Two Steps Forward
By Holly Schofield
I eased myself down off the running board of the ’28 Hudson sedan then laid a hand on the hood in mute sympathy for its overheated pistons. A quick buttoning-up of my topcoat and a tug on my fedora and I felt ready to approach the farmhouse.
The old woman on the veranda watched me as I drew close. Fly-away gray hair surrounded a narrow, clever face, faded housedress atop rubber boots, she was as much of a hodgepodge as I used to be. The late model Stewart Warner radio perched on the windowsill shimmied with “The Spell of the Blues”. I hummed along as the saxophones swooped and soared.
The old woman fingered the jumble of items on her lap as if looking for a weapon and I stopped a few feet from the bottom step of the porch.
“Afternoon, ma’am.” I tipped my hat, not too far, and put my hands in my pockets. “I won’t take up much of your time. Your husband built that famous automated scarecrow, am I right?” At her tightening mouth, I quickly added, “I’m not a reporter, just an admirer. I saw that scarecrow ace the dance marathon at the Playland Pavilion in Montreal last winter. Truly hep to the jive.” The ballroom’s mirrored walls reflecting the graceful moves of the dark-suited figure, hands as clever as Frisco twirling a chiffon-clad partner—a sight worth seeing, all right. The old woman grunted and picked up a dirty rag. She poured something golden and syrupy over it from a pickle jar, and began rubbing a coaster-sized metal disc—a flywheel? a gear?—with more vigor than necessary.
The sun beat down on my hat and heavy coat. Manitoba in August could cook a person’s innards. Common courtesy would be to invite me onto the porch. She said nothing. I did as she’d expect and walked over to the shade of the big maple that crowded against the railing.
When she finally spoke, her voice grated like sand in a pocketwatch. “Yup, he built that thing.” The words hung on the dust-filled air. She put down the disc and squinted into the shade where I stood. “He’s dead and gone. I think you mebbe know that.”
She’d lied with ease. Getting her to do what I needed would be harder than mastering the Lindy Hop.
“I heard that, ma’am, and you have my sympathies,” I said, continuing to play innocent. “Can I ask, why didn’t he build more than the one?” It had bothered me for ages and I’d thought about it the whole six-hour drive out here from Winnipeg. Why not make another of the marvelous two-stepping scarecrows? Dozens? Hundreds? The floorboards of the dance halls from here to Toronto could quiver from the beat of a thousand metallic toes.
“Why should I tell you about Abe’s affairs? You a tax man?”
“No, ma’am. I’m not from the tax office.” Not even close.
“The bank, then. I s’pose you’re here to hand me a late mortgage notice? I already got two.”
“No, ma’am. I’m not from the bank. Just interested, is all. Music is my life.”
“Well, even if you were foreclosing, there’s nothing here you want anyway. No one will buy this land no more. With Abe gone, I can’t put in a wheat crop and I sold off all the cows. No equipment worth a red cent, neither. Don’t go thinking there’s a fancy workshop here. That mechanical boy was constructed from cast-off junk: washing machine parts, broken wooden pipes, ball joints from the old John Deere’s drive shaft. Junk, all junk.” She paused and spat over the side of the railing. “Damn thing never did a decent stroke of work keeping the birds off my vegetables.”
“With respect, ma’am, I heard the mechanical man was the cat’s whiskers at hoofing around the joint, giving those wingèd pests the bum’s rush.”
My poetical words must have painted a fine picture—her shoulders relaxed slightly, like a dance marathoner on the second day. She finished polishing the gear and laid it on the old wicker table beside her, next to a tin can heaped with ball bearings. She picked up a smaller gear from her lap, with cogs the size of babies’ teeth, and turned it over and over. “The head, doncha know, was an old tea kettle. The handle was busted so it got soldered back onto the side—made the funniest-looking ear you ever saw.” The side of her mouth quirked up.
From my place in the shadows, I nodded several times. “The copper sheen made him look like he perspired when he danced.” A certain swanky Winnipeg dance hall lit up my memory, the figures whirling in bright dresses and suits, foxtrotting to Brother, Can You Spare a Dime. The orchestra had so enchanted me that, at times, I had been oblivious to the torture of that twenty-six day marathon: the cruel catcalls from the paying audience, the MC’s brutal “sprint” contests, the total exhaustion of my partner as she slept standing upright against my rigidly-held shoulder through the nights. Like all my partners, she kept her energy for dancing, not talking, so I never learned much about her beyond her name.
“He covered his head up, pretty quick, I heard tell, when he bummed his way east outta here. Got it coated with that newfangled Bakelite. Nobody could tell he wasn’t a person, except for the steam coming out his nose spout.” She peered over at me. “How’d you know his head was copper?”
Jeez Louise, call me a chowderhead! She might be near-sighted but she wasn’t dim. I changed the subject fast. “One of the gossip rags said he got the nose fixed too, just redirected the steam to vent out several places on his body. The girls found him plenty steamy, all right. A real ‘Lothario from Ontario.’” I laughed and was relieved to see the corner of her mouth twitch up further.
“Heard he won all the marathon contests from here to Montreal,” she said, gruffly, leaning back enough to make the wicker creak. “Guess nobody else could make another one, or they would have—just to get the prize money.”
Like a roadhouse gambler closing in on his patsy, it was time to show a little of my hand. If we didn’t come to an understanding, all this was for naught.
“Nobody has your skill, ma’am.” I let that sentence lie there, overlaying the chirp of the grasshoppers and the waltz that now drifted out the window, and took a big gulp from my hip flask.
The old woman cackled. “Smart as a whippersnapper, aren’t you? Yeah, I built the damn thing. Kept me busy the winter before Abe passed, just like my new radio. Didn’t want to admit to it, after the reporters started coming around. I started off real simple. I only wanted to keep the sparrows off my strawberries and such. Then he began dancing, slick as oil. Twirling around in the moonlight, all graceful and smooth, in that wrinkled-up swallowtail coat the undertaker gave me. After a few months, I stuck an old axle kingpin in his ankles so he could bend in all the right places. Never got a thank you.” She leaned back and put her hands behind her. I couldn’t quite read her expression.
I pictured the scene as a crow might see it: the scarecrow high stepping under the moon, tails flapping, twisting like the hepcat he would become. NBC’s Palmolive Hour alive with sweet jazz, the hopeful scent of ripening tomatoes, and the moonlight playing among the carrot fronds. The scarecrow tap dancing madly to “California, Here I Come” as it blared out the window of the farmhouse he was never, ever invited into.
She leaned forward, studying me. “Nice coat,” she said. I straightened the collar, pleased she had noticed. Camel-hair, with leather-covered buttons, it had been the feature in the Eaton’s window all spring and had cost me the moola from my last three marathons. She spun a gear on her finger, round and round. “Bet it’s hard to keep the coal dust off it.”
We understood each other all right. I touched my chest with my gloved hands then held them out to her, in mute recognition of her statement.
Her voice rasped. “That mechanical boy never appreciated the oil I rubbed in his joints, the coal I shovelled beneath his boiler, the spot-welding when he broke a toe. He just up and run off, right before harvest. The birds poked holes in most of the squash before the sun had set that day. By golly, I should have made one leg shorter so he could only walk in circles.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “the radio is to blame.”
“The radio?” She dropped the gear with a clank. “Well, I never! The radio!”
“Like peeking through a keyhole day after day, never being able to open the door. He wanted to see everything for himself, touch everything, live everything. You name it, he wanted it. Jam sessions, mellow rhythms, swell fellows and grooving chicks. He wanted it all.”
I jammed my hands in my pockets. Johnny Green’s Easy Come, Easy Go finished its chorus and slid into a long bridge, silky as cream.
The old woman swayed a bit to the beat then caught herself. She must have cut quite a rug in her younger days. “A bum, a wastrel, that’s what he is,” she said, as if she’d said it many times before.
The wailing horns were drawing me in. I clenched my fists harder and tightened my knee joints, fighting the urge. I had to make her see. “Perhaps he wanted to do more than chase birds away, as if he was a deuce of tin pie plates banging in the wind. Perhaps he wanted to earn you some lettuce when Abe was huddled in bed with scarlet fever. But perhaps,”—I faltered then continued—“you’d rather let the bank seize the farm than take help from me.”
Bridges burned, I stepped out into the sunlight, swept off my fedora, and let the sun beat down on my beige Bakelite-covered head. I opened my coat and took out the prize money from Toronto’s Nationwide Super Marathon, laying the thick wad of cash on the top step of the porch.
The old woman stood up, heedless of the gears, springs, and other clockworks tumbling from her lap. She took the two steps necessary to grab the money and turned away, rubbing her eyes. Her gnarled hand wrenched open the screen door and she disappeared into the dimness beyond. The door slammed behind her so loudly the starlings took off from the clothesline in indignation.
I took another swig from my flask, the last of the kerosene failing to ease the tightness in my throat. Steam from several of my apertures drifted faintly up toward the gutters. A thank you would have been too much but I’d hoped for a friendly smile or a hi de ho. And a cup of her special lubricating blend would have hit the spot before I drove my car down the dirt track back to the highway, back to the dance halls, back to the bleak faces of the marathoners. I’d learned that dance floors didn’t sparkle so much after the glitter dust got trampled. I was a scarecrow with a lot of dashed hopes, an excellent sense of rhythm, and a chest that was as hollow as a certain famous tinman.
My hand had cranked open the Hudson’s door handle when the old woman hailed me, something bright in her hand. The crows mocked from the maple as I returned to the veranda, my new wingtip shoes causing aches in places I didn’t know I had.
“Take the damn key ring,” she said. “Go out to the smaller barn next to the coal shed.” She waved a hand, impatient at my slowness in mounting the steps. “You need to wind them counterclockwise, light the kerosene-soaked coal, squirt all their joints with a drop or two of lubricant, and then explain to them about…well, about everything.”
The keys jangled from my glove-clad fingers. “Them?”
“The other scarecrows. There’s six ready in the barn and half a one in the workshop that’s not finished yet. It’s been a slow summer.” She trudged back into the house, lifting her heels very slightly in time to Sweet Sue, Just You.
About the Author
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction, AE, Unlikely Story, Tesseracts, and many other publications throughout the world. For more of her work, see .
About the Narrator
Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him.
He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.