The memory of that year is still strong. I can remember the smells, the colors, the people, the way the air felt and tasted. I was young, quite young then, but I can still remember.
The transition of summer fading into winter had already begun. The air was cold enough at night to leave a frost on the windows. The leaves of the poplar trees had turned from green to bright yellow, and the potawatomi plums were ripe.
I’d gone down to a thicket of potawatomi trees that grew near Grandma Gleaves’s place with two of my friends. The fruit was warm and fragrant from lying in the sun and was juicy and sweet. We sat under the trees eating and watching Grandma Gleaves’s house. The juice, the color of ripe canteloupes, streamed down our faces.
“I wonder if she’s in there.”
“She never leaves the place.”
“Come on, she’s gotta go out sometime.”
“Nope, Mr. Wilson brings her groceries to her every Saturday.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve watched him. I sat right here.”
“Ever see her?”
“I saw something move through a window once, and I heard her say something to Mr. Wilson when he was bringing her a load of coal.”
“What did she say?”
“It was too far away. I couldn’t hear too well.”
“It’s not that far.”
“I bet you can’t hit it from here.”
Kim reached down and picked up a bright red globe and then stood up.
“I wonder what she looks like.”
He leaned back and threw. The potawatomi arched up into the blue sky and then dropped down, splattering on the ground in front of the porch.
“I can do better than that.”
“Maybe she’ll come out.”
“Naw, she never comes out.” Rick stood up and threw. A fiery golden streak came down and smashed against the side of the house.
“Try for the window. Maybe she’ll look out if you hit it.”
I carefully picked out a potawatomi, one that was just a little green, a little harder than most of them. I wound up and put my weight into the throw. It hung in the sky, a second golden sun, and then flashed down.
The sound of the breaking glass was small and fragile. Reflected pieces of blue sky and of the yellow weeds that grew around the house dropped from the window frame, leaving a dark, jagged hole bordered with waving lace curtains.
We stood frozen, breathless, paralyzed by curiosity. A dark form moved in the broken window.
Rick and Kim turned and ran. I hesitated. The door opened, and in the time it took me to gulp a deep breath of air, I saw her, an old woman, thin, pale, and frightened.
I crashed into the sharp, black branches of the thicket. Potawatomis were crushed under my feet, making my footing slippery. I fell and scrambled, crawling out the other side of the trees, and then ran into a grain field, my heart pounding, the image of the old woman still in my mind.
The grain was bent down, showing the trail that Rick and Kim had made. I followed. Something caught my leg and I fell, tumbling. Rick and Kim were laying in the thick grain laughing.
“Got it on my first try,” I said, trying to forget the old woman.
Rick reached over and slapped me on the back.
“If your arm gets tired of patting yourself on the back, I’ll take over. You look like you saw a ghost. Did you see her?”
“Do you think she saw us?”
“I doubt it.”
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I got home that night. My father was waiting for me. He wasn’t smiling.
“Where have you been?”
I looked him in the eye brazenly.
“It looks like you’ve been eating potawatomis.”
My shirt and pants had orange stains on them.
“There are some potawatomi trees down by Mrs. Gleaves’s, aren’t there?”
“I guess.” I knew I was caught.
“You broke Mrs. Gleaves’s window, didn’t you?”
“I … we …”
“Somebody saw you do it.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that.”
My heart was beating so hard now that it felt like a bird in a cage trying to get out. My legs were weak. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being punished. I was just embarrassed that I’d been caught.
My father, the muscles in his jaw flexed tight, watched me quietly for a few minutes.
“I don’t know what’s happening to you, Danny, throwing tomatoes at cars last week, letting that snake loose in the movie house, letting McLuhan’s sheep out during the Pioneer Days parade. You weren’t like this before. Ever since your—”
He stopped abruptly and looked away, silent. We’d never talked about it. It was never mentioned. He hadn’t cried during the funeral, not before and not after. He had just sat silent. After the funeral he’d taken everything that was hers and put it in boxes, taped them shut, and carried them to the basement. Everything about her he had taken and hidden. All that was left was the pain.
“You’re going to apologize to her.”
“No. I won’t.” This wasn’t the punishment I’d expected. I could still see the thin face and the white hair and the fear. It was too much. I couldn’t go back there and face her. I’d rather walk through the cemetery at night, alone. I knew he wouldn’t think much of having me walk through the cemetery at night for punishment, though.
“You can ground me for a month. I’ll sit in my room and I’ll only leave to go to school and church.”
“I don’t see that you have any choice.” His face hardened.
“I’ll rake all the leaves. I’ll clean the garden up.” I was getting desperate. “I’ll wash the dishes for two months.”
“I want you to go down there in the morning.”
“I want you to tell her that you’ll replace the window and that you’ll help her with her yard work or any other work she needs done every Saturday for a month.”
“That’s too much for one window.”
“It takes a lot of good to make up for something bad. I’ll pick up the glass, and tomorrow after I get back from work, we’ll put it in. Tell Mrs. Gleaves we’re coming.”
It was early when my father dropped me off at the lane that led to Mrs. Gleaves’s house. My father smiled at me when I opened the car door to get out.
“Don’t forget to tell her we’ll be by to put the window in tonight.”
I closed the door, and he drove off leaving a thin vapor trail of dust hanging over the gravel road. I watched until the dust settled and the air was clear again. I kicked a furrow in the soft, dry earth and then started walking slowly toward the house. The fence posts and the trees that lined the lane cast long shadows. A rooster pheasant with his head ducked down ran across the road in front of me and then vanished into tall, yellow grass.
As I walked, I remembered vividly a story about two Mormon missionaries during the Mexican Revolution.
“Will you deny the truth?”
“No. I don’t need one.”
I imagined walking bravely to the wall in front of the firing squad. I had reached the gate on the picket fence that surrounded Mrs. Gleaves’s house. I turned around and faced the firing squad. The guns exploded.
Mortally wounded I fell to the ground. I stood up again and looked at the gate. It couldn’t have been any worse for the missionaries to face the firing squad than what I had to do. I felt terrible. It wasn’t just that I felt bad about breaking the window. It was also that I’d been caught doing it.
I walked through the gate. The fence was gray with age and several pickets were broken. There was a large cottonwood tree in the front yard. The bark at the trunk and in spots on up the tree was the same gray color of the fence and was wrinkled like elephant skin. The tree was ancient looking. Everything about the yard looked old, neglected, forgotten.
To the left and in front of the house was the thicket of potawatomi trees sitting red and gold in the morning sunlight. In a direct line from the thicket was the broken window, a dark vacant hole surrounded by the sky and clouds. The house was made of square-cut logs that were fitted together and chinked with plaster. The wood was black-brown from years of exposure to the sun. It made the house look ominous.
I knocked on the door. From deep within the house something stirred, and then the house was silent again. A small wind came up, rustling the leaves that covered the grounds around the house. A few leaves drifted down from the cottonwood tree. Clouds drifted slowly across the sky. The steady sound of a thrasher working an unseen grain field could be heard in the distance.
Finally, after what seemed like several hours, the door opened a crack.
“Who is it?”
“What do you want?” Her voice was distant and soft.
“I broke your window yesterday.”
“I broke your window yesterday. It was an accident.”
“Window.” The door closed a little.
“My father and I will come back tonight to fix it. And to pay for it, I’m supposed to do yard work for you.”
She opened the door a little more.
“I’ll be by on Saturday to do the work.”
She closed the door, and I backed off the porch.
That evening, after we finished replacing the window, my father went into Mrs. Gleaves’s house and talked to her while I waited outside.
“She’s expecting you on Saturday,” he said when he came out.
“She’s weird,” I said.
“She kind of withdrew into herself when her husband was killed in an accident. That was 20 years ago. I don’t think she’s been out of her house more than a couple of times since then.” My father was quiet the rest of the way home.
Saturday came too soon. She opened the door and handed me a small bucket.
“Fill it with potawatomis and bring it back to me.”
A few minutes later I handed her the bucket filled with the ripe plums. She took the bucket.
“You can rake the leaves.”
The leaves were almost half a foot deep and covered most of the yard. I’d finished my second pile when the most delicious aroma I’d ever smelled came from the house. It was the fragrance of bread baking and of something wonderfully sweet simmering. I had to rake harder to keep from thinking about it.
At about noon she came out onto the porch and waved to me to come over. She was carrying a plate with two three-inch thick slices of steaming homemade bread covered with melting butter and a golden-red jam. The aroma was indescribable.
She pointed to the porch steps with a hand that held a large glass of milk.
She handed me the plate and sat down next to me. She watched me quietly as I savored the fragrance of the bread and then took a large bite. Hot homemade bread, fresh butter, hot homemade potawatomi jam—it was delicious. I smiled at her.
A smile cracked on her face and then faded. She turned and looked out at the yard.
“It looks awful now. No one has worked on it for a long time. It was once beautiful. We painted the fence every year.”
She pointed to the fence line.
“There were roses there, and in the back we had a garden. The best one in the valley. We had the biggest watermelon in the state once. It took first prize at the state fair. It was as long as you are. We had all of our friends here after the fair. We sat under that cottonwood and ate the melon.”
She sat silent for a long time looking at the yard. I finished the milk and set the glass down. I looked at the yard, trying to see what she was looking at. A small wind blew in short puffs stirring the leaves on the ground and starting more falling from the trees. The air was cool and smelled of fall, and the sun was bright and warm.
“I’d forgotten how beautiful it was then,” she said. She wasn’t exactly talking to me.
“I’d better get back to work. My father will be here at 2:00.”
I stood and picked up the rake I’d leaned against the porch.
“Thanks for the bread and jam. I’ve never had potawatomi jam before.”
“It was John’s favorite. He planted the trees.”
That fall passed quickly. The following week while I chopped down the patches of tall yellow weeds and piled them, she made pie from apples I had picked from the tree that grew out behind the house. The week after that she made cookies filled with blueberries. I’m not sure when or why I started looking forward to Saturdays. I even enjoyed the work.
On the fifth Saturday my father came along to help. We brought paint that we had left over from painting our house. He repaired broken pickets while I painted. At noon Mrs. Gleaves brought out sandwiches and fresh-made doughnuts and milk. We sat underneath the old cottonwood tree while we ate. It was a cool day. The air was cold, but the sun was warm. Mrs. Gleaves had a sweater wrapped around her shoulders.
“It looks good,” she said. “The yard is looking real good.”
My father touched me on the shoulder.
“Mrs. Gleaves was my Sunday School teacher,” he said. Mrs. Gleaves laughed.
“That was a long time ago. Your wife was in the class too. She wasn’t your wife then, was she though?”
My father was silent. He kept eating like he hadn’t heard her.
“She had a temper, didn’t she? I remember we were building models of the city of Bethlehem out of Epsom salts one Sunday. I don’t remember what you did, but she got mad at you and dumped the whole bucket of salt on you right there in church.”
My father looked up laughing.
“I’d forgotten about that. She didn’t get angry very often but when she did. … When we were first married, I told her that the mashed potatoes she’d made were burnt. She picked up the bowl and walked over to me. She smiled and opened my shirt front and dumped the whole mess in. ‘You don’t have to eat them,’ she said.”
We all laughed. My father suddenly stopped. He looked down at his hands. They were trembling. A tear streamed from an eye. My throat felt raw, like something was caught in it.
“She died, didn’t she?”
My father nodded, still looking down at his hands.
“I thought I remembered hearing that. It’s a hard thing.”
My father stood.
“I’ve got to be going,” he said. “Dan can finish with the painting.”
After he’d left, she said, “He took your mother’s death pretty hard, didn’t he?”
I nodded. She sat silent, looking at me.
“He’s lucky he has you.” She continued. “You’re a good boy.”
She stood up slowly, kneeling first and then bracing herself on the tree. My father had told me that she was at least 80 years old.
“John and I never had any children.” She looked up at the sky and held the sweater tight around her shoulder. “The snow will be here before next Saturday,” she said. “You’ve done good work with the yard. Thank you.”
She closed the door going into her house. I was alone. The air was growing even colder than it had been. The sky had clouded over and was a dark, slate color. The whole valley seemed to have darkened. I looked over at the potawatomi trees. Deep, deep inside of me a pain was swelling up. I walked over to the thicket. A covey of quail were feeding on the soft, overripe plums. They ran single file back into the thicket as I approached. The branches on the trees were dark, bare skeletons now. I reached down and picked up one of the plums. It smelled sweet and earthy.
I hadn’t helped my father. I looked at the window that reflected the dark clouds and the barren fields. I’d hurt him, maybe not intentionally, but just the same I’d hurt him. I’d been too busy feeling my own pain to help anyone, him or even myself.
The potawatomi squashed in my closed fist. The fragrant juice squeezed out between my fingers. I wiped my hands on my pants and went back to finish the fence.
The next week the fence looked good in the snow, white on white. A few leaves had fallen from the trees after the snow had come, coloring the white with gold. I helped Mrs. Gleaves bring coal in for her stove. I helped her with the coal and with her groceries the rest of that winter. Mr. Wilson was glad to have the help. He was getting old himself. And sometimes on particularly cold nights I would go to her house in the evenings and sit next to her old-fashioned stove, feeling the radiant warmth and talking, and sometimes my father came with me.