About a half mile out of town is where we live, on a farm. We live in a wooden house, but I wouldn't exactly call it white. It hasn't been painted since May got married the second time, which would take me a long time to calculate, because I'm not, as anyone within twenty miles could tell you, a wizard in math. There are pink granite stone steps up to the porch, similar to palace steps. We go around back to the kitchen door, where the trash and tin cans could trip and kill you if you weren't paying strict attention. May plants purple and red petunias in the planters each year. That's when the washed-out gray house looks drab, compared to the flowers.
When I was small my favorite time of day came at the sight of Wendell Kate driving the cows past our farm into Honey Creek to his barn. It's a gift he gave me. I have the memory of twenty cows stumbling down the road so not one car can get by, and there's Wendell on his big old blue bicycle with the high handlebars. He's a redheaded bachelor. His pants always look like they might slip down from his waist since he doesn't have a rear end to speak of. His crotch is about at his knees. He spent his time in church glancing down the pew and winking at the ladies. I loved the sight of Wendell on his bike, his red hair so flaming his head looked like a great torch, and the twenty cows, not wanting to walk. You'd hear the squeeze horn he had on his handlebars all the way into Honey Creek. He got killed by a bull a few years ago. He didn't like to use that artificial stuff for breeding. He bled to death.
Sometimes I feel like I'm a hundred years old and I can see clear around the world, and then other times I think how I'm nothing; I don't have one thing on my mind except pictures of bachelors riding their bicycles. I haven't even been out of Illinois. I only spit into Wisconsin. In high school, when I was in all the dumb classes, we learned about the evil man, Hitler, over in Germany, and even though Hitler seems as distant to me as the Romans and their crumbling walls, I feel like I know him, just a little. I have to feel kind of sorry for him, for what he had to do. There was something in him that he couldn't help, that made him more terrible than anyone before or after him. I said those words out loud in my class, to Miss Daken, my teacher. She had a nose like a pelican's mouth, this big old hooked nose that looked like it could catch fish. I said that maybe history books didn't tell about Hitler's good points, and she stepped all over me with her steel-toed eyes. She was so tired of teaching dumb students. I wanted to say that it was the same with the Bible; that the serpent was doomed before he hatched, that something so low and sneaky and slippery wouldn't, by its very nature, be taken for good. It seems as if nobody could really be all bad, although everyone has the meanness in them. Sometimes people choose one person in a crowd to pick at. It makes them feel better to say how there's one entirely rotten person they can blame everything on.
When I grew up I heard about the wars we were having with other people, on television. We watched some of the baffles. I knew we were safe from machine gun fire in Honey Creek, where there hadn't ever been wars, if you don't count the Indians. There was only the one Mexican family who lived in the trailer home, and even though they had ten children they were too disorganized to cause trouble outside of their own family. Without putting words to it I recognized the beauty of war; I realized that it was entirely in keeping with ordinary human nature.
It wasn't until I was ten that I realized our family must be the ones with the wrung-out hearts, and that other people's faces shone with a sadness for us. I was ten when my father climbed into the Ford one morning, in the dark. I heard his black boots crunch on the gravel. He was too scared to start the engine so he rolled down the driveway with his foot on the clutch. Goodbye to Illinois, he probably said to himself, because he had lived up here near Honey Creek all his life. I threw off my blankets and ran downstairs and down the road in my nightgown, shouting at him to come back. We learned later that he drove to Texas, to his brother's grapefruit ranch. He lived in a tin shed next to his brother's house and spent his days picking grapefruits the size of my own head. I thought about him at night, reading his paperback books by the light of a smoking kerosene lamp; I couldn't stand the thought of him being happier there, but I had enough sense to know it was true.
Excerpted from The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton Copyright © 1989 by Jane Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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