Monday morning, Gramps reminded me that he wanted me to join him in the cornfields. We walked there together, and he handed me another hoe. He explained that the work was virtually the same as I’d been doing in the vegetable garden, but soon we’d start harvesting some of the corn. Then he showed me where he wanted me to begin.
Most of the cornstalks were taller than I was, so unlike my grandfather I couldn’t see over them. I could hear him working, but I couldn’t see him.
I worked the whole morning hoeing the dry, dirt, sweating away but not removing my shirt because I had some sunburn on my back and I didn’t want more. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the weeds, so I left them lying between the rows but not near the cornstalks.
When the bell sounded for lunch, I heard Gramps call to just leave the hoe where I was, and we’d resume in the afternoon.
As usual at lunch, my grandparents talked back and forth but I said nothing. Gramps said the word ‘depression’, which I’d heard before and I wondered if that was why I was sad and ashamed and why I couldn’t shake those feelings.
In the afternoon I decided to take my shirt off just for a short time and begin to work on a tan. I left it off for about an hour. My hat gave some protection to my upper body, but down nearer my waist I could feel the heat of the sun. When I put the shirt back on, it felt clammy and uncomfortable, but I didn’t dare take it off again.
After supper, I decided to walk over to the creek. As I sat, trying to avoid thinking, I heard a sound behind me. I turned my head and saw a boy about my age. He had sandy, unkempt hair, and he wore overalls ─ no shirt, just the overalls. He was deeply tanned.
“Hi,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Sam.”
Shit, I thought. I stood up and walked away, back towards my grandparents’ house.
“Did I say something wrong? What did I do?” he called.
I just kept walking.
When I got to the back porch of the house, I turned and saw Sam in the distance. He’d taken off his overalls and was standing naked on the bank of the creek.
I quickly turned, hoping he didn’t see me looking. I didn’t want to encourage him in any way. I didn’t want anything to do with him. He was obviously chipper and happy, and I couldn’t stand that.
In the following days I continued to work either in the garden or the cornfields, wherever Gramps directed me. I also continued to work on my tan. My problem was my arms and legs, which weren’t covered. I got a bit of a burn on them for a few days but then they peeled and began to tan.
One evening after supper I went up to my room and tried to read. As I lay on my bed with my head propped up on my pillows, I heard a knock on the back door, and then I heard Gran talking quietly to someone. She came to the bottom of the stairs and called, “Joseph, come down. There’s someone here to see you.”
I didn’t want to see anybody, that was for sure, but I wasn’t disobedient, so I did as she asked.
Standing in the kitchen in his overalls was the boy from the creek. He was eating one of Gran’s rolls. Why won’t he leave me alone? I fretted.
Gran said, “Joseph, this is Sam Cousins. He lives on the next farm over. He tells me he saw you the other day and wanted to come over this evening to meet you.”
“Hi,” said Sam, again holding out his hand.
I let him take my hand and shake it, but it was so floppy he just let go.
“Let’s go outside and sit on the porch,” he said.
I really, really wanted to go back up to my room, but I knew that would be rude and I didn’t want to be rude in front of Gran, even though I guess I’d been rude ever since I came to the farm and hadn’t talked. Anyway, I shrugged and went with him out the back door and onto the porch.
We sat in silence for a while before Sam said, “I’m thirteen, Joseph, what about you?”
I didn’t answer him.
“Don’t feel like talking?”
I shook my head. I sat looking, not at him, but out across the yard to the barn.
“Okay, I’ll do the talking for now,” he said. “It’s pretty lonely out here, so I hope sometime we can become friends. I’ve some friends at school, but they live far enough away that I don’t see them in the summer except at church.”
He stopped and looked at me.
“Usually I’m busy with the farm in the summer,” he continued. “That’s why I came over in the evening. I really wanted to meet you. I saw you at church on Sunday, but you disappeared right after the service. I heard your grandparents talking about you while people were outside talking and drinking lemonade.”
My grandparents were talking about me? I thought. I wondered what they’d said.
When I didn’t say anything, Sam continued, “I’ve learned to drive Bessie when she pulls the plow, so that’s what I did in the spring. Then we planted the corn. It seems to be doing okay this year, but we really need some rain.
“I also help Mom in the vegetable garden. My brothers are supposed to help, too, but they usually end up throwing clumps of weeds at each other, so Mom tells them to go play somewhere else. They’re twins and just two years younger than me.”
He looked at me again, and again I didn’t say anything.
“I have regular chores too, like fetching water from the pump and emptying the chamber pots every morning. I hate that, but someone has to do it and apparently that someone is me.
“Earlier in the summer, right after school got out, I dug a new hole for the privy. Dad helped me move the privy away from the old hole, and when I dug the new hole, I threw the dirt into the old one. Then Dad helped me move the privy over the new hole. I’m sure glad that’s over for the year.”
Once again he stopped and looked at me. “You don’t talk much, do you?”
I shook my head.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Well, I’ll just keep going,” he said. “You see that water pump yonder? I helped dig the well for it. We had a well but it dried up, so we had to dig a new one. We dug down more than a hundred and forty feet before we hit water. I’d begun to think we never would. But the water’s cold and sweet so I guess it was worth it.
“I know you have running water here and an indoor privy, but Dad says we can’t afford that, so we just keep doing things the old-fashioned way.”
He looked at me yet again. Then he said, “Come on, let’s go to the river.”
He grabbed my hand and pulled me up and off the porch and we walked to the creek.
When we arrived, he said, “Let’s cool off,” and he immediately stripped off his overalls. He didn’t have anything on his feet so I decided they must be pretty tough. He had nothing on underneath the overalls, but he certainly wasn’t shy.
“Come on,” he said, “if I can be naked in front of you then you can be in front of me.”
He reached for my T-shirt but I waved him away, and after a moment, I peeled it off. It was soaked with sweat. Then I slid off my shorts and underwear, and finally my sneakers.
Sam turned and went to the bank of the creek. Stepping down into the water he sighed. “Ahh.”
I followed him in, but quickly pulled out because the water was so cold. When he looked at me, I stepped back in, hesitantly.
Standing in the creek, I watched as he sat down so the water flowed over his legs and his privates.
“C’mon,” he said, “it’s not that cold.”
I sat. It was cold at first and I could feel my balls and wiener shrivel up, but then I got used to it and realized that after the heat, it was refreshing.
We simply sat like that for a few minutes before he stood up, saying, “C’mon. I want to show you something.”
He started moving downstream. I tried to follow but the rocks in the creek bed were slippery and I kept losing my balance. I followed slowly, bent over so that if I fell it wouldn’t be too far.
Looking back at me, Sam asked, “Is this your first time doing this?”
I nodded and slogged on. Soon we came to a place where the water was running through some bigger rocks, and on the other side of the rocks the water poured down into a pool. Sam led me around the rocks and into the pool, where he lay face down in the water, which just covered his butt.
After a moment, I followed. The pool was deep enough so that when I lay down it covered my whole body, but it wasn’t deep enough to swim in. It was more like lying in a bathtub of cold water.
He turned over and we lay side by side. After a spell, he said, “I know this isn’t a river even though I call it one. But it’s the biggest piece of moving water I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a real river, or a lake either for that matter. So, I call this the river and the cow pond I call the lake. Stupid, isn’t it?”
I shook my head.
“Are you ever going to say anything?” he asked.
I just lay in the water silently.
“I heard your parents were in an accident,” he said. “Can you tell me what happened?”
I stared up at the sky as tears formed in my eyes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. To be honest, your gran said she thought you needed to talk about it.”
Fuck, I thought. Why can’t people just leave me alone? There’s no way I will talk about the accident, ever.
I stood up, climbed up on the bank, and went back upstream to find my clothes. Sam followed me. When we got to our clothes, I put on my shorts and sneakers but not my shirt. Then I headed back to the house.
Soon I heard Sam running up to me. “Look,” he said, “I’m really, really sorry I upset you. I was just trying to help you a little.”
Help me I wondered. How was asking about the accident helping me? Tears came to my eyes as I walked, and I hurried towards the house, Sam trotting beside me.
When we arrived, I into the kitchen and slammed the door, almost hitting Sam, who was right behind me. He came in as well. I stomped upstairs and slammed my bedroom door.
I could hear my grandparents and Sam talking but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Then I heard Sam leave.
Gran came up and opened my door. I knew that the reason she didn’t knock was because I wouldn’t answer the knock. She sat beside me on the bed, not touching, just in companionable silence.
After a while she said, “I’m sorry, Joseph. I was hoping that Sam could get you to talk some. I apologize for mentioning the accident to him.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Can you forgive me?”
I nodded a little.
“Thank you. I’ll leave you alone now.”
She left and I lay on my bed, crying again. I felt like such a baby, crying so much. Would I ever be able to stop? I had no idea.
That night, my nightmares returned.
When Gramps knocked on my door in the morning I was completely drained. I had no desire to get up. I felt like I was back where I was when I first arrived at the farm. I just lay in bed.
Gran and then Gramps called for me to go down to breakfast. I didn’t move.
There was a knock on my door and Gran came in. She looked at me still lying in bed and sat down beside me.
“Joseph,” she said quietly. “You can’t go on like this. You need to get moving, to get back into your life. Just lying here won’t help.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Come on,” she said, pulling my covers back, “Get up and get dressed.”
I didn’t move.
She sighed and went back downstairs, leaving my door open. A few minutes later, Gramps showed up.
Uh-oh, I thought, they’re bringing in the heavy artillery.
“Okay, Joe, get out of bed.”
I didn’t move. I didn’t even look at him.
“Let me help you,” he said, and took hold of my arm. I pulled it back out of his grasp and faced the wall, my back to him. A tactical mistake. He gently placed his hands under my arms and lifted. Damn he was strong! He held me up with no effort at all.
When he had me over the floor with my legs hanging down, he lowered me so my feet touched the old rag rug. As he began to let go of me, I collapsed on the floor.
He stood for a minute and then sighed and left.
Later, I heard a knock on the front door. My grandparents told me they never used that door except for visitors, and I wondered a little who it was. I heard talking and then footsteps coming up the stairs.
I was still lying on the floor when the visitor walked into the room with Gran. She said quietly, “Joseph, please sit on the bed. I want you to meet someone.”
I thought for a moment and decided I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of the visitor, so I got up and sat on the side of the bed.
“Joseph,” she said, “this is Doctor Coggeshall. He’s here to help you.”
The doctor extended his hand, and being polite, I took it weakly and shook it.
“Well, my boy,” the doctor began, “what seems to be the problem?”
Staring down at my feet, I said nothing.
“Are you feeling sad?” he asked.
I thought for a moment and then nodded.
“That’s not surprising, considering what you’ve been through. Will you talk to me?”
I shook my head.
“Okay. I’m going to leave some pills with your gran. Take them twice a day until I return. Can you do that?”
I was silent for a bit but couldn’t see any way out of this. At last I nodded.
“Okay. I’ll give you a pill now and your gran will give you another one this evening. I’ll be back in a couple of days to see how you’re doing. It’s important that you don’t stop taking the pills.”
Gran went to get me a glass of water and the doctor handed me the pill. He watched as I swallowed it.
“Now,” the doctor said, “I want you to get dressed and go downstairs. Will you do that?”
Shit! Fuck! Damn! I thought. Just leave me alone. But he didn’t. He sat, waiting for me to do as he asked.
At last I sighed, reached for my shorts and put them on. When I was dressed, I went downstairs, where Gran asked me to sit at the table. She put food on the table but I didn’t eat anything. Then she, too, sat at the table. We just sat silently as the doctor let himself out.