Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
“Does each of you have your offering?” Mom demands, as we three boys sit, ties tightened, sport coats buttoned, in the back of the speeding Plymouth––late for church. Howard and I nod. Cliff whose eyes never turn from the passing scenery, pulls an offertory envelope from his pocket and waves it in her general direction. “Will you for once, please, look me in the face,” she begins, but her voice trails off. “Never mind.” She turns back, straightens her collar, picks a speck off her suit. “Wayne,” she instructs Dad, “you’re driving too fast.”
“Don’t get on me,” he warns. He says the words slowly, lips thin and tight. I open my mouth to intervene but Howard gives me a threatening look, leave them alone, and I hiss-whisper back, “You’re not my boss.”
Arriving at church, I rush to the Dressing Room. Pulling a gown over my head, I pin on the red bow even boys are forced to wear. The choir’s already formed in twos for the processional and I move into place alongside Judy Forneau. She sees me, grimaces, then nudges her way between the two girls in front of us and gestures for them to huddle close. She whispers something and the girls turn to look at me. What’s wrong? Then the doors to the sanctuary open and the choir begins its long march down the aisle, in twos, except for Judy and the girls (a threesome) and me, alone, at the end. I gesture for Judy to return to my side but she ignores me, nose in the air. The choir slide-steps down the center aisle and as each two-some arrives at the front, one singer turns left, the other right, climbing the stairs on each side of the loft. But it doesn’t work for Judy and me because we’re no longer the two-some we’re supposed to be.
I whisper for her to return to my side but she ignores me. I insist by yanking at her robe. She jerks it back. I hear a rip but Judy ignores that, too, sashaying down the aisle like a queen with her now two very best friends (three days ago they weren’t talking). Mom and Dad look on, horrified. I want to yell it’s not my fault; then, looking down, I discover Judy’s robe is torn, the back of her blouse showing though the tear.
Arriving at the front, Judy and one of the girls turn left, the other right, all skill and ease: no big deal for them! But I’m no girl, things like this confuse me, and I stop in the middle of the aisle, feet frozen to the floor. Before I can make up my mind, the minister’s wife rises from the front pew, takes my arm and ushers me with exaggerated motions to the right. She’s smirking and acting up for the congregation, finally, giving me a smack on the butt. When I arrive in the loft, Mom is glaring at me, furious, mouth twisted out of shape. The man behind her taps her shoulder and grins. She turns and shakes her head as if only mildly embarrassed, but when she turns back, her eyes fill again with rage. And Father refuses to look up from his hymnal.
I'm going to pay for this stain on the family name.
* * *
But returning home in the car, no one scolds me. Something’s going on between Mom and Dad, which is not unusual, so I ignore it. I’m busy plotting Judy’s demise. Suddenly my mother blurts out: “Let me off at the corner, I can walk from here.” And because we’re traveling through Colored Town I get worried for her safety. “What’s wrong with you two?” I demand. I reach for the front seat but Howard pulls me back and elbows me in the side. “It’s none of your business,” he hisses.
“Stay out of this, Michael,” Dad yells. “You’ve done enough for today.” He turns and scowls angrily over his shoulder, causing Mom to scream, “Wayne, watch where you’re going!” as she grabs for the steering wheel. Dad swerves wildly to scare us into thinking he’s gonna hit something. I don’t see anything anywhere close, still I’m thinking what Mom yells next: “You’d crash the car just to prove a point!” Even Howard joins in: “Dad, you’re going to get us killed!” So Dad yells at Mom, “You’ve turned these boys against me.” And she counters, “You’ve done it yourself. You’re a mean, cruel man." And it goes on like this all the way home: parents shouting and slapping at each other, car swerving crazily, Howard glaring at me to keep quiet; while I imagine opening the door and throwing myself into the traffic: that’d stop ‘em! The whole time my weird brother Cliff hangs his head out the window like a dog, wind blowing the hair from his face.
* * *
My parents’ fight behind the closed bedroom door is followed by a long, sour meal. Mom whimpers, Father seethes, I try to ignore them both. With each stab at my peas, Judy lets out a scream, but she deserves all I give her.
“Mom, make him stop,” Howard complains.
“Michael, you’re talking to yourself again. Stop it,” Mom says, not looking up.
Toward the end of the meal and without waiting for dessert, Cliff goes to the sewing room for an old pillowcase, then disappears into the basement to pick out his favorite snakes.
“And what are you doing this afternoon,” Mom asks, faking innocence, and Howard, who’s been eating with his head down, looks up, worried.
“Cliff and I are going to practice. You know that.”
“Are you doing fire-hoops, today?” Mom continues, picking up a dish.
“First we do snake-dancing,” Howard begins, eyes darting towards Dad for help. “Then,” he continues nervously, “fire-hoops. Depends on what the Tribal Elders say.”
“Well, that worries me,” Mother sighs. “I’m afraid you’ll get hurt.”
Dad steps in but only because he and Mom are fighting: “Leave him be, Helen.” They glare at each other and that makes me afraid the fighting’s about to start up again.
“All I’m asking is you be careful,” Mom sniffs, carrying the potatoes into the kitchen. “Is that so much to ask?”
The table’s been cleared but no dessert’s been served; I guess we’re supposed to make do, even though it’s Sunday. I feel cheated but today’s no day to complain so I get up from the table. My dad grabs hold of my wrist: “And where are you going?”
I look down at my wrist. “Thought I’d play Scrabble but looks like I'll be alone.”
“Don’t worry,” my mother calls from the kitchen, “I’ll play with you.” I hear the water filling the sink. “After we get home from the Memorial Service.”
“Great,” I say, without meaning it. No one’s going to play Scrabble on Sunday night; there’s obligatory Junior Fellowship and by time we get home, it’ll be too late.
My dad’s still holding my arm and I’m still glaring at his hand. “Why don’t you ever go to anyone’s house to play?” he asks, suspiciously. “Or invite anyone over here?”
I jerk my arm out of his hand but he grabs it back. “Don’t pull away from me, young man,” he snaps.
“I don’t know," I answer. "I will. Someday." But I won’t. Our house lies outside the school district and no one wants to walk this far. Once I did get a kid to come all the way over here but when we arrived he asked, “Now what are we going to do?” and I didn’t know how to answer so he left. Me, I went down the hill to our cave and spent the rest of the afternoon scratching pictures into the wall. Fine with me.
I stand there, silently, a moment more, and finally Dad lets go. Then I grab a book from our library and take it to my room. Later, I hear Dad go to the car and as my mother starts out the door, I yell, “Can I have mulberries for dessert?”
* * *
The Cold Room. At the back of our kitchen, from floor to ceiling, four to five jars deep, are goods Mom put-up from our garden: green beans, stewed tomatoes, applesauce, pickled cauliflower, onions in vinegar. We grow all the fruits and vegetables we eat so we fill two freezers as well. It surprised us kids when they bought them; for once we were the first on the block to have something new, and not just one, but two! Still, it makes sense: it’s economical.
I open freezer number two, grab a jar and lug it to the counter: a gallon of frozen berries, icy cold. Grabbing a fork, I start hacking away. This is the best way to eat them; if grown-ups were here I’d have to use a bowl. I remember the day we picked them: Mom called us kids together, she was carrying a bunch of old sheets and she marched us down the hill to the huge mulberry at the far end of the garden. Then she sent us up into the highest branches and we shook them like crazy. Berries rained down, turning the sheets purple. We folded the sheets into funnels and poured them into baskets. Later Mom froze them so we could enjoy them all through the winter.
Funny, but the only time our family gets along is while working in the garden. Maybe it’s a kind of a Peace Zone, like in Korea. Or could it have something to do with my parents growing up in the country? I hated Grandma’s farm but it seems it’s different for them. Dad’s usually not nice to anyone except Clarence but when we’re gardening he treats everyone fine.
Like in summer, when we work in our field at night.
Dad gets home from work about five-thirty, changes his clothes, and we pile into the car to drive to the bottom of the cliff. We’ve each got jobs to do. Mom tells me to water and I have to fill buckets at our well (keeping an eye out for snakes) or maybe I have to weed. Early in the year there’s planting and I like that most. I like the smell of the dirt and dropping seeds into the soil, spacing them like Mom tells me. She knows all about that stuff.
As we work, we shout from one side of the garden to the other, through the corn, past the beans, over the rhubarb. Dusk falls and the moon rises but we continue to work. Lightning bugs flicker, crickets chirp, frogs croak from hiding places near the well. It gets darker, harder to see, and when it’s almost black Dad goes to the car, opens the doors and turns on the radio. Above us stars twinkle as we gather our tools by the light of the headlamps, moving quietly so everyone can hear. Eventually, we meet at the car. Howard lies across the back seat, legs dangling out the open door; Clarence is propped up against a fender, too exhausted to lie down; and Cliff stretches out, head flat to the ground, one ear up in tune with the plot. Everyone’s quiet, no one’s fighting, we're all listening closely to find out what happens this week on Gang Busters.
Just thinking about it makes me grab my jacket and hurry out the back door.
* * *
In winter from the top of our hill I can see the entire river valley below, past our garden, across the Missouri River to the bluffs on the other side in Iowa. In a book Uncle Charlie gave us, Breugel’s Famous Masterpieces, there are landscapes like this: plowed earth, bare black trees, patches of snow, birds building nests. Trotting along the walkway, I turn left at the compost, past the rope swing Cliff almost killed himself on last year, and start down the path. Mulberry bushes line the trail and I think what the berries will be like before they’re ripe: hard, dry, white and bitter. Come spring they’ll be covered with caterpillars like Chinese people use to make silk; Cliff’s dared me to eat one of them––he says Chinese eat insects––but I’m not that dumb.
I arrive at the bottom. The wind’s slight, cool, and because it’s winter everything smells fresh. First I check the tool shed. Mom said bums might be sleeping there and I want to make sure I’m alone and safe. Inside it’s dark and dusty, there are cobwebs and sacks of fertilizer, but also a couple of empty bottles we’d never have used: wine bottles.
Once I came in here, it was a summer’s day, hot and sultry, I’d been playing alone and had to go to the bathroom but didn’t want to climb clear up to the house. I could’ve gone anywhere but for some reason I stripped inside the shed and right in the middle, defecated. (Our family doesn’t use profanity.) Flies buzzed, it was smelly, and I felt guilty; but instead of cleaning it up I felt directed to go to the doorway and stand in the hot sun, heat so bad you could faint. I stood there naked (anyone could’ve seen me!), listening to the flies, the grasshoppers in the weeds, the birds in the trees––but I could hear something else, too: the planets moving around the sun and the earth turning beneath me. And somewhere deep inside the earth, the things that make it turn: metal gears, giant flywheels, huge watch-works. It didn’t frighten me; I just wondered if I were the only one who could hear such a noise or if there were others, maybe everyone, only no one ever talked about it. Certainly, I didn’t clean up my mess, but someone did and no one ever mentioned that so I know things take place that are not discussed.
But today there’s no sound of machinery and no one’s here. I check the faucet on the artesian well and take a drink. Tastes good. Then I go to our cave.
Some houses on our Boulevard have tunnels leading from their basements on the top of the cliff, one-hundred-fifty feet down to the fields on the floodplain at the bottom. People use the tunnels for storing canned foods, seeds, tools, that kind of stuff. Our house doesn’t have a tunnel, only a cave, but my brothers and I have used it for everything: initiations, drawing pictures on the walls, escaping chores. Me, I’ve used it more than anyone else. My brothers have grown too old for it but I never will.
Making my way through the brush, I find the cave too muddy to enter. Dad says it’s not safe, too much seepage, but he’s never tried to keep us out. I sit on a rock and stare out at our garden. Past the tangle and thorns of raspberries, corn stalks stand dry and ochre against the dark earth. It looks prehistoric, like it’s been this way forever. Indians used to live here; at the end of our property I’ve found circular indentations left by their teepees. Cliff says I’m wrong about that, that when the river floods (which it does every few years) any marks would have been destroyed. But we’ve also found wagon-wheels from Mormon carts; if floods were so strong, wouldn’t they have been carried away, too?
A hundred years ago Mormons spent a winter here. They froze and starved though right across the river in Council Bluffs there was food and warmth and safety. Iowans hated everyone different, especially Mormons, so they ran them off. They even forced them to pay to be ferried across the river to come to these cold fields and die. I feel sorry for the Mormons, I understand how they must have felt and hope that had I lived then I would have fed and given them a warm place to survive the winter.
“But no one will help us,” they beseech me. “We’ve got no food, our babies and women are starving.”
“I’ll help you,” I answer. “I’m not like the others. Here, take my mulberries and corn. Even if I don’t have enough, I’ll share what I do have, though it costs me my life.”
I like that: though it costs me my life.