When the day of the party arrived, a Saturday in May, Samuel considered sneaking off and skipping the whole charade. His parents had been on edge lately, and he didn't want to upset them and risk a punishment that might take away his books. Neither of his parents were very good readers, so he wasn't concerned about them reading the books, but only taking them away. He decided to attend the party, to be a good and amiable son so that he might be in their good graces again. He wore brown corduroy pants, a white shirt, and cordovan shoes that hardly ever saw the light of day. He stepped smartly out of the farmhouse just as the sun was setting. The party was to begin at dusk, but based on the steady murmuring of sounds coming from the barn, things had already gotten started. There had not been much reason to celebrate in the last year, and folks were eager to cut loose. It seemed that the whole town had been invited, and indeed RSVP'd, because there was hardly an inch of space in which to maneuver in the old barn.
Samuel spent the better part of an hour on getting from one end of the barn to the other, where the refreshments were laid out, and quickly being devoured. Samuel looked around for his parents before helping himself to some of Sheriff Meyers' beer. He saw his father, red-faced and laughing, spinning his mother on the dance floor. Samuel took his mug of beer and a piece of cake and retreated up into a loft. While the floor space was all taken, there were lofts that were still unoccupied. At least, he thought his chosen loft was unoccupied. When he pulled himself up and settled himself among the hay, Samuel realized he wasn't alone at all. Eddard Morley sat at the back of the loft, a plate with nothing but crumbs on it at his side, his pipe as ever, in his mouth. Morley and Samuel had not exchanged more than a dozen words in the year since, and Samuel had long-since ceased admiring the man as some kind of rough deity. Still, politeness was to be expected.
"No need to hide that," Eddard Morley said, inclining his head in the direction of the beer that Samuel held at his side. "It's a celebration. I'll not tell."
"Thanks." He raised his glass to the old man before taking a swig. After wiping his chin he said, "Are you excited to work on the railroad?"
"Not quite the word for it. Grateful, for certain. Your father's a good man."
"You've said that before."
"Meant it. You still aiming to get out of this place?"
"I could go to school."
"Your parents heard that plan?" he asked, eyes wandering towards the whirling Mellers of the dance floor.
"I don't think they'd be too opposed."
"They want me to run the farm."
"What, a farmer can't be well read now?"
Samuel took another swig of his beer, some redness coming to his cheeks and ears, the music starting to sound more appealing, more immediate. He looked across the barn and saw directly into the loft on the other side. There was a girl there who was a bit older than him, Amelia Fribley. She sat by herself, wearing a white dress and ankle frills, her hair plaited at the back, dressed up but with no one to talk to.
"What's her name?" Eddard asked.
"Girl across the way. What's her name?"
"That jackass's daughter?"
"My father doesn't think too highly of Ted Fribley if that's what you mean."
"I think you took my meaning. Ugly name, Fribley. Doesn't fit Amelia at all does it?"
Samuel had to admit to agreeing with the old man. It didn't fit at all. In fact, she hardly fit with her father. It was almost unbelievable that she came from him. She was quiet to his boisterousness. Most around town said she was quiet as to offset her old man. Her mother had been that way too. "He's always needed someone around who he could yell at," folks said. "Poor girl."
"Hogwash," Eddard Morley said. "Her old man's a right bastard, but that's a hell of an assumption to make. Just cos he's that way doesn't mean she takes it lightly. Just means she has some dignity in public. More people ought to have such dignity. Still though, Fribley ain't no such name for an Amelia."
Samuel was no longer quite sure who Eddard Morley was speaking to, or if he was the one being addressed. Still, he could not help but agree with the old man once more. He had often harbored the same thoughts about Amelia, but had never quite known how to express them out loud. Amelia Meller had a nice ring to it, much better than Fribley. Morley was right. Fribley was no name for an Amelia. But who was Samuel to tell her such a thing, a girl three years his senior, and stunning to boot. These were private thoughts.
"Should go and recite to her some of that poetry you're always reading," Eddard said suddenly.
"Beats the hell out of sitting here with me. You don't even like me."
"I don't...I don't dislike…"
"Ah forget it. All I'm saying is be true to your own philosophy, even if it's a fool philosophy. Carpe diem right?
"You hard of hearing, son? Isn't that what you told me? You wanted to live a meaningful life before you die? Well sitting here with me is no better than farming so far as I can tell. Go and talk to the Amelia whose last name don't suit. The way I figure it, if you don't, you yelled at me for no damn reason."
"You don't sound pleased by that. Give it a shot. Just might make you a man. If nothing else, might change your philosophy. Life's been known to do that to the most rigid of philosophers."
"Of course you are. Now get out of my loft."
"I'll push, boy."
Samuel climbed down from the loft space, abandoning what was left of his beer and cake. He found, once his feet were on the floor that he felt dizzy, his legs wobbled, and the distance across the barn to the other loft was akin to a hundred miles. He put one foot in front of the other, although not always so well. He figured that eventually he would get to the other side, and the beer would help that time pass faster than it really did. It appeared that Amelia Fribley noticed his coming from a ways out, but politely pretended as if she didn't see the young man making a beeline for her presence. For all his reading of noble truths of the world and his feeling that he was beginning to understand everything and his place in it, Samuel had never been quite so frightened in his life. There was no word in Thoreau, Whitman, or the others that could have prepared him for such a moment. What good was the dying exhortations of a soldier on the battlefield to a young man tasked with speaking to a woman? How helpful would a dialect on man's relation to nature be to Samuel in this moment? The young man felt a massive hole appear in his knowledge. Always his knowledge seemed to be expanding from the center, reaching outwards to as far as he could take himself in one life, and yet...that had been wrong. His knowledge was not expanding from the center, because it was this knowledge he was lacking, right in the center of his being. He could feel it, and he was woefully unprepared to find out what might happen. And yet he went onwards to his fate.
She offered him a hand up into the loft as his foot slipped on one of the rungs. Her hand was not soft as Samuel imagined, but not truly a farmer's hand either. It was a girl's hand, but a girl who knew work. He looked up into her eyes as she helped him up and saw a familiar lightness to them. But unlike Eddard Morley, hers were not damaged. They were not light from an affliction, but of a singular beauty. She invited him to sit down next to her, patting the hay. She had a nearly empty glass of punch next to her.
"Do you need me to refill that?" Samuel asked, eager for a reason to speak.
"No thanks. That's okay. Why don't you sit down. You look a bit red about the face."
"It's hot in here."
"It is. That must be it. You're Samuel Meller aren't you?"
"I'm Amelia Fribley."
"I know it. I mean I don't-"
Amelia Fribley laughed at Samuel, not unkindly, but nor did she cover her face with her hand. It was simply funny, his inability to speak. She was thirteen and a little wiser, not entirely unfamiliar with the stuttering figure Samuel cut in front of her.
"Lovely party your father has thrown. The whole town is grateful."
"It's okay I guess."
"Just okay? Seems grand to me. As grand as this town knows anyhow."
This was a thread that Samuel could pick up and run with. He thought he heard an echo of his own thoughts in that of the older girl.
"What does this town know?" he said. "I can't wait to leave here. There's nothing it has to offer that I need."
"That's rather callous don't you think?"
"No I believe it. What good thing does this town have? It's plain all over. I want to live before I die."
"Do you suppose people here aren't living? Is this a gathering of corpses then? You sound very silly when you talk that way, though you sound so convinced."
"I mean to leave this place when I'm old enough, if that's what you mean."
"Well I think plenty of good things come from here, and I also think plenty of good things are plain for that matter. I have plain brown hair, a very dull color, quite common. Do you think that's terrible and not worth your time? What about my teeth? Also very plain. See this one, it's out of order and cuts at my gum. You can't tell unless I show it to you, but it's there. What about me? I come from this town too. I happen to think I'm alright. I may not be the Queen of England but I'm something."
"I didn't mean all that," Samuel said.
"Then I think you ought to be a great deal more careful with your words. You'll hurt somebody's feelings going around talking like that."
"I only meant to-"
"I think I do want some more punch. Could you make room for me to get by?"
She shuffled past Samuel, careful not to rip or dirty her white dress, and when she mounted the ladder down, he spoke to her again.
"Do...you want to dance?" he asked the top of her head.
She didn't look up at him until she reached the floor.
"Not today I don't think," she said, before walking away.
Samuel looked across the barn at Eddard Morley, though his eyes were closed, his pipe resting gently on his chest. Perhaps he hadn't seen Samuel make a right mess of it. He didn't know why he cared what the old man thought anyway. He was nothing but an old vagrant turned railway worker. Still.