an original novel by James R. Muri
I would like to thank the many people who read this work over and over
again and hammered me until it achieved its current state. I know
that was painful, and your patience and constructive kicks in my
backside have made this story what it is. Worthy of special
thanks are the group from the Federal Way Fictioneers, especially
Robin, Marv, Eric, Naida, Jim, Pat and Christine; and the South Hill
Brutal Writer's club - thanks Rob and Janelle.
This book is dedicated to all those who have come to understand that
every silver lining has a cloud, and to the proposition that within
each of us there is a balance that is seldom fully visible to those
with whom we interact.
No characters in this book are meant to portray any persons, living or
dead, and are inventions of purest fiction.
James R. Muri
You know me as Carl
Wheat. For more than thirty five years,
you've drunk my whiskey, admired my wife and kids, and been my
friend. We've done things together that neither of us brags
about, we've carved our share of notches, we've suffered wounds and
inflicted a few of our own, we've come through it all. But you've
been curious about some things, so it's time to let my one friend in
the world know the answers. If I can't tell my best friend this
story, who can I tell, after all? Pull up that chair and nurse
that Glenfiddich, get comfortable, and listen to my tale. You'll
be the only one who ever hears it, and I can't see passing on without
At first I didn't know that
I was the
source of all my trials. But I learned that I'm the Jack of all
trades; the instigator, the perpetrator, the victim. Death
follows me. Destruction, dismay, disaster, debauchery,
deliverance and all the other "D" words in Webster's best seller flaked
off my scaly hide, dead scales from the dying Dragon as I slashed and
burned my way through life more than sixty years ago. Of course,
I thought I was just a farm boy living pretty much like any other farm
boy. The tale begins in 1939, when we started loading the camel's
back one straw at a time.
By then I had developed
into a boy of substantial stature and evidently
pleasant demeanor, despite the pale scar that bisected my left eyebrow
and wandered drunkenly up into my hairline. At six foot and an
honest inch, a hundred and eighty-five pounds of blue-eyed, corn and
hog-fed muscle and bone, I contributed sturdy and fast-healing help to
Dad on our farm about ten miles north of Fern Valley, Kansas.
"Character," my mother told
me years earlier when I was six and the
stitches came out of my forehead. "A badge of honor. That's
what that scar will tell people. You earned it honorably."
That was true, if having
the singletree fall on me while I helped
harness Samson and Achilles up to the cargo wagon could be deemed
honorable. Even at six I thought that seemed more stupid than
Fern Valley, the home of my
youth and the setting for much of this
sorry tale, crouches near the eastern border of Kansas, less than an
hour's wagon ride from the Missouri river. We lived in a simple
farm house with a parlor, a kitchen, three bedrooms and a windowless
general-purpose room that served as pantry, storage and guest
room. We added that third bedroom and guest room, Dad and I, in
the summer of '37, since my eleven-year-old sister Helen, who up until
then shared a room with me, seemed to be going on sixteen.
No motors or engines, other
than the one in our ancient Buick, assisted
us. We farmed as our forebears had in the previous century.
We hauled rock-hard water from the well about fifty paces out the front
of the house. Our privy, a two-holer, waited the same distance
out the back door and south almost to the barn.
We lacked electricity,
indoor plumbing and a furnace, but we had a
party line telephone, the Buick, water, the Ashley and kitchen stoves,
and all the firewood we could cut, so our comfort and hygiene needs
were met. Except for the phone and the Buick, we lived an
admittedly 1801 lifestyle by today's standards but never thought of any
of it as hardship.
It fell to Helen and me, as
honorable and able-bodied farm kids, to
take care of the routine get-along chores, including the yard.
Ours extended about seventy-five feet west from the back of the
house. The far western edge of the yard held back the weeds, wild
alfalfa, buckbrush and whatever else could find a toehold out
there. We kept a wide path cut through that waist-high jungle to
allow for passage to the honey locust and hedge-lined swimming hole Dad
and I had created in the creek.
Helen and I pushed our
rusty mowers along in the humid midmorning heat
of Friday, September fifteenth, 1939, which is probably the best place
to start this story. The grass in the back yard needed mowing to
make it suitable for dancing during the birthday party planned for that
afternoon, after our classmates got out of school. Mom had
arranged with the school for our absence that day so that we could help
prepare, although neither Helen nor I would escape any of the
assignments or homework due Monday.
I trailed Helen as we
pushed our mowers along, overlapping her
cut. From time to time, at steadily shortening intervals, we
would stop and mop our faces and necks of the sweat that ran into eyes
and collars from under disreputably frayed and stained straw
hats. Helen's hair hung limply below her shoulders in dripping
blonde hanks so dense that not even the steady south breeze could lift
"It isn't fair," she huffed
once, "It's supposed to be our birthday
party, and what are we doing? Are we at the Metro eating ice
cream and cake between dances? Are we lounging in the shade and
sipping iced Nehis? Are we sitting in a dark theater eating
popcorn and watching Errol Flynn? No, we're here in this
God-awful sun, dodging horseflies and getting chopped grass stuck all
over us and sweating so much that we'll never get dried off and clean
before the party, that's what we're doing! How am I ever going to
get my hair fixed before the party, huh? Look at it!" Then
she lifted a grass-bespeckled clump of dripping locks in much the same
manner as she'd handle a week-dead fish, and cast an unhappy look at
Helen would be turning
fourteen and I would reach fifteen. Twins
one year apart, people sometimes joked, without knowing how closely
attuned she and I were. If one of us were stroked, the other
would purr. We often finished each other's sentences, and our
treatment of each other in no way differed from how we treated
Helen denied all charges of
twindom. "I'm much prettier," she
would scold, correctly, without explaining that we were more like one
extended person than twins. One thing about Helen, she would tell
you the way of things.
I agreed that our morning
didn't seem real birthday-ish, shook my head
and observed that the dancers at our party would like short grass, and
if she liked dancing we might as well finish. I offered to finish
it while she cooled off in the shade of a nearby tree, just as she
expected me to, and she thanked me and refused just as I knew she
would, and off we went until the next break.
We did work well together.
It was after one of these
breaks that my sun-baked brain took an idle
turn from its usual rudimentary awareness of the universe.
Perhaps it had just run out of simple contemplations, but whatever
happened my attention slowly drifted more fully to Helen as she toiled
ahead of me.
At five feet four and a
hundred and five pounds, I thought she looked
graceful and charming despite the authority with which she handled her
mower. I enjoyed watching her work in her so-called summer
dungarees, which were actually just old coveralls with the legs lopped
off below the hip pockets. The dungarees successfully bagged her
torso, hiding a form that attracted furtive appraisal when she went to
church or town in more feminine finery.
Her lightly tanned legs,
however, flecked with shattered grass, were on
unlimited display. Shapely, sleek and shiny as a freshly-skinned
squirrel from the curve of her backside down to where they disappeared
into baggy gray socks and ankle high clay-dusted yard boots, they drew
Helen, I deduced with a
startled splash of endocrine-jolted insight,
was going to be real popular real soon. It wouldn't be long
before others noticed what I'd noticed years earlier.
Lost in considering the
ramifications of that prospect, I watched her
turn left at the corner of the remaining uncut grass, following our
cutting pattern. She glanced at me and must have noticed that my
eyes had focused below her waist, because she turned and looked over
her shoulder at herself, then back up at me. Caught, I guiltily
shifted my eyes away.
She stopped a moment and
looked back down at herself, then bent over
and brushed some grass off her legs. I stopped and leaned
patiently on my mower, mopping my face and watching. I tried to
keep my expression neutral and unreadable.
"Is something wrong with my
legs?" She looked at them again,
brushed off more grass.
"Nope." I shook my
head just a little. "Not a thing."
She looked up quizzically at the thin compliment. My half frown,
half smile came back.
"Nothing? Then what
were you looking at?"
I glanced away, eyes
wandering over to the barn while I tried to decide
how best to answer, then settled on the simple truth. I looked
back at her and smiled. "Sears Roebuck would put them in the
catalog to sell stockings. I was just noticing."
The smile that broke across
her face widened mine, too. She
clearly liked that.
"You've always said I have
the prettiest legs in history. What's
different about them today?"
"Well, I just thought about
the catalog today."
"So, do you spend a lot of
time looking at the catalog?"
The little tease! And
worse, it worked. I cast my eyes away
again, feeling a slight flush creep up my neck.
A hail from the drive
changed the subject. "Hey Helen.
We're here. Come help." Nancy Simon and her daughter Carrie
Carrie had turned seventeen
the day before, so our parents had decided,
since Helen and I shared a birthday on the coming Monday, to combine
birthday parties again.
The Simons' contribution to
the preparations included three birthday
cakes with candles, a mile or so of blue and white crepe paper,
decorating and preparation labor, extra dishes and serving utensils,
and kitchen help.
Grateful for the change of
attention their arrival brought, I
waved. No acknowledgment of my greeting came from Carrie,
although her mother waved back. Disappointed, I dropped my hand,
pretending I'd been shaking something off of it.
"You go ahead, Helen," I
suggested flatly. "I'll finish out here
while you ladies get the food done."
"You sure, Carl? I'll
stay if you want."
"It's okay. There's
not all that much left anyway."
Helen pulled her mower out
of my way. "If you're sure,
then. She did call me, after all."
"Yeah, she did. Go
on." I gestured toward the rain barrel
by the house. "There's still plenty of rain water. Go wash
your hair first. Maybe it'll dry while you help out in the
I knew Helen sensed the
unhappy undercurrent within me. She'd had
four years to see first-hand how Carrie ignored me. Carrie and
her mother lived on the next farm south of us, about twenty minutes
away on a hurrying horse. For four years she and Helen had been
together almost every day, doing chores and spending the night at one
house one day, the other house the next while our mothers worked at the
Mercantile in town. In effect, they were sisters, and each family
had more than one daughter. It worked well, a good solution to
family economics for both of our families.
It short-changed me a
little, though. Carrie took my place in bed
with Helen when Carrie slept over those first couple years before we
built on the addition. I slept on the divan in the parlor.
After the new rooms had been built, of course, things improved.
Even so, Carrie and I barely acknowledged each other. We
exchanged rare eye contact and even rarer words, even when she brought
Dad and me lunch as we worked in the fields.
Nancy Simon's husband and
their family Ford had disappeared one
afternoon more than three years earlier, never to be replaced.
He'd fallen in with a rough crowd and developed a reputation for
drinking, gambling, carousing and shady dealings before he'd gone
missing. Most of the greater Fern Valley residents were certain
he'd met with foul play, and that if he and that Ford did show up, they
would be at the bottom of the Missouri. If that was true, he'd
widowed a sweet natured, striking woman of some thirty-five years,
gently character-lined and barely brunette, built for both long
workdays and man-pleasing nights.
Her daughter Carrie showed
similar best-of-all-worlds construction,
although lighter of hair and bluer of eye, and with perhaps more
emphasis on the man-pleasing aspects.
I knew about the pile of
broken hearts left at her doorstep as swain
after swain failed to achieve exclusive status. She liked to meet
many gentlemen of the older persuasion, liked to dance and go to the
movies and ice cream parlor and library. She was said to be
friendly and quite proper, and no "first" had ever been rumored with
her. That pleased me immensely, even in my ignored state.
I've been secretly in love
with Carrie as far back as I can
remember. I didn't know then, of course, that our families and
neighbors were well aware of my "secret" feelings for her, and thought
it both touchingly cute and sad. But only Carrie and I ever knew
about the puddle incident.
When I was five and six and
didn't know any better, I'd follow her
around at school during recesses and pester her for a kiss. Two
grades ahead of me, she'd always fend me off, exasperated by my amorous
Then one late May day in
first grade I managed to find her alone behind
the tool shed during recess. I made my usual request for a kiss,
and she almost turned me down again. That time, though, she
stopped in mid-sentence.
"Okay. I'll kiss you
if you'll drink mud from that puddle over
there." She gestured to the candidate puddle, her arm long and
straight, her finger pointed unerringly.
I looked over at the
puddle. It didn't look appetizing.
"I'm not thirsty."
"Then I don't feel like
kissing you." Hands fisted on her hips,
her third-grade eyebrows arched haughtily over her disdainful
blues. I remember how lovely she looked.
"Well - you promise?"
"Of course. I always
keep my promises."
So I went over there, got
down on all fours at the puddle's edge, bent
down and stuck my tongue into the yellowish-brown muck. It tasted
like mud, exactly as I expected. I shuddered.
I looked up at her
hopefully. Had that been enough?
"No," she proclaimed.
"Lap it like a dog."
I bent over again, then
lapped in my best canine style. Even
then, even in my first-grade unsophisticated mind, I thought that
seemed like a lot of trouble to go to for a kiss. I knew guys who
got kissed lots easier than that. Still, I thought, this was
Carrie. No one ever got to kiss Carrie.
Several laps later, my
belly full enough of what would be even more
unpleasant at the privy for the next couple days, I stood. "I
think I've lapped about all the mud I can, Carrie. You can kiss
"You think I'd kiss someone
who'd lap mud like a stray dog?
You've got to be crazy!" And she spun away and ran back to the
playground. I sat where I was, confused at the betrayal, too
young to understand the scope of what had just happened. But I
understood the finality of her rejection. Oh, I learned something
that day, all right. After that I kept my hopeless adoration
bottled safely inside. Alongside it, the anger that more years
and understanding brought competed for ascendancy in my emotions
whenever I thought about her.
That was a long time ago, I
told myself as I watched Helen run to greet
her. No one else knows, so stop thinking about it. She's
forgotten all about it. You should too.
I watched Helen and Carrie
Luckily I didn't need
to deal with Carrie much as we prepared for
the party, except to help hang the crepe paper here and there where she
couldn't reach. We made it a businesslike chore, lacking even
routine social interaction. Neither of us simply chatted with the
other. I felt relief when Dad summoned me to the garden.
"Get out here and help me
get this roast pig out of the ground,
Carl. It's almost time for the guests to show up." I joined
Dad and we shoveled dirt off the canvas-wrapped porker that we'd
stuffed with hot rocks and buried the previous morning before school.
The first of our party
guests showed up as we scooped the remaining
dirt off by hand. Hannah and Jerold Farley turned their horses
into our corral, then split up, Jerold heading over to a wheelbarrow of
iced drinks near the house while Hannah walked over to us.
"Can I help?" Hannah
asked as she came in the garden gate.
Dad looked over to see Jerold, wrist-deep in the ice digging for a
strawberry Nehi. He looked back at Hannah and gave her a
"Sure, Hannah. Carl
and I have just about got this pig
uncovered. You can give us a hand haulin' it over to that table
yonder." He gestured to the plank and sawhorse table just outside
the garden fence. He glanced at me, and I could tell he wondered
why her big, strong, capable brother needed a cool drink while his
sister risked getting dirty and greasy helping us.
Jerold, at seventeen,
loomed a couple inches taller and maybe twenty
pounds heavier than I. He played both football and basketball at
Fern Valley High.
Recent unsettling rumors
about Jerold's behavior with girls had
prompted discussion within the family about inviting him to the
party. Even before those rumors started, people thought of him as
coarse, ungentlemanly, and shallow. In a rural, live-and-let-live
agri-community like ours, managing to be thought of in that light was
actually something of an accomplishment.
Helen settled the issue at
supper a couple weeks earlier.
"Well, I like Hannah," she
announced with finality in her voice.
"So I'm inviting her. I don't see how we can invite her and not
invite him. It wouldn't be polite. And anyway, if those
rumors were true he'd be in jail, wouldn't he? So unless anyone
knows how we can do anything different, I'll make out the invitation to
them both." And that was that.
As we struggled with the
pig, lifting it carefully out of its pit by
the canvas in which we'd buried it, I saw Jerold pick up the church key
and flip the cap off the Nehi into the grass at his feet. He
didn't pick it up, apparently unconcerned with the prospects of
barefoot dancers finding it later. Instead, he hoisted the bottle
back and with a few chugs emptied the cool, red liquid into his
belly. He smacked his lips with satisfaction, then bent and put
the empty into the wood crate by the wheelbarrow. He reached into
the wheelbarrow again, and for a moment I thought he might bring Hannah
a drink. Instead, he drank that one too. I decided such
consideration probably exceeded his brotherly skills.
Dad snorted. Hannah
didn't seem to notice.
We carried the pig over to
the plank table and eased it down, oil
running out of the canvas at both ends. Then as Hannah
whisk-broomed the baked dirt off the canvas Dad and I unwrapped the
hot, succulent treat. Our mouths watered at the redolent smell of
sweet roasted meat. A grin split his face when we exposed the
mahogany-brown hog and the meaty aroma coiled its way upwards into our
noses. Hannah and I glanced at the temptation, then at each
other, and he laughed.
"Why not? Who done
all the work anyway? We dug the hole, we
stuffed this hog with the hot rocks, we dug it up today, we carried it
over here and set it down. Who's to say we can't have some
yet? So if you two've a hankerin' for a hot piece, go ahead and
get you some." So, shooting grins at each other, Hannah and I
reached down and tore off handfuls of shoulder meat.
Hot, greasy, sweet.
We snickered at the warm runnels of amber oil
running down our forearms and dripping off our elbows as we savored the
wonderful meat. Dad watched, wiping his forehead with his
bandana, a smile on his face. I think he liked the picture he saw
there in front of him, his son in the company of a pretty,
almost-blonde fourteen-year-old girl in sun-bleached Levis and white
short-sleeve shirt, her eyes alive with mirth and enjoyment.
Up to then, that sort of
thing was just plain unknown in my family.
"I got haulin' to do yet,
you two. The girls've probably finished
with the cookin', so I'll get Jerold to help me bring it all
outside. Mrs. Wheat put fresh soap in the can and clean
towels on the post over by the pump, so when you've had your fill be
sure and wash that grease off you."
He headed off to the house,
corralling Jerold along the way.
Jerold had started to walk toward us, probably looking to join the
early pig picking party Hannah and I had going. He'd waited just
a little too long, though. He scowled over his shoulder at us as
Dad led him inside.
A drop of oil hung from
Hannah's chin as she sank her teeth into her
handful of meat, and I tried not to grin. She looked at my
stifled smile, then wiped the droplet off with the back of her
hand. "Well, you're just as greasy, Mister!" Her words were
admonitory, but there was a smile in her voice and a laugh in her eyes.
I didn't say
anything. When we finished we headed over to the
pump, and along the way I told her I was pleased that she could come to
There I was, actually
talking to a girl.
"We always come,
Carl." Her look at me, sideways from under
barely lifted lashes and above her pretty smile, did nice things to my
"We're even going to have
music and dancing this year." I waved
at Mom, who smiled at us from the kitchen window as we walked by.
She turned and looked at me
full-on. "Oh? Do you like to
dance?" Surprise in her voice, and rightly so.
I hesitated. "Uh -
well, I don't do it much."
She knew perfectly well I
wasn't known for dancing. Carrie had
cured me of asking girls for anything remotely resembling romance,
which dancing certainly did. I only danced with Mother up until I
turned eight or so at the local dances and festivals. After that
I never asked anyone to dance and declined ladies' choices until the
word finally got around that I simply wasn't interested.
What I knew about dancing
was that the fellow put his arm around the
girl's waist, and she put an arm around his neck, and they held each
other close enough so that they could twirl and spin and step together
like one person. Then while that fancy frolicking went on they
looked into each other's faces, eye to eye and nose to nose and smile
to smile, and carried on clever conversations and pretended not to
notice that they were pressed against each other, just a little.
As I considered her offer, a short two-reel movie played itself behind
my eyelids. That dancing business didn't seem all that innocent
all of a sudden.
She offered to help.
"I'd be happy to teach you a step or two if
you'd like, Carl."
"I'd probably step or two
all over your toes," I predicted helpfully in
my attempt to spare her the pain and myself the embarrassment. We
rounded the house and, the pump in sight, for some reason we slowed our
She laughed softly.
"Well, if you'll try to keep from doing that,
I'll try to keep my feet out from under yours. Deal?" She
stuck out her greasy hand.
How could I not shake it?
Doc Sarver will be here today, if you should
need doctoring after a dance." She laughed again, and I couldn't
help but be simply and undeniably charmed.
We walked unhurriedly and
hand in hand the rest of the way to the pump,
and I waited until we got there before I pretended to notice
that. Our eyes grazed each other's in unspoken acknowledgment of
the friendly contact, then I dropped her hand and pumped so that she
could wash up. She returned the favor a few moments later.
I puzzled over my reactions
to her. This is Hannah, the same girl
I see every day at school, I thought, and who wears pretty much the
same thing to school she has on now. Sure, she's pretty.
That's not anything new. Then why did I notice how nicely her
clothes fit? Why did I notice that the word 'girl' maybe wasn't
quite the right word? Why did I feel so good being with her?
I didn't have much time to
continue with that uncustomary line of
thinking. Charlotte, Mike, Terry, and the McEvoy litter were
coming down the drive.
The five McEvoy kids
included two sets of twins.
I suppose that someone had
observed back when they were popping into
the world that Mrs. McEvoy seemed to "litter" once a year, so the
unkind collective "McEvoy litter" appellation stuck. Worse, the
first two kids were twins, Frank and Henry. Everyone immediately
called Henry "Hank," of course. Then came Marlon, who as he grew
stayed skinny as a rail. He became "Plank" in the effort to keep
the family nicknames sounding alike. Then the twins Suzanne and
Elma came along, who became "Lanky Shanks" or just "Shanks," and
"Tank," both fitting, if not particularly nice nicknames in the final
months of their thirteenth years.
Hannah and I met the
McEvoys Frank, Hank, Plank, Shanks and Tank as
they drove their go-to-school wagon to our post out front of the
house. Charlotte, Terry and Mike continued to the corral and ran
their horses in before joining the party.
After we tied their wagon
to the post, Hannah walked with Hank and
Frank, one smiling galoot on each arm, around the house to the party.
Frank also went by "Fat
Frank," unfortunately. The truly awesome
collection of festering adolescent wounds and black stubble on his face
didn't help matters. He fairly oozed oil, probably for the same
reason a cheesecloth squeezed around churnings oozes. But he was
clever, quick of mind and tongue, and more than held his own in the
battles of wits that often accompanied cruel name-calling
contests. I liked him and thought of him as someone who did
pretty well, considering what he looked like. It struck me as
typical of Hannah that she wouldn't be put off by appearances either,
and that it wouldn't bother her to be seen with someone as unattractive
On Hannah's other arm Hank,
Frank's twin, was as ordinary as you could
please, just short of handsome, Helen had remarked once. I took
her word for it.
Plank, tall, thin, pale and
smelling faintly of decay and foot powder,
walked a step behind them, trying to take part in their laughter and
silly gabbling. I felt a little bad for him, because although
pleasant enough, in his eternal coveralls and scuffed boots he looked
like something out of the Sunday hill billy comics. I guessed
he'd have liked Hannah to have another arm, but he was, if anything,
even more backward than I. I thought of him as a lonely person
and therefore a kindred spirit, someone who had it in his power to
improve his lot by just deciding to do so.
Elma and Suzanne each had
one of my arms. Except for whiskers, in
a lot of ways Elma, or Tank, was like her brother Frank. She had
a sharp wit and an honest view of her own unattractiveness. That
didn't stop her from enjoying herself. Tank liked to eat and
talk. That was it, and she was good at both.
"We're here now, you can
start the party, Carl."
"Yeah, we've been holding
it up for you, Elma. I'll give everyone
the go-ahead." She laughed, pleased with our simple
repartee. I grinned too. One more happy partyer.
Shanks squeezed my arm as
she snaked-hipped along my other side.
"Now that you're fifteen, do you think your momma will let you take
someone to the movies, Carl?"
For a second I thought she
had tried a snippety tease, but quickly
realized that, just too sweet-tempered to do that sort of thing, she
had instead dropped a sincere hint.
She and Elma might almost
have come from different species. Tall
and contoured sweetly enough that even I noticed, long of leg and
pretty in a brown and carefree sort of way, Shanks' widely rumored
ecumenical disposition of her virtue kept her at the center of
attention among those males of greater Fern Valley who thought a girl's
suitability was better measured by the appeal of her contours than by
her age. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone who confessed to
having recently taken the full measure of her agreeably compliant
hospitality. True or not, no one ever complained about her sweet
nature. At least, no male did. There were probably girls
who would have cheerfully gutted her like a fish.
Having decided she'd asked
a guileless question, I answered in the same
way. "I won't be fifteen until Monday, Suzanne. But I don't
think Mom would object."
"Well," she hinted demurely
with a smile, "If you should ever want to,
I'm sure plenty of us girls like the movies."
Elma cut in, long-suffering
exasperation in her voice. "Put a
sock in it, Shanks. Carl doesn't cotton to your flirts. Do
"Nope. Not me,
Elma. I don't know a flirt from a
flounder." Both girls laughed at my admission. Even so, I
enjoyed them both. I knew when I invited them that they would add
some fun to the party.
We rounded the corner of
the house and found the rest of the partyers,
and Terry Kraft stepped up to claim Shanks. Terry was dark-eyed
and jet-maned, about sixteen years old, five foot nine and a hundred
and sixty pounds, and female eyes followed his tightly packed, compact
frame around as he moved through the partyers. He excelled at
sports, especially baseball, worked hard on his family's dairy, and had
become a solid favorite with the female set. Even usually
irreverent Helen smiled goofily and giggled when he stopped to talk
with her. He was a friend in a galoot-to-galoot sort of way,
someone I ran across in school regularly.
Mike Barnes had cornered
Helen and, from the smile on her face, her
attention. A rangy, loose-jointed seventeen-year-old, at an
athletic five ten or thereabouts he measured a bit shorter than
I. He spoke softly through a perennial smile, laughed easily, and
had only good words for anyone. Everyone's favorite friend, he
charmed without the slightest inkling that he was doing it. His
family had recently moved into that new Cloud Meadows tract north of
town and he'd assimilated himself into the school community without
having the obligatory fight with the class bully. No one seemed
to know a lot about his background, and no one seemed interested in
expending the energy to find out, since he was so clearly exactly what
he seemed to be.
It became clear to me that
Helen had caught his eye. That didn't
surprise me any; most of the other fellows spent time refreshing their
eyeballs with her image as well. So I found it hard to worry
about him in comparison to some others, even though his eye seemed to
wander her way more often than most and he seemed to be in her company
a good part of the time. What was there to worry about? Of
all the fellows there, who would I most trust in her company?
Mike. No question. He was a gentleman.
After greeting and shaking
hands with everyone I'd missed, I went to
get some of the food. I found myself in line beside Charlotte,
marveling at how much food we could choose from. Sitting at one
end of the long serving table, a big clay pot held boiled sweet
corn. Another held baked potatoes. There were bowls of
lettuce and sliced onions and scallions and various types of tomatoes
and shredded cabbage and squash and other stuff from the garden, and
whole loaves of hot bread. Next to two bowls of different kinds
of potato salad, wedges of home-grown and sun-ripened melons added
slashes of bright color to the table. A cast-iron Dutch oven of
hot baked beans and a tray of bright silver eating tools sat at the
other end of the serving table. Finally, at the end of the
serving line, the hot pig carcass steamed from the plank table upon
which we'd placed it.
As Charlotte and I rummaged
among the food, I understood that she might
tolerate my company, so after we'd overfilled our plates we carried
them and our Nehis over to the corral and sat down against a post to
eat. She had done something different with her hair, I recall,
something much nicer than the practical ribboned tie-ups she usually
wore to school. Her deep red tresses hung down in loosely coiled
springs which bounced and riffled lightly in the breezes as she
walked. Somewhere, judging from the freshness of its power, she
had found time to refresh her scent. A flowery sort of scent,
maybe Lilly of the Valley or something similarly noticeable, it carried
something else too. I found it just a little disturbing in
exactly the sort of way a girl would like a fellow to be
disturbed. I wondered why she had done that.
As we ate I thought about
her perfume and other changes that had
remolded her from the frazzle-headed, frazzle-brained giggling blusher
of a girl of earlier times to the mannered, almost serenely elegant
young woman who sat next to me. I noticed that the evidence of
too much bacon in her diet had vanished, or maybe, more accurately, had
moved to where it would do the most good.
I also noticed that her
swiftness to blush hadn't been tamed. My
traveling eyes watched the blush creep up her neck and a forkful of hot
beans pause on their way to her mouth, then I almost dropped my plate
when I found her eyes. Liquid green, sharp-edged as a shattered
bottle, they carved a hole in me so swiftly I almost gasped. I
looked away, but not before I saw a twitch at the corner of her lips.
It was good to know that,
despite the blushing, she hadn't been
offended by my survey.
We stumbled into simple
conversation, our eyes safely watching the
other partyers. It took some time for my heart to unsqueeze
itself, but finishing off the plate of food provided plenty of that.
"That's some powerful
perfume, Charlotte. Watch out for the
"Buzz buzz," I buzzed in
rejoinder, grinning and going along with the
joke. "Where's that flower I smell? Wait! Is that
it? The one with the red moss on top and the -" and I stopped,
because I could see that she was waiting to hear how I was going to
describe the rest of her. I didn't know how to go about that
without risking raising an eyebrow or two. "It's nice," I ended
lamely. "Don't pay no attention to my teasing."
She didn't, it
seemed. "Did you enjoy taking today off, Carl?"
"You mean from
school? Tell you the truth, I worked six times
harder here today than I would have at school. Helen too.
You should have heard her. Boy!"
"I was going to bring your
assignments and homework, but our teachers
said your mother had already picked them up. Call me if you're
I felt especially good that
she'd thought of that and taken the effort
to help. "I will, Charlotte. Thanks."
"Are you going to swim?"
"Sure. How about
you?" Glancing carefully over at her to
see if it was safe to look up.
"Yes. Where should I
Another movie ran in
fast-forward behind my eyelids. "You girls
can use Helen's room. We guys will use the barn." I pointed
stupidly at the only building for miles in any direction that resembled
a barn. She flashed pretty teeth at me, not knowing that a piece
of pickle peeked out from between her incisors. My chest
constricted anyway. I looked again at the remaining food on my
A few minutes later she
stood and, probably bored with my monosyllabic
grunts, carried her empty plate to the house. I watched her go,
wondering if she could feel my eyes. I didn't blame her for
escaping my taciturn and bumbling shyness for the less inhibited
company of the others. I wished I knew how to be like that, to
say witty and amusing and intelligent things and keep people's
After the socializing and
eating, the girls went inside and changed
into swimsuits, and we guys went to the barn to do the same.
Certain predictions and plans concerning the girls were made there
among us eagerly boastful hopefuls. Then the swimming hole
suffered the hoots and roustabouting of the collected youth, allowing
splashing and dunking and horse fighting, which Jerold eventually won
with Helen perched on his shoulders. Mike and Carrie grappled it
out with them at the end, but Mike wasn't as big as Jerold, and Carrie
was a little more substantial than Helen, so the outcome didn't
Those that bit the gritty
water early on wound up rooting for the
diminishing collection of surviving combatants. I, of course,
watched with others like myself from the safety at the edge of the
hole. Asking a nearly naked girl, as I thought of them, to climb
up on my shoulders in that manner was a little more than I could
do. I wondered how Helen and Carrie and Hannah and Charlotte and
Shanks could bring themselves to straddle a guy's neck like that and
not think about the obvious.
Terry elbowed me, his eyes
on Helen as she waded out of the
water. "Your dad keep a loaded shotgun in the house?" I
looked over at him, puzzled by his grin. Hank and Mike laughed at
"Not usually. Why?"
He gestured at Helen.
"See if you can keep it that way, will
you? I might need an edge to make a quick escape some
night." General laughter followed at his request. Helen,
seemingly oblivious, ripped off her bathing cap; then, putting both
hands in her hair, she shook and fluffed it out.
That silenced the
laughter. Her uncomplicated bathing suit,
designed for ordinary young girls, proved only an entertaining
prop for Helen's brief show. The skirt-like fringe at her hips
shimmied back and forth, as, in the opposite direction, did her
overstuffed upper reaches. I couldn't recall ever having seen
that particular set of moves before, and, just like the other fellows
had, I found them to be impressive.
breathed. "Look at her. Jesus!"
Helen shot him a quick look over a half-hidden smile, then went to dry
off and resume hostess duties.
Terry went back into the
swimming hole, leaving me with a disturbing
prediction. "If you're the protective sort, Carl, you've got your
hands full. I'm glad she's not my sister."
I'd often had similar
The musicians showed up at
the height of the swimming. Soon the
sounds of tuning instruments filled the afternoon, then the accordion
warbled out its organ-like notes. Satisfied, the musicians
shifted into "Buffalo Gals." Dad and Mom began the dancing and
were quickly joined by Charlotte's parents, then Jerold and Hannah's
father and Carrie's mom paired up too. Doc Sarver had arrived
alone, and while he enjoyed the visiting and the food and drink, he
never set foot on the dance grass.
Soon some of the kids
joined in and dancing became an official feature
of the party. Wet swimsuits remained the outfit du soir,
something that even today I marvel at. That was pretty modern
thinking on the part of the adults those days, allowing us to dance in
When the music calmed down
to a more leisurely pace Hannah stepped up
to make good on her offer to teach me a step or two. Trapped, I
acceded to the inevitable and did my best to follow her instruction,
but found it distracting to have her in my arms like that. I did
learn something, though, that afternoon: it's not a good idea to dance
in a wet bathing suit with a pretty girl. At least, not in
public. Halfway through the first dance number Hannah quickly
backed away from me, both of us blushing but not commenting.
Trying to hide my
humiliation, I waltzed her over to the edge of the
crowd and kept my back to them as long as I could. Hannah did her
best to pretend not to notice as she tried to teach me some dance steps
out there on the fringe of the universe, avoiding my eyes and trying to
look down only at my feet while making sure to keep plenty of air
As humorous as it might
seem, at the time I found it excruciatingly
embarrassing. She and I hardly spoke at all, except for "Now
concentrate, Carl. One, two, three . . ." and
so on. Both of us hid our vast relief when the music stopped and
we could escape in different directions. I immediately went back
to the swimming hole and submerged.
After the evidence of my
embarrassment subsided I resurfaced and went
back to the barn. No more of that, I thought, gritting my
teeth. I pulled on my Levis and shirt, then rejoined the party,
the only fully-clothed partyer. I wondered how those other guys
managed. I suspected that they and their partners all suffered
(or enjoyed, possibly) the exact same situation. But I was the
only one to announce it with my clothing change. I might as well
have hung a sign around my neck.
Terry eventually relieved
my unjustified suspicion that I was the
center of attention. With a couple hours yet to go in the party,
he dressed and pleaded bellyache, then took to his horse to go
home. As we gathered around him to wave our sympathetic good-byes
he reached down and swung Shanks up behind him, then galloped off with
her at a breakneck rate, thereby dashing the post-party plans of most
of the other gentlemen.
To no avail, her brother
Frank ran after them into the drifting cloud
of dust, shouting thunderous objections and improper invective while
shaking a fisted fork with one hand and balancing a heaped platter of
potato salad and steaming hog with the other. Dad quickly
borrowed Mike's horse and galloped off, and sometime later here they
came, Dad leading their horse by the reins, abashed looks on their
faces. I'd like to have heard what he had to say when he caught
up with them.
So, as things sorted
themselves out, I spent more time watching and
circulating harmlessly than anything else. It allowed me to keep
an eye on Helen, who seemed able to have a good time even with Jerold.
I joined Tank, who sat and
sipped a soda in the company of the
adults. Together we watched the rest of the kids having a high
old time dancing and tomfoolering.
"Now that Hannah learnt you
to dance, are you going to ask me to
dance?" She asked after a moment. "Or are you already wore
I sighed, shook my
head. "If you were watching, Elma, you saw
Hannah give me up for a lost cause."
"Well, that's good.
Saves me tellin' you no." She smiled, I
saw out of my sideways glance. "Lucky you."
I was struggling with how
to reply like a gentleman to such a
self-effacing remark when Mom came and sat down beside me on the
bench. "Tired already, Carl?"
"Worked hard today," I
"I think there might be a
young lady or two who would allow you a
dance, if you think you're up to it." Her eyes shifted back and
forth between my left one and my right one. Her smile beamed
adoration, shining the glow of her affection upon her favorite
son. She probably thought she'd do the females at the party a
favor by prodding me to grace them with my presence.
"I might learn to dance
someday," I hedged reluctantly.
"I'll teach you right now,
if you want."
Well, you can imagine what
I thought of that. She saw the look on
my face and laughed. Tank snickered past the pork in her
mouth. Mom looked over at Dad, who paused his talking with
Mrs. Simon and Mr. Farley. I saw him shake his head
just a little, then Mom got up and smoothed her skirt.
"It's your party, Carl, and
we want you to enjoy it. Relax and
have a good time, whatever that means to you. These -" and she
tilted her head at the half-naked hooligans on the lawn - "are your
friends. You've known a few of them all your life. They've
come to your party. Their feelings might be hurt if they thought
you didn't have a good time." Then she stepped over to join Dad
and the others.
"Yeah," Tank said
helpfully. "You better have a good time or else
we won't come next year. Unless you have food like this again, of
I sat and watched the
dancers and thought about ways I could just
As the party progressed I
saw that Helen spent most slow dances with
Jerold on the fringe of the crowd, just as Hannah and I had that one
time. But unlike Hannah and myself, no amount of air separated
them. His thick arm around her narrow waist kept them snugly
against each other. Other dances, the ones that weren't slow, she
spent with other hopefuls, twirling and heel-and-toeing. But with
Jerold she wrapped her arm around his neck and kept her head against
his bare and hairy chest as they swayed together during the slow
dances, moving their bare feet and tangling their bare legs just enough
to be barely dancing.
The hair on the back of my
neck rose. I didn't like it a bit.
I casually wandered over to
the edge of the crowd to watch more
closely. The dancing went on, Helen seemingly content to be
pasted snugly against him. Finally, unable to watch another
moment, I tapped him on his shoulder.
"May I cut in?" I
knew enough about dancing to know that was
proper form. I tried to keep from grinding my teeth audibly.
Jerold gave me an unsmiling
look. "You want to dance with your
own sister? What are you, simple?"
Actually, I was. But
that wasn't his business. "It's our
party, so I think we should dance at least once, don't you
Helen?" I looked at her with my best
Jerold looked down at her,
still squished against him. She looked
back up at him. "If you don't mind, Jerold." She peeled
away from him, revealing that he was in the same state I'd been in with
Hannah. So angry I could hardly speak, I forced myself to calm
for a moment as I danced away with her in my newly-taught but unlearned
club-footed manner. Jerold's look followed us, and it didn't even
hint at being pleased.
Safely out of earshot at
the far edge of the crowd, I gave her what
for. "How can you rub up with him like that, Helen? He'll
think you're fair game for late night visits!"
"None of your business,
Mister Peeping Tom. Quit spying on
me! If we want to rub up and have late night visits, that's up to
"Oh, no it isn't," I
frothed back at her. "First off, since
you're only through a thin wall from my room, a visit like that would
wake me, and I like my sleep, so that alone makes it my business.
Second, Dad would shoot him after I did. Thirdly, you're not even
officially fourteen yet. You're not old enough to even begin to
think like that! And lastly, if you don't stop it I'll paddle you
right here in front of your friends."
She leaned back and looked
at me, and I could tell she gave what I said
some thought. "Really? You'd paddle me?"
The picture somehow seemed
amusing, and I found myself almost
laughing. "Well, maybe I'd bash ole Jerold's face in,
instead. Save your paddling for later."
She shook her head in
emphatic denial. "Fat chance. He'd
pound you into pudding."
"He might have to work
pretty hard at that," I bragged
unconvincingly. She made a wry face.
"Pudding," she assured
me. "Blood and bone and gristle
pudding. You're big, but he's a monster. And older and
My sister was a perceptive
sort and I saw no reason to argue with her
assessment just then, especially since I agreed with it. "Well,
if you don't want me pounded into pudding, you've had your last dance
with him tonight."
We danced a moment longer
without speaking. "All this," she
asked, "for what? My honor?"
"Do what you want with your
honor," I offered in my most sincere
free-thinking manner, "when you're old enough to decide such things for
yourself. In the meantime I have to watch out for you."
"And that includes getting
pounded into pudding if I flirt with Jerold?"
"I don't think what I just
saw was flirting, Helen."
"But you would get pounded
"Yes. Now, if you
want to see that happen, just dance with him
again. It ought to be fun, getting up in the middle of the night
to change the bloody bandages on my face. You'll enjoy
that. I'm sure Mom and Dad would add that to your chore list once
they heard the whole story."
We danced another quiet
moment or two. "When did you decide to be
this - this watchful, Carl?"
"I never had cause to
decide before. But I've noticed that most
of the guys here think you're the prettiest girl in a crowd of pretty
girls, so I guess I just now decided."
She grinned happily at that
observation. "It's about time they
noticed that," she said modestly.
I scowled, unimpressed with
her levity. "You've made sure they
noticed, you little vamp. They couldn't help it. Now you
listen to what I've told you, and behave."
"Well, I'll have to think
about it. I didn't expect -"
"You should have.
When have I ever not looked out for you?"
"But this is
different. Isn't it?" Pale blue eyes in the
after-sundown gloom, slightly puzzled, slightly surprised, she said
later, that I spoke with such firmness.
I nodded. It was
different. But also, it wasn't. "I
don't think it's much different, Hon."
The dance ended and
everyone clapped enthusiastically. Another
started, and Terry asked her to dance. I watched them twirl off
into the crowd, not sure she was any better off with him than with
Jerold. The music was fast, though, and all that legal close and
clingy stuff that slow dances allowed couldn't happen.
Jerold never got another
dance with her. I sat out the rest of
the dances keeping an eye on him, as handy an excuse as I needed.
He danced with girl after girl, even got his face slapped by - of all
people - Shanks. She stalked off in a contained fury, leaving him
holding his cheek in surprise and the nearby dancers laughing. He
didn't dance with Carrie or Charlotte, although I saw him ask them both
more than once. He asked Helen once more, and she shook her pale
curls and turned him down. He argued briefly, she shook her head
again and gestured at me, directing his attention at me in the waning
"Carl won't let me," I'm
sure she told him. "Ask him." It
was fine with me if she told him that. Better than fine, even.
His look should have
chilled my bones, but instead I felt myself
smile. I understand you, I thought. You're harmless from
now on, you ungentlemanly bully.
I hoped I'd guessed right.
I tried to put Jerold's
existence out of my mind.
He's been taken care of, I
reminded myself, now relax. So, in
pursuit of that state, I'd gotten probably my fourth or so Nehi and
leaned back against the corral, my elbows draped over the top rail and
one leg stuck out in front to brace myself. Dad joined me there
and assumed the same relaxed propped-up pose. Evening had fallen
and folks were getting ready to leave.
"Noticed you had a word or
so with Jerold and Helen."
I pushed up my hat
brim. "Yeah. I thought Helen and I
should have a birthday dance."
He reached down and groped
around in the dry weeds by the fencepost
until he found a straw. Sticking it in his mouth, he
"Bullshit." He never said anything like that, being a
civilized farmer and a gentleman, but that's what it meant.
I told him what I'd already
decided. "I don't think we'll invite
him back next year."
"I think folks will
understand why," he reflected. "But Helen
might think different about it. Looked to me like she didn't care
for you buttin' in."
I glanced over at
him. "You want to talk to her?"
"Will." He spat out a
piece of the straw, resumed his
chewing. "'S past time. Oughta done it years ago. Ma
and me, we think this weekend we'll set her down, speak plain."
I nodded. He
nodded. We both nodded.
"What about you, Son?
We need to speak plain with you too?"
I gave the same answer any
fifteen-year-old boy would give.
"Don't think so. Things are okay."
Like most dads hearing that
answer, he didn't completely buy it.
"If you think things are okay, then all those girls out there must be
outa line." He pointed with the straw still between his
lips. "They think you're ignoring them. Is that what you
mean by okay?"
"I danced," I reported
Dad looked at me.
"Dancin's fun," he began almost
reflectively. "Lota folks even pay for it, 'cause it's fun.
You're of an age when you oughta be findin' that out, learnin' social
stuff with pretty girls who like your company." He smiled as
though remembering something particularly pleasant and wanting to pass
a little of it along to me, then continued. "I think I see some
of those types out there."
He waited, saw me
struggling to work up an answer to his unasked
question, then stood, tossed the margled remnant of straw to the
ground. "Well, no hurry. You'll find out there's no need to
be afraid of them. Doesn't mean you don't need to be careful, but
you don't need to be so careful you can't have fun. Fun's
important. Keeps a person's feet under 'em. There's long
stretches between fun out here on the Prairie, and a man'd be a fool to
miss what's right in front of him for the havin'."
That was a lengthy speech
for him. I knew he'd been thinking
about it most of the afternoon as he watched me avoid the girls and saw
what kind of success Mom had with me earlier. I'd been thinking
about the same thing: Why can't you relax, I thought. Why can't
you just go out there and grab the prettiest girl - well, aside from
Helen or Carrie - and dance and flirt? How could it hurt, I
wondered, knowing full well that it couldn't.
Such were the thoughts over
which I agonized and wrung my hands until
finally, unable to stand my self-inflicted aloneness, I screwed up my
determination and headed over to find the prettiest suitable
girl. I'd been watching Hannah circulate, which she did with all
the boys. She seemed to be a good dancer, not that I could attest
to that, knowing nothing at all about the sport, but she had grace and
rhythm and fancy steps to spare, no matter what the music. I
decided that she was probably the prettiest suitable girl there, and
anyway we'd sort of broken the ice with each other earlier. She
seemed the most likely candidate to help me break into the backyard
social whirl too, although I knew it was late in the party to be
Hannah and Shanks stood
near the main dinner table, talking. She
saw me coming and flashed a smile, then turned and spoke to Shanks, who
laughed and glanced at me, mirth and appraisal in her eyes.
I had a sudden suspicion
that she and Shanks were sharing a chuckle at
my earlier embarrassment. Luckily Charlotte sat behind them at
the table, finishing a small piece of birthday cake. I walked
past the two smiling girls, greeting them politely as I did so, and sat
next to Charlotte.
She looked up at me, trying
her best not to appear puzzled. "Hi,
Carl." Simple greeting.
"Dance?" Then her eyes captured mine again.
Arrows, shattered glass even in the ochre glow of the oil lamp on the
table. My guts twisted again. I silently cursed at myself
for looking into her eyes.
"I asked first," I claimed,
hoping my voice seemed calm.
She smiled and stood, the
last of her cake forsaken.
"Sure." So off we went into the crowd, trying to keep up with
"Fiddlin' Bill." An energetic piece, it kept us safely apart
while the banjo picker and the fiddler fought for dominance of the
melody. I liked the way she smelled, a little soapy and a little
flowery and a little girlish in her disturbing way, as I mentioned
earlier. We almost got around to talking when the music stopped,
and the musicians packed up and left.
Three whole dances, two of
them not even really dances. It looked
like rosebuds were out of season for me that night. I felt
disappointed in not being able to continue the fun, because I had begun
to feel like having a good time and doing stupid, party-like
things. Instead, Helen and I got busy picking up the party and
thanking folks for coming, the party officially over.
Dad escorted the McEvoy
litter to their wagon and made sure all five of
them were aboard and left together so he could tell their folks, if
they arrived home one McEvoy short, that he'd seen them off
properly. Charlotte, Terry, Mike and the others left on
horseback. Finally only Carrie, Jerold and Hannah remained to
keep Helen and me company. Carrie's mother Nancy and Hannah's
father Clyde sat with Mom and Dad at a table, socializing and sipping
the last of their beers or, in the case of the ladies, their dandelion
Except for Jerold, we kids
worked together to pick things up.
Helen and I hauled dirty dishes out to the pump in front of the house
where Mother had thoughtfully placed the dishpan. On one trip
Hannah helped me carry the huge pot that had held the boiled
corn. We set it down by the pump in front of the house. The
night had become dark. No moon had risen, and the high thin
clouds that loafed along lazily veiled even the thin starlight.
For the moment we were alone.
"I'm a little upset with
Surprised for a moment, I
quickly deduced why. "I couldn't help
it," I almost whined.
She shook her head.
"Not about that, you - you silly. I
thought you might sit and talk with me for a few minutes. I
thought we were friends. But you ignored me."
I turned toward her.
To say I looked at her would be misleading,
because darkness prevented seeing much except vague outlines against
the faint lamp glow from the windows of the house.
"I didn't ignore you,
Hannah. I thought you might be - uh,
bothered - by havin' me around. So I thought I should stay
clear. That's all."
I pushed the pot under the
spout and Hannah jacked some water into
it. I picked up a pile of plates and eating utensils and lowered
them into the water, then added some soap flakes. Hannah went
inside and quickly re-appeared with a lamp and a pitcher of hot
water. She stood over the pot and emptied the pitcher into it as
I knelt on the other side, facing her. Dipping a finger into the
warm water to make sure I wouldn't get scalded, I began washing
dishes. Hannah and I didn't say anything during all that, neither
of us sure how to get past the remarks of a few moments earlier.
Hannah finally spoke
up. "You don't need to stay clear, Carl."
I looked up at her,
surprised yet again, searching for a simple
reply. Helen came around the side of the house and saw me
kneeling in front of Hannah.
"Hey, Carl. You're
too young to be proposing already! Get
up and help with the hauling, all right? You can propose later,
if you want to." And then giggles by both girls.
I stood and took a fast
step toward Helen, who ran shrieking back
around the house in mock fright at my threatening move. I turned
back to Hannah, who still had the giggles.
"Well, I guess this'll have
to wait until later." I gestured
toward the pot of dishes.
She ignored the gesture and
pretended to think I'd alluded to Helen's
teasing. "Yeah. We're still pretty young. We probably
ought to wait a few weeks."
Hannah had figured out that
I could be teased, I guessed. I
wondered briefly if the word had been spreading - first Helen, then
Charlotte, now Hannah.
So I teased back.
"You sure? I'm already fifteen, you know."
She put the lamp on the
ground next to the pot and stepped close.
"Well, I'm not," she said. "I've three and a half months to
go. So be patient." Then she put her head against my chest
and wrapped her arms around my waist and gave me a slow, comfortable
hug. A century or two later, the hug its own thick chapter in the
history books, she looked up at me. "Happy birthday."
I should have kissed her
right there. All my idiotically
unsophisticated instincts screamed that a kiss would be perfect right
then. There she was, her smile right there for the bending down
and tasting, her form right there in my arms, and only the night and a
few bugs to watch romance form its first private blossoms.
She waited a couple seconds
as I tried to come up with whether I should
actually kiss her; then, probably afraid that I would if she stayed any
longer, she whirled away and ran back around the house to help
Helen. I stood there rooted in the Prairie and tried to
unbefuddle my thoughts. I'd never heard of birthday hugs, but
convinced myself that they must be common for Hannah to have given me
one. I tingled happily nonetheless.
When I returned to the back
yard I saw Hannah with Helen stacking more
dishes. I joined them and picked up more eating tools.
"Thanks," I whispered
hoarsely to Hannah when I thought no one else
might overhear. "That was nice of you."
She smiled, but didn't look
up from her chore. I went over to
pick up plates and utensils from the yard table supporting the elbows
of the remaining adults.
Dad and Clyde Farley, both
still in their damp swimsuits, sat across
the table from Mom and Nancy Simon, sipping and talking and generally
relaxing as they dripped dry. Mrs. Simon hadn't changed out
of her swimsuit either, one of those modern two-piece jobs that
permitted thoughtful review of the female midsection, which in her case
was trim and taut, a lovely testament to the benefits of physical
labor. She must have been confident of her eye appeal to risk
wearing such a garment, even in the modern age of 1939. She
certainly had reason; men of any age would have appreciated her.
A white shawl over her shoulders fended off the last of the late-flying
mosquitoes, a pest the other three adults ignored.
When most of our classmates
had gone, Mom stepped inside and replaced
her own two-piece top with a white summer weight shirt that, without a
brassiere, left to the imagination only the question of her
below-the-waist attire, if any. To at least my own relief,
patient observation eventually confirmed that beneath the long tails of
the shirt she still wore the bottom to her pale pink swimsuit.
Two buttons did their duty as guardians of her upper modesty. Her
hair, the same shade of blonde as Helen's, flowed in carefully brushed
loose waves to a few inches past her shoulders, surrounding her face
and playing nice shadow tricks. She looked like a pretty guest
who'd carefully put herself together so that men would look her over
repeatedly and smile every time. It worked.
The jaundiced glow from the
oil lantern at the end of the table
alternately accentuated, then flattened features as the highlights and
shadows shifted in flickertime. The surreal effect flattered,
heightening my suspicion that Mom and Mrs. Simon were competing
for something. Attention? Top reading on the Who's
Prettiest gauges? I didn't know, but I wondered. By my
reckoning, whatever contest they were in, they seemed about even.
Mom was probably prettier, but Mrs. Simon provided a more
complete view. Not much more, but some.
As I picked up Dad's plate
and utensils, Mom leaned across the table
picturesquely and put a hand on Mr. Farley's arm, interrupting my
reach for Dad's second plate.
"Clyde," she said, careless
of the view she'd just provided, "Nancy and
I are going to have some fun in Kansas City tonight. We would
like you to escort us. If you can change his mind, Jack can tag
along, if you want, but only if he promises to be a good sport."
I thought her voice sounded a little loose around the edges, then
remembered that she and the others had been sipping most of the
"Oh?" He grunted
interestedly, smiling back. He raised his
attention from the vicinity of that picturesque view long enough to
skip between her and Mrs. Simon's eyes.
Dad turned and looked at
Mr. Farley, a long-suffering grimace on
his face. "Nancy mentioned it to me earlier, Clyde. Told
her I didn't think I particularly wanted to go all that way when we
could have fun right here. But she said they wanted lights and
cocktails and dancin'." He paused, a man-to-man look in his
eye. "Jeanne ain't been out for a time, so you might have to
teach her public manners. Maybe Nancy, too. You'll be
busy." A one-sided grin curled at his lips.
I recognized the mischief
in the "just between us" smile Mom shot Dad
before she turned her full attention back to Mr. Farley.
stick-in-the-mud says it's fine with him. I don't
know why he won't come; maybe he's afraid we'll keep him up all night,
or something. You aren't afraid of that, are you?"
He glanced at Dad, and I
saw his Adam's apple bob up and down.
"Um - well, no, but -"
"Good. And you won't
have to drive back home in the wee hours,
either. We've arranged for a couple of rooms at the
Aladdin." Their eyes tangled briefly with each other. Mom
smiled and sweetened the offer. "You can have whichever you
Mr. Farley looked
away as he contemplated what to make of the
night's possibilities. The light didn't let me see if he had a
flush to him, but he should have. My own ears felt hot.
Mr. Farley was a
widower of almost fifteen years' stubborn
standing and most eligible, if a woman wasn't bothered by his tough
reputation. However, he was said to be immune to subtle
suggestion and flirtation. Hard-bitten and quick-fisted, he lived
the life of a hard case with a fiercely held sense of fair play.
Men rarely crossed him, as the stories went, for it meant hammering it
out if they did. The stories also said he usually did most of the
He looked back at her, his
eyes dropping repeatedly into her
display. "Well, the kids -" His voice tentative, his hesitation
artificial, he almost begged that they talk him out of his dutiful
reluctance. I went to the other side of the table, slowing down
my chore a little so as to hear more and see a little less.
Mrs. Simon didn't
seem a bit put off by those stories of
Mr. Farley's rough ways. My favorite neighbor lady eschewed
subtlety to circumvent his feeble objection: "It's going on four years
since I've enjoyed a night of, uh, revelry, Clyde."
Dad protested with
good-natured gallantry. "That's not fair,
Nancy! How's a man supposed to turn you down fair and square
after that? It ain't possible! And you, Jeanne, teasin'
Clyde with all that sly talk - "
She interrupted Dad.
"I've never been a tease, Jack, as you know
very well." She swirled the clear dandelion in her jar, then
glanced up and illuminated Mr. Farley with a quick smile.
"And I'm not about to start tonight."
She tipped her glass back
and sipped sloppily, splashing most of its
contents down her shirtfront as she did. She coughed and laughed
with embarrassment, then wiped her lips and chin with the back of one
hand and pressed her shirt against her skin to soak up the wine with
the other. The light fabric surrendered its halfhearted opacity
to the drenching and clung to her breasts, showing off her proud and
pointy landscape to us all.
The interplay between the
adults both fascinated and embarrassed
me. I felt like a voyeur, and tore my eyes away quickly to look
at the men. For a moment they struggled with themselves over
whether they should smile and offer compliments, or look away.
Mom settled that for
them. "Excuse me," she giggled as she stood,
keeping everyone's attention and making matters even more
entertaining. "I think I should change this shirt."
Plucking at it to demonstrate reasons why. "I'll be right
back." She walked toward the house, just the tiniest bit
wobbly. The silence stretched.
Dad broke it, his advice
carrying loudly in the night. "And get
yourself a cuppa coffee while you're in there, Jeanne. You gotta
be awake to dance properly."
He shook his head for the
benefit of Mr. Farley and Mrs.
Simon. "I ain't seen Jeanne so fulla tomfoolery for ages.
Must be havin' two kids in their teens what done it." He looked
at me. "Say there, Carl, you didn't put no locoweed nor hemp in
the dandelion, did you?" Everyone laughed while I scurried away
with the dishes, feeling guilty for not averting my eyes quickly
I think more beer and
dandelion had passed under their bridges than I'd
first guessed. Mr. Farley, probably not believing his good
fortune, sat there with a bemused grin on his face and lightning in his
veins. Two uncommonly attractive women were clearly in the mood
for fun, and he had been invited along as pivot man. Of course he
wouldn't have admitted he aspired to that, just like Dad wouldn't have
admitted he wondered about that.
I carried the dishes around
the house to the pot by the pump and got to
work on them, picking up the chore Helen had interrupted earlier.
Hannah and Helen brought me more dishes. I wondered where Jerold
had disappeared to.
"He's in the corral getting
our horses," Hannah told me. "It's
about time for us to go home too."
I told her that it looked
like her Dad might be going dancing in Kansas
City that night. Hannah's look of horror probably lasted less
than a tenth of a second before being replaced by a relaxed smile.
"He doesn't get out much,"
is all she said. Nothing else.
Helen had more questions,
though. "Everyone's going? Mom,
Dad, Mrs. Simon too?"
"Not sure about Dad.
He didn't want to, but maybe he'll change
his mind since Mom is going for sure." I dumped more soap flakes
into the greasy dishwater. "They've got a couple rooms at the
Aladdin Hotel, so I expect they'll be back late tomorrow."
"Wow," Helen said, a smile
in her voice. "That'll be neat for
them. They haven't done that before!" Then she lowered her
load into the pot and Hannah pumped a little more water. I got
busy with the rag.
Jerold came around the
house leading Hannah's horse, followed by Dad
and Mr. Farley.
"Hey Jerold," Dad called
out. "You and Hannah able to get along
without your dad tonight?"
Jerold's response was
enthusiastic. "Sure, Mr. Wheat."
But Hannah didn't share
that enthusiasm. "Daddy," Hannah said
with deep apology in her voice, "Could you give me a ride home? I
have a wagon load of homework, and I don't understand a lot of
it. I was hoping I could get a quick start on it, but if I have
to ride an hour before I get started, well . . ."
"But tomorrow's Saturday,
Pumpkin. It'll wait."
She pouted just a
little. "You know how I hate doing homework on
weekends, Daddy. And you have to go home anyway, don't you?
Won't you need clothes, or something?"
He looked thoughtful, then
nodded his head. "Yep. That's
right, all right." He turned toward Jerold. "Jerold?
You bring her horse with you when you come home, you hear?"
He turned to Dad.
"After I drop Hannah off I'll grab a toothbrush
and some clean underwear and meet you in Kansas City, Jack. Where
do the girls want to go dancing?"
"Don't know, Clyde.
There's lots of places, so I'm sure we'll get
worked to death tonight. We'll stop by and pick you up; Jeanne
and Nancy have to pack a few things too. You're on the way
anyway. There's no need for you to drive yourself unless you want
to." So, Dad had relented and was going too. That made
sense to me; it takes two men to dance with two women, doesn't it?
Hannah went over to her
horse and lifted off her saddle bag, then stood
and waited for her father as he completed his goodbyes. She waved
from their car as they finally drove off and Jerold headed out
cross-country leading Hannah's gray. He hadn't seemed all that
pleased at the way things worked out. I attributed it to having
to lead a horse for an hour or more.
Carrie and Mrs. Simon
left shortly afterward, driving their
wagon. Dad and Mom would pick Mrs. Simon up at her house
after they'd packed a few things and cleaned up for the night
out. Within fifteen minutes Helen and I were alone.
After she changed back into
her summer dungarees and brought the
lantern out into the middle of the back yard, Helen and I got busy
cleaning up the evidence. We had plenty to do, and the amount of
work still ahead of us was discouraging, but we got at it.
Packing and pickling the
leftover pig took some time, as did moving all
the furniture back into the house and washing all the pots and pans and
dishes, then putting them away. We took down all the paper
streamers and carried them to the trash pit. We accomplished all
that before midnight, according to the chimes coming from the
Grandfather clock in the parlor.
The night had hushed
somewhat, a few bug sounds here and there mixing
with the occasional coyote cry and a distant screech owl conversation
to give the blackness an almost musical aura. I didn't mind
working late like that because I loved the Prairie nights. They
seemed to me to be as close as a person could get to early times,
before Man came along with his noise and organizing things. I
liked the simplicity of the natural order, whatever it was, and that
included the sounds. They seemed part of me.
Two shorts and a
long. Two shorts and a long. Our ten-party
line rang loudly, which at that time of night had to mean
trouble. Folks didn't disturb ten families late at night for no
I sprinted inside and
jerked the earpiece off its cradle. Jerold
"Is Hannah there?"
His voice less concerned than accusatory.
"No. She went home
with your dad." He knew that. He'd
seen her leave.
"You'd better not be lying
to me, Carl. If I find out she's there
you'll wish you'd told the truth."
Suddenly worried, I ignored
his threat. "Are you sure you've
checked everywhere? Her room, maybe?" That seemed pretty
obvious, and I immediately felt stupid for even asking.
But Jerold ignored
it. "She's gone. So's dad's horse.
She left a note saying she was going to spend the night out, and not to
expect her back until tomorrow sometime. I figure she had
somewhere in mind, and I'm checking her friends. She likes you
and Helen. Do you know anyone else she might go see?" He'd
calmed down a little, going a whole paragraph already without
"Well - everyone I know
likes her. I guess she could go almost
anywhere." A question presented itself. "Does she have a
Hannah? You think she might -" He paused,
considering, then came to his senses again. "She'd better not be
there with you, Carl." Click.
"Who called?" Helen
asked from fifty feet away as I walked back
to her and the trash pit.
"Jerold. He can't
find Hannah. She left a note saying she
was going out, but didn't say where."
Helen stopped piling the
burn waste and stood up. "Out?
This time of night? I thought she wanted to do her homework, or
something." She stepped around the pit, inspecting her handiwork.
"Yeah. That's what
she said, all right. Something sounds
fishy." I didn't like the worry that crept into my voice.
All sorts of explanations presented themselves to my imagination, none
of them pleasant.
"So what's Jerold going to
do?" She bent down to the pit again
and made a final adjustment to the pile of waste, making sure it would
"He didn't say,
Helen. Just charmed me with his usual
promises." I grinned. She looked up askance, saw that I was
"He offered to beat you up,
"Yeah. His solution
to every situation. Sometimes I wonder
how Hannah could even be related to him." I gave her a
look. "Or how any girl could be attracted to him."
She ignored my gibe.
"Are you planning to do anything? Go
looking for her?"
I didn't like the answer I
had to give. "I would, but I don't
know where to start, Helen. Can't see much because there's no
moon and almost no stars. Probably ought not go pounding on
people's doors this time of night. And it's probably up to Jerold
to call the sheriff if he's worried. There's a lot of Prairie out
there, and a girl on a horse isn't going to take up much of it.
Chances of tripping over her, if she's gone for a ride and doesn't want
to be found, say, are pretty slim."
"You think she doesn't want
to be found?"
"I don't know. Her
note didn't say where she was going.
Maybe she doesn't."
"Why would she just - go
away like that?" Her voice puzzled.
I'd been thinking about
that. "She doesn't want to be home with
just him. Maybe they don't get along; they're almost perfect
opposites, after all. Other than that, I don't know. But
whatever her reasons for going out, Jerold's peace of mind isn't much
of a consideration, or she wouldn't have left him a note like that."
She was silent a moment as
she thought that over. "If I left you
a note like that, what would you do?"
"I'd call the sheriff, I'd
call Mom and Dad, and I'd call a few friends
to help me go looking for you."
"Even if I asked you not to
do that? Would you still come looking
for me?" She groped into her pocket for a match.
"Yep. Even then."
She pressed it even
further. "What if it was dark, like
tonight? And it was snowing and 'leventy-seven degrees below zero
and the wind was eighty miles an hour? What would you do then?"
I laughed. "Well,
then I'd put a coat on first. Then I'd do
all of that, if Henry would let me." Henry was my horse.
And, being smarter than me, he probably wouldn't have let me.
She grinned up at me.
"Well, you can relax. I wouldn't do
that to you." She scratched the match on a rusty can in the trash
pit, then lit the trash we'd placed there. I leaned on my shovel,
a tool Dad required we use every time we burned the trash, and
watched. Helen stood on the opposite side of the pit and did the
same. Her eyes lost focus, the fire drained her thoughts.
For the first time since that morning I thought she looked hot and
She voiced the same
conclusion I had already reached. "I guess
there's nothing more we can do about her tonight, then. Maybe
she'll tell us about it tomorrow."
"Maybe." The fire was
hypnotic, crackling and dancing and
destroying our night vision. We were close to being done with our
cleanup; the fire burn had only to burn itself down before we could go
to bed. "Why don't you go to bed, Hon. I'll finish up."
She spoke softly, her gaze
unmoving, as though the words came of
themselves without conscious thought. "There are times when I
think we are the only real people in the entire universe, Carl."
I'd felt like that myself,
especially at night. I agreed with
her. "Maybe everyone has their own universe."
"Or maybe some people can
share a universe, because - because they want
I walked around the pit and
stood beside her, put an arm over her
shoulder. She slid one around my waist and rested her head
against my chest. We watched the flames dwindle to become coals
as our imaginations probed unhurriedly at the idea of universes and who
we might invite to share them.
The chimes from inside
"Time for bed," I announced
along with the chimes. "We can sleep
in some. No school tomorrow."
corrected, straightening up and jamming her shovel
into the dirt. "No school today."
I shoveled dirt onto the
largest remaining collection of coals, then
followed her into the house. I washed up, brushed my teeth, and
pulled on my pajama bottoms despite the warm breeze trickling through
my open window.
She came in before I turned
the lamp out. Her white ankle-length
robe covered her with garish, oversized orange and pink blossoms
painted on dingy cotton. She'd brushed her pale hair out into a
wavy cloud as she always did at bedtime, and also as always, she looked
squeaky clean and wholesome.
"Go ahead," she said.
"Get in bed." So I did.
After I'd gotten comfy she
sat on the edge of the bed and patted the
vacancy next to me. "This was my place for almost twelve years."
"Whenever I wake up
expecting to find you there," I reported, "You're
She arched her eyebrows
over her smiling eyes. "You still do
"Sometimes," I admitted.
"Sometimes that happens to
me, too. I've missed you."
I reached over and took her
hand and squeezed. She looked at our
double-fisted tangle, then spliced her fingers through mine, the
conversation in a short pause.
She looked back at me and
went on. "Toward the end I'd wake up
and wonder what you felt about us having to sleep apart. About
each of us having our own rooms. Our own beds."
"I knew I would miss
you. Couldn't you tell?"
Her smile cracked into a
grin as she remembered. "You did make it
pretty obvious. And I felt like that too. I hated moving
out. In a way it seemed like we were being punished for
something. But what? Being old enough to know how nice it
is that we're boy and girl?"
"I think so, Hon. I
think that's why Mom and Dad wanted that
She said it plain.
"Were they afraid we'd incest each other?"
I tried to handle it
without blinking. "I don't think that was
exactly it. But something like that. Brothers and sisters
don't usually sleep together after a certain age, not even when they
get along like we do. At least that's what I've noticed.
What about you?"
"I haven't exactly asked
around," she stated without even pausing to
reflect. "But I don't know any who get along like we do, and
believe me I've looked, too. You're lucky." Her grin showed
she understood the lack of humility in her statement, but I knew she
meant exactly what she said.
"You are, too. I've
heard tales about some brothers that would
curl your hair. But it's late. Why don't we go to bed?"
"Okay." Then she
pulled back the sheet and slid in next to me,
curling up with her head on my left shoulder like she used to. I
was startled initially, then touched. I wrapped my arm around her
shoulders and petted her hair, something she'd always liked.
"Staying the night, are
you?" I asked, making sure.
"Yes. We're alone,"
she sighed as she wriggled herself into my
hollows. "We don't have to miss each other tonight." Then
she kissed my neck right on the pulse, a slow and easy lip-placing that
left a damp spot cooling there. Her breast rested softly against
my chest, and her leg carelessly slid between mine. The Dragon
awoke and twitched beneath her upper thigh.
"Was I really the prettiest
girl in a crowd of pretty girls tonight,
Carl?" she shifted her thigh slightly, a sure sign that she
enjoyed being the reason for the Dragon's throbbings.
I turned to face her,
breaking that particular contact. "Every
boy here tonight is putting you on their Christmas list, Prettiest
Girl," I answered, hoping that the continued conversation would deflect
the unspoken thoughts we both had.
"Most of you are on my
"Who didn't make the
cut?" I asked, smiling.
"Well," she started
thoughtfully, ticking off names. "There's
Daddy, of course. Doc Sarver and Charlotte's father, and the
sheriff. I guess that's all the men off the list. Plank and
Frank aren't on my list, either."
That left a bunch.
"You're going to be busy, come you're old
enough to date. You really stopped the show this afternoon when
you shook out your hair like you did."
"Really?" She fished,
I almost laughed.
"Yeah. And you need a bigger swim
suit. Were you showing off on purpose?" I knew full well
that she had been.
She grinned, but didn't
confess. "I heard what Terry said.
About making sure the shotgun is unloaded."
"I saw you flash that look
at him when he said that. Did you hear
him tell me he's glad you're not his sister, too?"
"Yes. I'm glad
much rather be yours."
I touched her cheek.
"I've had mixed ideas about that," I admitted. "Things would be
easier if you
"You're just worried about
the laws, Big Brother. You don't need
to be. I sure won't tell."
Me either, I thought.
"You're going to drive me nuts, you
know. All your flirty ways."
"They're just for show,
Carl, like always. You don't need to
worry about other boys."
"Thanks. Now I feel
much better," I assured her wryly. She
poked me in the arm, then sighed, and I felt her melt into a flesh and
bone puddle against me.
"Good night, Mr. Too
Careful. I love you."
"Good night, Worry
Bait. I love you too."
We fell asleep that way,
victims of a hard twenty hours. A moment
of quiet at first while a warm breeze pushed its soothing way past the
open curtains of my gaping window, then my favorite person in the
world, who I'd never been able to stay angry at for more than three
minutes, snored softly on my shoulder.
I felt like I was stealing
something that I'd already been given.