perfect darling.”
All the same he had learned that he must avoid stepping on his father’s freshly polished boots. One more item added to the list. Mustn’t touch him with sticky hands, mustn’t play with his pipes, mustn’t make a noise when he takes his nap on the train — so many things to remember, such a small head to keep them all in.
There was no more milk. There was very little proper food of any kind for Junior in the camp, although Phil sent a small-sized expedition away over the divide for the purpose. The boy became ill. Phil ordered a special train to bring a famous physician. He even neglected his work on the boy’s account, something unprecedented for Phil. But this was no place for children. The boy would have to go home. That meant that his mother would too … All the beautiful dream of being together spoiled.
“I’m going back to America because I am a damn nuisance to my father,” Junior announced to Phil’s assistant.
Phil neglected his work again and went with them as far as the border. “But you do love him,” said Nell; “you know you do. You’d give up your life for him.”
“Naturally. All I object to is giving up my wife for him.”
But Phil’s last look was at the poor little sickly boy. He wondered if he would ever see him again. He did. But he never saw his wife again.
It was too late to do anything about it. His assistant, who had seen these married lovers together, marveled at the way his silent chief went about the day’s work until his responsibility to the syndicate was discharged. Then he marveled more when just as the opportunity of a professional lifetime came to Phil he threw up his job and started for home.
He meant to stay there. He would get into the office end of the work and devote the rest of his life to Nell’s boy. That was his job now. Previously he had left it to her — too much so. The brave girl! Never a whine in all the blessed years of their marriage. The child until now had seemed merely to belong to him, a luxury he did not particularly want. Now he belonged to the child, a necessity, and being needed made Phil want him. But the Great War postponed this plan.
So Junior continued to live with his devoted Aunt Mary. She cherished his belief in Phil’s perfection, but she could not understand why her busy brother never wrote to his adoring little son. But for that matter, Phil never wrote to his adoring little sister. He never wrote letters at all, except on business. He sent telegrams and cables — long expensive ones.
On the memorable day when father and son were reunited at last an unwelcome shyness came upon them and fastened itself there like a bad habit. Neither knew how to break it. Each looked at the other wistfully with eyes that were veiled.
Junior was more proud of his wonderful father now than ever. Phil had a scar on his chin. The boy was keen to hear all about it. His father did not seem inclined to talk of that, and Junior had a precocious fear of boring him. He had made up his mind never to be a damn nuisance to his father again. He had long since discovered the meaning of those words.
Phil soon became restless and discontented with office work. He had done the other thing too long and too well to enjoy civilization for more than a month or so at a time, and the financial crowd infuriated him. He was interested in mining problems. They were interested in mining profits.
Owing to changes wrought by the war another great opportunity had arisen in a part of the world Phil knew better than any other member of his profession. “It’s a man’s job,” they told him, “and you’re the only one who could swing it.”
Phil shook his head. “Not fair to the boy.”
“But with the contract we’re prepared to offer you, why, your boy will be on Easy Street all his life.”
That got him. “Just once more,” thought Phil. “I’ll clean up on this and then retire to the country — make a real home for him — dogs and horses. I’ll teach him to shoot and fish. That ought to bring us together.”
So Junior’s father was arranging to go away again. He told the boy about the plan for the future. And we’ll spend a lot of time in the woods together,” said Phil. “I’ll make a good camper of you. Your mother was a good camper.” This comforted the silent little fellow and he did not let the team come until after Phil’s back was turned.
Meanwhile Phil had been going into the school question with the same thoroughness he devoted to every other job he undertook.
And now the epochal time had come for Junior to go away to boarding school. He was rather young for it, but Aunt Mary, it seems, was going to be married at last.
She volunteered to accompany the boy on the journey and see him through the first day. His father was very busy, of course, with preparations for his much longer and more important journey. Junior had always been fond of Aunt Mary, had transferred to her a little of the passionate devotion that had belonged to his mother. Only a little. The rest was all for his father, though Phil did not know it, and sometimes watched these two together with hungry eyes, wondering how they laughed and loved so comfortably.
On the evening before the great day his father said, “I know several of the masters up there.” A little later he added, “One of the housemasters was a classmate of mine at college.” Then he said, “I’ve been thinking it over. Maybe I better go up there with you myself.”
“Oh, if you only would!” thought the little fellow. But he considered himself a big fellow now and had learned to repress such impulses, just as he and the dogs had learned not to jump up and kiss Phil’s face. So all Junior said was, “That’s awfully kind of you, but can you spare the time?” He always became self-conscious in his father’s presence.
“You’d rather have your Aunt Mary? Well, of course, that’s all right.”
“No, but” — Junior dropped his eyes and raised them again — “sure I won’t be a nuisance to you?”
Phil had forgotten the association of that word. All he saw was that the boy wanted him more than he did Mary and it pleased him tremendously. “Then that’s all fixed,” he said.
The housemaster was of the hearty pseudoslangy sort. He said to Junior’s father, “Skinny little cuss, isn’t he? Well, we’ll soon build him up.”
“Aleck, I want you to take good care of this fellow,” said Phil. “He’s all I’ve got, you know.”
“Oh, I’ll keep a strict eye on him, and if he gets fresh I’ll bat him over the head.”
Junior knew that he was supposed to smile at this and did so. He did not feel much like smiling. He discovered that he was to be in the housemaster’s house. He did not believe that he would ever like this Mr. Fielding, but he did in time.
As it came nearer and nearer his father’s train time the terrible sinking feeling became worse, and he was afraid that he might cry after all; and that would disgrace his father. They walked down to the station together. They walked slowly. They would not see each other again for a year — maybe two. Both were thinking about it, neither referring to it. “I suppose that’s the golf links over there?” said Junior.
“I suppose so,” said Phil. He hadn’t looked.
There were a number of fathers and a greater number of mothers saying goodbye. Some of the mothers were crying, all of them were kissing their boys. Even some of the fathers did that. Junior and Phil saw it. They glanced at each other and then away again, both wondering whether it would be done by them; each hoping so, yet fearing it wouldn’t be. Phil remembered how when he was a youngster he hated to be kissed before the other boys. He did not want to mortify the manly little fellow; and the boy knew better than to begin such things. (“Don’t bore your father.”)
“Well,” said Phil, looking at his watch, “I suppose I might as well get on the train.” Then he laughed as though that were funny. “Goodbye,” he said. “Work hard and you’ll have a good time here. Goodbye, Junior.” The father held out his hand.
The son shook it. “Goodbye, father. I’ll bet you have a great trip in the mountains.” And Junior laughed too. The train pulled out, and the forlorn little boy was alone now. Worse. Surrounded by strangers.
“Well, I didn’t mortify him, anyway,” said the father.
“Well, I didn’t cry before him, anyway,” said the son. But he was doing it now.
The veil between them was not yet lifted.
Junior had a roommate named Black. So he was called Blackie. Blackie had a nice mother who used to come to see him frequently.
Junior took considerable interest in mothers, observed them closely when even the most observant of them were quite unaware of it. He approved of his roommate’s mother, despite her telling Blackie not to forget his rubbers, dear. Blackie glanced at Junior to see if he was listening. Junior pretended that he wasn’t.
“Aren’t mothers queer?” said Blackie after she had gone.
“Sure,” said Junior.
“Always worrying about you. You know how it is.”
“I bet your mother’s the same way.”
Junior hesitated. “My mother’s dead,” he said. “Bet I can beat you to the gate.” They raced and Junior beat him.
But he soon perceived that he would never make an athlete, and so he was a nonentity all through the early part of his school career, one of the little fellows in the lower form, thin legs and squeaky voice.
The things on the walls of Junior’s room — spears, arrows, shields and an antelope head — first drew attention to Junior’s only distinction. That was why he had put them there.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” he said with some arrogance, after the expected admiration and curiosity had been elicited. “You just ought to see my father’s collection.” And this gave Junior his chance to tell about the collector. “These things — only some junk he didn’t want and sent to me.”
This was not strictly true. His father had not sent them. Junior had begged them from his aunt, and she was glad to get them out of her new house. They did not go in any of her rooms. It was soon spread about the school, as Junior knew it would be, that this skinny little fellow in the lower form had a father who was worthwhile, a dare-devil who led expeditions to distant and dangerous lands and seldom lived at home. He had killed his man, it seems, had nearly lost his life from an attack by a hostile tribe in Africa. He became a romantic, somewhat mythical figure.
“When my old man was in college,” said Smithy, also a lower-form boy and envious of Junior’s vicarious fame, “he made the football team.”
“My father was the captain of his eleven,” said Junior.
“My father was in the war,” said Smithy.
“Mine was wounded.”
But he soon observed that one could not boast too openly about one’s father. Smithy made that mistake about the family possessions — yachts and the like. He was squelched by an upper-form boy. Junior became subtle. He caused questions to be asked and answered them reluctantly, it seemed.
Many of the boys had photographs of fathers in khaki. Junior went them one better. After the Christmas holidays the crowded mantelpiece included an old faded kodak of Phil in a tropical explorer’s costume — white helmet, rifle, binoculars, cartridge belt. It had been taken as a joke by one of his engineer associates in Africa but it was taken seriously by Junior and his associates in school.
“Where is the scar from the African spear-thrust?” asked Smithy.
“It doesn’t show in the picture,” said Junior, “but he often lets me see it. He and I always go fishing together in the North Woods when he’s in this country. Long canoe trips. I enjoy camping with him because he’s had a pretty good deal of experience at that sort of thing.”
Junior established a very interesting personality for Phil.
“Gee! I wish my father was like that,” said one of the boys. “My old man always gives me hell.”
One day during the second year Blackie said, “June, why doesn’t your father ever come here to see you?”
“Oh, he’s so seldom in this country, and he’s terribly busy when he gets here. Barely has time to jump from one large undertaking to another.” He had heard Aunt Mary’s husband say “large undertaking.”
“Well, some of the fellows think you’re just bluffing about your father.”
“Huh! They’re jealous. Look at Smithy’s father. Nothing but money and fat. Huh!”
Then came the great day when a wireless arrived for Junior. Very few boys get messages from their fathers by wireless. “Land Friday,” it said. “Coming to see you Saturday.” Ah! That would show them!
Junior jumped into a sort of first-page prominence in the news of the day. He let some of his friends see the wireless. And now all of them would see his father on Saturday. That was the day of the game. Junior would have a chance to exhibit him before the whole school. “Six feet two and well proportioned.” “Captain of his team in college.” He planned it all out carefully. They would arrive late at the game and Junior would lead him down the line. But he would do it with a matter-of-fact manner as if used to going to games with his father.
On Friday he received a telegram. “Sorry can’t make it stop am wiring headmaster permission spend weekend with me stop meet at office lunch time stop go to ball game and theater in the evening.” It was a straight telegram at that, not a night letter. That would show the boys what kind of father he had.
“Hot dog!” they said. “But look here! You’ll miss the game.”
“The game” meant the great school game, of course, not the mere world-series event Junior was going to.
“Well, you see, he doesn’t have many chances to be with me. I’ll have to go.” A dutiful son.
But on Saturday morning he received another telegram. “Sorry must postpone our spree together letter follows.”
He was beginning to wonder if his father really wanted to see him. It was a great jolt to his pride. He had counted upon letting the boys know where they lunched, what play they saw together, and perhaps there might be a few hairbreadth escapes to relate.
“He can’t come,” said Junior to his roommate, tearing up the telegram.
“Why can’t he?” asked Blackie. Did Blackie suspect anything? His parents never let anything prevent their seeing Blackie.
“Invited to the White House,” said Junior, tossing the torn telegram into the fire. “The President wants to consult him about conditions in Siberia.”
“Gee!” This made a sensation and it would spread. “But aren’t you going to see him at all?”
“Of course. Going down next week probably, but you know an invitation to the White House is a command.”
“That’s so.” Junior’s father’s stock was soaring.
That evening Smithy dropped in. He had heard about the White House and the President.
“Huh! I don’t believe you’ve got a father,” said Smithy.
Junior only smiled and glanced at his roommate. Later Blackie told the others that Smithy was jealous. “His father has nothing but money and fat.” Junior was always too much for Smithy. But suppose the promised letter did not follow. It hardly seemed possible. He had received occasional cables, several telegrams and that one notable wireless, but never in all his life a letter from his father.
It came promptly. It was brief and it was dictated, but it was a letter all the same, and he was much impressed. He had a letter from his father, like other fellows. It explained that the writer had been called away to New Mexico by important business, but that he hoped to join his son during the summer. “It’s time we got acquainted. With much love, Your Father.”
“Well, we’re going to meet during the summer anyway,” thought Junior, folding up the letter. And his father had sent his love. To be sure, he sent it through his secretary. But he sent it all the same.
That evening Junior arranged to be found casually reading a letter when the gang dropped in.
“What have you got?” asked Smithy.
“Oh, just a letter from my father,” remarked Junior casually. “Wants to know if I won’t go out to the Canadian Rockies with him next summer.” He seemed to keep on reading. It was a bulky letter apparently. Junior had attached three blank sheets of paper of the same size as that on which the note was written.
“Gee! Your old man writes you long ones,” said Smithy. “What’s it all about?”
“Oh, he merely wanted to tell me about his conference with the President.”
“Hot dog! Read it aloud.”
“Sorry, Smithy, but it’s confidential.” Folded in such a way that its brevity was concealed, Junior carelessly exposed the first sheet bearing his father’s engraved letterhead. “Confidential” had been written by pen across the top. Junior had written it.
All this produced the calculated effect for his father, but it was cold comfort for the son.
Well, he did see his father at last, but it was during the summer vacation, and the boys would know nothing about it until the fall term opened. Junior was staying with Aunt Mary in the country, and came in for the day. Phil was dictating letters and jumped up with a loud “Hello, there, hello!” And this time he kissed his son, right in front of his secretary. She was the only one of the three not startled. Phil and Junior both blushed.
“Mrs. Allison, this is Junior,” said Phil. He seemed to be really glad to see the boy, and Junior’s heart was thumping. Mrs. Allison said “Pleased to meet you,” but Junior liked her all the same. She looked kind. And while her employer finished his dictation she glanced at Junior and smiled. The letter progressed slowly and had to be changed twice. Mrs. Allison knew why, and smiled again, at her pencil this time. She understood them both better than they understood each other.
“Thank you, Mrs. Allison,” Phil said; “that will be all today. I’m too tired.” She knew he never tired. “I’ll sign them after lunch and mail them myself.” Then he turned to Junior. “Now you and I are going out to have a grand old time together, eh what, old top?”
He slapped Junior on the back. Then Mrs. Allison left the room, and father and son were alone together. It frightened them.
Already the old clamping habit of reserve was trying to have its way with them, though each was determined to prevent it. Both of them laughed and said “Well, well!” hoping to bluff it off.
“First, let’s have a look at you,” said Phil; and he playfully dragged Junior toward the window. The boy’s laughter suddenly died, and Phil now had a disquieting sense of making an ass of himself in his son’s eyes. But that was not it. Junior dreaded the strong light of the window. With his changing voice had arrived a few not very conspicuous pimples; such little ones, but they distressed him enormously.
“Well, feel as if you could eat something?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Junior. He feared it sounded cold and formal. He couldn’t help it.
They went to a club on the top of a high office building. Junior’s name was written in the guest book, which awed him agreeably. A large, luxurious luncheon was outlined by Phil, beginning with a cantaloupe and ending with ice cream — a double portion for Junior. This was first submitted to Junior for approval. He had forgotten his facial blemishes.
“Golly! You bet I approve,” said Junior laughing. That was more like it.
Phil summoned a waiter and then sent for the head waiter. A great man, his father, not afraid even of head waiters. And he ordered with the air of one who knew. No wonder the waiters seemed honored to serve him. Only, how was one to “get this over” to the boys without seeming to boast?
“A little fish, sir, after the melon?”
“Yes, if you’ll bring some not on the menu.” That was puzzling. Phil explained. Fish which had arrived at the club after the menu had been printed was sure to be fresh.
“Oh, I see,” said Junior. This would make a hit with the boys.
There was no doubt about it, his handsome father was the most distinguished personage in the whole large roomful of important-looking people. Several of them gathered around to welcome Phil. Junior was presented. Their greetings to the son showed their warm affection, their high regard for the father. Junior wallowed in filial pride. If only Smithy could see him now! What a father! A citizen of the world who did big things and wore perfect-fitting clothes, cut by his Bond Street tailor in London — the finishing touch of greatness to a boy of Junior’s age — and he recalled what one of the engineers had said to Aunt Mary, “Even in camp he shaves every day.”
“Well, tell me how everything is going at school,” said the father, who did not dream that he was being hero-worshiped.
But Junior could not be easy and natural, as with Aunt Mary. He blushed as in the presence of a stranger. He heard his own raucous voice and hated it. He took unnecessary sips of water.
He felt better and bolder after the delicious food arrived. Phil looked on with amusement, amazement at the amount the youngster consumed.
“Next year I hope you can find time to come down to see us at school,” Junior ventured with his double portion of ice cream. “All the fellows want to meet you.”
“I want to meet them,” said his father. “This fall on the way back, maybe.”
“Oh, you’re going away again?”
“Next week I’m going up into the woods with Billy Norton on a long canoe trip. Some new country I want to show him. Trout streams never yet fished by a white man.”
“Gosh! That’ll be great,” said Junior.
“Someday I’ll take you up there. It’s time you learned that game. Fly casting, like swinging a golf club, should begin before your muscles are set. Would you care to go on a camping trip with me?”
Care to! Of course it was the very thing he was doing all the time in his daydreams, but he could not say that to his father. He said “Yes, thanks,” and paused for another sip of water. “You wouldn’t — no, of course, you wouldn’t want me to go along this time.”
“Not this time. You see, I promised Billy. Someday though — you and I alone. Much better, don’t you think?”
“Don’t call me sir! Makes me feel like a master. I’m your father.” They laughed at that and went back to the office. “Only take me a second to sign these letters,” said Phil. Junior looked at the neat pile of them, again impressed by his father’s importance.
“That’s awfully nice paper,” he said, coveting the engraved letterhead with his father’s name on it, which was also his name.
“If you like it, take some,” said Phil as he rapidly signed that name. “Help yourself, all you want. Wait, I’ll get you a whole box.” He touched a bell and a boy came in. “Get a box of my stationery and ship it to this address.” He turned to his letters again. “Then you won’t have to pack it all the afternoon.” Pack it? Oh, yes, out of doors men said “pack” instead of “carry.” He would say it hereafter.
On the way from the elevator, as they passed through the arcade, Junior stopped to gaze with admiration at a camera in a shop window.
“Like one of those?” asked Phil. He led the way in. “Take your pick,” he said. And then, “Ship it to this address.”
It was the only way this shy father knew how to express his affection. It was not easy to say much to this boy. He seemed keen and critical under his quiet manner.
Before the baseball game was over — a dull, unimportant game — they were both talked out, each wondering what was the matter. “I suppose I bore him,” said Phil to himself, and soon began thinking about his business. When their grand old time together was finished each felt a horrible sense of relief, though neither would acknowledge it to himself.
“Poor little cuss!” thought Phil. “I’d like to be a good father to him, but I don’t know how.”
And the boy: “I’m afraid he’s disappointed in me. I’m so skinny and have pimples.” If he were only a big, good-looking fellow like Smithy, who played on the football team, his father would be proud of him. Smithy’s parents saw him almost every week in term time and took him abroad every summer. They were having his portrait painted.
“What kind of a time did you have with your father in town?” asked his Aunt Mary. Junior felt rather in the way at times, now that she had a husband.
“Bully! Great!” and he made an attractive picture of it. “Father and I are so congenial, now that I’m old. Next summer we’re going to the woods together.”
“How do you talk to your kids?” Phil asked Bill Norton by the camp fire.
“I don’t talk to them. They aren’t interested in me except as a source of supply. New generation!”
“I’m crazy about my boy,” said Phil, “but I have an idea that he considers the old man a well-meaning ass. Funny thing; that little fellow is the only person in the world I’m afraid of.”
“No father really knows his own son,” said Billy. “Some of them think they do, but they don’t. It’s a psychological impossibility.”
Back at school again. A quick, scudding year. Summer vacation approaching already!
“We’d be so pleased if you would spend the month of August with us in Maine,” wrote Blackie’s mother. She had grown fond of the boy and was sorry for him. Motherless — fatherless, too, for practical, for parental purposes.
Junior, with his preternatural quickness, knew she was sorry for him and appreciated her kindness, but he was not to be pitied and his father was not to be criticized. “That’s awfully good of you,” he replied, “but father is counting upon my going up to the North Woods with him on a long canoe trip. Some new country where no other white man has ever been.”
He went to the woods, but not with his father. It was the school camp — not the wild country his father penetrated; but there was trout fishing all the same, and he loved it. Like many boys who are not proficient at athletics, he took to camp life like a savage and developed more expertness at casting and cooking and canoeing than did certain stars of the football field or track. He had natural savvy. The guides said so. Besides, he had an incentive to excel. He was not going to be a nuisance to his father on the trip they would take together some day. And though he reverted to a state of savagery in the woods, he kept his tent and his outfit scrupulously neat and won first prize in this department by a vote of the counselors. For excellent reasons he did not shave every day in camp, but he would someday.
He learned a great deal about the ways of birds while he was in the woods, and back at school he persuaded Blackie to help organize The Naturalists Club, despite the jeers of the athlete idolaters. He took many bird pictures with the camera and he prepared a bird census of the township. This was published in the school magazine, and so Junior decided that when he got through college he would be a writer.
He had not seen his father for two years. South America this time — in the Andes. The canoe trip was no longer mentioned. Junior went to the school camp regularly now. He was acknowledged the best all-round camper in school. He won first prize in fly casting and the second in canoeing. He was getting big and strong, and became a good swimmer.
He spent his Christmas vacation with Aunt Mary, and while there Mrs. Fielding, the wife of the housemaster, in town for the holidays, dropped in for tea one day with Aunt Mary. They did not know that Junior was in the adjoining room, reading Stewart Edward White.
“But it’s criminal the way Phil neglects that darling boy,” said Aunt Mary.
“And he’s developing in such a fine way too,” said Mrs. Fielding. “He’s one of the best liked boys in school.”
“I can’t understand my brother. Of course he’s terribly engrossed with his career, now that he has won success, but he might at least send a picture post card occasionally.”
“You mean to say he never writes to his own son!” Mrs. Fielding was shocked and indignant. And then came this tragic revelation to Junior:
“Well, you see,” said Aunt Mary, “Phil never wanted children, and he’s not really interested in the boy.”
“You don’t tell me so! Why, Aleck always speaks of your brother as if he were so generous and warm-hearted.”
“Yes, that’s what makes it so pathetic. He is kind and tries to make up for his lack of affection by giving Junior a larger allowance than is good for him. But he never takes the trouble to send him a Christmas present.”
So that explained it all. “He’s not interested in me. I wasn’t wanted.” And after that he had his first experience with a sleepless night.
A few days later Junior remarked, “By the way, Aunt Mary, did I show you the binoculars father sent me for Christmas?” He handed them to her for inspection. They looked secondhand. They were. He had picked them up that morning in a pawnshop. “These are the very ones that father carried all through the war. He knew I’d like them better than new ones. Just like father to think of that. You remember his showing them to us when he got back?”
Aunt Mary did not remember such things — he knew she wouldn’t — but she rejoiced to hear it.
“He has sent me a typewriter too; only he ordered it shipped directly to school.”
“That was nice of him, wasn’t it?” said Aunt Mary.
“That’s the way he does with most of the presents he sends me. You remember the camera?”
She did remember the camera.
The typewriter had been ordered on the installment plan. Junior hadn’t saved enough money from his allowance to buy it outright.
“He’s not going to get me a radio set until he finds out which is the best make on the market, he says.”
“Oh, has he written to you?” Aunt Mary was still more surprised.
“Every week,” said Junior.
“Oh, Junior! I’m so glad. But why haven’t you ever told me, dear?”
Junior smiled. “I didn’t want to make you jealous. He never writes to you.”
“But didn’t you know how I would want to hear all his news?”
“You are so terribly engrossed in Uncle Robert’s career, I thought maybe you weren’t interested in father.”
At school the binoculars made a hit with the boys because they showed the scars of war, but no one thought much of typewriters as Christmas presents except Junior. He knew what he was doing.
A few days later, when Blackie entered the room he found his roommate engrossed in reading a letter and so said nothing until Junior emitted an absent-minded chuckle.
“What’s the joke?”
“Oh, nothing; just a letter from my father.”
“From your father? I thought he never wrote to you.”
“What do you know about it?”
“Well, I never see any envelopes with foreign stamps.”
“He always incloses mine in letters to my aunt.”
“But you never mentioned them, all the same,” said Blackie, “except the one about the White House.”
“They are confidential, mostly.” Junior returned to the absorbing letter. Presently he laughed outright.
“What does he say that’s so funny?”
“Oh, hell! Read it yourself.” Junior seemed irritated and tossed the bulky letter across to his roommate.
It had taken the boy some time to compose this letter to himself, for it required more than the possession of a typewriter and his father’s engraved stationery to create a convincing illusion of a letter from a father. Junior had seen so few, except for those Blackie had allowed him to read, that he had no working model for long, interesting letters worthy of a great man like his father.
The first draft had begun “My darling boy,” but he changed that — it sounded too much like Blackie’s mother. He made it “My dearest son.” He rather fancied that, but finally played safe and addressed himself simply as “Dear Junior.”
My work here is going fine. I have three thousand natives at work under me not to speak of a hundred engineers on my staff doing the technikal work. I am terribly busy but of course won’t let that interfere with my regular weekly letter to you.
Junior was watching Blackie’s face.
I often think of the last canoe trip with you in Canada and can hardly wait until I take another canoe trip with you in Canada. Rember that time you hooked a four-pounder with your three ounce rod? You were a little fellow then, that was before you went away to school. Rember how you yelled to me for help to land same?
Business men always said “same,” but Junior didn’t like it, and besides, his father was a professional man, so he changed “same” to “him.”
Of course it wasn’t much of a trick for me to land that four pound trout on a three ounce rod, because I am probly the best fisherman in any of the dozen or more fishing clubs I belong to.
Junior revised that to read:
Because I happen to have quite a little experience landing trout and salmon in some of the most important streams in the world, from the high Sierras to the Ural Mountains.
It would never do to make his father guilty of blowing — the unforgivable sin.
He thought that was all right for a beginning, but did not know how to follow it up. He wanted to put in something about the Andes, with a few stories of wild adventure and hairbreadth escapes, but although he read up on the Andes in the encyclopedia, as he did on all his father’s temporary habitats, he did not feel that the encyclopedia’s style suited his father’s vivid personality. In an old copy of the National Geographic Magazine he found a traveler’s description of adventures in that part of the world, and simply copied a page or two. It had to do with an amusing though extremely dangerous adventure with a python, which had treed one of the writer’s gun bearers — a narrow escape told as a joke — quite his father’s sort of thing; and no one would ever accuse Junior of inventing such a well-written narrative with such circumstantial local color.
Blackie was properly impressed by the three thousand natives and one hundred experts, and he, too, laughed aloud at the antics of the gun bearer. He told the other boys about it, as Junior meant him to do, and some of them wanted to read it too. They dropped in after study hour.
Junior, it seems, required urging, like an amateur vocalist who nevertheless has brought her music.
“Oh, shoot!” he said. “It doesn’t amount to anything. Just a letter from my father.”
“Why don’t you read it aloud?” suggested Blackie.
Junior seemed bored, but soon submitted. Like vocalists, he was afraid that they might stop urging him.
“Oh, very well,” he said. He skimmed lightly over the opening personal paragraph with the parenthetical voice people use when leading up to the important part of a letter, though this was a very important part for Junior, to get it over. Then, with the manner of saying “Ah, here we are,” he began reading in a louder and more deliberate tone, but not without realistic hesitation here and there, as if unfamiliar with the text. He read not only the amusing adventure with the python, but an authoritative paragraph on the mineral deposits of the mountains. So his audience never doubted that he had a real letter from a real mining expert who signed himself “Your affectionate friend and father.”
Junior carelessly tossed the letter upon the table. “Someday I’ll read you one of his interesting ones,” he said.
“Do it now,” said one of his admirers. “It’s great stuff.”
“No, I never keep letters,” said Junior and, to prove it, tore up the carefully prepared document and tossed it in the fire.
“I’ll let you know when I get a good one.”
This was so successful that he did it again. There were plenty of other quotable pages in the same magazine article, and Junior had a whole box of his father’s stationery. But at the beginning and end of each letter Junior always insinuated a few paternal touches, suggesting a rich past of intimacy and affection, though just to make it a little more convincing he would occasionally insert something like this, “But I must tell you frankly, as man to man, that you spent entirely too much money last term,” and interrupted his reading to say, “Gee! I didn’t mean to read you fellows that part.” And they all laughed. A touch of parental nature that made all the boys akin.
The fame of these letters spread from the boys’ end of the dinner table to the master’s. Mrs. Fielding said to Junior one day, “I’m so glad your father has been writing to you lately.”
“Lately? Why, he always writes to me. But don’t tell my Aunt Mary. Might make her jealous.”
Junior smiled as if he had a great joke on his Aunt Mary. There, he got that over too! Neither of these ladies would dare criticize his father again.
“Is your Aunt Mary so fond of him as all that?”
“Why, of course!”
“Well, I’m glad you’re hearing from him, anyway. I so seldom see letters addressed to you on the hall table.”
“I have a lock box at the post office.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Fielding.
So that explained it all. It was true about the lock box. Junior exhibited the key while he was speaking, and he was seen at the post office frequently to make the matter more plausible. He even opened the box if anyone was around to watch him, though he never found any letters there except those he put in and pulled out again by sleight of hand, whistling carelessly as he did so.
Mr. Fielding had asked Junior to step into the office a moment. “What do you hear from your father?” he said.
“Oh, he’s quite well, thank you, sir. He’ll be starting for home soon. He says he’s not going to let anything interfere with our canoe trip this year. It’s the funniest thing how something has always happened every summer to prevent it. Father says we’re going to break the hoodoo this time.”
“I see,” said Mr. Fielding.
Junior had heard Mr. Fielding say “I see” before, and he had been in school too long now to undervalue its significance. He would have to be on guard. He knew he had told conflicting stories.
“Do you hear from him regularly?”
“Oh, no; the mails are so irregular from that part of the world.”
“Well,” said Junior, with his engaging smile, “not so often as I’d like, of course. But then he’s a very busy man.”
“That story about the python — it sounded like a corker as Blackie told it secondhand. Mind letting me read that letter?”
“Sorry, sir. I destroyed it.” Blackie would vouch for that, if necessary.
“I see.” The head master looked at Junior in silence, then he said with a not unkind smile, “Junior, I’m very fond of your father. He’s one of the finest fellows that ever lived.”
“Sure,” said Junior.
“I’ve known him longer than you have. I don’t think he ever did anything dishonorable in his life.”
“Of course not.”
What was coming? He must keep his head now.
“You know how your father would feel if I couldn’t honestly say the same thing about you?”
“Why, what do you mean, Mr. Fielding? “
“Just tell me the truth, Junior, and it needn’t ever go out of this room. Does your father ever write to you at all?”
“Why, sir, you don’t think my father is the sort who wouldn’t write to his own son, do you?” Then the boy added desperately, “I don’t see why you all want to make him out a piker.”
“Did your father write the letter describing the fight with the python?”
“Look here, Mr. Fielding, you people don’t understand. I’m better friends with my father than most boys. You see, my mother’s dead and all that. So — well, don’t you see, he sort of takes it out in writing me long letters. He thought that stuff about the python would amuse me.”
He was a loyal little liar and the headmaster admired him for it. But it wouldn’t do. Mr. Fielding opened a drawer of his desk and took out an old magazine.
“Does your father take the National Geographic?”
Junior crumpled up.
“I don’t know, sir.” He was in for it now — caught. Mr. Fielding opened the magazine and pointed out a marked page to Junior.
“Junior, I know you won’t accuse an honorable gentleman like your father of stealing another man’s writings, passing them off as his own. There’s an ugly name for that. It’s called plagiarism.”
He had tried to defend his father, and look at the result!
“I wrote those letters, Mr. Fielding.”
“I knew that,” said Mr. Fielding gently. “You won’t do it again, though, will you, Junior?”
“That’s all. You may go now.”
Junior turned at the door. He knew that this was not all. He was being let down too easily.
“Mr. Fielding — ” he began, and hesitated. “It won’t be necessary for you to tell my father, will it?”
“I won’t tell him, but you will.”
“No, sir, I could never do that.”
“Well, we’ll see. Good night, Junior.”
So he could write no more letters to exhibit to the boys. He explained that his father had gone on a long expedition inland. No chance for mail for months. They made no comment, but the whole house knew that he had been summoned “to the office.” They suspected something, but they would never discover the truth from him. He would bluff it out to the end.
But now, more than ever, he wanted letters from father, even if written by himself. He had formed the habit. They somehow did him good. They made him feel that his father was interested in him.
So, once in a while, just for his own eyes, when Blackie was not around he opened the typewriter and said all the things he wanted his father to say to him. As no one would ever see these letters, he could go as far as he liked. He went quite far. He even said things that only mothers said:
My darling son: Don’t you care what he thinks about you; I understand and I forgive you. You meant it all right and I like you just the same, even if you are not an athlete and have got pimples. When I get back we’ll go off to the West together and live down this disgrace. Your devoted father and friend.
Sometimes he laughed a little, or tried to, when he realized how these letters would bore his distinguished parent. But while writing them his father seemed not only fond of him but actually proud of him. A writer can invent anything:
I was so pleased to hear your poem about the meadow lark was accepted by the magazine. Your article about Birds in Our Woods was very interesting and very well written. I believe you will make a great writer someday, and think how proud I will be when you are a great writer, and people point to your picture in the newspapers! I’ll say, “That’s my son; I’m his father.” Of course, I was disappointed that you did not become a great athlete like me, but intellectual destinction is good if you cant get athletic destinction, and it may be more useful for a career.
He got a good deal of comfort out of being a father to himself, and sometimes the letters ran into considerable length, unless Blackie butted in. His father, it seemed, even consulted him about his own affairs:
I am glad you aprove of my taking on the San Miguel project. I think a great deal of your business judgment and it is great to have a son who has good business judgment even though he cannot make the team. In that respect it is better than making the team, because you can help me in my problems away off here just as I help you with your problems up there at school.
He enjoyed writing that one, but when he became the reader of it, that last sentence made him cry. And the worst of it was, at that point Blackie came in.
“What are you writing?”
“Just some stuff for the mag.”
“You’re always writing for the mag. Get your racket and come on.”
“Oh, get out of here and quit interrupting my literary work.” Junior had not dared to turn his tell-tale face towards his roommate.
The school year was closing, and Junior was packing to leave the next day. The last time he had gone to town he learned at the office that his father was returning soon. They did not know which steamer. They never did. The secret letters had all been kept carefully locked in his trunk, and now Junior was taking them out to put neatly folded trousers in the bottom. Blackie was playing tennis. None of the boys had learned the truth, though in secret Blackie felt pretty sure of it now, but was so loyal that he had a fight with Smithy for daring to say in public that Junior’s letters were a damn fake.
Mr. Fielding came in. He did not notice the letters lying there on the table, and he seemed very friendly. The housemaster knew how fine and sensitive this boy was and that the only way to handle him was by encouragement. We are all much pleased with your classroom work, Junior; but as for the mag, you’re a rotten speller, but a good writer, and I don’t mind telling you a secret: You have been elected to be one of the editors next year.”
“Oh, Mr. Fielding! Are you sure?” This had been his ambition for a year. That settled it for life. A great writer like W.H. Hudson, who loved both nature and art, but nature more.
“Of course your appointment has to be confirmed by the faculty, but there’ll be no trouble with a boy of your standing. All you have to do is straighten out that little matter with your father. Naturally, an editor has got to have a clean literary record.”
This was not meant entirely as punishment for Junior. The master thought it would be salutary for Phil to know. It might wake him up.
“You mean, I can’t make the mag unless I tell him what I did?”
“Do you want me to tell him?”
“If you do I’ll run away and I’ll never come back.”
“Can’t you get up your courage to do it, Junior? I know you didn’t mean to do wrong. Your father will, too, when he understands.”
Junior was shaking his head.
“It isn’t a matter of courage,” he said, straightening up. “He’d think I was knocking him out for not writing to me.”
“Well, if you won’t talk to him about it I must. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“A few minutes! Here? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He landed yesterday. The papers ran an interview with him this morning. I telegraphed him to come at once.” Mr. Fielding looked at his watch. “Why, his train must be coming in now. Excuse me. I said I’d meet him at the station.”
A mental earthquake turned Junior’s universe upside down. His father was coming at last! Why? His offense must have been pretty serious to bring his father. Why, of course! Mr. Fielding had sent for him. The most honorable gentleman in the world was going to find out in a few minutes that his own son and namesake was a liar, a plagiarist and a forger. Junior could not face it. He rushed from the room and out by the back stairs. His father was coming, the thing he planned and longed for ever since he had been a member of the school, and he was running away from him.
He went out into the woods by the river, where he had spent so many happy hours with Blackie and the birds. He could never face Blackie again, nor the school, no, nor his father. Life was empty and horrible. “Why not end it all in the river?” He had read that phrase, but the impulse was genuine.
“The hell of it is,” he heard himself saying, “I’m such a good swimmer.” But he could load his coat with stones and bind his feet with his trousers. He began picking out the stones.
“Well, what is it?” said Phil to the housemaster, trying to hide his paternal eagerness. The boy was in trouble, the old man would get him out. Good! Needed at last. “Has my young hopeful been getting tight?”
“Oh, nothing as serious as that. He’s a finely organized, highly evolved youngster, and so he has a rather vivid imagination.”
“Speak up, Aleck! You haven’t caught him in a lie? That’s a good deal more serious than getting tight.”
“Well, it’s a likable lie.”
“It’s a lie all the same, and I’ll give him the devil.”
“Oh no, you won’t. The kid lied for you, old man; perjured himself like a gentleman. Now you go and get it out of him. It’ll do you both good.” They had arrived at the house.
“Where is the little cuss?” Phil was trying without success to seem calm and casual.
“He’s no longer little. You won’t know him. He’s come into his heritage of good looks at last.”
“For God’s sake, shut up and tell me where to find him.”
Fielding laughed. “Upstairs, second door on the left. I won’t butt in on this business. It’s up to you now.” But Phil did not wait to hear all that.
Not finding his namesake and glancing about at the intimate possessions of his little-known son, Phil was surprised to see a sheath of letters on the table, bearing his own engraved stamp at the top.
“That’s odd,” he thought. “Who’s been writing to him on my paper?” He had forgotten the presentation box of stationery. His eye was caught by these words neatly typed, “My beloved son.” At the bottom of the page he saw, “Your faithful friend and father.” He picked the letter up and read it.
As I told you in my last, I am counting the days until we get together again and go up to Canada on another canoe trip, just you and I alone this time without any guide. You have become such a good camper now that we don’t want any greasy Indian guides around. I am glad that you are a good camper. I don’t care what you say, I’d rather go to the woods with you than Billy Norton or anybody because you and I are not like ordinary father and sons; we are congenial friends. Of course you are pretty young to be a friend of mine and you may be an ugly and unattractive kid, but you are mine all the same, and I’m just crazy about you. They say I neglect you, but you know better. All these letters prove it. Your faithful friend and father.
Junior’s father picked up the rest of the letters and, with the strangest sensations a father ever had, read them all.
Perhaps it was telepathy. Junior suddenly remembered that he had left the letters exposed upon the table. His father would go upstairs after the talk with Mr. Fielding, to disown him. He would find those incriminating letters. Then when they found his body his father would know that his son was not only a liar and a forger but a coward and a quitter. In all his life his father had never been afraid of anything. If his father were in his place what would he do?
That saved him. He dumped out the stones and ran. back to the room. He would face it.
Phil was aware that a tall slender youth with a quick elastic stride had entered the room and had stopped abruptly by the door, staring at him. There were reasons why he preferred not to raise his face at present, but this boy’s figure was unrecognizably tall and strong, and Phil was in no mood to let a young stranger come in upon him now.
“What do you want?” he asked gruffly, still seated, still holding the letters.
There was no answer. Junior had never seen a father disown a son, but he guessed that was the way it was done. He saw the letters in his father’s hands. Certainly, this was being disowned.
The boy took a step forward. “Well, anyway,” he said, maintaining a defiant dignity in his disgrace, “no one else has seen those letters, so you won’t be compromised, father.” The boy was a great reader, and had often heard of compromising letters.
Phil sprang up from his chair, dropped the letters and gazed into the fine sensitive face, a beautiful face, it seemed to him now, quivering, but held bravely up to meet his sentence like a soldier.
Junior could now see that his father’s strong face was also quivering, but misunderstood the reason for his emotion. There was a silence while Phil gained control of his voice. Then he said, still gazing at the boy, “But how did you know I felt that way about you?”
“Those letters. I’ve read them. I wish to God I’d written them.”
Junior, usually so quick, still could not get it right. “You mean you’re going to forgive me for lying about you?”
“Lying about me! Why, boy, you’ve told the truth about me. I didn’t know how. Can you forgive me for that?”
Now Junior was getting it. His face was lighting up. “Why, father,” he began, and faltered. “Why, father — why, father — you really like me!”
Junior felt strong hands gripping his shoulders and once more the vivid recollection of the street boys and the big man who comforted him. “You know what one of those letters says, Junior — I’m just crazy about you.”
“Oh, father, why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Well, what’s the use of having a great writer in the family anyway!”
They laughed and looked at each other and found that the strange thing that kept them apart was gone forever. In the future they might differ, quarrel even, but the veil between them was torn asunder at last.
The rest of the boys had finished dinner when Junior came down, leading in his tall bronzed father with the perfectly fitting clothes and the romantic scar on his handsome face.
“Say, fellows, wait a minute. I want you to know my father.” He did it quite as if accustomed to it, but Mrs. Fielding down at the end of the table could see that father and son both were reeking with pride. “He’s my son; I’m his father.”
“So this is Blackie?” said Phil. “Did you give him that message in my last letter?” Even his father could lie when he wanted to.
“Sorry, I forgot.”
Phil turned and gave his old classmate a shameless wink. “I can’t really blame the kid. I write him such awfully long letters.”
“Father just landed from South America yesterday,” Junior was explaining to Smithy. “So he hurried right up here.”
“You see we’re starting for the Canadian Rockies tomorrow,” said Phil. “This fellow’s got an impudent idea that he can out-cast the old man now, but I’ll show him his place.”
Mr. Fielding took the floor. “Junior ought to get some good material for the magazine up there,” he said. “Boys, he’s going to be one of the editors next year.”