Noman

By Joseph Modugno

I woke up to the sound of the rain dripping from the eaves above my window and hitting against the roof of the barn. It was going tin-din tin-din tin-din, like that. I listened for awhile and then rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. But now I wasn’t sleepy anymore. So I propped the pillow up against the headboard, put my hands behind my head with my fingers interlocked, and listened to the drip-tap of the rain some more and looked out under the shade through the open window at the sky. It was gray and dark blue and damp over the land, like the color of pencil lead.

Mama always tells me that you shouldn’t try to remember your dreams. She says they’re silly, strange things, tricks of a sleepy or over-tired mind, and that they’re best just forgotten about. I don’t mean to disobey Mama but I can’t help it. Most mornings when I wake up the first thing that comes to me are my dreams from that night before. I don’t try on purpose to recall them. They just come on their own. And since I dream almost every night, it seems sometimes like all I ever do is spend my whole day recalling them. That’s why I get into trouble in school sometimes and why Ms. Baker called Mama just last month before school got out for summer. Ms. Baker said that no person ever got to be a congressman or lawyer or business owner or to make any money at all by daydreaming, and that unless I plan to be a bird in a tree when I grow up that I best shape up and start taking my school studies more seriously. It’s just like Mama says too, money doesn’t grow on trees.  And like Daddy always says, a man has to work to earn his privilege to live in this world, and that a man who don’t work and sweat by his brow ain’t no man at all. But it’s like I say, I don’t do it on purpose. I’ll be sitting there in class listening to Ms. Baker just fine and then just by accident I happen to glance out the window at a cloud passing in the sky, or at the tree behind our schoolhouse, especially in the late afternoon when we’ve been sitting in our seats all day long and the light begins to lengthen and soften and the breeze stirs the leaves, casting the black shadow patches down across the green grass below and setting them all shimmering and waving ablaze like fire, and then it just happens, just like that. Without my even meaning it at all.

I picked up my blue truck from the nightstand beside my bed and made a hill with my leg and started to drive the truck up it. Rhoom-rhoom, it went. I was going to drive it straight up over the summit of my leg and into the sky beyond when I remembered that today is the day that Daddy said I can drive into the city with him in the truck.

I leapt out of bed and dressed quick as I could. Then I ran downstairs. Daddy was sitting at the table with his coffee mug and newspaper and he already had his white-collared shirt on and his tie done up. Mama was at the stove in her apron, finishing up with breakfast. She was scraping a pan with one hand and her other hand was over her face with a rag in it, but as I came into the room she turned her back and put the rag in her apron pocket.

“Daddy,” I said.

Daddy looked up from his paper. At first he just looked and didn’t say anything and my stomach sank in me. I thought that maybe he’d forgotten or changed his mind. But then he smiled a grin and I knew it was all right.

“I thought maybe you’d forgotten, boy,” he said.

“Oh, no, Daddy,” I said. “I didn’t forget. I’d never forget. Can I still drive some on the way home like you said, once we get back to the road without any of the yellow lines on it, outside the city? I’ll take the telephone book to sit on.”

“We’ll see. If you watch the truck good like you’re supposed to while I’m making my business deal, then maybe I’ll let you.”

“Oh, I’ll watch it good, Daddy,” I said. “I’ll watch it good, don’t you worry. I’ll watch it the best anyone could ever watch a truck.”

Daddy grinned and went back to his paper and coffee.

“Better hurry up and eat your breakfast then,” he said. “Got to be going soon and I wouldn’t want to have to leave without you.”

I looked at Mama and she stared back at me, one hand leaning on the countertop and the other with the frying pan and grease can at the sink now. She shook her head and smiled just a little, almost like a frown sort of, or like a frown turned upside down, and I jumped into my seat at the table. Then she brought me over my breakfast and I ate fast as I could.

I was out back under the oak tree trying to catch raindrops in my hands when Daddy came out of the house. It had stopped raining but the trees were still dripping. As soon as I saw Daddy come out though I stopped playing and ran to meet him at the truck. He had the black case that he always takes with him when he goes to make his business sales in the city. It was Mama’s idea. She said it makes him look more professional and like a real businessman, but I think it just makes him look funny.

“Daddy,” I said, after I ran up to the truck.

“Ready to go?”

“All ready, Daddy,” I said.

“Good. Climb on into the cab then and start the engine,” Daddy said, and handed me the keys. “I have to go talk to your mama for another moment about something.”

I could hardly climb up into the truck fast enough. It was only two other times before that Daddy had ever let me start the engine. I put the key into the ignition and took hold of the wheel. Then, just before I turned the key over to start the engine, I closed my eyes and imagined that the truck was not a truck at all but an airship that I was about to fly beyond the clouds and sky. I was gripping the wheel and imagining with my eyes closed when Daddy opened the door and told me to move over. He handed me his hat and the black case.

“Hold those, would ya.”

“Okay, Daddy,” I said, and slid across the seat over by the window on the other side of the cab.

Daddy climbed into the truck and took over the wheel. He shifted the gears, put his foot on the pedal, and we started off down the drive towards the road. Mama stood on the porch in front of the house. I looked out the back window of the cab and waved bye to her all the way down the road until she became just a white speck on the porch, though Mama didn’t wave back at all, but just stood with her hands in her apron pocket, watching us go.

When we got out on the road towards the city and started passing all the other houses and farms and then the open fields and trees I felt so excited suddenly that I turned to Daddy.

“Daddy,” I said, and waited. But he didn’t look at me. He was pulling on his shirt collar and tie and had his eyes set on the road.

I guessed that Daddy must be busy in his head thinking about his business sales and deals to be made in the city and about money and that he was probably uncomfortable in that stiff white collar and neck tie, I mean it is only when he goes to the city that he wears it and so much stiffer-looking from his blue-collared shirt that he normally wears around the house and when he’s out working on the farm, and I didn’t want to make him upset because then maybe he wouldn’t let me drive any on the way home once we got back to the road without any of the yellow lines on it and none of the metal rails on the side, so I just kept quiet and didn’t say anything more.

Most of the ride I looked out the window. It was getting warm out already and the trees and fields were soggy from the night’s rain and were making the land all steamy and strange. Every now and then the dim gray forms of some cows would appear suddenly just off the side of the road, like bulky ghosts sprung up from the ground or emerged from the air. I watched the images out the window pass, but I must have dozed off some, too, because the next I remember was a flash of blue-gold color and I opened my eyes to see the sky. I looked over at Daddy. He was slowing the truck and peering off ahead up the road.

“Where are we, Daddy?” I said. “What’s—”

“Nothing. Someone along the road is all,” Daddy said.

I pulled myself up higher in the seat and looked out the window. Up ahead there was a person walking along the road. I turned to Daddy.

“Probably just someone passing through,” Daddy said. “I’ll see if he needs a ride to the city.”

I watched Daddy and then turned back to the window to look at the person again. He was walking along the edge of the road near the fields and trees. His arms were down by his sides and he didn’t have anything in his hands. I mean, he wasn’t carrying a pack or case, and didn’t seem to have anything on him but the clothes on his back.

“Roll down your window,” Daddy said. Then he slowed the truck even further and pulled up alongside the person.

At first the person didn’t even seem to notice we were there. He was walking along with his arms hanging down by his side and his head slightly lifted, turned away towards the land and sky beyond.

“Hey there, fellow,” Daddy said, leaning across the cab towards my window.

The person turned but didn’t say anything.

“Need a ride?” Daddy said.

“Ride?” the person said.

“Yeah. We’re going to the city,” Daddy said. “If you’re heading that way you’re welcome to ride along with us. Beats walking in this weather, I imagine.”

The person looked at us but didn’t say anything. I glanced at Daddy and saw him make a face. Then he reached over across me and pulled the handle on the door.

“Here, hop in,” he said to the person. “Plenty of room. The boy’ll move over.”

“All right,” the person said.

I slid over to the middle seat and the person got in. Then Daddy shifted the gears and we pulled out and started off down the road again.

For awhile we drove along and no one said anything. Daddy was holding the wheel with both hands and looking straight ahead down the road. I was looking straight ahead out the front window, too, but I was also trying to look at the person. I couldn’t tell how old he was but he looked much younger than Daddy, just a young person still maybe, though his clothes and shoes looked old and were all wet and dirty, like he’d been walking for a long time down the road before we picked him up.

Then Daddy said, “I gather you’re not from around these parts, fellow?”

The person turned but didn’t say anything. He had been looking out the window.

“Just making conversation, partner,” Daddy said. “I said, I gather you’re not from around these parts. Just passing through, are ya?”

“I don’t know,” the person said.

“Oh,” Daddy said.

The person turned back towards the window. Daddy set his eyes down the road again and I kept looking straight ahead too, though out of the corners of my eyes I was trying even harder to look at the person now.

After we’d drove on some more, Daddy said, “Where’re you coming from then? Up in Clinton, were you? Have folks or friends or a girl up there?”

The person turned from the window. “I don’t remember ever having anybody,” he said.

“Oh,” Daddy said. “Well, where are you from then?”

“From?” the person said.

“Yeah. Where are you from?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” the person said.

“Your home,” Daddy said. “Your town, your state. Your country, as they used to call it in my father’s time. The place where you’re from?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those,” the person said.

Daddy looked over at the person. Then he looked back at the road. He shifted in his seat. The person turned back towards the window.

“Well, where’re you headed then?” Daddy said.

“I don’t know,” the person said.

“Don’t know? What’re you, looking for work then?”

“Work?” the person said.

“Yeah. You looking for work?” Daddy said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the person said.

Daddy jerked in his seat. He glanced over at the person and scrunched up his eyebrows and forehead. “What’re you, a religious fellow then?” he said. “You a volunteer in the Lord’s service?”

“Lord’s service?” the person said.

“Yeah, the Lord’s Service,” Daddy said, shifting in his seat again. “Are you some type of religious volunteer? What church do you belong to?”

“I don’t know who that is,” the person said. “And I don’t recall ever belonging to any church.”

Daddy gave another jerk. The person was looking out the window.

“Don’t know who—” Daddy started to say but then broke off.

He gripped the wheel tighter and set his eyes down the road. I could hear his breathing growing harder and rougher in his chest and his knuckles were turning white from gripping the wheel so strong.

“How do you earn a living then?” Daddy said. “You don’t got no family or country, you don’t work, and you ain’t a religious volunteer or member of any church, how do you make money?”

“Money?” the person said.

“Yes,” Daddy said. “Money. That’s just what I said. Why do you go on and repeat everything I say?” He was talking really loudly now, almost shouting.

“Daddy,” I said. “Stop it. You shouldn’t yell at strange—”

“Shut up, boy!” Daddy shouted. He turned at me quickly and raised his hand. My eyes snapped shut and I cringed up tight, ready for his hand. But after it didn’t come and I heard his voice again, I reopened them slowly and looked out.

Money!” Daddy was saying, the veins in his arms and down his neck sticking out now, bulging, like when he’s working hard on our land or fighting with Mama and yelling at her about money. “Every man’s got to earn it! How do you earn yours? That’s what I’m asking.”

“I’m sorry,” the person said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never heard of anything called money.”

Daddy hit the brakes and I went flying forward in my seat, almost striking the dashboard.

“Get out!” Daddy hollered. “Get outta my truck this minute! I won’t drive you another foot down this road! You— you—you no man! Get out!”

I looked over at Daddy and saw that he was trembling.

Daddy and the person looked at each other for a moment. And as I turned fully and looked at the person now too without trying to hide it I saw for the first time how blue his eyes were.

As soon as the person was out of our truck, Daddy cranked the shift and put his foot down hard on the pedal. The tires spun over, making a hissing sound against the slick of the road, and we started off, but now much faster than before.

As we drew away, I turned and looked back through the rear window. The last that I saw of the person he was walking along the edge of the road by the fields and trees as he had been before, his arms free at his sides and a sort of strange gleam reflecting against his face, which was now fully lifted towards the sky. And as I titled my own face and peered up through the glass to see what the person was looking at, I saw that the sky had suddenly opened after the long night and morning of rain and fog and was turning blue and white, and right in the center of the opening, blooming up into the sky like a flower bud, there was a cloud.

For the rest of the ride, and the whole day in the city, Daddy didn’t say anything. There were so many questions that I had, so many things that I didn’t understand and were wondering about inside and wanted to ask him. But I was afraid I would make him get mad and then he wouldn’t let me drive any on the way home once we got back to the country roads outside the city. So I just kept quiet and looked out the window.

When we finally reached the road back home that was plain and unmarked without the yellow lines anymore, I turned to Daddy and was about to ask him if I could drive now some, but before I finished turning and could open my mouth to speak, he told me to be quiet and quit looking out the window like that, to keep my eyes fixed straight ahead on the road. So that is what I did. We drove on more. But then all of a sudden, as I saw looking straight ahead down the road, it all came clear to me, and I knew now what I would say to Ms. Baker in September when the new school year began again and she asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I would tell her that I wanted to be a noman. And even though I was afraid Daddy might yell at me, or maybe even hit me, I turned back towards the window to look out at the sky that was now turning yellow and soft blue in the late afternoon light and at the trees off across the field at the edge of the land with their leaves waving in the breeze and the black shadow patches shimmering all around below them, flashing off of the grass and into the air. But though I tried my hardest to find it, to see it again, the cloud was gone. And the person too I didn’t see at all either. Maybe he’d passed on now to another world or sky like the cloud, I thought. A world where your eyes are permanently stained blue from gazing at too many skies all day. I mean, I wondered.

___

Joseph Modugno is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he studied English and Journalism. Currently, he is working as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China. His fiction has appeared in The Fiction Circus, Bent Pin Quarterly, Static Movement, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), and Forge.


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