Leaving the woods, I find Iím not the only thing thatís changed. Thereís a truck in the driveway, a workmenís truck, and I see two guys on the roof. Theyíre wrestling with a large piece of round plastic, and when theyíve got it in place and have moved so I can see it better, I can tell itís a satellite antenna.
I thought Dad wanted to be isolated!
I walk into the house through the kitchen and hear the sound of a power tool coming from the living room. I wonder if there are other workmen in the house, and walk through the short hallway to see. I find Dad over by the door to a small room off the living room; heís using his electric drill to make holes, first in the door frame, then in the door itself. The room looks like a small bedroom, but why would they have one off the living room? There is another room that would be just right for a den, so if it was meant for that, what is the one Dadís working on to be used for?
Then I think. This is an old farmhouse, and when it was built, it didnít have central heating. I guess this small room was meant to be a bedroom, and maybe it was located down here off the living room because the downstairs was where the large space heater was and therefore stayed warmer in the winter than the upstairs. Now, I watch Dad working. I realize what heís doing. Heís installing a deadbolt on the door. But not just one. Heís putting one on the outside and then another, slightly higher on the door, on the inside.
ďWhat are you doing that for?Ē I ask him.
He doesnít answer right away, concentrating on getting the holes lined up and spaced correctly. He finally puts down the drill and gets out his battery-operated screwdriver, then seems to feel me standing there.
He turns to look at me. ďOh, hi, Troy.Ē
I blink. Somethingís different. Itís the liveliest Iíve heard his voice in weeks. Thereís even a hint of a smile on his face.
ďUh, hi,Ē I say. ďSo whatís going on?Ē
I am asking about the door, but he answers about something else. ďYou were talking about an internet connection before we left home. I thought it over and decided you needed it. Youíre stuck all the way out here; you ought to be able to go online, have email, Facebook, all those things.Ē
ďButÖĒ I donít know what to say. He is standing straighter than he has in a while now; there is an expression other than emptiness on his face, and while his eyes arenít twinkling, they do at least have life in them.
But I feel it might be counterproductive to mention this. So, I return to the question of the door.
ďWhatís with the locks?Ē
He chuckles dismissively. ďJust thought I needed a safer place to store some stuff. Hey, those guys installing the dish are about finished out there. You might want to go set up your computer so they can know itís working.Ē
So I do. I go up and unpack my computer and printer and crap and get it all wired up together. When the installers finish, Dad comes upstairs and helps me get everything going. Heís so good at this stuff itís amazing. But heís teaching me, tooówell, he used toóand Iím an eager learner.
The first thing I do when everythingís working right is to check my emails. Thereís nothing from Chase. As upset as he was when I left, Iím not surprised. We hadnít had any reason to email each other before, and he knew it would take Dad and me some time to get settled. I send him a note telling him about getting the house, where weíre living now, how isolated we are. I even tell him about my walk in the woods. I decide to leave the part about what happened there for another email. Also, the part about feeling better than I have in quite a while. There is no tactful way to say that; heíd misinterpret it no matter how careful I am, and it would just hurt him. Heíd been as upset as I was that we were being separated. Maybe even more.
I search around on the internet, just skipping around, browsing. I donít go onto any of the sites I know that Iíve looked at before when I was in the mood. Somehow, Iím still feeling something from my time in the woods, and I donít want to taint it.
After I get tired of working on the computer, I stand. The room is still as dismal as it was before. My mood having improved hasnít affected my surroundings. I look at the bed but turn away. Iíve been taking too many naps lately.
I go downstairs. Dad seems to be occupied moving boxes into the room where heís just installed the lock.
ďIím going exploring,Ē I call to him.
His head pops up, looking over the stack of boxes heís carrying, and he replies with, ďOK, have fun.Ē
My dad asking me to have fun isnít something that would have happened yesterdayóor for a long time before that.
I walk down the dirt road, in the opposite direction from where Iíve already been, going toward I know not what. Does the road dead end? Does it meet another paved road? If it does, does it cross it or end at it? And how far does it go?
Itís a beautiful summer day. There are only a few clouds dotting the bright blue sky. I learned about clouds in science class. What I mostly see are thick cumulus clouds, though a few wispy stratus and cirrus clouds are visible, too. I love looking at cumulus clouds and deciding what images they form, but I canít do that and walk, so I pause and really scan the sky. But I start to feel something like I did in my room, earlier: that I need to be moving, doing something. I drop my eyes and walk again.
It feels to be about 85 degrees. Cooler than yesterday. Warm enough to sweat a little as I walk, but not uncomfortable. A lazy, occasional breeze caresses me every now and then, just often and strong enough to let me know itís there.
Iím passing farm fields, and unlike the ones we passed getting to what is now our house, these are not lying weed-clogged and fallow but are being worked. Itís early summer and crops are developing. I pass a corn field with stalks about five feet high, and another field that has something growing I canít identify. The road itself is dusty and pockmarked with dips and holes, not enough to make it too difficult to drive over, but enough that youíd drive slowly to spare your shocks and undercarriage. Iím walking on the edge where the going is smooth. There arenít any cars. I havenít seen even one.
Off ahead in the distance I can see a house. Itís on the same side of the road as ours is with woods still on the opposite side. I donít know how deep they go, but they stretch much more than a mile or two along the road.
I keep walking. The house is getting nearer, although itís set far back from the road. I can see fresh white paint, much whiter and newer than our house has. I also see a barn behind the house, a pasture behind the barn that holds a couple of horses and several cows, and a fenced yard beside the barn with chickens wandering around pecking at the ground. I donít see any people.
And then I do. Right behind the house thereís a clothesline with washing hung to dry. Iíve never seen that before in my life, except in old black-and-white movies. But here I see it in real life. Sheets, clothes, towels, all sorts of stuff, hanging mostly straight down but occasionally fluttering a little as the breeze makes its acquaintance. I stop and look and then see a girl. Sheís taking clothespins off the line, holding on to some item of laundry to prevent it from dropping on the ground. When she gets each item unpinned, she folds it and puts it in a large basket sitting close to where sheís working.
Sheís too far away for me to get much of an impression of her, but I think sheís young. She has a ponytail, I can see that, and most older women donít have those. Sheís wearing a white tee shirt and a pair of athletic shorts and has flip flops on her feet.
I stop, for some reason not wanting to be seen. Then I realize how silly that is and move on, continuing up the road. I still have a way to go before I get abreast of where sheís working.
I keep walking; she keeps taking down laundry. When Iím about as close to her as the road will take me, she must catch a glimpse of meómaybe because Iím movingóbecause she suddenly looks up.
I donít know if I should stop and speak or not. Iím probably half a football field or more away from her. I stop, though, and we stare at each other. Then I get embarrassed for no reason at all and move on. I keep glancing back as I go, and sheís simply standing there watching, not saying a word. Iím too far away to know what expression she has on her face.
When I canít see her any longer, I start to wonder why I didnít stop. It occurs to meósheís my neighbor. I decide I was silly and juvenile and should have at least have called out a Ďhií to her. I turn around and walk back. When I reach her property, sheís not there. The laundry is all gone, and she is, too.
For no reason I can figure out, I feel a sense of loss and disappointment.
I continue to walk back toward my house, walking slowly in the summer heat. I feel the air, the woods, the farm fields around me. I feel the rough shoulder of the road under my shoes and smell the dust coming up from the road itself as the breeze tickles across it.
I think of the girl I saw, and then, for no reason I understand, thoughts of Chase come back to me. Vivid thoughts, emotional thoughts, memory-evoking thoughts.
There was a rainy week during the summer when I was ten. Iíd never been a boy who liked to spend time inside. I was active and liked playing outside with my friends. Basketball, baseball and football took up a lot of time as I grew older, but when I was younger I still was outside a lot, playing tag and hide and go seek and kick the can and capture the flag and all sorts of other games, some of which we made up ourselves with endless rule changes and arguments. A kid learns the art of debate and winning arguments when establishing whether the big oak tree or the rose trellis is the correct boundary for a touch football field.
A rainy week meant a week confined to the house, and I was antsy by the end of the first day. Going over to Chaseís house wasnít much better. There wasnít any more to do there than at my place. It was better, however: Chase was there.
Chase was my only friend who read. He wasnít uncomfortable staying inside, even all by himself. He could get by with a bed and a book. While I hated a rainy day and being forced to be inside, it didnít bother him at all. But thinking back, that week, that summer, was when we really started to be who we became. Before, weíd been friends whoíd done things together. That week, we did something new. We seriously talked to each other.
I ran to his house, and he let me in. We went up to his room. I could see the depression in his bedspread and the book heíd been reading propped open upside down where heíd left it. The book was Frances Burnettís The Secret Garden.
I sat down on the side of the bed and picked up the book. Chase stood, watching me.
ďIsnít this one of the books on the reading list Mrs. Alberton gave us?Ē I asked him.
ďYeah.Ē He was watching me carefully. I sometimes teased him about all the reading he did, and he was getting ready to respond if I did it again. We knew each other pretty well. I knew my teasing sometimes bothered him, and recently Iíd started backing off from it. But I still did it. I was just careful not to get too harsh with it.
I flipped through a couple of pages, keeping a finger on the page where heíd been. ďBut wasnít this one of the girlsí books?Ē I was working to keep the smile off my face.
Our English teacher had given us a reading list at the beginning of the year. We were supposed to read at least fifteen of the books on it before we finished 5th grade. If we read more, weíd get points toward a higher grade, how many points depending on how many more books we read. One list had books that boys would be especially interested in, another that would be especially interesting for girls, and a third that all of us would like. We each could choose any book from any of the lists.
Chase got on the bed with me, but I was sitting near the foot with my feet on the floor. He sat with his shoeless feet on the bedspread and with his back against the headboard. He said, ďI asked her. She said Iíd like it.Ē
ďAnd do you?Ē
ďYeah. Even though the main character is named Mary.Ē
I smiled, about to tease him. He was looking very serious, and for some reason I couldnít quite understand, that made me swallow my comment. That look, serious and very much Chase, made me ask him what made the book so interesting, so captivating, instead of making the joke Iíd intended.
He answered, and for once I asked more thoughtful questions, and we began talking without joking around. Talking about that book made us start talking about boys and girls, what we thought about them as a different species.
We sat on Chaseís bed all afternoon and just talked. I knew him a lot better when I went home for dinner that evening, even though Iíd known him for years. I realized I hadnít really known him at all. Iíd known what he was like when we were out playing, how he didnít mind taking risks, how full of fun he was, and what a great competitive spirit he had. But I hadnít known how deeply he thought about things, his maturity, and what he felt about things like discrimination and poverty and unfairness. I also realized that I liked this Chase even better than the one Iíd played games with. This one was really smart, had ideas and knowledge about things, and had his own perspective, and that was fascinating. I wanted to know this Chase even better.
I think that day was when what I felt for Chase changed. Before that day, heíd been a good friend but certainly not someone I could call my best friend. The feelings Iíd had for him had been superficial. Theyíd been how one ten-year-old feels for another. But after that rainy day, it was all different. I realized that the fact there was so much more to him made a difference to me.
I began looking at him in a new way.
Chase seemed to see me differently, too. Weíd grown much closer over the course of that afternoon. It was a beginning for us and for me. I had no idea at the time, but, for me, it was the beginning of realizing who I was, what I was to grow into.
Dad is coming out of what I guess is his storage room when I enter the house. I tell him Iíve been up the road and thereís a farmhouse there, our closest neighbors. I donít mention the girl.
He tells me heís got the storage room pretty well organized. ďI have to go through this stuff, Troy. Figure out what to save, what to toss. Itíll probably keep me busy for the next few days, maybe even longer. Lots of sorting and reading and stuff like that. Iíll probably put my computer in there, too. If youíre wanting me for something and donít see me around, thatís probably where Iíll be. In there. Iíll use it like an office, I think.Ē
I look at him. So it isnít a storage room. Iím not sure why, but what heís saying seems, I donít know, just a little off kilter, just a little not quite right. Maybe itís his tone of voice, or the glint in his eyes. But since heís not in the funk heís been in, I donít question him about it. Maybe heís still in the process of coming back to me. Maybe itíll take him a little time to come all the way.
Itís mid-afternoon. I make a sandwich, then go up to my room. Still no messages from Chase. There should be something from him by now, I think. Whatís he doing that he isnít writing me?
I write him another email. I tell him about seeing the girl and about my confusion and annoyance with myself over not stopping to say something to her. I can talk about this with Chase. I can talk about anything with him. I can be me. I realize, thinking about it, that heís the only one in the world that I can say that about with all honesty.
When Iím done, I hit send, then look at my inbox again. Nothing.
I wander downstairs, then walk out into the barn. It looks just like it did before. Thereís nothing of interest there. I look at the woods across the road. I donít feel like exploring them right now. Iím restless and bored and donít know what I want to do. Nothing feels right. Maybe itís because of the way my dadís acting. Heís all Iíve got, and if heís gone a little bit crazy, what happens to me? And now weíre stuck out here in the middle of nowhere and donít know anybody.
I go inside and upstairs, but my room is as dismal as ever, I donít feel like reading the book Iíve started, and when I sit down at the computer, it simply reminds me that Chase isnít writing to me. He was an anchor for me when everything was going bad back home. He was who I turned to for comfort and support. I donít know why he isnít writing. It gives me an empty, scared feeling in my stomach. I consider writing him again, but donít want to. Itís his turn.
Iím lonely; I know that. I turn around and walk back downstairs. I decide to start making dinner. Itís getting on toward that time. Dadís busy, and I need something to do, plus a boyís got to eat. Why not make dinner? Iím not a cook, but Iíve watched my dad, and I used to watch my mom. How hard can it be?
Weíd been shopping before we came out here to move in. I find hamburger meat in the fridge. I take that out and throw it in a large frying pan. When it starts to sizzle, I get out what Dad uses to flip eggs, a plastic doohickey with a wide, flat end; I use it to chop up the meat in the pan so itís crumbly and doesnít look like one big hamburger. I decide it probably needs some salt, so I sprinkle some on, and I see other spices are in the cabinet with the salt. What the hell, I think, and throw on some Italian seasoning mix.
It starts to smell good, but then, when I scrape the meat off the pan when mixing it all up, I find itís sticking. And starting to smell different, like itís way hot. I decide maybe I shouldnít be cooking it on high and turn the burner down to less than half. I scrape the pan again and again until none of the meat is sticking any longer. It still smells good.
I taste some of the meat, and itís good, but I decide to sprinkle on a lot more seasoning mix. I look through the cupboard and see several other seasonings that are green, like the Italian mix and think again, what the hell. I sprinkle on some marjoram, some basil, some thyme, mix them all in, then taste it. Iím surprised by how tasty it is. I canít help but smile.
I take it off the heat. I donít want to overcook it, and now I have to decide what to do next.
I decide putting it on pasta would be good. I make up a pot of macaroni, following the directions. I learn that it makes a lot more than I thought it would. Iíll know not to make so much next time.
When itís done, I decide I only need about a third of what I cooked. I look at it, and the meat, and get an idea. I put the meat back on the stove, then mix the amount of macaroni that seems about right into the meat. While thatís heating, I get some cheese out of the fridge and grate it over the top. A lot of cheese. I like cheese. Then I put a lid on it and turn the heat down as low as I can.
I set the table, then go to get Dad. Iím surprised to find the door to the room is locked. Why lock the door when youíre inside sorting stuff?
ďDad?Ē I say, knocking.
ďYeah,Ē he calls from inside.
ďReally?Ē He sounds surprised. He should be. Iíve never made dinner before in my life.
He comes out and shuts the door behind him. When we get into the kitchen, I see the cheese has melted. I put the pan on the table on a hot pad. I get a Coke for myself; he gets a glass of water. I serve the dish with the egg flipper. I decide to call this stuff macomeat.
Itís really good, and Dad tells me so. He seems very pleased. He tells me to fix a veggie with it next time. He also tells me I should probably drain the fat from the meat, too. Heís right. I blush. Live and learn. He sees the blush and laughs. Itís the first time Iíve heard him laugh in a long, long time. It makes me feel good.