By Tom McTighe
Illustrated by Xtal Giarth
I guess I was a pretty typical high school guy – I didn’t really have any interests, except for girls. Megan Caulley, however, wasn’t typical of the beauties that distracted me from my high school studies. In my daydream world of deified Scandinavian girls, she stood a little shorter than average, with ordinary brown hair. Her face was nothing dramatic, either, but set within it were a pair of eyes that made me curious. They danced with cleverness, cunning, or mischief, depending on the day of the week – scaring off half the guys in school and attracting the rest.
During the first years of high school, she had had a few boyfriends, but as it turned out each of them ran with a different crowd, so she had no reputation. Without rumors or gossip to guide me, I was on my own. I began my investigation in art class one Friday, and we went out for an aimless drive in the country that weekend.
We had been dating a few weeks (well, I’d gotten her out on a handful of dates, although I really wasn’t sure if we were dating – I was too afraid of sounding unsure to actually come out and ask her if we were), before I started to figure her out. Like most people who find themselves blessed (or burdened) with having many prospects to choose from, she had developed a technique for narrowing down her choices, and soon I became well acquainted with this technique.
I might get into her car, for instance, for a day trip to the river, and she’d have the classical station on, and tell me that she only listened to classical now, so we’d listen to classical music all day. I never could tell how much of her was really into classical now, and how much of her just wanted to see if I was flexible enough to put up with it. The next week, she couldn’t stand classical – she said she only listened to classic rock, or country.
In someone else, this behavior would have irritated me, but Megan made it into an all-encompassing joke. Although it was kind of extreme, I didn’t begrudge her the game. She had a fairly large field to narrow, after all, and the harder she was to get along with, the better my chances would be, as fewer and fewer guys would be willing to put up with her.
I felt like I was in on the game, too, as long as I didn’t come out and call it what it was. In a way, our courtship was like a battle of wits, and having always held my own, I intended to hold my own in this case, too, and to do it with style. I began to poke subtle fun at Megan and at the whole game. For instance, after she had bitterly denied that she still liked ice skating, which I knew she still liked, it just so happened that Disney World on Ice came to town. I got tickets to the sold-out show and asked her if she wanted to go. She held out for a while, but then grudgingly agreed to come along, and as the lights went down I saw her forget about her little game and really enjoy herself.
I often wondered, though, what it was, underneath it all, that I was so attracted to. Well, it came down to three things, really: she was sincere, she had a sharp sense of humor, and she was interesting. Moreover, she was a challenge. I felt like I was running in a tough race, competing for a rare prize. After a few weeks, I started to see myself as an early favorite. I had met her parents (who were not very pleasant), and had been invited out to the farm.
It was a hot August day when I went out to help her with the horses. Her family lived on a small farm thirty minutes out of town, and since her older brother Bill had gone off to college, her parents were having a hard time keeping up with the chores. I was no strapping young man – actually I was a rather thin guy, but I shoveled manure for five hours that day, filling a wheelbarrow and then pushing it over to a pile and dumping it.
At one point I saw Megan on the porch with her dad, explaining something to him, and looking out at me. He stood, stocky and compact, with his arms folded over his thick chest, eyes hidden in the shadow of his hat. It dawned on me, from the way they reacted when I waved, that this whole day on the farm was just another kind of trial – she was testing me, as usual, but now she was doing it openly. I got angry, slinging the manure around, talking to myself – I don’t know, I just felt, small – but then I calmed down and realized that she wasn’t just playing with me, like a bug in a glass jar. Her testing meant I was in the running – that I had a chance of being the one she eventually chose – and here I was, out on the farm, and my chances were actually looking pretty good.
After the corrals were cleaned up, I had a snack and then mowed grass for four hours. It took any romantic notions I might have had about owning a farm right out of my head. I finished – sunburned and fed up – but also happy to have cleared another hurdle. Megan brought me a water bottle.
“Here you go, working man.” I had told her that as a kid my sole responsibility was to take out the trash, and that a lot of times I had managed to forget to do even that.
“Thanks,” I gasped, as I drank.
Then she added, “My mom and I are going in to get some movies. We’ll leave you here with dad.” I looked at her. “Don’t worry,” she said, tenderly, “you’ll think of something to talk about - you’re a very clever boy.” It felt like a kiss. “Your other option is to rescue Franz.”
I let my face drop in exasperated disbelief as she proceeded to tell me about a small doll she had as a kid, which her brother had thrown onto the roof of the barn. She pointed to where on the roof she thought the doll might be (most likely lodged in the rain gutter, she said), and then over to the forty-foot aluminum ladder that lay on its side next to the tool shed. Her eyes looked deeply into mine. In the scheme of things, this seemed to be important. But then she added casually, “That was ten years ago, though. He’s probably been carried off by birds by now. I’ll see you soon.”
A big pink dust cloud rose behind her car as she drove toward the highway, cutting in front of the sun. I put the lawnmower back into the tool shed. It was a lie. She had told me a lie. Somehow, though, it didn’t matter. The way she did it, it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Like she thought a lot of me for seeing that it wasn’t a big deal that she’d lied to me and I didn’t call her on it. Like I had gained some ground with her, by not upsetting the game even in the face of a plain lie.
It did bug me, actually, but I put it aside – I would deal with it later. Right now I had a decision to make: was I supposed to get the ladder and try to go up there, following the charade through to its conclusion, or just forget it and go back up to the house and see if her dad wanted to play gin? I stooped and lifted an end of the ladder to test its weight. It was heavy as hell, but I figured that if I tried it from the middle I could haul it over to the barn.
Well, I did that, and after several attempts I got the son-of-a-bitch upright. At its full extension it rested just under the gutter. Forty feet into the sky for a game, I thought. But I would have the opportunity to call her on her lie. That would be worth it.
Halfway up, I noted that my life was in danger, that I could really get hurt if I fell. Why hadn’t I got the old man out here to spot me? The ladder bowed in toward the barn wall, but I had a fairly good footing dug into the sod, so I was pretty sure it wouldn’t slip out from under me. As long as it didn’t tip backward, I’d be fine. But even if I found nothing up there I realized I couldn’t really call Megan on her lie – it had been ten years, after all. Even if the birds hadn’t carried Franz off, he’d most likely have decomposed. But whether or not there was a Franz, either way, she’d know that I had done it – that I’d taken her at her word. And then I’d tell her that I was through with all this nonsense and that she’d have to be straight with me from now on.
I neared the top – my anger had made my body tense – and suddenly I froze up. The ladder wavered under me, and I considered just carefully creeping back down to the ground. But it had become more about overcoming my fear of the climb than anything else, and so I stretched out and got a light grip on the edge of the gutter, then delicately lifted my left foot up to the ladder’s second-highest rung, following it as smoothly as possible with my right.
I was three and a half stories above the ground, easily the highest I’d ever climbed, with my belt buckle just below the level of the flat roof of the barn – and there was Franz! I was surprised to find him so quickly, but under the sludge that filled the wide rain gutter from end to end, I plainly saw a bit of peach-colored rubber that could only be a doll’s head. It hadn’t been a lie! My mind reeled, trying to process this new information, but a sudden breeze made me get my bearings in a hurry.
I steadied myself. Then I reached out for the doll, and dug through the black soil until I had him in my hand. The ladder shifted sickeningly beneath me, as one of its footings sank a little deeper into the grass. My blood went cold, and I pushed up and rolled onto the roof in a panic. I waited to hear the ladder crash to the earth dramatically, but it remained standing, foolishly – and now I was stuck. The fact that the ladder didn’t even reach the gutter, that it was now dark, and that I was no old hand at this anyway, left me stranded up there on the roof.
In a short while the lights of Megan’s car came along the gravel road, and soon she and her parents were gathered below me.
Her dad shouted up, “What are you doing up there?” I explained that it had looked like the gutters needed cleaning, and that I had come up to see, and now I was stuck. They all stood around for a while, quietly arguing about what to do. Mr. Caully re-set the ladder, and I tried approaching it a few times – backwards and on my belly – but it was too scary. After that I just peered down at them, holding Franz behind my back. Over her father’s protest, Megan eventually went in and called the fire department. I empathized with the old man; being a farmer meant doing things yourself, and he was clearly embarrassed by all this.
I had to hide Franz. At first I thought I’d just toss him off the far side of the barn, but then I reconsidered, thinking an animal might carry him off before I got to him. In a flash I decided to hide him up under the back of my T-shirt, which I tucked in. I left my flannel untucked, so it would hang loosely over the little hump. No one would know he was there.
The next time I looked down, Megan and Mrs. Caully were setting up a card table with coffeecake and milk for the firemen. The big hook-and-ladder soon made its appearance on the road, then came on down to the barn. The firemen treated me like a helpless kitten, and wanted to carry me down the ladder like a child, but I insisted that I could make it on my own. On the ground, Megan took me, safe at last, in her arms, and the firemen gathered around the coffeecake. I was humbled. It was clear that I owed her father an apology.
That night, alone in the guest room, I couldn’t sleep, so I switched on the lamp and took Franz out from under the bed. I had cleaned him up some, and he really looked pretty good for all that he’d gone through. Now I would get my reward, I thought. I tore the top off the box of Kleenex that sat on my nightstand, and nestled Franz inside, where the tissues provided a little bed for him. He looked like the precious relic he was. The box had a nice floral pattern, and I was able to fashion a tiny card out of a piece of its top. I found a blue ballpoint pen, and wrote:
I missed you.
I snuck upstairs without making a sound, but in the hall the floorboards creaked loudly, and downstairs the Caulleys’ old dog let out a single, piercing howl. Knowing Megan’s parents would soon be out of bed to investigate, I hurried into Megan’s room.
“What’s going on?” she murmured.
“I brought you something,” I said, and I motioned for her to conceal the box under her covers. Megan’s parents appeared in the doorway.
“What’s going on?” her mom asked sleepily. The words came to me slowly. I said, “I just felt awful ... for everything, and wanted to apologize ... for everything. And to you two, too.” Megan’s dad cleared his throat and looked down at the floor. “We know you, ah, meant well.”
“We’re just glad you’re safe, Carl,” said her mom.
I am now forty-three. Over the years, I have quit smoking, when Megan took up running; I have become a father, soon after she decided she wanted kids. At her urging, I went back to college and got a degree, and now I make pretty good money. We took over the little farm, and I’ve come to like it out here; I’ve learned to draw, to accompany her on the piano, and to like camping; I’ve even sung in public a few times. These days she’s on a health kick, so we do yoga every morning, and eat healthy.
In short, I have passed every test that Megan has come up with over the last 20 years – and with flying colors. And while I know she’s not finished with me yet – and never will be, that’s just Megan – I don’t worry about it anymore. As time has passed, I think I’ve proven that I’m clever enough to handle Megan Caulley.