A Well-worn Path

The normally quiet, orderly schoolhouse was a buzz with gossip and noisy children.  The stage at the front of the room had been turned into a delicatessen.  For the end of the year picnic, every woman in the district had prepared her favorite dishes.  They were spread over card tables and the teacher’s desk, which in turn was now covered with dishtowels to keep the occasional fly that invaded through the open schoolhouse door from feasting on the leftovers, more effort than success.

     The inclement weather kept most inside.  On better days, there would have been a softball game or horseshoes to draw most out of doors.  Confined inside, the men had claimed the larger desks, arranging themselves along the south wall of the school.  They discussed the weather, grain prices, and politics, but mostly the weather.  Each man silently estimated his chances of hanging on if 1936 proved as bad or worse as the previous year. 

     The women were seated on the long bench on the north wall.  A few sat on folding chairs someone had borrowed from the church that morning.  They talked with Miss Kesler, who was planning her wedding to a young man from North Fork and who would not be returning for a second term.  The young man hung at her elbow, preferring the conversation of the ladies in her presence than the droning of farmers about corn and pig prices.  The farmers noticed his attentiveness and smiled.  They had been engaged once. 

     Lingering just inside the door were several older boys.  A fourth, Walter Frink, sauntered in having just lead the attack on a nest of ground squirrels that lived in the vicinity of the cave, a cave no one presently attending the school had ever been allowed to enter.  It loomed as one of those awesome holes in the ground best left covered and unexplored.  Rumor was a nest of snakes of undetermined species lived down there among broken desks and old water crocks.  In reality, no one knew if there was anything in the cave at all.  Why the cave existed was itself a puzzle.  The school’s basement made it unnecessary.  For that matter, no one in the school’s history had ever taken shelter from a tornado in either.  Still, both did exist.

     Walter walked past the group of boys and headed to where Jess leaned morosely against the blackboard.  Beside him stood Peter.  Elizabeth Beehmer sat in the teacher’s swivel chair.  All three were silent.  Several times, Elizabeth had tried, but failed, to spark a conversation.  Jess’ sullen mood seemed contagious.  Peter, who’d been in high spirits, grew increasingly remote. 

     From the time the Christiansens had stopped to pick Elizabeth up, Jess had become more and more distant.  The obvious attraction between Peter and Elizabeth served only to heighten his ill temper.  If Peter spoke with him directly, then he showed interest; her he ignored.

Finally, sensing the futility of hoping Jess would enjoy the day or Elizabeth’s company, Peter, too, had grown quiet, thoughtful, as though contemplating something weighty, something serious in nature.

     “Hey, Jess,” Walter said.  “How long you here for?“  Walter snagged a piece of chocolate cake from beneath a dishtowel.  “I’ve missed having you around to pick on this past year.”

     “I kinda missed picking on you myself, Walt.  I hear Pete did OK in my place though.”  

     Walter’s expression darkened a bit.  “Pete and I came to an understanding of sorts, I guess you could say.  He just wasn’t near the fun as he used to was,” Walter grinned like a coon with an ear of sweet corn at the chance to rub Peter the wrong way.  Their truce had not been agreeable to him.

     Peter gave Walter a full, blue-eyed stare, then seeing his mood, smiled.  Walter had his moments.  Turning to Elizabeth, he asked, “How about an ice cream cone?”

     She nodded.

     “Jess?”  Peter waited for the negative shake of the head he expected before walking to where his father was digging into the insulated green canvas bag that had kept the ice cream cool since they’d picked it up that morning.  As he stood in line waiting for two younger kids to be served, he listened to Walter and Jess behind him.

     “So, Walt, how many does that make?” Jess nodded to the northeast corner where Mrs. Frink sat bare-breasted, nursing a small infant.

     “Too many, I say.  Nine counting me.  Cours’ I ain’t goin’ to be around long.  Plan to get out come fall.  Even if I was done with the eighth grade, which I ain’t, I’d have to quit.  Help Pop support the rest.  No more school for me.  Peter and Elizabeth can have high school.  I’m done!”

     Peter felt the change immediately, felt Jess stiffen, felt electric eyes bore into his back.  School was one topic he and Jess had always agreed on.  For them, it was a temporary discomfort.  Both had planned to work the land, to stay on their family’s farms, to live their lives in the tradition handed down to them.  School seemed more an impediment than a goal.

     “My father says it would probably have made all the difference when he lost his farm if he had finished school,” Elizabeth commented from her chair.  “You can always fall back on . . . ”

     “Why don’t we take these outside, Liz?  The air in here is thick from all this talk.”  Peter handed her an ice cream cone.  He looked at Jess.  “You coming?”

     “In a minute.  Walt probably has all kinds of stories to tell me, don’t you, Walt?”  Jess smiled, but Peter saw resentment and, when Jess looked at Elizabeth, he saw dark eyes smolder darker still. 

     Escorting Elizabeth outside, Peter realized he’d made a mistake in not telling Jess he planned to go to high school.  Truth was, he hadn’t thought about it, partly because it wasn’t something he was looking forward to; it was simply something he’d decided wise to do.  The world seemed changing, unsettled, and Peter had begun to realize what that might mean to someone with a family to support.  He’d already witnessed the devastation of uprooted farmers, men with lots of skill but little education, and how that had impacted not only their lives but also their family’s fates.  Stepping into the gray afternoon, he took a lick of the too soft ice cream and silently cursed himself.

     At the merry-go-round in the middle of the schoolyard, Peter and Elizabeth sat down and licked ice cream in silence.  After a long gray minute, Elizabeth shivered, looked across the bar that separated them, and said, “Your friend doesn’t like me much.”    

     “It’s me he’s upset with,” Peter said and studied her eyes.  They attracted him more now than when he’d first noticed them. 

     A river of ice cream ran down his fingers.  She laughed as he hurried to catch it with his tongue.  He finished the top of the cone then, tipping his head backwards, sucked out the bottom and inhaled the rest.  The soggy exterior was one final mouthful.

     Elizabeth licked thoughtfully before asking, “Why would he be upset with you?  He hasn’t seen you in over a year.”

     Peter didn’t answer.  Wiping his hands on his pants, he stood and grabbed the push rod and the plank.  “Want a ride?  It may be the last chance you’ll get.”

She studied him intently.  “You didn’t answer my question.  He’s your friend.  You are always talking about him.”

     Sobering, Peter sat down close enough to feel her warmth.  “I’ve promised Jess I wouldn’t say anything.”

     “Now I am curious.  I have to say, he doesn’t come off as the fun person you always talked about.  He’s so, I don’t know, sulky.  He’s not the only one ever to have lost his home.  It’s sure not my fault.”

     Elizabeth’s eyes held no malice; hers was merely impartial observation. 

     Peter looked away. 

Elizabeth licked sticky fingers and watched him.  She had come to know him well the past winter.  Sensing his thoughts, she said, “I don’t mean to be unkind, Peter.  But you have to admit he’s been feeling sorry for himself since we got here.”

     The wind tacked a strand of hair to her lips.  Peter set it free as the merry-go-round turned with the wind.  He’d not yet kissed her, though at times had wanted to very much.  He wanted to now, more than ever.  Conscious of the adults behind the schoolhouse windows, he kept his distance and confided, “You have to know Jess better.  He’s . . . I wish today had turned out differently.  I hoped we’d have had some fun.”

     “Me, too,” she whispered with a smile. 

     “Me, too, what?” 

The wind had moved the young couple half around the well-worn path of the merry-go-round.  Jess was directly behind them.

     Peter glanced back; he studied Jess.  “Did Walter tell you what you wanted to know?”  His tone accented the blue flame ignited in his normally calm eyes.

     “Not really, but you know Walt.  He never has been real bright.”  Jess’ smile could not veil his mood; the reality of his displacement was keen.  Seeing the closeness of Peter and Elizabeth, he turned his attention to the heavy sky.  “You know, the weather does look like it could break loose ‘bout any time.  I’ve already stayed longer than I should have.”  His eyes found Peter’s.  “Time for me to go.”

     Peter studied Jess then glanced at the bare earth beneath his feet.  The firm line of Jess’ jaw, the dark set eyes, his stance, all left no doubt of his intent.  A heartbeat later, Peter looked at Elizabeth and said, “Would you wait here a few minutes, then go in and tell my folks we’ve gone home?”

     Elizabeth glanced from Peter’s steady gaze to this dark stranger.  Her annoyance heightened at the slight smile she saw play at the corner of Jess’ mouth.  She turned back to Peter.  “You aren’t staying?”

     At that moment, Peter wished he were the wind so that he too could play upon her lips.  Had they been alone, he most definitely would have kissed her.  But they were not alone, and at fourteen and infused with traditions he valued, he could not. 

     Sensing something desperate behind the request, Elizabeth touched Peter’s arm.  “What’s happening?”

     Urgent to get underway, Jess flashed, “Nothing that’s your business!”

     “Jess!”

     Jess’ fire flickered under Peter’s gale.  He checked himself, looked from Elizabeth’s questioning gaze to his friend and turned to leave in one determined move.

     Taking her hand in his own, Peter calmly said, “It’s OK.  Jess . . . we have something we need to do.  That’s all.  I’ll . . . talk to you later.”

     Elizabeth watched Peter go, shivered, then called, “How long should I wait?”

     Peter turned back.  “Till we’re down the hill, past the trees.”  His eyes lingered on her features, then he turned once more and hurried to catch up with Jess.

     Elizabeth sat swaying in the wind, watching the backs of the two young men melt into the gray mist that hung over the prairie.  For the first time, Peter’s behavior puzzled her.  Still, true to her word, she remained, allowing the mist to dampen her, chill her through as the wind moved her at will along the merry-go-round’s well-worn path.