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Chapter 9: Mom and Dad


ThinkLink: Did you ever stick up for somebody you love?

       I squat down in front of a bookcase in the back of the library, forgetting to put books back on the shelves, looking at drops of water run down the outside of the big windows on the south wall. Rain here drags me down . It's different at the ranch . We don't get all that much in eastern Oregon , and when we do everybody's glad. For a whole week, they ask how much did it rain over at your place and say how good it is for the crops.

       I think of Mom and how she's doing with that new lawyer -- Norman Ryan's lawyer. I suppose that means she'll have to keep seeing him. And how's she doing with Pete? Why doesn't she just sign the paper he wants her to, saying she's got no share in the ranch ? Pete'd let up on her then. She and Red get along OK, but that's because Red fades away whenever any serious talk starts. "Let Pete handle it," he'll say and slide out through the back door and head for the machine shed to tinker on a motor.

       Pete can talk a dog under the table. The only time I remember that Mom ever stood up to him was after Dad left us off at the ranch six years ago. And that face-off only lasted a couple of minutes. I was sitting on the pantry floor, my back up against a cupboard reading a book from school. Lori was just born and Nick was only two, so they were upstairs in bed. Mom let me stay up later if I would be so quiet, reading, no one noticed I was still around.

       Mom was doing the dishes. Red was sitting there smoking. The laces on his work boots dangled down over the claw feet on the round oak table that sits in the middle of the kitchen. Pete tilted back his chair, teetering on the back legs, reading the newspaper. He lifted it up when Mom wiped off the oilcloth on the table and then muttered because his paper got soggy when he laid it back down.

       Mom wiped her hands on a dishtowel and stretched it out over the edge of the sink to dry. Then she reached into the back pocket of her jeans and brought out an envelope. She laid it down on the middle of the table and waited for them to notice. Neither one of them acted like they saw it. She sort of coughed, and when they still ignored her, she said, "This is from Dad. He wrote it to me before he died."

       That got their attention. Pete put down his paper and Red stubbed out his cigarette on the bent-up metal ash tray Mom kept sticking under the long ash he's always about ready to drop.

       "Yeah?" Pete said. "What'd he say?"

       "You can read it," Mom told him. She was standing up, looking down at them, and her voice was stronger sounding than usual. "What he says is, when he dies, one-third of the ranch and house is mine and he wants me to have the furniture. He says I'll always have a place to live here. Me and the kids."

       Red's mouth dropped open and he stared at Pete who turned all red in the face. Red said, "Well, don't that take the rag off the bush . What'd he go and do that for?"

       Pete sputtered and banged his chair down on all fours. "How long ago did you get that letter?"'

       Mom looked them right in the eye, even though they are her big brothers, ten and twelve years older than her. I felt real proud watching her talk up to Pete. "About a year ago." Then she got down to cases. "You haven't mentioned any will since I got back. Or any deed . If there's no will, then maybe this letter..."

       With that, Pete's chair banged back down on all four legs and scraped across the linoleum. "Damn it to hell, no letter's going to give you part of this ranch . Dad wrote that before he got cancer . Before he died, Red and me bought the ranch off him fair and square. We got the deed in the strong box to prove it."

       "You bought it?" Mom said, all the steam she'd built up leaking right out of her. Got to hand it to her, she tried one more time. "How much did you pay him? Did he leave any of that money to me?"

       Pete stood up then, and he was looking down on her. "Now look it here, the money's all gone. What he owed on the ranch added up to more than he could sell the land for, but we paid him all our savings and took over the loans. It'll take us years to pay ‘em off."

       "But the money you paid him?"

       "All gone for doctor bills and burying him. cancer ain't cheap. You'd know that if you‘d quit traipsing around Texas with that bum, Johnny, and come home to see Dad before he died." Pete was laying guilt all over her.

       Mom shrank back down to normal size, then, the fight gone out of her. I was pushing for her to go on talking back to him, but she didn't have much left in her. "The house? The furniture?"

       "I don't want to hear another word about it. What's ours is ours. He couldn't leave you what he didn't have."

       Mom started to bawl. I got up and ran over to them. I might have been only nine, but I wasn't going to let him talk to her like that. I pounded hard with my fists on Pete's butt, screaming and crying, not understanding what had gone wrong, but hating him for treating her that way. "Damn it to hell, leave my mom alone!"


Mrs. Morgan calls to me and I remember I'm supposed to be working. "John, will you bring that cart over to the checkout desk?" I give it a push and ram it into a chair. I look at her quick, but she's sorting some cards and she doesn't act like she hears. I push a full cart to the back shelves and work extra hard for awhile. When I'm busy, I don't think so much.

       Mrs. Morgan calls me over to the counter again. "I just heard this morning that the regular librarian will come back soon. I'll only be here a few more weeks."

       I lean on the counter, glad somebody'll talk to me like I'm a real person. "I probably won't be here either, Mrs. Morgan. I've got my green tag now, and I haven't lost any points. As soon as I get my blue, I'm supposed to go home. Unless…" I think about the last time I saw McGill and how he won't give me a straight answer about when I can go. "If things work out, that is."

       "I hope they do."

       I shrug. "Maybe. I got a lawyer working on it for me, at least I think so."

       "You think you have a lawyer, or you think the lawyer is working things out for you?"

       "Both, I guess. My mom's supposed to be getting one for me, but I don't know for sure. I just get to talk to her once a week, and it takes days to write home and for her to answer me."

       She nods. "I'm lucky to hear from my daughter in California once a month. She's in college there. Our son, too. Different schools. I do hear from one of my foster daughters fairly often."

       "You take foster kids ? I mean, the way the guys here talk about foster parents ... you don't seem..."

       "Thanks, I think," and she laughs. "We've had seven kids in the past five years, but I'm up for a full-time position as a librarian in the school where my husband, Eric, teaches, so we probably won't have any more."

       "You live in Portland ?"

       "Near there, out east of the city. Up by the Columbia River ."

       She puts a pile of books on the cart. "Well, back to work. Take these books over to the far wall and shelve them for me, will you?"

       I barely miss a chair and I clip the edge of a magazine rack as I steer the cart around the tables. It feels so good to talk, I've almost forgotten about the rain. I go down on my knees behind the cart and pull off one book at a time and find the right spot for it.

       Then the phone on Mrs. Morgan's desk rings. "Yes, I understand. Over in the Intake area ." She puts the phone down and calls to me. "That message was for you. I'm supposed to walk with you over to Mr. McGill's office. He's here for the afternoon, and he wants to talk to you now."

ThinkLink: Do you walk fast when you are excited? Why is it helpful?

       I jiggle around, waiting for Mrs. Morgan to take the key ring off her belt and lock up the library behind us. Then we take off down the hall. "Slow down, John. I'm practically jogging."

       "It's been two weeks since I've seen Mr. McGill."

       We sit down in chairs across the hall from his office. It's closed, but we can hear him talking on the phone.


       "Yeah." Then I blurt it out . "Sometimes, he doesn't act like he cares if I ever get out."

       "He cares," she says. "He does what he can, but he has regulations ."

       "Yeah, I understand." Me, with points for everything from cleaning toilets to paint-brushing toast. I understand regulations .

       "You do the best you can," she tells me. "It'll work out in time." She pats me on the shoulder and heads back to the library.

ThinkLink: Did you ever want something very badly, but people kept telling you you’d have to wait a little longer?


A guard sitting at a desk looks over at me once in a while. I sit there jiggling my foot. Hurry up and wait: That's Fire Oak. Maybe he'll tell me I'm going home. Maybe he heard from the new lawyer.

       McGill finally opens the door and sticks his head out into the hall. "Good to see you, John. How have things been going?" He waves his hand toward the office. Inside, he sits down and stretches his legs almost out the door. He lets me sit some more while he goes through a stack of papers. I shout at him in my head. Tell me, damn it!

       "How many weeks have you been here, John?" He talks like he doesn't know.

       I lean back in the chair and try to loosen up , but I'm tight as a tick . "Seven weeks, eight counting this one. Mr. McGill, have you talked to anyone yet? Do you know when I can go home?"

       "You're ready for a staffing now," he tells me, and he flips through the pages on his desk calendar. "Here it is, next Friday at four." McGill looks up. "We have to have a staffing before any decision is made, John. All the people who've been rating you -- cottage staff, teachers, Mrs. Morgan. We'll go over your progress here and set a tentative release date. Then I'll check to see when a slot opens up in our forest camp ."

       " forest camp ? I thought I'd be going home, not to one of those places."

       McGill's mouth tightens up. "I've worked on that. When I talked to your mother, she said the new lawyer hasn't seen Judge Shields yet, and your uncles aren't ready to let you come back. She said she plans to leave there sometime soon, but she can't do it just yet."

       "I hate -- " but I stop myself. I'd dig myself in deeper with McGill if I let him know how I feel about Pete and Red for backing up Fletcher instead of me. They could at least take our side against the neighbors.

       "Yes?" McGill says.

       "I hate for her to be trapped there." I think about that cheat, Fletcher, not giving me my money. No use beating that dead horse .

       "Is she looking for a job?" I ask McGill. "Is she going to rent a house in town?"

       "She told me she's making some changes. That's all I know. You'll have to let her work it out. Be patient." Easy for him to say. He goes home at night.

       "Let's talk about your father," he says.

       "Haven't heard from him in more than a year."

       "How long have your mother and father been divorced ?"

       "Since I was nine. He dropped us off at the ranch , while he went on the road. He came back once to visit us. He was always away on a job, long as I can remember."

       "What does he do?"

       "He runs a big Cat , building highways. That's how he met my mom. After she graduated from high school, she got a job in Wheatland , working as a bookkeeper for the hardware store. He was working on a crew that was putting in an exit on I-84. We went on jobs with him all over Texas and California when I was little."

       "Then what happened?"

       "The jobs weren't lasting as long, and sometimes he'd be off work for a long time. It cost lots of money to move us around with him, living in motels and rooming houses . Nick was a baby and Mom was expecting my little sister, Lori. When I was big enough to go to school, she said we had to stay in one place."

       "Did he ever live on the ranch , too?"

       "He stayed there with us for a couple of weeks that winter. He got a job driving a truck in Wheatland , so he'd be home nights. Pete was always on him to get a real job, so when the weather got better he took off."

       Pete drove him off is what happened. He's probably jealous because Johnny can get those highway jobs. Pete's never lived anyplace else in his whole life beside the ranch . He quit school in the tenth grade to help Grandpa. How would he know how it was to go to new places? Red's not much better. When Dad left, Red said he always knew Johnny was a horse's apple, right from the git-go .

       "I've only seen my dad once since. He came through one time while he was on his way to a job up in Washington." Johnny's like that song he used to sing when we were driving down a highway. On the Road Again. Johnny's theme song , all right. Always on the road.

       "John ... " McGill drums the desk with his finger and I'm afraid he's getting ready to tell me something bad.

       "Is my dad all right? I heard once he got hurt on a job down in Texas. Is it bad? Did he get hurt again?" Maybe I could go live down in Texas with him."

       McGill slides down and pushes his legs out past my chair. "Actually, I thought of that as a possibility. I tried to reach him several times from here, but I couldn't get him. Your mother gave me the last number she had for him and I took it home with me last night and I found out where he's living now."

       "Did you talk to him? Is he still in Texas? Can I go live with him?"

       "I'm sorry. I did talk to him and he said he can't handle it. He's still having medical treatment for his back. He's working at an auto parts store as part of his rehabilitation program , but the salary is much lower."

       "I could help him. I could lift things for him."

       "No. It's just not going to happen. He told me he got married again."

       "Yeah, my mom told me. His wife has two little kids." I get mad just thinking about it. If he wanted little kids, what's wrong with coming back to live with the ones he has in Oregon? I try again. "If I lived with him and his wife and the little kids, I could babysit."

       McGill shakes his head. "He said the four of them live in a little house." He spreads his hands out. "That's the story. Sorry."

ThinkLink: John must be very disappointed about his father’s answer. Think about a time that one of your parents disappointed you. Can you write about it?

       "I didn't want to go all the way to Texas, anyway." I've lived on the ranch since I was a little kid, and that's the only place I want to go to now. I slouch down in my chair and stare at the door. My voice is cracking again, but I squeak it out anyway. "Please send me home."

       "I can't do that yet, John. I want to help you, but I'm limited as to the things we can do for you. You'll be going to a forest camp over on the coast. It's already been approved by the Administration ."

       "Over on the coast? That must be a hundred miles or more from here. You're putting me farther away from home all the time."

       "It's one of our best programs. You'll learn to take responsibility, set goals."

       "You mean a bunch of shrinks run it. I heard about that kind of place."

       "Don't get off the track now." McGill flips the folder over. "If you want out of here, be sure you get good reports for the staffing group. It's up to you."

       I go out in the hall and wait for a guard to take me back to Taylor. A forest camp . Then I let the steam pour out of me. If it gets me one step closer to going home it'll be worth it. At least I'll get out of Fire Oak. Anything's better than this.

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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