If I try to trace when it was that my life began to change, I think about the day I met Zach. I could go back further to when I was eight and Marion moved in next door, or to when I was seven and I learned to swim, or to when my mother left when I was three. But everything comes around again to meeting Zach.
The sound of the bell jingling over the door at Pa’s meat locker when a rancher comes in. That’s where it started.
I stopped in to the shop after the first day of school, junior year. Pa’s fading brown hair lay mussed where his cap had been. “Upperclassman, now, huh? How was the first day?” His eyes wrinkled into smiles.
“I have last period free, so I can still work down here. And swim practice starts soon,” I said.
“All figured out, huh, Jill?” Pa took my face in his hands and kissed my forehead. Through the odors of raw meat and sweat, I could smell the sandalwood soap I had given him for his birthday, its aroma of freshly sawed wood, right out of the forest. “I gotta help this customer, hon. See you later.”
That’s when I first noticed the boy. He looked about my age, maybe a little older, but he didn’t look familiar. Rockaway’s not big, so it was strange not to know him. What caught my eye most was his long blond hair. I mean long. It hung in thick golden waves past his shoulders. He was tall, with muscular arms and chest.
He went up to the counter and I went out the door with the tinkling bell. I watched him through the store window, wondering who he was, why I didn’t recognize him at least by sight. I wondered if he’d noticed me.
Then I caught sight of myself in the reflection in the window. Why would he notice me? There was nothing special. Just an ordinary girl in jeans and a T-shirt, with an ordinary blond ponytail. Nothing special.
I watched while the boy waited for Pa to get the order from the freezer in back. I watched as he paid and they stood there chatting a moment. My reflection seemed to be standing right next to him inside. That would be nice, to be standing next to him for real. We looked good together. I put my hand out so that my reflection touched him. He had his order and was turning to leave. My breath caught in my throat as he got closer.
Before he got to the door, I heard the familiar sound of plastic cello case wheels on the sidewalk. Marion sat down on the sidewalk bench. “Guess what the fall play is going to be?”
I shrugged. Even though Marion loved acting, I had no interest, except to watch her. Maybe I was just shy or an introvert, but I didn’t like having all eyes on me.
“`The Crucible.’ What a fabulous play. There are so many good female parts.”
“Well, you’ll get the lead, you always do,” I said. “And you’ll be terrific.”
“Thank you, dahlin’,” she said, taking on the air of some long ago movie star. She poofed her black curls with her hand.
The boy walked out of the shop and into Marion’s cello, which blocked part of the doorway.
“Excuse me,” he said in a soft deep voice.
“Oh, sorry,” said Marion. She stood up to move the cello.
He looked at me. Not the way some boys do, like if they look at your chest long enough, they’ll develop x-ray vision. He looked me in the eyes, like he could see through them down into my soul. I wished he would speak more in his soft voice. I tried to think of something to say to keep him there.
He noticed me looking back, and he stared at the ground. He crossed the street to his pickup, got in, and drove away.
I watched until he turned a corner. I almost ran after his truck.
“Wow,” said Marion.
“Hm?” I had to bring myself back to the here and now.
“You must be in lust.” Marion laughed. “You couldn’t take your eyes off that guy.”
“I know. I love that hair, and those arms.” I kind of wanted to see what he looked like with no shirt.
“Come on, Jill. He looked like some biker dude. Not your type.”
“Not a biker dude. No leather, no boots. Jeans and a button-up shirt. Pickup truck. Mountain man, that’s my guess.”
“Mm,” said Marion. She stared down the street for a minute, not saying anything.
“He sure is gorgeous,” I said.
“Mountain man,” Marion repeated, drawing the words out with uncertainty. She looked at me with her chin wrinkled up and lips pursed. “You don’t think…”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. Mountain man just makes me think of that compound out in the mountains.”
“Those neo-nazi crazies?” We all knew they were out there, but we didn’t see them in town much, or hear much from them. They seemed relatively harmless.
She shrugged. “He’s probably a total granola. Who knows?” She grabbed her backpack. “Let’s go.”
A few days later Marion, Jimmy, and I sat outside sipping malts at the Du Drop Inn. Like everything else in Rockaway, the Du Drop Inn was pretty much the same as it had been forever.
Marion’s black curls bounced around her face in the hot breeze of early September. “Is that him?” She pointed to a boy at the walk-up counter.
I glanced at him and my stomach flipped. I nodded. “Doesn’t he look like Hercules?”
“Whoever he is, he’s coming over here,” said Jimmy.
My hands started to sweat and I wiped them on my jeans, hoping he wouldn’t notice the wet, smeared handprints on my legs.
“Hi,” said the boy as he approached. “I remember you from the meat store.”
I nodded. He was so golden, so perfect that I couldn’t stop looking at him. My voice disappeared. He must have thought I was stupid.
He held out his hand. “I’m Zach.”
I nodded again, still voiceless. After a moment of awkwardness, Marion shook his hand.
“Hi. I’m Marion. This is Jill.” She kicked my leg under the table. “And this is Jimmy.”
“Wanna join us?” asked Jimmy.
“Oh, um, sorry. I can’t. I gotta pick up Father in a minute.” He paused, looked at his feet, and traced an arc on the sidewalk with one foot. “I, um, I really came over to…to…to see if you’d like to go out sometime.”
“I’d love to,” said Jimmy.
Marion slapped Jimmy on the arm, grinning. “Not you, stupid. He’s asking Jill.”
Jimmy pretended his arm was hurt.
“Sure,” I said in a croaky voice. Could I sound any worse? He probably thought he was asking out a frog.
“Thing is, there’s not much to do around here. I’m not big on ideas,” said Zach.
I got my voice back enough to say, “How about the football game on Friday night?”
“You like football?”
I was feeling a little more myself. “I don’t even know if I like it or not. But I’ve been going to just about every game since I can remember. My brother plays football. He’s in college now.”
“Pick you up Friday then.”
I took a scrap piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote down my address for him. “See you then.” I hoped the paper wasn’t too sweaty and gross.
He smiled and walked to his truck.
After Zach drove off, Jimmy leaped up from his seat. “Oh, Scarlet,” he said in an exaggerated southern accent.
“Oh, Rhett,” said Marion, taking his hands and holding them to her chest as she heaved it up and down. “You’re so dreamy.” She drew out the last word so it seemed like cotton candy, too sweet and barely there.
I swatted in their direction like they were annoying flies. “Shut up, you guys.” But really, I didn’t mind their teasing. I had a date with Zach.
At home I had dinner waiting for Pa. Sometimes Pa cooked, sometimes I did. And whenever Joe came home from college, he’d cook too. Everyone had a different specialty.
The best times were when we’d grill outside. While the smoky smell of fat dripping on the coals seeped into our pores, Pa would have a beer and I’d have a root beer. We’d sit on the patio, listening to Beatles tunes on Pa’s old record player. He never did get into modern technology.
That night, Pa walked in the front door just as I put the garlic bread on the table.
“Hey, Hon.” He turned on the window fan and got a beer from the refrigerator.
I kissed his cheek. “Spaghetti tonight.”
While we ate, I asked him about Zach. “Hey, Pa. Remember that guy who came into the shop while I was there the other day?”
He slurped up a fork full of spaghetti. “Um, can’t say.”
“He had long blond hair.”
“Oh, yeah. Nice kid. Should get a haircut though.” He smiled. “Course, I had long hair too, in my day.”
“His name’s Zach,” I said.
“Right. Zachariah Johnson. Lives out on Bear Creek Road I think.”
“Really? That family with the dozens of blonde kids? That Johnson?”
“Yeah. They have a ranch, butcher about once a year. Mostly though, he brings in game. Quite the hunter.”
I didn’t remember they had such a good looking son. Of course, they didn’t come into town much and I didn’t give them much thought when they did. I was surprised. I’d always thought their family was kind of weird, but he seemed so normal.
We finished eating and I got out my notebook to start my writing assignment for journalism. Pa cleared the dishes.
I thought more about Zach and none about journalism. If he was in school, he sure wasn’t in Rockaway High School, I knew that much. And I was pretty sure he wasn’t old enough to have graduated before I started. Maybe their family went to that religious school out toward Hill City.
“Taking notes?” Pa poked me in the ribs.
I laughed. “No, but do you know if he’s in school or if he’s graduated?”
“Don’t know.” Pa cleared the dishes. “What you chewing on?”
I must have been biting my lip—a bad habit I have when I’m preoccupied, or at least that’s what Marion says. “Nothin’. He asked me out today.”
Pa winked at me and went out in the back yard whistling, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Later that week Marion’s family and I hiked the hill across the street from our houses. It’s a sacred hill to me and Marion. Dark tall pines line the slopes, and a path winds up the steep sides. At the top, gigantic granite slabs break through the brown earth. Past the ridge, a narrow stream runs down the other side.
Marion’s brother, Sam, and sister, Anna, carried a bag of bread crumbs. When we reached the top, they passed the bag around so all of us could take a mound of bread crumbs in our hands.
Every year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we hike up to this creek for our ceremony. I was eight the first year I went, when Marion’s family had just moved in next door. She told me, “The bread crumbs are like all our mistakes and bad things we’ve done. When we toss them in the water, they float away and we can start the new year fresh.”
I have done this ritual every year since then. The first year, I didn’t feel anything special or different, but as the years have gone by, I find that I feel cleansed or something. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, but being on the hill performing a ritual in the creek doesn’t seem especially religious. It’s soulful.
This year, the creek was meager, trickling down the far side of the hill. I threw my bread crumbs and watched the water wash them away. I took in a deep breath and let it out.
Marion’s mom, whom we all called Mommy, said, “May you be written down for a good year.” That signaled the end of the ritual.
The brown sagebrush snapped under our feet as we walked back down the hill, and dried up stalks of grass released their seeds to the air when we brushed against them.
We went back to the White’s house and ate our traditional Rosh Hashanah feast with lots of apple dishes and sweet things. My favorite part of the feast was always the snail-spiraled challah bread, symbolizing the repeating cycles of the year and the earth.
After dinner, Marion and I went upstairs to hang out in her room.
I plopped myself into the giant bean bag chair next to her window. A sliver of moon appeared just above the roof of my house next door.
“Oh sister moon,” I chanted, and Marion joined me. “Sister moon, enchantress of night, waning and waxing, we follow your course.”
We each took a deep breath and shut our eyes for a minute. Such was our “moon ritual.” We made it up the night after Marion’s Bat Mitzvah, because it was Rosh Hodesh, the new moon in the Hebrew calendar.
Marion lay on her bed with her knees bent, looking up at the ceiling. We didn’t speak for quite a while.
“Anyone ask you to homecoming?” Marion said after some time.
I shrugged. “Let’s just see how the first date goes. Anyone asked you?”
Marion grinned. “Well, I asked somebody.”
“That is just like you. Who is it?”
She twirled a piece of hair around her finger. “Jimmy.”
“Jimmy!” I leaned forward in the bean bag chair. “But Marion, he’s gay.”
She laughed and pushed herself upright. “Well, duh, of course he’s gay. We’ve got a little plan.”
I moved to the bed. “What plan?”
“Come on, give.” I punched her lightly on the shoulder.
She crossed her arms in front of her and shook her head. “Nope. It’s a surprise and you’ll just have to wait like everyone else.”
Mommy knocked on the open bedroom door. “Ladies? I hate to break up your gab session, but it’s getting late. And, unfortunately, you have school tomorrow.”
Mommy walked me downstairs.
“Do you know what Marion’s planning for homecoming?” I asked.
She laughed, tossing her head back with the knowing sense adults seem to have. “No. But whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll make a splash.”
Mr. White called from the kitchen. “Night, Jill.”
Mommy hugged me at the door. “Shalom, Jill.”
She’s a short person, shorter than me, and I had to lean down a little to hug her. Her Chanel No. 5 perfume smelled comforting and familiar. I was struck in that moment by the sudden realization that I could not remember any familiar scent of my own mother. It hit me hard in the gut, and I ran out the door and across the lawn to my house so Mommy wouldn’t see me cry.