Taking Big Tom Home
Jessie was glad it was summer, because the sun came up early. During the dark winter months, she walked in the ditch along the road’s curve, afraid someone would fly off the road and run over her. She hurried, swinging the messenger bag of Sunday papers onto her back.
She reached the place where the sidewalk started and just like that, it went from country to town. Pastures and fields gave way to small square yards. Most of these houses were built in the late 1800s, her father said. Lately, new people had been moving in and painting them with bright trims and edging. When Jessie and her father drove by, he shook his head at the fancy paint jobs. He painted their house white with gray trim.
As she continued to walk, she heard crows squawking in the distance and saw two fly over head. Her father said, “Damn crows,” whenever he heard them, but Jessie and her mom liked them, a secret they’d shared. Jessie remembered last fall when she’d gone outside to the place where she and her mom used to sit, when mom still lived with them. It was where they talked and watched the birds. She’d found a pile of seed corn in the clearing and had kicked at it with the toe of her boot. Her father had appeared from nowhere.
“Jessie, leave that corn alone!”
“What? I didn’t do anything.”
“I want you to stay away from that corn. Do you hear me?”
She’d grumbled her answer and gone inside, but when she got home from school the next day, she went to check on the pile of corn. As she approached the place where it had been, she noticed there were black spots dotting the field and stopped short at the first one, a crow. Looking around, she saw twenty or more bodies on the ground, flat and stiff, as if a steamroller had squashed them. She’d run to her room, saying that she was sick to her stomach and couldn’t eat when her father had called her to dinner.
The crows hadn’t come back to their property since then and Jessie missed them. When she got to Western Avenue, there were two crows on the telephone wires. They looked like they were talking to each other, pausing in conversation to look at her out of one eye and then the other, nodding and bobbing up and down.
She shifted her bag onto her left hip and tugged her Levis up by their belt loops. Since she’d started delivering papers, the muscles in her thighs and arms had gotten hard. She poked them every day or two to see how things were developing.
I’m strong, she thought and then wondered if other girls wanted to be strong. She didn’t think so. At eleven and a half years old, Jessie was in between wanting to beat the pants off boys in a ballgame and imagining herself in romantic conversations with them.
Almost a mile from home, she tossed her first paper. It glided through the air, slid across the porch, and was stopped short by the doormat. She’d been working on her aim.
Three houses in a row, three papers flew through the air and Jessie didn’t break her stride. When she threw, she became a pitcher for the Oakland A’s—three strikes!
Take a hike, batter boy! Jessie’s on the mound and your game is gonna hit the ground, she thought, hearing the crowd’s roar.
At the end of the block, Jessie pivoted and broke into a run, scanning the area for Mrs. Moulton’s cat, Big Tom. Last week he’d hissed at her from the top step. Not seeing him, she tossed the paper, but missed the porch entirely and returned to cautiously pull it out of the rosebushes. She under-handed it to the front door and hoped that, since Mrs. M. liked thorny roses and mean cats, maybe she wouldn’t be mad about scratches in her paper.
She hurried to make up for the time she’d lost from making the bad throw, remembering her father’s warning. “You can get yourself a paper route, but it’s going to be your responsibility, young lady. You get yourself up and out of bed and no clowning around. People expect to have their paper waiting for them on Sunday morning.” Jessie had agreed to it all, but sometimes it was hard.
Turning right on the next block, she squinted into the sun. They’d sent in a leftie pinch hitter. It was a full count when she threw her trickiest curveball. The batter chased it and the inning was over. Jessie ran toward the dugout, toward the cheering. She blushed at the sound of applause, eyes on the ground in front of her. When she glanced up to acknowledge her fans, she saw her mother in the front row, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Jessie’s heart pounded against her chest.
Mom! You came to see me play!
I’m so proud of you, honey.
Thanks, Mom. I miss you awful bad.
I know, honey. I miss you, too.
Will you come and get me? Can I come live with you?
I’m not settled yet, Jessie. Someday. Are you being good and not making your father mad?
He says I’m just like you, all pie in the sky. What’s that mean, anyway?
You’re a good girl and a great pitcher, Jessie. Focus on your game, okay?
Jessie looked up to give her fans a quick wave before sitting down, but the game had faded away. No longer a starting pitcher, she was a girl with a heavy bag and an ache from missing her mom. She blinked; the ground in the block ahead was covered with crows.
Three birds perched on a picket fence and gave short, urgent-sounding caws at her approach. Crows flew into the trees where they paced back and forth, knocking bark and leaves down on her. Several of the birds puffed out their neck feathers peering down to complain and scold.
Some crows stayed on the street until she was almost upon them. When they took flight, she saw what had attracted their attention; a mound of yellow and white fur lay at the edge of the street. It looked like Big Tom, who should be headed home to a civilized breakfast after a night of being wild. She wouldn’t know for sure if it were him unless she could see his collar of baby blue leather with rhinestones. Mrs. M. said the collar was to bring out his softer side, because he was so macho.
Jessie inched closer, straining to see if the cat was breathing or if it was the wind ruffling his fur and making it look like he was. She couldn’t tell, but noticed there were parallel skid marks on the street ahead. Taking a deep breath, she walked to the cat’s body. Putting her hands on her knees for balance, she leaned over him for a closer look, and exhaled. The cat’s eyes were open, but they were empty holes.
Big Tom’s collar glittered from around his neck and Jessie remembered her father’s stories about crows. He’d told her they ate the eyes first from the creatures killed by cars on the side of the road. She hadn’t believed him, but now she had proof. A crow squawked from the roof peak across the street. She stood up and shook her fist at it.
Mrs. Moulton would be missing Big Tom and wondering when he would come back to her. Jessie knew how much that kind of waiting hurt, so she pulled the top paper from her bag and removed the advertisements from its center. She spread some of them out on the ground beside the sidewalk and piled newspapers onto them. With her empty bag, she returned to Big Tom and spread the colorful pages on the street beside him. She picked up his limp body and put it on the paper, swaddling him as if he were a child. She tucked him inside her bag and began the slow walk to take Big Tom home.
About the Author: Blaze Farrar’s work has been published in Dual Coast Magazine and has won an Honorable Mention in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. It has also run on local NPR affiliate station KQED’s Perspectives series. When not writing, she spends her free time hiking in cemeteries and under redwoods in the Bay Area. She works at the University of California.