This story in included in Reaps, available on Kindle.
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© 2011 Jess Mowry
"Don't you want to go out and play?" Aunt Jemmy smiled after sipping from a bottle of Bud as she sat in a creaky rocking chair reading a tattered old book.
Russel almost rolled his eyes... thirteen was too old to “play!” But he didn't because he liked Aunt Jemmy. For somebody sixty she was all right, even if she lived in the middle of nowhere in an ancient Victorian farmhouse that looked like it should have been haunted. Too bad it wasn't, he thought, because even being scared by a ghost would have been something to do.
He sighed and looked back at the old TV, which had enough ghosts to haunt a graveyard. There wasn't any cable out here, and Aunt Jemmy didn't have a dish, so there were only three channels... sometimes four if an airplane flew over. He'd only been here about six hours but was already bored to critical mass and was lying corpse-like on the threadbare carpet a few feet away from the TV screen.
It was only about ten in the morning but the day was already getting hot, and Russel was shirtless in jeans and sneaks. Aunt Jemmy had said to “go native,” and Russel had changed from his traveling clothes -- like anyone cared what you wore on a bus -- after his aunt had picked him up in her 1970 International truck at the tiny bus stop in what passed for a town... which was ten miles down the country road so it might as well have been on the moon.
The front door was open except for the screen, and Russel saw nothing but green grassy fields and a few grazing goats under empty blue sky. The air smelled like hot summer sunshine on grass, except for the aged musty scent of the house and the lingering traces of breakfast... a real country breakfast of sausage and eggs, hash-brown potatoes and thick buttered toast, with a tall frosty glass of creamy goat milk. Aunt Jemmy was a damn good cook so Russel wouldn’t starve to death here, but he might just croak from terminal boredom.
There was nothing on TV but stupid-ass soaps... those, and a show about John Deere tractors. He glanced at a massive old bookcase that filled a whole wall in the high-ceilinged room. "Maybe I'll read a book.”
"My," said Aunt Jemmy, after taking another sip of beer and looking up from her book. "You’re getting desperate, aren't you, kiddo? It’s certainly good to read books, but it's such a nice day outside. Surely you can find something to do?”
Russel shrugged. “I will when my laptop an’ games get here.”
“That might be a couple of days,” said Aunt Jemmy. “UPS is slow in these parts.” She laughed. “Like everything else. But there's a big old barn to explore.”
Russel almost groaned... thirteen was too old to “explore!” But then he had a hopeful thought. "I don't guess Uncle Lambert had a dirt-bike or an ATV?”
"I'm afraid not, bless his soul," said Aunt Jemmy. "There's just the big truck and the tractor, and an old Army Jeep.”
"Does the Jeep run?" asked Russel, feeling slightly hopeful again.
Aunt Jemmy shrugged a plump shoulder. She was a big but cool-looking lady with warm brown skin like Hershey's chocolate. Maybe it wasn’t politically-correct, but she looked a lot like Aunt Jemimah... except in addition to a red bandanna she wore overalls and big clunky boots. "I haven't even tried to start it since your Uncle Lam passed on, bless his soul. The battery must be as dead as he is. But if you can get it running, there's miles of open country to drive in. Deputy Wade is a good friend of mine, and lots of boys your age drive farm trucks. As long as you don't act the fool, Wade won't bother about licenses. We never even got plates for the Jeep.”
Russel came back to life a little. His very own Jeep! He got to his feet and pulled up his slipping jeans a bit. "Does it have wide tires an’ a CD changer?”
"It has the tires it came with forty years ago, and we never put in a radio.” Aunt Jemmy smiled again. “Why don't you go out and tinker with it? There's a whole bench full of tools, and a battery charger. Have some good clean fun, kiddo, before they try to make it illegal, tell you it’s too dangerous, or claim it makes you fat.”
"Aight," said Russel.
Aunt Jemmy added, “Cheer up, kiddo. I’m sure your mom will see the light. Good men aren’t easy to find in this world, and your father is one of the best.”
“...Yeah,” said Russel, though wishing his aunt hadn’t brought up the subject. He turned to leave the living room, then heard the sound of a little bell tinkling far away. “Is that an ice cream truck?”
“I’m afraid not, kiddo. It’s Andy Brown’s old ram, Puck. Probably leading his herd to a shady spot. Usually does this time of day.”
Russel went to the doorway and looked out across the shimmering fields. There were no other houses in sight, and only a few clumps of trees here and there. “Sure a lot of goats around here.”
“Not all cheese comes from cows, you know? And while most Americans won't eat goat, we export a lot to smarter folks. We had a fair-sized herd ourselves till your Uncle Lam passed on, bless his soul. Now Andy pays me to let his goats graze here.”
“Um... do they attack people?”
“Old Puck might butt your behind if he thought you were getting too close to his kids, but give him respect and you’ll get along.”
Then Russel cocked his head. “What’s that? Sounds like somebody playin’ a... flute.”
Aunt Jemmy smiled. “You’ve got good ears, kiddo. That’s Jody the goat boy, bless his soul, playing on his pipes.”
“Does he herd the goats?” asked Russel.
“He watches over the kids, ‘specially the little ones who just got born in spring.”
“Oh,” said Russel, his mind going back to driving. “Guess I’ll check out the Jeep.”
“I’ll ring the bell when it’s time for lunch, and I’m baking chocolate-chip cookies later.”
"Cool." Russel left the living room and walked through the big quiet house, crossing the kitchen with its wood-burning stove and an ancient fridge with its motor on top. He went out the back door’s squeaky screen and crossed the sun-baked barnyard, where chickens were lazily scratching the ground, and headed for the huge wooden barn.
Russel was a chubby boy with a bobby chest and a wobbly belly, the latter hanging over his jeans. His face was gently-rounded, with a wide snub-nose and dark coffee eyes. His skin like his Aunt's was warm chocolate brown, and his hair a bit scruffy and wild... as least for a city boy. His jeans rode low beneath his belly, and were becoming damp with sweat as he walked across the dusty ground raising baby ghosts.
He lifted the bar on the barn's double doors. The rusty hinges creaked, and the doors were heavy and hard to pull open. It looked very dark inside after being out in the bright sunlight and he waited for his eyes to adjust. Straw covered most of the hard dirt floor, and the structure smelled like weathered wood, old motor oil and a million goats. There were cracks in the shingled roof, and shafts of golden sun slanted down. Then Russel’s heart sank when he saw the Jeep. It looked like something in an old war movie that belonged to the Army that lost! He went over to it, feeling almost angry as if he'd been tricked.
Its tires weren't wide and were almost bald, and one of them was flat. The vehicle was covered with dust and many layers of crusted mud. A rat jumped off the driver’s seat and scuttled away in the shadows. But, in spite of his disappointment, Russel realized if he could somehow get this wreck to run he could learn how to drive and go cruising around.
Of course he knew little about mechanics. His dad had tinkered with his Lex, and Russel had often helped, so at least he knew the difference between a wrench and a screwdriver. He glanced around; there was the big old flatbed truck, which looked in worse shape than the Jeep. Also a rusty tractor, which didn't look any better. And beneath a grimy spider-webbed window was a long wooden bench and tools in racks... though Russel didn't have a clue what most of them were for.
Standing in the shadows and heat, Russel tried to remember all he knew about mechanical things... about as much as he knew about goats. Vaguely, he recognized a machine that was probably an air-compressor -- at least it had a hose attached -- so that would fix the tire. And there was a black metal box with wires and a label that said Zeus Battery Charger. So far, so good. Maybe he could get this thing to run?
He opened the latches and raised the Jeep's hood, scattering bits of straw. The engine looked worse than the vehicle, covered with dirt and caked with old grease, but he recognized the battery. The hood didn't stay up by itself, so he opened it all the way back against the dusty windshield. The charger didn't look hard to figure out; there were two heavy wires with clamps on the ends, a red and a black one, and the charger was already plugged into a socket. There were two switches on the front: one said OFF and ON -- no problem -- but the other said 6-12-24, and Russel didn't know what that meant. But more of anything was always better, so he turned the switch from 6 to 24 and stretched out the wires to the Jeep. He wondered if their colors meant something, like on his game controller? But what? He clamped the wires to the battery's terminals, then flipped the charger's switch to ON.
Something went POP and yellow sparks flew! Then there was nothing but silence except for the clucking of chickens outside.
"Shit!" muttered Russel. "I give up!" He unplugged the charger just to be safe, then left the barn and closed the doors.
The day was even hotter now, and Russel wiped sweat from his face. So much for having a Jeep of his own! He glanced toward the house... nothing to do in there either unless he wanted to read a book. ...Maybe later. Then he remembered Aunt Jemmy’s beer. Besides two sixers of Bud in the fridge, there were three cases stacked beside it. Russel's dad had once said that Aunt Jemmy would walk fifty miles though a blizzard if she ever ran out of beer. At least he could get a little buzzed.
He returned to the kitchen and snagged a cold bottle, then went back out on the porch. The first icy swallow was always the best, especially on a hot day like this. He sat on the steps in the shade and sipped. There was no reason to hurry; if he had anything now it was time... to infinity and beyond.
His eyes wandered out across the fields and came to rest on a long line of trees, probably weeping willows, that stretched away in both directions fading into the heat-shimmered distance. Maybe that was a river? He remembered old stories -- his mom had read him The Wind In The Willows when he’d been about five, and he’d read it again himself last year -- and TV shows about country kids and "ol’ swimmin' holes.” His dad had taught him how to swim and had often taken him to beaches. It didn't look very far to the trees, maybe about four blocks. Why not check it out? What else was there to do? He drank the rest of the beer, then boosted another for later, shoved it in his jeans’ back pocket and headed off across the fields. He saw more goats in the distance, under the shade of a small grove of trees, but they seemed to be busy eating and the biggest one, a shaggy brown ram with huge curled horns, only glanced at him for a moment.
It took about twenty minutes of steady walking through waist-high grass until he came to the line of trees. They were definitely weeping willows, their long leafy branches reaching the ground and making secret shadowy places lit by hues of greens and golds. His body was shiny with sweat by now, he seldom walked very far in the city -- that’s what busses were for -- but a nice cool swim would fix that. And it was a small river he'd found, after pushing though the willow branches and emerging into a grassy place of peaceful greens and leaf-dappled light. The water flowed slow and quietly, making liquid musical sounds as it lapped along the shallow banks. It was a clear emerald color and looked very cool and inviting. No telling how deep it was, but he swam pretty well and his chub helped him float. He set down the bottle of Bud and crouched to dip his hand in the water... just right! He sat in the grass to untie his sneaks, then pulled off his socks and slipped off his jeans. He'd never been naked outside before, and it felt really good with the sun on his body.
Maybe too good... if that was possible. He looked down at himself: that had been happening a lot this year, and now free in the sun it demanded attention. He scanned around. He was all alone and miles from nowhere. He’d never done it outside before, but here in this peaceful tree-shaded place it seemed like a natural thing. There was a long grassy mound nearby that looked just right to lay on. At one end stood a big flat rock mostly buried in willow branches. Using his jeans, he made a pillow against the rock and lay on his back in the grass.
He closed his eyes to imagine whatever came into his mind, then heard the distant pipes again. The piping made it better somehow... freer, happier, even joyous. Then he lay there panting, his body gleaming with sweat.
Suddenly there was kid-laughter! “That was a good one, huh?”
Russel jerked to sitting position as if the battery charger had bit him, feeling both guilty and pissed as hell. “The fuck!” he began, glaring over his shoulder. But then his mouth dropped open.
He’d seen a picture in a book and tried to remember what they were called.
But, fauns weren’t real!
Yet, ten feet away, half-hidden among the willow branches, a faun stood grinning at him!
No, he decided a second later, it was only a boy around his own age. And what he’d first thought were goat legs were trousers made of furry goatskin, bell-bottom baggy, dragging the ground, and the only clothes the boy was wearing. He didn't look like any race that Russel had ever seen: he might have been brown or an Indian, or maybe just atomically tanned, but he was so dirty it was hard to tell. His body was fairly muscular with high jutting pecs and rocky biceps, but his belly stuck out like a little kid’s and was almost cartoonishly round. His hair was amazingly long, trailing down over his chest and back and almost reaching his waist. It might have been black with shadings of brown but was dirty and tangled with leaves. His eyes were large and alarmingly amber, though almost hidden by all his hair, and his two front teeth were fiercely huge but only looked white in his dirt-darkened face. His cheeks were wide above a V-jaw, his nose was pugged and his mouth full-lipped. His fingernails looked like weapons, and his big bare feet were totally black. ...Half-hidden by his furry pants they looked a lot like hooves. On a leather strip around his neck hung a set of wooden pipes.
Russel had just had two major shocks -- unless you counted the battery charger -- the first from being caught whacking-off, the second thinking he'd seen a faun, but now he wasn't sure what to feel. The boy was still grinning with huge yellow teeth, but his amber eyes weren’t smart-ass. They had an open friendly look that was maybe a little too innocent. That, plus being so awesomely dirty, made him look retarded. That seemed to be confirmed when he ambled up to Russel, his trousers so low that his own fur showed -- there were leaves in it, too -- and grinned down over his big round belly. “Hi, I’m Jody.”
He offered an appalling paw. Not really knowing what else to do, Russel shook the dirty thing and wondered where it might have been.
“I do that all the time,” said Jody.
Russel’s voice took an edge of defense. “It’s totally normal.”
“Yeah, I know.” Jody plopped down in the grass beside Russel as if he’d been invited. He smelled as dirty as he looked, grass, earth and sweaty kid; and there was another randy scent that proved he did do it all the time... and maybe more than Russel.
“...Um...” said Russel. “Wanna spilt a beer?”
“Oh sure,” said Jody. “I like beer. Mizzuz Cooper gives me some.” He patted his cartoonish belly, upon which lay his pipes. “An’ she feeds me good.”
“Jemmy Cooper?” asked Russel. He popped the Bud and offered firsts.
“Yeah,” said Jody. He took a big gulp and blasted a burp that probably blew a few leaves off the trees. “You know her?”
Russel accepted the bottle as Jody passed it back. He glanced at Jody’s dirty face, then thought what the hell, drank and burped. “She’s my aunt.”
“She’s nice,” said Jody.
“Yeah, she is.” Russel passed the bottle back.
“Mister Cooper was nice, too,” said Jody, drinking and burping again. “But he died an’ went to a better place.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Russel.
“You live with Mizzuz Cooper now?” asked Jody, passing back the bottle. “It’s good if you do ‘cause she’s kinda lonely.”
“Just for awhile,” said Russel and drank. “My mom an’ dad are havin’ problems.”
“What kinda problems?” asked Jody.
Russel sighed and gazed at the river. “Grownup problems, y’know?”
“I don’t ‘cause I ain’t,” said Jody.
Russel studied Jody again; his grin seemed like his normal expression, but what did he have to be sad about? The dude was retarded, lived with goats, played his pipes and whacked-off a lot. And his belly proved that he didn’t go hungry. Russel doubted if Jody could relate, but even talking to a dirty retard was better than thinking to himself.
He passed the bottle. “My dad wants to be a writer... write books. He already wrote an’ sold one, an’ he made pretty good money, but now he wants to write full-time an’ mom says he’s a lazy dreamer so they been fightin’ a lot. Mom wants us to have a ‘steady income,’ but dad says doin’ what you love is the most important thing in life.”
Jody nodded. “He’s right.”
“...Well, maybe he is,” said Russel. “But mom don’t seem to think so. She wanted a separation this summer to make my dad 'come back to earth,' so they sent me here while they try an’ work things out.”
"I like dreamin'," said Jody, which probably proved he couldn't relate. "An' I like books 'cause they give you dreams, 'cept I can't read.”
“Then how can you like books?” asked Russel.
“Your aunt reads to me. My favorite one is The Wind In The Willows.” Jody spread his arms. “It’s about a place like this, ‘cept all the people are animals. There’s Water Rat an’ Mole...”
“I know,” said Russel. “I read it.”
“Could you read it to me?” asked Jody. He drank, burped and returned the bottle.
“You said Aunt Jemmy already did.”
“Yeah, but I never get tired of it.”
“Guess you wouldn’t,” said Russel.
“You mean ‘cause I’m retarded?” asked Jody.
“No,” said Russel, feeling ashamed. “I...”
“It’s okay,” said Jody. “It ain’t as bad as some people think.” He looked around at the river and trees. “Like, everything’s new everyday.”
“...Yeah,” said Russel. “Guess it would be.” He drank, tasting earth from Jody’s lips.
"I'm sorry about your uncle,” said Jody as Russel passed the bottle.
Russel shrugged. “Thanks, but I hardly knew him. I’ve only been here once before an’ then I was just a little kid.”
Jody smiled. “I woulda been a little kid, too. Too bad I didn’t meet you then, we coulda played together.”
“Yeah, I guess we coulda,” said Russel. "Uncle Lam died about two years ago. It was some kinda accident.”
"Got runned over by Tom Jenkins' Caterpillar when they was pullin’ a stump.” Jody drank and burped. “It’s a D-8, they’re really big.”
"Guess it was big enough," said Russel as Jody returned the bottle.
"Is that a joke?” asked Jody. “Most of the time I don’t get jokes, so if you tell one you gotta explain it.”
“...Well... sorta,” said Russel. “I mean, it was big enough to kill him.”
“Oh sure it was,” said Jody. “Squished him flat as a pancake. But I still don’t get it.”
“Never mind, it was kinda retarded.”
Jody laughed. “That’s funny ‘cause you ain’t.”
Russel sighed and looked back at the river. “Sometimes I’m not so sure about that, ‘cause there’s lots of things I don’t get.”
“Like your mom an’ dad’s problems?” asked Jody. “They ain’t your fault, ya know?”
Russel smiled. “You’re not so retarded.”
“Thanks, but I’m retarded enough. ...Was that a joke?”
“Yeah,” said Russel. “An’ not retarded.”
“Your uncle was nice,” said Jody.
“You said that already.”
“That’s ‘cause everything’s always new an’ I forget when it ain’t.”
“Then it’s just the same as new.”
"I get that," said Jody. He turned to look through the trees at the fields. "Your uncle drove out in his Jeep an' brung me food an' stuff. An' your aunt drove out an' read me books." He patted his tummy. “An’ she brung me cookies.”
"So that old thing really ran?”
"Oh sure," said Jody. "Is there somethin’ wrong with it now? I guess it’s been a long time, huh?”
“Two years," said Russel, drinking then passing the bottle.
“I forgot,” said Jody. “So tell me what’s wrong with the Jeep.”
“It's got a flat tire an' the battery's dead. I tried to put a charger on it, but the damn thing almost blew up.”
"Hmm," said Jody. He drank the last of the beer and burped. "Did you hook it up negative to negative an' positive to positive?”
Russel shrugged. "I don't know what that means.”
Jody whistled. "Woah! It coulda blowed acid into your face! Did you set the charger on six volts?”
"Um, no, 24.”
Jody whistled again. "Woah! Old jeeps like that are six volts.”
"...Oh," said Russel. "Guess I was pretty retarded, huh.”
"I know that’s a joke but you was,” said Jody.
“You know about stuff like that?" asked Russel.
"I know what I don't forget," said Jody.
"Think you could get it runnin’, man?”
"Depends on what I might of forgot.”
A bell clanged in the distance and Russel glanced toward the farmhouse. "Wanna come back with me for lunch?”
“Wish I could,” said Jody. “But I gotta bring the goats to the river an’ watch the kids so they don’t fall in.”
“Can’t they swim?” asked Russel.
“Not the little ones.” Jody turned to the river. “It runs real fast in the springtime.”
“Oh,” said Russel, glancing at the quiet river and trying to picture it running fast. “How ‘bout later, man? You could come over for dinner.”
“I can come at night,” said Jody. “After I bed down the goats.” He patted the pipes on his tummy. “I play ‘em a goodnight song.”
“Cool,” said Russel, getting up. “See you later, man.”
Jody laughed as Russel started away. “Don’t forget your jeans, man."
Aunt Jemmy laughed as she piled mashed potatoes on Russel’s plate beside a slab of chicken-fried goat. "Guess you found something to do after all." She added two buttered corn-on-the-cobs, then poured a tall glass of milk. "Glad you didn't just sit around feeling sad and drinking my beer.”
"Um, sorry," said Russel.
Aunt Jemmy laughed again. "Try asking for things, kiddo. I know it's not as much fun as sneaking, but it usually makes life easier. Want a beer instead of milk?”
“Goat milk’s cool, but thanks anyway.”
Aunt Jemmy winked. “Boosted beer is always better.” Then she sat down, piled her own plate and popped a bottle of Bud. "If you don't mind an inquisition, what did you find to do, way out here in the boring ol' sticks, and come home whistling like a tree full of songbirds? ...By the way, where’d you hear that tune?”
Russel took a big gulp of milk. "I went explorin’ to the river... I don’t know about the tune, it just sorta came in my head.”
"Ah," said Aunt Jemmy. “I figured you’d find the river. Real pretty and peaceful there. And a good place for dreaming.”
“An’ I met Jody,” Russel added, slicing a big chunk of goat.
“Ah,” said Aunt Jemmy again. “I figured you might, bless his soul, and I thought you were whistling one of his tunes. There’s nothing he can't fix, animal, vegetable or mineral. Carved those pipes himself, made his own trousers, too. And fixed my old fridge in less than an hour when the repair man said it was hopeless.”
"Cool," said Russel, his mouth full of meat. "He's comin' tonight to fix the Jeep.”
Aunt Jemmy dipped gravy from the boat and slathered her mashed potatoes. "Jody forgets a lot of things, but he could recite half those books on my shelves. It's a shame they kicked him out of school.”
“The hell?” said Russel. “He’s not that retarded.”
Aunt Jemmy nodded. “No he’s not if you listen to him. But most folks don’t listen, they only judge. And mostly by what they’ve been taught to judge.”
“Couldn’t they put him in a special class?”
“Our school’s too small and poor for that. They called in some big-city expert on kids who said that Jody was ‘hopeless’ and should be put away. His mother, bless her soul, wouldn’t have it, and kept him at home until she passed. The state would have locked him up then, but me and Lam, bless his soul, took him in. ‘Bout a year after you visited last.”
“...Oh,” said Russel. “That was nice. Wish I could have met him when we were little kids.”
Aunt Jemmy smiled again. “Well, you met him now, and it’s never too late to make a friend.”
“How come you didn’t tell me?” asked Russel. “That Jody was yours?”
Aunt Jemmy turned to the window, gazing out at the shimmering fields. "Can’t really say he was ever ours. He always liked to be outside; had him a special place by the river... I'd guess that's where you met him today. He always had a way with animals, so he became the goat boy.”
“...Oh,” said Russel. “So, I guess when you sold all your goats he started workin’ for Mr. Brown?”
“That’s where he felt he was needed.”
Russel frowned. “Doesn’t Brown give a... care about him? Jody looks like he lives in those fields.”
"That was Jody's choice, kiddo. He's happy out there, playing his pipes under the willows." Aunt Jemmy shook her head. "Too many people today can't leave anyone in peace. They always know what's 'best' for them, what their 'quality of life' should be, and what's supposed to make them happy... even if it doesn't. Like, you can't be happy because you're chubby. Or you don’t believe in their god... or you don’t believe there isn't a god. Or you don't look like they do... or want to. Or eat like they do, dress like they do, or want the same things they think are important. It's like they can't stand that some people are happy without living the way they think they should.”
“Kinda like mom,” said Russel.
"Don't be too hard on her, kiddo. We're taught so many things in life... some important and others just crap... that we don't know what to forget.”
“Like, life’s too short to do what you hate just because it makes you money?”
Aunt Jemmy forked mashed potatoes. "Some money is important, kiddo... we all can't live like Jody. But we've been taught to forget that being happy is really what matters.” Then she laughed. "But good food is also important and we're letting ours get cold. I've still got those cookies to bake, and you can chop off a chicken's head 'cause we're having fried chicken for supper.”
Russel smiled. “Guess I forgot where fried chicken comes from."
The sun was setting rosy and gold as Russel switched on the lights in the barn. The heat of the day was fading, leaving the air comfortably warm, and he still wore only his jeans and sneaks. He stood in the doorway scanning the fields and hoping to see Jody coming, but he didn’t even see any goats, though maybe they were lying down.
Crickets began to chirp all around, and soft clucking sounds came from the hen house as the chickens -- minus one -- settled in for the night. Russel went into the barn and studied the battered old Jeep, hoping he hadn’t made things worse by whatever he’d done to the battery.
"Hi," said Jody from the doorway.
“Hey, man,” said Russel. “You missed a cool supper.”
“Hot ones are cooler. That’s a joke.”
Russel laughed. "An' not retarded.”
Jody came to the workbench, bringing his scents of earth and leaves, checked the battery charger and whistled. "Woah! Good thing it gots a circuit-breaker or you'da blowed up the battery!” He went to the Jeep and pointed. “You can always tell a six volt battery ‘cause it gots three caps. A twelve volt battery gots six caps. That means it gots six cells. Each cell of a battery makes two volts.”
"Oh," said Russel.
“Take off the caps an’ check the water... there’s some in that jug if it needs any.” Jody studied the wires. "An' red goes to positive, an’ black goes to negative. Hook it up that way, push the circuit-breaker button an' turn on the charger again. Then you can start the compressor an’ put some air in that tire.”
"You sayin’ it’s that easy, man?”
"Stuff’s usually only as hard as you make it. Kinda like life. Your Uncle Lam told me that.” Jody hopped up to sit on the workbench, almost losing his furry trousers. “You should clean the spark plugs an' maybe file an’ set the points. There’s a spark plug wrench.”
“Okay, if you tell me how.” Russel topped-off the battery cells, then re-hooked the wires and turned on the charger. Then he switched on the air compressor and filled the flat front tire. Then he got the spark plug wrench.
“Um?” he asked as worked. “Could you play somethin’ on your pipes?”
“Oh sure,” said Jody. “But they’re just my songs. Not cool stuff like the radio plays.”
“Your tunes are cool,” said Russel, unscrewing a spark plug. “I heard some today an’ I liked ‘em.”
Jody began to play, kicked comfortably back on the bench, his face half-buried by all his hair. With his fur-covered legs and black bare feet he really did look like a faun... except for not having horns. Russel thought of the sun-dappled light by the river, the greens and golds of the willow trees, and the sparkling emerald water. He seemed to lose track of time as he worked, as if part of himself was there by the river, until realizing he’d finished the job, checked the oil on the dipstick, filled the radiator with water, and was only listening to Jody play.
“Um?” he finally said. “What now?”
“Start it up an’ go for a drive.”
“But, I don’t know how.”
Jody hopped down from the bench, his pipes swinging from their leather strap, and got in the passenger seat. "It ain't hard. Your uncle taught me so I'll teach you. That's the way life’s supposed to work.”
“Too bad it don’t.” Russel raised a puff of dust as he got behind the steering wheel. “So, what do I do?”
“Step on the clutch pedal... the left one. Put the transmission in neutral... so the stick wobbles... yeah, like that. Pull the choke out a little. Pump the gas pedal a couple times. Turn on that switch, an' step on that button on the floor.”
Russel did, amazed when the engine started right up. "Woah! This is cool! Aunt Jemmy was right, you can fix anything!”
Jody lay back in the seat with his arms behind his head. “You did all the work.”
Then Russel sighed. “Wish you could fix my mom.”
Jody thought for a moment. “Sometimes you gotta forget things to fix 'em. Maybe your mom will learn to forget.”
“If you’re retarded, I wish I was.”
Jody smiled. "Learn to forget what you don’t need an' you might be a little retarded. ‘Course, some people ain't gonna like you.”
“That’s their loss,” said Russel. “An’ they’re the retards if they don’t know it.”
Jody laughed. “You’re gettin’ a little retarded already.”
“So, teach this retard how to drive.”
“Learnin’ the clutch is a little tricky, but we’ll keep it in low-range four-wheel-drive. An’ put down the windshield it’s cooler that way.”
"Could we drive to the river?" asked Russel. "An' you can play your pipes some more.”
"Oh sure," said Jody. "It's real peaceful an' pretty there when the moon shines on the water.”
"I can almost see that," said Russel.
Russel woke up to the lapping of water and whisper of breeze in the willows. He was lying on the grassy mound with his head against the big flat rock. He sat up, stretched, and looked around. The sun was rising above the trees and sparkling on the river. Through the branches he could see the Jeep where they'd left it in the field. He looked around for Jody, but maybe he’d gone to wake up the goats... if goats needed waking up. Then he saw Jody’s pipes beside him. He put them to his lips, tasting earth, and blew a few soft notes. Jody could teach him how to play, like he’d taught him how to drive... and maybe how to forget a little.
He heard the sound of an engine. Turning again to peer through the trees, he saw the old International truck rocking slowly across the field. It pulled up next to the Jeep, and his aunt made her way through the branches, smiling when she saw him. “I thought you’d ask for some beer last night.”
“Sometimes you don’t need beer.” Russel looked around the peaceful grassy place. “Or anything else to be happy.”
“Ah,” said Aunt Jemmy. “Jody left you his pipes.”
“Huh?” asked Russel, then he scowled. “What you sayin’? ...Did they come to take him away an’ lock him up for bein’ happy ‘cause the real retards said he can’t?”
Aunt Jemmy's face turned sad. She gently parted the willow branches that mostly covered the big flat rock.
Russel stared. It wasn’t a rock but a homemade tombstone. The name had been chiseled...
Russel looked down at the pipes in his hand. Stupidly he cried, “But I didn’t dig ‘em up!”
And just as stupidly, he searched the grass for any sign that he had.
Aunt Jemmy patted his shoulder. “Of course you didn’t kiddo. Jody gave them to you, bless his soul.”
Tears suddenly filled Russel’s eyes... thirteen wasn’t too old to cry. “How long has it been?”
Aunt Jemmy sat down beside him. "It was last year in the spring. The river runs pretty fast then. One of the little kids fell in and Jody tried to save it." She looked around in the leaf-dappled light. "I figured he'd want to stay here. For awhile, anyway.”
“...Yeah,” said Russel. “But now he went to someplace better. ...Maybe where they forgot how to judge an’ finally remembered how to be happy.”
Aunt Jemmy smiled. “Just got a call from your mom an’ dad. Looks like you won’t have to spend all summer way out here in the boring ol’ sticks.”
"But I want to," said Russel. "You figure they'll let me? I can learn a lot here I can't learn in the city. ...An' maybe forget a lot, too. An' I can watch the little kids until they learn how to swim.”
"Well," said Aunt Jemmy, getting up. "If I was going to be a writer I might want to live in a place like this.”
“Yeah, it’s good for dreamin’.” Russel got up, too, and slung Jody's pipes around his neck. "Will you, like, introduce me to Puck?”
"Right after breakfast, kiddo.”