A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg

Chapter 6 continues

The story so far: Allen goes out to a farm to help the seniors make a float.

The barn was very old, sagging a little bit, ready for demolition — an embarrassment, Lois told him, to her mother. They stood together just outside the doors, her eyes fixed on him, the eyes of a born editor. Every year, she confided, her father promised to have it torn down — but invariably changed his mind. He had grown up there when it was still farmland — milked cows, pitched hay, cleaned out the drain troughs. It meant something to him. He loved the way the old barn smelled, she said — animals and hay and manure. Loved to stand at the open doors of the barn and look out on the fields he had worked as a boy.

"He's looking out on the past," Allen said.

"I guess so." Lois had a narrow but alert face, her eyes flashing with intelligence and energy.

"That's marvelous. He's in a better position to do that than most people."

"I'll tell him you said that."

When he asked her what her father did now, she told him that he ran Custom Chevrolet up on the highway.

Inside the barn, the beginnings of a float rested on an old flatbed wagon. Several of his students were working on it. They told him they were patterning it after a float in the Aquatennial parade in Minneapolis last summer, a picture of which was pinned to the wall. On the wagon stood the beginnings of a wood and cardboard framework, which was to be covered with colored crepe paper and fake grass. Four sacks of hay for filler stood nearby. In one corner of the barn, three boys from his first-hour section, among them Ray Nord, the center on the yet-to-be-seen basketball team, were building a flight of stairs for the front of the float. The 12th grade queen would use the steps to ascend to her throne under an arch. In the parade, the float would be pulled by a Jeep owned by a nearby farmer. There was to be a contest, which they were confident of winning. The senior class, Bill Erickson told him, always won the float contest.

Allen was impressed. Going over to help out in the construction of the steps, he noticed a couple of cigarette butts on the floor and said nothing. He saw that no one was smoking, perhaps for his benefit.

As they worked, he called them all by name, asking whether they lived in town or on a farm. Some lived on a farm in the summer but lived with relatives in town during the school year. They all preferred the farm to living in town and going to school every day.

"But school's not so bad, is it?" he asked. "The town's not bad either, right?

They agreed that both school and town were OK.

"Wait until winter," Lois said.

"What happens then?"

"Nothing. That's the trouble."

"Except basketball," another girl said. "The whole town goes to the games, whether we win or lose."

"Seems to me I've heard something like that before."

"We win more than we lose," one of the boys said.

While he pounded nails, he looked over the interior of the barn. Empty milking stalls for cows stood along one wall, unused stables for two horses on the other. In back, a wooden ladder rose to a hayloft, from which floated the fragrance of old hay. He wondered if there were bats up there. Two antique kerosene lamps rested on a shelf, near a blackened harness.

Two boys went outside. He wondered if they'd gone out to smoke. He didn't know whether he should say anything or not. Then Iris Arneson came up to him. "Are you going to chaperone the Homecoming dance this year, Mr. Post?" she asked.

"Nobody has said anything to me about it."

"If you don't chaperone, you'll come anyway, won't you?"

"I certainly will."

Last year, she told him, there'd been no dance. The school board had forbidden it. But this year, to the surprise of everyone, they changed their minds and decided that one dance would be permissible as long as it was limited to students and staff, with no alumni allowed.

"It was the alumni who ruined it for us two years ago," another girl said. "They practically crashed the gates. If they weren't drunk when they came in, they certainly were drunk when they left."

He didn't quite recognize the girl. She was wearing an old pair of overalls and a bandana over her head. Then he knew who she was: Molly Walters from his second-hour class. "You look so different," he said.

"Oh, my mother wouldn't let me go to school this way."

Molly was the fashion editor of the school paper. Unlike the other girls, she came to class every day with her face made up perfectly — too perfectly, he thought. With her sharp lipstick, flawless complexion and perfectly brushed hair, she looked like a magazine ad.

"Molly's our Homecoming Queen candidate," one of the boys said. "You'd never know it to look at her now. She looks like Ma Kettle."

"Oh, you."

The boy mimicked. "Molly W has been seen wearing old overalls, a ragged sweater and a dirty kerchief on her head," he laughed.

Allen laughed. "I'm sure you'll win," he said to her.

"Thank you. But really, I could name several girls who deserve it more than I."

"Miss Modesty," a boy said, and poked her on the shoulder.

Allen was glad he had come. He counter-set the nails on the steps and helped the boys carry them over to the wagon. Lois asked him if he was going to tell them a story.

"A story?" he asked.

"Like you do in school."

He hesitated for a moment, looking out through the open doors of the barn at the dark fields beyond. The fields were not prairie, of course — they were farmland — yet they reminded him of the fields in Frank Norris' novel, "The Octopus." He told them a little bit about Norris' book. "In the novel," he said, as they gathered around, "a young man and woman are planning to marry. Then the young woman dies — I don't remember how. The young man is heartbroken, of course. He renounces his previous life, whatever it was, leaves the little community where he lives and goes out on the prairie by himself. He becomes a shepherd. He sleeps outside. One night, under the stars, he has the impression that the young woman he loved is out there in the night, coming toward him. Then the scene changes. We're told about the other characters and what happens to them. But every hundred pages or so — it's a long novel — we return to the young man. Each time we return, he feels that the woman is coming closer and closer to him at night. And at the end, mysteriously, she really does come back. He takes her in his arms and embraces her."

For a moment everyone was silent.

"I'm not sure I have all the details right," he apologized. "It's been a long time since I read the book. But I remember those scenes quite vividly. The curious thing is that Frank Norris was a naturalist. He didn't believe in poetic or mystical experiences."

"Do you think anything like that could really happen, Mr. Post?" Bill Erickson asked.

Tomorrow: Chapter 6 continues.