The Next Generation
Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
"Judith, are you going steady with him?" Lori asked.
"No," Judith said into the phone. "But I keep going out with him, and that's steadier than what I had before."
About two weeks had passed since Chet Sorensen's accident; in that time, Judy and Ken had gone together to see him in Geneva two or three times a week, followed by workouts at the YMCA. Usually they stopped for hamburgers afterwards, and twice they took in movies. In addition, while their last weeks in high school ran down, they usually managed to eat lunch together.
They weren't the most thrilling dates she could imagine, but she was perfectly satisfied to be with Ken under those conditions, and happy that he could get free as much as he could. Still, it was nice for her to be able to cap off her high school career by having a boy friend. Going out with Ken made her feel as if she were almost a normal girl -- and having a chance to compare her physical strength with Ken's at the workouts had driven home to her that she wasn't weak.
"Well, you two are beginning to look like it," Lori said. "Where have you been going with him?"
Judith described the movies, the hospital visits and the workouts at the YMCA. "He's beginning to swim a little better, and we do weight training and stuff together," Judith explained.
Lori laughed. "And you're the only girl in school that never had problems avoiding phys. ed."
Judith smiled at the thought. "I always thought of my workouts as therapy, so I stuck with them whether I wanted to or not. But, I've been enjoying them, lately." She changed the subject. "I see you're still going with Bob."
"We've been out a couple times since the prom," Lori admitted. "He's not as bad a guy as people say. Did you know he plays the guitar and sings, real good?"
"I'll be darned," Judith replied. She couldn't imagine Bob singing. Most of the reason why people didn't care for Bob was that he had a speech impediment so bad he could barely talk, and therefore rarely did.
"He's like Mel Tillis," Lori said. "He doesn't stutter when he sings, and he knows some neat stuff I never heard before. The other night, he played some classical music I never heard of before. He said it was by someone called Segovia. I'm not sure I liked it, but he can sure play it."
"Even when you know someone, you just don't know, do you?" Judith reflected.
"You should talk."
"Well, yeah," Judith said. Lori's implication was not lost on her, but she'd been surprising herself a little recently, too.
"So, anyway, Bob asked me to go to the class party after the graduation ceremony with him," Lori continued. "Are you and Ken going?"
"He hasn't asked me yet, but it wouldn't surprise me," Judith said.
"Come if you can. We've only got about two weeks of school left, and that's probably the last time we see some of these people we've grown up with."
"That's true." Judith felt a little sense of loss. Even in a class as small as Willow Lake High School had that year -- there would be 44 graduates -- where everyone was acquainted with everyone else, Judy had developed few friends: Lori, and to a lesser extent, Alison and Candy. And now, Ken. But her classmates were kind of a family she had watched, and Judith knew she would miss the comfort of being surrounded by people she at least knew. "I'll miss them," she agreed.
"I'm going to miss seeing how some of these soap operas turn out." Lori sounded a little down to Judith.
"Oh, in a town like this, we'll hear enough gossip to keep us in touch," Judith protested.
"Yeah, but people will drift away, and we'll never hear about them again. They're always be things we'll wonder about. Like, does Keith Worden get rich without going to jail?"
"Or, do Alison and Phil get serious?" Judith agreed.
"Yeah, or does Jennifer Savage become a movie star or a high-class prostitute?" Lori laughed.
With his father in the hospital, Ken was needed even more than ever on the farm during the height of the planting season. Even Ken and Judy's after-school dates had to end early, so he could go back out to the farm and run a tractor until long after dark, trying to keep up his share of the load. Judy understood the need and wasn't complaining.
At that, Ken was used to having his after school time taken up with farm work.
While he bounced along on a tractor spraying an immense cornfield, Ken thought about what he'd rather be doing. Right now, it was to be with Judy, but not long before, he'd rather have been playing baseball. Like many farm boys in small schools, Ken would have liked to have been on the baseball team, but there was too much farm work in the spring; football was out in the fall, for the same reason.
In his high school years, Ken had thought that he should go out for some sport, just to stay a part of the school activities. Basketball was really the only major sport open to him. He'd made the team each of the four years he'd been in high school, though he didn't particularly care for the game, and wasn't good enough to be a first string player.
Ken had long ago decided that he didn't want to be a farmer. He had made this decision partly because he wanted to do something else with his life -- though he still wasn't sure what -- and partly because he knew that his older brother was already set to take over the farm in a few years, and there wasn't enough income on the farm for the two of them.
Besides, Ken knew that if he went into farming, he'd continually be following after Tom and his decisions. He'd had enough of that.
In the back of his mind, Ken thought he might be able to get some sort of a job where his farm background might be of use to him, but that wasn't much more than a vague thought. He knew he might not do even that. Prospects for a good job were better in a town the size of Camden, he knew, though he doubted he'd like to live there. It wouldn't be as nice as the country to bring up a family, though that was off in the future.
That line of reasoning led him right back to thinking about Judy. He'd been out with other girls while he had been in high school, and was now coming to realize that he really liked her. He'd known her for years, of course, but the past two or three weeks, he had known the joy of discovering something wonderful and totally unexpected under her shy and retiring surface. She'd proven to be a lot more fun than he'd expected her to be.
But did she fit into his future? Try as he might, he couldn't imagine spending his life with her. Despite her hopes, it seemed pretty likely that she was going to be a lifelong cripple, and it couldn't help but make long-range thinking unappealing.
Ken looked back at the sight gauge on the spray tank; without thinking about it, he knew he had enough for one more pass before he had to refill it.
On the other hand, Judy's being crippled had given her some very appealing qualities. He'd never recognized it before he started going with her, but her ordeal had made her a very strong and mature girl. She was determined, and she had proven that she could act if something needed to be done. Compared to his scatterbrained sister-in-law Carolyn, she was a model of competence. And yes, she was fun to be with.
But was it fair to keep going out with her when he didn't know how he felt about her? For instance, there was the graduation party coming up. Maybe he ought to tail things off, until he figured out how he felt.
Ken cut off the spray and drove over to the thousand-gallon tank parked next to the road. Tom had mixed the spray earlier that afternoon, and Ken wasn't totally sure what was in it. It was a mixture of both grass and broadleaf herbicides, as well as an insecticide, judging by the pile of empty bottles and jugs in the farmyard; apparently Tom wanted to kill everything in the field but the recently planted corn.
Ken stuck a hose into the spray tank, then started a pump to transfer the evil-smelling mixture. It only took about five minutes to fill the tank on the sprayer with about 250 gallons of spray. He checked the sight gauge on the big tank; one fill after this, then they'd have to mix more. He checked his watch and realized that would be about suppertime, then climbed back up on the tractor, still thinking about Judy.
Of course it was fair to continue with her, he realized. Wasn't dating supposed to be to give you a chance to figure out how you feel about someone?
Ken looked at his watch again and made up his mind. Another hour, and then he'd call Judy and ask her about the graduation party.
Though the cafeteria was smaller, the school board had decided to move the graduation ceremonies there from the gym, which had gotten so old and tattered that they didn't want to let it be seen more than necessary. Besides, with this small a class, the crowd expected wouldn't fill the gym, anyway. Using the smaller room would make the ceremony seem more important.
The size of the crowd on the warm June night made the room seen like an oven, especially to the graduating seniors, including Ken and Judy in their caps and gowns.
As the Willow Lake High School Band struggled with "Pomp and Circumstance," there were many parents with mixed emotions in the cafeteria, happiness that their offspring had finished this big step in their lives, but sad that many of those offspring would be taking wing and flying out of their lives, off to create lives of their own.
Chet Sorensen wasn't well enough to be home from the hospital on a regular basis, but his doctors had decided he could leave for a few hours to attend this ceremony. He sat propped up in a wheelchair, looking uncomfortable with his leg in a heavy cast. He smiled and held his wife's hand tightly as Ken came down the aisle. Ken had proven to be a good son. He had his own mind, but he wasn't the type to cheat or steal or hurt anyone. While his grades hadn't been spectacular, they had been good enough, Chet thought. All in all, he was pleased at the moment.
Chet smiled again, to see Judy going down the aisle on her crutches. "There's another good kid," he thought. "Her parents must be proud of her tonight."
A few chairs away, Norman and Irene Niven sat watching their Judith slowly negotiate the steps to the stage. "We shouldn't have let her come," Irene whispered. "Look at her! She's going to fall!"
"No, she's not," Norman whispered back. "You wouldn't deny her the thrill of graduating with her friends, would you?"
Irene didn't answer, but Norman already knew her feelings. He knew Irene would have kept Judith home if both he and his daughter hadn't insisted on being here. He sat back, watching with pride as Judith took her seat; his little girl had gone through so much to get here, that he couldn't help letting the tears roll down his cheeks.
Norman was glad the Sorensen boy had taken an interest in Judith. In all the pain-filled years she had spent struggling back from the accident, Judith had often seemed like a pathetic little girl without much of a future, but these past few weeks she had seemed happier than Norman had seen her in years.
Judith would never have made it this far, Norman knew, if it hadn't been for all the devoted attention Irene had given her in the first years after the accident. Yet, as Judith grew stronger, it seemed to him that Irene was stifling their daughter, and he wasn't too sure he liked it. Irene contended that there was a limit to what Judith could do, and that she would have to be cared for by someone more or less perpetually.
Norman wasn't too sure about that. Even though Irene disagreed, he wanted to believe that his daughter had more of a future than being a housebound cripple. "You made it this far," he had told his daughter earlier that evening. "I know you can do just about anything you set your mind to doing."
Like any other graduation speech, the speaker was someone no one in the graduating class of Willow Lake High School had ever heard of before, and his speech seemed to last forever in the humid atmosphere of the room. Finally, the tepid syllables drew to a close, and one by one, the graduates were called up to the podium to receive their diplomas.
In but a few minutes it was over, and the graduates and the crowd clustered outside in the cool of the evening. "Look, dad, I did it!" Judith said, proudly displaying the piece of paper.
Norman gave his daughter a big hug. "Yes, you did," he said. "You can't imagine how happy your mother and I are for you."
"You did very well," Irene said. "You won't have to work so hard, now."
Judith turned to give her mother a hug, too. "Oh, mums," she said. "I'm so happy."
"That must have tired you all out," Irene said. "Are you sure you still want to go to that party?"
"I'm not tired at all," Judy said. "I don't want to miss the party. I'll be home early."
In contrast to the stiff, artifical formality of the prom, the graduation party was so relaxed that it hardly seemed organized at all.
The class had rented the Willow Lake American Legion Hall for their last class party. Everyone was both joyful and a bit sad at having their high school years over with, but they were in a party mood.
At any given time, up to half the class was out in the parking lot enjoying themselves in couples and larger groups. There were several bottles circulating around discreetly, and Keith Worden passed around some marijauna he had grown on his own secret pot plantation. In several of the parked cars, some heavy petting -- and more -- went on before the evening was over with.
Inside the building, things were rather more reserved. There was a jukebox, rented for the occasion, and it ran steadily at maximum volume before the supply of change began to run low.
Judy and Ken sat with Bob Watson and Lori Mattson at a table, trying to talk over the noise of the jukebox. After almost an hour, any fun there was in that began to disappear, but Lori had a way to make things interesting. "Go get your guitar, Bob," she told her date.
The four of them gathered on the steps of the Legion Hall while Bob tuned his acoustic guitar; two or three other classmates drifted over to laugh.
Any laughter stopped as Bob swung into the guitar version of "Orange Blossom Special." It didn't take any knowledge of music to know that Bob was playing the guitar, not just strumming it. His fingers fairly flew over the strings.
Bob finished the song, flexed his fingers a bit to let the smoke roll off them, and said, "I-I-I-I-I-I'll d-d-d-d-do s-s-s-s-s-some-th-th-thing s-s-s-sim-p-p-ple."
"Something simple" proved to be the old Beach Boys classic, "California Girls." As Bob swung into the opening line, "Well, East Coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear," Judy noticed that he really wasn't stuttering.
At least, she had been warned. Ken knew of his friend's singing, but even in a small town like Willow Lake, few others did; it wasn't the sort of thing Bob had been willing to do in public until Lori pushed him into it.
The crowd kept Bob singing for more than an hour, and his range proved to be amazing. He could mimic Willie Nelson singing "On The Road Again" as easily as he could mimic Elvis singing "Jailhouse Rock," and he could crank out a great deal in between, with never a stutter or a stammer.
It began to be uncomfortably cool outside, and Bob needed a break. Finally, he said shyly, "I-I-I-I-'ll d-d-d-do m-m-m-m-m-more l-l-l-later if y-y-y-you w-w-w-want," then picked his guitar up and went inside, Lori gently holding his arm.
Judy put her arm around Ken and snuggled up next to him. "You never know, do you?" she said quietly.
Ken put his arm around her shoulders and murmured, "I'm learning that."
Judy had hoped to see more of Ken once they were out of school, but it actually proved to be a little less. Their school lunches were now a thing of the past, and Ken was even busier on the farm. Despite working late into the evenings, Tom and Ken were still well behind schedule in getting corn in. What usually was a little break after the corn was planted was filled in with catching up on other areas.
Ken still took Judy to her workouts in Geneva when he could, but sometimes the press of farm work was just too much for him.
Not long before, Judy would have been content to spend the lazy late spring days working on her suntan, reading or watching television, but now none of those things held her interest very well; she yearned to be doing something more active, and looked forward to each time she would be seeing Ken.
About ten days after graduation, she was disappointed to get a call from Ken saying that he wouldn't be able to take her for her workout the next day, as he had promised. "We've got to bale hay tomorrow, and with Dad still in the hospital, we're going to be even more shorthanded than ever."
"Darn," she said. "I was looking forward to seeing you."
"Well, not much we can do about it," he said. "Unless you want to come out and watch me sweat."
"Sure," she answered quickly. "I'm getting so tired of sitting around I'd even like to watch some activity."
Irene put up her anticipated protest, but even she had seen that Judy was more bored than normal, and a trip to the farm would give her a little diversion, if she would at least stay off Candybar.
The next morning, Judy took her swimsuit with her, expecting to get some more sunbathing in. She looked forward to spending more time around the farm. The only time she had been out there for any length of time had been when she rode Candybar, and what she had seen had been interesting. Willow Lake was a country town; many of her schoolmates had been from farm families, and her father worked at the feed mill. Even so, Judy had never spent much time around farms, and much of what went on there was new to her.
It was still early when Ken picked her up and drove her out to the Sorensen farm. They were met in the driveway by Ken's mother. "Would you like some coffee, Judy?" she asked. "There's still some warm."
Judy said it sounded good; it would give her a chance to talk with Ken's mother for a minute, too.
"I'll go see how Tom's coming with the baler," Ken said, telling Judy that a universal joint had blown out of the drive shaft, and Tom had to wait to get parts before they could get going.
Lydia was easy to talk to, despite being three times Judy's age. Judy was explaining some of the problems she had with her mother when the phone rang. While Lydia was on the phone, Ken came into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Tom's not ready with the baler, yet," he reported.
Lydia was back a few minutes later. "That was good news," the older woman said. "They're letting Chet out of the hospital later today."
"That's good," Judy agreed. "I take it he's still going to have that cast on."
"Oh, yes," said Lydia. "Probably for a couple of months, yet. He's going to have a hard time sitting around and watching the boys work without being able to help ... oh, dear."
"What's the problem?" Ken asked.
"I just remembered. I promised Tom I'd drive the shuttle tractor for him. Now, I'm going to have to go pick up Chet."
Lydia usually didn't join in the majority of the farm work, but she was always ready to lend a hand when it was needed. Haying was an all-hands operation, with some people hired in to work for the day, as well; now, they were going to be shorthanded again. "I'd better go tell Tom," she went on, "Unless maybe you could drive a tractor, Judy."
"No," Judy shook her head. "I've never driven anything. I can't push the pedals."
"We could work around that," Ken said. "The 'H' has a hand brake, and I'll bet I can rig up some sort of a hand lever for the clutch."
"But, Ken," Judy protested, "I don't have time to learn how to drive a tractor right now."
"It's not hard," Ken told her. "All you have to do is to take empty hay wagons out to where we're baling, and bring full ones back. You can drive along nice and slow, and there'll be someone at each end to help you change wagons."
"Naw," he said. "She claims hay gives her hay fever. She won't even drive a tractor. She thinks farm work is beneath her."
"Ken, that's not nice," his mother said, knowing that what he had said was the truth. "Judy, you could try it," she added. "I don't have to leave for a while. If it doesn't work out, maybe we can find someone else. But, I wouldn't be surprised if you can handle it."
"My mother will really be upset if she finds out," Judy said uncertainly. "But I don't suppose it will hurt if I give it a try."
Ken may not have wanted to be a farmer, but he had a farmer's talent for cobbling up a modification to a piece of machinery to keep it going. "All right," he said to Judy as she sat uncertainly on the tractor seat. "This lever over here is the brake. These things have a really Micky Mouse parking brake, so we rigged this up to do double duty. Got that?"
Judy nodded, and he went on. "Now, over here on your left," he said, "Is the clutch. Pull the lever toward you when you're stopping or changing gears, and let it in real slowly when you start off. You've got a hand throttle up here, and you ought to be able to figure out the steering wheel."