This story, about an American girl who romanticises the past, appeared in Issue 5 of Pushing Out the Boat.
A Simple Life
Melissa’s mother knocked softly at the bedroom door as she came in.
“Honey, I’ve already reminded you once: I’m only letting you keep that oil lamp in here if you keep the wick trimmed. It’s a fire hazard!” She stood there, frowning, her arms full of folded clothes straight from the dryer.
Melissa had been so busy packing that she hadn’t noticed the violently flickering shadows on the walls. She turned the wick down to a tidy little flame.
“Sorry, Mom. I’ll keep it lower. Promise.”
Her mother watched the lamp’s glow. She’d been a bit concerned when Melissa had first become interested in the Shakers and the Amish and the Mennonites – those quirky worlds that most people don’t realize still exist out there in America. But she’d soon seen that what attracted her daughter was the purity of their way of life, the deep colors and clever designs. She was the one who’d helped Melissa refinish her desk and make the rag rug. After all, there were worse things for teenagers to be into.
She put the clothes down next to the waiting suitcase: “Well alright. Last chance, though. OK?”
“OK, Mom. Thanks for the laundry.” Just as Melissa knew she would, her mother ruffled her hair on the way out. After a moment, Melissa turned the wick up again a tidge. She looked around her room: she loved coming home from high school to its peace and order. It was a refuge. In her bedroom she could imagine that the most important things in life were doing your homework well, reading nice books, and making beautiful things – or trying to anyway.
But today there wasn’t time to dream. She was packing for her first trip away on her own. At first, when the invitation had come for her to spend two weeks with her cousin Becky, she’d felt almost panicky. But then she’d got out her Atlas of the United States – the one where she’d marked, in colored felt tips, all the non-conformist communities she’d been able to locate. Most of the dots were concentrated in the East, but her heart rose when she found a blue one – blue was for Amish – on a crossroads in the grid of lines: Oneida, Illinois, 30 miles from her aunt and uncle’s house.
Six weeks later, Becky was showing her into the guest room.
“What’s your favorite group?” she asked, before Melissa had even got the buckles on the suitcase undone.
“Um –” It was fatal to hesitate. “Grand Central, I guess.” This trip was going to be a big mistake.
“Yeah? What’s your favorite song of theirs?” Becky’s voice had a hint of challenge, but she was suddenly distracted by seeing something Melissa was unpacking. “You guys still wear baggy shorts over in Montana? Oh my God – they’re so last century!”
“Yeah well – we’re very last century in Montana,” Melissa said. And then, inspired, “In fact, we don’t even have microwaves there yet. The mountains block out the signals.”
“You’re kidding!” Becky’s eyes were wide with alarm. “You mean the government can’t do anything about that? Geez!”
At dinner Uncle Howard and Aunt Linda wanted to know all about Melissa’s family, her high school, sports, and extracurricular activities. Once she had finished accounting for all these things, and had heard the details of Becky’s parallel life, there was a slight lull. Outside the screen door the crickets’ loud chirping also quieted for half a second, then started up again. Melissa passed the green beans, and asked the question that had been in her head for weeks:
“Do you know any Amish people?”
“Fine workers,” said Uncle Howard. “They got tools no-one else even remembers existed. They do beautiful carpentry. If you’re interested in the Amish, I’ll take you down with me to Oneida. I’ve got some lumber to pick up from a guy down there.”
At the same time as Melissa said “Great!” Becky said “Da-aad!” Unsure, Melissa looked to her uncle.
“She doesn’t want to go to Oneida!” Becky continued, rolling her eyes. “There’s nothing to do there!” But Uncle Howard had seen the expression on Melissa’s face.
“Jello salad anyone?” asked Aunt Linda, reaching for the pyrex bowl. “There’s an auction down there on Thursday,” she said, dishing out wobbly circles of pineapple imprisoned in red gelatine. “I’d like to go see if there are any nice quilts for sale.”
Becky just frowned down at the tablecloth in irritation.
The Rubsamen’s grey Impala slid out of the driveway early Thursday morning and headed out of town. The roads went straight through the cornfields, with an occasional four-way stop. Melissa was relieved that Becky had decided to help a friend with her State Fair project. The last two days had been tricky. Melissa had gone on a cookout with Becky and her friends, and it was all the same old stuff: couples necking in the shadows behind the fire, lots of giggling and in-jokes that Becky tried to explain and Melissa pretended to get.
It was just like Cindy Aldritch all over again. Right through eighth grade Cindy had always been up for building forts or riding bikes, but once they were in high school it was nothing but boys, boys, boys. She was obsessed: did he look at me? I think he did!! Is my tan line showing? And once she’d started going out with John Roscoe it was just gross, all they did was sit around putting their tongues down each other’s throats. The end-of-year dance had been the worst. Greg Goucher had asked Melissa, and that was fine. Greg was in marching band. He was someone you could talk to.
But he’d come to the front door with an orange carnation corsage she had to pin on her dress, and when they were dancing he’d held her too tight. He kept moving his hand up and down across her back, strumming on her bra strap through her dress as if trying to spell something out in code. Afterwards, she’d been glad the porch light was so bright. His voice had cracked, “Hey, don’t I get a kiss?” as she fled indoors.
So she didn’t mind sitting by herself in the back seat. It was nice not to have to talk about makeup, or pretend to be bored. Telephone poles clicked by, the railway sidled up to the road and then, as if offended, suddenly veered away off again. Over the nodding tassles of corn, the water tower with ONEIDA painted on it seemed never to get any closer.
“You see that house there over there?” Uncle Howard pointed ahead. “That’s an Amish house.” He slowed down a bit so she could see as they went past: a house shut up in the summer heat, a row of blue shirts on the line.
“How can you tell?”
“Easy: no power lines. And a windmill.” Further along she saw a black buggy. A man and woman were sitting in the front, looking straight ahead like an old-time photograph. Melissa tried not to gawk as they went by. She thought of the world they must inhabit, with no t.v. but instead families gathered around the fire in the evenings. A world where, instead of phoning your friends, you wrote to them. She imagined fountain pens dipped into inkwells, calligraphy on creamy paper:
And with every good wish,
yours most truly,
They didn’t go to stupid dances and cookouts, they had proper “courtships”. You probably didn’t even get to hold hands unless you were engaged to be married.
Uncle Howard turned into the main street and Melissa was disappointed to see a town like any other. But next to the municipal parking lot stood a long shed marked “Buggies Only”. One horse stood flicking flies with its tail.
“Where are all the Amish?” she asked.
“Oh they don’t live in the town, honey,” Aunt Linda said. “They live out on the farms. We’ll be going out there for the auction.”
They had lunch at the Dutch Oven. There was a real Amish woman there, waiting on the next table. She wore a green dress: it was an ice-skating dress, with a full skirt and maybe even a petticoat underneath. It was a dress you could wear walking down the road with your books slung over your shoulder in a leather strap, chatting to your friends. Melissa wondered if her mother could help her make one like it. She could wear it at home, or to Christmas parties. But when the waitress walked back to the kitchen Melissa saw she was wearing a pair of purple and white running shoes.
Aunt Linda saw her expression and laughed. “They are funny aren’t they? Wait til you see the local paper.” Aunt Linda would never understand that Melissa’s disappointment was because a potentially lovely outfit had been spoiled by the wrong shoes. A skirt like that needed an old-fashioned pair of black lace-up boots. Aunt Linda had gone to get a copy of the Oneida Clarion from next to the cash register. “Have a look at the social pages,” she whispered to Melissa. “What a hoot!”
The social column was full of notices such as:
Mr. and Mrs. Zeb Yoder and their daughter Anna called upon Mrs. Joseph Lederman on Sunday afternoon. Ice cream and lemon pie were served. Also present were Mrs. Thomas Zimmer and girls.
Melissa wondered how much fun that had been for Anna. Probably Amish kids had lots of old-fashioned games they played together while the grown-ups talked.
The waitress came over again, this time to their table. She had a jug of ice water and refilled their glasses. Melissa said thank you and the woman smiled at her, less shyly than Melissa would have thought was suitable. As she turned to serve the next table, Melissa caught the tangy whiff. It had never before occurred to her that avoiding worldly ways meant not using deodorant.
“Ready to go?” Uncle Howard asked, folding his napkin. Uncle Howard lived in the present. He accepted what was in front of him. Was that better than being a dreamer? Melissa decided she preferred her imaginary landscapes to most of what she saw around her.
The sun was high in the sky and the heat made shimmering mirages over the country roads as they drove out. They passed more buggies: some with prim couples, others with energetic mothers driving broods of children. All the buggies seemed to be headed towards the auction house, which looked like an enormous white barn.
Inside it was dark and cool. Melissa was surprised at how noisy it was and how many people were there: rows and rows of seats mostly filled with Amish men chatting to each other, some with their black hats on and some without. There was one man whose full beard, trimmed around his mouth to just above his jawline, didn’t disguise his incongruously young and handsome face. She watched as he laughed at something, oblivious of her. She wondered if he had a girlfriend or a wife. Another man chatted to his neighbor over the bonneted head of a little girl, whose back he patted gently and unconsciously.
To her right were long trestle tables displaying numbered goods to be auctioned. Further along there were some tables where you could sit and drink lemonade that older children were selling, ladling it out of big aluminum stock pots into clear plastic glasses. The women were mostly gathered on this side of the auction house, many of them with babies and young children in their arms, talking amongst themselves in their own language. Almost all of them wore flowing long skirts, white headcoverings, and different kinds of running shoes.
Melissa followed Aunt Linda over to the tables. There was one full of toys and books. The toys looked so innocent: jacks and balls, marbles, whistles. There were none of the evil-looking transformers that turned from muscular he-men into killing machines with robot faces and a hidden bionic arsenal. She picked up a children’s book and was startled to discover Bible stories illustrated by black and white drawings of a scary-looking Old Testament God who was overseeing damned souls in hell. She felt a sweet relief when she thought of the many hours she had spent in the library. She tried to imagine growing up without Doctor Seuss or Alice in Wonderland – or even some of the trashier things like the Sweet Sixteen series that you knew weren’t really good but that you could just gobble up. How could she have survived without all those books?
She looked for Aunt Linda and Uncle Howard but couldn’t see them. There were more tables over by another door, across on the far side of the auction house. Perhaps they had gone over there. Standing alone, she suddenly became terribly conscious of her bare legs and her “Just Do It” t-shirt. But would they know what ‘do it’ really meant? She decided to go around the outside, and slipped back out into the hot sun.
She followed the long white clapboard wall to the corner, and when she’d turned it, was surprised by a shout as a ball went flying past her head. There in the shade of the building, Amish boys were playing a compact and fast ballgame, yelling to one another, running and throwing the ball very hard. Some of the boys were older than she was, and it seemed like a lot of the younger ones were just looking on from the sidelines, from under the brims of their hats. They impatiently motioned to her to get out of the way. Long sheds cut off her intended route to the other side of the auction house, so she went back around the corner.
She wondered how they had reacted to the sight of this girl with the shorts on. Were they used to seeing girls wearing shorts on their trips into town? They didn’t seem to have been shocked, or even to have really noticed her. Maybe they were just good at hiding what they thought. Maybe the Amish were like that.
“Well howdy, I thought for sure we’d lost you there!” Aunt Linda had come out to find her. “Come have a look at the quilts with me.” Melissa followed her back through the crowds, trying not to feel too conspicuous. After all, Aunt Linda had on shorts too, and a sleeveless top with a big sequinned teddy bear appliquéd on the front. But then, Aunt Linda was pretty old. The sight of her arms and legs probably wouldn’t seem sexy to anyone, except of course Uncle Harold.
“What do you think of this one? I think it would go great in Becky’s room.” She pointed to a quilt with Holly Hobbies all over it. Melissa was confused: this wasn’t an Amish quilt.
“It’s nice,” she said, trying to be convincing.
“You don’t like it, do you? Well, this was the other one I thought of.” Aunt Linda showed her an Irish Wedding Ring quilt that incorporated some light mustard-colored pieces of fabric.
“I think that would go better with Becky’s curtains,” Melissa said truthfully. She was looking for the somber colors and striking designs of Amish quilts but she saw only one that resembled the pictures she’d seen in the library books.
Aunt Linda narrowly missed out on the Wedding Ring quilt. She lost it to another non-Amish woman, with lipstick and highlighted hair. Uncle Howard had bought his lumber, and it was time to go. The heat of the day was beginning to subside, the sun a red ball low in the sky. They piled back into the car, this time without air conditioning, because the planks stuck out of the front passenger window. Aunt Linda sat in the back along with Melissa, on the other side of the boards. Uncle Howard drove towards the setting sun, his elbow on the edge of the rolled down window and his chin lifted up so that his eyes were shaded by the sun visor.
“So what did you think of the Amish?” he asked Melissa.
“They were… kinda different than I thought,” she said.
After a minute and a slight jog in the road, Uncle Howard remarked, “I guess they’re just people like anyone else.”
When they got home Melissa went to find Becky, who was watching t.v. and eating popcorn in the den.
“D’ya have a nice time in Oneida?”
“Yeah, it was okay.”
Her eyes still glued to the television screen, Becky wordlessly handed her the bowl of popcorn.
“Thanks. How did your project go?”
“We got it done. So what did you think of the Amish?”
Melissa laughed. “That’s exactly what your Dad asked me on the way home. They’re okay. Different from what I’d read about.”
Becky pressed the mute button and turned to face Melissa, swinging her long tanned legs over the arm of the easy chair. “You know the Amish aren’t too popular with the high school kids down there.”
“How come?” Melissa handed the bowl back.
“Well, one of the guys I know, Robbie, he goes to Oneida High and he said they’re really wild, them Amish girls and their little buggies.” Becky’s mouth said the word “buggies” with an almost caressing contempt.
“What do you mean?”
Becky explained through a mouthful of popcorn: “Well, you know how they don’t believe in baptising their children, cause they think you have to be grown up before you decide what you want to be, like if you want to follow all their strict rules and stuff? So until they get baptised, when they’re twenty-one or whatever, they get to do whatever the hell they want before they join the fold. And those Amish girls, they sure get around.”
Melissa felt vaguely blank, except for an awareness of the resentment in Becky’s voice. A black buggy trotted across the flatness in her mind. An Amish girl was at the reins. What was she going to do? Who was she going to do it with?
Becky looked at her, licking the salt off her fingers. The figures on the t.v. disappeared and were replaced by a woman mouthing words about the tape measure around her waist.
“How does your friend know that?” Melissa asked. “Do the Amish kids go to the same school as him?”
Becky harrumphed. “Nah, they don’t send their kids to high school, they stop at eighth grade.” Melissa remembered that now. “It’s just totally hypocritical. My Dad would kill me for doing some of the things they get away with.”
Melissa bent down to untie her laces. The Amish girl in her mind climbed a ladder up into the hayloft and fell into the arms of the handsome Amish man Melissa had seen at the auction. She realized Becky was watching, waiting for her to say something.
“And you know what else,” Melissa said, “they all wear these hideous running shoes. Total clash!”
Becky laughed. “Oh well, you only went down there to humor my Mom and Dad, right?”
One of the Amish boys at the ballgame took Melissa’s hand and led her back into a dark corner of the auction house. He slid his hand under her t-shirt and around her waist. His face came closer to hers. He wasn’t holding some ugly corsage. He knew what he was doing.
Melissa looked up and smiled, reaching for the popcorn bowl that Becky was holding out towards her again.
“Yeah,” she said, casually. “That’s right.”
Published in Pushing Out the Boat: New Writing from the Northeast, Issue 5. © Christine Laennec 2005.