On the last day of school, I tore home, singing, “School’s out, school’s out, the teachers let the mules out!” The prairie spread green before me, the sky blue.
When I reached the gravel in front of our house, the screen door of the porch opened and slapped shut. I clammed up. My dad’s six-foot-four frame loomed in front of me. “You’ll be working for the Shultzes this summer.”
I stood there with the knobby knees and sharp elbows of an underfed twelve-year-old. There was no argument. My dad made plans and dropped us into them.
“The twins are headin’ off to Brookings’ summer session.” He got in his pickup and said out the open window. “Be up there Monday at six.”
I went inside, changed out of my jumper into cut-offs, and crawled from my bedroom window to sit on the porch roof. I wouldn’t be staying with one of my sisters and watching their kids or going with Mama and cleaning rooms at the hotel where she parked her little trailer to attend the summer session of college.
My head sank between my knees. I’d be gathering eggs, plucking chickens, and milking cows. And even though the Schultzes lived beyond our north pasture, I didn’t know them. I only recognized the twins because I’d been impressed by how they looked exactly like my idea of German—tall and beefy with gold hair and pink cheeks. When my sisters had been around to take me to church, I’d seen Mrs. Schultz at the First Lutheran. But this deal, I suspected, had been cooked up at the pool hall where my dad played whist with Mr. Schultz. The twins were the tail end of the Schultz kids, and my dad had a girl left at home that he didn’t want underfoot all summer.
I clenched my fists between my knees. I didn’t even know if I’d get paid. My dad might take a side of beef in exchange. My eyes burned wet but crying was not an option. My brothers would be trooping home from school soon.
From the roof, I viewed our weed patch out to the straight line of Highway 14 and beyond to where the gravel road to downtown dipped out of sight into the Bad River Valley. My brothers would have to help put up billboard signs for Wall Drug and Pioneer Auto Museum but at least between times, they’d be home. I was too angry to spit.
I slithered back into my bedroom and rummaged through the top dresser drawer for a white pair of panties. From the bunched cotton, I took out a package of Swisher Sweets and a book of matches.
My friend Vicki had introduced me to the cigars. She’d galivanted right into the Senechal Hotel and bought them. “For my dad.”
Darryl Clark, the pervert behind the counter, didn’t even glance at the forged note. He slid the package across the glass and silently made change while staring at Vicki, then me, like deciding on a slice of pie—cherry or peach. The first time I went with Vicki, we sashayed out of the hotel and lit up in the alley. The tobacco smelled like cherries. When I tried my first cigar, I bent over hacking and coughing.
Vicki demonstrated how to roll a bit of sweet smoke in the mouth, then puff it out and tap off ash like a movie star.
Now I scuttled back onto the hot shingles with my stash. I didn’t want my brothers to smell smoke on my breath, so I confined my rebellion to letting the cigar smolder.
The Schultzes had a two-story white house like ours but with matching paint all the way around and a doorbell. They didn’t have a front porch so their door opened right into a tidy living room. Behind the blockade of Mrs. Schultz’s body, a davenport faced me with a pillow on each end. One was cross-stitched with Our Father Who Art in Heaven. The other said Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Mrs. Schultz eyed my bare feet, black on the bottoms. Her blue eyes narrowed, on guard for sin and dirty soles.
“I’m getting them toughed up for summer,” I said.
I’d bought a pair of white tennis shoes in anticipation of a different future. I didn’t plan to step them in manure.
“Mr. Schultz will meet you around back and go over the chores.”
The twins, I thought, hadn’t wasted any time escaping the farm. Mr. Schultz stood waiting outside a mud room. He wore overalls and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Sharp creases made the shirt seem fancy for farm work even if the collar was frayed, certainly fancier than my dad’s white undershirts and Dickies.
Mr. Schultz studied my bare feet but said, “Your dad says you’re a good worker.”
I hardly believed my ears.