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Beautiful Poppies

by Danielle L. Parker

part 1 of 2

The dirt road rose from Highway 21 following the dry creek that ran only in April. In the summer, the dun-colored dust rose at the least hint of wind or motion and coated everything — cattle, farm dogs, and the battered, ferocious pickups that battled the ruts — in soft chamois skins.

For a while, sun-bleached electricity poles straggled alongside the road, stringing together the first few shiny doublewides near the highway and a few rusty singles beyond. The power lines stopped at the house that was built from a barn kit, the one with the wide winged sides that would have been stalls.

Beyond that, April Creek Road still climbed, but there were no poles leading to the old bus with bright blue plastic protecting its roof. That was the last stop, and that was where the man lived, alone until the boy came, in the same month as the first cloudy squirt down the dry creek bed.

But the man had planted hundreds of poppies.

As she crested the last rise of the road, Jade Dawson could see the poppies below. All summer she had watched them grow, their jagged blue-green stalks poking up among the cracked tires and rusted cans. On her last run she had noticed their swelling tops. And now, suddenly, today, she could see nothing but an alien landscape of scarlet, each silky flower as huge as her open hand. Their color was like a gash.

It was hotter than usual and as breathless as something waiting. Jade could hear her own harsh gasps. It was a three-mile run from where she and her mother and stepfather lived, in their new doublewide set upon its neat landscaping of bark and edged walkways, just past where April Creek Road met Highway 21. She had already drained the bottle she wore clipped to her belt. She needed water.

Before, no matter how thirsty, she had not dared walk down that last slope. But the boy lived there now. That made a difference. What kind of difference, Jade was still not quite sure.

There was no sound or sign of life below. The dust puffed beneath her sneakers. She climbed the unstable homemade steps up to the door of the bus. There was no answer to her knock on the glass window, but she heard a scraping sound, as though someone had moved a chair in response.

“Mr. Blake?” she called. “Deke?”

“In back.”

She climbed down. The rubber tread stapled to the third step was working loose and shifted treacherously under her sneaker.

On the opposite side of the bus, a second plastic tarp was strung from the top of the bus to several upright corner poles. Mr. Blake sat in a plastic chair in the comfort of his new shade. He had a beer can in his fist and his bare feet rested upon the plastic cooler that probably held the rest he would drink today. The empties he had already drunk were beneath his chair. He wore a pair of faded, knee-length khaki shorts and no shirt. His bare chest gleamed with sweat.

Jade looked at his feet instead. Mr. Blake’s feet were narrow and long, the feet of a city man. She supposed that at one time he had been careful to cleanse the black rim of dirt from beneath the toenails. The feet were hairless and still pale. Jade could see the beginnings of the black hairs that lightly dusted his bare legs.

“Hello, Mr. Blake,” she said. “I was looking for Deke.”

Mr. Blake waved the hand that held the beer can in the direction of the empty chair. “Rest,” he said. “Deke’s not here. Want something to drink?”

“I don’t drink beer, Mr. Blake.”

He took his feet off the cooler and opened it to fish inside. “Dear child, I wouldn’t offer you any. Plain bottled water, otherwise known as the ambrosia of the gods to the thirsty. You look like you need it. It’s too hot to run marathons.”

“We’re competing next week. I may have to run in worse heat than this.” Jade twisted the top off the bottle of Evian. But in her sudden anxiety, she could not drink. It was Saturday, and she could see Mr. Blake’s car parked in its usual spot. When he came it had been a shiny black Audi with a rakish air. Now it was coated with dust and dried cow-pie splatters from the range cattle that made the road an obstacle course. She had not seen the car drive by. She said, “Deke hasn’t... hasn’t been sent back to his mother, has he, Mr. Blake?”

Mr. Blake leaned back and closed his eyes.

“His mother,” he said with violent quietude, “doesn’t give a damn about her son now that she’s remarried. Do you think any person who cared would send a fifteen-year-old to live with me?”

You could repair that step. You could stop drinking. You could talk to your son. But she could not say that to an adult. She drank, shivering suddenly with the icy water in her throat, and tried not to notice that Mr. Blake had said a word she wasn’t used to hearing from adults. He was drunk.

Last summer, her stepfather had explained to her why adults too sometimes did things they shouldn’t, after her mother had opened the bottle of Canadian Club that had been a Christmas gift and drunk it with ginger ale and seven-up. Jade had heard them yelling at each other through the bedroom wall that night, and her stepfather had flung her mother’s latest romance novel so hard she had heard it bounce. Her mother still read a lot. But she had not opened any more bottles.

Mr. Blake drank again. Jade tried not to hear him swallowing like a man thirstier than she had been after her three-mile run. She heard him crumple the can in his fist and drop it at his feet.

“I lost my job,” he said. “I lost my wife. I was going to go to hell in my own hand-basket. In my own ini — inimitable style. All by myself.” She felt rather than saw him make a wide, tipsily uncontrolled gesture. He sounded breathless. “Those are opium poppies. Sweet death on a stalk. You didn’t know that, did you? Beautiful, aren’t they? I like to look at them.”

Jade stood up abruptly. “You don’t know where Deke is.”

“No.” Mr. Blake still had his eyes closed. He had stopped cutting his hair, and the curling edges around his shoulders gave him a dissolute air. His clenched fists rested on the chair arms as though he had forgotten he had already crushed the can. “A friend picked him up this morning.” He ruminated. “Andrew... Bailey? I think that was the name.”

Jade put the empty water bottle on the seat of her chair. Her fingers trembled. She knew she was angry, and that was not good. She and her stepfather had had more than one discussion about letting tempers run free.

“Andrew Bailey is in my class,” she said. “I don’t like his crowd. He’s two years older than Deke, too. Couldn’t you see that? Why did you let Deke go with him?

Mr. Blake slowly opened the lid of the cooler and groped for another can. “Why not,” he said. He popped the can.

That was the sound Jade heard all the way home, every time her feet pounded the ground. Pop. Pop. Why not. Why not.

She let herself in with the key in the pocket of her shorts. The house was quiet and cool. Her mother and stepfather were in Colville for the day. Her stepfather was building a brick barbecue in the backyard. By the time they had made the rounds of the building supplies and the grocery stores and had driven the fifty-mile return trip, it would be dark.

She took a Nestle ice tea from the refrigerator out to the back yard. There was a square gouge in the grass where her stepfather had already laid the foundation for the barbecue. It promised good things ahead. Her mother had lately been seen reading a cookbook instead of a romance.

She drank her ice tea sitting in the covered swing on the back porch, but she could not rest. Her foot pushed rhythmically against the wooden decking. Pop, pop. Andrew Bailey was a jerk. She had seen him in the back seat of his car in the school parking lot last week, with cow-eyed Angela Graves on his lap. Angela would sit on any lap that offered.

That Angela Graves was occupying his lap at that moment had not stopped Andrew from rolling down the window and calling after Jade. She had kept walking. She often heard him trash talking with his friends outside the schoolyard, where they smoked fat hand-rolled cigarettes behind the bushes and left the stubs littering the ground.

Pop, pop. Jade got up and went into the kitchen and rifled through the dry grey leaves of the phone book. There was someone who was always found in the vicinity of Andrew Bailey, usually at his heel, certainly at his beck and call.

“Mrs. Sawatski? May I speak to Jared, please?”

The answer had all the resignation of a mother answering one more call from a teen-aged girl. “Just a minute.”

She heard muffled footsteps. She heard Mrs. Sawatski yell and knock on a distant door. After a long wait, shuffling footsteps approached the phone. The phone rattled. Someone or something growled in her ear.

“Hello, Jared,” Jade said brightly. “This is Jade.”

The answering grunt held both surprise and wariness. Jade ploughed on. “Um... anything happening tonight?”

There was another silence.

“You know... like a party or something?”

“Maybe,” Jared said.

Jade held on to the phone and her fraying patience and waited out the long silence.

“Like you would go,” Jared said.

The string twanged.

Fine,” Jade snapped. “So I’ll tell Andrew you wouldn’t tell me where his stupid party is. He’ll love that.” She slammed down the handset.

She went out the front door and looked toward the highway. A rotund propane delivery truck barreled by and dwindled out of sight under its flume of black. The air was heavy with the promise of storm. Toward the south she could see the swelling gray bellies of pregnant rain clouds. The enormous red bull that ran with the range cows huffed in the distance, a basso wa-wa-wa deep enough to drill the earth. Grasshoppers fiddled in the yellowed grass, oblivious to the coming drenching.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Danielle L. Parker

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