PIECES OF DESTINY
I awoke with a start several hours later to the plaintive whimperings of an animal, which began as a low murmur, then almost got loud enough to vibrate the floorboards of the hayloft in which I slept. I was so out of it, I couldn’t decide if the sound emanated from a human, a bull, or some strange kind of alien creature. I yawned, then rolled over and peered through the railing just as the barn door creaked open and Mrs. Colt entered, still in her nightgown, carrying a lantern.
“Anything wrong?” I called, rubbing my eyes and trying to focus through the dim light below.
“Just about time for Missie’s milkin’,” she replied, grabbing a wooden stool as she headed towards the three cows in their pens. “She gets mighty ornery if I’m even five minutes late.”
I checked my wristwatch — it was a couple of minutes past 5:00 A.M. I pulled on my overalls, then softly crept down the ladder and walked over to where Mrs. Colt sat. I stared, fascinated by her nimble movements as she finished the first cow, then moved over to the next. The entire operation was amazing to me.
“You never seen anybody milk a cow before?” she asked, deftly squeezing one hand, then the other, causing a splattering sound into the bucket below.
I shook my head. To me, milk was one of those things that you bought from the neighborhood 7-11, then sat on a shelf in a refrigerator. I’d never even given a thought as to where it came from, or how it wound up inside the carton.
Five minutes later, I found myself sitting on the stool and trying my hand at the next cow. I gave a tentative squeeze. The animal let out a grunt, then slowly turned its head and gave me the evil eye. I quickly jumped back, knocking over my stool as I tumbled to the ground, certain I was about to get a hoof in the face.
Mrs. Colt laughed. “Be a little more gentle-like. That’s a very sensitive area, y’know. And Matilda’s a mite picky about strangers grabbin’ her, ‘specially this early in the morning.”
I felt a little embarrassed. Needless to say, this was the first time I’d ever put my hands on a female breast. And probably the last time, too, I thought.
I tried again, and was rewarded by a satisfying squirt into the bucket, and eventually figured out a rhythm, using both hands. About two minutes later, the milk supply seemed to dwindle, as if an invisible faucet had slowly closed shut. “How do you know when to stop?” I asked, giving the teat a cautionary tug. Only a drop emerged.
Mrs. Colt picked up the two buckets carefully, so as not to slosh its contents, and walked towards the front of the barn. “Once you milk a few hundred times, believe me — you’ll know.”
“You want a hand with that?” I called after her, as she exited through the door.
“Thanks just the same,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ve gotta get to the kitchen and start workin’ on breakfast. We got a big day today — we’re going into town to get some things from McBillin’s general store, and we need to stop by the doctor to have him look at that bump on your noggin’.”
“It’s fine,” I said, noticing for the first time that my bandage had fallen off during the night.
“You go on back to bed, now,” she said in the distance. “I’ll have breakfast ready in about an hour.”
I heard the back door shut, then I glanced out at the dark blue horizon. The crickets were still singing merrily in the distant woods, and I caught just a sliver of daylight in the Eastern sky.
“I’ll never get used to these rotten hours,” I thought, as I stifled a yawn and stumbled back to the ladder that led up to my lumpy bed.
§ § § § §
Three hours later, we were bouncing in the family wagon, along the dusty, twisting road that led into town. Travis still wouldn’t talk to me, and in fact, wouldn’t even look me in the eye. But his brother Lem chattered on happily, filling me in on the minutiae of this part of St. Louis, the other farms in the area, the families, and so on. The little boy seemed to be a treasure-trove of gossip, and Mrs. Colt beamed at her son’s ongoing narration, prompting him for information whenever there was a lull. I glanced over at Travis, but he kept to the other side of the wagon and stared out at the Western sky, sullen and silent.
I was again struck by how handsome Travis was. Except for the slight crookedness of his nose, his face was nearly perfect, without a single blemish. From this angle, I took in his strong jaw, pouting lips, and piercing blue eyes, which sparkled as they reflected the pale light of the morning sky. Travis was wearing overalls with no shirt, and his muscular chest rippled slightly when he took in a deep breath. His shaggy blond hair was casually parted in the middle, looking almost immaculate as it splayed down his neck, and he leaned on one arm, causing a vein to pulse up in his bicep. I held my breath, almost hypnotized by his beauty.
I was momentarily embarrassed when I realized I must look like a total wreck, not having had a chance to even comb my hair before we left the house. Unlike Travis, I was definitely not one of those people who could just roll out of bed and look like a million bucks. Gotta remember to make the best of what I have, I thought, remembering my best friend J.D.’s advice from back home; he always had strong opinions on how to hook up with new guys.
As we made our way down the winding rural road, Lem’s narration began to fade out to static, and I felt myself drifting off to sleep. Suddenly, the boy shook my shoulder and pointed. I turned my head and craned over Mr. Colt’s shoulder to get a better view. I hadn’t paid much attention to the town the day before, when I had ridden in with Sheriff Baxter. Now I was taken in by the rustic beauty of old St. Louis. The streets swarmed with shoppers and wagons, even at this early hour. Some of the women wore long, frilly skirts and twirled fancy umbrellas over their heads — “parasols,” as Lem called them — and most of the men wore hats and coats. It all seemed very formal, especially for a Saturday morning. Every so often, Mr. Colt would curse quietly and slow the horses as a throng of people bustled their way through the muddy streets.
The shops were adorned with brightly-painted signs — a butcher shop here, a dress store there, then a tannery (whatever that was), followed by a “sundries” store, which had a banner sign that trumpeted its new soda fountain. Further down the street, I caught a whiff of the delicious aroma of fresh bread from a nearby bakery, combined with some other spicy concoction being prepared by a street vendor. The steady clip-clop of horses’ hooves made me flash back to the one time I visited Disneyland with my folks a few years ago — well, at least in my lifetime. I remembered Disney’s version of “Main Street U.S.A.” being similarly picturesque, with the same sort of quaint, colorful buildings and gabled, art-deco rooftops, though the theme park was considerably cleaner than the real thing.
My nostalgic admiration came to an abrupt halt when I saw a half-dozen black men and children being led down the street in chains. They were wearing ragged, torn clothing, and their eyes were wide, their faces terrified.
“Hurry up, the lot o’ ya,” bellowed a large white man. “Come on! Step lively, now!” He cracked a whip in the air for emphasis, and they all began to shuffle down the street a little faster.
I sat back in the wagon, dumbstruck. “Slaves,” I said out loud. Actual slaves. We’re definitely not in Disneyland, Toto.
“Slavery got abolished a year ago,” said Lem, in answer to my remark. “When the Yankees took over the gov’ment.”
“Then why would…” I began.
“They’re murderers,” explained Mrs. Colt. “It was all over the papers yesterday. Kentucky slaves killed an entire family. The law’s caught up with them, and they’re taking them back for trial.”
I looked away, wincing at the thought of what 1864 justice would be like. We turned the corner from the main street onto a large side road, the wagon wheels splashing noisily through some puddles that had built up in a narrow ditch on the right side of the street. Our wagon finally came to a lurching stop in front of a store that occupied most of the block, emblazoned with an ornate hand-painted sign: “MacBillin’s General Store — Est. 1855.” I hopped out to the wooden step under the awning, trying to avoid the sea of mud that littered the street, and looked up at a nearby street marker, which revealed this was 4th Street. Across the filthy brown boulevard was a lavish stone block church with four white columns standing solemnly out in front. A small crowd of people milled around in front, all dressed in black.
“That’s the Old Cathedral,” piped up Lem, who skittered past me. “Buncha Catholics in there.” He lowered his voice. “’Course we don’t pay them no nevermind, since we’re Baptists.”
I nodded, then stared back at the building, which seemed vaguely familiar. It reminded me of something. But what?
The boy started to run into the store, then gave me a wary eye. “Ya ain’t Catholic, are ya?”
I shook my head. “To be honest, my folks weren’t that much into religion,” I answered. “Technically, I think we’re Presbyterians, but we haven’t been to church for awhile.” More like four or five times in my life, the last one for my cousin’s wedding a few months ago.
“That’ll change soon enough,” boomed Mr. Colt, as he slipped the horses’ reins around a hitching post and tied a knot. “We’ll get you set up at the Second Baptist Church first thing tomorrow mornin’. Can’t have no godforsaken heathens under this family’s roof. Wouldn’t be proper.”
I sighed. So much for my late-Sunday-morning beauty sleep, I thought. I turned to enter the store, then stopped. I looked up one end of the street and down the other, then stared up in the air. Something was missing. After a moment, it finally dawned on me: this is where the St. Louis Gateway Arch sits! Or, I corrected myself, one end of it will be sitting in another 100 years. I stared up in the air, trying to remember how the massive steel structure had looked, the last time I had seen it. The area seemed strangely empty without it.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” grumbled Travis, as he pushed past me. “See somethin’ funny?”
“Nothing,” I said, as my mind snapped back to 1864. “Just something... something that isn’t there yet.”
A little bell rang as I followed him through the door. The store was illuminated mainly from the sunlight that shined through a dozen large glass windows at the front. The glass was somewhat mottled and translucent, so the morning light coming through was dim and diffuse. I followed Lem through a maze of a dozen rows of shelves that nearly reached the ceiling, each filled with an incredible variety of items: spools of thread, boxes of bullets, socks, dinner plates, jewelry, bottles of liniment... all stacked willy-nilly, without any rhyme or reason.
The back row had shelf after shelf of random food items: cans of meat, vegetables, boxes of spices, bags of coffee beans, sacks of potatoes, all smelling fresh and appetizing. Here and there on the floor were scattered large wooden barrels open on one end, one filled with pickles in saltwater, another with what appeared to be tobacco, and still another with fresh fish. Farming tools were stacked along one side: rakes, saws, hammers, even a medium-sized plow on the floor. It was a schizophrenic array of merchandise, a bizarre combination of a grocery store, delicatessen, hardware store, and farming supply emporium, with everything arranged almost at random. It made absolutely no sense.
Nearby, two old men were idly playing a game of checkers, one grumbling while the other jumped two pieces with a flourish. Mrs. Colt gently put her hand on my shoulder, then turned to her younger son.
“Lem, you go fetch everything on this list and meet me back here in five minutes,” she said, handing him a piece of paper. “And Jason,” she said, turning to me, “let’s see if we can get you some proper clothes, just to tide you over until I have some time to get back to my sewing table.”
She pulled out my old pair of ripped, muddy jeans and held them up, as if to guess the size. “You know,” she said, a little puzzled, “I do believe these are the strangest clothes I’ve ever seen.”
I tried not to react, and kept my voice very casual. “It’s what everybody wears back home, in… uh, Canada.”
“‘Levi Strauss’,” she read out loud, then gave me a quizzical look. “Are these made in Germany?”
“Uh, they’re new,” I said, pointing to the emblem on the back pocket. “‘San Francisco, California’,” I read out loud. “‘Established 1853.’ Well, kinda new.” Thank god I didn’t wear anything more modern, I thought.
She nodded. “But we still need to get you some proper Missouri clothes. And you’ll definitely need some proper underwear and a coat. Winter’ll be here before you know it.”
Ten minutes later, we’d manage to pick out my entire ensemble: two pairs of “dungarees” that almost fit me (not Levi jeans, which the proprietor claimed to have heard of but didn’t stock), two gray long-sleeved shirts, a leather belt, three pairs of wool socks, three pairs of long underwear, and a pair of black work boots. Incredibly, the whole thing only came to $10.50. Abercrombie & Fitch it isn’t, I thought, holding one of the shirts up to my shoulders, but you can’t beat the discount prices.
“Ya want that on your account, Mrs. Colt, or will it be cash?” the shopkeeper asked. He had a thick brogue — a mixture of Scottish and Irish, if my guess was right — and he and another clerk, apparently his wife, bustled back and forth behind the counter, wrapping up my purchases in brown paper, tied with twine.
“Cash,” I said, reaching for the remaining dollars in my pocket. I still had $16 left from ‘Aunt’ Olivia’s money that the sheriff had given me two days before. With luck, I might get access to the remaining $800 in her account after the court hearing in a few weeks.
I took out the wad of bills from my pocket and smoothed them out on the counter, then gave one of them a closer look. United States Treasury Note, I read. March 30th, 1863. Legal Tender for Five Dollars. The paper was a pale green, and at least 25% larger than the 2007 dollar bills I had back in my room at the barn. The face on the bill didn’t look like any president I could identify.
“And here’s the fifty cents,” said Mr. Colt, as he snapped two quarters next to the bills on the counter and gave me a thin smile. “The least we can do for our new member of the family.”
“Boarder,” I corrected, my eyes narrowing. “Your new boarder.”
“I heerd about that, Seth,” said the old man playing checkers behind me, not bothering to look up. “Olivia Thomas’ young nephew, is that right?”
“Sure is, Nathaniel,” Colt said, squeezing a little too hard on my right shoulder, making me wince. “County’s done placed him in foster care with us for awhile.”
The second old man looked up, peered at me through his eyeglasses, then nodded. “Yep. I’d know that Thomas nose anywhere.”
I felt my nose, a little self-consciously. I guess it was technically a ‘Thomas nose,’ even if I wasn’t directly related to this particular Thomas.
As Mr. Colt and the checker players bantered back and forth, discussing everything from the weather to crop forecasts, I stole a glance back at Travis. He had a bored expression on his face, then he yawned and flexed his muscular arms behind his head. I felt a slight shiver at the sight of his underarms, which revealed a few tufts of blond hair. Definitely a real blond, I thought; one mystery solved. My mouth suddenly felt very dry.
“STOP!” roared a loud voice to my left.
All of us looked up to see the shopkeeper as he stormed down the aisle after a young boy, who giggled as he scampered away. The man was fast, but the kid was much more agile; the boy feinted to the left, then suddenly slipped through the man’s fingers as the kid made an unexpected move to the right and tore out the front door in a blur and disappeared into the street.
“You blasted scoundrel!” the man cried, running after him. “Ya didn’t pay for those sweets, didja now?” The man lumbered out to the front step, panting, then looked around for a few moments. Finally he cursed, threw his hands down in a dismissive gesture, then stormed back inside and slammed the door behind him, rattling the front windows to the point where I thought they might shatter.
All the shoppers around me stopped and stared at him.
“It’s just penny candy, Angus,” admonished the woman behind the counter, who I guessed was his wife, or possibly a sister. “I’ll just add it to the Harrington’s bill.”
“That good-for-nothin’ scalawag Tommy Harrington will be the very death of me yet,” he muttered, then stepped back around the counter and glared at me. “Now, as for you — will that be all?” he asked, catching his breath.
“Uh... yes, sir,” I said, going down my mental list of needed supplies. “No, wait — I also need some shampoo, a toothbrush, a small mirror, and some floss, if you have any.”
The man’s eyebrows shot up. “Well,” he said, stroking his chin, “I do believe we have some of that shampoo soap in a bottle. It’s expensive — came all the way from Paris, France. It’ll cost ya fifty-five cents. Don’t get much call for that ‘round here.”
“I think I saw a bottle last week,” added the woman, as she disappeared through a door leading to a back room.
“I’m surprised it’s not on display,” I said, nodding to the rows of shelves behind me. “I bet you’d sell a lot more shampoo if you displayed it so people could see it.”
McBillin snorted, then leaned towards me. “Very doubtful,” he said rolling his r’s. “My customers ain’t exactly made o’ money, y’know. Speakin’ o’ which, that’ll be another seventy-five cents for the additional items. And we don’t got nothin’ called ‘floss.’ Never heard o’ that one, lad.”
I shrugged, figuring I could improvise with some string back at the Colt farmhouse. The woman came out from the back and set down an ornate white glass jar in front of me, along with a small hand mirror and a strange-looking wooden brush, which vaguely resembled my old Crest toothbrush back home.
I counted out two more singles. “You know,” I said, as the man turned to get my change from under the counter, “it’s a little hard to find things in here. Have you ever thought about maybe reorganizing the merchandise — you know, grouping similar things together?”
The shopkeeper frowned. “My shopkeepin’s worked for me for more than twenty years, includin’ the last nine right here in Missouri.” He seemed irritated.
I shrugged and pocketed the change. “Hey, it’s just a suggestion,” I said, remembering a Business 101 class I’d taken last semester. “Back where I come from, all the... uh, general stores put all the sewing products together, the clothing on one side of the store, the tools on another, and so on. Then they put a sign over each area, so people can find what they want, even if they’ve never been in the store before.”
He gave me a steely glare. “So,” he said slowly, “you’re wantin’ to tell me howta run my store, do ya now? You got some suggestions for me?”
“Sure,” I said, gathering up my packages, handing one to Lem, who had come up behind me. “For one, it’s much too dark in here. Put up some kerosene lamps and make it brighter in the aisles. Maybe put in a skylight in the roof. Let people see what they’re trying to buy.” I gestured near the front doors. “There’s not nearly enough light coming in from the front.”
“I said the very same thing not a week ago,” the woman behind the counter idly commented, as she wrapped up the last few items.
I pointed to the store shelves. “And your shelves are much too high,” I continued. “Nobody can reach the items on the top two shelves. You should chop them off right about here,” I said, raising my hand about six feet high. “Keep as much as you can on display, then keep the rest of the inventory in a backroom and replace the stock as you sell it each day. That way, you can keep a better eye on the customers as they walk up and down the aisles.”
McBillin drummed his fingers impatiently on the counter. “I see.”
The man’s wife looked over his shoulder. “The boy’s makin’ some good points, Angus.”
He turned to her and raised an eyebrow. “I’ll be the judge of that.” He turned back to me. “Please, go on.”
I picked up my last package. “You should move your cash box and counter from the back of the store up to the front,” I said, pointing my finger from the counter to the front windows. “That way, anybody who leaves has to walk by you first. That’ll solve your shoplifting problem. Nobody will be able to leave without you seeing what they’re carrying.”
His face was turning bright red now. “Anythin’ else, lad?”
I thought for a moment. “Oh, yeah — point of purchase,” I said, remembering a question on the final exam. “You should display a bunch of small items by the cashier — little things like hard candy, handkerchiefs, pens... stuff like that. This’ll make your customers want to buy more right before they leave, even if they hadn’t come in here wanting them in the first place. You’ll have them spending more money without having to lift a finger. They do it all the time back home.”
McBillin began shaking with fury and waving his arms. “I’ve never heard a more ridiculous thing in all my born days!” he roared, his face red. “Get the hell outta my store! Ya got your bloody nerve, comin’ in here and tellin’ me how ta run ma place!”
I stood firm. “I’m a paying customer,” I said. “And you asked my opinion.”
“Come on,” said Travis, grabbing me by my right arm. “You’ve caused enough trouble. Let’s get outta here.”
The woman held the shopkeeper back, while the two old men chuckled and continued their game.
“You always cause trouble like that?” Travis asked, as he stepped up into the wagon, where his father was already waiting.
I grinned. “My mom says I have a knack for it.”
“Angus McBillin is the angriest man in three counties,” said Mrs. Colt, as she got in and sat down next to her husband on the wagon’s front seat. “But he’s got the biggest general store ‘round these parts, that’s a fact.”
“You should see a Wal-Mart,” I muttered, then fell back on my seat, just as Mr. Colt giddyupped the horses and we took off at a fast clip.
§ § § § §
Doc Wells pronounced my head wound to be “healing nicely,” and said I wouldn’t have to wear the bandage any more. Apparently, it’d leave about a two-inch scar right at the hairline, but I figured my hair would cover it most of the time. If it worked for Harry Potter, it’d work for me.
Travis again ignored me on the bumpy ride back to the farm house.
“You’ll look right nice in that new shirt at church tomorrow, Jason,” Mrs. Colt said, as we bounced along the dirt road. “And I’ll hem up those pants if they need it.”
I started to reply, but Travis interrupted me.
“He thinks he’s too good to wear farm clothes,” he muttered, his face a mask of anger. “Gotta wear store-bought clothes, like a fancy boy.”
“That’s not so,” Mr. Colt retorted, as he gently snapped the reins against the horses. “Ain’t got no time for your mother to sew up a bunch of shirts and pants in time for church and school this week. You be mindful ‘bout what I said yesterday, boy, lest you get another whippin’.”
I winced, remembering the savage beating I’d witnessed the night before. I looked up at Travis. His face softened as our eyes met, but then he looked away. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or sorry, but I desperately hoped he at least understood I was sympathetic.
§ § § § §
Once we got back to the farmhouse, Travis and Mr. Colt worked out in the field, while Lem and I spent the entire sweltering afternoon feeding the livestock and cleaning out the barn, alternating as to who pitched and who handled the wheelbarrow. It was a dirty, filthy job, and I was actually relieved around sunset when Mrs. Colt set down two pails of warm water on the back porch and ordered the two of us to clean up and get ready for supper. It wasn’t exactly what I’d call a good shower, but the water’s warmth did ease my muscles, strained a little by the afternoon’s chores.
Lem stripped off his clothes, then knelt by the pan and splashed water and suds onto his face and body. I modestly turned to the side, just to give the naked boy a little privacy. A minute or two later, I did the same thing, scraping off the filth of the day from my skin. I figured I’d shampoo my hair later.
The boy scrubbed furiously for a minute or two, then stepped over to the pump, stuck his head under the faucet, and began pumping the handle, letting the water rinse off the studs. I did the same, momentarily stunned by the temperature of the well water, which was near-freezing.
“So,” I said while drying off, “how do you take a bath when it gets cold out here?”
“’Tain’t no problem,” he said, sucking in a big gulp of water, then spurting it out comically. “We only take baths on Saturdays, afore church on Sunday mornin’, usually out here if it’s warm, or on the floor in the kitchen during the winter.”
I was horrified. “Only one bath a week?”
“Yep. My gramma Lucy says ya might get the poo-moonya if’n you take more’n one bath a week.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s not true,” I said, wiping off my chest and wrapping the towel around my waist. “You only get diseases like that from a virus. And it’s pronounced ‘pneumonia.’”
“Don’t make no nevermind,” he replied, reaching for the soap. “Ya still won’t catch me takin’ baths more’n once a week. That just wouldn’t be right.”
Mrs. Colt stuck her head out the back door. “And I do believe it’s time for Travis’ bath as well,” she said, looking over my shoulder.
The older boy and his stepfather pulled their plow beside the barn and unhooked it, then Mr. Colt took the horses inside. Lem refilled the pans with warm water from his mother’s kitchen stove.
“You wash up now, Travis,” called his mother. “And don’t you forget behind your ears.”
“Yes, momma,” he said, wiping the sweat and dirt from his face. He began to wriggle out of his overalls.
“And be sure to use the soap!” Mrs. Colt called through the kitchen window, amidst the clanking of pots and pans.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, as he briskly stepped out of his overalls and hung them on the back porch railing.
No underwear, I thought, feeling a little dizzy. I tried to look away, forcing myself to become suddenly fascinated by a small flock of birds that circled lazily around a nearby maple tree. From the corner of my eye, I watched as Travis grabbed the bucket and let half of it trickle and splash around his head, like a classic Greek statue caught in a sudden summer storm. His legs were strong and lean, much paler than the rest of his body. His upper torso was hairless and rippled with taut muscles, his waist even leaner and flatter than mine, with a perfect belly button. Most of his skin had a golden-brown tan, except for two white stripes across his chest and shoulders, remnants from his overalls. Travis stood with his back to me, and I could see a series of red welts on his paper-white buttocks, evidence of the cruel whipping from the night before.
“I said, do ya want another towel?” asked Lem, shaking a roughly-sewn rag in my face. “Jason?”
I nodded vaguely, still transfixed by the naked vision nearby, then took the towel and began mopping up my damp face and hair, stealing glances as subtly as I could.
Travis seemed indifferent to his nudity, scouring his body vigorously with the bar of soap, rubbing under his arms and across his chest. He swiveled to one side, and I caught a better glimpse of his front, which was etched by a shaft of sunlight through the trees. His groin was lathered up to the point I could barely make out the key details, but it was still tantalizing enough to cause me to suck in my breath. I felt almost hypnotized, watching in slow motion as Travis scrubbed his scalp, pausing only occasionally to wipe some suds off his face, his eyes shut tight. After a few moments, I looked away as he rinsed off, the water cascading over the porch railing and onto the nearby grass.
“Say, Lem,” Travis hollered to the younger boy, one hand gesturing in the air. “Ya got a towel?” Without even looking, he caught the cloth effortlessly in the air and began to dry off. At that moment, Mr. Colt stepped out of the barn and walked over to the well pump, then started to unbutton his shirt.
And that’s my cue to leave, I thought, quickly turning around. Show’s over. “I’ll get dressed up in the loft,” I called over my shoulder.
“Chicken’s on the table in five minutes,” Mrs. Colt called. “You men-folk hurry, now. Get it while it’s hot.”
Definitely hot, I thought, as I tiptoed through the barn doors and up to my sanctuary, hoping my growing erection hadn’t been too visible through my towel. Much, much too hot for comfort.
§ § § § §
“That was a mighty fine supper, Sarah,” said Mr. Colt, rocking back and forth in a chair and puffing on his pipe, as we sat outside on the front steps. “Mighty fine, indeed.” He let out a small belch for emphasis.
The moon only gave out a faint illumination, but Mrs. Colt — I still couldn’t bring myself to call her “Ma,” as she asked twice during dinner — had lit a kerosene lantern beside the front door, which cast an amber glow on the five of us.
“The apple pie was excellent,” I said. I had to stop myself from adding that the fried chicken had far too much cholesterol, and it’d probably cut five years off our lifespan, but I figured the world wouldn’t figure that out for another century. “Thanks again, Mrs. Colt.”
I sat back and took a long deep breath. Well, I thought, you can’t beat this clean country air. My aunt’s apartment in modern-day St. Louis had been surrounded by smog. Between the neighboring I-270 freeway and some nearby manufacturing plants, the air was downright smelly, and there was often a nasty yellowish-brown haze in the sky. The world of 1864 is a lot cleaner than that.
Mrs. Colt rocked back and forth in her rocking chair, while her husband sat on the step near me, exhaling a blue cloud of smoke.
She smiled at me. “Those new clothes fit you just fine, Jason,” she said, as she picked up her knitting needle. “You’ll look right nice at church in the mornin’.”
I pulled at the collar. The material was a little scratchy, but I’d get used to it.
“By the way,” she continued, “I was washing your old clothes, and I noticed something mighty strange. What is that below the waist? Some kind of fastener?”
I had to think for a minute. “Oh,” I said, finally understanding. “The zipper. Yeah, it’s very big back home.”
“In Canada,” said Travis dryly, giving me a glance.
I nodded. “Yeah. Um...” I fumbled, trying to quickly change the subject. “So, what do you guys do for fun? That is, after dinner.”
“James used ta play his guitar,” Lem said, pronouncing guitar as ‘gee-tar.’
Mrs. Colt sighed. “He had a very nice voice,” she said, a little wistful. “We miss him so.”
“I can play a little,” I said. The family stared at me. “Well, I’m really better at keyboards. I’ve played keyboards for about ten years — piano and organ, that is. But I got a guitar for Christmas last year, and I figured out a few chords.”
“You can sing?” asked Lem.
I grinned. Singing was one thing I had done all my life. In fact, my folks used to tell me I was singing before I could talk, just humming along and singing nonsense words along with the radio when I was just two years old.
“Yeah,” I said. “In fact, that’s what I hope to do someday — act and sing for a living.”
“Not much money in that,” said Mr. Colt, spitting off to the side. “Not ‘round here, anyways.”
Before I could answer, Lem appeared with a guitar, the front door slamming behind him. He handed it to me, still a little out of breath.
“This is James’,” he said. “It probably ain’t fancy compared to what ya had back home.”
I examined it. I had a cheap Les Paul electric Gibson that my mom had bought for me off eBay last Christmas. This one was a hand-made six-string acoustic, but I knew enough to see that there was some very nice workmanship in the fingerboard. I took a tentative strum. Ouch. Definitely a bit out of tune.
“Give me a sec,” I said, then whistled a G as I turned the tuning key on the third string, then checked the others.
“Ya really know howta play that thing?” asked Mr. Colt, putting down his pipe in surprise.
I continued picking at the other strings for a few moments, then nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “It helps that I have perfect pitch, so I can at least get it in tune. Hold on.”
I felt in my pocket. I still had the piece of plastic I’d broken off my old high school ID card, with the words “Class of 2009” on it. I held it between my thumb and forefinger, balanced the guitar on my knee, and strummed a C chord. Perfect, I thought.
“Ya know some songs?” asked Travis, fascinated.
“Only a few thousand,” I said, casually. The reality was, I was a ‘walking/talking encyclopedia of pop culture,’ as my dad used to call me. I only had so-so grades in science, barely made it through history, and higher mathematics made my eyes glaze over. I couldn’t catch or throw a baseball worth a damn, and I was a total dolt when it came to most sports. But music was the one thing I knew backwards, forwards, and sideways.
“Let me think for a moment,” I said, idly plucking a few strings with my improvised pick. I wasn’t about to launch into some hot Justin Timberlake number. Something more in touch with an 1864 audience. I thought of the music my parents had listened to, from my dad’s enormous CD library in the living room. They were huge 1960s and 1970s fans, and our house had always had music playing in the background for as long as I could remember.
“How about ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’” Mrs. Colt suggested. “That was one of my mother’s favorites.”
“The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home... ‘tis summer, and darkies are gay...” croaked out Mr. Colt.
“Or ‘Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” added Mrs. Colt. “That’s a good’n, all right.”
“Let me try one you haven’t heard before,” I said, remembering one of my mom’s favorite oldies by James Taylor. We’d sung along with that one in her car whenever it came on the radio. I tentatively picked out the opening chords, and the family leaned towards me.
“When you’re down... and troubled...
and you need some love an’ care...
And nothin’... no, nothin’ is goin’ right.
Close your eyes and think of me...
and soon I will be there...
to brighten up even your darkest night.
“You just call out my name
and you know, wherever I am
I’ll come runnin’... to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall...
all you got to do is call...
And I’ll be there... yes, I will...
you’ve got a friend.”
It was hard to play the guitar without a shoulder strap, and the frets felt a little uncomfortable beneath my fingers, forcing me to struggle with some of the chords. But my confidence grew as I continued with the second verse, and my voice rang out, crystal-clear, and echoed out into the trees. I gave it everything I had, filling the words with emotion, remembering all of Taylor’s nuances from his live DVD concert my dad used to watch every so often in our den back home.
I looked up, and was embarrassed to see that Travis was staring at me, his eyes soft, almost misty, with an expression of pure admiration. My voice cracked for a moment, and I turned away, looking off into the moonlit trees, so I could concentrate on remembering the lyrics.
Finally, I made it through the last verse, and strummed the final chord.
I looked up, and the family stared at me. Lem began to clap, and the rest of them joined in enthusiastically.
“That was downright remarkable,” said Mr. Colt, leaning back on the porch and taking a deep puff on his pipe. “You got a fine voice, boy. Fine voice, indeed. Never heard that one before.”
“Just wonderful,” enthused Mrs. Colt. “You really must join our church choir! Reverend Webb will be so excited to hear you.”
I winced. “I don’t really know any church songs,” I protested. “I mean... I’m really just a pop singer. And I’m a lot better at piano than I am at guitar. Here, let me try another one.”
I went through an oldies set some friends of mine and I had done for a neighbor’s birthday party the year before, for one of my parents’ friends. I started off with Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” then slowed things down with The Beatles’ “Yesterday” (fumbling on a few of the chords), then launched into Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and ended up with Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” I got an enthusiastic ovation, and Mrs. Colt positively gushed, giving me a warm hug.
“Ya gotta do one more!” pleaded Lem. “Please?”
“That’s enough for tonight,” said Mr. Colt, checking his pocket watch. “It’s already past your bedtime.”
I nodded as I handed the guitar back to the boy. This was the first time I’d had a chance to exercise my voice in days, and it was great to sing again, even for an audience of four. They think these songs are all brand-new, I thought. So old, they’re new again. I felt a warm glow all over, then let out a sigh as I remembered where I was. Or rather, when I was.
I was halfway back to the barn when I heard a voice behind me. I turned, startled.
“You make up all those songs yourself?” asked Travis, who trotted up alongside me.
“Hardly,” I said with a chuckle. “Those are really old songs where I come from, by a lot of great musicians. I haven’t written any songs — not yet, anyway.”
“You sing in public?”
“Yeah,” I said, as we opened the barn door. “That’s almost as natural to me as breathing. Music’s my whole life — well, that plus acting. I haven’t decided which to do as a career. Maybe I can find a way to do both someday.”
We entered the barn, and Travis lit the kerosene lamp by the door, then turned it up slightly. He stepped over to me, his face bathed in the warm glow. He was close enough that I could smell him; he had a clean, masculine aroma, and the light caught his eyes at just the right angle, giving them almost a glow. His eyelashes were long, almost effeminate, and his face was boyishly smooth. Probably hasn’t even shaved yet, I thought.
Travis paused. “My... my brother James used to sing for us on Saturday nights,” he said, looking down at his feet. “He was good, but you were...” His sentence trailed off, and he groped for the words. “Just amazin’,” he said finally, almost in a whisper.
I tried to be nonchalant. “I had a couple of lessons,” I said. “I sang in the school chorus for the last few years. Some friends of mine even had me sing with their band a few times. But I think I’m really a solo act.”
“I thought you were just some kinda city boy that never did any kinda work,” he said, apologetically. “I’m... I’m sorry for what I said before.”
“Don’t be,” I said. “You’re right — I don’t know squat about farming. About the only thing I really know how to do is act and sing,” I said with a shrug. “I’m pretty useless otherwise.”
“I bet you could win the singin’ contest at school,” he continued. “We got one comin’ up around Thanksgivin’.”
I sighed. Like I want to stay in 1864 long enough to do that. “I’m going to enter another contest next year when I’m 16,” I said. “Then I can compete on American Idol. It’s a big show they have back home.”
He looked at me suspiciously. “I thought you lived up in Canada.”
“Does it really matter?” I said. “Listen, Travis,” I said, reaching out and grabbing his muscular shoulder, which felt warm and solid. “I... I, uh, really want to be friends with you. As long as I’m staying here, anyway. If I ever do anything that pisses you off, just tell me, OK? And if you’ll teach me what to do around here, I promise, I’ll do whatever I have to do. Especially if it keeps your father calmed down.”
“He ain’t my father,” he said, looking away. “He’s my stepfather. The bastard even made me take his damn name.”
“Your name isn’t Travis Colt?” I asked.
“It’s Travis Finnigan,” he corrected. “My mom made me change my last name when they first got hitched, five years ago. But as far as I’m concerned, that ain’t my real name. I don’t care what no piece o’ paper says.”
I gave his shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “Hey,” I said. “To me, you’re just my friend, Travis.”
He grinned, and his whole face lit up. Travis was normally good looking, but he completely glowed when he smiled, which was a rarity. Dimples, I thought. Cutest damn dimples I’ve ever seen. Stunning.
“You’ve got a friend,” he said shyly, remembering the words of the song. “I felt like you were singin’ it just to me.”
“Winter, spring, summer or fall,” I said softly, my heart beginning to hammer as I slipped my arm over his shoulder and gave him a small hug, without even thinking. Jesus Christ, I thought. I’m totally falling for this guy.
“Travis!” called a loud voice from the distance. “You better git your fanny to bed, boy! Else’n there’ll be hell ta pay!”
His expression evaporated, and he pulled away from me. “I better go,” he said. “G’night.”
“’Night, Travis,” I called after him. I watched him disappear into the darkness, then closed the barn door behind him. One of the cows murmured as I dimmed the lantern, then I walked across the dirt floor and made my way up the ladder to the hayloft, and slid over to my makeshift bed.
I tossed and turned for several minutes, then finally realized there was only one way I was ever going to be able to sleep. “Nature’s sleeping pill,” I said quietly, remembering what a friend of mine’s older brother euphemistically called jacking off, when I’d gotten my first lesson about sex at the tender age of 11. I reached down beneath the covers and slid my fingers down to my erection, which was as rigid as steel. I hadn’t had an orgasm since... well, since 2007, I thought. How many days ago was it? Two? Three? Technically, about 143 years, depending on your point of view.
It didn’t matter. No way would I ever be able to sleep with this iron bar poking out from between my legs. I began stroking slowly, then built up to a measured pace, as fleeting images of Travis’ soaking-wet body flickered through my mind. My heart pounded at the sight of his bare chest, his muscular arms, his handsome, innocent face. I stepped up the pace and began to gasp, remembering the quick glances I had of his groin. How big was his dick? He was uncut, that much I could see, and had very little body hair, but it didn’t matter. However he was equipped, it was more than enough for me.
I began to pant, and my strokes became faster, more frantic as I replayed the afternoon bath scene in slow-motion. At last, the orgasm shot through me like a freight train. I cried out a guttural moan as I spasmed twice, three times, my hips bucking uncontrollably, leaving a hot sticky pool across my chest. Jesus, I thought, wiping away a slimy trail across my chin and nose. I actually shot all over my face! I lay back on the bedcovers, my heart pounding, trying to catch my breath. That was easily the best orgasm of my life.
“Jason?” whispered a voice in the distance. “Ya alright up there?”
I stiffened. “Uh...” I stammered, then cleared my throat. “Uh, yeah. Travis? Is that you?”
“Yeah,” he called from down below. “My stepfather sent me back out here to remind ya. We don’t have to wake up until after dawn on Sundays, but we gotta be at church by 7:30. Mom’ll wake ya in time for breakfast.”
I leaned over the railing, hoping Travis couldn’t see the mess. “Thanks,” I said, praying I hadn’t been too noisy.
He gave me a curious glance. “You alright up there?”
“I was just having a dream,” I said. “That’s all.”
He nodded, then walked away, closing the barn door behind him.
The most beautiful dream ever.
I lay back in bed, then stared up at the moon through a small hole in the barn roof, listening to the soft serenade of the frogs and crickets as their night symphony echoed in the distance.
excerpt from “You’ve Got a Friend”
Music & Lyrics by Carole King
©1971 EMI Music Publishing, Inc. (ASCAP)
All rights reserved.
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