Authors: Cynthia DeFelice
For Chris and Jimâ
I hope you recognize your own good hearts
in this story
catalog in the back pocket of my jeans was folded open to the page I planned to show my parents, if I ever got the chance to talk. All through dinner, Mom had been going on and on about the big reunion her family held every July, and how she hoped we could go this year.
As soon as Mom finished, my little sister, Meg, started in on the end-of-year festivities at the elementary school. “Then we do the three-legged race,” she was saying. “Jen and I won it together last year, so we've been practicing. Thenâ¦”
I tried to tune out her eager voice and concentrate on a smooth way to bring up the subject of my fourteenth birthdayâand the motorbike I wanted my parents to buy me. I hoped it wasn't too late. My birthday was tomorrow. But I hadn't known what I wanted until that morning at school, when my friend Randy Vogt showed me the picture of the Thunderbird.
I had to make clear to my parents that it wasn't simply a question of wanting the bike. I really
it if I wasn't going to die of boredom over summer vacation. The way I figured it, getting me the bike was the least my parents could do. Nobody had ever asked me if I wanted to grow up on a farm eight miles from town, in the middle of nowhere. My dad was born here, and so were his father and grandfather and probably his great-grandfather, too. Dad's younger sisters, my Aunt Kay and Aunt Mary, had both married farmers and lived nearby with their husbands, Uncle Bud and Uncle Arnie.
I guess none of them minded living out in the sticks, but I hated it. Town was where all the action was. If I never saw another cabbage field or apple orchard in my entire life, it would be just fine with me.
All I needed was for Meg to stop hogging the conversation for a minute, and she seemed to be winding down, at last. “So I said I'd bring cupcakes for the party, okay, Mom?” she asked.
“Okay,” said Mom. “You can help me make them, as soon as we get dinner cleaned up.” She turned from Meg to me and smiled. “Speaking of cakes, someone's birthday is coming right up. Have you thought about what kind of cake you'd like, Joe?”
I couldn't believe my luck. Mom had given me the perfect opening. “Aw, Mom,” I said, “you don't have to go to all that trouble.”
“But I always make you a birthday cake. What kind would you like?”
“Honest, Mom, you can skip the cake this year. There's really only one thing I want.”
“Oh? And what's that?” she asked, and I could see that I had hurt her feelings.
“It's not that I don't love your cakes, Mom,” I said quickly. “A chocolate cake with peanut-butter frosting would be great. It's just that there's this really cool thing I sawâ¦” I paused, fumbling for the smooth, persuasive words I'd worked out in advance, but nothing came out of my mouth.
My older sister, LuAnn, laughed. “Well, come on, Joe. Spit it out.”
I looked at Dad. His face was rugged from years of working outdoors, and his eyes blazed a startling blue. I sat up straighter and squared my shoulders. Trying for the confident voice I had practiced, I took the catalog from my pocket and said, “There's this really cool motorbike I want.”
A quick look at the picture of the black-and-chrome Thunderbird was enough to strengthen my resolve. “It's the one on the top,” I said, leaning across the table to place the catalog between my mother and father. “And, see, there's an 800 number so you can call and order it with a credit card.”
I watched anxiously while they studied the picture. As the silence grew longer, LuAnn got up to carry her dishes to the sink. She glanced at the catalog over Mom's shoulder and her eyebrows shot up. She looked at me and mouthed the words
I looked away quickly, hoping that she hadn't jinxed my chances, only to find myself pinned by the intensity of my father's gaze. For a moment, our eyes remained locked.
Then Dad spoke. “Eight hundred ninety-nine dollars.”
The words hung in the air, almost as if he had written them there.
“Are you serious?” he asked. The way he said it did not bode well.
“It's an awful lot of money, Joe,” Mom said quietly.
“I know, but, lookâ” I hurried to jump in before either of them could say anything more. “It's got all-terrain tires and shocks and a heavy frame for off-road use, so it'll go even on the farm lanes. And I figure it'll save you a lot of time this summer, 'cause whenever I want to hang out with my friends, I'll be able to ride into town next to the railroad track instead of asking you to drive me.”
Dad slid the magazine toward me and folded his hands across his chest. Then he spoke in slow, measured tones. “Your mother, in case you haven't noticed, has plenty to do without chauffeuring you around all summer so you can âhang out with your friends.'”
“I know,” I said, “butâ”
“And eight hundred ninety-nine dollars,” he went on, “is, as your mother just pointed out, a heck of a lot of money.”
“I know.” I'd anticipated that he might say that, and had cleverly thought of a back-up plan. This seemed like a good time to bring it up. “But, look. There's another model that costs less.” I pointed to the Streaker. It wasn't as powerful or slick-looking as the Thunderbird, but it was still very cool, and it would do the job of getting me out of here and into town. “See, it's only seven hundred seventy-nine.”
Dad glanced at the catalog. “Only seven hundred seventy-nine dollars,” he repeated.
“I know it sounds like a lot of money,” I began.
“No, Joe,” Dad interrupted. “It doesn't just sound like a lot of money. It
a lot of money. Do you know how many heads of cabbage I have to sell to make seven hundred seventy-nine dollars' profit?”
, I thought.
Here comes the lecture
“No,” I answered sullenly.
“Do you have any idea how long it would take the average farmworker to earn seven hundred seventy-nine dollars?”
“Take a guess.”
I shrugged. “A couple days, probably.”
I felt like saying,
I have a question, too. How many years does a guy have to work on a farm before he forgets what it means to have fun?
“I don't know,” I said instead. Let him think he'd won this stupid little game.
“Well, maybe it's time you found out,” Dad replied.
I groaned inwardly. I'd stopped asking my father for answers a long time ago because of his tendency to say, “Good question. Why don't you get the encyclopedia and see if you can find out?” What was he going to do now, make me research farmworkers' wages or something?
It turned out to be much worse.
“I think it's high time you had to work for what you want instead of having it handed to you,” Dad continued. “Give you an idea of what a dollar's worth.”
He turned to my mother. “What's the going rate for birthdays, Vivian?”
Mom looked flustered. “Well, I don't know. Let me see. About fifty dollars, I think. Since Joe hadn't mentioned anything special he wantedâuntil tonight, anywayâI was planning to give him money.”
Dad reached into his pocket, took out his wallet, and pulled out two twenties and a ten. “Here you go,” he said. “You can put that toward the gizmo you want. The rest you can earn right here on the farm.”
“How?” I asked cautiously.
“You can work with the crew,” Dad answered. “Find out what a real day's work feels like. I'll pay you the same wage I'd pay any beginner. How's that sound?”
How did that sound? It sounded like my worst nightmare. Working for my father, doing some hot, boring farm job like hoeing cabbage. During summer vacation, when all the other guys were swimming and hanging out and having fun.
I looked at Mom to see how
thought it sounded. Us kids working on the farm was something she and Dad didn't exactly agree on, luckily for us. Dad was always going on and on about the good old days, when he did a full day's work in the fields starting at age ten. He'd have had us doing the same thing if it weren't for Mom. She worried about how dangerous farm work was and said kids needed time to be kids, which always made Dad shake his head as if he didn't know what the world was coming to. But in the end, he always gave in. Or he had until now.
“Joe working with the crew, Jim? I'm not sure that's a good idea.”
“Why not?” Dad asked heartily. “He's fourteen.”
“Just because the law says children can do farm work when they're fourteen doesn't mean they should,” Mom said.
“He's not a child, Vivian,” said Dad. “You just heard him say he wants a motorcycle.”
“Joe on a motorcycle,” murmured LuAnn. “Now,
a scary thought.”
I scowled at her, my mouth silently forming the words
. She had been unbearable ever since she'd turned sixteen and gotten her driver's license.
Turning to Dad, I almost said,
It's not a motorcycle, it's a motorbike
, to remind him of the difference. But then it would sound as if I was trying to argue that I
a child, after all. The last thing I wanted to do was work on a farm crew, but there was no way I was going to claim it was because I was too much of a baby. Somehow Dad had turned the tables. Feeling confused, I kept my mouth shut, hoping Mom would convince him this was a bad idea.
She thought for a moment, then said, “He'd be working with Manuel?”
Manuel. I'd heard the name. He was one of the Mexican guys who were here working on the farm. A bunch of them came every April and left around November, when the harvest was done. I didn't pay too much attention, so I didn't know exactly which one was Manuel. Mom obviously did.
“Well, then, I guess it would be okay,” she said.
Terrific. I'd been betrayed by my own mother.
Dad was smiling, probably as unable as I was to believe that Mom had caved. “What do you say, Joe?”
“Great, Dad,” I replied. If he heard the sarcasm in my voice, he chose to ignore it.
“Tomorrow's your last day of school, isn't it?” Dad went on.
“Yeah,” I answered, looking down at my lap instead of at him.
“You can start work the next day.” He looked at me, eyebrows raised expectantly. Was he waiting for me to get down on my knees and thank him?
“Great, Dad,” I said again. Under my breath, I hummed the “Happy Birthday” song, mostly to stop myself from making a comment that would start a major confrontation. What was the point? I could tell Dad's mind was made up. He really thought he'd made a great decision, one that was “good for me.”
I considered asking,
What if I just keep the fifty bucks and forget all about the motorbike
working on the farm?
But another look at the catalog picture of the Streaker blew that idea away. I really wanted that bike. It was my ticket to town, to freedom, and to funâsomething Dad would never understand.
He wanted me to see “what a real day's work feels like.” He clearly thought I'd never worked hard before and wouldn't be able to hack it. Didn't he realize I'd been mowing and raking the yard for years? It was a big yard, too. I'd loaded crates of vegetables for delivery plenty of times. Just last fall I'd helped Dad, Uncle Bud, and Uncle Arnie put down the foundations for the new trailers where some of the workers lived. But that didn't seem to count.
Well, fine. I'd work with this guy Manuel and his crew. It wouldn't take me long to earn enough for the Streaker, and then I'd quitâwith plenty of summer vacation left to enjoy it.