Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Purcells, Late Morning

  

Ben Purcell, 33

At this time, almost eleven o’clock of an April morning, Ben is at work on one of his several jobs, probably in or around Ruby Spring but possibly somewhere farther afield.  In times like these a man has to go wherever the work is, and Ben will rush from one job to another, a few hours here, a few there, intent on racking up a full work week of forty hours and often coming closer to sixty.  Everybody considers Ben a real go-getter, including Ben.  But he’d rather be at home because at heart he’s nothing so much as a family man.  His family loves him and are always happy to see him come home, although admittedly they are also sometimes happy to see him go.

 

Iris Purcell, 8

It wasn’t until she at last became comfortable and started to feel that she fit in that Iris realized how out of place she was.  At eight she was a full year older than any of the other first-graders, for one thing.  She’d been held back from starting first grade because as recently as a year ago she didn’t speak much.  At least not much English.  Whether she remembered any of her Korean—the Purcells had adopted her when she was five—was hard to determine since there was no one in Ruby Spring who could speak Korean with her.  Even Iris wasn’t sure that she remembered her Korean name.  It was like feeling there was a person standing right behind you, but when you turned no one was there.  That was her Korean name, tantalizingly nearby, but she couldn’t quite “see it.”  Likewise Korea itself: there were things she could almost see, almost remember, but they were fading, more and more elusive with each passing day.

She didn’t look like the other children in her class, of course.  There are romantic souls who believe that prejudice is a learned trait and that the very young are color/race blind, but Iris for sure knew that she looked different from the other children, and the other children knew it, too.  She joined in the games of the other children on the playground, and adults were cheered to see it.  “See how well Iris is fitting in?”  But Iris had no real friends.  She’d never gone to anyone’s house after school to play, or anyone to hers.

Once she began to talk, her parents realized she also could read although they’d never taught her more than the alphabet.  Now she is by far the brightest student in class.  When teachers, parents, or other students raise the issue of who’s number one in the first grade in just about anything, they’ll mention Michael Posada or Penny Temple before remembering themselves, and then they’ll say, “Well, other than Iris Purcell, of course.”  By this late date in the school year, she no longer bothers raising her hand to answer questions because Mrs. Freeman won’t call on her unless no other child in class knows the answer.

Recently Mr. Partain, the elementary school principal, talked to her parents about advancing her to the third grade next year.  “That would mean you’d have to make a whole new set of friends next year, Iris,” her mother said to her.  “What would you think about that?”  And Iris had looked a little sad, a little apprehensive because she sensed that’s how her mother expected her to look.  Although she was very bright, she was not yet old enough to realize she could do anything other than what was expected of her.

In the period before lunch on Wednesdays, the first graders sometimes did art and sometimes practiced their printing.  Today was art.  Mrs. Freeman had asked the students to bring a newspaper to school.  Iris had gone next door to the Jeffares to ask if they had an old newspaper she could use.  Her father made her go herself because in the Purcell family everyone worked, everyone had responsibilities; her father saw to that.  The Purcells didn’t take the newspaper themselves because newspapers cost money, and the Purcells watched their pennies.  Her father worked at a dairy on the road to Monette and also did other odd-jobs because he had to make ends meet.  Besides, he’d decided that Iris and Sean were going to have a little brother or sister, and another mouth to feed cost money.  So Iris got the newspaper from the Jeffares.

The class was going to learn how to make things out of paper, not by cutting it or taping it or pasting it but just by folding it.  “Origami,” Mrs. Freeman said, smiling at Iris as if origami were something she should be especially familiar with.  Iris squirmed in her seat but smiled back because that’s what Mrs. Freeman expected her to do.

Mrs. Freeman made a boat and then a hat out of a newspaper.  “That was a little hard to do,” she said, “but here’s an easier one.”  Then she folded a sheet of newsprint to make an airplane.  “Now I want you to try to make an airplane yourselves.  Go on, give it a try.  I’ll come around and help you if you have trouble.  It is kind of hard the first time or two.”

While the other children were tearing their newsprint or wadding it up—making huge messes, laughing, or crying in frustration—Iris made a boat.  When Mrs. Freeman came by her desk, she didn’t even pause or look down but went right on to Michael Posada.  Iris started in on a hat.

 

Sean Purcell,

Sean was old enough now, six in September, to understand that his sister, Iris, was somehow different, and not just from the other children in school but from Sean himself and his mama and daddy.

“God sent us Iris from Korea, and He sent us you from your mama’s tummy.  That’s the only difference,” his daddy explained.  “We love you exactly the same, Sean. Exactly.  Do you understand?”

And Sean nodded, thrilled, because if they loved him as much as they loved Iris, that meant they loved him a lot.

Not that there’d ever been any doubt about his parents loving him, loving both of them.  He felt their love each evening down on the floor in the prayer circle, his daddy holding Iris’s hand and Iris holding Mama’s and Mama holding his and Sean holding Daddy’s in a circle of love with the open Bible on the floor at the center.

He’d feel so comforted kneeling with his parents and sister that he wouldn’t even want to get up and go to bed but just kneel there forever.  But his daddy would have none of that.

“You can bask in love, but you can’t hide in it, Sean,” his daddy would say, along with, “You must not live of the world, Sean, but you must live in it.”

Sean didn’t understand what his daddy meant when he said these things, but somehow it was connected to the fact that Purcells

did not whine  

were not idle

worked

took responsibility.

 

You could ask for something, but you could not whine.  If you asked for something, you probably wouldn’t get it, but if you whined you would never never never get it.  Taking responsibility meant not to lie if you broke something or forgot to do something.  If you broke something or forgot to do something, you might get a swat from your daddy, but lying about it would be much much much worse because then your daddy would be disappointed in you, which meant he wouldn’t love you.  He didn’t have to say anything, you could tell by looking at his face, and Sean would feel sick and would hope he’d die very quickly until his daddy got over being disappointed and would love him again.

Not being idle and working went together.  His parents let him and Iris watch Sesame Street, and let them play, of course, a child had to play because “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”  But if his daddy caught Sean just thinking about what he might want to do next or daydreaming about what toy he might get for his birthday or making up some pretend story where he was the hero, his daddy would say, “I’ll bet we can find something useful for you to do.”  And for sure he’d find it.  Sean and Iris had their chores, of course, but his daddy said, “Your mother and I have our regular chores, too, but we also have to do anything else that needs being done, and it’s not too early for you to learn that lesson.”  Sean had learned it probably when he was two.

His daddy worked at the dairy and any other jobs that helped him “bring home the bacon,” although they never had bacon at home.  Bacon was too expensive.  His mama made sausages, and they’d have that for a special occasion.

His daddy never worked so many jobs that he didn’t have time for Sean and Iris because “my children come first.”  He didn’t get home from work at the same time every day because of all the little jobs he’d do, but whenever he came home the first thing he’d do would be to play with Sean and Iris.  He’d give them exactly fifteen minutes each.

Sean loved his daddy.  When his daddy pulled up to the house in his pickup, Sean would jump up and down and clap his hands and shout, “Here’s Daddy!  Here’s Daddy!”  Iris would also shout “Here’s Daddy!” but sometimes she’d add, “Uh oh.”  Sean was beginning to understand that, too.

 

Jennifer Purcell, 32

Sean had obviously been daydreaming when he should have been practicing his letters, so instead of waiting until exactly 10:45 for his recess break, Jennifer took him over to the park a little early.

It wasn’t that she was overly lenient or rewarded idleness in her children—Ben would hardly have stood for that—but given their experience with Iris, it was hard for Jennifer to take it too seriously if Sean didn’t always seem the stellar kindergarten student.  Iris hadn’t even started kindergarten until she was nearly six, and now look at her.

Of course, Iris was Iris and Sean, Sean.  Everyone was different.  Still, Sean was a bright little boy, anyone could tell that, and a little daydreaming now and then wasn’t going to spoil his academic career.  My goodness, he was only five.

The park was just across the alley, almost an extension of their back yard.  It wasn’t quite large enough for swings, slides, or other playground equipment, but Sean enjoyed it anyway.  He’d run whooping across the grass like some flightless caged bird suddenly freed, and he liked to play in the gazebo, pretending it was a fort and holding off attacking Indians, Jennifer supposed, although where he’d get such a notion Jennifer had no idea.  They didn’t let him watch television programs about fighting, and certainly he had no books that depicted, much less glorified, violence of any sort.  Maybe it was just something that was in a boy’s blood.

Another thing he liked to do was climb on the stone fountain, built over the spring from which Ruby Spring took its name, although now dry.  Jennifer wasn’t sure she could ever remember water coming of out of the solitary pipe extending two inches above the apex of the stone.  Sean was no longer allowed on the fountain, though, after he dislodged a stone climbing up it one day.  Jennifer carried the stone back home and asked Ben, “What should we do?”  And Ben mixed up some mortar from a little Quikrete, extra sand and something else, Jennifer didn’t know what, because concrete and mortar weren’t the same thing, Ben said.  Then he sent Jennifer and Sean back to the park with the broken stone and the mortar and a flashlight and had them do the repair.  “You broke it, you fix it,” he said, the you in the plural, Jennifer very well understood.

Sean ran up into the gazebo and defended his fort, cocking his index finger with his thumb and blazing away.  “Pow!  Pow!”

Jennifer was disappointed.  There were no other children in the park.  They were home-schooling Sean for kindergarten and would for first grade, too, and Jennifer worried that he wouldn’t have an opportunity to develop social skills with other children.

Ben had decided on home schooling to save money.  They’d discussed it.  Jennifer had had her input, saying she wasn’t sure how much they’d save considering they’d have to buy textbooks, while textbooks were provided for the school children.  But Ben said it wasn’t books or supplies that was the problem but clothes.  There were people in town who thought the Purcells were a family of Amish or something just because of the plain clothes they usually wore, but that wasn’t true at all.  Ben wanted his children to be comfortable in the world—as long as they could do so without being worldly or corrupted.  And Ben was right, you could spend a fortune on children’s clothes trying to keep up with the Joneses.  They couldn’t afford that although they did make allowances for Iris because she had special problems when it came to fitting in.

They’d adopted Iris not because Jennifer was having trouble getting pregnant but because Ben said it was the right thing to do.  Every child born in this world deserved a loving family.  Then they had Sean.  Now Ben was saying it was time to look into adopting another child.  Then the fourth child would be “natural” and the fifth child adopted, and “on and on,” Ben said as if it could go on forever.

She thought her husband was the greatest man who’d ever lived.  Well, except for One, of course.  When Christ came again He wouldn’t be able to go barefoot and speak in parables.  He’d have to learn how to operate in the world the way it is today.  Maybe Jennifer was just being vain, but she felt sure that when He came again, he’d seek out Ben to teach him how to live in the twenty-first century.  And Ben would teach him.  He’d add it to the other odd jobs he did when he finished his shift at the dairy.

 

 

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Green Hills Literary Lantern, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review.  His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.