Sheep May Safely Graze

By John Timpane

1972

Francis got off the train in San Luis Obispo. He had gotten tired of his best friend Mack, who thought he was smart and thought he knew everything about trains. Like when the train was coming down the high green rolling hills into a place they couldn t see yet, and there went Mack again. Well, Mack said, we all got started in San Jose, and then we got on the train. Because Hank told us to and because that s what we were going to do today. Well, then we kept going and going and now it s a lot later and now we re almost in San Luis Obispo. Because San Luis Obispo is the next one. Almost in San Luis Obispo, Hank s wife Melissa said in the seat across the aisle from them. I know all that stuff, Francis said. Mack looked at him and pushed him a little bit. Sure you do, sure you do. Mack pushed him again, and Mack got up and went away, three or four cars

Copyright 2011 by John Timpane

away, where he came to a door that he pushed. He heard the outside roaring and saw the train was slowing down. Good idea, he said aloud. When the train stopped, Francis was first off. He watched it leave from behind the station window. Francis would never design a great invention, or play the flute, or have a wife, or go to college. Maybe he would go to Paris. He was interested in Paris because he knew that was where they spoke French. At first he walked away from the station, but a glint of sun off the train tracks caught his eye. He balanced on a track. He kicked a tie. He touched a track: hot in the afternoon sun, it burned his finger. He sat down for a while. He watched the tracks ride off into the distance, where they came together. Say there, said a man. What s your name? Francis asked.

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Dan. I m Francis. I m not supposed to talk to you. You re a grownup. Do you have a wife? Dan, standing in the grass, but not so far he had to shout, paused a moment. The he said: Uh, yes. Where s your wife? I don t know. This had been true for five years. Dan was happy about that and hoped it stayed that way. He said, What are you doing on the track tracks? Train tracks are fun. Trains are fun. I know. I was just on the train. It s going to be up on you if you re not careful. I don t see one. Dan didn t have an answer for that.

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Francis untied a shoe and untied the other one, then tied the shoestrings from the two shoes together. Mack did that once, and Francis tried to walk but fell over. Mack laughed. Listen, said Dan, I got this dollar. It s not a paper kind. It s a coin. See? He turned it and it glinted in the sun. Ever see a dollar coin? They re pretty. A dollar coin? I ll give it to you if you get off of those tracks. You re a stranger, Francis said. I m not a stranger. Sure you are. I m not supposed to talk to you. Because you re a stranger. Dan knew this was true. You don t want this nice dollar coin? Strangers always say they ll give you money. It s not like that. I just want you off of those tracks. Francis became absorbed in his shoes and laces.

Copyright 2011 by John Timpane

What if I make it two dollars? Dan flashed two coins. Francis could see them flash. You re still a stranger. Fine, said Dan. Look what I m doing. I m going over here to the curb, and I m laying the two dollars down on the curb. And then I m walking away. See? Going away. I m leaving. Bye. I m gone. Francis watched Dan walk down the street he saw him turn and wave and turn back to his walking until he was too small. Dan walked until he couldn t see Francis any more. Then he circled back around to a place where he could spy on where he d put the dollars. They were gone. Francis, too. Francis walked around for a while. He bought an ice cream with the dollars from Dan. He liked the ice cream so much he let it drip on his shoe. The last of the soggy cone was in his mouth, and he had forgotten all about Mack and about Dan. He saw a dog, a big dog, loping down the street at him. He laughed because the dog was drooling so much. Little boy, said a lady standing on her porch. Little boy.
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Francis looked around to see the little boy. He wasn t around. The dog was coming faster now. Little boy, the lady said again, this time louder. Francis looked at the dog as it came up. It had a long nose and pointy ears. Little, the lady said. But the dog was here now. It smelled Francis. It smelled his knees. Francis laughed. Smelling knees was a funny thing to do, even if you were a dog. Round and round him the dog went. His tail was switching like crazy, and Francis liked that because it meant dogs like you. He got tired of standing there, so he walked, and the dog walked next to him. Maybe it was because Francis was his new friend. Maybe it was so the dog could lick the ice cream off his shoe. He was trying to lick it as they walked along. Which made a funny sight. He tried to play with the dog until it barked, and then he saw another kid he went to talk to. Hi, Francis said.

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What s wrong with you? she replied. After that he was very thirsty and went to a house that reminded him of the one he lived in. He knocked on the door for some water, but nobody came, so he went to the hose and took some. Once he was done, he lay down on the lawn, played with the grass, put his face in it, made animal sounds, kicked like he was swimming, and sang Old McDonald. He didn t see her, but the lady he woke came on to the porch just in time to see him reach into his pants. Get away from my house or I ll call the police, she screamed. So he went away. He walked some more until he saw the barber, which seemed like a good idea. You know Hank, right? The barber, without customers at the moment, said, I don t know any Hank. Sure you do. Everybody knows Hank. I said I don t know any Hank.

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Sure you do, Francis said. The barber took one look at Francis and realized he wasn t going to win this one. Kids like this kid, it didn t pay to say anything. Love, hate, kill them, but you can t contradict. The barber gave Francis a bubblegum, which Francis took to a nearby seat. He solemnly unwrapped his gum and began to chew, smiling at the barber from time to time. Why did I do that? The barber thought. Now he ll be here past closing. But he wasn t right: after Francis had chewed all the taste out of his gum, he got up, followed the barber as he swept hair into untidy piles on the floor, and began to bother him with all sorts of questions. Will you give me a haircut? Got any money? No. Hank ll pay you. I don t see him around, so no, he won t. A man came in and sat down for a haircut. The barber began. Will you let me do it? Francis asked. No I won t. Now come on. Why don t you go look for Hank?

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I don t know where he is. That s why you ought to go look for him. He must be around here somewhere. Go ahead. Francis went out the door. The barber finished the man s haircut, but not before he had botched the back out of conscience and had to do some pretty clever cutting so his client wouldn t notice. By the end he was muttering, Shit, to himself under the vacuum. The man smiled at his new haircut in the mirror. The smile continued out the door. A little boy named Mario Tejeda popped into the seat to get his turn. Hold on, will you, Mario? the barber said. He turned to the phone and called the police department. Shit, he whispered. Shit hello, police? Hey, look, Joe Solti here. The barber in Hazelwood Plaza. Yeah. Look shit this kid just came into my shop. No, he didn t steal anything. I just think there s something wrong with him. Do I think he s lost? I don t know. He kept asking for this guy named Hank, and when I said I didn t

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know any Hank, he told me sure I did. I bet you he is lost. I don t how old. But he s about five nine, five ten, sneakers, bomber jacket, braces all over his face, green teeth, slobbers a lot. He s got those rings under his eyes, whatever that is, he s got that. You will? OK. Click.

Hills of bush-mottled sand gave way to the hazy gray-blue sea in gaps as the train slid along. Melissa thought about how she and Hank had come down here for their honeymoon twenty-one years ago. At that moment Hank was in the middle of a nose count in the other car. All of her kids were here. Boris, a tall, wide, black kid who played outside tackle for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and worked as a social worker during the summer, came down the aisle to say, Melissa. She smiled up from the window. Yeah? Where s Mack? He told me he was going to the bathroom, about five minutes ago. Boris stepped off in search, with Melissa following.
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Did he do something? she asked. But the bathroom door closed behind Boris, who came out again. Mack isn t in there. Sure I am, said Mack, standing behind Boris in the aisle. You were not in there, said Boris. Sure I am, said Mack. Behind him, a yellow old lady with a broken arm held a Coke. Get out of the way for the lady, Boris said, and lifted Mack up to make room. But with Boris, Mack, and the old lady, there wasn t enough room for the Coke. Here, I ll take that, Melissa said. Thanks, said the old lady, who twisted somewhat underneath Mack s elevated behind. Boris turned to the side a little, which made things worse. Mack kicked out, the lady yelped, and all three fell into Melissa, who held the Coke steady while everybody disentangled themselves. The old lady took the Coke from Melissa and went away whimpering.

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Where s Francis? asked Melissa. Francis? said Mack. Oh, he s gone. Gone? the grownups said. What? Sure he is. He got off the train back there. I showed him. Why didn t you tell us? Boris shouted. He nearly moved to strike Mack, but this man who could put his hand through bricks remembered. Melissa gasped at Boris s face. Because he left, Mack said.

Walking was too slow and a car was too fast, so Joe Solti borrowed Mario s bicycle. He pedaled and pedaled and thought I look like an idiot. He got as far as the main street, his white-trousered knees sticking out, Sting-Rays being built for kids, before he stopped, stymied in the two o clock sun. Now, where the hell would a retard go? he said aloud, looking down the streets around him, even at the traffic light, broken again, flashing yellow. This had to be the dumbest thing he ever did in his life. He should have kept this kid in

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the shop, then called the police. But no, always make your mistake first, then call the law. He decided to try the park. Second dumb thing: promising Mario a free haircut if he d mind the shop while Joe went looking for a half hour before the cops got there. They were probably already there, arresting Mario who didn t understand a goddamn thing. Some days, when you get up, you re a stupid man. The park was empty. The shade under the trees was inviting. Joe Solti tried to find good reasons to stay in the shade, but he couldn t. Now he had to do what he didn t want to do: search the housing tracts. His bald patch was oily with sweat, his forehead crusting with sunburn. Worse, as he pedaled by the houses and their lawns, people waved hello. Mrs. Conigliaro with a hose in her hand gave an especially vigorous wave: Real cute, Joe! Have you seen a retarded kid around here? Braces? Bomber jacket? Yes! The hose jumped in Mrs. Conigliaro s excitement. Mrs. Killeen had him sit down in her yard and play with himself. What d she do?
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She got him off of there. When was this? An hour and a half ago. Shit. Listen, if you see him, call the police right away, OK? He s lost or something. Can I have a drink? Sure you can, she said. In the spirit of adventure, she set her thumb to the stream, but miscalculated and really got him.

After a chorus of oh-no s ran back and forth between the train cars with all the kids, it was decided (by Hank) that Hank and Boris should stay with the kids and continue toward Los Angeles, and that Melissa would get off at Santa Barbara. It was like a detective story. Her brother Herm, who lived in Goleta, would pick her up in his Eldorado and both of them would go to the airport, where he had a private plane. Then they would fly back to San Luis Obispo and either look for Francis or wait until somebody else found him. This made no sense to the head conductor, but when Boris told him this was what Hank wanted, he radioed ahead.

Copyright 2011 by John Timpane

By the time Melissa stepped off the train at Santa Barbara, they had also radioed behind and learned that nobody had as yet found or heard of Francis. I bet they re looking now, Melissa thought as the train pulled away. She didn t know a barber was riding around on a borrowed kid s Stingray. She walked through the station to her brother and his Eldorado. She could smell the sea and hear seagulls, and she surprised herself, full of the glow of the unexpected event, by smiling at her brother. It s terrible, she said, slipping into the front seat. Sure sounds like it, Herm said, turning the key. Off they went.

Joe Solti emerged panting from the maze of the housing tracts, dizzy with cul de sacs and houses. I ll never find him, he thought. He walked Mario s Stingray across the street, in front of some snickering cowboys in a Datsun station wagon. Damn them and everybody like them, Joe prayed. He resumed riding, and saw with horror there was already a police car in front of his shop. But his eye also wandered beyond Hazelwood Plaza to the

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Perkins place, which had a corral with horses in it. That s the way it was in old San Luis Obispo. If I was a retard, that s where I d go, he said, putting all of his weight on each pedal to make the bicycle go faster. That is certainly where I d go, he thought, and that s where I d certainly get the hell trampled out of my poor self. Jesus, what an idiot, he gasped, pedaling faster, still far away. He looked as hard as he could up the street and saw himself made a prophet, for he could discern a tiny body climb awkwardly over the corral fence and fall in the dirt on the other side. Oh, God, oh, God, he cried, pumping and pumping. The little body pushed itself upright and went over to join the one horse in the corral. Joe saw the horse skitter and shy, and he groaned, envisioning a hoof tearing through the bomber jacket, teeth sinking into the hand. He thought of his own maimed middle finger, healed smooth. Watch out! Watch out! he cried. Francis hopped around the horse, playing with its ears and lips. Joe s white trousers caught between the chain and the gears, the bike seized, and he crashed into gravel, Mario s bike on top of him.

Copyright 2011 by John Timpane

Shit, shit, shit, Joe wept as he undid himself and heard the kid crying. He pushed the bike away and ran to the corral. Bloody hand. The kid was holding up his bloody hand and laughing, tears and braces glinting in the sun. It wasn t too bad, just a nip. The horse, all malevolence, trotted after him. Come here, Joe Solti called to him. You come here. He bit me, Francis reported, his eyes wrinkled in glee. Over here this minute, please, please, come on. The kid bumbled over to him, the horse trotting after. Joe leaned over the fence, and with a heave that hurt his back, dragged Francis over.

You ve got some blood, the policeman said back at the barbershop, tapping Joe s forehead. That s stitches, sure. No it s not, Joe said, going to a mirror. While he washed his face in the sink, muttering, Not stitches, be fine, the other policeman asked Francis, What s your name?

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Francis. The policeman smiled, clearly not a habit. Francis what? Francis Hunzinger. Hunzinger. He said it like he thought pigs barked. Can you spell that? Nope. I got bit by a horse. He held up his hand. Joe gave him a towel, saying, Wipe your face. He did, and the dried teartracks came off. What s your mommy and daddy s name? Somebody new came into the shop. It was Mrs. Conigliaro, worried Mr. Perkins, owner of the corral and the horse, and Dr. Hagada from the local special school. My daddy s name is Pe-ter. Shut up, Pete! This was a favorite family

joke at Francis s house, but no one in the shop knew that. Mommy s name is Carla. Get out of the bathroom, Carl! This one of yours? the policeman said to the doctor, who called the school to find out Francis was not one of his.

Copyright 2011 by John Timpane

Dan showed up, too, but no one wanted to talk to him. Well, we got on the train in San Jose burst from Francis. San Jose? the policeman said, writing something down. Sure we did. Because you want to know why? Sure. Because Hank told us to and because that s what we were going to do today. All of us. And we came all the way down here on the train. And you know where we re going? Who is this Hank? Hank? He s Hank. You know. So does he. Francis pointed. Joe the barber raised a hand in denial. I do not know Hank. But do you know where we re going? Francis asked. Come on. Do you? Santa Barbara? the policeman asked. Bad guess. Nope. Come on.

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Los Angeles. Nope. But that s where we all have to get out and change to another train. San Diego! said Mr. Perkins in triumph. How s his hand? To go to the zoo, Francis agreed.

Melissa and Herm drove their rented car through the streets of San Luis Obispo at the very moment the train was pulling into Oxnard far to the south. They had had a fight on the plane, but that was over now. Sort of. Taking a trainload of retardeds all the way down to San Diego for a visit to the zoo is the stupidest idea I ever heard, Herm said. We do it every year, Melissa said. and we ve got the planning down to a T. We never lost a kid before this. Those kids give me the jitters, Herm said.

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You can t penalize them just because they re look different, because they don t meet your standards, Melissa said. You re lucky to be at least reasonably intelligent. Herm chuckled at a stop sign. I don t mind saying, I could never do the stuff you do. If I was their mom or dad, I d be hoping they wouldn t make it. Better than let them keep going. I m not saying it to sound cold or nothing. I m just saying. Sounds pretty cold to me. He turned left. The lights lining the street went on all at once. Hey, did you see that? he said. They know about it, and it makes them unhappy. You ve got to take care of them. Don t know how Hank does it, Herm said, turning on the radio. In two songs they were at the police station. You ve got some blood, Melissa said immediately after meeting Joe. Stitches for sure, Joe s wife Nita said.

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No it s not, said Joe. May I introduce you to my wife, Anita? He put a wet paper towel to his forehead. How do you do? Nita said, shooting Melissa a smile so fake it made Joe s fillings ache. Where s Hank, and when s the zoo? Francis asked. You ve been very disobedient, Melissa said, looking at him in the eye. Before she knew, her finger had drawn away the track of spittle down Francis s chin. The next word out of Francis was about to make everything all right. See my bite? It s a horse. Is that how you got that? Melissa said, turning to Joe. You poor man. Yes, Joe said. Sure, Nita said. He fell off a bike. Mine, said Mario.

Boris would not be leading the kids through the San Diego Zoo until after lunch the next day, so there was plenty of time to fly there in the morning. Herm
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was sore at first when Melissa preferred to stay overnight, but there was a matter of tetanus shots and depositions, and several calls hundreds of miles to the north and south all over California. So Herm paid for a motel. The evening and morning were the only great events in Francis s life. Everybody was at the airport. Joe and Herm led Francis on a guided tour of the plane, especially its white propeller. This is what goes round and makes the noise, Herm said. I m getting in now and starting the plane. Better stand back because it can chop your head off. Say bye to everyone, Melissa said. Francis went to kiss the Soltis as he had been taught, and Melissa noted how both turned their faces so his lips met their cheeks. As though Francis could contaminate. The plane sputtered, chugged, and roared. She led him up and stepped up into the door after him. She had a little trouble getting in, and for a moment her dress fluttered wildly in the propeller blast, allowing the Soltis to take opposing views of her yellow underthings and firm legs. Wha-ha-how! Do you hear that? Wha-ha-how! Francis said.

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Hold on, Melissa shouted. Be very careful. Very careful. They said 150 of those kids on one train, Mr. Perkins said. Can you imagine that? At the zoo, too, Nita said. The plane s wheels bounced on the uneven runway and the red lights flashed by faster and faster. We are going so fast, Francis said. Sure we are, Melissa said. The tail went up after what seemed to Francis like an hour, and the wheels did not rattle any more. Herm pulled knobs and held the wheel just like a car, and suddenly, San Luis Obispo turned beneath them. It was many streets, houses, and farms in the middle of green hills near a sea. Wha-ha-how, Francis said. Now you can say you ve been on a plane, Melissa said. And a train. And still see the zoo.

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Where s the horse? Francis asked. He scanned the town as it drew away beneath them. Then he realized what Melissa had just said. And still see the zoo, he said. The town went to a few isolated houses in the middle of March grass. The wind-flecked sea rolled off into a haze that hurt to look at. You sure can, Melissa said. San Luis Obispo was behind them. Francis watched it tilt and fade for a long time until all he was watching was the tail of the plane and the haze that hurt to look at. He blinked and faced forward. Where s the zoo?

Copyright 2011 by John Timpane