A Boy Called Joe

Chapter 1

I sat on the creek bank, aimlessly watching the water flow by. I wasn’t thinking about anything at all. I didn’t dare think, because every time I did, I was overwhelmed with guilt, and that got me thinking about killing myself. There were times when I really wanted to do that, but I knew I didn’t have the courage.

 At last, I rose and walked through the cornfields back to the house. I figured the walk was about a half mile each way. Going up to my room, I plopped onto my bed and cried. I’d been doing a lot of that lately. The crying embarrassed me. After all, I was thirteen and crying like a baby, but I couldn’t help it.

Gran came up and looked in at my door. When she heard me crying, she came and sat on the edge of my bed.

Damn! Why can’t people just leave me alone, I wondered. She tried to talk with me, but I turned away from her and didn’t answer.

It wasn’t that I was a rude boy. At least, I hadn’t been raised that way. And I hadn’t really acted that way until after the accident. I loved my Gran and Gramps, and I didn’t want to hurt them, but I knew I was. Somehow, I couldn’t stop myself. I just wanted to be left alone.  I didn’t want to have to deal with anyone.

Gran stayed a while, rubbing my back and saying, “Joseph, it hurts me to see you so sad. Just remember that your grandfather and I are here when you want to talk. We love you Joseph. We, too, are very sad about what happened.  But we have to go on. You have to go on. You need to make a new life for yourself. And the first thing you need to do is talk.”

She sighed, stood, and walked quietly out of room. I lay there, tears still streaming out of my eyes.

At supper time, she called me and I went down to the kitchen table. Gran and Gramps were both there. They talked to each other. They tried to talk with me, but I didn’t answer.

At one point, Gramps asked, “Why won’t you talk to us, Joseph? We only want to help.”

I knew that was true, but I didn’t think anybody could help, so I still didn’t say anything.

When we finished the meal, I cleared the table and wiped the dishes as Gramps washed them. 

After that, I went back upstairs to my bed. I tried to read a book I’d brought with me, but I couldn’t concentrate on it at all. I gave up, put on my PJ bottoms, peed, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.

I didn’t go to sleep right away. It was a hot night and I rolled about repeatedly, trying to get comfortable.

Eventually, sighing, I got out of bed, pulled my desk chair over to the window and sat looking at the scene below. If I’d been able to appreciate it, the night was probably beautiful. A nearly full moon hung in the sky, illuminating a few thin clouds. The old barn loomed to my left. The corn fields were lit by the eerie moonglow. Without really thinking about it, I wondered if there were little critters running about among the cornstalks.

When I heard my grandparents start up the stairs, I hurried back to bed and pretended to be asleep. I heard my door open and I was sure Gran was looking in on me. Closing the door again, she said, “He’s asleep.”

“Good,” Gramps answered softly. “Probably the best thing for him.”

I heard them go into their room. They took turns in the bathroom. And at last their bed creaked and I knew they were there for the night.

Lying on my bed, I sighed and eventually got to sleep.

Every night I dreamt about the accident. And every night I woke up screaming. When it happened that night, Gran came into the room and sat beside me on the bed. “The dream again?”

I nodded. I hadn’t told her what the dream was about, but I was pretty sure she’d guessed.

When I stopped crying, she sighed and went back to her room, where the bed creaked again.

After that, I didn’t get much sleep. I was called for breakfast at the ungodly hour of 5:30. I pulled on my T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, and went down to the kitchen. As always, I ate silently. There were pancakes and bacon and as always at every meal, some of Gran’s fresh rolls. There was milk on the table as well as orange juice. I suppose the food was really good, but I couldn’t taste it and I didn’t eat much. When I finished, I took two rolls and went back upstairs.

I had nothing to do, so after a while I went downstairs and out the back door, taking my book with me. I could see Gran working in the vegetable garden and Gramps far off, almost hidden by the corn which was already nearly as tall as he was.

I supposed I should help them, but instead, I sat on the porch, munching on a roll and trying again to read. After a half hour or so, I stood and went through the cornfields to the creek, sitting for a long time on the bank and aimlessly tossing pebbles into the water. At one point I took off my sneakers and socks and stuck my feet in the flowing stream. I quickly pulled them back out. Man, that water was cold!

Returning to the bank, I again attempted to read, trying to force myself to concentrate, but I didn’t have any luck. The accident kept replaying in my mind. I desperately didn’t want to think about it, and I tried to think about anything else. For a while I wondered what animals might be in the woods across the creek. Raccoons? Skunks? Deer? Bears? I really didn’t know much about woods or what animals lived in them. I knew there must be more than the ones I’d thought of, but I drew a blank. I hoped there were no skunks or bears. Skunks stank and I would probably be scared stiff if I ever saw a bear.

After what seemed like days but was only a few hours, I heard the big bell Gran rang to call us in.

I put on my sock and sneakers, noticing that my legs were getting sunburned. I’d have to be careful or wear long pants, but it was too hot to wear long pants.

Back at the house Gran had laid out a big lunch. She certainly knew how to feed hungry people like Gramps. I just wished I was hungry.

As usual, the two of them tried to get me to talk but I said nothing.

Finally, Gramps said, “Joe, everybody who lives on a farm works. That’s how we raise enough to eat and to see us through the winter. So as long as you live here, you’re going to have to work. I didn’t say anything until now because I wanted to give you time to settle in, but now it’s time to get to work. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“Okay, this afternoon I want you to take over for your gran in the vegetable garden. It’s just weeding and loosening the soil so when it rains the water can get down to the roots. She’ll show you what to do.”

Again I nodded. I thought about what he’d said and decided it would probably be good to have something to do.


After lunch, I helped Gran put the food away. Then she washed the dishes as I dried them.

On the back porch she handed me a broad-brimmed straw hat, saying it was to keep my face and neck from burning in the sun. Then she led me out to the vegetable garden.

The garden wasn’t some little plot like you might see in a city backyard. It was huge. I have no idea how big, but it must have been at least half the size of a football field and probably more.

Gran showed me where she’d left off working in the morning. Then she gave me a short lesson on using a hoe and picking up the weeds, telling me to put them in a bucket so they didn’t take root again. Handing me the hoe and the bucket she returned to the house.

The sun was hot out there but I kept my shirt on because I didn’t want to get a sunburn. It wasn’t long before my hands began to hurt and blisters appeared, but I kept working. After all, I thought, Gran worked all morning so I should be able to work all afternoon.

By the end of an hour or so, the blisters on my hands had broken open and there was fluid oozing out of them.

I sighed and went into the house, where Gran was doing some sewing. She looked up and asked, “Stopping already?”

I showed her my hands.

“Land sakes,” she said, “I should’ve thought of that. Come into the kitchen.” She brought out a wicker basket which she used as a first aid kit. Taking a tube from the basket she told me to hold out my hands. She took one and put some cream from the tube on my hand, gently rubbing it around so that it got to all my blisters. Then she did the other hand. I didn’t think my hands felt any better, but I didn’t say anything.

Returning the tube to her basket, she took out some gauze and tape. Wrapping the gauze around my hands, she fastened it with tape. Then she produced some gloves and suggested I use them when I went back to work.

There was no question but that I would return to the garden. She didn’t offer any sympathy or tell me to stop until my hands healed. She just sent me back out to my work.

It was a little awkward putting the gloves on over the bandages, but I managed. I sighed and picked up the hoe.

I‘d thought I was in pretty good shape. I had enjoyed sports back home and I knew I was stronger than a lot of my former friends. But soon, my back and my shoulders began to ache. I stopped from time to time and tried to stretch my aching muscles, but nothing I did seemed to help.

As I worked, I kept watching the sun, begging it to go down, but it appeared to be glued in place.

When at last I heard Gran’s bell, I put away the hoe, dumped the weeds in the pile Gran had shown me, and went into the house.

Gran was already putting out the supper, and she told me to go and wash up. I tried to think how I could do that with the bandages on my hands, but I went into the bathroom and cleaned myself as much as I could. By the time I finished, my bandages were soaked.

Returning to the kitchen, I showed my hands to Gran. She got some scissors and cut the bandages off, saying that I should let my hands breathe and in the morning she’d put new ones on before I went to work.

Gramps came in from the fields, went into the bathroom, and washed up. When we were all seated at the table, he said a short blessing and we began to pass the dishes around the table.

Suddenly, I had an appetite. I don’t think I’d eaten enough to keep a mouse alive while I’d been at the farm, but the food looked good, smelled delicious, and tasted even better. Who could pass up Gran’s fried chicken? I think I ate everything in sight as I listened to Gran and Gramps chat.

“Well,” Gran said, looking at me when the food was gone, “I see you’ve gotten your appetite back. Do you think you have enough room for pie?”

I nodded and she gave me a big piece of apple pie, not my favorite but good enough. At least, I managed to eat two large slices.

At the end of the meal I planned to help clean up, but when I started to get up, I couldn’t move. Each time I tried to stand, all the muscles in my back and arms and legs protested. 

Gramps watched for a minute. I thought maybe he was laughing at me, and I got really angry, but then he came over, helped me up, saying, “You’re just using muscles you’re not used to using, so they’ll be sore for a few days. It’d be a good idea if you moved around some before you go to bed. If you stay in one place now, you’ll just stiffen up more.”

I took his advice and walked slowly out of the house and over to the creek. The sun hadn’t really set yet, but it was low, and the slanting rays shone a dimmer light on the fields. The corn cast long shadows, as did the trees near the creek. I stood at my usual place, not daring to sit for fear I wouldn’t be able to stand again. I watched the water flow and tried to throw a pebble into it but quickly realized my arm and shoulder muscles wouldn’t work. So I just stood, thinking about the day.

In a way, I was proud that I’d done a full afternoon’s work. I knew I wasn’t as expert at the hoeing as Gran was, but I guessed that would come with practice.

As it grew dark, I walked slowly back through the cornfields, watching fireflies begin to flit through the air.

Back in the house, I waved goodnight to my grandparents and headed to the stairs. My legs complained all the way up, so I used the railing to support myself.

Upstairs, I thought taking a hot shower might help. I stripped down to my underwear and walked into the bathroom, where I removed my undershorts and turned on the water. I was right. The hot water on my shoulders, back, arms, and legs felt wonderful. I just stood in the tub, letting the water run over me and reveling in it.

I hadn’t realized how long I’d been in the shower until the water suddenly began turning cold. Quickly, I turned it off, climbed painfully out of the tub, and dried myself before returning to my room.

I flopped onto my bed, thinking I’d read some before I went to sleep. I sat propped up against the headboard and started to read, but my eyes kept closing. Giving up, I closed the book, turned off the light, and lay down.


The next thing I knew, Gramps was knocking on my door telling me it was time to get up. I realized that for the first time since the accident I hadn’t had the nightmare, and I guessed that the work I’d done had made me too tired to dream.

Slowly, feeling all my aches and pains, I climbed out of bed and dressed.

At the breakfast table, Gran asked if I’d slept well and I nodded. Again, I ate everything in sight.

When we finished eating, she bandaged my hands. I put the gloves on and went out to the garden.

As I began to hoe, I could barely move. In time I loosened up some, and soon I didn’t think any more about my muscles.

We stopped work for lunch and then worked through the afternoon. By the time the bell rang to call us in, I was really tired, but I felt good. I looked back at the rows I’d hoed and grinned to myself.

After Gramps and I cleaned up and were sitting at the table, Gran asked me how the work had gone.

I nodded.

She looked at Gramps and smiled but didn’t say anything. I was grateful that she didn’t try to get me to talk.

Gramps asked me to work in the cornfields on Monday.

I nodded.

The next day was Sunday, and Gran told me that we didn’t work on Sunday because it was the Lord’s day of rest. She added, however, that we did go to church. So after breakfast, while I sat in the back of the truck, Gran and Gramps sat in front and we rode to the church.

It was a rather plain, white church, like ones you can see all over New England. There were people standing about and, as we walked up to them, they greeted my grandparents. Gran introduced me to a lot of people. I knew I’d never remember their names, but I smiled and tried to be polite.

The church bell began to ring, and we all filed into the church, where an old organ was wheezing away.

I’d never decided whether I thought God really existed or not. I knew that if He did, I was mad as hell at Him.

During the service, I stood or sat, copying what Gran and Gramps were doing. I did say the Lord’s Prayer because I knew that. Otherwise I was silent. When people sang hymns, I followed along but didn’t sing. I didn’t feel like singing and I really wasn’t much of a singer. My voice was beginning to change, which often made talking or singing embarrassing.

At the end of the service, people gathered outside where lemonade and cookies were being served. I passed on those and climbed into the truck, waiting. When my grandparents returned and climbed in, we rode back to the house.