A Backward GlanceChapter 6
I wasn't gonna go down to breakfast the next morning, but it smelled so good, I couldn't stay upstairs. I was pretty hungry.
Ruby made English muffins, slathered in butter, with an egg on top, and some kinda sauce over 'em, and a platter fulla bacon, and more muffins next to a bowl with jelly in it, and another bowl of melon slices.
Frank laughed. "I won't ask who all this is for. I guess you do know something about teenagers."
"I do," Ruby said. "You'd be surprised." She put a melon slice on her plate.
I tried not to look at her at all. Tried hard. Concentrated on eating. Until I felt her toes on my ankle, sneaking under my pantleg. I pulled my leg back, and she laughed. Out loud. I glanced at Frank. He was reading the newspaper and eating a muffin. Absently held out his hand to her. She took it. Looked at me and smiled.
She didn't have her nightgown on this morning. Instead she was wearing an ordinary dress. Nothing unusual. Her hair was different from yesterday. It was closer to her head, partly over her face, kinda wavy. Pretty.
Quiet morning. Everybody eating. Well, me, anyway. Not much conversation. Not uncomfortable, though; I kinda liked it.
I caught Frank looking at me once when he was pretending to read the newspaper, but he didn't say anything, and after a few minutes he went back to reading.
He left the room first. Ruby stood up when I did, and when I tried to pass her, she stopped me with a hand on my arm. Her cheek against my cheek, so she could speak softly in my ear….her perfume…her skin…a wisp of hair tickling my nose….she whispered, "I'm not wearing any underwear," let me go, walked away from me.
I got hard so fast I couldn't breathe for a second. Felt a little like when you get knocked down, and you hit the ground hard enough to take the wind outta ya. Sorta like that. Not quite.
I turned and watched her, couldn't help it, couldn't help my eyes pointed toward where her underwear shoulda been under her dress.
I couldn't tell. I wouldn'ta known if she hadn't told me. But she did tell me, and now I was gonna be imagining it all day long, inside my head. Thinking about what wasn't there, and what was there….bare.
She knew it. Of course she did. That's why she did it. She glanced back over her shoulder at me, and there was that damn smile.………………….
Frank said he wanted to go fishing. Stay out all night, cook breakfast over a fire, that kinda thing. I think he was surprised when I said, "Sure."
Hadn't figured his angle yet. I was still prepared for him to turn out to be a pervert after all, even though so far I didn't think so, he seemed ok that way.
If it weren't for Ruby I woulda said no. Going fishing might not be the smartest move if I didn't wanna encourage the screwball ideas he had, but staying here at the house with Ruby in it was worse.
'Course he asked Ruby if she wanted to go along. I wasn't sure what I was gonna do if she said yes, but she said no. She said, "I'll be right here, waiting for you two boys to get back tomorrow."
Frank was a little disappointed. Not too much. He had that tail-wagging look again, while he was gathering up all the crap he thought we needed to take. Looked like he meant to bring enough stuff for a week. Finally when he had the car full, he said, "You ready?"
I'd been ready for an hour, sitting outside watching him, mainly 'cause Ruby was inside. "I don't know, Frank, I don't think you got enough stuff in there."
He actually turned around and peered in the rear window. He was grinning when he turned back to me. "Get in, smart aleck. You'll be happy we have all this when we get there."
I didn't understand the whole fishing thing. We drove two hours to get to this place with a lake. Had to stop and get worms and shit, stop somewhere else and get sodas. Then we sat on the ground, watching the lines in the lake, which didn't do anything, for another coupla hours.
"You sure there's fish in here?" I asked.
Frank looked sorta surprised. "Well, not positive, I suppose. Usually large bodies of water have fish in them. But that's not the point anyway."
"I thought we came up here to fish."
"Well…..we did and we didn't."
OK. I threw my rod down on the ground. "If we didn't come here to fish, why the hell am I sitting on the muddy ground staring at the water?"
Frank smiled. "The idea is, you get to come out in the country, watch the birds, sit in the sun. You don't have to do anything, you don't have other people bothering you, if you catch fish, fine, if you don't, that's fine, too."
"So I don't have to sit here watching the damn water."
He nodded. "That's right."
Jeez. I stood up. I could go back up to the car and take a nap. I was just getting ready to do that, when I saw my rod move. It surprised me, for a second I didn't realize what it meant. Then I grabbed it before it slid off into the water.
"What do I do now?" Which was kind of a stupid thing to ask, obviously you want to pull the fish out of the water. "Frank?" I could feel the pull of the creature on the other end, trying to get away.
Well, to make a long story short, I ended up with a fish. A little fish. Frank laughed and took it off the hook, and threw back into the water. I was kinda sorry to see it go. Not that it was big enough to be good for anything…..just because it was the first one, I guess.
So I didn't get my nap. I stayed. Baited my hook again, and stared at the water.
There was a big bird flying around overhead. Frank said it was an eagle. It wasn't in a hurry, looked like it was floating up there………and he showed me the bugs that walk on the top of the water. A snake swam by. I didn't know snakes could swim.
It took a couple more hours, but I kinda started to see why Frank didn't care if we got any fish. He built a fire when it started to get dark, and we stuck hot dogs in it, and burned marshmallows. It was OK. I didn't tell him that, of course, but it was.
The moon came up. We brought our rods in and sat around the fire. It was kinda spooky. I felt like we were sitting out in the open, waiting for something to come out of the dark and pounce. Kept hearing rustles off behind the trees; once I thought I saw a pair of eyes, glinting in the light from the fire.
I started talking, I think mainly so I wouldn't hear all those noises I didn't know what they were.
"So how long have you been married?"
He was sitting back from the fire a little, and his back was to the moonlight. So I couldn't see him very well. His smile was a faint white blur.
"No kids, huh?"
"Nope. Decided a couple of years ago that's just not in the cards." He drained his soda. "I bet you're wondering how somebody like me ended up with somebody like Ruby."
I'd wondered that more than once.
He shrugged. "I wonder that myself sometimes. Our parents knew each other, and we used to run into each other at dinners and things like that once in a while. I remember her when she was about your age." He tried to pick the ashes off a marshmallow, but gave up and threw the whole thing in the fire. "I went off to college first, and came back. Then she went off to college when she got older, and then she came back and.……after that we just seemed to hit it off." He poked at the fire with a stick, and sparks flew up into the air. "I'm a lucky man, Wendell. Somebody like Ruby could have married almost anybody she wanted. But she picked me."
I think maybe I was hoping he'd say he just married her to help her out of a jam, or something. So he wouldn't care too much if he found out she was working on me. But I could hear the reason he married her in his voice when he talked about her.
Neither one of us said anything for a while. I was thinking of turning in.
"I went to see Jeffrey Beckmann yesterday," Frank said suddenly.
It got real quiet.
I suppose he decided he better find out what he let himself in for. It was my own fault. I'm the one who mentioned Beckmann in the first place.
"So?" I said.
"So….nothing really. I just didn't want to keep it a secret from you."
I nodded. It was kinda funny---I'd been right on the edge of leaving for days, ever since I got to the chiropractor's house…..there was always some little thing that kept me from doing it. So it wasn't like I wanted to stay or anything. 'Cause I didn't. I was mainly sticking around for the food, that's all.
OK, I kinda liked this part, out here doing stupid stuff with Frank. I never met anybody less worried about looking stupid than him. It was interesting.
But I coulda lived without it, you know? So now it looked like I was gonna get sent back, 'cause who wants a murderer's kid in the house? And it bothered me. All of a sudden, I felt like I didn't wanna go. And I didn't understand it.
I didn't wanna stay, did I? So it shouldn'ta bothered me that now Frank wouldn't want me to, either.
The fire flared up and sent sparks into the air. I threw the last of my bun in and watched it burn.
"So…I guess you're angry with me," Frank said.
"I wanted to know what I was doing wrong, and that was the only thing I could think of." He waited, like he expected me to say something.
Did he expect me to ask, could I please stay, anyway? Yeah, when pigs fly.
"You know what he told me?"
"Yeah." What, did he think I was a moron? "'Course I do." I got up and wiped the dirt off the seat of my pants.
"You do?" He seemed surprised. After a moment, he went on. "Oh. I didn't mean that, Wendell. He told me I was too impatient." He chuckled. "Me---too impatient."
I walked toward the car. Frank could sleep out in the open with the bugs and the wildlife if he wanted to, but I was gonna sleep in the car.
"Wendell?" He followed me.
I opened the passenger door. "You can't take me back tomorrow. It's Sunday. Ya gotta wait till Monday."
He didn't say anything.
"So what were you planning on doing with me tomorrow night?"
"I thought we'd fish tomorrow….and then go back home."
"Don't lie to me."
"I don't understand what you're asking me. I don't have any plans to send you back."
He wasn't looking at my face. He was looking at my hand. My fist was clenching and opening, clenching and opening, and I didn't know it till I looked.
"You got no sense at all, you know that?" I said. "You bring me out here, the two of us all alone, and never think what might happen to you. I can understand why you might not want me at your house, now that you know about my old man, you got your wife to think about. But this was just stupid. I could hurt you, I could kill you. Take your car. Be a long way away before anybody looks for you."
"I'm not worried about that."
"You oughta be. You don't know me."
"I don't think you'd hurt me. You don't seem like a violent person."
I had to laugh. Couldn't help it. "Oh, yeah?"
"I don't think you could bring yourself to hurt me, Wendell."
I let him have it right under his eye, on that bone there. Where he'd have a big black bruise to look at in the mirror, maybe a black eye. He went down awful easy. I surprised him.
I expected to see fear when he looked up at me, but I didn't.
"OK," he said, "I already know how tough you are. You didn't need to do that to convince me."
"You don't know shit. That was nothing. Remember the guy you told me about the other day, the one that got beat up in the alley downtown?"
"That wasn't a gang, that was me. I did that."
He didn't look so sure of himself anymore. "Why….would you do that?"
"He was bothering a friend of mine."
"By 'bothering', you mean…..what?"
"He was bothering her."
His forehead crinkled up. I was getting used to seeing that.
"OK, so you're tough. But you know….this almost sounds like you're trying to convince me I'm doing a stupid thing to take you into my house. Is that what you're doing? Are you trying to make me send you back?"
"I just don't see any point in dragging it out."
He shook his head. "I'm not going to send you back."
"Sooner or later."
"No, Wendell. I won't. Not unless you force me to."
He held out his hand, so I could help him up. I backed up and stood by the car. That's one of the oldest tricks in the book. You never help somebody up that you just put on the ground. You'll get hammered.
He managed to get up all by himself. "I guess you don't have any reason to believe me yet."
He put his hand on my shoulder. "Come on back to the fire, Wendell. Have another hot dog." He waited until I pushed away from the car and went with him. "I think Officer Beckmann has a soft spot for you. He was almost as suspicious of me at first as you are. He's known you for quite a while, hasn't he? It was interesting to hear his thoughts on your situation. And I didn't realize there were so many children outside the purview of our municipal charity organizations."
"Outside the what?"
"This terrible depression has left a lot of orphans. A lot of children whose families can't take care of them." He shook his head. "You're lucky, you know that? In a way."
"Yeah, I'm real lucky.""No, I mean, you're official business, you know? So the State's responsible for you. Not like the other kids." He thought for a minute. "Well….it wasn't lucky that your mother died….but since she did, it's possible you would have been entirely on your own if the police hadn't been involved …..OK, I'm not saying it was lucky she was….…." He stopped talking.
"'Murdered' is the word you're looking for."
If it hadn't been so dark, his face probably woulda been red. "All right, maybe not," he said. "But at least you have people that care about what happens to you."
"Yeah? Who would that be?"
"Well….the social workers are doing their best to find you a home…."
I laughed. "Uh-huh."
"And Officer Beckmann….and then there's me and Ruby, of course."
I stuck some more marshmallows on my stick and held them over the fire.
After a minute, he said, "And talk is cheap." He sighed. "I'll just have to show you."
He threw some more sticks on the fire. It flared, sending more sparks into the air, more ash on my marshmallows. I could see his face, then, in the firelight, studying me, so serious about everything, so earnest.
"You'll see," he said. "I'll show you. Everything is going to work out fine from here on in. You'll see."