“Oh, God, Jess. What am I going to do?” They had not gone home, and it was getting late.
“Here.” Jess handed Peter another bottle.
“Did you see her face? She’s so beautiful and that,” Peter inhaled deeply, “that bastard. Oh, damn. It’s all my fault.”
The wind blew softly moving the merry-go-round only slightly, but it was enough. Peter lost his balance. He’d never been drunk before, so it hadn’t taken more than a few beers, but he was drunk. And since neither he nor Jess had eaten anything since dinner time, noon to country folk, it had happened much faster than even Jess expected.
Jess righted Peter; Peter slipped sideways, falling against the weathered plank of the merry-go-round.
“I love her so much, Jess.”
“Pete,” Jess lifted him upright. “This isn’t going to do any good. She’s just a girl.”
“No!” Peter straightened. “She’s not just a girl. She’s,” he covered his face with his hands. Unable to stop the angry tears, he swore again. “She’s . . .”
Jess looked away. He studied the sunset behind the schoolhouse he used to know so well. Peter was right. Elizabeth was different, special somehow. He recalled the welt raised along her cheek and felt his own anger. He remembered his mother’s face many times in the past, remembered how desperately he had wanted to avenge her hurt, hurt caused by the man he’d called father. Turning back to his friend, Jess placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Let me take you home, Peter.”
“No! I don’t . . . I can’t go home. Not like this.”
“They’re worried. I know they are.”
Peter didn’t answer. He stood and staggered towards his father’s truck. “Come on.”
“I gotta see Paul. I gotta know.” Weaving heavily, he looked at the beer in his hand, took a long drink then heaved the bottle across the road and into the ditch.
Jess put his arm around Peter to hold him steady as they continued to the truck. “Where?”
“I was so careful, Jess. She told me her old man had a temper. I wouldn’t have . . . no one should have known.”
“Pete, lots of people go to the fair. Anyone could have seen the two of you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. We were all together. The four of us. Beth and I were only alone for a little while, right before we ran into you. I was so careful, Jess.”
Peter lurched forward. “I gotta see Paul.”
“Well, I’m driving!”
Paul’s place was at the northeast edge of Wareham. By the time they reached it, Peter had passed out. Jess found Paul, his sister Eileen, and Jennifer Sturhman swinging on the front porch. He parked next to Jennifer’s coupe, climbed out of the pickup, and called for Paul’s help; his explanation was sketchy but sufficient.
“He didn’t want to go home, wanted to talk with you.”
Paul studied his friend. Only Jennifer had known, because she was his companion for the evening and because she had manipulated him into telling her the truth. Paul knew he hadn’t told anyone else—especially not Eileen.
“Oh, hell,” he whispered, unwilling to confide any of this to Jess. He’d never known the same comfort with Jess Peter knew, never shared Peter’s affinity for him, didn’t really believe Jess the friend Peter felt he was. “Let’s take him inside. My folks won’t like it, but they’ll help Peter any way they can. Just answer their questions.”
With the girls tagging along, Peter’s two friends carried him to an upstairs bedroom then headed downstairs to explain. Seeing her opportunity, Jennifer turned to Eileen. “Get me some warm water and a wash rag? I’ll clean him up a little.”
“Only if I can help,” Eileen said, looking at the handsome young man on her brother’s bed. “It’s only fair, Jenn. After all, it’s my brother’s room.”
“Oh, alright.” Jennifer sat down beside Peter, “Just don’t whine about it.”
While she waited, Jennifer touched Peter’s face. Never had she expected such an opportunity; but then, she had not anticipated the extent of Frank Beehmer’s reaction. The first time she’s lied to her father only to save her own neck. Even John Sturhman would have taken matters in hand if he’d known it was really she and Paul Mr. Zachery had found behind the bathhouse at the class picnic. Her father tolerated her every whim, but not without limits.
When she’d told her father about the double date, she hadn’t meant any harm, not really. She told him a lot of things. It was what kept him believing she didn’t lie.
When Eileen returned from the bathroom down the hall, she handed the basin and washrag to Jennifer then watched Jennifer take the warm rag, place it on Peter’s face and wipe the first layer of dirt from his brow. She rinsed it in the basin and began a second time to wash sweat and dust from his face. This time Peter roused.
“Peter,” Jennifer whispered somewhat apprehensively. She did not know what she would say if he accused her.
He felt the soft cloth, the gentle hand. Only slightly aware, he reached up and placed his own strong fingers over hers. “Beth,” he whispered.
Leaning closer, Jennifer said, “Peter, it’s . . .”
Suddenly, without opening his eyes, Peter pulled her close, kissed her. His passion surprised, even amazed Jennifer. Just as suddenly, his arms fell, the passion died. Peter lost what little consciousness remained.
The moment would haunt Jennifer a lifetime.
The cow’s tail slapped, missing the flies yet swatting Peter alongside the head, his face. He sat at her side, his head buried between her belly and the back legs. His arms moved mechanically, pulling long streams of milk from her full udder, creating a muted cadence and white froth as the milk filled the pail tipped between his knees.
The long day was nearly done. Hung over and still in an emotional undertow, Peter had survived the altogether too quiet homecoming; he’d survived the long afternoon in the hot hayfield; he still did not know how he would survive this forced separation. At that minute, he was too exhausted to care. All he wanted right then was a bath and bed. Maybe—somehow things would seem better in the morning. It had to. His cadence faltered. Nothing was ever going to seem better again. Not like this.
The cat strolled into the milk parlor. Checking her pan and finding it empty, she meowed. Matt quickly obliged her cry for milk by shooting a warm stream from the teat of the cow he was milking, drenching the cat and the plank wall behind it with sticky warm milk.
“Cut it out, Matt,” Peter commanded as he watched the wet cat scamper to the safety of the manger behind him.
“You do it all the time.”
“Just knock it off and get done, OK?”
“I’m on my last cow,” Matt responded, half in disgust, half in compassion. He hated seeing his older brother so miserable, and he liked Elizabeth, liked her a lot. If he had been Peter, he’d often thought, he would have asked her to marry him himself.
Peter stood and removed the kickers from the cow he’d just finished milking. He walked to her head and lifted the wooden board that confined her in the stanchion. Then he turned, walked to the back wall, and slipped the t-shaped stool’s leg between the boards separating the barn’s interior and exterior wall.
“You finished?” His father stood in the doorway.
“Come outside.” He turned back the way he’d come.
Peter poured the milk from the bucket into the cream separator and obeyed. It’s finally coming, he thought. That about tops the day. In reality, he was grateful his father had waited. Coming home that morning, well, it had been the second hardest time.
His father was a wise, a compassionate man. It had brought him far in this world. It had helped mold the son he watched walk towards him into the kind of man he was proud to call his son. Tom took a deep breath, enjoyed the relative coolness of the evening breeze, and waited for Peter’s eyes. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Peter, Frank and I had a talk yesterday after you left.” He watched Peter’s expression shift through emotional gears.
Not certain he could trust his own voice, Peter finally asked, “What did he say?” Weary as he was, he still struggled to control his anger, anger checked in large part by his exhaustion.
Tom looked down briefly then back. “Do you think John Sturhman is an honest man?”
Surprise, confusion, each contorted Peter’s face. “What’s that got to do . . .?“
“Just answer the question. Do you?”
“Of course, but I don’t see . . .”
Peter saw. “That bitch!”
“I’m sorry, Dad, but she had no right. No right! Paul and I agreed!”
“Your mother and I thought you and Liz had had a fight, a lover’s spat. We left it to you to work out. Why didn’t you come to me, tell me what’s been going on?”
Peter looked down. “Dad, I still don’t know what’s behind this, why Frank won’t let me see her. Except for the date to the fair, I haven’t done anything.”
His father’s silence brought his eyes back. It was his father’s turn to struggle for words. “Dad?”
“If Liz were my daughter and I thought the young man she was seeing had taken advantage of her—say at a class picnic maybe, I’d do whatever I thought right to protect her from him.”
There was a long pause.
“Did you do that, Son? Because last night I can forgive for what it was, but I won’t overlook something like what Frank described to me yesterday.”
Peter struggled for air. Anger and despair whirled inside; he felt himself slipping towards the abyss. He finally knew why. And, he knew who was to blame. The injustice of the situation brought tears to his eyes.
“No, sir, I did not. But I can tell you who did.”
Tom Christiansen breathed a heavy sigh. He put his arm around his son’s shoulders, drew him in. “No,” he said quietly, “I’m pretty sure I know.” With a strong squeeze, Tom added, “I only wish you had confided in me. I could have talked with Frank. Saved all of this from happening.”
“I didn’t know what to tell you,” Peter said. Looking down, he cleared his throat and said, “It wasn’t your problem, Dad.”
Their eyes met, held.
“Life can be hard. Some times we just have to get through a thing. And some things, well, God carries us through.”
A final squeeze. “Life is also joy. You’re my son. What affects you, affects me. Your mother and I want to share your joy. We won’t interfere in the hard times, but we’ll listen, help if we can.
“Now, why don’t you clean up, eat something. We have a
call to make, you and I.”