A GERONIMO AUTUMN • by Ruth Schiffmann

I watched through dusky sunlight as Gary and Dell rode circles around the neighborhood, legs pedaling like the devil as they approached the puddle I could see so well from my quiet seat next to Mama at the kitchen table. How lucky they were that their fun didn’t end with their mothers’ dinner call each evening.

The boys’ voices rose into an exclamation as they lifted their feet from the pedals and glided, tires cutting a line through the water. Over and over, I watched and listened to their shouts as I spooned Mama’s pork stew thinking of nothing but my desire to know what it was they shouted with such excitement each time they came around, and the secret hope I held tight: that next year, when I reached twelve, Mama might see fit to slacken her rules some.

When Mama rose from the table, I reached forward and lifted the window an inch. The cool autumn air seeped in and so did the boys’ voices, growing bolder as they approached, “Ger-o-ni-mo!” they hollered in unison and I heard the satisfying “zip” of their tires as they sliced through the standing rainwater. It splashed up and left darkened circles on the back of their tee shirts and jeans.

I giggled and gulped hard not to let the sweet stewed apples spray from my lips.

One time, when Dell’s bike came to rest in the deepest part of the puddle, he touched down, sinking clear up to his ankles, and stomped through the puddle sending splatter up in all directions until his shirt was more dark than light, and Gary laughed so hard that Dell finally kicked up some water his way as well.

“Who’s making all that racket, Madeline?” Mama asked but she didn’t wait for an answer, as she cleared away the dishes around me to hurry me along.

I ate more slowly, reaching for another slice of bread to mop up the gravy left in my bowl. Leaning forward, I pushed the slats of the blind open like you might pry open the eye of a sleeping giant. The two boys were drenched. The sun turned tangerine as it began to slip behind the trees and the rainwater looked pinkish gray when Dell looked up at me, just as though I had called his name. I let go of the slats and froze in place but I felt his eyes on me, and sat there not daring to blink for a full minute before Mama called me away to dry the dishes.

Three nights in a row Dell and Gary played the same game in the street in front of our house, and each night I longed to join in the fun. Mama clucked her tongue and wondered what boys found so fascinating about stagnating water. I wondered the same of her desire for early dinners, quiet evenings and her need to always keep me close.

I watched with the window open, trying to catch their words before Mama snapped it shut. Their routine was the same, pedal hard and fast, then feet up, and glide as the Geronimo shout trailed through the air. The only difference was the way Dell’s glance kept finding its way to the window where I watched. Seemed like every few minutes he looked in my direction, making me smile at first, but then making me worry, that he might not see me there, might not be sure I was watching.

They stayed later and later. When darkness made it hard to see them, I still listened for their voices. Dell’s was easiest to hear and I imagined he was talking louder for my benefit.

Then one day I came home from school and Mrs. Morgan, from across the way, was in the street with a broom- a broom of all things- pushing the water into the storm drain at the other side of the road.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Clearing the puddle so we can finally have some peace,” she said.

I stood on the sagging porch with bright yellow leaves collecting around my feet as the cold wind billowed my skirt, and listened to each long swoosh of her broom and the empty gurgle at the bottom of the drain, sounding as hollow as I felt inside.

At the dinner hour I looked out into the empty street, as quiet as our kitchen, while Mama and I ate baked macaroni and cheese.

That night, the first crack of thunder woke me without leaving a trace of sleep in my eyes. I was sure that the old cedar in the back yard would come crashing through the roof onto my bed. So I crawled out of the warm covers, pulled my blanket behind me and curled up to finish out the night on the couch. Lightning lit the room and I lay awake listening to the downpour, imagining the size of the puddle forming out front.

It showered all day, and was still coming down at dusk when I laid out the dinner plates on the Formica table and slipped the window open a crack. It was damp and I was sure Mama would tell me to close it, but before I took my first bite of grilled cheese, I heard the boys whoops and hollers as they came around the bend, already doused with rain. Their voices got bolder as they neared, but their shouts weren’t the same as usual. It took me a minute to realize what they were calling out. I heard them twice, to be sure, before Mama told me to close the window against the chill.

As we sat ladling spoonfuls of tomato soup to our lips, the clank of the spoon and the slurp of the broth provided the rhythm that strung together a song in my mind as Dell shouted “Ma-de-line!” from the top of his lungs and looked toward the window smiling and soaked in autumn rain.

Ruth Schiffmann puts pen to paper always hoping for that magical moment when the words take on a life of their own. Over two hundred of her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in publications both in print and online. Her work can be viewed at www.RuthSchiffmann.com. She blogs at Out on a Limb.

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