Without Regard

     Frank Beehmer sat and stared, stared at the pie and the cup of coffee his wife had placed before him.  It was Monday afternoon.  He had just been to the bank, talked with John Sturhman.  Marie noticed her husband’s expression.  Sitting down, she smiled at the twins across the table and said, “You two finish then gather the eggs, OK?”

     They shoveled fresh baked apple pie into their mouths with relish.  Frank still stared at his coffee.  Without warning, he stood, climbed the stairs.  Marie heard him in their daughter’s room, considered whether to follow him to ask, or to wait.  Instead, she called Elizabeth from outside where she was gathering laundry from the line.

     “Pie?” Marie asked her daughter.

     “Sure.”  Then she heard her father.  “What’s he doing in my room?”  It was too late.  Heavy boots began their descent.  Now it was Elizabeth who stared at her pie.  When her father entered the room, she began to shake.  She knew before she looked up.

     “Boys, take your pie outside,” their father ordered.  They didn’t need to be told twice.  Picking up their plates, they hurried out the kitchen door then ran around to the east side of the house.  There they hunkered down beneath the open kitchen window to listen.

     Frank eyed his daughter.  Throwing the picture and the class ring onto the table, he roared, “I thought I told you to return these!”

     Seizing the ring, he thrust it before her eyes.  “I returned this myself not two weeks ago!  How did it get back in your dresser?” 

     When Elizabeth failed to respond, he grabbed her wrist and jerked her, like a puppet, from her chair.  The chair she had been sitting on tumbled backward.

     “Frank!” Marie said in alarm.

     Limp with fear, Elizabeth whimpered, “He stopped at Sturhman’s with his grandmother.  He didn’t . . . I didn’t want . . . please, Dad.  You’re hurting my wrist!” she wailed as his vice-like grip tightened.

     The plea registered.  Frank let go, backed a step away then began undoing his belt.  “By heavens, you need a strapping!”

     “Frank!” Marie moved between them.  “What’s wrong?  Why are you so angry?  If he stopped at Sturhman’s . . .?”

     “Tell her!  Tell your mother how you lied to us, how you deceived us!  Tell her who you really went to the fair with, who really won that bear.  Tell her!” 

     “Dad, please.  You don’t understand.  I didn’t’ want to lie.  Peter just . . .

“Why are you doing this to us?”

     “Us?  Go ahead.  Tell her the rest.  Tell her about the class picnic.  Tell her what you and Peter Christiansen were doing when your teacher found the two of you.  God in heaven!  I wish he were here!  I’d strap him first!”

     “What?  I never . . . It wasn’t us!”

     “And I suppose I’m to take your word over John Sturhman’s.”  He pointed to the ring. “There’s proof of who to believe.  Go ahead, tell your mother what kind of daughter she’s raised!”

     With faltering steps, Elizabeth walked around her mother to face her father.  “It’s not true.  It wasn’t us.  Peter and I never . . . Daddy, please believe me.  It was Jenni . . .”

     The flat of his hand struck her cheek—hard. 

“Will you lie still?  Blame your friend?”

     “Frank!” Marie pleaded, reaching for her daughter.  “Listen to her!”  She touched the welt raised red on Elizabeth’s face.

     “I’m finished listening!”  Grabbing the picture and ring, he growled, “Come with me!”

     Elizabeth watched him in disbelief.  “What?  Dad, please!  They’re mine!  He gave them to me!” 

     Grabbing her wrist in his farm-hardened hand, Frank pulled her towards the door.  “Not for long, they aren’t.”

“Then let me return them!” 

Never faltering in his resolve, her father said,  “We’ll be right back.”

     “Frank, please.  Think about what you are doing!” Marie followed step for step.  “He’s a good boy!”

     Frank stopped.  He turned.  “And she’s my daughter!  He’s already gotten her to lie.  What’s next? 

“Get in the truck, Liz!”    

     The breeze had died at two o’clock.  For the two hours since, the hay field had been a Turkish bath.  Sweat poured down the faces of the men working there, but none more so than the two young men atop the stack.  Each new sweep full of hay dumped for them to spread atop the growing haystack tacked a new layer of dirt on them as well.  Hatless under the hazy sun, their hair, their faces, their arms were ashen, peppered with dust and alfalfa leaves.  Sweat beaded and tracked down their cheeks, their noses, necks, arms and backs. Their shirts alone prevented the amalgamation of dirt on their bodies; nothing prevented its itch.  Their greatest desire at the time was for something cool to drink, that and that the breeze hadn’t died.

     When the pickup entered the field and started towards the nearly finished haystack, Peter and Jess looked at one another.  Peter was the first to look back.  A knot formed in the pit of his stomach.  Maybe it meant only that Frank needed to talk to his dad, maybe it meant nothing.  In his gut, he knew; still neither he nor Jess could see the other person in the truck; it seemed to them Frank was alone.

     They watched the pickup bounce up the hill towards them, watched it stop, watched Frank wave and walk brusquely to his father running the stacker. 

Liz was not crying, not yet; she was still too frightened; but the tears were there, surfacing as she ran her fingertip delicately over Peter’s reflection, pausing to trace his signature and wonder how they could ever find the future they so longed for.  Choking down a sob, she wondered how she would survive this new wrenching of her heart.  Peter was her life—her future.

It was no surprise to Peter when his father motioned for them, then lifted the stacker.  They planted their pitchforks side by side, stepped onto the teeth of the hay head, and hung on until they reached level ground.  Once down, Peter wiped his face against his sleeve, each arm, and, at his father’s bidding, stepped forward, leaving Jess to watch the scene from the haystack’s shadow.  Peter cast his father a quick glance, saw that his father was at a loss as to what was going on, and waited while Frank helped Elizabeth from their truck.  His breath caught when he saw what she carried towards them.

“What?” Peter said softly.

“Be darned careful, Son,” Tom Christiansen warned.  “Frank’s in as bad a mood as I’ve ever seen a man.”

Elizabeth stopped a few feet from him.  Her father stood directly behind her.  She swallowed hard and raised her eyes to Peter’s, glanced at Tom then, looking back to Peter, said softly, “Dad says I must return these.” 

Her eyes glazed over, her chin quivered.  “He found out about Paul . . . our date.  I . . .” her voice failed.  Lifting a shaking hand to catch an escaped tear, she, without intending to, revealed the bruise along her cheek.

Peter tensed.  “What happened to your face?”  He started towards her, but his father stopped him.  “Beth?”

For an instant, her eyes found his.  Breaking down in earnest, she shoved the ring and picture into Peter’s hands.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered then turned and fled to the pickup.

Too hurt, too angry to speak, Peter watched her. 

Feeling the tension in his son’s arms, Tom held on tightly and looked at his friend.  “Frank,” he spoke calmly.  Hoping to diffuse the tension he chose his words carefully.  “We need to talk.  I’d like to know what’s happened, why . . .” he looked towards the slamming pickup door, “what happened to her face . . . and why?”  

“That’s my business, Tom!  Ask your son what’s wrong.  He can tell you.  Lord help me, I wish it had been him my hand found!”

“Come on you son-of-a-bitch!  If that’s what you want!”  Peter dropped the picture.  The ring landed on the glass, cracking it.  Pulling against his father’s grasp, He said, “How could you do that to her?  Yeah!  It was a lie.  But it was my fault, not hers!

“And you’re right!  I want her!  I want to marry her!  Can’t you understand?  You damn-dumb-sodbuster!”

“That’s enough!” Tom Christiansen said and shoved Peter to the side.  Stepping between him and Frank, he yelled, “Jess!” 

When Jess joined them, he turned and said, “Jess, I want you to take Peter home.”  Bending, he picked up his son’s things and handed them to Jess.  “You stay with him.  Don’t let him out of your sight until he’s cooled down, you hear me?”

“Yes, sir.” 

When Peter hesitated, Tom added sternly, “Get home, Peter.” 

He watched them walk away, watched them climb in the pickup and drive off.  By this time Matt had driven up on the hay sweep to witness his father say, “Frank, we need to talk.  I don’t like what’s happened here, but I’ve considered you my friend since the day we met.  Do me the favor of explaining why . . . what my son has done to provoke this?”

“Ask him.”

“I’m asking you.”

When Frank hesitated, Tom said, “You’re a better man than this, Frank.  Why did you hit Liz?  The truth now.”