The East Window

The short story, "The East Window," by Bob Johnson depicts a dysfunctional Mennonite-Amish family and raises some intriguing theological possibilities. Is the story more "about" Rodney's experience in the barn? Or about his uncle who observes the disaster? Some of the cultural context is implied by the spellings of rural northern Indiana dialect speech, as recalled from his childhood. Does the use of dialect in otherwise mainstream literature imply condescension—either humor or class bias—by the narrator or author?

On the sun-bleached east wall of the steepled barn was the faded, enormous likeness of a baby holding a slice of bread. Beneath it stretched the legend, "Mother Buys Nu-Fresh, and She Knows Best." The baby's face gave lie to that cheerful pronouncement. It stared blank and pitiless past the barnyard to a blacktop road beyond, as though—ignored by decades of farmers, Bible salesmen and county milk inspectors—it had grown indifferent to all human craving.

The barn wall was otherwise bare, save for a tiny window punched in the center of the baby's forehead, from which a steady coming and going of pigeons could be seen on any summer day.

A witness perched in that window this afternoon would have seen a red converti­ble appear in the distance, round a curve and turn onto the lane that ended between the barn and a rough, white farmhouse. The observer might have remarked the difference be­tween the sheen of the car's body and the tasseled shimmer of corn stretching away on either side of it, or how that same corn swallowed up the engine's noise, so the convertible seemed drawn to the end of the lane by invisible powers. Looking down, he would have seen that two cars waited already behind the house. One was a rusted heap, surrendered utterly to milkweed, thistles and wild carrot. The other offered its underparts to an overall-clad figure half out of sight beneath it.

But the only eyes watching from the window today were those of insects, rodents and birds. And to these creatures, busy with hunger and death, the car's approach had no significance whatever.

A woman with red hair drove the convertible. A 12-year-old boy lay across the back seat behind her. Moments before, he had discovered that the soles of his sneakers made dark streaks on the car's white vinyl upholstery, and he was concentrating on doing as much damage as possible before being dumped on a Saturday night in this Amish paradise. He kicked the back of the driver's seat, then studied the result with bleak satisfaction.

"Don't, Baby…now please, please, please."

The boy groaned and flung himself upright. His mother's hair was ex­actly the color of new pennies and was curled in penny-sized ringlets all over her head. The rear view mirror was turned so she could study her reflection, and she tossed her hair now and contemplated the effect.

"A diesel truck could be tearing up behind you and you wouldn't know it till you was history."

His mother laughed. "And then the undertaker would say, 'What white skin! What pretty legs!'"

The boy snorted and peered toward the barn, where the baby's portrait stared back at him above the corn. Clearly his mother had a new man on the string. It wouldn't be the small appli­ance salesman who called him Champ and pretended occasionally to strangle him. It wouldn't be the Dreamer, who lived with them for two months and apologized for bygone mischief in his sleep. The new hair, the clothes, the breathless way she called him Baby—the old lady was work­ing herself up to something, working herself up to be a pistol. He'd heard the Dreamer say it time and again: "You, Katie. You're a pistol." The boy fell onto his back once more and stared into a vacant sky.

The cornice of the old house revolved into view above him, as the car came to rest at the back porch. In the next moment he felt fingers grasp his shirtfront. His skull snapped backward as his mother pulled his face close to hers.

"When I come back tomorrow night, I'm gonna know you minded Gramma and were nice to Aunt Rosie."

The boy waited, examining the gauzy threads around her eyes. Sometimes she let him go and sometimes she made him speak. Her lips drew back. "Am I gonna know that?"

"You got lipstick on your teeth."

Just as quickly she released him and busied herself with tissues and the mirror. The boy shrugged his collar into place and stared around the farmyard. The barn reared up in front of them, seated on a mound of earth and stone. His Uncle Eddie said that the mound held the bones of long-dead Indians and their spirits still roamed the countryside, haunting those who disturbed them. But Eddie was 26 years old, overweight and still living at home, and he was given to fanciful talk when it suited him. The window in the baby's forehead was empty, but, as the boy watched, a great rush of pigeons burst from its blackness—whupwhupwhup—and wheeled in tight formation toward the afternoon sun.

The boy sucked his lower lip. The last time he had been inside the barn had been with Eddie during chores. They had come upon a motionless wad of fur on the milk parlor floor, and his uncle had poked the thing with a shovel. In that instant it bunched violently, sprouted wings, and lifted toward them. The boy had a fleeting impression of eyes and needled fangs before Eddie shouted and knocked the creature to the floor again, beating it shapeless. It was a bat, he explained later, catching his breath on a stool and wiping his big, red face with a bandanna. It was sick; that's why it wasn't afraid. Unafraid still, the bat grinned at them in death.

Now his mother was out of the car-all vivacity once again-and walking toward the house. She wore a black cocktail dress, spattered with tiger lilies, and flimsy black sandals. Her feet were large and impossibly white, toenails painted copper. The boy followed, hands fisted into jeans pockets.

As they passed the disabled cars, his mother shouted to the man working beneath the newer of them, an orange and white 1957 Chevy Biscayne. "You, Eddie! Time for church!"

Uncle Eddie grunted, his voice hollow through the Chevy's innards. "The prodigal returns, weary of sleeping with swine."

His mother laughed as they passed through the back porch into the kitchen, but in the next instant the boy heard her cry, "Momma, will there come a time you don't look at me like that when I enter this house?"

The boy stayed rooted to the floor, staring at the waxy column of vertebrae dividing his mother's back. Then she stepped sideways to slap her purse open on a table, and an old Mennonite woman stood looking at him from the sink, a half-peeled potato in her hand. She wore a shapeless house dress, washed-out blue and pink, and a prayer covering on her head.

"Rodney, say hello to Grandma."

The boy's eyes slid toward his mother, then fell on a calendar tacked to the wall beyond her coppery head. The calendar's upper flap showed a picture of a bearded man seated on a rock, his arms outstretched to a group of children. Some wore sandals and colorful robes; some were black and nearly naked; some were yellow, with glossy, bowl-cut hair and slanted lines where their eyes should have been. On the edge of the group stood a child or two like him, fair-skinned and neatly dressed in short pants and collared shirts. All pressed forward to hear what the man was saying. The boy sniffed. The kitchen smelled of bacon grease and cats.

"Hullo, Gramma."

The old lady took off her glasses and polished them on her apron. "You didn't tell me you was coming," she said to her daughter. "I woulda had cookies made." She fitted her glasses on her nose and looked at her grandson's jeans and sneakers. "Does he have any other clothes along?" Her eyes grew watery. "Are his church clothes in the car?"

"Momma, please. If you had a phone like the rest of creation, I would have called." The boy's mother snapped open a compact. "Lord knows, he's too smart for church. He's too smart for anybody." An oval of luminance swept her features, then vanished as she snapped the compact closed again. "Anyway, I'm back tomorrow night. And he promised he'd be nice to Rosie."

The old lady surveyed Rodney once more, and he contrived to send her mental messages, the heart of which declared that he would be nice to no one. He was satisfied to see that she understood.

The silence was broken by a whimper from the sitting room, and then the shuffling appearance of a woman child-two hundred pounds, though only inches taller than the kitchen counter. She staggered backward at the sight of visitors, and when her eyes fell on Rodney she recoiled further and gathered herself behind the boy's grandmother, peering from beyond the old lady's elbow.

"I expect she's hungry," his grandmother said.

A big old retarded toad, the boy thought. The troll under the bridge.

"I expect so," said the boy's mother. "If there's one thing that girl can do, it's eat."

The grandmother handed the half-peeled potato to the woman, who licked it twice and began to eat it like an apple. Her eyes never left the boy's face.

Rodney felt his mother's lips against his ear. "If I hear you picked on Rosie," she hissed, "I'm gonna have your head."

Before he could shrug her away, she released him and gathered up purse and car keys. "Remember, Momma. Smack him. It's the only way he'll listen." She kissed her son at the nape of his neck and was gone.

As the convertible peeled from the farmyard, they heard scattering gravel ping against the Chevy's paint job, and then Uncle Eddie cough loudly and shout, "Whore!"

Rodney smiled at his grandmother and Aunt Rosie, his first smile all day.

Supper was fried potatoes, eggs and bacon, chopped into a steaming pile on each plate. Uncle Eddie came in, pausing to wash his hands at the kitchen sink and dry them on his overalls. When the truth came to Rosie—as a pale shaft of sunlight struggles through lowering clouds—that Rodney would eat next to her, she disappeared into the sitting room. Before they ate, his grandmother lit an oil lamp at the table, then bowed her head and murmured over the food. The boy stared at her through the flame, willing his eyes from focus until she became a grossly mismatched collection of elements: a muttering congress of fire, cotton and clay. He heard a snort and was surprised to see Eddie grinning at him across the table, rolling his eyes in the old lady's direction.

"You're a cold one." Eddie's voice came from a cigarette ash, suspended in the darkness above the double bed. "I have to laugh when I look at you." He turned toward Rodney, the old mattress caving inward so the boy had to hold on to keep from rolling to meet his uncle in its center. "I remember being your age and trying to be stone like that." The ash glowed fiercely before he spoke again. "But I couldn't pull it off. People could get to me. They could make me cry if they tried hard enough. But you, Boy, you don't like anything."

The boy reached out and snatched the cigarette. He sucked on it once before his uncle swore and cuffed it from his mouth. The glowing ash skittered across the basement's cement floor. Eddie swore again but didn't get out of bed to retrieve it.

"I make them cry," Rodney said, exhaling into his cupped palm and drawing the smoke into his nostrils. "And I don't like weekends in Amishville."

"She's not Amish," Eddie hissed. "She's Mennonite. She hasn't been Amish since she was a girl, and none of us ever were. Not your momma, not me, not Rose."

The boy smirked into the darkness. "Jerkovers, then. Half-baked. All the same to me. And Aunt Rose wouldn't know if she was full-blood Apache."

His uncle swore again and choked down a laugh. "You're a cold one, all right."

The basement was windowless, save for a dusty rectangle of light above the furnace—a coal chute, before the house turned to gas—so Rodney woke in near darkness to his grandmother's footsteps in the kitchen overhead. She sang in a crackly old voice, and the boy heard the shuffle and grunt of Aunt Rose following her about as she cooked breakfast. His uncle snored beside him. Eddie had slept past milking too often to be counted on, so a hired man came at 4 a.m. to look after the farm's two dozen Holsteins. On Sundays the man hung around to drive the old lady to church. Eddie handled the evening milking, and in late summer both men baled the mountains of hay stacked in the barn.

Rodney slept again, then woke to chairs scraping on the floor above, and the sounds of his grandmother and the hired man at the table. Now and then Rose gave out a satisfied laugh, ignorant of her nephew below.

The boy cradled his head in his arms and stared at the floor joists coming into view above him. Like everything else in the house, they were old and ugly, hacked from the woods by some long-dead Amish farmer. His mother would rescue him in late afternoon, rotten with gin and a thousand cigarettes, and the ride back to town would mean laughter or blues from the radio, depending on how the night went.

The chairs scraped again and he heard dishes in the sink. In a moment a car started in the driveway and the door opened at the top of the stairs. Light bloomed against bare walls.

"You, Eddie," his grandmother cried from above. "You, Rodney. Time for church!"

Uncle Eddie groaned but didn't move.

"Eddie! You, Eddie! Time for church!"

His uncle rolled over and buried his face in a pillow. Rodney heard the old lady say her goodbyes to Aunt Rose, and then she was at the top of the stairs again.

"Eddie! Rodney—"

"Aw piss on it, Ma!" Eddie shouted. He punched the pillow and yanked covers over his head.

The boy grinned. Eddie was an idiot like the rest of them, but he sure could hand it to the old bird on a Sunday morning. The door stood open a moment longer, then closed softly. Gramma had never slammed a door in her life, let alone on her way to church. Before the car crunched away up the gravel drive, Eddie was snoring again.

The house stood soundless above them, empty now but for Aunt Rose. Rodney pictured her at the kitchen table, gazing with slanty, half-moon eyes into nothing. She ate two bananas every morning of her life, so she was probably up there right now, kneading one to paste and licking it from her fingers.

The boy dozed once more, then woke to hear Rosie struggle from her chair. He followed her to a spot between refrigerator and the sink, where she kept a tangle of beads, ribbons and baby toys on the hardwood floor. The house shook as she dropped her bulk among them and began to croon over the gaudy things. Soon she began to rock, and the boy grinned again. When the house was quiet she liked to plant her enormous rump in just this spot and make the floorboards squeak and groan beneath her. Back and forth she rocked, her happy nonsense outdone only by the dumb insistence of her rocking.

After several minutes Eddie's snores faltered. He snuffed noisily. "Aw, cripes." he said and buried his head beneath covers and pillows again. The sounds grew louder, bringing to mind a blazing summer afternoon when Rodney watched his uncle and the hired man pull down a rotten section of the milking parlor. The men crow-barred 50-year-old spikes from decaying beams and two-by-sixes, and the squeals the nails gave out as they loosed their grip were sounds both animal and human and set a dog to howling on a farm a mile to the east.

"Aw, cripes." Eddie said, then threw the covers back and shouted, "Rose! You, Rosie! Shut up!"

The rocking stopped, and Rodney pictured his aunt's face as she labored to understand the noise from below. The house hummed with emptiness, and the boy heard a sudden frenzy of crows in the sky above them all. Then, deciding the shout had no meaning, she began to rock again, and Eddie rolled away in a spasm, grabbed a boot and flung it against the ceiling. "Rose, shut up! Don't you make me come up there!"

The boy dodged the boot as it landed on the bed between them. Sometimes now his uncle would charge upstairs and bundle Rose from her spot on the floor, and the outraged bellows that followed almost made the weekend worth it.

She paused in her rocking when the boot hit the floorboards beneath her, and the silence that followed lasted long enough for Eddie to settle into the mattress and begin breathing deeply. Rodney counted backward from one hundred. At forty-nine, Rose cried out happily and the floorboards creaked in a fury. No single thought stayed in her skull longer than a minute. A bantam hen had greater powers of recollection.

Eddie rolled onto his back and threw up his hands in surrender. He heaved from the bed and pulled overalls on over yesterday's underwear. "There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked," he said. He looked at his nephew and shrugged, and the boy was disappointed to see the fire was doused for the morning.

His uncle was already beneath the Chevy when Rodney stepped from the back door into the scorching sunlight. He finished a banana and tossed the peel into the weeds. When he had climbed the stairs to the kitchen Aunt Rose gave him a horrified look and pulled herself from the floor. Rodney stared at her as she lurched from the room, then helped himself to a glass of milk and the remains of her breakfast.

"This world is not my home," Eddie sang as he worked. "I'm just a-passin' through…"

Rodney sat in the dust where Eddie's legs poked from beneath the car. "Not near quick enough," he said.

"Is that the smart boy?" Eddie cried. "Is that the chosen one?"

His nephew leaned against a burning fender and stared into the sky, empty but for a cloud on the horizon no larger than a man's fist.

"My treasures are laid up," Eddie laughed now, drawling the words like a radio preacher, "somewhere beyond the blue." He reached from beneath the Chevy and fumbled for a half-spent cigarette on a cement block at his knee. Before his fingers found it, Rodney had snatched the butt and was on his feet.

"You, Rodney," Eddie cried, but the boy was already walking the graveled path toward the barn, pulling smoke expertly into his lungs. He heard Eddie curse, but when he looked back his uncle hadn't moved from his place in the dust.

The ground was hot beneath Rodney's sneakers as he climbed the stony mound to the northern face of the barn, where double doors slid wide at baling time for tractors and hay wagons. The left of these had a smaller door cut into its center for everyday use, and the boy slipped the wooden bolt and entered, pulling the door closed behind him.

The barn floor was a broad, hay-littered aisle that ran to the opposite wall and another door looming half-open over the barnyard. Here swallows entered with deft, twisting dives, swooping so close to the boy's head that he ducked. To his right a fixed wooden ladder climbed to the hayloft, where bales of alfalfa rose into a turmoil of beams, shadows and hard veins of sunlight forty feet above him.

Rodney stood smoking the last of his cigarette. He counted the hours before his mother would appear and decided the wait was intolerable. He needed something to do. In the silence he became aware of the tremulous cooing of pigeons overhead. The more he focused on the sound, the more it filled his ears: an incessant, bubbling foolishness, like Rose among her baubles. He looked high into the rafters and saw a congregation of the birds clustered at a window only feet beneath the crest of the eastern wall. As he watched, the group whirred into the open air.

The boy studied the ladder climbing into the hayloft and the stair-stepped arrangement of the bales as they rose toward the ceiling. The stack reached to the highest of the cross beams, and the easternmost of these stretched mere feet from the window in the wall. Rodney calculated the position of the opening and how it must certainly look down toward the house and the Chevy below. If he were to scramble up the bales to their summit and inch across the beam, he could stand, lean his head out the window and shout insults at his uncle. Eddie would be first bewildered and then furious, and if he boiled from beneath the car and into the loft, all the better. The boy laughed aloud. He tossed the cigarette aside and began to climb.

Immediately he saw the task was more than he'd bargained for. The loft was dry and chokingly hot, and the greenish dust he stirred up filled his throat and burned his eyes. On top of that, the stair-stepping of the bales led again and again to sheer walls and dead ends, and he had to forever back down a level and try another pathway to the top. Once he laid his hand on a knot of living fur that squirmed away beneath his palm. He gasped, remembering the bat, but the thing was gone in an instant.

After many false starts and detours he found himself crouched on the topmost layer of the stack. He was wheezing for breath, both from the climb and the stifling heat. The ceiling sloped above him, and he heard the rustle and squeak of unseen creatures in the fissures between the bales, the knot holes and angle joints, the greenish-black gloom. He crawled toward the eastern crossbeam where the window, its sill crusted with pigeon droppings, looked out to the morning sky. He stood, hoisted himself astraddle the wood and scooted forward. In a moment he had moved beyond the rim of the loft and into the open air. He glanced down once and went dizzy and faint. The barn floor was so far beneath him it lost all correspondence to the actual world. He determined he would not look down a second time. Instead, he focused on the window, as he inched toward it.

He had nearly reached the opening—he was already weighing how he would stretch across space to the window sill and the shouts he would direct at his uncle below—when he felt a foot brush against something feather-light on the underside of the crossbeam. He heard a ticking sound like paper falling, and in the next instant a cloud of wasps rose toward his face. He felt a dazzling pain above his right eyebrow and he cried out, dropping to his chest and hugging the wood to him. The pain stabbed his upper lip and he screamed. He wrestled to escape, lost his grip and nearly fell, and found himself hanging, eyes squeezed shut, from the underside of the timber. His heart roared. He panted with great, sobbing gasps. Yet all he knew was the high, naked hum of the wasps in his ears.

Minutes passed. He hung rigid with terror as the insects droned about him. Some crawled in his hair and others explored his eyelids and nostrils. His arms ached from the strain, yet he was too paralyzed to pull himself to the loft. His mind, accustomed to viewing matters with perfect clarity, was clouded with foreign sensations of confusion and helplessness. A gust of warmth against his neck spoke of the distance between him and the barn floor below.

He opened his eyes and stared upward into the remains of the wasp nest four inches from his nose. His foot had broken it in half, so he looked into its interior of hexagonal cells, each containing a creamy plug of larvae. Several of the insects clung to the wood above him. Their movements were synaptic and precise. Their wings turned vaporous as they lifted to the air. They hung before his face, eyeing him like sentinels. One landed again on the ruined nest and the boy studied it with ferocious concentration. Its body was divided into three parts, each connected to the next by a tube barely thicker than a human hair. Its legs were hinged and finely serrated, and it used the forward pair of these to preen again and again its jeweled, ancient head. The morning sun came through the east window, and the creature's abdomen gleamed with permutations of gold, rust and orange the boy had never seen. Yet on its back were maps and formations his mind recognized as familiar: the inside of a walnut shell, the ropy twirl of an ear, the drift and joining of the continents. The shape of all things, both quick and everlasting.

The wasp rocked in place, its antenna touching and touching the larvae in the cells. The larvae themselves convulsed and pushed outward in the relentless pulse of becoming. The boy felt a like throbbing in his eyebrow and lip where the insects had stung him. His breathing slowed. His fingertips tingled and went numb. A quiet came over him. He felt a vastness in his chest, an emptiness beyond the reach of earthly appetites. He didn't notice the fingers of smoke curling around him, or the snap of the bales burning upward from below.

Eddie knew he wasn't as smart as his nephew, but he took pride in his good sense. He was angry with himself, therefore, when it occurred to him the direction Rodney had taken with his cigarette, and the length of time it took him, Eddie, to appreciate that fact. He squirmed from beneath the Chevy and peered at the barn. Nothing seemed amiss, but his good sense told him to investigate further. He stood, slapped the dust from his overalls and climbed the stony mound. When he saw smoke seeping from between the wall planks he shouted and flung open the door. The lower level of the barn was alive with flame. The fire was progressing into the loft as well, where the first level of bales was fully ablaze.

He stared wildly about, the heat pushing him backward. "Rodney!" he shouted. "Rodney!" He listened for an answering cry but none came, and for a moment he believed the boy had escaped. Then he looked skyward and reeled in horror. On the highest of the timbers he saw a tiny body dangling in the fiery void.

"Rodney!" he cried, but the boy didn't move. He might have been shouting at the moon. The ladder to the loft was a pure column of flame.

He cried again, "You, Rodney, you stay put! I'll get you down!" He ran from the barn and looked frantically to each horizon. He whirled and shouted, "Help! Help!" but the earth yawned away from him in every direction, empty and remorseless, and he was a stranger to it.

"Oh, Lord! Lord!" he cried, and he ran through the cornfield toward the blacktop road. Yet even as he ran he knew he would pass the remainder of his days marked and wandering, burned clean of all save weakness and regret.

About the Author

Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson worked for 28 years at WSBT-TV in South Bend, as Creative Director and Operations Manager. Now “semi-retired,” he writes and produces corporate videos and has taught courses in writing at Ivy Tech Community College. He graduated from Goshen College with a major in Spanish and earned an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Iowa. The Indiana University Writer’s Conference gave him the “Best Short Story” award. His story “The East Window” appeared in the first issue of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing.