Beyond the River
A Novel by Michael Fillerup
I met with Nancy regularly after that, every afternoon, Monday through Friday, in the Student Tutoring Center. She quickly brushed aside the Intermediate Value Theorem to tackle heftier issues, introducing topics with theatrical statements like, “Did you know that in 1968 the government spent over $800 million testing-not developing, testing!- nuclear warheads?” She prodded until I took a stand. Quoting everyone from Milton to Ann Landers, Nancy would race me around her intellectual big top until I was the proverbial dog chasing its tail. She knew everything.
I never knew how she felt about an issue because she always stood in direct opposition to me. If on Monday I was a hawk, she was a dove; if Tuesday I said give peace a chance, she clamored for war. If I was a Republican, she was a Democrat. When I spoke for ecology and environmental protection, she argued for more nuclear power plants and freedom from foreign oil. Because I was “always” Mormon, she had a field day with religion.
“I thought God loved everyone.”
“Then how come your church won’t let blacks have the priesthood? Why can’t women have the priesthood?”
Brother Crumb had prepared me for these questions, or so I’d thought. “We don’t know why, exactly.”
“Don’t know? That’s an interesting piece of doctrine. Clever-but not very original.”
“Some people say it’s because blacks were less valiant in the preexistence.”
“Less valiant? I rest my case. You’re a racist church!”
“I didn’t say that. I said some Mormons think that. I mean it’s not doctrine.”
“Then what is doctrine, besides the ‘Don’t Know’? And what about women? Were they bad too?”
“Women don’t need the priesthood.”
“Women don’t but men do?”
“Men and women have different roles.”
“That’s for sure! Master and slave!”
“No, that’s not what I meant. Women can have babies.”
“Babies for women, priesthood for men. And what if a woman can’t have children-is she left in Outer Darkness?”
“Women receive the priesthood through their husbands.”
“And if a woman doesn’t marry?”
I didn’t know. I had never been seriously challenged about my religious beliefs, even though in my own way I had liked raising questions. I suppose I was known as something of a Mormon bad boy, which was okay because I was an insider stirring a complacent pot. But Nancy’s attacks were direct. Instinctively, I found myself taking the defensive.
“Racist and sexist!” Nancy continued. “Your God doesn’t consider blacks and women people.”
“Let me check up on what we believe,” I said, which meant that I would consult with Brother Crumb or my father.
“You do that, Reeves. And while you’re at it, ask your friendly bishop what Joseph Smith meant when he said there’s no such thing as immaterial matter. Isn’t that fairly obvious? I mean, how profound!”
Earlier I had wondered what Nancy did for enjoyment. Now I knew. She took pleasure in attacking my faith. She worked overtime on it, researching what I was supposed to believe, plotting our next encounter. Her cheeks would flush, her eyes dilate, her mind and tongue engage.
“Are you telling me you really believe that nonsense about Adam and Eve and the snake and the ark and golden plates and the heavens opening like something from the Land of Oz and here comes the Father and his boy saying, ‘Stop the music, kiddo! A hundred zillion people can be wrong! Scrap the unholy mess and let’s start all over again, from scratch!’ Do you honestly think you and your wifey-to-be will live forever as gods populating worlds? Do you really swallow all that?”
What could I say? Should I square my shoulders and boldly proclaim: “Yes! Without a shadow of a doubt!” Or, with the goggle-eyed self-righteousness of Tim Huber, the senior class dork, reply: “Yes, I know! The Holy Ghost has revealed this to me personally!” My response was somewhat less affirmative: “Yeah.”
“‘Yeah’? You’re talking about the most significant commitment of your life-and all you can say is ‘yeah’?”
“Well, yeah-I mean, I really do … believe.”
“Why, Jon? Just tell me that? Why?”
“I just do, that’s all. It’s a feeling I have.”
“A feeling. Like indigestion?”
“No, a good feeling. A . .. warm .. . comforting . . . ”
“Oh, comforting. 1 see.”
I could tell by her expression- that know-it-all smirk-that she was circling for the kill. I was desperate.
“If the Mormon church isn’t true,” I argued weakly, “why would my great-great-grandfather have traveled half way around the world to settle in a desert like Salt Lake? Why would good honest people like my bishop deliberately lie to me?”
Although fervid, my reply was subjective and hence “unacceptable, Reeves, unacceptable.” Nancy demanded logic, objectively verifiable evidence, none of this borrowed light.
“If what you say is true,” she countered, “then how do you account for all the non-Mormons who died for their God? Does that make their faith true? Custer was a martyr, so was Hitler. Does that make them right?”
“That’s not the same thing!”
“It’s not? Please, enlighten me.”
“You’re impossible! This whole discussion’s impossible! Can’t you get it through your thick head that the why isn’t nearly as important as the what? It’s what you do that matters.”
Nancy wasn’t listening. She was busy purporting her next position. “One more thing, Bishop Reeves. Believe it or not, parents lie. They lie to you about different things. They want to protect you, so they lie. Karl Marx was right when he called religion the great opiate. Religion eases the terror. Remember Hamlet? ‘To be or not to be- that’s the question’!”
Nancy paused, waiting for my reply, but I had none. It was humiliating. The simple arguments that had flowed so convincingly from my father and Brother Crumb tumbled ludicrously from my mouth. I felt like a fool.
I had raised questions before to aggravate my Sunday school teachers and priesthood advisors. Why, for instance, was it necessary to sit in a brick chapel all day every Sunday to worship God? Couldn’t you do this just as well on a mountaintop, or at the River, amid the trees and flowers? If Nature manifests God’s creative glory, aren’t the forests and beaches as sacred as a building? Also, why all the channels and hierarchies, the super-structure? Why the tedious bookkeeping, the ordinances, if religion is charity and love? Was I really going to interrupt my schooling and football career for two years to dress up in black and white and go door-to-door like a Fuller Brush Man peddling religion in Australia, Japan, or wherever? Why all of the certificate-saturated programs that seemed bent on turning youth into a mass-produced army of hand-shaking, scripture-chasing robots? Did I sincerely believe or was this the convenient, socially acceptable thing to do? Was the church a crutch? Or did I have the guts to crack the granite mold?
These were questions that occupied my private thoughts, though I avoided discussing them with Nancy because I suffered such an awful beating when I did. Only once did I score any points on a theological issue.
“And how do you know God isn’t a woman?” Nancy sneered one afternoon in the tutoring room.
Summoning up some rhetoric from a recent semantics unit in Senior Composition, I stood up, cleared my throat like Chanticleer, and exclaimed, “Because, along with the distinguishing features of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, God also has to have the feature maleness; otherwise, by definition, he’d be a she, not a god but a goddess.”
“Bravo!” Nancy cried. “Bra-a-a-vo!” Rising to her feet, applauding, genuinely pleased. “Two points for the polygamist! The kid’s got brains as well as brawn!”
That was Nancy. She amused and abused me, entertained and profaned me. She criticized my car (“the red deathtrap”), my clothes (“drip-dry sta-prest preppy firsts from the Sears Catalog“), my hair (“old hayhead!”), my brains (“headpiece filled with straw”), my running style (“Frankenstein in slo-mo! Concrete feet!”), my family, my friends. Nothing was exempt.
“So what’s it like living in the Versailles Palace?” She was referring to our ranch-style home nestled in the pines at the end of Drayer Drive.
“Five-but who’s counting, right?”
“And a redwood deck?”
“Yes, I confess.”
“Overlooking the canyon? Breakfast with the sun?”
“And a swimming pool?”
“Yes, but no Jacuzzi- not yet anyway.”
“Reeves, remember the starving people in Biafra?”
“How would my living in a shack help them?”
“Touche, Reeves! Touche!”
Although we seldom worked on Calculus during the tutoring sessions, I was soon able to raise my grade out of the red zone as if she’d supercharged my brain via some kind of intellectual osmosis. Coach Ramirez welcomed me back onto the track, but every few days I would ditch practice to take Nancy to Mac’s Foster Freeze for an after-school snack (she pooh-poohed the Double-Eagle- “too loud, too sweaty!” Sweaty?) As we sat at a formica table, Nancy nibbling a tuna salad on rye and me slurping a chocolate shake, she would interrogate me about less bookish matters.
“So where were you during lunch today? Out chasing Thunder Thighs?”
“You mean Annette Plikta? Yes, you might say that.”
“Might I? When are you going to wise up, Reeves? You think you’re irresistible, but it’s your red jalopy they’re after. Have you ever wondered if maybe even one of your little princesses liked you because you’re you- without the Corvette and letterman’s jacket and rich daddy? How many of them would give you the time of day if you were stripped to the bare naked, Jonathan?”
I pushed aside my milkshake and laughed, as if everything she had said was utterly absurd, although in truth I’d wondered this myself. “I don’t know about me,” I chortled, “but I’d give them more than the time of day if they were stripped bare naked.”
Nancy wadded up her napkin and crammed it into my half-empty cup.
”’Tis not a year or two shows us a man; they are all but stomachs, and we all but food; they eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us.'”
Like most young men, I indulged in sexual fantasies, and I suppose mine were as inventive as the next guy’s, although perhaps dampered by a lack of experience and excessive guilt. While I never committed adultery in my heart, I fornicated in that manner, and my favorite partner was the voluptuous, gypsy·haired Miss Plikta (at the River, on a beach, by firelight in a rustic cabin in the Sierras). It is worth noting that Nancy Von K. never approached the most remote margins of my fantasies. In fact, she was as far removed as a sister or my mother or grandmother.
Nancy must have sensed this, for whenever she caught my eyes trailing the long legs of Miss Plikta she would shake her head with a kind of maternal tolerance. Other times: “A man’s brains are in his crotch!” she would sigh.
“Von Kleinsmid. Chapter fifteen, verse eleven.”
In some ways our relationship reminded me’ of Herod and John the Baptist. I took some masochistic pleasure in having her perforate my egotistical soul. I spent more and more time with her, made time. I found myself taking her questions and jibes to heart-not too much to heart, though: I wasn’t about to junk my Corvette, shave my head, and spend the rest of my life picketing Standard Oil. However, in time, when Nancy put on her Barsumian airs and asked what I was going to be if and when I ever grew up, I no longer replied, “A beachcomber or the King of Siam.”
“I want to play pro,” I confessed one afternoon at Mac’s. Leaning forward secretively: “I want to be the greatest receiver in the history of the game- better than Lance Alworth.”
Nancy sipped her milk a thoughtful moment, then slowly parted her lips, releasing the straw, and eyed me sternly. “Then do it, Jon! I wouldn’t know Lance Alworth from Lancelot of the Round Table, but if that’s what you really want, do it! You know how I feel about jocks, but do it! Be the best!” Her fist hit the table like a gavel; the final word.
At moments like this, when she dropped the fac;ade and spoke straight, she launched me into clouds of great expectations: I could do it! I had the strength, the size, the speed, the hands, the opportunities.
Keith would say I even had the luck. So why not? I could-no, I would do it!
“Right on!” I said, but my palm slapped the table and catapulted my strawberry sundae smack into my chest. Nancy laughed.
She was wonderful. At her best she could hype me up like ten squads of cheerleaders. At her worst-or, rather, my worst …
“So are you going to disgrace town, school, God, country, and the sweet-little-girl-next-door again, or are you going to beat that guy this time?”
“You mean Harry the Horse?”
“Harry the Fairy-whatever. Are you going to run Saturday, or are you going on sabbatical again?”
She was rough on me but protective. “Watch out for Bernhard. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s popping.”
“Keith? Popping pills?”
“He’s been a space-case all semester. Don’t mess with that stuff, Jon. It’ll screw you up. You’ve got too much going for you.”
“Nancy, who told you this?”
“Bernhard’s been doing this all semester and he’ll try to mess you up because he’s jealous, Jon. They all are. They joke around with you and slap you on the back and call you ‘Sundance’ and ‘Big J,’ but they’re jealous. You’ve got a ticket out of here, they don’t.”
In Nancy’s mind the whole town was out to get me. She was paranoid. Was she sinister as well? She made me consider the inconsiderable.
One afternoon in the tutoring room she shoved my Calculus text aside. “All right,” she said, “let’s try something.” Closing her eyes, she pressed her fingertips to her temples like a clairvoyant on the verge of a great revelation. “Okay. I want you to clear your mind for a minute. Throw everything out. Is it clear? Blank? Tabula rasa? Okay. Now I’m going to say a word and I want you to describe the first thing that pops into your head. Ready?” She opened her eyes to check. I nodded solemnly. “Okay. Here’s the word: love.”
“Love? I don’t-”
“Come on, come on! Don’t think! Just close your eyes and look!” I shut my eyes and searched for an image. It took awhile. “Okay. I’m six or seven. It’s a summer night- late. Midnight, maybe later. I’m wakened by giggling and splashing. I look out my bedroom window and there’s my mother in the shallow end. All I can see is her head because she’s kind of crouching down in the water. Her eyes are closed and she’s just slicked her hair back, and I’m thinking: she looks like a fashion model or a movie star, with her eyes closed and her hair slicked back like that. Then all of a sudden there’s this explosion of water, and it’s my father rising up like King Neptune with his black beard and sidehair plastered to his chest. He wraps his big arms around my mother from behind, and then she rises out of the water, turning into him. Then I realize she’s naked, and so is he. I mean completely naked. No trunks, no anything. Then he grabs her and she laughs and they kiss and the light in the pool is a weird underwater yellowish-blue. Like a dream or a fairy tale.”
For once Nancy was absolutely silent. When I opened my eyes, she looked the other way and whispered something, a little sadly I think. Then: “Okay. Another image!”
I had several more like the first, but I was afraid to share them. It almost seemed like gloating. She appeared genuinely depressed. To make her feel better, I closed my eyes again and related something a little more doleful. “This time I’m eight-I know because I was just baptized. It’s November, almost Thanksgiving. Rain. My mother had lit a fire but now she wants me to clean out the grate. I take the little shovel and scoop the hot ashes into a metal bucket. But when I try to carry it outside, the heat seeps through the hot pads. I put the bucket down and try again-same thing. Then I get mad and start yelling at her. ‘I’m not going to do this! It’s too hot! You do it if you’re such an expert!’ Just then my father walks in and I know I’ve only got a few seconds to live. I’ve just committed the unpardonable sin. I’ve raised my voice to my mother.
“But Dad doesn’t say a word. For one deadly moment he glares into my heart. Then he kneels by the fireplace, grabs the searing hot bucket with his bare hands-I think I can smell his fingers melting-and carries it outside to cool in the rain. I look at my mother, then bolt from the room crying.”
This time Nancy smiled. “A macho man.”
“In some ways.”
“If the shoe fits.”
“I said in some ways.”
“And what does Poppa Reeves think of your ambition to play pro football?”
“Dad?” I chuckled amiably, hoping to defuse her. “He’s got it all mapped out. The three M’s: mission, marriage, med. school-preferably Stanford, his alma mater.”
“College ball’s okay, but pro? Dad hopes I’ll come to my senses and grow out of it.”
“I hope not.”
“It seems to me that’s a lot like being a writer. It’s something you ought to grow into, not out of. Do you resent his attitude?” “Dad? Nah. He’s just trying to do what’s best for me.”
“Isn’t he? Pro football, you’ve got five years, ten if you’re lucky. One fluke injury and you’re out. Dad’s just trying to look ahead.”
“Or leading you into a role you don’t want to play. It’s your life, Jon. Think about it.”
Everyone was suspect in Nancy’s mind. One afternoon, walking through the woods near the high school, she asked about my mother. It was idyllic: sunlight slanting through the pines, the meadowlarks in full spring song, the resinous smell of pine sap. I let my guard down and
started rambling. She was homecoming queen at Stanford; the fifth of nine children; her father was a holy man, a stake patriarch. She’d always dreamed of having a large family. When she couldn’t, she felt like a failure. “Being Mormon, you know. Motherhood is a woman’s greatest calling.” So I was her Isaac, the miracle child, and she spoiled me. Over-protective? I suppose. My father was gone a lot, so she and I became a twosome. My first day at kindergarten she cried and couldn’t stop. Possessive? No. Well, maybe a little.
Nancy whirled around, her pleated wool skirt lifting a bit, revealing her knobby knees. “Have you read Sons and Lovers? D. H. Lawrence?”
I shook my head, wondering what that book had to do with my mother.
Nancy’s bony hands gripped mine with startling power as she bent deep in the knees, as if preparing to spring over the surrounding pines. “Jon, you’ve got to read that book-you’ve got to!”
“Why? Is it polluted with sleazy sex and graphic violence?”
“Sorry. Nothing to taint your pure little mind.”
“Then I’m not interested.”
“Oh you big dumb jerk from Albekirk! It’s about relationships-a mother who can’t let go and her son who can’t escape her. It’s .. . ” She reached down in midstride and grabbed a handful of yellow honeysuckle. “There’s this one scene where Paul-he’s the son-he and his would-be girlfriend are walking along and she starts picking flowers. He’s not sure why, but he gets really mad and starts yelling at her, ‘Why do you always have to possess them? Why can’t you just leave them be-to flourish!’ It’s a great book. Every Mormon boy should read it.”
“Sure. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Sons and Lovers.”
“Read it, Jon!”
I told her I’d try, although I knew I wouldn’t. But the next morning when we met at school, first thing, before saying, “Hello, nincompoop!” or asking my position on gun control, she handed me a weathered, hard-bound copy of Sons and Lovers.
“Take, read, ponder … ”
I read that book, then another she recommended. Soon she introduced me to a whole gallery of new friends who were not on Ponderosa’s reading list: Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Ellison, Pound, Eliot. Later she discussed each work at depths that left me gasping. A highlight was her summation of the writers. She spoke as if she knew each one personally. They were Jimmy Joyce and Ernie Hemingway and Katie Ann Porter.
By mid-April, about six weeks after our first encounter, I was cutting practice so often that Coach Ramirez threatened to drop me from the squad. I knew he wouldn’t, since I was by far his fastest sprinter, with or without practice, and his only hope to beat Harry the Horse and Las Plumas in the league finals. My teammates resented it, meaning me and my prima donna attitude, especially Keith, but I was so brain drunk in my fantasies with Nancy that I hardly noticed, or simply didn’t care.
Besides, Keith and I had had a falling out several months earlier, and he was looking for any excuse to throw dirt on me.
lt was about this time Nancy launched her most ambitious (and preposterous) project: she tried to turn me into a poet. She picked her moment perfectly, when I was most vulnerable, the day after Harry burned me in a dual meet the second time that season. Humiliated by my shabby performance, during the noon hour I exiled myself to a scraggly patch of grass on the outskirts of the schoolgrounds near an old Quonset hut (formerly the auto shop), hoping no one would find me there, knowing full well Nancy would.
I should have known she was up to something when she didn’t greet me with an insult. Instead, she sat down beside me, her skinny legs extended and crossed girlishly at the ankles, her stick arms stiff and slanted, supporting her flimsy upper half like tent poles. She carefully smoothed her woolen skirt but said nothing, and I was glad. I didn’t feel like talking. I didn’t feel like anything except staring at the dry, cracked, red earth and the sun·fried weeds pushing through as the April warmth pressed through the fabric of my cotton pullover. Inevitably, though, she spoke.
“I don’t want to talk about it!”
“The stupid idiotic race! I lost and that’s all there is to it!”
“Right. You lost. You got creamed, Jon. Smoked. Poof! So what? Is the moon turning to blood? Is Barbra Streisand getting a nose job? No! What’s the big deal?”
“What’s the big deal? I was humiliated in front of everyone and you sit there like a lump. So what … big deal … it’s only a silly race … You may think jocks run around on four legs grunting once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no,’ and sports are some invention from the Stone Age, but I care. This town cares. Me and Keith and the others work hard for We sacrifice. Have you ever run a 440? You blast out of the blocks and pray you don’t die before the finish line. You run until your lungs burn and your legs turn to lead and your body ties itself into a knot-but you keep running. We run to win. And when we lose, it’s as tragic to us as when … as-ah, hell, as when King Lear loses his kingdom to a couple of snake-in-the-grass daughters. We feel it, Nancy. I know it’s hard for you to understand.”
Nancy leaped to her feet applauding. “Bravo, Jon! Bra-a-a-vo!”
“Quit joking! I’m serious!”
“And I’m serious. Here-” She tore a sheet of paper from the spiral notebook she carried with her everywhere, like a life-support system. “Okay,” she said. “Now write!”
“Your feelings. Forget about grammar and spelling or making sense. That comes later. For now, just get your guts on paper.”
“Just do it, Jon. Trust me.”
I folded my arms defiantly and looked away like a pouting child. “I’m not doing anything until you tell me why.”
“Look, Jon, reason not the need.”
“No! I want to know why. You’re the one who’s always railing about blind obedience and not following the mob. So just tell me.”
“Why?” She looked positively stumped, baffled. It was wonderful. “Well, because .. . ”
“Yes? I’m waiting.”
“Because art is life. It’s eternal. It teaches us who we are. It makes us strive to be better. Science and history and math give us the facts about life, but art, literature, music make us care about the facts, make us feel. They shoot an arrow to the heart so we don’t blow ourselves to kingdom come. Art captures human truth, the summa cum-”
“Nancy, what the hell are you talking about?”
She was silent a moment. Then she turned to me with a look of regret equalled only by that first evening at the River when I missed the train. “You don’t understand, do you?”
I was surprised how much this disappointed me.
“Write!” she commanded. “Write! Anything that pops into that peanut brain of yours- the race, Harry the Fairy, Mom, apple pie, me . .. Just write!”
So I wrote. Reluctantly, sheepishly at first, but soon I was scrawling my rage on paper. I called myself a gut-out, a showboat with no show. I’d let my teammates down. I didn’t give a damn about anyone but myself. “The Great and Almighty I.” I was a phoney, a hypocrite. In a crowd I flirted with the cheerleaders, but one-on-one I was bashful. I poked fun at religion, called the River the only true and living water. I prayed three times a day, paid tithing, never missed a Sabbath meeting, but I did it all because Mom and Dad said so, because it was the thing to do, because I always had. Because I had never really questioned, never taken a hard look at my religion or myself or anything of substance. Born with a silver spoon, I was crippled by comfort and complacency. Don’t rock the red Corvette. I had a dick for brains and a marshmallow heart. I was an idiot for flattery, a sucker for a pretty face. Mter annihilating myself, I turned my anger on Nancy, the intellectual seductress. She was Salome, the Queen of Sheba, Lady Macbeth, Jezebel.
Finished, I hurled my pen at the Quonset hut. She snatched the paper, skimmed it over. Her face turned to stone.
“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?”
She re-read my scribble, silently mouthing each word.
She replied coolly: “Embryonic.” But she folded the paper into fourths and carefully tucked it away for safekeeping. Then, with her old bravado: “Good! Tomorrow we’ll do another!”
And we did. The next day and the next day and the next, until it became routine. Everyday at noon she compelled me to scribble out a few pages. Sports, girls, grades, parents, church, sex-the topic didn’t matter, as long as I was writing. When I complained that what I wrote seemed trivial, she agreed.
“Then why bother writing it down?”
“Don’t fret about significance,” she said. “First you develop the habit, then the obsession. You’ve got to learn to love writing.”
“Love it or leave it. Right?”
“Wrong. You love it when you hate it. I assume it’s the same with running. Nothing’s trivial except perception. Read Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams.”
“Right,” I said, nodding mechanically.
When Nancy played the literary coach, I followed along as best I could-which wasn’t very well. I was a jock at heart. I had no poetic aspirations. That was her trip. But misery loves company, I supposed, so she was always ordering me to write things down-things I’d seen, interesting people I’d met, bits of conversation I’d overheard, dreams, thoughts, ideas, images, moonlight on the River, dogs howling in the night-anything and everything! No matter how “trivial,” it had to be recorded. If I related an anecdote about Keith or Coach Ramirez, she’d get after me: “Did you write that down? Write it down, Jon, or it’s lost! It’s lost!” She was obsessed.
Before long I too was toting around a spiral notebook, even on trips to the River. One day she sat me on a rock, pointed to the water and announced, “Okay, today we’re going to write haiku!”
“Don’t play the idiot. Three lines with set syllables. Five, seven, five.” She opened my spiral notebook and wrote:
What I thought to be
Flowers soaring to their boughs
Were bright butterflies.
“That’s Moritake. When Japanese poets write haiku, they try to enter the soul of the thing they’re writing about-bird, butterfly, tree, flower. They try to see from their perspective. Got it?” She tapped my notebook. “You try.”
Enough was enough. Scribbling down my thoughts and perceptions was one thing, writing oriental poetry was quite another. I handed my notebook to her. “I quit.”
“Oh come on, you big sissy!” She handed it right back to me. “What are you so afraid of?”
I could tell by her expression there was no use resisting. Nancy would have her way. I looked around self-consciously to see if any of my football buddies were lurking nearby. I could hear a pack of them carousing upstream.
“All right, but can we go downriver a bit?”
“You really are a gutless wonder, aren’t you? Come on!” We hiked a quarter-mile downstream to a secluded beach where I spent the afternoon writing three-line poems about water skimmers and dragonflies. In this way Nancy taught me how to take a deeper look at the little things in life, to smell the muddy banks and hear the sighs in the River’s thunder.
Yet no matter how closely I observed, it was never adequate for her. I always missed some critical little detail. One day exactly three weeks before my final showdown with Harry the Horse, she commenced by asking what I had seen on arriving at school that morning. I was ready for her. “Okay, all right. .. I saw the AM. swarm, the manic masses- kids, I mean. In Levis, sneakers, t-shirts. Also, Keith and company in cut-offs and hirachi sandals with black armbands, mourning who knows what this time? I saw some loud-mouthed juniors playing Frisbee football on the lawn and Cindy Cadman looking very … well, very very in a skin-tight tanktop and bell-bottom jeans with a red peace sign on her left cheek. Mr. Smith sneaking glimpses of her as he patrolled the quad, grinning his rabbity grin. I saw Gary Jackson flaunting his letterman’s sweater in the heat of April, still losing ground with Carla Wheeler who was making eyes at Jerry Richfield in fluorescent orange tennis shoes and no socks and a holey t-shirt with MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR felt-tip-markered across his chest. I saw the Jesus freaks sitting in a circle singing sweet hallelujahs while Janie Stevens strummed a Joan Baez song. I saw-” “All right, you’ve got the overall picture. Good. But did you notice the little freshman sitting alone by the flagpole feeding corn chips from his sack lunch to a blue jay?”
I was stopped cold. “Hunh?”
Nancy shook her head in despair. “Sorry, Jon, but you still have not yet arrived.”
I knew what she meant, but I tried to laugh it off. “Arrived? I didn’t know I was going anywhere.”
“I thought you might be. I hoped so. But evidently not. Oh well, your time will come, I suppose.” With that, she got up, brushed the bits of grass from her pleated skirt, and sauntered into the woods.
She remained a mystery. I never set foot inside her home, and I met her mother only once, when it was too late. This was not entirely my fault, since Nancy refused to let me drive her home. Day or night, she always insisted I drop her off by the four old mailboxes at the top of the gravel road off the highway. Pressing a load of books to her chest, she would march down the lane, glancing back periodically to make sure I wasn’t cheating. I watched from my idling Corvette until her lanky figure vanished in the green oblivion of the gambel oaks. I was never comfortable with this arrangement, especially after dark. But whenever I offered to drive her to her doorstep, she politely declined. If I pressed the issue, she became adamant. And if I took the initiative? I made that mistake only once. Instead of stopping at the four mailboxes, I turned defiantly down the lane.
“Reeves!” she screamed. “What are you doing?”
“Taking you home. My treat.”
The passenger door flew open. If I hadn’t braked, her spindly body would have been airborne.
“Nancy! What are you doing?”
Gaining her balance, she glared at me through the thin mushroom of dust. “You think you can get whatever you want whenever you want it, don’t you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know very well what I’m talking about.”
“Nancy, get in the car!”
“See! See what I mean?”
“Just get in, will you?” She spun around and started up the hill, her long skinny legs gobbling up ground like a giraffe’s. Muttering soft core curses, I shoved the stick into reverse, my tires spitting gravel as I backed up the lane. “Nancy!” I snarled through gritted teeth. What was her hang up anyway? What was she trying to hide? Did she honestly believe there was anything at the end of that gravel road that would shock or surprise me? Give me a break, Von K.! Give me a little credit!
“Nancy!” I hollered, steering my Corvette even with her. “You nut! Get in here!” She never broke stride.
“Okay, okay! Have it your way! But I don’t see what the big deal is.” She stopped, the irritating grin of victory on her face, and waited until I had backed all the way up to the highway before proceeding down the hill.
But I didn’t drive home as promised. I parked by the four old mailboxes and waited until dark to sneak down the gravel lane on foot. There was a barbed wire fence on one side, with knee-high weeds and giant sunflowers dipping their coronaed heads. The smell of alfalfa was strong. Passing through the grove of oaks, I found four homes, all of the same clapboard design, with dim-lit windows glowing like jack-o-lanterns. I knocked at the first door. A tall, long-faced man in a holey t-shirt and Levis answered. His balding forehead protruded like the Bride of Frankenstein’s.
I asked if this was the Von Kleinsmid residence? He answered with dead brown eyes. I asked ifhe knew of any Von Kleinsmids? Same reply. I thanked him and left.
I searched the other three yards until I found tell-tale signs: tricycles, dolls, Tonka trucks, a table setting with plastic plates and utensils. The humble abode of Mother Goose, nine’s fine but ten’s the end.
Straddling the low picket fence, I crept towards the front porch. Disaster almost struck when my sneaker tipped a plastic bowl, spilling a dark pasty mix (earmarked for tomorrow’s mud pies?). I was more careful crossing the porch, freezing at each creak that issued from the ancient planks, waiting for it to fade completely before risking another step.
My luck, all of the windows were covered with translucent plastic sheets (for energy efficiency or secrecy?). It was like peering into a thick fog. Several dark blurs were clustered together-at the dinner table, I assumed-while another drifted back and forth, perpetually in motion. A baby was crying. No, two. Two distinct cries. The other voices were low and garbled. I pressed my ear to the plastic, straining to hear. Then I grew bold and pinched a corner of the plastic sheet where it had been stapled. I felt guilty. I was snooping, I’d given her my word, sort of. But my curiosity won out. I peeled back the corner and crouched down to look. But pressing my eye to the triangular peephole, I was stopped by a ferocious bark. Following a short silence, more barks, louder, closer, joined by the unmistakable scrabbling of paws. I hopped off the porch, hurdled the picket fence, and streaked up the lane at a velocity that would have left even Harry the Unpassable frozen in his tracks.
Driving home, I began second guessing myself. Had my flight been premature? Was the dog really that close, that big, that dangerous? Had I secretly been hoping for a convenient out? Up until now it had been fun and games mostly-child’s play. But if I had looked, I would have been compelled to go to the front door and knock. And once that door opened, I would never be able to close it again. I had come this far with her, but now I was entering a different wilderness, an unknown more intimidating than the ubiquitous “X” of our Calculus sessions. I fled.
The next morning I didn’t see her on campus, which had me wondering because she never missed school-perfect attendance-which maybe said something else about her home life. I went to the tutoring room sixth hour and struggled through my math assignment, a long fifty-five minutes.
When the bell rang and I got up, she was blocking the doorway. I had never seen that expression on her before: dagger eyes, skinny lips sealed tight, like an incision. Her face looked as if it had been chiseled out of ice. “Don’t ever do that again,” she seethed.
“Do what?” I said, playing innocent.
“Ever,” she said, and left.
Thursday she was back at school carrying on like her sassy old self, as if nothing contrary had ever occurred. I was cautious at first, but after her first dozen insults, I too fell back into old form. At the bell I invited her to Mac’s for an after-school snack. She smiled cunningly. “With your track record?” She was referring to my four recent losses-not to Harry the Horse but to farmtown nobodies I should have easily clipped by ten yards. My teammates were spreading more rumors, especially Keith.
“So how about Mac’s?”
“You’d better go to practice, don’t you think?”
I was a little shocked by that. A little hurt, too. Betrayed even. What did she care about my sports record? Or had she begun viewing me more and more through the eyes of the other fawning females? Had I become a different kind of feather in her cap? Or was she playing games again? Trying to cross an invisible boundary of her own? From the beginning we had shared a tacit understanding. I walked with her, talked with her, joked with her, fought with her. We discussed art, life, literature. We went to the River and to Mac’s Foster Freeze. I even went shopping with her. We spent almost all of our free time together, yet I never considered going out with her. Not on an “official date.” Not as boyfriend and girlfriend. So shock number two. Cupping her hands to her heart, eyelids fluttering, she asked in a Scarlett O’Hara drawl, “Mistuh Jonathun, would you please do the ‘onuh of escorting this young bay·ell to the Pray·france Day·ance?”
What shocked me even more was when I squared my shoulders, clicked my heels together, and, with a magnanimous bow, replied, “Why suh·tainly, Mizz Nancy! Ah’d be dee·lighted!”
Three days later I got my first real glimpse into her private world. My opportunity came the day I finally asked if I could read some of her stories. At first she balked.
“Well?” I prodded, sensing her anxiety. “Do you practice what you preach?”
“They’re not really, umm … it’s just that, well … ”
“Well? Come on, Von Kraut, hem and haw, hem and haw.”
“They’re not quite … ”
“Just answer the question, please. A simple yes or no will do.” We eyed one another across the tutoring table like bitter chess rivals. She stroked her chin slowly, as if contemplating her next move. Lizard· quick her tongue moistened the faint blond hairs on her upper lip. “All right,” she muttered. “I’ll bring them tomorrow.”
“Great! I can’t wait! I’m really looking forward to this, Nancy!”
I smiled. So did she. And that worried me.
The next day she handed me two bloated ten·by·twelve envelopes. “Enjoy,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said. “I think.” Checkmate.
I skipped track practice and our customary trip to Mac’s and went straight home after school to read Nancy’s tome in private. Page one, volume one began:
ANY CHARACTERS, PLACES, OR EVENTS HEREIN ARE ENTIRELY FICTITIOUS. ANY RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN THESE AND AUTHENTIC PERSONS OR EVENTS IS STRICTLY COINCIDENTAL.
I smiled at her presumptuous disclaimer and launched into the first story, entitled “Genesis.”
He was a big, strong, handsome Mormon boy perpetually trying to flaunt his virility without jeopardizing his virginity. He was supposed to be good, but he wanted to be a little bad. As a result, he often did crazy, although relatively harmless, things.
I felt a jolt. This was me. I continued, reading apprehensively but thoroughly hooked. Derek Scott, the seventeen-year-old nose-thumbing anti-hero, inhabited my sun-bronzed body, wore my corduroy slacks, drove my red Corvette, used my slang to scoff at teachers, and caught my touchdown passes. The disclaimer should have echoed the Dragnet TV series: THE STORIES YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ ARE TRUE; THE NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT.
The first six stories won chuckles and a few guffaws. Derek and his friend are arrested for skinny-dipping at the River; Derek hangs his TUCK THE TRESHMEN sign in the school cafeteria. The last story, however, “Third Time’s Not Hardly a Charm,” was about an obese girl, Sarah, who attempts to catch Derek’s eye, a comic start with an ugly finish.
Sarah entered by the back door and dropped her books on the kitchen table. The twins were whining loudly in the living room, which meant that her mother had not had time to feed and change them before leaving for work-that would be Sarah’s job. Again. The kitchen was a mess-plates stacked in the sink, bread crumbs, crinkled cellophane, spilled milk drying to a white crust on the counter. The stench of spoiled cantaloupe rinds was attracting a convoy of fruit flies.
The twins’ wailing persisted, but Sarah momentarily ignored them and yanked open the freezer and removed a half-gallon of Rocky Road. She took the little bucket and a spoon into the living room and flopped down on the ragged sofa. She stared at the gloomy gray skies. The intermittent showers had left a sparkling sheen on the weedy backyard, but she saw nothing pleasant, nothing but gray.
She had failed again. And she knew she would fail again and again and again. He was holding hands today. Tomorrow he would slip his arm around the girl’s waist the way lovers do and escort her from class to class. Today she had almost spoken to him. At the Coke machine. She had sneaked in line behind him, hoping something might happen. It did. She accidentally dropped her change on the floor and her colossal buttocks won a devoted audience-the football goons crowding around their private table, hooting and howling, one of them singing, “No one’s gettin’ fat ‘cept Mama Cass!” While she stood there, stuck in that bent-over posture, her medicine ball belly pressing against her immense thighs, she did not actually cry until his hand slid charitably under her nose, the quarter shining between his pinched fingers, a look of irredeemable pity in his eyes as he mumbled, “I think you dropped this.” She had almost spoken to him; had almost mumbled thank you. Almost.
The twins were still screaming. Outside, rain was falling hard and fast. The sky looked charcoal·smudged. She could smell dirty diapers fermenting by the washing machine. She uncapped the lid and buried her spoon deeply into the dark chocolate and began gorging herself, angrily. Again.