Mother called last night. I asked her how things were going.
“Oh ” she says drably “my knees hurt a bit but I’m getting around pretty good. It’s been raining two straight days. The corn looks good. Never seen it tassel so early before the Fourth. Don’t see that too often…”
Her voice trials off and then returns.
“There been hail all around. None here yet, but all around. I got insurance, but that don’t pay nothing…”
“I know, Mom.”
“It don’t pay nothing, but it’s something. If you got nothing, it’s something.”
“I know, Mom. Anything new around town?”
No. I talked to your Aunt Ruth. She’s still crazy out of her mind. Nothing to be done for that either, I suppose.”
“No, I don’t suppose…”
Mother continues, “and that McClennen kid passed. You remember him, don’t you? Ronald? Bessie’s son. You remember him, don’t ya?”
“No Mother, I’m sorry. I don’t remember him…”
“Sure you do. Big gawking kid. Your and him used to play together when you were a kid. You remember, Crazy Ronnie and all that trouble he got into…”
“No. I really don’t remember.”
Well, just as well. Crazy kid. Better off, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“Better off. Better off for all their sakes. For all ‘em. Bessie especially.”
This is the same conversation I have with Mother every week. We talk about the weather and the crops. She tells me her knees hurt. She tells me her sister’s still crazy. She tells me about everyone who died in the past week. She tells me I should remember who they were. I generally don’t. Even if it was someone who I might have once known, I’ve been careful to put their memory aside long ago, when I left my small town and in so doing, left behind all that I had no interest in remembering. I made an entirely different life for myself, somewhere else. Mother never asks me about this life. It’s nothing she wants to know about.
“You remember Ronnie. Sure you do. Ronnie? Crazy Ronnie?”
I will not admit this to her, but I do remember. I do remember Ronnie.
In my childhood, it was always summer. It was always hot and the sky white, blanketed in the slack drapery of sun-soaked haze. Mornings, I’d pedal my bike two miles into town, past the lumberyard and auction house and slide into Spenser’s Grocery for a dime bottle of soda. I’d ride on, hands free of the handlebar, gulping soda, the bottle in one hand and the other hand, slapping at the passing wind.
Across Main Street past the Co-op, the town fizzles out. There are just a few worn farmsteads and rows of drab shanties where the Mexican migrants would hole up at harvest time each Fall. I ride on, past the quarry and the old schoolyard and through the rugged stone piers that mark the entrance to Guilford’s Park, the rootstock of my youth.
I’ve been back to Guilford’s a time or two in the past thirty years. The place hasn’t fared all that well. The swimming pool, a once grand water palace two football fields long and built during the Great Depression, is gone. Filled in and grassed over by the Town Fathers, they’d long ago grown weary appropriating the levy its maintenance sucked out of their constituents’ hides year after year. They replaced it with a sorry little sprayground, which, leaking and rusted through, hasn’t been kept up any better.
Across the way, the Lilac Garden, which had neither Lilacs nor was a garden, is gone too. It was once a dance hall, a stage for the community theater, and a bandstand where every July the high school music director would orchestrate impromptu concerts, played by a pick-up band of his former students, back home for the summer. Folks from town would sit out front in their cars, listening to marches by Sousa and Cohen, honking their car horns long and hard at the end of every tune.
One summer night at the Lilac Garden when I was sixteen and hanging out at the teen dance, I grabbed a girl I liked around the waist and took her out back, into the dark. We kissed and I slipped my hand beneath her blouse and for the first time, touched a woman’s breast. She might have objected to this, but not in a way that I would have then had the good sense to honor. Or, even if she was truly offended, her discomfort was short-lived. After all, I was the captain of the football team and though this is no great accomplishment in a town as small as mine, for her it was probably enough. I was as much her prize as she was mine. Her name was Janis. I talked to her a couple years back. She lives in Indianola now. She has six grandchildren.
There are still three ball fields at Guilford’s Park, out behind the Amory. Two are used for softball and little league and aren’t much more than worn patches of sod, scrubbed into diamond-shaped patterns from six decades of unattended play. The third field is bigger and better kept. It’s where the high school team still plays baseball each summer. It’s fenced, with a chicken wire screen behind home plate. There are a few sagging bleachers, pole lights, equipment shed, and a plywood scoreboard out beyond left field, overdue for a fresh coat of paint. The field’s one novelty is the brick wall that encloses each of the dugouts. Years ago, when a maintenance crew dug up and asphalted over Sheridan Avenue - the Town’s last brick-laid street - they loaded all the unbroken brick onto a lorry, hauled them to the Park and had ole’ man Pursell lay up thick masonry walls around the benches of both dugouts. You can visit minor league parks in Dubuque or Cedar Rapids and not see such extravagant team accommodations. Thirty years later, the Town Council would vote to tear up Sheridan Avenue again, putting in antique lamps and street trees and laying down a new cobbled brick roadway, just like it had once been, all to make the place look quaint and old-timey, and maybe draw a tourist or two off the four-lane back into town.
Between the ball field and the Armory, there used to be a gravel parking lot. This is where my friends and I would queue up during a ballgame to shag errant foul balls. The coach would give us a nickel for every ball we brought back.
It was here, in this dusty lot every morning of every summer of my childhood that I would always find Ronnie. He’d be standing up on the pedals of his spider bike, perched atop a three-foot high mound of gravel. He’d wave wildly when he saw me coming, saying; “Lookie. Lookie at me,” and then storm down off the mound, race thirty feet out, turn a sloppy wheelie and come charging back, hitting the mound again at full speed. He’d bound off the gravel pile and fling his bike through the air a good ten feet, screaming, arms waving, with this maddened grin eating up the whole front of his face. More often than not, he’d slam headfirst into the ground and bruise himself up good. He’d climb out the cloud of dust, pick up the bike and then do it all again. Ronnie would show us how he did it and before long we were all following him up and over that mound, over and over again, everyday all summer long.
We did other things with Ronnie too. He showed us how to pick off ground squirrels with a slingshot. We’d traipse with him down to the creek to pluck tadpoles out of the brackish water. We’d eagerly ogle pictures from a dirty magazine he kept hidden under his bike seat. Those summers, we were a band of reckless cretins and Ronnie was always at the center of whatever mischief we got ourselves into.
Ronnie was a big kid. Maybe six feet tall or more. He towered over the rest of us. And, like Mom says, awkward too. He had these big flailing arms he could never keep pinned to the side of his body. You’d see him striding across Guilford’s Park, goose-walking and swinging those arms up over his shoulders like journeyman relief pitcher, winding up for 3-2 count.
And then there was Ronnie’s grin. He had this big, toothy, grin. If you see a grin like that on a kid, you wouldn’t think anything about it, because you know that’s the way kids are. But if you see the same grin on an adult – a haunting grin that never seems to subside or waiver - you start to think maybe there’s something wrong with the person. Even I could see that.
Of course, that’s how everybody looked at Ronnie, because he really wasn’t a kid. When I knew him, he must have 19 or 20. He just had the mind of a ten year-old.
The coach of the high school team let Ronnie help out around the ball field. He'd have Ronnie rake out the clods of dirt in the infield and then lay down chalk lines from home to first and third, just before every game. The coach had made him a batboy and gave him a uniform. In between innings, Ronnie would strut out to home plate and hand the umpire a bag of clean balls. Ronnie would turn back to the stands, bow for the crowd and do a little dance. People would clap and yell out: “More Ron! More Ron! Moron!”
It was a big joke. Everybody got a kick out of it. Ronnie didn’t know the difference. He drank in the attention, and besides, like everyone said, he was retarded. Back then, nobody knew a better word for it.
At some point, Ronnie stopped coming to Guilford’s Park. I never knew why, but neither did I think too much about it. I was a kid. I had other things to think about. One day he was there, up on top of the gravel pile. The next day, he was gone, never to return.
It was only years later that somebody told me the story of what happened. They’d found him late one night, crouched down behind the brick walls of the dugout, sitting with a fifteen year old girl. She hadn’t seemed too upset about it all, but when she told them what he’d tried to do, they drug him off, threw him in the county jail. They say he cried for day or more, begging them to let him go home to his mother.
He ended up in a halfway house for troubled youth- a hellhole really - out near Butler. They kept him there until he was thirty and then, not knowing what else to do, sent him back home to live with Bessie. He got a job sacking groceries at the Supervalu. He was still the same, big gawky kid, with the same goofy grin, but people now kept their distance. They didn’t make fun of him anymore. Far from it - they refused to acknowledge the slightest evidence of his existence.
Fat young farmwives would follow well behind him when he took their groceries out to the parking lot. They’d stand back until he finished putting their bags into the back seat, huddling their young children behind them like mother hens, sheltering a chirping brood. They’d watch him warily until he made his way back into the store. They’d drive off, believing they’d just crossed paths with the Devil and considered themselves lucky to have been spared.
Ronnie likely went home to his mother’s house every night, probably watched TV and never entirely understood what had happened to him nor why he was so terribly alone in this world. He never again set foot in Guilford’s Park. It wasn’t permitted. And now, he’s dead.
I do still think about Ronnie sometimes. I think back decades, to a time when I was sixteen. I think back to a time when I sullied the virtue of a young girl and was punished by nothing more threatening than her hesitant acquiescence.
And I think about Ronnie too, who did exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason, and then spent part of his life in an institution and the remainder of his life horribly alone.
I consider that Mother is probably right. It is better what happened. Better for all their sakes. Bessie especially. And Ronnie too.