Summary: Most unexpectedly, a trip to the barbershop with Little Joe brings Adam new appreciation of his little brother’s personality. An earthquake seems to play a major part in this…
Word Count: 3000
It’s a trial, nothing but a trial. A test of endurance. A verification of my capacity to suffer.
Taking Joe on a trip to town is a challenge even under normal circumstances. Some way or other he always seems to end up dirty from head to toe, soaking wet, with his clothes torn, or all three of it at once. Very often you’ll find him in mortal combat with another soaking wet, dirty or torn-clothed six-year-old—or you won’t find him at all until you’ve searched through half of the town for him.
It’s easier when you’re not alone with him; when we all go together and someone can keep an eye on him while the others take care of business. But don’t ever turn your back on him if you’re in charge of the monitoring. The moment your eyes fall on a brand new set of drafting tools in a shop window and stay there for anything more than a split second, he’s gone and you’ll spend the rest of your time in town looking for him in every dratted nook and cranny instead of going to the library and having a little chat with Miss Louisa, the new librarian, whose eyes are blue as the sky on a late August day, and whose straw blonde hair falls in tiny ringlets around her heart-shaped face. And who loves Emerson’s poems. And her smile…she gets those little wrinkles on her nose when she smiles. It makes me want to smooth—
“Adam, do we really hafta go?” That’s Joe, sitting next to me on the driver’s seat. He’s started kicking his feet rhythmically against the footboard shortly after we left the ranch yard. Shortly after he left Pa’s scrutiny, that is. That boy has many ways of expressing sulkiness, and quite a lot of them come along with noises. Rhythmical noises, mostly. “Adam, do we? Really? Can’t we say the shop was closed? Adam? Can’t we? Adam?”
“No, we can’t.” I wish we could, but we can’t. I give the foot board an experimental kick. It’s not half as relieving as anticipated. “We can’t lie to Pa, can we?”
Pa said to take Joe to town and to the barber, and to bring him back with his ears and neck bidding the sun welcome. He said the ride to town would be a good opportunity for Joe and me to spend some undisturbed time together, just the two of us, before I had to leave for college. That it might give us time to talk things through, and to strengthen our bond.
Honestly, I think Pa just didn’t feel like going to the barber with Joe. Not that I’m unsympathetic—having to deal with Joe at the barber makes his normal hubbub look like a cakewalk—I just wish Pa had found another way to wriggle out of that responsibility than foisting it off on me.
On the other hand, I hadn’t expected to be able to go to town once more before I leave for Boston, and this trip might give me a chance to see Miss Louisa one last time. Perhaps, while Joe is safely sitting in the barber’s chair, I can sneak into the library, ask Loui—er, Miss Louisa if she would like to—
Dream on, Adam. The only way to keep Joe sitting on Mr. Fennimore’s chair unsupervised would be to tie him to it, and I don’t think that’s exactly what Pa meant with “strengthen our bond.”
No, there won’t be any sneaking away and seeing that cute little nose wrinkle at me. I’m doomed to watch my little brother getting his hair cut. Splendid.
“What if the barbershop is closed?” Joe again. It’s a small wonder his questions aren’t raining on me like an avalanche already. He has been unusually quiet this morning, but perhaps he just has been scheming how to weasel himself out of seeing Mr. Fennimore.
“The shop won’t be closed.” No, it won’t, because that would be too much luck to ask for. “Why should it be?”
“Maybe there was an earthquake.” Joe sounds hopeful. “An earthquake that destroyed the barbershop. And we can never go there again.”
“Joe, if there had been an earthquake in Virginia City we would have noticed it.”
“If the quake had been strong enough to destroy buildings, we would have felt it at the Ponderosa.”
This can go on forever. Joe clearly has warmed up to the topic. At least it makes him stop kicking the foot board. It also will make him come up with all sorts of questions, most of them starting with “why?” Joe says he’d rather ask me than his teacher. Miss Abigail apparently doesn’t like questions outside of her set curriculum. But why should a boy content himself with answers to questions other people think he should have? I try to imagine how I would have taken it if Pa hadn’t answered my questions, claiming it wasn’t their turn right now.
“Why, Adam?” He’s impatient, that little brother of mine.
“Because an earthquake means that the earth is quaking. The earth, Joe. The very thing you’re standing upon. Virginia City is close enough to the Ponderosa that you would have felt the reverberation.”
“The rever—the vibration. The trembling.”
“I see.” He bites on his lower lip, sucks it in and out of his mouth. He hasn’t given up yet; I can almost hear his brain working. “Perhaps a flood wave?” he finally comes up with.
“A flood wave?”
“Yes. A flood wave that flushed the shop away.”
“And where is that flood wave supposed to come from?”
“From San Francisco. From the ocean.” He sticks his chin out. Stubborn. He knows better. I know that he knows better. And he knows I know that he knows better.
“Or from the mountains. Sometimes the water floods down from the mountains. You’ve told me so yerself.”
He’s haggling, but whether with me or with the forces of nature themselves I’m not sure.
“It hasn’t been raining for weeks. There’s no water up in the mountains that could come down.”
Joe lets out a long-suffering sigh, as if it were my fault there’s no natural catastrophe thwarting his haircut. He starts kicking the footboard again. I can feel the percussion in my own feet on the board. As I would feel an earthquake.
“Adam, how comes that the earth quakes anyway?” Joe stops maltreating the footboard and shifts on the seat to face me. “What makes it tremble?”
That’s Joe all right. Most people think it’s I who wants to know the how and why of things, but Joe’s just the same. Pa says Joe’s asking almost as many questions as I used to be asking. And that he’s glad Joe is distributing his queries to both him and me in equal shares.
It’s Marie’s doing. She was the one who told Joe that Pa sometimes was too tired to be bothered with questions, but that he could then ask grand frère. She always saw to it Joe and I spent time together, despite the twelve years separating us. She also made sure I always had enough books to learn from, and enough time to read them. I think she understood even more than Pa how important knowledge was for me. Is for me.
“Adam?” Joe’s tugging at my sleeve. “Adam, the earth. What makes it quake?”
“Earthquakes are tremors in the earth.”
“But what makes the tremors?”
“Well, we don’t know for sure. But it seems that far below the surface of the earth there are huge masses of rock shifting constantly. They move slowly past each other and grind against each other with great force.”
“And that makes the earth shudder?”
“No, that movement is very slow, we don’t feel it. But sometimes they stick against each other and build up strain, until they break loose again and the stress is released. That’s what we feel as tremors. They move through the earth in waves…”
I give the footboard an exceptionally hard kick.
Joe startles. “What was that for?”
“That’s how the tremors move through the earth. Just like the vibrations carry along the footboard.”
“Oh.” Joe looks impressed. “So if your side of the board is Virginia City, and my side is the Ponderosa, and you’re an earthquake…”
I kick again. “…then you can feel it on the Ponderosa. If I kick hard enough. If it’s just a light quake,” I give the board a very soft kick, “then you won’t feel anything.”
He nods. And grins. “And if there’s an earthquake at the Ponderosa, a real big’un, you can feel it in Virginia City, too.” He kicks the board with all his might.
“Thanks for rattling my teeth, Mr. Earthquake,” I say and ruffle his hair. His much too long hair. He really needs that haircut, but I won’t say a word about it right now. He looks so much happier now, no traces of sulkiness left in his face.
And then Joe does what Joe can do better than anyone: he changes the topic. Talking to him is like having to follow someone leaping from one stone to the next and so forth. But where other people would make small, sensible steps, Joe takes broad jumps. One minute he asks you something about horses, the next moment it’s about San Francisco or how to make paper. One second he asks you about earthquakes, the next it is about—
“Why do you hafta go away to college, Adam?”
So that’s what has been eating at him ever since we’ve started this ride. We’ve talked this through, many times, yet it always comes back up again. Not for the past few days, though; and that gave me the impression he finally understands that I’m not abandoning him, that I have to go because…it’s what I have to do, because it is my dream, my wish, my…everything I want to do. What I need to do.
Apparently that impression was wrong. Joe’s silence didn’t mean he accepted the inevitable. It meant he did not accept what had been said. He was thinking. Mulling it over. Brooding.
Must be a family trait.
“Can’t you stay here?”
“You know I can’t. I need to go there to learn.”
“You don’t need to learn.” Incredulous, there’s no other word for Joe’s tone. He thinks he’s being kidded. “You know everything. More than Miss Abigail, anyhows.”
I have to laugh. “No, Buddy, there are so many things I don’t know. Things I can learn at Harvard.”
And at other colleges, but I don’t tell Joe that. There are colleges closer to the Ponderosa than Harvard. But Harvard is in Boston, and Boston is the place where my grandfather lives. My mother’s father, the only link to her I have. I wish I could tell Joe that, but it would only remind him that he hasn’t got a grandfather who can tell him about his mother. Sometimes I think things would be easier if Marie were still alive. Perhaps Joe wouldn’t feel the need to keep his remaining family so close together. And Marie would have explained to him why I have to go, much better than Pa or I can do it. She knew Joe’s mind better than anyone. And mine, too. “Joseph and you, mon grand, are cut from the same cloth,” she’d said when I asked her why she knew me so well, and then she’d laughed, “Don’t raise your eyebrow. It is so.”
Yes, it is so. I understand that only now, but she was right. It is so.
And because it is so, Joe doesn’t give up so easily. “Can’t you…just not learn them things they only know at Harvard?”
He doesn’t know yet that “it is so,” but one day he will see it, too. Maybe even today.
“Could you not ask? If I knew something you wanted to know, could you keep yourself from asking?”
He shakes his head. “No, ‘course not. If you know it why shouldn’t I ask?”
“Right. And that’s why I have to go: I have a lot of questions, and at Harvard they’ve got the answers.”
“Oh. All right.” That’s all for some time. We pass the first houses of the town as he pipes up again. “Are you gonna tell me everything you learned in Harvard when you come home?”
“I will. Everything you want to know.”
“Cross your heart and you hope ta die?”
“I promise solemnly.” I ruffle Joe’s hair again. There’s really a lot to ruffle. “What about you promise me something too, little buddy?”
He nods eagerly. “Sure. What?”
“Promise me you will be good at the barber. No squirming, no swatting at his hands, no trying to jump off the chair. Just sitting still until he’s finished.”
“But Adam…” It’s amazing how long he can draw out my name. Adaaaaaaaaaaam.
“But it’s boring.”
“You sit there fer ages.”
“I know it takes some time. But it takes even longer if you squirm. Just bite the bullet, Joe. There’s no way around it. Take it like a man.”
He ponders that; I can see it in his face. Eventually, he sighs. “All right. I promise to be good. Like a man.”
Being good in Joe’s world can be something completely different from being good in other people’s worlds; I’m aware of that. But I won’t push it. It’ll be all right. Perhaps I won’t need to tie him to the barber’s chair after all. Perhaps…
“I might go to the library while you’re at Mr. Fennimore’s.”
Joe grins at me. “Miss Louisa sure is a purty girl.”
I grin back. “She is.”
There’s no need to say more until we’re at the barbershop, where Joe jumps off the buckboard as soon as we stop. I should be suspicious of his sudden eagerness to get into the shop, but I tell myself that there’s nothing to fear while I secure the brake, tie the reins around the seat handle, and hang the feedbags around the horses’ necks. Joe has promised to be good, hasn’t he? Like a man.
Only now do I stumble on that last. What did he mean with “I promise to be good. Like a man”?
“Like a man” apparently means what it means: like a man. I find Joe sitting in the barber’s chair already, wrapped in a huge cape, with Mr. Fennimore standing behind him, his scissors already in action. Joe looks serene, almost relaxed.
Everything is fine. I sit down on a chair by the wall behind the barber’s chair, from where I can watch Joe’s face in the big mirror. I swear he winks at me.
“Well,” Joe speaks up gravely. “I’ve heard the prices for oats are going up. Hard times, ainnit, Mr. Fennimore?”
Like a man, indeed.
Mr. Fennimore mumbles something like “hard times, hard times, forsooth.” Well, what else is he supposed to say? There are hard times lying ahead. I try not to grin.
“Of course, if you don’t have many horses, you don’t need so much oats,” Joe goes on. “Do you have many horses, Mr. Fennimore?”
“That’s a good thing then, ainnit?” Joe’s all jovial graciousness. He must have heard that tone of voice somewhere in town, for no one at the Ponderosa speaks like that.
Mr. Fennimore must have decided that a jovial Joe is better than a squirming Joe, and he plays along. “It certainly is a good thing. To imagine I’d have to buy all those oats…”
“And no one knows if the prices will ever go down again.”
“I’ll be hornswoggled!”
I have to bite my lip. Joe’s face in the mirror is a display of earnest concern. There’s a gleam in his green eyes, very reminiscent of Marie, but that’s all that gives him away.
He lifts his hand and says, “One moment, please, Mr. Fennimore,” very seriously. As the barber pauses, Joe turns around to me. “You don’t hafta wait here for me, Adam. I promised I’ll be good, and I will. You can go to…” A short glance at Mr. Fennimore. “…to the library.”
“No, it’s all right. I’ll stay here.” I wouldn’t want to miss this for anything in the world. “I’m right where I want to be.”
Joe flashes me a smile, then shifts back in his seat. Mr. Fennimore chuckles softly and resumes his work. It’s pleasantly cool in the shop, there’s a faint scent of lemon and rosemary in the air, and it’s peacefully quiet. Only the soft chinking and clinking of Mr. Fennimore’s scissors making short shrift of Joe’s curls is to be heard, almost like a small melody. I close my eyes, enjoying the moment.
“Mr. Fennimore,” Joe breaks the silence. “Did you know that under the surface of the earth huge rocks are grinding against each other?”
“I…no. Do they now?”
“Yes, they do that all the time. And if they stick against each other and then break loose again, then we’ll have an earthquake. Perhaps right here under yer shop.”
“An earthquake.” Mr. Fennimore throws me a glance over his shoulder. “Right here under my shop. Now that would be unfortunate, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes.” Joe sounds satisfied. “But you won’t need to come and tell us, because we would feel the rerver—reber—rebervenration right up to the Ponderosa.”
“Yes. Ain’t that great?”
It’s a trial, nothing but a trial. A test of endurance. A verification of my capacity to refrain from laughing. And I fail miserably.
Lord, I’m going to miss this.
We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax. ~Samuel Goldwyn
“What strange creatures brothers are!” ~ Jane Austen
A/N: With many thanks to Freyakendra and Sklamb for their beta reads, and to JoaniePaiute for the spurring on.