Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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We got dressed up to go to the courthouse. It was strange to be out of school, and even stranger to be heading off to appear before a judge to prove that our family was broke, but our mother insisted we kids come along. My brother and I sported polyester suit coats handed down from our cousins in Terre Haute, and the girls wore the same dresses they had worn for our grandparents’ funerals. The car smelled strongly of cheap cologne and flowery perfume as Dad pulled into the Wabash County Courthouse parking lot. We’d already been booted off the farm, and though he hated to do it, Dad had been forced to file for bankruptcy. For months he’d tried to pay the outstanding bills for fuel, seed, hay, grain, and tractor supplies along with the regular household expenses, but it had proven impossible. He was working sixteen-hour shifts at the factory, and still the bill collectors hounded him daily. His thinning hair had turned white, and he rarely slept.
This was the 1980s, when many small farmers in Indiana and across the Midwest were losing their livelihoods for reasons not unlike those behind the current real-estate crisis: unethical lending and the belief that commodity prices would continue to rise. Struggling families had bet on the future, but the bubble had burst, leading to higher rates of bankruptcy, suicide, and alcoholism in America’s heartland.
Inside the courthouse we waited in a small room. A lawyer my dad had found through a friend at the ceiling-tile factory briefed us on what not to do: “Don’t talk unless asked a direct question.” He sniffed and spit tobacco juice into a paper cup. “Don’t smile.” It was as if we were there on murder charges. My dad’s smooth-shaven face seemed pale, and his eyes were moist — not teary, just worn down. He nodded along with all the “don’ts” the skinny lawyer doled out.
A bailiff walked into the room and said, “Crandells.” We were escorted into the chambers, where I looked around, afraid someone might recognize us. We sat on a long bench, and Dad’s name was called. The courtroom reeked of Pine-Sol and musty papers and hourly human traffic. A county circuit-court judge had my dad take the stand to answer a few questions about income and creditors under oath. At the end he told my father to stand up. “Take out your wallet, Mr. Crandell,” he said. My dad handed his wallet to the bailiff, who handed it to a clerk. She flipped through it and passed it back through the chain of hands to my father, as if it were a bucket of water along a fire brigade. The clerk wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to the judge.
“Let the record show,” the judge announced, while my father stood in the witness box, “that Mr. Crandell has seven dollars on his person.”
My father slowly put his wallet away and left the stand. Out in the courthouse lobby, other foreclosed-on farmers sat in threadbare jackets, smelling of dried manure and diesel fuel. Everywhere broke farmers were taking jobs at convenience stores or getting twenty-year-old suits out of mothballs to try to hawk insurance.
Back at the car my dad took a few minutes to clean the windshield before getting in. He scrubbed the glass with his red hankie in tight, angry circles as we all sat numb inside the car. It seemed to take forever. I wanted to duck when I saw the school bus dropping off a kid from my high-school class at the YMCA next to the courthouse. The kid’s name was Richie, and he was unpredictable. His real dad had burned him with an iron when he was little, and his stepfather, who played bass in a heavy-metal cover band at the Copper Club in Wabash, wasn’t much better. Richie sometimes came to school buzzed, and he was sent home a lot. When he was at school, he liked to punch me in the arm and make fun of my big nose or a newly hatched zit. I felt sick whenever I saw him. On some level I knew he was cruel because he’d been treated cruelly, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to see him kicked out of school.
Dad kept cleaning the windshield, and Mom wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She’d taken a job at yet another fast-food joint and was trying her best to keep from falling into a deeper depression. Outside the car window Richie lit a cigarette and blew smoke, then looked right at me. He was no more than ten feet away, and even though I turned my head, I knew he’d recognized me. When I cut my eyes back in his direction, he smiled broadly, flicked his cigarette to the ground, and toed it out. My stomach churned. Finally Dad got inside the car and started the engine. I closed my eyes and hoped he wouldn’t drive past Richie, but he made a large U-turn in the parking lot and did just that. All I could do was offer a weak wave as we rolled by Richie, who looked as if he’d just been given a big Christmas present.
We’d moved from our failed farm into an A-frame house inside the city limits. The last renters had kept cats, and the hair and odor of urine persisted even after Mom had cleaned for an entire weekend. It was strange to be living someplace where there weren’t enormous fields and livestock around. Sometimes at night I would wake up and think I’d forgotten to feed the animals. I’d climb out of bed and jump into a pair of jeans and even hurry toward the front door before I’d remember that we didn’t live on a farm anymore, and chores were a thing of the past.
All of us seemed to be handling the foreclosure and bankruptcy differently: Dad worked more and drank more. Mom cried and didn’t cook as much. My sisters comforted Mom. Darren, my older brother, dove headlong into his duties as president of his Future Farmers of America chapter. Even though we no longer farmed, he wore that blue and gold jacket everywhere, just like John Cougar Mellencamp on MTV. I admired my brother and wished I were as strong and confident and resilient as he was. Instead I worried that people would find out we had lost our farm. It didn’t help that the auction was scheduled for the next month, which would require public notices in the newspaper. I was willing to do anything not to be shamed.
The next day at school Richie approached me at my locker. He had a pierced ear, wore a ripped jean jacket, and smelled like cold wind and menthol. He often spit right on the hallway floor and didn’t seem to care who saw him.
“What were you doing at the courthouse, Crandell?” he asked, as I tried to shove my algebra book onto the narrow shelf in my locker. Richie slugged me in the arm, and some other kids standing around laughed.
“Nothing,” I said, and I hurried toward U.S. History, turning to make sure he wasn’t going to trip me.
Several times, while we’d changed clothes for PE, I’d stolen glances at the scar on Richie’s back, where his real dad had burned him. It was a shiny, taut patch of skin shaped just like a clothes iron. It reminded me of an arrowhead. He was protective of it and usually made sure his back was up against the wall when he removed his T-shirt. When he was shirtless was the only time he didn’t scare me.
At lunchtime I sat with my two friends Thad and Drew. I still hadn’t told them the truth about our farm. I’d said that the reason we’d moved to the A-frame house was because we’d decided to become missionaries. It was an outrageous lie: we’d never even gone to church as a family; my father didn’t believe in it. But Thad and Drew had bought my story and even asked when we were leaving and what country we’d end up in.
As we ate french fries and slurped chocolate milk, I took the absurdity even farther: “Mom says we’ll probably be assigned to Burundi. It’s in Africa. We’re still waiting on papers from the headquarters in Cincinnati, but that’s where it looks like we’ll be going.”
Thad and Drew nodded. Both wore braces, and their mouths hung perpetually open. I’d been trying to keep an eye out for Richie and the three or four pale teens in black concert T-shirts who hung around with him, but I wasn’t careful enough. When I heard the chair leg scrape the linoleum floor behind me, I knew it was Richie. He turned and said, “Bullshit, Crandell!” drawing the attention of kids at nearby tables. “You guys got booted off your farm because you’re bankrupt. The only place you’re going is the poorhouse, asshole.” Richie flipped my tray, and milk and corn went flying. One of the female PE teachers started over, and Richie and his friends got up and made their way toward the courtyard. “Clean it up, Mr. Crandell,” the teacher called as she hurried after them. While I bent for the tray, I could hear Richie telling her he didn’t do anything, that she should go ask “the liar” what had happened.
For over a week I went on feeding lies to Thad and Drew, and they went on believing me. The rumor spread that I was about to leave on a missionary assignment in Africa. I read up on Burundi in the encyclopedia and tried to memorize details about the climate and the names of cities and places. Thad and Drew thought we should have a going-away party for me. I could feel the lies squeezing me tight, and I told myself I should stop, but I couldn’t. The auction was coming up, and the newspaper notice had already run. It was written in legalese, but anyone could tell it was a bankruptcy auction. I worked even harder at lying. I told a girl in English class that we were selling off everything and donating the money to poor kids who had worms from going barefoot. In Home Economics I made two cheerleaders cry when I told them we’d adopted some little kids in a Burundi village; I’d sent them Snickers bars, and they’d written back — through a translator — that they’d never tasted anything like it. “Can you believe it?” I said. “They’ve never even tasted a candy bar.” On the bus ride home I went on and on to a freshman about my future as a missionary. He chewed a wad of gum and swallowed while I told him how I’d likely live the rest of my life in Burundi; I’d marry, have kids, and they’d bury me there in the Mitumba Mountains.
On Friday night the weekend of the auction, Dad called in sick to the factory. Mom made pancakes and sausage for dinner, but no one was hungry. Even Darren appeared discouraged. I hadn’t seen him wear his Future Farmers of America jacket in a while, and he’d switched from reading agricultural books to Zane Grey novels. The girls helped Mom clear the table as I washed and Darren dried the dishes. Dad fell asleep in a recliner, and we were all careful to be quiet. When the phone rang, Mom told me to stretch the cord into the bathroom so my voice wouldn’t carry. It was Drew.
“Are you really going to Africa?” he asked me.
“Of course. Why?”
“My mom says you guys are bankrupt, and that’s why you’re selling all your stuff.”
“Does your mom even know where Burundi is?” I asked.
Drew was quiet, then said, “Richie’s been telling everyone you’re a liar.”
I could hear dishes clinking in our kitchen, the faucet blasting water.
“I don’t care what Richie thinks,” I told Drew, but neither of us believed it.
The auction was held on a brisk November day. Failed farmers from all over the four-county area were being forced to sell everything, and the event had almost a carnival feel. Vendors sold elephant ears, corn dogs, coffee, and soda from booths alongside the rows and rows of merchandise readied for sale: a bucket of claw hammers, a skid of wire, boxes of rusted nails and nuts and bolts. Our tractors and farm implements, disks and harrows, plows and planters looked like playthings arranged on a shelf. I thought of each weather-beaten piece of machinery as distant kin that would soon leave us.
My dad stood back and tried to retain his dignity, nodding to fellow farmers, sipping black coffee from a styrofoam cup, his big, rough hands trembling. Mom and the girls helped sell ham-and-cheese sandwiches, with the proceeds going to Farm Aid, a nonprofit that held concerts to benefit family farms. Darren vanished, and when he came back later, near the end of the auction, I could smell beer on his breath.
It took five hours to sell off our family’s history. The most embarrassing part came when the auctioneer cried out bids for our household items. Selling a John Deere to the highest bidder was one thing, but watching as someone packed up the plates you’d eaten off your whole life was quite another. They sold our dark, solid dinner table for sixty bucks. Mom wept, and the girls hugged her. In the crowd I spotted some kids and teachers from school, and men and women from Dad’s factory union. Suddenly my lies about our becoming missionaries were as sad as the auctioneer selling our old toiletries.
When the sale was done and we were all back in our rented house, Mom made us chipped-beef gravy and toast, which we ate sitting at a flimsy card table. “After this is all over,” she said, “maybe we can plant a garden, maybe get a few chickens.” She looked to Dad.
“We’d have to get the landlord’s permission.” He didn’t look up when he said it.
At school on Monday I dreaded PE, the one class I had with Richie. It was fourth period, before lunch, and I slunk into the locker room and started to change. My skin was covered in chill bumps as I shucked off my sweater and searched my gym bag for a T-shirt. Richie walked in and smiled.
“Who in here believes Crandell is going to Africa?” he shouted, unbuttoning his shirt.
My faithful friend Thad raised his hand, which made me feel awful.
“Yeah, you would, Foster. You’re as big a liar as he is.”
Richie removed his flannel shirt. When he turned toward the locker, his arrowhead-shaped scar shimmered under the fluorescent lights. I pointed to it and started to open my mouth, but I couldn’t do it. I just sat down on the locker-room bench and let my lies die.