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Next Stop, Urban
My older brother, Johnny, had never been one for cities. He was disgusted by the black smog that came up from the evil looking towers, wrinkled his nose at the thought of living in a 2-foot room filled with mice and vermin. There were others, like, Grizelda and Jecca, who were all for it. It was the fast life, they said, the way the future was headed. Johnny shook his head and said if that was the future, he’d be just fine staying behind. When Johnny had his mind made up on something, there was no changing it. So it’s not a surprise that when Grizelda, Jecca, and all the rest had gone, he wasn’t willing to admit that the farm life couldn’t be our life anymore. When all the farmhouses around ours were boarded up and cleared out, on the cold nights when there was only Johnny, me, and old, withering Mrs.Fickles, he still didn’t relent. But I guess I always knew, in the end, that Johnny’s determination- strong as it was- couldn’t keep the world from backing us up into a corner. That November day the letter arrived from the city, in a fancy white envelope with the debt collector’s name and seal on the back, I knew our lives were about to be shaken like a rollercoaster, upside down, sideways, and through gravity-defying loops. Even back then, I wondered if Johnny would be able to hold on to the railings.
We moved out of the farmhouse on January 22, 1941. Our horses were saddled and ready by mid-noon on that day, though you couldn’t say the same for the two of us. Johnny sat in the kitchen with a cup of Mildred’s coffee, misty-eyed and trying not to cry, while I said my last goodbyes to my home. The farmhouse was large and cozy, with windows pouring in light around every corner. Johnny and I had inherited it when our parents had passed away, years ago, when he was only 13 and I was 7. I didn’t remember how they died, and Johnny had never told me, but for as long as I could remember it had been Johnny and me. Now I stood in my room for one last time, staring at the bed where I had collapsed after so many hard days, looking at the small wooden cow Johnny had carved for me when, as a child, I was distraught when one of our weak cows had to be butchered. I stepped out into the hallway, the wood creaking under my feet, the dislodged tile I had promised to fix months ago squeaking angrily. Down in the barn, I gave our sweetest cow, Mildred, some straw while she stared at me accusingly. Johnny had arranged for the butchers to pick up all our animals in 2 days. There was no other option. I patted Mildred’s head, bittersweet memories rushing through my head.
“Noah!” Johnny shouted from outside.
It was time to go. Time to whisper my last goodbye. I turned away from Mildred and walked out of the barn, looking back so often I almost lost my footing going forward. Johnny and I waved to Mrs.Fickles, Grizelda and Jecca’s grandmother who had declared at the beginning of the factory work that she would die at her farm whether the country wanted it or not. I knew Johnny envied kindly Mrs.Fickles, wished he could so easily say put like her. However, Mrs.Fickles was nearing her death, and had money sent home by her granddaughters. Johnny was 20, a young man with an expected, unwanted future ahead of him, and me to support.
Johnny’s face shut down the second we galloped into New York. The sweet country air seemed to disintegrate before our eyes, morphing into something rotten that stank of sweat and burnt rubber. There were a few big factories in town; a doll factory, a dairy factory, a clothing factory, a car factory, and a clock workshop. Until one of them employed Johnny and me, we would be staying at a rundown motel run by Mr. Zanahorias, our father’s old friend. We got to the motel, tied our horses in the back, and went inside.
Mr. Zanahorias was a squinty-eyed man whose eyebrows shot up into his scalp as we walked in.
“Hmph. You must be the McGowan boys.” He said, eyeing us as if we were wanted criminals.
“Yes, Sir.” Said Johnny, smiling forcibly. “We’d like to thank you for housing us until we can get settled. We greatly appreciate it, Sir.”
“Hmph. Well, you ought to.”
“I assure you, Sir, we do.” Said Johnny, looking unsettled.
“Now, don’t you go on thinking this is any kind of permanent arrangement. I’ll put you up for 2 weeks, no more. I have guests to serve and money to make, boys. I have no time for riff raff or sentiment. Sentiment is for weaklings.”
“Of course, Sir. That’s very generous of you.”
“Hmph. I’m only doing this because your father got me started in the motel business, you know. But mark my words; sentiment is for weaklings. You won’t get anywhere in this city if your heart is mush.”
“Very good advice, Sir.”
“Hmph.” Mr. Zanahorias glared at us one last time, then returned to the account sheet in his hands. “You lodgings are on the second floor, third door on the right. Take the back stairs.”
We were walking away when he called out to me
“And you, boy. Speak up if you want to be heard.”
“Yes, Sir.” I responded in Johnny’s monotone.
In the evening, Grizelda and Jecca came to see us. We sat in Mr.Zanahorias’ musty parlor as we talked. Grizelda and Jecca, much like Johnny and Mildred, had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. They had lost their parents as children like Johnny and I, and we had been inseparable as little children. Grizelda was 19, about Johnny’s age, and Jecca was 15, the same age as me. All our neighbors had talked about Grizelda and Johnny getting married before they moved away. I knew the girls’ relatives in the city approved, and in a few years, once Johnny had enough money, their marriage was certain. Jecca and I would probably follow the same path. But more than potential wives, the girls’ were our friends, perhaps our only friends.
“ Have you been looking around the factories, Johnny?” Grizelda asked.
“Not yet. I think we’ll start today.”
Grizelda heard the reluctance, so clear, in his voice. She sighed.
“Still hung up on the farm, huh? Johnny…”
“I know, I know. Progress and all that.”
“Good lord, Johnny, you make it sound like I’m sticking arrows in you.”
“You might as well.” Johnny mumbled.
I caught Jecca’s eye, and we both laughed. Johnny and Grizelda’s constant, teasing bickering was nothing new.
The narrow beds in our rooms that night were as good as stone, and there was not a single window in the cracked, gray walls. As Johnny and I lay awake that night, I realized this, this suffocating smallness, the crowded streets and plain, temporary furniture, was the way everyone in the city lived. This was the way I lived now. This knowledge tore me down, and I found I couldn’t run from it anymore. With the injuries in this city, I would be lucky if I lived to smell the sweet farm air again. And so, forgive me if I cried that night. Forgive me if I shed tears till mornings light. For I admit I was acting a child, but what can a child do but cling onto foolishness when the time has come, abrupt and too sudden, for him to man up?