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Authors: Peter Hedges

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BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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“Very good.”

Mrs. Boyden knew how to teach the telling of time. She knew not to overwhelm the child with too much information. The following week she would explain
Later still would come time zones and phrases like “a quarter past,” “half past,” “a quarter to”—but for now they had learned enough.

At the end of class on Friday, Mrs. Boyden told her students she was proud of each and every one of them. It was good for everyone to feel satisfied on a Friday.

Scotty stayed practicing the telling of time after the bell
rang. The other kids put their chairs upside down on their desks and left the classroom. Scotty didn’t see Carole Staley come up behind him. She placed her wet lips quickly on his right elbow, pulling away fast, leaving a ring of spit.

“Aagh,” went Scotty as he rubbed his elbow. “Aagh!”

Carole disappeared between two friends, and soon there was only Mrs. Boyden and Scotty left in the classroom.

Scotty ignored the giggles coming from the hallway. Mrs. Boyden looked up from her gray metal desk. Still holding his elbow, Scotty said, “three-oh-one.”

“Very good,” Mrs. Boyden said.


That weekend, Scotty repeatedly grabbed the Judge’s wrist with both hands. He studied the Judge’s watch. Scotty’s face contorted as he did his figuring.

“Seven… twenty,” Scotty said.


Scotty smiled.

Two minutes later he grabbed the Judge’s wrist again.

“Seven… twenty.”

“Close enough,” the Judge said.

“Seven-twenty-two to be exact,” Maggie said, looking at her Minnie Mouse watch.

“Close enough,” Scotty shouted back.

Throughout that evening and for the next several days, Scotty barked out times.

“Evidence,” the Judge liked to say, “that you’re learning things, Scotty.”

“Yeah,” Scotty would say. “Evidence.”

“And why do we gather evidence?”

“To make our case.”

“Yes. And why do we want to make a case?”

“To prove we’re right.”

“Correct, Scotty.” The Judge extended his stocking feet. “Will you rub them?”

Scotty pulled off the socks. The Judge’s feet were dry with white, flaky patches—a remnant from his World War II tour of duty.

“It’s nice of you to do this for your old man.”

Did Scotty have a choice?

“Ugly feet, aren’t they?” the Judge liked to brag. “Do you know why they’re ugly?”

Scotty shook his head, even though he knew why. Scotty began to massage the Judge’s feet. Then the Judge leaned back and closed his eyes.

“It’s a reminder—evidence—that I served my country. Some people lost arms and legs; sometimes they even gave their lives. I was lucky. To go to war and only have to give up my handsome feet.”

“Your feet sure are ugly,” Scotty said, stopping the massage. He shook out his hands.

“You’re not stopping, are you?”

“I’m tired.”

“More.” The Judge wiggled his toes.



And Scotty continued to rub.

“Good boy.”


And then, as the family watched
My Three Sons
, the phone rang. Scotty leapt to his feet and scrambled down the hallway. He stood on one of the kitchen chairs to answer the phone.

“Ocean residence, Scotty spea—”

A similar high-pitched voice interrupted. “Hey!” the excited, out-of-breath voice exclaimed. “It’s my dad!”

Scotty recognized Tom Conway’s voice.

“He’s coming home.”


The morning of Sergeant Conway’s return, the Judge sent Scotty out to retrieve the newspaper.

Outside, Scotty saw a figure moving in the Conways’ front yard. He stood watching until the Judge impatiently swung open the screen door and said, “Scotty.” But Scotty pointed down the street to Mrs. Conway, who wandered about their front yard in her white nightgown. The Judge pulled on his slacks and walked with Scotty down the street. The streetlights were still on and the sun would be rising soon. They moved close enough to see that Liz Conway was emptying jars full of change into her front yard, spreading the coins the way a farmer would feed pigs.

The Judge whispered to Scotty, “Now why do you think she’d do that?”

Scotty shrugged.

Liz Conway saw the Ocean men standing across the street. “I’ve been saving since he left,” she said. “Saving these last two years.”

The Judge had always thought of Liz Conway as a simple-minded wife of a career soldier, but as he watched her, he began to rethink what he had held to be true.

“Scotty,” the Judge said, “I want you to stay off their property.”

“Why would she throw out all that money?” Scotty asked the Judge.

“I don’t know, Scotty,” the Judge said, even though he had a pretty good idea why.


Scotty wore only underwear as he watched the morning cartoons. He sat with his hand on the channel knob. He flipped from show to show—
Heckle and Jeckle
(the know-it-all magpies),
, and
H. R. Pufnstuf
—until the doorbell interrupted him.

He found Tom Conway standing on the Oceans’ porch, smiling big. Scotty had hardly opened the door when Tom spouted, “Our yard’s off-limits. That’s what my mom says. She’s got a surprise planned.”

Tom’s father was a sergeant in Vietnam and he rode in tanks. In honor of his return, Tom dressed in the same pretend army uniform he wore on Halloween, minus the bloody headband.

Scotty asked Tom if he wanted to come inside to watch cartoons.

Tom said, “No—a soldier has to be ready at all times.”

So Scotty put on pants and a T-shirt and they stood around the Ocean front yard.

“The men get to wear uniforms.”

“Yeah,” Scotty said.

At the Conway house, the phone kept ringing and Liz Conway scurried around getting her daughter Donna ready. The Conway women were wearing identical dresses, which Liz had made out of the same flowered fabric. She started sewing when she got word that Sergeant Conway was coming home, sewing round the clock to finish them in time.

“She’s got some kind of special surprise,” Tom said. “My mom’s been smiling all morning.” Tom bent down to tie Scotty’s tennis shoe.

Standing at the base of the Conway driveway, Liz shouted, “Tom!”

The boys turned and saw Liz Conway. With a large pink bow in her hair and wearing the flowered dress, she looked gift-wrapped.

“Tom, time to go!”

Tom sprinted home.

Scotty waited in the yard and watched them drive away. Then he sat under the big sycamore tree, and even though it was forbidden, he pried bark off the tree trunk with his fingers. As he broke it into small pieces, he thought how nice it would be to be covered in bark.

Back in the house, he flipped channels. Cartoons were over. It was either
Wide World of Sports
or college football or an old movie on Channel 5.

Maggie fixed herself a bowl of ice cream and watched from the sofa. At a commercial break, she went to the bathroom and Scotty moved closer to the TV. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

He stared at the TV, studying every move, memorizing every detail: her blue-and-white-striped shirt, her shoulder-length hair pulled back with a red bandanna. She sailed with a man, in a white boat with a light brown deck—the trees were bright green and the water an unbelievable blue. As a Glenn Campbell-like voice sang about Salem and springtime, the wind blew the boat and the couple floated around the large lake. So much can happen in thirty seconds. The television showed this woman slowly bring a lit cigarette to her mouth—done as if there were nothing better on this earth. When the
cigarette touched her lips, she inhaled—the camera cut away before she exhaled, so Scotty exhaled for her.

“Does Scotty have a girlfriend?” Maggie said from the hallway.

“No,” Scotty snapped.

“Does too.”

Maggie pushed Scotty out of the way. “My turn,” she announced. “You’ve hogged the TV all day.”

Scotty, stunned, moved away from the TV as Maggie turned it to
American Bandstand.
Dick Clark was announcing the musical guests for the week.

“Claire,” Maggie shouted, “Peaches and Herb! The 1910 Fruitgum Company!”

Scotty knew he was outnumbered. He was climbing the stairs as Claire rushed by him screaming as if at an actual concert.

The Oceans’ second television, a black-and-white model with old-fashioned rabbit ears (a gift at the Judge and Joan’s wedding in 1953) sat on its own portable stand in the master bedroom.

When he reached the top of the stairs, Scotty pushed open the Judge’s door.

“Don’t you know how to knock?” the Judge snapped. He had been napping in his clothes, lying on top of the covers of his bed.

Scotty quickly pulled the door closed and went to his room. He didn’t know what to do. He lay on his unmade bed. He looked out his bedroom window. He could see over the fence into the Crows’ backyard. Two construction workers sat in the grass enjoying their lunches, which they took from their all-black construction worker lunch pails. The workers had dug out a big square patch of dirt. Near them was a portable cement
mixer and two unopened bags of cement. Tom Conway had told Scotty that he’d heard the new neighbor was getting a basketball court of his own.

Scotty picked up his pink and blue clay piggy bank. He’d lost the black rubber circular stopper that was to keep the coins in place. His bank was empty, but he shook it anyway, in case a coin had gotten trapped in one of the pig’s ceramic legs. But there was nothing inside, only air.

Then Scotty found the plastic bag that held the pieces to his checker set. He dumped them out on the floor and stacked them, one on top of the other, until they began to lean. He knocked over the checkers and listened to see if anyone was heading toward his room concerned about the noise.

Downstairs his sisters were perfecting their dance moves to “Incense and Peppermints.” He had seen their routine too many times. They jumped up and down on the sofa, shrieking—anyway Scotty knew he was the better dancer.

In his sock drawer, Scotty found his Silly Putty. He removed it from its red plastic egg. Pulling it slowly, he stretched it long, as if it were taffy. It could go forever, he thought. Then, rolling it between the palms of his hands, he made it into a ball and headed to the bathroom where he bounced it on the linoleum. It bounced back into his hands.

Scotty felt like taking a bite. Its pinkish, flesh-toned color tempted him. Perhaps its taste would be a blend of bubble gum and cookie dough. But Scotty remembered the third grader named Doug Clary who’d swallowed a chunk of Silly Putty the previous year. An ambulance was called, and a doctorlike person had stuck a tube down Doug Clary’s throat and pumped his stomach.

So Scotty never tasted the Silly Putty: He knew to look to others who had preceded him—a history of mistakes had been
made by other boys and girls, fourth and fifth graders now. They were examples,
of what could happen if…

Chad Linn went backward down the fourth grade slide and cracked his head and Alicia Albright went to sleep with bubble gum in her mouth, woke up with the wad of gum wedged in her hair, and had to have part of her head shaved. Scotty knew not to do those things.

Mary Beth Swift’s brother Donny had tried to hang on to the window of a moving school bus, but he fell under the wheel and his head was squashed.
Don’t hang on bus windows
was a clear lesson. Scotty thought of Donny Swift, in fact all children thought of Donny Swift, whenever they drank from the water fountain at Clover Hills Elementary School. A small plaque had been hung above the water fountain in Donny’s memory. And with each sip of water, all children were reminded not to hang on the windows of moving school buses, and to remember as they drank from the fountain that life is precious, cool, and refreshing like the water shooting at them. Be thirsty for life. That is what they were told.

Sometimes Scotty liked to pull at the Silly Putty—when he did that, it would break like a biscuit. But his favorite Silly Putty activity was to mash it flat, pancakelike (inevitably he’d think of the bus squashing Donny Swift’s head). Then he’d press the Putty over a comic in the newspaper, push down, then peel it off. And on the Silly Putty would be the words or the image. The Sunday comics were best to use, as they were printed in color.

It was during these alone times, when doing his favorite activities—squashing ants, picking at tree bark, or placing Silly Putty over the
Family Circus
—that Scotty had little pictorial flashes, hintlike flirtations that his mother was coming home.

He didn’t know why he knew this but he went downstairs and shouted to his dancing sisters, “Mom’s coming, I think!” When they didn’t answer, he ran out to the curb where he sat the rest of the afternoon, waiting for the yellow of her car to appear at the end of the street. And, he decided, when he saw her car, he’d run toward it, and when she stopped in the middle of the street, he’d climb into the passenger side, reach over the stick shift, and cling to her as they drove on.


But later it was the Conways’ Ford Falcon station wagon that started up the street. Scotty watched from behind the telephone pole nearest his house. Mrs. Conway put the car in park, turned off the ignition. The car doors swung open. Tom was the first one out. His sister followed. The sergeant stood looking at his house, his freshly mowed yard, his property. Tom stood next to him in identical dress except that while the sergeant wore military boots, Tom wore Keds. The sergeant took a drag from his cigarette and looked at his wife. Scotty thought, Where are those cigarette people? This would make a great commercial.

Mrs. Conway held close to her husband and the family went inside.

Scotty went into his house. He turned on the TV to watch whatever he could find; maybe his Salem girl would return. Within minutes, though, he heard shrieks of laughter coming from outside. He pressed his face to the picture window. He saw movement in the Conways’ front yard. Outside he stood by the Ocean mailbox to get a better view.

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
11.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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