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Authors: Peter Hedges

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BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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“No,” Scotty said. This was unthinkable.

“Scotty, it’s all right if you are. I have so much painting to do.”

“I’m not mad at you!”

Joan smiled and turned the car into the driveway. “Yes, you are, and it’s all right.”

“I’M NOT MAD!”

***

Those days when Joan let Scotty join her at her studio, he would stand nearby, painting and scribbling on blank sheets of
paper clipped to his own miniature easel. If Joan needed to be alone for a while, Scotty would play in the parking lot, studying the movements of the ant colonies that had formed in the cracks of the concrete.

Armed with a dime or a handful of pennies, he walked alone to the drugstore where he picked out his favorite candy: Hot Dog bubble gum, SweeTarts, and square, light-brown Kraft caramels in individual plastic wrappers.

For lunch she took him to Anjo’s Restaurant where he sucked up spaghetti one noodle at a time, leaving a ring of tomato sauce around his lips.

But mostly Scotty watched while Joan painted and smoked and drank.

***

That August during a hot spell, Scotty drew a picture of his parents. First he outlined his interpretation of Joan. He gave her yellow hair, a cigarette in her sticklike hand, and dressed her in a large shirt, which he colored with dots as if splattered with paint.

Joan said, “I bet I know who that is.” Then, while Joan busied herself stretching a canvas, Scotty sketched his version of the Judge: a mass of limbs, a thick neck, and a large, looming body. He stopped when it came time to draw the Judge’s face. He sat for a time and tried to picture the details. But as hard as he’d tried to imagine it, the Judge’s face was a blur, so he left it blank.

It was the Judge’s hands that Scotty could picture clearest—a Masonic ring on his right hand, a gold wedding band on the left, hairy knuckles—hands so huge the Judge could palm a basketball with ease, maybe even a globe, the textured kind.
Fingers so long that they could stretch over Scotty’s eyes and ears, a grip so strong that if the Judge wanted he could crush Scotty’s skull with a single squeeze.

This is what Scotty believed.

In late evenings, as the sun set, the Judge would stand with Scotty in front of the garage door, extend his hands and shape them in various ways, casting shadows of various animals. He’d already taught Scotty the rabbit, the snail, and the alligator. The Judge told Scotty to keep practicing. “And then,” he said, “at parties you can be the entertainment.”

In the finished sketch, the figure of the Judge covered the page, from top to bottom—he was two and a half times the size of Joan.

“Your dad isn’t that big, Scotty.”

“No?”

“Oh no,” Joan said. “You got the proportions all wrong. He’s maybe half as big as your drawing suggests.”

“Oh.”

Joan handed Scotty a pink eraser.

“Try again.”

Scotty erased his father and tried again. He showed her the finished drawing.

“Very good, Scotty. You’ve cut him down to size.”

(4)

Near the end of August, a moving van pulled up next door. Scotty happened to be climbing the larger willow tree at the time. With his hands and hair flecked with bark and leaves, he dropped to the ground and was the first of the neighbor kids
to stand and watch the movers unload. Others arrived on bikes and roller skates or by foot and looked on as boxes were carried down the moving-van ramp. Everyone watching hoped to get a preview of the new family and what kind of people they would be.

Looking for clues, Scotty decided. Evidence.

First off were a series of boxes, then a bed frame wrapped in moving blankets, then an office desk.

“I see a bike,” Scotty called out.

As the movers unloaded it, Scotty couldn’t believe what he saw. Every boy’s dream—a Schwinn five-speed, a big black knob for a gearshift, positioned like the stick shift in Joan’s convertible, a banana seat with a large “S” for Schwinn, butterfly handlebars, hand brakes, a small front wheel with a coil-like spring below the handlebars to absorb bumps. With its blood-red bike frame, this particular model was called the Apple Krate.

There was no better bike than the bike of his new neighbor.

Scotty knew the boy would immediately be popular. And Scotty said to himself, “I’m going to be this person’s friend.”

***

All day Scotty waited in the yard, tugging at low-hanging branches, grabbing the seedling balls from the sycamore tree, breaking them open with his fingers, letting the insides scatter. Finally, when the neighbor’s garage door was raised open, Scotty was waiting. He peered around a tree and watched as his new neighbor wheeled out his bike.

The neighbor stood the bike on its handlebars. He spun the wheel to check the alignment. He tested the brakes.

Scotty had never seen a boy quite like this.

The new boy looked as if he’d been stretched on one of those medieval torture racks. His long, skinny neck was like taffy. A prominent bump in his throat resembled a fist. His hair, buzzed short, stood up square on his head. Black and prickly, the new neighbor’s hair must feel, Scotty decided, like a dog brush.

Scotty watched as the neighbor took playing cards from a deck and secured them with clothespins to the fender. Then he grunted, turned his bike over, straddled it, and pedaled off. As he rode, the bike spokes striking the playing cards made a machine gun sound.

***

Scotty’s plan was to give a tour. Tips and pointers for the new neighbor. Highlights and information and history any new kid would want to know.

He’d show him the best hill for bikes, and the creek at the bottom of the street, below Pleasant Street, where the rain emptied and which ran parallel to Interstate 235. He’d show him the hill over on Twenty-first Street where Claire and Maggie had taken him the previous winter for sledding. He’d teach him to recognize the sound of the ice cream man.

He’d point out the empty lot on Twenty-second Street where a gang of future fourth graders made a ramp out of scrap wood, and where each day in the summer, after the construction workers had gone home, kids rode in circles, popping wheelies, smoothing out a trail around where the house was being built.

If it rained, Scotty could show him how he and Tom Conway and sometimes Tom Conway’s sister Donna raced used Popsicle sticks in the rapids that formed on the sides of
Twenty-third Street after a thunderstorm. They’d race all the way past the Oceans’ house, past the Conways’, past the Sheltons’ and the Foxes’ and the Deubens’, down to the sewer opening where water left the street and went underground. Wiffle balls, baseballs, the occasional Super Ball, rolled into the sewer, usually lost, unless, of course, a group of boys used a metal pipe or tree branch to lift off the sewer lid and someone dropped down to retrieve it.

What else? What else?

He decided to tell his neighbor everything he knew.

But there was the question of approach. How do I talk to him when he’s so tall? When he has the best bike?

Scotty worried about these things as he stood alone in his yard. He didn’t even know the neighbor boy’s name. It would be days before he was to hear it. It was Claire who would make the announcement. “His name is Andrew Crow,” she told her family. “He’s in my math class.” Then she repeated his last name, spelled it, and said, “Crow, like the pesky bird.” She stabbed her fork into a pork chop. “An odd name,” she went on to say. “For an odd boy.”

(5)

They went kiss kiss on the front porch; then Joan waved as Scotty headed off, day one of second grade. He walked backward for a time, waving to his mom, her hair still messy from sleep.

Earlier, while tying Scotty’s shoes for him, Joan told Scotty that he was going to have to learn to do this by himself.

“Okay,” Scotty had promised, secretly planning never to learn shoe tying. Why should I, he thought, when my mom is so good at it?

Claire had left earlier, riding her bike the almost two miles to West Glen Junior High. Scotty was to walk with Maggie, who with her long, bony legs was already a house ahead of him when she called back, “Come on, Scotty, we’re going to be late.” He turned and ran to catch up with her. When he got close, he looked back and waved to his mom again. She was still there, still waving, but with a lit cigarette in her hand.

“Scotty, come on.”

As he ran, he squeezed the ridges of the green plastic handle on his
Bonanza
lunch pail.

Except for the lunch pail (a holdover from first grade), everything about Scotty was new. His new book bag was filled with new items: large pencils called Husky, two Big Chief tablets, a box of forty-eight Crayola crayons, scissors with green handles and
LEFTY
stamped on the side, a pink rectangular eraser, a wooden ruler (with no teeth marks yet)—everything was new.

Even his clothes had never been worn before. The tags had been yanked off the night before. His polyester shirt itched; the collar pinched—“It’s too small,” Joan had said during shopping at Sears.

“No,” Scotty said.

“You should wear a size eight, Scotty,” she insisted.

“No.”

“You’re going to have to wear size eight eventually.”

“No,” Scotty said. “I hate eight.”

His new Buster Brown shoes were shiny and roomy enough that he could wiggle his toes. At home, his new Keds tennis shoes waited to be worn after school and on weekends.

At the top of Woodland Street, Tom Conway stood dressed in his first-day-of-school outfit. He asked Scotty if he could walk with him.

Before Scotty could answer, Maggie said, “Sure, Tom, you can walk with us.”

***

For Scotty, Maggie, and Tom Conway, it was a short walk to Clover Hills Elementary—up one street and down another. Others lived farther away and cars full of nervous kids and relieved parents zipped past that first day.

Carole Staley rode in the front as her father, a banker, drove her to school. With her dishwater-blond hair and green eyes pressed to the glass, Carole Staley called out the names of the kids she knew. “That’s Lucy Titman. That’s Leann Callahan.”

But when she saw Scotty Ocean walking with his sister and Tom Conway, she didn’t call out Scotty’s name. She pressed her face to the window glass, her lips especially, and the car passed him.

“Carole, what are you doing?”

She quickly faced front, her lips having left a wet mark on the car window.

“Uhm,” Carole said. “I don’t know.”

But she knew. Scotty Ocean had been her favorite boy in first grade. And now they would be in the same section in second grade. She had waited all summer for this day.

***

It was in front of Cindy McCameron’s house that one of Scotty’s shoes came untied.

“Maggie,” Scotty said.

“What?”

Scotty pointed to his untied shoe.

“You do it yourself.”

“Can’t. Don’t know how.”

“Not my problem,” said Maggie and she walked on.

“But…”

“I’m not Mom,” Maggie snapped.

Scotty stopped and waited. He wouldn’t budge.

The McCamerons had a swimming pool in their backyard. The blue slide could be seen poking above the wooden fence. In the winter, a rubber bubble would be filled with air, “winterizing” the pool, and Cindy had pool parties to which boys were never invited.

On certain breezy days, one could smell the chlorine from the water. On the hottest of days, one could hear kids splashing and playing from behind the fence. Sometimes neighbor kids would stand in the street and watch as little figures appeared at the top of the slide and then disappeared from view as they slid, a moment of nothingness until the inevitable splash and ensuing yelps.

Scotty turned and saw that Maggie was two houses away. He stared down at his untied shoe.

Tom Conway had waited. Tom said, “I can do it.”

Knowing that Maggie wasn’t going to come back to help, Scotty sighed. “Okay, but fast.”

Tom, his hands shaking, his face looking serious, started to tie Scotty’s shoe as best he could.

Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Scotty froze when he heard it. He turned in time to see Andrew Crow approaching on his Schwinn five-speed, the playing cards rattling out his warning, on his way to West Glen Junior High.

Tom Conway didn’t like Andrew Crow. “He’s creepy,” he would later say.

Andrew coasted by, his hands behind his head. He looked over at Scotty and laughed, a cackle of sorts. Scotty looked down and saw Tom Conway making the final loop in his shoelace. Pulling away his foot, undoing all of Tom’s handiwork, Scotty said, “Forget it.”

Andrew coasted down the street, finally disappearing with an upper body lean, turning his bike at Vine Street, using no hands to steer.

And Scotty thought, I wish I could do that.

“You ruined it,” Tom said meekly.

“Tough,” said Scotty and they walked on, Scotty’s shoelace flailing with every other step.

***

When Scotty arrived at his new classroom with Tom Conway tagging along, Mrs. Boyden was standing in the doorway, staring at her watch. She looked up and said, “Good morning, I’m Mrs. Boyden. Please hurry and take your seat.”

Each desk had a name tag taped in front.

Second grade meant each student got his own desk with a shelf. In first grade, four students shared a table. Third grade desks would have lids.

Scotty found his desk quickly. It was the third desk in the third row—he was sitting smack in the middle. Scotty looked around. Most of the kids he knew. Dan Burkhett and Craig Hunt were seated nearby. In the far corner, Jimmy Lamson sat wearing a blue suit coat and a red tie.

Scotty scanned the room. This is where he was to learn. In a far corner, near a large porcelain sink, a rack of hooks, waist high on adults, anticipated winter coats and scarves. In another corner, low shelves overflowed with books of all sizes. On top, a textured globe of the world waited to be spun. Near the
classroom entrance, there was a pencil sharpener; a gray metal wastebasket; and a clock with a big face, easy-to-read numbers, and a red second hand that moved slowly. The speaker for the intercom system was secured to the wall, and an American flag extended at an angle from a metal holder. A fresh coat of beige paint had been applied to Mrs. Boyden’s classroom over the summer. Above the blackboard, the alphabet printed in large letters ran the length of the room. Each letter appeared twice—the first time in capitals, the second in lower case. On the blackboard was written in block print:
WELCOME
.

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
8.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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