On an unusually hot and humid day, the last week of June, I got permission to stop at Bill Richardson’s store for an ice cream bar and a bottle of soda pop on my way to Grandpa and Grandma Phipps’s. I leant my bicycle against the store’s brick tar paper wall under a rusted Coca-Cola thermometer. A Massey Harris tractor and cultivator, it’s shiny shovels wound with morning glory vines, stood by the gasoline pump. A house wren sang out its declaration. The screen door whispered a squeak as I stepped inside.
“Why there’s ol’ Tom,” said Mr. Richardson. “What can I do for you, this fine sub-zero day?”
“I’d like an Eskimo pie and a seven Up.”
“That would be twenty cents. Go h’ep y’se’f.”
“How are you folks a-coming with your cultivating? You ’bout to get ‘er all laid by?” said Jim Best, a fellow who farmed directly west of us.
“Well we’re better off than we could be, the year a-being what it is, but I really don’t need to be a-sitting here,” he said, carefully shaking some Prince Albert into his folded cigarette paper. “How much rain did you all get over here two nights ago, Bill?”
“Boy. That was the spottiest rain. We didn’t get quite a tenth,” he said, licking the paper. He struck a match. A cicada buzzed its pulsing song in the maple branches over the store. The coolers and freezers rattled and hummed quietly.
I sat down at the far end of the bench from Jim, savoring his tobacco smoke, chasing my dribbling ice cream with my tongue. After a while, Mr. Richardson stood up from his keg of nails, picked up my dimes and dropped them into the cash register, returning to his seat with a newspaper. Above the shelves of laundry soap and cereal, the Pepsi girl, reposing on the sand in her pink bra and pedal pushers, waved from her faded poster.
A 1946 Cadillac quietly drove up and parked beside the tractor. It was painted all over with aluminum and pumpkin-orange colored house paint, even its tires and parts of its windows. A man wearing insulated coveralls zipped up to his chin and an aluminum painted pith helmet shuffled into the store and up to the counter.
“Am I in your way out there, Ross?” said Jim.
“No-no. Don’t need no gasoline,” he said, scratching around in his coin purse. By the time he laid out his change and turned to shuffle to the soda pop cooler, his odor had filled the store. It was vaguely like that of a sugary sour slop bucket heating on a stove.
Mr. Richardson traded glances with Jim, then rose and immediately propped open the back door with a flat iron.
Ross sat between Jim and me with his two bottles of pop.
“What’ve you been up to this morning, Ross?” said Jim.
“Looks like you’ve been a-painting,” he said, nodding at Ross’s aluminum painted overshoes, fastened to the legs of his coveralls with hog rings.
“Oh I have been, but that was yesterday.”
“You paint your car again, this year?”
“Yeap. And my tractor. It needed it. I even had enough left over for my piano.”
“Sure. It sits out there on the porch. It needed it.”
“Looks like you got your hat and boots, too,” said Mr. Richardson.
“Of course,” said Ross. “They ought to match, oughtn’t they?” He certainly had them there. For a moment all was quiet except for the wren and the cicadas. Ross unzipped his coveralls, spread out his collar and poured Coke all around his neck and collar bone.
Jim leant forward, looking at Ross. “You must be pretty hot,” he said.
“Tolerable hot,” said Ross, stretching his chin to one side to slop on some more.
Mr. Richardson lowered his newspaper and stared agape, shifting his eyes to Jim.
Jim grinned with raised eyebrows, searching for a reply that wouldn’t quite materialize. “Well Bill,” he said after a spell, “I’d better get back on the cultivator.”
“I followed him outside with my cupped hand full of ice cream that had thawed whilst I was struggling to get used to Ross’s bouquet.
“Say hello to your folks for me,” he said, starting his engine.
I wiped my hands in the grass beneath the Kool penguin and the Philip Morris buss boy, forever waving in rust-streaked competition from the wall. I mounted my bike and pedaled to Grandpa and Grandma’s.
I found Grandpa under the shade of the big black locust outside his work shop in the orchard, running the treadle of his grindstone, sharpening a hoe.
“You wouldn’t believe what I just saw Ross Harwood do,” I said.
“I just might,” he said, stopping the stone.
“You mean the outside of his neck?”
“Yea. Almost the whole bottle.”
“Well if that don’t beat the bugs a-fighting,” he laughed, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. “That’s a new one, all right. But I’ve seen him do similar, many a-time.
“Years ago, when Ross was still a young fellow, he was a-helping us put up the silo at the cattle barn, over on the east place. He was a-running the rope with one of the mares, a-hauling up concrete blocks to us. He’d be ready for to send up a load before we were, nearly each time, so he started building a hog shade over in the corner of the barn lot. It was just perfect for an old sow and her litter. He even wired up gates around it.
“When we took a break at about eleven, he scattered straw under it and then crawled in on all fours. The hands were a-watching him, kind of amused. He didn’t say a word to anyone. He’d lie still, then he’d wallow and thrash around and lie still again, just like an old sow and her pigs.
“Ross ain’t stupid. He’s just stuck on making himself the brunt of his own jokes. The more of an audience he has, the harder he’ll work a-clowning, that a-way. He’s been doing that almost the whole time he’s been grown.”
“You mean he was normal once?”
“Yea. At least he didn’t seem too queer whilst he was a-growing up.”
“So he just got that way gradually?”
“No sir. He changed right now.” He paused, straining to pull his leg off the grind stone. He scratched his head and replaced his cap as he studied one of his ewes coming up for a drink. “Nope. All of a sudden. He lived with his folks, right where he lives now, straight south. He even went to college at Eastern. I don’t remember what he studied, but I reckon he did all right. he put in nearly all of four years. He’d room at a boarding house through the week and then ride his horse home and farm on the weekends.
“Well he had a sweetheart up there, some young lady from Windsor, if I’ve got it right. And they were engaged to be married. He was home one spring weekend, out in the field a-harrowing. His mom come out where he was a-working with a letter from his fiancée which said that she was a-marrying some other fellow.
“He went mad right then and there. He ran his team and harrow off into the brush, tangled them up in some wire fence and beat the holy daylights out of them. They were a nice gentle young team of Clydesdales, too. Just as sweet as ye please. They’d bought them from us. The mare’s legs were so badly cut up, she had to be destroyed.
“Well, he left his team and ran off into the timber and was gone for days. And when he finally showed up, he didn’t act right. And from that day to this, he’s been just as odd as odd can be. When his mom died, he boarded off their dining room, parlour and upstairs with her things in it, and has let everything else run down ever since.”