Grandpa's Harmonica

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Chapter 4

Miss Kuelmann gave the older kids seat assignments to keep them busy while she worked with the first graders. They’d never been to school and getting them started took a lot of her time the first few weeks.

Jamie sharpened two pencils and handed one to Homer who looked at his first assignment of the year in the book lying open on his desk with a sour expression. When he saw Jamie writing, he sighed, licked the end of his pencil and went to work.

Fifteen minutes later, Sam raised his hand and asked for another assignment because he was finished. Jamie was half-done and Homer had only scribbled a few lines.

Homer looked up and glared at Sam. “What’s he doin? Tryin’ to make us look bad? Ain’t nobody works that fast.”

Jamie shrugged. “Maybe it’s something he’s done before. Hard telling what he did in New York.”

Grumbling, Homer went back to work. The rest of the morning every time Sam raised his hand to ask for more work, Homer complained under his breath about him showing off.

As soon as Miss Kuelmann said it was time for dinner recess, Homer sprinted out the door. Jamie picked up both of their dinner pails and walked to the tree where Homer was swinging and leaping from branch to branch.

Jamie looked up at the soles of Homer’s boots. “You going to eat or climb around?”

“Leave me be!”

Jamie sat against the tree, pried the lid off his dinner pail and pulled out a sandwich. “Suit yourself. I’m going to eat.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

Jamie ate a sandwich listening to the branches rattle as Homer jumped around. A limb broke with a crack and Homer fell out of the tree, landing flat on his back under a shower of leaves and twigs.

It wasn’t the first time Jamie had seen Homer fall so he wasn’t concerned that he might be hurt. “I’ll never believe you aren’t hungry. What’s wrong with you anyway?”

Homer groaned, rubbed some sore spots and then pushed himself up on his elbows. “It’s that Sam. Who’s he think he is, doin’ all them assignments? Next thing you know, Miss Kuelmann’s gonna expect us to do that much work.”

“You know that won’t happen.” Jamie unwrapped his other sandwich and peeked between the bread slices. “What kind of sandwich do you have? I’ve got bacon. Trade?”

Homer got up, sat against the tree and traded an egg sandwich for Jamie’s. Between bites, he pointed at the porch where Sam sat eating dinner with Terry Smith. “Look at that, will ya? Sam’s got a store-bought dinner pail. He must think he’s too good to use a lard pail like us.”

“He probably got it when he bought his other school stuff. He wouldn’t know we don’t use them.”

“Maybe, but I still think he’s showin’ off.” Homer ate the rest of his dinner in silence except for talking Jamie out of a chocolate chip cookie.

Jamie snapped the lid on his empty pail and stood. “Let’s get a baseball game going.”

Homer jumped to his feet. “Okay! First game of the year.”

They walked back to the schoolhouse looking for the older kids, but no one was in sight. “Where is everybody?” asked Homer.

“Around back maybe?”

In the shed, they found Keith, Ken, Sam and Doc standing around Doc’s mare while he pointed and talked. Doc said, “Hi, Jamie. Hi, Homer. I’m explaining to Sam how to take care of horses. Can you believe there aren’t any horses in New York City?”

Jamie asked, “Really? That true, Sam?”

“Well, not exactly. A few are used in warehouses and factories and sometimes police ride them, but other than that, everyone drives a car.”

“Wow, I can’t imagine that many cars.” Jamie asked, “Want to play baseball?”

Doc said, “Not today. We’re going to talk about horses. How about tomorrow?” He lifted a hoof, caught it between his knees and started talking about how to take care of horses’ feet.

Homer jammed his hands in his pockets and left, kicking sticks on the ground as he walked. Jamie listened to Doc for a few minutes, but when he didn’t say anything that Jamie didn’t already know, he went to find Homer.

He was sitting under the tree, picking up small rocks and throwing them at a fencepost. Jamie sat down beside him. “Want to play Andy Over?”

“With only two people? That ain’t no fun. There ain’t nobody else who’ll play, neither.”

Jamie looked around the schoolyard and saw the little kids crawling around on the porch, drawing pictures with chalk while the girls and Terry Smith jumped rope.

Homer scowled and pointed. “Look at that, will ya? Terry’s jumpin’ rope again.”

“Well, maybe he likes to. Not everybody has to play the same games.”

“Yeah, but only girls jump rope. Boys who do are sissies and that’s all there is to it.”

Watching Terry jump rope and chant silly rhymes with the girls bothered Jamie, but he didn’t know why. The girls jumped rope all the time, but why would a boy want to? On the other hand, what’s wrong if he did? Jamie couldn’t figure it out.

Homer pitched rocks until Miss Kuelmann rang her bell. The rest of the afternoon, the older kids did seat work while Miss Kuelmann helped the youngest. Sam completed assignments as fast as a runaway horse and kept asking for more. Each time he did, Homer looked up from his work and glared at Sam.

At afternoon recess, Homer raced out first to catch everybody coming out to organize a game, but Ken and Keith, Doc and Sam went out the side door, leaving Homer standing by himself on the porch. When he saw them going to the shed, he went to the tree and climbed around for the rest of recess.

After school, Homer scowled at Sam as he got into the truck and left. Then he yanked his boots off and ran toward home without talking to Jamie as he usually did.

That night at supper, Jamie’s mom asked him so many questions about school, he was afraid he wouldn’t get enough to eat. He’d answer one and take a couple of quick bites before she’d ask another. She did the same thing every fall even though Jamie had already told her everything was the same as last year—except for Sam.

“So, Jamie, what’s Sam like?”

Jamie swallowed a mouthful of potatoes and said, “Well, he’s from New York City and went to a private school there. He doesn’t say much.”

“I would imagine so. School here must be very different than in New York and I’m sure it’ll take some time for him to get used to the way we do things.”

Jamie nodded. “He’s got an accent too, but it doesn’t sound like he’s from another country like the German and Norwegian farmers up north.”

His grandpa said, “I recall when Mrs. Lily and her husband first come out here about thirty-five years ago. They had accents too.”

Jamie asked, “If they’re from New York, how did they get out here?”

“Well, back in the 1890s, times got real hard and lots of farmers went broke. Mrs. Lily and her husband, Richard, bought up lots of good land and then built that big house. I dunno how much he knew about farmin’, but he sure knew how to hire the right folks to run his place. In a few years, he had a dozen men workin’ for ’im raisin’ cattle and oats. Did real well.”

Jamie’s grandpa sighed and his shoulders sagged. “Then the flu epidemic come along and took so many folks including Mr. Lily. After that, Mrs. Lily rented out most of the land and has kept to herself. Now it’s a rare thing that anybody sees her.”

Jamie said, “A man I didn’t know drove Sam to school. Who was that?”

“Probably one of her relatives. Mrs. Lily come from Sweden years back and she sends over for a relative to live with her while they learn English. Then, when they strike out on their own, she brings over another. That way, she always has someone to help with chores.”

“Makes sense,” Jamie said. “It’d be hard to keep up a place that big without help.”

He asked for another piece of pie and as he ate, he wondered about Sam. He liked him and didn’t think he was stuck-up. But like Homer, he felt there was something odd about him. Maybe after Sam had been at school for a while, Jamie would figure out what it was.

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