by Peter C. Conrad
Mark stared out of the frost-edged window of the school bus and remembered that he took control of the situation when he did well in accounting the year before. Mark volunteered to do the books for the farm. His father hated doing it and his mother couldn’t keep track of the numbers. It was a solution for his father, but it was Mark’s idea from the start. He had already shown his father he was more capable than he had always said.
The bookkeeping included the records of pedigrees on their purebred Hereford cattle. Mark also did the registration papers for the cattle that had to be sent to the Hereford Association.
Yet, Mark had a secret —it was what he intended to do when he first thought of asking to do the books for the farm. Once he was in the small room downstairs, he would quickly finish the paper work and then do his homework. As far back as Mark could remember, when Matthew and Kat were around, every time they were found in their rooms doing their homework, their father would find another chore for them to do. It was as if reading books or writing was wasting time to him. Their father never said a word about not wanting them to do well in school, but it was obvious.
Later, school became a threat to his father. Matthew had left home to finish high school in the city. Matthew should have graduated a year before, but he was still trying to finish when he agreed to pay for half the gas to get to the city with a friend. He phoned home two days later to say he was in the city and that he was staying to finish his grade twelve.
The bus pulled into its parking stall at the school.
Mark stood up, picked up his backpack of books, and made his way to the front door of the school bus. He hurried to his locker feeling uncomfortable: his first class was English and he would be getting his essay back. English was the one class Mark had to work the hardest in and it was the class he had chosen to make his next improvement in.
* * *
He sat down in his seat and looked at the novel he would be reading in that class.
“Morning class,” said Mr. Tran, his English teacher, as he entered the room. The students looked at him and continued to talk to each other. Mark watched as Mr. Tran put his briefcase on his desk and opened it. Mark hoped for a moment that the essays wouldn’t be marked and he could relax. His stomach jumped as he saw that Mr. Tran pulled out the stack of papers.
“Remember these?” he said as he lifted the pile of paper high for everyone to see. There was a groan.
“As usual, we had the good, the bad, and down right ugly,” said Mr. Tran. There was another groan. “And a few real surprises.”
“You’re not going to read us another piece written by Jen, are you?” asked Melissa.
“No,” said Mr. Tran. “Not Jen. Someone new.” Jennifer looked at Mr. Tran, surprised.
Mark felt uncomfortable as Mr. Tran read the first paragraphs of his paper. His classmates listen intently.
“Who is she?” asked Melissa again as she looked at the other girls in class.
“Not a she,” said Mr. Tran as he stepped toward Mark. He smiled and dropped it on Mark’s desk.
“Who wrote it for you?” asked Clarence.
“No one,” said Mark. Clarence glared at Mark.
“Yeah, right,” said Clarence again, his face turned red. He was muscular like Mark and had black straight hair.
“Why don’t you think Mark wrote it?” asked Mr. Tran.
“He isn’t any different than me,” said Clarence. “If I can’t do something like that neither can he.”
“Maybe that assumption is your problem,” said Mr. Tran.
“What?” said Clarence.
“You’re assuming that you can’t write well, but have you really tried to?”
“What’s the point?” said Clarence. “I’ll get my grade twelve and take over the farm. I don’t have to be able to write.”
“You really don’t know if you can write like this,” said Mr. Tran.
“Oh, I know. I don’t have to try,” said Clarence confidently.
“By not trying, you really never will know if you can do it.”
“Well if I tried, and let’s say I did, what difference would it make?” said Clarence.
“Probably a big difference, because it obviously matters to you,” said Mr. Tran.
“That’s my point, it doesn’t matter to me,” said Clarence louder.
“You wouldn’t have been upset when you found out that Mark wrote a good paper if it really didn’t matter to you,” said Mr. Tran.
“I was just pointing out that he must have cheated,” said Clarence.
“You know he couldn’t have cheated. This book had just arrived in the school when he chose it for his paper,” said Mr. Tran.
“His sister could have done it for him,” said Clarence.
“Kat’s been gone for a year,” said Mark.
“Just because I don’t know how he did it doesn’t mean he didn’t do it,” said Clarence.
“I know he did the writing,” said Mr. Tran.
“How?” asked Melissa.
“Mark has a distinctive style that I have noticed in his assignments. He’s been improving for some time. It was just a matter of time before he would write an exceptional paper like this,” said Mr. Tran.
“Well goody for Mark,” said Clarence.
“You really are taking this personally,” said Mr. Tran with interest.
Clarence folded his arms and leaned back in his seat. He shook his head.
* * *
Allen walked to the hockey rink after school; he had taken all his equipment. Mark made his way onto the bus for the ride home. He put his pack on the seat beside him and looked out of the window, thinking about how good it would be to make it to the city and leave everything behind.
He remembered three years before when he was showing his first heifer at the local fair, on a warm summer day. Things were changing then, he thought. None of them thought seriously about leaving. They would be partners in the farm and run things the right way.
His father didn’t come on the last day when Matthew, Allen, and Mark got their trophies for showing their cattle. Their mother stayed at home too. Kat must have been with her friend Anne in town, because she wasn’t around either.
Matthew got first place for cow calf, Allen for reserve steer, and Mark had a trophy for grooming.
Allen’s steer had done very well in the sale that followed the show and judging.
The boys had loaded their cattle into the truck and headed home. They talked about what they wanted to do with the farm. They would change the corrals so that automatic feeders could be put in for the grain. They would get proper feeders for the hay, then they would have more time to build a better barn.
As the truck pulled into the yard, they saw their father with a bottle, walking unsteadily. Their father hadn’t been around the farm that much. He worked as a welder on the pipelines. Whenever he came home unexpectedly in the past, he always said that the work was done early and that they had all been laid-off, but the last two times he said he had been fired again. He didn’t tell them why.
Each time he came back, he would be drinking more.
Matthew drove to the loading ramp, turned the truck around, and then backed into position.
“Allen, get out and direct me into place,” said Matthew.
“Sure,” said Allen as he opened the door and jumped out. Mark quickly followed. Allen positioned himself on the driver’s side of the truck and gave Matthew directions. He slowly reversed until the back of the truck touched the ramp. Allen and Mark jumped up onto the ramp and pulled the pins that secured the gate. It swung open and the cattle looked back.
“Come on Sally,” Allen talked to Matthew’s cow. The animal turned and walked to the ramp. Mark jumped into the back of the truck, patted his heifer and gave her a push. She followed the other cow down the ramp.
With the cow, calf, and heifer unloaded, the three boys went to the cab of the truck to get their trophies. Their father was now walking up to them.
“Here are my good sons,” he slurred.
None of them said anything. His father stepped up to Matthew and grabbed the large trophy and looked at it. “A real big winner,” he said with a sour smile on his face. He looked at the trophy another time and threw it as hard as he could toward the manure pile. It fell on the ground a few feet ahead of him. The bronze cow on top broke off.
“That’s all it is, dung,” said his father. “We have some work to do.” He continued to walk toward the fenced pasture. Matthew picked up the peaces of his trophy and turned around.
“Well, let’s go get something to eat,” he said.
“Sure,” said Allen. They all went to the house.
“You boys did real well,” said their mother as they stepped into the house. She was a dark haired, muscular woman. She had come from a farming family and didn’t expect anything else from life.
“Thanks,” said Matthew.
“We’re proud of you,” she said. She frowned as she saw the broken pieces of Matthew’s trophy.
“Oh,” said Matthew as he noticed her expression. “It got broken on the way home. I’ll fix it.”
“I sure hope so,” she said.
* * *
Mark watched as Allen opened his books in his room up stairs. Their father was watching television. Mark went to his room and laid on his bed. He didn’t have any homework; he did it at noon in the library at school. He closed his door to muffle the sound from the television. Mark heard the distant sound of the train passing. The tracks were only about a mile from their house. Some day, he thought, I will be on one of those trains going somewhere else, to a place where I can work inside all winter. There would be no cattle to feed or a cow to milk by hand each morning. He could sleep late on weekends because there would be no chores.
Mark sat up in his bed as he heard the muffle steps on the stairs. Then, he made out the sound of his father’s voice talking to Allen. There was work to do, thought Mark. Even though they should all be going to bed there would be some job.
Mark hurried to the door of his bedroom when it swung open. His father stood on weak legs, breathing the sour smell of alcohol.
“Are you on strike too?” his father asked.
“Should I be?” he asked as he pushed past his father and went down the stairs to where Matthew was.
“What has to be done?” asked Mark.
“The fence on the east corral,” said Allen.
“Of course,” said Mark. “That board has had a crack for a week.”
Both boys hurried to get their boots and coats on. Their father stumbled to the stairs by the door and sat down. He reached clumsily for his boots. They were soon on their way into the cold and dark to get the work done.
* * *
Their father watched as Allen began his work of pulling out the old nails. He placed the hammer and pulled the nails out. Something about the action bothered his father. The motion of Allen’s body was angry and defiant.
Mark arrived at the fence dragging the board for the repair.
“We better do a good job here. We’ll have to keep it in good condition for when you boys run the place,” said their father.
“Give me that two-by-four Mark,” said Allen.
“You better have a good farm here,” continued their father slurring his words. “Nice place to stay; a place better than the city, where I worked once.”
“Maybe,” said Allen as he worked with determination.
“Maybe? You are getting your own place are you? Or you’re going to the city? You’re dirt there. No one gives a damn about you,” said their father.
“Sure, whatever you say,” said Allen.
“You listen to me, I’ve been there and I know what I’m talking about,” said their father.
Allen didn’t answer. Mark held the board in place and Allen quickly set the nails and hammered them home. They both didn’t want an argument from their father. They were tired and wanted to go to bed.
“I’ll see if there is anything else to do,” said their father.
“Tomorrow,” said Allen.
“What?” said their father.
“It is time to go to bed,” said Allen. “Look, even the cattle are settled for the night.”
Their father looked and smiled. The last nail was driven home. Without another word, they finished their work and walked into the house.
* * *
Mark felt comfortable and warm as he slipped into his bed. He rolled over and looked at his pack on the floor. His paper was in it with the A written on the front page in red ink. He got up and pulled it out. He looked at it one more time, then looked around his room for a hiding place. He stepped to his closet and looked at the highest shelf. That would be the most typical place to hide something, he thought so he opened a box from a balsa wood airplane kit and slipped the paper in it. He slipped the top closed.
Mark switched off the lights and returned to his bed. He remembered a trip they had taken a few years before to his aunt’s home. He had been exploring the old house his aunt lived in and found out that in the attic there was a place where he could sit and listen to the conversation in the kitchen through the ductwork. He sat still and listened to his mother and his aunt talk.
“You have changed,” Mark heard his aunt say.
“Oh? I don’t know,” said his mother.
“I remember what you were like before you met Carl. You had hopes.”
“After you have children, things are put on hold.”
“You changed before you had any children,” said Mark’s aunt.
“You used to write all the time. You used to say that you were going to be a writer. Everyone else thought so too.”
“That’s not really true.”
“It is. I remember you used to say that writing was the mathematics of life.”
“What?” said Mark’s mother with disinterest in her voice.
“It was perfect. You used to say that if there was a problem you had to figure out in life, like a mathematics problem, you could sit down and write it out. Only after you had let the words come, would you know what the solution was.”
“That’s true,” Mark heard his mother say more thoughtfully.
“What problems do you have now that needs working out?”
“If you sat down and wrote you would find the solutions.”
“I told you that wasn’t realistic,” said Mark’s mother.
“I don’t like the change in you. You used to have so much optimism. Why did it all just disappear?”
“You’re still just as naive as you always were.”
“That’s a lot better than having given up hope,” said Mark’s aunt.
“Aren’t the pies done?” asked Mark’s mother.
Mark wondered if he was going to ever be able to write that way. He thought about working out problems as he wrote. He never forgot it, because he believed that it was possible.