to ask, I’d give the same answer I’d given through the decades — “It’s the dairy farmer in me.”
Yeah, I was aware that by 1995 the farm I had known was long gone, another lost childhood memory. It had been turned into a subdivision — or maybe two, perhaps three — and on the hills where horses and cows once roamed now sprawled a sea of ranch houses, red brick in grass pastures.
As on all mornings, I’d gotten up early, and if anyone were
Even though that thought was sad, I couldn’t help but laugh, andit was because I could hear her. She had said it so many times, through so many years, it had become ingrained in my head.
She’d say, “You dairy rancher.”
I’d cock my half-smile and say, “It’s farmer, not rancher. There’s adifference.”
No matter how many times I said it, it did no good. To her, I was, and would always be, the dairy rancher. And maybe, even though she was technically incorrect, she had been right all along.
I walked through the living room on the way to the kitchen. Not surprisingly, there was a friendly face at the window looking in. Jackson was a solid, black and white Australian shepherd, with justenough tan in his coat, as every other dog I’d ever owned had bornethose three colors. Like Corky, my first dog — my first farm dog. From so long ago. From the green grass pastures of Ohio.
I don’t know if it was thinking about the farm, or seeing Jackson,or what exactly was now going on, but the memories started unfolding in my mind, from all my decades. We had once been a family.
Through a floor-to-ceiling window, past yards of grass, ran the river. For a significant part of my life, it had served as the backdrop for the unfolding — and refolding — of my story. Being so close to the ocean, the river ran with the moon’s tides, and its colors changed through the day from blue to green, depending upon where the sun happened to be hanging. Those colors — the blues, the greens, and how they meet, and where they meet — all played a part in different ways, and different places, of my history.
In the kitchen, I ground some coffee beans. There was nothing like the scent of fresh-ground coffee in the morning. After I started the pot, I went outside for the papers. Jackson pulled close to my leg like any good herding dog.
I looked at him. “You know, if herding dogs are so smart, whyaren’t you getting the papers for me?”
Even though I always talked to him, I rarely understood hisresponses. But on this day, I think he said, “It’s because I am so smartthat I’m not getting your papers.”
Back inside, I laid out the papers on the dining room table, in two stacks. One stack for me; the other for her. On top of hers went the NY Times crossword puzzle, and on top of that, her pen. Never apencil. Heavens no. That’d be an insult.
Just then, I heard coffee dripping. I got two cups down because I knew it was only a matter of time. Sure enough, as I was pouring, I heard papers rustling behind me in the dining room.
When I put her mug down next to her hand, she said, “You’re a champ.” Then she ruffled the hair around Jackson’s ears. “You know,I had him go out and get the papers the other day when you were outof town.”
I shot a quick look at Jackson, but when I saw him sitting next to her — so close, so ready, so protective — I could overlook his ignoring me.
“What time did they say they’d call?” I asked.
“Nine. But you know how they are.” There was a little bite in hervoice.
I nodded my head. “Believe me — I know.”
I glanced at the clock in the kitchen: 8:50.
As I dove into my papers, she started on her crossword.
Only rarely was I consulted about the crossword, because I would
normally give — according to her — only one of two responses, regardless of the question: the Beatles or Sandy Koufax.
This morning, she asked, “‘Mathematician Author of The Conquest of Happiness?’ And no, it’s not Sandy Koufax.”
I often wondered if she really thought I would know the answers. I mean this stuff was so arcane it only lived in crossword puzzles. But with this one I could see, from somewhere long ago, a book lying on a shelf.
I started smiling.
She pointed her pen at me, squinting. “Don’t you say the Beatles.” “Bertrand Russell.”
Her pen went to the paper, and she started mumbling, which was
her way of spelling out loud. “Dang, the dairy rancher got one right.” Isaw a light come on in her eyes. She said, “Connor! He read BertrandRussell. Even when no one else did.”
I said, feeling like I’d just won some important tournament, “Well,you do know that the Beatles hung out with Bertrand Russell, but . . . yeah. Connor is how I know.” More memories slipped in.
Her eyes were still on me. I’d gotten used to her looks, her smiles, her grimaces. This was a look I’d seen before, but not often, and not recently. She’d had a dream, and she knew I’d want to hear it.
Sure enough, with a faint smile, she said, “How weird. Connorcame to me last night. In a dream.”
My heart raced, and I touched the faded scar on my lip. My mind reeled back in time as I was overtaken by the shadows cast from my long-lost past.
The rusty No Trespassing sign tacked on the barbed-wire
fence was hard to miss. I had seen it yesterday. And like yesterday, I was ignoring it again today, though not out of meanness or disrespect.I had to see if what I’d seen yesterday, I’d see again.
When I put my foot on the bottom strand of the fence, I noticedthe dirt caked on my boots. But, it wasn’t only on my boots.
I looked at the dog by my side. “Boy, you’ve done it now.” Corky,usually a shiny black dog, was caked in dried mud, thanks to having rolled in a mud puddle a while back. My mother didn’t like dirt in the house, and she really didn’t like dogs in the house, and if it were a dirty
dog, well that was a definite no-no. Even though I didn’t know why, Iknew enough to know that Mom had been in a mood as of late. So I had boots and a dog to clean.
But that was for later. Right now, Corky and I had something to do.
I pushed down on the bottom strand of wire to feel how muchbounce it had. Yesterday, I’d chosen the cowardly way of getting past the fence, bending and sliding through the middle strands. No cowboy worth his six-shooter had ever passed through a barbed-wire fence that way. Today, I would do it the cowboy way.
Feeling the tension, I made a quick calculation. Then I grabbed the fence post and — with everything I had — threw myself over, using the bottom strand as a spring. As I was sailing over, I felt the top strand brush against my jeans. I landed with a thump on the other side in thick, knee-high grass.
I muttered, “Damn — almost didn’t make that. And I’m onlysixteen, what happens when I get to be an old man of thirty?”
Corky, still on the other side of the fence, backed up a few steps.When I realized what he was doing, I shouted, “No, don’t — ”
Too late! He’d pushed off the mark and was running full-throttle, his eyes studying the fence, maybe calculating but probably just going with instinct. With a swooshing sound, he leapt through the second and third strands. When he landed, he seemed to have a look on his face that said: “What’s the problem?”
“Show off,” I said with a chuckle.
“Joe McGuire! You lost?”
Ayers Pittman rode his horse Peanut downhill toward me. Peanut
was a well-mannered but muscular pinto, and Ayers was the man who owned the land I was, um, trespassing on. I smiled and raised my hand as either a wave or to show I wasn’t carrying a weapon. Ayers, a stocky
man in head-to-toe denim, had earned the reputation for being a cantankerous hothead. There were only a few people in town hehadn’t gotten mad at. One of them was my dad. One time, years ago,he’d told my mother he liked my dad, a dairyman, because of how he‘knew and appreciated dirt’. Ironic, given my mother’s inherentdistaste for dirt.
Peanut sidled in close. Corky strained to reach up and sniff thehorse’s big nose. Peanut snorted, causing Corky to step back. Corky and Peanut looked like an oddly matched pair. Corky, when clean, was mostly black, with a white blaze on his forehead and chest and a little tan here and there, while Peanut was a taller canvas made up mostly of white, with random splotches of black. It was like they’d been together when someone dropped two buckets of paint — one white, the other black — from the sky.
Ayers winked at Corky. Then he looked at me. “School out early?” “Last Friday, but the public school goes another week,” I said.
He laughed. “So there’s a benefit to being Catholic, huh?”
I laughed, knowing my mother would have had a heart attack. She
was a Catholic through and through. In her mind, no one joked about the Church, ever.
He asked, “What are you — a senior?”
“Not quite. I’ll be starting the 11th grade come September.” “Damn. You could be playing football at Ohio State you’re so big.
Now your brother — he’s older, and in college, right?”
“Yeah. Twenty-two, and over in Wheeling at the Jesuit College.”
Not that I needed to, but I pointed to the Ohio River off in the distance. Martins Ferry sat on the west side of the river in Ohio while Wheeling was on the east side in West Virginia. Two different states, and politics, but the dirt over there was just like the dirt over here.
“The Jesuit college? One of those brainy-types, huh? Not that it’s any of my business, but has he straightened himself out yet?”
Neither his voice nor eyes betrayed emotion, but it stirred plenty of emotion in me. Anyone who knew Connor knew he was a trouble- maker, even though that term sounded tame given some of the thingshe’d done, like knocking his gym coach on his ass. Even thougheveryone in town knew it, the one person who didn’t was our mother.Well, maybe she knew it, but she certainly couldn’t admit it. WithConnor, she had adopted the ostrich approach of keeping her head stuck in the sand.
With a crooked smile, Ayers said, “For a little guy, I hear he’s got a hell of a left hook.”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. I knew Mom wouldn’t want me tosay anything that would reflect poorly on the family. God forbid.
I said, “Well — he has his own apartment.”
Truth was, I was glad Connor wasn’t living with us. There’d beenmore than a few times he’d knocked me on my ass, sometimes using fists, but one time using a baseball bat. He’d always had an excuse, andmy parents would chalk it up to “brothers being brothers.” I would never forget a line from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “You can choose your friends but not your family.”
As if to echo my thought, Ayers said, “Sometimes distance is best .. . I hear you work at your Dad’s dairy in the summer. You going up there this year?”
“That’s the plan.” Dad was co-owner, along with his brothers and sisters, of a dairy my great-grandfather had founded so many years agoI don’t think anyone actually knew when, at least not precisely. I was pretty certain Ayers knew my father was now working in the front office of the dairy, not in the pasture with the animals. Over the years, our dairy had moved more into the pasteurization and distribution side
of the business rather than maintaining herds of cows to be milked. Heck, Dad wore a suit and tie to work nowadays, rather than bootsand jeans. But he had done all that growing up. He’d learned all the aspects of the business, including mucking out the barn, and Ayers knew that.
Since I turned ten, I would stay for the summer on one of our working farms and help out any way I could. It was hard work, butsome of the best sleep I’d ever had were those nights. Exhaustion leads to good, deep sleep. I was also able to take Corky along, whichwas interesting because he’d been born there. I’d always wondered ifhe knew he was home when we were there.
Ayers looked around at the grass-covered hills that ran up and down. We were on the outskirts of Martins Ferry. He owned the land that ran all the way to the top of this hill and down its other side, and even a few adjoining hills. He had always claimed that he owned the highest hill in the county. I never found out if that was true, but no one had ever contested the fact.
My family lived on the small hill just below his. It had once beenhis land, but he’d sold it to my family and four others. He had never taken to heart his No Trespassing signs, not for me. For as far back as I could remember, Corky and I would go onto his land. I think he allowed it because he knew I treated his land with the same respect I treated our land.
Still, since he was here, I asked, “Mind if I go to your pond?”
He smiled. “Since you’re halfway there, how can I say no?” Hethen gave a slight clicking sound, and in one smooth move, Peanutturned around. Ayers called out, “Have a great day, Joe.”
As Ayers rode off, Corky’s eyes narrowed to focus on Peanut.Corky was tensing. Like any herding dog, he loved to chase animals, large or small. Even though it might look like chasing, it actually
wasn’t. It was herding. Seeing Peanut trot off had switched on his herding instinct.
I grabbed his collar. “No herding horses today. Let’s go do what we came to do.”
Corky set off up the hill with an air of determination. Did he know where we were heading? Did he remember what had happened yesterday?
Over a slight rise was a pond, in a pocket among several hills. It was small, and on one side was a stand of trees, mostly leafy willows, providing cool shade. The other side caught the brunt of the sun, but it was there that the bank gently sloped into the water. That was the logical place to enter the pond if you wanted to go swimming. The pond was easily swimmable, that is if you didn’t mind swimming with water moccasins. My father had once said — I think he was kidding— how Ayers had deliberately turned some moccasins loose in the pond as a way to keep kids from swimming in it. True or not, no kids went swimming there.
Most of my friends didn’t like coming back here because of Ayers’ general disposition. But most of them were still in school, and I’d grown bored. It’d probably be a few weeks before I started working at the farm, so I had time. Besides, I liked being outside, and I especially liked walking hills with Corky — and Ayers had some good ones.
What was funny, and maybe a little odd, was that no matter how often I walked these hills, the same thought would run through my head. As I walked up, then walked up even more, I’d always reach thetop thinking that that was it; that I’d finally reached the top of the world. But then I’d look out and in every direction for as far as my eye could see, I’d see more hills. Rolling and stretching in all directions. They waited to be walked and explored. I’d look at the hills and say
not only to myself but to Corky, “Those hills are waiting. Just for us. Out there is our future.”
Like yesterday, we found a flock of geese at the pond. Not so unusual. These geese looked fat and happy, milling through the grass and enjoying the water. I figured they had a pretty easy life back here,with the exception of the water moccasins. Maybe they didn’t care, ormaybe they were so tough they’d run off the snakes. An avian take on St. Patrick.
I had a sense of motion from my side. It was like a sudden gust of wind whistling past. Corky had launched himself. Like any goodherding dog, he hadn’t needed a human’s order or instruction to go to work. It was pure, hundred percent instinct. He saw the geese milling, and for a herding dog that simply wouldn’t do. There had to be order.Of course, I knew trying to herd geese would be like trying to herd cats. But I loved watching Corky work.
Just like he had yesterday, Corky traveled like a rifle shot, precise and straight to the target. The geese saw him and were stunned. Theirsquawking sounded something like: “Who the hell is this nut?”
If anybody had seen Corky bearing down on these geese, they may have gotten worried, but I knew how a sound and proper herding dogcould never bite an animal it was trying to herd. After all, you can’tbring order if you go around biting everyone.
Even though the geese had gone through this yesterday, they stilldidn’t have a game plan. They scrambled to action, with an emphasis on scrambling. At first, it was a disorganized and chaotic mess. They were like the Three Stooges, just not as funny.
Corky stayed low to the ground. If one or two geese were standingoff by themselves, he’d focus on them and herd them into the larger group. That was step one — getting everyone together. If these were
sheep or cattle, step two would include driving them into a barn or pasture. But these were geese.
It was then that the geese used their get-out-of-jail-free card: They took to the air.
They took off, wings and feathers flapping. Once in the air, they started lining up, and as they climbed higher and higher, they finallyformed the typical ‘V’ pattern we’re so used to seeing. They would be gone from sight in no time, and even though the geese were far fromhis reach, Corky didn’t stop running.
I started up the hill. Normally, I would have called him back, but there was something fascinating about watching it all unfold, and in such a grand way. As Corky ran, the geese flew high and ever westward, straight for the horizon. For the first time ever in my life, I really noticed just how blue the sky was. Was there even a name for that shade?
Corky was approaching the spine of the hill and at that moment, I saw the top of the hill touch the bottom of the sky, the rich green of the earth brushing deep blue. Two different colors, representing two different things — earth and sky — but each the same hue and depth, blending together as one. Separate, yet the same.
Between these two dynamic colors, but for the smallest of seconds, a thin, crisp line had formed, that stirred something in arecessed part of my mind. But what? The speed and grace of Corky’smovements suddenly pulled me back to the here and now. Without slowing, he approached the spot where the earth and sky met. It was as if he knew it was the spot. Then I watched as he blasted rightthrough it, just as effortlessly as he’d blasted through the barbed wire fence.
As I came to the crest of the hill, I eased up to soak in the crisp, clean air. I watched the afternoon breeze blow the knee-high grass first
one way, then the other. It was like the motion of a boat, a subtle swaying back and forth. Though I had been born and raised in these hills, and had walked and camped in them so many times before, Icouldn’t remember a single time when I had felt the peace I was nowfeeling. As I stood there, feeling the wind blow past as the world continued to spin, I felt time stop for a moment.
Corky had dropped from sight, but after a few minutes, and as I knew I would, I heard the sound of his tags jangling. Then, he loped to the top of the hill. Together, he and I stood atop the hill, right at the horizon; right where blue met green. We turned and looked to all sides, from north to south and east to west. In all directions, we saw all the world. So this was what it was like to be on top of the world? Butit was something more than that, wasn’t it?
It was a magical spot, a meeting place of two great things.
“A thin place,” I muttered.
From somewhere deep, deep in my mind, that term had come to
“We’ve found ourselves a thin place.” I looked at Corky, his bright
eyes searching. “But you knew all along, didn’t you?”
Thin place — plain, simple words carrying some great significance.
But what was a thin place? Why had the term come to me now? And who had I first heard it from?
I searched my memory for when I’d first heard the term. It wasprobably Irish, perhaps Celtic. There was Irish blood on both sides ofmy family, and I’d heard many a tale from the old country. There was no one quite like an Irishman to tell tall tales, especially if drinks were involved, of which there always were with my family.
As I stood at this thin place, I couldn’t help but wonder who hadtold me about it . . . and why?
I patted myself on the back — I’d remembered to clean the dirtoff my boots before going into the house. More importantly, I’d givenCorky a thorough brushing, tip to tail.
Mom stood in the kitchen making sandwiches. She wore her typical early summer outfit: long shorts and a short-sleeve sweater. Shedidn’t seem too interested in me, but she gave Corky the once — and twice — over. It was like she expected, if not counted on, seeing him covered in burrs and ticks just so she could yell at him. She never seemed to understand that when she yelled at Corky, she was yelling at me.
“We’re going to have sandwiches for dinner.” It was a statement,not a question.
“I can just eat an apple,” I said.
“Well, I’m making sandwiches. And that’s what we’re having.”Did she think my apple comment had been some kind of taunt;
that I was rebelling — against what — sandwiches? I let it go. “Is Connor here?”
Why did everything have to be a battle with her? “I thought I sawhis car out front and was curious.”
“Yes. He’s here. He’s joining us for dinner,” she said, with a lackof enthusiasm. Yep, something was up.
“A dinner of sandwiches. I’ll make sure to put my tie on,” Imumbled, as I headed to my room.
“What was that?” she called out.
I kept walking. I’d lost track, but this had to be the tenth time thisweek where I had found myself wondering what was going on.Something was off. When I’d told Mom I’d completed the tenth grade
at the top of my class, all I got from her was, “Uh-huh.” She loved to brag to friends whenever Connor and I did well in school. This time,though, it was like she’d been asleep when I told her . . . or thinking of something else.
Connor came out of his room. When he saw me, he closed the door behind him.
“What are you doing here, and what’s up with Mom?” I asked,catching the unmistakable whiff of marijuana. Just how stupid weremy parents? Didn’t they smell it? Even if they didn’t know whatmarijuana smelled like, didn’t they smell something like — oh, I don’tknow — a house burning down?
Connor said, “Nice to see you too, brother. There are big thingsgoing on, and I wouldn’t want to miss a bit of it. Just think of me as afly on the wall soaking things in.” Even though there was a smile onhis face, his eyes stayed still and dark. He was wearing his uniform of jeans with an American flag on each back pocket, a battered gray t- shirt and black Converse hi-top sneakers with untied laces. Didn’t heever trip on those things?
Connor had always delighted in tormenting me by never directlyanswering questions. I didn’t have the patience today. Corky and Iwent to my room.
From behind me, Connor said, “It sure is nice seeing Corky. I’vemissed him lately. Maybe he and I can go play ball later tonight. Whatdo you think?”
I actually turned and looked at Connor to make sure it had beenhim I’d heard.
I said, “You’ll need to check with Corky, but right now we’ve got things to do.” I stepped into my room and closed the door. When was the last time Connor had played with Corky? Forget that — When was the last time Connor had even mentioned Corky? Connor, like my
mother, didn’t much like dogs. Then again, what did he like? Ihonestly didn’t know.
When I was around six, a cat had started hanging around. Naturally, I fed him and tried to play with him, but he had a lot of wild in him. I named him Dusty because he was a smoke gray color.Naturally, my mother swore up and down that I’d get bitten, then getrabies, then die. Such a rosy outlook on life.
One day shortly after, I’d walked in while Connor and two of his friends, Rich and Bobby, were playing pool in our basement. Theywere Connor’s age, though I think Rich was a few years older, havingbeen held back in the sixth grade. Even though I was several years younger than Connor, I was already — at age six — about the same size as him. I was aware of this, but somehow also aware not to let Connor know I knew. That day in the basement, though, was when I first noticed how Connor was shorter than his two friends. Yet, was clearly the leader of the group, taking charge of their conversation.
It was also the day I’d learned something I couldn’t quite believe or accept about Connor. I’d wonder about it in the years to come. Iadmit that maybe he’d said it deliberately to get a rise out of me. Buthe’d said it pretty convincingly. Rich and Bobby were watchingConnor sink one ball after another. And then he said, for no apparentreason, “Well, it’s true. Cats can’t swim.” I never saw Dusty after that. That was the day I started keeping an even closer eye on Corky.
I sat at my desk. Should I try to figure out what was going on at home, or try to find out what a thin place was? Working on the thin place puzzle sounded more promising and much more fun. Thing was— where to start? There was nothing in the encyclopedia. I looked at the white World Books — A through Z making up 26 volumes — yet not a thing on thin places. Who wrote this thing? I remembered Mr.Jenkins, last year’s history teacher, saying that each year more history
simply slides away, never to be seen again, because there’s too much information, and there’s nothing large enough to contain it all. Allthose things people had done — the work, the strife, the triumphs, the tears — just forgotten.
“Joe.” It was Mom. “Dinner time.”
What? I opened the door and called down the hall, “It’s 5:45. A little early, isn’t it?”
“Your father’s home. So, get down here!”
Even though it was only sandwiches, it looked like we were still going to eat in the dining room. Would we use Grandma’s fine china?
Even though Dad had his coat and tie off, and the top button of his shirt loosened, he looked like crap. Being Irish, he and I had a naturally ruddy complexion, the kind that never seemed to tan. But now his skin was even paler. It looked like thin parchment paper. And the bags under his eyes were dark and purple. My father had always been the life of the party, any party. Tonight, he looked as though the party had been sucked right out of him. He had a drink, of course. A double bourbon, no ice. The ice got in the way of the bourbon, Iguessed, and we couldn’t have that.
“Let’s all sit,” my mother said. She was wrestling with decorum.Something was bugging her, but she wanted to be polite.
I noticed the sandwiches were on paper plates. My mother only used paper plates to eat outside at picnics.
“So, are we in a hurry to be somewhere tonight?” I asked, as casually as I could. Maybe we were going to someone’s house, maybe amovie.
“No,” Mom said firmly. And with that, I knew no follow-up questions would be tolerated.
Certain animals — Corky was one — had the ability of sensing when a storm was about to blow. It had something to do with sensing
atmospheric changes. Perhaps my spending so much time with Corky had taught me how to read the surrounding atmosphere myself. Whatever it was, while sitting there that night eating sandwiches off paper plates, I felt a significant atmospheric change. A storm was certain to blow.
Before I could say anything, Dad said in a flat voice, “We’removing.”
I suddenly knew what a deer felt like when he found himself facing a car speeding toward him, headlights on.
Mom took a crack at things. “We’re moving to Florida.
Connor . . . Joe . . . both of you have always liked the beach.” She wastrying her darndest to make it sound like a cheery thing. The problemwas, Mom wasn’t a cheery person. She had to force herself to smile,even when she heard a joke. So now, her words sounded false. Not to mention, Dad looked far from cheery. Connor looked strangely noncommittal. But maybe that’s what I looked like — like I’d been hiton the back of the head with a shovel and stunned into silence.
We weren’t done, though.
Mom looked at Dad, a cruel smile playing at her lips. “Tell themwhy, Art.” It sounded like a taunt, like how Connor often spoke to me.
Dad, nose-deep in bourbon, mumbled, “I don’t think Connor and Joe need to know.”
“Oh, I do, Art. I think it’s very important. It might even be a learning moment.” Her words were sharp and carried hate. What scared me was that she wasn’t trying to hide it like she usually did.
There were sides here — Dad’s and Mom’s. But I didn’t knowwhat distinguished one from the other. This was a minefield. Stepping in either direction might be wrong. And Connor — who knew? I was pretty sure I was on my own. Nothing new there.
I thought about the peace I’d felt when I saw the green of theearth touch the blue of the sky. I breathed, and waited.
Dad said, “It’s the dairy.” His voice already sounded stronger. Must be the bourbon.
An older cousin who worked at the dairy had mentioned just lastweek that something unusual was going on there. Typical for me, I’d tuned him out. I mean, c’mon, there always seemed to be issues at thedairy, but what businesses don’t have issues? Dad worked with three of his brothers, and sometimes they disagreed. But they were a family. They had always worked out their differences.
“I’m no longer an owner,” Dad said. He poured more bourboninto his glass.
Mom poured herself a glass of bourbon too. She took a long sip, and even before she’d swallowed it all, said, “We’re out on our ass thanks to his family.”
Wow! Mom was pissed. Well, the dairy had been in my father’sfamily for going on three generations. So, I could see getting pissed. Even without knowing what was going on, I was a little irked. But who should I be irked at?
I asked, “Did Cagle Dairy buy us out?” I rarely paid that muchattention to day-to-day things at the dairy, but I’d heard about that,even though it was last year’s news.
Mom snorted. “If only that were it. Then we might have some money. No, Joe, his brothers threw him out. And no dairy, no money.” “I hadn’t heard.” My words sounded feeble. Maybe it was the pain
she was feeling, but Mom was being strangely direct and open. In thepast, I’d get pissed at her coyness with things — well, now her directness was scaring the hell out of me.
I looked at Connor. Was he smiling?
“It happened quickly,” Dad said as if that explained everything.
“But why Florida?” I asked. “You know tons of people around here. You can get a job here, right?”
My father shot a quick glance at my mother. She had never likedmy father’s family. Had that somehow come into play?
“I want to be as far away from those people as I can get.” She saidit simply, but emphatically. “Besides, I hate the snow. Always have. Sowe’re moving to Florida.”
Something told me there was another shoe ready to drop. Idecided to flush it into the open. “When is this, uh, move scheduled?”
“We leave tomorrow. In the morning,” Mom snapped. “Like I said — I want out of here. This place has been fouled.” Her icy blue eyesdrilled into my father.
I sucked down air as rapidly as they sucked down their bourbon. I was thinking the end of summer would be a good time to move. That would give us time to pack and say our goodbyes. But tomorrow?
Shocked and scared, I said, “Wait. Can’t we — "
“Tomorrow, Joe,” my mother said sharply.
Connor was smiling. I had a thought. Maybe . . .
“Can I stay with Connor?” I didn’t want to, but I’d suck it up if it
meant staying here. He had an apartment near the college. He even had his own car.
There was a momentary silence. I took that as a good sign. Probably no one had thought of my idea. Maybe my parents saw how much sense it made. I could complete my last two years of high school here, with my friends.
“Connor’s coming with us to Florida,” Mom said.
I started, “What?”
“Why go to college with these backward hicks up here, when I can
go to a sun-filled school in Florida,” Connor said.20
I looked at him across the table, at his smug smile. It thrilled himto see me upset. I snapped, “You don’t even like the sun. You’re like a vampire, not getting up till three in the afternoon.”
My mother slammed her hand on the table. My paper plate with a half-eaten sandwich on it bounced up and down — kind of like whatmy stomach was doing. “That’ll be enough, Joseph McGuire.” What had I done?
Standing up, she announced, “We leave for Florida tomorrowmorning. You will each pack one suitcase. Everything else will be boxed and brought to us when it’s time.”
I heard the dismissal in her voice. We were done talking about it. Period.
“Wait,” I said. “Where in Florida?”
“Jacksonville,” Dad said.
I’d never heard of it, but I could tell that the question-and-answer
period was over, so I went to my room to pack. There were probably a lot of people who would love to move to Florida. It was the tropics, with flowers blooming year-round and ocean just waiting. But I had spent fifteen years in Ohio. I loved Ohio, and its rolling hills. Florida had no hills. And, unlike Mom, I loved the snow.
Not to mention, this was where my friends were. Speaking of which, I thought about calling them to let them know that, cometomorrow, I’d be disappearing. And Lisa Geston. We’d started datinglast year, even though she didn’t like using that word. But to me it was dating. What would I tell her, or anyone? That my father had screwedup somehow, so now we were moving? And though it wasn’t said, Iknew it was something my father had done. I knew about his drinking,and I’d heard about his gambling. I was just too damned embarrassed. Better to call them once I got to Florida.
I threw some things into a suitcase.21
“Screw this. I’ll do this — or not do this — in the morning.” Ilooked at Corky who still looked nervous. “Let’s get some shut-eye. Who knows, when we wake up in the morning we’ll find out this was all a terrible dream. Maybe we’ll find another thin place we can slip into. You’ll be able to find it, right?”
Corky did his customary three-turn circle before unceremoniously dropping with an oof onto the well-worn rug by my bed. As he started to snore, I heard my parents arguing. And then the phone rang. A conversation. Then another phone call. What was happening? I hoped it was all a nightmare.
Morning light pushed into my room. I dropped my hand off the bed and waited. Nothing. No lick. I jumped up — Corky wasn’t there. He was always there. Maybe on any other morning, I wouldn’t havegotten so freaked out, but this morning I was freaked out.
I leapt out of bed, threw on some jeans and rushed down the hall,searching room after room. Corky wasn’t in the house, but Mom wasin the kitchen, making even more sandwiches. I decided it best not to ask her. Whatever she said would lead to a fight, I knew.
I threw open the front door and saw Dad crouched over the trunk of his pride-and-joy, a navy blue ‘68 Oldsmobile. Every Saturday he washed and waxed it. Sometimes it’d take him an entire afternoon. I rarely laughed at Connor’s jokes, but he had come up with a good one soon after Dad brought that car home. “Apparently, that car’s the third brother in this family.”
I ran through our yard and the neighbor’s yards. Since there were only five houses on the hill, it didn’t take long. Still no Corky. I went
to the white fence that overlooked a wooded hill that sloped down to a creek. Corky liked to go down there. I called and whistled. Nothing.
I remembered what Ayers Pittman had said the first time he saw
Corky with me over a decade ago. He’d said, “That dog don’t get far from his Daddy’s pocket, does he?”
Of all people, Ayers Pittman had seen the closeness that existed between my dog and me. Not my parents, and not my brother. For Ayers, it seemed perfectly natural, but apparently not so to my family.
A black thought slithered into my head — Corky never strayed far from my side. He was always there. Sometime very early this morning, Ithought I’d heard a car starting. Now I saw that Connor’s car was gone, yet it’d been there last night. Maybe he’d gone to his apartmentto get whatever he wanted to keep?. But wait. No one had said anything about taking two cars to Florida. Were we? And if not, what did it mean? I felt a cold sweat on my back.
I rushed over to Dad. He was wearing slacks and a short-sleevedtop. If I didn’t know differently, I’d think he was going to play golf. When he saw me coming, he stood to face me. His chest puffed up,and his hands curled into fists. His jaw was locked. I’d never seen himlook like this; like he was ready for combat. I guess you never forget things you learn during the war. But what was causing him to do this? Maybe it was the sound of my cowboy boots hitting the ground.
I had always considered Dad “the soft touch.” In my experience,he was the push-over. He enjoyed life, and he had a gift for making people laugh. He rarely lost his cool. But right now — Geez, why did he look like he was getting into a boxing ring with me?
I asked, “Where’s Corky?”
“Go ahead, tell him, Art.”
My mother had walked up behind me. I was caught between the
two of them. They were staring at one another while ignoring me.23
I asked, “Look, somebody tell me — Where’s Corky?”
My father’s shoulders slumped. He said, “Well, Joe — ”
Right then, I knew what he was going to say. It was like a bolt of
lightning. I cut him off and said, spitting out the words, “What the hell did you do?”
My mother started, “We decided we couldn’t take — ”
I whirled to face her directly. “Who’s we?”
“Your father and me. We made the decision,” she said. Her words
had become sharp and shrill, almost defiant. “We’re the parents, remember? You live under our roof.”
“You mean the roof you’re taking me out from under? That roof?” She snapped, “I suggest you calm down, young man.”
“Or what? You’ll leave me behind like Corky? Hey — that’s fine!
I’d rather that than go off to sunny Florida. What the hell’s in Florida, anyway?” I should have stopped but couldn’t. I mean, I actually knew Ishould have stopped. “The two of you make this massive decision andwhat, couldn’t be bothered to even mention it to me? And now I’mfinding out that part of it has something to do with Corky. Who is mydog. Yet you made that decision without me too. When do I get a say,Mom? Do I ever? In anything?”
My father said, in an even-tempered voice, “Joe, we’ve had a lot on our minds. A dog just isn’t — ”
“What does any of this — the situation with the dairy — have todo with Corky? It’s not like he peed in the milk!”
“Joe, quit being ridiculous,” Mom said.
“Remind me, Mom — why is it ridiculous?”
“We can’t take him to Florida. We can’t, and we’re not, and that’s
Just then Connor walked up the hill. He was waving an envelope
in his hand.
Mom walked over to him. “Any problems? They took your car?”
“No problems. Here’s the money. All cash, like you wanted.”Connor handed the envelope to Mom.
They’d made Connor sell his car? Jesus, were we broke? And whydid Mom take the money? Didn’t she trust Dad? But did I even careanymore? Apparently, nothing was my concern anymore, if it ever had been.
“We’re leaving in five minutes,” Mom announced. She andConnor disappeared into the house. She didn’t even look at me.
Dad stepped up to me, and in a flurry of words said, “Ben Tate has Corky, so just let it go. We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”
“But we’re picking him up, right?”
That question seemed to catch him off-guard. His response didn’t come right away and when it did, it was scattered. “We’re not taking Corky. Money’s too tight now, and it’s a long drive to Florida, and,well, Corky’s an old dog, and he’s had some good years. But you know Ben. He’s a good man, and he knows his dogs. Corky will have a greatrest of his life.”
He was trying to calm me down, but all he’d managed to do wasscare the hell out of me. This was my mother’s doing. I knew it. I wanted to yell. I wanted to fight. But I was only sixteen.
As I tried to figure out what to do, Mom and Connor came out ofthe house. Mom snapped, “Okay, we’ve wasted enough time. Let’s go.”
I watched her. Even though she closed the door behind her, shedidn’t lock it. Hell, she couldn’t even bother to turn around and lookat the house she’d built. She simply walked away as if leaving behind a pile of rotting food. She’d never had much use for sentimentality. Justlike she’d never had much use for dogs.
My parents and brother got into the car. As Dad cranked it up,Mom called out of the open window, “Joe McGuire — get in thiscar!” It was like I was five years old again.
I thought of running. But where? Into the woods? No. I had to have a plan. As I got into the backseat, my mind raced. There were two main ways out of town. If we were going to Florida, we’d takeMain Street to get to Route 17, which would feed us into the highway.Which meant we’d pass Mr. Tate’s house. But what then? Well, I’d getCorky, and worry about the next step later. Corky and I had always been inseparable. That was the way it had meant to be.
It was a sunny day, and people were walking through downtownMartins Ferry. Mr. Tate’s house was on Main Street. As we passed his house, I saw him sitting on the porch. At the next intersection, as the light turned red and as our car slowed, I grabbed the door handle. Even before we came to a full stop, I hopped out of the car and ran.
Dad yelled, “Joe! Get back here!”
I ignored him and everything else that was in the world right then. I only had one thought. Corky.
As I got closer, Mr. Tate stood up. “Joe, what in the world are you doing? Get out of the street, you’ll get hit.”
I said, “We’re leaving, and I need to get Corky. Please.”
Mr. Tate looked surprised. He looked past me to my father, who’dcaught up with me.
Dad was breathing hard. He said, “Joe, we need to go. Your mother is furious.”
“I’m not going anywhere without Corky,” I said.
Mr. Tate looked at my father. “Art, you didn’t tell him? I feel uncomfortable about this.”
“Ben, look, I know I didn’t tell you, not everything . . . but . . . I . .. I lost the dairy . . . and, well, we’re leaving Martins Ferry because of
it. You know how Joan is. There’s just no room for Corky. I’m sorry to have gotten you involved.” Dad grabbed my arms. “Joe, let’s go.”
I struggled and planted my feet as firmly as I could, but he dragged me. Mr. Tate made a move as if to intercede, but just shrugged his shoulders instead. He looked at me and said, “I’ll take care of him, son. You can be assured of that.” Then he disappeared into his house. My father dragged me off the porch, and as I thumped to the bottom step, I caught a glimpse of something that would stay with me forever. Through the picture window, I saw Mr. Tate waving to me. Next to him stood Corky.
I screamed. “Corky.”
My father had me locked in his arms, but I was doing what I could to get loose. He was huffing and puffing, and I felt his arms weakening.
I had never deliberately nor specifically gotten into a fight. I’d beenin scrapes at school, and with Connor, but I had never gone into a situation looking for a fight, I certainly had never thrown the first punch, and if anyone had asked, I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that I would never hit my father. But right then, I wanted to. I wanted to break free and run to get Corky. It was the only thing on mymind. Maybe that’s why I was surprised to find another set of arms wrapping around me. It was Connor.
He said, “Time to go, brother.”
I couldn’t fight them both. They were too much together, andmaybe I was still in shock.
Mom was waiting at the car, hands on her hips. As we neared, her cold blue eyes seemed icier than usual.
My mother hated embarrassment of any kind, and here we were, in the middle of town for all to see and hear.
It was a small town, and everyone knew my family.27
“Don’t you ever do anything like that again!” Each word was bitten off, while she scanned the street to see who was watching. In a louder voice than was necessary, I snapped back, “Well,
maybe you shouldn’t leave my dog behind, Mom.”
She stepped even closer, maybe afraid I’d miss her point. “We
don’t always get what we want, Joe. That’s one of life’s lessons. Now get in the car!”
With spit flying, I yelled, “Why did you do this? Please tell me:What in the hell have I done to deserve this? I’m not Connor . . . and I’m not Dad.”
With nothing but anger in her eyes, my mother hissed, “Don’t get like that with me.”
I’d heard that tone before, but today it carried more cruelty than ever.
I leaned into her and looked straight in her eyes. “What is it withyou? Is this how Catholics live their lives, by lying and betraying?”
Her slap came and went before I even knew it.
With the sound of the slap still echoing in my ears, I said in a loudclipped tone, “Goddamn you to hell.”
Connor started laughing. It all happened quickly, but it seemedConnor wasn’t laughing at me. No, I think he was laughing at myparents. He was delighted I’d stood up to them. Something he’d been doing for some time now. Like he was glad I was finally on board with him.
Dad stepped between mom and me. “Okay. Enough. Let’s go!”
I couldn’t let them see me crying, so I hopped into the car. I slammed the door behind me with such force the window nearly broke.
I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I didn’t know what my father had done, or if my parents were getting a divorce, or if the dairy
had burned down around someone’s ears. All I knew was that I had lost Corky. But I’d learned something, and it was maybe something I’dalready known, but now stood in fresh clear light: My parents had betrayed me. And Connor had too.
As we left behind the only home I’d ever known, I swore to myself I would never shed a tear for my family. Ever. They didn’tdeserve it. I’d learned a lesson, and it was that families couldn’t betrusted. They aren’t as portrayed on TV or in the movies. It wasn’t allgifts under Christmas trees and chocolate cake on birthdays.
When the car lurched forward, I knew there was no turning back, not to Martins Ferry and not to a normal family, if such a thing had ever existed.