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Authors: Peter Hedges

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BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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Tom Conway and his sister were running around their yard, bending over, giggling, whooping, hollering.

Scotty walked nonchalantly to the Conways’ house where he balanced like a circus performer on the curb. While he did
this, he watched Tom and his sister fill their containers. Tom had a coffee can with string for a handle; his sister Donna carried a big peanut butter jar. They gathered the change.
filled the air. Tom was on his knees, moving about fast. Everywhere Scotty looked, he saw coins in the grass.

“You want help?” Scotty asked.


“You don’t have to share it. I’ll help you.”


“Course you could pay me
but you don’t have to

“Get off of our property.”



Looking at the Conway house, Scotty saw in an upstairs window Sergeant and Mrs. Conway kissing. The kiss looked desperate, somewhat sloppy. Sergeant Conway removed his uniform top and lifted off his T-shirt. When Mrs. Conway looked out the window to check on her kids, she saw Scotty staring up at her. The sergeant put his arms around her stomach. His hands cupped her breasts; she giggled and slowly lowered the shade.

Scotty looked at the Conway kids. They were rich.


The phone rang. Scotty wasn’t the one closest to the receiver. That didn’t prevent him from trying to get to it first. He crawled under the kitchen table, pushed aside a chair, and was starting to stand when the Judge reached over effortlessly, saying, “I’ve got it.”

If Scotty had answered it, this is what he would have heard: the sound of a woman choking, struggling to speak.

“Hello?” said the Judge.

On the other end of the phone, the choking continued. Spurts of heavy breathing. Then silence.

“Hello?” repeated the Judge.

Aware that Scotty was waiting at his feet, the Judge tried to remain calm. “Yes,” the Judge pretended. “I’m glad you called.”

Scotty liked being on the kitchen floor. He liked being under the kitchen table and waiting for legs to come walking past.

“Scotty, run along.”

Scotty pulled open the drawer below the silverware drawer, the drawer full of tins of shoe polish, brushes, and buffers. Under the kitchen table, he began to polish the Judge’s shoes.

“No, Scotty.”


“You can polish them later. Run along!”

Scotty crawled out from under the table, across the kitchen floor, and disappeared into the dining room.

The Judge returned to the phone.

“Joan?” he whispered. “Are you all right?”

The choking had a gurgle sound to it.

“Where are you?”

Scotty continued his crawl through the living room, passing in front of Maggie and Claire, who watched
Room 222

“Don’t block the TV!”

Scotty kept on—he turned right and headed back to the kitchen.

“Tell me where you are.”

But the gurgling stopped and the phone line went click and the dial tone purred.

Scotty crawled past the Judge, disappearing again into the dining room, crossing the living room, back down the hall, past the Judge, who now sat numbly, unaware of his giggling boy.


Late that night the Judge was awakened by a second call. Joan’s father telephoned the Judge to inform him that Joan had almost choked to death on her own vomit. She had agreed to go to a hospital in Minnesota that would help her. Her father would be driving her that morning. “We just thought you should know.”

The Judge thanked him for the call. He turned on the lamp above his headboard and wrote down the address where the children could write.

“She’d like to hear from them, I’m sure,” Joan’s father said.


The Judge was so eager to tell his children that he woke Claire with the good news. She was pleased and hugged her father. Maggie said, “That’s good” and turned over and fell back asleep. Then the Judge entered Scotty’s room where he stood over the bed. Scotty’s face looked sweet and peaceful but his body lay, pretzel-like, pulled in every direction—it looked as if his son had been dropped from thirty stories. He wondered how a boy could sleep in such a mangled shape.

He touched him lightly on the forehead, stroking his bangs to the side. Then he tapped lightly on an exposed shoulder.

Scotty’s eyes cracked open, then closed quickly. The Judge
got on his knees and wrapped his arms around Scotty. He hadn’t shaved and his beard stubble felt like little knives.

“Ow! It hurts…”

The Judge let go. He didn’t do this well.

Scotty pulled the covers over his head, curled into a ball, and said, “Go away.”

The Judge laughed at Scotty.

“Not funny,” Scotty called out from under the sheet.

But the Judge kept laughing.

“It’s not funny,” Scotty repeated. He waited under the sheet, wetness where his mouth was, the features of his face jutting out, his nose, his chin and forehead defined by the taut sheet.

Scotty felt the mattress sink as the Judge sat on the edge of his bed. Then he heard a low groaning sound. His father sounded like an animal on a TV special—a bear, perhaps, eating another, smaller animal. Scotty squeezed his eyes shut as his father gasped for air. Finally, when Scotty lowered the sheet, he saw the Judge’s face, hit with broken rays of the morning sun, drenched with tears, his chest and neck shivering.

The mattress on Scotty’s bed sank lower as the Judge let his legs release, all of his weight on the bed. The loud creaking from the added weight made Scotty think the support boards underneath were about to snap. The Judge covered his face with his hands and Scotty waited for him to stop.


“Class,” Mrs. Boyden said, “this is Tim Myerly. He moved here from Ohio. This is his first day.”

Tim Myerly had to sit on Mrs. Boyden’s stool until Mr. Fry, the janitor, brought in an extra desk.

“We have four rows of six desks. One row will need to move back. One row will have to have seven desks.”

“Yippee,” Scotty said.

A soft knock came on the door and Mrs. Boyden opened it. Scotty caught a glimpse of a woman’s arm holding a lunch pail.

“My boy forgot this,” the woman said.

Mrs. Boyden took the lunch pail from the woman, thanked her, and closed the door.

“Tim,” Mrs. Boyden said, holding up the yellow lunch pail shaped like a doghouse. Written in bright red letters was the word “Snoopy.”

Dan Burkhett snickered and Scotty said, “What a stupid. His mother brought his lunch.”

The boys near Scotty laughed (all of them had mothers at home). Scotty was laughing, too, when he saw the new boy’s mom pass by the classroom window. She waved to her boy. Tim Myerly’s mom was a small woman with an eager gait and a sweetness that most boys would take for granted. Scotty watched as she walked past and he stayed staring after she was gone.

It hadn’t taken long for the mothers of Scotty’s friends and classmates to hear that Joan Ocean had been hospitalized. They began to jockey gently for Scotty’s approval. Not that they wanted to raise the boy, but collectively they wanted him to know that all mothers didn’t disappear; all mothers didn’t end up in the hospital.

Shari Tussey’s mom had straight yellow hair and she always smiled when she spoke. Even when she yelled, she smiled—her lips pulled back revealing her large teeth. She looks like a
beaver, Scotty thought. No mother should look like a beaver.

Ruth Rethman’s mother brought a treat to class one Friday in November: Saltine crackers with honey from real bees. Ruth Rethman’s mother pointed out the honeycomb in the honey jar. She seemed much too nice, trying to win the friendship of Ruth’s classmates. Bribery. She couldn’t win Scotty’s love.

Craig Hunt’s mom had cold hands and loved to hug Craig’s friends. Craig loved insects and Estes rockets and, most of all, his mom, who parceled out his Halloween candy, a piece a day, which each year lasted well into May. No mother holds on to candy.

And there were more mothers. Nice mothers and pretty mothers, and sometimes a mother would be nice and pretty both. Bev Fowler had such a mom. Bev and her mother wore identical glasses. Black frames, almost square, thick lenses. Whenever Scotty saw Bev Fowler and her mother, he stared extensively at the glasses. The lenses were thick like pond ice. You could skate over her eyes, Scotty thought. Bev’s eyes doubled in size if somebody got close enough. Bev Fowler’s mom accompanied the class on a field trip to the Iowa Historical Society to look at authentic American Indian arrowheads and clothing. Scotty spent most of his time staring at Bev Fowler’s mom. She kept touching her daughter’s hair, stroking it lightly. They looked like they shared secrets, Bev and her mom, and Scotty could identify. His mother always stroked his hair when they shared their secrets.

And there were never-before-seen mothers and new-to-town mothers. Scotty had just seen such a mom: Tim Myerly’s.


Scotty listened as his neighbor Andrew Crow explained. “This is junior high information, Ocean. Do you know that?” Scotty squinted, as if squinting would help him hear. He couldn’t believe his luck. Only minutes earlier he’d heard the bouncing of Andrew Crow’s basketball. Scotty tried to walk across his yard quietly but the crunching of the orange and yellow leaves below him gave him away. And when he reached the edge of his yard, he noticed Andrew Crow looking over at him, a Spalding basketball held with two hands, as if he were Atlas holding the world. “Come on over,” Andrew said. Other than his pant leg catching on the top of the fence, Scotty climbed over in his usual manner. He fell to the ground but stood up quickly and brushed his shirt and pants and smiled, but Andrew Crow had gone back to shooting baskets. Scotty moved to the edge of the court. Andrew dribbled between his legs, tried a hook shot but missed the basket completely. Scotty thought he better make himself useful, and chased after the ball. Andrew Crow held out his hands, as if to say “Throw it to me.” Scotty bounced the ball to Andrew Crow. Scotty had found his purpose.

In all the time they had been neighbors, Andrew Crow hadn’t said much. But now he was talking, and Scotty listened close, because he wanted to soak up every word.

“Junior high information is what I’m giving you. Are you listening?”

Scotty nodded.

“Are you!”


Andrew Crow dribbled the basketball, then stopped. He looked directly into Scotty’s eyes.

“First base you kiss.”


“Have you kissed anybody?”

Scotty quickly replayed his kissing memories. “Carole Staley kissed me. Right here,” he said, pointing to his elbow.

“Gotta be on the lips, Ocean, for it to be first base.”

“Oh.” Scotty remembered kissing his mother repeatedly and his sisters, too. “My mom and sisters—”

“Mothers and sisters don’t count.”


“Now if I were to kiss one of your sisters… let’s say Claire… if I were to kiss
, it would be first base. But if you were to kiss—”

“It wouldn’t count.”

“Right.” Andrew dribbled the basketball twice, drove toward the hoop, and missed a lay-up. Scotty followed after the ball, which had bounced off the court into a mound of raked leaves. He brought it back.

Taking the ball, Andrew continued. “Second base you put your hands on her boobs.”

Scotty didn’t know whether to cover his ears or what.

“You better hope she has boobs. Your sister Maggie has no boobs—if I put my hands there, they’d be like big pimples. That’d be no fun.”

Scotty nodded in agreement, as if he understood, as if he knew from experience. Andrew tossed the ball from a great distance, missing the basket completely. Scotty retrieved the ball.

“Third base is a finger. Maybe two fingers if she’s over fifteen.”

Scotty looked puzzled. He thought, a finger? Scotty had seen a magician at Jimmy Lamson’s birthday party do an amazing trick. He raised a hatchet above his head suddenly, brought it down quickly, then held up a bloody finger, severed. Later, because one of the kids watching started screaming, the magician revealed the finger to be rubber. The blood turned out to be red paint. Scotty got to hold the finger. How realistic, he thought at the time. How lifelike. Weeks later he came across a box of those fingers in the novelty section at Kmart.

Scotty’s face betrayed his confusion now. Why should it be a third base when a guy can go to the mall and buy a finger? Or a whole box of fingers?

Sensing Scotty’s confusion, Andrew stopped dribbling and elaborated. “A guy uses a finger—one from his own hand—to penetrate the girl.”

Penetrate, Scotty thought. Penetrate must be a sixth grade word, a junior high word.

“Stick in, enter, pierce—like that.”

“Oh,” Scotty said.

“Between her legs is a hole. It goes by many names.” Andrew listed several.

Later, Scotty could only remember one name. Vagina. It sounded eternal, vagina, like a vacation land.


At dinner that night he studied his sisters. Each of them must have a hole. Had any of them been fingered? Before dessert Scotty asked Claire the meaning of a word he struggled to pronounce. She replied, “The word is penetrate.” She said the word, spelled it, used it in a sentence, then said it again.

The Judge said, “Correct.”

Scotty thought about the word “vagina.” It was a word he did not need defined. But he wished he could spell it. If only he could, Scotty thought, then he would write it a million times in a row or until his hand fell off, whichever came first.


Scotty sprinted for the phone, which he answered in mid-ring.

“Hello, young man!” a male voice said. This is a happy man I’m talking to, Scotty thought.

“Hi!” said Scotty, sending back a happy sound.

“What are you doing tonight?”


“Well, young man, is the lady of the house there?”

Scotty went, “Uhm.”

“May I speak with your mother?”


“Is there a time I could call back?”

“She’s not here.”

“When might she be returning?”

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
12.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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