Jamie stared into his bowl of oatmeal. He watched Ned pick up his spoon then rest his fist on the table, unwilling to break through the brown skin to the steaming oats beneath.
His father broke the silence. “Don’t you like oatmeal, Ned?”
Jamie looked at his father’s plate. “Why can’t we have ham and eggs like you?”
“Because oatmeal’s better for you. The ancient Greeks called it ‘Ambrosia’. What are they teaching you in school anyway?”
“We haven’t studied the Greeks. I just know they were before the Romans.”
Jamie’s father waved his fork. “Well, when you do, you’ll find out the Greeks always quested for the vital substance of life, the one true foodstuff to give them health, strength and immortality. And they found it in the simple staple of the humble boiled oat. That’s Ambrosia in front of you.”
“But they didn’t live forever, did they? I’ve never heard of any still alive.”
His father leaned in his straight-backed chair. “Well, some say they did and some say they didn’t. Others say they didn’t give it enough of a try. And that’s a tragedy. They were certainly strong. They pounded on the Persians pretty fierce a couple of times.”
“Then why don’t you eat it?”
“Because I’m a recalcitrant mule.” He dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “For you I had higher hopes.”
Jamie looked toward his mother at the stove.
Her back was to him but she spoke anyway. “Would you boys like some raisins or brown sugar for your oatmeal?”
Ned lifted his bowl. “Please?”
His father pushed back from the table and lifted his coffee cup. “Tragedy, pure tragedy.” He tilted it back to finish it. “Don’t dawdle, now. Finish up, we gotta get moving.” He gathered his papers, went over to Jamie’s mother, kissed her cheek and stepped out the door.
In the back of the pickup Jamie held his head away from the cab for the bounce across the pot hole at the end of their lane. When they hit the hole he heard Ned’s head bang then a curse. “Ow.”
He turned and saw Ned’s eyes clamped shut against the wind. “When we go down past the lake, I want you to look at something.”
“All right. What am I ‘sposed to be lookin’ for?”
“Look over at the dock by the water before the pine trees shut off the view.”
Both boys craned their necks and stared through the breaks between the pines.
“Now watch, watch.” Jamie pointed to the thin reed ticking back and forth and the dark line flicking from the tip in curved graceful arcs. “There.”
Jamie saw Ned’s eyes grow a little wider under lowered eyebrows. “Who’s fishing this time of morning on a Monday?”
“Is that what he’s doing?”
“Yeah, fly fishing. Pop showed it to me in a magazine. He was all hot to learn how and have the stuff in the store ‘cause it’s how folks who got a lot of money fish.” Ned leaned back against the truck cab. “Mom talked him out of it. Said it cost too much for something that probably wouldn’t work.”
“I bet it’s the Ghost. You said he was goin’ fishing.” Jamie looked back toward the water. “Maybe he’d let us watch him. Maybe talk with him.”
Ned shook his head. “Not me, uh-uh. No way in hell.”
“Ain’t you the least bit curious?”
“I ain’t no cat.”
“Daddy says he was in the war. That’s what happened to his face.”
Ned was silent. Jamie studied him while the truck bounced onto the washboard road to the mill. “You really don’t like him, do you?”
Ned shook his head. “I don’t know him well enough to not like him, there’s just … it feels like he’s broke inside.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Every time I see him I get a shiver down my back like somebody jumped up and down on my grave with both feet and a fence post. Ever seen him up close?”
Jamie shook his head. “Just that one time in church, but not close, no.”
“I did once. He came in the store, got his stuff, laid it on the counter, paid for it and left, all without a single word. It’s the only time I ever heard Pop say he wished a customer would stay away.”
“What do you figure really happened to him?”
“His face doesn’t change, like it doesn’t work anymore. He sets the creeps into me.” Jamie saw Ned’s face pinch up. “Whenever I look at him I kinda … hurt.”
The pickup bounced on up to the mill gate. Before Jamie had a chance to move, Ned clambered over him, took the key from Jamie’s father’s outstretched hand and opened the gate. Ned made some people uncomfortable, so Jamie found it real interesting that he was spooked by the Ghost, a man so quiet that many had never even heard him speak.
Come the noon whistle, Jamie’s mind had let go of the Ghost. He was tired of heaving boards and trash. Gritty sweat ran down his face and he could smell the sun bake the dirt beneath his feet. It felt like the whole earth was one big crusty slab covered in hard sand that kicked up and choked his throat every chance it got.
Jamie and Ned retreated from the sun under the shade of the big oak trees by the office cabin. They took turns at the pitcher pump mounted in the well, the damp creak and gush of water a relief to their ears. They filled up their mason jars to overflowing, the cool water dripping down the sides, and then sat down on the bulging roots away from the bright dry heat. Toby plomped down beside them, panting.
Early that morning Charlie and Marshall had attached plow line to their lunch pails and lowered them down into the well where they would stay cool. Now they pulled them back up again and sat down on the ground. Little Foot stripped off his shirt, leaned against the tree trunk and fanned with his hat.
Chatter from under the next tree over drew Jamie’s attention. He heard Dancin’ Charlie’s high cackle then the slow twang of the lightly built dark-haired man they called Rudolph. Rudolph seemed to Jamie to likely be the first man on earth to wear out a comb. The overalls leg pocket of most men at the mill held either a tool of some sort or a small cylindrical tin of powdered snuff. Rudolph kept a tin of pomade in his and used it frequently, dabbing little bits here and there to conquer strays in his slicked hair. Rudolph also smoked a lot. Jamie smirked at the idea of a grease fire.
Rudolph spoke loud enough for Jamie to hear.
“You think you know so much about it, well that just ain’t so.” Rudolph crushed his hat back on his head. “Maybe it’s because you are so old, you just forgot what being in love is.” He punched his finger in the air toward Charlie. “I bet that’s it, you just don’t remember, it’s been so long.”
Snow and Little Foot were sitting close to them and laughed, but Jamie noticed that Charlie’s friend Marshall, the huge black man, did not. He just slowly rolled a cigarette. But large friend to back him up or not, Charlie was not about to let a challenge like that go untouched.
“Well, ain’t you the fancy pants, Mr. Valen-tino? You just ain’t been around long enough to know, is all. You just remember that after you been together for a few years and she gits a little wrinkle here and a little sag there and you get worn broke down from workin’ and she throws you over for some young buck all full of piss and vinegar the way you used to be. Ain’t that right, Marshall?” Charlie shook two fingers at Marshall as he lectured Rudolf. “He knows what I’m talkin’ about, yes he does.”
Rudolph dug in his shirt pocket for cigarettes. “I understan’ Marshall’s your friend and he’ll back you up, but when ya git right down to it, you don’t know, do you?. You don’t know ‘cause you ain’t in it.”
Marshall drew on his cigarette, let out slow smoke out of his nose, then leaned his head back and pulled his broad-brimmed felt hat down over his eyes.
Rudolph tapped a cigarette out of the pack, then pointed at Charlie, the cigarette between his fingers. “And I’ll tell you another thing, not that it’s something you’d undastan’.” He struck a match, touched it to the tip and lifted his chin toward Charlie. “I’m downright purty. Lots of gals told me so.”
“Is that so?” Charlie hooted, a hard, high extended hack of a sound. Dancin’ Charlie then earned his sobriquet. He picked up one foot and then the other as he laughed, then half-crouched on one leg and alternately pounded the other foot on the ground and slapped his knee in his own self-syncopated rhythm.
Even Marshall laughed at that, and Rudolph had to smile. “You just don’t want to believe it, believe that I’m purty to the women.” He took a half-step toward Charlie, then straightened up again. “Oh yeah, a woman’d have to be dumb as a stump to leave a man as purty as me.”
Jamie snorted and almost spit the potato salad he had just spooned into his mouth. He put it down the jar and reached in his flour sack for safer food, a drumstick wrapped in wax paper. “Good God almighty, would you look at Charlie dance?”
“Your momma sure knows how to make up a feed bag.” Ned mumbled through a mouth stuffed full of chicken.
Jamie could not pretend any particular enthusiasm. He bounced the chicken drumstick in his hand. “Yeah, but I’m too hot to eat.”
Ned mumbled at him.
Ned swallowed quickly. “Strip the skin off. That gets rid of the grease.”
Jamie did so and took a bite. It was better, much better. He laid the skin down on the tree root beside him for Toby. Toby lifted his nose to sniff it then turned away when a squall like a howling child rent the air.
“What was that?”
Ned looked up and shook his head. “I don’t know. There can’t be a baby out here.”
Jamie shook his head too. “Not likely, but it sure did sound like one, didn’t it?”
Their eyes searched for the sound. In the dim shadows underneath the cabin a striped orange mass with great green eyes stared at them. He yowled right at them again like they had just stepped on his tail.
Jamie said, “Would you look it, it’s Wandering Tom.”
“Wandering Tom. He’s an old tom cat, been hanging around since nevermind. But what’s he crying at?”
“He wants your chicken skin. Hopin’ you don’t want it.”
“He’s right about that.” Jamie lifted the skin and tossed it over right in front of the cat. Orange stripes flashed and both Wandering Tom and the chicken skin were gone and out of sight.
“Wow, that was quick.”
They heard Snow’s whistle to get back to work.
“Yeah well, so was lunch.”
Ned followed Jamie as they rolled up their flour sacks and put them away in the pickup. He heard Snow call to them and turned to see Snow walking toward them carrying two five-gallon buckets. He handed each of them one. They were three-quarters full of a white watery fluid that slopped over the top as both boys heaved on the handles.
Ned staggered under the weight. “What is this stuff? It smells like fertilizer.”
Jamie and Snow spoke in unison. “Whitewash.”
Ned swiveled his eyes from one to the other. “Okay, what do we do with it?”
Snow looked at Jamie to keep his mouth shut then turned to Ned. “You’re gonna paint the cabin. They’s scrapers and brushes and a step ladder right over there in the tool shed. Thought this job was goin’ to be a vacation, did you?”
Ned spoke directly to Snow without blinking. “Didn’t know what to expect.”
Snow frowned quick and nodded. “Fair enough. See if you can git the front of the cabin done by end of the day. Scrape it good so there’s no loose peels and slop it on generous, use it all. When the bucket’s is empty put ‘em in the back of the pickup so Mr. Garrath can fill ‘em up tonight from your gaslight generator. You done this before Jamie, I seen you do it at your daddy’s. When you done, let me know.” He pumped his thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll be over there.” Snow hitched his shoulders and walked over toward the engine shed, the legs of his overalls dragging the ground and puffing up little dusty clouds.
They put the buckets down. Toby sniffed at the white liquid and turned to lie down in the cool dirt underneath the cabin.
At the supply shed Ned grabbed normal paint brushes but Jamie waved him away. “Nope. Gotta use the big ones.”
“These?” Ned held up two heavy brushes, coarse yellow bristles sticking out from wooden blocks with short wooden handles.
“How do you clean ‘em?”
“Soap and water, but,” Jamie grinned, “you gotta do it before the whitewash sets. Here, grab the other end of the ladder.” Jamie pushed the step ladder over toward Ned and each taking an end, they carried it over to the cabin.
“Make sure you wear your gloves. And don’t splash none in your face.”
“Why?” Ned looked down at the watery mixture. “What’s in this stuff?”
“Lime in water. But if you don’t wear gloves it can eat on your hands a little bit.”
“Lime?” Ned snorted. “Oh, Pop and I spread lime out in the garden with our hands, no problem.” He stuffed the gloves in his back pocket.
“Nope, that’s barn lime. Kind of a gray lookin’ stuff?”
Ned nodded. “Yeah?”
“This is different. This is slake lime and it’ll eat up your hands in a hurry. Not so much when it’s mixed with water, but it’s still a good idea to wear gloves. Tell you what, why don’t one of us scrape and the other one slop on the whitewash. We can switch when we get tired.”
They did just that until late in the day when Snow dropped by. The side of the building was scraped off as clean as you please and soaked with whitewash.
Ned said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Snow, but no matter how much we put on it just don’t seem to get white. It just kinda soaks in and the board stays gray.”
Snow laughed and rubbed his hands together. “That’s all right, let it dry out some and it’ll turn sure enough. Just look at your pants there.”
Ned looked down and his heart sank. His clothes were covered with dry white.
“See? It’ll dry up just like that ‘cept a little whiter. Ain’t no need to worry.’”
“I’m not worried about that, Mr. Snow.”
“What’s the matter then?”
“It’s just that Mom’s gonna kill me when she sees these pants and shirt. I know they’re work clothes and all, but now they’re ruined. And I don’t have any more.”
Snow glanced at Jamie. “You didn’t tell him, did you?”
Ned turned to Jamie. “Tell me what?”
Jamie looked like he’d just swallowed the last bite of pie he was supposed to be saving for company.
Snow filled in the gap. “They’s no problem with your clothes, boy. That stuff will wash right out, no problem.”
Ned watched Jamie balance his brush down very carefully on the top of the nearest bucket. “I think I’ll just lay this here until tomorrow … ” Jamie had no chance to finish his sentence, because he had to dodge and duck a sloppy swipe of Ned’s brush and run.
“You better give your soul to Jesus,” Ned flung the paint brush right at Jamie’s head “ ‘cause your butt is mine!”
Snow slapped his hands on his knees as he watched them gallop off down the path toward Little Lake. What he wouldn’t give to be able to move like that again, lord oh lord, what he would not give. He picked up the brushes, closed up the empty five gallon cans and put them in the back of Grant Garrath’s truck. He was still chuckling when he put up the ladder in the tool shed.
The boys sprinted hell-for-leather toward Little Lake. Usually Jamie could outrun Ned, but this time Ned was inspired. Down the path through the woods, Ned almost got close enough to grab Jamie’s shirt when one toe hung up on a root. He windmilled his arms and recovered just as their boots pounded the planks of the dock.
Ned stretched and finally gripped into the back of Jamie’s shirt. “Gotcha!”
When Jamie twisted around and grabbed his suspenders Ned figured out, all too late, that Jamie had no intention of stopping. Both of them flew off the end of the dock like hunting dogs after water birds and landed flat, lake water exploding into their mouths and noses in a shattered moment of white water and noise. Ned flailed in the water until he saw Jamie standing hip deep and realized he was not going to drown any time soon. He found his feet, water streaming off of him and watched Jamie holding his stomach in laughter. Ned looked down. White floated around him on the surface of the water. At that Ned felt the bands of tension in his body shatter and fall away and he had to laugh too, loud and long. He grabbed Jamie by the front of the shirt and pushed him back into the water and then he didn’t care if he was standing or not. He slipped down, laughing as hard as he ever had. If the water had been any deeper both of them would’ve downed.
A deep quiet voice rasped behind them. “I suppose that’s all for fishing today.”
Ned turned around and thought he was going to swallow his own head. The Ghost sat on the dock, his craggy countenance still as a stone, fishing rod laid across his knees.
“Oh … we’re … uhh …” Ned coughed.
The Ghost’s face warped with what Ned thought might have been a smile. “It’s all right.” His voice ground the air. “They’d stopped biting.” He hooked his fly on the cork handle, reeled in the line then unfolded his long legs to stand. His grabbed his canvas bag and an oval wicker bucket with one thin hand and waved at them with his rod in the other. “Have a nice swim.” He turned down the dock boards. He didn’t so much walk as he glided, all grace in every step and before they knew it he was lost aview in the pines.
Ned and Jamie dripped as they stood up in the water. Ned heard a rusty rasp then a hacking cough echo from the trees. “Is that him laughing?”
“Jesus H Roosevelt Christ.”
Ned had to agree. As much as he was spooked by The Ghost, the relief at both his clothes and The Ghost finding them funny took the stand right out of his legs. “Goddamn.” He sank back down into the water. “Goddamn.”
“Don’t you ever let Momma hear you talk like that.” Ned watched Jamie slide toward the dock. “She’ll switch you till you can’t dance anymore and then she’ll let your momma know and you’ll get it all over again.”
Ned laughed as he floated on his back. “Yeah, well.”
At supper that night Jamie’s father piled potatoes on his plate. “I talked with Snow today about a better way to use you boys than whitewashing.”
Jamie heard his mother behind him at the stove scrape the cast-iron frying pan. “Yessir?”
His father grabbed the bowl of beans, heaped them onto his plate and passed it on. “He told me he wants to go ahead and crank the engine tomorrow. Needs your help to work on it.”
The stovetop scraping stopped.
Jamie had had heard the engine but never up close. If you were in the garden and stopped hoeing to listen, a body could hear the big bang start and then the deep irregular throb in the wind. “Tomorrow?”
“That’s right, first thing. So let’s not be dragging our feet getting’ up.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t going to be for another couple of days.” Jamie kept his head down so he wouldn’t need to look at his mother, but then Gloria began to kick and fuss and his mother had to take her upstairs.
“Eat up there, clean your plate.” His father sawed at the meatloaf with his fork. “Turns out we need it earlier than we thought. It’ll be you two, Snow and maybe Marshall. There’s a lot to do to get it ready to run.”
Jamie heard Ned muffle past the food stuffed in his mouth.
His father leaned his head in Ned’s direction. “What’s that?”
“Marshall. Lord, he’s a big one. Hate to get on the wrong side of him.”
Jamie’s father chewed and swallowed. “I haven’t spoken with him all that much myself. He seems to be a good man and he’s got the strength of ten horses but he just doesn’t talk a lot.”
On the way back to his room from his bath Jamie overheard his parents.
“You told me he wasn’t going to be near that thing.”
“He isn’t gonna be when they crank it. I do need him to help Snow work on it though. They’ll just be getting tools and holding things, honey. They’re not going to be close when it turns over.”
“That’s not what you told them.”
“Well, they’ll be close enough to see it, but nowhere near close enough to get in any trouble.”
“Honey, it’ll be fine.”
After that Jamie just heard a slight heave of rustling and then silence. He ghosted back to his room, careful to avoid the creak boards in the floor. Ned was asleep, or seemed to be, but Jamie couldn’t, not now. He lay back in his bed, hands crossed underneath the back of his head and thought about that engine. He hoped his father wouldn’t keep him too far away. He ached to smell it run.