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Hard Things

By Patricia Bailey

The summer Bobby died was a hot one. The driest on record according to the DJ’s at KKRZ. Drought reports and all the hits made their way through my transistor radio as I wandered the dirt road that led down to the river. No one swam there anymore, so I had the whole place to myself. I’d walk down each morning, long before Daddy got up to go to work, and sit, watching the still water and picking up smooth flat rocks for skipping. Not that I planned on throwing any. I just kept piling them up, waiting, I guess, until the time was right.

Bobby drowned in the river the week before school let out. His body was still out there, wedged, they supposed, between some low lying rocks. No amount of looking turned it up. “We’ll have to wait for a storm,” the fire chief said after he officially called off the search. “Churn things up a bit.” Everyone within earshot turned their faces to the cloudless sky, but no one said anything. No one needed to. A few people looked over at Mama who was leaning against a tree, her arms pulled tight across her chest, her fingernails digging into her shaking shoulders. I saw a couple of ladies from the school board lean in close and whisper to one another, but no one approached us and Mama was still standing against that tree when the onlookers and the searchers finally tired of talking about the tragedy and set out for home, their heads filled with dinner plans and tomorrow’s work schedule.

I didn’t see Mama for several days after that. She stayed in her room and as near as I could tell she didn’t come out to eat, or to use the bathroom, or anything. Daddy said she was mourning. So I fixed the meals the best I could and tried to keep the house clean. Some city councilmen’s wives stopped by, casseroles and cakes filling their arms. They leaned forward straining to peek through the screen door, desperate for an invitation in. But I thanked them for their dishes and kept them at the door, the smell of their perfume filling the front porch.

Eventually Mama did come out of her bedroom. She set up camp at the kitchen table, a worn robe wrapped tightly around her thin frame, and a pack of cigarettes resting right next to her hand. She didn’t say much, except to tell me that my staring was giving her a headache. “Now, be a good girl and go on outside,” she said taking the cup of coffee I offered her and shooing me with her free hand.

“She just needs some time,” Daddy told me. I was sitting in the crook of the oak tree, staring down the road. “It’s a hard thing, losing your first born.” I nodded, looking away as his eyes welled with tears.

I knew about hard things.

I hadn’t gone to the river the day that Bobby drowned. I was at the library, filling up on Little House on the Prairie and Great Brain books in preparation for the long days of summer vacation. That’s what I told Daddy, and that was the truth, mostly. Really, though, Bobby hadn’t asked me to go. And when I saw him and Jenny sneaking through the field behind the library, Bobby’s arm wrapped around her slim waist, her ponytail bobbing as they ran, I knew why he hadn’t asked me.

Jenny was in my class at the junior high school, but that didn’t keep her from chasing after Bobby who was nearly graduated. She didn’t talk to me much. Her daddy owned the drugstore and sat on the city council and that pretty much marked how things were here in Mission Falls. So she and Bobby tried to keep it a secret. It wouldn’t do to have her dating the son of the feed store sweeper, and I heard Bobby tell her more than once that if her daddy found out, he’d kill Bobby and no one would be the wiser. I guess knowing that was part of what made me follow them that day.

Being jealous was the other part. Up until Jenny came around, I could count on Bobby to do almost anything. He’d take me fishing up at Krueger Lake and help me build tree forts out in the back pasture. Once he even borrowed Daddy’s pickup and taught me to drive, covering his eyes and laughing as we bounced along the dump road. We were together a lot, Bobby and me, and I listed those things like a prayer as I walked along the road. By the time I got down to the river, I was convinced that Bobby would be glad to see me, that he would have invited me swimming too, if only he’d have noticed me at the library.

Bobby’s T-shirt and jeans were folded neatly and resting on a rock; Jenny’s shoes were scattered across the trail. At first, I just thought they were stripped down for swimming, and I was about to holler for him when I saw the two of them laid out along the riverbank, Jenny’s dress balled up like a pillow beneath her shiny hair. Bobby was leaning over her, kissing her softly on the mouth and she was moaning, the same sighing sound I heard Mama make long after she and Daddy thought we had gone to sleep.

I hate to admit that I stayed there, but I did, hidden in the shadows of the willow trees that lined the trail. I don’t know how long I waited, but it was long enough for Jenny to stop sighing and for Bobby to slide away from her and pull on his jeans. He was standing on the rock facing the river, tossing a skipping stone in his hand when I got up to go.

If I had it to do over again, I’d have been more careful. I would have watched where I stepped. But as it was, my legs were asleep from crouching beneath the willows for so long, and I couldn’t help it. When I tried to stand, my left foot fell hard into a pile of dried branches. The crack of the branches and my yell of pain must have startled Jenny and Bobby. “Oh my God,” Jenny yelled, yanking the balled up dress over her head in one swift motion. “It’s my daddy!” She pulled on her shoes and ran out along the river and down North Fork Road. I saw Bobby spin around from his perch on the rock as he watched her run. His eyes scanned the tree line, looking for the threat, and before I could say anything, he dove into the river below.

I ran home, certain that if Bobby caught me he would kill me. Mama was there, making dinner, her head bent low over the oven to check on the pot roast she was preparing. “It’s too hot for cooking,” she said, fanning her face with her hand as she straightened up and looked at me. “You seen your brother?” “No ma’am.” I shook my head and turned away. I washed my hands at the kitchen sink for a long time. Then I sliced the bread and watched the door, waiting for Bobby to come home.

We didn’t have dinner that night. Mama and Daddy called Bobby’s friends and then sat up, waiting. I stayed in my room, kneeling in front of my bed and praying that Bobby was okay, that he’d come home once he knew that it was safe. In the morning, Mama and Daddy searched the property. Then they fanned out, walking up and down the road that led from our house into town, Mama’s tired voice calling his name over and over in the dry summer air. I don’t know which one of them thought of the river, but when the returned, they were red-eyed and silent. Daddy managed to call the police, despite Mama hanging onto his arm, and he explained about his missing son and the T-shirt and shoes they had just found at the river’s edge. The police put together a search team, and it wasn’t long before the entire town of Mission Falls turned up.

Even Jenny was there. She stood with her family like any of the other spectators as the rescue team searched for Bobby’s body. She didn’t look at me, but I watched her, waiting for something, a look, a sign of recognition, anything, I guess. Her eyes were shiny with un-cried tears and she had bitten her bottom lip so hard that it was speckled with blood, but when I reached out to touch her arm she pulled her shoulder away, a shiver of movement that seemed to crawl over her entire body. “What’s gotten into you girl?” I heard her daddy ask as he steered her toward his Buick. Her answer was lost in the slamming of the car door.

I spent my entire summer at that river. Sunup to sundown. Daddy had his job. Mama had her kitchen. I had the river. And the stones.

I was still down there the day before school was scheduled to start. The grass had burnt an ugly yellow, and the sound of bare feet slapping against the cracked ground turned my attention to the trail. “Bobby taught me to skip,” Jenny said as she ventured toward me, her eyes on my pile of flat, white rocks. I hadn’t seen her all summer. She’d changed. Her long blonde hair was cut close to her head and her normally thin body was hidden beneath a sack of a dress. “We’d spend hours out here, just tossing stones across that water.” I scooted over so that she could sit down next to me. “I’m leaving town tomorrow,” she said, her palm resting lightly on her belly. “To live with my Aunt Stephanie in Little Rock.” She hummed along with the radio a bit before continuing. “I miss him.”

I nodded. I missed him, too. I picked up one of the stones from my pile. I was surprised at how cool it was. I closed my eyes and shuffled through the remaining rocks until I found the flattest of the stones. I handed it to Jenny. Together we stood, and in one motion, we spun those stones out across river. We watched as they hopped and bounced along the water, ripples rising in their wakes. We watched as the rocks settled and disappeared beneath the surface. Then we left. Jenny heading up North Fork Road, me making my way up the trail and down the dirt road that led home. I turned my face up to the sky as I walked, letting the rain wash the tears from my cheeks. Somehow, I knew Jenny was doing the same.

Patricia Bailey is a teacher and writer whose work has appeared in a couple of online and print publications. She makes her home in Southern Oregon.



Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.



 


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