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Charles P. Crawford >> Three-Legged Race (page 8)


'Give Aunt Sarah a kiss,' my mother said. Aunt Sarah pulled me closer. I couldn't seem to move or breathe. She tried to kiss me, but I jerked away from her and ran out of the room and down the steps and out the front door. I waited outside by the car and I was shaking all over. I don't know why she turned me off like that, but I just couldn't stand to feel her hands all over me.

Well, my mother came down and I was really scared. I knew I had done something wrong and I was sure that she was going to whale the daylights out of me. I could feel it already. But she didn't. When she and Grandmother came downstairs, she just said, 'We're going home now, Brent.' She never scolded me or anything. She must have known how I felt.

You're lucky, Kirk said. My mother would have thrown me to the pigs and left me behind.

I remember something like that, kind of, Amy said, only it was the opposite. It was a place I didn't want to leave and my mother almost had to drag me away.

Where was it? Brent asked.

Old friends of my folks that owned a greenhouse.

What is this, an afternoon down Memory Lane? Kirk said.

Sure, why not? Brent said. He was really interested in what Amy had to say. There's nothing else to do. No more party to plan for or anything. Anyway, I think it's interesting to hear about you guys.

So do I, Amy said. Maybe we can figure out what makes you tick, Kirk.

That's tough. I don't even know myself.

So what happened at the greenhouse, Amy? Brent asked.

Oh, that. Well, you know how I feel about plants. I was just a little girl and we were visiting friends. They had a greenhouse, as I said. It seemed huge to me at the time, although if I saw it now, it would probably seem just regular size. The old folks were all in talking and I was standing at the door of the greenhouse looking at all the beautiful flowers. I mean, there were flowers everywhere, hanging from the ceiling and in rows of tables and planters and boxes. It smelled wonderful. The lady said, 'Amy, dear, you may go in. I'm sure you're bored by all the grown-up talk.' So I started in. My mother yelled after me, 'Now don't touch anything, Amy.' She always did that when we were visiting people.

So off I went skipping into the jungle. And it was great. I just wandered around, sniffing and, heaven forbid, touching everything. Some of the leaves were shiny and some were fuzzy, and I had a great time. I climbed in under the tables and played in the dirt and picked up fallen blossoms and put them in my hair. I was a regular plant freak even then, I guess, and I had never been in a real live greenhouse before.

Maybe you can guess what happened. It came time to go and I hid in the back of the greenhouse. I didn't want to leave all those flowers. So I scrunched back there knowing that my folks would be angry, but I didn't care. When they finally got tired of calling for me to come out, my mother stomped in and barreled her way down the aisle and found me hiding in the back. She smacked my bottom and grabbed my hand and I threw a real beauty of a temper tantrum, screaming and yelling and clutching the leg of the table. My mother was furious. I was supposed to be such a cute, bright, gentle little lady, you see. And there I was all covered with dirt and moldy flowers and screaming my head off.

How'd they finally get you out of there? Kirk asked.

The lady that we were visiting came in and chuckled and clucked and said would I like a plant to take with me. I said I sure would and the tears stopped immediately. My mother protested, seeing as how it would spoil me, she said, but I got a plant anyway. It was an African violet with pink flowers on it. It was the first plant that I ever had and I took good care of it for years. In fact, I've still got some violets that were made from cuttings from that original plant.

What a freaky little kid you must have been. Just like Sally from next door, I bet, Kirk laughed.

I sure remember that well. I bet my mother does too. She was probably never so embarassed before or since.

If you want to talk about parents, Kirk said, I'll tell you about my tenth birthday, which had to have been the classic nightmare of all time. Whenever it was my birthday, we always had a birthday dinner and I opened my presents after I blew out the candles of the cake. It was one of the few times when my parents would make a big deal over me. I always got incredible presents like they were trying to buy me off for the rest of the year. So when I was ten I was flying around somewhere like ten feet off the ground all day because I expected that I would get a new bike, see. It was really agony after I got home from school knowing that I would have to wait through cocktail hour, when my parents had their usual one too many, and then all the way through some fancy dinner before I'd have a chance to get that bike I was counting on.

Six o'clock rolled around and no father. I paced around the kitchen for a while and then I paced around the living room until I bugged my mother so much that she told me to go upstairs and play in my room and she would call me when my father got home.

Well, he got home all right. Like at about seven thirty and stewed to the gills. I was sitting at the top of the stairs. He stumbles in and heads for the bar and mixes another just to keep himself rolling along. By that time my mother had a few under the old belt as well. She was pissed. I mean really pissed. She'd been working on a slow burn for hours. The first thing she says is, 'And where were you, or need I ask?' Man, her voice could have formed icicles.

I yell, 'Hi, Dad.' He grunts at me and flops down in his favorite chair. My mother is going to get an answer whether he likes it or not, so she says again, 'And just exactly where have you been until this hour? And on you son's tenth birthday as well.' She always was quick on the guilt bit.

'Business,' my father says and takes a healthy swig. No wonder I got stoned when I was six. Kirk laughed.

'Business, my eye,' my mother says. 'Who was she?'

Now I may not have been an unsoiled ten, I'd heard talk like that through the walls plenty of times before, but it was the first time that they'd ever gotten into this area of their marital bliss right in front of me.

So my father says, 'Look, we'll talk about it later, just relax. It's nothing important,' or something like that.

'Nothing important, you say. Relax, nothing.' My mother says, 'I don't care if Kirk does hear. It's about time he learned what his father was really like. It wasn't business you were up to this afternoon. I called your office hours ago to remind you to get home at a decent hour for Kirk's birthday dinner.'

I almost felt like saying, 'Listen, I know, I know. So what's new?' but I just sat there on the stairs with my mouth shut.

So my father says, 'Dear, this isn't something to talk about now. It was just a business meeting, nothing else.'

'Like how many other business meetings over the years?' my mother shouts. She's getting all riled up and they're both swigging away at the booze as fast as they can, which is their answer to the communications gap. 'A little business conference with another of those secretaries, I suppose?' It wasn't very pleasant to hear, I can tell you that.

'Well, I don't know what you're complaining about,' my father says. 'I'm home in the evenings. I provide for you and the kid. I don't see you lacking good clothes or your weekly hair appointments. You've got a damn good deal going for you here, if you ask me. Just don't push.'

'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you,' my mother shouts. 'You stop this fooling around. I've put up with it long enough. And if you don't, one of these days you'll come staggering in here and you won't find me or Kirk around to hold your hand.'

'Don't make promises you aren't going to keep,' my father says, and my mother starts crying.

I could see my big birthday dinner going right down the drain with all the other crap that was flying through the air. I'm just giving you the high points, you understand, and guessing at what they said. If I remember correctly, this particular battle lasted for several hours and ended up with somebody hitting somebody else, I think. I finally sat down and read a magazine for a while, surrounded by all that yelling and crying. I felt all squeezed up inside. I tried to close the whole thing out just waiting for one of them to look up and say, 'Hey, it's Kirk's birthday. Let's eat dinner and have a good time.'

Needless to say, I never got my birthday dinner. I felt pretty lousy about it, but they never knew. I had long since stopped showing them how I felt about anything. So it was one beautiful birthday. I don't know what my father finally did, passed out in his chair probably. I got myself a bowl of cereal and went on up to bed.

What happened to the bike? Amy asked.

When I came down to breakfast in the morning, my mother was all smiles and brushed away the argument of the night before as if it had never happened. The bike was propped up against the table. I said, 'Thank you,' although I didn't much care at that point. My father brought me home a new tennis racket from work that evening.

That's really sad, Amy said.

Brent didn't know what to say right then. Anything I say will sound stupid, he thought.

Who gives a shit? I don't let things like that bother me anymore. Maybe they did when I was little, but I guess I'm used to them now, Kirk said.

What's the nicest memory you have? Amy asked.

Yeah, make it a happy one, Kirk said. I can tell my last little story really cheered everybody up a lot.

I don't know, Brent said. There've been a lot of great times.

Think, said Amy. I'd really like to hear.

I remember when I was younger, I had to spend the night out in a boat by myself, Brent said.

That sounds scary, Amy replied. Make it a nice memory.

No, it's all right. It was nice. It was wonderful, really. My family and I were up at our summer place in Maine. It's an island house a little way off the coast, and you have to go back and forth to the mainland by boat. We'd done it for years so it was no big deal. It's great to get away in the summer to such a peaceful place. It gives me plenty of time to be by myself and paint and watch the sea and things like that.

Sometimes fog would come in, and if one of us was over on the mainland to a movie or something, we would have to spend the night in the car. It's very easy to get mixed up in a Maine fog, I'll tell you that, even if you only have about a half mile to go from shore to island.

This one night, it was a Saturday, my parents had let me take the boat over to the mainland so I could go to the Cundy's Harbor square dance that was held every Saturday night in the firehouse. I had some other friends and we always used to meet at the dance. It was a great time.

When I got back to the boat that night, a thick fog had settled in over the water. I couldn't even see the lantern that my parents always left burning for me at the end of the pier on the island. It was really thick stuff.

I should have stayed in the car on the mainland, but I figured I'd be able to make it over to the island if I just followed the reefs around and kept a look-out for the lantern. So I went down to the dock and got into the boat. It was all wet and cold. I got the motor going it was our old ten-horse Johnson. Off I went. I was sure I'd be there in a few minutes.

I got lost. I got so lost that before you knew it I didn't even know in what direction I was headed. Those fogs can be really tricky.

Weren't you scared? Amy asked.

I suppose I should have been, considering I could have run aground on some rocks or something. But I wasn't. The night was really calm. I cut the motor, hoping I'd hear something that would give me a sense of direction. I could hear the foghorn from the point, and the far clang of the bell buoy near Bear Island. The water made lapping sounds on the boat. But I really couldn't tell what direction any of it was coming from.

It was beautiful out there. There was phosphorus glowing in the wake of the boat. I just let myself drift for a while. I knew that I had no idea of where I was. I hadn't been in the boat long enough to get too far from home, so I still wasn't worried.

I drifted toward a lobster buoy that a lobster-man had attached to his trap, and decided to tie myself up to it. There was no point in just drifting into trouble. I sat there in the dark and quiet. The fog drifted in waves around me. Every once in a while the moon shone through for a minute or two.

Some seals stopped by and poked their heads out of the water near the boat. They were curious, I guess. They barked and snorted a few times and then slid back into the water and disappeared.

It was a great night. I slept some, I guess, but it really didn't matter. It was fine to be out there all by myself on the water. I'm sure my parents thought I was sleeping safely in the car or at my friends' house.

The dawn was beautiful, too, and the fog burned off. It turned out that I was only a hundred yards or so from home the whole time. Sounds crazy, I guess, but I'll always remember that night as being I don't know really great.

Kirk didn't say anything.

Amy sighed. I wish I'd been there too. You know what I found a few days before I came to the hospital?

What? Kirk asked. Prince Charming?

Oh, stop it, Kirk, I'm serious. Just before I came in here, I was going over some old boxes of my stuff and I found a clay hand I'd made when I was in first grade. You know, one of those things where you make a pancake out of clay and press your hand in it with your fingers all stretched out and then run home and give it to your mother. I took it out of the box and held my hand against it. It was very strange.

Why? Brent asked.

The thing that amazed me so much was that it was hard to believe that I had ever had such small hands. The hand in the clay seemed too little to have ever been mine.

You'll have to face it one day, baby, we all have to grow up sometime, Kirk said.

Oh, I know, Kirk. It's just that sometimes I don't much like the idea.

Sometimes Brent worried about things like that too, but he had never had anyone to talk about it with before.

They spent the rest of the afternoon gabbing about the past and things little kids do and what makes them scared and all, while Brent tried to forget the conversation he had overheard between Kirk and his parents earlier.
Oh, Monty, pick me! Oh, Monty, pick me, pick me! Kirk shouted in a falsetto voice. I want to win a refrigerator! Pick me, Monty, pick me!

The three were watching Let's Make a Deal on television the nextday.

Title: Three-Legged Race
Author: Charles P. Crawford
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