Life-changing events don’t always hinge on catastrophes. Sometimes they can be as simple as not getting into the class you want, or maybe just trying to escape from a group of bullies out to give you a wedgie. For Bobby Rider and Jeri Abbott, two young boys from Lone Pine, it was the latter. After wriggling through a jumbled deadfall, breathless from being chased, they found themselves in a glade they never knew existed. Neither of the boys felt a shift in their life path; just relief, as shouts from the main trail faded into the distance. Only time would show these young lads the significance of that moment. That is, if they ever thought about it again.
Bobby and Jeri lived a street away from each other in the farthest back corner of Lone Pine, a subdivision known for its hordes of near-feral children and mosquitos the size of bats. Bobby was tall and Dickensian thin. He usually hid his face behind a curtain of lank black hair and appeared to be the complete opposite of his best friend Jeri: a small, pale boy with curly red hair and a sprinkle of strawberry-colored freckles across his nose. Curiously, although the boys had lived the first six years of their lives a short walk from each other, they first met during a particular day at school. There’d been some kind of disagreement about the rules of a marble game that ended in a fist fight. An unfair punishment meted out by a recess teacher had united the two and, later that day, they had boarded the bus home as best friends. The boys enjoyed growing up in Northwestern Ontario, where the snow’s icy claws kept a death-grip on the land with toe-stealing ferocity for most of the year. But although they had fun sliding down hills on scraps of cardboard and snowshoeing through knee-deep snow, the boys lived for summer holidays. Summer meant catching frogs, climbing trees and raiding gardens ripe with baby carrots and sweet peas, all of which could be done while wearing nothing but shorts and without fear of frostbite.
Early mornings usually found Bobby tapping on Jeri’s window. “You gonna sleep all day?”
“You know you can just ring the doorbell,” Jeri said, rubbing his eyes as he peered out through the screened-in window.
“Uh-huh,” Bobby said, digging a hole in the grass with his big toe. As usual, he was barefoot. His shoes, when he wore them, had been passed down from brother to brother to brother. When his grandfather was still alive, he had fixed the soles with pieces of rubber from old tires, but Bobby preferred feeling the damp grass beneath his feet. Or so he claimed.
Jeri’s shoes were always brand new, and lately his mother had been buying him tube socks; white ones, with a red and blue stripe on the tops. “Meet me at the back door,” Jeri said before disappearing from view.
A short time later, Jeri charged outside as the door slammed shut behind him. “Be back tonight,” he called, but there was no answer from the silent, sleeping house. He handed Bobby a sandwich spread thick with peanut butter and strawberry jam – their favourite.
“Old Joe says he has windows and we could have ’em,” Bobby told Jeri as they sat on the back step finishing their PB&J. “I’m sure we can get ’em all up to the cabin in the wagon.” Years before, they had befriended the old man everyone in town called Old Joe. His last name, Zaplyuisvichka, was unpronounceable by almost everyone but his daughter. The boys had spotted the old rusty wagon with its missing wheel in the old man’s garbage pile and had asked if they could have it since he was throwing it away anyway. The next day, the wagon was sitting in Old Joe’s front yard; the wheel had been replaced and it had been painted a bright red.
They retrieved the wagon from behind the toboggan where they kept it hidden in Jeri’s garage and headed down the road, the wheels clattering on the gravel. Jeri stuffed his shoes and socks into the hollowed-out log by the creek before they bee-lined to Old Joe’s. Jeri scratched at a mosquito bite on his neck. “So, how’dja even know what Old Joe said? Maybe he said he had dead chickens. No one understands what the old guy says. He talks different.”
“I know what he says,” Bobby said, “and he said ‘windows’.”
Jeri gave his friend a skeptical sideways glance. “Okay, I believe you.” But his tone said otherwise.
It turned out Old Joe did have windows – six of them. Four were from some kind of vehicle – a van, the boys guessed, and two came from an old chicken coop at the back of his house. The old man mumbled, gesticulated at the cache, then shooed them off.
“He says he don’t want them back,” Bobby translated.
“I got that,” Jeri replied dryly.
The boys loaded their treasure into the small wagon and headed toward their secret trail. “Looks like you can open and close at least four of them,” Bobby said with a huge smile. It had been three years since the day they’d been chased into hiding in their glade. Now thirteen years old, the boys had a sanctuary under the dappled shade of cedars and pines. The first summer, they’d set up scraps of tarp and cut pine boughs to make a small shelter. But now, after many botched attempts and under the tutelage of Old Joe, who’d become a surrogate father and mentor to them, a cabin had taken shape. It stood in the opening of the thick copse, now an eclectic structure made from logs, mortared glass bottles, salvaged plywood, two-by-fours and even a hood off an old Chevy truck. They built it with brand new tools borrowed from Jeri’s father’s garage: an axe, a couple of hammers, saws, a crow bar, screw drivers and a few pairs of pliers. Some of the tools still had price tags on them. Jeri’s father wasn’t exactly a handyman; he never missed any of it.
Over the years, the boys had hung around construction sites and volunteered as gophers, hauling drywall up or down stairs and absorbing the building process. They also asked questions; lots of questions. One contractor had been so impressed by their work, he’d given them screws, nails, leftover insulation and tarpaper. He had even delivered a pile of wood to their trail-head, telling the boys it was up to them to get it the rest of the way to whatever it was they were constructing. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir!” the boys had said enthusiastically. The windows from Old Joe were the final additions to their cabin. They’d helped put in a dozen or more over the past summer and were confident in their ability to install them.
“We gotta make sure the headers are strong,” Bobby said. “Remember what happened last winter when we had that big snowfall.”
Jeri nodded. “Good thing we still got those pieces of two-by-eights; we’ll be able to make four supports. Only thing is, we hafta figure out how high to put them. How tall do you think you’re gonna get? When you’re full grown, you don’t want to have to duck to see out.”
That night, when Bobby sat down for supper, his dad seemed to be in a good mood. He decided it was the right time to ask him some questions. “Dad, how tall are you?”
His father’s spoon stopped halfway to his mouth and hovered motionless in the air as he squinted his eyes in thought. “‘Bout five-foot-ten; ‘least that’s what I was the last time I got measured. Why?”
“Just wondering,” Bobby said. When his father frowned, he decided he’d better elaborate. “Do you think I’m going to get as tall as you, Dad? Is that how it works?”
“Is that how what works?”
“Like, does a guy get as tall as his father and a girl gets as tall as her mother? Or, ’cause Mom is shorter than you, am I gonna be halfway between you an’ her, tall?”
“You end up halfway as tall as your mom and you’ll be a pipsqueak.” His father winked at his mother.
Bobby felt the knot of anxiety release in his gut. Sometimes asking his father any kind of question would set him off.
“Hey, who you callin’ a pipsqueak,” his mother asked with a giggle.
What followed was unprecedented in Bobby’s experience: his parents laughed and chatted like they were a normal family, like it happened all the time. After supper, they even measured themselves against a doorframe, then measured Bobby and Amy too, marking everyone’s height in black pen. Bobby was a little sad that his older brothers had already moved out; it would have been nice to have everyone in the family acknowledged.
Afterwards, his father danced his mother around the kitchen, as if an invisible band was playing their favorite song in the background. When he leaned her back in a dip, they both laughed. His mother’s cheeks were pink with delight.
“I sure could use a beer, Gale,” his father said.
“Me too,” his mother replied.
Bobby and Amy traded looks. They both knew family time was over.
Photo from flickr – some rights reserved
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