A STRANGER WAITS
by Keith R. Courtad
Did you see it?
Pay attention. Ill do it one more time.
Jimmy was showing his cousin David something. He had both his hands out in front of his chest. His right hand was clasped into a fist. His left hand was open and turned toward the right hand.
Now watch closely.
Jimmy quickly opened the fist on his right hand and in the same instant quickly closed his left hand into a fist.
Did you see it that time?
Geez. Well youd be able to see it if Johnny was here. Hed go way down to the end of the hall upstairs and the fleas would jump back and forth between our hands.
Well why cant you do it with me?
Oh no no no. These are specially trained racing fleas. They only race for people that have trained them. Me and Johnny are certified racing flea experts. They shipped them to us from Walla Walla, Washington with instructions and a big training booklet.
Well I can learn. I can train them.
But these fleas are already trained. Get your own racing fleas.
David was a few years younger than Jimmy, seven to Jimmys ten, and still a very gullible and innocent boy. He looked up to Jimmy like an older brother even though they were first cousins. David didnt have many friends yet so his cousins were the only boys he ever spent much time with. To him Jimmy was much older, taller, smarter, better at everything. Surely Jimmy had all kinds of friends and only really hung around with his cousins because his mom and dad made him. The truth was that Jimmy didnt have any real friends either. His cousins were really all he had in that department. Of course, David didnt know the truth. He was still far too young to know anything about truth.
It was summer and there was no school and the boys were spending a week or so with their Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Norm. All the cousins would take turns staying with Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Norm during the summer and they were glad to have the boys. They had always wanted children of their own and did in fact have one, a boy, but he only lived for about eight months. He turned himself over in his cradle and got himself tangled up in his baby blanket while Ruthie was in the bathroom. She came out and saw him lying there face down. She touched him and picked him up but there was nothing there. After that her eyes narrowed and her jaw set and she became bitter and mean to all people except for children. Whenever a child was around her face resumed its former glow.
Norm had always been a big talker. Hed gab and gab and gab and truly never met a stranger his whole life. Until their baby died. Then he turned inward, sullen. Everyone was suddenly a stranger. People walking down the street, driving down the highway, friends hed had for years, family, his own wife and even himself. They all became strangers to him after that.
The boys were sitting in the living room on the couch that still smelled like Gill, the old shep-dog mutt that had died five years ago. Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Norm had went to the pound shortly after their baby died to get a dog to try to fill that impossibly hollow space inside their hearts. Gill was there wagging her tail at them happily so they bought her and took her home. She was a good dog and they loved her but one day Norm had changed the oil in the Plymouth and left the old oil sitting there in a bucket while he went inside to answer the phone. When he came back he saw Gill over the bucket, lapping up all the dirty oil. He shood her away and loaded her up and took her to the vet. By the time they got there she was getting very sick and shaky and the vet said he was sorry but there was nothing he could do. After that Ruthie went to a pet store and bought a canary. She named her Loretta after her favorite singer.
Jimmy and David sat there staring at the television. The Lawrence Welk show was on. The boys hated it. It bored them nearly to tears. But even though she was all the way in the kitchen cooking supper if they tried to turn the channel Aunt Ruthie would know and yell at them to turn it back. She liked hearing the music while she cooked. Loretta was in her cage in a corner of the kitchen and she chirped merrily. And then Ruthie would begin whistling an old tune while the ground beef sizzled and hissed in the frying pan and all of it together, Lawrence Welks crooning and Lorettas chirping and Ruthies whistling and the beefs sizzling made quite a commotion. The boys decided itd be best to go outside until supper was ready.
Aunt Ruthie me and David are going to go outside and play until suppers ready, Jimmy yelled above the racket.
Ok but dont run off too far, it wont be long fore this is ready. And stay away from the road, Ruthie shouted.
We will, David said timidly.
I mean it, stay away from that road, Ruthie said sternly.
We will, Jimmy answered.
With that the boys ran outside. There were a number of places they could go. They could go out to the barn and climb up to the loft and look for rat nests to stomp on. They could walk across the field and go down by the tree lined creek and look for minnows or tadpoles or bullfrogs. They could walk halfway down the long lane to the big oak tree with the tire swing. Or they could do the thing they werent supposed to do and walk along the road down to the railroad tracks to chuck rocks at the glass shells on top of the old telegraph poles.
Lets go down to the tracks, Jimmy said.
Were not supposed to. Well get in trouble, David said fearfully.
Dont be such a baby, cmon, Jimmy said.
Jimmy began walking towards the cornfield and David followed. They cut diagonally through the cornfield a ways so they could walk to the road without the chance of Aunt Ruthie seeing. When they got out of the cornfield they began following the ditch alongside the road. It was about a quarter of a mile to the train tracks.
How come Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Norm dont have any kids, David asked.
I dont know. They just dont I guess, Jimmy answered.
But everyone else does. My mom and dad and your mom and dad and Aunt Gertie and Uncle Merle and Aunt Janis and Uncle Lloyd, David said.
Maybe they didnt want any kids. Maybe they dont like kids, Jimmy said.
But they like us, David replied.
They like me. They dont like you, they told me, Jimmy teased.
Nuh-uh, they didnt say that, David said angrily.
Uh-huh, they told me. They said, That David is just a big baby and we dont like him, Jimmy said, still teasing.
Its not true, David said and began to cry.
Ok ok, Im just teasing you. Geez, you really are a big baby, Jimmy said.
David wiped the tears away from his face as they got to the railroad tracks. The tracks were lined on both sides with palm-sized rocks. They began picking up the rocks and throwing them up at the glass protector shells on top of the telegraph poles. The boys didnt know what the glass shells were or what purpose they served but they were fun to throw rocks at and every once in a while they would actually hit one. This was cause for much cheering and celebrating because it was very difficult to hit the shells. They werent having much luck today. All the rocks were sailing past the target and out into the bean field at the bottom of the hill. One of the rocks must have scared a groundhog because they saw it run out of its hole and take off through the field. They hurriedly tried hitting it with rocks but none of them connected. They were still chucking a few rocks in the general direction of the groundhog when a car slowed up at the crossing. The boys looked over and saw it was Uncle Norm. He rolled down his passenger-side window.
Does Aunt Ruthie know you boys are down here, he asked them.
The boys said nothing and looked toward the ground.
Thats what I figured. Cmon and get in the car. Suppers probably almost ready, Uncle Norm said.
The boys quietly walked to the car and got in, fearing they were in for a chewing-out. Or worse.
Now you boys know how nervous it makes your Aunt Ruthie when you walk down that road to come to these tracks, Uncle Norm mildly scolded.
But we didnt walk on the road, we were down in the ditch and we were real careful, Jimmy explained.
Careful or not it makes your Aunt Ruthie nervous and I dont want you boys doing it no more, Uncle Norm said.
The boys both said ok and they drove off toward the house. They pulled into the long lane and slowly drove up. When they got next to the tire swing on the big oak tree Uncle Norm stopped the car.
Im going to let you boys out here so Aunt Ruthie dont see and you just say you were playing down by the creek and then you came up to the tire swing if she asks. But dont ever go walking down that road again, you understand, Uncle Norm said.
The boys both said yes and got out of the car. Uncle Norm drove up the lane and turned out of sight around the back of the house.
I thought we were gonna be in big trouble, David said.
Nah, Uncle Norm wouldnt do that, Jimmy replied.
How come, David asked.
Cause Uncle Norm remembers what it was like to be a boy. He wants us to have fun, Jimmy answered.
Oh, said David.
David tried to picture Uncle Norm as a boy but he couldnt do it. He never thought about grown-ups being little kids. It didnt make any sense. He thought that they must have always been grown up.
The boys played on the tire swing for a couple of minutes until they heard Aunt Ruthie calling them in for supper. They ran up to the house and went around back to go in through the kitchen door. They sat down at the table and Aunt Ruthie took a look at their hands.
Oh no no no, you boys go in the bathroom and scrub those hands with soap and water before you eat, she told them.
They went in and washed their hands. There was a half-window in the bathroom above the toilet. The evening sun was streaming through the window and filling the room with a reddish-orange light. It was very bright and you had to squint just to be in there. The boys finished washing up and went back to the kitchen table. Aunt Ruthie took a look at their hands again.
Much much better, now lets say our prayer and then dig in, she told them.
They crossed their hands and bowed their heads and closed their eyes and spoke together.
God bless this food for now we take and keep us safe for Jesus sake,
They opened their eyes and looked down at the food that was still so hot steam was rising up. It was beef stroganoff and string green beans from the garden and warm rolls with butter made from scratch and tall glasses of whole milk. The boys shoveled the food into their mouths hungrily. Aunt Ruthie watched them and smiled. She didnt even yell at them to slow down and chew their food. She turned and looked at Uncle Norm. He was eating slowly with his head hanging low. Her smile faded as she looked at him. Then she turned to her own food and began to eat.
I thought after supper Id let Loretta out of her cage for a bit. Poor thing is cooped up in there all the time. She never gets to spread her wings and fly, Aunt Ruthie said to Uncle Norm between bites.
You sure thats a good idea? We dont need bird shit all over the house, Uncle Norm replied without looking up from his plate.
Norman! Dont use that word in front of the boys, Aunt Ruthie scolded.
Uncle Norm didnt apologize and didnt look up from his plate. He sat there with an unseen weight pressing down on his shoulders and chewed very slowly.
Loretta will be fine. She wont make a mess, Aunt Ruthie said.
Ok Ma, Uncle Norm said.
He always called her Ma when the boys were around. It felt like the natural thing to call her at those times. When it was just the two of them he called her hon. She always called him man or when she was upset with him, Norman. More and more she called him Norman.
After supper the boys went into the living room and watched Howdy Doody on television while Aunt Ruthie washed the dishes. Uncle Norm sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper with a tobacco pipe dangling from his mouth. The sweet vanilla smell of the pipe filled the house and comforted David, who liked the smell very much and preferred it to the smelly cigarettes his dad smoked.
When Aunt Ruthie was done with the dishes she went over to Lorettas cage and opened the door. Uncle Norm peered up at the birdcage with a watchful eye. He didnt like the idea of a bird flying around the house but damn it all if that woman didnt love that bird. So he let her have her way. He watched as Loretta tip-toed to the edge of the open door, unfamiliar with her new-found freedom. With a flutter she jumped from her cage down to the kitchen floor. She looked around, quickly jerking her head to the left and to the right, unsure of what to do with all this open space suddenly presented to her. Uncle Norm continued to watch as Loretta tentatively stepped around on the kitchen floor. Aunt Ruthie watched, beaming.
Look how happy she looks! She doesnt even know what to do with all that free space, she said to Uncle Norm who merely grunted a dismissive mm-hmm in reply.
The reddish-orange light from the bathroom was creeping out of the open door and slowly stretching across the linoleum kitchen floor. Loretta walked across the floor until she was completely bathed in the light. She turned and looked straight into the bathroom. Suddenly she took flight into the bathroom. She saw the window and all that open space out there and she kept flying. Inside her bird brain of course she knew nothing of windows or bathrooms or any other silly human construction. She only knew that she saw a glimpse of the world and of freedom and the sun. Yes, the sun! And she would go on flying, maybe forever, right towards it. And then, like a book slamming shut, WHACK! And then, just a half second later, KERPLUNK! Loretta had bounced right off the bathroom window, knocked herself out, and then fell into the toilet. Her little bird lungs quickly filled up with toilet water, drowning her. Aunt Ruthie ran into the bathroom and looked into the toilet. Jimmy and David ran in right behind her. Uncle Norm slowly walked into the doorway of the bathroom and stood there, waiting for the verdict. Aunt Ruthie picked Loretta up out of the cold water and held her in her hands but there was nothing there. She began to sob loudly.
Well Ill be dipped in shit! She flew right into the window thinking she was going outside and knocked herself out cold and fell in the toilet and drowned, Uncle Norm said, summing up.
Norman! Dont you use that word in front of the boys, Aunt Ruthie said between tears.
Well you just cant make this stuff up Ma, Uncle Norm said, laughing incredulously.
She went on crying and Uncle Norm stood there shaking his head and Jimmy and David looked at each other and they couldnt help it. It was like on Sunday mornings in church when youre supposed to be quiet and pay attention to the pastor but you just couldnt help it no matter what you did. They just couldnt help it. It started to slip out. They started laughing. They ran out of the bathroom before Aunt Ruthie could hear any more and ran out the front door down the wooden steps and onto the gravel lane in their bare feet. They ran all the way down to the tire swing and then they really let it go. They rolled on the ground holding their bellies and laughed and wheezed until they had tears in their eyes. They laughed and laughed and re-played the whole scene out again and again and laughed more until finally they just about had it all out of their systems. Then they stood up and brushed themselves off and began walking back up the lane to the house, still wiping the tears from their eyes.