Though slight, the wet splat was clearly audible on the warm front porch of the small Lamar County farmhouse. Josh Brooks rocked ever so slowly as the late evening breeze waved the long grass along the nearby fence row and ruffled his curly brown hair. He stared at his lap, breathing as if trying to save energy or control his emotions.
A Hereford on the other side of the barbed wire scratched her chin on a bodark fence post and swished her tail at a pestering cloud of late season flies. Josh’s boyhood friend Kendal stepped outside through the wooden screen door and allowed it to slam shut.
For a moment Kendal stopped, expecting a scolding for bang- ing the door. When they were children, it was almost impossible to remember to close it softly, and every kid that raced through Mrs. Brook’s living room allowed the door to slap shut about every third time.
“Sorry Miss Onie!” Kendal called through the screen to Josh’s mother.
The neat, elderly house in the small farming community of Forest Chapel belonged to Josh, who had never lived anywhere else. His dad, Oscar, had farmed the one hundred eighty acres until a heart attack felled him one soft spring morning as he fed the cows. Josh turned twenty-one a year after the funeral and married the prettiest girl in Forest Chapel, Beth Dearborn. Miss Onie Mae let them have the master bedroom, moved to the other side of the house, and they never looked back.
Sporting a burr haircut, Kendal sipped on a glass of sweet tea. Everyone said Miss Onie Mae Brooks made the best tea in the county. “You need to get that drip fixed, Josh.”
The young farmer didn’t respond as Kendal strolled across the wooden boards of the pier and beam farmhouse and settled into a mismatched rocker beside Josh. The setting sun cast long autumn shadows across the yard, bathing it and the pasture in a warm glow.
A tinny radio in the background played a Chuck Berry song. “You know, Josh, it’s been good to see you again after all these years. Remember how it was here in the evenings when we were kids? I really enjoyed those summer nights; catching lightning bugs in jars and playing chase.”
Kendal sighed, enjoying the tinkle of ice against the glass that once held store-bought jelly. “Most of the time anyway. When Randal Wicker and Merle Clark played with us it kinda irritated me. Seems like with the four of us, I was always low man on the totem pole. You think it was because I was different? I suppose it’s the nature of kids to gang up on one for some reason. Anyway, it don’t matter none anymore, does it?
“I thought about those days when I was in the hospital. There was nothing else to do all those years except lay there and think, or listen to the radio. Most of the time I wished I was back here with you, being a kid again.”
Kendal rocked and grinned at a sudden memory. “You know, Randal really wasn’t as good a friend as you were. I guess he and Merle were more like a team, like you and me should have been. That came to mind the other day, too. The radio was on when I was coming down here from Nebraska and I found a station playing that new song ‘And I Love Her’ by the Beatles. That’s when a memory clicked and it was the four of us playing ball out here in the grass, but we weren’t listening to them long hairs back then, were we?
“But anyway, it was that song, this time of the year, and the weather that made me think to myself ‘You need to stop by and see them boys because it’s been a long, long time since y’all last visited.’ So here I am.
“You remember that day Merle got an extension cord and brought the Philco outside and put it right there by Miss Onie Mae’s peonies and turned it up loud while we played baseball?” The pleasant demeanor crumbled for a moment, and Kendal chuckled. “I’ve always thought Randal was kinda jealous of me, especially because I got a new glove for Christmas that year.”
Hey sissy, are you stupid or what? Is somethin’ wrong with you?
C’mon and catch the ball ya moron! Don’t be afraid of it!
“You remember that? I loved the smell of a new ball glove fresh out of the box. I don’t even think girls ever smelled so good, except for Beth that is.
“Man, wasn’t she something? I especially remember how she’d run her fingers through that Esther Williams hair of hers and pull it back behind one ear, real sexy-like. Oh, yeah, I guess you do, since you wound up marrying her. She was crazy about you from the get-go, even when we were little. I wish things had been different for me, but I can’t quit thinking that if things were normal she might have liked me best.”
Josh let the comment go without answering. His finger twitched on the rocker’s armrest, then he settled back again.
Kendal laughed and called through the door. “Ain’t that right, Beth? We had some times all right. But y’all were always playing those jokes on me, calling me sissy or sister-girl. I never did learn to tell when you were kidding or pulling a prank.”
They rocked while Josh allowed the conversation to be monopolized.
“The best one was when y’all sprinkled those leaves over the limbs and trash washed across that little draw down by the creek bottoms and convinced me it was solid enough to walk across. Whooee! I thought I wouldn’t stop falling until I landed in China. That draw must have been fifteen feet deep. Busted my lip and I nearly bit through my tongue. You boys were practical jokers all right.”
A sudden gust blew across the road, threatening to snatch Josh’s cap.
“That danged drip is really getting annoying. We’ll need to fix it pretty soon. Anyway, Merle was kinda mean sometimes. Like when y’all told me you didn’t want to play. Oh hell, I knew y’all were sneaking off together without me, and don’t think I didn’t see what you did when no one was watching. That’s what hurt the worst, me wanting to be with you and y’all stringin’ off alone and leaving me.”
They sat for a moment longer, watching the sun settle toward the tree tops. Kendal drained the glass and set it carefully on the painted two-by-four serving as the porch rail. “Well, we had our secrets, didn’t we? But the things you did…the things you said…well, that’s why I’m here.
“My therapist told me it was best to lay the ghosts, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Matter of fact, he’s right and I feel pretty good right now. Going by Randal’s yesterday and this stopover did wonders for me; seeing you, Beth, and your mama. Well, I need to keep moving and there’s a lot of people to visit before I have to move on.”
The driver in the two-tone 1958 Buick Roadmaster convertible honked impatiently and then returned to slapping spilled flour from his sleeve. Behind the wheel, Kevin’s tolerance was wearing thin because they had places to go. And besides, he was hungry. He wanted to run up to the Center Springs store. He had his mouth set for rat cheese and crackers, something he hadn’t tasted in months.
“All right, Kevin, you dumb bastard.” Kendal stood and stared down at Josh. “I made a mistake getting that aggravating son of a bitch out of Tulsa. He’s worrisome and I’m about tired of traveling with him. You know Kevin, though, he’s from over in Boggy Bend. His daddy is Don Jennings.”
Kendal adjusted the .22 revolver stuck in the waistband of half-damp, slightly oversized jeans stolen from Beth’s clothes line. A razor sharp Old Hickory butcher knife from the kitchen rode snug behind a plain leather belt. With a forefinger, Kendal reached out, caught a small drip hanging on the end of Josh’s nose, and carefully wiped the red liquid on his already soaked pants.
“All right. I’m gonna drop by and see Merle here in a little bit. You know, y’all shouldn’t a-done me the way you did, but I reckon that’s about settled, and then I’m going to Mexico for a while.
“Anyway, you don’t look so good, boy. Guess a .22 bullet rattling around in there behind your eyes will do that. But you still need to get that drip fixed.” Kendal laughed, chewed an almost non-existent fingernail for a moment and started down the steps. “Oh, one more thing I need to do before I go. Won’t take a minute. Hold your horses, Kevin and don’t you get up either, Beth! You and Ma lay there by the fire where it’s comfortable. Good to see y’all again.”