There are people in this world who are naturally open and easy to get to know, and there are difficult people, the ones who put up barricades and expect you to climb over them.
Elliot Marks was the second kind of person. The first time I saw him, he was standing outside without a coat on in the middle of a freezing New England February, mopping his nose and looking up into the bare limbs of a tree, staring up as if something amazing was there. Nothing was, or not that I could see anyway.
"Who is that?" I whispered to my mother.
We had just arrived at my Grandpa and Grandma Saunders' house in Rhode Island, a place we'd never visited before. My mother had brought me and my five-year-old sister, Carolyn, east from our farm in Ohio to stay in Sachem's Head while our father was away fighting. She'd been lonely by herself, and found it hard to keep the farm running with just me to help. When Grandma Saunders wrote to say a cottage had come empty next door on Parson's Lane, and why didn't she bring the children and live there, my mother went right out and bought our train tickets. It shocked me how fast she did it.
"What about Dad? He expects us to stay here," I protested.
"I'll write him. We'll get the post office to forward his letters until then," she answered.
"Who wants to live In a cottage when we already have a whole house?"
"It's on the ocean. There's a beach nearby. Carolyn will like that."
"But, what about the farm? Are you just going to let it go down?"
"I'll lease out the fields I can," she said. "I would've had to do that anyway. Where was I going to find hired help with every able-bodied man enlisted in the service?"
"Well, what about the hogs? You can't leave them!"
After we moved cast, I used to wake up in the mornings with a picture in my mind of our old house, of how the fields spread out flat in all directions around it, and the sky streamed over it like a great river, sometimes deep and blue, sometimes muddy, stirred tip, racing with clouds.
"There's wing room out here," my father used to say, dredging up an old term from his test pilot days. His eyes would look out across a field he'd just plowed, then come back to me squeezed in beside him on the tractor.
"Plenty of room to wag your wings when you need to," he'd say.
I'd never flown in an airplane but I liked the idea of having wing room. I liked being on my own, working by myself. I had friends but didn't have to be close-in with people every minute of the day. There was a kind of strength in knowing you could stand by yourself. My father had it, I knew that. It was what had brought him to Ohio in the first place, to buy land and start the farm. Now it was what had sent him over to England ahead of everybody else to fight the Nazis.
My father had a bad leg. He walked with a hitch in his stride, the result of a plane crash that had nearly killed him before he met my mom, he said. But he never let it stop him from doing what he wanted. He never talked about it or made excuses, and if his limp stood out in people's minds in the beginning, they'd forget it as they got to know him. That leg just didn't go with the rest of him. Most of the time, he seemed to forget it, too, because every once in a while he'd try to jump a brook or climb a ladder too fast and he'd fall. Afterwards, he'd pick himself up and go on without a word, even if he was hurt. From the look on his face, I'd know not to say anything either.
Of course, I knew my mother could stand alone, too. Her parents had died when she was a baby and she had to live with relatives growing up. She'd learned how to fight for herself by the time she met my father in Cincinnati. They planned out the farm together, built the house, cleared the fields. She'd worked right along with him, and cared as much, but:
"We'll sell the hogs...and the chickens," she answered me that day, so fast I could see she'd been thinking of something like this for a while. It was a month after the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. My dad had been gone more than six months by then.
"That's the money we'll use for train fare," she said. "And for rent on this cottage your grandmother's found us. And for living on while I see about a job. I'm not planning to hang on your grandfather's coattails like everyone else back there."
"A job!" I snorted. "What kind of job?"
"There's a big torpedo factory in Newport that's hiring. Your Aunt Nan just started working there. She says I could, too."
"Aunt Nan, who's that?"
She glanced over at me. "Your father's sister. You know, Aunt Nan and Uncle Jake? They live there with your grandmother and grandfather in Sachem's Head. In the same house now, since Jake lost his business. It must be like Grand Central Station with all your grandfather's patients coming and going.
"Robby! He's Dr. Saunders, the town doctor. Did you forget everything your father ever told you?"
He'd never told me anything, that was the trouble. Vaguely, I'd heard of them though, names in holiday cards, on birthday gifts done up in fancy, Eastern wrap. I remember my father laughing over a pair of fake red leather cowboy boots they sent me for my sixth or seventh birthday.
"What do they think, that he's about to start taking square dancing lessons?" he asked my mother.
From the tone he used, I knew all I needed to about those relatives in Rhode Island. Redbooted Easterners was how I began to think of them.
"This whole idea is stupid," I told Mom. "You've never even had a real job."
That insulted her. "I suppose I could learn," she snapped, "the same way I've been learning to run this entire farm by myself."
We left barely a month later. Three days on the train, sleeping berths at night. A crowd of servicemen was on board riding east with us, and there were many other -- sailors, marines, airmen -- in the stations we went through, waiting for connections, duffle bags slung over their shoulders. I watched them and edged up to listen to their talk when I could. They were headed to training camps in Maryland, Virginia, or North Carolina. From there they'd ship overseas to fight. They'd be in Europe by September, or on a battleship off Gibraltar. A lot of them wanted to get to the Pacific to give it to the Japs. The Germans were Krauts and they were going to get beat.
"My dad's over there right now, flying with the Royal Canadian Air Force out of England. He's a pilot," I told them a few times. The response was always terrific.
"Hey, good man!"
"How'd he get there so fast?"
"He used to fly for the mail service. Then he was a test pilot for the U.S. Army," I'd explain. "He knows a lot about the bombers President Roosevelt's sending over to help England, so he was asked to go."
"Hush, Robert, that's boasting," my mother would say. She didn't like talking about where my father was or what he might be doing. It was bad luck, she said, to harp on what you didn't know.
Uncle Jake was at the Providence train station to meet us when we came in late in the afternoon. He drove us in his plumber's pick-up down the coast to Sachem's Head, and we had just stepped down out of the truck into Grandma Saunders' welcoming hug, with Aunt Nan and Grandpa Saunders looking on behind, when:
"Who is that?" I asked about the coatless person standing back from everyone, shivering, mopping his nose and looking up of all places, up into a tree instead of down at the important thing that was happening: our arrival.
"You know who that is!" my mother whispered.
"No I don't."
"It's Elliot. Your cousin Elliot, Jake and Nan's son. He's younger than you, I think."
He was the same age as it turned out. Five months older, in fact, but smaller, shyer, standing back from everyone as if he was afraid to call attention to himself. It was this I first noticed about him, that no one tried to introduce Elliot to us. No one asked him what he was doing staring up into a tree. No one told him to go put on a coat. Slow was how I read him in the beginning. Slow and probably sickly.
"Hello," I said, going past.
"Oh, hello." Elliot brought his strange gaze down from the tree and applied it to me.
"I didn't know you..." I began, and stopped. I was going to say, "I didn't know you existed."
"That's all right, I didn't know about you either," Elliot said, getting the message anyway. "Until last week when they said you were coming. I guess our families didn't keep up too well."
"I guess not."
"Excuse me," Elliot said, glancing over my shoulder. He turned and walked away to a far edge of the yard where he began to beat his hands against the sides of his legs, to keep the blood flowing in them, most likely. Night was falling; the temperature outside couldn't have been more than fifteen degrees.
I looked around to see what had made him go off so fast. Grandpa Saunders was coming up, For a doctor, he was not very friendly-looking. He was tall, with a round, bald head and eyes that jumped out at you sharp and clear behind steel-rimmed glasses. A few minutes before, he'd shaken my hand and bent down stiffly to kiss my mother on her cheek. Now I saw him checking me over again.
"You've got the Callahan looks," he said, stopping beside me. "Your grandmother's side of the family, not mine."
"My mother thinks I look like my father," I told him. He didn't answer, just gave a kind of grunt and looked over toward Elliot.
"That fool is going to catch his death out here," he said. "Would you be standing outside in this weather without a coat, waving your arms around like some Godforsaken windmill?"
"Not usually," I said carefully. I knew a rigged question when I heard one.
"Not usually, not usually," Grandpa Saunders muttered. He turned his back and marched off toward the house.
We were all invited inside to dinner. Grandma Saunders had been in the kitchen since breakfast, readying up for our arrival. She had quick, dark eyes and was always reaching out to pat your shoulder or squeeze your hand when she talked. I liked her. I wondered why my father had barely mentioned her over the years, and never wanted to visit.
"Nobody cooks like your grandma," Aunt Nan told me on the way inside. "She's been wanting to get her hands on you and Carolyn for years."
"Why didn't Dad ever bring us here?"
"Oh, various complications," Aunt Nan said, lightly. I saw her eyes meet my mother's over my head. Something about the word "complications" made me think of my father's lameness, and I wondered if travel used to be harder for him than it was now.
"It's about time these children met the rest of their family. We're glad to be here, having dinner with you at last," my mother said, too gladly, I thought, considering all we'd left behind.
"I feel sick!" Carolyn announced then. "We just ate on the train and I'm going to throw up all over the place if I have to eat again."
Mom and I looked at each other because Carolyn always felt sick whenever she got to someplace she wasn't sure about. If you didn't watch out, she could make herself sick, too.
"You come with me, young lady," Mom said, and snatched her off to one side. They went to find the room we'd be staying in that night, until we moved to our own cottage down the road the next morning.
I followed everyone into a small dining room where a long wooden table was set for dinner and sat down across from...Elliot, was it? We glanced at each other under cover of the conversation. He was sitting very straight, his spine jammed back against the chair, which was itself set back from the table a bit. I had the strange impression he was trying to disappear.
Grandpa Saunders took up a position at the head of the table, carving fork in one hand, carving knife in the other, a glistening brown roast chicken on a platter in front. Plates were passed down to him, one by one, for slices of meat, then sent over to Grandma, who served up peas, mashed potatoes, and hot rolls.
"Everything's homegrown," she said proudly when my mother came back with Carolyn. "Except the rolls, of course. They're plain home-baked."
Everyone laughed politely, except Elliot. He was staring up again, at the ceiling this time.
"I put up a whole larder of vegetables at the farm last fall, but they're going to have to wait till we get back," my mother said. "To tell the truth, I'm not missing them much."
"Would you like dark meat or light, sonny?" Grandpa called when my turn came to pass up a plate.
"Dark, I guess," I said. I like white meat better but didn't want to sound puny.
"You can't guess about what you like or don't like, sonny. You've got to know!" Grandpa shouted, waving his knife in the air. "Is it light or dark?"
"Dark!" I shouted back.
Grandpa forked a huge chicken leg onto my plate.
"I understand you and your mother didn't have too much luck trying to run that hog farm out there by yourselves," he said, passing the plate over to Grandma. "Bit off a little more than you could chew, is that right?"
"Not really," I said. "We were doing okay. We just couldn't get hired help because of everybody going into the service like Dad, otherwise we would have -- "
"That's what I said!" Grandpa roared. He cut me off so fast I was embarrassed and felt the blood come up in my face.
Across the table, Elliot was having white meat and watching me from under his lids. He was still in that ridiculous straight-backed position. When Aunt Nan asked if he wanted more milk, he said:
"Yes please, Mother, if I could," in a voice that would have been about right for a fancy dinner party in New York.
Then he did something even stranger. He reached across the space between him and the table, took up his knife and fork and, at arm's length, began to cut up his chicken. It looked almost impossible to do, but finally he had a little mound of pieces and started to eat. He'd spear a chicken piece with the tip of his fork and whip it back to his mouth as if he were a bullfrog snapping up a fly.
"What sports do you play?" I asked him after a while.
"I don't play sports," Elliot said. "My knees go out."
"I played football at school this year," I told him. "And a bunch of us play ice hockey in the winter. There's a pond on our farm."
"Ohio has ice in the winter?" Elliot asked. "I thought it was too far south. Doesn't the Mississippi River run through there?"
This was so amazingly stupid I didn't know what to say. Any map could tell you where Ohio was, and that the Mississippi wasn't just a southern river. It flowed through the north, too. It started in the north, for God's sake! I dug into my mashed potatoes and didn't look over at Elliot again.
But while the dishes were being washed in the kitchen and I was roaming around trying to keep clear of Grandpa Saunders, who was on a couch in the front parlor rattling through a newspaper, Elliot appeared suddenly at my side. He asked if I wanted to come up and see his room.
"I could show you something," he said, taking a large bite of his hand.
"Well, all right," I agreed, not very enthusiastically.
The room was up a flight of stairs at the back of the house. It was an attic, really, with a bare light bulb hanging down from the rafters, old floor lamps, wicker chairs, and traveling trunks piled in dusty gloom at the far end. Elliot had one of those fold-up cots for a bed, and a chair, and a table which when I came in had nothing on it but a pad of paper.
"I thought you might want to see this...um ... picture," he said, looking sideways at the pad.
"Okay," I said, and walked across to look.
"It's stupid, I know," Elliot said, backing away and blinking fast. He was about the most nervous person I'd ever met.
It was a drawing done with a plain lead pencil.
"Did you do this?" I asked. It looked too good for a k+id, like something a real artist might draw.
There was Grandpa Saunders with the carving knife raised and his eyes pointy and dangerous behind his spectacles, exactly the way he'd looked bellowing down the dinner table at me. Everything from the angry bulge between his eyebrows to the pattern of white dots on his bow-tie was drawn in. The salt and pepper shakers were in front of him and the bowl of gravy. Grandma's roast chicken was there, hunched down on the platter as if it were trying to take cover, too. It made me laugh a little.
"Did you draw it, really?"
"But when? We just finished dinner."
"A little while ago. Do you like it?"
"Well, yes," I said. "But how did you do it?"
"I don't know, I just did. Do you see what it says underneath?"
Elliot pointed to a line of block lettering written in at the bottom of the drawing. It read, "Bit off more than you could chew, is that right, sonny?"
I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it. Elliot stood by with a cautious smile.
"I'm glad you like it."
I don't know why it's so funny, but it is."
"It's because he made you feel so bad. You have to watch out. He does that."
"I was hoping no one had noticed."
"Don't worry, no one did," Elliot said. "Except me."
Right then was when I realized how I'd underestimated this strange cousin. I shook my head and laughed some more. And Elliot gave a somewhat brighter smile, but warily, as if he wasn't sure he was allowed to.
"I'm sorry I said that crazy thing about the Mississippi River," he said. "I get kind of worried about stuff at the table. Tell me about your farm. It sounds like a pretty good place."
So I sat down and told him how I was going to miss the spring planting out there that year, but I guessed it would get done by somebody. I explained how we grew corn mostly, plus some other crops like wheat, and how hogs and corn sort of go together on a farm, because the hogs get fat eating the corn and then you can sell them for a good price and buy land to plant more corn.
"My dad worked our farm up from nothing," I boasted. "Well, my mother did a lot, too."
"Sounds like things were going great out there until your father had to leave," Elliot said.
"They were," I said. "We were all real happy."
"Too bad my parents couldn't've gone out to stay with you instead of your mother coming here. Then we all could've worked together and you probably could have stayed," Elliot said. He wasn't saying it just to be nice, I could tell. He really wished it had happened.
After a while, neither of us felt like talking anymore. I said I ought to go help my mother carry in a few things from the truck for the night.
"Can I have the drawing?" I asked. "I'll keep it private, don't worry."
"Oh, it's for you," Elliot said. "That's why I drew it."
I folded up the sheet of paper and slid it into my back pocket, where just having it made the edges of my mouth twitch again when later that night, I saw Grandpa coming across the dim dining room on his way to bed.
"Who is that?" he roared out rudely.
"It's Robert," I said.
In the shadows, I saw his mouth close up and tighten. We met and passed without another word.
Copyright © 2000 by Janet Taylor Lisle
Excerpted from The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle Copyright © 2000 by Janet Taylor Lisle. Excerpted by permission.
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