Tom and Bill were in the room listening to the radio, both feeling edgy because the weather outside had turned cold and windy. Every few minutes a gust of rain would slam against the bedroom window. Tom was at his desk trying to study, While Bill lay on his bed, occasionally doing a somersault or tangling himself in his blanket. For the second time, he yelled, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the refrain from a Beatles song that had played earlier.
Tom’s feet felt cold. Why won’t dad turn on the furnace? he wondered. Cheapskate! What good was a house that did not offer warmth? He might just as well be sitting out in the garage. At night there did not seem to be anywhere in the house where he could do homework or just read quietly. His mom almost always sat in the kitchen listening to the radio, talking on the phone or writing letters to her sisters. The worst room however, was the dining room. Mary usually sat at the dining room table doing her homework, but she also had the responsibility, more often than not, of keeping an eye on John. At first she would be patient with him, but her patience would wear thin, particularly when John, Who had a vocabulary of about eight words, would shout, “Floor! Floor!”
Then she is would start losing her temper.
“John, Mary needs to do her homework. No, Mary will not get on the floor! Mary is getting very angry with you!”
Sometimes Tom would feel sorry for John, at which point he might try to play with him. But Mary generally would ask Tom if he could take John upstairs because she was working on a vitally important assignment and it was due the very next day. Clearly, John was not getting enough attention. Tom’s parents had stopped having their weekly “Getting to know you” nights,when they used to spend thirty minutes with Tom, Mary, Bill and John, doing whatever each of them wanted. His father no longer seemed to have time to play hide and seek in the yard with him and his siblings on summer evenings. What scary, thrilling times those were, to be crouched behind the spruce tree or hiding behind the wood pile, hearing the screams of his siblings or of the other neighborhood kids as they were flushed from their hiding places, getting chills up the spine seeing dad approach, Struggling mightily not to scream!
Dad used to be so much fun. Every kid in the neighborhood loved him. Their big backyard looked like a neighborhood park. Kids climbed the big beech trees, tossed footballs, played ghosts in the graveyard, or made up their own games. And on a summer night, after he had straightened out the kitchen, dad would come out to play pick-up basketball games.
Mom always seemed busy, sewing clothes, doing the laundry, packing lunches for school. She often went shopping after supper to pick up clothes or school supplies. But she didn’t have a mean bone in her body. At bedtime, she often sat for a while with each of them, listening to a recap of the day’s adventures. She would rub feet or backs,give reassurance if someone was troubled. By the time she finally got up and turned off the light, Tom would feel cozy under his blanket and filled with her love. Sleep would come quickly. He would have his dreams and then it would be morning, with the sun shining through the windows
“I want my Maypo!” Bill shouted at the top of his lungs.
“Shut up up there!” dad shouted from downstairs.
Messiness did not usually bother Tom, but the room had become ridiculously disheveled. The wet clothes Bill had worn when he was caught in the rain earlier in the day lay in a soggy heap beside Tom’s bed. An empty bag of potato chips, it’s red labeling the brightest thing in the room, lay crumpled by the door. The shoe rack had come loose from the closet door again. Shoes, belts, dirty socks, and everything that had been hung on the rack were strewn about the floor. His Museum of Natural History poster, which hung on the wall by only its bottom pieces of tape, sagged to the floor, presenting it’s blank side for view. However, he could not motivate himself to get up from his desk and straighten things up.
The night was going badly. He was sinking deeper and deeper into the dumps. School would be a drag tomorrow because they were supposed to play soccer in the gym, a sweaty, noisy, foot-punishing game he despised. The day after tomorrow he had a dental appointment. He would surely have cavities filled, and the dentist would fill them with a minimum of Novacaine, thanks to dad being such a cheapskate. His dad had also announced he would give him a haircut on the weekend, a torturous ordeal that rarely was without bloodshed.
Mom walked in. Tom glanced at her, and knew something wasn’t quite right. She looked worried.
“Tom, Bill, I have some wonderful news for you. We are going to have another baby!
“You told me you were done having babies!” Tom blurted out.
“Well, I did tell you I was done having babies. That is what the doctor told me. But apparently this little one inside me wasn’t listening.”
“Where will he sleep?” I asked.
“Well, it might be a she,” mom replied. “Pretty soon your father will buy a bed for John and then we will move him into this room. Meanwhile, the new baby will spend a few months with your father and I.”
Mary walked into the room. “Did you tell them, mom?
“Yes I did, honey.”
“Mom, Will you rub my feet?” Bill asked out of the blue.
Watching her walk over to Bill’s bed and take his dirty feet into her hands, Tom was reminded of the mother he knew when he was Bill’s age — soft-eyed, smiling gently, a deep well of love, always ready to do whatever he asked, give him whatever he needed, often knowing what he wanted before he could even get the words out. Once he had asked her to rub his back, but she was too busy. She had said that he should ask his guardian angel to rub his back. Dutifully, Tom had rolled over on his stomach and implored his guardian angel to give him a rub. At one point he had imagined feeling the slightest touch of a hand on his back.
Mom stroked Bill’s feet, gently squeezing each of his toes. Mary walked over and sat down on Bill‘s bed beside her mom. Finally, his mom stood up. “A little more, mom,” Bill pleaded.
“No, honey,” she said, softly, “I promised your sister I would tuck her in.” Mom walked over to my bed, kissed me good night, and left the room with Mary trailing behind her.
Tom suddenly felt very tired. He decided to try to finish his homework in the morning. This was a problem because it was a history assignment, And he has already been told by Miss Osterday that he was falling behind in history.
Tom closed his eyes and thought about the black rat snake he had caught last weekend in the barn at French Park. Used to house park maintenance equipment, the barn held a secretive aura, nearly concealed behind a wall of poplars. Boys from the neighborhood loved the barn because their parents told them it was dangerous and forbade them from going inside. Tom and his friends sometimes dared each other to climb the ladder to the hayloft where mice scurried and where swallows built their mud nests.
After exploring along the creek bed for newts, ringneck snakes, and anything else he could find, Tom decided to search the barn. He was not quite ready to go home. A pair of mud dauber wasps slowly circled overhead. He wondered why he was so attracted to old barns, sheds, even outhouses. Some farm tools lay strewn about — rusty saw blades, the broken harrow of a plow, iron hooks, prongs and other implements whose function he could only guess. Entering the barn felt a little bit like entering an empty church, of being in the presence of spirits moving ever so slowly, like the dust motes swimming in the shafts of sunlight.
He detected a movement just over his head. Two large snakes were coiled in the rafter overhead. Frantically, looking for something with which to reach them, he settled on a clothesline pole. He did a little more than annoy the first snake by poking at it before it worked its head through a small hole in the roof and slowly disappeared.
He was able to work the top of the pole into the coils of the second snake, and with a sharp yank he brought it down. The snake, all 6 feet of it, writhed on the floor as Tom tried to pin it. Finally, after it has succeeded in disappearing halfway into a pile of two by fours, Tom threw all caution to the wind and grabbed it by its tail. It’s power was awesome. Tom and the snake were at a stalemate until the snake momentarily went flaccid, and Tom worked it free. The snake whipped twice around his arm and began constricting. At one point the snake managed to bite Tom’s wrist, but it withdrew quickly, leaving tiny pin pricks of blood.With its jet black head and white throat, the snake was beautiful.
Struggling to unwrap the snake from his arm, Tom was able to enclose it in an old burlap bag he found in the barn. He rode his bike home with his prize wrapped around his handlebars. Fortunately, the snake remained still for the last duration of the trip. Once home, Tom constructed a cage using old window screens and nails. By morning, the snake had already escaped.