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Authors: Peter Hedges

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BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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“But there’s no pencil.”

“Hurry.”

He searched the bookshelf. He climbed the stairs checking each step; he ran to his room where he found crayons.

“I got a crayon,” he said speaking into the upstairs phone.

“Here’s my message.”

Joan started to speak when Scotty realized he’d left the pad of paper downstairs. He dropped the phone and ran down the steps, turned the corner and picked up the kitchen phone as Joan finished giving her message.

“What did you say?”

“Scotty,” she sighed.

“One more time.”

“Write: Mother… is… in…”

Scotty prided himself at being fast in many areas, but his penmanship took an eternity. Joan would have to wait.

“Where are you, honey?”

“At my house. Kitchen.”

“No, honey, where are you with the writing?”

“I’m on ‘is.’”

“Tell him I’m in…”

Joan Ocean began to sob.

Scotty waited to hear the next word to write. He didn’t want to seem pushy so as she wept on the other end, he went back and crossed the “t” in “Mother.” Then he tried to imagine what the next word would be. Mother is in…

Scotty heard his mother say, “One moment, please. Just one more moment.”

“What, Mom?”

“I’m talking to someone else, honey. Just hold on.”

She must have covered the receiver, he decided, because he could only hear muffled voices. When she spoke to him again, her voice had no feeling. It made Scotty think she was talking to someone else.

“Tell your dad—tell him I’m in jail.”

Joan said good-bye. Scotty said nothing as the phone went dead, then a dial tone. Scotty was pleased because jail was a word he knew how to spell. He wrote it in big letters with his blue crayon.

He left the note on the kitchen table and went into the living room where a plate full of his toast crusts waited. He flipped the channels in hopes of finding the Salem girl or the Purina chuck wagon.

Later he went upstairs where he found the phone he had forgotten to hang up. When he got close, he heard the throbbing cry a phone makes when off the hook. It was as if it were calling him. “Scotty,” it said. “Scotty, Scotty.”

***

As soon as he got home, the Judge called the police in Iowa City. Joan had crashed her car into a telephone pole. She had cut her forehead, received stitches: She had been drinking. The car was damaged, not totaled, and she’d be able to drive it. After being treated at a hospital, she was taken to the Johnson County Jail where she was to spend the night.

The Judge told his worried children all that he thought they should know. Scotty didn’t hear much of what he said—only the good news that his mother was a criminal.

At school, Scotty expected and got a small crowd of boys who wanted to know all the details.

Tom Conway asked Scotty, “Will she get the death penalty?”

“Maybe.”

“What’s she in for?”

“Lots of things,” Scotty told the boys.

“I believe in the death penalty,” Chip Fisher said. His father was a policeman.

“Me, too,” Scotty said.

“Even if it’s your mother?”

“For what she did, yep.”

“What’d she do? Murder somebody?”

“Maybe,” Scotty said.

“No. We woulda heard ’bout it.”

“You gotta kill to get the death penalty.”

“Scotty’s a liar. He lies.”

Scotty shrugged. They all had boring mothers—mothers who baked, mothers who sewed, mothers who drove station wagons. His mother was a criminal.

Mrs. Boyden rang the bell signaling the end of recess.

“You don’t mean the death penalty part.”

“I do.”

Mrs. Boyden rang the recess bell a second time and the others sprinted toward the classroom. Scotty walked, taking his own sweet time. He knew those who weren’t looking at him were thinking about him, his mother and her crime, and how great it must be to be Scotty Ocean.

***

Within minutes, as Mrs. Boyden flashed addition and subtraction cards, Bev Fowler put her head down on the table and began to cry uncontrollably. Mrs. Boyden took Bev by the hand and led her out of the classroom as the others watched silently.

After a short time, Mrs. Boyden opened the classroom door and said, “Scott, could you come here please?”

Outside, Bev’s shoulders heaved up and down, her eyes all pink and wet.

“Tell Beverly the truth.”

Scotty looked at her as if he had no idea what she meant.

“Your mother isn’t going to be executed,” she said as she squeezed Scotty’s arm. “Tell her!”

Scotty turned to Mrs. Boyden, pressed his big front teeth into his bottom lip and glared. She said, without thought, “I’ll get the principal.”

Scotty said nothing to Bev Fowler, who continued crying with her hands brought up to cover her face. Scotty looked out to where the playground equipment stood. He heard the click of Mrs. Boyden’s heels walking away. The click grew softer. It stopped when she turned into the carpeted office. Mr. Sheil, the principal, would be coming out soon, the weight of his body leaning forward, his bald head reflecting the fluorescent light.

***

While waiting outside the principal’s office, Scotty watched the other children as they left for the day. Some kids carried home their art projects, and other kids lined up for the water fountain. Tim Myerly hurried past. Somewhere out in the parking lot, inside a station wagon, Mrs. Myerly waited.

The Judge had been contacted. He drove straight from the courthouse, and he was, as Maggie would say, steaming mad. He had gone immediately into the principal’s office, where he met privately with Principal Sheil and Mrs. Boyden for over thirty minutes.

Scotty wondered what they were talking about.

Scotty knew he was in trouble, but he didn’t seem to care.

When the Judge emerged from the office, he didn’t look at Scotty. He said tersely, “Get your coat.” Scotty did. “Get your things.” Scotty had his lunch pail, his stocking cap, his mittens. “I have them.”

“Let’s go,” the Judge said.

***

The Judge unlocked the car door with his key.

“Scotty, this is unacceptable. Do you know that?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t want me to have to come back to school. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know,” Scotty said as he climbed in the car.

“Because,” the Judge said with utter certainty, “the next time I get called back, it won’t be pretty.”

(12)

That Sunday, Sheila Myerly came to church alone. No Tim or Jeff, no Elizabeth. No husband. It was just Sheila. And Scotty knew it was his chance.

He kept turning around and looking at her during the service. Maybe her children and her husband got burned up in a fire or crushed by a bus.

At the coffee hour, he watched from behind the glass door outside the nursery. It would be time to go home soon. He waited for her to take a cigarette. As everyone said their goodbyes, Sheila stood in her regular spot.

Finally, she reached into her purse and pulled out her weekly cigarette. She lit it.

“Tim’s Mom?”

Sheila turned and looked down. Staring up at her was Scotty—his odd face with a lopsided smile and hair she longed to comb.

“Tim’s Mom?”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Uhm. Uhm.” His knees felt like liquid; his stomach contracted into a tight knot. “Uhm.”

Sheila Myerly smiled at Scotty. This gave him the needed strength.

“Where’s Tim?”

“The kids and their father went to Kansas City on a special trip.”

“Oh.”

Scotty stood for a moment. He didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Sheila Myerly’s ashes turned orange as she inhaled. The smoke poured out her mouth and Scotty closed his eyes, hoping the smoke would surround him. It floated above, at first, and he watched as it slowly began to descend.

Standing in Sheila Myerly’s smoke, Scotty was transported. He wondered, Is this sex?

Mrs. Sheila Myerly giggled.

Scotty opened his eyes.

“I’ll tell Tim you asked about him.”

“Okay,” Scotty said, turning, and then he stole away.

“And Scotty?”

“Yes?”

“Maybe sometime you’d like to spend the night at our house. Would you like that?”

“Huh?”

“An overnight. You come to our house. Spend the night.”

Scotty wanted to celebrate, do something, dance, but he cocked his head, as if considering, and said, “I’ll have to ask my dad.”

(13)

That week on
Family Affair
, Buffy lost her doll Mrs. Beasley. Uncle Bill spent the entire show trying to find Mrs. Beasley. Through persistence and a bit of good luck, he found the doll in the trash receptacle and just in time, too, for the show was almost over for the week. He woke Buffy, who was missing both front teeth—she’s only six, Scotty said to his sisters and the Judge—and she told Uncle Bill that she had been dreaming that he had found Mrs. Beasley. Then Uncle Bill held out Mrs. Beasley for Buffy and said, “Sometimes dreams come true.”

(14)

“Wait till the car stops moving,” the Judge shouted.

But Scotty had already swung open the car door. The Judge was about to yell at Scotty when he realized Sheila Myerly was approaching the car. She wore a wool sweater and matching earmuffs.

“We’re so pleased Scotty could be with us,” she told the Judge.

“He’s been looking forward to this. Scotty, zip up your coat.”

But Scotty wasn’t listening. He grabbed his overnight bag, said, “Bye, Dad.”

“And Scotty, remember what I told you.”

Scotty hadn’t listened at all during the drive across town. The Judge went over the proper behavior for an overnight guest. Scotty had never slept over anywhere before, and the Judge expected the typical first-night-away-from-home jitters. Claire and Maggie both cried at some point during their first overnights and called home. The Judge assumed Scotty would do the same.

That night, the Judge watched television while Claire did homework and Maggie painted her finger nails a bright pink. The Judge expected the phone to ring with Scotty on the other line, sobbing, wanting to come home, missing him.

But that call never came.

***

The Myerlys lived in a single-story house on Hillside Avenue, on the other side of the elementary school. Because of his work, Mr. Myerly often traveled, even on weekends. That weekend he was in Omaha at a convention.

“It’s so good,” Sheila Myerly said as Scotty stepped inside, “to have another man in the house.”

Sheila Myerly had planned a whole series of games and activities.

That afternoon Scotty attended his first play. At the Des Moines Community Playhouse, Mrs. Myerly sat between her boys: Scotty sat next to Tim. Scotty’s favorite part of the play was when an igloo descended on wires, and a woman in a bear suit kept talking about how cold she was. She got the audience to say “Brrrr” with her, and Scotty thought that was funny, how she talked to them and how she made them talk.

After the play, she drove the boys to McDonald’s for dinner, dessert at Baskin-Robbins, then a night spent playing
games in their basement. The boys followed carefully constructed clues, which led to a plastic treasure chest filled with gold-wrapped milk chocolate coins hidden under the basement stairs. Also Sheila Myerly got down on her knees and played a game of Nerf basketball. She and Scotty were a team. They lost, but losing had never seemed so nice.

Later, while Tim, Jeff, and Scotty made various faces with a Mr. Potato Head, Scotty took a break, went upstairs, and wandered the house looking for the bathroom. He spied Mrs. Myerly in the kitchen, her shirt lifted, her baby Elizabeth in her arms.

She noticed Scotty and said, “What do you need, Scotty?”

He shrugged, then mumbled, “Bathroom.”

“Oh. Down the hall, to the right.”

Scotty didn’t move. He said, “Tim’s Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m feeding my baby.”

“Oh.”

“There’s milk in my breasts. And Elizabeth is drinking the milk.”

“Milk?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

“Your mother did the same for you.”

“No.”

“I’m sure she did.”

“No.”

Tim’s mom held baby Elizabeth up in the air, patted lightly on the baby’s back. Then Mrs. Sheila Myerly looked up at Scotty. “You better get ready for bed.”

And Scotty did as she said.

***

The trundle bed pulled out from under the bottom bunk. Scotty was to sleep next to Jeff, while Tim Myerly had the top bunk. When Mrs. Myerly tucked in the boys, she gave them each a kiss on the cheek. Scotty got an identical kiss. She looked back at them and, as she turned off the light, said, “Sleep tight.”

But Scotty couldn’t sleep. Across the boys’ bedroom, a night-light glowed. The night-light was the face of a clown, and it was close enough to the bedroom door that it could guide Scotty. In the hall, another night-light—clownless—showed Scotty the way.

Mrs. Myerly’s bedroom door was open and the room was mostly dark except for moonlight, which streamed in through lace curtains, casting snowflakes of light.

Scotty could see her shape lying in the bed, the covers barely disturbed, for Mrs. Myerly was small and thin, and it appeared as if she’d barely lifted the covers and slid under them.

For a long time Scotty stood staring at her. He held out his arms and studied the patterns of light on his skin. He curled up on her bedroom carpet and fell asleep.

Sometime during his sleep, he crawled under Mrs. Myerly’s quilt and wiggled his way close to her. He found her hands, and under the covers, kissed her fingers and the inside of her wrist. His little lips moved up her arm, past her elbow until he felt the chiffon of her nightgown.

“Who is under there?”

Scotty knew it was time to give himself away.

“Tim? Jeff?”

Scotty imagined the surprise. He threw off the covers, sat up on his knees, and went, “Boo.”

Scotty couldn’t make out her complete expression, but her voice—the tone—was firm and tight.

“Scotty, you shouldn’t be here.”

He was confused. She didn’t seem like the same person who a few hours earlier had kissed him on the cheek.

***

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
9.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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