Sherman County Boys
Some boys that Sharon had gone riding with were careful drivers. Randy Watt wasn’t one of them. He liked to drive with just one hand on the wheel, and his steering was a little vague. The truck drifted across the center line now and then, which didn’t matter for the first few miles out of Grass Valley since there was no one else on the road. It bothered her more when they got to the curvy part where the road edge dropped off into the canyon. No guard rails. But he still drove with one hand.
Because she didn’t have a car, boys were the best way for Sharon to get out of the house, away from the museum where, if she lingered on a summer day, her mother or father could always find some chore for her to do. Or, worse, her father might try to get her excited. “Sharon, look here! If somebody were to clean up some of these old switch locks and keys, they might make a nice exhibit.” Fortunately, her little sister had the genes or the virus or whatever it was that made people crazy about steam locomotives. That took some of the pressure off. But still, the best thing was just not to be home.
The problem with boys was their expectations. Ben Smits had expected that if she rode around in his rig long enough, she would eventually have sex with him. Michael Krutz had been the same way. That was why she didn’t ride around with them any more, because there was no completely guaranteed way to have sex without some risk of getting pregnant. That would ruin everything. Her life would be over, right there, and she’d be stuck.
Randy was just a friend. He’d been going with Megan Smits, Ben’s sister, and Megan was skinny, not at all like Sharon with her hips that were getting too wide and breasts that were too big and a little too much weight everywhere.
For fifteen miles, neither of them had said a word.
“I got accepted,” Randy said at last. An oncoming sedan made him steer back into his lane. “OSU.”
“That’s good,” Sharon said.
“Don’t know how I’ll pay for it.”
A familiar problem. Farm and ranch families looked richer on paper than they really were. And her own parents sure wouldn’t have tuition money for her in two years, not unless some crazy rich person wanted to buy the museum.
“I don’t know if I can go,” Randy said.
“I want to.”
They didn’t say anything else until the turnoff for White River Falls State Park. Then Randy said, “Forest management. That would be my major.”
Sharon didn’t say anything, but it seemed like a stupid idea. If it was going to be hard for Randy to go to college, then why study something like forest management? He might end up with a job right around here. He could still spend his whole life in sight of Mount Hood.
The parking lot at the trail head was empty except for the ranger’s trailer. Randy parked in the shade. “Leave the windows open. Nothing to steal anyway.” Sharon brought the knapsack.
They stood on the overlook to watch the falls, then walked down the dusty trail, past the old generating station. Randy said it was too bad the BLM had boarded it up. You used to be able to go inside and look at the turbines. He started to describe them.
“Is that all boys care about?” Sharon said. “Machines?”
“I guarantee you,” he told her. “That is not all that boys care about.”
“Well, I knew that.”
His face got red. She supposed hers did, too.
They sat on the sand, in the shade of a tree growing right next to the water. They could hear the falls from here, but would have to wade upstream if they wanted to see them. Just hearing them was nice. Was enough. Sharon got her book out of the knapsack, but didn’t open it. She took out an orange and peeled it, then gave half of the peeled orange to Randy.
“This place is so different,” Sharon said. “On the weekend, there’s always a mess of kids and dogs.” A big bird flew past just above the water. She didn’t know what kind.
“It’s nice,” he agreed. “I used to come here with Megan.”
Sharon noticed the used to, but said nothing.
Randy said, “Can you keep a secret?”
She thought about it. She had one great big secret herself. The only foreign language they taught at Sherman High School was Spanish. Limited Spanish, at that. When Sharon tried out a Castillian accent in oral performance, Mr. Dunning marked her down. You just concentrate on learning what’s being taught here.
Spanish was hardly foreign enough to suit her. On a family shopping trip to The Dalles, she browsed the used books at Klindt’s Booksellers and rejected German, French, and even Japanese. Then she saw a little volume sitting by itself. The spine said ANGLICKO-ČESKÝ ČESKO-ANGLICKÝ. There were British flags on the cover. She bought it for two dollars. It wasn’t until she had spent some time with the book at home that she was sure of what she had. It was a phrase book and dictionary for Czech speakers learning English.
At the school library, she looked for web sites about the language. Czech was perfect. First of all, it was hard. Good. People who knew how hard it was would be impressed, and everyone else would be impressed because it was exotic. Half the people in Grass Valley or Moro didn’t know where the Czech Republic was, and the other half thought it was still Czechoslovakia. Someday on a scholarship application she would write, Taught myself to read, write, and speak fluent Czech. Someday, she would sit in a cafe in Prague and be about as far away from Grass Valley, Oregon, as a person could be.
She told no one. On another family shopping trip to The Dalles, she used some of her birthday money to pick up another book, one that she had to special order. She hurried across the street to buy a sweater, too, so she’d have a bag and something to show when her mother and sister and grandmother asked what she had bought.
She read the new book and looked up words in the dictionary in her bedroom, with the door closed. She sounded out words at a whisper. She copied lists of phrases.
One day in December, her grandfather asked her to walk over to his and Gram’s house. He had something for her. When she got there, he went to his room to fetch a paper bag, then led her outside where no one could see or overhear them. He was smiling.
“Okay,” he said. “Vay say lay va note say.”
He said it again. “Vay say lay va note say.” When she didn’t say anything, he said, “Maybe I’m not saying it right.” He showed her a slip of paper. Veselé Vánoce! He said, “Merry Christmas. In Czech.” He handed her the paper bag, then put his finger over his lips and winked.
Inside the bag were books and audiotapes. Teach Yourself Czech. Colloquial Czech.
She wanted the throw them at him. Her secret! How did he know? She ran back to her house, slamming the front door, slamming the door to her room. How could he possibly know?
Later, she realized that he must have seen some of her practice pages, the same lines written over and over. Vítám vás v Praze! Vy jste Američanka? Ano, já jsem Američanka… She always buried them deep in the trash, but sometimes coyotes tore open the garbage bags. Her grandfather would have recognized her handwriting, and the strange words would have been a challenge to him.
When she had calmed down, she went back to thank him for the gift and beg him not to tell anyone. He promised. “My lips are sealed.” But he was who he was. She couldn’t rely on him. He might blurt out her secret the next time he went crazy.
Sitting on the sandy bank of the White River with Randy, Sharon said, “I can keep a secret unless it’s taken from me.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I can keep a secret, Randy.” She looked him in the eyes. “Trust me.”
“Okay.” He was silent then. Working up his nerve?
“You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to,” she said.
“It’s not the money,” he said. “Why I might not be able to go to college. Megan might be…” He couldn’t get it out before he started to cry. But she knew. It could only be one thing. Sharon put her hand on his shoulder.
Randy leaned against her and sobbed into her neck.
Sharon’s eyes brimmed with tears as she held him. Tears of sympathy. You poor thing. You poor stupid boy. She would guard his secret. It would get out anyway, if Megan really were pregnant. Around here, there was no slinking away to a doctor who would fix your mistake and give you back your life.
He shook. She held him tight. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she said over and over, grateful that it wasn’t her.
Bruce Rogers teaches fiction in the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, has won a Pushcart, and lives with cats, as he believes any proper writer must. http://www.shortshortshort.com