By Jude Laughe
Had I knelt down on the other side of the fence that day, things might have turned out different than they did. I look back now and think about what might have been.
Johnny was ten. It was his birthday and mamma sent me to the store. Just a mile into town, the skies were blue. I remember listening to the birds sing in the trees along the way.
There weren’t many. Just the big one on Miller Road, and then a small forest in the pasture by the canal, but there were birds. Plenty of birds singing along the way, and I was happy. I sang along.
Don’t tell anyone, though I guess it doesn’t matter much now, but I actually skipped along the dirt road. A hop and a skip in time with the music in my head, that’s how I walked to town. Yup, all the way… At least, until I passed the dogwood at Mrs. Mayberry’s house, when anyone from town might be able to see me, I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
If I’d only known then…
Mrs. Mayberry was outside picking dead flowers off her rose bushes. She had scissors in one hand, and her straw hat in the other. I realized, as I waved to her that I’d never seen her wear that hat. She just carried it, in her left hand. She wore a blue paisley dress with a pink and white apron over the top of it. Her shoes were lace up, black leather with a smidgen of a heel. She wore the same shoes all the time, the pretty new ones were for Sunday. When she wore the new off she’d buy another pair and wear them every day.
“Cora, are you going to the store?” She asked as I was nearly past her.
“Yes, I am. It’s my brother’s birthday and mama wants to bake a cake. She realized just this morning, she was out of sugar. That’s where I’m headed. Did you want me to get something for you?” I asked, knowing the answer.
She always asked me to pick something up, if she saw me headed for the store.
“Please do. I have money here. I need a jar of mustard, one of those long sausages and a bag of buns. I’m going to have company tonight.” She almost whispered, as if it were a secret.
“Mr. Danby is coming over?” I asked in a conspiratorial voice. My eyes quickly switching both ways, to be certain nobody had heard me.
“He is, and we’re going to cook out on the spit,” she pointed to the fire pit on the patio beside her home. “I think the sausage would be just fine, because I already have some fine homemade sauerkraut.”
“Oh, that does sound good!” I agreed.
She handed me five dollars and said, “Get yourself one of those candy bars you young ones like so well. And, you’d better hurry up, you know your mamma’s waiting on you.”
I hurried on down the road, making sure to walk fast. But I never skipped a step.
Mr. Danby pulled his car into the diagonal parking in front of the grocery as I walked up the sidewalk. Several local elders were seated on the bench drinking their fill of Sarsaparilla from the machine out front, I said, “Hello.” And most of them raised their bottles, or spoke. Almost everyone in town knew I was Gwen Peterson’s daughter. Everybody liked my mama.
Inside the store, I got what I needed for mama, and all the things on Mrs. Mayberry’s list. It wasn’t very long, but it had a lot of details.
Normally, I would have selected a chocolate candy bar, but it was hot outside and I knew the chocolate would melt before I got to eat it. I selected my second favorite, a peanut nugget bar some called a ‘PayDay’.
With the extra dime, I brought from home, I bought an Orange Crush soda (something I was never allowed to have). My splurge for the day! I helped the cashier bag the groceries and ignored his flirty glances. (He wasn’t my type.)
I double bagged the groceries and tied a knot in the handles so I could sling them over my shoulder. I don’t know how they carried groceries before plastic bags.
Outside the grocery store, Mr. Danby asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, and started walking. He and the other men laughed and continued talking. One of them mentioned that I must enjoy the heat. I didn’t tell them I did. They could figure it out for themselves. Mr. Danby had purchased a pint of liquor and was sharing it around the table. I’d seen the flask, but didn’t say anything. He reminded me of my father, a drunken skunk who had no other real value.
I took a long swig out of my cold orange crush and kicked a can off the edge of the curb. I followed it into the street and kicked it again. I figured if I walked straight into the can, I could kick it most of the way to Mrs. Mayberry’s place, and maybe even the rest of the way home. Of course, then, I’d have to just carry mama’s bag of groceries, because I wouldn’t have the second bag to carry as a counter weight for the sugar.
The sun was high in a bright blue sky by the time I got to the edge of town. Mrs. Mayberry’s place was the first place on the right, and then there was the old Miller place by the tree. I don’t know why I kept thinking about the miller place. I’d walked past there earlier, and nothing strange had struck me then. But, ever since I’d walked past, I hadn’t been able to think of anything else.
At the edge of town, I noticed the road sign hanging off the 2 inch pipe where it should have been standing. The county road sign was still attached but the Miller Road sign was hanging on by a thread. I pulled the pipe back to vertical and the Miller Road sign clanged to the ground, landing upside the pipe, pointed into the grass. I picked it up, looked it over and considered trying to put it back on the pipe. The plastic piece that would have attached it was missing.
I took a moment to look around for the plastic piece, but didn’t find it. I didn’t want the sign to get lost, so I stuck it under my arm and kept walking. Mrs. Mayberry was sitting on the porch crocheting when I got back to her place. She had changed into a pretty pink dress with tiny rose buds and an apron that was decorated with lace. Her hat was gone, but she’d tied her hair in a pretty ribbon and let the curls flow down over her shoulders. Her hair was gray with hints of the red color she’d nearly worn out over the years. Her cheeks were rosy pink and her eyes had a twinkle.
“Cora, that’s just exactly what I wanted. I’m so glad you were walking past. It gave me time to get all pertied up and dressed in this pretty calico dress. I suppose your mama’s waiting on you…” She indicated she was done with me, and I left her change on the tiny table by the porch swing. The screen door slammed when she went inside. I was half way down the sidewalk toward the road before heard the car coming down the road. It sped by like a snake on fire, headed the direction I was about to be walking. It was the right color for Mr. Danby’s old sedan, but I didn’t get a good enough look at it to know who it was. He threw up rocks and dust, leaving billowing poufs behind him. I wasn’t looking forward to walking behind that…
The bar ditch was about eighteen feet wide and the field side was flat, smooth and walk-able. Wind blew the dirt the other direction, so I thought I might be safe to walk along the field at least to Miller Road. Then I could cross the ditch and get back on the side of the road for the last quarter mile.
Clouds gathered on the horizon and I hummed a tune as I walked along, thinking it would be nice for a rain, but I hoped it waited until I got home. I wasn’t in the mood to be soaked, with all the dust I’d managed to collect on the walk.
The mile into town wasn’t far, just a mile. I considered that mile frequently, as I walked the path into the small town we considered our home. A tiny community of just over five hundred people and most of them knew me on sight, many of them well enough to call me by name. I loved my hometown.
Across the field, I could hear a tractor. Mr. Holms would be farming. He was always out planting, harvesting, working his small fields, avoiding the house where his wife Amy would be cooking and caring for little Tess Holms. Tess was a terror. One of my favorite babysitting charges, but she was definitely a little terror, with her learning disability. I thought about the times I’d babysit with Tess over the past week. Each time Amy had called to ask me to come watch Tess so she could have an afternoon away from the house. Tess was a handful. Amy loved her little angel, but she needed time away to stay sane. I loved providing that time for her.
And she always paid me well.
I hurried along the road, one foot after the other, and kept walking. I really wanted to get home in time for mom to bake the cake. Walking the mile usually only took fifteen minutes at the most, but today… It seemed to take much longer.
Of course, that could have been because I stopped to appreciate the clouds billowing above me, or the lizard hiding by the fence post, or even the wild flowers growing in the barrow pit. I loved white daisies, and someone must have planted these, because they didn’t grow wild. I took an extra moment and picked a handful for mama. She loved Daisies too.
I climbed out of the barrow ditch and looked ahead to see how much further before I could cross it and get back up on the road. I wasn’t fond of walking over the furrows in the field and the barrow ditch was almost full of water from the rain a few days earlier. I looked up at the clouds and hoped they were filled to the brim with big drops of water. At the very least, enough to spill out most of the afternoon and turn the prairie green again. Even with all the rain we’d had the past week, this was the driest spring I could remember in my lifetime. Dirt blowing every afternoon hadn’t been my favorite weather pattern.
Another hundred yards to the road… I kept walking.
Overhead, I heard the low rumbling of thunder, but didn’t see any indication of rain. There was a cloud off toward the south that reminded me of alligators in a pond. A long low cloud with jagged edges along the top drifted toward the middle of the sky. I stopped for a moment and stared at it, but then I remembered that mama needed the sugar.
I’d just reached the road where I could cross the barrow pit when I felt the first drop of rain. I looked up but there wasn’t a single rain cloud overhead. I looked at my arm and another raindrop hit me. Then another. The rain was coming from a fairly small cloud that looked as if it was ahead of me.
As I crossed the pit, to the other side of the road, I felt more drops. And more… I looked up at the sky and it was growing visibly darker. As if I’d imagined a time warp, the sky grew dark and nasty. Another cloud covered the sun and more clouds billowed. Thunder rolled and rumbled, then crashed hard against the ground. I shriveled into the side of a short railed fence and wrapped the plastic bag tighter around the bag of sugar, hoping to keep it dry.
By the time I could take cover on the back side of the fence, the rain was coming in sheets, driven by the wind that seemed to come from nowhere. A fallen branch landed near me and I pulled it over me for whatever protection it might provide and dropped to the ground, protecting my head and face by leaning toward the post that held the fence.
I don’t remember actually hearing the car, above the thunder, though I must have heard it. Coming down the road in the hail and wind, the driving rain slicing through my thin summer dress, I must have heard it. I kept trying to remember, did I hear it?
I suppose the sound of the car was something to focus on, to avoid feeling beaten by the hail and rain. I curled my body around the sugar. I didn’t want it to get wet. I even remembered thinking that I should get home. Johnny would be anxious about his birthday cake.
The sound of the rain and hail became louder and I remember the rush of another sound, like a train hurling down the tracks at thunder speeds.
I didn’t feel the impact. And I can’t remember hearing it. But there’d been one… I realized when I opened my eyes.
There, between the fence and the tree, right where I’d been hiding away from the storm, Mr. Danby’s car was upside down, wheels still turning. Thunder ripped across the prairie and the winds died down.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel as cold, and I stood up from the ground. I looked back at the car, sitting there, upside down and that’s when I realized… whatever part of me was looking through the accident, had left a part of me under the car.
There was no sugar in my arms.