One spring Ray Dickerson built a homemade unicycle using a few old bike parts hed found at the dump. That was Ray for you. When other boys were out on the ball field, he rode that contraption around town playing his harmonica. At one point, hed tried to teach his sister how to ride the unicycle, and Dana had taken a fall bad enough that her arm ended up in a sling. Youd think Mrs. Dickerson would have confiscated the thing after thator that shed be upset at least, but it didnt seem to bother her, though my mother had a fit. Not much bothered Val Dickerson, or appeared to. She was an artist, and generally absorbed in that more than whatever might be going on with her children, was my impression. Where my mother kept close tabs on every single thing my sisters and I did, Val Dickerson would disappear into a room she called her studio for hours at a time, leaving Dana and Ray with an enormous bowl of dry Cheerios and some odd assignment like go put on a play or see if you can find a squirrel and teach him to do tricks. The strange thing was, they might. When Ray talked to animals, they seemed to listen.
My father couldnt ever take time off in summer, because of all the jobs that needed doing at our farm, but my mother established a tradition of making a road trip every year during February vacation, when there wasnt so much that needed doing on the farm, and what there was he could, reluctantly, trust to his helper, a small, wiry boy by the name of Victor Patucci whod first shown up at our door when he was only fourteen or so, looking for work. Victor was about as unlikely a person as you could have chosen to be a farmera smoker, who wore so much Brylcreem his hair reflected light, who followed race car driving and turned up his transistor radio whenever they played an Elvis Presley song, and never seemed to go to school. His father worked in the shoe factory, and my father said he wasnt a good manwords that stood out for me because my father so seldom spoke ill of anyone.
The boy could use a helping hand, my father said when hed signed Victor upand though initially my mother protested the thirty-dollar-a-week expense, it was Victors presence on our farm that made our annual Dickerson visit possible, and for that she was thankful.
So every March we set out to see the Dickersons. Before embarking on our road trip, my mother filled a cooler with sandwiches and jars of peanut butter and things like beef jerky that didnt go bad. Then my sisters and I would pile into the backseat of our old Country Squire station wagon with the fake wood paneling and a stack of coloring books and Mad Libs to keep us busy. Wed play I Spy or look for license plates from unusual states and now and then wed stop at battlefields and historic monuments, and sometimes a museum, but our ultimate destination was whatever run-down house or trailer (and one time, a converted Quonset hut) the Dickersons were living in that year.
The point of this, as always, was what my mother imagined to be my attachment to Dana Dickerson, but for me, the one significant attraction of the trip was knowing Id get to see Ray Dickerson.
Young as I was, I understood he was handsome, and the knowledge of that made me shy, though I was drawn to him too. The odd thing was that even when I was very youngeight or nine, and he twelve or thirteenhe seemed to take an interest in me over my sisters. On one of our visits, he had spotted a drawing Id made in the car, of a camel Id copied off an empty cigarette pack Id foundonly I added a man dressed like Lawrence of Arabia riding on it, and a girl tied up, like a prisoner, on the camels other hump.
Cool picture, he said. Ill give you a Lifesaver for it.
Excerpted from The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard. Copyright © 2010 by Joyce Maynard. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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