THE FAR END OF THE PARK

 

“From this moment I began to conclude in my mind, that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken solitary condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world…”
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

 

 

CHAPTER 1

An Orange Bus and a Yellow Ball

The boy leaned forward resting his arms on the back of a vacant seat.  He peered through the bus’s windshield where streaks had been left by a wiper clearing the last traces of a shower they had passed through a mile or so behind them.  They had just turned onto a road of hard-packed sand with traces of scrubby grass running down its middle.  Up ahead hand-painted letters on a wooden sign welcomed them to Hawkers Park.  The sign more weathered than painted, more rotted than weathered, seemed more like a warning.

Out in the park, tourist kids had a ballgame going in a sunlit clearing not quite free of trees and humps.  Shouts and screams would follow a yellow softball sailing through the leafy overhang between there and a row of small cabins.  Anyone chasing after it might go tumbling over a gopher mound.  Much of the time, a tree stood in the way, and what looked like a homerun ricocheted and rolled feebly across the infield.  “Interference!” every player would shout as if they alone had thought of it.  By prior agreement the batter took first, while other base runners could advance by one.

This had happened at least six times before what might have been an August calendar scene was ripped away to reveal September lurking behind it.  An orange school bus pulled into the space between the first two cabins in a row of eleven, a school bus so out of place in August it seemed like a broken promise.  What business had a school bus showing up at a time like this in a place where people took vacations, in the middle of a summer game just before supper?

Lightning could have struck the dog racing everywhere the ball flew, so suddenly did jaws drop and eyes glue themselves to a reminder nobody needed and the last thing anybody wanted to see.  Thunder exploding overhead might soon bring an end to their game with two out and the lead run on second, but an orange school bus ended everything, piling the whole summer into a heap behind them with school sticking up over the top of it.

Eleven pairs of arms went limp, six on one team, five on the other.  Eleven heads forgot the count of balls and strikes.  The lone girl on the team of six stood frowning above the makeshift home plate, a square of floor tile.  The runner on second strayed away from another floor tile to have a better look from the other side of a tree blocking his view.  He might have been tagged by an alert baseman.  Instead no one noticed, no one bothered.

Squirrels stopped clambering through the treetops, parked themselves on convenient boughs, and appeared to stare.  The dog whimpered and froze in a shaft of sunlight, still as a shaggy lawn ornament between home and first.  Only a large lawnmower spun ahead as if nothing had changed.  Driven by a man big enough to make it seem small, the lawnmower continued to clatter far down on the other end of the cabin row.  It swept in circles around trees down that way and moved steadily closer.

Out of the bus stepped four people one by one, the first a slender man of angular features who could have come from a pillow fight, with his hair suggesting he’d been hit from several directions.  His face seemed flushed.  He rubbed his nose and scratched his head and returned the distant stares of the eleven ball players.

“Don’t just stand there empty-handed, George,” said his wife, who wore a red cap and blue jeans rolled up at the ankles, the next one out of the bus.  She wrestled with a large cardboard box, a flap of which caught on the folding door as she flipped the whole thing sideways to get it through.  From within, the silvery point of a clothes iron peaked.

Ignoring his wife, George dodged around her to receive an ironing board passed through the doors by the third of this group, a woman much smaller than the first, who let go of her end as soon as George had the whole thing in hand.  She turned around and took a box from the arms of a boy, the last one coming out.  The boy ducked back inside and appeared again, this time with two plump grocery bags pressed against his chest.  At that moment, the ironing board opened of its own accord and sent George sprawling in front of the bus.  Meanwhile Phyllis had gone ahead into the second cabin.

“Jeez,” said George, rolling over and sitting there in fresh cut grass rubbing his forehead.  “Jeez, I hate these things. Can’t get them open when you want them to. Can’t get them to stay folded up when they’re supposed to.”  For George Cobb, life was a lot like that.

“I hope you didn’t hurt anything,” said the other woman, whose name was Kate, bending over him.

George, on his feet again, managed to say only his disposition had been affected.

It was clear to Kate and her son that he’d been drinking.  They exchanged knowing glances as they went into the cabin where Phyllis was already emptying her box.  Dish towels had been arranged near a sink.  The iron stood upright on a green dining table.

“Welcome to your new home,” said Phyllis, removing her cap and waving it around, as if the place, not much larger than a boxcar, was in fact an auditorium.

“Our new home,” Kate repeated, trying her best to look pleased.

George waltzed in, hugging the ironing board and covered with grass clippings.

“This isn’t the way we help our friends move in – look at you, George!”

George, as his wife directed, did his best to look at himself.  He peered between the ironing board and his chest, then down his trouser legs, both of them grass clippings the whole way, falling off in pairs and tangles on the floor.  A grass clipping trail from there led back to the screen door.

The boy dropped his bags of clothing in a corner and went outside for another load.  A parade had begun.  Out of the school bus came everything he and his mother owned.  Into the cabin it went, box and bag.  Into a vacuum cleaner went the grass clippings.  Soon it was over, and while the three adults sat inside drinking ice tea from a pitcher Phyllis had brought, the boy slipped outside around to the front of the cabin to watch what remained of the ballgame.  Halfway up the cabin row the lawnmower clattered nearer.  Thunder rolled, and rain drifted from a cloud scuttling along the horizon.

The boy turned on his tiptoes to peer in through the cabin window.  His new home, viewed from out there, seemed much smaller than a boxcar even, no bigger than a rabbit hutch.  Three people sitting at the kitchen table filled up most of what passed for space.  Phyllis, the largest of the rabbits, looked up and waved at him.  She pointed to a stack of plastic tubs with lids still in place – chicken, potato salad, beans, all fixed this morning.  Soon they would eat, her gestures said.  Come inside and feast, here in the rabbit hutch.

He couldn’t hear her saying to the others what a great idea it was to move their stuff with her school bus, instead of the construction-company truck her husband had suggested.  “Friends don’t move friends around in dump trucks,” she had pointed out to him earlier in the day when he was yet sober but no more sensitive than when he was drunk.  Sensitivity was a quality George lacked, as far as Phyllis was concerned.  Sensitivity was something he needed help with.  Besides, using her school bus they had done it all in one trip, with no need to worry about rain.  Hadn’t they already passed through a shower, and wasn’t it thundering just now?

The boy turned back to the ballgame with the lawnmower now near enough to drown out the shouts of players.  In a slice of opening through the trees he had an unbroken view of home plate where the girl was back at bat.  At first viewed as a liability and so picked last when sides were chosen, she had proven herself the best slugger on either team.  She had already taken down several branches and a pile of leaves with three hard line drives, the last of them nearly beaning a squirrel.

What happened next was one of those things that in retrospect seems to have occurred in eternity, rather than anywhere here on earth where the boy stood watching.  The yellow softball, delivered underhand, floated toward her bat, which sprang from her shoulder to meet it.  Before he ever caught a glimpse of it, the boy knew it flew his way, between the trees, as straight and true as an arrow aimed either at the window behind him or at his heart.

Eleven voices in a chorus sang, “Uh—Oh!”

Eleven kids quit breathing, and time stood still.

He glanced at the man on the lawnmower, now only a few feet away, and then glanced back at the ball.  His hand came up as far as he could reach in front of the window glass.  The yellow ball hurtled into his palm with such force that he didn’t have to tell his fingers to close around it.  His knuckles driven back tapped the window pane.  Phyllis, George, and his mother looked up from their paper plates.  George said, “Jeez!”  Out in the clearing, eleven cheers erupted.  Eleven pairs of hands clapped.  Even if you had trained all your life for such a moment, you still would have been surprised at such a catch as this.

He had hardly a second to enjoy it, and no chance to acknowledge their cheers by giving the ball a careless flip their way.  He would have been nonchalant, as was his way, but a heavy hand fell upon his shoulder, and another grabbed the yellow ball.

“You kids should know better than play ball anywhere near these cabins,” said the man who drove the lawnmower, not to those who’d been in the game at his back, but to the boy standing there a foot away, the one who hadn’t been playing, who caught the ball and saved the window.

“You damned near broke this window!”

Out in the park, the game broke up.  The cabin kids slunk away to their various cabins.  The boy stood suddenly alone with his accuser, a big man wearing the sort of cap that boaters sometimes wear, white with an emblem above a black, pointed bill.  A single gust swished through the park trees, dropping a few green acorns on the roof of the boy’s new home.  They rolled down over an eave, while overhead a rainbow arched in a brilliant wash of rainy sunshine, with the boy, the man, the tiny cabin, and the yellow ball centered beneath it, had there been anyone left in the park clearing to view it from there.

“What’s your name?” demanded the man, even bigger now, standing so close the boy could smell the hamburger he’d recently eaten.

“Jude,” the boy struggled to say.

“I’ll remember that,” said the man.  “I never forget a name, and I never forget the face attached to it, and don’t you forget what I just said.  Do you hear?”

The unforgettable name and the unforgettable face attached to it didn’t know whether to nod or shake its head, so it did both and swallowed hard, and that was the end for the time being.

The next morning when Jude came outside for his first full day in the park, he actually peered around the cabin corner before stepping fully into view.  He half expected the man to be standing there still, waiting for him.  Instead he found the yellow ball, slick with dew, lying beneath the window.  As he picked it up and turned it over in his hand, he had the feeling he was at the beginning of something, and a long, long way from the end.

CHAPTER 2

Perching in the Park

Jude was the name the big man said he wouldn’t forget.  The only child of Katherine and Philip Henley had the face he wouldn’t forget.

When Jude was very young, his father – also very young as fathers go – died of a rare disease.  Jude found its name as unpronounceable as the magic words of disappearing tricks and no easier to remember than his father who disappeared from his life, as if by trick, before he knew anything about him.  He couldn’t really forget him because he had nothing to remember, but he couldn’t really ignore him either.  His father was a room you could never go into in a house where you used to live.  You couldn’t help thinking about it and wondering what there was behind a door that never opened.

His mother’s friends called her Kate.  She was a frail, fidgety sort whose smoky blue eyes often seemed to gaze past him at something he could never see if he glanced back over his shoulder.  Jude and his mother, being poor, moved around a lot, though they always lived in or near the northern town of Jeffers in summer tourist country.

They lived in an apartment over a hardware store with the light, oily smell of new tools in it and the sound of a bell ringing downstairs as customers came and went.  They lived in a trailer house parked in a farmer’s yard with white chickens under it all summer clucking and waking them up mornings and dusting themselves in its shade when the day grew warm.

They lived with Jude’s grandmother the year she was sick and dying in a small brick house where framed pictures of his father stared at him from every shelf and shiny mahogany tabletop.  In some of these – Jude fancied – his father seemed about to speak to him.  His lips were tensed, words quivered there.  Jude strained to listen, planting his elbows either side of the picture, resting his head in his hands, and gazing right into the eyes of the man they said was his father.  Though minutes might go by with Jude struggling to keep his mind empty of any other thought, himself as motionless as the picture, he could never make out what his father was trying to say to him.  His memory of this blended into another, of his grandmother in a rocking chair with a blanket over her lap and her chin nearly resting on her chest softly humming something he also couldn’t make out, something as remote and far away as his father in another time.  Jude was seven or eight.

He was fifteen the August evening Phyllis Cobb’s orange school bus brought them to Hawkers Park, a tumbledown resort where city people stayed for their summer vacations, and only people who had nowhere else to stay and didn’t mind cold drafts lived the rest of the year.  Its cabins had been given the names of fish, game birds, and animals on hand-lettered wooden signs nailed up over their otherwise identical doorways.  Since the cabins looked alike in almost every respect, without these signs to identify them, a stranger would hardly have known whether he slept in the Bass, the Crappie, the Rabbit, or the Duck.  Nor would it have mattered.  He might have slept in each of them on successive nights without knowing the difference.

Jude and his mother had moved into the Perch, second in the row through the park, a cabin with a squeaky screen door.  This made it at least a little different from some of the others.  In the Pike, first in the row, lived Harmon Grove, retired professional wrestler, owner of the cabins, creator of their doorway signs, and driver of the lawnmower.  Tourists might have enjoyed these cabin names, and Harmon thought them clever, but Harmon had a high opinion of his own genius, and tourists came and went and didn’t stay long enough to bother with their mail or much of anything else.

For the Henleys, though, The Perch, Hawkers Park was the address of their new home.  It would even be written that way on Jude’s records at school.  They had to make the best of this silliness.  Kate began telling people they perched in a perch, as if they actually lived in the carcass of a fish, and even those who’d already heard her put it that way, laughed again.  Whether because they thought it funny, or out of sympathy would have been hard to say.

“Why didn’t he just put numbers on them?” she said, speaking of their new landlord as she sat at their kitchen table arranging a stack of envelopes one evening shortly after they arrived.  “Then we would be in cabin two – that wouldn’t sound so silly.”

“Maybe he can’t count,” Jude suggested.  By this time he knew the big man on the lawnmower was their landlord Harmon Grove.

“Anything you can manage to laugh about will never get the better of you,” Kate said, implying the next time her son felt like being critical, he might take this into account.  “… Well, anyway, I wish we were ducking in the Duck instead – I really like ducks.”

In what seemed no longer than a quack after that, the Duck was empty.  In fact all the other cabins were empty.  Even before the Henleys had unpacked the last of their boxes summer vacation season ended.  Everyone who’d been playing ball the day Jude arrived had picked up their bats and their gloves and gone home for good, not gradually, but all at once as if in a Labor Day parade.  He had only just learned their names, and now they were waving goodbye and calling him lucky for living in the park all winter long.  Jude waved back and grinned and thought he wasn’t lucky at all for being so alone.

It all happened so fast. If they hadn’t left behind the old floor tiles marking home plate and the bases, Jude might have wondered if they had ever really been there, or if he had simply been dreaming, so quiet it suddenly was as he stood alone in the clearing and kicked second base.  A week later, contemplating a fringe of grass growing up around home plate, he knew this was the last he’d ever see of them.  He should have known better the moment they said, “See you next summer.”  He shouldn’t have said it back to them.

Their parents would go somewhere else for next summer’s vacation, and his brief companions of a fleeting August, a year older then, would find summer jobs and not even come along.  With so much happening in their lives, why would they think about him, and why did people say things like see you next summer when it wasn’t true, and they couldn’t mean it?  Maybe it was just too hard to say instead, I’ll never see you again – have a good life.  That was the way it really was.  He’d be forgotten long before next summer came around.

But with so little happening in Hawkers Park, he was afraid he wouldn’t forget them so easily.  He wouldn’t have anything else to think about, while they were thinking of so much else.  Like it or not, he would go on remembering their names and even the tee shirts they wore the last time he saw them.  Life from now on was bound to be that boring, or so he feared looking ahead, both through the imagined months of a school year just beginning and across the park clearing to the small cabin where his mother was even now preparing supper.  For the first time a wisp of smoke came from its chimney pipe, a sign of things to come.

Only places that had once been full of hubbub could have seemed as quiet as the park after Labor Day when the Bass and the Crappie were as silent as a taxidermist’s fish.  With nothing in particular happening out there, the screech, screech of the screen door grew louder as he went outside to look around.  “A watched pot never boils,” his mother sometimes said, yet there he was hanging around the other cabins regardless, scuffing up stones half buried in sand by their silent doorways, watching for something that never happened, like his school bus showing up on a holiday or like a pot that wouldn’t boil.  Soon this changed in what at first seemed a small way.

In early September a local cabaret singer known as Jeannie T moved into the Woodcock, a twelfth cabin, one hidden from view on a forested hill on the end of the park farthest from theirs, so far and so hidden that weeks might have passed before Jude learned about it on his own.  Instead his mother greeted him with the news when he arrived home from school on Friday of the first week at Jeffers High.

Though Jude wasn’t much interested, she shared Jeannie T’s story, as far as she recalled it.  “I haven’t heard of her in years.  I always knew her as Jeanne Thorpe, but I suppose it’s not a very good name for somebody in show business.  I mean it does have a dull ring to it, doesn’t it?”

While still known simply as Jeanne Thorpe, she had sung on a national television show, an amateur talent competition, when she wasn’t much older than Jude.

“Few things ever got Jeffers people more excited. Such a big deal, Jude, you would hardly believe it.  I suppose because she was so young and so very pretty and nothing much ever happens around here.”

Jude’s mother rolled her eyes when she said this, as if to add that she herself was neither very young any longer nor very pretty.  Jude, not thinking about Miss Thorpe but about nothing much ever happening, rolled his eyes too.  He’d been so bored in the park he actually looked forward to school and was dreading the weekend ahead of him.

“When she left Jeffers with her parents on the train to New York City, her fans jammed the depot till its doors had to be flung open – though it was the middle of winter – and people spilled out into the street till that was blocked, and Jeffers had its first-ever traffic jam.  Police were called in to straighten out the mess.  The night of the talent show, extra television sets were brought into bars and cafes so everybody could see no matter where they sat.   Nobody wanted to miss it.”

“Did she win?”  Jude asked, struggling to appear interested.  “Did she win anything?”

“She won something, but it wasn’t the top prize.  I’m not sure what she won – it’s been so long, almost twenty-five years ago.  I was still in high school.  Jude, it’s funny the things we remember and the things we forget.  It doesn’t really have much to do with how important they seemed at the time.”

At the time, as far as Jude was concerned, having Jeannie T living on the far end of the park mattered less than falling acorns pattering on their cabin roof just then.  He was more likely to remember the acorns.  He didn’t think of the singer as a pot waiting to boil the minute he quit watching.  He didn’t think he would never forget her.