The Resting Place

Will and Shane were both eight. They were as alike as two pups of the same litter – a little different in coloring, one with a clockwise cowlick and the other with the opposite twist.  Their voices were both husky, but Shane’s held an edge of excitability while Will’s kind of sounded like Now let’s see…  They had been best friends for only a few months, but it was as if there were something between them that would last forever, and already had.

They lived close by each other in the quiet, new development where you turn onto the quarry road a little north of town.  Between and beyond their houses the land rose gently and there were woods to explore, a small, stinky, frog pond where your boots could smack the muck, a tiny clear stream to drink, rock piles to climb, and shallow, overgrown, wet-hole tests pits to probe where slate ledges broke the surface of the forest floor — pits the size of garages which late-19th-Century slate companies had dug to see where best to quarry.  The actual, abandoned quarries were more than a mile further down the road, and beyond them the quiet road came to a dead end.

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Within exploring distance of their houses there was no place, really, for a boy to drown or fall a great distance or even to become lost, for if one wandered far enough up the gradual slopes beyond the houses he would come to the silent tracks of a forgotten railroad.  If he walked one way down the tracks, where whole trees grew up between the cross ties and where tree roots actually lay across the rails, he would come to an embankment of gravel fill.  The rails turned as if to avoid the artificial hill — but not sharply enough — and disappeared under the mound of hauled-in gravel.  Thirty feet up the bank he would hear the whiz of trucks and cars on the state road a little north of the turnoff to the quarry road.

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If he walked the tracks in the other direction he would soon come first to a jumble of black slate slabs on top of rotting wooden timbers on top of rusting iron wheels, at the far end of which stood the towering rusting hulk of a Shay-geared steam locomotive, abandoned in the 1920’s, along with the quarries and the companies that ran them and the jobs they provided, when one of the stubby wooden flatcars filled with slate, which the locomotive had been pushing ahead of itself, collapsed under its load, spilling its tons of flat rock onto the tracks.  Not long afterward it must have been impossible to tell which flatcar had collapsed first.  Much of the slate in those flatcar loads had since been carried away a piece at a time by people of the town, many of whose homes featured beautiful fitted-slate floors and patios and rock walls.

But anyone lost in the woods behind Will’s and Shane’s houses would find the old train and would then know to turn the other way and walk to the highway, or to turn and trudge downhill until he came to the new houses not far below.  (It might have been a quarter to a third of a mile from the houses to the old tracks.)   Beyond and north of the tracks abruptly rose a low ridge that also ran from the highway to the quarries.  Here and there the ridge’s rise was sheared off to a steep, but not very high, cliff.  Above the ridge and its cliffs none of the boys had ever explored, or was allowed to.

Will and Shane discovered the locomotive one day the previous fall, a year after their families had moved into the development.  The first time they came to it they climbed all over it and pretended all the things they could think to pretend.  Shane, with a voice shrill and urgent, kept making the whistle wail while Will called instructions to the train crew and made as if to turn valves and push the throttle stick, although he only guessed what the stick was for.  The hulk was filthy with rust and with bat dung and with the refuse of picnics and drinking parties.

The next time they came to play on it they were driven away by maybe six or seven older boys, (probably even teenagers), who lived back in the older part of town and who had claimed it for their own hangout.  Evidently, on their first encounter with the locomotive, the younger two had been lucky to hit it just right so that they simply weren’t caught, but they had disturbed just enough of the litter to leave evidence of their visit, later infuriating the older boys.  After that, Will and Shane would creep, time and again, through the leafy undergrowth, on their own secret path to the train, and would crouch among some rocks to watch and listen to the Doots, as they called the older boys.  Shane asked Will: If they’re the Doots, who are we? and Will answered: The Hoots!  And right there in the rocks they hooted quietly and snickered.

They never saw the Doots do much that was interesting.  As they expected, the Doots would drink beer and smash bottles.  Not as expected, one would climb from time to time onto the top of the cab or alongside the smokestack or sit on the boiler and hit the bell with a piece of steel or would pee downwind.  That was in the fall.  The last time they went to the locomotive that fall — and this was the reason they stopped going — one of the Doots climbed onto the side of engine and loudly told an elaborate story about a boy who had disappeared one night when he said he was going to hide inside the engine.  He never came home, and it was told that he had climbed inside the cold fire box, (through the iron doors in the front side of the cab), and if he ever came out again nobody knew because the doors were rusted shut ever since.  Will and Shane had tried the doors the day they played in the locomotive’s cab, and they were truly stuck closed.  The story went on: The boy who became trapped inside the engine’s belly could be heard moaning at night, and that’s why nobody ever came near the thing after dark, because maybe his ghost was wandering through the trees looking for someone to come open the doors and let him — or his body or his bones or his dust — out.

But as the storyteller was spinning this yarn, one of the other boys, who had been leaning out the cab window, ducked back inside and fitted a steel bar behind the seam where the fire box doors met.  He pried them open just a little with a terrible metallic creaking.  The other boys, scattered as they were about the wheels and on top of the boiler, listened and peered toward the cab.  Two or three started to move in that direction.  But in seconds the one who had pried the doors open a little stuck his head back out the cab window and raised a long white bone into the air, his mouth moving as if to shout something but no sound coming out.  Doots dropped to the ground, those who were above it, and scrambled to their feet and fled, and the one with the bone chased the rest into the forest with it, stopping eventually to laugh maniacally somewhere off in the trees.  Will and Shane discovered themselves hugging one another and then charged back toward the surety of their wooden-walled adult-infested homes.

It was springtime before the Hoots dared to go back.  Will and Shane had both turned eight in the winter.  They were older now, and braver and wiser, and funnier and bossier.  They set out farther and farther into the woods every day after school — as far as the wetness and their mothers’ complaints of stuff tracked in would allow.  They re-discovered their secret path to the train, and the first time they could sneak to the end of it among the rocks they watched the Doots gathering to hang out.  But these weren’t the Doots.  They were all different boys.  They were exploring it for perhaps the first time, and they liked what they saw.  One said he used to come here when he was “a kid.”  Another said his dad used to run this locomotive.  Will and Shane both snickered at this one.  They both knew the thing must have sat here at least a hundred years or maybe two hundred, but the other non-Doots took that one seriously.  One of them was trying to pry off the builder’s plate, which said Lima Locomotive & Machine Company.  Another two were trying to break the bell from its mount.  But the old hulk was not relinquishing its prizes to these feeble efforts.

These new Doots, or as Will decided to call them, the Toots, were discussing how they could take over this “property” from the official Doots.  (They used a swear word in place of the “Doots,” but Will and Shane knew whom they meant.)  Then one of them said, Hey let’s tip it over!  I bet we can, with lots of long poles!  The others howled and swore and laughed at him, and then one said, Hey, let’s start it up!  They all considered this one for at least a minute.  We’d need wood, someone said, and lots of water because you have to fill up the boiler with water and then start a fire under it.  The tracks were blocked heading toward the state road, but there was nothing blocking them going back toward the quarries except a bunch of forty-foot, straight-up trees between the rails.  The Toots howled over this idea, and then kicked and swore and broke little pieces of glass into littler pieces.  Then they all left.

The Hoots, Will and Shane, kept coming back, although the Toots apparently never did.  The Hoots listened to the disgusting conversations of the familiar old Doots and often understood none of it.  Then, one day, the two of them were just coming up the path and heard lots of shouting and screaming — crying even — and realized that there was a fight going on.  It was worse than a fight, it was a war!  The Toots had come back after all and were fighting the Doots.  A dozen or more big kids were bleeding and being chased all over the locomotive and being pushed off, and it was hard to tell which group anyone belonged to and whether either side was winning.  Will and Shane huddled in their rock hideout and watched and kept looking toward one another with eyes bugged out.  They were not as safe there as they wished they were, either, for two different pairs of boys stumbled just short of the rocks swinging at one another.  So the Hoots took the next opportunity and ran.  They ran and ran and hopped logs and puddles and scratched their exposed ears and the backs of their hands and tore their windbreaker pockets on branches and finally came onto the perimeter path that ran behind all the houses.  Here they flopped down and coughed and panted and cried and exclaimed unintelligibly over what they’d seen.

In the end, the Hoots made a pact never to tell anyone.  They both heard their parents discussing the terrible fight after it made the newspaper.  One twelve-year-old boy had a broken arm, another’s eyeball was badly scratched, several had to have stitches.  The town would see what steps might be taken to remove the old train.  Maybe a scrap iron company would want to come remove the rails and the train pieces.

So the Hoots really never did go back and watch as before, and later that summer they heard the sounds, deep in the woods, of diesel motors and chain saws and heavy pieces of iron being torn from the surface of the ground, and they sometimes smelled the strange odor of iron being burned into little pieces.  Once, when Shane was in the car with his mother and heading north on the state road, he saw the crane parked on the edge of the road, high above the remnant of the railroad, where it was loading long, flat trucks with stiff spaghetti-shapes of rust that it had dragged up the embankment.


In the early summer, Nick moved into the neighborhood, and here for the first time was someone the Hoots could impress with their story of the great brawl at the locomotive.  Nick was almost seven.  Whenever the Hoots told him something interesting, Nick made the biggest eyes of wonder Will or Shane had ever seen.  The perpetual expression of awe on his face made him instantly likable to the older two, and Nick was extremely grateful to have instant friends in Will and Shane.

He was immediately inducted as the third member of the Hoots, and the three went about on bicycles, staying to the streets so that Nick could learn the lay of the neighborhood, until Nick was brave enough to go into the woods.  The only bad thing about Nick was his sister.

Kristen was twelve — almost thirteen — with big eyes like Nick that were full of feigned astonishment rather than genuine wonder like Nick’s.  She was smart and bossy and talked about how dirty and ugly little boys were.  Will and Shane hated being called little boys and tried to enlist Nick’s help to figure out tricks to play on her. But Nick only wanted to forget about his sister when he was out playing, so they stuck to the things that Will and Shane did best — exploring the forest and bringing parts of it home with them.

Nick marveled at Will’s and Shane’s ability to slip into the forest and emerge precisely where they said they would.  They would say, There’s a test hole up here we have to go around, and a moment later, there would be such a hole.  Or it would be a junked gas range or a 55-gallon drum or a fallen tree.  One time they said, There’s an old car over there, and Nick looked and didn’t see, and so Shane dragged him roughly by the arm through some branches and said, There!  But still Nick didn’t see it, and so Shane walked over and put his hand on a thing sticking up like a dead sapling and sure enough, if you studied it hard enough, the thing, not just the vertical part that Shane touched, but the whole thing altogether teased you with the shape of a windowless antique car pressed into the ground.  A true pre-ten detective would eventually detect that there were the remains of wood-spoked wheels sticking out of the earth, and seat springs too.  My dad says it’s a sleeve-valve Willys, Will told the others in a sort of code language, Nick surmised.  But the thing that amazed poor Nick was just how completely these two boys knew these entire woods.

One day they told him they were going to the puddle with the bedspring beside it and catch the old bullfrog, and after ten minutes of zigging and zagging through the trees, but pretty much keeping a straight course, they hopped onto a leaf-littered bedspring and wetted their sneakers in the marshy grass at the edge of a huge puddle or a small pond, according to what different people call such a thing, in the center of which rose a huge boulder the size of a two-car garage, and Will said, The frog lives over here.  And Will went over where he had pointed and caught the frog.  Will showed Nick how to lay it on its back in your hand and stroke its belly until it fell asleep.  Then Will lowered it into the water, and it floated on its back, legs stretched out, for a second or two and then flipped right side up and dove into the murky blackness.

Nick was distracted on this hike, as on several others before, by the rumbling and pounding and shrieking of metal deeper in the woods.  So the other Hoots told him of the railroad that was being taken up and of the old locomotive that was probably gone by now.  Nick begged to be taken to see this new wonder, and without pausing to get their bearings or confer between themselves, Will and Shane struck out in a direction a little away from the source of the noise.  Nick had to run much of the time in order to keep up, so he couldn’t ask: If they were going to see this railroad, why did they go away from the sound of it?

But, of course, after several minutes of breathless fast-paced run-walking and several stumbles on Nick’s part, they paused among some huge round rocks — some as big as elephants, some as small as a bed or a couch.  Will and Shane silently regarded what lay ahead, which Nick didn’t yet see, and then they squeezed between two rocks and clambered over a couple more until they stood seventy-five feet from the fossil of a romantic steam engine.  Then they sauntered up to it, and while Nick tip-toed around it and said, Wow! real quietly over and over, Will and Shane just looked at it and looked all around it in some uncertainty.  Nick eventually realized that something was, at one and the same time, both right and wrong with the scene.

As they circled the monster’s carcass, neither Will nor Shane could say exactly what troubled them, and they even shushed Nick after he had Wowed about fifty times.  The tracks were still there, and the locomotive was too, although pieces of it had been stripped away.  There had been rods and gears down one side of the boiler, and now these were gone and piles of grease lay on the disturbed ground.  Some of the things inside the cab had been taken away, too, but not violently, as you’d expect in a scrapping operation, but carefully, as if they might be used again.  Finally, Will said with sadness: The bell is missing.  And the plaque.  That, Nick figured, was what was wrong.  Shane’s silence said as much.

In addition, the tracks had actually been cleared of trees and brush in front of the mounds of slate — that is, in front of the collapsed flat cars — that blocked the old engine’s final run.  The Hoots started walking along the tracks toward the mile-distant intersection with the state road.  The green-topped trees that had been cut down from the right-of-way, still a generation short of maturity, were piled to either side.

Nick asked whether the piled trees were giant celery.  Will and Shane ignored him, so Nick asked again.  Nick explained without invitation: His mom always picked over the fresh celery in the store, and didn’t the trees look just like it?

They walked toward the sound of the salvage operation now, and presently found themselves drawn up against the stacked butts of cut-down trees to hide and watch, like scavenging animals prowling the fringe of a pasture, staring at a machine which sat on huge black tires, the tires resting on a bed of whitish sandy gravel.  The gravel had been hauled by dump trucks, visible in the background, and the machine — it was a crane — had a boom extended out over the rails before it.  It was slowly tearing the rails out of the ground and stacking them beside the old roadbed, and then driving forward, toward the Hoots, until it was on top of the rails it would pick up next.  The dump trucks backed up and poured sandy gravel onto the space where the rails had just been pulled up, and then the crane, with a scraper blade on its farther end, backed up onto the fresh gravel and reached out to pick up the rails it had just been straddling.

Will and Shane understood how it worked, how the rails were being taken up and were being replaced by a dirt road at the same time, and maybe Nick would have understood as well, if he were less nervous.  The three of them returned to the engine and explored it some more.  Will was anxious to check inside the fire box, but Shane said, You’re crazy — I’m not looking in there!  And Will said, Hey, the whole story with the bone was just a joke — they had it all planned!  Nick asked: What bone?  Shane said: They say a boy died inside this engine a long time ago and we saw his bones last year, right in here! and Shane reached for the fire box doors, which were still ajar.  Nick said: I’m getting out of here! and he scrambled off the locomotive.  Will and Shane peered cautiously into the blackness of the fire box, without getting close, and saw nothing.  They climbed down and found Nick by the hiding rocks.  Nick was wide-eyed and said: Come on!  Will and Shane just trudged around the rocks and walked slowly toward home.  The charm of the old engine was gone for the older two and was lost on the younger one.

For the next few days they turned their attentions to making maps, since no matter how often they took Nick to one place or another in the forest, when they tested him on the route, Nick couldn’t lead them back there later.  He needs maps, Will and Shane decided.  So they drew and drew and made holes in the paper with their colored pencils as the sheets lay across flat but rough slate slabs.  They taped nearly two dozen sheets together until they thought if they made it any larger they’d have a life-size map of the area.  They drew their houses onto it, and while Will and Shane worked on one side, Nick colored in their houses and yards.  They drew the ponds and puddles and streams and the tracks, which they labeled “dirt road” in deference to the fact that by the time the map was done the railroad would be gone.

Nick was fascinated the most with making sure the rocks in the forest were all correctly located and depicted on the maps.  Rocks as big as cars — or bigger, if there were such a thing — were his favorite things, and he had spotted many of them in their travels.  By the time they had spent several days on map making and had argued about where the rocks should be, Nick had no trouble telling Will and Shane, Look I’ll show you, and had led them straight to the white rock like an upside-down boat and the bunch of brown ones that reminded him of a pile of doo-doo six feet high and the one with a shallow cave under it that a bear could sleep in and the striped one as big as a car with two trees growing on top of it, their roots like tentacles pinning the rock to the earth, and the one like an upright piano.  He also showed them the edges of long rocks sticking barely out of the ground, ledges, really, which Nick could only think of as flat rocks lined up kind of like a giant’s knife blade almost buried in the ground.

If Nick couldn’t find his way back to the frog puddle or the locomotive or the other obvious landmarks, he could march straight to every rock that Will and Shane couldn’t remember seeing before.  And so the map making became unnecessary.  The hikes intended for scouting these features before marking them on the map became boring.  Nick showed that he could navigate by the rocks and simply never understood why the others weren’t doing the same.

Occasionally the Hoots, although they no longer used that appellation for themselves, went back to check on the railroad removal and were not surprised to arrive one day in time to watch the slate from the four or five old flatcars being loaded onto six times as many huge pallets and carried away by trucks.  Even seven-to-nine-year-olds understood the economy of salvaging a hundred blackboard-size tablets.

Finally, only the old steam engine stood alone.  The salvage operation was usually quiet on weekends, but one Sunday early in August the forest shuddered to the sound of some new metallic distress.  The Hoots were there by noontime and watched the locomotive come apart into great curved chucks of steel that rocked, cradle-like, when they fell to the ground. The noise from the metal saws was screeching and the dust was choking and the light from cutting torches was piercing, and the Hoots didn’t stay around too long.  It scared Nick, and it made Will and Shane sad to watch.

The next day the forest echoed with the retreat of diesel equipment.  The town had removed the nuisance, a scrap company had miles’ worth of light rail and tons and tons of first-quality slate.  Beyond the locomotive’s clearing, the tracks still went on to the quarries, but those rails would never be taken up. On Tuesday, all was silent.  Birds and squirrels and even cicadas and crickets had fled the neighborhood and the surrounding woods, driven out by days upon days, even weeks of unnerving noise.  The boys zipped around the streets on bicycles and tried to act cheerful, but by one o’clock they sat on one of Nick’s great rocks in the forest, still in sight of a rooftop, and stared at nothing.  Will and Shane were glum, but Nick just rested his chin in his hands to be like the others.  When he’d had enough of this, Nick said, Let’s look for bugs.


Will and Shane turned and raised an eyebrow apiece toward the little one.  Yeah, c’mon, Nick urged, and they climbed off the rock, two without enthusiasm, one with eyes great in anticipation.  Nick led the way, and they strayed only a little way from the perimeter path, lifting rocks and turning logs and saying Eeeeyuuu!

This was the new occupation for several days.  They brought Ziplock bags and herded interesting, even fascinating creatures into them.  These they took home every day for their moms to shriek at and their dads to identify.  Only Shane’s dad had any idea what some of them were, or else he made up names for them, but he sounded authentic.  They brought home black-and-yellow salamanders and reddish newts, grubs and beetles.  They even brought pieces of plants that had berries or interesting leaves.

The most fun came, though, when they were able to roll over really big round rocks or flip really big flat ones.  One morning Nick found one of these flat ones, a piece of slate discarded in the woods, and they raised it only so far and then propped it up with a strong stick.  They couldn’t flip it over.  That afternoon they found another in a different part of the woods.  This time Shane nearly had his hand crushed when the stone slab broke its prop and fell thickly onto the toad underneath — a wide-mouthed, wart-proud king of the immediate underworld that Shane had been coaxing out.  They raised the stone again to look at the flattened toad with all its pinkness squeezed out.  Nick had the sensation of having his breath cut off suddenly and for good, the way it must have been for that toad.

Nick, of course, was the one who soon found a fairly square, flat slab of slate that looked much like a squarish version of the manhole covers on the streets.  They were out after supper on this late-October afternoon.  The new, interesting rock lay in a patch of ferns under a shady, almost dark canopy of high, wide poplars and hemlocks.  The rock itself was completely covered by a tangle of sticks and matted leaves and dead ferns.  It was distinguishable from the ground’s surface only by its sharp-cornered shape raised slightly above the rest of the earth, and by the fact that when Nick stepped onto it, it was one step that wasn’t squishy.  It was hard under the snapping twigs and spongy leaves.  Shane or Will would have never guessed there was a rock there, and when they found it, the older two just shrugged: Leave it to Nick.

The boys were chest-deep in the tall ferns, their boy-clad feet damp in the soft decaying matter of the forest floor.  With an overcast sky, the spot was lushly concealed.  Such a rock ought to yield some wonderful creatures.

With all three boys lifting, they were able to raise one edge only an inch.  This only let them glimpse the tapered edge of the dark gray slate.  The slab rested in a custom-fitted depression as deep as the stone was thick.  In its longest dimension, the slab was half or more as wide as Shane was tall.  Shane though of getting something to use as a pry.  Will, the thinker and planner, thought he should stay by the rock and let Shane and Nick go get a pry bar.  He would stay and help the others find it again, but Nick said he knew right where it was, so they all went back to Will’s garage and borrowed a wrecking bar.  It was heavy enough that they had to take turns carrying it back into the woods.  Nick led them straight to the exact spot.  Again they worked, and finally had the three-inch-thick rock up enough to stick a hand under.  But no one wanted to stick his hand in and get it bitten or crushed, so they stuck a fallen tree branch into the gap and pried further along the edge.

In time, they had it pried and propped high enough to stick a head safely underneath, held up precariously by a stout stub of a crumbling tree trunk.  Three boys on hands and knees, shoulders pressed against the duff, peered into the slit without actually sticking a head inside.

There were no bugs underneath.

There was no dirt underneath.

There was nothing underneath, except air.  Black, bottomless air. They could see the shadowy shapelessness of the loose chunks of sharp-edged shale and limestone forming the sides of the hole.  It didn’t appear to go straight down, like a well.  It was an angular-shaped hole and went sideways, sort of, like a groundhog hole, only bigger, and lined with stones, not as though someone had placed them there by hand as in a well, but either naturally or as if left by a giant machine.

A cave! Will exclaimed instructively in a reverent whisper.  (The words echoed a little in the hollow space underground.)  A tunnel! said Shane.  We need a light, Nick followed.  They stood and dusted themselves off.

I can find it again! Nick told the other two, a little exasperated by the questioning look they gave him.  So away they walked again toward their houses, briskly, single-file, passing the wrecking bar from hand to hand.  As they left the cover of the trees on the perimeter path, they felt the first drops of rain.  It was not a sneaky hurry-by-you shower.  Nor was it a maybe-I’ll-rain-maybe-I-won’t shower.  These were heavy, splattery drops, even though they weren’t coming down fast just yet.

They were closest to Will’s house when they came out of the woods.  But Will didn’t want to go inside, because he’d be made to stay in.  Shane didn’t know where there was a flashlight at his house.  Nick made a face of resignation and rolled his eyes and said, kind of in a monotone: I’ll get one.  So Nick skirted Will’s garage and headed across the street.  Will sneaked in the back door of his garage and laid the wrecking bar down with a Clang!  He dashed back outside to stand with Shane.

Will’s mother called him.  Will!  Will!  Come inside before it rains!

Will shoved his hands into his pockets and scuffed the ground as he obeyed.  He looked back over his shoulder at Shane.  Shane made a face and struck out to follow Nick.  But halfway to Nick’s house Shane’s dad drove up on his way home from work.  He stopped to let his son hop in.  Rain spoil your plans? asked Shane’s dad.  Yeah, was all Shane could answer.

Nick was returning with a sturdy metal flashlight when, from behind a hedge, he glanced and saw Shane getting into the car.  He raced on to Will’s back yard bordering the woods and cast about for his other friend.  From the house there was the sound he knew so well from home: Through an open bathroom window he heard the water running in the tub and heard Will’s mother’s voice exclaiming, today as every day, about how an eight-year-old could get so dirty.

The rain still fell with the promise of a drenching, but when Nick stood under the trees he could remain completely dry.  Even though the wind was coming up, he was warm enough, because he almost always wore a light jacket when it was cloudy outside.  Something in the little boy said: If you let the rain stop you now, it will rain for days and it will be as many days before you can check it out again; go and see what’s under there!


Nick wasn’t afraid of anything that he could think of in such a hole.  Bugs were all that came to mind, and worms and salamanders and toads.  Snakes didn’t cross his mind.  He knew of snakes, of course, but neither did armadillos cross his mind at this moment, mainly, perhaps, because snakes are not a problem way up north where they lived, and neither are armadillos or iguanas or other things you wouldn’t think of.  So Nick turned from the sounds coming out of the back of Will’s house and disappeared into the undergrowth.  A moment later, not quite running, he crossed the perimeter path behind everyone’s houses.  In about six or seven minutes, after swishing through low spruce branches and hopping and climbing over pine needle- and leaf-covered rocks — going more directly and a little more slowly than he would have if being followed by his fellow Hoots — Nick arrived at the propped up flat rock.

It was perhaps an hour from darkness, Nick miscalculated, and still the rain had no effect at the forest floor.  He knelt net to the stump that propped the smooth, flat slab of slate and shined the light into the hole.  It was a deep, narrow cave anyway, if not a tunnel, slanting off in the direction of the houses.  There was no floor to the cave, as such.  No packed earth.  The rocks lining the cavity were clean and damp, with no dirt pressed between them.  There were some skinny roots wrapped around and between many of the stones, and, once his eyes became accustomed to the beam-absorbing darkness, Nick could see that the roots also crossed the center of the cave a couple places, like grab-rails.  Then he saw something glisten, way back in the sloping tunnel.  It shone less like water and more like faceted glass or crumpled metal.  First he could see it, then he couldn’t, and then he could again.  Eyes! Was it eyes?

Nick rocked backward very quickly and sat among the ferns, his eyes wide with surprise, not fright.  A hundred feet above his head, or so it seemed, the treetops swayed in the darkening wind, and loose leaves lost hold of their twigs and swirled among the branches.  Nick felt one raindrop.  He also heard a far-off rumble, but it might not have been thunder.  It sounded like a garage door being pulled down by a rope, like the one at his house.  Bravely, he knelt and looked again into the cavity.  With an effort, swinging the flashlight, he could make the spot glisten again.

Nick scooted backward a couple of inches and felt the piece of thick wood holding up the rock.  A strong man could kick it out from under there, he thought, but he could barely budge it by pushing lightly against it.  He stuck his head all the way under the rock and then brought in the arm holding the flashlight.  It smelled good inside the earth!  Cool and damp and sweet.  Lying on his belly, Nick maneuvered the light around and tried to point it ahead, but every time he attempted to get his hand beyond his head and deeper into the hole he would lose his balance a little.  His other hand was out of the hole, of course, instinctively clutching the stems of several ferns.  The piece of softening tree trunk which held the rock off the ground was beside his ribcage — touching but not pressing.  His belly was getting cold from the dampness soaking through his shirt front, and Nick grew a little nervous about his position.  He turned the light off and stuck its lanyard between his teeth and clamped down hard.  With his free hand inside the hole Nick found a friendly-feeling rock straight below him and leaned his weight onto it.  He breathed slowly for a few moments and then, in order to help propel himself backward out of the cave, he shoved against the rock inside the hole.

Instead, the rock ledge gave way and tumbled from his grip, clattering into the darkness.  Nick gasped and lost the flashlight from between his teeth.  It too clattered away unseen.  Worse, the edge of the hole directly beneath his belly sagged with his small weight, and as his hand flailed inside for another rock to brace against, he slipped further in so that both shoulders were under the big rock.  Then the fern stems came free of their roots and his other hand outside the hole flapped against the forest floor like a landed fish.  This free arm, which had nothing to grasp, Nick drew swiftly inside the hole too, to steady himself, and as it jerked past the prop, the rock lid — the manhole cover — dropped ever so little.

Then things quieted down.  Only Nick’s hips and little legs lay on the ground outside the leaf-lined slit in the earth.  If his friends had come upon him just then, they would have seen what looked like a little boy being bitten in half in the earth’s mouth.  Nick’s face was getting red and felt full of pressure, as it did when he hung upside down for too long.  His hands had found some more stones to lean on, but whenever he leaned hard against them, he felt them wiggle slightly and knew he couldn’t climb backward by pushing on them.  So he paused for a long time by holding his body stiff and as straight as he could and by leaning on his hands only as much as he dared. But his body was becoming fatigued and so he had to let more and more of his weight rest on his hands.  And of course his arms started to become fatigued and his wrists ached from being bent backward for so long, and so Nick shouted Help!

Help! he repeated, but it sounded so — so contained! — as if his voice were underground…  He couldn’t shout so that it sounded loud even to himself.  And so he began to cry quietly.  Every ten seconds or so he jerked with a great, involuntary sniffle and bumped his head on the rock above.

Slowly, Nick let his body relax and allowed it to bend at the waist and then let it lie along the contours of the edge of the hole until one shoulder rested against the stones in the wall of the cavity and his cheek was against the straight edge of a cool rock and his arms were stretched out below himself, relaxed but still holding on to prevent a further slide.  But his arms were going to sleep and needed desperately to be lowered, or in this case, raised, along his sides.  Outside, the wind whipped and beat the trees and the undergrowth, and hard rain had begun to soak Nick’s pants and feet.  Miniature rivulets of water ran through his shirt and out onto his neck.  A trickle ran from his chin down onto the tip of his nose and out into the blackness below.

Next Nick tried a squirming motion to wriggle backward.  For several seconds it seemed to be working.  Then he realized that he was not really moving upward, but that the edge of the hole was crumbling little by little.  When he paused in this effort, the thick piece of old wood that still held the rock manhole cover shifted and then shifted again.  With the greatest of dread, Nick felt the massive stone press itself ominously, but not very hard, against the small of his back.  His shirt, no longer tucked in, was halfway up his chest.  The bareness of the rock against the bareness of his back made him shudder continuously.

Fear beyond description made the little boy act decisively.  There was no way he could back out of the hole. And if he stayed still, the prop holding the rock would slowly give way more and more.  Nick realized, through his sobs and aches, that the only thing to do was to slip carefully all the way inside and then as quickly as possible, get to his hands and knees and crawl upward and out by going frontward.  But it would be a terribly tight turnaround.  He would have to be quick but also careful not to erode the walls of the opening.

Nick prepared himself for the maneuver, thought it through, decided on trying a somersault, felt around for the widest dimension of the hole, tucked his head, and let go with his hands.

Gravity should have been sufficient to pop his hips through the slit beneath the rock’s edge, but it took more than mere gravity; Nick had to reach down for a grab-rail root and pull himself inside with his hands.  He pulled, and his hips and legs came through, but a second later so did the prop — the fat, crumbly, loose-barked, ragged-ended hunk of tree trunk that had been his doorstop.  Nick’s feet were held in the closed jaws of the earth, and he screamed one long scream as the post crashed past him, loosing moldy strands of wood like soft horse splinters.  He was now stretched out over — for lack of a better word — the angled floor of the steeply-slanting cave.  Bits of the rotting wood went into his mouth and a lot of it went between his shirt and his skin.  He still couldn’t turn right-side-up. In a rage, he coiled his body like a caterpillar and fought for his feet.  The lip of the hole was soft and loose enough, right at the very surface of the ground, that one foot came quickly free, sore and bruised.  Frantically, ignoring the dirt mixing with his tears and saliva, dirt in his ears and up his nostrils, Nick tore at the rock next to the surface that was pinning his other foot.  The ankle was turned very oddly and it ached.  Bits of dirt and several other smaller stones fell free.  As Nick moled away the lip of the hole, he was gripped by a sickening impression, more a feeling than a thought made of words: The lid, the manhole cover, the giant slab of slate that was supposed to reveal marvelous bugs and sleeping amphibians, was now the keeper of a little human boy.

When the material that held his other foot came loose, Nick fell a short way and came to a stop, still nearly upside down. A sharp stone jabbed his back, so he quickly writhed into a sitting position.

No matter how he adjusted his position, something poked him, and everything hurt.  Two of his fingers kept sticking together.  He recognized the syrupy feel of blood between the knuckles, but there wasn’t a lot of it and there was no pain.  His head had a cut above one eye.  Both his feet ached, one more than the other.  His canvas high-tops had protected them well, though.  He tasted blood and ran his tongue across a bulge in his upper lip.

Only minutes before he been enjoying the wonder of curiosity.  Then he was forced into the calmness of careful thought.  This had been followed by panic and then the need, as with a trapped animal, to escape.  Now Nick was angry.  There was no object of his anger.  He directed it at no one, at nothing — not at himself nor at the rock above him nor at his friends Will and Shane nor at his parents, nor even at his sometimes-mean, sometimes-nurturing sister.  But the anger was a mighty force within him.  He was crying loudly and yelling anything bad he could think of.

Still in a rage, Nick stood up, slowly, in order not to bump his head.  With his feet planted on separate stony perches on opposite sides of the tunnel, he raised his arms and reached up. The great rock was just at head height.  It was not quite level, naturally tilted but only a little.

Nick stood a long time and reasoned it through.  He felt along the edge, the lip where the rock met the wall of its cavity.  Only in one place was there any trace of outside matter — leaves and broken sticks.  This was where he’d fallen in, where he had dragged bits of the world in with him.  Nick tried to loosen more debris.  He would try to create a hole beside the great cover.  But how much of the slab above him was nestled onto that lip of hard-packed earth and gravel — that recess in the duff that let the giant stone lie flush with the surrounding ground?  A good six inches in some places?  Nick seemed to think that, while the stone was fairly square, the opening had been somewhat triangular.  There could be at least six inches that he would have to dig away from the wall before he could then make any more progress toward creating an opening for his body to squeeze out past the cover.

And so he dug, and tugged, and slung stone fragments and debris into the hole below.  He worked without thinking.  After a long while, or maybe only a short while, Nick discovered that he had been standing stock still, asleep perhaps in an odd way.  He dug again, but was less sure all the time that he was digging in the same place.  Besides, what he was actually moving was only the small stuff, the pieces smaller than the stone that had originally given way when he rested his hand against it and first shoved upward.  The giant cover rock was really resting on pieces a few of which were half as massive as the cover itself. Once, as he wept and pulled on a brick-shaped piece of stone, the great lid over his chamber settled a tiny bit. Stifling sobs in order to clench his teeth, Nick pressed the back of his head against the cover and pulled some more on the same brick-like rock, wiggling it slightly from side to side but still unable to dislodge it.  Suddenly, several pebbles spilled from around his hands and the slab above dropped even more on one side — half an inch.

Nick still held his shoulders against the lid, but gradually relaxed himself completely and lowered his body through the absolute darkness to where he could sit.  For a few seconds he only looked at the total darkness and felt and listened.  If the storm still raged outside this tomb, this would-be sarcophagus, he couldn’t hear it.  No trace of water seeped around the boyhole cover.  If the sun still shone beyond the clouds, he saw no trace of it at the lip of the hole.  The blackness of the hole was total.  The sweet dampness that he had first noticed underground now was more of an acrid dankness.  Would he suffocate?  Would Will and Shane bring someone to dig him out?  Tonight?  How would he stay awake?  Where would he lie down?

Where there had been first curiosity, then panic, terror, anger, and rage in the soul of a little boy there was now fatigue.  And with the fatigue there was also pain and a croaky thirst.

Nick shivered.  And he began to moan: Mommy, Mommy, MommyMommy, Mommymommy, mommymommy mommymommy… The flashlight!  Where was the flashlight?

Slowly and carefully Nick lowered himself kind of sideways further into the hole. He was sure he couldn’t just fall straight down, because he had seen the passage; it was slanted enough that he would only need to sprawl and his body would hold against the angled “floor” of the cave.  What if he slipped, though?  What if it suddenly opened into a giant chamber, like the caves in National Geographic?  Sharp, unfriendly shapes gouged at his ribs and arms as he eased himself downward.  Something else began to gnaw at him: What if another creature occupied…?

He squirmed foot-first downward.  First one shoe and then the other found purchase on a wide, almost horizontal stone that didn’t give when he stepped onto it.  Carefully, Nick dropped his weight onto it and stood up.  He let go of the jagged rock wall and remained standing, his neck just a little bent so his head would clear the ceiling.  Still very carefully, still muttering Mommymommymommy Nick squatted without moving his feet, so that he could feel the stone below him with his hands.  It was long — longer than he was if he stretched out full-length.  He crawled along it and began to feel all its edges.  What if he found…?  Groping slowly, Nick touched the cool, rough surface of the crumbling old piece of wood that had failed him as a prop.  What if he found the remains…?

Still squatting, Nick carefully touched the cave floor right next to his feet.  Close beside the piece of wood lay the flashlight.  Fumbling frantically, and crying anew, Nick twisted the bulb end and a beam shot forth, bright and strong.  Instantly Nick covered the lens with his other hand, and the light shone red through his fingers.  He didn’t want to cast the light into the depths of the hole just yet.  What if this were the place where someone had disappeared years before and not the locomotive fire box?  Even if the boy had really died inside the engine, wouldn’t it have felt about like what he felt now?

Nick sat flat on the rock floor with his knees drawn up, huddled in a tight ball.  Slowly he uncovered the light.  Words that before this had never held any meaning for him came to his mind: six feet underground.  I’m in my grave! he thought.

Carefully, he passed the light over the entire extent of his cave.  He was in a room shaped like a narrow pup tent. Before his face, one slanting wall of the room was actually the flat side of one huge boulder or piece of slate — one he had not even seen on the surface.  Up above, if it had protruded higher than the surface of the forest floor, this great rock would have been only a few paces from the slab that was trap door to this cave.

To his right was the chute he had descended to reach this level.  He was relieved to see that he could easily climb right back to the opening, if ever it would open. To his left the cave continued onward and downward at about the same pitch and aperture as the passage he had taken so far. It went fairly steeply for a way, with a wildly tilted floor, and then seemed to level out again as it was where he sat.  Behind him was another wall, slanting toward the ceiling to meet the boulder before him.  This last wall was jagged and glittery in places.  Several long, fat crystals like chunks of broken glass stuck out from the wall.  Nick was practically leaning his back against one.  How Will and Shane would covet these beautiful rocks!

Nowhere did the beam of his light strike the whitened bones of anyone long dead. But everywhere there were odd, mostly dark shapes that could have been roots or rocks or — or anything.

Nick pulled the old piece of log over toward himself and kneaded it with his palms to try to crush it a little — to flatten it if he could, for a pillow.  It didn’t give much, except on the ends.  Nick turned off the light and laid his head onto the log and — and woke up to the sensation of something dripping onto one arm and onto his chin and neck.  He cast about and found another spot to lie where nothing was dripping from above, and he went back to sleep.

Sometime during the nap he peed himself.  All the while he cried — deep inside himself — not so that anyone close would hear.  But of course, nobody was sitting beside him.

Nick thought about clouds.  He thought about his dad’s guitar and how, even though the man could only play two or three tunes, they sounded so reassuring when Nick was in bed and he heard the strumming.  Then he would hear his mother say she was tired of those tunes, and the music would stop.  He thought about sugar.  He thought about his sister’s piercing voice.  Kristen had only one tone of voice for her brother, which made everything she said sound like: You idiot!  Indeed, that’s what their mom called it: Kristen’s You Idiot voice.  He thought about the smell of new paint.  He thought about the throbbing in his lip and his foot and the stinging feeling that had started between two of his fingers.  He ignored all of these things.

From time to time he lay still and cried tears, so that occasionally he would sob with a great big spasm.  Without knowing how, he went from thinking good thoughts — about things like his collection of paper napkins printed with different restaurant logos and his house’s front steps and the smell of grilled fish — and slipped into dreaming.  He dreamed of a restaurant where the waitresses were all Little Mermaids.  They tried to swim in the air and flopped to the floor, so they stood and stumbled and fell with the trays of food, because they were mermaids and mermaids can’t walk, and no one ever received their orders, and it made Nick laugh in his sleep.  He dreamed he had a book collection, and when he looked, the books were not his books at all, but big, serious, hard-to-read books like grown-ups have — and he cried in his sleep.  He dreamed of riding in the car, in the back seat, and of feeling the car jerk suddenly to the left and then there was a bright flash.  He lurched upright from the flash and slowly remembered his circumstances.

When he could no longer sleep and could no longer think about digging out, Nick thought he would look for another opening to the cave.  He crawled deeper into the earth, first by shining his light for a few seconds, and then creeping in the direction that the beam had shown, until he thought he should stop and check again.  His father had taught him this trick.  They had camped sometimes in the woods at night, and his dad had showed him how to shine the light ahead for a few seconds, turn it off, and then walk in the direction the light had shown them until they came to a tree or some other landmark at the end of the light’s beam.  Then they would do it again and walk further.  This way a flashlight’s batteries could last many times longer in the darkness of the forest.  Or in the darkness of a cave, although his father had never mentioned caves.

Mostly Nick’s tunnel went gradually down and down.  It turned sharply left, then right, went straight for a way and then zigzagged again. A couple of times it went straight down for as far as Nick was tall.  Twice more it widened to a space the size of the room he had slept in, but more often, it narrowed to where he could crawl easily but nothing more.  And at least twice he had to squeeze between layers of flat rock that nearly crushed his chest as he pushed through.  The floor of the cave was usually a tilted slab.  Sometimes, though, it was like crawling on knife blades turned on edge.  And here and there it was actually sandy and soft — and wet.  More and more Nick realized that a trickle of water was following him down, and the trickle grew wider and faster and he had to crawl in it and slide across it when he was crossing slippery flat stones like the one he had slept on.  For a while there were no roots such as there had been where he first fell in.  But then there were lots of roots and he fought not to become snagged by them.

The urge to move his bowels became strong, and Nick considered this for a long time.  Every time he turned on his light he glanced about for a place to do it so that, if he decided to go back, he wouldn’t crawl through it.  Eventually he came to a tent-like room, the largest thus far.  This room had a triangular-shaped floor where there was a natural, out-of-the-way corner, higher than the rest of the floor and littered with crumbly slate gravel, and so Nick relieved himself as neatly as he could.  He wiped with his underpants and left them covering the mess — he could do okay with only his tough old jeans on.

At last, Nick came to the biggest tent-room of all.  When he stood up straight, he could barely reach the peak of the ceiling with his fingertips.  The floor pitched steadily downward and toward the far end Nick saw a pool of water.  Beyond the pool rose a barrier, a near-vertical rock face that slanted slightly away from him but which, although not his height, looked too steep to climb.  Nick knelt by the pool and shined the light into the clear, still water, disturbed only where his friend, the trickle, bled into it.  He lowered his lips to it and drank.  In spite of the amount of sand elsewhere through the chambers and tunnels of the cave, the bottom of the pool was nothing more than the smooth rock he was kneeling on.  Cold water sloshed up his nose and he coughed on it and spat and choked a little.  Then he tried again.  It was good! — so good!  He drank at least a pitcherful.

Nick hated to walk in the water he had to drink, but he had to go further.  Slowly he shuffled deeper into the pool — over his toes, up to his ankles, above his ankles — all the while shining the light first before his feet and then on the half wall ahead, trying to see over it.  Pointing his light upward, Nick could see space enough in a sort of vertical shaft that he could fit through if he could figure out how to go straight up at the ledge.  And it looked like the crawl space of his tunnel continued horizontally at the top of the ledge.

It happened so fast, like a car wreck: Still shuffling forward and looking upward, Nick’s feet slipped right into nothingness beneath the water.  A foot or more before the cliff face, the flat rock floor he had been walking on ended, leaving a gap. Nick’s body went straight down and his butt hit first right where his feet had last stood, but he flopped backward and his head hit too, slowed by his buoyancy in the water.  He lay submerged and felt the cold water that now covered his face start seeping into his lungs.

Violently, he wheezed and sat up and screamed and coughed and spat and shivered.  Sitting, with his feet dangling into the drop-off, he was belly-deep.  The flashlight lay on the floor of the shallow pool next to him, still shining, its wide, bulb end hanging out over the blackness below.

Nick slowly reached for it.  But he was shivering, and his arm wasn’t steady.  His hand swirled the water.  The flashlight tipped before he touched it.  Nick started to withdraw his hand.  The flashlight quickly obeyed gravity under water and pivoted downward.  It tumbled, slow-motion-like, down and down and down into the crevice, wasting batteries.

As he watched it go he stuck his feet out as far as they would reach and pressed them against the cliff face opposite him.

Slowly, carefully, disbelieving, Nick scooted backward, still sitting in the water.  When it just covered the backs of his hands flat against the floor, he turned and crawled away from the pool. He crept higher into the room and dropped.  In a minute he fell asleep without even planning to.

All the while he slept, his body jerked and his chin trembled and he whimpered.  He tried to remember a word that gave him comfort, but it wouldn’t come to him until some time later, when he awoke mumbling Mommymommymommymommy.

Nick sat up and shook from the coldness.  He was not disoriented, the way he would be in his own bed if he’d awakened in total darkness.  His clothes were soaked, his body numb.  The hard stone floor sloped away at his feet.  How long had he slept?  Five minutes?  An hour?  A day?  Had he wet himself again?  He couldn’t tell.  And in that case, he decided not to drink any more from the pool.

He immediately thought about the passage ahead and the passageway back.  He managed to recall the details of the vertical shaft he had seen in the last beam of his light: Flat damp stone wall before him, rocks and roots above and behind him, bottomless water hole below him, darkness everywhere.  If he turned his back to the flat wall, though, and leaned against it without stepping into the bottomless crevice, he could grasp the roots and any other purchase along that shaft and climb to the top of the precipice.  If he fell — well, Nick though, I can swim, but maybe I wouldn’t want to bother.

Nick slowly waded into the puddle and with his hands felt high up the rougher wall beside him as he went.  There were roots nearly to the floor of this room right next to the crevice where the pool became suddenly deep.  Without thinking about it much at all, Nick stopped where he figured the drop-off would be in the water, reached forward and felt the wall, then turned and leaned backward over the crevice so that his back was against the short cliff, reached upward where he figured the opening would be in the ceiling, crouched slightly, and leaped half-heartedly, grasping for anything his hands could seize.

They seized a root and a rock, and both held while he kicked with his feet until they found one of the roots dangling into the room.  He stopped.  He was suspended somewhere over that pool with his dead flashlight far in the bottom.  Or was it still tumbling toward the bottom?  Nick snaked upward through the opening with far less effort than he thought it would take but with almost more effort than he had left to give.

At the top, he turned and flopped onto his belly on another steeply-slanting slab, much like the one he had been sleeping on only minutes before.  This was a new room, he figured, and where he lay was the top of the same rock that formed the cliff above the bottomless crevice in the last room.  Jagged layers dug into his chest, so he had to scramble and cut himself a few places rather quickly in order not to fall back. Without thinking, for he could no longer think except in spontaneous bursts of partial dreaming, Nick crawled onward.

Even though the original direction of his descent had taken him toward the houses and therefore downhill underground just as he would have gone downhill above ground, he now repeatedly had to scale less imposing versions of that one ominous cliff behind him, so it seemed as if he might be going up more than going down. He couldn’t judge.  Up a rock-curb the height of his chest, down a tunnel, around a zig or a zag, up a big rock, down the other side of it, a squeeze, a tent-room, a flat stone to crawl on, jagged sheets of stone to crawl on, water following in trickles, more roots, fewer roots, no light, no sound but his own scraping and gasping and — and crying.

The stickiness of slowly-leaking blood was everywhere on him.  Three times, five times, twelve times his head had struck things hard and either pointed or blade-like — different rocks jutting into the darkness from the sides or from above.  The fabric of his jeans wore off at the knees.  Then his skin wore off too, in layers and shreds.  His jacket had fallen away, he guessed, about the time he lost the light.  His chest was crisscrossed with scratches, his shoulder blades were raw, and his chin was an open sore full of fine dirt.  Dirt was in his eyes, in his ears, in his shoes, in his pants.  At times he fell forward and lay his cheek on the floor and panted.  Sometimes he knew he was hungry and began to wish for bugs, even.  Without a light, he’d never know they were there unless they crawled onto him.  Where were all the bugs that lived underground?  Even a soft spider body would be tempting, if he could see, if he could catch one, if he could see to kill it first and probably discard the legs.

Then the candle began to appear.  Sometimes it flickered just out of reach as he crawled.  Sometimes it glowed and wiggled high above his head — higher even than the slab of slate that formed his cavern’s ceiling — or far ahead, beyond the next fracture of earth that changed the pitch and direction of his journey.  It even came into view when his eyes were closed, or when he assumed they were closed.  Nick knew it wasn’t real, even though it would dance and nearly die when he blew on it.  Along with the candle, he also began to have live company.  First were the sirens and emergency lights piercing the darkness far ahead of him.  He would crawl toward them, for surely they were looking for him, but as he drew near they would go dark and quiet and drive off.  Once as he approached them, Bert and Ernie materialized alongside an ambulance and stood there arguing as Bert and Ernie do.  Nick couldn’t get their attention to let them see that he was right beside them, accompanied by a burning candle, and so the two Muppets walked around to the far side of their plastic-bodied fake ambulance, flicked off the flashers, and drove into the darkness.

He drank whenever he found water, and sometimes licked the rock where he felt a trickle running.  With his jaw hanging and his eyes wide open and staring in disbelief straight ahead he crawled when he could and wriggled through when he had to and climbed up or slid down when these were his only options.


Nick’s dad, Pat, called Will’s mom, Mary, just at dark.  Please tell Nick I’m coming over to pick him up now — it’s too bad a storm for him to run home in the rain.

Mary had to ask: Will, where’s Nick?

Will had to think.  He went home when we did, Mom.

Did you see him go home?

Yes — well, not all the way to his door.  (Intuition…)  He went to get a flashlight.  But we didn’t go back out there.

Out where, Will?

To the rock we wanted to look under.

What rock, Will?!

The one that had kind of a cave under it.

Listen, Pat, Nick didn’t come here at all, and Will’s talking about a cave in the woods.

Is it okay if — heck, I’ll be right over to talk to Will!

Will explained to Pat as best he could how there was a rock flush with the forest floor — flush with two square miles of forest floor! — that revealed a cave or tunnel when lifted.  It was still propped up out there.  They asked him if he could take them to it.  Well, not really.  Nick was the only one who knew where all the rocks were.  It was like his gift, his genius, to know where all the rocks were.  He couldn’t remember where anything else was, only the rocks.

The police came and lots of other people.  Shane came.  So did Nick’s sister, Kristen, and for what seemed like hours she glared at the two boys with the eyes of a predator.  Everyone came through the door dripping like beavers newly arriving through the underwater entrance to a beaver house.  What was there surrounding this covered-up hole in the ground, Will?  What landmarks?  What kinds of trees?  What rocks?  What puddles?  How far into the woods was it?

They made Shane tell his version of the place separate from Will.  Their stories matched.  At first no one wanted to believe that there was a flat stone out there, flush with the forest floor and covered with forest floor debris, which only a six-year-old boy could discover in the first place and find again in the second place.  But Shane told the same thing without hearing Will tell anything.  And when the grown-ups asked them what they were trying to hide — did they tie their little friend up somewhere and make up this tale? — Will and Shane broke down and cried and swore they loved Nick and there was nothing else that happened.

The police made Pat go look for his flashlight.  While he was gone, Will and Shane heard grownups talk about possible kidnapping and about getting tracking dogs.  Someone said there had been too much rain for dogs to follow a scent.  And most people in the house thought kidnapping was out of the question.

Pat returned.  His big flashlight was missing.  Then an older man in the room named Pete, someone Will and Shane had never seen before, said these hills were laced with underground crevices and aquifers and caverns, because there was a geological fault along through here.  Someone who had watched Pat’s house being built, a couple of years before Pat moved Nick and the rest of his family into it — Pete, it was — spoke up and said he remembered how they had blasted ledge in order to go deep enough for a foundation for Pat’s house, and by golly, he had seen such a vertical crevice in that ledge himself, just before they leaned the concrete forms up against the hole and poured the wall.

So all that night and all the next day people spread out through the woods, under the punishment of still more rain and the assault of still more wind.  Everyone was cold and shaking in a few minutes, but still they searched.  They used flashlights in broad daylight.  They called to one another behind Will’s house all day and again into the next evening.  Hundreds of people searched every inch of the forest, from the state road almost all the way to the quarries, and then searched it again.  They suspended the search during the second rainy night, and then resumed it again on the second day.  Hundreds of people parked their cars at Will’s house and at Nick’s house and used the toilets and made phone calls.

Will and Shane were made to go out with different people and try to find the spot.  Someone lamented that it was too bad the rain had certainly obliterated all tracks the boys might have made.  Tracks, Will thought.  There were never any tracks, anyway.  You make tracks in mud.  There was mud around the puddles.  He thought the guy was stupid.

They were made to explain their map, over and over again.  (Will’s mom, Mary, had salvaged it from the garbage barrel in the garage.)  They hadn’t had time to mark this special, cave-concealing rock on their map.  Heck, they’d thrown the map away when it was clear that Nick could find his way by following rocks, the way birds follow stars.

The police issued missing-person reports, of course.  More people came and searched for crime clues.  Finally, a geologist, a pretty woman named Katrina or something like that came from some college and talked seriously with Will and Shane.  She believed them no matter what they said, and they only told the truth.  Shane remembered how Nick had noticed the ridges of rocks in the forest floor.  Ledges, the lady called them.  And she believed what they said about the squarish flat stone with the hole underneath.  There could be many such places in the forest, she cautioned.  She knew about the test pits that the slate miners had dug, which were now the many frog puddles or lesser “foxholes” in the woods.

Katrina was also deeply interested in the boys’ map.  Nick’s crude rectangular rocks, solidly colored in with a pencil, were scattered with seeming randomness across the taped-together sheets, except for an irregular, diagonal line of six or so that meant something to her.

She stayed at Will’s house overnight and on the third day after Nick’s disappearance she hiked all over the woods with the boys and with some other people, mostly men who were a bit too jolly and interested in Katrina herself to Will’s way of thinking.

Where they found some of the ledges sticking out of the ground, Katrina hammered on the rocks with a small pick-hammer and listened to the sound they made.  She laid an instrument on the ground that sent pings into the earth.  She kicked and kicked at the ground, as if she might uncover the large flat stone.  She did find some of the rocks the boys had turned over in their search for bugs.  How she could tell, after all that rain, that a spot in the forest floor had recently been disturbed, the boys never knew.  But she could tell.  She talked with the adults on the hikes about drilling “core samples.”  No one thought much of this idea.  Then Katrina left, promising the grownups a report.

On the — was it the fourth? — evening after Nick’s disappearance his sister Kristen lay across her bed and cried.  She had all the lights on and had some music playing — loud, drown-out music without melody — to shake her out of bad thoughts.  But she felt sick.  She had not been fond of the little boy once he grew out of diapers.  He was a loud, stinky, snoopy nuisance.  But no child deserved a terrible ordeal of any kind.  She believed none of the story about a rock propped up revealing a cave, in spite of the credence given it by the adults.  Those other two boys had done something terrible with her brother and they were doing a good job of covering it up.  She was sick because somewhere a little boy was enduring a horrible nightmare, or had endured it and — No!  He hadn’t died!  He was alive, she had to convince herself of that, even though being alive meant he was even still suffering something unspeakably awful, frightening, possibly even painful.  But what also made her sick was the suspicion that Will and Shane were telling the truth — that her brother was somewhere underground! — and that her bedroom, in a north corner of the finished basement of their house and next to the woods, was also was underground in a way — that she was symbolically underground with him.  Once this suspicion formed itself into a coherent thought, Kristen went to her bathroom and threw up.  That made her feel better, and she turned the music and everything else off and allowed herself to drift off to sleep in the cool silence of her dark room.


Nick had lurched along on sore hands Mommymommymommy and bloody knees Mommymommymommy for so long that, when the tight cavity he was just in opened into a wider, taller space, his body resisted straightening to stand up.  This new space shared the same crazily-tilted ceiling as the previous tunnel, but became higher with the floor’s sudden drop by the distance of Nick’s full height.  He was saved from falling onto this new floor by a dripping water sound coming from the room itself.  And so he paused.  There was more.  A change of air coming from the next room brought a chilling and yet refreshing coolness, but also an hint of stinky unpleasantness.

The air itself told him this next space was much larger.  When his forward hand first felt the absence of a floor, he sidled on hands and knees to the left and then to the right.  On the right he found a ledge extending into the larger room.  A gentle slope ran from the ledge to the floor below, and using that incline Nick managed to find the new floor and to stand erect.  The ache of straightening himself also seemed to clear his mind.  The candle stayed away for a while, and Nick yawned several times.  He pulled himself back onto the ledge, where he knew it was flat, dry, and safe, and stretched out to shiver and to nap.

In no time, though, the fake ambulance was back.  Bert and Ernie stepped out, looked around more quietly than before, shrugged, and drove off again.  The candle dangled in the middle of the cavity in their absence, and then Oscar the Grouch, illuminated by the candle and pushing a long-handled broom before him, approached Nick as he lay on his ledge.  Oscar silently swept something into Nick’s hand, the one stretched out beyond his head.  Annoyed, Nick tried to shove it back toward the Grouch, who repeatedly pushed it back into Nick’s hand.

Nick gave up and grasped the object.  Both Oscar and the candle disappeared.  His shoe — Nick had evidently kicked off a shoe as he slept and Oscar was making sure he didn’t lose it.  Ready to slide off the ledge, Nick tugged at the shoe, but it was somehow wedged into the narrowed space between two flat pieces of stone at the back of the ledge.  Nick took a better grip and realized that his ragged sock also must have come off and was hanging from the shoe.  Within the shoe the sock was partly stuffed with some sort of debris as well.

With another tug, the shoe came free and Nick slid down to the lower floor level.  But neither of his feet was bare — both his shoes were on his feet.  And this spare shoe, although it felt like a canvas-sided sneaker, was much larger than his own.  This was all very interesting, but also too confusing to be given any thought right away.  Fully erect but very unsteady on his feet, Nick took a step — ever downward in his gradually sloping underground passage — and rolled his ankle on a round object.  Crouching, he felt for it — his flashlight!  But, no, it wasn’t his.  Hard plastic instead of metal, it was large like his, and bulged at one end.  He laid the spare shoe between his feet and felt the flashlight tube with both hands.  Found the switch.  Tried it.  Dead.

With his new finds one in each hand, Nick cautiously walked forward a few steps and banged his forehead, not hard, against a wall of rock.  Back on hands and knees he low-crawled onward, same floor, newly-lowered ceiling.  A new stream of water crossed the floor of this space, and he drank from it mechanically, almost without breaking his slither.  He expected to find a deepening pool and planned to crawl right into it. The water tasted foul, too, but maybe that was only from the sores in his mouth.

The rivulet was nothing more than that, though, and when he came once more to a narrow exit on the other end of this short chamber, he curled up and trembled at the thought of going on.  Something played at his lips, like a word not spoken: Mommy mommy mommymomm… Wump! booma-Wump! booma-Wump! booma-Wump! booma…

Nick drew his mind together long enough to regard this new sensation.  His lip stopped forming the almost-word that he could not remember.

It was his heartbeat, he decided.  Wump! booma-Wump! booma- Wump! booma-Wump! booma…

He listened for a while longer.  It wasn’t a sound, really.  It was a — a feeling that resembled sound, and then it stopped.  Had his heart stopped?  There was a pause of a few seconds, and then the pattern changed.  Wump! ba-bumba! Wump! ba-bumba! Wump! ba-bumba! Wump! ba-bumba!  Nick pushed his spare shoe and dead flashlight ahead of himself into the next crevice, then eased his head and shoulders into the hole he was supposed to enter next.

Wump! ba-bumba! Wump! ba-bumba! Wump! ba-bumba! Wump! ba-bumba!

Incredulous, Nick crept forward.  He had to go sideways again, that is, he had to lean his head sideways and then turn his body onto his left side and lead with one shoulder and push with his quaking legs to squeeze his chest through the slit.  This was the tightest hole he had yet tried to squirt himself through.  After many minutes of this maneuver the horizontal hole expanded just enough that Nick could roll any way he wished, and his hands began to slip in some gravely sand, like the new dirt-road kind of sand that had been laid over the old railroad roadbed.  The crack in the earth that he was squeezing through didn’t change any more than that, though.  It just ended abruptly, inexplicably plugged with more of the same gravely sand, piled too deeply for Nick to find any further opening.

Nick scraped mechanically, hopelessly, at the coarse sand with his leading hand, pulling handfuls of the pile down underneath himself.  If he could push enough of it beneath him and behind him, he might get further.  If there was too much of it — if it was plugging the crevice completely, then he would have made himself a softer bed on which to lower himself and go to sleep forever.  At least this gravely sand was dry, which almost made it seem warm.

He dug and scooted a little further and dug and liked the feeling of the dry sand beneath him. When he reached again to scoop more from the pile his palm met a flat wall angling sharply away to the left that, for the first time, absolutely blocked his further progress.  Half a mile back in the opposite direction, uphill most of the way, lay the stone across his tomb.  Here was the other end of the tunnel, he realized: a concrete wall — a concrete wall that reverberated with the rhythm of bad music.

Nick squirmed around and lay flat on his back, so that sand poured into his face and made him gasp and hack and choke.  Then the dust settled, and he could hear it again.  A concrete wall next to his head with music on the other side!  A tunnel of finite length stretching back beyond his feet in the direction from which he hd crawled.  Two walls of flat cold slate like incredibly thick blackboards leaning together at the top and barely two feet apart at the bottom where a little boy lay on a bed of sand.  Nick screamed.  Yes, real sound came out, and he did it again.  Then he twisted his body and lay on his belly, his forehead nearly touching the smooth, perfectly vertical concrete.  The beat went on.

When it paused, Nick screamed again.  He brought his arms forward and scraped in the sand for something — a larger-than-fist-sized rock.  Presently he found one and began socking the wall with it.  Within seconds, Nick fell asleep.  But when the dust from his gravely bed made him sneeze he awoke and resumed pounding with the rock and screaming hoarsely.

If I really wanted to be heard I ought to back out of this little tunnel and find some water for my throat, Nick thought, when his mind, bent briefly on survival, was able to think at all.  He realized that he was going to lose his voice.  But while he had the will to tap on the concrete wall, he lacked the strength and resolve to move.  Besides, he was probably wedged in so tightly that he’d never be able to drag himself feet-first back through the opening he had last left.


Will’s house was awfully quiet.  Shane and his brothers and sisters and all the other people had gone away.  The whole neighborhood was strangely still.  The forest had no life in it either, just as it had been silent after the screeching and roaring sounds made by the railroad salvage work that had been going on for weeks.

Kristen had the eerie sensation of being snapped fully awake, her eyes wide in the gloom, but being unable to move a muscle.  She tried to yell, but her mouth wouldn’t open, and the sound she intended to make drowned before it ever came up.  She fought the feeling, not sure whether it was real or part of a dream.  Her ears were alert, though, and they knew what they’d heard — a faraway, muffled scream, repeated after long intervals, and a tapping sound that went with it.

As soon as her body was willing to obey her head’s commands — a hesitation that irritated her to the extreme — she sat straight up and listened.  The sound had passed.  It was as if two people in another house were having a fight, at three in the morning, and for the first time it was audible in her basement room.  She sat and listened, but it was all over.

Kristen didn’t allow herself to go back to sleep, though.  She tried to remind herself of the good things and the funny things that Nick said and did.  Nothing came quickly to mind, and she gradually let herself well up with tears to think that she could have found so little to love in such an innocent wisp of a boy.  Then the tapping and the yelling returned.  Petrified by the suggestion that knocked at her mind’s door, unwilling to admit it, and loathe to acknowledge any of the possibilities it urged on her, Kristen nevertheless jumped up and felt along the paneling that was her wall.  Then she screamed.  She screamed again and again and beat the paneling with her fists and then raced for the stairs.  In the darkness her father crashed into her right on the stairway and together they stumbled and cracked heads and landed on their butts on the thinly carpeted concrete floor.  But Kristen didn’t stay.  She leaped to her feet and charged up the steps again, mowing her mother, Debbie, down in the ascent.  Pat went after her and found her stomping her feet in the kitchen and pulling on her hair, like a lunatic in need of sedation.

I heard him I heard him I heard him! she sobbed until her parents could understand what she was saying.  Her mother shook her and Kristen fell silent, staring wild-eyed in the over-glow of the ceiling light.  Come! she said in a pixie voice, and led them back to her room. I heard him, she repeated in the crazed, sweet, small voice when there was no other sound but their breathing.  Her forced calmness sounded insane enough that her parents knew she believed what she said.  She had been dreaming.  Maybe she’d even experienced a paranormal, extra-sensory contact with Nick.  (They each decided to develop this idea later on if Kristen were to continue with these illusions.)

Come to our room, Debbie said, crying too.  Nick’s mom had stayed awake for three nights and three days up to this night, and only an hour or two earlier, somewhere after midnight, had finally given in to exhaustion and nodded off, in her bed, in the darkness.  No, Kristen said faintly, I can’t leave him!  They stood there, the three of them, no one knowing what to say.  Then her parents went back to bed, hugging one another and crying as they went up the stairs.

Nick lay still after he thought he heard someone return the scream and the pounding from beyond.  It had taken all his strength to do as much as he had.  He rested for a long time and then screwed up his strength to pound the wall yet again with the rock in his fist.  Several times when he had hit it his fingers had absorbed the blow, wrapped too far around the stone.  This only helped him scream.  When he had done it once more he paused to get the effect.

Kristen raced up the stairs hitting every light switch on the way.  In the doorway to her parents’ room, still in her high-pitched childish voice, she said Come!  Her eyebrows were raised in absolute expectation.  Still wide awake, her parents followed her back down.

Kristen banged on the wall with both fists, and her father rushed to restrain her.  She was making serious dents in the cheap paneling. There! Kristen said, and they all paused.  Kristen heard the scream again, because she knew what to listen for, but there must have been too much breathing and rustling of nightclothes for her parents to hear.  I’m not crazy! Kristen shouted.  Nick pounded back.  Kristen’s mom thought she heard something, but nothing distinct.  It could have been a car door two blocks away, she said.  Jack turned back toward the stairs, but then decided to wait and listen with his daughter — to humor her if nothing else.  So they all ended up lying on Kristen’s bed, listening.  They wouldn’t let Kristen pound on the wall again, though.  She screamed once more in defiance, but there was no reply.

Nick had heard and had been heard.  He had done his best.  Wherever he was, someone knew it now.  He could rest.  He fell asleep and knew he wouldn’t wake up again unless someone lifted him out of this grave.

When Kristen’s parents were both asleep again across her bed she slipped out and up the stairs and into the garage.  The morning sky was the blue of a glass Noxzema jar.  She found a spade on the garage wall and took it around the house with her to the corner of the foundation outside her basement bedroom.

Kristen began digging, or trying to.  She had seen men such as her father do it, and, although they didn’t make it look easy, they made it look possible.  This was impossible, but still she chipped at the surface.  There was a rosebush a little our from the foundation and it kept snagging her peach-orange satin pajamas.  She put the spade under the stem of the bush and pried it out of the ground, then cast it aside.  It left a nice hole, so she shifted to enlarge it.

There was profound satisfaction in the digging.  Nicky, I’m coming, she sing-songed under her frosted breath.  Tears stung her eyes, and she worked with the resolve of someone utterly possessed.  But the easy digging didn’t last.  Within minutes she hit a round granite ball of grapefruit dimension and had to enlarge the hole’s diameter many times before she could get the shovel under this rock.  Once it was loose she had to kneel and lift with all her might to get it onto the grass.  There were more pieces like it, one after the other, and by the time the sun cast a sleepy yellow-gray glow over the treetops to the east Kristen was knee-deep in the side yard, prying with the spade tip, sniffling from the chilly air and from the aches in her back and arms and side and from the frustration in not being able to reach him quickly enough.  Her pajama bottoms kept slipping down a few inches so her bare heels would catch the hems and yank them further.  She knew they were going to be ruined from having the edges walked on and from her crawling in this coarse dirt.

With her pajamas slipping, Kristen felt the stirrings of a refrigerated October morning up her back, but in a way it stirred her to hurry.  The pants could fall off, for all she cared.  She could have been digging in the nude and no one on earth was taking any notice whatsoever, least of all her parents.  She only tugged at the shiny-smooth pants now and then to keep them from tripping her.

Kristen snapped her head up suddenly when she heard a car door slam.  In the dull, colorless pre-dawn light, her father was moving toward her across the lawn and an older man was walking toward him from the car on the street.  Over here, Pete? asked Pat.  Pete stopped on the lawn and looked about as if getting the wind direction, but there was no wind.  Then Pat stared at Kristen, stupefied.  He hadn’t known until this moment that she had been out here working like this.  Still, he didn’t speak.

It came in like this, said Pete, making a cutting motion with his hand, his fingertips a rudder, sweeping from the direction of distant treetops right down to where Kristen’s torso was fixed in a half turn as she stood nearly waist-deep in her hole.  Pete stopped still when his eyes apprehended the girl in the hole, and he stared at Kristen for a long second.  His expression said: What’s she doing?  Suddenly her father was snatching the spade from her grip and he yelled at Pete: How quick can you get a backhoe?  Or a jackhammer?  Pete stammered something and Pat yelled: Now, Kristen!  Get shovels!  Get people and shovels!  Kristen stumbled free of the hole when her father jumped in and she stood in shock.  The spade in Pat’s hands tore into the earth, a staccato machine spraying foundation fill straight at the sky.  Pat had become a badger, but his human face was running freely with tears.

Kristen, with Pete alongside her, ran toward the front door to call for people and shovels.

This story appears in the short story collection Tales to Harm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury. ©1999, all rights reserved.


[In the early 1990s two boys of about eight befriended me, one who lived very nearby, in our quiet neighborhood, and one who lived a little further away.  Their names were William and Shane.  I arranged a ride for the three of us on the locomotive of a local train, switching the six miles between our town and the next.  I took them fishing.  And, in time, they added a younger neighbor, Nick, to their little club.  Once Nick was involved, they built an elaborate, multi-room snow fort across the street from my house and asked me to judge its worthiness.  Somewhere I have photos.  It was a masterpiece!  Nick’s sister was, indeed, Kristen, although she was younger, not older than Nick.  Within a mile beyond the back of my house the woods did, indeed, reach a railroad line, which in fact has since been abandoned — the same line we rode to the next town on engine #75.  But that was 20 or more years before the date of this 2016 re-publishing.  I don’t remember just when it happened, during the period when I was in their favor — for they quickly passed beyond the age when they found me interesting and became teenagers, but one night — (did we sit around a backyard campfire?) — they asked for a ghost story, and “The Resting Place” is the one I told, making it up as I went along and using their own names as I told it then.  I first published it in 1999 as the much-more-detailed version you see here, in the collection, Tales to Harm Your Mind.  I offer it once again in 2016, dedicated to Will and Shane and Nick.  And Kristen and Heather (Will’s sister) — wherever you all are now.]


THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

That Face

I knew that face.

She was the girl illustrated on the covers of all the sheet music from the gay ‘Nineties in the pile next to my grandma’s piano.  Although twice my age, Candace Dennett was the first woman I ever fell in love with.   At 18, she had that ‘Nineties woman’s oval face and tiny chin, the pursed, garnet lips, limp lids, and casually cumulous brown hair piled against gravity all about her head.

that-face

Kenny Dennett and I had become best friends that September day in 1959, my ninth birthday, when I moved to Gomer and unloaded my belongings onto the front lawn of our new house.  We were moving there so both my parents could start teaching at Sugar Creek Local School.  Kenny straddled his flimsy, short bicycle and watched.  He had never met a kid before who had a four-inch magnifying glass, a prism, a cat’s leg preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, a box of quartz crystals, and a three-legged cat.

“Scientist,” he had pronounced me, his first spoken word of our acquaintance.  Kenny thought I was the smartest kid he’d ever seen and I thought he was the strangest.  I had never before met a skinny, scabbed kid who could ride a bicycle while carrying an unbroken rotten egg in the pocket of his shorts, who whistled through his nose when he breathed, who said Heyyawannaknowwhat? before every utterance, whether statement or question, and who smelled like he had carried a rotten egg in his shorts once before.

Kenny had turned nine earlier in the summer, establishing an unspoken seniority.

Once school started I learned that Kenny was indeed strange, a fringe member of the fourth grade, maybe even a little behind in his development.  To the rest of the school he was more a mascot than a classmate, and I entered fourth grade society at the doormat level for befriending him.  I chose my friends then, as now, though, for the things that mattered.  Kenny was loyal, trustworthy, and fun, without malice or guile, incapable of ill will.  When I hurt myself, I could cry and Kenny would never tell.  What’s more, he enriched my world in ways he’d never know.

For the next eleven months I glimpsed Kenny Dennett’s sister, Candace, almost daily when I went to his home.  I was barely aware of her at in all that time and hadn’t noticed the resemblance, even though I had flipped through Grandma’s pile of old music dozens of times out of boredom in years of monthly visits.

The thing is, Kenny and I did stuff that kept us out of Candace’s, not to mention his parents’, way.  Our playground started at his house and ran the straight length of an unlined, undulating blacktop road to a creek half a mile away.  It included a couple of farms that lay in that stretch, where we were free to play hide-and-seek in the corn, chase the roosters, and help hoist hay into the lofts where we could later stack bales to make forts where we played summer and winter.  We could sit high on idle tractors, shoot slingshots at cans and bird nests, and, when we had exhausted our imaginations, beg milk and cookies at screen doors.

At the creek we weren’t supposed to go near the water, so we played in it unsupervised.  It was lined with oaks and willows and packed mud banks sprinkled with crinkly leaves and in summer proved to be the coolest place to get out of the heat.  I think it was no more by design that we went there to get out of the heat than it is a cat’s conscious design always to seek the greatest comfort, even when that means climbing into the  warm engine compartment of a car in winter where amputating blades stand deceptively still; we just went because it suited our whim as the most interesting place to go on any day.

We discovered a mess of intriguing junk under the short bridge that carried the road beyond our playground and into agricultural sameness.  The junk yielded useful things like bottle fragments, spent wooden match sticks, and a battered cooking pot.  One day we discovered we could, in one pass, scoop fifteen baby catfish into that pot.  When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.  When we arrived to face Kenny’s father with our dwindling catch, we discovered that we were lacking an explanation, since boys who don’t go near the water like they’re told don’t catch fish.

Kenny solved it in a flash.  “Heyyawannaknowwhat, Dad?  A man gave them to us.”

“And where was this man?  Sitting in his car?”

“Know what?  Well, he was stopped for something.  Like he had the trunk open, fixing the muffler, and he said: ‘You boys want to see something…’”

I bought into the lie and corrected Kenny.  “No, he said: ‘You boys ever see anything like this?’”

“He showed them to us,” Kenny concluded, “and we said — Donnie said — ‘cause Donnie isn’t used to seeing fish — Donnie said: ‘Are they bugs?’ and the man just gave them to us.”

Kenny’s father evidently found our story authentic and drove off to go help the man with the muffler in his trunk.  He never said another word to us about it.

I could brag about what we did with some of the fish.  We had already spent untold hours tossing grasshoppers into the webs of giant garden spiders, those fat ones striped with yellow, black, and white that string webs capable of holding a tennis ball.  We thought we’d see what a spider would do with a wriggling, bug-sized fish.  (Not much, as I recall; left it hanging and returned to the center of the web.)  We put some into a canning jar and tried to feed them grass.  They starved before they’d eat it.

Kenny thought he’d frighten his sister so he put one in the bottom corner of her underwear drawer.  A week later she still hadn’t noticed it, and Kenny could hardly find the shrunken, crisp remains.  I just had a real funny feeling about Candace’s underwear, so I didn’t go in with him to hide it.  Kenny dreamed up other notions for using fish to excite his sister, ideas that would have us first catch a shark in the creek.

I didn’t share his resolve to agitate Candace Dennett.  In all the time I’d been there she had never said an unkind thing to me or about me.  I never heard her say anything to Kenny any worse than an observation about his odor or his filthiness, which observations I heartily endorsed even though my more abstract thoughts, such as that, rarely found voice.

Candace was not my enemy, and the more I thought of playing tricks on her the more I recoiled inside.  She may have been nearly ephemeral, but her ever-cheerful, if largely unseen, presence was part of the attraction at Kenny’s house.  I never knew a moment of tension in that home.

What’s more, as the summer crested and descended into August, I began to take notice whether Candace was home when I came over.  If she wasn’t, I found myself disappointed.  To my relief she was usually somewhere in the house, but her activities seldom gave rise to any occasion to cross paths with two little boys.

By design I began to steer Kenny more toward indoor pursuits during the hottest part of the season, to the minor irritation of his mom.  I wasn’t even trying to see Candace, just to be somewhere that allowed me to keep track of her.  When she did enter the same room, usually the kitchen, I was careful not to look at her but made an effort conspicuously to be occupied with whatever Kenny was willing to do there with me.  Before long he began wordlessly to abandon me inside the house in order to revert, alone, to our customary organic pursuits.

The day I fell in love, Candace was everywhere at once in her family’s little house, getting ready to leave for college in another month; searching, collecting, sorting, piling, humming softly, and packing.  I was here and there under foot, not intending to encounter her.  Abruptly, though, it happened.  We came face to face in a doorway, and she paused to regard me openly.  Kenny’s sister, owner of actual underwear, blithe spirit of the house, grown woman, frankly held my gaze and conferred a petite smile of eternal acceptance.  I remember I stared back.  We were alone.  She wore denim shorts and a white tee shirt, same as me.

That was when I saw the face.  There stood the girl from the monochrome sketches on the sheet music.

My grandma must have wanted to look like that.  Maybe she had.  Obviously the girl in all the illustrations was supposed to be the most beautiful woman of her time, some sixty years before.  And if she were the epitome of beauty back then, she could be no less so now.

As I stared I noticed that Candace Dennett was not much taller than I and probably had no prospect of attaining greater height.  I failed to notice much more that would later matter: her contours and the color of her eyes, her fragrance and the shape of her hands and her bare feet.

But I do remember the voice.  Candace commanded my gaze with hers, stretched her lips to one side in a sort of half grin, blinked those eyes, and broke the silence with: “I love you, Donald.  I just love you.”  A few moments later, from across the room, she interrupted my statue imitation with: “You’re so good for Kenny.  Which is good for me.  Now go on back out and get dirty again.”

Kenny never detected my miserable infatuation.  I was miserable for all the right reasons but at the precise wrong decade of my life.  From that day forward I couldn’t leave Kenny’s house to walk home without yearning to know where Candace was at that instant and what she would be doing until I returned.  I sat in my own room at night and wondered what time she would be turning off her light, out on the edge of town.  I ran to his house as soon as it was decent every morning for the rest of August and sometimes saw her not a minute after she woke up, when she padded to the kitchen and poured coffee.  I began to study her more and more openly.  These times, with her flowing hair arbitrarily arranged by her pillow, she was that woman.  I knew that face.

I couldn’t talk directly with Candace, but I was a real conversationalist with Missus Dennett when the three of us, (four if Kenny was up too), sat in the kitchen over breakfast.

Candace never again said that she loved me, but once meant forever to me.  I didn’t know a thing about love, of course, except that it was something which engulfed me like sinking slowly in a tank of syrup, something that filled my body and made me ache in a way that I couldn’t stand and couldn’t get enough of.  There was no future to think about, only the moment.  The most beautiful woman in the world loved almost-ten-year-old me.  I was not awakening to a physical attraction either — didn’t know that was even on the horizon, I suppose.  It was only the face.

It wasn’t long before we visited my grandma again.  While the rest of the household sat about in the kitchen and outside it, I sat on the living room floor, beside the piano, and sifted and re-stacked the pile of music, leaving the choicest pieces on top.

I wished I could play the piano, because I would have memorized all these songs and played them back for Candace Dennett, if her house had had a piano, which it did not.  Instead, I tore the simple sketch that adorned a bottom corner from one of the brittle covers — there were others missing large chunks as well — and kept her folded picture in my pocket for at least a week.  Then it went through the washing machine.

It was about the day after that when Kenny had an idea.  “Hey, ya wanna know something?” he began slowly and portentously.  (I never answered this.  It wasn’t intended that I do so.  The information or question he had in mind always followed anyway.)  “Candace has a boyfriend.”

The sweaty weakness and nausea that swallowed me at that tidbit, that turned the sinking-in-treacle sensation to a sinking-in-poison feeling, I now know was shock.

Kenny went on, oblivious.  “Ya wanna know something, we could play a trick on her.  Not on her, on her boyfriend.”

I must have acceded, or else he forged ahead anyhow.  “She writes him love letters,” Kenny snickered.  In a sing-song he added: “She says she’s gonna miss him and she wants to feel his hand in her something, her hand I guess, and he better come see her in B.G., and other stuff.”

“How’d you see all this?” I finally managed.

“She writes one or two a day and I find them in her room.  She hides them but I find them.”

I had never seen her with a boyfriend.  Never heard of one.  Never guessed that she might be that kind of woman.  I thought she was the girl in the illustrations: always placidly posing and waiting for nothing in particular.  Gazing into my world and loving me.

“She’ll be mad if she sees you,” I warned.

“She’ll just yell at us and tell us to go get dirty.”

(Us?)

“What do you mean ‘us’?” I croaked at Kenny.

“Ya wanna know what?  Ya wanna do something?  Let’s write her boyfriend a love letter and stick it in one of her envelopes.”

“She’ll tell your mom and then we’ll both…”

“Yeah.  Well, ya wanna know something?  Mom doesn’t know she has a guy.  I heard her say she isn’t writing letters to any boy, even when she really is.”

“She won’t tell on us.”

“She won’t tell.”

I warmed to this sort of sabotage, although my inward image of Candace was going to tatters like the scraps that had emerged from the laundry.

By the next day Kenny had procured one of her decorated, pale pink envelopes and a sheet of her writing paper.  Kenny had it all composed in his head, but insisted that I put it on paper because I could almost write like a girl.  So we began, and with some unexpected help I am able to quote all of it:

Dearee sweetiepie Paulee, [I knew how to spell Paul; it was my middle name…]

Kissy kissy lovvy dovvy smoochy hoochy woochy hony!!  I miss you so moch all ready!!  And I’m still waking around in my house with toast crums on my bathrobe and on my lips.  On my lips.  Get it?  I want to kissy wissy you and marry you and see you in september.  Or maybe never!!  Just kidding.

With love and hugs and kisses and feely weely and be my hony,

Candace, you one true love

I folded the letter into a tight little lump, the size of the one in my throat, as Kenny declared his sister always did with the notes she sent to this Paul.  To our good fortune, Kenny was able to creep into her room while she was off taking a bath, and he found yet another envelope already stuffed with a note.  Hers was sealed but not stamped and needed only to be addressed.  We refolded our letter to match the thickness of hers, sealed ours, and Kenny crept back in to give her a perfect substitute in one of her own fancy envelopes before she reappeared.

I don’t know what Kenny did with the letter he stole.  It might have made a difference then.  But it may be better that we didn’t know.  It might have shaken my world more than the mere, crushing realization that she loved someone else.  If Kenny read it, he didn’t let on.  I suspect that he wouldn’t have made sense enough from it.

Candace went on to Bowling Green a few days later.  Kenny and I entered fifth grade.  Halfway through that year my parents moved us again.  Not that far; back to Lima, the town we’d left to come to Gomer.  But that was the last I saw of Kenny and Candace.

Forty years have passed.  My father died last fall.  It took my siblings and mother and me all winter to sift through his clutter and boxes of effects.  This mélange included two large grocery sacks stuffed full of letters.

“I don’t know who he thought would ever read those again,” Mom complained.

Pulling out handfuls and scanning the envelopes, we could guess that here were all the letters we had sent home from camp and college and the army, letters from Dad’s mother, letters from old family friends.  I brought the two sacks home with me and promised to make them my evenings’ reading for the rest of the winter.  I said I would photocopy any that would be interesting to anyone else in the family and return to my brothers and sister the letters each had sent so long ago.

Late one evening, after everyone else in the house lay asleep, I sat myself on the living room rug, dumped both bags before me, and prepared to reminiscence with the old letters.  I had barely begun turning the envelopes right-side up when I glimpsed the corner of a decorated pink one, and that face thrust itself before my mind’s eye, still trying to appear innocent and adorable.  Kenny’s love note, drafted in my girlish script, wasn’t the first to emerge from the pile.  It didn’t have to be.  A different one came out first.  For many moments I held a lumpy envelope in my lap without opening it, letting the shock dissipate and the horror sink in.

I shouldn’t have done this alone.  I’m a big man now, yet this kind of thing deserves a friend’s support.  But whose?  Who would have understood?  Kenny?  Who would have come and sat with me at this hour?  How could I wake my wife and explain to her this betrayal I’d discovered on so many levels?

I unfolded the note in my hand, one from Candace herself to my father — to my father Paul, her Physics teacher and Phys Ed teacher.  It didn’t say much, but enough.  Clearly she adored him.  Clearly they had met for necking and petting after school.  I stirred the pile and collected thirteen more of the fancy envelopes.  I scanned these until I found one written from Bowling Green, apparently on the day of her arrival as a freshman.  It begged him not to come see her.  It called off the affair.  It apologized for Kenny and Donnie’s nasty trick but credited our note for helping her see her folly.

I found our note.

Elsewhere in the pile of letters, in an unaddressed envelope whose bold blue invited scrutiny, I found one Dad had started for her but evidently couldn’t finish.  Folded with it was a brittle piece of thick paper now over a hundred years old.  The note read:

Dearest C., Even though I have had your senior picture all spring and it now sits anonymously on my bookcase at home, surrounded by your classmates’, this is the image of you that I carry in my heart.  I suppose you should know how I will always remember you.  It’s from the cover of a piece of music. . .

It was almost like the one I had taken from Grandma’s.  It was that face.


THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

Weary

Marzy Mays waited behind one other customer, and shortly it was her turn.  Wearing her most confident face she stepped forward to clutch the high countertop and told the agent: “I’d like to buy a bus ticket.”

“To where, Lady?”  The agent had seen this old Negro woman on the sidewalks many times.  She could have been a “homeless” person except that he had never seen her attempt to use the depot’s rest rooms.  Then again, maybe she didn’t bother with facilities.

Marzy hadn’t heard well.  The waiting room echoed with the clank and clang of heavy doors, whoosh of dragged suitcases and parcels, the voices of live conversation and the aural assault of the required pseudo-music.

She guessed at the question and answered: “Uh, where can I go?  I mean, what cities does the bus go to?”

The agent had anticipated this kind of conversation when he saw Marzy further back in the line.  How did I know this was going to happen? he asked himself silently while he turned around to reach for a stack of schedules on the desk.  He pushed one across the counter.  Can you…”

“Uh, yeah, I can read. I can read fine,” Marzy assured him.  She took the schedule and wobbled to a bench to study her choices.  The booklet was about twenty pages thick, and the print was extremely fine.  Marzy feared she’d take an embarrassingly long time to read through it, but it fell open to the middle, and while she was collecting her wits and courage, three or more names on the left-hand page struck her: Lima, Findlay, Bowling Green…  There was something right about those names.  Briefly she flipped through the latter half of the schedule, then the front, but in the scan nothing else appealed to her.

Back at the ticket window she pointed to the correct spot on the lucky page and asked: “How much to Lima?”  She pronounced it Lima as in Aunt Jemima.  She, of all people, would know.

“Eleven seventy-five.”

Marzy said no more, but with a satisfied smile she carefully measured piles of change onto the counter top.  She sensed the agent’s studied patience with her, and in her heart she thanked him.  Then she pushed the coins across the worn marble in low stacks, watching them go as a duck might watch her ducklings paddle away to explore.

“Gate Two in a half an hour,” the agent said noncommittally as he slid her a ticket.

Marzy returned to a bench facing Gate Two.  When a bus pulled in five minutes later and three or four passengers debarked, Marzy wanted to leap to board it, but she thought she’d better wait for a call.  The terminal was not very busy this morning, but it was early yet.  Marzy looked around and tried to determine whether others might be boarding with her.  No one else appeared to be ready for travel, though, so Marzy resolutely held the bench down.

She shifted often, unable to satisfy her desire for comfort.  It wasn’t the hard bench that was at fault, exactly.  Something felt, well, out of place inside her.  It wasn’t a pain, really.  Indigestion was an approximate description.  Marzy was pretty sure she had eaten well that morning, but she fussed that she couldn’t remember where.  Or what.  But she never took chances with her diet, so the unsettled feeling wasn’t from something she’d eaten.  It also had an insidious side to it, teasing her into a momentary panic a couple of times as she sat, then subsiding so that she all but forgot the discomfort.  Then it would creep back and just sit there with her, inside her; her companion, her parasite, her secret.

When her bus was called, Marzy was the last of a half dozen or so who went forward, while from the platform she could see that a couple of heads had stayed on board during the stop.

Now, Marzy had learned some dignified ways in her seventy-one years, and this was one of those times to use them.  She was careful not to put on airs as she climbed the steep steps into the front of the coach, but she wanted to be respected as a worthy traveling companion by whomever she might meet.  So, with her best plastic Lazarus bag clutched close under her right arm, she stopped in the front of the aisle to choose a seat.  The seven or eight others were already seated, and maybe three pairs of eyes gave her a fleeting glance.

Marzy was smiling.  She felt it.  It felt awkward, and she worried that it was her subservient-obedient smile.  She tried to change it to one more gracious, but by this time nobody was looking.  The driver pounded up the steps, dropped into his seat, and hissed the door closed while Marzy continued to a suitable seat next to the window on the driver’s side of the bus.  She wouldn’t be hurried, but she feared that, if she didn’t lower her rather large body to a seat soon, the bus would lurch backward out of its berth and topple her.  Again, she sensed a white man’s calm but unpredictable patience while she sat.

Diesels sounded angry to her when they roared into action.  They were power under protest, like tigers performing in a circus ring.  This one roared that way now, backing out of its berth.  Then with gears gnashing into forward it jounced across the deep gutter into the street.  It growled through several more gear changes, and Marzy watched a blur of mismatched buildings slip past.  One thing she noticed, always noticed, were the people.  There were people on sidewalks, beside parked cars, in windows, on steps.  There were approachable people, such as she, and there were people who resembled park statues, such as those wearing neckties or those in high heels.

No matter how fast the bus careened through the streets, nor how blurred the buildings became, the people were distinct — their hair, their shoes, the rings on their fingers.  But nobody looked toward the bus.  No one saw Marzy leaving.

One moment Marzy saw a face that was familiar, but only inasmuch as it reminded her of someone.  A girl — a college student — had sought out Marzy and some of her acquaintances recently, and had “studied” them for a psychology class.  She was a pleasant young thing.  Her name was Randa Tash, Marzy remembered, and she called herself black, but the pity was she was as pale as anyone of the other dominant race which calls itself white.  Marzy chuckled half aloud over this black identity thing.  She preferred to be a Negro.  She hated to be called colored.  And she cringed at the contrived word Negress.  To her, Negro was dignified.  Yes, it referred to skin color.  But someone who wasn’t really coal-black in color could wear the name nonetheless.  And Negro was capitalized, even by white people.  They respected it.

Randa Tash hadn’t meant anything to Marzy personally.  She’d been around a few times, then had stayed away.  Maybe school had finished for the summer, or something.  As Marzy appreciated the soft, formed coach seat with its erect back, she pondered the only thing she could recall from all that Randa Tash had said to her: “You people live from moment to moment, don’t you.”

You people, she had said, after earlier claiming to be one of the same.  Then she had said, moment to moment, which was true of Marzy; the girl had understood well.  Or maybe she had understood Marzy well, and by You people she was referring to the certain few urban wanderers she was interviewing, not to members of any particular race.  The plain fact was, Marzy couldn’t keep anything outside the moment in her present thoughts.  If she tried to plan which street to turn onto next while she was out walking, by the time she reached that intersection she always completely forgot the plan.  If she tried to catch a fleeting memory of something past, even a useful thing like where she’d last seen a certain friend, or that friend’s name, it escaped her.  Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: They came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

Marzy tried to remember now how she had made up her mind to board a bus this day.  She could recall pushing wide the front door to the terminal, and a little of what took place inside, but where she had been before that, or with whom, she couldn’t say.

Out her window Marzy opened her eyes and glanced at the passing fields.  Corn it was mostly, waist-high and thrusting for the sky under a very warm and very friendly July sun.  She shut her eyes again.  She would probably doze, and that would be nice, but she knew her butt and her back would sweat against the cloth-covered seat.  When it would be time to rise and leave, her skirt and blouse would stick to her.  Well, she’d deal with that when it became necessary.  Her insides were soothed by the rocking of the bus, at least for now.

A bit of her history swam across her drowsy thoughts, then.  These were the rare memories that she could recall at will.  In her bag she carried crumbling clippings and wrinkled photos of that certain period, which helped keep those days alive for her, but they came back now more vividly than if she had sought to consider them:

Her church.  She could see it, but couldn’t say now where it was.  A big square church, brown with white trim.  The roof was steeply pitched and was capped with a blunt steeple.  Inside Marzy was clapping and singing, leading the singing.

She could see the man in the pale yellow suit while she sang, and she knew that he would want to talk with her after the service.  He was a Negro, just like everyone else in the church, but he was not familiar to her.  So, she found him afterward, and yes, he was thinking of speaking to her.  Would she like to be a professional performer?  An actress?  He needed a woman much like herself to tour the Midwest as Aunt Jemima.

Aunt Jemima!  What a gloriously happy time that had been.  All through the mid- and late-1950s she really was Aunt Jemima.  She had an act of songs and storytelling that she put together herself, and she took her act to elementary schools and high schools, parades and holiday celebrations.  She even appeared on many local television shows.  She understood that she was one of perhaps a dozen such women across the country who had been hired to promote Aunt Jemima pancakes, of course, but not to do so overtly.  If she did her job well, and she did, then thousands and thousands of people would allow as how there really was an Aunt Jemima, and they had seen her in person.  They would remember this in the grocery store aisles.

aunt-jemima

A special pride went with her identity as Aunt Jemima that comforted Marzy even now.  She never shared it with another living soul.  It had been the deciding thought when she took the job many — how many, dear God! — years ago.  She didn’t care about the sponsor or the product, although she was confident in its quality.  She didn’t care how much money it brought in.  She didn’t mind acting in a certain way on stage, the way she had been instructed to act in order to project the Negro kitchen servant image.  She was creating the character, in fact, against a mental model she knew too well; in years past she had known plenty of neighbors who had played that rôle in real life.  She was proud to do the job because people who bought the product would make terrific pancakes and would believe that a Negro was responsible for the recipe, for the perfection of it, for the reliability of the product box after box.  To this degree Marzy had understood marketing, although no one had ever taught her any of its precepts and assumptions.

Marzy remembered when it had ended, too.  The memory came back forcefully in her nap on the bus.  It had nothing to do with her.  She was tops.  It was the company.  They wanted to keep the name, but didn’t want to have such a stereotyped front person.  Nobody took pains to explain this to her, though.  One day she walked off a school stage, and another stranger was standing there like the man in the yellow suit.  He asked for her props and then simply said: “We won’t be needing you any more.”

That wasn’t so bad, it turned out.  She only had to tell one job agency who she was, and she had a job as a cook in the governor’s mansion.  They didn’t hire Marzy Mays; to them they had hired Aunt Jemima, even though she had given her real name.  She didn’t even have to prove whether she could cook before she joined the governor’s kitchen staff.

For the next — how many years? — she toiled at this job.  She had the 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, Saturday through Thursday.  Breakfast, of course.  And it had been good work, but very hard.  She vaguely saw faces in her mind, the approving faces of family and old friends who were thrilled to know someone who had made it so big, and so late in life! — first Aunt Jemima and now cooking for the governor!  Who was governor then, anyway?  To Marzy it hadn’t been important.  He didn’t know her either, so why should she remember?

The recollections faded fast, and Marzy felt herself waking.  The bus was cruising up I-75 and the slight elevation gave an artist’s perspective of a Midwest cityscape, rendered to fit narrowly in the bus’s window frame.  Yes! Marzy thought.  It looks right!  Then she feared that maybe it was right, but maybe it wasn’t the town for which she’d bought her ticket.  She struggled to remember the name of the town she was going to, and gave up without looking to see what was printed on the ticket.

But the bus did turn off, and entered the city, and whisked past houses and buildings that were different from the ones she had seen that morning.  In no time the bus stopped and she was in the aisle.  She had waited to be the last one off, and counted herself lucky that she was, for she had to adjust her moist clothing while the others filed ahead of her.  She had sweated warmly in the soft seat.

Outside the terminal Marzy wasted no time wondering where to go.  She still had bits of the memory from her nap to ponder, and so she let her feet plot her a southerly course past shouting signs, rich marbled bank-fronts, and huge storefronts.   Her stomach begged attention, and she burrowed into her Lazarus bag for a brown banana and a courtesy pack of two crackers.  Her dry throat could wait for moisture.

The memories fizzled, and Marzy had no present thoughts at all for a while.  She knew that a toilet would be needed by day’s end, but that was a minor worry.  No, now her feet ached.  In fact, once she had begun walking she ached everywhere.  She could tell that her organs ached deep inside her, as if her companion discomfort had shared its poison with other gullible parts of her body.  Her muscles were fatigued.  Even her skin felt strained.

Marzy could put a word to it all: weary.  She was profoundly weary, in a way that someone working bent over in a field should feel at the end of the day.  But Marzy had only sat and ridden and napped.  She was sure she shouldn’t have felt so…

Marzy paused to consider her location.  She was near a street corner and she had just crossed a concrete bridge spanning a narrow, muddy river flowing between steeply-sloped banks.  An endless line of small businesses stretched ahead — gas stations, one- and two-story stores where someone sold appliances or repaired shoes or cut hair.  Here and there a bar, a corner grocery.  Here and there between these buildings were once-proud residences on hard-trampled bare earth lots still dotted with tenacious tufts of yellowed grass clinging to foundation corners and sidewalk edges.

Marzy dropped her gaze and pressed on.

The aching never stopped, but it didn’t threaten to grow any worse.  She felt, after a while, as if she had walked two hours.  Once in a while she’d had a sense of wrong direction and had let her feet retrace some blocks.  Once in a while she worried a little that she was not in the town she had hoped for.  If she weren’t, that was OK.  She could handle any town.  She wasn’t even sure she had ever been to the town for which she had bought the ticket.  She had just known she wanted to go somewhere, and Lima sounded nice.  It sounded right.

The businesses had given way mostly to houses.  Some were row houses of brick, two or four apartment fronts to a building.  Most were single family homes and were very modest.  Eventually, as she trudged onward, the homes were very humble.  Occasionally she paused again and looked ahead and all around.  At one such stop she realized that there were no white people among those in sight.  Nearer the bus terminal she had passed people on the street who didn’t acknowledge her.  Now she was passing people in their yards, and they watched her openly.  The women faced her and watched.  The men, many in white undershirts showing off their dark arms, took a back-to stance with their hands on their hips and peered at her over one shoulder, then the other.  They were all Negroes.

Marzy trudged onward.  The pain in her feet, the challenge in her chest, the need to relieve herself, all became intense simultaneously at times, then all were forgotten soon afterward.  Eventually, if she had thought about it, Marzy would have realized that she felt none of it any more.

At another stop in her forward progress Marzy found herself standing on the ties between a pair of rails.  These were busy rails, too: no grass growing in the ballast, fresh black oil down the center of the roadbed, shiny crowns to the rails themselves.  She hurried off the tracks and onward into the neighborhood beyond the tracks.

She passed several quiet, well-kept little churches.  As she turned to glance at one such, bigger than most of the others, the setting sun, split by a distant rooftop, caught her square in the eyes and left her sightless for a few moments.

About this time a small car rolled to a stop beside her and a thin older man with a bald head and pink scalp leaned across the seat toward the open window near her.  “You look like you could use a lift, Ma’am,” he told her.  “I’m just offering, understand.  You look mighty tired.”

Marzy stopped and pondered for a moment, but concluded that she didn’t even quite comprehend what he had told her.  “I’m just fine, thanks, Mister,” she replied.  She realized that her voice wasn’t as full as she had intended, but she was pretty sure she had given him a grateful smile.  Then she slouched back into her journey.  The little automobile pulled back into traffic and Marzy noticed that the man seemed to be concerned for her still as he drove away.  In her heart she thanked him.  He didn’t know her, and yet he cared.  She pressed on.

Now and then she read street signs.  They told her nothing.

Marzy dropped one heavy, hard foot ahead of the other.  She was rewarded, at last, by one street sign: Mizpah Mission Drive.  It stirred no memories, although she half expected that it might as she pronounced it to herself.  No, it was simply a pleasant-sounding name that was interesting to contemplate until the thought and the name would slip from her mind’s clutches and elude her.

She began having a serious problem walking.  The narrow, quiet street was paved, but the paving didn’t fit the surroundings.  The houses — well, now they were shacks — sat flat on the ground.  They had a little more yard space than the larger houses had.  The paving was laid onto the same flat dust as the poor shacks, and there were no storm drains or gutters or curbstones.  Everything from tar to floor was on one earthen level.  Marzy tried walking on the dirt at the edge of the street, but it was too rough and threw her off balance more than once.  But the pavement was too hard.  She ached the same all over, but once again her feet really hurt.

In the gathering dusk the streets were empty except for an occasional cat with matted fur or a child sitting still on a tricycle, watching her pass.  Voices and smells of cooking drifted from open doorways, then radio crackle and the brief tap of a hammer, all signs of life crudely lived, but obstinately too.  This was not a neighborhood that anyone passed through on the way to anywhere else.  The cars in the yards were few and broken.

A profound sadness descended over the old woman, as if from a realization that she was nobody, nowhere, with no one and nothing.  Then she glanced around one more time, and saw a shack she knew was right.  Yes, it was right.  “Thank you, Jesus!” she muttered. Twenty, forty, sixty paces — she counted them — eighty, eighty-six, until she reached the warped door.  A hasp hung loosely.  There was no padlock.  The house was dark inside and silent, but of course it would be.  With more effort than she expected to need she pulled the door part-way open.  It scraped hard against the earth.  Vines grew in the hinges.  She couldn’t pull it closed just yet, but that could wait.

The yard was wide and ran far back from the street.  The dwelling was too small for the lot, and seemed to have sunk into the earth, crouching perhaps, trying to make itself inconspicuous.  Inconspicuous it was, too, and inconspicuously Marzy disappeared into the shadow of the entryway.

And inside!  “Dear God…” she rasped when she glanced around the darkened main room.  “It looks like I didn’t clean it this morning.”  Everything was gray, either with dust or from fading — everything consisting of a broken down oak drop-leaf table with a suggestion of white paint in the crevices, a two-burner white enamel gas stove, a cupboard hanging in a tired tilt from the colorless gray wall, and several plastic bags of unidentified belongings or trash against the front wall.  A stool stood at one end of the table on the rough-planked, leaf-strewn floor.  A movement of air, hinting of a coolness yet several hours away, grazed Marzy’s cheek and she turned toward the only source of deepening twilight.  The room’s only window was half gone, leaving a wide section of glass only on one side edged with an odd diagonal curve from top to bottom.  As Marzy tried to comprehend the broken pane, a wasp circled in through the open half and then out again straight-away.

“I didn’t leave it like this,” Marzy cried half-inwardly, half in a mumble, like a child saying: “It wasn’t my fault.”

There was a narrow room off the back, and if she could have walked that far she would have been sure to find the bed.  If the rest of the house was like this, then the mattress probably lay bare, in need of sheets.  Where were her sheets?  She couldn’t look just now.  Just now she needed to sit, and the stool was right behind her, next to the table, where she could rest an elbow and catch her breath.  How long had she been standing here without drawing a breath?

Glancing over her shoulder, Marzy aimed her butt at the stool and let her legs give out.

Patrolman Neal Schwertfager, one of a proud line of Schwertfagers of mixed German descent who had made careers of law enforcement, and Rookie Wendell Upthegrove, no less proud but the first of his former-Georgia-sharecropper lineage to wear a badge, were standing alongside their patrol car outside the central police station, discussing baseball with a trio of teenage boys, when the call came in: body found in an abandoned house at 1419 Rayburn Street.

Schwertfager and Upthegrove were partners.  Rayburn was on their beat.  Neal flicked on the old car’s original red bubble-gum-machine when they pulled out on this call, but no siren.  People were just now going to bed, and besides, this was a no-pulser.  The night was tropical and the air eddying through the patrol car’s open windows was thick with the voices of the night: shouts, screen doors on taut springs, muffler decay, wolf whistles, naughty laughter, colicky crying, even a flush, and above it all the descant of crickets.  To their passing car it was all merely scraps of sound, an orchestra tuning up, a trip around the radio dial, a barrage on the senses.

Neal drove at a moderate but no-nonsense speed, the sounds professionally shut out but first professionally filtered for a cry of distress, a crack of weaponry, a tinkle of shattered glass.  Wendell concentrated on a string of words here, a movement there, and finally concluded that it would be interesting just to walk this street, Metcalf Street, at night, so that whole, uncut, even though brief, episodes of others’ lives, played from open windows and railed porches on the public stage of a darkened summer night, could be absorbed and analyzed.  He wondered why such a simple exercise wasn’t part of an officer’s formal training.  He would make it part of his own.

“Remember Aunt Jemima?” Wendell asked Neal as the car’s tires provided a drone for the trip to the south side Lima neighborhood.  Schwertfager gave him an affirmative nod but kept his eyes on his driving.  “House we’re going to is the one Aunt Jemima used to live in.  Before she was famous.  My old Aunt Marzy, actually.”

“Aunt Jemima was your aunt?” Neal responded, giving his partner a glance that held no mockery, just a measure of amusement.

“Yeah, really.  My great aunt.  Marzy Mays is her real name.”  Wendell sat silent for a few seconds, then added: “Nobody around here’s seen or heard from her in ten or twelve years.”

“I saw her way back in, probably, fourth grade,” Neal said.  “Lincoln School.  Would have been 1954 or thereabouts.”

“You went to Lincoln?” Wendell asked.  “So did I.  Missus Mummaugh, kindergarten.  Missus MacDonald, first grade.  You were there before me, I think.”

Neal chuckled.  Probably only five or six years before Wendell, he guessed.  He and this Army M.P.-trained rookie were a lot more alike than different, and Wendell wasn’t wise-cracking about the veteran officer’s age, only remarking on it in order to gauge the span when they had both passed through the same elementary school.  A few seconds later they turned off Metcalf and cruised passed the school itself.  Schwertfager faced front as they went by but noticed that his partner turned and took in the whole street lamp-lit scene.

Seconds later Wendell was thrown into a hard lean as Neal cut down a shortcut and then glided past a stop sign in front of Duff Truck Lines.  There was no other traffic.

“What’s she been up to?” Neal ventured.  “Aunt Jemima,” he added.

“Last I knew she was splitting her time.  She stays some of the time with a son in Columbus, but his wife thinks her mother-in-law is bats.  So she puts herself on the bus and goes to my Uncle Charlie’s outside of Cincinnati — that’s her brother — until he gets tired of her and ships her back to Stoney’s.”

“That’s her son.”

“Yup.”

“She rich?” Neal asked, guiding the car onto the first of several narrow streets in the target neighborhood.  He was just keeping the conversation going as a way of steeling himself for the always-unsettling first glimpse of a found body.  He wondered what Wendell’s reaction to it would be.

The rookie may have been bracing for the same jarring sight and seemed to understand the nature of the question.  “She did real well, for an old mammy.  Cooked for the governor after the Jemima thing.  But I don’t expect she had a pension or even a bank account.”

Neal slowed the cruiser half a block from the destination as Wendell radioed dispatch of their arrival.  The street was populated with a hundred expressionless faces turned toward the headlights, faces made blacker by the color drain of nighttime.  Casually, but respectful of the official car, the thin crowd parted and made way.  Neal pulled onto the dirt in front of the shack, the high beams aimed at the tilted cross-buck door.  A dozen grownups stood around the front yard in twos, and twenty kids on bike fossils were drawn up to an imaginary perimeter eight or ten yards from the shack.  At the half-open door, a white-haired old man in a sleeveless, yellowed undershirt and stiff, brown leather breaches, with skin so black it shone almost bluish, stood as erect as his hunched back would allow.

Upthegrove recognized the old gentleman, Everest Shambley, and waved to him with his flashlight as he exited the cruiser.  The young policeman had played pretend policeman in this very yard as a child, on visits to Aunt Marzy, and Ol’ Everes’, as he had always been known, had been a neighborhood fixture even then.  The two officers strode to the low doorway, and Wendell paused to shake Everest’s hand.  The old man seemed distraught, but didn’t, or couldn’t, say anything as Neal first, and then Wendell ducked inside.  A second or two afterward, those closest to the house heard Wendell’s choked voice from inside: “Oh, geez, Neal!  Oh, geez!”


THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

Unjust Desserts – a fable

There was once a man, living alongside a respectable river, who owned a rowboat.  For many years the man quietly passed his days in ferrying people across the river in exchange for small measures of food and fuel, cloth and implements, and other things a man needs.

A war erupted, as wars do, between two factions of people, and the river, as rivers do, obstructed one army’s advance to the front.  The man was soon engaged by this army to ferry a battalion across the river one or two soldiers at a time along with their gear.  The man realized that in one’s life, as life goes, such disruptions can happen.  Therefore he applied himself diligently, even enthusiastically, to this important effort.

When he was part way into ferrying the battalion across, another battalion showed up on the near shore.  The commander of the second battalion said, “I have orders to commandeer this boat and rower to ferry my battalion across!  I must be first to the front!”

Uncertain, the boatman included some of these soldiers on his trips, but hardly had he begun to do so when another battalion, (as battalions go), showed up on the same shore, then another and another, each commander having the same orders as the one before.

The man with the boat did his best to get a few soldiers from each battalion across, trying to favor no one, trying to assure that each commander, (secure in his tent on the ridge high above the near shore of the river), could see that his men were getting across.

Before long the wounded, as wounded do, began to appear on the opposite shore, back from battle.  So instead of coming back empty from each trip the boatman was able nearly to double his effectiveness with little or no extra effort.  He felt good about this.  But then sometimes, shortly after he’d pulled away from the opposite shore with one or two wounded, another one desperate for transport would suddenly appear and hail him.  So the boatman would turn back.  Pretty soon he was taking twice as long to return from each trip.

All of the battalion commanders were fed up with the service they were receiving.  Grudgingly they agreed to provide the boatman with some help.  The boatman’s elation abruptly waned, however, when it became clear that the help would be in the form of a battered pail with which to bail and some scraps of food left over from the soldiers’ chow.  Meanwhile, with varying threats against the boatman the commanders vied with each other for control of the boat.

Finally the boatman risked some valuable time and climbed the riverbank.  He went to one of the commanders and said, “Perhaps you should ask your headquarters to provide another boat, even two.”

“We don’t need another boat!” stormed the commander.  “The problem’s not with the boat, it’s with the driver!  You need to learn to set your priorities, and I’m your first priority!”

The boatman cautiously approached each of the other commanders.  With the second, he also suggested that a bridge be built.  Then all the soldiers could run swiftly across.

“A bridge costs too much and takes too long to build and is useful only for a short period, and besides, the enemy would probably destroy it before we could all get across!” the commander argued.

With the next, the boatman proposed all that he had before, and added that maybe the army should send scouts in opposite directions along the riverbank in search of another boat and rower.

“And take a chance that we won’t find anything?  Preposterous!  That’s a waste of good men who are needed immediately at the front!” said that commander.

After speaking to each commander he was met with the same kind of response.  To the last one, in exasperation, he added, “Maybe your general should come observe what’s happening here.  If he concurs with you that another boat or a bridge isn’t the answer, perhaps he’ll think of something else that none of us has yet considered.”

The last commander stared at him in disbelief, and then said, “This situation couldn’t be more simple, and it doesn’t take a general to figure out what’s wrong here!”

With that, the commanders all conferred privately.  The next time the boatman landed with a load of wounded, (for whose wounds he’d begun to sense he was now being blamed — it took him so long to go get them), he was dragged from his boat and was executed on the riverbank.

Moments later the boatman found himself observing the scene as if hovering a short distance overhead.  He saw his own body, as bodies go, drifting face down with the current.  A few of his neighbors, whom he hadn’t noticed before, were gathered a little distance apart, curious about the activity on the river.  From the ranks of the army a lieutenant with grave self-importance approached the simple people, and the boatman watched as a tall boy was pulled from the group and had the oars thrust into his hands.

The boy looked quizzically at the nearest commander, and the boatman heard the commander’s orders, muffled and indistinct, as if shouted through a down-filled pillow — as commanders’ orders are.  With the boat precariously loaded, the boy who had taken the boatman’s place shoved off, awkwardly stroking the unfamiliar water.  On the opposite shore a dozen or more wounded cried out, each pleading to be the first ferried back.


THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

Tales to Warm Your Mind

Stop, Look, Listen

CHORUS:
Listen while I tell you
Tales to warm your mind
Stop, Look, Listen
See what you can find.

VERSE:
An orangutan who can sing
Pirate ships and gypsy kings
Now a horse who learned to fly
Don’t know how. Don’t know why.

[CHORUS]

VERSE:
Buy a car with Liquorice wheels
Driven by two jellied eels
But don’t drive it at full pelt
Or the chocolate tires will melt.

[CHORUS]

VERSE:
Do you know that smiling in your sleep
Means there are secrets that you keep
Locked in boxes in your head
Wise men find them when you’re dead.


[CHORUS]

The short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind, takes its title from this song’s lyrics, written and recorded by the Irish Rovers for their 1969 album, “Takes to Warm Your Mind.”

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner

We were in the house on Greeley Chapel Road less than a week when they hung a traffic light at Dershem’s Corner.  Dad told of it when he came home from work that day.

“Did you see what they’ve put up at the corner?” he asked my mother as he met her in the kitchen, sounding more amused than annoyed.  “A traffic light.  Not just a flashing yellow one; a red-yellow-green, honest-to-God traffic light.”  I was in the front room, which was no distance at all from their conversation, the house was that small.

“That’s peculiar,” Mom replied, which always meant, “I’m confused.”

Dad went on, “Not a house or building of any kind on that corner.  Two pastures, an orchard, and a corn field.  And a traffic light.  What was wrong with the stop sign?”

“Do you suppose it’s because of that young couple and their baby who were killed last winter?”

“Who were they?  Just some poor transplants from West Virginia.  Not like they were the governor’s nephew or something.  And it’s not like other people have been killed there.”

“Not lately,” Mom said quietly.

“Hmmm?”

“A couple of my uncles were killed there when I was a little girl,” Mom recalled.  “That’s how it came to be called…”

“…Dershem’s Corner,” Dad sing-songed.  “Okay, like thirty, thirty-five years ago.  That doesn’t exactly make it a trend.”

“I suppose not,” said Mom.  “Maybe it’s just a bad intersection for accidents.  That corner does appear rather suddenly if you don’t know it’s there, and people do seem to go too fast on this road.”

On this road.  I had shortened it to Gree C Road, which Dad later took to mean Greasy Road, for some reason.  Our house sat midway along a flat, four-mile straight stretch without stop signs.  Two miles to the left out our driveway and you were at Dershem’s Corner, our usual direction whenever we went somewhere.  Two miles to the right, toward Allen-Auglaize County flatness and Midwest farming infinity, you came to the Erie Lackawanna Railroad tracks beside a little stream and a cemetery, where we would pick wild strawberries in the midsummer’s swelter.

Dad’s route to work took him to Dershem’s Corner for his wait at the new traffic light, across the broader, much busier State Highway 117, and four miles or so further on Greeley Chapel Road to the small factory where he worked, making some kind of airplane parts.  It wasn’t many days before he set a pattern of grumbling every time he came through the door from work.

“Light is red every time I hit it.  Every single time!”

“Well, the state road needs more time,” Mom answered vaguely.

“More time for what?  I sit there three or four minutes and I’ll be damned if more that five cars go by.”

“Please don’t run a red light, Wallace.  I don’t want you to get killed there too.”

The only regular occasions I had for riding with my father through that light came on Sundays when we went to and from church.  Sure enough, the stupid light might be green as it peeked through the elms overhanging the approach, but no matter how Dad timed his assault, the thing turned red in time to arrest his advance.  It was a veritable drawbridge lifted just before an invader could cross the moat.

“I swear someone sits in a house and watches me come up onto that light,” Dad began repeating as the days rolled on.

“I suppose they do,” Mom replied the first time he alleged this, not catching his drift.

“Someone has a button to press to change that light whenever they see me coming.”

At first Mom said: “They do not, Wallace. That’s ridiculous.”  On subsequent days she took to saying: “Which house, Wallace?  There’s no house near that intersection.”  Eventually she merely complained that she was tired of hearing it.

The traffic light became Dad’s overwhelming obsession.  But Dad had a surprise for him, whoever it was, wherever he sat, who had his thumb on a traffic light switch.  Dad bought a new car.

136yh-rear

I had wondered when he would do it for two reasons.  One, I had already concluded privately that that would be the way to break the spell of the traffic light, and two, Dad had promised me an incentive for moving out of Lima and into the countryside: I would inherit the black 1939 Chrysler that had served as our family car for ten years and had already been broken in for 15 years before that by Dad’s uncle, Homer Gettle, over in Fort Wayne.

At 14, I was not licensed to drive, but Dad had intimated, in a lighter moment, that he would let me learn by driving up and down Gree C Road.  “You mean right away?” I had asked, not ready to believe it.

“Sure,” he had answered, and spoke as well of using the lanes in Woodlawn Cemetery and Faurot Park when we could go off together for practice.

There was just one problem.  The Chrysler needed some work.  Nothing major, he had assured me.  But it wouldn’t be ready for me to take out onto the road until the problems were corrected.  I’ll say right here that it needed two things: some brake work and an adjustment to the throttle linkage on the carburetor.

I knew about the brakes.  Whenever we were out, Dad had to pump them a few times before we were confronted with any occasion to stop.  I understood, to a point, what this accomplished.  I had seen brake shoes and brake lines exposed on other vehicles.  Fluid was funny stuff.  That’s what I knew.

I was also aware of the linkage problem.  For months Dad often had to “kill the motor,” as he put it, which just meant turning off the key, and he’d coast to the side of the road, where he would raise the left side of the gull-wing hood and flip a short rod back down beside the carburetor because it “went around the eccentric.”   Then he could set out again as if nothing had happened, until it happened again.

Dad’s new used car was a ‘59 Chevy, two-tone baby poop.  Besides being twenty years newer and relieving us of the mechanical problems, this car had one additional advantage over the Chrysler, as I saw it: It was a station wagon.  The old Chrysler, a four-door sedan, stood six feet tall.  Two steel bars bracketed to the rain gutters made a roof rack.  U-bolted to this rack rose a covered plywood box, painted black like the car.  Inside it were the essentials for living in an extended family whose members were reliably unable to provide their own garden hoses, rope, copper tubing, lamp parts, and such.  Since Dad always kept a rake and sometimes other long-handled garden tools lashed to the lid of the box, the overall effect was that of a black armored car with a machine-gun nest on top, the rake handle nine feet off the ground and pointing frontward.

When the station wagon arrived, the stuff from the black box found a new home in a jumble behind the new car’s rear seat, while the rake found a new, lower perch on the Chevy’s luggage rack.  After that, the box lay empty atop the Chrysler.

The first few mornings with his new wheels Dad smugly rolled onto Gree C Road headed for work.  By the second week he was back to accusing someone of sitting in an upstairs bedroom of some house nowhere near the corner, with a finger on the switch to change the light as Dad approached.

The last I heard them speak of it, Mom suggested that Dad come home from work the long way some day, so that he could approach the intersection not by Greeley Chapel Road but by Route 117. Surely, if 117 was favored, then he would be too, she had reasoned.

+ + + +

I suppose Dennis Dershem’s name had passed my ears during the first few days in the new house. Mom was quietly excited to move to this stretch of road, where every house for miles was occupied by a Dershem or Sunderland or someone else connected with her ancestors.  So, for days, she enumerated her cousins, many of whom she hadn’t seen since childhood, even though they had never been more than ten miles away, and most of whose children she had never met.

Like me, Dennis was one of those children.  He was sixteen and a half when I met him but I had him by a few pounds and an inch or two.

It was late June.  School was out.  Dad was at work.  My little sister, Raelene, was at the next house up the road for the day.  Mom and my littler sister, Tammy, had ridden off with a carload of female relatives.

I was mature enough to stay home alone.  The Chrysler sat on a large patch of mown grass next to the long driveway.  I spent the early afternoon happily lying underneath the car with a toothbrush and a coffee can of gasoline, cleaning the grease from every inch of the undercarriage.  In two days I had polished the lower engine and suspension components this way, and now I was grooming the transmission housing as if it were going to a wedding.

I said “alone.”  Beside the car, his heaving chest too high to squeeze into any space larger than a culvert, lay our old Saint Bernard, Boner, (named by Raelene when she was too young to pronounce “Bernard”).

I was thin then, and scooted easily about on the cool, shaded grass beneath the great machine.  I had paused behind the transmission to regard a pair of exposed, inward-curving brake shoes poised to clamp onto a small drum on the driveshaft.  I pressed them to the drum and let them snap back to rest, agape.  A thin cable ran along the frame and its frayed end stopped just short of this pair of shoes.  Here, then, was my parking brake.  I mentally added it to my list of repairs, none of which I knew how to do myself.

Dennis appeared as a pair of Converse sneakers bracketed by a pair of spoked wheels somewhere near the front bumper.  I ignored him for a long time.  I wasn’t ready to meet kids.  Here was one on a bike, and I had my own car already, for crying out loud.

“This is a straight eight, ain’t it,” the sneakers said at last.  “New Yorker.  First year they made a New Yorker.”

I squeezed the parking brake shoes to meet the drum a couple more times and let them snap back, mostly in order to make some mechanical noise, before slithering out into the light.  I decided on a mildly smart-aleck approach, although it didn’t really describe me.  “What cousin are you?” I asked.

The kid looked hurt.  Then something in his countenance rose up to meet my toughness.  “You junkin’ this piece of tin?  Here, let me help you strip it,” he said and parked his bike.

“Hell, I ain’t junkin’ it.  Runs like new.  ‘Fact, my dad just sold it to me,” I claimed.

“You have your license?”  The kid helped himself to one hood latch and raised that side.

“Naw’chet,” I admitted grudgingly.  “You?”

“Didn’t pass the test yet.”

“You took it already?”

“Yeah.  I been sixteen since January.  I can drive, though.  Drove this road here since I was six or seven.  Cars, tractors, even trucks.  They don’t care how you really drive on the test.  They just want to see how you can act like a old lady behind the wheel.  I didn’t catch onto it the first time.  Next time I’ll know what they want.  Stop way back. Turn your head way left and way right like maybe a herd of cows is s’posed to stampede by any minute.  Proceed with caution.  Drive like you left on Saturday to get across the street to church on Sunday.”

He had me grinning.  “You really are sixteen,” I accepted.

“Sure.  You?”

“Almost fifteen,” I exaggerated.  I was really fourteen and one third.  And I reflected that once you hit sixteen you didn’t have to think in age fractions any more.

“What’s your name?” he asked me at last.  He had established his superiority in years, so was now empowered to demand that I reveal my identity.  Until we knew our rank, neither of us could ask.  He was also empowered to open the driver’s door and slide in behind the wheel.

“Larry.  Larry Miller,” I said.

“Okay, Larry Larry Miller.  I’m Dennis Henry Dershem.”

I made some comment about too many Dershems to keep track of them all.

“I’m the only one you’ll ever really need to know.  Don’t bother with the rest.  I can tell you all about ‘em sometime.  Most of ‘em are just simple.  Work too hard but don’t know nothin’ and don’t have nothin’ to show for it.  Lived out here all their lives.  Me too.  Nobody interesting to hang out with, except a couple of the girls are pretty nice if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t know.  “You mean our girl cousins?”

“Oh, yeah.  We’re cousins, ain’t we.  Yeah, they’re our cousins.”

“Whadja mean, ‘pretty nice?’” I asked, leaning on the door frame.  This was getting somewhere, although if it was going in the direction I suspected, it was alien territory for me.

“Just nice to look at and stuff like that,” Dennis frowned at me from inside the car, then, as if disgusted, he added: “We don’t mess around.”

“Good, ‘cause I have sisters,” I said lamely, not wanting to elaborate.  I didn’t want this kid, cousin or not, to think about them in some funny ways, either.

He seemed to forget the subject.  Instead, he gave me a raised-eyebrow look that spoke of mischief.  With a half grin, he asked: “You have a key to this thing?”

“Nope.  Not yet.”

“I seen you drive up in this here car when you moved in.  Lotta cars, so I was hopin’ this was yours.  I like the old ones.”

“What kind do you have?”

“I’m gettin’ our ‘51 Studebaker pickup when I get my license.”  I was at least even with him here.  I wasn’t “getting” this car.  I already had it.

“No key, huh?” Dennis mumbled, still in the driver’s seat.  He stiffened to reach into a pocket of his jeans.  The thing he held up looked like a pair of wires with alligator clips on every end.  “Do you know how to hot-wire a car?”

Part of me leapt with excitement.  Part of me shuddered in panic.  Since I hadn’t answered, he went on: “It’s easy,” and he reversed himself on the seat, head toward the pedals and feet in the air.

“Yeah, well, I don’t really have, uh, permission to drive this yet.  Besides, it has some, you know, small problems.”

“I can check ‘em out,” he said, reversing ends once again.

The starter button stuck out from the dash.  Dennis pumped the gas, floored the clutch, and with an exaggerated gesture, pushed and held the chrome button.  The Chrysler replied immediately with the contented hum of leashed power.

I ran around to the passenger side and jumped in.  It was in no way my intention that the car actually move an inch from where it sat, but hearing it run for the first time under my authority made me flush with eagerness.

Holding the clutch down, my cousin put the column-mounted shifter through the three forward and one reverse positions several times over.  He pressed in the large knob under the dash marked OD, and then pulled it back out.  This was the only thing he seemed unsure of.  “You leave it in overdrive all the time?”

“Yep,” I said, unsure of myself.  I recalled something Dad had said about it going into overdrive by itself when it needs to — if the knob is out, I assumed.

Dennis shoved the knob in.  “No sense in wasting it,” he said.  “Whatja say was wrong with it?” he then asked.

“Uh, the carb linkage sticks –“

Dennis revved the engine high and let go the gas.  It calmed right back to a sweet idle.  He did it again, the engine complying once more, then just said: “Yeah?”

“And the brakes are weak.”

“You just pump them up,” Dennis said, and did so.  I watched as the pedal started low and then responded with shorter strokes.  Dennis stood on it for a moment to show that it was hard.

“What else?”

“The parking brake is unhooked.”

“Where’re we fixin’ to park that we need a brake?”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

Then he pulled it smoothly into first and let the clutch out very professionally.  We were pointed toward the back field, away from the road, so I remained silent as we crunched onto the driveway and rolled past the house.

Dennis let the car make a couple of slow circles in the barnyard behind the house while he rolled down his window.  Then he spun the wheel with ease and pointed us in the direction of the road.  Boner was trotting along my side, pleading to go whithersoever we might be headed.  I stepped onto the running board, threw open the rear suicide door, and slammed it after the big oaf lolled in.

The car turned right, onto the pavement, and accelerated so gradually it felt like a train pulling out of a station.  I rolled my window down and actually relaxed as I peered over at my distant cousin.  He was fiddling with the few switches and buttons that protruded from the warped and buckled white plastic veneer that coated the metal instrument panel.  Then he threw me a reassuring grin.  Boner laid his heavy chin onto the back of my seat and sniffed the stirred air.

Dennis began explaining all.  I let him feel superior and just said “Oh,” over and over.  He thought the radio, huge and brown and ‘30s-looking, was the neatest part.  Even back then they had push buttons to set the stations.  He even knew that the radio antenna ran beneath the running board.

Then he showed me about shifting.  This I already knew, too, but it didn’t hurt to hear it analyzed so thoroughly by a truly good teacher.

Over the course of four or five minutes we lazily covered the couple miles to the single-track railroad crossing.  Dennis let the Chrysler roll to a stop directly over the main line.

“What are you doing?” I asked, annoyed, not alarmed.

Squinting up the rails, he said: “Look.  You can see halfway to Indiana one way.”

“Halfway to Jupiter the other way,” I added, agreeable, and was about to gently urge that we not wait until a headlight appeared in either direction when Dennis backed into the maintenance road alongside the tracks and turned us back toward home.

“Let’s give it a little try-out,” he suggested, picking up speed in first.

As I uttered: “Uh…” he knifed into second and pressed the gas.  The flat-head straight eight had reserves I had never seen my father use.  Boner, his massive head resting between our shoulders, began panting.  I noticed that, as Dennis shifted into third, he also pulled out the overdrive knob.  The flat, straight road ahead was clear and quiet for at least a mile.

We gradually picked up speed until Dennis stomped the gas as hard as he could, his back stiff against the seat.  The car glided forward as if we’d changed gears once more.

My cousin-teacher-pal grinned at me and then let off the gas — only this time the pedal didn’t rise from the floor in response.

The car still accelerated.  Glancing at me, Dennis exaggerated the act of lifting his foot from the pedal, but the car didn’t take the hint.  We both peered straight ahead.  Dennis muttered some curse.  Boner began a faint whine.

Dennis next began calmly pumping the brake.  Each push sank deeper toward the floor until the brake pedal, as the gas pedal beside it, refused to come back up at all.

“Quick!  Hold the wheel!” Dennis ordered.  As soon as I reached toward it he let go and dove to the floor.  While he tugged the gas pedal, I kept us on the center of the road, where the painted line would be if this were an important highway.  Within a couple seconds, at Dennis’s tugging, the pedal separated from the rod that connected it to the linkage.

Flipping onto his back, on the floor, Dennis glared up at me wide-eyed.  His head lay on the dead brake pedal, his feet pressed into the back of his seat.  Back-handed, over one shoulder, he pressed the clutch.  The engine, freed from the work of propelling the car, screamed in agony.  Boner howled.

“Let it out!  Let it out!  You’ll blow the engine!” I yelled.

Dennis was already letting go in order to fumble with the wiring behind the dash.  Dad’s trick of turning off the key wouldn’t help at this point — no key.  He yanked some wires out and made some sparks.  The radio hissed.  Something popped like a dropped light bulb.  But nothing changed.

Fields whisked past like sample house lots — wheat, corn, wheat, clover, oats, wheat — as fast as you could say the words, which, frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do.  Occasional trees shot past us like close-set fence posts on either side, doing that rapid wum-wum-wum that trees make when they rush past.  The air inside the car was a hurricane.  The two or three houses before ours, along the road, weren’t even blurs.  I did recognize the green lawn of our house looming on our left, but before I could think of anything, like BLOW THE HORN, it was gone.  (I thought I saw a red car in the driveway, way up by the house.  That would be Mom and Tammy being dropped off.  That would also mean Dad should be home soon as well.)

With Dennis still operating behind the dash, yanking his hand back now and then, and cursing, I held the wheel true.  I had no idea how fast we were going — I doubted, in a flicker of lucidity, whether anyone standing in our driveway even would have realized that a car had sped past — but when I glanced at the speedometer for the first time I felt the loss of presence that always accompanies shock.  It was stuck on the maximum, but I was too stupefied to register what that was.  A hundred?  A hundred twenty??

Just beyond our house came a set of three minor dips in the road.  Whenever he had the family along, Dad liked to take these at about fifty, giving us all a triple dose of that momentary sense of weightlessness that kids love and mothers disapprove.  I knew those dips well.  At fifty they were just over three seconds apart.

Dennis had just hauled himself upright when we topped the first one.  As we fought for the wheel — Dennis leaving the steering to me and only trying to steady himself with it — I counted one second to the next and one more to the third bump.  The car’s suspension bottomed out on each one but there was no graceful sense of weightlessness in the series. The car remained a level, shuddering projectile.

As we took the bumps I lost some control of the steering while Dennis’s chest slammed helplessly against the wheel.  He seized it first by the cast-metal horn ring and pulled back, pilot-fashion, breaking the ring right off. Then he leaned into the wheel with terror in his eyes and took over once more.  He held us on course.

My mind has always been good at math.  Three seconds between dips at fifty meant one second apart at a hundred-fifty.  Still the old Chrysler seemed to be gaining.  And at a sedate rate of a mile a minute it would take two minutes to cover the straightaway from our driveway to Dershem’s Corner.  At a hundred fifty, we would cover one mile in something like twenty-four seconds, or two miles in — something less than a minute!

As we closed the distance on the Corner, the car’s suspension, or drive train, or entire body — it would never again matter — began to rumble violently at the strain on all systems.  Something vibrated.  Then something else in sympathy.  Then things began to fly off in rapid succession: hubcaps, which were discovered months later, the after-market rear-view mirrors, and the wide wooden lid to the black box above us.

Nevertheless, our velocity climbed.

There wasn’t time for thought.  It’s true that a few images bulleted through my mind as fast as the minor features passing along the roadside, each vision representing an option, I suppose, but each with a built-in objection: Jump out — but, then, how do you tuck and tumble at that speed, and what of poor Boner?  Turn the wheel slowly and take us into a field — but the ditch was too deep and we’d roll over.  Step on the clutch and let the engine blow, but what kind of explosion would that make in our faces?

As if to accentuate our predicament, Dennis jerked uselessly at the parking brake handle.  It locked in the “up” position — holding nothing. He tromped one more time on the flaccid brake pedal…

Then time ran out.

A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved, inclined approach to the state highway intersection. As the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, rushed closer, I saw a glint of red through the branches.  In another second we zoomed under the arch of high branches like an experimental fast train entering a tunnel.  In a half second, wum-wum-wum-wum-wum-wum, we were out the other end of the tunnel, approaching Mach-point-3.  Boner was licking my ear, but it was more his shrill whine that bothered me, so I slunk down in my seat and let my eyes roll skyward.

When we hit the long, steep grade to meet the edge of Route 117 it felt as if we’d taken a giant speed bump.  Already lying low in my seat I saw the traffic light pass inches above the windshield — and it was green!  Then came the percussive crash of traffic light meeting gun turret.  And that’s all I remember until all had become still once again.

Dad would later tell how he had taken Mom’s advice and had come by way of 117 in order to approach the intersection that afternoon from a different direction.  Another car, a pokey ’54 Rambler, blocked his way or he’s sure he could have beat the yellow light and lunged around the corner onto Greasy Road, bound for home, before it gave us the green.  That Mom’s prayers were answered and he was prevented from racing the light became the remaining bit of evidence I needed for the existence of a benevolent God.  Instead, he coasted to a stop behind the obstructing vehicle and stared at the yellow lens giving way to the red one, grinning at the irony of the curse that was still upon him.

He would then tell how the filament in the red light facing him had barely begun to glow when a lumpy, black fuselage without wings, resembling a 1939 Chrysler, with the dog, Boner, facing him and pleading at the rear window, rocketed beneath the light, its wheels fully eight feet off the ground and still ascending.

The meeting of the plywood box with the gently-swaying traffic signal was the bonus in the show, the sort of special effect they don’t print on the ticket or even announce in the pre-show publicity.  Only the lucky seat-holders find out about it.

Plywood chunks fluttered far and wide while the sheered metal jacket of the signal spun skyward.  Severed utility wires completed the performance with a shower of sparks.  It was practically a two-ring circus, for if the audience were watching the sparks, they were missing our finale.

Of course, none of this passed through Dad’s mind as we were leaping the highway.  The instant passed too quickly, and Dad, for the moment, was dumbstruck.

The driver in the stopped car ahead of Dad’s opened his door and stepped onto the pavement in order to peer after us over the roof of his Rambler, too late to truly catch our descent.  Dad didn’t wait another second but jerked his wheel to the right, gunned it, passed on the berm, then cornered sharply right to follow us onto Greasy Road.  And greasy it had become.

Dad missed our touchdown, well beyond the improved grade on Greeley Chapel Road’s opposite approach to the highway.  That’s good, although he heard it as he was breaking free of the traffic.  What he missed was the violent annihilation of one mighty automobile which had served as his family car for ten years; one classic car that had promised to serve as my prize for many more to come.

There was nothing to salvage.  Of course.  By the evidence, as soon as the rear tires were relieved of the pavement’s resistance, the motor threw a rod which jackknifed the crank which burst the oil pan.  The weight of the engine pulled the front of the car downward, permitting, we suspect, a neat four-point landing.  All four wheels broke clean away upon impact.  The front bumper, meanwhile, turned under and scraped away the oil pan, the battery under the driver’s seat, pipes, shocks, drive shaft, differential, and gas tank before then shearing off the rear bumper.  These and all their mounting hardware strewed the roadway in a slurry of engine oil and rear-end grease and water.

The two big, pontoon-like front fenders fanned outward to become the wings on a snowplow, rotating the car a hundred eighty degrees to face Route 117 again, as if the hulk were contemplating another aerial assault on the light.  While we were airborne, the bi-fold hood turned into a crow taking flight, only to collapse and tumble into an orchard.  One rear door flopped open on the landing, the upper hinge apparently a victim of fatigue.

Dennis’s face and chest did a number on the steering wheel for the second time.  He spent seven weeks in the hospital, preparing for a rigorous court appearance.  I broke a hip, lying, as I was, low in the seat and below the dash.  I was out in ten days, wondering how I had escaped breaking my back as well.  As I see it, my twenty-percent hearing loss was a consequence of the wheel-less car’s screeching on pavement and the cannon-like sound of the near-empty gas tank exploding belatedly when it struck pavement after performing its own independent quick flip in the air.

Dad parked well back from the menacing wreckage and watched as Boner exited lamely from the stilled, dark, mechanical carcass.  The big dog tried to run but dropped at the edge of the road, whined and tried again.  And dropped again.  We couldn’t afford vets in those days, but he healed.  Ever afterward, when he needed to be taken somewhere, we would have to tackle him and drag him into a waiting car.

In the days and weeks that followed Dad had little to say about the affair.  Nothing he could say was anything but obvious.  “The next car you own will be the one you earn yourself.”  I heard that once.  And once I heard him mutter in measured syllables: “One hundred sixty-five miles an hour!”

While I was still in the hospital, the three or so other witnesses who had comprised our audience made urgent inquiries with my parents and Dennis’s.  Then they went about their lives, the way people do who have been present at other incredible events.  I don’t mean events like plane crashes, which aren’t incredible, just spectacular.  I mean something incredible, like… like a three-ton car lifting off and taking kamikaze flight to destroy an offending traffic light.

+ + + +

Dad seemed mostly pleased in one small way.  For nearly a month, after the flight of the New Yorker, a stop sign filled in for the traffic light, and that suited him fine.  Then the light was replaced, only this time — (What?  Did they think the moment would ever be repeated?) — they hung it a good twenty feet above the intersection instead of the standard fourteen or so.

From then on Dad had one green light after another when he approached that corner.  My mother said it was because he had learned to time them and to come up onto the intersection more casually than before.

By summer’s end the state settled on a simple warning signal, flashing yellow for the state road and red for Greeley Chapel Road.  A one-paragraph blurb in the Lima News noted the change.  It didn’t mention our accident but said the change had been mandated in order to discourage those motorists who might otherwise be tempted to race the light.


For a photo of some actual Dershem family members, see the article, Fading Photographs, at this site.


This story appears in THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop

Miss Plover continued lecturing as she circled the classroom on pointy little legs that held up a stout body.  “Pimwe wanted to go hunting eggs with his mother and his sister, but why couldn’t he?”  We listened for the answer.  Stevie Whickens and I were the last two fourth graders in the last two seats in the Row Five — next to the sets of shelves mounted over the clattering heaters and under the first-floor windows.

A few seconds went by before Stevie raised his hand and, unbidden, asked, “Can I go to the toilet?” — which Miss Plover answered with a glare, interrupted, as she were, in reliving her life with Pimwe, the pre-historic American Indian boy, (maybe as his sister), I wasn’t sure.  She broke off her own reverie, momentarily, and answered Stevie with a question: “Is that the way we ask, Steven? What is it that you really want?”

“I just want to get cooled off,” Stevie answered truthfully.

“I think we all would like that, wouldn’t we, class?”

The class, including Stevie and I, mumbled acknowledgment.  I glanced outside toward the playground, not wanting to appear too anxious to be anywhere else, but wanting it just the same.  My glance was too long, though, because, as Miss Plover was circling and asking about Pimwe’s wish to go egg hunting, I missed the fact that she was directing the question at me.

“David?”

I spun around on my smooth, hardwood seat, expecting to see her abreast of Row One, for I knew she had continued circumnavigating the room.  Instead, she was now nearly directly behind us all, her voice thrown by the maze of free-standing wall panels in the rear corners of the classroom.  I spun further as she continued to prowl.

“I want to get cooled off too,” I answered, reversing direction in order to face her when she shortly came alongside my desk.

“Why couldn’t Pimwe accompany his mother and sister?”  Miss Plover bore down on me from behind, then placed her bejeweled hand on the back of my seat, one protruding diamond digging into my shoulder blade.  Stevie was turned full around, facing me expectantly.  Miss Plover widened her eyes at him, which meant “Face front!”  He did.

Why couldn’t Pimwe go egging with the women?  I thought of my mother and sisters, and of the things they sometimes went off to do together.  I could never imagine wanting to go.  I thought of my dad, scraping and hammering and sometimes cussing in the basement night after night, and I thought, That’s where I’d rather be.  Sometimes, when he occasionally had a bottle open and didn’t see, I’d get to sniff his beer.  At other times I’d learn a verse of a sea chantey.

I could see why Pimwe might want to stay home, but I couldn’t guess why he was made to stay home.  I shrugged.  Miss Plover left my side and, turning her back on the class, leaned far over the shelves covering the heater.  She grasped a window handle with a glittering hand, turned it, and yanked the pane inward on its lower hinge pins.  As she leaned, Stevie shot a glance up the backs of her legs and rolled his eyes toward me after I’d seen where his eyes had been.

It was a “Ha-cha-cha!” look that he gave me, for neither of us at age ten was interested in the upper thighs of a forty-something sausage like Miss Plover.

The teacher missed his signal altogether.  She must have, because she never let anything pass without at least a silent critique.

She continued her tour around the room.  “Sylvia?” she asked, meaning to insult me, her second brightest student — er, pupil, as she called each of us — by making her brightest pupil show me up.

Sylvia answered something which I have long since forgotten, but it had been correct.  I didn’t even look at her.  But I smelled her, two seats up and two rows over.  Sylvia usually smelled like pears, which was and still is my second most-hated fruit.  If anything more continued coming out of Miss Plover’s mouth I wasn’t aware of it for a couple of minutes, and then, in front of me, Stevie began to shiver.

I don’t know how I understood it then, but it was clear that Miss Plover had calculated this result.  For it was late March, 1961, on the eastern plains of the upper Midwest, in a school with some sort of centralized heating system that wasn’t turned off until May and could be regulated only by precise use — and not overuse — of open windows.

Miss Plover was probably a very good teacher, one like we need more of today.  A very good disciplinarian she certainly was, but also an effective marshal of ten-year-olds, a sternly even-tempered lady, and, in fact, a friend and confidant to a few pupils who truly needed her for that, for instance, Cheryl, who cried a lot.

So Stevie was shivering, and I, closest to the window but dressed warmer than he, was amused but also growing alarmed that it could become cold enough to affect me, too.  I darted furtive looks at the open window, estimating whether I could find a way surreptitiously to shut it part way.  One of these glances caught a movement on the gravel playground.  A large, yellow-brown dog, short-haired and with a pushed-in face, was angling purposefully toward the once-grassy, now-muddy berm around the building. Its sideways gait reminded me how stupid dogs are, especially any with an ugly nose and no tail.  The dog paused only a second or two to raise its head and probe the fecund, moist air with a crumpled black nose, as it identified the people sounds from the classroom window.

I followed all of this in my excellent peripheral vision while holding Miss Plover’s gaze, her eyes glued to mine, over a period of several long seconds.  She was still holding forth about Pimwe, the loincloth-covered boy our age who didn’t have to attend school because eight hundred years ago they had no schools in America.

I wondered whether I’d care to trade my school for a loincloth.  I rather doubted it.  My imagination conjured a scene with Stevie and me in loincloths, showing our butts from the side and risking even more exposure in the crisp March wind, standing barefoot on the gravely school playground but with the building totally vanished, and with Cheryl and Sylvia and half a dozen other girls facing us and snickering.  Of course, they all wore the chest-covering, knee-length leather dresses, albeit sleeveless and unadorned, that were depicted in our book.  If they too were made to wear loincloths, that would have evened things up a bit.  They probably would never come outside, then, because… well, because I couldn’t quite picture Sylvia that close to naked.  Not when I was ten, anyway.  By eighth grade I was much better at it, and I even tried pears just once that year.

Finally Miss Plover released me and locked onto Larry, across the room.  That’s when the first hint of a disturbing odor wafted under my nose.  I must have been first in the room to smell it, and I turned automatically toward the window, uttering “Unh!”

“Miss Plover!” I went on impulsively, cutting her off in what amounted to an unforgivable faux pas.  “Can we clo…?”

“Enh! Dog poop!” Stevie interjected too loudly.

The class broke up, some laughing, some sucking in breath as if offended, and every pupil present looking all about and then at Miss Plover to see what she’d do to control this outburst.

“Yes!” said the teacher pleasantly but more loudly than anyone else.  “Yes, it is!  But we have a more polite way to refer to something even as unpleasant as that.”

By this time I was on my feet and making for the window.

“David, leave the window alone!” said Miss Plover, but not quite so I believed she meant it, I guess.  I kept on.  And then the voice of authority spoke: “David! Leave the window open.  We need the air.  You and Steven may go to the boys’ room and get the supplies you’ll need to go outside the classroom and clean up the feces.  While you’re gone, we’ll finish our social studies lesson and you can both stay after school to learn what we have covered.”

I had lived since September in awe and admiration of Stevie Whickens.  He had a derisive laugh that stung you at first and then included you almost immediately afterward.  He was the first with the one liners.  A pretty good pupil, and sickeningly polite sometimes, he was never caught (by the wrong people) making those sly comments of his under his breath.  He was lithe and quick, the best over-the-fence kicker in kickball, and the only one who could completely climb the elm tree on the corner of the school property.

But Stevie’s greatest talent was the ability to tuck the tip of his tongue behind his upper incisors and spit, at will, from underneath it, a silent, fine, powerful jet of saliva.  I once saw him nail a fly with it in the air, I swear!

Until this day I had always suspected that Stevie simply tolerated me.  The acknowledged class clown, he could chose his friends.  He seldom sought me out directly, but never objected to my presence.  I was always honored to be in his company, and I considered it an enviable distinction to be in the seat next after his in class.

The two of us exited the classroom by the rear door, denying the others the opportunity to stare at us as we left.  In the boys’ room Stevie was nearly in tears at the prospect ahead.  Neither of us owned a dog, but it was my own experience that I always owned the kind of shoes that had radar for finding the freshest dog droppings.  “I know I’m going to throw up,” he told me, giving me a thrill I had not known before, that is, being brought thus into his confidence at such a point of weakness.

“Don’t let them hear you through the open window,” I said in all seriousness, but that made him laugh.  We collected wads and wads of toilet paper, then headed outside without jackets.  The chill made us jittery.  And, both apparently moved by the same instinct, we crouched as one alongside the building, moving toward the pile of poop, in order to avoid having our heads bobbing along next to all the classroom windows, especially since at least one portal for each room was open.

Ours was the last room before the corner of the building, and as we slowed, heads bowed, approaching our bounden duty, a baritone voice boomed “Boys!”

We both popped up, and Stevie was the first to see the impending disaster.  “Mister Fitzsimmons!  No!” he cried.  But it was too late.  The principal had advanced toward us and placed one maroon wingtip shoe in the unbelievably large, gooey, orange-brown, still-steaming pile.

Apparently Miss Plover had closed the window to us before we’d made it outside, so when we reeled on it to plead for her assistance, all we could see was a reflection of neighboring houses, overhead wires, parked cars, and our three selves.  That single pane cut off all sight and sound within.

Mister Fitzsimmons evidently realized that he had the same sort of shoes as mine, for before his foot had quite flattened the pile he stepped back and looked from us to it and back again.  Even though the window was closed, he seemed to get the picture.  He had really released the full stink, too, causing all three of us to gag.

The principal leaned against the building and made us use our toilet paper to clean his shoe, aided by water from a nearby puddle.  He let us drop the paper, bit by bit, to the ground as we used it on the shoe.  Then he led us inside and provided us with a flat shovel.  “When you’ve finished, I’ll see you in my office,” he declared and turned us loose.

We didn’t know what to do with it once we’d scooped the smear, plus the wadded paper and a great deal of mud and gravel into the shovel, so, with Stevie at the outer end of the handle and I next to the load, we carried it back into the boys’ room and let the whole mess slide into a toilet.  I flushed, and we rinsed the blade of the shovel in the toilet with a couple more flushes, which took all but the heaviest gravel down… down to hell, for all I knew.  Next we tried wiping the blade dry with toilet paper, but it remained stubbornly wet.  We were unsure what to do after that.

I guess it was one especially pulpy handful of sopping toilet paper that gave me the idea, but, with all else accomplished, I tossed the mass hard, straight up, and it stuck to the high concrete ceiling with a “Slurp!” Before we knew what came over us we were both standing at the sink, soaking wads of toilet paper in the steadily running water and bombing the ceiling with pulp.

This must have gone on for only two or three minutes.  We may have succeeded in landing twenty or so blobs on the ceiling in that time.  The running water may have echoed a bit loudly.  We may have been laughing, because, as he flung thick globs skyward, Stevie was saying: “We have to hurry back and see what happened to Pimwee-wee! Wim-wee-wee-pee-pee!” and so on.

The shovel was propped against the door, for no reason at all, but it made an awful clang, and the door an awful wobbling sound after both hit the wall together when Mister Fitzsimmons burst in.  My last bomb must have been under-propelled in mid-launch by the terrorizing intrusion, for it didn’t hold and instead came heavily to the floor in a sort of reverse “prulS!”

I remember watching Mister Fitzsimmons’s face go from us to the ceiling, redden, come back to us, then turn to the shovel lying crazily across the floor.  When he bent to pick it up I seriously considered trying to escape past him, for I was convinced that if I didn’t, the blade of that long-handled implement was going to land against the back of my head.  Stevie gripped my arm and held me behind him like a farmer shielding his wife from Indians.

I remember the highly-polished, undulating, green and white tile floor that passed slowly before my downcast eyes as Stevie and I were escorted to the office.  I remember watching as Stevie was met by his mother in the office not long afterward.  She was a fancy woman, who cast an accusing scowl at me before she led her son away.  He cast me a grin that said, We had us some fun, eh?

My mother taught school, so I sat in the office, on the cold, slippery, navy blue, cracked leather of an institutional couch for at least two hours with nothing to do but look at the wood grain of the high desks before me.  My mother was not pleased to be diverted in her after-school routine but said little as we made for home.  She commented, though, that she and my sister had been thinking of going out to get some eggs and some decorating supplies, in order to make Easter eggs, and I brightened when she said they originally thought I might like to go along.  Under the circumstances, though, she continued, I would not be allowed to leave the house until we had discussed my school behavior after supper.  I was left to stay home with Grandma and the little kids while Mom and Ann made the trip to get… to get eggs.


THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

In School Days

Eva had her back to the window but heard the rattle of the harness in the yard and the contented snort of the mare as she waited to be unhitched.  Skewed rectangular beams of afternoon sunlight stretched blindingly across the kitchen table behind her, while she stood in the darkly contrasting shadow near an inside wall.  Eva’s hands continued working the dough while her head struggled to remain cool.  The man coming through from the barn was returning much later than he had led her to expect.  A bowl of cold stew, a napkin, and a large gray spoon lay in the sunbeam at his end of the table.

“Took Dad to the cemetery today,” Hollis Brenner hollered from the el.  One boot thumped heavily to the floor, and he cocked his leg to pull off the other.  It too landed hard, making Eva ponder just how a piece of cow skin can sound so wooden.

“Trey told me,” Eva answered when he had stepped quietly, as fitted his gentleness, into the kitchen.

“He was supposed to.” Hollis sprawled in a chair next to the table and watched his wonderful wife of thirty years move efficiently around the plain, spacious room.

“Took a long time,” she ventured. It was really an observation, not a challenge.

He knew it.  So he told her, not as a retort but as fact, what had been different.  He took his father to the cemetery at least one Sunday a month.  Sometimes Eva went along.  Sometimes Treyton, their son, and particulars of his family came too.  Their daughter, Beulah, came along maybe once a year.  That’s about how often she was back for a visit to the farm.  She was raising a family with a husband from over in Illinois, where they lived now.  But it was just across the state line.  Usually, though, Hollis went for the cemetery visit alone with Samuel, his eighty-ish dad.

They had been keeping to this routine for twelve years, ever since Mom had died.  Dad had gone alone daily at first, but in time his schedule of attendance relaxed, and now he was too unsteady either to drive a gig or to walk the uneven bury field, as he called it, by himself.

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So father and son visited the family graves together.  The number of markers gradually grew as uncles and aunts were added, as occasionally an infant died, and as now and then a young cousin was cut down in his prime in a farming accident or a drowning.  Every now and then Dad would grasp Hollis’s forearm and lead him around to a few other markers and they would both stand before the name of a prominent shopkeeper or preacher or just plain neighbor, and Dad would regale his son for a while, telling about fiery sermons or rescuing cows from flooded fields or running up a high bill at the farmer’s union, which he always paid in full in very short order.  These people before whose stones they stood would remember those things too, if they were still living.  Dad made the rounds in this manner only when he and Hollis were there alone.

“Dad introduced me to some more old acquaintances today.  I never realized there were so many families in this county that I knew so little about.”

“Probably half of what he’s telling you are memories he invented,” Eva said.  She was rolling out a pie crust, and Hollis mentally measured the force with which she laid the rolling pin down and pushed it away from her across the sideboard again and again.  She was sprinkling flour onto the dough, although not dusting the kitchen with it as she might if containing some anger, and, true, she was not slamming the wooden rolling pin down but was efficiently spreading the thin crust, not beating it, preparing one of her finest creations — most of it for him.

Hollis pulled out the chair before his cold supper and, with his eyes on Eva, sat himself quietly onto the seat.  “I would have thought so, too,” he said, then paused to enjoy a spoonful of stew.  “But then he made me stay put while he wandered way over to a far-off set of markers, down in the corner where the fence is toppled. I let him go.  Didn’t think he had any marker in particular in mind, because he sort of wandered.  Then I realized he was having difficulty reading them as he went along.  The headstones gave him less trouble, I guess. He passed most of them by without stopping at all.  Then he stopped and stood, kind of with his back to me. After a minute or two he took his hat off, and I knew he was where he wanted to be.”

“Who’s in that corner down there?”

“I thought about sneaking up behind and taking a look.  Probably smart that I didn’t.  He knelt down and then looked over my way.  I don’t think he sees well enough to know whether I was watching him, but he knew I was where he’d left me, so he sort of prayed there or something for several more minutes.

“Took him a long while to scrape back over to the gig, and when he looked at me I could see he wasn’t in no condition to talk.  He just kind of nodded and I helped him up and climbed in myself.”

“There must be more to tell. That doesn’t account for four or five hours that you could have been home.”

“No, it don’t,” Hollis agreed, and stared a his wife’s back as she worked.  Her dark-brown, gray-streaked hair hung the way he liked it, loosely gathered at the back of the neck and left to drop from there straight to the mid-point between her shoulder blades.  “No, it don’t,” he repeated.  “Dad said, part way home, ‘I’d like to go out to Pike Run.’  ‘Nothing there but fields, Dad,’ I said.  ‘I can show you fields hereby.’  He just gave me this pleading look, so I drove out there.  Thing I forgot was the old brick schoolhouse.  He wanted to see the schoolhouse that sits there all by itself.  So again he told me to wait after I helped him down.  He walked up that lane and ‘round and ‘round the school.  For a spell he had ‘hold of the vines running up it, just looking into the distance, and I thought he was close to collapse, but I stayed back where he could see me holding the horse.  Around the side where I couldn’t see, I think he could have been peering inside, or maybe he just sat in some shade. I don’t know.

“Finally he bobbed and shuffled back to the gig.  ‘Thanks, Son,’ was all he could say, but his voice broke, as if something were painful.  And he kept his eyes down where I couldn’t see him square to.  I knew he was crying, or more just turned all sad.  At the house I delivered him to Missus Knaille and asked her to kind of keep an eye on him today.  Dad said, ‘I’ll be just fine, Son.’”

Eva asked: “Did you talk to him about the schoolhouse?”

“I didn’t put him to no test.” Hollis stood and walked to a different chair, where it was easier to see the side of his wife’s face. She turned toward him.

“I would have wondered what was significant about the schoolhouse, and so I would have asked,” she said with a slight scold in her voice.

Hollis thought. “That’s where he went to school, as long as he went to school.  Where I went too for my first couple of years, before they abandoned it and took over the basement of the town hall.”

Eva shrugged.  She deftly picked up a membrane of pie crust and draped it over a pie plate, then trimmed the entire edge with one sweep of a short knife.  She like that part of the job the best.  Hollis enjoyed watching the brief act.  He was proud of his skill for sharpening knives.  Hollis went on: “I went back to the cemetery.  The grass was still flat where he’d been kneeling.  The marker read: Margaret Irene Bay, April 5, 1840 – October 29, 1879.”

“Wasn’t there a Bay gentleman with the government or something?”

“He was next to her. Hugh Something Bay, 1842 to 1910, I believe it was.  Brother and sister.  He was a lawyer around here when I was a kid.  There were some older Bay markers, too.  An Edward and wife from the 1790’s, and a Morris, probably their son.  And there was another stone broke in half and the name mostly gone.  Year of death was 1868.”

“They don’t mean a thing to me.”

“They did to Dad.  I was struck with an idea just before I left there.  The caretaker of the cemetery before Caverly — Old ‘Spade’ Vellison — I thought: He’s still alive.  And I knew he used to have that set of cabins below the trestle — used to let them out to all his own sons and daughters when they were still children but having each other’s babies.  I figured, it being Sunday and people being free to visit and all, I could go down there and talk to him.

“He wasn’t much in the way of conversation, but some woman was tending him and she sort of fed him the questions I had and kind of read the answers he regurgitated, like she was reading tea leaves.

“Old Spade, even when I was a kid I always thought he was as old as he is now.  Guess how old he is,” Hollis challenged.

Eva pinched a pattern into the edge of the empty crust and then slipped the pie plate into the pie oven atop the kitchen stove.  “I don’t even know the man, Hollis.  When would I ever meet a cemetery caretaker?”

“He’s six and eighty.  He buried most of them Bays.  And he remembered the one called Irene.  Didn’t rightly let on that he remembered Dad at first, but said he was still in school when the Misses Bay first started their education.”

“Misses?”

“Two girls.  Irene and a younger sister, he remembered, name of Blanche.  Said they always thought the younger one’s name was appropriate, seeing how white she always looked and sickly.”

“What does all this have to do with your father?”

“Don’t you see?  Dad’s eighty-two.  That makes him born in ‘forty-one.  The Misses Bay were in school with him.”

“Did your caretaker friend know that?”

“That and a good bit more.  There was a teacher came to town in the ‘thirties.  Few years later the town built him that school on the premise that he be required to educate any young girls that a family might want to send, and there arose a controversy about girls being educable.”

“I thought the school was built in the ‘seventies.  You mean that old square schoolhouse over toward the river?”

“The one we visited today.  That’s the one Dad attended.  It was a while after the school was built that the teacher, Bloomfield, lived up to his part of the deal, and the Misses Bay were the first young girls admitted.  Dad was already a student.  He must have been about eleven when the girls first arrived.  For his part, Spade Vellison was about done school.  Not that he’d learned anything, he said.  But Bloomfield had begun setting standards and then began jacking up the requirements.  Told the older boys that they’d better take a certificate while they could or else they’d be eight or nine years in school and nothing to show for it.

“When the girls arrived and sat side by side with the boys and began showing better minds than most of the boys who’d been there even four or five years, Vellison and a few more worked their hides off and took their certificates.”

“I understand that Old Vellison had to include a lot of useless detail in relating all this to you, but can you leave out some of the minor details for me.  Did the school have a privy?”

“In fact it did, by 1851…”

“That’s what I mean!  Don’t tell me about the privy.  Don’t tell me about the bushes outside and the knife marks in the benches.”

“Oh.  All right.  You’re right.”

“Thank you.”

Hollis dipped stew and swallowed thoughtfully, then went on.  “There was one young colt of a boy that Vellison knew of couldn’t keep his wits about him with the girls around.  Always showing off.  Ever notice how Dad drags his right leg?”

Eva looked at Hollis as if to say: ‘Don’t veer into details.’  Instead she said, “I thought he came by that during that train wreck, when your mama was injured so bad.”

“That’s when I became aware of it as a matter-of-fact limping.”

“She came out the worse of the two,” Eva added.  “Never did recover.  But I still think that’s not what she died from.”  She was pouring a blackish mixture from one black-stained wooden bowl into another.

Hollis Brenner thought about his mother for a moment.  “Dad always walked funny after that.  But Vellison told me how, in school, some boys came early one morning.  Scaled the school wall to the eaves, they did.  The older ones, that’s as high as they could get.  ‘The Brenner boy,’ he said, meaning Dad, pulled himself past the eaves and tried to climb to the peak but lost his purchase and slid down the slate roof.  Would have gone straight to the hard ground, but a shingle on the edge snagged him and snapped that leg right in his breeches.  Left Dad hanging by his pant leg with a broken knee and wailing for half an hour until Bloomfield arrived.  Spade said young Brenner never walked right until he went off to fight in the War.  Had to straighten out his gait or they might not have taken him in the army.”

“I’m sorry, Hollis, but where is this all leading?”

“The Misses Bay.  I had to put up with the urine-house smell and the dirt-floor dankness of Vellison’s hovel in order to get this story, so I guess you can bear with me while I trim it to fit the remainder of the day.  I listened to a good deal more slobbering and coughing by him than I’m bothering to relate to you here.”

A whistle wailed in the east.  Hollis closed his eyes and watched a conjured image of the long, gray-streaked locomotive, reddened by long, evening sun rays as it rolled into town on the riverbank, far below the farm.  He hoped he appeared pensive, but his digression didn’t fool his omniscient wife.

Eva smiled warmly and wiped her hands on the green-checked apron.  Her husband opened his eyes when she lifted his hands from his lap and nestled her skirts there instead.  Hollis savored the weight of her in his lap.  Locking onto his eyes and holding them with utmost confidence, she waited until the last echo of the whistle faded.  Nearly nose-to-nose with him she said, “If it don’t fit the remainder of the day, you can talk me right to sleep with it, and after that you can carry on to the spiders and flies and anyone else who’ll stay awake for it through the night.”

Hollis probed the deep blue of her eyes and his narrow mouth smiled a sheepish smile.  He willed her much wider mouth to smile too, but it held clenched teeth, challenging him to get to the point.  “I drove up to see the Reverend Pulsifer.  The markers were in his section of the bury field.  If these Bays were citizens such as would include a lawyer, maybe they needed an advocate in a higher realm.  So I discussed this thing with him a little bit.  We walked back across to the church and he withdrew the ledgers.  Sure enough, there was enough to show that at least two descendants might still be living right here in town.  One would be a 57-year-old son of Hugh Bay, and the other a daughter of Blanche, about 57 also.  Well, I’m 53, yes?  And I don’t remember anyone of that name, but this is a town of at least fourteen thousand, and they would have preceded me by a few grades in school, so I could see why I might not know them.  The man’s name would be Charlie Bay, son of Hugh, nephew of Irene and Blanche, and the woman’s would be Annabel Leighton, niece of Hugh and Irene.

“The Reverend Pulsifer helped me track down an address for each, and was also kind enough to water and bag the horse while we talked.  He had some thoughts on things the churches in town could be doing together and, my being a deacon in ours and his being well-established here, he thought we could explore this further some day.  So we made an appointment for next Saturday morning…”

Lips warm and flour-flavored suddenly swooped in on Hollis’s.  They fitted his perfectly and swallowed his next few words.  Then they withdrew and leveled with his eyes in a wide, embracing smile.

Hollis licked his lips, then, ignoring the rush of gladness that nearly overwhelmed him, regained his mission.  “The man named Charlie Bay has a telephone, so I rang him from the church, but no one was home.  I tried Missus Leighton next.  She asked to speak with the Reverend, and he vouched for me and gave me a letter of introduction to hand her, and so I drove up to Sherman Hill.  I hain’t been up there in ten, fifteen years.  Big old houses like that are getting pretty run-down looking.  Including hers.  But it was still dignified, and so was she.

“I expected that, if she was the child of a frail woman named Blanche, who had died young, she’d be frail too.  But here she was a woman my height and pretty plump to boot,” Hollis said, then blinked at his empty soup bowl as if wondering what had become of his supper.

“Pretty, you said?”

“Pretty plump.  But I expect she could be thought a pretty woman, too.  Widow, she told me.  I said she’d get on great with my wife, just to assure her that I had only business-like intentions.”

“Then I shall be meeting this lady-friend of yours?”

“I don’t know.  We concluded our interview in one session, I believe.  I introduced myself and explained that I had learned this same day of her relationship to Miss Blanche Bay, whose married name I had not learned.  She supplied it: Heierling.”

“The furniture people.”

“The same.  So this Annabel Heierling became Missus Clarence Leighton, as I met her today.  Her mother, Blanche Bay Heierling, whose grave marker was the one broken and half missing, died when Annabel was only two years old, after catching a fever.  So Vellison was right, she was sickly.  There were one or two older children, but that’s not important.  As Missus Leighton was relating these facts there was a knock at the door and a Mildred Freeze or Freeds, I didn’t quite make it out — a neighbor next door — came in to see who the gentleman caller might be.  This older lady was very lively, probably ten years younger than Dad, and joined right in the conversation.”

Eva began to rise from her husband’s lap, but he yanked her back and locked his arms around her.  “I explained to them what Dad had done at the cemetery and at the old school, and that I was merely trying to understand why he would have been so moved by the visit to the Bay family plot.

“Missus Leighton hardly said a word after that.  Missus Freeze, who is no relation to that family but seems to know its business better than the Bays themselves, told me what matters.

“There was indeed a boy in the old school who left his mark, in more ways than one.  Missus Freeze herself, as a schoolgirl, had sat at the desk where the initials S.T.B. were gouged into the wood and linked with the initials M.I.B.  Everybody knew of this young colt who had gone before.  He even affected the hearts of girls as young as this Mildred.  His devotion to one Irene Bay had been widely known, along with the revolving nature of her changing affections toward him.  When the boys went off to the War they were heroes even before they marched out of town.  Samuel T. Brenner was the most gallant one of all, said Missus Freeze.

“When I asked what she meant by ‘changing affections’ she found it difficult to explain.  Missus Leighton was more helpful.  Her aunt, this Irene Bay, was a real fair beauty, and so there were boys a-plenty for her to touch with her charm.  It seems that she cast her glances on one and all, and each thought he was the favored one.  But the first upon whom she ever placed her childish favor, and everybody knew it, was Samuel Brenner.

“As Miss Irene Bay grew into her young womanhood and proceeded to confer her favor on another young man and then another, young Brenner was unwilling to relinquish his childish claim to the girl.  He became the biggest show-off in the town.  People still talk about the hay-wagon rescues and how Dad came upon the accident and saved six or seven children from drowning.  Well, they weren’t such little children as couldn’t swim or save themselves.  Dad must have been about fourteen himself.  Missus Freeze said that Miss Irene Bay was one of those on that wagon, and Dad was only hauling bodies out of the water until he found hers.  It so happened that there weren’t any more in the water after he found her, or else one might have drowned, sort of muddying his heroism.  Missus Freeze reckons that he looked under the bridge and recognized the horse or the wagon and wasn’t so much bent on becoming a hero as he was on making sure his lady-fair was not lost.

“But Miss Irene was evidently not so impressed that she would swear lifelong fealty to Dad, so he continued his antics and heroics.”

“Was that when he wrestled the bank robber and earned that citation from the governor?” Eva asked, almost mockingly.

“He was a little older but not by much.  He took up fast riding then, too.  Bragged he would be going west to join the rodeo if his leg would only heal.  He admitted that to me himself, that he kept up that promise about going west for as long as he was in school.

“Miss Irene, according to her niece and Missus Freeze, permitted many young men to pay court to her, but would spurn poor Dad.  Yet, she always seemed to lead him on just far enough that he learned and practiced good manners and must have felt that he always had a chance of winning back her affections as they approached the age of decision.

“Dad’s last great heroic act was to enlist when the call went out after Fort Sumpter.  Now here’s where Missus Freeze, who must be the Sherman Hill busybody, was even hard pressed to make her story plain. I suspect that what she passed on was more a woman’s notion of what transpired.

“After Samuel Brenner had marched off to Maryland, Irene Bay suddenly ceased to entertain suitors and visitors of all kinds.  I rather wondered if it weren’t because all the decent men had joined up and gone off.  Missus Freeze holds that without Dad there for her to make jealous Miss Irene saw no point in playing the game.  After a year or more went by and Dad didn’t return, Miss Irene accepted some sort of offer to go study in England.  Missus Freeze believes that if we looked through Dad’s stuff we might find some letters from abroad.”

“When did you say she died?”

“1879.”

“Age about…”

“Thirty-nine,” Hollis supplied.

“When did Dad marry your mother?”

“I didn’t want to put that together myself.  I was ten years old, so it was 1880.”

“He never married before that.”

“Nope.”

“He waited until she died.”

“Yup.”

“Did she ever marry?”

“According to Missus Leighton, Miss Irene Bay never did.”

“Did she ever return from England?”

“Not until she was embalmed.”

“I never heard such a love story, if that is what you want to call it.”

“I asked Missus Freeze: If each was waiting for the other, why didn’t one of them just pull the curtain aside, so to speak, and declare it a stalemate?  Miss Irene, she said, became indispensable in the service of some duchess or something like that, and would have acquiesced if Dad had come to England, possibly as a stable hand or something.  Dad was intimidated by the thought of hanging around royalty and was too proud to be a barnsweep to some high-and-mighties.”

Eva slowly shook her head.  “So they waited one another out.”

“I learned something else.  Missus Freeze looked me up and down and asked how old I might be.  I made the rejoinder that if I had been a lady I would take that as a highly inflammatory and personal question, but since I don’t fancy myself a sensitive lady, I would take no offense at the question.  I said I’m fifty-three.  So her quick mind summed up that I must have had, originally, a father other than Dad.

“I allowed that she was very astute, and of course she asked me who it was.  I asked myself: What could this woman possibly know?  Now, I never sought to know, but one day after that train wreck, when Mama wasn’t too clear-thinking and she believed Dad was going to die on account of the accident too, she told me to go look in her mother’s family Bible.  So I went to her mother’s and paid a call and casually looked in the Bible.  That’s when I found it.”

“You never told me this.”

“It didn’t make sense to me at first.  Mama was a good ten years younger than Dad.  Grandma’s Bible listed my name under Mama’s, with Samuel Brenner as my father.”

“I don’t understand.  You mean her first husband was not mentioned?”

“There was no first husband.  You know how I was led to believe that my original father went off and left us when I was a baby?  Grandma’s Bible put the lie to that fabrication.”

“I still don’t understand.  It lists Samuel Brenner when he became your mother’s husband.”

“No.  It lists Samuel Brenner when he became my father.  Alice Ann Tillotson, age 19, mother of Hollis Grant Tillotson, father Samuel Brenner, age 29.  I spent ten years calling myself Hollis Grant and believing that was all the name I had and that my absent father was related to the President.”

Eva shifted on her husband’s lap, then relaxed again.  “What did you answer Missus Freeze?”

“I don’t have any shame over any of that.  Mama’s gone, and Dad’s too old to be shamed by it either.  So I told her the truth.  Missus Leighton began to cry, then.  I’m still trying to figure out the exact cousinage, but Grant, you see, is my Grandma Tillotson’s maiden name.  It was also the maiden name of Irene and Blanche Bay’s mother.”

“Samuel couldn’t have the one he loved…”

“…and the sister, Blanche, took a husband in the meantime…”

“…so he dallied with a cousin of theirs.  Sired a son.  But waited until his lady fair had passed from this life before he owned up to the responsibility he had created for himself.”

“He really loved Mama, Eva.  He did right by her.”

“I realize that.  I’ve been around him long enough to know.  Hollis?”

“What?”

“Are you going to go through his things and look for those letters?”

“I was thinking.  I think I’ll suggest to him that on Sundays from now on I’ll help him go through his things and cull out the stuff he doesn’t want to leave as a legacy.  He did that with Mama while she was alive, and I thought it was a kindness.  She told him what to destroy and what to leave behind for Gladys and me to remember her by.

“He’s been telling me he wants to show me how that straw shredder works that he invented.  So I’ll tell him, Dad, it’s time.  I’ll explain to him that I’m not interested in making off with his treasures.  And I’ll tell you as a fact that I’m not going to be snooping for letters from England.  Even if I run across some, I think I’ll let him be the one to ‘find’ them.  As for me, I’d be content to let them go into the stove if that’s what he decides to do with them.”

“I think that’s all a good idea. Hollis?”

“What?”

“I want to meet your cousin Annabel.”

“I guess that’s fair.  She’ll be receptive to that, I think.  But let’s leave Dad out of it, okay?”

“Agreed.  We’ll ask her to do the same.  I think she’d prefer not to meet him anyway.”

“Hollis.”

“What.”

“Can we get a telephone?”

Hollis fumbled with his wife’s elbows and wrists until he could draw one of her kitchen hands from the creases of her apron.  He found some flour between two fingers and tried to taste it.  Eva recoiled.  Then she leaped to her feet, stepped quickly to the oven, and pulled the hot, empty pie crust into the kitchen’s fading afternoon shadows.

“Hollis,” she said as she worked with the mixture of dark berries and other magical ingredients.

“What.”

“Name my mother’s three sisters.”

“There’s Miriam, Frances . . . And you mother was Luella.  I’ll think of the other one.  Come on!  Three out of the four are dead — I’m supposed to remember them all?”

“Hollis.”

“What.”

“How many grandchildren do you have?”

“Seven.”

“Eight.  Can you name them?”

“Beulah has — oh, that’s right — four: Amybeth…”

“Hollis.”  Eva looked across the kitchen.  The last horizontal sun rays could have blinded either of them, but they were looking at one another across, not into them.  Her eyes were moist.  Hollis noticed, and loved her back with tears of his own.

“What.”

“How could you memorize that entire web of names and people that you discovered today and you can’t even name the folks in your own family?”

“I can do it.  Really I can.  Give me a chance.  There’s Amybeth, Joseph…”

IN SCHOOL DAYS, John Greenleaf Whittier

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sunning;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry-vines are running.

Within, the master’s desk is seen,
Deep scarred by raps official;
The warping floor, the battered seats,
The jack-knife’s carved initial;

The charcoal frescoes on its wall;
Its door’s worn sill, betraying
The feet that, creeping slow to school,
Went storming out to playing!

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes,
And low eaves’ icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delay
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled;
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled.

Pushing with restless feet the snow
To right and left, he lingered; –
As restlessly her tiny hands
The blue-checked apron fingered.

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hands’ light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voice,
As if a fault confessing.

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,” – the brown eyes lower fell. –
“Because, you see, I love you!”

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! the grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing!

He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her, – because they love him.


This story appears in the short story collection Tales to Warm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury. ©1999, all rights reserved.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

Off Course

The driver cautiously inched his old Buick through the slush toward the entrance to McDonalds, but the operator of a battered black Neon, himself just one of an impatient crowd slouched inside it, made a wild pass and cut off the old rug-brown Park Avenue.   I watched as the elderly driver veered into the plowed snowbank and accepted a jolt to his alignment over the option of scraping his bumper on the side of the passing Neon.  The carload of young people, not teenagers but of that under-30 crowd without apparent purpose or prospects, charged into the parking lot and swerved threateningly toward the drive-through.

From where I sat, waiting for a light to change, I had time both to identify the couple in the brown Buick and to watch them pause to collect themselves.  The old man had to back up to approach the restaurant entrance once more, and as he did so, more cars, operated by today’s youthful and busy populace, were forced to pause or rush around him if they dared.  This time he steered the Buick into a parking space, and I moved on with traffic.

I know who they were, in that big old pokey car: just some over-aged people like all the others who are continually getting in the way.  The elderly seem to be taking up too much valuable space nowadays.  But I know more than that, as well.

It was January of 1947, summertime in the southern hemisphere and a year and a half after World War II ended.  Frank Ukers had joined his native Royal Australian Navy late in 1944, and two years later, a freshly-discharged twenty-year-old, he was serving as a crew member aboard the merchant freighter, Ev Trogairgoith.  The war was over and the seas were safe.  The Ev Trogairgoith, pronounced roughly as F Troga-goy, had navigated the 310 nautical miles eastward through the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America and was entering the Argentine Sea abreast of Punta Dungeness.  Bound for South Africa with a load of grain and expecting to return with a load of mechanized equipment, it would be another 300 miles, all in open ocean waters, before they would come upon the Falkland Islands.

The ship was no longer in sight of land, but all on board were aware of their precise location, because it also marked the vessel’s entry into the Atlantic Ocean, a first for many of its crew.  As Frank and a pair of other sailors stood in the shelter of the cabin on the chilly port-side deck under a freshening southeast wind, they were brought the news that a mayday distress call had come in from a pleasure boat some six or eight miles off their port bow.  Theirs was the nearest ship of any size and speed, and they were turning now toward the direction of the call.

The three crewmen had just been remarking on the darkening skies to their northeast, in the direction of the mayday call.  They were already in seven- to ten-foot seas, so the pleasure boat was bound to be in a good bit of difficulty.

The Ev Trogairgoith approached the site at twelve knots, but its captain had much to consider.  A six-hundred-foot ship running at twelve knots needed about two nautical miles to stop.  The slight headwind from starboard would help its deceleration but would also make it necessary to come upon the site obliquely.  And if a rescue were attempted, the big ship, if not under way, could easily be driven sideways by the wind into the remains of the distressed vessel, crushing it and its survivors.

In the hour it took, both to reach the site and maneuver into position, the Ev Trogairgoith received further word from the Argentine authorities that the boat in distress had been identified as a 86-foot private motor cruiser, the Spice of India, built in Germany in 1933.  As they would later learn, it had been purchased by a retired U.S. naval officer after the war and had been fitted out for private cruising.  The reports from the Argentines said the cruiser’s engines had failed and she was foundering and taking on water in the worsening waves.  The reports had no information on the boat’s current status, afloat or sunk, nor about the number of passengers.

The ship’s mate selected from the crew four teams of three men, two on each team who would take turns going over the forward port rail on lines and cables as rescuers, if needed, and one who would be the spotter for each team.  Frank Ukers, whose recent naval training included distress rescue, would be one of the rescuers on the line furthest back from the bow.

Frank’s crew of three had barely secured their lines and suited up for the dangerous mission when the sinking boat was spotted, its hull almost completely under water and its bow beginning to turn toward the deep.  First one yellow life vest was visible, then another and another as the Ev Trogairgoith bore down upon it.

Twenty minutes may have passed from the time the disappearing Spice of India was spotted until Frank found himself belaying twenty-five feet from the rail to the water line.  He recalls that the hulk of the big ship at least shielded the survivors from the wind and the breakers.  He also recalls that the captain had to begin rotating the ship in an arc, to keep the stern moving aside from the sinking boat.  This kept the ship from sliding right overtop of the smaller vessel, but it also kept putting more and more distance between the rescuers and the floating survivors, and even more dangerously, it threatened to bring the stern of the ship, and its propellers, alongside the site.

Frank could see at least ten life vests in the water.  The forwardmost team on the Ev Trogairgoith had already hoisted one rescuer, with a Spice of India passenger clinging to him, to the rail, before they were near enough at Frank’s post for him to go down.

When his legs reached the water line and his body felt the first spray from the ocean’s icy surface, Frank withstood a momentary, breath-taking shock at its temperature.  His handler at the rail fetched him up by his cable once he had gone waist-deep.  A swell of the ocean brought the surface of the water to his very chin, but it also brought a gasping, gray-faced man to his side.  The man’s eyes met Frank’s, and they embraced.  Secure in his sling, Frank wrapped a cord around the man and together they were hoisted aloft.

On the next plunge, Frank quickly plucked a small body from the frothy water, a young boy.  As he signaled to be pulled up, he glanced back to see another young person thrashing toward him, clearly a girl, and clearly she had lost most if not all her clothes in the churning sea.

At the rail, Frank literally threw the boy to an awaiting crewman.  Where was his companion, he then wondered, the one who was to alternate with him and go down next?  It turned out that the man had injured his hand in the cable as Frank was being hoisted the first time, not seriously but enough so that he was no longer in play.  Frank would have to go down a third time.  With a gesture, he bade one of the men toss him a folded woolen blanket from a stack of them lying on the deck nearby, for the survivors.  He stuffed the blanket into his harness, then braced against the top rail and shoved outward with his feet and belayed down the hull one more time.

Holding onto a ring attached to the vertical cable that was draped alongside the ship, Frank dropped as quickly as he dared.  The girl had drifted toward the stern of the ship, nearly out of reach.  Frank let himself further down the cable, effectively plunging himself under water, so he could scramble in an arc along the hull toward her.  He caught a length of line trailing from her life vest and with that he dragged her through the water toward him.  His teammate above adjusted the length of the cable, to keep Frank above water, and as she began to clutch at him, Frank swung the blanket over her shoulders, then reached under water and seized her around the waist.  She weighed little, as he hugged her to him, and to save precious, chilling moments, he risked taking her up without binding a cord around her.

Once aboard the ship with her, Frank watched a crewmate toss another blanket over the girl and he turned to go over the rail once more.  But no one on board was making a move to return to the water.  He followed everyone’s gaze and saw the antenna of the Spice of India linger for one long second before it went under.  The outline of her hull was a fading oval several feet beneath the waves.  A limp body in a life vest floated some fifty yards further out to sea and astern of the Ev Trogairgoith.  There was no one else in the water to be rescued.

The passengers and crew who had been saved, twelve in all, were being hustled into the relative warmth of the ship’s cabin, and from the cries and shouts, and from later debriefing, Frank learned several things.  Lawrence Cheaver, a decorated lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the war, had commandeered the Spice of India during a skirmish off the coast of Italy and had been given first option to obtain her during an auction after a year’s wait.  Inspected, refitted, and supplied in Newport News, Virginia, the Spice of India had set forth some five weeks earlier under the command of Captain Cheaver of Savannah, Georgia, with a crew of four, plus eight additional passengers who were all family members and relatives and friends of the captain, the men aboard learning to serve as spare crewmen.  They had the luxury to take an extended voyage and they had the vessel to do it in.  After leaving Rio de Janeiro in December, the Spice of India had ventured nearly a hundred miles from the coast of Argentina, farther than at any other time during the voyage.

Well before they were approaching Punta Dungeness on the day before the disaster, one engine had begun to falter.  The engineer had suspected bad fuel ever since refilling in Brazil and had first changed fuel filters, then by-passed them altogether.   When the second engine choked on the same diet, several hours before the mayday call, but while the sea was still deceptively calm, they recruited all able men on board to disassemble the fuel lines as quickly as possible in a valiant attempt to clear them and restore a flow of liquid fuel rather than sludge.  The effort failed, the wind came up, and the seas began rolling the stalled, narrow-hulled yacht.

His relatives believe Captain Cheaver had stayed with his ship until he had seen that all twelve of the people in his charge were rescued, then he had let go and submitted himself for rescue, but too late.  Exhausted, he had likely succumbed in the icy, near-Antarctic waters.  The Ev Trogairgoith did indeed have to come around and make a second pass in order to reach his body.  Frank, still wearing his wet clothing and gear, volunteered to go down and make the final recovery.

The twelve survivors were tended by the ship’s officers, and on the following morning all were transferred to a vessel of the U.S. Navy, which met them on the high seas.  Frank and the others who had gone over the side were asked to line up and accept the thanks of the rescued Americans as they departed the merchant ship.  A very pretty, but very pale and distressed girl of, Frank guessed, about seventeen, was the only one among them who could have been the one he had so gallantly carried aboard.  Dressed in an ill-fitting, gray seaman’s outfit, she filed past the ship’s crew without looking at any of them directly, while the women and men among the rescued made gracious gestures of gratitude.

After the voyage to South Africa and back, then a month off and a shorter trip to some South Seas islands, Frank had saved enough money to do what he had long before then decided he must do.  In that time he had also done some research, aided by a Queensland, Australia newspaper.  The Brisbane Courier & Mail was anxious to interview Frank, after the South Africa trip, because the Australian sailors on the Ev Trogairgoith had become a source of national pride.  Their return after several weeks at sea made the news stories a bit anti-climactic, but they were heroes nevertheless.

From the newspaper staff Frank obtained a complete list of the survivors from the Spice of India, and the girl he had rescued was actually his own age at the time: twenty-year-old Diana Desmedes, niece of the deceased Captain Cheaver, and at last account a student at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.  He cannot say why he never simply wrote a letter and asked the obvious questions.  It just never seemed the way to approach it.  Instead, he obtained the needed documentation and bought the tickets to fly from Australia to the United States.

As it happens, it was July, 1947, when he reached Georgia, but Frank did not prepare himself for the opposite seasons, and stepped from the airplane into an Atlanta rainstorm in awe of the heat and humidity.  He found the college campus easily enough, just outside Atlanta, located an office, and introduced himself, but had to be informed by the administrative staff that school was out for the season.  The secretary who greeted him, upon hearing his accent and the nature of his inquiry, though, immediately sized up the situation.  The wreck of the Spice of India had been major news when it happened, and Diana Desmedes was well-known on campus for her part in it.  The secretary told Frank exactly how to find her, at home in Savannah.  And, apparently bursting with excitement afterward, she sent a telegram ahead to apprise the girl of the man who had appeared that day looking for her.

When Frank, freshly shaved and carrying a bouquet of just-picked wildflowers, rang the doorbell at the home of Charles and Faith Desmedes the next morning, he looked into the eyes of the man he had pulled from the Atlantic Ocean six months earlier.

Frank and Diana’s story, although much embellished, was the subject of a 1951 MGM movie, “Off Course Of Course”, starring Todd Bridges and Sandra Leer.  In the movie, the Spice of India was struck by a passing freighter, whose captain acknowledged the accident only after one sailor (presumably Frank Ukers), who witnessed it, risked the captain’s wrath in trying to convince him of the collision.  Frank’s subsequent arrival in Georgia was depicted in the movie as a surprise to the Desmedes household, with the father holding forth suspiciously and disapprovingly.

As Frank tells it, it was in fact a Sunday, and the family was overjoyed to see him.  Faith Desmedes, Diana’s mother, had not made the voyage on the yacht owned by her brother, Captain Cheaver.  Once she was reunited with her husband and daughter in Savannah, she had made inquiries through official channels to learn the identity of Charles’s and Diana’s rescuer, but had never been given a name, or even a list of the crew members of the Ev Trogairgoith.  The Saturday afternoon telegram from the college was the answer to a prayer Faith had offered up only moments before the Western Union runner had rung their doorbell.

Upon answering the door Sunday morning, Charles took one look at Frank, both grinned and extended a hand, but ended up hugging once more without exchanging a word.  Then Diana appeared in a doorway beyond her father’s shoulder.

As it was, the family was just about to leave for church, so Frank rode along, seated with Diana in the car, and in church, and at dinner that afternoon.  And for the rest of their lives, so far.

Frank was not aware that he had even spoken to the people he rescued from the ocean, but both Charles and Diana repeated everything he had said to them as he pulled them to safety.  To Charles, as they were being pulled up alongside the ship’s hull, he had said it was too bad they had missed the chance to see the Strait of Megellan, such a pretty passage, and once he had deposited the man on deck, Frank had said he was sorry he couldn’t stay and chat but there were other bobbers in the water needing to be saved.

To Diana he had apologized for getting the blanket wet and all like that, but she would find that wool would warm her up soon enough, and next time she decides to tread water she should consider some sort of swimwear.

As for the boy he had rescued, he was Captain Cheaver’s ten-year-old son.  He was as well as could be expected, Frank was told, and was safe at home with his mother in Virginia.

Frank Ukers stayed in Georgia.  He and Diana were married on the first anniversary of their meeting in the icy seas off Argentina.  She finished college and became an English teacher.  Frank, without formal education but with the desire to see America, became an over-the-road truck driver, eventually owning his own small trucking company, known originally as, simply, Ukers Express.  To this day, no one can tell by his accent quite where he came from.  His lyrical Aussie lilt has been overlaid with a Georgia twang as well as with the hues of every place he has been since he came to America, including Maine.

Since the couple was unable to have children, Frank would drive to the farthest points his job could take him throughout the country while Diana stayed in Savannah, surrounded by her extended family.  When Frank returned from far-away places, he and Diana would add destinations to their itineraries for their own summer travels, and by the 1980s they had been to 49 states and most of Canada.  When they both retired in 1992, after 44 years each in their respective careers, Frank and Diana Ukers moved to their favorite place in all their travels: Maine.

They own a condominium on the coast now, and they have a log camp not far from here, which they visit once or twice each winter for the thrill of hearing the frosty wind against the windowpanes and so they can enjoy a few private evenings beside a blazing fireplace, a luxury not allowed in the condo.

But the world of their youth, which certainly had its perils, was blessedly peaceful compared to the world they must navigate today, where their cautious approach to a restaurant is thwarted by something seldom seen when they were first starting out: carloads of hooligans who roam without reproach or remorse.

It’s happening all too often nowadays.  Frank and Diana Ukers: just an annoying, boring old couple who ought to know enough to get off the road and let today’s proud youth have it to themselves.  Who do they think they are, anyway?


The first paragraph of this story is true.  The rest is just a fable.


THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Camping in Maine — Teenage cousins Danny and David attempt an overnight in the Maine woods.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind