The story so far:
To say that I slept poorly last night would not be an accurate statement. I didn’t sleep at all. Whenever I closed my eyes, I envisioned the preacher’s lips repeating, “this one will be worth remembering.” I didn’t know one way or the other about Halloween, but try as I might, I couldn’t push yesterday morning from my mind. If I was able to convince myself that he wasn’t a messenger sent straight from Lucifer, I might have tried to track him down and ask him more questions. I don’t know why.
I replayed some of the conversation we had yesterday. He’d sipped down three cups of bad coffee as I gushed my life story to him. I hadn’t spoken that much since I ended my sessions with Dr. Higgins and to be honest, I rather liked the silence. Mary was the gabber. Whether it was offering a secret recipe for better sugar cookies, politely providing cleaning tips, or just passing the time as she counted her cross-stitches, words always flowed. She didn’t care for “empty air,” as she put it. Fill it with voices. With joy and celebration. With family!
I felt my eyes swelling with saline.
And there I was again, twenty-three years old, in mid-state Pennsylvania, leaning on my Neon off the gravel shoulder of route 30, watching a barn wall go up. Though unmerited, I had no reason to be nervous approaching the Amish community. It wasn’t like I was going to get them to tow my car to a mechanic’s shop. I just needed a crowbar since I'd lent mine to a friend who needed the prop for a slasher movie shoot; he hadn’t returned it yet.
I made sure my vehicle was safely positioned - tractor trailers always sped with reckless abandon down Lancaster Pike - then climbed down a grassy bank and started into a tall cornfield. Stalks were always planted in rows, I thought; so long as I follow one path and don’t turn sideways, I should emerge on the other side in a few minutes. Long leaves brushed my face, so I pulled my cap low and continued. Even with the sun high in the afternoon sky, the shadows were disconcerting. I could see why people feared getting lost in settings like this – there was no sign of any exit unless I suddenly learned to fly. There wasn't even a dirt road for tractors. The row grew narrower until I had to sidestep to prevent breaking the stalks. Third grade gym class taught me to gallop; so long as no one was watching, I upped my pace and laughed like an insane idiot. Maybe I should have auditioned for a role in Gene’s film.
I spotted no sunlight at the end of the row. But I forced my feet to stay on line and persisted. A lonely jet soared overhead, too high to spot this particular cornball waving from the crops.
I had no idea how much time I’d spent among the cobs, but I decided it didn’t matter. I hummed “Old MacDonald,” supplying the appropriate farm noises. Cow. Horse. Chicken. Pig. Shee-
And that was when I emerged into an open field. The exit was so abrupt, I had to shield my eyes from the intense brightness. A hand gently brushed my shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
It was a girl’s voice. I turned and nodded at a teenager. For a brief moment, I didn’t care about the rumors of Amish inbreeding. Plain living did her well. Straight blonde hair dropped like a waterfall over the back of her gray dress. The sun teased her cheeks and nose with a rosy glow. Thin brows arched caringly over deep brown eyes. I wondered if it was the innocence from the world that caused her to look so... pure. She was, simply put, an angel.
After I explained my situation, she took my hand and led me to her father. Amos Beiler, a white-bearded tree trunk of a man, instructed a crew of black- and gray-clad workers to do something in Pennsylvania Dutch. He noticed me – still holding his daughter’s hand – delegated a younger man to take charge, and limped our direction. He offered his own hand and broke the connection between myself and his little girl. She bowed and departed to fetch lemonade while I retold the tale of my flat tire. With logs-for-arms folded across his chest, he listened. No comments. No interruptions. Not even a nod or head shake. He had to look up to see me, so I positioned myself between him and the sun. My head cast a shadow over his entire face, which was little more than a brim and a beard from my vintage point. Maybe he didn’t like being eclipsed.
He pointed at my car in the distance and grunted disapprovingly. I tried a joke. “I know it’s leg is broken, but I hope we don’t have to shoot it.”
He studied me. His daughter returned with two glasses of sweet refreshment. I suppose he saw the hope in her eye, as that was the first time his expression changed. His beard hairs shifted upward with the corners of his lips. He signaled to his son to tell the workers to take a break for their afternoon meal, then invited me to join them. For joy and celebration. With family!
I wasn’t going to make it to DeeJay’s in time for the Sixers-Magic game anyway, so I complied. I did my best to decipher his accent as he prattled about the meaning of life. Family. Community. Simplicity. He obviously hadn’t passed many of his genes to his children, but her mother didn’t make through the birth of her youngest brother, Jeremiah.
Lunch extended into dinner. While the barn grew, he expounded on everything except the one detail I was most interested in. Mary.
Eventually, Amos rounded up two sons and a buggy and “drove” me to the nearest telephone at a gas station that had long closed. I thanked him and he declined a ten-dollar bill. I placed a collect-call to DeeJay, who also didn’t accept. Two more attempts later, he realized it wasn’t a prank, and he picked me up.
Over the next month, I made a habit of cruising down Lancaster Pike, slowing down whenever I passed a black carriage, hoping to spy her. It never happened. I finally bought some homemade bread and made a pilgrimage to the Beiler farm. Amos allowed me to sit with Mary, hoping I was half the gentleman I professed to be. He handed me several books about the Ordnung and promised enlightenment if I read them carefully. I’ve never feigned such sincerity before or since that time.
Mary’s Rumspringa was to start in December, right after the eldest brother’s wedding. I cherished every word she spoke as she described the Amish tradition. I didn’t really understand how it worked, but I didn’t care. I’d wait. For her, I’d do anything.
She was still seventeen when we got married. Only Jeremiah attended the wedding; the rest of her family dutifully shunned her. We went to visit six months later with baby Hannah strapped in our car seat. Amos never left his bedroom. Micah received no better treatment when he arrived. But we had each other. Whatever happened, we vowed to each other on our wedding day, we’d have each other. We needed no other family to be happy.
I remembered the day it happened. I was in the stockroom for Black and Decker in Rockvale when Mary called. Micah was running a fever and grabbing his ears, and she needed the Neon to take him to see Dr. Abbott. I told her the Hyundai was working fine, just strap him and Hannah into the back seat with their seatbelts. Mary had done fine learning the clutch last weekend; she was ready to drive the stick shift. She balked, asking me to come home and trade vehicles on my lunch break. I was planning to shoot hoops with my manager and ask him for a raise – couldn’t this wait until tomorrow? No. Couldn’t Mary drive the manual transmission? She didn’t feel comfortable. Couldn’t she call a friend to take her? She’d already tried.
I cursed under my breath and I heard Mary’s tone soften. She hated doing anything to make me angry. I always told her to fight for herself and not worry about me, but – if it meant I could parlay a game of 36 into an extra dollar per hour – I was willing to play that trump card this trick. I re-suggested she take the Excel to the mall and trade with me there. She blew a kiss through the telephone. I hung up and stretched my legs in preparation for my basketball showdown.
The clip clop of horse hooves pulled me from my daydream. Mercy. I wasn’t ready for this rush of nostalgia. I dabbed my face with a tissue when I heard a knock at the front door. Twice, then a pause, and once more. Just like yesterday.
I wasn’t going to answer it. Let the preacher spook my neighbors. Instead, in his unmistakable Pennsylvania Dutch accent, Amos Beiler announced, “Peter Scarsdale? I’ve come for you!”