If I Lived Through It
AMES ROWE QUENTIN iS a pseudonym for a California writer who says: “Once, when I had to write some autobiography, I said I was an unsuccessful tomato farmer with fire children, and both these statements are correct, though there were only six tomato plants to begin with, and fire of them failed.”
WHEN Father knocked. I should have known it wasn’t Joe and said “Stop!”, but I called out “Come in,” and down came the bucket and clipped him on the head. There he stood, streaming blood and water, the letter in his hand soaking wet. Thank God it was the little bucket; the big one would have killed him. I had a string on it to keep it from falling as far as Joe’s head, so it would just dump the water, but Father is six inches taller than Joe.
I had the mop there already, so I could get the water up fast and not wreck the ceiling below. The whole thing had been planned so nicely. Well, that’s how it goes.
I brought Father a towel and cleaned up the floor, but he didn’t say anything, and I didn’t either. We just worked in deadly silence. The cut was about an inch long. It would have to be sewed up. He looked at it in my mirror, still not saying anything. He seemed dazed. Then he went slowly downstairs and asked Mother to drive him to the doctor’s.
The car had just come back from the body shop, with the big rust-colored spots of undercoat on the side facing the house, so, of course, that was right in front of him as he walked down the path. I watched out the window, feeling sick. I remembered that I hadn’t even said I was sorry. I should have. He wouldn’t necessarily have known it.
I could hear the motor roar and fade as Mother tested it before she headed out — an old flier’s trick. I tell her engine failure isn’t too serious in cars, you don’t fall far; but she can’t help it. I had die motor sounding pretty for her, though I don’t suppose she noticed that except absentmindedly.
I hey drove off, and I went downstairs, looking for something to do. like washing some dishes, to start making up for the accident.
Father had left the letter on the table, as if he meant me to see it or didn’t care if I did; and when I saw the name at the bottom of the page, I had to read it. It was from my real father’s mother. The spelling wasn’t too good. The ink was smeared blue from the water bucket; it was on lined paper, so the lines were smeared too.
“Dear Reverend Page,” it began. “You will be surprised to here from me after all these years. I do not even know wether Mrs. Page is still living. I saw in the church paper about your book, and I wrote to them for your address. If I knew Mrs. Page was alive I would write to her. When our house burned down eleven years ago the desk went too and none of us could remember your address. When Mrs. Page wrote both times she did not give the address so we could not answer. Anyhow we were having a lot of trouble then, needing a house but not able to build much because those were bad years for the stock and the apples weren’t good either. My husband died about that time. There was a lot to worry over besides the wife and child of a son who had been dead for years, especially as we had never seen them and they were probably better off than we were. But now Henry’s boy is sixteen and plenty old enough to take care of himself on the train. We have had four good years so we have a good big house for all of us. I would send him his ticket, if you would let him come to visit us. That is if he is still living. I hope you are all well, and that if Mrs. Page is still living she will write to us. Respectfully yours, Elda Crowe.”
As I stood there looking at the letter, I heard Joe come in. I just waited, perfectly still, because he couldn’t see me, and when he came around the corner I tackled him so fast he hardly saw me before he hit the floor. When I let him go he looked up at me disgustedly and said, “I wish you wouldn’t do things like that. I’ve got a headache. Help me pick up this mess.” His books and papers were all over the rug, and the rug was wound up as if it were in a cement mixer. We got it all straight. He had some cornflakes and milk, and so did I; then I got out the cold roast beef from last night.
“I bet that’s for supper,” Joe said; but it looked good to him, too, so we both had some. When we had finished, there wasn’t a lot left. He wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for me.
FATHER had a big bandage; the doctor must have had to shave off a lot of hair. I said I was sorry. Father nodded. Then Mother asked which of us had lit into the roast. Joe said we both had. I said I‘d started it. Father believed me; he gave me a mean look and walked out of the room. Mother believed me too.
“Well, you’d better not take any at supper, either of you,” she said crossly.
I followed Father into the living room. “What about that letter?” I asked. I knew it was the wrong time, but I couldn’t stop myself.
He gave me the sermon on Reading Other People‘s Mail. It took about ten minutes. I guess I was lucky it wasn’t church length. Mother says he can’t help it, it’s an occupational disease.
“You’ll have to change your plans and go,” he finished off, pointing to the letter. “I’ve had just about all I can take from you. You don’t study, you don’t obey, there isn’t anything your mother and I can teach you, because you won’t learn from us —”
“Now, wait a minute,” Mother said from the door, “what’s going on here?”
“About his going to the Crowes’,” Father said.
“He can’t go to the Crowes’,” Mother replied firmly. “He has to take the summer physics. He ought to, and he wants to, and it’s preparation for his future. It’s what he’s good at.”
“Look, I have something to say about this.” Father sat down gingerly on the couch and folded his arms across his stomach. I knew his stomach was hurting him again; it hurts him when he argues. He glared at me from under the bandage. “I’ve helped you bring him up, and I’m fond of him, but I’ve come to my limit. It was one thing when I was younger and he was just a little boy. You expect idiocy from eight-year-olds. But I’m not young, I’m not well, and when you come down to it, I’m not his kind of person. Noise and horseplay distress me. I’ve asked him and asked him to control that horrible laugh, but he won’t. I’ve asked him not to pound Joe all the time; he says he‘s careful, but Joe is only thirteen, and he’s not very big. Henry doesn’t know his own strength; he’s going to break Joe’s head next time, not just his arm —”
“That was four years ago, and it was an accident,” Joe put in. “You shouldn’t bring that up.” But I could see that suddenly he was thinking it would be a relief to come home and not get jumped.
Mother looked upset. “That’s as may be,” she said, “but he can’t go to the Crowes’. You don’t know about them, or about that back country.” Then she clammed up and just stood there. “Well,” she started in again, “he’s been waiting years to be eligible for that course. He’d be miserable at the Crowes’, and he’d miss all the things he likes. All the summer things. His girls. His electrical equipment. The swimming.”
“I don’t care,” Father said grimly. “They’re his family. They have a right to see him. And I have a right to a restful summer. When he’s in school, there are at least a few hours when he probably won’t smash up the car, or take out the motor, or drop a bucket on my head. In summer, it’s sixteen hours a day that he’s in action. I deserve to be let off for a while. The Crowes can take their turn.”
That kind of talk really makes you feel welcome. If I‘d been Joe’s age, I would have cried. Father had said that kind of thing before, but never so much or so hard. I guess it was the blow on the head. He’d lost control.
Mother hadn’t. “I’m sorry,” she said, perfectly cool and civil, “but I won’t allow it. They’re not our kind of people.”
“Now, really,” Father snapped, “you married one of them.”
“In what way aren’t they our kind of people?” Joe asked.
Mother didn’t answer.
Always I’ve known I wasn’t exactly “our kind” of person myself, but neither is she. She gets along with Joe and Father and the parish because they‘re her job and she likes them, and because she’d get along anywhere. But there’s a funny streak in her. She stands there when I work on the car, because she doesn’t want to get her dress dirty and then have to go all covered with oil to talk to someone at the door about the altar guild; but she watches me as if she were doing it herself. “That plug’s still wrong,” she‘ll say. “On the far side.” When she drives she‘s usually slow and careful; but once, way out in the country with just me along, she forgot I was there and cut out like a race driver, cornering without touching the brake and gunning it coming out of the turn. I guess we were averaging eighty for a couple of miles.
“Who taught you to do that, Jimmy Dean?” I asked.
She slowed right down, but she gave me a dirty look. “In a real car I could make Jimmy Dean sit up in his grave,” she said. “But don’t you try anything like that, you hear me? You’d turn yourself over just the way he did. It takes a lot of fast driving before you can do that.”
“You’ve done a lot of fast driving?” I said. “Like when? Taking us to nursery school?”
“During the war,” she said vaguely. “And don’t be sassy.”
Another time, on the freeway, I said, “Hey, we’re going to miss our turn,” and she came out of whatever she was thinking about and hit the gas pedal and zigzagged across four fast packed lanes in about a hundred feet and out the exit like a knife through mayonnaise. There was a siren screaming behind us; we would have starved to death if we‘d had to pay that fine. She took the tail of a yellow light and weaseled us into a thick mess of trucks and slowpokes. The cop went past at about fifty miles an hour. Then she was all fussed about giving me a bad example.
I felt like telling the kids at school, but they would have thought that was a crazy way for a preacher‘s wife to act. And I certainly didn’t tell Father.
When I asked her to teach me to drive, she said she couldn’t stand to hear me or anybody else grinding her gears. So I learned in driver education at school, and of course I could brake and steer and shift gears and see things, but I couldn‘t believe how slow you had to go in fog, so that’s how I got hit and messed up the car. I didn’t see the other guy, and he didn’t see me.
Father never even goes as fast as a sick cow, and he shifts gears as if he were sawing a steel pipe, but he never hits anything. “Our kind of people” don‘t; they don‘t do anything but read and talk and write and telephone and drive like old ladies and fill the bottoms of their transmissions with broken gear teeth and get their cylinders and pistons all gummy because their poor motors never even get warm. But I notice when Father wants to get somewhere in a hurry, like to have a bleeding cut sewed up, he lets Mother drive. There’s some use in people who aren’t his kind.
But Mother didn’t answer Joe’s question about why the Crowes are different from us, and I wasn’t about to say they’re backwoodsmen who quit school about eighth grade usually; and it was choir time anyhow, so that was the end of the argument for the moment.
I‘M NOT a very good musician, but I’m not a bad one, either. It comes from Mother’s side — Father can’t sing — but it missed Joe. I have the choir, because we had a choir lady who was nervous, but she knew her job; she trained a lot of fifthand sixth-graders to be so good they were asked to sing out of town sometimes. But then they kept getting bigger and meaner, and she kept getting more nervous, and when they were seventhand eighth-grade kids, Father had to send me in to keep them in line for her. Kids that age are the worst. She and I handled them together — or, rather, I handled them and she taught them maybe four months, and then she had to go to the sanatorium. She thought people were after her.
When I walked in, they were all there, very quiet, and when I turned my back on them to sort the music, one of them let out a horrible whinnying laugh that was supposed to be just like mine. Then I spun around and they all whinnied. The church windows rattled.
“OK,” I said, “who started that?”
They just snickered. So I made each one of them imitate my laugh, and only one of them got the sound wrong, and none of those kids ever gets a sound wrong except on purpose, so he was the guy, trying not to be recognized. So I made him do it over and over, good and loud, both my way and his wrong way; and then I made them all do it in exact unison. Then I picked up the music and told the one who started it to sing softly so he’d learn the pieces for Sunday but not so I could hear him. You have to protect these kids’ voices, especially when they’re changing, and I‘d been pretty rough on his. I shouldn’t be so touchy about that laugh; it does sound pretty bad, but when I forget myself, it just comes out.
They learned the pieces fast, and I turned them loose early. That was one reason the choir lady gave out. She kept them too long, and they got bored and didn’t pay attention and got pulling each other’s shirttails out, and then, of course, they didn’t get the pieces right, so she kept them longer and they began trying to snatch things out of each other’s pockets or do never mind what; and no guy can take that kind of treatment and not do something back. I’d go up and down the line behind them and sort of lean on them, but you really can’t keep a bunch of guys in order for a person with no sense at all. Now she’s gone, I bang the songs through hard and right, and the choir knows the faster it catches on, the faster it’ll get loose. Father thinks I skimp the rehearsals because I want to get out myself.
When I got home, Joe was still asking what was wrong with the Crowes, and I could have hit him. Mother never met them, but she knew about them from my own father. He‘d run away when he was about my age, after some kind of fight with my grandfather. They were just poor farmers, simple people. They even took snuff and chewed tobacco. My own father had always been crazy about motors, and especially planes, and he hadn’t done anything in school that he didn’t have to do to get into junior college, because that was where they did pilot training. In the war he was commissioned more because he was a terrific flier than because of his schooling. My mother is a mathematician and a clergyman’s daughter, but she didn‘t want to do ladylike paper work in the war. So she learned enough at some airport to get into the women‘s ferry command, and my own father taught her to fly the bombers. Her family made a fuss at the time; but they got married quickly because he knew he’d be going overseas. He was killed over Germany, before I was born.
We lived with my mother’s family till she married Father, when I was two. Joe was born when I was three. He always wants to know something bad about me, because I‘m bigger than he is, and he gets sick of it. I wouldn’t tell him my father’s family made applejack and bootlegged it during the Depression because that was the only way they could make money for the groceries they had to buy. Father doesn’t know this, and Mother told me privately. She never talked about my own father to Father; she says it’s wrong for a widow who remarries to say anything that might make her second husband wonder if she loved the first better, but it’s equally wrong to say anything against the first. She hasn’t talked very much about him even to me. In his pictures, which she gave me to keep, he doesn’t look like me. I‘m like her side.
MOTHER came to my room. “Father is dead set that you have to go to the Crowes’. Whenever he sees that bandage in the mirror he gets madder.
I can‘t quite blame him; these practical jokes of yours are unpardonable.”
“Oh, boy, you too,” I said grimly.
“Well, how would you like to be Father and stand at the church door Sunday morning shaking hands, and have to answer maybe three hundred people asking what the bandage is for, and how you got cut? He can‘t wear a black cap like a rabbi’s to cover it. And if you think ahead a little further, you‘ll realize that after the bandage comes off, the shaved patch on his head is going to show for weeks. He‘ll be cross at you every time he sees a mirror. I should think you’d want to get away. After all, the Crowes are your own people.”
“You are my own people,” I said. “Who’s going to beat down the choir when I’m gone? Who‘ll keep the car running?”
“I will,”Mother said. She looked sore. “And don’t be too sure we‘re your own people. You‘re growing up. The day is coming soon when you‘ll be on your own. And I‘ve had just about enough of you lately myself. You’re getting big and mean and rebellious and lazy, you won’t study anything but physics, you just chase one girl after another, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you pick the ones you’ve heard are cooperative in cars.”
“Now, look here, I said, “that was uncalled for.”
“I guess so,” she said, and burst into tears. “I‘m sorry. I don‘t know what’s what. I’m just caught between. I want you to have fun and I want you to be your own kind of person, only not get hurt, but I want Father to have some peace, and it isn’t good for Joe to feel inferior.”
“Now, look, Joe doesn‘t have any reason to feel inferior. When he’s my age, he’ll probably pound me down, the way I‘ve trained him. And he gets the best grades.”
“Try to tell Joe that,” Mother said. “Henry, I’m afraid you’ve got to go. I‘m not going to tell Father and Joe that the Crowes used to be bootleggers, just to keep you here. I loved your father, and I’m not going to run his family down. And I guess you can take care of yourself. But the way she wrote, about ‘if Mrs. Page is still alive,’ and ‘if Henry is still alive,’ means something. That’s the way they think. It’s dangerous country. One of your father’s brothers was shot out hunting.
The lumbermen get drunk Saturday night and fight; sometimes they kill each other. I wouldn’t put it past you for a minute to get in those fights. There are bears and mountain lions. The people who live there understand the life, but newcomers always get in trouble. Especially city kids. And the Crowes will be embarrassed by your ways. They’ll think you’re stuck-up; you’ll use words they don’t know, you’ll butter your bread differently —”
“Oh, great,” I said, and sat down. “And I’ll miss physics and swimming and all my immoral girls.” I gave Mother a bitter look.
“If the shoe fits, put it on,” she said. She almost smiled. But then I laughed, and she winced and put her hands over her ears. “ That noise you make drives me mad.”
IT WAS a fourteen-hour train ride, with a couple of changes. I took the workbook for the physics course along, but it was written to go with demonstrations and rough to follow. I’d forgotten my slide rule, so it took forever to work the problems by hand. I sat staring out at the empty mountain desert. I didn’t talk to anybody. I felt too low. Even my mother couldn’t stand me. I almost cried. Then I fell asleep. When I woke, it was late at night, and the conductor was shaking me. “This is your stop,” he said. The car was empty; it was almost the end of the line.
I got my papers and things together and stumbled out. The train went on. The moon was about to rise, but it hadn’t yet. I Wondered if I’d have to spend the night there. At last car lights came down a winding steep hill toward me, and they were on a jeep. It bumped across the railroad tracks and stopped suddenly on the incline.
“You Henry Crowe?” a deep voice called out. “Henry Page?”
“Henry Page, usually,” I said.
The man sat there; in the dimness I saw an angular, rocky face. “I’m your Uncle Nick. Your father’s brother. Can’t get out; motor dies. Set your bag in back.” I swung it up and climbed in. We shook hands. “Say Henry Crowe while you’re up here,” he told me, gunning the motor with his foot on the clutch. “Your grandmother would feel bad if you didn’t. You’re the one with your grandpa’s and your dad’s name. She doesn’t know your stepfather, or why you call yourself Page.”
“Just convenience,” I said. “And my stepfather has been my father, really.”
He didn’t answer; in fact, he hardly said a word till we got to the farm. If he had, I couldn’t have heard him. That jeep was noisy, even for a jeep. We took off like a rabbit up the winding road. The lights would fade and come up again to show a narrow path through high brush and, later, woods. I had to watch the road ahead for bumps and shift position and hang on just to stay on my seat. He really drove, the way my mother did that time, shaving the corners and the trunks of trees, so that twice I thought we were going to hit one and got ready to jump. But he knew what he was doing. I didn’t mind; I drive that way myself when I have the chance.
When we got to the house, he stopped on a grade and threw a log under one wheel. I got out.
In the moonlight I saw that he had scars, claw marks, down one cheek.
The house was dark. He showed me my bed. I could tell that the room was big and that there were four bunks with guys asleep in them. There was a sort of bathroom next to that room — all the fixtures, but just raw-lumber roof and floor and Jog walls. They had electricity, but it wasn’t very good. There was tubing that must have been part of a still stuck in one corner. I washed and sacked in. I can’t say I wasn’t a bit scared.
A strange bed always gets me up early, and I’d slept on the train. So when I woke up it was dawn. All the guys were still mostly under the covers, but they seemed to be different ages and have different colors of hair.
Outdoors it was mountains and big pine trees. Some kind of little yellow wild lily was all around. Nice air; cold. There were even patches of old icy snow. Nobody in sight, but smoke coming out of a chimney of the big log house.
Partly I wanted to do a good turn, to show Uncle Nick I was a good guy and could do something useful, but mostly I wanted to fix whatever was wrong with that jeep. I figured it could be the battery, but more likely it was in the wiring. Those lights had been running off the generator.
I had a few things in my pocket that I always carry there and that I thought might be useful.
So I unlatched the hood and looked inside. Father would have been sick, if he’d understood it. Those lights sure had been running off the generator, because there wasn’t any battery. And the reason Uncle Nick always parked on hills was that there wasn’t any starter. That jeep was a rod, everything heavy gone, souped for the races. Mother would have laughed; anybody who’d do a thing like that to a jeep, and then take it out on a mountain road at night and get away with it, you had to respect, even if he was crazy. I slid underneath to see what else he’d done.
Then I heard footsteps and saw a pair of dirty boots walk up and kick the log block out from under the front wheel. A second later the jeep started rolling. I really doubled up fast. Lucky those things have clearance. It rolled about five feet, so I wasn’t underneath anymore, and I got up, and then the guy with the boots leaned on the fender and threw the log under the wheel again and came around to look at me. I was kind ot sore.
“Morning, Charlie,” he said, grinning, and then his mouth fell open.
“I’m Henry,” I said quietly, just looking at him. I was figuring whether to hit him or let it go. He was a big guy, about my age; bigger than me, and he looked tough, but I was too mad to let that bother me. Hitting him just didn’t seem the right way to start getting along with my own father’s family.
He threw his hands over his face. “Don’t stwike me, pwease don’t stwike me, I’m dust a wittle boy!” he squeaked, and let out an awful braying laugh and began to run. I went after him; I tackled him on the path and grabbed him by the belt and we went rolling over and over in the weeds. He was laughing fit to kill. He ended up sitting on my chest, with one of my arms pinned under his knee and my other arm caught under my head as if I were lying in a hammock looking up at the birds. “Had enough?” he asked.
“For now,” I said. He let me up. I dusted myself off. “I’ll get you later,” I promised him.
“Oh, sure,” he said, and started for the house.
“But not much later!” I yelled out, and went for him. This time I got a decent grip, and in a minute I had him on his face with his arms behind his back. Then all of a sudden there were about four guys on top of both of us, and a couple of little girls in there too, and by the time I got out from underneath I had dirt inside my clothes and dirt and weeds in my hair, and my hands and nose were bleeding, and it was a wonder I didn’t have any broken bones.
There was a white-haired woman, brown like an Indian, standing there looking disgusted. I tried to clean myself up with my handkerchief. “Charlie,” she said to me, “you sure had that coming. You should have got worse. You know better than messing around with your uncle’s jeep. He’s told you ten times. And I thought you knew better than to tangle with young Nick, after the bloody eye you got last week.”
“I’m not Charlie,” I said. “I’m Henry Crowe.
I wasn’t messing. I thought there was something wrong I could fix.”
She looked at me and then at the guys. There were two of them enough like me to mistake. One was exact, and he was tHe one who’d got the bloody eye last week. He was holding his stomach, laughing like a hyena.
The woman quit glowering and smiled, and then she looked as if she were beginning to cry. “Well, welcome, Henry,” she said, and reached out and shook my hand, dirty as I was. Then she turned me around and led me up to the house. The other guys went off somewhere.
There was a picture on the kitchen wall of my own father in a racing car. Mother had never told me that about him; I guess I was giving her enough trouble without her asking for more. But I might have known it. Another picture showed a boy who could have been me, or Charlie, with three others. They all had banjos. “That was your dad when he was your age. You wouldn’t think it was the same person” — she pointed at the race driver — “men’s faces change so much from the way they looked as boys. Do you sing?”
I nodded. She told me about the quartet while she fixed bacon and eggs and pancakes. When the platters were almost full, she sent me to wash up. “But, look out,” she whispered. “I think they‘ve put a wire across the door to trip you up. Don’t get sore. Just fall over it.”
“Thanks,” I said uneasily. But I still had one more thing on my mind. I wanted to know whether my father and grandfather had had that fight about racing, and whether that was why my father had left home.
“Oh, maybe,” she said. “I kind of forget. It could have been anything. You boys get bigetty, sometimes we have to throw you out for everybody’s peace. But you come back later. Nick did. Your father would have.” She looked sad. Then she smiled. “Well, it’s nice to have you here,” she said, and poked a stick in the stove. The smoke smelled good. She burned apple prunings mostly, and everything in that kitchen smelled good — the food, and the mountain air coming in the window, and my grandmother too.
“It’s nice to be here,” I said. I meant that. I felt as if it was going to be the greatest summer of my life. If I lived through it.
There wasn’t any wire for me to fall over, though. I started to wash up. I could hear some kind of scratching and squeaking, like rats in the walls. “I can’t find a towel, Grandma,” I called through the doorway. She came to help me. One of the guys jumped up, but she was ahead of him. I should have seen there was a cupboard with a sign saying “Towels.”
The cat that was in there with the clean linen shot out and clawed right up her dress and on over her shoulder. Then a big squawking brown chicken hit her face, and another whizzed past my ear. They landed on the side of the basin, but couldn’t get a foothold there, and one fell in my wash water and the other pitched off and lit on a chair. The air was full of feathers. They’d been dosed with some kind of liquor to keep them quiet; mixed with the smell of hens, it was awful. The cat lurched across the floor and threw up.
“Whoever did this, I’ll kill him,” my grandmother said quietly, clutching her shoulder. The guys just stood there with their mouths open, not saying a word. But I figured it was that Nick; he made the first move to catch the chickens. Or if it wasn’t, I still thought he needed attention. If I’d been home, I could have arranged an electric shock when he put on those dirty boots.
Those maniacs knew from my face what I was thinking. One of them snickered, which was too much for the rest of them. It was worse than the choir. You could have been deafened for life.