Molly was excited when she came over to get me. I was going with her and her mom and dad to the Dexter Cider Mill. It was a cold, cloudy, windy day, and I almost forgot to bring my jacket, but my mom reminded me. Molly and I walked across the street together, looking both ways like our parents had told us.
Molly’s mom and dad were coming out of their front door and Molly’s mom called out to her, “Molly, you and Coop can sit in the way back if you want!”
Their car was called a “station wagon”, because it had more seats than a regular car. A regular car had a front and back seats. But a station wagon had another seat behind the back seat. Molly called it the “way back”, because her parents had told her it was the seat “way in the back” of the car. Molly and I both liked the way back seat because it was far away from the adults in the front seat. Also because it was different, when you sat in it you were looking out the back window of the car. You could not see the adults driving, so it was easier to pretend you were driving, even though the car was going behind you not in front of you.
Molly ran toward her parents at the front door, leaving me standing by the car. “I got to get something”, she said, as she tried to slide between her mom and dad back into the house.”
Her dad put a hand out and grabbed her waist, lifting her off the ground, her legs still moving, trying to run. “Where you going young lady?”
“Just up to my room to get my steering wheel”, she said, a fierceness in her voice as she continued to move her body, though she did not look unhappy being captured by her dad.
“Okay”, he said, putting her down, “But hurry up!”
From near the car I could see Molly rushing up the stairs and disappearing out of site around the corner.
Molly’s mom shook her head, saying, “You don’t need to encourage her Jack!”
Molly came jumping down the stairs and slid between the two of them again, the steering wheel thing with the buttons and circles in her hand. This time her dad didn’t try to grab her. She ran out to where I was by the car.
“I got it!” she said, looking at me with fierce eyes. With her other hand she opened the back door of the car. She pulled open the back door and climbed onto the back seat, feet first, and then tumbled herself over the seat into the way back.
I thought about following her but instead stood just outside the open door and looked at her mom and dad as they came up to the car.
Her dad looked at me as he walked towards the back of the car, his hand reaching into his front pocket, making clinking noises. “Young man, how about I let you in through the tailgate!”
He pulled a big ring of keys out of his pocket and with his fingers found the right one for the car, opening the back part so I could climb in to the seat next to Molly.
“All aboard, Sky King!” he said to me laughing.
“Dad”, said Molly complaining, “I’m Sky King!”
Her dad tilted his head down and looked at her over the top of his glasses. “Now you don’t expect Coop to be Penny, do you?”
“Jack!” Molly’s mom’s voice came from the front seat behind them, sounding like she was kind of mad, “Where are you going with this conversation?”
“Okay”, he said, laughing again, “You both can be Sky Kings!” He closed the back part in front of us. It felt like we were in some sort of airplane or a rocket ship, which made me think of Tom Swift.
I had told Molly about Tom Swift. We had opened that door on the dresser in my room and looked at all the pictures on the front parts and all through all six books. We had even played like her room was Tom’s flying laboratory and invented things.
Molly remembered. She looked at me in the seat just next to her. She put her thumb in her mouth and bit it with her teeth, then pulled it out to talk.
“I can be Sky King and you can be Tom Swift”, she said.
I nodded. That was okay with me, though I wish I had brought my space helmet.
But it was a lot of fun pretending even without my helmet. The leaves on some of the trees had turned brown or red or orange or yellow, and were even falling off the trees onto the ground. It made everything we drove by look different, like we were in some strange new place.
My mom knew a lot about plants. She said that every year in the “autumn”, the leaves fell off the trees, which was why they also called it the “fall”. The lilac bushes in the park looked strange because they had no leaves and you could see right through them. Other trees were still green because they were “evergreens”, like the two spruce trees in our backyard. Mom said the fall was also when the apples that had grown on the trees were ready to be picked and mushed up into cider. But the cherry tree in Kenny’s backyard was all done making cherries.
Molly and I were glad that it took a long time to go to the Cider Mill. She was flying the airplane through the leaves with her steering wheel and buttons while I was busy working on inventing a new button that would tell when bad guy airplanes were coming.
“Keep working on that new bad guy button”, Molly said, looking out the back window and turning the steering wheel when the car turned.
“Roger”, I said, “Almost done!”
“So you inventing radar back there?” Molly’s dad asked from way behind us in the front of the car.
We were surprised he was hearing our words and we both did not say anything.
Finally he said, “Well don’t let me stop you. Carry on!”
Molly whispered to me, “Keep working, Tom. The bad guys are coming and we need it!” She pushed the different buttons around her steering wheel and kept flying the plane.
I pretended I was done. “It’s ready Sky King”, I whispered back to Molly.
“Okay Tom, let’s turn it on!” She flipped the switch by her steering wheel and the red light started flashing. “Dammit Tom, there are bad guys all over the place.”
“Molly”, her mom called out from the front seat, “Where did you learn to say that?”
“I don’t know”, said Molly, caught by surprise and being shy.
“Jack”, Molly’s mom said, “She must have heard you say that. You need to be more careful!
“Molly”, her dad said, “Girls don’t say things like that!”
“Or boys”, Molly’s mom added, “What’s good for the goose!”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“I’ve heard Eric say his share of the D word and the H word”, Molly’s dad said.
“Jack”, the word burst out of Molly’s mom’s mouth, then talking softly but with a fierce voice, “I’m not comfortable with this whole discussion, can we drop it please!”
“Molly”, her mom kept talking, “You should say ‘darn it’ when you want to sound angry, and people won’t think you are being rude or using bad words.”
“Darn it”, Molly said out loud like she was mad, then looked at me. She had a kind of smile like she had a secret that was funny. I wondered if she said it instead of “dammit”, or because she was mad that she couldn’t say “dammit”. Looking at her twinkling eyes I figured that was that funny secret.
Molly’s mom started laughing.
“What’s so funny, lady?” her dad asked.
“It’s nothing”, her mom said, waving her hands in front of her face. “Molly dear. Sometimes I wonder if you are three or thirteen!” Then turning to look back at the two of us, “Just wait until you two grow up and become parents!”
Wait for what, I wondered. Again grownups said strange things sometimes.
Molly flew us across the bridge over the river and then we turned to fly next to the river. Finally we landed at the Cider Mill. Molly jumped up on the seat and let her body fall and tumble into the back seat. I tried to do the same but ended up falling on top of her. She pushed me off her body and laughed. We both liked it when our bodies touched.
“Molly Wheeler”, her mom said, “My god! Coop’s parents are never going to let us take him ANYWHERE again if he ends up coming home swearing and throwing his body around like a maniac.” But she didn’t really sound angry.
“G word”, her dad said laughing.
Molly’s mom looked at him, then slapped him on the shoulder. “Mister Wheeler”, she said smiling, “You just mind your own… gol darn business!”
He made a face like he was pretending it hurt him. Then he pointed his finger at her and moved it up and down. “I’ll deal with YOU later Misses Wheeler!” Then turning to Molly and me he said, “How about some fresh made donuts and cider?”
Molly bounced up and down on her toes as she nodded. I nodded too, but didn’t do any bouncing.
Molly, her mom and I sat at one of a bunch of picnic table while her dad went and stood in line. Above the trees were whooshing in the wind and leaves kept falling down on the ground around us or right on our table. There were other grownups with kids sitting at the other tables. I liked looking at the older kids, seeing what they were doing and how they talked. They didn’t make me nervous like grownups did.
Finally Molly’s dad came back to the table with two boxes, one on top of the other and set them down in the middle of the table. The top box had cups full of the clear golden cider, and he gave one to each of us. Then he opened the bottom box and it was full of the darker brown donuts, that smelled really good. I knew all about donuts because my dad loved to talk about them, buy them, and eat them.
Molly, her dad and I all ate two donuts. Molly’s mom only ate one, and ate it slow, saying “umm” with every bite and chewing for a long time. She told Molly that she was eating too fast, that she should “enjoy every bite”. But Molly’s dad and I ate our donuts as fast as Molly did but Molly’s mom did not tell US that.
The cider was cool and sweet but also a little bit sour, which made it taste even better. Molly’s mom said it tasted “crisp”. The donuts did not taste as sweet as the cider, but felt warm and good in my mouth as I bit into and chewed them. I thought of my dad, because he liked donuts more than anything else.
Molly’s mom looked at the two of us and said, “You two can play down by the stream. Just stay where we can see you and try not to get wet. Okay?”
Molly nodded and then I nodded too. Molly ran down to the side of the stream and after a second, I ran after her. As I did I could hear Molly’s mom say, “That Molly!” and then heard her dad laughing. Molly’s mom was always telling Molly to be more “polite”, whatever that was, but I liked the way she was not being “polite”. She just did what she wanted and told you what she was thinking.
The water in the little stream was moving but was not very deep. It moved over round rocks of different gray colors. There was a little middle part that the water went around on either side and a big tree branch that had fallen off a tree that went from the side of the stream we were on to that middle part. Different colored leaves with pointy edges floated by on either side of that middle part like little boats. The trees above the river blocked out the sky and made that same whooshing noise when the wind blew and made more leaves fall. It was a very different outside place than my backyard, Molly’s backyard or even the park. The wind made the skin on my face and hands feel cold, but I liked it.
Molly and I both looked at that middle part and the big branch and had the same idea at the same time. It was a tiny island, with a bridge over to it from our side of the little river. I took a step onto the branch just before Molly thought to do the same thing.
She pulled back and said, “You go first!”
With Molly watching me, I walked along the big branch over the moving water with the leaves like boats going under me. I held my hands out like my mom showed me to keep from falling. Once I got close I jumped on to the tiny middle part. I looked at Molly and felt good that I could show her how well I could walk across the branch and not fall.
She looked back at me with her hands on her sides. She did the same thing with her face that her dad did when he was thinking hard. “Why did you hold your hands out?” she asked.
“It helps you not fall off”, I said, not telling her that my mom had showed me how to do that, so Molly would think I figured it out all by myself.
She put her thumb between her teeth and I could see her thinking that she didn’t need to do that. She started to walk along the branch over the water with her hands at her side and not out. She got almost to the island but then she started to fall. One of her shoes splashed into the water up to above her sock. The other one got to the island. She pulled her other foot out but the shoe and sock were all wet.
“Dammit”, she said, then looked up at her parents still sitting at the picnic table, wondering if they would get mad at her. They were talking but we could not hear what they were saying. Her mom looked our way but Molly was already standing on the island like her foot had not gotten wet. Her mom waved at us and her dad turned and looked. Molly waved back then stopped looking at them and looked at me.
“This is our island”, she said, and she let her bottom fall down onto the dry round rocks we were standing on, making a crunch sound. I did the same thing behind her. There was just enough dry part to sit on so the water did not touch us. We watched the leaves go by us on either side and float along the water and then disappear under the bridge that we went over in the car to get here. We listened to the trees whooshing above us.
“We’re in charge of the leaf boats”, I said. “The red ones need to go on this side of the island and the yellow ones need to go the other side.”
“What about the brown ones?” she asked.
I was thinking and said nothing.
“We keep the brown ones because those ones are fish and we need to eat them so we don’t starve!”
Then she looked out at the leaves that were coming down the stream.
“Uh oh, yellow boat on wrong side!” she called out with a voice like she was pretending to be a grownup in charge of the river.
I reached out and grabbed the leaf starting to go by to my left.
“Good work”, she said, still with that grownup voice, “Now give it to me.” She looked at it. “Looks okay to me. Off you go!” And she
put it back in the water on the right side.
“Oh… Brown one coming!” she called out, pointing.
“I see it!”
The leaf floated towards us and I wasn’t sure which side of the island it was going to go by. I saw how the bigger round rocks that the water flowed over made the leaves go faster, but where the water was deeper, the leaves moved more slowly. Finally it was close enough to grab.
“Got it!” I said as I stretched out to grab the stem part sticking up.
“Good job!” she said. “Hand it over!”
I felt her hand on my shoulder. It felt good. I lifted the leaf and held it over that same shoulder. She took it.
“Mmm”, she said, “This one will be for dinner tonight!” She put it between her folded legs.
We continued to play boats and fish for a long time. Sometimes the leaf floating toward us was orange, between red and yellow, and we had to figure out what side it should go on. Then Molly’s dad was down by the side of the stream. “Time to go you two islanders!”
I stood up and started walking over the branch with my arms out so I didn’t fall. Molly’s dad stretched out to grab my hand after I’d taken a couple steps. Then Molly got up with a handful of leaves.
“We got lots of dinner tonight” she said.
“What?” her dad asked, “You eating leaves for dinner?”
“Fish!” Molly said. “Five of them.”
“Fish. Got it”, he said. She started to walk on the branch, holding her arms out this time like I did. The leaf fish in one hand. Her dad grabbed her other hand and swung her off the branch bridge to the side of the stream.
When we got back up to the picnic table where Molly’s mom was sitting, she saw that Molly’s shoe and sock were all wet.
“Molly Wheeler, your foot is soaking wet!” Her mom said it like Molly didn’t already know that, but she already did.
Molly nodded and said, “It’s okay.”
“It’s NOT okay”, her mom said, “It’s a chilly day and you could get a chill and catch a cold or worse!” Then after thinking some more, “When we get home you’re going to take a hot bath!”
Molly wrinkled her nose, pushed her lips together, and made a funny face. She looked at me and I knew she was thinking that that was dumb. But she didn’t say anything. My mom would tell me sometimes that I needed to take a hot bath too, like when I started sneezing or I got a stuffy nose.
“Jack”, Molly’s mom said, “Is there a towel in the car somewhere? We need to get Molly’s foot dried off!”
Molly’s dad did that same thinking look that Molly did, though he did not put his thumb in his mouth. Then he said, “I don’t think so. There’s just an old rag in the glove compartment I use for checking the radiator and the oil.”
“Oh my god, Jack, not that filthy thing!” She looked mad for a second but then she started to laugh, like she was laughing at what she just said.
I wondered if Molly’s dad would tell Molly’s mom that she shouldn’t say the “G word”, but he didn’t.
Molly’s mom continued, “Maybe you can tell the cider mill people what happened to Molly and ask if they have a towel we can borrow, and bring back the next time we’re here.”
As she spoke I could see Molly’s dad’s face look more and more like he didn’t want to do that. Finally he said, “This is right up my alley actually, an engineering problem”, he said. “Let’s put Molly in the front seat and then take that wet shoe and sock off. Then I’ll turn up the heater and direct it down at her feet.”
It sounded to me like something Tom Swift might have figured out to do.
“I’m going to take my shoe off”, Molly said. “It feels all squishy when I walk!”
Molly’s mom looked like she couldn’t figure out what to do. Finally she looked at Molly’s dad and said, “Honey, would you mind carrying Molly to the car?”
“Don’t mind at all”, he replied laughing a little bit, “That’s what dads are for!” He looked at me and winked, like I knew his secret. But I didn’t, because he was a grownup.
Molly stood on the sitting part of the picnic bench. Her dad bent down and reached around her and she put her hands around his neck as he picked her up like she was a little kid. She laughed and I could tell that she liked it.
“Honey”, he said to Molly’s mom, “Can you bring the box of doughnuts?”
She nodded and picked up the box with both her hands. Then she looked at Molly’s shoe on the sitting part of the picnic table and frowned.
“Coop dear”, she said to me, “Can you bring Molly’s shoe?”
I nodded and picked it up. It was cold and soaked with water, but it still felt like Molly’s shoe.
We all walked back to the car. Still holding Molly in one arm, her dad opened the front car door with the other, and let Molly slide down into the front seat where Molly’s mom had sat before. Her dad then opened the back door.
Molly’s mom put her hand on the top part of my back. “Get in sweetie”, she said, “You can keep me company in the back seat rather than sitting by yourself way back there.”
“Coob can sit next to me in the front”, Molly called out. “His feet might be cold too.”
I looked at Molly’s mom.
“It’s up to you dear”, she said smiling.
“Sit next to me”, Molly said again, patting the sitting part next to her like grownups did sometimes when they wanted you to sit next to them.
“Well”, Molly’s mom said laughing a little, “I don’t know that I can make you a better offer than that! Guess I’m all by myself in the back.”
Molly moved over to the middle of the front seat and I got in next to her. Molly’s mom closed the door by me and got in the back. Molly’s dad got in the front by the steering wheel, closed his door and started driving the car.
“You going to turn on the heat honey?” her mom asked from behind us.
“It won’t be warm yet”, her dad replied. Then he glanced at Molly and me and pointed at a circle thing behind the steering wheel. “That’s the temperature gauge. When that little pointer gets to the middle that means the engine is warm, so turning on the heat and the fan will give us warm air.”
Molly looked at the circle and all the other buttons and knobs in front of her, then looked up at her dad. “Can I turn on the radio?” she asked.
“You remember how?” he asked back.
She nodded. She had to wiggle herself forward in the seat to reach the knob and turn it.
The music was really loud everywhere.
“Whoah”, said Molly’s dad, reaching out to turn the same knob, which now made the music softer. A woman’s voice sang slowly…
I stop to see a weepin’ willow
Cryin’ on his pillow
Maybe he’s cryin’ for me
Molly’s mom leaned over the top of the back seat behind Molly. “You can change the station if you like”, she said.
Molly’s dad laughed. “Your mom’s not much for country music. She thinks it’s just for hillbillies.”
I go out walkin’ after midnight
Out in the moonlight
Just hopin’ you may be somewhere a-walkin’
After midnight, searchin’ for me
“Jack, that’s not fair! I acknowledge it’s a legitimate type of folk music. It’s just not my cup of tea.”
“Well boys and girls”, he said, glancing at Molly and me, “That’s no hillbilly singing. That’s the queen of the Grand Ole Opry, Patsy Cline.”
“Good to know Jack”, though it didn’t sound like she felt it was good to know. “The kids can make their minds up for themselves.”
I remembered my mom and dad talking about hillbillies too, and making fun of them, pretending they were hillbillies, saying words in a funny way. But the song on the radio sounded like something my dad would like to sing.
I go out walkin’ after midnight
Out in the moonlight
Just hopin’ you may be somewhere a-walkin’
After midnight, searchin’ for me