Joy busted loose from the long yellow bus and sprinted down the grassy slope toward the creek, besting about thirty other screaming kids. “Watch your step,” her dad cautioned, as she shot by the driver’s seat. Joy’s dad usually drove us on those year-end field trips. Joy was Adams and I was Ziemer—the alpha and omega of our class you might say—so I was always dead last. At the pioneer cemetery I never got one of those glossy brochures on the plots that said who was laid out where, at the creamery they ran out of Dixie cups by the time I came around, and at the tannery Joy got a leather scrap bigger than a baseball mitt. Mine was about the size of my little finger. Some guy leaning on the bin said I could put it between my teeth for a gunshot wound. He laughed so hard his belly wobbled beneath his apron, which was about the size of a barn.
This year’s field trip was out in the country at Petra’s place, which was three houses down the road from where I lived. But Petra’s dad had probably dithered about the house that morning—Petra was the love child of a couple you’d think was in their dotage—and he forgot to cut the current and take down the single wire fence, which ran about four feet off the ground and which Joy, being on the short side and going full blast, didn’t see until it was about two inches from her nose. The wire kept Petra’s horse Danny penned up in his little Eden. Of course, Danny was Petra’s pride and joy even though she couldn’t ride him. He was too skittish or frisky or something that made him impossible to handle. I think she saw herself riding over valley and dale with her hair flowing resplendently in the breeze and putting the hurt on Ernie Bender’s older brother, who somehow had misplaced his shirt. Mostly Danny banged himself against his stall and left his calling card in the pasture. He also had a knack for getting loose and trampling the neighbor’s cornfield.
At least that’s what Frank, Petra’s neighbor, claimed. “That ain’t the work of no deer!” he insisted. Without examining the evidence, Petra’s dad said flat out that “a horse like Danny don’t care a thing about corn.” I guess that settled it because Danny was such an aristocrat. At this point, Petra’s dad would have pulled his fedora, popular in those days, over is forehead so his eyes could burn a hole right through your chest. I’ve seen it first hand, but I won’t say why. I’ve got to hand it to him, though, being an old guy, for standing up to Frank. All of this was reported by Petra’s dad to his wife and to Petra herself, and then by way of the grapevine overheard by me. Angela, Frank’s wife, told a different story according to what my mom said. In any event, unlike Petra’s dad, Frank had been in WWII, a decorated paratrooper. My dad, who was a member of a B-17 crew, accorded him the greatest amount of respect. Once when I said that Frank’s five o’clock shadow on his bullet-shaped head complemented his ensemble (a white t-shirt and grease-stained coveralls that usually smelled of old engines and gunpowder), my dad was quick to tell me not to be such a smart ass. If I had seen what Frank had, I’d have a five o’clock shadow too. Being at ten thousand feet was a whole lot different he said. Frank’s girlie calendar, however, raised my appreciation for him more than I can say. It was next to the open window and gun rest at the back of the barn, where he had rigged up a pulley system that ran a target pasted on plywood about two hundred yards out across the creek. It was just a bull’s eye, not the likeness of one of Hitler’s finest.
Then I wonder what went through Joy’s mind when she saw the glint of the wire. I don’t buy that business about your whole life flashing before your eyes. There’s no time. Once when I was trying to impress Frank’s youngest daughter, Emma, I got in my red Radio Flyer wagon and propelled it down the bumpy hill behind our house. I intended to turn at the last minute before going over the bluff, to the applause of all those present, including Frank and his wife and some of our other neighbors, who were sitting around the picnic table after one of my dad’s cookouts. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I realized a turn was out of the question. “What the hell!” is all I remember my dad shouting. It might have been called a Radio Flyer, but it didn’t fly; I can tell you that. I ended up in the brush about ten feet beyond where the wagon dropped out of the sky and where the real men found me crumpled up. To be honest, all I saw was the blackest night split by a shard of lightening.
After my wagon stunt, I wondered about Emma. But I guess we were still friends because later in the week, she wanted to show me the barn loft. It was definitely off limits, but she had figured out how to get up the ladder. On the way, we went by where her mom had been plucking chickens. Floating on the water in the washtub were little feather boats being driven to the edge by the wind. It made me think of the Golden Hind, a plastic model I’d put together of the galleon that took Sir Francis Drake around the world and earned him the admiration of the queen. The instruction sheet in the kit said so anyway. That’s when I almost slipped on a severed chicken head. When I took my foot away, one eye was staring blankly past me at the sky.
Getting up to the loft was really pretty easy. Climbing behind Emma, I got my first glimpse of Frank’s calendar through the ladder rungs, which were just pieces of tongue and groove flooring nailed to a couple of old two-by-fours. Motes from the hay were swirling in the afternoon sunlight coming in from the open loft door. We sat on the loose hay and Emma started chattering about her two older sisters. Elsa, the one in junior high, was learning how to crack her voice, like Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” It was clear that Emma thought this was a worthy project, but she got tired of hearing Elsa practice day and night because she mostly did it walking around the house in her underwear or standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom using emotive hand and arm gestures. Elaine was in high school and, even though she couldn’t crack her voice, she had a boyfriend. Emma told me his name was Skip, and Skip delivered groceries on weekends for Crider’s. He brought her home everyday from school in his 1949 Mercury, which stayed parked in the front of the house until Frank got home. I had seen it several times and wondered why the venetian blinds, which covered the rear window, were always closed. Emma said her mother was worried that if they touched butts they would have to get married. I guess they didn’t because right after high school she married someone named Lou who was scouted by the Yankees. He had a wicked fastball but couldn’t hit the corners, so he ended up a gluer at the plywood mill. It paid an extra twenty cents an hour.
This was all going on about the time Frank’s wife, Angela, got sick. She was better for a while, but then had to give up her job at the bank altogether. When my mom and I went to visit, the shades in the front room were drawn and it smelled a little funny. She sat on the couch in her bathrobe with a blanket over her legs while the light from the shaded window behind her framed her face. She was still a beautiful woman even though she’d lost weight. She and my mom talked about this and that, like how the rain had hurt the strawberries, how many quarts of peaches she was going to put up, and so on. Blah, blah. You know, like everything was normal. What got me was how accepting she was. Like that picture of the praying Jesus which everyone seemed to be required to hang above the piano in their living rooms. It was like she’d already moved on. I’d want to bust someone in the chops, smash up my model boats, do something. If my life ever flashes before my eyes, assuming in the first place that such a thing is possible, maybe this image of Emma’s mom won’t end up in the hopper. Anyway, after we walked home, my mom shut herself up in the bathroom. I could hear her weeping because it echoed through the heat ducts in the floor. When I tried the door, it was locked.
Frank had always made the communion wine for services, but now he became obsessed. My dad said there was something different about him, “A certain fever about the eyes” is how he put it, along with three newly acquired fifty-five-gallon oak barrels in the loft of the barn with fermentation locks chugging away like some kind of factory. The smell of that much wine working in the warm loft was out of this world my dad said, but he worried about whether the old barn could support that much weight. When he asked Frank about it, Frank never met his eyes, but said something like sometimes we have to bear more than we can carry.
On our way to swim in the creek one afternoon, I told Emma I wanted to see the barrels in the loft to get a whiff of what my dad was talking about. As soon as we slipped into the barn, I could see that Frank had taken down his girlie calendar and tacked up a painting of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. The dark red blood trickled down from his temple onto his cheek, but it was the eyes. It was the eyes that got me, like a combination of total befuddlement and complete resignation. You wouldn’t see this on anyone’s living room wall. I hesitated on the ladder for a moment then went up to the loft. They were there all right, stuck back in the shadows respiring like hibernating bears. It made me a little dizzy.
Near the end of the path to the creek, we saw Danny standing in the shade flipping his tail to keep the flies off. The smell of the creek was heavy in the air. It was late August, so the water was low. Algae covered the bottom rocks, which were so slippery you could go down any time, and periwinkles were “grazing” just about everywhere. I saw several dead crayfish, whose shells had come loose from their upper bodies, undulating in the shallow water like they were still alive. While I dog paddled in the deep water and dove down to scan the bottom, Emma squatted near the bank in her faded yellow swimsuit, last summer’s purchase, which she’d outgrown. She was trying to capture minnows with her cupped hands. I told her to leave a little space between her fingers so they wouldn’t spill out over the top, but she wanted to do it her way even after I showed her. Later we sat on a log by the water while I dried off and warmed up. She started talking about her sister’s marriage.
“He’s plenty cute, but they don’t get out or nothin’. It’s just boring she said. He works all day, then messes with his car till bedtime.”
“Maybe she should get a job.”
“She got one at the bank like my mom had.”
“It’s that he don’t talk to her. She said he never has nothin’ to say for himself.”
I thought about my parents. They weren’t exactly great conversationalists and they didn’t get out that much either. Mostly they just kept the routine going.
“What would you do?”
“I’d find a really cute guy with a convertible who’d take me dancing every night and maybe buy me a pony, but not like that worthless Danny!”
When we got back to the house, something rather odd happened. Frank told me to stay for dinner. I had never eaten there before. He was drinking from a tumbler filled with dark red wine that looked like the blood on Jesus’ face. I could see we were having poached chicken (“poached” is my mother’s word, but it’s really just boiled) and a large bowl filled with steaming corn on the cob, which I assume came from the part of the garden Danny hadn’t trampled yet.
As soon as we sat down at the table, Frank said, “The Bertram kid has polio.” I keep my eyes on my plate because I felt that in some way it must be my fault. The Bertrams lived in a small house, more like a shack really, set way back from the road between our two places. Years later, I would see Bonnie, who had blond hair that curled around her forehead, struggle with her sister’s help out to the mailbox at the end of their long driveway. She’d lurch forward and then almost tip over as her sister steadied her for the next step.
“So,” Frank said to both of us, “I don’t want you to go swimming no more.” Then he looked right at me, “Stay away from the water. You got that?” I finished what I had on my plate, partly just to be polite but mostly out of fear. I really wasn’t hungry anymore.
After we were done, Frank told Emma to take a bath and get ready for bed. Once she left the kitchen, he said, “You and Emma can’t play together no more because she’s startin’ to change.” Then he got up to clear away the dishes.
That was it. I was out the door walking across the field back home. The lights were out at the Bertrams’. You wouldn’t even know someone lived back there. The crickets were deafening and the stars were too close for comfort, like someone breathing down your neck.
Because Emma and I were in different homerooms at school, I didn’t see her much that year. And she wasn’t even on the bus for the year-end field trip. But, then, why would you go on a field trip, which was in your own backyard, like I was doing? The bus pulled into Petra’s driveway and came to a stop at the end of the gravel road. That’s when Joy’s dad opened the door of the bus to all the possibilities of the day.