I’m in the back of Uncle Charlie’s pick-up truck. Dad borrows it every spring about this time, to get a load of horse manure to spread on his tomato plants. He’s worked out an agreement with The Spragues who have a small farm up the road. They’ve got plenty of horse manure – a whole barn full of it – and it’s free.
I’m riding with the shovels and the rubber fishing boots that my brothers will take turns wearing when we back into the stall. I see them in the front seat – my dad and my brothers, men with purpose. Dad’s arm hangs out the window already tanned from signaling a springtime of left turns. He drives like a cowboy, with one hand dangling a Winston out the window and the other pulling on the crossbeam of the bake-light steering wheel.
The Spragues have a boy about my age. Actually he’s a little bit older, but shorter than I am. As we pull into the long driveway, I can see him meandering in the yard, unaffected by the flurry of ducks and chickens. He wears a little baseball cap with the name “Mets” stitched on it in yellow thread. He’s spanking a short piece of green garden hose against a fence post by the barn.
I’m glad that I’m part of this work, but that I’m too young to have to do it. I’m able to stand and watch dad back the truck into the stall. I’m waiting outside the barn door while my brothers take turns with the fishing boots. The Little Sprague Boy is there with me and we’re talking idly of Tonka trucks and GI Joe. He’s swinging the garden hose against the barn door now. I realize I don’t know his name – I’ve never known it, but it doesn’t matter to me. I only see him once each spring when the tomato plants need fertilizing.
The door is taller than the two of us laid end to end and it leans forward at the top. The iron hinges are rusted and screws are missing from the rotted frame. It begins to stir as they try to open it from the inside, to let the sun light in to draw the flies away from the manure pile. As they press on it from behind, it catches on the spotty crab grass growing at the entrance. The hinges pull themselves free, sending the door toppling forward onto the Little Sprague Boy – and me.
It’s coming down hard on us and I lean into it with all my might. This is my moment to be a cowboy. But the door is determined and it presses us downward toward the earth. I stoop forward under its shadow, like a shrinking Atlas, unable to hold the weight pressing down on my back. The Little Sprague Boy flings the hose to safety as the door pushes us to our hands and knees. Just as my face is about to touch the ground, the door lets go.
I hear their voices, my dad’s among them. The door’s being lifted now, releasing the Little Sprague Boy and me from the Mouth of Death. I spit some, to get the dirt from between my teeth, and I pull straw out of my hair. I rub my hands into my shorts, to soothe the sharp dimples pressed into my skin by the gravel. I see dad shaking the dust out of the Little Sprague Boy’s cap and asking him if he’s okay. The Little Sprague Boy’s lower lip gets knotted up and I can tell it’s taking all the world for him not to cry. Dad lays the cap squarely on his head and guides him by the shoulders toward the screen door at the back of the house. As he reaches the porch steps, the tears become too much for him and the Little Sprague Boy breaks into a run.
The cuts burn my hands but I’ve decided I’m not going to cry like the Little Sprague Boy. Dad tells me I’m okay and to go wait in the truck. No hand on the shoulder, no dusting off for me. I climb into the front seat, entering through the driver’s side – eyeing the screen door the whole time. It’s hot in the truck and the manure flies crowd themselves against the windshield, climbing over each other as they fight for a way to escape back into the sunlight. I hear women’s voices cooing through the screen door and I can tell the Little Sprague Boy is getting some pie.
I never liked that kid. And what a crybaby…
I sit quietly in the truck, waiting for dad, inspecting the little cuts on my hand and hoping to find some signs of blood.