It’s about a thousand years ago back in my childhood.
I’m in my grandmother’s house in the living room - the room with the big, tall clock and the slim, silver pendulum that endlessly swings one way and then the other. I’m looking back through the dining room toward the kitchen. And I’ve just realized something big. Really big. This time I hadn’t run from the kitchen into the living room. I had walked.
Why was this big? Because before this I always ran from room to room. Always. That’s how you got from one room to another when you were a certain age. You ran.
But not this time.
And I remember thinking: Something’s changed. Something’s happened.
Another hundred years: I’m a bit older now, but I’m still at my grandmother’s house. The neighborhood kids and I always go out and play in the vacant lot and in the woods next to the vacant lot. On the other side of the woods there is this fence and beyond the fence there is this cow pasture with cows in it.
Okay, later I learned that the easiest way back to my grandmother’s house when you were on that side of the woods was to squeeze through the fence and walk to the gate at the other end of the pasture. Then grandmother’s house was just down the street.
But back then I didn’t know that. The fact is that I – or none of the other kids I played with - ever went beyond the fence into the cow pasture. We just never did that. When we went back to where we lived we always went through the woods and then up the street past the old warehouse and then to our homes.
Then one day I didn’t.
On this particular day – I don’t remember why – I was all by myself standing next to the fence at the edge of the woods. It was time to go back to my grandmother’s house. Maybe she was waiting lunch on me. In any case, for whatever reason, standing there next to the fence, this thought came to me: Why didn’t I try to cross the fence and walk up the pasture to the gate?
Well, the truth is I didn’t know if you could make it back to my grandmother’s house through the cow pasture. I thought I could. It seemed logical.
Just why not? I told myself. Perhaps I even told myself, just why the hell not?
So I did it. I squeezed my way through the fence and started up the pasture and came to the gate. And there it was, my grandmother’s house, right down the street. And as I stood there next to the gate and looking down the street to my grandmother’s house, I remember thinking: Something’s happened. Something’s changed.
* * *
I clearly remember the first time someone called me a “man.”
My grandmother had asked me to run an errand up to Johnson’s store and pick up some flour. I was a bit older then and was really into the Cubs, so, naturally, I took my Hank Sauer glove – the one with Hank Sauer’s signature on it – and also my ball – also the one with Hank Sauer’s signature on it. Well, I was walking up Oak Street and had just turned onto Maple Street when I ran across a mother walking with her small boy. I remember what followed clearly. The little boy looked at me and then said to his mother, “Why is the man wearing a big glove?” The mother said, “Shhh.” “But why is he?” said the little boy. “You silly,” said the mother.
I pretended I hadn’t heard what the boy said and continued up the sidewalk. But when I got a certain distance I turned and looked at the boy. He was a lot younger than me. I mean, he was so young he could have been hugging a teddy bear. But here was the thing: For the first time ever someone had called me a “man.”
But I knew I wasn’t a man. Not really. For one thing, I was too small. For another, my grandmother called me Curtie. When my real name was Curtis. Even the high school girl, Barbara Miller, who babysat me when grandmother couldn’t be at home, called me Curtie. One time I tried to explain to her that my real name was Curtis and would she please call me that. For a while after that Barbara called me Curtis, but then she started calling me Curtie again.
Another example: When I got to Johnson’s store the Baxter brothers were in there doing all the talking with Mr. Johnson. The Baxter brothers ran the garage and filling station across Highway 6 and must have been on their lunch break or something. Tom Baxter had big, bulging arms but also a big, bulging stomach. You didn’t think he was athletic at all. But he could sure hit home runs for the Addison softball team. Bob Baxter was too old to be a regular on the team, but sometimes he was used a pinch hitter.
Anyway, Tom Baxter was leaning on the counter telling some story about a tractor a farmer had brought in and how they had to clean the pistons out, yes sir, and Bob was sitting in one of the two chairs around the potbellied stove throwing in remarks like, “That’s right,” or “Damn sure.” Mr. Johnson, so far as I could tell, didn’t even see me.
It wasn’t until the Baxter brothers left that Mr. Johnson looked around and said, “What’s on your mind, boy?”
Except suddenly Tom Baxter came back in the store saying, “You tell me what that’s crane’s doing coming down the highway”
Mr. Johnson went out of the store with Tom Baxter and they both had a look toward the highway at some tractor pulling a construction crane. The tractor and trailer rig were going so slowly that the cars were all bunched up behind it.
Finally, after maybe five minutes, Mr. Johnson comes back into the store. He says to me, “What’s on your mind, kid?”
That’s what I mean.
* * *
On Saturday afternoons me and the other boys used to go to the movies. Almost always westerns.
Coming out of the movie I’d try to walk like I’d seen the hero of the movie walk down the main street of his town, a kind of slow, wide-legged walk, always aware of the weight of my six-shooter hanging at the holster at my side. Up in my small room at my grandmother’s house I’d practice quick-draw. Another guy, the bad buy, usually the bad guy I’d just seen in the movie that Saturday, he and I would face off. We’d be standing there in the middle of the dirt street with the saloon on one side and the sheriff’s office and the bank on the other. We’d look at each other. People would be staring out of curtained windows or from behind buildings. Because this was it.
“This town’s not big enough for the both you and me,” I’d say. Or words like that.
“You think?” the guy would say. Or words like that.
His hand would be inching down to his holster.
“That’s what I think,” I’d say.
“Oh, yeah?” he’d say.
His hand would go for it, but I was always quicker (I was a really fast draw) and got off my shots first. He staggered, he fell, and in his dying words as I stood over him he’d ask me if I forgave him. I’d look at his face as his eyes were clouding over. “I guess I do,” I’d say.
* * *
I grew a little older; Grandmother grew a little older; the high school girl, Barbara, who used to babysit and call me “Curtie,” grew older, too. In fact, one year she graduated from Addison High School and my grandmother told me that she had started as a student down at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Well, Iowa City wasn’t all that far away. It was the biggest town near Addison and people used to go there to shop for supplies. Every other week or so on Saturday mornings grandmother used to fire up the old Studebaker and slowly (she only drove slowly) make her way along Highway 6 toward Iowa City, first along the Iowa River, then up the hill on Dubuque Street and finally parking at Ed’s Shell. I would accompany her into the business district, leave her at one of the stores and then wander over to the University campus to walk among the stately buildings and mingle with all the students walking up and down the sidewalks until it was time to meet up with Grandmother again at Ed’s Shell again.
One day in the middle of the week at the dinner table my grandmother said, “I’m just wondering about Barbsie. How she is?”
“Who?” I said.
“Barbsie Miller. I imagine she’s pledged a sorority.”
“Her name is Barbara.”
“Barbsie,” said Grandmother.
After dinner that night Grandmother called Barbara’s mother and found out that, yes, indeed, her daughter had pledged a sorority, Kappa Kappa Kappa.
Later that evening Grandmother said to me, “Kappa Kappa Kappa? What’s that?”
* * *
Anyway, one thing quickly led to another and about a week later Grandmother announced to me that I had an invitation to visit Barbara Miller at Kappa Kappa Kappa this coming Saturday morning in Iowa City.
“Me?” I said.
“She must be curious. How you’ve grown up.”
So, sure as anything, the next Saturday morning Grandmother determined that my pants and shirt were decent and that I had brushed my teeth and combed my hair and she fired up the old Studebaker and drove me (slowly) down to Iowa City, up the Dubuque Street hill and then over to another street. Grandmother stopped in front of a big house with maybe six white pillars around its front porch.
“I think this is it,” said Grandmother. “Barbsie said number seven.”
“Her name is Barbara,” I said.
My grandmother gave me a look. The kind of look that said I wasn’t to go any further.
“Well, her name is Barbara,” I said.
“That’s enough!” said Grandmother.
One girl come out of the sorority house carrying two books in the crook of her arm. Then another girl.
“So,” Grandmother said, “I guess you better go.”
I opened the door of the car and stepped out.
“And, Curtie, we meet you at the Shell station. At twelve o’clock.”
“And don’t be late.”
“I love you, Curtie.”
“I love you, too, Grandmother.”
Finally, she drove off.
* * *
I walked up the sidewalk to the porch of the sorority house, the one with the white pillars, but I really didn’t know what I was to do when I got there. I was kind of hoping maybe a girl would come out and ask me how she could help me. But no girl came out. So I looked at the door for a knocker, but didn’t see one. Then I saw that there was a doorbell over to the side and I pushed it and heard a faint tinkle from inside.
I was about to push the bell again when a rather short and plump girl opened the door.
“Well, hello, there!” she said smiling. “My goodness! And what may I do for you, young man?”
I explained that I had an appointment with Barbara Miller.
“Barbara!” said the girl.
“My grandmother . . . ,” I started.
The girl laughed. “On a Saturday morning. Barbara has a date with a man so early!”
“My grandmother . . . ,” I tried again.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll just get her. I’ll announce to Barbara that you’re here.”
She smiled and started down the hall. I could see her using a phone which sat on a table in the hall.
Then she came back to the door.
“Please. Won’t you come in?”
I followed her in the door and noticed uncomfortable-looking chairs along one wall and a big mirror on the other.
“You just sit down,” said the girl indicating one of the chairs, “and I’m sure Barbara will be here just as soon as she possibly can.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You enjoy your time with Barbara!”
The girl picked up a small backpack and swinging it to her shoulders disappeared out the front door.
I sat there on the chair for a while. Two times girls passed me heading for the front door. The first girl didn’t seem to notice me at all but the second smiled as she passed.
“Hello, hello, hello!” said a voice from the stairway landing above me.
A beautiful girl wearing a white blouse and khaki Bermuda shorts came down the stairs the rest of the way and held out her hands.
“Curtis O’Brien! Curtis.”
I hardly recognized her. But it was Barbara Miller. That was for sure. I guess. Only a lot more of a woman now and a lot less of a girl.
“You’ve grown!” she said taking my hands. “My goodness! What has God wrought?”
Suddenly she leaned over and gave my cheek a peck.
“Oh, wow!” she said.
Other girls were coming down the stairs.
“This is Curtis,” said Barbara turning me and presenting me to the girls as they passed. “I babysat for him when he was smaller.”
“Hi, Curtis” waved the girls smiling.
“Well,” said Barbara once the other girls were out the door, “what do you think? Why don’t you come up to my room? You can see where I live. Meet my roomies. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
She started up the staircase and I followed.
She stopped at the first landing. “I just can’t believe you’re here. My goodness!”
She went up to the next landing.
That’s when one of the things happened.
Because Barbara looked down the hallway, raised her voice all the way and shouted, “MAN ON SECOND!”
Then she said, “Come on, my room’s down at the end.”
Barbara walked right beside me.
“So how’s your grandmother?”
Except just then a girl backed out the door to her room. Only this girl wasn’t fully dressed like all the other girls I had seen this morning. She was hardly dressed at all. She was only wearing her bra and panties. That’s right. Pink.
“Alice!” hissed Barbara.
The girl looked first at Barbara and then at me.
That was the moment I really remember. A look of terror crossed her face.
“Oh, my God!” she whispered, and did a sideways hop back into her room.
Of course, Barbara and I had come to a complete stop.
“I’m so sorry,” said Barbara.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what I should say.
“I apologize for her and to you.”
We started walking again and ended up in front of her room.
The rest of it happened. I guess. Barbara introduced me to her other two roommates who seemed very nice and one of them heated up water for tea in a special water boiler. I also remember that the room had lots of yellow colors and lots of red colors and one corner had a lot of blue color. I also remember that there were three different beds in the room all with different kinds of quilts. Her roommates asked me questions, various things, like what grade was I in at school, which subjects did I like best, did I like football or basketball best, those kinds of things.
When it was time to go Barbara stepped out into the hall, looked, and again shouted, “MAN ON SECOND!”
“Maybe we’ll have better luck this time,” she said to me.
We walked down the hall but this time nothing happened – no girl came out of her room backwards wearing only her bra and panties.
Down the stairs the housemother, an older, elegant-looking woman with graying hair came up and shook my hand.
“I hope you have enjoyed yourself at Kappa Kappa Kappa.”
“I used to babysit for Curtis,” explained Barbara.
“Oh, how nice,” said the housemother.
And that was it. Barbara Miller said goodbye to me at the door of the sorority, the housemother also said goodbye to me, I said goodbye to them, and I walked up the street to meet grandmother at Ed’s Shell as I had done so many times before.
But this time it was different. Something had happened. Something had changed. Something big.
What was it? Partly it was the way Barbara had shouted, “MAN ON SECOND!” Partly it was the girl in only her bra and panties. But mostly it was that look that girl had given me. Terror.
Me. Curtis O’Brien. A man.
Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) and he has had over 100 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.