HANGING IN THE BALANCE – The Heartland Series

In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.

Balance and Barn.001

Aunt Francine, Aunt Francine…Mark Edward is coming,” yells Julie as she runs from her upstairs bedroom to the first floor living room of her Aunt’s house. I, oblivious to the goings-on inside, pedal my bicycle straight through the puddles that dot the lane that perpendicularly connects Francine’s house with Highway 2 west of Corydon, Iowa.

Inside, Julie looking out the living room window, her Aunt looking over her shoulder, says, “Look at him!  All arms, legs, and feet…a knight charging to save the damsel.” I, pedaling up the lane, wet from the rain on this gray day, have a pack on my back. I feel like a rode hard, put up wet mule. In the pack, wrapped in plastic, are quilting materials for the project that Mom and Francine are doing on behalf of the Women’s Circle of the United Methodist Church.

Though unsophisticated in the ways of women, I realize my trip here is about more than the delivery of materials for the project. It is a mere contrivance that brings Julie and me together. I am okay with this…but certainly do not say so to Mom. Being with Julie, even in contrived circumstances, is something I enjoy.

Julie, a city girl, here to live with her Aunt, makes me think about things I never think about. I, a small town boy, who loves the outdoors, am proud to show Julie a world she never dreamt of seeing. When together—thinking and showing—we run, laugh, have fun, and sometimes shed some tears. The thought of being with Julie this afternoon excites me.

After leaning my bike against the front step, I reach to knock on the door to the house. Before knuckles hit wood, the door swings opens. Opposite me stands Miss Francine, with Julie—jeans, plaid blouse, ringlets, and bauble—by her side. Pulling me in, out of the rain, Francine hands me a towel. Then says, “Julie, please take Mark Edward’s pack up to my sewing room, then join us in the kitchen.”

I feel a strange, dark foreboding as Francine leads me to the kitchen. While she piles fresh baked chocolate chip cookies on a plate and pours three glasses of milk, I wonder what the foreboding might mean. When Julie sits down beside me, poof, the dark thoughts evaporate.

As I munch a cookie, Francine thanks me for trekking out here in the rain. I say, “No problem, it’s a fun adventure.” When she asks about Mom, Dad, and Pamela. I put my second cookie back on the plate then provide a terse summary about Mom and Dad…not Pamela. Francine, sensing my discomfort, starts talking about what she and Julie have been up to. Finished with the second cookie, now munching on a third, I hear about their shopping trip to Centerville, a movie matinee last Sunday in Corydon, and the usual gardening, sewing, cooking, and cleaning stuff, that women do, about which I have little interest. Nothing to say, and no room for a fourth cookie, I look at Julie.

“Let’s go play in the barn,” says Julie. At that, I offer up my best thank-you-for-the cookies to Miss Francine, finish my milk, stand, then head to the back door. There, Julie waits for me, umbrella in hand.

As Julie and I walk side-by-side toward the barn, she reaches high to hold the umbrella over us. The barn, having seen better days, still works. Its four sides and a hip roof adequately protect the livestock from the wind and keep the dirt floor and a hayloft dry. An intense rain, quick series of lightning flashes, and thunder rumbles announce our arrival. The pungent smell of livestock, manure, and hay welcomes us as we step through the door into the barn.

Julie, city-girl-cautious where she steps, proceeds to show me around. A roost of chickens there, two milk cows through here, a group of hogs over there, and…. Oh, no, a dead cat, from the looks of her, a mother. My first thought is about the foreboding I felt earlier. I, at once, am sad, awestruck, and relieved.

Julie, a tear in her eye, wanting to care for the cat starts to kneel down. Before her knees touch the ground, a soft, delicate meow sifts down from the loft causing Julie to pause. Another meow follows, and yet another. Julie stands up. I spring to the ladder and start climbing. She hangs back, apprehensive…I note curiously.

In the loft, 25 feet above, the meows pull me to a litter of five orange, tan, and black balls of fluff—kittens. “Julie, over here,” I say as she crosses the ladder’s crest. “They miss their mother.” Julie walks ever so cautiously along the loft’s edge.

Lightning, a clap of thunder, a scream, suddenly, there is no Julie. I go to the edge. Afraid, I force myself to look over. There, a few feet below, upside down, hem of her left pants leg impaled on a large, rusty, four-sided nail, hangs Julie, unconscious. Loose arms and limp hair dangling downward, if she moves, surely the hem or nail will give way, reuniting Julie with her beloved bauble, next to the dead cat, on the hardpan floor more than 25 feet below. Acting, not thinking, with both hands I reach over the loft’s edge, grab Julie’s ankle with strength from I know not where, pulling her up and over the edge.

Sitting on the floor of the loft, sweat drenched, my heart beats faster than it has ever beaten before. Julie’s near lifeless head rests on my lap; her limp body leans on my dirty pants leg. Looking at her pale, clammy skin and watching her shallow breathing, I think about the apprehension she felt about coming up here. I ponder the foreboding I felt earlier. Must this have happened? Minutes pass, her eyelids flutter. Seconds pass, an exhale follows.

“What happened?” asks Julie. As the rain patters on the metal roof, I answer her question. Quietly, we decompress. The enormity of Julie’s near death sits silently with us. The meows of the motherless kittens’ are the only punctuation.

“Mark, I want to tell you something,” says Julie. “Promise me you won’t tell a single soul. Not even Aunt Francine.” When I promise, she tells me that her parents are divorcing. Her mother, wanting to straighten out her life, sent Julie to live with Francine for the summer. When Julie goes home it will be to a new house—a new life.

“Dad is not always nice to my Mom…” Julie says. When she leaves it at that, I remember Mom talking about a neighbor family in which the dad was “not nice to the mom”. Their two children are my friends. We talk. I understand what not nice entails.

“I fear for my Mother, “ Julie says. “ I’ve heard nothing from her since I got here.” Here, Julie is safe from the situation back home. Soon she must return there. She will be vulnerable. And I will be here, unable to protect her. I fear for Julie. As I do, I realize that Julie has a special place in my heart.

As I walk home, the rain stops. The wheels in my head are turning faster than those of my bicycle. Over my shoulder, I glimpse back at Julie, in an open doorway, watching me walk down the lane. When I turn left on Highway 2, back to Corydon, I am alone.

On this trip to Heartland, the memory that awaits me is about contrivances, kittens, and the near death of my  friend. The memory reminds me to share my feelings. When I do not share my feelings contrivances occur, such as the get-together for Julie and me. Likewise with my foreboding, Julie’s apprehension, and the incident in the barn. What difference might giving voice to them have made?  As for our exchange in the loft, I never share it with anyone. I am confident Julie did not either. What risks did we take?

Now looking back, I see that each of us deals with big issues. For me it was my sister Pamela, for Julie her parents. Many of us chose to keep our big issues secret. When we do, our lives hang in the balance. And sometimes, as with Julie, we end up hanging by a hem.

Note: This is the 19th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.