“Do the kids know what?” said Bob, the nine year old, from the back. He was always listening to the talk from the front seat. What his sister said didn’t matter much, but he listened carefully to his Mom and step Dad. They said interesting things some times.
“Oh,” said his Mom, turning slightly in the front to look back at the kids, “we are stopping at the neighbors, the Renkes, for coffee and a treat before we go home.”
“But, Mom; Daddy said, `do the kids know;’ he didn’t say `do the kids know?’”
“Yes, Bobby, that’s right; that’s what he said. What you need to know is that the Renkes have a boy about your age.”
“Well, yes, it should be.”
“Listen, honey, and you, too, sweetheart,” she said turning further in the seat. “Little Billy, that’s his name, Billy, is not like you kids. He is not a healthy boy like you, Bobby. He was born with a bad problem. He has been sick since he was born.”
“Billy have chicken-pox,” said Beth.
“No, sweetheart, he doesn’t have chicken-pox.”
“At least she didn’t say chicky-pox, like she used to,” said Bob.
“It is much worse than that. Now you must both be good when we are there. Don’t stare at Billy and don’t ask questions. We can talk about it later at home.”
“What do you mean, don’t stare at Billy? Why would we stare?”
“Let’s start right now. Don’t ask questions. We’ll talk about it all later.”
“But, Mom, what does it mean?”
“Billy is a very sick little boy. He cannot walk or talk. He is always in his crib.”
“But what is wrong with him, Mom? What does he do?”
“Not now, Bobby, not now. Just wait. I’ll explain everything later.”
“I want to hear that,” said his stepfather under his breath as he turned the car into the Renkes’ driveway.
The Renkes had a farm just one mile north of the home place. It was, like theirs, a half-section of land with a house and all the out buildings: barn, chicken house, granaries, and a shop with a shed for storing machinery. Bill and Verleen were about the same age as Ott and Margaret, but they had been married since after high school and had lived on the farm for all those years. Bill and Verleen had three children. The oldest, a boy, was born nineteen years ago, and he was away at college. Their daughter, a teenager, was still at home. And then, some ten years after the birth of their second child, they had Billy.
“Come in, come in,” said Verleen. “Did you just come from church?”
“Yes, we did. Isn’t it a gorgeous day? It’s so nice of you to invite us. We are just getting to know our neighbors. Have you been to church today already?”
Bill and Ott stayed outside smoking cigarettes and talking.
“I went to early mass,” said Verleen, “and Bill stayed home. Bill doesn’t go to mass anymore, and someone must stay with Billy. We cannot leave him alone. Here, come and meet Billy. Come along all of you; he’s in his crib in the living room.”
Bob was curious. What could a boy of six be doing in a crib? Beth was looking around for toys. His Mom reached down and took them each by a hand, and they walked into the living room. They had come in through the back door of the farmhouse, walked through the porch, where the boots and coats were, and then in through the kitchen. There were smells of bacon and coffee still in the kitchen, and as they walked into the living room, Bob could smell baby powder and the smell of church. It was not a bad smell, but different. The smell of cut flowers, sweat, perfume, barnyards, and wood all mixed together. On the wall as they entered the room was a picture of Jesus with a wood cross underneath it. He was always keeping an eye on visitors. He had long hair and a beard. Both were light brown, and his blue eyes followed you wherever you went. They were sad eyes, though, and Bob wondered why they would be sad.
“This is Billy.”
They were standing by the side of the crib now. Jesus was looking at them all.
Billy was lying on his back. He was squirming and waving his arms around. His head was as big as Bob’s head, but the rest of him was like a baby. Billy’s eyes didn’t see anything; they were like marbles pushed into his forehead. His eyes had no life to them; they did not follow you around at all. Billy’s mouth was open and his tongue was hanging out. It waved like a little red flag when he shook his head back and forth, back and forth. Bob could see his little legs squirming under the blanket. Billy’s head rolled back and forth in a constant and perpetual swing like a pendulum.
“Oh, praise God,” said Margaret. ”You poor child.” She squeezed Bob’s hand hard.
“Billy funny,” said Beth, “Billy waving to Jesus.”
“No, sweetheart, Billy is sick.”
“Billy have chicken-pox?”
They looked at Billy for a minute or two. Verleen leaned over the crib and straightened the blanket, tucking in the bottom.
“He always kicks the blanket loose,” she said as she wiped his face with a tissue.
“How old is Billy, Mrs. Renke?” Bob asked.
“Why Billy is going to be six next week. Yes, April 7 is his birthday, and he will be six years old,” she said looking at him with sad Jesus eyes.
“Let’s have some coffee and cake. Does that sound good?”
As they made their way to the dining room table, a big round oak table with six chairs around it, Bob overheard Verleen telling his Mom about Billy.
“He has a congenital defect,” she was saying. “He was born with a condition they call Hydrocephaly. It affects the brain. He will never be any better. The doctor is surprised that Billy has lived so long.”
“Oh, you poor woman.”
“Well, God works in strange ways, and we must suffer. Suffering builds a strong soul,” said Verleen, “so I thank God for sending Billy.”
Bob looked back and saw that Jesus was still looking at them, and at Billy lying in his crib. He wondered what Billy’s soul was being strengthened for.
The men came in from outside and the talk of Billy stopped. They had some chocolate cake, with milk for the kids, and coffee for the adults. Ott and Bill talked about the early spring and how the wheat was starting to grow quickly now after having spent the winter in hibernation. They talked about the progress of the war.
“I see that Roosevelt has ordered the rationing of canned foods, meat, fat, and cheese,” said Bill.
“Yes, that’s in effect now, isn’t it? Good thing we are on a farm. We will still have all the meat and eggs we need,” Ott replied. “I saw in the paper that the US bombers had done some serious damage to the Japanese in the Battle of Bismark Sea. When do you suppose this war will be over?”
“God willing, it will be over very soon,” Verleen said.
“Oh, yes, God must be willing. We have sons there in danger,” said Margaret.
Bob remembered how his Mom had broken down at the supper table last night after Daddy had said grace. She said right out loud: “Oh God, save Bud, you must save Bud.” And then after a silence, she added, “And Virgil, too.”
Bud was his older brother, who was in the South Pacific with the US Coast Guard. And Virgil was his stepbrother, Ott’s son, who was in Europe fighting the Germans. “Our family is fighting Japs and Nazis,” he thought, “but I guess Mom really loves Bud best, because he is her real son.”
After a short while they said their goodbyes and climbed back in the Ford for the one-mile trip home.
“I have to get home to see my pig,” said Bob. “He’s always hungry.”
“Bill gave me some squab,” said Ott. “We could have them for supper. Do you know how to cook squab, Mom?”
Bob and Beth had both noticed that grown men on the farm often called their wives “Mom.”
“She’s not your Mom!” said Beth, scolding her stepfather.
“You are a bad girl; don’t talk to daddy that way.”
“Billy is funny,” said Beth.
“What is Hydrocephaly?” asked Bob.
“No, he is not funny, you shouldn’t say that. He is sad,” said Mom. “That’s the name of the problem he has, Bobby.”
“Billy’s lucky,” said Beth.
“Why do you say that?”
“Billy can’t be bad.”
Bob looked out over the field of wheat that was dark green with the plants spreading over the brown rows of earth and making a carpet of green. He noticed that the Renke’s cows were grazing on the wheat and asked, “Won’t it hurt the wheat to have cows eating it?”
“Not so long as the wheat hasn’t started to joint,” answered Ott. “As soon as the plants start to send up the central stalk then you have to get them cows out of there. But as long as it’s just young lookin’ grass, it’s good for grazing.”
“What would happen if you left them in too long?”
“Well, then the wheat would not grow any bigger, and there would be no crop to harvest.”
“How do you know when to take them out?”
“Keep an eye on the plants. They tell you when to get the critters out of the fields. As soon as the center part of the plant starts to grow, it’s time to let it alone.”
“I wish the cows didn’t ever eat wheat.”
“It makes the milk taste awful. I wish we could have real milk.”
“We do have real milk, silly. What could be more real than milk right from the cow?”
“I mean milk in a bottle with the little paper cap on the top and the cream at the top.”
“Well, we can’t, and that’s that,” said his Mom. “We’re on the farm now, and we don’t have to buy our milk at the Safeway anymore.
Hey, kids, look there. Look!” Ott pointed out toward the field of wheat to the west of the road. “See the coyote?”
He pulled over onto the shoulder of the gravel road, stopped, and pointed out the window. There was a lone coyote loping across the field.
“What’s he got in his mouth?” asked Bob.
“Probably a rabbit. Or somebody’s chicken; hard to tell from here.”
“And look; there are two hawks circling above the coyote.”
The two hawks had noticed the kill and they wanted it.
“Watch this,” said Ott.
The four of them were staring out the windows of the car watching the sky above the coyote as the hawks circled. One of the hawks made a dive at the coyote’s head, pulling up short of contact. The coyote’s head came up for a moment, and then he loped on, heading for his den. The other hawk made a swoop at the coyote’s head even closer. The coyote stopped. The first hawk swooped down very close. The coyote dropped its prey and jumped at the hawk. Just then the other hawk swooped down, picked up the kill, and the two climbed quickly and silently into the sky, leaving behind a puzzled and outsmarted coyote.
“They sure took care of him!”
They drove on home. Out of a dust cloud in front of them emerged a blue Olds. It was Uncle Dick on his way to town. The two men exchanged the two-finger salute as the cars met. Farmers always drove with their right hand at twelve o’clock on the steering wheel and simply lifted their first two fingers to offer a greeting to the cars and trucks they met on the road.
As they drove into the yard on this warm and sunny spring morning, the one thing that was different was this: the dog Trixie did not come out to greet them barking as she usually did. As they piled out of the car, Bob ran to the doghouse, which was between the washhouse and the back porch, to see if she was there. She was, and she had whelped while they were away at church and at the Renke’s place.