First Boy

Gary Schmidt

Square Fish

First Boy
CHAPTER ONE
PETER HURD saw the black sedan first--dark and slow, prowling Main Street like a panther. It stopped beside the granite steps of New Lincoln Public Library as if to look for prey. Then it came on again, still slow, low to the ground. It paused by the Miracle Theatre, and by the New Lincoln Diner, and then right beside New Lincoln Market--right beside Peter--where it crouched and waited. Its windows were tinted so deeply that Peter couldn't see inside at all.
"Jewett," Peter called back into the market.
Cooper Jewett wasn't in any hurry to come outside. They had just finished freshman cross practice, and Cooper was savoring the last few swallows of his forbidden root beer. Coach would take him apart if he knew that Cooper was drinking anything but water. "Soda willkill you. It'll send little carbonated bubbles right through your bloodstream and up into your heart. Then they'll all come together and bust." Coach would throw his arms up in an explosion. "Soda will kill you, just like that."
But after a run on a September afternoon that could still hold an August heat, Cooper and Peter generally decided that an icy Admiral Ames Root Beer was worth the risk.
"Jewett," Peter called again.
Cooper took another cold swallow.
The black sedan moved on. Peter watched it stalk off Main Street and down onto Whittier Road. He realized that he had been holding his breath.
Cooper came out, Admiral Ames Root Beer still sweet on his lips. "I've got the flour and sugar," he said. "You get the milk."
Peter took the milk Cooper handed to him, his eyes still watching the corner.
Cooper got on his bike and hunched his loaded backpack up around his shoulders. "If Old Ford was here, I could drive us home," he said.
"Could you drive a sedan?"
"I guess. If it had a stick."
"Maybe you'll get your chance."
Cooper looked at him. Sometimes Hurd could say crazy things like that, out of the blue. "You think a sedan is going to stop and ask us in so we can drive home?"
"Why not?"
"Because this is New Lincoln, New Hampshire, and the only strange thing around here is you."
"Witty," said Peter. "Very witty." He hauled the milk on top of his handlebars and pushed off. Cooper pushed off too, the flour and sugar heavy in his backpack, and side by side they rode down Main Street, past Whittier, and so out of town.
The last strong heat of the day laid its hand on Cooper as he pedaled, but it felt good to him. Cross practice had been a nine-mile run--four of them at race pace--and for all but the last two miles he had kept up with Peter. He felt his muscles tighten and relax, tighten and relax with the pedals, with no sign of little carbonated bubbles rushing toward a bust in his heart. He shifted his pack as his front wheel left the pavement at the end of Main Street and looked for a smooth run on the dirt road that led to Hurd's house. His drive waited at the bottom of a long hill, and they could coast all the way, fast enough to hear the spokes whistle, and then cut in at the last second where Hurd's brothers had built up the bank.
But at the bottom, Peter didn't cut in at the last second. He braked and slid his back tire out to the front, looking up at the top of the next hill ahead. Cooper braked right behind him.
A black sedan crouched, its brake lights bright.
"Jewett, I saw a sedan in town."
The brake lights dimmed, and the sedan moved smoothly over the arch of the hill.
"Now you saw one out of town," said Cooper.
Peter stared at him. "Don't you want to know what two cars like that are doing in New Lincoln?"
Cooper shrugged. "If they were Fords, maybe. If they were Ford pickups, say, 1958 or '59, then I'd care."
"Jewett, you should wonder if there's something wrong with you. No one else in the state wants to drive a fifty-year-old pickup."
"I think of myself as unique, individual, independent, one of a kind, a freethinker," said Cooper.
"There's something wrong with you," said Peter, and they biked up to the Hurd house.
It was a long drive to a small farmhouse, and Cooper sometimes wondered how it was that all the Hurds could fit inside at once. Maybe they couldn't. There was a Hurd in every single grade from New Lincoln Elementary to New Lincoln High, and two in eighth grade, and three in first, and one off to college. Between them all, they could almost field both sides of a baseball game, except the roster would be dang hard to keep straight, and who could call the game with all those Hurds?
Hurd up, with two outs. Hurd with two strikes and a ball. Hurd winds up. Hurd on first leads, held on by Hurd. Hurd pitches, and Hurd swings, and Hurd takes off for second. Hurd tracks it down in center ...
 
 
Mrs. Hurd, surrounded by a good part of her roster, was waiting for them on the front steps. She took the flour and sugar from Cooper and handed them to a young Hurd, took the milk from Peter and handed it to another young Hurd, gave Cooper a brownie--her hands moved as quickly as a bird's wing--and gave another to Peter. "Eat them now," she said, and fluttered inside.
Cooper ate his now, but he wasn't finished before Mrs. Hurd was back out and handing him a basket--with a pie! An apple pie! One of Mrs. Hurd's apple pies!
"It has too much cinnamon in it," she said, "and I'm worried that the apples might be too tart--" one of Mrs. Hurd's prizewinning, blue-ribbon, best-in-the-state apple pies! "--and it's probably not baked enough. But it's about milking time, so you'd best get on home with it."
"See you, Jewett," said Peter, and Cooper watched him get swallowed up and become part of the Hurd nest of bustle and business. "There was this black sedan in town," Cooper heard him say, and then Peter was gone inside.
Cooper swung his bike out and headed home, balancing the pie in one hand, his mouth still full of brownie. He pumped hard down the drive and up the hill, his legs burning from cross practice--but still no little carbonated bubbles right through his bloodstream--reached the top, and coasted down toward the Jewett farm. Thebreeze chilled him, the wind sang again in his spokes, and the farm spread out below him, the cows already heading toward the barn. The cinnamon smell of the apple pie came up out of the basket.
And for a moment, it was all so right. For a moment.
Then the stillness clutched him.
He wished he had a dog waiting for him--a retriever named Barkus. If there was a dog, they'd go on Saturdays to show off on New Lincoln Common, and together he and Barkus would be Frisbee champions of all New Hampshire.
He wished he had a brother or sister waiting. A brother to mess around with. Someone to do chores with. Someone on a lower bunk to talk to before he fell asleep at night.
He wished he had a mother and a father, waiting with brownies when he came home from cross practice. On weekends they would climb into a car that had a muffler and a back seat even, instead of Old Ford, and drive to his meets. They would keep his times, and cheer him through the sweat of the last quarter mile.
He wished--he could hardly let the thought come--he wished he had a grandmother. He did have one until a year ago. She'd cook one thing he really, really liked each night, so he could choke down the lima beans that were good for him because there were sweet potatoes crisped with brown sugar right beside them.And he would tend her garden for her so that it would take more blue ribbons than a Fourth of July parade.
He still tended it. One more way to remember her.
But with the apple pie and its cinnamon smell, he was coasting down only to his grandfather, who liked to say, "There's no use wishing for what the good Lord isn't going to send you. You just have to make do." Cooper figured that this was so, and most days he tried to make do and not to wish. But after stopping at Hurd's house, trying not to wish was like the orange sun trying not to jump up to morning or the pastel moon trying not to glow at dusk.
So he did wish all down the hill. But he knew his grandfather was right: The good Lord had no intention of sending him anything he wished for.
Which is not to say Cooper wasn't happy. Every day he ran cross hard enough to ache his muscles, worked at chores long enough to fall asleep quick and easy, and loved his grandfather, his wiry, cantankerous New Hampshire dairyman grouse of a grandfather, enough to almost fill the hole in his heart.
So almost every day ended happy. Tuckered, but happy. And this one did too. Together Cooper and his grandfather finished chores and evening milking, ate supper and most of the apple pie, and put up the dishes. Cooper read Geometry, and his grandfather read Zane Grey. And when they had had enough of math and theOld West, they ate the rest of the pie and then sat down in the parlor to watch the late news. Sort of.
What with morning milking, then hauling hay bales to the loft, then weeding carrots until breakfast, then New Lincoln High School, freshman cross, then more hay bales and carrots in the afternoon, then evening milking, by the time the late news came on, Cooper was about as tired as a boy could get. He was glad his grandfather wasn't one to talk. "Talk is only silence that ain't working well," his grandfather said. And most nights--tonight especially, somehow--Cooper was glad of good silence.
He yawned, then looked over at his grandfather watching the news. So still. So tuckered. He began to wonder if he was too still and too tuckered. Tuckered with the whole weary world. Maybe, thought Cooper, maybe I should start taking on evening milking by myself.
He stretched and felt his muscles tighten and ache across his back and up and down his legs. At fourteen, he was already bigger than his grandfather--not taller, but bigger--and he wondered for about the quadrillionth time where his looks came from. As far as he could tell, there wasn't another Jewett with hair this light and eyes this green. Not to mention these ears that stuck out farther than he wished they did.
The news droned on--nothing new, but Hannah Joyce, roving reporter, all excited about it.
He leaned closer to his quiet grandfather, and Cooperwondered for about the octillionth time why he looked so different. And why he was the only kid on the continent who'd never seen a picture of his mother or father. Golly Moses, not one single picture.
When Hannah Joyce announced an interview with Senator Wickham and his voice began to pulpit forth from the screen, Cooper sat back. He knew his grandfather would wake up as excited as Hannah Joyce--because he loved hating politicians. Senators and representatives, governors and selectmen and mayors--there wasn't a one that he couldn't find good reason to hate. And among politicians as a group, there was none he could find more reasons to hate than Senator Wickham, who, he said, should hold a pile of manure in each hand while he talked so people could plainly see what was coming out of his mouth. (He never said this aloud in New Lincoln Methodist Church.)
"Our country needs to be heading in new directions. And to get to those new directions our country needs a new vision. And to get a new vision we need a new leader," Senator Wickham was saying.
Hannah Joyce tilted her head. "But isn't it unusual for a candidate to challenge a sitting president in a primary when both are in the same party? Some might say that you are doing harm to the Democrats, perhaps even threatening to split the vote when the national election begins."
"Some might say that," said Senator Wickham. "But not those who can see how out of touch this President has become. I've walked among the people of New Hampshire. I've heard their stories. I've eaten in their homes and gone with them to their jobs. And I know that the President of the United States is responsible for dealing with the bread-and-butter issues that affect the citizens of New Hampshire every day of their life. This President doesn't believe that. And that's why I'm challenging the sitting President of my own party."
Cooper's grandfather woke up. "A bunch of hooey," he said. "He's not even grammatical."
Smiling, Hannah Joyce tried to put on a serious frown to ask a thoughtful question. "What bread-and-butter issues exactly, Senator?"
"Family, for one. Despite campaign promises up and down and all across our country, this President has made no effort to support New England's families. This is something we should all consider carefully. Very carefully. The American people should almost wonder if there was cause for the President's abandonment of our families. In the bill that I propose for the relief of New Hampshire ..."
"Good Lord," said Grandpa. He stood up and turned off the set. "That'll do for him tonight." He yawned, and his eyes drooped. Cooper figured he must be awful tired to miss a chance to hate Senator Wickham.
"As if he knew a single thing about New Hampshire families. As if he had one," said Grandpa.
What is there to know about New Hampshire families? thought Cooper. Except some have a roster for theirs. Others have barely enough for Ping-Pong.
His grandfather yawned again and rubbed his arm.
"You go on up, Grandpa," said Cooper. "I'll check everything tonight."
His grandfather nodded. "I guess I got a cold or something. I ache terrible."
"If Grandma were here, she'd give you a horehound to suck on."
"And hotten up a can of chicken soup."
"And put an afghan around your shoulders to keep you warm while you ate the soup."
"Yes, she would," he said. He walked over to her rocking chair and rubbed his fingers slowly along its top. "Well, you know what to do same as me." Then he came over to the couch and leaned over Cooper. "You're my first boy, Cooper, my first boy." Grandpa tousled his hair.
He had never done it before. His grandfather hardly ever touched him, him being a wiry, cantankerous New Hampshire dairyman grouse of a grandfather. Cooper felt his hand on him and heard his voice for the rest of that night and for many nights after that.
Cooper went out to check that the Small Barn was locked--it was--and that the cows in the Big Barn hadsettled down--they had. The Farmall wasn't backed under the shed, so he climbed up and turned the ignition and felt the thrill of the tractor under him as it grumbled and then woke up. He loved the roar of the machine, the smell of the combustion, the shuddering of the seat as the back wheels began to take the ground. His grandfather didn't care much for it at all, it being just a tractor. He used a cushion when he drove it. But Cooper didn't want anything between him and the machine. Riding that tractor with a load of hay from the Far Pasture, Cooper felt like he could drag up the whole landscape behind him if he had half a mind to.
He wondered for the trillionth time where that came from, since Grandpa said that Jewetts and machines weren't cozy together.
Back in the parlor he turned out the lights, then the ones in the hall. In the kitchen he left one on--Grandpa believed that all good New Hampshire dairymen needed something with lots of sugar in it sometime in the middle of the night. Then he headed up himself and, at the top of the stairs, paused to look out the window over the farm. Another day finished, and this one finished with his grandfather's voice: "You're my first boy, Cooper, my first boy."
He didn't know until morning that those were the last words he would hear his grandfather say.
Cooper thought of them when he found him, the firsttime he'd ever known him to stay in bed after the orange sun had jumped up to morning. He thought of them while he waited hopelessly for Sheriff Gibbs. He thought of them while he stood on the clean white tiles of the emergency room and listened to the doctor explain. He thought of them while Reverend Hurd drove him back home to a house as empty as sorrow, his grandfather's watch in his hand. (He had never seen it off him before.)
He thought of them when Mrs. Perley, who lived in the house above Cooper, brought his supper down that night and stayed with him while he sat in the rocker and ate. He thought of them when Mr. Searle, who lived in the dairy farm below Cooper, came to help out at evening milking, and then again the next morning. He thought of them three days later while he sweated in the overheated funeral parlor. Grandpa could never stand a house too hot. And he thought of them at the service the next morning in New Lincoln Methodist, sitting surrounded by Hurds, all as quiet and still as could be, because who knew what to say to a kid with no dog, no brother or sister, no mother or father, no grandmother, no grandfather?
"You're my first boy, Cooper, my first boy."
Afterward, folks from church came back to the farm. Reverend Hurd prayed a prayer with "thee"s and "thou"s in it, and then folks started to "partake"--which was Reverend Hurd's word for "eat." Mrs. Perley had mademore sandwiches, salads, and raspberry tarts than all New Lincoln could partake of. But Mr. Searle tried his hardest to make her come up short.
Everyone told Cooper that Eli Jewett had gone to his heavenly reward, that he was safe with Jesus, that he was with Edna again, that he was in a better place. But Cooper knew Jesus didn't need him, his grandmother would have waited, and his grandfather wouldn't find heaven so much better than the farm. What were Pearly Gates when he could open the Big Barn doors every morning and hear the warm, soft moos of cows waking up?
Not much, thought Cooper.
But he knew this: He would open those doors every day. He would hear the warm, soft moos. He would weed the carrots, and he would milk the cows, because this farm was all he had left. It felt like it was all he would ever have left.
There was quiet Methodist talk while the piles of Mrs. Perley's sandwiches and salads and raspberry tarts yielded to the partakers. And then the talk dwindled, and Cooper watched folks stretch out their collars and check their watches. John Hurd fussed because Dorcas Hurd took the last raspberry tart and he had wanted it and she had four already and he had only three and now it was too late because she had already licked it and wasn't it time for them to go yet?
It was, and one by one, the congregation of New Lincoln Methodist shook Cooper's hand and left. Each time someone stood on the top step of the porch, it groaned loudly, as if the house was mourning. When Peter punched him on the shoulder, then gathered the flock of Hurds and herded them home, Cooper's world got very still.
Then there was only Mrs. Hurd cleaning up with Mrs. Perley, and Reverend Hurd and Mr. Searle considering whether they should help--and deciding against it.
Then they were done. The kitchen clean. And nothing else to do but to make do.
"Cooper, is there someone to come for you?" asked Reverend Hurd.
Cooper looked at him. Deep down, there was something that had stopped in him. He felt it sprung and still. And whatever it was, he was afraid to even think about letting it start again. Because if he tried, golly Moses if he tried, he might discover that it had no reason to start again. And what would he do then?
"No one you know?" asked Reverend Hurd.
Cooper shook his head.
"Come stay with us. It would be a change for you, living in a crowd."
But Cooper shook his head again.
"You shouldn't stay here alone," said Mrs. Hurd. "You can bunk with Peter tonight, and we'll figure--"
"I can't leave," said Cooper. "It's my place now, and Grandpa would expect me to stay. I have to keep up."
"Boy all alone on a dairy farm this size, isn't possible you'll keep up," said Mr. Searle.
"I'll keep up," said Cooper.
Mr. Searle did not look like he believed he could. Reverend Hurd did not look like he believed he could.
"I figure my father had some uncles or something."
"Don't know of any," said Mr. Searle.
"I'll look in my grandfather's desk. There must be another Jewett somewhere in New Hampshire."
"I expect there is, but your father weren't a Jewett. Your mother either, far as I know."
"He had to be a Jewett. Golly Moses, I'm a Jewett."
"Hush, Searle, you old goat," said Mrs. Perley.
"Well, the boy's being so dang stubborn. He can't run a dairy farm alone, whoever he is."
"And you are Patience itself, are you not? Gracious goodness, he has enough to think about without your two cents' worth." Mrs. Perley turned to Cooper. "No one is going to take you out of your house, Cooper. You are a dairyman, just like Eli." Cooper nodded. "But we do not want you all alone, either. So I will stay the night, and the Old Grumpus will be up to help with chores in the morning."
"Don't know how long I can do that. I've got my own place to tend to."
"Until things settle down," said Mrs. Perley. "You have only a half-dozen cows in that big old barn. It is not as though you had an entire herd anymore."
"It hardly matters. They still need tending to, and even a mostly empty barn needs to be kept up."
"I can keep up," said Cooper.
Mr. Searle snorted. "Sure you can, boy, all by yourself."
"I don't need help," said Cooper.
Mr. Searle snorted again. He put his hat on and left. The top step groaned very loudly.
Even the bottom step groaned.
"I'll keep up," Cooper whispered after him.
Reverend Hurd shook his hand, and Mrs. Hurd gathered him in and put her arms around him like wings. They didn't say anything more. Maybe they too knew that talk could be silence that ain't working. They left to follow their flock.
So Mrs. Perley was the last to leave, the last one to pat him on the back and tell him that Eli Jewett had been a good man, and the only one to kiss him on the forehead. "I'll bring supper down. I'm just up the hill, you know. There's no one closer."
She meant a kindness, but Cooper's face stiffened, and Mrs. Perley saw it. She left him alone to mourn more loudly than any top step could mourn.
And he did.
Alone. Upstairs in his room.
Clutched by the stillness of the house.
Until day was almost done, and the dark yellows of the sky passed through the lace curtains.
He heard Mrs. Perley come in and the screen door slam shut behind her. Almost immediately the smell of a croutoned casserole came up to him. He realized he was hungry, terribly hungry. He couldn't remember if he had partaken of any of the sandwiches.
He heard Mrs. Perley go to the front door again. Probably to pick up something she'd left on the porch. He didn't hear the screen door slam shut behind her. He sat up on his bed. She must be holding it open. Cooper waited. The door didn't close.
He grabbed a new shirt--he had wiped his face more than a couple of times with the sleeves of the one he had on--and walked to the upstairs hall window.
Looking out, he saw a black sedan, the dust of the road rising up behind it. It did not hurry.
When Cooper got downstairs, Mrs. Perley was still standing by the open screen door, staring outside.
"Mrs. Perley?" he said.
She turned to him as though startled. Then she grabbed him and held him to her. "Oh, Cooper," she said. She wrapped her arms around him tightly.
Text copyright © 2005 by Gary Schmidt