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September 25, 1959 Hardin, Montana
The auction scene at the livestock exchange was of controlled chaos, with the buyers and sellers of horses, cattle and other farm and ranch animals casting their bets at a brisk pace. Johnny could barely keep up with the rapid-fire patter of the auctioneer. The youngster balanced on the lower rail of the gate that separated the arena from the entrance, anxiously looking on at the horses being led around for viewing. He'd been assigned by his father to assist Jake and Nolan, while Roddy went off with Robert Simonson to speak with potential buyers. It was his job to lead the horses from the trailer to the showing area, but he still paused to scan the crowds, searching for his father. Roddy was swallowed somewhere in the sea of humanity, and he'd been gone for a few hours now, but no matter how he searched, Johnny couldn't spot him. The exchange building was a beehive of activity, and if it had been an ordinary cattle sale, he might have been excited at being let out of school to help, but now he was just a bundle of nerves as one by one Ed's horses were sold off.
Johnny hated to see them go. Ed's horses were as a part of his existence as each breath he took and he simply could not imagine life without them. The length of rope in his hand jerked and he glanced over his shoulder at the bay four-year-old gelding nervously shifting behind him. The magnificent animal's nostrils flared and his ears flattened in response to the bustle and noise and Johnny reached to pat the horse's neck soothingly, murmuring close to his ear."It's okay...shhh. Whoa."
Nolan came around then and Johnny leaned forward in anticipation for the switch when he handed the bay horse's lead over and took the tan mare the young man had been leading back through the gate. Nobody had made a strong bet on the mare. But Nolan surprised him when he held tight to the lead and shook his head. "Jake wants the painted horse next, Johnnycakes," he spoke loudly to be heard over the din, leaning close to the youngster's side."That gelding is part of a pair. Not a single sale. Hurry!" Johnny nodded and Nolan gave his shoulder a pat as he turned back for the tunnel.
The trailer was close to the gate and he led the horse back, returning the animal inside next to his mate before squeezing into the next compartment. There he paused for a second as his eyes fell on Paint. The American Painted horse was his favorite, the one mount he always chose whenever he had a free moment after finishing his chores and homework for a bit of riding. Paint had also been the horse he'd been riding when Teddy and his friend had gotten him drunk. Paint had galloped back for the ranch rider-less after being spooked, alerting his father to his trouble. For all purposes Paint was Johnny's pet, and the youngster reached both arms to awkwardly hug the large animal's neck. Paint grunted at his touch, picking up his scent and breathed out a sudden whoosh from his nostrils against Johnny's cheek. He didn't want to see the horse get sold, but he also knew that it was out of his hands. Even so, he felt his eyes well with tears at the thought of separation and swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. He took the rope and gently backed the horse from the trailer and down the tunnel toward the arena floor.
Paint jerked once at the roar of the crowds inside and Johnny tightened his grip on the line. His vision blurred as the tears that had threatened spilled from his eyes, and he blinked furiously to hold them at bay as he pushed the gate open. He felt everyone's eyes on him as he led Paint inside, clamping his lower lip so tightly between his teeth it started to throb. He wanted more than anything to take every one of Ed's horses away from here, reverse time and have things back the way they had been. But he was twelve now, not a baby, and he steeled himself for the job at hand. But try as he might he couldn't keep his emotions in check and his knees started to wobble as he passed the rope over.
Jake took the lead from his hands and although the man's face remained businesslike, his dark eyes were sympathetic and the brief squeeze of his fingers around Johnny's told him that he understood the youngster's pain. Nolan offered an encouraging wink before turning back to the matter at hand and Johnny was bolstered by their support, but he simply couldn't bear witness to the proceedings. Paint's ears had flattened close to his head and he did a nervous dance at the end of the rope, unnerved by the noise and crowds, and Johnny couldn't hold back any longer as the tears rolled down his cheeks. Just seeing the animal's distress made his heart ache. Instead of waiting to lead Paint away once the auction was done, he slipped away at a brisk walk and left the viewing area. He continued his departure, finally breaking into a run once safely in the tunnel and didn't stop even as he passed the horse trailers. He ran all the way to the parking lot, not stopping until he reached his father's dusty old pickup. Once there he sank onto the running board and lowered his face into his arms and wept.
"Nolan, have you seen Johnny?" Roddy approached the younger roper. The auction was over, the crowds inside the arena having cleared out, and they were packing up. The last time he'd seen his son was when the youngster had gone to help bring the horses up but now he was nowhere to be seen.
"He disappeared after he brought that painted gelding up," Nolan told him.
"He what?" Roddy looked surprised by his words. It wasn't like Johnny to shirk his duty by leaving before a job was done."I thought he was with you through the whole auction. What happened?"
Nolan shrugged as he slung his wound lariat over one shoulder."He was up until then,but he looked pretty upset. He looked like he was crying."
Roddy uttered a soft word under his breath in disappointment. He should have known. Paint was his son's favorite horse and bringing the animal up to be auctioned had to be unbearable. Johnny had been moody and taciturn all week. It had been a stressful time for both of them due to recent events and with the move looming in a matter of days. "Did you happen to see which way he went?"
Nolan shook his head."He just ran out of here."
Roddy gazed up the ramp exit, then gave his younger friend a pat on the shoulder."Alright," he sighed."I'll go check my truck first. Maybe he went there."
The pickup was precisely where Roddy shortly found his son. The boy still sat on the running board, dejectedly poking at the dust at his feet with a stick. He had stopped crying but his cheeks were dust and tear-streaked and his eyes red-rimmed and puffy. HIs straw cowboy hat lay smashed a couple of feet away in the dirt, as if the youngster had stomped on it in his fury ,and an unopened bottle of soda had been shattered against the ground. The passenger door also sat open and a quick peek into the truck's interior revealed the items inside that Johnny had flung about. A brightly-colored and patterned Indian blanket that Roddy had gotten at the Crow Fair a couple of years back lay in the dust and he bent to pick it up and shake it clean before laying it aside. During the entire process Johnny had remained still, gazing at his feet, and Roddy gave his knee a gentle nudge with his hand as he settled beside him on the running board.
"Missed you back inside," he said."Nolan told me you left. Want to talk about it?"
Johnny shrugged, still gazing at his feet. He tossed the stick aside.
"You know you can always tell me anything that's troubling you, Wapike," Roddy offered.
Roddy waited for a moment, then gently poked his elbow into Johnny's arm."Huh?"
Johnny visibly flinched. "I j-just don't...I m-mean I..." He let out a sigh of defeat as fresh tears came to his eyes."How would you feel havin' all of the horses sold, an' be leavin' forever...just like that? It's not fair!"
"No, I suppose it's not," Roddy replied softly."And I'd be heartbroken."
Johnny swiped a hand over his eyes."I-I'll never see them again."
"They had to be sold, Johnny," Roddy went on."But you'll get to ride a horse again someday. There are ranches in California."
“Not like here."Johnny bitterly kicked at a tuft of dry grass at his heel."Not like Paint."
Johnny buried his face in his hands."I-I don't wanna go."His shoulders heaved as the sobbing resumed.
Roddy put an arm around Johnny's shoulders as he leaned into him, hugging him close."Easy, Son...easy." He patiently allowed his son to cry, waiting until Johnny recovered some composure to speak again."Sometimes the things we must do seem enormously difficult. Like leaving home or saying goodbye to someone or something we cherish." He passed Johnny the clean handkerchief from his pocket."It's very hard."
"I wish it wasn't," Johnny sniffed miserably.
"I know. But it's those difficult times that make us stronger and better able to handle what life brings," Roddy reminded him gently. "It makes us appreciate what we do have."
As he leaned against his father and Roddy spoke softly into his ear Johnny found himself relaxing. He still felt an ache in his middle but it wasn't quite so intense any more. His head ached from crying and his nose was stopped up but the firm warmth of his father's strong arms around him was soothing. He gazed up at his father's face. How he longed to be as patient and wise as his father, though he felt like it would be forever before he became a man. He thought for a moment that once he was grown everything would make perfect sense and wouldn't be so painful, though the more he thought about it the more crazy that idea seemed. Another more immediate thought demanded his attention, something that he had more control over than the sale of Ed's horses.
"Papa,I can bring Brownie with us to California, can't I?"
Johnny had been concerned about his cat being left behind. Roddy had already spoken to his aunt about it and she had kindly approved of a cat joining her household, but he was still worried she'd change her mind. Roddy smiled and gave his shoulders a squeeze.
"Yes, you can bring Brownie along," he said."I already told your aunt about him and she said your cat would be welcome. Don't worry, Wapike."
"I don't think I could give him away," Johnny admitted."I'd rather die than hafta do that."
"I understand son."Roddy glanced around at the scattered debris still littering the ground and let out a breath. The parking lot was empty except for their pickup, everyone having left in the waning early-evening light."Let's say we clean up this mess and head on home. I'm starved."
Johnny's expression turned chastened over the results of his desperate outburst but his father simply gave his knee a pat as he stood and rummaged briefly in a nearby trash barrel until he came up with a fold of cardboard. He carefully gathered up the broken remains of the bottle while Johnny bent to retrieve the items he'd flung about. He picked up the smashed cowboy hat and turned its torn rim in his hands.
"I guess I ruined it," he said regretfully, fearing another chastising like when he'd torn his good jacket. But Roddy merely glanced at the hat and shrugged.
"Well, I don't suppose you'll be needing now anyway."
Johnny tossed the hat into the trash."No."
The mess was cleared away within minutes and Roddy dumped the broken glass into the trash and climbed behind the wheel."Let's go home."
Johnny settled in the passenger seat without protest, although he still wore a contrite expression. For several minutes the drive was silent as he thought about the events of the past few weeks. Everything had turned upside-down starting with that day he slunk home from school with a torn jacket and he was afraid that the move to California was not the promise of opportunity that his father thought it was. He wanted to stay in Montana forever but he also knew that the chance of his father finding work quickly on another ranch was not high. That was why the Little Hawks were leaving for Wyoming and Nolan and his fiancée had pushed up their wedding plans. Everyone was uprooting and leaving. He drew his knees up, resting his feet on the seat and stared glumly into the dusk.
"Penny for your thoughts," Roddy suddenly spoke up. It was not like his normally chatty son to sit so quietly. He reached to stroke Johnny's dark head. "Worried about the move?"
Johnny nodded."W-what if you don't...find work in California, Papa? Will we come back here?"
For a beat Roddy appeared taken aback by his question."Well, you know that your uncle has a job waiting for me, son. But no, we're going to live there indefinitely, if that's what you mean."
"B-but how can we never come e back?" Johnny looked stunned. The idea of leaving the only home he'd ever known seemed so final, especially if they never returned.
A determined expression came to Roddy's face as he gazed through the windshield."I promised myself I'd go wherever the best opportunities were. To provide for my family what I had lacked when I was a boy. I didn't want to repeat the mistakes of my own father, and I didn't want for my own son to live through what I had. For twelve years Ed and Betty were there when nobody else was willing, but now it's time to take another step, Wapike. Life is what you make it. Remember that."
Johnny sat silently pondering his father's words. He knew bits of his story of his growing-up years, including the time spent away from his family at the government-run school. Roddy's home life had not been the stable, loving upbringing his own had been, and it was clear to Johnny that his father had done what he promised himself to do before he was born. Somehow his father had risen above his dismal circumstances and carved a respectable life for himself and that was something to be proud of. He slid closer on the bench seat until he was leaning against his father's side. Roddy's arm automatically went around his shoulders and Johnny sighed. With his father beside him everything would be alright.
"Brownie...here, kitty..." Johnny crept through the tall grass at the edge of the garden, searching in frustration for his pet. The cat had escaped his attempts at being placed in the wire cage, decorating the youngster's arms with fresh scratches before sinking his teeth into the soft flesh of his hand and darting under the yellowing staked bean plants. He hoped that he'd find the animal before they left and that his delay didn't anger his father, who wanted to get on the highway in good time. He heard rustling to his left and looking over he spied the feline between the spent corn stalks at the far end of the garden. He slowly approaching where Brownie crouched, hoping that the animal didn't attempt to flee, glancing back toward where his father's pickup sat waiting, its bed loaded with their belongings. Roddy had traded in the old Ford for the 1954 Dodge, and it sat like a shiny portal to a new life. The stalks rustled and Johnny turned his head in time to see his pet dart off into the thicker undergrowth that extended down to the creek bank, and he let out a noisy sigh of frustration. He glimpsed his father exit the back door and called over. "Papa!"
"Come on, Son," Roddy replied, checking the ropes that held the tarp. "It's time to go."
Instead of responding Johnny continued to part the tall grass and peer in, still searching for his pet. Roddy called again. "Johnny!"
Johnny threw his arms up in defeat."Papa, Brownie won't come!"
Satisfied that the tarp was secure, Roddy squinted in the bright morning sunshine before heading over."We have to get going, Son."
"We can't leave without him!" Johnny almost wailed."He ran away, Papa."
"Which way did he go?"
Johnny pointed."Down there. Dumb cat...."
Johnny had to trot to keep up with his father's long stride ,but in no time he stopped as he spotted the cat sitting on a stump. Johnny's eyes narrowed in annoyance."Come here, you stupid cat!" He stalked toward the cat but Brownie anticipated his actions and leaped from the stump and ran away once more. Johnny let out a groan.
"Stay here," Roddy instructed."I'll go after him."
Johnny stood with his arms folded as his father waded into the tall slough grass. He couldn't see Brownie at all, but the grass stalks quivered close by and he watched as Roddy headed that way. In a few moments the man bent over, briefly disappearing into the tall grass before emerging upright, grasping the cat by the scruff. After a moment's struggle Brownie gave up as Roddy cradled the feline securely in his arms and headed back to where Johnny waited. He passed the cat to his son.
"How'd he get away?" he asked."I thought you had him in the cage already."
"I was tryin', but he bit me," Johnny grumbled. Brownie's claws dug into his arms and shoulder through his shirt, adding insult to injury.
"Well let me help, then." They reached the truck and Roddy deftly transferred the agitated cat to the cage, then secured the door as Brownie began to meow loudly in protest. He inspected the fresh scratch marks on his son's arms, then peered closer at the bite between his thumb and forefinger. "They don't look too bad. Better put in some antiseptic just in case."
"Aw, Papa!" Johnny protested, but his father withdrew the First Aid kit he'd picked up for their trip and removed a brown bottle .Johnny groaned at the sight as Roddy unscrewed the cap.
"It'll just hurt for a minute," he insisted, as he wet a gauze pad and dabbed it on the wounds. Johnny hissed and jerked away but his father's grip on his wrist tightened."Hold still, Johnny."
"It's just a little bite. Ow, ow! OW! That HURTS, Papa!"
Roddy released his arm and shook his head as Johnny pulled away, his face twisted in agony."I think you'll live, Son." He tucked the kit away and they climbed into the truck cab. "Did you want to take a last look before we go?"
Johnny glanced back at the little house, a moody expression coming to his face, and shook his head, staring glumly at the floorboard."No."
Roddy said nothing as he started the engine. The pickup was not new, but it was the best they'd ever owned. Everything worked, including the dashboard radio, but Johnny didn't care right then as the truck pulled down the drive. At the last moment, however, he twisted in his seat to glance back through the rear window as the little weathered house receded. He kept staring as they passed the tall bushes that screened the house from the road and the structure disappeared behind them. When he could no longer see anything he turned back forward to gaze out the passenger window despondently. He hated to leave. Their farewells the previous night with Betty and the Little Hawks had been hard enough.
"So, Wapike, Are you looking forward to seeing California?" Roddy asked, attempting a cheerful demeanor.
Johnny sighed heavily, still gazing out the window at the passing landscape. He truly didn't know what he felt and he shrugged, fingering the ties on his jacket."I guess...I-I don't wanna leave."
Roddy reached to pat his hand in a comforting manner."I know...I know."
"What if I don't make any friends?"
"You will, Johnny," Roddy promised, then a wistful smile turned up the corners of his mouth."Ed would kick my butt and tell me I was being a fool if we didn't take this offer."
Johnny sighed. Ed had always been the one to prod whenever his father expressed doubts, correctly judging Roddy's character better than he did. He could almost hear the rancher's gruff voice telling his father to knock it off and get off his duff. He may have assumed a tough exterior, but the old man had really been a softy, particularly where Johnny was concerned. He inhaled a shaky breath, determined not to cry. His father's hand closed tightly around his for a moment. He resumed his gaze out the window, trying to imagine what he'd see once they reached their destination.
They stopped for lunch somewhere in Idaho, something that thrilled Johnny, who eagerly devoured his hamburger, fries and milkshake with gusto. Eating out was a luxury. His teacher had assigned homework for him to take until he was enrolled in school in California, and he worked on his lessons until three in the afternoon, then leaned back in the seat and dozed as his father pressed on. It was past suppertime when they approached the outskirts of a place called Blackfoot, and Johnny's stomach rumbled as he stretched tiredly and yawned. The breeze through the half-open window ruffled his hair, whipping the long bangs into his eyes, and he had to push them back more than once. He peered through the windshield at the deepening autumn twilight, then glanced at his father and sat higher."What time is it?"
Roddy briefly glanced at his watch."Eleven minutes to seven. That was some nap."
Johnny snorted."We're gonna hafta set up camp, Papa, an' its dark."
"We could, but we're not."
"Huh?" Johnny looked baffled. He'd seen the camping gear go into the truck bed prior to their departure. How else would they spend the night?
"We're stopping at a motel," Roddy explained, slowing as the highway entered the town. He went on to explain about the money Betty had given him from the sale of the ranch and the livestock. Not only had there been enough to buy the pickup and to pay for travel expenses. Johnny had never known his father to have so much money at one time, but the Simonson’s had been generous, grateful for his dedication and hard work.
"A motel? Really?"
Roddy chuckled."Why not? We can travel in style!" He spied a sign and pulled into the lot of a motel with a flashing pink and turquoise neon sign. Johnny sat forward as he scanned the facility, impressed in spite of himself. They'd never stayed in a motel before. The only trips they had ever taken were camping and fishing excursions. There was a restaurant at one end of the long building along with the rental office, with the rest of the two-story structure occupying the remainder of the vast lot. About a half-dozen cars were parked in the lot, and Johnny was all eyes as he followed his father inside the office. The balding man behind the counter stood up from his chair as they entered.
"The toilet is out back," he said, pointing. His expression was hardly welcoming and Johnny wondered fleetingly what was wrong. The man's eyes went from his father to him, and in a flash he understood.
Roddy raised both hands in a placating gesture and gave a half-smile."We'd like a room for the night."
Johnny's gaze swiveled between his father and the motel manager, wondering if they were going to be thrown out like that time at the five-and-dime in town. But the manager slowly resumed his seat, his face wary.
"You got money to pay for a room, Injun?"
Roddy never batted an eye as he withdrew his wallet, his expression even. "I do. Now is there a vacancy?"
At the sight of the bills tucked within the wallet the manager suddenly looked eager. He quickly checked the register, then nodded."Room 214.That'll be eight bucks, Pal." The man handed over a key as he accepted the five and three ones that Roddy handed him, although Johnny noticed with growing fury how the manager surreptitiously recounted and inspected the bills before tucking them into the cash drawer. He opened his mouth to protest but his father's hand clamped quickly down on his shoulder, silencing him. Johnny caught the warning look in his father's eye, but he still seethed inside, his cheeks burning from humiliation and anger. The manager saw his face and gave Johnny a condescending look.
"Just a few rules. Keep the room tidy, don't move the furniture around, and no drinking. Any damage and I call the sheriff. Do I make myself clear?"
Roddy remained neutral."Crystal." He steered Johnny outside, not releasing his son's shoulder until they were back out on the pavement. Johnny angrily jerked free and pounded the truck fender with his fist.
“Papa, how can he say things like that to you?!"
"It's his ignorance, on."Roddy replied flatly as they climbed back into the truck's cab."And getting your feathers ruffled won't do any good." He drove the short distance down to their room, where they got back out. Roddy reached into the truck bed for their duffles as Johnny retrieved Brownie.
"I still hate it, Papa, "he grumbled as the door was unlocked. As he set down the cage Roddy removed his jacket and draped it over a chair.
"So do I, Son, but we can't change everyone's ways even if we do dislike them. Go on and comb that hair.
It's a mess."
Johnny's hand went to his head in surprise, then he bent to rummage through his duffle for his comb."You're not gonna put in any bear grease, are you?"
Roddy managed to chuckle this time."No, I won't put any bear grease in." Johnny always fought against having his hair greased down, preferring to let it remain dry. Roddy reached to sweep the bangs out of his son's eyes. "I think you need a haircut, however. Both of us could use one."
Johnny made a pained sound."Can't I keep it this way a little longer?"
“If we stayed on the reservation, yes," Roddy said."But having your hair like that might not be accepted in Los Angeles. You're getting it cut."
Johnny said no more and sighed in resignation .At one time before he was born his father had worn his hair in a long braid down his back. He had a snapshot of himself as a teenager wearing it this way and Johnny thought he looked really great. Two years later, desperate to find work off-reservation, Roddy incurred his mother's wrath by cutting his hair, and out of habit he wore it trimmed short ever since. Johnny stood before the mirror in the bathroom and gazed at his reflection. Wetting the comb he proceeded to comb the unruly locks quickly in just a few passes. If he had his way he'd leave it messy. Satisfied, he stepped back into the room, and almost right away his father took the comb from his hand.
"Aw, Papa! I combed it!"
"You look like you barely attacked that mop," he said as he finished the job. Johnny had inherited his father's hair texture but he had his mother's curl, and the locks defiantly refused to lay flat and smooth like it would if slicked down. Instead it curled over his ears and collar like wings and a tail.
"Well, that'll do. Why don't you take care of Brownie before we go eat?"
After Johnny took care of his pet they exited their room to head down to the diner for supper. The place was sparsely populated at that hour, the evening supper rush over, and there were few customers scattered throughout the establishment. Just a couple of truckers sat on stools at the counter, while a young couple snuggled in a corner booth. Johnny's gaze lingered on them as they sat, more focused on each other than their half-eaten slices of pie, as his father led the way to the counter. Johnny diverted his gaze to one of the truckers, flashing the man a smile as he climbed onto the adjacent stool. "Hi." The man nodded, resuming his coffee-sipping. Johnny pressed forward. "I'm Johnny. You a trucker?"
The man set down his cup. "Sure am."
"Do you like drivin' a truck?"
"Well, it's a living."
Johnny continued to pepper the man with questions, chattering away until Roddy twisted in his seat and tapped his son's shoulder. The truck driver clearly wanted to enjoy his coffee in silence. "Johnny, don't bother the man. Come sit on my other side."
Johnny looked surprised but complied, moving to the vacant stool on his father's left side, leaning to whisper," I was just talkin', Papa."
“Yes, so I noticed," Roddy said in a low voice."But sometimes it's not polite to badger people."
Now Johnny looked confused. He'd seen his father engage in extended conversations with people, particularly at the livestock exchange or rodeo. What made that different? "Sorry."
Roddy tapped the menu with his finger. "Have you chosen what you want?"
Johnny glanced at the selections then at his father hopefully. "Can I have a cheeseburger an' a vanilla milkshake?"
Roddy grimaced slightly. "You had that for lunch. Let's try again with something more nutritious."
Johnny scanned the menu again."How 'bout a grilled cheese?"
Johnny sighed and looked one more time. "Okaaay," he said in a slightly impatient tone."How 'bout the roast turkey sandwich? There's two things with it. Potatoes and coleslaw."
"That's much better," Roddy consented."Come to think of it ,I'll have the same."
Johnny set down the menu."Can I have a milkshake with it?"
"You can have plain milk, Johnny." Roddy tucked the menu card away and gave the waitress the order.
"What 'bout dessert?" At his father's expression Johnny sighed."All right...." He occupied himself by gazing around the diner, reading the various signs that advertised the diner's offerings. In a couple of moments the waitress returned with their meal, and Johnny had to admit that the food looked and smelled appealing. As soon as he sank his teeth into a piece of the gravy-smothered turkey he was glad that his father insisted on this choice over any cheeseburger. He was hungry and ate everything on the plate, pleasing the waitress who approached with their check.
"What a hearty appetite," she marveled. "Can I get the both of you dessert?"
Johnny would have gladly eaten the table and everything on it and he glanced hopefully at his father. Roddy, flush with cash and the thrill of their move, relented."Sure. I think we can each manage a slice of pie. I'll take the Dutch apple."
Johnny glanced at the choices."Cherry, please."
The waitress smiled as she jotted down their choices. "One Dutch apple, and one cherry, coming up."
The diner soon became quiet as the last trucker departed, leaving the pair as the sole customers. The cook poked his head out from the kitchen as the waitress carried the two plates containing pie to the counter."If they're the last customers, I'm gonna start cleaning up here."
"All right. I can take care of these last few dishes so you can start the dishwasher." The cook gave a jaunty salute and disappeared back into the kitchen. Johnny glanced at his slice of cherry pie as the waitress waited with a can of instant whipped topping. "Would you like some whipped cream on that, Honey?" Johnny nodded, and she expertly squirted a dollop in top, then raised her eyebrows in question at Roddy.
"I'm good," Roddy politely declined the whipped cream, but tapped his coffee cup. "But I would appreciate a refill."
The woman nodded, and while she set about freshening his father's coffee Johnny took a large bite of his pie...and almost died right there from sheer pleasure. It was the first time he ever had cherry and it was heavenly. His delight must have shown because the waitress smiled. "A woman at the bakery named Delores bakes all of our pies and they're terrific. She's won more ribbons at the county fair for her pies than anyone."
Roddy had sampled his apple and nodded in appreciation."Those ribbons are well-earned."
"She'd love to hear it."
Johnny ate his pie slowly in order to savor it as long as possible. However it was getting late. He scraped the last of the thick syrup from his plate and licked his fingers before sliding from the stool. Roddy stretched, glancing at the clock. Outside the night was coal-black, and both he and Johnny felt sleepy and comfortable.
"It's a quarter to nine," Roddy said, patting his son's back."We've got to wash up and your bedtime is in fifteen minutes." He gave the waitress a departing wave. "Good night."
The air outside was growing cold and Johnny was jolted awake as they proceeded the short distance to their room. He yawned widely as his father unlocked their door; Roddy chuckled."Okay. I spotted the shower in the bathroom, so you can do that since it's quicker. Hop to it, Wapkie."
Johnny proceeded to dig through his duffel, coming up with clean shorts, robe and his toothbrush before stepping into the bathroom. As he was tugging off his shirt he paused."What 'bout the dirty clothes, Papa?"
"There's a laundry next to the utility room. We can wash our things in the morning. Now go on. I need to shower, too."
Johnny ducked inside. He'd never seen a shower before, but he figured out the knob on the faucet that sent the water cascading out of the shower head in seconds. After fiddling with the faucets for a moment, adjusting the temperature, he shed the rest of his clothes and stepped beneath the spray. It sort of reminded him of the garden hose at the Simonson's, when he had to be rinsed off after taking a spectacularly ungraceful spill from a bucking horse into a pile of cattle manure, except that this was nice and warm, and he was able to wash quickly. Once done he quickly dried and donned his threadbare bathrobe before stepping out.
Brownie had made himself comfortable on top of the still-made bed, but Johnny pulled back the covers and flipped them over the cat as he climbed beneath the the blanket. Brownie meowed and crawled out; Roddy shook his head. "It's no wonder that cat scratches you with the way that you tease him." He grabbed his own robe and stepped into the bathroom. Johnny giggled and, as a peace gesture, pulled the cat over and kissed him. Brownie started to purr as his eyes shut but his ears stayed alert, twitching at every small sound attentively. The bed was comfortable and Johnny found himself growing drowsy even with the lamp in the corner on. He thought about climbing from beneath the covers to turn it off but he couldn't seem to muster the energy to do so as he drifted off to sleep with Brownie at his side. He was snoring softly when his father exited the bathroom.
Johnny squatted in the dirt, holding the hubcap in his hands and watching as his father replaced the lugs and tightened them. Roddy's sinewy arm muscles flexed as he worked, smudged by dust and sweat, and he wiped his forehead on his rolled-up shirtsleeve. Another lone semi passed by on the two-lane highway, rocking the pickup as it sat on the shoulder and sending another cloud of dust and bits of gravel over the travelers. Roddy held his hand out, finished with installing the spare.
"Hand me the hubcap, Johnny."
Johnny passed the hubcap to him and promptly sneezed, rubbing at his eyes. "Boy, I'm glad we're done. One more semi kickin' up dust over us..."
Roddy snorted, firmly pounding the hubcap back into place with his fist. He stood and gave it a last solid kick with his boot to be sure it was in place."I hear you, Son." He glanced at Johnny's equally sweaty and dust-smeared face and smiled wryly, rubbing his fingertips against his son's cheek."Weren't expecting Utah to be so dusty, huh?"
Johnny brushed ineffectively at his dirty jeans. The dust was red, like the dry earth that extended as far as they could see. They'd left the valley hours ago, and now all that they saw in every direction was the scrubby reddish desert with the ribbon of highway winding through it."Ha, Papa. Now we're really Redskins, huh?"
Roddy managed a laugh and shook his head."C'mon. I still have to load the blown tire. You gather the tools. Don't forget anything."
Another semi rocketed past, kicking up yet more dust. Johnny shielded his face with his arm, yelping as the hard bits of debris rained down on him. He scooped the tool box into his arms, glanced at the barren earth in case he missed anything, and dashed for the passenger door. Brownie clawed through the cage bars, tired of being shut inside the hot truck. Johnny opened the door and pulled the cat into his arms and nuzzled his pet's warm, furry head.
Roddy replaced the corner of the tarp once the flat was in the bed, then returned to the driver's seat. Johnny sneezed a couple of times from the dust and Roddy handed him his handkerchief."Too much dust?"
Johnny blew his nose."Ugh! Yeah..."
Just then a grimy Buick sedan pulled up, stopping next to the pickup. The vehicle was loaded with a white couple with about eight or nine children crammed in the back seat, with two more squeezed between their parents up front, and Johnny looked on in surprise. He'd never seen so many kids in one family. The father leaned across his wife, who was holding a fussing baby in her arms, and called out the open passenger window, "Everything all right?"
"Just a blow-out, but we got it replaced," Roddy replied.
"Do you need directions into town?" The man asked."We could show you the way."
"No, thank you. We're fine."
The man nodded, then raised a hand in departure."Alright. Good luck, then." He pulled away and continued down the highway. Roddy started the pickup and got back on the road, and Johnny watched the car recede in a cloud of dust, still astounded.
"They had a lot of kids, didn't they, Papa?"
"That they did."
"How can they have so many of them?"
"I guess they wanted a large family", was all Roddy said.
For a moment Johnny rubbed behind Brownie's ears, watching as the cat stretched his front legs and flexed his claws in and out.T he cat's eyes closed as he rested in the boy's lap, though the tip of his tail twitched slowly.
"Papa?" he asked quietly, as Roddy pulled the truck back onto the highway."Did you an' Mama want lots of kids?"
"A couple, at least," Roddy replied. "Why?"
Johnny thought of his mother's pregnancies for a long moment and shrugged. She and his father had tried to have another child several times but it never worked out. Johnny remembered the stillborn infant girl in the same coffin as his mother and felt a faint pang inside his middle. "Just wonderin'," he said, softly stroking Brownie's striped head. The cat appeared to be asleep and Johnny hated to disturb him to resume studying, but he'd lost over a half hour helping his father change the tire. Almost as if reading his son's mind Roddy spoke up.
"I think it's time you got back to your homework."
Johnny made a pained sound in his throat."But Brownie's asleep. I don't wanna move him."
"He'll be fine, Johnny," Roddy insisted, and nodded at the boy's schoolwork.
Johnny sighed, reaching for the notebook he'd shoved into the door slot, although he kept the cat on his lap. He just didn't feel like studying. After being on the road for a couple of days he had warmed up to the adventure as the pain of leaving gave way to curiosity. There was too many places to see and after living in one place with few neighbors for so long it was quite a switch, and focusing on schoolwork took the fun out of the trip.
Roddy glimpsed as his son opened the book and made a mental note to check his progress more closely today. For whatever reason Johnny had been more restless and distracted than usual. He'd only managed to complete one assignment in four hours' time, and Roddy knew that his son was capable of accomplishing more. As the youngster filled in the assignment given he seemed to write quickly and without thought to what he was doing. It was clear that he was frustrated and bored. "How's it coming along?"
An irritated snort was his reply."I HATE this! Who cares what a pronoun is!" Johnny whacked the open page with his pencil.
"Your successive English teacher, that's who," Roddy gently admonished."Are you thinking about what you're writing down? There's no changing things once you're finished."
"I am ,I am," Johnny said irritably."This is just stupid."
"Stop complaining and you'll finish faster."
"I wish I was a grown-up," Johnny groused."Then I won't have to do things I don't want to."
It was Roddy's turn to snort."Hmm...I wish I could, too." If only Johnny knew the responsibilities an adult shouldered, he thought to himself. But watching his son fret over his schoolwork Roddy realized that his son did understand responsibility, so far as a twelve-year-old boy could understand it. Roddy flexed his hands on the steering wheel, thinking of a diversion to calm his son and had an idea. He'd been driving for almost six hours now and he had an ache that traveled from his arms all the way to the base of his skull and he desperately needed to stretch. "Put your notebook down, Wapike, and slide over onto my lap," he instructed, and the youngster did so with a perplexed expression. Roddy slowed the truck as Johnny eased onto his lap and he placed the boy's hands on the steering wheel."Keep 'er straight, Johnny, while I stretch."
"I know, Papa."Johnny gazed intently through the windshield at the highway, mindful of the painted line that dissected the roadway. He'd been allowed to drive the old Ford on the ranch during chores since he was ten, but he'd never driven off private property. A slow smile spread on his face as he steered and his father stretched. It didn't matter that his father controlled the accelerator and brake pedals, he was steering on a real road instead of overland pastures. He couldn't wait until he was old enough to drive legally. He started to giggle out of nervousness coupled with excitement.
"Fun, huh? Keep 'er straight, Son. Watch that outside line, see?" He glanced at the speedometer; the needle wavering slightly above twenty-five. He controlled their speed, mindful of his son's inexperience.
"I know, I know."
Roddy attempted to work the kink in his neck before gently nudging his son from his lap and taking the wheel once more."Thanks, Johnny. That helped, but the truth is we need to stop and take a break. I'm getting a killer headache."
Johnny crawled back around Brownie's cage in the middle of the bench seat and flopped back down in his own place."My butt is tired of sittin', too." In an attempt to ease his restlessness he drew both knees up, resting his feet on the seat, and tried to finish the page for his English assignment. Finally he shut the cover and tossed the notebook down on the seat."That's it! I'm gettin' cross-eyed! Papa, I wanna run! I'm sick of sittin!"
"I am, too," Roddy admitted, spotting a sign far ahead beside the roadway."Looks like we're in luck, Wapike. There's the next town."
Johnny sat higher, gazing expectantly out the windshield as the town got closer. This was the first real town they'd seen for over fifty miles of desert and he was glad for a reprieve. It was already late afternoon, and he suspected that his father had also had enough driving for today. The community that they reached was typical for any small town, and Johnny was relieved as the pickup slowed to town speeds and the highway merged into the main street. In short order they found a motel and Roddy pulled into the parking lot with a sigh, slowly climbing from the cab as his cramped body protested. Johnny hopped from the cab and glimpsed the nearby motel yard, where a fenced-in pool and a few pieces of play equipment were located. "Papa, can I go over there?"
"Sure," Roddy decided."But stay there while I check us into a room."
"Okay," Johnny sighed. Sometimes he resented his father's insistence on knowing where he was, as if he was five years old instead of twelve. He pushed through the gate into the yard and headed for the iron monkey bars. He scrambled up to the top of the structure and straddled the bar. Gripping the bar with both hands he swung himself upside-down and hung there. It felt good to be moving around again. Something shifted in his pants pocket and nearly slid out; he reached inside and found the last two soda bottle caps he'd saved.
"So that's what they call those monkey bars for," came Roddy's voice a moment later and Johnny dropped the caps. He swung down and landed on his feet, bending to retrieve them.
Roddy strolled over to the swings and sat down in one, while Johnny sat in the other and started to pump his legs, gaining height. The respite from being confined in the over packed truck showed in his brisk thrust and on his face. He smiled in spite of his exhaustion and started to swing himself, though at a more modest pace, amazed at Johnny's reservoir of energy.
"You're going awfully high," Roddy remarked, as Johnny whizzed past on the downswing, then swiftly surged forward again.
"I can touch the far branch at home!" Johnny called, mentioned the swing that Roddy had hung from a sturdy limb from one of the backyard cottonwoods and he could envision the branch he was talking about."I could reach it, an' Gordy couldn't."
"So that's how he fell that time and broke his arm."
Johnny abruptly slowed, a look of mortification crossing his face. Back in May the two boys had slipped over to the Gage homestead instead of doing chores and Jake discovered his son huddled on the ground holding his injured arm after Johnny raced back to the Simonson's seeking help. Gordy received a cast and Johnny a week's grounding for sneaking away. "Uh...yeah. He was tryin' and fell off." Johnny skidded his heels against the ground, stopping his momentum."Sorry, Papa.I promised Gordy I wouldn't tell."
Roddy simply shook his head and gently cuffed the back of his head."What am I going to do with you? Come on. Let's wash up for supper."
Friday, October 2
Marie Santini sat back on her heels and wiped the rolled cuff of her sleeve across her brow. She glanced at the results of her efforts with a sense of pride; the gorgeous blooms of her Peace Roses were sure to please the members of her garden club. The delicate pink-edged flowers were her favorite, and their sweet fragrance scented the yard. She reached for the pruning shears to cut a small grouping to place in a vase and was gently gathering the cuttings when the telephone inside the house rang. Carrying the flowers inside, she carefully laid the roses on the counter before reaching for the wall-hung kitchen phone.
"Hello, Santini residence," she answered. On the other end of the line she heard the sound of traffic passing on a nearby street, then her brother-in-law's voice. After a brief conversation regarding the drive Marie gave Roddy the directions to their house from the filling station. Following a quick good-bye she glanced at the clock-it was a quarter to three. Removing the bandanna that held her chestnut hair away from her face, she reached for a vase in a cupboard and carefully set the cut roses inside before filling it at the sink. Then she hustled down the hallway toward the bedroom to change from her gardening clothes into something more presentable.
The door to the guest bedroom stood open and she paused as she was un-tucking her shirt to step inside. Just a week ago her husband and a friend had moved the pair of used twin beds into the room, purchased from an estate sale in Long Beach, and she'd chosen quilted blue spreads and soft down pillows for both. As she smoothed a wrinkle on one of the spreads her eyes scanned the room. A matching bureau and nightstand stood waiting to be filled, while the small desk in one corner that had once served as her sewing station awaited her young nephew's needs for a place to study. Although everything was in place and waiting for the new occupants, she ran through her mental inventory for anything she missed. Finally, however, she continued on toward the master bedroom after realizing that anything new would be resolved once her relatives arrived.
The last leg of their journey took the Gages through the southern tip of Nevada, through the glitzy city of Las Vegas, and on into the Mojave Desert. Johnny was beginning to wonder if the rest of California was desert or not, and he suspected that those postcard images of sandy beaches and palm trees were a hoax, which didn't improve his dour mood. He'd managed, with much cajoling and even threats of having privileges revoked, to complete the schoolwork assigned that day. It wasn't that he hated school, but rather that the permanence of their move had finally hit him. For the last two hours Johnny had sulked, his father having silenced the youngster's bitter complaints. Brownie napped within the cage and Roddy silently pressed on down the highway toward the city, glad at least that their trip was soon to be over.
Johnny cast a sidelong glance at his father's profile and could only conjure up negative feelings at that moment. Everything annoyed him-the dry breeze that ruffled his hair; the way Roddy drove with his right hand on the wheel, while his left held the lit cigarette out the window, even the resolute way in which the man kept his eyes fixed on the horizon. Johnny's legs were tired from so much sitting and he was bored stiff. He would have said so out loud but the last glare his father gave him had threatened a worse punishment than not being allowed to stay up past nine o'clock, and he kept his feelings to himself. He couldn't wait to bail out of the truck once they reached their destination.
Roddy likewise glanced at his son for the first time since imposing silence over an hour ago. The exuberant high that had been in place the previous day had been replaced by a sudden surliness. Although not yet a teenager Johnny was beginning to show signs of impending puberty, especially in his increasing independence and moodiness. There were times, like now, where he challenged his father's authority, yet there still occasions where he was still childlike and innocent. Roddy understood that their move was difficult and that he already missed their friends in Montana. He still needed some time to adjust to what their new lives would be. The cigarette was little more than a stub and he flicked it away. Johnny glanced over with an expression of wariness.
"Are you still mad?"
Roddy shrugged, blowing smoke from his nostrils."Not so much now. Are you okay?"
Johnny looked down at his lap and didn't reply right away."I don't wanna live here."
"That's not the question I asked, Johnny." The boy's body stiffened and he had to look away. "What's wrong with living with your aunt and uncle?"
Johnny shrugged indifferently. "Nothin'."
"Come on," Roddy prodded."It is something. You've been sulking for the last fifty miles."
Johnny heaved a great sigh and shifted impatiently in his seat. "I hardly know 'em," he said bitterly."An' I miss Betty, an' the ranch. Why did we hafta leave? It's not fair."
"You already know why, Wapike," Roddy said patiently.
"But we could've stayed in Montana!"
"We could have, but what kind of job, if any, could I find? I couldn't turn down this great opportunity," Roddy explained."Johnny, your aunt is a very nice person, and so is your uncle. You shouldn't have any trouble getting to know them."
"What if they don't like me?"
Now Roddy found himself smiling. "Johnny, they love you, already. Your aunt wouldn't have mailed you all those Christmas and birthday gifts over the years if they didn't." He jabbed Johnny with his elbow."Huh?"
Johnny turned away, rtying to remain brave, but still unsure."Yeah..."
"Good. Now stop being silly."
"I'm not bein' silly, Papa."
The pickup passed a sign-Barstow 10 miles-and Roddy glanced at it. They were still many miles from their destination but they were getting closer. They'd already passed a highway sign indicating that they were one hundred and seventeen miles from Los Angeles. Roddy glanced at his watch; it was nearly eleven in the morning, and he estimated that they'd reach his in-laws' by three in the afternoon."How about we stop for lunch in Barstow?"
"Okay," Johnny sighed as he watched the scrubby desert land pass by and shook his head, muttering, "Is all of California a desert?"
Johnny got his answer as they finally reached San Bernadino, on the other side of the mountains. The landscape changed, becoming less scrubby and more populous as they entered the farthest communities outside of Los Angeles. Instead of barren desert there were businesses developments of homes, plus many more buildings in the midst of construction. Johnny stared as they passed a vast housing tract going up beside the freeway; he'd never seen so many houses being built at once, and he poked his father in the arm and pointed out the passenger window.
"Look at that, Papa," he remarked."Maybe you'll be helpin' build some of those in a few days."
Roddy peered briefly as they passed."Maybe. If it's your uncle's company building them."
Johnny continued to glance as the passing scenery, sitting forward in his seat. His mood and demeanor had changed as if by magic, and he was no longer grumpy and bored. When he finally spotted a small stand of palm trees along the frontage road he almost leapt from his seat. "Look, Papa! There!"
Roddy smiled."I see them. And don't tell me that you never saw any when we passed through Vegas."
Johnny rolled his eyes but grinned."I saw 'em. These were different, Papa."
Another stand went by, and Roddy shrugged. "What makes them different? They look the same to me."
"They're different 'cause we're in California now," Johnny said, as if that made absolute sense, then added," Maybe we'll see some like on those postcards, too. On the beaches. Wouldn't that be amazin', Papa? Right by the ocean!"
"It would," Roddy agreed, then took an exit off the freeway."We need to stop at a filing station and call your aunt for directions."
Roddy pulled into a Texaco station just off the freeway exit and rolled to a stop in a small parking area off to the side from the pumps. Johnny gladly slid from the cab to stretch his legs as his father headed for a nearby pay telephone, map and small notepad in hand. Johnny spotted the soda machine under the awning,and slipped a hand inside his jeans pocket and counted out the small amount of change. A bottle of soda cost a dime and he sauntered over to check the cooler's contents. He chose a couple of flavors, then headed back to where Roddy balanced the telephone receiver awkwardly on one shoulder, while he spoke into it and jotted something down on the notepad. In a moment he took the telephone away from his ear and accepted the bottle of orange Nehi, his favorite flavor, and after a quick goodbye hung up. The coins rattled into the collection box once he set the receiver back into the cradle, and he glanced down at his son waiting at his side and guzzling his own soda. "We've got to drive through L.A. to get to your aunt's, but we should be there in another hour and a half."
Johnny looked surprised."I thought we were here."
"No," Roddy explained."We're in San Bernadino, and your aunt and uncle's place is another seventy-five miles away yet. Now let's get going, Wapike. We're almost home!"
Johnny still thought of Montana as home, but he didn't say a word as they climbed back in the truck and continued on their way. He tried to imagine his aunt and uncle's place as home as they traveled down the highway in increasingly heavier traffic but finally gave up. It was difficult thinking of them that way when he'd met them only once, while he'd considered their friends back in Montana as family. Thinking of Betty he got a lump in his throat; it had been five days since she left for Idaho and Jake and his family departed for Wyoming.
Close to three-thirty in the afternoon Roddy got off at the first entrance that indicated their destination and slowed as he entered a residential street. At a red light he pointed to the glove compartment.
"Johnny, could you find the Los Angeles street guide, please?" Johnny dug through the cluttered compartment until he located the spiral-bound book. "Turn it to the page that I marked. I drew in what streets to take. Could you relay that for me?"
Johnny duly opened the book in his lap and found the inked line that his father had marked on a street leading from the exit and told him the next intersection. He'd acted as navigator several times before, on camping and fishing excursions. "Turn left on the next street, Papa." He gazed in awe at the houses they passed. Neat, tidy structures surrounded by immaculate lawns, trimmed hedges, flowers...and still more palm trees. Many of the houses had shiny late-model cars parked in their driveways, while knots of children played on the sidewalks. At last his father turned again down an adjacent street that bore newer, more modern houses before slowing. He peered at the house number on the mailbox, then nodded.
"2117,"he said."This is it."
Johnny glanced at the sprawling single-story house and let out a small gasp. He'd seen a few nice homes in Hardin where the more affluent people lived but nothing quite like this. Like the others they'd passed everything was immaculate and in good repair. He exited the truck and followed his father up the smooth flagstone walk to the front door. Before they even reached the stoop the solid oak door opened and an attractive woman emerged.
"You're here!" she cried, joyously grasping Roddy's shoulders and stretching to kiss his cheek."It's so good to see you again! Welcome home!"
"Thank you, Marie. It's good to be here."
"And Johnny," she went on."Look at you! You're so big!"
Johnny gazed on in astonishment as she greeted his father, then could only nod as she spoke. His aunt was petite, with chestnut hair like his mother's, carefully pulled back into a flawless French twist. She greeted him similarly, her kiss leaving a pink stain of lipstick on his cheek, that she reached to gently wipe away with a handkerchief. His father's people were far more reserved in greeting others, even family, and Johnny was too taken aback to say anything as his cheeks flushed red from embarrassment. He stoically endured the tender treatment, then surreptitiously wiped furiously with the back of his hand when she wasn't looking; Roddy shot him a warning glance to behave himself.
"How was your trip?"she asked, leading the way inside."You must be exhausted! Dan will be home from work at six. Are you hungry? I could fix a snack..."
Johnny was starved, but he remembered his pet was still inside his cage."I left Brownie in the truck."
"That's right, your cat," Marie said."Well, why don't we get her-"
"Him," Johnny corrected."He's a boy."
"Let's get him settled in the utility room until he's used to his surroundings. Just come around through the carport to the other door."
"Okay." Johnny retraced his steps back through the front door and out to the pickup. He lifted Brownie's cage and lugged it to the door his aunt stood holding open. The utility room was filled by the water heater and an electric clothes washer, but there was still plenty of space left for him to make a comfortable bed on the tiled floor with a blanket, as well as set the food and water dishes in an accessible location. Brownie emerged from confinement cautiously at first, then crept out and began sniffing suspiciously around the room. Johnny picked him up to meet his aunt and she took him readily into her own arms, a move which surprised Johnny as Brownie was wary of strangers. But his pet not only relaxed but even began to purr."He likes you, Aunt Marie."
"And I like him," Marie said, gently stroking Brownie's head. "He's a beautiful cat, Johnny." Almost in response Brownie stuck his nose in her face, yellow eyes searching, and purred even louder. Marie smiled and scratched under the feline's chin for a lingering moment, then set him down."Once you get him settled, Sweetheart, I'll have a snack waiting."
Johnny made sure his pet was comfortable, then carefully closed the door that led into the kitchen. He could hear Brownie's dry kibble rattle in the dish and he knew that his cat was eating, which was a good sign. A couple of times en route to their destination he refused to eat. Satisfied, he turned to take a seat at the kitchen table, where his aunt was pouring steaming cups of coffee for Roddy and herself. A platter of peanut butter cookies sat in the center of the table and a glass of cold milk waited for him, and Johnny gulped about half of the glass before reaching for a couple of cookies. As he ate his aunt and father chatted about their trip and the things to be done in the coming days. It was a Friday, but Johnny would resume school the following Monday, and Roddy would be starting his new job. Marie gazed at her nephew and reached to brush his bangs from his eyes.
"I think someone needs a haircut," she remarked."I could have Dan take the both of you to the neighborhood barber shop after supper."
Johnny looked disheartened but Roddy nodded."We could both use a trim."
Johnny reached a hand to his head. "Can't we leave it? Please?"
"We've discussed this already, Son," Roddy said, and Johnny sighed. "Besides, you'll look fine with a haircut."
"And then I'll be able to see your beautiful brown eyes," added Marie, and this time Johnny rolled them in annoyance.
"Oh brother!" he moaned, and resumed eating his snack. Once finished Johnny followed his father and aunt outside and helped unload the half dozen boxes from the truck and carry them inside. Marie led the way down the corridor to the guest bedroom, where Johnny was surprised to find a pair of twin beds. He had thought he'd end up sharing a single bed with his father like they had at the motels. The floor bore wall-to-wall beige carpet and he kicked off his scuffed old shoes so as not to dirty it and bounded experimentally onto the bed nearer the window. Roddy glanced up from where he was unpacking his duffle.
"You know better than that, Johnny," he gently reprimanded."And you still have your things to unpack. Come on, now."
Johnny scooted off of the bed guiltily and began rummaging through his own duffle, pulling out a crumpled wad of clothes that Roddy distinctly remembered his son wearing the previous day. Roddy reached to take the rumpled items. "What is this? I thought you put the dirty items in the laundry sack to be washed. Do I have to tie a string on your finger to remind you to sort the dirty things from the clean?"
Johnny shrugged helplessly. "I forgot."
"Here," Marie said, taking the soiled clothing."There's a hamper in the main bath behind the door. But it wouldn't hurt to put one in your closet if you need one."
"If it's not too much trouble," Roddy put forth and she waved her hand dismissively.
"Not at all. I think I have an extra laundry basket you can use until I get another hamper. I'll be right back."
Marie stepped from the room, her nephew's laundry in her arms. Johnny had resumed digging hurriedly through his duffle, dropping socks, boxers, T-shirts and well-worn jeans haphazardly onto the bed until he found what he was looking for. Roddy shook his head and smiled as he watched his son withdraw his beloved stuffed rabbit and gaze at the stitched face with the button eyes, then smooth the floppy fabric ears. Johnny paused to glance at the two beds, then carefully laid the worn toy on the pillow of the bed closest to the window, clearly claiming that bed as his own. The youngster stretched out upon the spread and folded his arms under his head, gazing toward the ceiling thoughtfully. Roddy moved to sort and neatly fold his son's meager wardrobe. All of his clothes were thin and threadbare, the knees and seat of the jeans patched many times so that the patches were in layers. He glanced at the pair of weathered roping boots that he unearthed next, then at the discarded pair of worn shoes left on the floor. It was clear that Johnny would need new clothes for school. In a moment Marie returned with an empty basket, which she placed on the closet floor.
"I was just looking at those pants I left in the laundry," she remarked."And they're patched within an inch of their lives. I should take Johnny clothes shopping tomorrow before he resumes school on Monday."
Roddy reached into his pocket for his wallet."How much do you need?" He began rifling through the bills but Marie placed a hand over his, stopping him.
"You keep that. You're going to need it until you can get a place of your own," she said."I know that Betty gave you that money. Dan will pay for everything that Johnny needs."
Johnny had sat up in surprise and gazed between his aunt and father. On the one hand he knew that Marie was being generous and sincerely wanted to help out of family loyalty and devotion. But he also knew how proud his father was and how he was loathe to owing anyone.
Roddy looked slightly uncomfortable but nodded politely, recognizing the gesture. "When the time comes I'll pay back every cent."
Marie smiled and gave the hand beneath hers a squeeze before releasing it."I know. Now, let's get you both settled before supper is done."
"Okay, you heard your aunt, Wapike. Let's get this sorted and put away," Roddy announced, gesturing for Johnny to get up."You hand me things and I'll hang them up."
Johnny sprang from the bed and started poring over the assortment of clothing and scratched his head."Which first?"
"How about the shirts?"
Johnny handed his father one flannel or cotton shirt after another."But they're wrinkled."
"Since when did you fuss about wrinkles?" Roddy teasingly fluttered the shirt in his son's face."They can be ironed. Why don't you take out those empty boxes?"
"Take 'em where?" Johnny didn't look up from where he sat buttoning a flannel shirt inside-out. Roddy took the shirt.
"Out to the trash, "Roddy replied. Johnny picked up another shirt only to have his father take that as well."Please?"
"I wanna explore around here," Johnny insisted impatiently."This place is incredible."
"Explore second, boxes first," Roddy stated quietly but firmly.
"Okay," Johnny sighed, stood up and took several of the empty boxes and half-dragged, half-carried them down the hallway and out the back door to the carport. He was flattening them by the trash can when a pair of boys his age passed by on the sidewalk. Both wore football uniforms smudged by dirt and grass stains, their spikes knotted by their laces on their shoulders. They paused to watch Johnny busily stomping on a box with mild amusement, and the blond of the pair called out.
"Hey! Since when did they hire greasy wet-back kids to haul trash?"
The blonde's friend laughed while Johnny stood there looking perplexed. He stared as the two continued on, too confused to respond as the boys turned toward the yard of a house a few doors down across the street. What was a wet-back? The question lingered in his mind as he headed back inside. He'd been called many different names both on the reservation and off but he'd never heard that term before. His aunt was busy with something on the stove so he headed back to the guest bedroom. His father had finished putting everything away and Johnny flopped down on his bed and took up the stuffed rabbit. He watched as Roddy inspected his son's shoes before reaching for the small can of polish and a rag.
"Those boxes flattened, Wapike?"
"Uh huh."Johnny fiddled with the toy.
Roddy scooped up a bit of polish onto the rag and started rubbing the toe of one of Johnny's scuffed shoes. After a moment he handed the shoe to his son and reached for its mate."I thought you'd be exploring the backyard."
Johnny shrugged and worked on the shoe."I-I'll go later..."
Roddy glanced at him for a lingering moment."Just a few minutes ago you were all fired up about exploring the neighborhood, the yard, the house. What changed your mind?"
"Nothing," Johnny muttered evasively, concentrating on one particular spot on the shoe. Roddy could easily read his demeanor, however, and settled beside him on the bed.
"Come on," he gently prodded, patting his son's thigh." You look like a baby who had his candy taken away."
Johnny's mouth quirked at that, and pushed his father's hand away, but the amusement was gone as quickly as it came."Papa? Can ask you something?" The look Roddy gave him was obvious; he could discuss anything with his father and he knew it.
"You can ask me anything, Wapike. What is it?"
"Papa? What's a wet-back?"
HIs father's face remained even,t hough his eyes looked surprised."Where'd you hear that?"
Johnny shrugged, averting his eyes back to the shoe in his hands."Some boys...w-when I was flattenin' those boxes two boys walked by. One of 'em yelled that at me. What does it mean?"
"Well," Roddy thoughtfully rubbed his chin."It's a derogatory name for Mexicans, Son."
"Like bein' called Injun is for us?"
"Yes. See, a lot of Mexicans crossed the border into the United States by swimming the Rio Grande River. That's where calling them wet-backs came from."
"They also called me greasy," Johnny said with a petulant tone."I'm not greasy."
"No, you're not. But lots of people grease their hair, and those that do it with longer hair and wear leather are called greasers," Roddy explained as he eyed his son's shaggy mop."But I don't know where they got that with your wild head." He gave his son's hair a playful tousle."I suppose those boys were trying any insult to get a rise out of you."
"I didn't yell back or anythin', though. Honest. I-I just didn't understand what they said."
"Well, that's what that means. And I'm proud that you restrained yourself, Johnny." Roddy got up, setting the unfinished shoe down."We'll finish these later. I can smell your aunt's cooking, and I think it's probably done. Why don't you go wash up?"
Johnny set the other shoe aside and scooted off the bed."You're starved? I could eat the table!"
"And the chairs?" Roddy teased.
Johnny grinned. "An' the dishes, the tablecloth, the glasses, the silverware...."
The back door opened as they stepped into the kitchen and they were promptly greeted by Dan, Marie's husband, returning home from work. When he glimpsed his brother-in-law and nephew he promptly set down his briefcase and his face lit up.
"Well! You made it!" he cried, pumping both their hands vigorously, his smile wide."Welcome, welcome!"
"We did, thank you, Dan," Roddy replied gratefully."To tell you the truth I'm glad the drive is over. Over one thousand, three hundred miles in just three days..." He blew out his breath as he shook his head."I've never driven that far in my life."
"It's a long way," Dan agreed, as he shed his suit coat and draped it over his arm. He leaned to kiss his wife's cheek as Marie set a covered basket on the table."Hello, Dear."
"Supper's ready," she announced. Johnny gazed eagerly at the spread before moving to the sink to wash his hands.
"So it is," Dan replied, and winked at Johnny."It looks and smells fantastic, but I'd better change into something more casual. I'll be right back."
Johnny watched him go with interest. Dan couldn't be more opposite of his father. Stout and balding, with dark-rimmed glasses, he spoke in a booming voice and he seemed more boisterous than he last remembered. The circumstances of their last meeting had been far different, though he did remember how considerate and respectful his uncle had been at his mother's funeral compared to his grandparents. In a moment Dan reappeared dressed in more casual slacks, shirt and cardigan and he settled into a place at the table. Marie had opened the utility room door to get something and a brown streak darted past like a shot.
"Oh dear! There he goes!"
Johnny had seen Brownie flash past and jumped up from his seat to give chase. The cat disappeared into the next room, though the youngster shortly returned carrying the desperate feline snugly in his arms. Brownie struggled a bit before giving up. Johnny glanced anxiously between the others and the open door."Should I put him back?"
Brownie didn't seem extremely agitated, though, and after a glance at her brother-in-law Marie sighed."Well, I think he could stay out now. He needs to get accustomed sometime."
"I think he'll be okay, Son," Roddy added, and Johnny set the cat down. They all watched as the animal cautiously padded around the kitchen, finally reaching Dan's slippered feet and sniffing cautiously. Dan reached down and scratched around the cat's chin. Brownie responded by purring.
"He likes you, just like he liked Aunt Marie," Johnny said.
"He's a nice cat," Dan noted, watching Brownie twine himself around his ankles, seeking more attention.
"You like cats?"
"I love cats, Johnny," Dan replied."In fact we had several when I was growing up." He nodded at the food on the table and lowered his gaze. Taking the cue the others did likewise as Dan spoke the mealtime prayer. The prayer was different from the one that Ed had spoken. "For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly grateful. And may we be mindful of the needs of others, for Jesus sake. And thank you,Lord, for delivering Roderick and John safely to us. Amen."
"Amen," the others chorused, before passing the food around the table.
Johnny looked on with interest as his aunt placed something from a bowl onto his plate. He'd never seen anything like it, though it smelled very good."What is that?"
"You mean you've never eaten spaghetti before?" Dan asked incredulously, and Johnny shook his head. A smile crossed the man's face."Well, then you're in for a real treat. Marie makes great spaghetti, even if she isn't an Italian." He gave a wink to his wife who playfully gave his hand a swat.
"Dan, now don't you go filling Johnny's head with nonsense about my cooking," she teased."It was your mother who taught me this recipe."
"Well, it looks and smells terrific," Roddy assured her.
Johnny attempted to get the long pasta onto his fork but it kept slipping off. The adults looked on as he struggled before Dan took up both his fork and a spoon.
"Watch me, Johnny." He proceeded to twirl the long noodles onto his fork, using the spoon to roll it onto the tines before popping it into his mouth."Now you try."
Johnny did his best to copy the move, though the pasta was a little more ragged as it dangled half-way off the tines of his fork, but he managed to get the bite into his mouth. A trickle of tomato sauce dribbled down his chin and he smiled sheepishly at the applause he got. Roddy handed him a napkin, an amused smile on his face. Johnny's cheeks pinked at the attention but he couldn't help but grin himself."This is great!" He promptly worked on another bite.
"I thought you'd enjoy it," Dan said."My ma made the best Italian sausage to go along with it, though this is close. What do you prefer? Sausage or meatballs?" He offered Johnny the choice between both, and the youngster simply shrugged.
"I'll try both."
Dan served up both onto Johnny's plate. "Atta boy!"
Far from a picky eater Johnny proceeded to devour everything on his plate, then asked for seconds. When he finally pushed his plate away about a half hour later and excused himself Marie shook her head at the sight of her slender nephew as he bent to scoop Brownie into his arms and headed into the next room.
"Where does he put it?" she whispered aside.
"He runs it off in no time, believe me," Roddy responded, likewise finished."That was incredible, Marie. Really."
"Thank you," she replied graciously, patting his hand."There's ice cream for dessert." At Roddy's shake of the head she added, "You could save it for after the trip to the barber shop if you like."
Roddy stood up from the table and glanced at the clock. It was a quarter to seven. "That sounds like a better idea. Is there a barber shop open this late?"
"George's, over at the shopping center, is open until nine," Dan told him."We can go anytime, whenever you're ready."
"How about in five minutes?"
Roddy nodded and headed into the next room in search of Johnny. He found his son seated on the living room sofa playing with Brownie. The youngster glanced up when he entered, and pointed to a cabinet in the corner.
"Look at that, Papa,"he indicated."They got a television inside a cupboard!"
One of the doors was partially open and Roddy could see the TV screen within."So they do, Wapike."
"This whole room is amazin', Papa. Uh...are Aunt Marie an' Uncle Dan rich?"
Roddy glanced about the living room. With it's modern decor and expensive furnishings he could see where his son got his ideas. Roddy shrugged as he sat down on the sofa. "They make a good living with Dan's successful construction business, if that's what you mean."
"Nobody has a house like this in Montana," Johnny marveled."Even those rich people in Hardin."
Roddy chuckled at that."I'm sure there are a few people with the means back in Montana, Johnny. You just haven't seen their homes. By the way, we're heading to the barber shop in a few minutes."
Johnny made a annoyed sound in his throat at the prospect of having his hair cut, but he didn't complain as he nudged Brownie off his lap and got up. "Might as well get it over with." He followed his father out the back door and into the carport where the most amazing car he'd ever seen sat. The vehicle was long, boasting high tail fins, but what really caught Johnny's eyes was more obvious. "There's no roof!"
"It's a convertible, Son," Roddy explained."The roof folds down back here." He indicated the cover behind the back seat as Johnny circled the car, a 1957 Bel Air. He'd seen plenty of sedans and pickups back in Montana and even a couple of Jeeps but he'd never seen any cars with fold-down roofs.
"How does it go up?"
"I just push this button," Dan had climbed behind the wheel and Johnny pushed past Roddy to scoot into the passenger seat, eyes rapt as his uncle depressed a button and a small motor raised the roof into place. It was all so slick and precise that Johnny would have never tired of seeing the mechanism in action. He wanted for his uncle to push the button again and see the roof fold back under the rear but he knew better than to ask. They had to get going before the barber shop closed.
The shopping center where the barber shop was a short ride from the Santini home, and during the trip Johnny's attention was focused on the fine interior of his uncle's car. He ran the fingers of both hands lightly over the plush upholstery, even more luxurious than what was inside his father's pickup, then sat forward to rest his elbows on the seat back in front of him to gaze up front and watch as his uncle drove. The car moved like a dream over smooth pavement and for a moment he wondered if it would take off like a jet. He glanced over his shoulder at the rear of the vehicle. Those tail fins made that idea seem possible.
Dan shortly pulled into the shopping center lot and found a parking spot. Again, Johnny took in his surroundings with interest. He'd gone shopping in Hardin's Central Avenue with his parents many times and had even gone to Billings on a couple of occasions, but he hadn't seen a strip of shops in a single building with a parking lot before. The barber shop itself was located between a butcher shop and a fabric store, and Johnny followed his father and uncle inside. Roddy directed him to the row of chairs along one wall and they sat down. The barber, a muscular man with a close-cropped military-style haircut and a cigarette clamped between his lips, was busily sweeping the floor when they entered. He glanced up at the arrivals and nodded in recognition when he saw Dan.
"Evening, Danny," he said, setting the broom aside and stubbing the cigarette out in a nearby ashtray.
"Hello, Stan," Dan greeted."How are things lately?"
"Everything's fine," Stan replied, and for a moment the pair engaged in small talk before Dan turned to Roddy.
"I'd like you to meet my brother-in-law," he said by way of introduction."Roderick Gage. And this is my nephew, Johnny."
Stan shook Roddy's hand and nodded toward Johnny."Pleasure. You're up first, Sonny, if you're ready."
Johnny glanced at his father and slowly got up from his seat. Roddy winked at him and Johnny crossed over to the barber's chair. The youngster looked as if a rabid dog was about to be set upon him as he sat down. He'd never had a professional haircut in his life. The job was done since he was a toddler by his father. Owing to limited experience Roddy had always cut the same style, trimming beneath the rim of a bowl set on top of Johnny's head, but now the choice for a different style existed. Stan tied an apron around Johnny's neck, then ran a hand through the shaggy locks and glanced at the boy's reflection in the broad mirror.
"How do you want it?"
For once Johnny was at a loss for words and shrugged. He hadn't given it any thought and had no clue. Roddy took the opportunity to speak up."How about a crew cut?" he suggested, knowing his son's hatred for any hair product. Stan looked at him expectantly and Johnny nodded mutely. Whatever...
"Alright," Stan replied and reached for the electric clippers. He chose a clipper guard and snapped it in place, then switched it on. The clippers buzzed to life close beside Johnny's ear and he flinched once then sat rigidly still as the man started to cut. The clippers were much faster than scissors and the sensation of the humming appliance passing fleetingly over his scalp felt funny. Suddenly the back of Johnny's head felt markedly cooler as the thick tendrils of hair that had curled over his collar disappeared. The chair had been turned away from the mirror so he couldn't see what Stan was doing but he could see his father watching the entire proceedings from his seat against the wall. Roddy's right eyebrow arched once, but he gave Johnny an encouraging smile. In no time the job was done and the clippers were silenced. Stan whipped away the apron and briefly used a small brush to swipe away stray hairs before handing Johnny a small mirror."Well? What do you think, Sonny?"
Johnny stared into the hand-held mirror, astonished. Gone were the bangs that had hid his eyebrows, the long lengths that had reached his collar and that he had refused to slick back with bear grease. His ears seemed to stick out even more now that nothing hid them and his neck felt exposed. He must have had a strange expression on his face for Roddy hastily spoke up.
"It looks fine, Stan,"he told the man."I used to cut Johnny's hair back in Montana. He just never had it so short before."
"It's a lot better than that shaggy mop he had," Stan agreed.
Johnny felt his throat constrict in a flare of anger. He thought he looked stupid but he also realized that showing his anger now would only earn him a chastising from his father. What could be done now? Stan certainly couldn't put his hair back the way it was. He handed the mirror back and swallowed thickly."I-It's okay."
"You look handsome, Son," Roddy told him as he passed to sit next to his uncle. Johnny shot him a mortified glare and sank into the chair. He felt like one of the shorn sheep from the herd that Mike Simonson had been experimenting with for one of his college courses the previous summer. Johnny and Gordy had helped the men by herding the wooly sheep into the shearing pen and had watched as the sheep were shorn of their coats .It had been comical to see the thick fleecy sheep suddenly become naked, scrawny animals, but now Johnny could sort of relate to their distress as he caught sight of his own shorn head. He decided he'd have a few pointed words later with his father, regardless of the consequences.
Roddy settled quite comfortably into the barber's chair, chatting easily with Stan as the man tied a fresh apron around his neck. The easygoing banter made Johnny even more angry and he pursed his lips as his father chuckled at something his uncle said. In order to force himself to calm down he turned his gaze to the wide window that looked out into the parking lot. There were a couple dozen cars out there and he distracted himself by trying to guess each model.
"...the last time I had a crew cut was in the Army..."Roddy was saying and Johnny's attention was diverted back to his father."...nine years ago..."
"Yes...I was drafted the week of Johnny's third birthday and sent to combat near Inchon..."
Johnny sat up straighter as he listened to his father describe a bit of his war experience. He did remember his father's departure, not understanding why Roddy had to go away. For a year he and his mother moved in with the Simonson's rather than remain in their little house. Emma was too frightened to stay alone with a toddler and the older couple's support eased her fears and worries over Roddy's absence.
"Were you wounded?" Stan asked, cleaning up around Roddy's ears with the clippers.
"Shot in the left leg," Roddy explained."Got a bullet in the calf. Splintered the tibia in four places. I had to use a cane for about a year afterwards."
Johnny's gaze traveled briefly to his father's left leg. Though concealed by his trousers he could still visualize the scar left by the bullet in his father's calf. Even as he used a cane for the time described Johnny remembered his father had insisted on riding a horse, even as Betty and his mother gave him heat each time he did. Miraculously, within a year and a half he wasn't even limping.
Suddenly the barber started trimming the top of Roddy's head and Johnny stared in astonishment. HIs previous fury evaporated as a giggle erupted from his throat before he could stop it and he tried to conceal his mirth with his hand. Stan was cutting his father's hair as short as he'd cut his, and the sight was too much for Johnny to take. He'd seen his father's portrait in uniform, but he'd never seen his father's hair cut so short in person. Even his mother had never done it like that. The neatly-parted hairstyle that Johnny had always seen his father wear was now trimmed down to a crew cut, leaving just a stubble. Johnny's hand went to his own head in astonishment as Stan removed the apron from around Roddy's neck and he couldn't help himself anymore as a peal of laughter escaped. Roddy added to his merriment by exaggerating several poses.
"What?" Roddy demanded jokingly."Too gauche?"
Johnny laughed until his sides ached and he wrapped both arms around his midsection. He couldn't stop staring even as his father paid Stan for his services and they headed back outside, and when they reached the Bel Air and got in he saw his reflection in the rear-view mirror and giggled some more. Roddy merely shook his head at his antics and gave a little salute.
"You're crazy, Papa," Johnny snorted, then frowned in confusion. "What does gauche mean?"
"It means unsophisticated," Roddy told him as Dan pulled into traffic.
In minutes they were back home, where they met Marie in the carport. She caught sight of Johnny and smiled her approval.
"Now there's a handsome boy!" she praised, admiring Johnny's fresh crew-cut. She kissed his cheek, making the heat come to his face in embarrassment.
"My head looks like a brush," he scoffed, heading into the house. He called back as he went," Papa's does, too!"
The others chuckled but Marie reached to brush something from Roddy's shoulder as they headed for the door. "Well, I think you both look handsome. Come on. We can celebrate with ice cream sundaes."
----------------- The End of Part Four -----------------
Posted to Site 09/11/13
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