It was late October, and chilly enough for us to see our breath, but not yet cold enough for snow. Soon, winter would set in, and since my best friend, Tamara, called “Tam” for short, lived 17 miles out of town, I knew my trips to her family farm would soon be limited.
I loved staying at their family’s farmhouse: a huge home filled with children who spilled out into the yard when wrestling and tumbling games got to be too much. Tension was eased by space, I realized, space I didn’t have in my small family home back in town.
Hours after we were supposed to be asleep, we sat up in Tamara and her sister, Shelly’s, bedroom. My sleeping bag was on the floor while Tam was on the bottom bunk. Shelly, or “Shel” as we all called her, was on the top bunk, peering down at us. I don’t remember what we were talking about. We may have talked about boys, but probably not, as all three of us viewed them as hindrances. Tam and I were both 13 and Shel had just turned 12. Maybe we talked about clothes or music. Maybe, just maybe, we talked about school.
But I know we didn’t talk about the stress in our own families. Tamara, along with her brothers and sisters, had recently qualified for free lunches, and her mother, who had been a full-time, stay-at-home mom and farmer, had also taken an array of part-time jobs.
“To make ends meet,” she had told me cheerfully that night. Perhaps a little too cheerfully, as for the first time, I noticed that Tam’s young mother had gray strands sneaking through her hair.
I hadn’t understood exactly what she meant.
“To pay the bills,” Tam had clarified.
That I had understood. My own mother was constantly picking up part-time jobs for extra income.
That night, as I listened to Shel and Tam talk, I looked out the window, watching the shadows in the fields that had been stripped of its sweet corn weeks before.
Then, all three of us caught a glimpse of a light snaking its way across the field, into the small enclosed yard behind the barn.
“Someone is spotting for deer,” I said.
Spotting, or jacklighting as it is called in some parts of rural Pennsylvania, is the practice of taking a large flashlight, or “spotlight” and from the seats of a vehicle, shining the lights into fields, backyards, pipelines, and other clearings to see if deer can be spotted. Local hunters sometimes take part in this practice to find good hunting places.
“They are so stupid,” Shel said, shaking her head and pointing her finger where the light had come to rest.
I looked, and then understood the scorn in her voice.
Their old donkey stood by their barn. Blinking in the light, he didn’t look afraid, only confused, as if wondering why his slumber was being disturbed.
The light hovered.
“City people,” said Tam. She nodded toward the road. “They’ve been here before.”
City people was a code word that we all used for those who came up from Pittsburgh. These people simultaneously admired our beautiful wildlife in northern Pennsylvania yet wondered out loud how “anyone could possibly live like this,” in reference to our small towns with single stoplights, two or three gas stations, and no fast food restaurants or malls.
We hated city people.
The light was still shining.
Suddenly, Shel jumped from the top bunk, and reaching over me, pushed open the bedroom window. “You stupid idiots,” she yelled. “That is a donkey, not a deer. Go away.”
The cold slammed through the window as her words echoed across the yard. Tam and I, startled at both her sister’s actions and her words, jumped.
The light turned toward us, hovering for a moment, on three girls in an upstairs bedroom window. We all blinked, and I sheltered my eyes with my right hand, trying to see what the car full of city people was going to do.
But they did nothing.
Instead, the light went off, and in the dark, we heard the start of an engine as the car drove away.