AFTER THE STORM
It is the wake. The wake of the storm that, seemingly out of nowhere, and unannounced, blew through this afternoon, littering the road with broken branch and downed power-line. Further down the road, Papa Joe stops just shy of a toppled oak, its massive limbs blocking the road.
“We have to turn around,” Papa Joe says. “I guess taking this road was a bad idea after all, Mag.”
Papa Joe likes to call Nee, Mag, and I don’t know why, when really, her name is Virginia. And we have to thank big sis Trish for translating (when she was two years old) Virginia into simply, “Nee.” It’s been fourteen years now that Grandma Virginia has had this name change and nobody seems to mind except maybe Papa Joe.
“Okay Joe,” Nee says. “Don’t know what else to do otherwise. And believe me you, I’m not about to get out of this car and push that thing off the road.” She looks at us “kids” in the back seat and says, “Trish, what about you?”
“I don’t think so, Nee.”
“What about you, Lenny?”
Before Nee even has a chance to ask me and Wendy, Papa Joe has made the three-point turn and now we are on our way again, heading to that small cottage, the one that Papa Joe’s brother owns, up in Wisconsin, for our weekend stay.
Papa Joe and Nee, bless their hearts. Driving past the cow pastures and apple orchards I’m reminded how things could be so different from what I have become used to back home. It feels as if I had just been born. The sights, the sounds, the smells, all seem new to me. Welcome to the real world.
It’s been over two weeks now since Mom was rushed to the hospital. She spent three nights there, on some kind of watch or something. I still don’t know much of anything except her case is being marketed as “accidental overdose.”
Whoever must know why Mom was rushed to the hospital the night of my birthday the answer is: accidental overdose. Although accidental overdoses are serious, they’re still not as bad as those other kind of overdoses, the intentional ones.
And before Nee and Papa Joe picked us up to take us away for the weekend, Mom told us that there’s nothing to worry about, that there are no more sleeping pills in the house. Even if there were, she told us, “I don’t have any use for them because I’ve been sleeping just fine lately.”
It’s been a few days now that Dad has been tending bar at Mister Coopers, “not a dream job but at least I can put food on the table,” I overheard him saying to somebody on the telephone yesterday morning while I was looking in the kitchen cabinets for the box of Captain Krunch that Trudy Myers brought over along with my birthday present, The Grapes of Wrath, bound in leather. Bless her heart, that woman.
Soon, we are in the small town of Fort Atkinson and it is here where we will stop at the Country Inn for their famous fried chicken and then on to Jerry’s Barbershop for Papa Joe’s customary trim and my dreaded crew cut. Although I am twelve years old now, Nee still insists on the crew cut and I don’t have the heart to tell her that I look stupid with all my hair chopped off. She’ll tell me how handsome I am just like she always does when leaving Jerry’s Barbershop and I am not about to argue otherwise. It’s not good to argue with someone who is paying for your haircut and then calling you handsome. Especially when this someone is your grandmother.
After stuffing myself with all-you-can-eat fried chicken and trying to work it off in the barber chair, I am about ready for bed. It’s been a long day with school and then the three-hour drive up here. It’s dark now and as we drive down the country road toward the cottage, I can only see what are silhouettes of the farmhouses and silos that we pass.
I’m sitting on the edge of the Rock River tossing stones and enjoying the ripples.
It’s magical to me and I’m enlightened by the creation of such a simple act. It’s quiet here, except for the occasional buzz of some winged insect, swooping down to get a better look at my reflection, wavering about in the water.
Across the two-lane, in the cottage, Nee’s sipping on her coffee, trying to wake up. Trish, Wendy and Lenny are still sleeping. Papa Joe, always the first to rise, had gone into town, where he’ll have his breakfast with a few of the local farmers.
Coming from the big city and working in a factory all his life, Papa Joe finds great comfort in hearing about the “simple life” from those who will try to convince him that it is anything but a “simple life.” In response, Papa Joe will go on and on about the daily grind of working the line at Glidden’s Paint Company and show the farmers his calloused hands and he’ll tell them about his bloody noses from inhaling the fumes and the excruciating headaches he gets almost every night and how “Virginia” has to press a cold washcloth against his forehead until he finally falls asleep.
There’s a chill in the air but with the sun bright in the sky it’s comfortable and I’ve no intention of returning to the cottage, well, not until Nee calls at me through the screen door, “Ricky, I’m making some bacon and eggs, you gonna want some?” It’ll be a while before Nee is fully awake though, so I still have a lot of time to sit here and watch the ripples while pondering my thoughts. This is a perfect place to catch up on one’s life and put things in perspective.
It’s so quiet and peaceful here that if I was Isaac Newton, I’d formulate my theories on gravity or if I was Charles Darwin, look at the fish skimming my feet and develop some new theory on evolution or something. But I’m only me, a twelve year-old with a crew cut.
And so, as the stones skip across the water, my head becomes filled with a montage of memories, some really good and some not so good. But at least, they’re real and not taken from my imagination, as Mom likes to say a lot of the time. She’s becoming famous for saying stuff like, “He’s got such an imagination, that never happened” or “Ricky’s just like his father, always imagining things.”
Let Mom try to tell me that what I saw the other night was just my imagination. She can keep on thinking that me seeing Trish smoking a cigarette the other night was just a product of my imagination. I really wish it was but it wasn’t and it’s as true as day that Trish is smoking cigarettes and Lenny is fooling with drugs and Dad’s betting on the horses again and our next-door neighbor, the lady with the high boots and short dress, is hanging out on the corner flagging down passing cars, and for what purpose, I don’t know. I do have a few ideas, though. She probably needs a ride downtown or something and can’t afford a taxicab or she thinks the cars she’s waving down are taxicabs. Maybe her eyesight is bad.
You never know with all the different kinds of people around there with all the different kinds of problems.
Another winged insect, possibly a bee, is hovering above my head, probably admiring my buzz cut. For about a minute or so, the fluttering of tiny wings breaks me from my thoughts and once again, “my being in the here and now” is rather refreshing and the stillness of the river reacquaints me with a reassuring sense of solitude. Resting on my elbows I sit back and then look up into the sky and admire the few puffs of cloud. How wonderful!
[Scorpions – “Holiday”]
Nee isn’t much of a cook, the eggs are overdone, the bacon burnt. It’s no wonder Papa Joe finds good reason to drive into town to get his breakfast. Although our breakfast isn’t like the kind you’ll get at the Country Skillet, no one’s complaining, we’re hungry and besides, we’re not about to hurt Nee’s feelings by telling how awful her cooking is.
After breakfast, Wendy and me do the dishes. I do the scrubbing and scraping and she does the drying. We’re a perfect team, singing in harmony, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”
Nee comes into the tiny kitchen. “Ya got a good singing voice,” she says to Wendy. “Ya sound like an angel, my sweet lil’ grandchild. And believe me you, if I could carry a tune like that, I’d have joined the girls’ chorus when I was in scoo.”
Naively and unable to fully translate Nee’s southern dialect, Wendy looks up at Nee and asks, “What is scoo?”
Nee’s eyes suddenly enlarge to the size of saucers. “Ya mean to tell me, Wen, ya don’t know what scoo is when you’ve been going to one for the last three years.”
“Yeah Wendy,” I say, handing her the last dish. “At school, aren’t you in the third grade?”
“Yes I am,” she says angrily. “And stop making fun of me.”
“Wendy,” Nee says, “nobody’s making fun of ya. Your brother is just trying to help.”
“No, he’s not,” Wendy insists. “He’s making fun of me saying I’m stupid.”
“I never said that, Wendy.”
Dropping the dish, she spins around and runs out of the kitchen. Through the small cottage, I hear: “Yes you did, yes you did.”
Trish comes into the kitchen area and asks, “What’s wrong with Wendy?”
“Ya sweet lil’ sister is sensitive, that’s all,” Nee tells her, while sweeping with her slippered feet the pieces of glass into a neat pile.
Papa Joe had returned from his breakfast with the farmers and just like always, has a few tales to tell. First, he tells us about the Connors and the addition to their family, a foal named Sooner
Wendy, feeling better now after realizing she did, in fact, overreact earlier has returned to being her cute little self. She puts her Cindy Doll on Papa Joe’s knee and in an amusing, ventriloquistic way asks, “Papa Joe, how did the foal get the name Sooner?”
Papa Joe, taking advantage of the moment, looks seriously into the doll’s eyes and says, “Well Cindy, the Connors always knew that one of their mares would give birth to a foal sooner or later and guess what.”
“It was Sooner.” And then, Papa Joe, who I swear must have had a few drinks stronger than coffee when in town with his farmer buddies, gets up and does an imitation of a horse galloping and hee-hawing around the small cottage with the doll on his shoulders.
Wendy is rolling on the floor with laughter and I am really glad to see her this animated and happy again. Lately, the past few months, I have begun to witness a change in her. It’s like a portion of her soul had been stolen or something. I really can’t explain it but it’s just weird seeing your little sister, who used to always laugh at everything and truly enjoy the simplest of things, change into this person, almost a stranger, who only finds comfort when she’s clutching her Cindy Doll or when sitting in the corner with her coloring books. She has become isolated, that’s what I’m trying to say. Maybe living Cinderella and stuff like that isn’t so cute after all. Maybe Mom is right. Maybe me and Dad are wrong. Who knows, who really knows?
Papa Joe regains his breath and sits down and tells Wendy, Trish and me a more serious and heartbreaking story about the Murphy’s who lost their farm and everything else they ever owned to an unsympathetic bank and, “now you know why I don’t give my money to the bank,” he says. “I’ll keep putting it under my mattress. And I don’t care what anybody has to say about it.”
Lenny, just in from his so-called walk down the country lane, goes into the kitchen, grabs a can of root beer and right back out the screen door he goes. Papa Joe tells him to stay close, that we’d all be going somewhere in a little while.
“I will,” Lenny says.
Papa Joe, not one to dawdle very long on the sadder news that he brings back from town tells Nee, who just walked in from the back bedroom, to sit down, that she has to hear the story about “Farmer George,” who just got back from a trip visiting his sister in, “of all places, Juneau, Alaska.”
We all know that this one’s going to create a laugh fest, you could tell by the way Papa Joe haphazardly reveals a smirk while trying to keep a straight face.
“Come on, Mag,” he says, gesturing to her with Wendy’s doll.
“Oh Joe,” Nee says, “Can’t it wait to later. I got to do something with this hair of mine. Didn’t ya say that we’re going to take a ride into Jefferson?”
Fresh out of the shower with spikes of “henna-help-me” blond poking through the porous membrane of her old, very old hairnet, I couldn’t agree with her more. She’d better do something quick, otherwise, we’d be going into Jefferson with the people there thinking that the circus had just arrived.
It’s bad enough that Trish, against Nee’s wishes, is wearing her elephant pants and Haight Ashbury jean jacket and Lenny, who knows what he’ll be wearing. His design on clothes changes as often as his taste for music and lately it’s been Jimmy Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Last week, it was nothing but the Beatles. And before that, The Righteous Brothers. Next week, maybe Motown and that great Detroit sound. Cars do come from Detroit, right? And everybody knows how Lenny loves his cars. He can draw his souped-up racing machines while listening to, hmm, let me think, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.
“It’ll take just a minute, Mag,” Papa Joes says. “You must hear this.”
“All right, Joe,” Nee says, pulling together her flannel robe. Papa Joe directs her to sit down next to him on the plaid sofa. Nee sits, takes the doll off Papa Joe’s shoulder and hands it back to Wendy. Wendy pats the doll on its back a few times before running her fingers through its hair.
“Hmm, I think before we go to that Jefferson town I should braid Cindy’s hair,” Wendy says. “Trish, will you help me?”
“Yes Wendy, I will. But later on.”
“You really will?”
Copyright 2021 by Ricky J. Fico & Golden Renaissance Publishing