Chad by Ronald Mackay
“Chad! Are you stupid?” Ronald grimaced at the rebuke in his own voice. Too late! Hurt replaced alarm in the boy’s eyes. Chad was off the gate, arm upraised. Ronald felt a stab of sorrow as he realised the boy expected abuse.
“Never swing on a farm gate, Chad.” Ronald replaced censure with cautionary kindness, but the damage had been done. Chad adopted the slump of a child bereft.
Putting aside the wrench he’d been using to bleed the tractor fuel system, Ronald asked, “You study physics in school?”
The lad winced. “School? Physics?” His tone conveyed ignorance, dismissal.
“Well, here’s why you never stand on the swinging end of a gate. It’s basic science. Interesting too.”
Wariness joined the hurt in Chad’s eyes.
“You know what a lever is?”
Chad managed a guarded nod.
Ronald took a block of stove-wood from the wood-pile, balanced a rough-cut board horizontally on top of it and looked at Chad expectantly.
“Right. A lever. Stand on that end.” Chad did. He immediately clumped to the ground.
“Stay there! Look what happens when I stand on the other end.” Ronald stepped up onto the opposite end of the board. Chad rose off the ground.
“You’re heavier than me!” Chad dismissed the trick with a shrug.
“You’re right. I am. So how could you, being lighter than me, raise me off the ground?”
Chad frowned. He grabbed the board, pulled three-quarters of its length towards him over the block and stood to one side.
“Get on the short end!” He gestured to Ronald. Chad was engaged, the hurt in his eyes fading.
Ronald raised one foot to stand on the short end. It came easily to the ground, his weight raising Chad’s empty long end into the air.
“Watch!” Chad took charge. He stepped onto the board right over the block and slowly started to walk backwards towards his long end, concentrating so as not to lose his balance. When the boy was within a yard of his end, Ronald began to rise. A smile broke out on both their faces. Chad took another small step, another, and another, and slowly Ronald rose as Chad sank gently to the ground.
Smartly, Chad stepped off the board. Unprepared for the trick, Ronald fell in a heap on the frosty grass. Startled, a solitary robin flew, complaining, into the hedgerow.
Now they were both laughing.
Secretly, Ronald felt pleased. Chad’s trick had cancelled out the earlier hurt he had inflicted. Now they were equal. Ronald determined to keep it that way, remembering how difficult adolescence could be from his own childhood laden with raging reprimands and unexpected blows.
“So? What’s a teeter-totter got to do with the gate?” Curiosity lurked behind Chad’s eyes.
Simply, Ronald explained the law of levers. He showed how, when Chad stood on the gate-rail at the swinging end, the gate scraped the ground as the upright gate post rocked and tilted alarmingly from the vertical.
“It’s the same principle. The further you stand from the gate-hinge, the more weight you put on the post. Do it often enough and the post will lean over permanently and the gate will scrape. Then it’s hard to open and close.”
Ronald was pleased that the hurt he had inflicted was gone. Chad’s eyes gleamed with their usual wary sadness but also, now, with just a tinge of pride. An adult had spoken to him. Without shouting. Patiently. He hadn’t been struck.
Chad nodded. His pinched face turned serious and there was a plea not only in his voice but also in his young eyes.
“You needta remember somehin’.”
“I’m only thirteen and a half.” His voice appealed for an understanding he craved but had never in his underprivileged life, been granted.
‘He’s searching,’ Ronald realised, ‘for the empathy he deserves but can’t find. And here I am, expecting him to work like a man, at dawn on a fall morning white with frost. And him still a child. Little-loved.’ Ronald fought the prickle behind his own eyes.
“You’re right, Chad. I’m sorry.” He kept his voice steady. Emotion wouldn’t help. Or was it, he asked himself, because he simply didn’t know how to meet the child’s needs, having sought reassurance himself, vainly, from his own father at that needful age.
He’d found Chad after an exhaustive search for help on the farm at weekends when he returned to Ontario from work in Montreal in Quebec. Most of the surrounding farmers were middle-aged, their sons and daughters fled to the city as soon as they were able. The few teenagers in the area were needed to help out at home. At that time, in rural Canada, children were relied upon to do chores, morning and evening, from their earliest years.
It had been the township clerk who had brought Chad to Ronald’s attention. “His sisters,” she told him, “have quit school and moved to town. His mother’s on welfare. Her current boy-friend gets occasional work in a welding shop over in the next township.”
The seriousness of her tone had warned Ronald that Chad might not be easy.
“He’s a good kid but he’s often in trouble at school. They live in a rented house a fair bit outside the village. Chad’s isolated at weekends. He could do with some work.” She had added after a pause. “And a little looking after.”
Mrs McDonnel, Chad’s mother, had been suspicious when Ronald finally managed to speak to her after many tries on many separate days. She reeked of beer and cigarettes and opened the peeling door of the old farmhouse only a fraction as if afraid of yet another complaint against her son. When Ronald explained that he wanted the boy to work, would pick him up at 7.30 on Saturday mornings, feed him lunch and bring him home by 5 p.m., she showed interest.
“Minimum hourly wage. For an adult”
Her eyes widened. “Cash?”
“The little bugger’ll be waiting for you next Saturday morning. Right here!” She closed the door.
When that Saturday arrived, Ronald planned the day’s work as he ate breakfast at 6 a.m. before going out to the barn and the machine-shed to lay out the equipment and the tools they would need.
At 7.30 on the dot Ronald had driven up the overgrown lane to the rented farmhouse. All was in silence; neglect. He had waited for five minutes and had then knocked at the door. The upstairs window shot up.
“What the f***!” A man’s voice, enraged.
“I’m here for Chad.”
“F*** off!” The window slammed shut.
Chad appeared at the door, pulling on a shirt. “Rick hates bein’ woke!”
“You weren’t here.”
“They don’t get up in the morning.” Chad made it sound normal.
‘No sunrise, for consolation? No dawn chorus, to offer redemption? A life bereft of beauty’ Ronald thought but said aloud, “You get your own breakfast?”
Chad shot him a puzzled look.
Ronald turned the heating on in the car. Chad’s clothing was woefully inadequate for a frosty fall morning. They drove in silence.
“Scrambled eggs?” Ronald put a plate on the table.
Chad’s eyes widened. He took a mouthful.
“What’s the funny taste?”
“The eggs are fresh.”
“The dark things.”
“Never heard of it.” He raised another forkful. “But it’s OK.”
Before they went back outside, Ronald took an old woollen bush-shirt off the stand at the back door and threw it to Chad. It hung on his childish frame like a shroud, but Ronald could see that he was glad of the warmth.
They worked, had lunch in the kitchen and finished their chores around three.
“I’ll drive you home,” Ronald counted Canadian dollar bills into Chad’s small hand.
Approaching the village, Chad said, “Here’ll do.”
“We’ve still a ways to go.”
“Someone’ll pick me up.”
Chad cherished no longing to return home and tell his story because it wasn’t a home, merely a house and there was no one to listen. He disappeared into Andrew’s general store.
The following day, when Ronald was shopping, Andrew ventured. “The kid you dropped off here? Yesterday? Had money to spend.”
“He worked all day. I paid him cash.”
“Well, you musta short-changed him on lunch or he musta been aaawful hungry. Spent a ton on chocolate milk, soda and candy bars. Hitched a ride home.”
Ronald regularly sought Chad’s help. If Chad wasn’t waiting as arranged, he’d throw a tennis ball gently at the window to rouse him.
Chad would eat breakfast at Ronald’s farm. They would work, have lunch – as much as Chad could eat -- and finish by mid-afternoon.
Over the next couple of years, try as he might, Ronald could not get close to Chad though he seemed comfortable in his company. He learned how to fix the water pump in the barn when it jammed, how to set the automatic drinking-bowls so they wouldn’t freeze, how to spread the hay-bales so that the cows didn’t fight over them, to load steers onto the drover’s float, and to be ever wary of the bull.
Unannounced, Chad appeared with his first girl-friend one day, to show where he worked at weekends. She was as childlike, peaky, unkempt, unloved and ill-clad as Chad, but she responded to the boy’s pride as he exaggerated his role on the farm.
It cut Ronald to the quick to recognise that sixteen-year-old Chad was trying to persuade her that at least a tiny part of his needy life held value, granted him respect, offered refuge.
Despite such few and unspoken gestures of trust, Chad kept his distance. And as the months passed, he began to be unavailable for weekend work.
“I’m helping a friend rebuild his truck.” Or: “Rick needs me to help him with a welding job.”
One of Ronald’s most challenging tasks was to pick up a bull he rented to a farmer for a couple of months every year. Chad had shown himself capable around animals and quietly assured when loading and unloading.
This year, Ronald had arranged for Chad to help, but when he arrived, the lad was unmindful. An older friend flaunting a second-hand motorbike had captured his attention.
“No can do!” Chad put Ronald off in the way of a sixteen-and-a-half-year-old trying to talk like he imagines a grown man might.
“Chad, we arranged this two months ago when you and I delivered the bull. I need your help loading. You’re good with him.”
“No can do!” Chad swaggered. “Brian’s gonna let me ride his ‘bike.”
Brian smirked, pleased to have bested the older man.
“C’mon, Chad. Down on the flats on Scriven Road, you can take her over.” He smirked again; kicked the bike into life.
Ronald made a final bid. “If the OPP catch you without a license, Chad...”
“C’mon, Chad. F*** it! Nuthin’s gonna happen!”
“Make the pick-up tomorrow! I’ll help tomorrow.” Chad leaped up behind Brian. In a spatter of gravel, they were gone.
Hurt that he had less to offer than a delinquent with a motorbike, Ronald loaded the bull alone. It took him an hour to coax the reluctant beast up the ramp and into the float.
Back home, the bull sniffed the autumn air, snorted and marched down the ramp like a conquering hero returned to his hareem.
Ronald wondered if he had been too hard on Chad. Would an extra day have mattered?
It was a week before Ronald returned to the farm from Montreal. Picking up the local paper, he read:
“Local teenager, Chad McDonnel, … killed instantly … uninsured motorcycle … riding under-age, … broke a telephone pole on Scriven Road.”
Ronald grieved. He grieved for a boy who had never enjoyed the care he deserved, the love he needed. He grieved for his own failure. And he grieved for bankrupt parents.