«The doctor says you should stay another month,» Mrs.Hughes replied.
«Oh, that's great. That's just fine. Jesus Christ, another month!»
«There's no need to swear about it, Kirk,» Mr.Hughes said.
«I'm sure not going to jump with joy.»
Brent put down his sketch and picked up the book that he had just started. He felt uncomfortable about eavesdropping, and he didn't want Kirk's parents to see the drawing that he was working on.
«You're just going to have to accept it and make the best of it. It's one of those things. We can't always have everything the way we'd like it. You still have a lot of healing yet. You'll just have to resign yourself to that.»
«Cut the crap, Mother. I don't need a lecture, thanks.»
«All right. I'm sorry, Kirk. I know you're disappointed.»
«While we're here, we've got some other news to discuss with you, son,» Mr.Hughes said.
«Is it better news than the last bomb you just dropped on me?»
«We think so. I hope you'll appreciate it.»
«Uh-oh. That sounds ominous. Well, go ahead. What is it?»
«Your mother and I had a talk with the headmaster at Gable Prep. They feel that you shouldn't go back there in the fall.»
«No crap, really?» Kirk interrupted.
«Yes. They explained that because of your…»
«Listen. I don't need the reasons, just as long as I don't have to go back to that retard institution again. I swear, that place is the worst place I've ever…»
«Kirk, it's not a bad school and you know it,» Mrs.Hughes said. «We tried to talk the headmaster into giving you another chance, but there were just too many incidents. I thought he was being unfair, but…»
«I'm glad he was. I'd swallow my crutch before I'd go back to that dump.»
Kirk turned toward Brent's bed. «Hey, Brent. Looks like I'll be going to public school with you in the fall. What do you think of that?»
«Now don't jump to conclusions, Kirk,» Mr.Hughes said. «That's what we want to discuss with you.»
«What's there to discuss?»
«Your mother and I, and the headmaster at Gable Prep as well, feel you need a more structured situation than you would find at the Louella public school.»
«Now what exactly does that mean? The public school's fine with me. Hey, now wait a minute. What are you two trying to bulldoze me into this time?»
«We're not trying to bulldoze you into anything. We just feel that you need a school with more structure, that's all,» Mrs.Hughes said.
«And we've managed to find a wonderful school for you. You'll begin in the fall and we have high hopes for you. Both your mother and I think you'll do well there. It's supposed to be an excellent school academically, and we felt that the opportunity of immersing yourself full-time in a new environment would be an advantage.»
«And just exactly what does that mean?» Kirk asked.
«The school is New Pedford Military Academy. It comes with wonderful recommendations. Bernie Steinman's son goes there and likes it very much. He'll be a senior next year and is thinking of going to Yale.»
«Hooray for Bernie Steinman's son. It sounds like a boarding school.»
«It is,» his mother said. «Isn't that wonderful? You'll be able to take full advantage of all the facilities.»
Brent couldn't concentrate on his book. He kept reading the same sentence over and over again. He wasn't able to shut out the conversation.
«Don't I have anything to say about all of this? Don't I have a chance at all?»
«Listen, Kirk. There aren't very many doors open to you anymore. Whether you know it or not, we're trying to do what we think is right for you.»
«How do you know what's right for me? Another goddamn institution for social rejects? Why don't you just go out and have my birth annulled altogether? Then you wouldn't have to worry about me at all.»
«Listen, Brent,» Mr.Hughes said. «It wasn't easy finding a school that would take you at all. You're pretty damn lucky that we could find a place as good as New Pedford.»
«That's a bunch of shit.»
«Don't swear in front of your mother.»
«Who, Miss Sensibility with the virgin ears? How can it offend her? I'm just a chip off the old block.»
«That's enough out of you,» Mr.Hughes shouted.
«I told you he wouldn't understand,» Mrs.Hughes said. «He's never even tried to appreciate…»
«Oh, excuse me, Mother. My humble apologies. Am I allowed to come home from the hospital for an afternoon to gather my junk together before I leave? I don't want to be pushy and inconvenience you or anything.»
«Cut it, Kirk. Your mother and I certainly expected to see a little more gratitude from you than this.»
«To tell you the truth, Father, the more I compare the thought of rotten institutional food, sleeping in a dorm and getting up at dawn to march around a muddy field with the alternative, I'm not altogether displeased. Thanks for the visit, parents, and all the good news.»
«Kirk, I wish you'd try to…» Mrs.Hughes began.
«Forget it, Mother. Just leave me alone.»
«Listen, Kirk. I know you don't have many expenses here in the hospital, but there's twenty bucks in case anything should come up,» Mr.Hughes said.
«The old buy-him-off-with-money routine, huh? Gee, thanks a lot, Father. Maybe I'll buy a canteen for military school.»
«We'll visit again soon,» Mrs.Hughes said.
«I won't hold my breath.»
«You know, we do care about what happens to you, Kirk,» she said.
«What, by long distance? Just leave me alone, huh?»
Kirk's parents left. Brent looked up and watched them go. He felt sad for Kirk. Brent had had so many good times with his own folks, their summers in Maine and all; he wished he could have shared some of them with Kirk.
Amy came into the room a few minutes later.
«I couldn't seem to get a nap. It doesn't seem like hospitals are ever very quiet. Was that your parents I just saw waiting at the elevator, Kirk?» she asked.
«It sure was. We were having one of our sessions of mutual admiration.»
Amy sat down on the foot of Brent's bed.
«It's a shame you don't get along with them better,» she said. «Have you gotten into much trouble in the past? Why are they so down on you?»
«Not much trouble really. It doesn't make much difference. They think I have. I even got drunk for the first time when I was six,» Kirk said, laughing. «They didn't think much of that.»
«You're kidding,» said Brent.
«No, really. I did. My mother was really ticked off, I can tell you that. I don't think she liked me much even then.»
«What happened?» Amy asked. «It sounds like a story we ought to hear.»
«Oh, we were just little kids. We didn't even know what we were doing. A friend of mine named Mike and I were just messing around at his house one afternoon. It was around August or something like that. Anyway, there was nothing much to do.»
«So what's new?» Brent said.
«We found a grungy old winepress in Mike's garage. At least we thought it was a winepress. I think it was really a manure spreader or something. So old Mike says, 'Hey, Kirk, let's make some wine.' I thought it was a pretty great idea, especially seeing as how these two old ladies lived across the street and had about twenty million grapes hanging all over an arbor they had. We grab a couple of bushel baskets and head over there and start picking away like our lives depended on it. We didn't want to be caught. We were afraid if the old ladies saw us they would call the cops and we would be arrested for grape larceny, which is at least a felony. I don't even think the grapes were ripe yet or anything, but all we knew was that you needed grapes to make wine, and we sure as hell were going to make some wine even if it killed us – which it almost did.
«So anyway, we fill the baskets up and lug them back across the street and pull out the filthy old press and dump the grapes into it.
«Just then a little girl from next door wanders over. She was maybe four or something. Her name was Sally. She says, 'What are you going to do?' and we say something cool like, 'Make wine, stupid. Haven't you ever seen wine made?' She allowed as how maybe she never had but she sure would like to help, so she pitched in too.
«Mike must have seen some special on television about wine making or something, but he figures he knows just what to do. We pour the grapes into the old press and take off our shoes and socks and go stomping and slutching around in the grapes. If I remember, our feet weren't all that clean to begin with, and the grapes were no things of beauty, being half ripe and crawling with bugs and ants and things. Some brown juice started pouring out of the bottom of the press into a big jug Mike had put beneath it. We all thought that was pretty neat. Sally just laughed and giggled until Mike told her to shut up. We didn't think so much of little girls from next door named Sally, if I remember correctly.
«So when we got all done stomping and jumping, we had a mostly full jug of the foulest brown crud you've ever seen. Mike went running into the house and brought out three glasses. We poured them full and took a swig. It's a wonder we didn't barf on the spot, because it was the grossest tasting stuff that had ever passed my lips, and take my word for it, some pretty gross stuff had passed my lips when I was a kid.»
«Yeah, but it couldn't have made you drunk,» Brent said. «There wasn't any alcohol in it.»
«I know. But we were too smart for our own good. Mike says, 'You know, when my dad has a drink he puts stuff in it from the liquor cabinet.'
«'Go get some,' I said. 'If we're going to have wine, we might as well do it like the big guys do.' Sally just jumped up and down squealing, spilling brown grape juice down her front. She wasn't real cool.
«So Mike runs up to his house and brings down a bottle of gin or vodka or something. We didn't know the difference then, so we fill our glasses the rest of the way up with the booze, swish it around a little and down the hatch it all goes.»
Amy shivered and laughed.
«It didn't taste any worse with the gin in it. Nothing could have tasted worse. And maybe the booze even killed some of the bugs and germs that must have been floating around in there. So we guzzle it down and run around the yard and have another glass and lick the scum off the bottom of the press and stuff like that. Before you knew it, we were flying high. Sally could barely walk, she was so stoned. I don't know about Mike, but the whole world was spinning around me.
«All of a sudden Mike yells that he wants to swing. They had an old tire hanging on a rope from a tree in their backyard. We stagger over to the tire and Mike hops on and I start to spin him. Sally just keeps on squealing and trying to jump up and down, although she spent most of the time down by then. Mike gets going faster and faster and I'm spinning him for all I'm worth and we're all laughing like crazy. And then all of a sudden Mike gets sick and the twirling tire is like some sort of freaky living fountain; and I can barely stand up myself by that time, and Sally is eating dandelion puffs and they're stuck all over the corners of her mouth, and I can tell you, we were a real mess when Mike's mother came out of the house a few minutes later. Sally's mother wasn't too pleased either, but I really think underneath they thought the whole thing was kind of funny. And believe me, we learned our lesson. I must have been sick for a week.»
«That's funny, Kirk,» Amy said. «What did your parents say about it?»
«Well, that's what I mean. They didn't think it was real funny at all. My father almost went out of his bird screaming about what would the neighbors say and I was a disgrace to his name and all that kind of shit. And he should talk! I heard about it for years. So even back then they weren't the most understanding of people. God, you'd think I had robbed a bank or something instead of just being a stupid kid who didn't know any better.»
«It's too bad,» Brent said. I can't even imagine what it would be like to grow up with parents like that, he thought.
«Well, it's no skin off my back. I haven't stopped drinking since,» Kirk said with a grin.
«My folks were always pretty good,» Brent said. «They seemed to understand things fine. As far as I can remember, I was never spanked.»
«I don't think I was either,» said Kirk. «But I would have preferred it. I always got the psychological approach – the lecture, the guilt-and-freeze treatment.»
«I remember once though when I was really little that I was sure that my mother was going to smack me good and hard. I was really scared by the whole thing, but I guess she understood even then,» Brent said.
Amy leaned forward. «Tell us,» she said. «I'd like to hear about it. The things that people remember are fascinating.»
«Well, I must have been only three or four maybe,» Brent continued. «My mother and my grandmother, who lived with us, were taking me along to pay a visit to a great-aunt who lived in a home. The home was kind of like a farm, I remember, because the part I liked about the visits was seeing the pigs and the turkeys they had there. I don't think I had ever been allowed upstairs to see my great-aunt. I don't remember ever seeing her before that day.
«We were in the car and it was raining. I felt good. I was sitting on my grandmother's lap and I could feel her arms around me. She always kind of tickled my stomach. She had a dress on that had blue flowers all over it. I was watching the windshield wipers go back and forth. My mother and my grandmother were talking, but I wasn't listening.
«My mother said to me as we pulled into the driveway of the old place, 'Listen now, Brent, you've got to be very quiet and not yell or run around. Aunt Sarah isn't well.'
«When the car stopped, my grandmother went inside to visit, I guess, while my mother walked me around the farm to see the animals. There were puddles all over I wanted to jump in. The grass sparkled, it was so wet. We watched the pigs for a while. They were enjoying the new mud. My mother said, 'It's time to go visit Great-aunt Sarah in the big house now.'
«The house was very quiet and dry, I remember. We went upstairs and walked into a large room. Far across the floor a big bed was nestled against the wall. Women in white rushed around. Aunt Sarah was in the bed.
«We walked across the floor to the bed. I hung onto my mother's dress. I peeked from behind my mother as we stood by the bed and saw my great-aunt's hands fluttering all over the blanket like little birds or something. It looked like if she smiled, the skin around her mouth would crack.
«'Oh, my little Brent,' she said, 'come here to me.' She stretched out one hand to me. It was all shiny and I could see the veins standing out. I pulled back behind my mother, but she pushed me forward. I could feel my great-aunt Sarah's hands shaking on my shoulder.