Copyright © 2004 by Rich Mussler. Not to be reproduced without permission.
I have a confession to make. It’s not very pretty but it’s one I feel I must make public – the airing of an old, festering wound which I’ve kept buried in the darkest corner of my soul for far too long now.
In the fall where I grew up, autumns were orange. I mean bright, vibrant orange with variant hues of yellow and red. And the sky was perpetual blue – that crisp, cloudless blue like a canopy stretched taught from the Coast Range to the Cascades with no mar or imperfection. And the grass at our place was thick because it was too damp with dew to mow that late in the autumn, in the fall.
One such fall in my tenth year there came a new boy to our grade school. His name was Everett, and for whatever reason children choose to do these things, we other kids didn’t like him much. Country kids can be clannish, I suppose, and always a new kid has it rough.
Everett’s family was from the south, so he had a cowboy drawl which we mimicked mercilessly. His clothes were a bit more ragtag than ours, and his shoes were what we termed “clodhoppers.” I clearly remember all of us standing along the edge of the baseball diamond, taunting him, tossing dirt clods his direction as he ran from us sobbing tearfully. His crying when we teased him was fuel-to-fire. "Crybaby," we catcalled.
Everett and his family were our neighbors. They lived a quarter mile or so to the north of us. Their home was an old, run down, faded yellow farm shack that they had rented just that spring. It wasn’t much, an acre or so of land, a corral and some stables attached to the back of the house, an old chicken coop used for storing hay.
Everett’s mother was a large woman and he had three, maybe four younger brothers and sisters. They were poor, they just didn’t have much. But Everett had something – one thing – that was the envy of all of us at school: a great, sorrel-red show horse, with white stockings and a blaze face. Oh! It was a beautiful animal.
Now, the owning of a horse was no big deal. I had a horse, my cousins owned horses; in fact, nearly everybody in our rural school grew up owning horses. But Everett’s horse was a show horse. It had won trophies and ribbons which he brought to school one show-and-tell session. Everett even got to ride it at the State Fair, on its big black saddle with silver sequins and a braided lariat.
When I would climb to the top of the old cottonwood on our place I could see him on late afternoons, after school, riding his sorrel around the corral. Round and round, his prize animal jumping barrels, head held high, mane flowing, tail like a flag raised in tribute.
Afterwards, Everett would curry that big animal, brushing dust and dirt from it, talking to it in confident tones carried to my ear by a gentle breeze. A boy and his best friend. Everett was no crybaby with that sorrel.
I will never forget that Indian summer Saturday when, as the sun was just slipping behind Mary’s Peak and the western sky began to glow, and we neighborhood kids were playing in our front yard near the weeping willow. We all of a sudden heard Everett’s screams and saw him running towards us up the highway from his home. The back of his shirt was black and smoking. He threw himself into the cool grass at our feet. “Our house is afire!” he cried. “Our house is afire! We don’t have no phone, call the fire trucks!”
We were stunned. We looked at him, and then at his home. Bright orange flames were licking out the windows and black smoke snaked from the doorway.
The rural fire department responded quickly but it was mostly too late. They saved what they could of the farmhouse, but the stables in back burned to the ground. My father and brother and I wandered over as the firemen were finishing up. We went between the fire trucks to see what we could see in the dusk. There, where the stables had stood, I saw Everett’s sorrel on its side, black with soot. It was burnt, bloated and split like an over-broiled sausage. Its proud tail was gone, nothing left but a charred twig, and its eyelids were burned away. It stared, and I stared horrified, too long. The image and stench of that animal is with me today, I can see it this moment.
Our teacher told us later what happened.
They were painting the inside of that old farmhouse when the turpentine used for cleaning the brushes had flashed against a heater. Everett was severely injured. He was to be in the hospital for some time, we were told, his back badly burned.
Here, I guess, is where my confession begins. I was waiting for the school bus one morning and there, up the highway, came Everett! I hadn’t seen him since the fire and he never rode the bus. He always walked the mile or so to school.
I watched him as he approached and determined in my mind that I would say I was sorry to Everett, about his red sorrel and about his home burning down. I decided that I would apologize for teasing him and then ask him to play with us at recess.
But when he came near, I couldn’t. He stood stiffly and looked across the highway at sheep in the pasture there. He didn’t look at me and I couldn’t speak. I wanted to tell him that I had watched him ride the sorrel from the top of the cottonwood, and I wanted to tell him that I was sorry we teased him, and I wanted to ask him to play with us at recess. I wanted to tell him all those things but, God forgive me, when he came near I smelled smoke on his clothes and I couldn’t speak.
Not one word came from my lips.
Soon, the school bus arrived and we got on it. We went to separate seats, I to my friends and he to the empty bench in the back. His family moved away a few weeks later and I never got to tell him what I wanted to. I never had another chance.
To this day, when Everett thinks of me, he probably remembers a teasing, unfeeling brat who didn’t care enough to even acknowledge his presence, much less his pain and hurt. And in a sense, I confess, he’s right. I was! But forever after, even now, the smell of campfires, or of fields burning in August, or a backed up flue, any smoke at all brings to memory the sight of that smoldering red sorrel, and the smell of Everett’s clothes, and deep in my guts I want to find him and tell him:
“I’m sorry, Everett. I really am.”