Saturday, August 6, 2011

Summer Of Decision*

Picture of our neighbors, Orville & Kitty Steadman, as I remember them, early 1950's.

Heat shimmered up from the young green cornfields. It was just another hot summer day. Vacation was already a drag. I was beginning to look forward to school. The kitchen where I sat watching Mom fix dinner was only slightly cooler than outside. I was bored. There just wasn't anything to do.

Then I heard the familiar rattle of our neighbor's old black coupe. Trixie began to bark as the car pulled into our barnyard.

"Louis," Mom called to Dad, "Glen just drove in." Dad got up and came out of the other room. "I wonder what he wants," Dad said. "Probably needs some more money." Dad went outside and I slipped along behind him. I went over and pretended to swing, but actually I was listening to what was going on.

Glen had let his car door swing open and was sitting sort of half-in, half-out. One foot rested on the running board, clad in the old "romeo" bedroom slippers he always wore. His old blue overalls were undone at the sides. His white undershirt showed through.

Dad sat down on the cement step. Glen took out some papers and a can of Velvet tobacco. He rolled a cigarette, lit it and then seemed to forget about it. The cigarette somehow stayed on his large lower lip even as he talked. I kept watching his mouth, waiting for the cigarette to drop, but it never did. How did he do it?

As I eavesdropped, I began to think Dad had been wrong about why old Glen had come up. They were just talking about the weather, the crops, neighbors -- everyday stuff. Even though I knew Dad had loaned Glen money many times. Sometimes just a couple of dollars, but usually a five dollar bill. "Just until Saturday," Glen always said. And when Daddy went back into the house, he would tell Mom how much he had given our neighbor and she would write it down in her book. I never did know if it was paid back.

I was about ready to go back in and tell Mom that he had just come up to talk, when there was a little lull in their conversation. Then suddenly Glen blurted out, "Lou, could you give me $5.00 until Saturday?" I looked at Dad. He had a weary look on his face. There was a long pause and then, "Glen," he said, "I'm sorry, but I just don't have anything I can spare. I'm really sorry, but things are pretty tight for me right now, too." I watched and listened in fascinated horror. To my knowledge, Dad had never turned Glen down. I thought for sure that he was dooming Glen and his wife to death by starvation. Surely he wouldn't do that! I ran to the safety of the kitchen where I could smell dinner cooking and know that I wasn't going to have to go hungry. I felt so sorry and so helpless.

When Dad came back into the house, Mom said, "Well, was that what he wanted?" "Yes," Dad replied, "but I had to tell him no this time. I can't be giving him money when I have to go to the bank and borrow five hundred dollars just to keep us going."

What had he said? Five hundred dollars! For a moment my world spun and went black. I couldn't believe what I had heard. My Dad had borrowed five hundred dollars! It just wasn't possible. He would never be able to pay back that much money. An then what would happen? Would we have to move? Would Daddy be put in Jail? I wasn't very old, but I knew that my Dad always paid cash for everything. To him borrowing was a sin. I just couldn't understand what had driven him to ask the bank for a loan.

Suddenly I was sorry I had spent my quarter allowance on Saturday. I wished I had it to give back right then. I was ashamed I had begged Mom to buy me some new shorts and then kept nagging after she had said we couldn't afford them. There must be something I could do to help Dad get out of this awful mess. But what?

Several days went by. I still couldn't thing of anything. On Saturday I saved my allowance - all of it. I would save it up every week and then give it to Dad all at once. It would seem like more that way. But even that wouldn't help much.

Then one day, I hit upon the idea of hiring myself out to the neighbors. It took a lot of courage for me to get on my bike and start down the road. My plan was to go all the way around the country block. There were eight families along that route. I began to visualize all the money I would earn.

I stopped at the first house and offered my services. But they had children of their own to do chores. So I went on. The second family only kept chickens and they didn't need any help with them.

I was beginning to lose my courage. But I forced myself to go on down the mile. On the corner lived an older couple. I felt better. I was sure they would like to have a young girl help them. I stopped my bike and went to the door. Mrs. Steadman came out. "I was wondering if you had any odd jobs I could do," I asked. "Well, I don't know," she replied. "What kind of jobs did you have in mind?" "Well, I could clean eggs, or dry dishes, or clean windows - just about anything." "How much do you charge?" she wondered. That was something I hadn't thought about. I only knew I needed to make a lot of money. She waited for me to answer. Finally I managed to stammer, "thirty-five cents for cleaning eggs, twenty cents for drying dishes?" It was more a question than an answer. Then she asked why I needed the money. I was getting panicky. She was asking too many questions. I couldn't tell her the real reason I needed money so I just said something about not getting enough allowance. "Well, I don't think I have anything for you to do. Does your Mother know where you are?" That did it. I said, "thanks anyway," and got out of there as fast as I could. I was afraid she would call my Mom. My spirits were crushed. I turned my bike toward home. No use going to the other places.

After that experience, I stopped thinking in small change terms and began thinking about how people got lots of money. It seemed to me the people I knew either had money, or didn't. I really didn't know how farmers made money except by selling eggs and cream. That was all I ever saw - Mom's egg money. I knew that only paid for groceries and sometimes a pair of shoes. Where did the big money come from?

Finally one day after getting the mail from the box, I had my answer. In the mail that day was a notice of premium due on one of my Dad's life insurance policies. Life insurance. That was it! I knew my parents had a policy on me for $1,000. If I died, Dad could pay off his loan and have some left over. It was great! Now that I had figured out what to do, I felt better. Except that I didn't really want to die. But I had to! I had to for my family's sake.

All I had done was exchange one problem for another. Now I had to figure out how to do it. It would help if I could convince myself I really wanted to. I began taking every insult my brother and sister gave me as proof they didn't really want me around. If Ron said, "Oh, drop dead!", I believed he meant it. If Mom or Dad yelled at me, it was proof they didn't love me. Finally I had worked myself into the proper unloved, unwanted mood.

I began to look at the kitchen knives as something more than utensils to cut bread and meat. But I wasn't sure I could do it with a knife. Dad had a rifle, but I wouldn't be able to point it and shoot at the same time. If I got behind the wheels of the milk truck as it backed out ... but that seemed too gruesome.

I tried sniffing gas fumes from the car gas tank. But nothing happened. Besides, I like the smell of gas. Maybe I could catch a cold and get pneumonia. But even that didn't work.

The summer was passing and I still hadn't found a way to do it. Every night I promised myself, "tomorrow for sure." Then it occurred to me that perhaps my folks didn't have my insurance policy anymore. I should see it first. I had just found it when Mom caught me. "What are you looking for?" she demanded. I couldn't very well tell her, because then she would want to know what I wanted with my insurance policy. So I just gave my usual brilliant answer - "nothing." I waited for my chance and after a few days got the policy and looked it over ... "My name, $1,000 to my parents upon my death ... yep, it was all there. What was that - something about suicide - 'no benefits if death by suicide occurs withing two years from inception of policy.' Check policy date. Yeah, in force longer than two years. All set. Nothing to keep me from doing it now. No more excuses - tomorrow's the day."

The next day when I got up, it was late. I dawdled over some breakfast. Dad drove out of the lane in the pickup following two big trucks. I went outside to play awhile. Dad came home. Lunch time. I didn't feel like eating. Mom asked me what I was moping about. "Nothing." I went back outside. The day was passing too fast. I was spinning around slowly in the swing when our neighbor drove in. Dad came out. I didn't pay any attention to them at first. Then Dad was reaching into his billfold and giving Glen some money! Glen thanked Dad and backed out the lane.

I followed Dad into the house. "I just let Glen have $10," Dad told Mom. She got her book out to write it down. "And I paid off the note at the bank, too. Those hogs brought top market price this morning."

* Summer Of Decision was a story I wrote in May, 1973 for a creative writing class I was taking at DMACC. It was based on my memories of true happenings nearly twenty years earlier. (An old diary confirms my asking Mrs. Steadman for work.)
As I recall, I received an A grade on my story. The teacher remarked that she had the feeling the story might have been based on something that really happened - "knowing how young minds can construe a situation."

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