About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
by Nancy Crocker
How about you just stop treating me like a titty baby?”
I thought of that one after I was already out the back door. I’m a regular genius at what I should have said.
But to hell with it. Nothing I’d said in eighteen years mattered to Dad. I couldn’t swallow water to suit the man. Saturday morning, and he’d started in about a hammer he found out back by the shed. When did I use it? Why didn’t I put it back? Would it kill me to ask to borrow his tools in the first place?
Like one of his hammers spending a night outside the toolbox was going to knock the earth off-balance and throw the world into darkness. I walked down the driveway, kicking rocks that belonged to him. Using up air that was his, no doubt.
Why, hello, John!” Mary Albrecht’s voice whipped my head up so fast my neck just about snapped. She was walking by with her folks. Are you coming uptown for the spectacle?”
I said, Why, yes, I am,” and nodded. Mornin’, ma’am. Sir.”
Something fun came to Wakenda about as often as the thirteen-year locusts. Was I going? Not yes but hell, yes. I fell in behind the three of them. Then they turned up the front walk of a house down the street before I could think of any more to say to Mary. Figured.
But the day promised to be a prize on its own. It was one of those beauties in March that can trick you into thinking spring has picked Missouri as her favorite place over all others. Houses were emptying out all along the street, and every person who stepped outside tilted his face toward the sunshine like he was receiving a blessing.
The town’s two churches would be hard-pressed the day before Judgment to scare up a crowd as big as was gathering that noon. When the old Number 3 engine split the air with a mournful wail and all the hounds in town took up a chorus behind it, it was a little like a church bell and choir: Come, all ye gawkers! Banty Wilson’s about to make a jackass of himself! Made me grin.
Banty had bought the town’s first automobile a few months back and since then claimed the Maxwell could do just about everything but give birth and churn butter. Finally, he bragged it was faster than a MoPac steam engine.
But that had turned out to be one more brag than Curly Weis could stand. So Curly talked his boss into taking Number 3 out of service that Saturday morning for the solitary purpose of shutting the blowhard’s mouth. My guess was, the big shots at the railroad were fed up hearing about automobiles putting trains out of business someday. Nobody with a lick of sense thought Banty had a chance at winning the race, but it wasn’t going to bother anybody to watch his ass handed to him either.
By the time I got to Main Street, I was walking through a cloud of steam. Faces appeared like specters and then got swallowed up again in the mist.
Then one figure appeared out of the fog, looking still as a statue at the sidewalk railing. When I got closer, I saw it was Paul Bricken. Of course. Too many people trying to get somewhere they weren’t, stepping on feet and poking elbows in their neighbors’ ribs, but around Paul there might have been a shield keeping everybody a foot away. Like blindness might be catching.
In the year Paul had been home after finishing high school in St. Louis, I’d watched how folks ignored him almost like they were the ones who couldn’t see. I did have the advantage of being used to him. But you’d think somebody else could at least make an effort once in a while.
I went up and bumped his elbow, and the face that turned could have been carved out of wood. Hey, Paul,” I said. John Hartmann. How you doin’ today?”
His shoulders relaxed some. Fine, John, thanks. You?”
Aw, been better. Been better.” I bent toward his ear. Let’s just say when Thanksgiving rolls around, I’ll be thankful I’ve got only two parents.”
He laughed louder than the joke was worth, and heads turned like somebody had rattled off a fart in church. I bet most of them had never heard Paul laugh.
Then he said, Can I ask you a small favor?”
Sure. Name it.”
Would you stand here and tell me what goes on?”
I was hoping to park myself next to Mary Albrecht, but Paul’s face had gone all the way red just for asking, and I couldn’t ignore that if I’d wanted to. I heard myself say, Sure, I will. Just let me finish my rounds, and I’ll come back before the race starts.”
That seemed to lift his chin a fraction higher.
I came across Katie McCombs running through a forest of legs as I walked on, and I scooped her up and threw her in the air a few times to hear her squeal. My little sister had just about outgrown that. But then Ellen McCombs came steaming my way like a battleship and set in squawking like women do¬putting on they’re upset when really they just want everybody in the county to hear what devoted mothers they areso I set Katie down and went on.
I wandered through the whole crowd without finding Mary, and my enthusiasm was severely tempered by the time I went back and started explaining to Paul how little he was missing. Banty’s pullin’ the Maxwell up next to the tracks and makin’ a show out of linin’ up exactly even with the cowcatcher on Number 3. Curly’s got about a week’s worth of steam goin’, but you can probably tell that.”
I didn’t much care anymore, but Paul’s face looked like Christmas morning. So I filled in some. Ruby Watts is tryin’ so hard to get Billy Sweeney’s attention she’s just about to stand on her head. Yep, there she goes . . . Dang it! She remembered to put on drawers this morning . . . Whoa! Roy Auptman’s gut is gettin’ so big it’s gonna need its own address before long.”
Paul paid me in chuckles.
And then There they go” was the end of it for us. Terms of the race were ten miles side by sideWakenda to Miami Stationso we saw the start, a few others would see the finish, and in between was nothing but hot air.
That was pretty much the story of Wakenda, if you asked me. High hopes when somethinganythingwas about to happen, then a letdown when the same old people showed up and nothing much went on.
The town was a lot like the Missouri River four miles south. It might be different water running past the bank every day, every month, every year, but it all looked the same. High school sweethearts got married after graduation and started producing the next generation of high school sweethearts. Boys, for the most part, followed their fathers into the fields or onto the river. At any gathering, you could see the past, present, and future in one sweep.
But no matter how little happened, there was always plenty for the men to hash out over beers later on. Thank God. Even if the talk at Charlie’s didn’t rise above the topics of crops and the weather, it beat going home. I asked Paul if he wanted to come along, but before he could answer, his dad showed up.
Have you had enough foolishness?”
I winced, but Paul just said, Yes, Father,” and then, Thank you, John,” with his face a blank mask. I couldn’t imagine what was in his mind as they walked away.
Mr. Bricken spent his days at the bank in Carrollton saying yea or nay on crop loans to all the farmers in the area, and even my dad jumped when Mr. Bricken said the word. But you’d think he could have a kind word for his son. His only kid.
Enough foolishness? Even I had a longer leash than that.