A Near Thing
By the time Jamie and Ned returned the sky rippled swirls of violet gold and charcoal shadows. The oily aroma of meatloaf greeted them as they came in through the back porch screen door, mixed with smooth fresh baked bread. They splashed through washing up at the porch pump, ran wet fingers through their hair and hurried inside to the supper table.
Jamie’s father looked up as they slid into their chairs. He had his newspaper spread out beside his plate. “Any luck? About time you fellas got here.”
“No sir, they just weren’t biting. Tried everything.”
“Probably weren’t holding your mouth right.”
“Daddy, you don’t let us read at the table.” Gloria bounced beside her mother’s chair. She pinched her face together and shoved her lower lip out at Jamie and Ned. “And they slammed the scream door again.”
“Stick your boose back in your face, young lady. And don’t do as I do, do like I say do.” He looked up long enough to scoop one more spoon of mashed potatoes onto his plate. “I have work tonight after supper and I need to read the paper.” He set the serving dish down and picked up the paper. “Yankees won.”
“Who against?” Jamie’s mother looked at Gloria. “You want some more, Honey?” Gloria’s curls swung as she shook her head.
“Indians. It was closer than the last one, five to four, but it says here that it was the longest game in history without a strikeout. Sixteen innings, imagine that.”
“That’s a better game than that one with the A’s, though. What was it, twenty something to two?”
“Tnnyviv.” Ned mumbled upward through his mashed potatoes.
“What?” Jamie paused, fork in mid-air and cocked his head at Ned. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
Ned swallowed hard. “Twenty-five. It was twenty-five to two.”
“Do you follow baseball, Ned?” Jamie’s mother delicately cut her meatloaf. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Yes ma’am.” Ned reached for the basket of rolls, took one and held it up to his nose.
Gloria giggled beside her mother and smirked at Ned. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t talk with …”
“You hush.” Jamie’s mother frowned at Gloria then extended the platter of meatloaf to Ned. “Does your father follow baseball?”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Ned stabbed a slab of meatloaf onto his plate then set the platter down. “No ma’am. He thinks it’s stupid.” He scooped at his mashed potatoes. “But Doctor Voyce can’t get enough of it. Pop memorizes the scores so he’ll have something to talk about with him.”
Jamie caught a glimpse of his father’s raised eyebrows as he pressed and scraped the last potatoes off his plate.
His father dropped the paper. “The Thin Man’ is on the radio tonight. I want to give it a listen, so I need to get some work done before it comes on.” He rose from the table and dropped his napkin by his empty plate. “You children help your mother out now.” He clicked his pocket watch open and closed again. “It starts in an hour. Quiet till then.”
“And you, young lady, are upstairs for your bath.” Jamie’s mother reached out to gather dishes.
Gloria slipped off her stool, eyes fixed on Ned and leaned into her mother and whispered in her ear.
Jamie’s mother shook her head. “No, you can’t. No one likes to be stared at. Now you go upstairs to the bathroom and get your clothes off. I’ll be up with hot water in a minute. Go on.”
“Aw, Momma.” Gloria shoved her lower lip out of her face, balled up her little fists and thump-stomped up the stairs.
After the supper dishes were washed, dried and put away Jamie lay on his back on the couch in the living room, a pillow stuffed behind his head and Robinson Crusoe balanced on his stomach. Ned sat in the wicker rocking chair by the window, his head leaned back and his eyes closed.
His mother called out from the kitchen. “Jamie honey? Time to fill up the Delco. These lamps just aren’t enough for what I’m doin’. And why don’t you take Ned with you and show him how to do it?”
Like mowing hay brings on rain, sitting down to read always seemed to bring more work to do. Jamie let his book drop on his lap and yelled at the ceiling. “Do I have to? It’s not a radio night.”
“ ‘The Thin Man’, remember?”
His father sat at his desk in the corner of the living room and sifted through papers. He lifted his eyes to look at Jamie over the top of his reading glasses and spoke in his brook-no-opposition voice, low and soft. “Go do what your momma says, boy.” He looked back down at his papers. “And fill up the wood box while you’re at it.”
“Yes-sir.” Jamie slammed his book closed and pushed up.
Ned got to his feet.
Jamie trudged out onto the front screen porch. The evening light was fading dark and he had to watch where he put his feet. He was about give the screen door a little extra push to make it slam behind him, but when he turned around Ned was close on his heels. So he jumped off the porch, trotted over to the woodpile and started loading his left arm with wood.
When he looked up he saw Ned loading his own arm. “Thanks. The box ain’t that big. We’ll be done in a minute.”
Ned shrugged at him as much as he could with an armload of wood. “That’s ok, I’m used to it. This is easy. I don’t get help at home.”
“Yeah, me too.”
They trudged around to the back of the house and up on the back porch. With Ned’s help the job didn’t take but one trip. As Jamie finished placing the wood from his arms into the wood box he looked in through the kitchen window. By the steady yellow light of the kerosene lamp he could see his father in the kitchen, leaning against the counter with arms folded, looking at the floor. His mother rested her elbows on the table and studiously peeled apples. Both their mouths were set in a line. There was no sign of Gloria. Jamie guessed she was upstairs, lost to the world playing in one of the eternal baths she always complained about.
Jamie pushed open the screen door and spoke to be heard. “Now we fill up the Delco.” He stepped out into the deepening darkness and held the door open for Ned. As Ned passed dusting dirt off his shirtsleeve Jaime let the back door slam to. He grabbed onto Ned’s arm and held him there.
Jamie saw Ned’s mouth form ‘What?’ He put his finger to his lips for quiet, tapped his ear for Ned to listen then pointed through the window. He leaned over a little so he could still see inside. They didn’t have long to wait.
“Now Grant, I’m just not happy at Jamie being around all those men at the mill. He’s only fourteen. I just don’t know you can expect … I just don’t know.”
Jamie held his breath. The dance between his mother and father was intricate in traces of subtlety and innuendo he could glimpse but not understand. It was like watching the lowered curtain at a school play billow and sway between acts. You tracked the shifting folds to try to figure out what was going on behind, but when the curtain finally lifted you were still surprised at the result.
“Yes, I know he’s fourteen. Hannah, he’s … he’s like a corn plant that’s already broken up through the sand crust into the sun. Eventually he’s got to see some rain and a little wind or he’ll grow up spindly and weak with no spine.”
Jamie’s mother stopped peeling and laid down her hands down in her lap. She coughed a single laugh. “Our boy is not spineless, Grant. If anything he’s got a little bit too much dander in him.”
“I know it might seem that way, honey. But he has to go to work sometime. He ain’t Huck Finn.”
“Isn’t Huck Finn.”
Several slow beats passed until his father responded. When he did the words were slow and clear. “He needs … to go … to work.”
“But Grant …”
“But nothing, Honey. I’m not making him do it. I know men who hafta take a switch to their boys to get them to hit a lick at a snake. Jamie asked if he could work at the mill. Hannah, he asked. Don’t you see? If I don’t let him it’ll damage his spirit.”
“He’s still a boy, Grant.” She stared down at her hands in her lap. “They both are.”
Jamie’s ears rang in the silence.
“All right.” His father rubbed his forehead and ran his hand through his hair. “I hear you. And yes, he is still a boy.” He took breath and released it slowly. “Tell you what. I’ll let him and Ned work till the afternoon break at two, every day. They won’t have to work during the heat of the day and it’ll give ‘em a little time to fish and be boys. And I’ll let them off at noon on Saturdays. How’s that?”
Jamie squeezed the edge of the step railing. He felt the final see-saw moment in the balance. This was the very understanding he and his father had already come to because his father was afraid he’d get heat stroke.
He heard a chair scrape against the floor then heard his mother’s long sigh. His heart leapt, for that was her signal of capitulation. She had accepted the offered compromise.
“Well, all right. But if and only if you promise to keep them away from log handling and for God’s sake keep him away from that saw. Grant, the idea of him losing a hand or a leg to that thing just scares me half to death.”
“I know, darlin’, I know. He’ll be safe, I promise. They won’t be anywhere near the saw. All right?”
His mother stood up and his parents came together with quiet and indistinct murmurs Jamie wished he could hear, especially when a low giggle from his mother danced an echo clear out past the screens to where he and Ned stood. But if the Delco didn’t crank and start lighting up the house real soon his mother would want to know why. He tugged on Ned’s shirtsleeve and tiptoed out across the grass to the tool shed as quick as he quietly could and grabbed the gas can to fill the Delco.
Ned was right by him and Jamie saw him twisting back to look at the house with his hands in his pockets.
Light was fading fast. Ned’s voice reached to Jamie as he fitted the gas can spout to the little low-slung tank by feel. “Got any idea what we’ll be doing tomorrow?”
Jamie set down the can, screwed the tank cap back on and grabbed for the hand crank. “No idea, never been inside the place.”
“So you’ve never seen this saw they were talking about?” Ned rubbed his wrist.
Jamie fitted the hand crank to the flywheel. “Nuh-uh. But it oughta be fun, huh?” He grinned at Ned, leaned on the handle to spin the flywheel and the little engine coughed and putted to life.