بخش 03

کتاب: گودال ها / فصل 3

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6 فصل

بخش 03

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17

For the next week and a half, the boys continued to dig in and around the area where X-Ray had supposedly found the gold tube. They widened X-Ray’s hole, as well as the holes Armpit and Squid had been digging, until the fourth day, when all three holes met and formed one big hole.

As the days wore on, the Warden became less and less patient. She arrived later in the morning and left earlier in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the boys continued to dig later and later.

“This is no bigger than it was when I left you yesterday,” she said after arriving late one morning, wellafter sunrise. “What have you been doing down there?”

“Nothing,” said Squid.

It was the wrong thing to say.

At just that moment, Armpit was returning from a bathroom break.

“How nice of you to join us,” she said. “And what have you been doing?”

“I had to . . . you know . . . go.”

The Warden jabbed at Armpit with her pitchfork, knocking him backward into the big hole. The pitchfork left three holes in the front of his shirt, and three tiny spots of blood.

“You’re giving these boys too much water,” the Warden told Mr. Pendanski.

They continued to dig until late afternoon, long after all the other groups had finished for the day. Stanley was down in the big hole, along with the other six boys. They had stopped using the wheelbarrows.

He dug his shovel into the side of the hole. He scooped up some dirt, and was raising it up to the surface when Zigzag’s shovel caught him in the side of the head.

He collapsed.

He wasn’t sure if he passed out or not. He looked up to see Zigzag’s wild head staring down at him. “I ain’t digging that dirt up,” Zigzag said. “That’s your dirt.”

“Hey, Mom!” Magnet called. “Caveman’s been hurt.”

Stanley brought his fingers up the side of his neck. He felt his wet blood and a pretty big gash just below his ear.

Magnet helped Stanley to his feet, then up and out of the hole. Mr. Sir made a bandage out of a piece of his sack of sunflower seeds and taped it over Stanley’s wound. Then he told him to get back to work. “It isn’t nap time.”

When Stanley returned to the hole, Zigzag was waiting for him.

“That’s your dirt,” Zigzag said. “You have to dig it up. It’s covering up my dirt.”

Stanley felt a little dizzy. He could see a small pile of dirt. It took him a moment to realize that it was the dirt which had been on his shovel when he was hit.

He scooped it up, then Zigzag dug his shovel into the ground underneath where “Stanley’s dirt” had been.18 The next morning Mr. Sir marched the boys to another section of the lake, and each boy dug his own hole, five feet deep and five feet wide. Stanley was glad to be away from the big hole. At least now he knew just how much he had to dig for the day. And it was a relief not to have other shovels swinging past his face, or the Warden hanging around.

He dug his shovel into the dirt, then slowly turned to dump it into a pile. He had to make his turns smooth and slow. If he jerked too quickly, he felt a throbbing pain just above his neck where Zigzag’s shovel had hit him.

That part of his head, between his neck and ear, was considerably swollen. There were no mirrors in camp, but he imagined he looked like he had a hard-boiled egg sticking out of him.

The remainder of his body hardly hurt at all. His muscles had strengthened, and his hands were tough and callused. He was still the slowest digger, but not all that much slower than Magnet. Less than thirty minutes after Magnet returned to camp, Stanley spat into his hole.

After his shower, he put his dirty clothes in his crate and got out his box of stationery. He stayed in the tent to write the letter so Squid and the other boys wouldn’t make fun of him for writing to his mother.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Camp is hard, but challenging. We’ve been running obstacle courses, and have to swim long distances on the lake. Tomorrow we learn…

He stopped writing as Zero walked into the tent, then returned to his letter. He didn’t care what Zero thought. Zero was nobody.

…to rock climb. I know that sounds scary, but don’t worry,

Zero was standing beside him now, watching him write.

Stanley turned, and felt his neck throb. “I don’t like it when you read over my shoulder, okay?”

Zero said nothing.

I’ll be careful. It’s not all fun and games here, but I think I’m getting a lot out of it. It builds character. Theother boys… “I don’t know how,” said Zero.

“What?”

“Can you teach me?”

Stanley didn’t know what he was talking about. “Teach you what, to rock climb?”

Zero stared at him with penetrating eyes.

“What?” said Stanley. He was hot, tired, and sore.

“I want to learn to read and write,” said Zero.

Stanley let out a short laugh. He wasn’t laughing at Zero. He was just surprised. All this time he had thought Zero was reading over his shoulder. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t know how to teach.”

After digging all day, he didn’t have the strength to try to teach Zero to read and write. He needed to save his energy for the people who counted.

“You don’t have to teach me to write,” said Zero. “Just to read. I don’t have anybody to write to.”

“Sorry,” Stanley said again.

His muscles and hands weren’t the only parts of his body that had toughened over the past several weeks. His heart had hardened as well.

He finished his letter. He barely had enough moisture in his mouth to seal and stamp the envelope. It seemed that no matter how much water he drank, he was always thirsty.

19

He was awakened one night by a strange noise. At first he thought it might have been some kind of animal, and it frightened him. But as the sleep cleared from his head, he realized that the noise was coming from the cot next to him.

Squid was crying.

“You okay?” Stanley whispered.

Squid’s head jerked around. He sniffed and caught his breath. “Yeah, I just . . . I’m fine,” he whispered,and sniffed again.

In the morning Stanley asked Squid if he was feeling better.

“What are you, my mother?” asked Squid.

Stanley raised and lowered one shoulder.

“I got allergies, okay?” Squid said.

“Okay,” said Stanley.

“You open your mouth again, and I’ll break your jaw.”

Stanley kept his mouth shut most of the time. He didn’t talk too much to any of the boys, afraid that he might say the wrong thing. They called him Caveman and all that, but he couldn’t forget that they were dangerous, too. They were all here for a reason. As Mr. Sir would say, this wasn’t a Girl Scout camp.

Stanley was thankful that there were no racial problems. X-Ray, Armpit, and Zero were black. He, Squid, and Zigzag were white. Magnet was Hispanic. On the lake they were all the same reddish brown color—the color of dirt.

He looked up from his hole to see the water truck and its trailing dust cloud. His canteen was still almost a quarter full. He quickly drank it down, then took his place in line, behind Magnet and in front of Zero.

The air was thick with heat, dust, and exhaust fumes.

Mr. Sir filled their canteens.

The truck pulled away. Stanley was back in his hole, shovel in hand, when he heard Magnet call out.

“Anybody want some sunflower seeds?”

Magnet was standing at ground level, holding a sack of seeds. He popped a handful into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed, shells and all.

“Over here,” called X-Ray.

The sack looked to be about half full. Magnet rolled up the top, then tossed it to X-Ray.

“How’d you get them without Mr. Sir seeing you?” asked Armpit.

“I can’t help it,” Magnet said. He held both hands up, wiggled his fingers, and laughed. “My fingers are like little magnets.”

The sack went from X-Ray to Armpit to Squid.

“It’s sure good to eat something that doesn’t come from a can,” said Armpit.

Squid tossed the sack to Zigzag.Stanley knew it would come to him next. He didn’t even want it. From the moment Magnet shouted, “Anybody want some sunflower seeds,” he knew there would be trouble. Mr. Sir was sure to come back. And anyway, the salted shells would only make him thirsty.

“Coming your way, Caveman,” said Zigzag. “Airmail and special delivery . . .”

It’s unclear whether the seeds spilled before they got to Stanley or after he dropped the bag. It seemed to him that Zigzag hadn’t rolled up the top before throwing it, and that was the reason he didn’t catch it.

But it all happened very fast. One moment the sack was flying through the air, and the next thing Stanley knew the sack was in his hole and the seeds were spilled across the dirt.

“Oh, man!” said Magnet.

“Sorry,” Stanley said as he tried to sweep the seeds back into the sack.

“I don’t want to eat dirt,” said X-Ray.

Stanley didn’t know what to do.

“The truck’s coming!” shouted Zigzag.

Stanley looked up at the approaching dust cloud, then back down at the spilled seeds. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What else is new?

He dug his shovel into his hole, and tried to turn over the dirt and bury the seeds.

What he should have done, he realized later, was knock one of his dirt piles back into his hole. But the idea of putting dirt into his hole was unthinkable.

“Hello, Mr. Sir,” said X-Ray. “Back so soon?”

“It seems like you were just here,” said Armpit.

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” said Magnet.

Stanley continued to turn the dirt over in his hole.

“You Girl Scouts having a good time?” asked Mr. Sir. He moved from one hole to another. He kicked a dirt pile by Magnet’s hole, then he moved toward Stanley.

Stanley could see two seeds at the bottom of his hole. As he tried to cover them up, he unearthed a corner of the sack.

“Well, what do you know, Caveman?” said Mr. Sir, standing over him. “It looks like you found something.”

Stanley didn’t know what to do.”Dig it out,” Mr. Sir said. “We’ll take it to the Warden. Maybe she’ll give you the rest of the day off.”

“It’s not anything,” Stanley muttered.

“Let me be the judge of that,” said Mr. Sir.

Stanley reached down and pulled up the empty burlap sack. He tried to hand it to Mr. Sir, but he wouldn’t take it.

“So, tell me, Caveman,” said Mr. Sir. “How did my sack of sunflower seeds get in your hole?”

“I stole it from your truck.”

“You did?”

“Yes, Mr. Sir.”

“What happened to all the sunflower seeds?”

“I ate them.”

“By yourself.”

“Yes, Mr. Sir.”

“Hey, Caveman!” shouted Armpit. “How come you didn’t share any with us?”

“That’s cold, man,” said X-Ray.

“I thought you were our friend,” said Magnet.

Mr. Sir looked around from one boy to another, then back to Stanley. “We’ll see what the Warden has to say about this. Let’s go.”

Stanley climbed up out of his hole and followed Mr. Sir to the truck. He still held the empty sack.

It felt good to sit inside the truck, out of the direct rays of the sun. Stanley was surprised he could feel good about anything at the moment, but he did. It felt good to sit down on a comfortable seat for a change. And as the truck bounced along the dirt, he was able to appreciate the air blowing through the open window onto his hot and sweaty face.

20

It felt good to walk in the shade of the two oak trees. Stanley wondered if this was how a condemned man felt on his way to the electric chair—appreciating all of the good things in life for the last time.They had to step around holes to get to the cabin door. Stanley was surprised to see so many around the cabin. He would have expected the Warden to not want the campers digging so close to her home.

But several holes were right up against the cabin wall. The holes were closer together here as well, and were of different shapes and sizes.

Mr. Sir knocked on the door. Stanley still held the empty sack.

“Yes?” the Warden said, opening the door.

“There’s been a little trouble out on the lake,” Mr. Sir said. “Caveman will tell you all about it.”

The Warden stared at Mr. Sir a moment, then her gaze turned toward Stanley. He felt nothing but dread now.

“Come in, I suppose,” said the Warden. “You’re letting the cold out.”

It was air-conditioned inside her cabin. The television was going. She picked up the remote and turned it off.

She sat down on a canvas chair. She was barefoot and wearing shorts. Her legs were as freckled as her face and arms.

“So what is it you have to tell me?”

Stanley took a breath to steady himself. “While Mr. Sir was filling the canteens, I snuck into the truck and stole his sack of sunflower seeds.”

“I see.” She turned to Mr. Sir. “That’s why you brought him here?”

“Yes, but I think he’s lying. I think someone else stole the sack, and Caveman is covering up for X-Ray or somebody. It was a twenty-pound sack, and he claims to have eaten them all by himself.” He took the sack from Stanley and handed it to the Warden.

“I see,” the Warden said again.

“The sack wasn’t full,” said Stanley. “And I spilled a lot. You can check my hole.”

“In that room, Caveman, there’s a small flowered case. Will you get it for me, please?” She pointed to a door.

Stanley looked at the door, then at the Warden, then back at the door. He slowly walked toward it.

It was a kind of dressing room, with a sink and a mirror. Next to the sink he saw the case, white with pink roses.

He brought it back out to the Warden, and she set it on the glass coffee table in front of her. She unclasped the latch and opened the case.

It was a makeup case. Stanley’s mother had one similar to it. He saw several bottles of nail polish, polish remover, a couple of lipstick tubes, and other jars and powders.The Warden held up a small jar of dark-red nail polish. “You see this, Caveman?”

He nodded.

“This is my special nail polish. Do you see the dark rich color? You can’t buy that in a store. I have to make it myself.”

Stanley had no idea why she was showing it to him. He wondered why the Warden would ever have the need to wear nail polish or makeup.

“Do you want to know my secret ingredient?”

He raised and lowered one shoulder.

The Warden opened the bottle. “Rattlesnake venom.” With a small paintbrush she began applying it to the nails on her left hand. “It’s perfectly harmless . . . when it’s dry.”

She finished her left hand. She waved it in the air for a few seconds, then began painting the nails on her right hand. “It’s only toxic while it’s wet.”

She finished painting her nails, then stood up. She reached over and touched Stanley’s face with her fingers. She ran her sharp wet nails very gently down his cheek. He felt his skin tingle.

The nail on her pinkie just barely touched the wound behind his ear. A sharp sting of pain caused him to jump back.

The Warden turned to face Mr. Sir, who was sitting on the fireplace hearth.

“So you think he stole your sunflower seeds?”

“No, he says he stole them, but I think it was—”

She stepped toward him and struck him across the face.

Mr. Sir stared at her. He had three long red marks slanting across the left side of his face. Stanley didn’t know if the redness was caused by her nail polish or his blood.

It took a moment for the venom to sink in. Suddenly, Mr. Sir screamed and clutched his face with both hands. He let himself fall over, rolling off the hearth and onto the rug.

The Warden spoke softly. “I don’t especially care about your sunflower seeds.”

Mr. Sir moaned.

“If you must know,” said the Warden, “I liked it better when you smoked.”

For a second, Mr. Sir’s pain seemed to recede. He took several long, deep breaths. Then his head jerked violently, and he let out a shrill scream, worse than the one before.

The Warden turned to Stanley. “I suggest you go back to your hole now.”Stanley started to go, but Mr. Sir lay in the way. Stanley could see the muscles on his face jump and twitch. His body writhed in agony.

Stanley stepped carefully over him. “Is he—?”

“Excuse me?” said the Warden.

Stanley was too frightened to speak.

“He’s not going to die,” the Warden said. “Unfortunately for you.”

21

It was a long walk back to his hole. Stanley looked out through the haze of heat and dirt at the other boys, lowering and raising their shovels. Group D was the farthest away.

He realized that once again he would be digging long after everyone else had quit. He hoped he’d finish before Mr. Sir recovered. He didn’t want to be out there alone with Mr. Sir.

He won’t die, the Warden had said. Unfortunately for you.

Walking across the desolate wasteland, Stanley thought about his great-grandfather—not the pig stealer but the pig stealer’s son, the one who was robbed by Kissin’ Kate Barlow.

He tried to imagine how he must have felt after Kissin’ Kate had left him stranded in the desert. It probably wasn’t a whole lot different from the way he himself felt now. Kate Barlow had left his great-grandfather to face the hot barren desert. The Warden had left Stanley to face Mr. Sir.

Somehow his great-grandfather had survived for seventeen days, before he was rescued by a couple of rattlesnake hunters. He was insane when they found him.

When he was asked how he had lived so long, he said he “found refuge on God’s thumb.”

He spent nearly a month in a hospital. He ended up marrying one of the nurses. Nobody ever knew what he meant by God’s thumb, including himself.

Stanley heard a twitching sound. He stopped in mid-step, with one foot still in the air.

A rattlesnake lay coiled beneath his foot. Its tail was pointed upward, rattling.

Stanley backed his leg away, then turned and ran.

The rattlesnake didn’t chase after him. It had rattled its tail to warn him to stay away.”Thanks for the warning,” Stanley whispered as his heart pounded.

The rattlesnake would be a lot more dangerous if it didn’t have a rattle.

“Hey, Caveman!” called Armpit. “You’re still alive.”

“What’d the Warden say?” asked X-Ray.

“What’d you tell her?” asked Magnet.

“I told her I stole the seeds,” said Stanley.

“Good going,” said Magnet.

“What’d she do?” asked Zigzag.

Stanley shrugged one shoulder. “Nothing. She got mad at Mr. Sir for bothering her.”

He didn’t feel like going into details. If he didn’t talk about it, then maybe it didn’t happen.

He went over to his hole, and to his surprise it was nearly finished. He stared at it, amazed. It didn’t make sense.

Or perhaps it did. He smiled. Since he had taken the blame for the sunflower seeds, he realized, the other boys had dug his hole for him.

“Hey, thanks,” he said.

“Don’t look at me,” said X-Ray.

Confused, Stanley looked around—from Magnet, to Armpit, to Zigzag, to Squid. None of them took credit for it.

Then he turned to Zero, who had been quietly digging in his hole since Stanley’s return. Zero’s hole was smaller than all the others.

22

Stanley was the first one finished. He spat in his hole, then showered and changed into his cleaner set of clothes. It had been three days since the laundry was done, so even his clean set was dirty and smelly.

Tomorrow, these would become his work clothes, and his other set would be washed.

He could think of no reason why Zero would dig his hole for him. Zero didn’t even get any sunflowerseeds.

“I guess he likes to dig holes,” Armpit had said.

“He’s a mole,” Zigzag had said. “I think he eats dirt.”

“Moles don’t eat dirt,” X-Ray had pointed out. “Worms eat dirt.”

“Hey, Zero?” Squid had asked. “Are you a mole or a worm?”

Zero had said nothing.

Stanley never even thanked him. But now he sat on his cot and waited for Zero to return from the shower room.

“Thanks,” he said as Zero entered through the tent flap.

Zero glanced at him, then went over to the crates, where he deposited his dirty clothes and towel.

“Why’d you help me?” Stanley asked.

Zero turned around. “You didn’t steal the sunflower seeds,” he said.

“So, neither did you,” said Stanley.

Zero stared at him. His eyes seemed to expand, and it was almost as if Zero were looking right through him. “You didn’t steal the sneakers,” he said.

Stanley said nothing.

He watched Zero walk out of the tent. If anybody had X-ray vision, it was Zero.

“Wait!” he called, then hurried out after him.

Zero had stopped just outside the tent, and Stanley almost ran into him.

“I’ll try to teach you to read if you want,” Stanley offered. “I don’t know if I know how to teach, but I’m not that worn-out today, since you dug a lot of my hole.”

A big smile spread across Zero’s face.

They returned to the tent, where they were less likely to be bothered. Stanley got his box of stationery and a pen out of his crate. They sat on the ground.

“Do you know the alphabet?” Stanley asked.

For a second, he thought he saw a flash of defiance in Zero’s eyes, but then it passed.

“I think I know some of it,” Zero said. “A, B, C, D.”

“Keep going,” said Stanley.Zero’s eyes looked upward. “E . . .”

“F,” said Stanley.

“G,” said Zero. He blew some air out of the side of his mouth. “H . . . I . . . K, P.”

“H, I, J, K, L,” Stanley said.

“That’s right,” said Zero. “I’ve heard it before. I just don’t have it memorized exactly.”

“That’s all right,” said Stanley. “Here, I’ll say the whole thing, just to kind of refresh your memory, then you can try it.”

He recited the alphabet for Zero, then Zero repeated it without a single mistake.

Not bad for a kid who had never seen Sesame Street!

“Well, I’ve heard it before, somewhere,” Zero said, trying to act like it was nothing, but his big smile gave him away.

The next step was harder. Stanley had to figure out how to teach him to recognize each letter. He gave Zero a piece of paper, and took a piece for himself. “I guess we’ll start with A.”

He printed a capital A, and then Zero copied it on his sheet of paper. The paper wasn’t lined, which made it more difficult, but Zero’s A wasn’t bad, just a little big. Stanley told him he needed to write smaller, or else they’d run out of paper real quick. Zero printed it smaller.

“Actually, there are two ways to write each letter,” Stanley said, as he realized this was going to be even harder than he thought. “That’s a capital A. But usually you’ll see a small a. You only have capitals at the beginning of a word, and only if it’s the start of a sentence, or if it’s a proper noun, like a name.”

Zero nodded as if he understand, but Stanley knew he had made very little sense.

He printed a lowercase a, and Zero copied it.

“So there are fifty-two,” said Zero.

Stanley didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Instead of twenty-six letters. There are really fifty-two.”

Stanley looked at him, surprised. “I guess that’s right. How’d you figure that out?” he asked.

Zero said nothing.

“Did you add?”

Zero said nothing.

“Did you multiply?”“That’s just how many there are,” said Zero.

Stanley raised and lowered one shoulder. He didn’t even know how Zero knew there were twenty-six in the first place. Did he count them as he recited them?

He had Zero write a few more upper- and lowercase A’s, and then he moved on to a capital B. This was going to take a long time, he realized.

“You can teach me ten letters a day,” suggested Zero. “Five capitals and five smalls. After five days I’ll know them all. Except on the last day I’ll have to do twelve. Six capitals and six smalls.”

Again Stanley stared at him, amazed that he was able to figure all that out.

Zero must have thought he was staring for a different reason, because he said, “I’ll dig part of your hole every day. I can dig for about an hour, then you can teach me for an hour. And since I’m a faster digger anyway, our holes will get done about the same time. I won’t have to wait for you.”

“Okay,” Stanley agreed.

As Zero was printing his B’s, Stanley asked him how he figured out it would take five days. “Did you multiply? Did you divide?”

“That’s just what it is,” Zero said.

“It’s good math,” said Stanley.

“I’m not stupid,” Zero said. “I know everybody thinks I am. I just don’t like answering their questions.”

Later that night, as he lay on his cot, Stanley reconsidered the deal he had made with Zero. Getting a break every day would be a relief, but he knew X-Ray wouldn’t like it. He wondered if there might be some way Zero would agree to dig part of X-Ray’s hole as well. But then again, why should he? I’m the one teaching Zero. I need the break so I’ll have the energy to ‘ teach him. I’m the one who took the blame for the sunflower seeds. I’m the one who Mr. Sir is mad at.

He closed his eyes, and images from the Warden’s cabin floated inside his head: her red fingernails, Mr.

Sir writhing on the floor, her flowered makeup kit.

He opened his eyes.

He suddenly realized where he’d seen the gold tube before.

He’d seen it in his mother’s bathroom, and he’d seen it again in the Warden’s cabin. It was half of a lipstick container.

KB?

KB? He felt a jolt of astonishment.

His mouth silently formed the name Kate Barlow, as he wondered if it really could have belonged to the kissin’ outlaw.

23

One hundred and ten years ago, Green Lake was the largest lake in Texas. It was full of clear cool water, and it sparkled like a giant emerald in the sun. It was especially beautiful in the spring, when the peach trees, which lined the shore, bloomed with pink and rose-colored blossoms.

There was always a town picnic on the Fourth of July. They’d play games, dance, sing, and swim in the lake to keep cool. Prizes were awarded for the best peach pie and peach jam.

A special prize was given every year to Miss Katherine Barlow for her fabulous spiced peaches. No one else even tried to make spiced peaches, because they knew none could be as delicious as hers.

Every summer Miss Katherine would pick bushels of peaches and preserve them in jars with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and other spices which she kept secret. The jarred peaches would last all winter. They probably would have lasted a lot longer than that, but they were always eaten by the end of winter.

It was said that Green Lake was “heaven on earth” and that Miss Katherine’s spiced peaches were “food for the angels.”

Katherine Barlow was the town’s only schoolteacher. She taught in an old one-room schoolhouse. It was old even then. The roof leaked. The windows wouldn’t open. The door hung crooked on its bent hinges.

She was a wonderful teacher, full of knowledge and full of life. The children loved her.

She taught classes in the evening for adults, and many of the adults loved her as well. She was very pretty. Her classes were often full of young men, who were a lot more interested in the teacher than they were in getting an education.

But all they ever got was an education.

One such young man was Trout Walker. His real name was Charles Walker, but everyone called him Trout because his two feet smelled like a couple of dead fish.

This wasn’t entirely Trout’s fault. He had an incurable foot fungus. In fact, it was the same foot fungus that a hundred and ten years later would afflict the famous ballplayer Clyde Livingston. But at least Clyde Livingston showered every day.

“I take a bath every Sunday morning,” Trout would brag, “whether I need to or not.”Most everyone in the town of Green Lake expected Miss Katherine to marry Trout Walker. He was the son of the richest man in the county. His family owned most of the peach trees and all the land on the east side of the lake.

Trout often showed up at night school but never paid attention. He talked in class and was disrespectful of the students around him. He was loud and stupid.

A lot of men in town were not educated. That didn’t bother Miss Katherine. She knew they’d spent most of their lives working on farms and ranches and hadn’t had much schooling. That was why she was there—to teach them.

But Trout didn’t want to learn. He seemed to be proud of his stupidity.

“How’d you like to take a ride on my new boat this Saturday?” he asked her one evening after class.

“No, thank you,” said Miss Katherine.

“We’ve got a brand-new boat,” he said. “You don’t even have to row it.”

“Yes, I know,” said Miss Katherine.

Everyone in town had seen—and heard—the Walkers’ new boat. It made a horrible loud noise and spewed ugly black smoke over the beautiful lake.

Trout had always gotten everything he ever wanted. He found it hard to believe that Miss Katherine had turned him down. He pointed his finger at her and said, “No one ever says ‘No’ to Charles Walker!”

“I believe I just did,” said Katherine Barlow.

24

Stanley was half asleep as he got in line for breakfast, but the sight of Mr. Sir awakened him. The left side of Mr. Sir’s face had swollen to the size of half a cantaloupe. There were three dark-purple jagged lines running down his cheek where the Warden had scratched him.

The other boys in Stanley’s tent had obviously seen Mr. Sir as well, but they had the good sense not to say anything. Stanley put a carton of juice and a plastic spoon on his tray. He kept his eyes down and hardly breathed as Mr. Sir ladled some oatmeal-like stuff into his bowl.

He brought his tray to the table. Behind him, a boy from one of the other tents said, “Hey, what happened to your face?”

There was a crash.

Stanley turned to see Mr. Sir holding the boy’s head against the oatmeal pot. “Is something wrong withmy face?”

The boy tried to speak but couldn’t. Mr. Sir had him by the throat.

“Does anyone see anything wrong with my face?” asked Mr. Sir, as he continued to choke the boy.

Nobody said anything.

Mr. Sir let the boy go. His head banged against the table as he fell to the ground.

Mr. Sir stood over him and asked, “How does my face look to you now?”

A gurgling sound came out of the boy’s mouth, then he managed to gasp the word, “Fine.”

“I’m kind of handsome, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Mr. Sir.”

Out on the lake, the other boys asked Stanley what he knew about Mr. Sir’s face, but he just shrugged and dug his hole. If he didn’t talk about it, maybe it would go away.

He worked as hard and as fast as he could, not trying to pace himself. He just wanted to get off the lake and away from Mr. Sir as soon as possible. Besides, he knew he’d get a break.

“Whenever you’re ready, just let me know,” Zero had said.

The first time the water truck came, it was driven by Mr. Pendanski. The second time, Mr. Sir was driving.

No one said anything except “Thank you, Mr. Sir” as he filled each canteen. No one even dared to look at his grotesque face.

As Stanley waited, he ran his tongue over the roof of his mouth and inside his cheeks. His mouth was as dry and as parched as the lake. The bright sun reflected off the side mirror of the truck, and Stanley had to shield his eyes with his hand.

“Thank you, Mr. Sir,” said Magnet, as he took his canteen from him.

“You thirsty, Caveman?” Mr. Sir asked.

“Yes, Mr. Sir,” Stanley said, handing his canteen to him.

Mr. Sir opened the nozzle, and the water flowed out of the tank, but it did not go into Stanley’s canteen.

Instead, he held the canteen right next to the stream of water.

Stanley watched the water splatter on the dirt, where it was quickly absorbed by the thirsty ground.

Mr. Sir let the water run for about thirty seconds, then stopped. “You want more?” he asked.Stanley didn’t say anything.

Mr. Sir turned the water back on, and again Stanley watched it pour onto the dirt.

“There, that should be plenty.” He handed Stanley his empty canteen.

Stanley stared at the dark spot on the ground, which quickly shrank before his eyes.

“Thank you, Mr. Sir,” he said.

25

There was a doctor in the town of Green Lake, one hundred and ten years ago. His name was Dr.

Hawthorn. And whenever people got sick, they would go see Doc Hawthorn. But they would also see Sam, the onion man.

“Onions! Sweet, fresh onions!” Sam would call, as he and his donkey, Mary Lou, walked up and down the dirt roads of Green Lake. Mary Lou pulled a cart full of onions.

Sam’s onion field was somewhere on the other side of the lake. Once or twice a week he would tow across the lake and pick a new batch to fill the cart. Sam had big strong arms, but it would still take all day for him to row across the lake and another day for him to return. Most of the time he would leave Mary Lou in a shed, which the Walkers let him use at no charge, but sometimes he would take Mary Lou on his boat with him.

Sam claimed that Mary Lou was almost fifty years old, which was, and still is, extraordinarily old for a donkey.

“She eats nothing but raw onions,” Sam would say, holding up a white onion between his dark fingers.

“It’s nature’s magic vegetable. If a person ate nothing but raw onions, he could live to be two hundred years old.”

Sam was not much older than twenty, so nobody was quite sure that Mary Lou was really as old as he said she was. How would he know?

Still, nobody ever argued with Sam. And whenever they were sick, they would go not only to Doc Hawthorn but also to Sam.

Sam always gave the same advice: “Eat plenty of onions.”

He said that onions were good for the digestion, the liver, the stomach, the lungs, the heart, and the brain. “If you don’t believe me, just look at old Mary Lou here. She’s never been sick a day in her life.”

He also had many different ointments, lotions, syrups, and pastes all made out of onion juice and different parts of the onion plant. This one cured asthma. That one was for warts and pimples. Anotherwas a remedy for arthritis.

He even had a special ointment which he claimed would cure baldness. “Just rub it on your husband’s head every night when he’s sleeping, Mrs. Collingwood, and soon his hair will be as thick and as long as Mary Lou’s tail.”

Doc Hawthorn did not resent Sam. The folks of Green Lake were afraid to take chances. They would get regular medicine from Doc Hawthorn and onion concoctions from Sam. After they got over their illness, no one could be sure, not even Doc Hawthorn, which of the two treatments had done the trick.

Doc Hawthorn was almost completely bald, and in the morning his head often smelled like onions.

Whenever Katherine Barlow bought onions, she always bought an extra one or two and would let Mary Lou eat them out of her hand.

“Is something wrong?” Sam asked her one day as she was feeding Mary Lou. “You seem distracted.”

“Oh, just the weather,” said Miss Katherine. “It looks like rain clouds moving in.”

“Me and Mary Lou, we like the rain,” said Sam.

“Oh, I like it fine,” said Miss Katherine, as she rubbed the donkey’s rough hair on top of its head. “It’s just that the roof leaks in the schoolhouse.”

“I can fix that,” said Sam.

“What are you going to do?” Katherine joked. “Fill the holes with onion paste?”

Sam laughed. “I’m good with my hands,” he told her. “I built my own boat. If it leaked, I’d be in big trouble.”

Katherine couldn’t help but notice his strong, firm hands.

They made a deal. He agreed to fix the leaky roof in exchange for six jars of spiced peaches.

It took Sam a week to fix the roof, because he could only work in the afternoons, after school let out and before night classes began. Sam wasn’t allowed to attend classes because he was a Negro, but they let him fix the building.

Miss Katherine usually stayed in the schoolhouse, grading papers and such, while Sam worked on the roof. She enjoyed what little conversation they were able to have, shouting up and down to each other.

She was surprised by his interest in poetry. When he took a break, she would sometimes read a poem to him. On more than one occasion, she would start to read a poem by Poe or Longfellow, only to hear him finish it for her, from memory.

She was sad when the roof was finished.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.”No, you did a wonderful job,” she said. “It’s just that . . . the windows won’t open. The children and I would enjoy a breeze now and then.”

“I can fix that,” said Sam.

She gave him two more jars of peaches and Sam fixed the windows.

It was easier to talk to him when he was working on the windows. He told her about his secret onion field on the other side of the lake, “where the onions grow all year round, and the water runs uphill.”

When the windows were fixed, she complained that her desk wobbled.

“I can fix that,” said Sam.

The next time she saw him, she mentioned that “the door doesn’t hang straight,” and she got to spend another afternoon with him while he fixed the door.

By the end of the first semester, Onion Sam had turned the old run-down schoolhouse into a well-crafted, freshly painted jewel of a building that the whole town was proud of. People passing by would stop and admire it. “That’s our schoolhouse. It shows how much we value education here in Green Lake.”

The only person who wasn’t happy with it was Miss Katherine. She’d run out of things needing to be fixed.

She sat at her desk one afternoon, listening to the pitter-patter of the rain on the roof. No water leaked into the classroom, except for the few drops that came from her eyes.

“Onions! Hot sweet onions!” Sam called, out on the street.

She ran to him. She wanted to throw her arms around him but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead she hugged Mary Lou’s neck.

“Is something wrong?” he asked her.

“Oh, Sam,” she said. “My heart is breaking.”

“I can fix that,” said Sam.

She turned to him.

He took hold of both of her hands, and kissed her.

Because of the rain, there was nobody else out on the street. Even if there was, Katherine and Sam wouldn’t have noticed. They were lost in their own world.

At that moment, however, Hattie Parker stepped out of the general store. They didn’t see her, but she saw them. She pointed her quivering finger in their direction and whispered, “God will punish you!”26 There were no telephones, but word spread quickly through the small town. By the end of the day, everyone in Green Lake had heard that the schoolteacher had kissed the onion picker.

Not one child showed up for school the next morning.

Miss Katherine sat alone in the classroom and wondered if she had lost track of the day of the week.

Perhaps it was Saturday. It wouldn’t have surprised her. Her brain and heart had been spinning ever since Sam kissed her.

She heard a noise outside the door, then suddenly a mob of men and women came storming into the school building. They were led by Trout Walker.

“There she is!” Trout shouted. “The Devil Woman!”

The mob was turning over desks and ripping down bulletin boards.

“She’s been poisoning your children’s brains with books,” Trout declared.

They began piling all the books in the center of the room.

“Think about what you are doing!” cried Miss Katherine.

Someone made a grab for her, tearing her dress, but she managed to get out of the building. She ran to the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff had his feet up on his desk and was drinking from a bottle of whiskey. “Mornin’, Miss Katherine,” he said.

“They’re destroying the schoolhouse,” she said, gasping for breath. “They’ll burn it to the ground if someone doesn’t stop them!”

“Just calm your pretty self down a second,” the sheriff said in a slow drawl. “And tell me what you’re talking about.” He got up from his desk and walked over to her.

“Trout Walker has—”

“Now don’t go saying nothing bad about Charles Walker,” said the sheriff.

“We don’t have much time!” urged Katherine. “You’ve got to stop them.”

“You’re sure pretty,” said the sheriff.

Miss Katherine stared at him in horror.

“Kiss me,” said the sheriff.She slapped him across the face.

He laughed. “You kissed the onion picker. Why won’t you kiss me?”

She tried to slap him again, but he caught her by the hand.

She tried to wriggle free. “You’re drunk!” she yelled.

“I always get drunk before a hanging.”

“A hanging? Who—”

“It’s against the law for a Negro to kiss a white woman.”

“Well, then you’ll have to hang me, too,” said Katherine. “Because I kissed him back.”

“It ain’t against the law for you to kiss him,” the sheriff explained. “Just for him to kiss you.”

“We’re all equal under the eyes of God,” she declared.

The sheriff laughed. “Then if Sam and I are equal, why won’t you kiss me?” He laughed again. “I’ll make you a deal. One sweet kiss, and I won’t hang your boyfriend. I’ll just run him out of town.”

Miss Katherine jerked her hand free. As she hurried to the door, she heard the sheriff say, “The law will punish Sam. And God will punish you.”

She stepped back into the street and saw smoke rising from the schoolhouse. She ran down to the lakefront, where Sam was hitching Mary Lou to the onion cart.

“Thank God, I found you,” she sighed, hugging him. “We’ve got to get out of here. Now!”

“What—”

“Someone must have seen us kissing yesterday,” she said. “They set fire to the schoolhouse. The sheriff said he’s going to hang you!”

Sam hesitated for a moment, as if he couldn’t quite believe it. He didn’t want to believe it. “C’mon, Mary Lou.”

“We have to leave Mary Lou behind,” said Katherine.

Sam stared at her a moment. There were tears in his eyes. “Okay.”

Sam’s boat was in the water, tied to a tree by a long rope. He untied it, and they waded through the water and climbed aboard. His powerful arms rowed them away from the shore.

But his powerful arms were no match for Trout Walker’s motorized boat. They were little more than halfway across the lake when Miss Katherine heard the loud roar of the engine. Then she saw the ugly black smoke . . .These are the facts:

The Walker boat smashed into Sam’s boat. Sam was shot and killed in the water. Katherine Barlow was rescued against her wishes. When they returned to the shore, she saw Mary Lou’s body lying on the ground. The donkey had been shot in the head.

That all happened one hundred and ten years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake.

You make the decision: Whom did God punish?

Three days after Sam’s death, Miss Katherine shot the sheriff while he was sitting in his chair drinking a cup of coffee. Then she carefully applied a fresh coat of red lipstick and gave him the kiss he had asked for.

For the next twenty years Kissin’ Kate Barlow was one of the most feared outlaws in all the West.

27

Stanley dug his shovel into the ground. His hole was about three and a half feet deep in the center. He grunted as he pried up some dirt, then flung it off to the side. The sun was almost directly overhead.

He glanced at his canteen lying beside his hole. He knew it was half full, but he didn’t take a drink just yet. He had to drink sparingly, because he didn’t know who would be driving the water truck the next time it came.

Three days had passed since the Warden had scratched Mr. Sir. Every time Mr. Sir delivered water, he poured Stanley’s straight onto the ground.

Fortunately, Mr. Pendanski delivered the water more often than Mr. Sir. Mr. Pendanski was obviously aware of what Mr. Sir was doing, because he always gave Stanley a little extra. He’d fill Stanley’s canteen, then let Stanley take a long drink, then top it off for him.

It helped, too, that Zero was digging some of Stanley’s hole for him. Although, as Stanley had expected, the other boys didn’t like to see Stanley sitting around while they were working. They’d say things like “Who died and made you king?” or “It must be nice to have your own personal slave.”

When he tried pointing out that he was the one who took the blame for the sunflower seeds, the other boys said it was his fault because he was the one who spilled them. “I risked my life for those seeds,”

Magnet had said, “and all I got was one lousy handful.”Stanley had also tried to explain that he needed to save his energy so he could teach Zero how to read, but the other boys just mocked him.

“Same old story, ain’t it, Armpit?” X-Ray had said. “The white boy sits around while the black boy does all the work. Ain’t that right, Caveman?”

“No, that’s not right,” Stanley replied.

“No, it ain’t,” X-Ray agreed. “It ain’t right at all.”

Stanley dug out another shovelful of dirt. He knew X-Ray wouldn’t have been talking like that if he was the one teaching Zero to read. Then X-Ray would be talking about how important it was that he got his rest, right? So he could be a better teacher, right?

And that was true. He did need to save his strength so he could be a better teacher, although Zero was a quick learner. Sometimes, in fact, Stanley hoped the Warden was watching them, with her secret cameras and microphones, so she’d know that Zero wasn’t as stupid as everyone thought.

From across the lake he could see the approaching dust cloud. He took a drink from his canteen, then waited to see who was driving the truck.

The swelling on Mr. Sir’s face had gone down, but it was still a little puffy. There had been three scratch marks down his cheek. Two of the marks had faded, but the middle scratch must have been the deepest, because it still remained. It was a jagged purple line running from below his eye to below his mouth, like a tattoo of a scar.

Stanley waited in line, then handed him his canteen.

Mr. Sir held it up to his ear and shook it. He smiled at the swishing sound.

Stanley hoped he wouldn’t dump it out.

To his surprise, Mr. Sir held the canteen under the stream of water and filled it.

“Wait here,” he said.

Still holding Stanley’s canteen, Mr. Sir walked past him, then went around the side of the truck and into the cab, where he couldn’t be seen.

“What’s he doing in there?” asked Zero.

“I wish I knew,” said Stanley.

A short while later, Mr. Sir came out of the truck and handed Stanley his canteen. It was still full.

“Thank you, Mr. Sir.”

Mr. Sir smiled at him. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Drink up.” He popped some sunflower seeds into his mouth, chewed, and spit out the shells.Stanley was afraid to drink it. He hated to think what land of vile substance Mr. Sir might have put in it.

He brought the canteen back to his hole. For a long time, he left it beside his hole as he continued to dig.

Then, when he was so thirsty that he could hardly stand it anymore, he unscrewed the cap, turned the canteen over, and poured it all out onto the dirt. He was afraid that if he’d waited another second, he might have taken a drink.

After Stanley taught Zero the final six letters of the alphabet, he taught him to write his name.

“Capital Z-e-r-o.”

Zero wrote the letters as Stanley said them. “Zero,” he said, looking at his piece of paper. His smile was too big for his face.

Stanley watched him write it over and over again.

Zero Zero Zero Zero Zero Zero Zero . . .

In a way, it made him sad. He couldn’t help but think that a hundred times zero was still nothing.

“You know, that’s not my real name,” Zero said as they headed to the Wreck Room for dinner.

“Well, yeah,” Stanley said, “I guess I knew that.” He had never really been sure.

“Everyone’s always called me Zero, even before I came here.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“My real name is Hector.”

“Hector,” Stanley repeated.

“Hector Zeroni.”

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