“Where’s Martha, Ben? You lose her?” That was Tim talking.
“Naw. She didn’t show.” Ben tapped his steering wheel. He won the game tonight, but looked anxious.
“I thought I saw her.”
“I saw her get into someone’s car. Maybe with Simmy…?”
“Oh, man… What’s she doing with that ass?”
“Guess you’d have to ask him or her about that…”
It was the traditional Friday night gridlock, down Bentfork’s three block Main Street. After the game, anyone with a car would meet here. Three blocks up, and three blocks back. Repeat. Horns honking. Engines revving. Squealing tires for about twenty feet at the one light. Mainly kids laughing and talking and idling the night away.
Tim, my friend Larry’s brother, let us ride along in the back seat. I’d heard about this all my life. This was my first Friday night cruise.
Traffic didn’t move in either direction. Everyone passed the time, talking out their window to whomever happened to be sitting in traffic, headed the other way. Only no one moved. Sometimes people left one car and piled into another, like the world’s biggest Chinese fire drill.
Ben rumbled away with a couple other jock friends, in his souped-up hot rod. He had three red ‘5s’ painted on the door, five fifty-five. He raced the Triple Nickle at the fair-grounds, in season. You could hear that big engine over a block away.
But I liked the Demolition Derby better.
I asked, “Why’d you say that about Martha, Tim?”
“Just jazzin’ him. He wants everyone believing Martha’s his girl.”
“Oh…” Martha’s my sister. It is amazing what you don’t know about someone you’ve known your whole life. “So, who is she going out with?”
“I couldn’t say. Don’t you know?”
“I ain’t seen nobody hanging around.”
“Is she stuck up, or what?”
“That’s a loaded question, Tim. You like her?”
“Course I do. She’s beautiful. Me and about fifty other guys. But she doesn’t like me. That’s cool.”
“She doesn’t talk much. Who’s Simmy?”
“One of those farm kids. Ben and he are always going at it. They both wanted to be quarter-back. But Ben got it. Neither of them can let it go.”
Larry nudged me with his elbow. “We saw him at the fair last summer. He tossed hay bales like they were softballs.”
I remembered him. Everyone competing, trying to throw bales onto a stack on the back of a flatbed. Simmy won easily.
Whenever the carnival came to town, Larry and I would talk about running away to the circus. We never did, though. It looked like an awful lot of work.
Tim said, “Sim used to go to St. Mary’s. I think he’s Irish.”
Larry and I nodded to each other. We knew what that meant. Simmy was rough.
More cars idled by. Tim joked with some guys. He flirted with some girls. In a little while, we made it to the end of the street. A police car idled at the curb.
Like everyone else, when traffic allowed, Tim pulled a U-turn and headed back up Main.
“So, is this it? Down one way and back again?”
“Yeah, Sam. It’s not the drive but the party, you know? It’s Friday night. What would you rather be doing?”
“There you are, then.”
We noticed a commotion up ahead. Horns were honking. People were leaving their cars and running. A crowd gathered in the street.
Tim cut his engine. We bailed out, left the car in the street and ran to see what was up.
Ben had pulled his car across the lane to block Simmy’s truck. Traffic couldn’t move at all. Ben and Simmy faced off under the street light.
“Get your pile of tin out of my way, Bennie.”
Simmy laughed and looked at his friends. “I can do that.” They all laughed. Simmy took a step toward Ben.
Ben stood his ground. “What are you doing with Martha?”
Simmy looked confused. He looked at one of the girls in the crowd who started to laugh. “Martha who? You mean Novak?”
Simmy laughed, “You think I’d be seen with that Polack?” Several people laughed with him.
Ben shouted, “You can’t call her that!”
Simmy kept laughing as Ben rushed him. Simmy stepped aside like a matador and sent Ben rolling on the pavement. Everyone started yelling and urging a fight.
Ben lunged and threw a punch which Simmy blocked easily. He landed one punch and that ended it. Ben went down, hurt.
A cop came up and began dispersing the crowd. Cars started up and engines revved. The cop directed traffic around Ben’s hot rod and Simmy’s truck.
Tim pointed off and said, “Is that your Dad?”
He was brown bagging it and looked a bit rough. I told Tim thanks and said we’d walk home, a few blocks away. Larry and Tim waved us off and headed to their car.
I never understood where Dad got his booze from, since Bentfork was in a dry county since Prohibition.
“Dad!” He saw me and waited for me to approach. “Whatcha doing?”
“Looking for your sister. Heard she came here. I told her not to ride in cars with boys.”
I put my arm over his shoulder. We walked toward home. “I haven’t seen her, Dad.” We took our time.
“Were those boys fighting about her? I heard her name.”
“They’re idiots. Don’t worry about them.”
“That‘s why I don’t want her riding around. Understand?”
“I get it. But she isn’t here.”
“Better not be.” He tipped his bottle up and drank.
“I forget, Dad. Is it, ‘don’t follow the grape with the grain?’ Or ‘don’t follow the grain with the grape’?”
“Don’t follow anything. Don’t mix. You’ll be fine.”
We got home and I unlocked the door. Martha came into the kitchen when she heard us. I smiled seeing her home and safe. I never thought about it before Tim said it, but Martha is beautiful.
Dad gave her a hard look. “Where were you?”
Martha tried not to make a face, but ‘not this again’ came through anyway. “I’ve been here.”
“Dad, I told you I’m doing my college applications.”
“You don’t need that. You should stay here.”
“What? To take care of you? Why do you think I’m leaving?”
Dad’s voice got louder. “Who do you think you are? I brought you into this world…”
“Dad, I’m not the reason Mom left. Stop treating me like I was.”
Dad’s face drained of color. He moved toward her, but then stopped. He stared at her. Time slowed. He looked huge. And then he just shrank to nothing. Dad turned, stomped into his room and slammed the door.
Martha looked at me. Her look softened.
I reached out. “You okay?” She accepted my hug.
She broke contact and held me at arm’s length. “You understand, don’t you? Why I need to leave?” I nodded. She looked at Dad’s door, disgusted. “Don’t you let him pull this crap with you.”
“I won’t… He won’t.”
Martha gave my shoulder a gentle punch and went back to her room.
I got a coke from the fridge and watched TV for a while.
Things stayed pretty quiet after that. Everything was said that night. Sometimes Martha would ask me to walk to the store with her and we’d talk more than ever before, prepping me for when she left.
Dad lightened up on us. And he stopped being so ornery all the time. But no one had much to say.
Then Martha left to St. Olaf’s College. She usually came home at Christmas, but I didn’t see her much after that. You know how it goes.