The Improbable Adventures of Billy and Fleazer
Billy Smith’s teeth chattered as his bare feet hit the smooth boards in the darkness of his frigid bedroom. Very little heat made it through the metal grate in the hallway outside his room and climbing out of his warm bed in the winter before sunrise was always the hardest thing Billy would do all day. It was especially hard when he knew that he soon would have to go out and brave the chilly wind that howled from the north, passing between the outbuildings on his way to the barn to help his father with the cows.
Billy thudded slowly down the carpeted stairs, pushed open the stairway door and stood blinking and squinting in the harsh light of the kitchen. The kitchen was an island of warmth and light in a sea of blackness and cold. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, Billy returned his mother’s cheery “Good morning!” with a barely audible “Hi.” She stood before the half-opened stove door, wiping her doughy hands on her red and white checked apron. But even the unexpected prospect of fresh scones scarcely roused Billy out of the control of his gloomy thoughts.
“Mom,” Billy moaned.
“Yes, Billy, you do have to go help your father. He’s been out there since 5 o’clock and his helper didn’t show up today. It’ll take him an extra hour to finish the milking. He needs you to take care of the stalls and calves or it’ll put him even farther behind schedule.”
“How did you know what I was going to ask?” Billy asked.
“What did you ask me yesterday when you came downstairs? And the day before? And the…?”
Billy didn’t let his mother complete her sentence. Instead he abruptly asked, “Are the scones ready?”
“They’re hot, but you can have one before you go out, if you’re careful.”
His mother picked one off the tray on the stovetop and set it on a plate, handing it to her son.
“Don’t be long. We don’t want your father coming in here looking for you. You’re already a little late.”
Billy gingerly held the scone with the tips of his fingers while he sliced it with a knife and slid some homemade butter, which melted almost instantly, between the halves of his prize. Billy plopped his dish on the dining room table and slid quickly into a chair, sitting precariously perched on the front edge of the seat so as not to let himself get too comfortable. He knew his mother was right and that he needed to get outside quickly. It wasn’t that Billy’s father was a tyrant, but he believed in hard work and he didn’t pamper his two children, especially his son whom he hoped would grow up and one day take over the family dairy farm. Billy knew that his father loved him, and Billy liked fishing, hunting, playing catch and even milking cows with his father, but he also knew that his dad was not a man who would tolerate laziness.
Warmed by the first course of his morning’s breakfast, Billy thankfully licked the butter and crumbs from his fingertips and, rising, left his plate in its place at the table. He would eat the remainder of his breakfast with both of his parents once his chores were done and his father had finished milking their herd’s 205 cows. Today was Saturday, and the fact that Billy would not have to hurry his chores and breakfast to catch the bus was no small consolation.
Billy wrapped a long orange scarf twice around his neck, covering it with his worn, drab, olive green work coat while standing in the entryway at the top of the basement stairway next to the kitchen door. Its lining could be seen protruding through holes in both elbows, but Billy loved that coat because he could do any sort of violence to it and it really did not matter. Next he pulled his hunting hat down low enough over his head that its fur lining would cover and protect his ears from the biting cold, completing his outfit with the worn leather work gloves that he pulled from his coat pocket and the steel-toed work boots he received from his father on his birthday.
With a resigned “See ya” murmured in the general direction of his mother, Billy gathered all his resolve, pulled open the kitchen door, swung open the screen and stepped out onto the icy porch. Immediately, he felt the north wind take his breath away as Billy, unable or unwilling to breathe in deeply the icy air, glanced across the driveway at the big white thermometer on the outside of the well house. Five below zero! Much too cold so soon after the Christmas break. It was the second week of January and Billy knew from painful experience that the worst was yet to come in February.
Though February was always burdensome, January in the Thumb region of Michigan was entirely unpredictable. There could as easily be a sudden thaw, with the snow melting under balmy 50 degree breezes – sometimes even warmer – as there could be a sudden blizzard that would mercifully signal the closing of school for a day or two. Ten year old Billy knew, from years of wishful watching, just how to tell if school would be called off. The Yoders, an Amish farming family across the fields to the northwest, provided no help, of course, but the Waller brothers, otherwise worse than useless, made one redeeming contribution to Billy’s life. They had a bright farm light at the top of a tall pole next to their barn to illuminate the barnyard as they slouched about their early morning and late evening chores. Billy knew that if a snowstorm was strong enough to close school, invariably it would first obscure his view of the Wallers’ light. If he couldn’t see it before he climbed the stairs to bed at night, he wouldn’t even bother setting the alarm clock. There would be no school that next morning.
Billy hunched his shoulders and, like a turtle pulling its head inside its shell, tried to keep the wind from gaining access to his neck. On stiff legs, carefully sliding his feet in case of hidden ice under the thin layer of snow that covered the gravel driveway, Billy made his way toward the swinging side door of the barn’s ground floor. He knew that as soon as he was through that door all wind would cease and he would again find a haven of warmth thanks to the heat exuded from the bodies of his father’s Holsteins. As he swung back the door and stomped the snow from his work boots, the first thing Billy noticed, after the warmth, was the sound of the pumps conveying the frothy, warm, white milk through overhead pipes to the gleaming stainless steel tank in the milk room. At the same time, he smelled the blend of corn silage and manure that formed the pungent aroma that only dissipated slightly once the walkways were shoveled out and the feeding troughs emptied after each milking. Yet, he was almost unconscious of the smells and sounds of the milking parlor, having spent every morning and evening there since the age of six when his father deemed him old enough to do his first chores.
“Mornin’, Billy” called the tired, low voice of his father, barely audible above the sound of the country music blaring from the manure-spattered radio sitting on the shelf next to an assortment of full and empty oxytocin bottles and syringes. Actually, his father’s greeting sounded more like “Mawnin’, Billeh.” His father was a transplanted southerner, who grew up on a poor truck farm outside Picayune, Mississippi, not far from New Orleans. Billy’s grandfather had given up on farming when allergies started to make his life intolerable and had come north to Flint, Michigan to work in a General Motors plant. Billy’s grandparents now spent their winters in Florida and the rest of the year in a small apartment on the outskirts of Marlette, the town where Billy went to school. Billy’s father never completely lost his southern drawl and never would lose his love of farming, of nature and of working with animals and against the elements, so he bought a 110-acre farm down one of the many arrow-straight, long dirt roads that cross the Thumb of Michigan on their way to Lake Huron.
“Straw ‘n stalls” was all the instruction and conversation that the weary Mr. Smith could muster toward his waiting son. It was all Billy needed to hear, since it was essentially the same message every morning. It meant that Billy was first to shovel the two-inch deep layer of pooled manure out of the walkways and into the channel from where chain-pulled metal plates would convey it outside to the manure lagoon and which, when time and weather permitted, Billy’s father would spread on their fields. Next, Billy would fill a 5-gallon bucket with a white powder and broadcast it thinly over the stalls to give the cows a clean, dry surface on which to lie before their next milking. Finally, “straw” meant that Billy was to climb the rickety wooden stairs to the barn’s second level and carry down enough bales of straw to cover the concrete floor of the sick pen and the calving pen.
Billy dutifully trudged up the old wooden stairs to the barn’s second floor, feeling as he reached the top of the stairs for the light switch that would at least give off a feeble glow to help him find the most intact and freshest straw bales. Some of the bales had been in there for years and were not suitable as bedding for newborns or sick animals. They simply served as the musty building blocks of which Billy and his little sister, Jenny, constructed fairy castles or World War II concrete pillboxes, depending upon whose turn it was to decide the nature of their play that day.
As Billy groped along the wall for the switch, he abruptly stopped and stood motionless. Something made his heart freeze more thoroughly and more suddenly than could the stormy winds he could hear howling through the cracks in the barn walls. It was a snuffling and scrambling sound coming from somewhere amidst the bales. Billy knew there were no bears in that part of Michigan and, though he heard of occasional rumors of panthers in the northern Lower Peninsula, his head knew it wasn’t likely, even if his imagination did not. Nonetheless, it was clear that something alive, and no more than a few strides ahead of him, somewhere in the labyrinth of stacked and toppled bales, had entered their barn to find shelter from the cold and winds.
As the snuffling sound subsided into silence, Billy remembered having seen his father shoot raccoons out of the rafters of the barn on more than one occasion. Raccoons were more than abundant and nothing could be more likely than to discover that it was one of those beasts nosing about for a place to bed down in the straw. Billy knew that raccoons could be surprisingly fierce if cornered or if they felt threatened. This thought made him consider bolting for the stairway behind him and quickly descending to the proximity of his strong and always sufficient father, whom nothing ever seemed to shake. At the same time, there was enough of the adventurous country boy in Billy’s heart that his curiosity held his feet in place as he pondered his next move.
Sliding his hand back along the wall, ever so slowly, Billy gratefully felt the light switch. Flipping the switch upwards, and bracing himself for the charge and challenge he felt sure he would have to face, Billy immediately noticed that the light revealed a straw loft devoid of any threatening creature. In fact, except for a greater degree of dimness, it looked just as it always did in the reassuring light of day. And yet, Billy had heard the unmistakable sound of a creature near at hand.
The overhead light revealed a collection of tools propped against the barn wall to Billy’s right. Seizing a pitchfork and pointing its sharp tines ahead of himself, Billy began creeping stealthily toward the first bales. Ready to thrust his weapon at any suddenly appearing enemy, Billy edged his way past the first few bales lying scattered on the barn floor. These had fallen there randomly the previous day when an imaginary explosive had shattered the peace of Billy’s solitary block house overlooking the English Channel, otherwise known as the manure lagoon.
Suddenly, a movement in some loose straw to his left caught Billy’s attention. It was immediately accompanied by a pathetic whimpering and Billy’s relieved recognition and delight to discover a silvery ball of canine fur shivering on the floor. It was a puppy! Without a moment’s hesitation, Billy scooped up the quivering creature, unzipped the top of his coat and wrapped it snuggly around the trembling animal. The pup put up no resistance in its weakened state, merely responding with a feeble, but warm lick of the exposed skin of Billy’s neck.
A myriad of jumbled thoughts invaded Billy’s mind at that moment. The creature needed warmth and food. Billy’s father was worn out and expecting Billy to work quickly and provide him with some relief soon. Animals were for outdoors, said his parents, and were not allowed inside the Smith’s farmhouse. Billy had always wanted a dog. Dogs cost money for shots and food. It was too cold to leave the puppy there and Billy had to act quickly.
Those final two thoughts made up Billy’s mind for him and set his feet into motion. Crossing the loft and quietly pushing the massive sliding barn door open a crack, Billy slipped out of the barn, into the cold early morning blackness, and onto the slope that descended from the barn to ground level. Circling his father’s small fenced-in orchard, Billy heard another weak whimper from within his coat which gave wings to his feet and brought him quickly to the kitchen door.
Glancing furtively through the window to the left of the door and seeing no one at the sink, Billy hoped that his mother had already returned to her room for her daily time of Bible reading. He quickly came up with an excuse lest he find her still there in the kitchen. He would say that he needed another layer of socks, but the fabrication wouldn’t be necessary. Stepping into the entryway, he looked left and saw the kitchen was empty. Three quick bounds across the floor brought him to the stairway door. He climbed the stairs silently, being careful not to waken his little sister who, being two years younger, was still allowed to sleep in on the weekend.
Billy entered his pitch black bedroom, closed the door quietly and flipped on the lamp by his bed. He pulled the plastic tub out from under his bed, emptied its contents of baseball cards, loose change and marbles, packed it with dirty laundry from the floor of his closet and gently set the puppy inside.
Raising the puppy’s head, and looking for the first time into its black, unblinking eyes, Billy try to convey to the pup the urgency of his words.
“You’ve got to be quiet until I get back. I’ll come back as soon as I can. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’ll think of something.”
And then, remembering the tiny warm tongue on his neck, Billy told it almost fiercely, “You belong to me! Now…be quiet!”
Billy slid the container back under the bed, turned off the light and, closing the door behind him, slipped down the stairs, out the door, across the barnyard and back through the partially opened upstairs barn door. In his darkened room, a hungry puppy cried once and then, despite its hunger, enveloped in the comparative warmth of the bedroom that had seemed glacial to Billy a scant thirty minutes earlier, fell contentedly into an exhausted slumber, nestled in a bed of recently worn socks, underwear, t-shirts and a red bandana – all of which bore the newly familiar odor of his human savior.