When you first got to the place, it wasnt that intimidating. Small brown house, off to the side of highway 16, it stood naked on the landscape, without anything attractive or protective around it. No trees, no flowers. Surrounded in tall grass half the year, and dead ground for the other half, there wasnt anything inviting about the place. In fact, it pretty much gave the air of careless neglect, as though the owners just hadnt paid it much mind for the last several years or so.
She lived there. Funny that after all these years, thats all I can think of her as: she. Her name was Kathy, but when I think of her, I never call her that. Its as though its too plain for her. In my minds eye, it doesnt give any idea to the girl that she was.
Her pa owned the place and the kids, but that was pretty much all that he gave them: a house and his name. He was a drunk, the worst kind too. He was sober from around eight in the morning to about two in the afternoon, long enough to work off the night befores binge. Then, at two, hed find a bar and stay there till closing, going home long enough to beat the shit out of the kids or his wife or whatever got between him and his bed. With six kids and several animals, that was a lot of beating.
Everyone in town knew the family, knew Ralphs problems. But it was a small town, in a small time. Everything was so small back then. Looking back, I know that the Robey family could get protection through dozens of organizations these days, but back then, it just didnt happen. We considered our neighbors on major holidays, weddings, funerals, and christenings, and in between, ignored trifles like black eyes, red faces, bruised legs. Nowadays, every person in authority would have to report such things to the police or some state agency.
So I grew up knowing the troubles of the family across town. I never paid it much mind, though. I was a kid myself that year, fifteen, with my own troubles. My first girlfriend had dumped me right before the end of school, and I was entering my sophomore year of high school. The prospects of a good summer were pretty low at the beginning of June.
New England is normally a great place for summer, especially the part I grew up in. Its as though the further you go north, the more the summers are remembered. Most folks date their years by their summers, like That was the summer of the flood in Jonesville, or you remember the blizzard of 76. It was just before that summer when Bob let the fireworks go too early! Its particularly great if youre a kid, because you dont waste any of the good weather. Once school starts, the weather starts turning cold again, so theres not much chance of any more fun happening anyway.
At any rate, I remember that it was a pretty June morning. I was walking to Lees Hardware, to pick up some penny nails for my mother, who was in one of her decorating moods again. They hit her on sunny days, when theres a hint of crispness in the air, and the birds are singing really strong.
I had been thinking of my ex-girl, Wanda, and how much fun Id been planning on having with her and our friends, the things wed said wed do together, and feeling pretty miserable. I was walking with my head down, not really caring much what happened to me, when I ran smack into someone. When I looked up I saw the oldest Robey.
I muttered something, Im sorry I think, and moved to keep on, when I heard her breath catch, like it does when people are crying. Id been brought up pretty good, and I knew that it was the polite thing to do to ask if the person was all right. So I did.
Im fine, thank-you, she gasped, and I knew that there was no way that I was going to be able to gracefully bow out.
I took her arm and led her over to the side of the sidewalk to sit down, searching my pockets all the while, hoping to find a clean handkerchief to offer her. Too late, she had her own, which was gray with wear, and she was using it to blow her nose. I sat down next to her, trying to look concerned, but feeling the whole time completely out of place. I barely knew the girl, and I certainly didnt know her problems. I was terrified that she would begin spilling it all on me, and then what was I going to do?
She handled herself beautifully, however, with more grace than I. After recovering sufficiently, she gave me a tremulous smile, and thanked me for my help. Then she walked away.
I remember getting to Lees and asking for the nails. I took them home to my mother, who in her flurry of tasks never noticed that I had taken a few minutes longer than necessary.
But mostly I remember the feeling of pity for Kathy. It wasnt a feeling that I was terribly familiar with. And I think pity is too shallow a word. She was a tall girl for her age, reaching puberty faster than other girls in our class, growing taller than most of the boys. We all knew the rumors around town about her home life, but most of us were too well brought up to tease her much about it. Besides, you never got the idea that it really bothered her, her dads drinking, or the abuse. She always carried herself with a dignity that you just kind of took for granted. So to see her practically burst into tears in front of me took me back a bit.
After dinner that night, I stayed in the kitchen to help my mom with the dishes. That I stayed voluntarily says a lot for the state of my mind. It certainly caught her notice.
Jeff, whats up? You cant be actually volunteering to help me, can you? The look on her face would have normally annoyed me, but I barely noticed tonight.
Yeah. You want me to wash or rinse?
Boy, she looked freaked out. Ill wash. You rinse.
I stood next to her for a while, the two of us working in silence. I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to start a conversation with her, and get around to what I wanted to talk about when she started in.
Come on, you didnt stay and help because you were feeling guilty. Whats on your mind, hon?
A better opening I wouldnt ever see. I told her. When I went to get you your nails today, I ran into Kathy Robey. I mean, I really ran into her. And then the weirdest thing happened. She started crying. Ive never seen her cry. And she didnt tell me why either. She stopped eventually, and thanked me for helping and then she left.
She didnt say anything for a while, but I got the idea that she knew more than she was going to tell. When she finally did say something, it was as though she were speaking in code.
Kathy Robey is a good girl. Shes going to need some friends now.
I went to bed that night a very confused young man. It didnt make any sense, my mother saying that. Everyone in town knew that for all Ralphs faults, his eldest daughter was a good kid. There wasnt any question about it. The grocer and the meat man were always saying how polite she was, and how she kept the little kids in line when the family went to the store. Old ladies from the church were always blessing her and saying that she was a real help to her ma. And if anyone mentioned an oversight in the care of the children, someone else would invariably say that she did the best she could under the circumstances, all the while shaking their head.
Kathy was a pretty good student, not a shining star, but certainly toward the front of the pack. Id had her in a couple of classes the year before and she was pretty sharp, picking up on a lot of details the rest of us missed. Teachers were very concerned that she be able to go to college when it was time, and I just knew that they were secretly plotting a way to get her there.
So what could my mother mean? I stayed awake a while, trying to figure it out, then finally gave up in frustration.
It was another beautiful day, and Id taken off on my bike after lunch, ready to ride until sundown, just to burn some energy and get my mind off Wanda. That girl had entangled herself in the membranes of my brain, and I was pretty sure that nothing short of a hurricane was going to dislodge her. Little did I know, I was riding straight for it.
I rode toward the end of town, heading past the Robey house. Highway 16 turns to some incredible dirt roads a few miles past there, and I wanted to discover another hidden sanctuary out back. As I made the bend right before the house, I nearly ran into a car that was careening wildly on the road, weaving back and forth. It was driven by a madman, and I tore through the brush toward the drain ditch, nearly blinded by terror.
I landed spread-eagled on the ground, and nearly every bone in my body hurt. Nothing too sharp, which I took for a good sign. I waited a few minutes, just to make sure no serious harm was done, and then ventured a look at my bike. It didnt fare as well as I had.
The front wheel was bent into a very painful shape, and both tires had been punctured. There was no way I was going to be able to get that thing home without a car. I got up, brushed myself off, and uttered a few choice cuss words to begin to express the anger that was beginning to burn toward the idiot driver whod nearly killed me, and for sure ruined my bike. The guy hadnt even had the decency to stop, which only served to feed my furor.
I dragged my bike the twenty feet to the road and, leaving it on the side there, began my long walk home. My dad had taken the car to work, so there was no hope of even getting the bike into a shop that day. Not that I had the money to fix it anyway. Even though I was fifteen, I was still on an allowance from my parents, and for reasons that I didnt understand, they werent letting me get a job until I was sixteen. The lack of money had driven me nuts all last year, but this really took the cake.
I hadnt gone more than a hundred yards when I heard a voice call out to me.
Hey, are you all right?
I turned around, but no one was there. I waited, not sure now whether I had been hearing things or not. But, sure enough, I heard it again.
Are you all right?
I still couldnt see anyone, but the voice was coming from across the road, somewhere in the woods there.
Whos there? I called.
Its me. Kathy. She was quieter now, as though she didnt really want to give her name away. I saw what happened. Are you okay?
I nodded, relieved that it was someone I knew. The woods werent a bad place, but its unnerving to have someone call to you, and not be able to see them.
I walked over to where she stood now, on the edge of the road. She was holding a few daisies in one hand, and with the other, she was fidgeting with her skirt.
I was picking flowers when I heard the car, she said, feeling like she had to explain for some reason.
I remember that my mothers words kept echoing in my head, and suddenly, in a way that Id never felt in my life before, I wanted to be friends with this girl. I didnt know her troubles, but now I wanted to. Id led a pretty sheltered life, and I didnt know much about the genuine ugliness of people, but at that moment, I didnt care. Somehow, I was sure that Kathy needed me. And I wanted to help her.
I think I made some comment about the flowers, probably something pretty lame, but she laughed gently, and we walked back toward town together, talking about basic teen stuff: school, friends we both knew, petty gossip. It was a lot of fluff, but it was a beginning. And it was all either one of us could handle right then.
She turned back at the beginning of Main Street. She said she had to get home, and as she walked away from me, I looked after her, hoping for a look, a wave, anything to say that she had enjoyed our time together as much as I had. I was rewarded with both.
By the time I reached my house, all thoughts of my near-death experience had fled my mind. It wasnt until my mom asked me point-blank what had happened to my bike that I remembered everything. I spilled it all, and by the end of it, she was ready to murder the guy.
We sat in my room, on my bed, and she was sputtering. My mom was one amazing lady. She was filled with grace and light, almost always cheerful, and caring for anyone who passed through our doors. But there was nothing in this world I feared more than to get her angry. God, Ill never forget the look on her face when she heard that day. I was sure glad that it wasnt because of anything I did. She patted my leg, and thanked God I was alive, then went to the kitchen to start dinner, and maybe to cool down some too.
We went through the whole story again that night over dinner, and afterwards, my dad and I went back for my bike. I dont know why, really, but I kept looking for Kathy while we were there, and on our way home. Shed really started to get to my thoughts.
I didnt see her again for a few days. I was bored again, something that was happening a lot lately. Most of my friends worked during the day, except for the younger ones who spent their free time playing ball or looking at girlie magazines, two things that didnt really interest me. I enjoyed sports mostly, but I never could swing a bat that well, and as for girlie magazines, my moms face tended to swim in my eyes whenever I saw the cover of one. I never could escape the guilt that would overwhelm me when I was in the same room with one of those things, so I pretty much avoided them now.
Anyway, I was out walking that day. My apparent destination was Happys Soda Shop, but I wasnt real eager to get there. I was feeling real aimless, and it was starting to affect my sanity, I was sure. Id taken to reading those travel books, and right now I wanted desperately to go to Egypt. The Nile, the pyramids and mummies and everything about the place really. It all was screaming Jeff come explore!. Damn it, today was the day. Id sell myself into conscripted service, work my way over on a third-rate boat, and live out my days discovering its wonders.
My brain was working out some ridiculous scheme to make my dreams come true when I noticed Kathy sitting on the side of the sidewalk. She wasnt crying, but she looked desperately sad. Egypt was forgotten, and I sat down next to her.
There was a long silence, and I wasnt sure shed answer me. Maybe she hadnt even heard. Just before I asked again she spoke.
Has your life ever ended?
Where that had come from, I had no idea, and I wasnt real sure what to say next. Yes? No? How the hell did you answer that question? So I waited, hoping that she was going to give me more to go on. Sure enough, she did.
My mom took off last week or so with some guy, I dont know who. Dads been raging drunk every day since, and theres no money for food for the kids. She wrapped her arms around her knees, with her chin resting on top. Her voice frightened me somehow, as though she had spent all her emotion already, and couldnt bear the thought of crying anymore. Jeff, theres no way out. Im fifteen years old, and theres no place for me to go.
I had been well brought up, trained to be polite and considerate and all, but I was lost on what to say. As much as I hated to see girls cry, I was sure that would be better than this: watching someone without hope face their doom. It was awful. So I said the first thing that I could think of.
Well, Im sure that you can go to college. All the teachers think so. They think youre a real good student and everyone likes you.
She gave me the look you give some kid whos positive that the impossible can be done. It was patronizing and condescending, and tragic.
Jeff. Come on. We dont have money for food, for rent. My dads not going to work, and Im gonna have to quit school just to support us. And I cant imagine how Im gonna do that.
It had never occurred to me that she would quit school. I started giving her options, things maybe she hadnt considered, and one by one, they were tossed aside. She wasnt leaving the little kids. She couldnt work a part-time job and support them. It wasnt possible to ask relatives for money, since they didnt have any, relatives that had money, that is.
We sat there for a while, me racking my brain for other solutions, and her quietly explaining why they wouldnt work. Finally, I got to my feet, and asked her to go to the soda shop with me. She seemed to like the idea, and we went.
Its funny that I had only really known her for less than a week. I mean, we had only had two conversations. But I really liked her. She was different from the other girls at school. She was tall, for one thing, but she seemed older somehow. Looking back, I know that it had a lot to do with her home life. There was a gap of five or six years between her and the next oldest child, and so shed been shouldered with a lot of responsibility from an early age. There was always this quietness about her, as though nothing could really disturb her. That was just a front though.
I asked her over chocolate floats why shed been crying that first day I saw her, and she told me about finding the note from her mom.
It really flipped me out. I was so glad that none of the kids saw it. God, they wouldnt have known what to make of it. I didnt know what to make of it. I mean, I knew Ma was unhappy, well, miserable would be a better word for it, but I never dreamed that shed abandon us to that mon- She cut herself off, as though realizing what shed just said.
I kind of stared at her. I mean, yeah he was rotten, but he was still her dad. She continued.
I figured right then what would happen. Dad only went to work cause Ma sorta made him, and now that he didnt have to, I knew he wouldnt. But there was still the kids. And, God, I didnt want to give up school. I mean, its the only time away I get. But I decided that if I get a job, Ill still get that time away, only now Ill be getting paid for it. She said that with a little bit of a smile, as though she were trying to convince herself.
I nodded. It made sense. But where are you going to work? Theres not much around here, is there?
She shrugged. I dont know. I have to still check that out.
I could tell that she was getting tired of talking about this, so I changed the subject to my near miss the other day. That brought us to my bike, and the daisies, and a host of other topics that kept us talking for almost two hours.
When we realized what time it was, we both needed to get going it. As I left her, I was a bit in shock. Id never really had a girl for a friend before, and I was really enjoying this. I mean, we talked for two hours! And we hadnt kissed or held hands or anything. I had never heard of such a thing, and I was pretty sure that none of my friends at school had either. Growing up, Id gone straight from thinking girls had cooties to thinking of girls as dates, with no stops in between.
That night I thought about it some more. I loved my bedroom, because it was so easy to think in. My bed, which was next to my window, was in a perfect position to see the moon at night, and since I normally took awhile to fall asleep anyway, I would watch the sky and find constellations.
As I lay there, I tried once again to figure a way out of Kathys situation. There just had to be something else that she could try. By the time I fell asleep, I knew there was nothing.
The next morning, I went searching for my mom. She was in the living room, arranging some fresh flowers from the garden. She looked so pretty standing there that I just watched her for a while, moving around the room like a dancer in a pretty yellow dress. She caught sight of me out of the corner of her eye.
Well, good morning Jeff. How did you sleep?
Oh good. I have to go to the Ladies Aid meeting this morning, and I should be back in time for lunch. If not, theres some bologna and cheese in the fridge. What are your plans for the day?
I really need to talk to you at some point.
She was good, my mom. She never let a moment go by with something that had to be talked about. I immediately had her full attention.
She led me to the couch. Tell me.
So I did. All about Kathys troubles and how wed tried to come up with solutions, and how nothing was working. I told her about how I felt about her, as a friend and all, and she smiled sweetly and patted my knee. And when I told her I didnt know what to do, she didnt say anything.
I waited for a while and she still didnt talk. It was so sad, waiting for her to say something, and somehow knowing that nothing was going to be said. Finally, she said something about praying for the Robey family, and then she left.
I felt really let down. My mom had always had the answer, and now, with probably the most important problem in my young life, she had nothing to say. I was growing up.
I went to town again, hoping to see Kathy, which I did. We walked all over town together, and we talked about us. What we liked, what we didnt. Who we admired, and places we wanted to go. It was wonderful, fantastical. Finding out these things, these dreams that we each had buried inside. Wanda and I had never talked like this. The only thing wed ever done was neck, and then that was only the one time.
But I didnt want to neck with Kathy. She just wasnt the kind of girl you did that sort of thing with. Not that she was prissy, just that I respected her. Wanda was, well, she was the type of girl who would be easy some day. I mean, you could tell that right now. Every boy knew it, and thats why theyd been so jealous when I started going out with her.
We were together every day that week. We packed a picnic lunch one day, and went out by the pond to go swimming. We found some poles another day, and went back to go fishing. We didnt catch much, but what we did catch, we ate on the spot, cooking it over the fire.
By the end of the second week, I was gone on her. Everything she did amazed me. The way she held her head, and the way she laughed. The light in her eyes was enough to make my heart burst just to see it. There wasnt a thing about this girl that I didnt love.
Thats when she told me shed found a job.
It was part-time, but there was the possibility of someday going full-time. The pay wasnt great, but the Robeys had been living off of charity for the last few weeks, so anything was better than that. She wasnt jumping up and down with excitement, but she was relieved. Anyone could see that.
We were walking down by the pond that day, and I reached for her hand. It was the first time Id ever done so, and the touch of her fingers sent an electric current through me that Id never felt before. She curled her hand around mine, and we walked up and down the beach, her head resting lightly on my arm.
When do you start?
Not until next Monday. Ill be getting paid every week, so thatll be good.
We were quiet again, just enjoying this time together. Then, after a few more minutes, she led me to a large rock in the shade. She sat down, pulling me beside her, and putting my arm around her shoulder.
We watched the water for a long time. I was thinking about her, and how very much I admired her for what she was doing, giving up her dreams and future to feed her family. I turned to her to say that, only to find that she was already looking at me. And, without thinking it all through, I kissed her.
It was the sweetest kiss Ive ever known. She had turned her head, and we melted together, caught up in the moment. My arm was cradling her against me, and we were just pulling away when I heard someone say Lovers in the most degrading and dirty way possible.
We practically jumped apart in shock, turning to find Ralph Robey himself standing in front of us with his shotgun. He reeked of liquor and his gun was loaded. I leapt to my feet, exclaiming how it was all my fault and she hadnt done anything, when the barrel of that gun came up.
Back away boy. Shes had this comin a long time.
I had no idea what he was talking about, and by the look on Kathys face, neither did she. Mr. Robey, Im sorry. It-
Shut up boy! I know who done what. He walked closer, his gun trained on Kathy.
You, girl. You take after your mama. She a whore from the day I met her. You bastard girl. How dare you disgrace my name.
I stepped toward him, ready to wrest that weapon from him, but he would have none of it. Dead drunk, he still pushed me to the ground, leaving Kathy there to face him alone.
Pa, its not what you think.
You tellin me I dont know whats happenin? You think Im stupid, girl?
No, Pa. But, me and Jeff, we were only kissing. Theres nothing wrong with kissing.
I couldnt believe that she was staring at that gun and arguing with that drunk. I jumped to my feet and raced toward him, jumping him from the side. I fought him hard, sure that our lives depended on it, but he was stronger. He hit me on the side of my head with the butt of the shotgun, and then turned back to Kathy, who in her shock, hadnt moved.
This be the last time you disgrace me, girl.
And he shot her.
To my dying day, I will never forget the look of absolute horror on her face as she fell against the rock. Blood was everywhere, covering her face, her hands, her dress. I heard someone scream Kathy, and I ran to her, gathering her head in my lap. She looked at me in agony, and in my delirium I was sure that she would be fine. I stroked her hair and whispered to her, begging her not to leave me, and then, for one instant, I regained my sanity. I looked right at those eyes, those beautiful blue eyes, and said I love you, and the agony turned to peace, and then she was gone.
Ralph was nowhere around. I stayed with her, stroking her hair, and whispering to her. Folks showed up a while later, someone having heard the gunshot and calling the cops for help. The police heard my story, and immediately went to look for Ralph. I went with Kathy, determined not to leave her for as long as I could.
My parents came for me at the hospital later, my mom sobbing uncontrollably. My dad just kept looking at me, and hugged me and asked if I was okay. I didnt really know how to answer that.
They took me home that night, and I lay on my bed, my mind completely blank. They say that there are steps you go through when theres a death; denial, anger, depression, acceptance. I know its true. It all happened to me.
It took a long time for me to recover. For weeks, I couldnt even grasp what had happened. In one fell swoop, I had lost my best friend and my first love. I had been threatened with death and watched someone die. It was impossible to fathom.
I wandered by myself a lot those first weeks. Everywhere I went reminded me of her, but I couldnt even cry. It was as though the hurt was too deep for tears. It wasnt until almost a month had gone by that I began to really weep. And it felt like another month before I stopped.
I remember my parents sitting me down about four or five months later, to tell me that Ralph Robey had been found on the day of Kathys death. They said that his body had been found in the woods on his property, and the cops had ruled it a suicide.
What was amazing to me was how much she had meant to me in so short a time. We had only really known each other for a month, but she had been the first girl I had ever loved. Even at the end, when she had been faced with her death, she had stood brave and fought with the truth. There was so much that I loved about her.
I ended up finishing high school, and I went on to college. I hadnt ever planned to, but I knew that it was something that Kathy had always wanted, and so I wanted to do it for her. Every day that I was there, she was there with me. I could picture what she would say, how she would look, and it made it easier somehow. My third year, I met a wonderful girl, who I really thought I could fall in love with, if only...I remember talking it over with Kathy in my head, asking her permission, as it were, to love this girl. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, to even suggest that there could be someone to take her place. I cried that night, like I hadnt cried since the months after she died. And I heard her gentle laugh, and I saw that look in her eyes as though she had to explain something to a child. BACK_TO_TOP