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Authors: Peter Hedges

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BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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The girls looked at the Judge. Maggie thought it queer that their dad spoke like a Bible.

He continued, “Do you know the effect of gravity?”

Scotty sat looking at his plate, searching for his reflection like the woman on the TV commercial.

Claire smiled a look of recognition: “We did a whole section on it.”

“Tell us about gravity.”

Claire said the word, spelled it, said it again.

“Correct,” said the Judge.

“It’s a pull. When you drop something, it falls down instead of up. It
gravitates.

Maggie interjected, “Gravity keeps you from floating off into space.”

Suddenly, Scotty rose up, floating above the table. He lay pressed to the ceiling. The others stared up at him, their mouths still slowly chewing. He crawled across the ceiling. He pushed open the front door with his forehead, sailed outside, got caught for a moment in the big sycamore tree, freed himself, and floated off as his family shouted, “Come back, come back!” The farther away he got, the smaller he grew. Scotty was gone.

He returned to the table as his father said, “Claire, that is correct. So Scotty, girls—gravity takes its effect on every one of us. How is this illustrated? The average man or woman is half an inch, sometimes a whole inch, shorter at the end of the day than he is at the beginning. And all because of…”

The Judge paused, and like the conductor of an orchestra, gestured for everyone to speak in unison.

“Gravity,” they said.

“So,” Maggie added, “you’re saying Scotty came up short—”

“Yes, that’s what he’s saying,” Claire said.

“I asked Dad.”

The Judge put a hand in the air. Whenever he raised his hand, the children were to stop talking, even if they were in mid-sentence. But Maggie kept on with her comments, ranting about how Scotty had no right to cheat. The Judge snapped two fingers of his raised hand. Maggie continued talking. Without warning, he took his water glass, and with a swift, precise move, emptied it on Maggie, drenching her.

She stopped. Her bottom lip curled out, and she covered where her breasts would one day be. “Scotty was the cheater, Daddy. Not—” She stopped when she saw the Judge’s hand in the air.

“In answer to your question,” the Judge said, “I believe it is possible, due to gravity, for Scotty to come up shorter. We must consider the pull of the earth.”

***

The Ocean girls had been excused. Maggie, all wet, left the table in tears; Claire followed to make it better.

The Judge and Scotty sat alone.

“There’s a lot of good meat left on these bones.”

Scotty watched his father pick at the food.

“A lot of good meat.”

Scotty had lost his appetite.

“You do the dishes.”

“Yes, sir.”

Punished, good.

He took hours washing and drying each dish by hand. He put away the silverware and left the dishes on the counter for morning, when someone taller, the Judge most likely, would put them away.

The girls were asleep by the time Scotty finished, and in the living room, the Judge had nodded off while watching the late news. Scotty turned off the television, woke the Judge, and turned off the lights. He followed his dad up the stairs.

And as he climbed, Scotty contemplated his lifetime full of mistakes. If only I had done more of this, less of that, he thought.

And he made a mental list, indelibly scrawling it onto his heart. If only he hadn’t used the kissing machine on her all those times. If only he hadn’t done the seven dance, or licked the mailbox, then maybe she’d have stayed.

If only I wasn’t such a cheater, he thought as he climbed into bed, the bed that was still hers.

(2)

Where was Joan?

That became a frequent question in the minds of many people. Periodically there would be a sighting—she’d be seen idling in her yellow convertible at a stoplight; Liz Conway saw her getting cigarettes out of a machine at Harold Drake’s gas station. Once she was seen pushing an empty grocery cart down an aisle at the Safeway, laughing, no bra on, her breasts jiggling up and down, her laugh forced and unfortunate.

Rhonda Fowler called Brenda Burkhett and said, “You’ll never believe who I just saw at Safeway…”

The Oceans went to church. They were Joan-less. The Judge told the children to say to anyone who asked that their mother wasn’t feeling well. The Judge seemed stiffer, and the girls looked older suddenly, and Scotty didn’t fidget. His
behavior seemed impeccable. Someone mentioned that Joan had closed her gallery. Someone else heard she was staying on the other side of town.

(3)

After school when she knew the Judge wouldn’t be home, Joan made a secret call to her kids.

“Let me talk to Scotty. Is Scotty on the phone? Scotty, are you there?”

“He’s on,” Maggie said.

“Scotty? Hello, little love.”

“He’s on. Talk!”

“Are you sure he’s on?”

“I hear him breathing.”

A faint “Hi.”

“Was that you?”

A faint “Yes.”

“Can you talk a little louder? For your mom? How are you?”

A faint “Good.”

“You have to speak up. I’m calling from a pay phone. You know how pay phones are.”

“Scotty, talk to Mom. You’ve been wanting to. He’s always practicing what he wants to tell you. I have to listen to him all the way to school. He talks a mile a minute. And now you call and he says nothing. Come on, Scotty!”

“Honey, what are you doing?”

A faint “TV.”

“What’re you watching?”

“Nothing.”

“I miss you so much.” Joan dropped another coin in the phone. “You know that, don’t you? Scotty?”

“I think he put down the phone, Mom, because I don’t hear him breathing.”

***

Scotty watched as Claire and Maggie, after hanging up the phone, began a frantic search. Claire checked the Judge’s room, opening his sock drawer, his underwear drawer—Maggie checked the living room bookcase and sorted through the stack of papers in the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” Scotty asked.

“If you had stayed on the phone,” Claire said, “you’d know exactly what we’re looking for.”

The more they searched, the angrier they became. So when the Judge entered the house, Claire and Maggie stood waiting, fuming.

“Where are they?” Claire asked.

The Judge looked puzzled.

“Mom said she wrote us letters.”

“Where are they!” Maggie shouted.

“Oh,” the Judge said.

“I can’t believe it!”

“You keeping them from us, Dad?” Maggie said.

“I forgot,” the Judge said. “Honest.” He went to the sugar bowl and lifted the lid. “Here, kids.”

He handed them their letters.

“You
read
them?” Claire said, referring to the torn envelopes. “I can’t believe you read them!”

Claire and Maggie, letters in hand, stomped up the stairs.

“I’m sorry,” the Judge said.

Scotty stood holding his letter. “It’s okay, Dad.”

“She might not be your wife,” Claire shouted. “But she’s still our mother!”

***

Later the Judge climbed the stairs. “Claire, Maggie,” the Judge called from the hallway. “I’m sorry.”

(4)

Whenever the family watched TV, Scotty crouched on the carpet, on his knees, ready to sprint. If the phone rang, Scotty was off and running. Living in a world dominated by his ten-and twelve-year-old sisters, he needed a head start. After all, it might be his mother calling, and if he was first, he’d have her all to himself, if only for a moment, and he could say what he wished he’d said when she called that one time—he’d say what he rehearsed, the magic words that would make her come back: “I’ll be good.”

***

Claire tried to answer Scotty’s question. “They always say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’ What else? Good boys are polite and clean and do what is required.”

“Okay,” Scotty said.

“But most important, good boys help with chores.”

“Okay.”

“Does that answer it?”

“Yep.”

“They help with chores, Scotty.” Then she said, “Hint, hint.”

As Claire went to the basement, Scotty ran upstairs and gathered the dirty clothes. His arms full, he pushed the clothes through an opening and they dropped through the clothes chute. Claire was measuring out detergent when she heard the sound of clothes coming—the
whoosh
—and she stepped out of the way just in time as the clothes plopped on the floor.

“Scotty!”

He didn’t hear her, for he was busy running down the two flights of stairs.

Scotty learned much about laundry in those first days. How to separate the whites from the colors. How to hold the glass measuring cup while Claire filled it with detergent.

“Something about laundry I love, Scotty.”

“Yeah?”

“We choose our own hours.”

“Yeah.”

He learned about bleach and appropriate wash cycles and water temperatures. Claire reminded him of the dangers of a blue sock getting in a load of whites. He came to respect clothing and he felt important helping his sister—and he knew this was a benefit of having turned seven.

And when they finished a load, he’d beg Claire to compliment him. He’d keep begging until she said, “Good work.” Or, “That was good.” Anything with “good.”

(5)

Carole Staley bragged to the class, “My mom’s making my costume.” She described how her mother was going to take a grocery sack, cut holes for the arms, make an elastic headband, and top it all off with a turkey feather. Then she told how her mom was going to paint red and blue streaks of “war” paint on her, thereby turning Carole into an authentic Indian princess.

“What are you going as?” she asked Scotty.

He shrugged. Usually Joan made him an elaborate costume. In kindergarten he had gone as a clown, and in first grade he went as the devil. But this year he didn’t know. The Judge assured him that he could pick out any costume under a certain price range.

“You don’t know what you’re going to be?”

Scotty said nothing.

Carole offered to have her mother make a second costume and Scotty quickly said no.

Tom Conway said he would go as a wounded soldier. He planned to wrap his head in a cloth bandage and to use ketchup for blood.

Other kids had their plans—hobos, ghosts, ballerinas. A group of fourth graders were dressing up as the characters in
The Mod Squad.

***

Scotty’s store-bought costume was of an astronaut. The plastic mask was to be held in place by a rubber band, but on Halloween
night as he stretched it out over his head, the rubber band broke.

“You’ll be all right,” the Judge said to a frustrated Scotty, who now would have to hold the mask in place using one hand.

Maggie wore torn overalls, covered her cheeks with charcoal, and went as a hobo. They both carried plastic pumpkins for gathering candy.

***

The Keiths gave caramel apples, the Biechlers gave popcorn balls, and Dr. Kovacs, a dentist, gave out toothbrushes. The best house for candy was that of Leann Callahan’s grandparents, who lived on Vine Street. They gave adult-sized candy bars and after Scotty told his joke—“What’s the biggest pen in the world? Pennsylvania”—the grandmother dropped a second candy bar into Scotty’s plastic pumpkin.

***

Scotty had a favorite costume.

Andrew Crow had taken one of the boxes his family had used during their move. Using a scissors, he poked numerous holes equally spaced throughout the box. He threaded tiny Christmas lights through each hole and using a 9-volt battery, he made a space monster.

“A monster of the future,” he announced to anyone who would listen.

Andrew had worked for weeks on his costume. Inside the cardboard were elastic straps that hung over his shoulders—these helped keep the box buoyant. A smaller box, head size, rested on top, and it was secured in such a way that he could
turn his head separately from the body section of his robot. He punched out holes for eyes and put in a cheese grater for the mouth. When he spoke, he tried to speak with an electronic voice.

It was the best costume on the block.

Scotty wanted more than anything to get close to Andrew Crow. Every so often he could see, a few houses behind him, the blinking lights of Andrew Crow’s costume approaching. Scotty would slow down as much as possible, but Maggie would invariably call for him to hurry up.

And if Scotty hesitated, she’d stretch out her hand, grab his, pull him along, and say, “You’re slowing me down.”

(6)

One November morning, after the class had recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Mrs. Boyden told her students to sit. Smiling, she said, “Now we’re going to learn something useful.” Then she hoisted a large box up onto her desk.

Scotty and the others wondered what was inside. Everyone sensed the importance of the day’s teaching because Mrs. Boyden seemed particularly excited. Her voice had an unusual enthusiasm and that enthusiasm was contagious.

“We’re going to learn something you will use every day.”

Every day, Scotty thought.

“We’re going to learn something you can use for the rest of your life.”

“Oh, boy,” Scotty said. Something had special value if you could use it for the rest of your life.

Mrs. Boyden held up a large plastic clock—tan with a white face and big black, easy-to-read numbers.

“You’ll each get your own.”

“Our own,” whispered Scotty to himself.

She called the class forward by rows. As she handed each student a clock, she said, “Be careful.”

Knobs in the back made it possible to turn the hands.

“These aren’t real,” Dan Burkhett whispered to Scotty. “They don’t have a tick.”

When Scotty got his, he held it to his ear. “No tick,” he announced, as if he’d discovered it himself.

***

By midweek Mrs. Boyden could announce a time and in less than a minute her students would manipulate the knobs, turning the clock hands to point in the appropriate directions, and hold up their clocks victoriously. To Mrs. Boyden’s pleasure, most of her students would have the big and little hands in the appropriate place.

“Very good.”

And then she’d call out another time.

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
8.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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