We’d come up to their place from Grangeville for the summer after my junior year in high school. We stayed in a little silver tag-along trailer they had at the back of their small farm, my mom and me. My mom was there to help her sister get her new beauty shop ready to open in town, and I came along to help my uncle on the farm. We didn’t have any other commitments at home; my mom wasn’t able to find much in the way of regular work at the time and neither was I.
We heard about the fires on the radio throughout August. But Ben’s dad didn’t leave until the day after all the hay was in and we could see smoke in several places just north of the Selkirk Range. Helicopters and planes dangling big water buckets had been flying over regularly for the past week. So, Ben’s dad finally went off with another couple of fellows from the volunteer fire department in Priest River one evening in an old red pick-up truck.
Before he left, we all had a big supper: cold chicken, new corn, fresh beets. Then Ben and his dad played catch like they always did afterwards out next to the vegetable garden. Evening was just starting to fall. Ben’s dad already had his duffel bag under the maple tree. When the other men drove up, his dad squatted down on the grass and Ben ran to him with that tangle of brown hair and those big eyes. They hugged one another for a long time. When his father climbed into the truck with the other men, Ben stood with his head tucked into one shoulder. He didn’t watch them as they drove out the long gravel road to the north.
The next morning, Ben came into the barn while I was milking the cows. He shuffled around next to an empty pen scratching a stick in the sawdust.
After a while, I asked, “You miss your dad?”
He tucked his head down towards his shoulder again like he’d done the night before and nodded.
“You worried about him?”
He shrugged. I tried to bend down to look into his face, but he tucked his head lower and turned away.
“He’ll be okay,” I said.
He blew out his breath, but didn’t look up. He went back to scratching with the stick, and I returned to milking. When I looked up next, he was gone.
Later that day, I saw him in the backyard playing tug-a-war with their old Sheltie, Jake. They were using a ragged towel tied in knots. They were both growling, but Jake’s tail was wagging happily. Jake pulled the towel loose and they both sat down hard and suddenly on the grass. Jake dropped the towel and jumped on Ben. Ben turned his head away down into his shoulder, which was natural enough given the way Jake was licking at this face. But, then Jake settled his head onto Ben’s lap and as he scratched Jake behind the ears, Ben kept his head turned away. I found that odd.
I went up the road after supper to bring the horses in from the little five-acre field the neighbor let them graze in while it went fallow for a year. It was still hot, though the sun had already gone down and the wide sky was darkening towards ink except for the dusty canopy over the mountains were the fires were. I could smell the smoke for the first time.
When I came back in through the screen door to the kitchen, my mom and aunt were taking peanut butter cookies out of the oven. Ben was sitting at the linoleum table cradling his baby sister. He held an empty bottle of formula in one hand and was tickling the bottoms of her feet with the other. Her mouth was open with laughter, though no sound came out because of whatever it was that was wrong with her speaking and hearing.
She squirmed with delight, but his head was tucked away again into his shoulder.
It was hotter still the next day. The morning news, though, said that they’d contained the biggest blazes, which were scattered along the north-easternmost corner of Bonner County.
After lunch, the neighbor with the fallow field, a man named Hank, came by pulling the hay wagon he’d borrowed from my uncle. His two sons rode up on the back with him: towheaded boys a year or two older than Ben. They asked him if he wanted to come over to swim in their irrigation ditch. He said sure, and they went along. I spent the afternoon in the barn, where it was a little cooler, repairing machinery.
I heard my mom and her sister arrive back home several hours later, and shortly afterward, Hank walked Ben home. My aunt came out to meet them, wiping her hands on her apron. I watched them from the barn. Ben hugged her around the hips, then she sent him in to wash up for supper. She thanked Hank and asked him if Ben had minded his manners.
“And then some,” Hank said. He took his cap off and scratched his head. “Curious thing happened, point of fact. Boys had fun swimming and such. I had a couple of errands to run up to town afterwards, so I took them in for an ice cream, it being so hot. I got them their cones, then left them on that bench in front of the hardware store while I went inside for some carriage bolts. Soon as I come out, I seen a big plop of ice cream – vanilla, so I knowed it was my older boy’s – melting on the sidewalk. Him, he was setting there with an empty cone in one hand and eating Ben’s rainbow sherbet with the other.”
A helicopter went by then, not too high, and they both looked up at it. They watched it go towards the three big plumes of smoke that had come up that afternoon above Chimney Rock. Then they looked at each other again.
Hank cleared his throat and said, “Course, I asked my older boy about it, and he just said it slid off, so then Ben give him his. I tried to make Ben take it back or let me buy him a new one, but he wouldn’t do neither. Curious thing was he just sort of sat tucking his head under his arm-like. Acted kind of like I seen hurt birds do when they’re spooked.”
My aunt waved her hand at him. “Don’t think nothing of it. He’s just a little off since his dad left.”
Hank nodded slowly. “All right,” he said. “You hear anything from Will?”
My aunt told him that she hadn’t, and they talked for a while about the fires and weather and the harvest. After a few minutes, she thanked him again and he turned up the road. My aunt shook out her apron and went back into the kitchen, the screen door swinging slowly shut behind her.
That night, my mom and I did the dishes while Ben’s mom sat with him on the sofa reading stories. He kept his head tucked into her side as she read. I know my mom could see them, too – we were both standing next to each other at the sink.
Afterwards, we all sat on the front step and sang some songs, the few I could manage on my harmonica. Ben sat against one of the porch pillars with his head tucked down. I sat against the other. My mom and aunt sat on the glider, and the baby lay asleep between them. Crickets joined us.
The more we sang, it seemed, the more Ben tucked his head down. I watched my mom and aunt exchange glances as he did. He was a small boy for his age, I realized, waifish. Looking at him quickly, you might think he was no older than four or five.
When we got back to the trailer, I decided to ask my mom about Ben. She didn’t seem surprised. She sat down on the narrow bed and sighed.
“Well, it is hard to figure, but Ann says he’s just a little boy who loves too much. She says he gets all full up with it and doesn’t know what to do. She says he’s embarrassed, can’t look at you, confused I guess. After all, he’s only just seven. Ann says he’s usually all right when his dad’s around. I’m sure he’s anxious about his dad, poor little guy.”
I asked, “Is he always like that?”
“Well, he’s always been pretty sensitive about things. A couple of years ago when they came to visit, you remember, I found him in the stairwell with his hand on our dad’s picture and his head tucked down like he does. He’d only seen his grandpa that once in the rest home. Another time, I found him in the same way fingering a little bouquet of wildflowers on the coffee table. Ann says he hears a gospel choir on the radio, he’s got to leave the room, he gets so beside himself.”
I said, “Gee,” or something like that.
“She told me they went into Spokane one time and saw a homeless man by the railroad depot. Ben gave the man his candy bar. Apparently, he had trouble both looking up and sleeping for several days afterwards.”
I said, “I didn’t know any of that. Or, at least, I never noticed.”
“Until now, though I’m glad you have.” She smiled. “You been pretty full up with your own affairs.”
It was still and hot in that trailer. My mom pushed a stray strand of damp hair behind her ear, then slid the tiny window open above her bunk as far as it would go.
I heard Ben go by in the gravel as I was milking the last cow the next morning. I listened to the gate to the first field unlatch, then shut again. After I’d finished, I followed him out there. He was sitting on a little berm against some discarded hay bales. I sat down next to him. His head was already tucked down and he was whimpering a little.
I looked across the fields towards the mountains. The pink of the sunrise under the brown hue seemed otherworldly. I could smell the smoke more heavily than before.
“I missed my dad when he left,” I said as quietly as I could. “Only yours’ll come back. I know he will.”
It was completely still, except for his quiet crying. It wasn’t hot yet. For as far as I could see, there were cleanly harvested, low, brown fields, and beyond them, gray-green mountains and sky.
I tousled his hair and said, “Bet your mom’s got breakfast on.”
He didn’t say anything. I chewed on a piece of straw and watched the pale sky lighten to blue above the haze. Some birds rose in a far field, crows I think, and lifted towards the road. After a moment, I stood up and followed them back towards the house.
Things stayed about the same for the next few days. Then one night, late, a rumble woke me up. I thought at first that it was a plane going by up high until I tasted the cool on my tongue. I sat up. A big clap of thunder rolled down from the mountains and the first splat of rain plinked on the aluminum roof.
My mom sat up, too, and looked at me with eyes that were wide but full of sleep. It took her a moment to smile.
The storm continued through the rest of the night. While I was taking my boots off on the back step before breakfast, I heard my aunt tell my mom that the radio reported no new fires because of lightning. She said that already the rain had put out a good portion of the worst blazes.
It continued raining on and off the following day and the morning after, as well. Ben’s dad came home when we were finishing supper that next evening. He came in through the kitchen door, soot-stained and smelling like crushed ash, while we were finishing our pie. Ben was first across to hug him. We all took turns after, then my mom and I excused ourselves so they could be alone. I went out to the barn to finish the evening milking.
Ben and his dad came outside carrying their mitts and ball about an hour later. From my stool in the barn, I could see that my uncle had taken a bath; his hair was combed wet and he had on clean khakis and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. They stood out next to the vegetable garden with their mitts on, my uncle a few feet away holding the softball, Ben with his head tucked down. I stopped milking.
In a voice I could barely hear, my uncle said, “Come on, son.” He walked over and knelt down in front of Ben. “Let me see that handsome face I missed so much.” He gently turned Ben’s face until they were looking at each other. My uncle kissed Ben on the forehead then, and Ben smiled.
I said, “Gee,” or something like that. It was like having a rainbow appear inside of me to watch Ben grinning like that as he and his father tossed the ball back and forth.
We headed back to Grangeville a few days later. The beauty shop was all fixed up, and it was about time for me to start school again.
My mom found temporary work after Halloween as a filing clerk for the outfit that was building the new chain motel out the highway. That lasted through the first part of the next spring, and she did well enough that she was asked to come back to Des Moines where they were based to work fulltime when the project was finished.
So, we did. That’s where I finished school. I started working for the same outfit in their tool room right after I graduated.
My mom and her sister write back and forth pretty regularly. The beauty shop has worked all right, though they haven’t been able to do much for the little girl’s ears. They leased another forty acres and planted it in rye. Jake got hit this past winter by a truck on the county road when it was slick with black ice, and limps now in one of his hind legs.
Then a short while ago, another letter came, a worse one that told us that Ben had gone into a deep sleep. My aunt wrote that it was due to complications associated with the pneumonia he’d gotten running after Jake the night he got hit. They weren’t calling it a coma yet because he roused every now and again, but it was something along those lines, she said, something pretty close to that. She’d waited to let us know, hoping that he might come around, but several weeks had passed, and he’d been moved up to a
bigger hospital in Spokane. She said they were hoping for the best. So do I. Ben’s nine, about the age I was when my dad left for the last time.
My boss gave me some time off, and I’ve bought a bus ticket to Spokane. I’m packed and ready to leave in the morning. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get there. Sit by his bed, read to him, hold his hand, talk to him, say some prayers, whatever it takes. Maybe, if I’m there when he wakes up, I can say something, do something, to help him stay awake. I don’t know. I’ll stay as long as I need to.
They say that when something like this happens to someone you care about, there’s a hole left where they’ve been. They say that such a hole gradually closes, that time heals, but I don’t actually believe that in Ben’s case. I don’t actually believe that a place can be refilled for a boy like that.
They say that what happened to Ben was caused by an illness that just got out of hand, but I’m not so sure it wasn’t, at least partly, from a broken heart. It might have been Jake’s accident, it might have been the trouble with his sister’s ears, it might have been the wonder of snow falling quietly one night or the cry of newborn calf. For a boy
who loves too much, some things become both more of a joy and more of a burden than they do for you and me.