Even if you try not to, when you walk from the house to the barn you make a lot of noise. There’s gravel on the driveway, and it crunches underneath your shoes.
Winter’s coming, and the crickets in the weeds rub one wing against the other across their soon-to-be-hibernating bodies. They make more noise than the gravel, but that’s a sound from nature, and not an animal in the barn even lifts its head,
So when I say we were quiet, I mean we weren’t talking, not about the fishing rod Ralph wants, not about candy for me.
We’re headed out to kill starlings, a bird our father curses. “Damned starlings are dirty! Damned starlings eat my grain!” he says.
Our muteness and the cold night air sharpen our sense of smell, and the strong sweetness of overripe grapes coming from the empty wooden boxes dropped off by Welch’s somehow comforts us.
I like killing starlings because I like anything that lets me be with Ralph, but I pretend I don’t because Ralph hates it. He balked so much that our father had to promise him a nickel for every bird he killed. It’s not a sure thing he will keep his promise.
Ralph turns his flashlight on long enough to run it along the barn eaves. “Yup. There they are, fast asleep.”
He lifts the wooden ladder lying in the weeds and props it against the barn.
“Here goes.” He places a foot on the first rung.
When he reaches the starlings he turns the light on again. “There’s a lot of them, all in a row,” he says, and I see he’s holding one already. It doesn’t even wake up and neither do the others sleeping next to it.
Ralph traps the flashlight under his right arm so his hands are free to twist off the bird’s head. “Here you go. Here’s one,” he says. He lets the body drop to the ground and tosses the head to me, then shines the flashlight so I can see to pick it up.
We make our way along the eaves, Ralph, tossing me bird heads, me, putting them in an old coffee can and keeping count. We have to show our father the heads. He doesn‘t trust us. He wants to see for himself how many we killed.
“If we wanted to we could hide the heads somewhere and show him the same ones over and over,” I say to Ralph.
“Nah, that’d be cheating,” he says, and I feel ashamed.
“They don’t even seem to know we’re killing them,” I say after awhile, breaking the silence.
“People should wish they could sleep like a starling instead of a baby. They’d sleep better,” Ralph answers. He picks off a few more then stops. “How many do we have?”
That’s enough for tonight.” He blows on his hands to warm them.
He climbs down and puts the ladder back in the weeds, and I hand him the can.
Ralph wants the money for a rod and reel he saw in the hardware.
“Okay, a nickel a head, how much is that?”
He knows. He’s just testing me.
“A dollar thirty-five.”
He smacks his fist into his palm. “I can feel that new rod now.” He smiles. “You get a nickel for candy. You can have two if you want.”
“One’s enough,” I say.
I am obsessed with candy. The old lady who lives across from our school converted her front room into a candy store, and I like watching the kids buy it during recess. When it’s crowded, she shoos me out.
The first time I brought money, when I reached the front of the line, she said, “Get outside. You’re in the way.”
“I have a nickel,” I said. “I want to buy Kits.”
She counted out five, but I picked up only one and asked for four cents change so I could buy candy all week. She handed me four pennies and rolled her eyes.
Ralph sets the bird heads on the floor inside the barn where our father will find them in the morning. Our mother doesn’t want them anywhere near the house. The sight of them makes her sick. But she hates the starlings too. They perch on the clothesline, their shiny black feathers reflecting the colors of a darker rainbow, and they poop on our clean clothes.
Ralph has more jobs on our farm than killing starlings. He will miss at least the first two weeks of school to help with harvesting the grapes. It’s his job to drive the tractor to spread boxes down the rows, and later to gather them up after the pickers fill them. The rows are narrow, and not everyone is as careful as Ralph, our father says.
It’s a never-ending argument between our father who didn’t go to high school, and Mr. Shirkey, the school principal, who says Ralph belongs in school.
Our father thinks the principal lives in an ivory tower. He doesn‘t know what goes on in the real world, he says.
They communicate by notes which I am forced to carry. Last year Mr. Shirkey wrote one that said, “If Ralph misses the start of school next year to work in the grapes, don’t send him back at all. We won’t let him in.”
He keeps his eye on the troublemakers, and now Ralph. “Every year I throw a coming out party, coming out of school, that is,” he says. The ones he has his eye on, he calls his debutantes.
Ralph’s not the only one with other jobs. I have them too. I carry a bucket of water and a dipper out to the grape pickers when I get home from school.”Get your clothes changed, and get out there,” my mother says when I walk in the door. She tells me to go to the housewives first and the Mexicans last. The housewives don’t want to drink after the Mexicans, she says. I go to the Mexicans anyway. I love the staccato of their language. “Gracias,” they say, and they smile. They call the grapes oovas, and we laugh.
Next I go to the workers who come up from the South.
The housewives are last because I hate them. There are three of them. They giggle. My father is sweet on one named Jenny.
“Tell us about your mother. Do you like her?” Jenny’s friend asks me. She has bad breath.
“Be careful what you say,” she warns. She points at Jenny, “Someday she might be your mother.” Then they giggle some more.
“Don’t take them water any more at all,” Ralph says when I tell him.
“Are you worried about not going to school?” I ask.
“I think about it all the time. But legally Mr. Shirkey has to give me a warning. Stay away from him so he can’t give you a note with a warning.”
I plan to hide if I see him coming.
The barn cats saunter out to meet us as we approach the house. Like coy young hoodlums positioning themselves to pick our pockets, they jockey to get petted when we stop.
Ralph pets them all. He wants to be a veterinarian. He’s hoping for a scholarship. Mother encourages him. She’s such a dreamer. “Set the table as if the President were coming to supper,” she says.
I imagine the President’s chauffeur knocking on our door saying their limousine broke down, and the President is hungry, so what do we have he could eat?
* * *
The teachers encourage Ralph. They voted for him to go to Boys’ State last year.
“What are they doing sending him off in May when there’s so much to do on the farm?” our father complained, but I could tell he liked it because he had his two thumbs tucked under his overall straps and was almost standing on his tiptoes.
Some of the men in town were upset that Ralph was chosen. They complained to the superintendent because our father never shows civic spirit. They thought Jack Walsh should go. His dad is president of the Kiwanis. Somehow they worked it out so both boys went, but only Ralph came home with honors.
At school we are imposters. Mother forbids us to tell anyone our father slaps her and sometimes breaks her glasses, swears he’ll kill her. She is ashamed. We hide the guns and ammunition when he’s angry and pretend our house is happy like the town kids’ houses seem to be. We are ashamed too.
The first day of school is filled with clean books and paper and sweet-smelling paste that I bend down to sneak a little taste of from time to time. But best of all are the crayons. I open my box again and again. They’re like two rows of soldiers standing at attention, the most beautiful things I own.
The teacher likes me because I know the answers to her questions. She sends me on errands around the building while she works with the slow kids.
She wears long slinky dresses and struts past the other teachers who are mostly overweight. “Do you like my polish?” she asks the girls in the front row who stare at her nails.
Mid-morning, Robert, who liked me last year, cuts ahead of me in line to get a drink after gym. “Hey! I was here first,” I say. We laugh and I push him with my shoulder. It appears that we will like each other again. Out of the corner of my eye I see Mr. Shirkey, and I retreat to the cloak room where I hunker down behind the coats.
Two days later as we line up to go home, I overhear my teacher say the principal has been out of the building all day.”Why didn’t you tell us this morning? I’ve been thirsty all day,” I want to yell.
On Friday Mr. Shirkey sends a note to Miss Eglar to send me to his office.
I trudge down the hallway. He’s sitting at his desk. I wait beside the door.
“Where’s Ralph?” He doesn’t bother with a greeting. Goodwill is not what he’s after here.
“I know he’s home. Why isn’t he here?” He leans back in his chair.
I can’t think of an answer.
“You tell him I want him here tomorrow, grapes or no grapes. Tell him he has to choose.”
“He wants to come.”
Mr. Shirkey turns from me and busies himself with his papers. A picture of Abraham Lincoln hangs behind his desk. Once after Abraham Lincoln’s step-mother whitewashed their walls, he took muddy boots and made footprints walking up them, which made her laugh. I wonder why a man as mean as Mr. Shirkey would want a picture of Abraham Lincoln. It seems out of place in his office.
He looks up. “Go on! Shoo! Go back to your room!” he says.
I imagine him holding a broom and me scurrying to get away from him like one of Grandma’s chickens.
“Mr. Shirkey doesn’t need to be so high and mighty,” Grandma tells me. His father ran the gas station south of the railroad. He and his little sister had to help out there. She was killed in some sort of accident. It near broke his heart. He ran away and joined the Marines. It was only after 20 years as a soldier he went to school to study education.
That night I run to the house from the bus to report that the principal said Ralph has to come to school.
“Hell, tell him to get out here and take Ralph‘s place in the grapes if it‘s so important to him,” our father says.
Late in September, when the grapes are finished, Ralph returns.
“What will you do if he won’t let you in?” I ask as we wait for the bus.
“I don’t know.”
Mr. Shirkey walks right past us as we line up to enter the building, and I see the relief on Ralph‘s face.
During lunch recess Ralph and the boys lug their bat and bases out to the ball area.
I stand beyond the outfield to watch. They like me there so I can chase balls that are over the players’ heads.
One ball goes all the way across the road and into the ditch there. “Go get it Hattie! It’s for you!”
The boys lucky enough to have gloves, slap them with their fists. They pick stems of grass to chew on.
As I reach to pick up the ball, I see a dead starling lying beside it. I pick it up, and closing my eyes, I twist off its head the way I’ve seen Ralph do. I slip it into my jacket pocket.
“Come on Hattie! Hurry up! The boys call.
I throw the ball with all my might.
“Good arm! Way to go!” they yell.
In the afternoon the principal summons Ralph to his office. “School or farm work?”
“It’s not my fault. I want to come. I get good grades,” Ralph says.
“Then pack up and get out.”
Ralph walks to his locker for his things.
I am working on an odd or even subtraction page where each problem has a circle beside it. We are supposed to color it red if the answer is even, blue if it’s odd. I want to keep my crayons new, so I am writing in the color word instead. I look up and Ralph is in front of my desk.
“Listen, I’ve got to go now. I got kicked out.”
“Take me with you.”
“No. You wait for the bus. It’s too far for you to walk.” He hands me his notebook. “Here. You bring my stuff. That’ll be a big help.”
I see Mr. Shirkey standing in the doorway. “Why are you here? I told you to leave,” he says to Ralph.
“I’m giving my things to my sister to carry home for me,” Ralph says.
I am crying. I run for my jacket in the cloak room. I try to put it on, but Miss Eglar has hold of a sleeve. “Go back to your seat. It will be all right,” she says.
But it won’t be all right. It’s never all right. We tussle for my coat. The bird’s head falls out and slides along the floor.
Miss Eglar screams. “Oh my God! What have you done!”
The whole class gathers around us. The girls who like Miss Eglar scream too. Even Robert raises a hand to his mouth.
“It was in the ditch. I thought we could get five cents,” I try to explain, but only Ralph knows what I’m talking about.
“I’ll see you at home, I’ve got to go,” Ralph says. He picks up the bird head and makes for the hallway, leaving his notebook with me. I sit down at my desk.
Mr. Shirkey turns to me. He has a faraway look in his eyes as if he’s been captured for the moment by a memory from the past. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me or through me.
Miss Eglar assigns the students to read the morning‘s story again on their own. A wadded-up note lands on my desk. I pick it up. “I don’t like you anymore,” it says. I glance at Robert who looks away.
I lift my desktop and move my crayons to my lap. I’m planning to pull the colors out one by one and snap them in half, but through the open window I hear a voice call out Ralph‘s name. The crayons drop to the floor, and I run to the window. I see Ralph walking down the sidewalk. But who’s calling him? I press my forehead against the pane.
“Ralph! Come back!”
I press my forehead to the pane.
It’s Mr. Shirkey, I watch as Ralph turns around and the two of them walk back toward the building
Patricia Temple is a retired teacher, living in Alabama. Her stories often reflect what it was like to grow up in the 40s and 50s on a farm in rural Michigan, how impossible it was to fit in with the town kids at a school designed for them. She adds: “I am happy to report my brother who I hunted starlings with did go on with his schooling to become a prominent neurologist…”
Temple’s work has appeared in The Heartlands Today, Fugue, Wisconsin Review, Portland Review, The Acorn, Deep South Magazine, GHLL, and Persimmon Tree.