All That We Dreamt ~ On Fire
Jack On Grandma’s Farm
1. Call me ‘Jack’
Let me begin by telling you how I became known as “Jack”
I was eight years old when we moved to my Grandmother’s big old house in the woods. My father had been wounded in the war and my grandfather had just died. ‘Grandma’ needed help and my father could work the farm machinery, pretty much.
I had said all my nearly tearful good byes to my friends, and was ready to ride for almost a week in the back seat of our aging van, with a mountain of bags and boxes between me and my 6 year old sister, Annie. Mom had to do all the driving and Dad was not happy to think of himself as a cripple, so he was pretty much unhappy with everything. Anything I said or asked about – even the simplest of questions, ‘earned’ me a completely unexpected barrage of angry words on that first day. I sat and sulked in silence for the rest of the trip, sure that we were moving into hell, everything pleasant in my life was surely gone forever.
We slept in a motel the first night and then spent two nights parked in camp grounds, sleeping in the late summer heat inside the van. We had a choice between leaving the windows closed and being eaten alive by mosquitos.
On the fourth day we stopped and visited somebody Dad knew from the army. This guy had a ranch. He had lost one arm and half of one leg- they’d been blown up in the same ambush. Dad had both arms and most of both legs. He had prosthetic feet. (Annie could talk about his ‘prophetic feet’ and get away with it- I couldn’t even think about mentioning that without having my head screamed off. She didn’t know better, or that was the argument. She knew better enough to stick her tongue out at me and later whisper, “Ha ha- I got you in trouble again.” When I complained she denied it and they believed her. I silently vowed to get even if it took me the rest of my life to do so.)
So anyway, the guy my dad had spent so many weeks with in various hospitals and then the flight back and the same barracks for two more months while their discharges and ‘compensation packages’, and their ‘prophetic limbs’ were being ordered, then fitted and tweaked, had this pop up trailer with ‘good screens’ that he, ‘could let yas borrow, ya just gotta give it back-’ and he had his brother fit the van with a hitch to pull it… so for the rest of the trip we could stay in camp sites in relative cool, without fear of being eaten alive by mosquitos. Trouble was, the trailer smelled bad and it had fleas. Maybe the bed they assigned me was the only one with fleas, but they ate me alive. Nobody believed me the fourth night, but on the fifth night I had big red welts to show them. People in the camper next to us told us we had to get rid of that bed, but Dad said it wasn’t his… They found somebody with bug spray and made me sleep in the hot van again.
Luckily, it was a bit cooler that night. And when we started going in the morning, I thought we had entered the biggest forest in the world. Maybe we did, but I was more than impressed. I also wondered if there really was a hungry bear behind every tree. I told Annie there was, and she cried to Mom and Dad and had something else to stick her tongue out for and revel over getting me in trouble again.
Just before noon we stopped at a yard sale and the people there had a window screen that had been made specifically for our make and model van. (They saw my big purple welts and asked what happened, I said, “Bugs. and now they make me sleep in the hot van because the spray is toxic.” They insisted we take their window screen, free, they wouldn’t no for an answer- The farmer said, “Princess Patricia’s- we lost too many lately-” and Dad stopped arguing (and later covered his tattoos) but then he screamed at me for saying anything- he didn’t want no [bloody would have been an euphemism, he didn’t use euphemisms. Annie’s eye popped wide and she covered her mouth to hide her delight at Dad screaming the eff word at me… Mom turned pale and glared at me like it was my fault-] charity.
So we pulled into Grandma’s about maybe three hours later. Grandma was nearly six feet tall (almost as tall as Dad) and had big flabby arms that looked like she probably could have picked up a full grown bull and thrown it a hundred feet in her prime. She was all happy to see us and sat and cried with mom and dad for almost an hour while Annie and I had to find something to keep us busy until dinner time.
The house was amazing. It was a huge old farmhouse, mostly brick, but some stone, and a little bit of wood construction. It probably looked like a big capital “I” from above, with big long (or wide) top and bottom cross pieces or whatever you call that, or maybe you could call it a double inverted capital “T” ? It had been built into a hill side, in stages, so the newest section was where Grandma actually lived and the older sections were back farther, gathering dust, and storing loads of stuff from Dad’s brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, and people who would never come back to claim anything… but it was there, because Grandpa had said he would keep it for them and Grandma wasn’t going to go against his word- Not even now… so Annie and I were finally given our choice of two of the bedrooms that weren’t full of antiques and treasures of questionable value-
Annie picked the one with the pinkish purple wallpaper. It was the smaller of the two rooms, up a flight of stairs, around a corner and down at the end of a long squeaky hallway from the room I then had to take whether I wanted it or not. Nobody would ever be able to sneak up on her.
I got a room with a floor that had three different levels, and two ninety degree turns through a section that was long and narrow with three stairs up and five steps down and two big closets, and then there was the wider section, way in the back, where it had a big built in bed with a small moldy mattress, built in drawers and and a ’shelf” that was at least four feet deep and six feet wide. Dad said it had been his uncle’s room. The uncle who tried to kill himself twice and then maybe put himself in the line of fire so somebody else killed him, and he got a medal for being a hero.
Mom looked sick as he told me that, but she didn’t say anything.
And then it was dinner time.
Grandma was a terrible cook. Everything tasted like cardboard and felt like rotten rice on my tongue. But when I whispered that it was awful to Mom, she told me to eat every bite and don’t I dare complain about it.
I gagged and choked my way through dinner, but didn’t let Grandma see that.
Annie loved every minute of it, but she was having just as much trouble eating as I was.
I threw up about half an hour after dinner.
Grandma heard it and came to the bathroom door while Mom was patting me on the back and rubbing my neck, and bellowed, “Boy probably caught some bug on your way here, but don’t let him think that gets him out of his chores in the morning. I expect him up at five, ready to go to work.”
Mom walked beside me on the way to my new bedroom (at six p.m.)
Annie cackled and whispered, “You’re room’s haunted, I know it.” then ran away laughing.
For once, Mom heard her, I had one consolation as I climbed onto the stinky old mattress with the clean crisp sheets. I could hear Mom yelling at Annie. I discovered that the huge ’shelf’ was right up next to Annie’s bed. There was an old iron grate six inches above her floor, under her bed. On my side, the grate was up near the ceiling. I could climb up there and see their feet walking around, I could tell it was Annie’s room because the pinkish wall paper was visible behind their ankles. I still felt lousy, but I had a plan. I sat there on the shelf and waited.
I woke up as Annie was saying her prayers with Mom at her side. I heard them kiss and heard Mom say she was going to go check on me, so I quietly crawled, jumped down , ran and jumped up into bed, pulled the sheet up over me and tried to look like I’d been sound asleep. I could hear Mom coming the whole way- across the creaky floorboards in the hallway, down the creaky stairs, around the corner, She knocked on my door and then just came in, walked through the ups and downs of my twisting internal hallway got to my bedside, sat down, gasped, covered her nose, said, “Oh god- we have to replace that mattress.”
“Huh?” I pretended to wake up.
“Oh nothing, how are you feeling?”
“Sick-” I grumbled.
Mom nodded, “Okay, but remember what your grandmother said. I have to wake you up at five in the morning and you better be ready for whatever chores she’s got in mind for you.”
I groaned, tried to sound like I was dying.
She kissed my forehead and gasped, “God, that mattress smells awful.”
I nodded in agreement and she went away.
I almost fell asleep. then I got up and crept to the shelf, climbed up, crept over to the grate and moaned in my scariest, deepest, most ghostly voice. I moaned maybe three times, trying to sound deeper and scarier each time.
“Who’s there?” Annie sounded scared.
I moaned one more time.
Annie shrieked and ran, slammed her door behind her and ran screaming, “There’s somebody in my room-”
I ran back to my bed and hopped in and reveled at the commotion that followed.
Maybe an hour later Mom and Dad went back up into Annie’s room and sat there for a while, then Dad said, “Maybe it was the wind…. shit, I can’t keep climbing up here every time she hears something go bump in the night. And she can’t sleep with us, she just can’t”
“Okay- she’s asleep now, I’ll carry her back up here and put her back in her own bed.”
“You do that- and see that she stays there,” I could hear Dad’s crutches clunk and his prophetic feet slide and still make the floorboards creak as he struggled to the stairs and down… I think he hesitated outside my door, then moved on.
Mom did not come in to check on me again.
Until almost five in the morning, And then she threatened to pull me out of bed if I didn’t come on my own, “Come, on, I’ll make you breakfast-”
So I dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, put on my sneakers and raced down to the kitchen. Where Grandma took one look at me and shook her head, “Boy oughtta have proper boots, and no- he don’t get to eat no breakfast until he’s finished his chores.”
I almost threw up again.
“Come on, boy, I’ll show you what you gotta do- every morning, five o’clock, ever day- even Sundays-”
I followed her to the barn. She pointed, “You let the dogs out first, then the goat. The goat leads the sheep to their pasture. The dogs make sure they follow him. Then you let the sheep out, and ya probably gotta go in there and chase them out. Then they follow the goat- you make sure they get inside their pasture and ya close the gate, you make damn sure you lock the gate or we’ll skin ya alive if the sheep get out. Then ya go back and clean up the slop on the floor in the barn, clean up the goat stall and the sheep stall, and the dog’s pen. That should be okay for you now- you’re older than I was when I had to do that.”
She let the dogs out. The dogs looked like they wanted to eat me alive. Then she let the goat out. Finally, she let the sheep out, she had me chase the last of the sheep out of their area (and cover my best sneakers in sheep poop.) and then she walked with me to the pasture, showed me how to open and close the pasture gate and how to make sure the latch caught and make sure by pulling as hard as I could on the gate.
Then she sent me back to the barn and expected me to know where to find the tools to clean out the stalls, I managed to squeak, “How do I do that?” just before she was out of ear shot.
She came back at me like she was going to kill me on the spot, “Don’t you know nothin? Ain’t nobody told you nothin? Christ, Jesus, boy-” she got the shovels and rakes and the wheelbarrow and showed me how to use them, showed me where to dump the wheelbarrow and where to get the fresh hay when that was done. Then she sighed, “No I guess nobody ever showed you this stuff- you not livin on no farm and all- well ya better learn fast- cause nobody else will do it for ya-” and she stalked away.
It felt like it took me hours to clean the stalls and make five trips to where I dumped the stinking hay full of sheep and goat poop, and dog poop. I was just about finished spreading new hay around the dog’s area when Mom scared me to death by appearing behind me while I was mumbling to myself about slavery being illegal.
“Yeah,” she said, “but ya better get used to it. Grandma’s done her household chores and she’s gone to the cemetery to see to your grandfather’s grave. It looks like you did everything she told you to… come on, how about some fresh eggs and home made bread?” She got a look at my hopelessly ruined sneakers and winced, ‘We better get you some farm boots, whatever they are- and if it makes you feel any better, Annie’s supposed to get up every morning at 6 and go get eggs from the hen house.” Mom shook her head and sighed, “Not my idea- but Grandma says kids have to get used to the idea that everybody has to work for what they eat.”
Mom walked ahead of me with her arms clenched tightly in front of her chest. She shuddered half a dozen times before she made me take my sneakers off, and remove my socks and leave them on the porch.
Dad was sitting at the kitchen table sulking and Annie stumbled in, sat down.
Mom said, “Your mother said they don’t eat until they’ve done their chores.”
And Dad said, “She’s not here, is she? Annie, you better eat quick, before your Grandmother gets back from the cemetery, and don’t expect to eat before you do your chores from now on.”
“Chores?” Annie gasped.
Dad nodded, “You have to go to the hen house and get every egg they’ve laid, and then you have to bring them in here without breaking one of them. Your grandmother says she will wash them off in the sink and then show you how to check to make sure they aren’t fertilized and next year you’ll have other chores, but that’s enough for now.”
“Chores?” Annie gasped again, like she’d been told that she’d been sold into slavery.
“Yes, chores-” Mom said, and turned toward Dad, “His sneakers are ruined, we better go get them some boots first thing-”
Dad nodded, “Her too-”
Mom’s breakfast tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten before.
Dad hobbled out into the yard with Annie and showed her how to fight with the chickens to get their eggs, and then he struggled to stand at the kitchen sink and wash the eggs they brought back in, said, “Grandma will have to show you how to check them, that never was my job-”
And then we had to find the box with my good shoes and wait for Annie to finish fussing in the washroom. Grandma came back from the cemetery and sat down looking exhausted, and no, she didn’t want to go to the store with us.
So we went to the store and Dad knew the old guy who owned it. We got rubber boots that came to our knees and we got ‘good’ sneakers that were on sale and the store owner handed Dad a list of what we needed for school and we came home loaded down with notebooks and pencils and rulers and paper…
And then Dad took Annie for a ride on a tractor (that had hand controls for the throttle… he told me that years later. a hand throttle and two sets of brakes. one he could stomp on with his prophetic feet and one that was a long lever he could pull with all his strength.)
So Mom rushed me upstairs and had me help her drag my stinky old mattress down to the trailer and exchange it for the one that Annie had slept on. The thought of sleeping in her germs gave me the creeps, but the thought that she might some day have to sleep in the stinky old moldy mattress made me feel a bit better.
Anyway, we got the mattress in place, it was almost an exact copy of the one it replaced, at least for size and thickness… And then mom sprayed it (and the room) with some kind of room freshener and made me help her put clean new sheets on the mattress and hurry back down stairs before anybody realized what we’d done.
Then Mom turned me loose to run around the farm. I found the baseball diamond my father had said was there and ran the bases five times. The backstop was rusty, but it was still there. There were two little dug outs, one behind a fence on either side of the diamond and there was a wooden fence around the outfield. I ran around the outfield once. all the way from home plate, down the first base side, all around the outfield and back down the third base side. I slid into ‘home’ and looked up to see my grandmother smile at me. I was shocked.
But she didn’t notice, “In a couple years, ya might be old enough to drive the rider lawn mower around this field here, that could be another one of your chores. Looks like you won’t mind that one. This was your grandfather’s idea. He’d feel real good if he could see you like this.” then she frowned, turned and plodded away, called over her shoulder, “It’s lunch time. Yer Ma’s cookin- better be good- I ain’t lettin just anybody cook for us, ya know.” and then as an afterthought, she called back over her shoulder one more time, “Leave them new sneakers yer wearin on the porch, we throwed the old ones away.”
I wanted to run ahead of her, but I didn’t. I walked what I figured was a respectful distance behind her. She glanced back a couple times and nodded, didn’t say a word. I guessed that meant she was glad I was following, far enough back so she wouldn’t have to talk to me or anything.
And then, as I sat on the porch, pulling my new and only a little muddy sneakers off, I heard her talking to my Dad and Mom in the kitchen, beyond the screen door, “I know it ain’t right that I been callin him, boy- but he’s named after his grandfather, and I just can’t call him that-”
“Call him Jack-” Dad said.
“Jack?” Grandma sounded surprised.
“That’s sort of an English nickname for- for his name.”
“Jack-” Grandma repeated, “Huh-”
I came to the screen door and peered in, feeling weird about being outside on the porch in my socks, but-
Grandma looked up and saw me, “Well don’t just stand there, come on in.”
Mom began to say something, “Is it okay-”
But Grandma cut her short, “We’re gonna call you “Jack” from now on-”
I looked at Mom. Mom shrugged, helplessly.
“Good- so get your bum in here, Jack, and eat your momma’s cookin before I change my mind and give you a couple more hours of chores to do before lunch time.”
And that’s how I became ‘Jack’, and not so much Shamus”
Chapter 2 : Our “New” School.
Annie graduated from being an annoying six year old to becoming an extremely annoying seven year old, “-on the last POSSIBLE day of August.” (She stressed the word ‘possible’ a little more loudly every time she repeated that phrase. She stressed it, sometimes almost spitting the word in my direction, because she thought it annoyed me. It didn’t actually annoy me at first, but after about a hundred times in the week that followed her birthday (including our trip to the school to register for that year’s classes in our ‘new school’.) I was ready to choke her to death. A few more instances and I probably would have been calculating my odds of getting away with it, “She fell against something and stopped breathing-” (?) Nahhh- that would never have convinced anybody, there would be fingerprints on her throat or something.)
But anyway- Annie as an obnoxious seven year old looked like the poster child for a “Visit Ireland” campaign. She had the round face and the cheekbones and especially the freckles. When she began her eighth year (I argued that with her, she couldn’t get it, she was not going through her seventh year, that had started when she had her sixth birthday. Six birthdays mean you’ve lived six years, you have started on your seventh year. She cried and went whining to Mom or Dad or both, “He’s doing it again-” “Doing what again?” “Telling me this is my eighth year.” “He’s right.” “He is not, I’m seven.” “But this is your eighth year.” “It can’t be, I’m seven!” “Well it is-” “Tell him to stop-” “Jack, stop telling your sister this is her eighth year. It upsets her.” “It’s the truth-” “Yeah, we know, and some day maybe she’ll know too, but for now, just let it drop.”)
So Annie looked very Irish. She also looked like her face might get stuck with her tongue sticking out at me. She also looked like she might spend her life covered in mud, whether she had anything to do with mud or not. She had mud coloured freckles and mud coloured hair, and liked mud coloured clothes, sticking (that year) to browns and oranges. I decided I hated orange that year, probably because she liked it so much.
So Annie looked Irish and I looked like a Viking. I forget who said that first. I was tall and thin and my hair bleached blond in the summer. Annie became a freckle factory in the sun and I tanned with relatively few freckles. I burned easily, but then I tanned.
Mom had as medium brown hair as brown hair can get. She told somebody (I overheard) that she thought she looked like a German peasant girl, and she hated that. She had fine features and a clear, pale skin, longer hair than most mothers had in those days, very blue eyes (almost spooky, deep sapphire blue.) and always looked like she was ‘dressed up’, no matter what she was wearing.
Dad looked like an Irish street fighter or an invading Viking, depending on who you were talking to, or rather, listening to.
Our last name should have been Andersen. But when our great great grandparents on my father’s side came to the new world, they came to the USA and somebody at Ellis Island spelled their name funny. They thought they had to go along with it or something.
Andrusen. Maybe the person who checked them through or recorded their official USA name thought he heard Andrew-son. I don’t know.
What I do know is that everybody spelled my last name wrong. They all accused me of misspelling it and tried to correct me. Especially my teachers- well, most of them- Mom Had to correct the lady in the school office three times. The woman just could not imagine that anybody would spell Andersen that way. And when it came to ‘Shamus’- Mom was probably so mad at the school board she told them my ‘Christian name’ was Jack. (On the way home she swore she would kill me if I ever told anybody it wasn’t. And she smiled and gave me a hug and patted my head, then threatened to kill me if I didn’t stop teasing my sister and everything was back to normal.)
“His real name is Shayyyyy-Missssss.” Annie said as mom got the mail from the box at the end of Grandma’s long gravel driveway.
Mom turned around and glowered at Annie, and snapped, “Annie- if I ever hear you say anything like that again I will tell everybody that your real name is George and we’re going to change your sex maybe fifteen times in really really painful operations, do you understand?”
I whispered, “Way to go- Mom!” under my breath and wondered if that would be the last or only time she came to my aid in an argument with my sister.
But the trip up the driveway gave me even more hope.
“If “JACK” is eight and I’m seven, why is he two grades ahead of me?”
“Because he’s almost nine.”
“But he isn’t, not yet, shouldn’t he go to his next grade only after his birthday?”
“Annie, I am declaring that Jack is mature enough to consider himself a nine year old as of today, and if you don’t shut up I’m going to give you Grandma’s headache medicine and you will sleep until your eighteenth birthday- at which time you will still think and whine and talk like a six year old.”
“But I’m seven!”
“Then you better bloody start acting like it- Grow up! Now!”
I managed to laugh silently.
We were the second stop on our bus driver’s long loop through our predominantly rural community.
Labour Day was the seventh of September that year, as late as it can be. We got like an extra week of summer vacation. If you could call waking up into slavery on Grandma’s farm a vacation.
Mom got us up an hour early and stood beside us to make sure we got our chores done on time. I fell asleep on Grandma’s lumpy old sofa while Mom made sure that Annie got all the eggs the chickens had laid, washed them all and checked them by the special light and looked for cracks in the eggs and stuff. (Then never did tell me how much was involved in that part.)
So at seven A.M. the three of us were pretty much comatose at the little building by the mail box at the end of Grandma’s driveway. Annie and I both had our purple (colour coded) tickets inside the plastic (outhouse shaped) protector, on a shoe string around our necks and Mom spent a couple minutes signing the driver’s book and answering her questions while the woman driver (she was probably about five feet three and must have weighed about two hundred and fifty pounds, mostly muscle-) glared at us like we were known to be international terrorists. Before she let us climb up onto her bus she stood up, blocked our way, and recited her rules. “None of this, none of that, Don’t even think about this, and if I ever catch you doing that I will march you right down to the principle’s office so fast your head will spin!” Then she pointed, “You can pretty much sit almost anywhere, but Amy, my monitor, will get on at the next stop and she’ll want all the young kids in the front, and if you sit way in the back the older kids will probably beat you up before I can get back there and try to save your life, so you (she pointed at me) sit somewhere in the middle and you- (Annie) you can sit closer to the front.
“But I’m seven-”
“Okay- but the boys back there will tease you about your freckles and ask you if you wash your face with shit- if you want to listen to that, go right ahead and sit as far back as you want to. Personally, I was trying to do you a favour.”
Annie looked worried, nodded, “Okay, I’ll sit near the front.”
Mom gave us a little bit of a wave and the door shut and I felt like we were going off to the penitentiary for a life sentence. I tried to kneel up on the seat to look back and watch Mom fade into the distance as we drove away- until the bus driver screamed, “Sit down!” and I spun around and sat down hard in the seat.
At the next stop a woman in her thirties, with very thick glasses and orange pants and a shiny purple blouse got on and had to read everybody’s passes. There weren’t that many of us yet, but she had to hold the passes up, like maybe six inches from her face, to read them. Then she tried to look friendly, “Hi, I’m Miss Amy- if you behave yourself and follow the rules, we’ll get on just fine. If you screw up, I’ll feed you to the wolves.”
It may have been right then and there that I started to very firmly believe that all adults were nuts.
Two stops later, about ten rowdy boys and six slightly older women (I would guess, grades five through eight.) got on the bus. The women looked fashionably bored and the boys looked like they all wished they had frogs to drop down into the women’s blouses.
And a “plump”-to-”solid” boy jumped onto the seat next to me, called to the others, “Hey- it’s a new kid, what grade you in?”
“Grade 4?” one of the older boys from way in the back called, “Hey Murphy, looks like you have a new punching bag-”
“What’s your name, punching bag?” he showed me his fist.
“What the eff kind of name is that?” (he actually said ‘eff’.)
I felt very dizzy, then blurted, “Viking.” and hissed through my teeth, “I’m here to pillage your fields and kill your men and steal your children.”
They weren’t ready for that, “Whuuuu- what are you? A special Ed case?”
“No-” I grinned, “I’m an international terrorist and if you don’t leave me alone, I will kill and eat you for breakfast.”
One of the older kids laughed and leaned forward in the seat behind us, “Can I watch?”
And one of the grade five or six girls from across the aisle half leaned toward us, “Are you going to cook him first? Or eat him raw?”
I tried to look like I was gauging his taste and what grade of meat he might be made of, “I’ll probably have to boil this one for several days, he looks like he’s so full of shit that it might take that long for all the poison to leave his system.”
There was a wonderfully reassuring chorus of laughter from all around us. Poor Murphy didn’t know what to do next. Finally, I think he got a signal from an older brother or something, he grinned, “A Viking, hey?”
“He probably means Swedish-” one of the better looking women from farther back said, and she smiled at me.
“Yeah- one of the boys back there chirped, “But they’re always good in a fight- you probably want this one on your side.”
I glanced back and couldn’t begin to guess who might have said that.
Murphy was not in my classroom. He was in a group that had grades 3 and 4 lumped together. Nobody knew why-
I was in a group with grade 4 and 5 students. Again nobody had a clue as to why the school board would come up with such a grouping. Or if they did know, they weren’t talking.
The boys in this classroom looked meaner than the ones on the bus. They looked like their parents or older brothers all kicked them in the crotch to wake them up for school. They looked like they’d all tried to comb their hair with a pavement brush, and then gave up.
One of the biggest, with the dullest expression I’d seen in real life pointed to my bus pass and announced, “Hey, purple is for fags!”
And an adult male voice somewhere behind me said, “Yeah, you can put your bus passes away until you need them for the ride home- Mister Mason, you can sit with the girls if you want-”
Everybody laughed but the big guy, he looked like he wondered if he could kill the teacher with one or maybe two punches.
The teacher- he looked like a kind of short sports nut- he was wearing a camel coloured blazer and had short hair brushed so it almost stood vertically on his head, “I’m you teacher this year, my name is Mister McGowan, I’m the wrestling coach, I also teach Karate and several other martial arts in town here, and in the spring, I’ll be the baseball coach. (he pointed at me-) You would be, uh, ‘Jack’ Andrusen, right?”
I nodded, thinking he was about to rip my throat out and show just how easy it was to kill somebody.
“And you live out at the McCorkindale Farm, yes?”
I nodded, wondering if rosary beads really comforted anybody when they knew they were about to die.
“I’m sorry to hear about your grandfather- do you know if your family is still taking care of that baseball field?”
I nodded, confused, thinking he might just be teasing me, getting ready for the kill.
“I was ( he stretched the word ‘was’ out to at least twice its normal length), I waaaasss talking to your grandfather about him letting the school and the high school use that baseball field for training, and if there’s enough room for parking, maybe even for our home games. The field we have here…. well, sucks….”
“So you don’t know whether your family even knows about this agreement or not?”
“Will you ask them for me?”
“Your father was a pretty good catcher on our team, we came pretty close to going to the provincial finals…”
Dad had never talked about that. I knew he had a baseball trophy, but he was such a grump, I never asked about it.
Mr. McGowan. I tried to burn the name in my mind, I had to say something to Dad about Mr. McGowan. And baseball.
But then I realized that every eye in the classroom was staring at me. I think my temperature had to be about a hundred and ten (Fahrenheit) (that would be something like fifty degrees Celsius, I think….)
Mr. McGowan probably read my expression and knew that I was about to implode or maybe even wet my pants and drop dead on the floor.
He raised his voice, drew everybody’s attention to him- He was just a little bit taller than “Moose” Mason, but he exhuded confidence and projected fear and respect like no one I had ever heard of before, “Like I said, my name is Mister McGowan, I’m your teacher for combined grades four and five, and three or four times this year I will ask you if you are happy with your seating arrangements- now for the first week or so, I want you to think about how you want to be seated for the first part of the year- Should we separate the boys from the girls, should we have columns or a circle? should we push the desks together to make three or four separate groups? Should we have the grade fours on one side of the room and the grade fives on the other? We will have our first exercise in understanding democracy next Monday. Today- Unless we have anybody with a vision problem? I will seat you alphabetically…
That made me sit in the second seat from the front on the far left of the classroom. there were twenty four of us in that class. He had five rows of five chairs each and enough room between rows (or columns? he called them rows) so nobody would be able to pass a note to somebody next to him or her without an obvious effort.
He had us ‘volunteer’ to help pass out books in an orderly rotation, called the first person in each row the first time, the second person in each row the next and so on.
He talked about how our days would be ordered. There would be half an hour of Math, half an hour of French, twenty minutes of morning recess, half an hour of Science, half an hour of English, and then we would break for ten minutes and then have half an hour for lunch, another ten minute break and then we’d have art, music, spelling, maybe a surprise quiz or test, an afternoon recess, a time to study quietly or help each other with various school projects, quietly- And then we would go home.
He was one of the most self assured men I’ll ever meet, and he scared the hell out of me. I guess you don’t exactly put everyone at ease when you introduce yourself as the local Karate teacher, and oh- the only person I recognized in this class was one of the young women I thought was way older than me on the bus. And she said he was her Karate teacher, her sensei- and that he was a world champion. They almost didn’t take him in the army because he was so short, but then he taught rangers how to kill something like eighty five different ways with their bare hands for six years. They wanted him to stay in and make it a career. He told them to go to hell and put himself through university. He wanted to teach high school, or maybe even at the university level- but his first assignment was grade 4 and developmentally challenged and he was so good at it, they kept him there. I think he hated every second of it, but he wouldn’t admit that to anyone. Somebody (at lunch) asked if his wife was a midget, and no, Danielle (the green belt karate student) (the one who had smiled and said I was probably Swedish while we were on the bus) said, “She’s about the same height as he is. Their six year old daughter is a brown belt who breaks two by fours at demonstrations two or three times a year.
And then we were on the bus, riding home. No, it didn’t feel like home. I wasn’t sure I’d last the year there, I wasn’t sure I’d last another week.
And when I got home, Mr. McGowan was sitting there, in the kitchen, talking to Dad,
And Dad looked happy and he kept nodding his head, “Yes- yes, we can do that-” and They talked to Grandma and she nodded and scowled at me so I ran inside and decided that the shelf in my bedroom was almost as good a place to leave my schoolbooks in their backpack as anywhere else.
Two days later there was a desk in my bedroom. Mom said Dad traded something to somebody for it. It looked brand new. What I really wanted was a computer to sit on that desk. No such luck.
Well- about a month later, we had a computer, but it sat in a ‘den’ that probably been used as an extension of the pantry, off the kitchen, with no door. And it was situated on a countertop that had once had cupboards below it, and it was sitting there so anybody in the kitchen could glance in and see what was on the monitor. I don’t want to pretend they didn’t trust us. I think this arrangement might have been Grandma’s idea. I heard her mumbling about child pornology, useless technography and devils’ devices (”Not in my home!”) for three weeks before we actually got that computer.
Oh, I almost forgot. That first day of school? Mr McGowan was almost out of the driveway when Grandma got a call on the telephone, she called Dad and Mom and they talked in whispers for a couple minutes and then they call me, “Do you know Derek Murphy?”
“I think he’s the kind of pudgy guy who sat next to me on the bus.”
“He wants to know if he and two brothers and two friends can come over and play baseball with you.”
I looked at Dad. I thought he almost looked like he was proud of me for once. I nodded.
Dad and Mom nodded to each other and then the both nodded to Grandma.
“Yeah, it’s okay with me- and okay with them- just don’t expect nobody to give them a ride back home at dinner time, and we can’t feed ‘em, not today anyways-”
Grandma looked at me like she thought she was watching all her “hard earned money” take wings and fly away from her bank account.
3. Baseball (and green eyed girls) in Canada.
I don’t think I actually told you we’re in Canada yet. My great great grandfather and great great grandmother (they were married) came to the USA because that’s where the first boat from Sweden took them. The story is that great great grandma was supposed to marry some rich guy’s son, but she hated him so she pretended she had to get married to great great grandpa and they got married and left their village for Stockholm, and when they heard rumours that somebody from the rich guy’s family was looking for them, they begged and borrowed their ship fare to the new world. I have a friend who wonders how it could have been a new world, because it was just as old as the old world. It just didn’t have as many brick building in those days.
And then great grandpa had a job on the railroad and he fell in love with somebody from Canada and found a way to move to Canada and later became a citizen without telling anybody back in the USA that he had moved up here to the great not always white north. Part of Mom’s family left New York State around the same time, and pretended they were Dutch instead of German so people would leave them alone. Great Grandpa was too young for the first world war and too old for the second. Dad said he could have been drafted in the US, but nobody bothered.
But anyway. Great Grandpa had learned to play baseball and he was good at it. He taught Grandpa and Grandpa was almost as good as Great Grandpa. Then Grandpa built the ball field where they couldn’t get much to grow (before the scientists came around to try to tell them how to run their farm) and Dad was better than Grandpa. At least that’s what Dad said, when he couldn’t bend over to pick up the ball without steadying himself with one of his crutches or at least a cane.
And Derek Murphy’s dad played on the same baseball team in high school with my Dad and Mr. McGowan. Derek Murphy’s dad drove the kids out to Grandma’s farm to check out the field and see whether Dad was still an okay guy or not.
Dad and Mister Murphy took a walk to where they could talk a safe distance from us kids while we tried to decide whether to have a game or just have some kind of practice where everybody got to hit and then took a spot in the field while somebody else got a chance.
I was supposed to pitch before I got to hit. I could hear Murphy’s dad say, “Well you never called or anything- I read your name in the paper and didn’t know how bad it was….” and I heard Dad mumble, “Well it wasn’t good-” and almost took a line drive in the head, but I caught it, amazingly, my gloved hand just moved to save my forehead and I caught a really hard hit line drive.
Somebody said, “Holy shit- he’s good-” and then they all gasped and looked toward the grown ups, who apparently hadn’t heard the holy shit part.
Before we’d moved to Grandma’s, Dad had painted an oversized strike zone and the outlines of a left handed and a right handed batter on the wall of a rickety old shack in the backyard of our home, which wasn’t in a real city, it’s just that everybody around Grandmas thought it was the big city. Dad had told me to keep throwing until I smashed a hole in the shack, hopefully inside the strike zone. He used to send me out there when he wanted to have an argument with mom without me hearing anything. I never quite smashed a hole in the building, but I had pitched several full length games. The imaginary batters couldn’t hit worth a- worth anything, but I pitched nine innings and walked fewer and fewer runs in all the time.
I had never pitched to real people before. Dad had tried to catch, but he couldn’t last long, and if he missed a wild pitch it was way too hard for him to get up and go after the ball. Annie couldn’t get me to agree to play with her dolls in exchange for her playing catch with me, so that got nowhere.
I was pitching to Murphy. He fowled the first two pitches off, one to each side, and then I started getting the ball past him. And he mumbled louder each time he swung and missed. And then he blurted,”Jesus Christ! Can’t you get the ball over the plate or what?” and his oldest brother said, “Hell, you’re up there swinging at everything, and yeah- those last couple pitches were strikes whether you swung at them or not.”
And Dad and Mister Murphy walked over behind the backstop and kept their eye on me while I was pitching and they were talking about something.
At first I was nervous and Murphy whacked a ball that was just fowl, down the third base side, but it almost cleared the fence. And then I pretended there was nobody but me and the painted outlines on the shack and I must have pitched five good strikes and more like eight others that he swung at and missed.
Murphy was almost in tears- “This is supposed to be batting practice, he’s not supposed to try to strike me out…..” he whined.
“He’s good-” Murphy’s father said.
“Hey, Jack, let him hit a couple-” Dad said.
I felt dizzy, a lot of heat went to my head, How do I do that?
But I envisioned him hitting one and threw the baseball into the right groove and pow- right over the first baseman’s head and it fell in for a good single, maybe even a double.
“Can you do that again?” I don’t know whether Murphy’s dad asked me or his son but I shrugged and he nodded, and they had me throw maybe five more pitches. Murphy missed the first one, but then he connected, and hit pretty well, on the next three.
Murphy almost whined again, “Ah, let me hit a home run!”
I paused, I thought about it, I saw him hit a really long way in my head and I tried to pitch into the groove I saw in my head.
I just missed.
He connected and hit a fowl ball that would have hit the outfield fence if it had gone straight and hadn’t bounced off a tree near the path to the sheep pasture.
“One more?” Murphy whined.
I looked at the grown ups.
Both of them nodded.
I pitched. Murphy popped up to his brother playing shortstop.
I tried again.
Another pop up, this one went back up and over the backstop and Murphy’s dad caught it, bare handed, threw it back to me so hard it stung for the rest of the day.
I took a deep breath, I envisioned Murphy getting a really good hit that stayed in fair territory. I tried for the groove, I pitched almost perfectly, he swung and missed.
This time I relaxed, I tried for the same groove again and didn’t care whether he hit it or not.
And he hit it good. I heard the ‘whack’ and ducked and threw my hand up in front of my face, didn’t catch or miss anything, turned around in time to see the oldest boy there race gracefully to his left and catch the ball, one handedly in deep left field.
“Okay, Jack- you’re turn to bat”
Murphy went, “Awwwwwwwww-” and moped as he picked up his glove.
And my dad, who almost never had anything good to say to any kid, said, “Are you kidding? Derek, you hit the longest ball here today- too bad it didn’t stay fair- and that last one wasn’t bad either- Any kid your age who can do that is pretty darned good. nobody in your grade could’ve caught it, you’d have had a home run almost certain-”
One of Murphy’s brothers pitched to me. I whacked about fifteen fowls and let maybe twelve balls go by me before I connected with a decent cut and the ball went skidding between the shortstop and second base.
“Good Eye!” Dad said, “who’s next?”
I caught two more pop ups and missed two well hit balls that zinged past my glove and into the outfield. By the time I thought I would be the next to pitch again we heard Grandma hit her triangle with her metal stick and bellow- “Time to come in for dinner. Don’t forget to wash your hands and leave your dirty shoes on the porch!”
I sighed. Murphy threw his glove down, “And it was my turn to hit again.”
“That’s okay, there’s always tomorrow-”
And Murphy perked up, “Can we come back again tomorrow?”
“Long as you get your chores done and finish your home work and don’t give me no guff-”
“We ain’t got no homework, it’s just the first day-”
“I’ll see about that when we get home, you did bring home your agenda book, didn’t you? Don’t tell me you forgot it on the first day of school.”
“I brought it home, I think-”
“I hope you did- for your sake-”
And Mister Murphy rounded up the kids he’d driven over and piled them into the back of his pickup, beneath the cap, but, “Now remember, you lie down and stay down, I don’t want no Police to know you’re back there. You got that?”
And then he said, “Is it okay with you if we come again tomorrow night?”
And dad looked happy for the first time in months, nodded, “Yeah, almost feels like old times, hey?”
And Murphy’s dad jumped into the truck and started his engine and waved and went zooming down our driveway, kicking up dust and bits of rocks that just missed us and scared a lot of chickens into running for cover.
We waved back.
Then dad took a deep breath and adjusted his crutches and we started hobbling back toward the house together.
I felt like I was part of a team or something. I felt pretty good. My dad had said I was pretty good at something in front of a lot of people, even kids my age. I imagined hitting a home run in the last inning of the big game and having everybody cheer for me-
“Think you can pitch like that every day?” Dad looked like he doubted that.
“I don’t know-” I said, “This is the first time I pitched to any human batters.”
Dad laughed, then looked away, then grinned, “Yeah, them sheeps and ghosts don’t bat too well, do they?” he groaned, I think his one crutch went into a ground hog hole or something and he almost fell over. “Your Grandma never liked the idea of me pitching in the barn, said it scared the animals. We’ll have to find some place you can practice in the winter- This is something you can’t just figure you can do once a month and not get worse at it.”
He sighed, “Murphy’s father and this other friend I had back then, they used to pitch to me every other day, no matter what, any time they could. By the time we were in high school I was almost as good at catching as they were at pitching. The other guy went professional- he made it to the minors and appeared in one post season game, with the Blue Jays against the Braves. Second batter up hit a grand slam and he never played again anywhere.” Dad nodded and sighed.
I looked at dad and knew I never wanted to grow up and live in a world that was that depressing.
Grandma didn’t get a chance to yell at us for taking too long, Dad started talking as soon as we hobbled in the kitchen door, “Yeah, old Jake’s gonna bring the boys again tomorrow after school. Jack looks like he can be a pretty good pitcher if he puts his mind to it.”
Grandma scowled at me, “Yeah, but I’ll break both arms if he don’t wash his hands real quick- then what will he do?”
I ran to the wash room.
The next morning (Wednesday, second day of school) we didn’t have to get up quite as early. Mom sent me outside and then peeked in at me and then I leaned back on the couch but didn’t quite fall asleep while she did go out with Annie to collect eggs-
And Murphy sought me out and bounced into the seat beside me and showed me all his prize baseball cards, including one that was in a plastic bag, “And this one is worth about a thousand bucks, My dad would kill me if he knew I brought it to school like this-” It was a slightly battered and very old card showing a guy with a bat, leaning forward like he was about to hit, “Ted Williams” a Boston Red Sox guy. I tried to pretend I was very impressed as I made a special note to ask my dad who Ted Williams was, “It ain’t his rookie card, but almost-”
The next couple weeks became a blur of early morning walks with sheep and goats and dogs barking at everything and days of furtively glancing back to see if Danielle was looking at me, and voting to have the classroom desks in a circle, and being the only who did vote for that, I guess, and then afternoons of baseball.
And then one rainy afternoon, while I was moping around my bedroom, wishing I had the computer up there instead of down in the pantry, with the very uncomfortable stool for a chair- there was a minor commotion down stairs and I went to the stairway that came down near the kitchen- (I should have told you about the four stairways in this house- I’ll get around to it.) and I tried to stay almost hidden while Grandma and Mom fussed over some lady with a black eye and her two daughters, “Oh come in come in, haven’t seen or heard from you in a long time-”
And the younger girl- I figured she was Annie’s age, but with long, almost beautiful hair, looked up at me and looked shocked, and then smiled. She waved and Grandma turned to see what she was waving at, “Jack, go get your sister, tell her to come down here, we got company-”
I ran away and decided that it wasn’t a good time to let Annie know that I had memorized my way around most of the squeaks in the floor on the way to her room, knocked on her door and yelled, “Grandma said to get you, we got company, I think they got a girl your age.”
And Annie burst through the door, did not threaten to punch me in the nose for ruining her pretend tea party and ran ahead of me.
I tried to sneak to a shadowy spot to sit, near the top of the stairs and tried to spy on them, but Grandma called again and I pretended to come running from a long way away.
“Jack, you gotta help me and your mother bring their stuff to the cottage-” Grandma looked confused for a moment, “Ashley’s old enough to watch these two, ain’t she?”
And the woman with the black eye nodded, “She’s fourteen, and her name’s not Ashley, it’s Aislin.”
“Ashley, Aislin, sorry, I keep getting them mixed up-”
And the younger girl smiled, a bit on the goofy side, and said, “Hi- I’m Evelyn-”
“I’m Jack-” I said.
“I know-” she nodded.
And I went off in search of my good boots, the new ones that weren’t covered in sheep stuff.
We climbed into their Mom’s van (which was older, or at least in worse shape than ours) and rode up and around the barn to the spooky little house that nobody had ever called a ‘cottage’ before.
I helped either Mom or Grandma carry some pretty heavy suitcases and double handled duffel bags into the cottage while who ever I wasn’t helping was sitting with Mrs. Clarke (Heather) (Evelyn’s mom), holding her hand and letting her sob.
I thought maybe she’d been in an auto accident and her husband had been killed or something. I decided I better not ask.
Grandma (who had her raincoat with her) went out behind the cottage in the rain for a long couple minutes while Mom and I carried the last heavy duffel bag into the cottage. When she reappeared, looking hopeful, Grandma spent a few very long and worried looking moments at the kitchen stove with very long matches lit until the second or third one lit a mess of bright blue flames, she played with the knob for a bit and then nodded, “Pilot light’s lit- Had it checked out last spring- it was fine then- I’ll call Tom tomorrow and have him come check it again, but for now it seems to be workin fine- I knew that when the furnace went on- Just leave your windows open a crack tonight- Don’t think it will freeze- but just to make sure.”
And when we drove back around the barn to the house, Grandma announced that they would be having dinner with us, but first they had to go settle a few things up at the Cottage and as I was taking my boots off on the porch Evelyn appeared beside me, clutching a floppy green teddy bear and whispered, “I’m going to marry you-” befoer I could react, she kissed my cheek and ran away.
I think my mouth fell open and stayed open until Grandma asked me if I was feeling okay.
I shrugged and ran upstairs while Mrs. Clarke and her two daughters took advantage of a lull in the rain to dash around puddles and into their van.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to come down to dinner with a friend of my sister’s who’d said she was going to marry me, or with anybody almost my age who’d actually kissed me on the cheek.
But I was hungry, and Mom had cooked roast beef and the smell would have had me salivate until I dropped dead of dehydration if I didn’t come down and eat with them.
I was pretty well insulated with Dad on my right at the one head of the table and Mom beside me, Annie beyond Mom and then Evelyn beyond Annie, Grandma at the other head of the table and Aislin and then Mrs. Clarke on the other side of the table.
I did glance sideways a couple times to see Evelyn leaning forward to reach for something, and glancing my way with her very green eyes. She looked like somebody who smiled a whole lot. I became very self conscious about my socks hanging a long way down beyond my toes, and noticed that she was wearing thick white fuzzy socks that hung a little bit beyond her toes. I grimmaced and tried to concentrate entirely on the roast beef.
And then dinner was over. Mom and Aislin were clearing the table, I was planning to escape up into my room when Evelyn appeared beside me again.
This time she said, “Annie says you play baseball with a bunch of boys up here almost every night, do you think they would let me play?”
I looked to dad for help and he just chuckled.
“I guess I’ll have to ask them-”
Mrs. Clarke shook her head, then nodded, “Evelyn was on the tee ball team at school last spring- it was a riot- you ever seen them play that?” She was talking to my dad, not me, “If they can’t hit the ball on two pitches they put the ball on a rubber tube and they try to hit it that way.”
Evelyn grinned widely, she almost beamed, “I got two really good hits!”
“Yeah, she did-” her mom nodded, but then sighed and remembered something painful or something, anyway, she sighed and turned away.
“Okay- so ask-” Evelyn smiled, then ran away with Annie into the living room.
I closed my eyes and winced. Why were they making me ask? Anyway, I saw my opportunity and escaped up the stairs to my room. I’d already finished my homework, and I was afraid they’d ask me to play with dolls or something, so I plopped on my bed and day dreamed about baseball- but the day dreams were interrupted, way too often, by the memory of Evelyn smiling and saying she was going to marry me. And then I saw her leaning past Annie and Mom to get the bread or the butter, and she was always smiling at me.
She’d been wearing green fleece pants and a softer green long sleeved blouse, her hair was brown with flecks of red and orange and her eyes were jade green.
I could feel Mister Murphy’s fast ball sting my two fingers for several hours after I caught it.
I think I felt Evelyn’s kiss on my cheek all that night.
And I’d thought Mr. McGowan’s presence on the first day of school was scary.
– To Be Continued –