“The Miracle Boy,” by Patrick Irelan

Dec 20th, 2012 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

When I was fourteen years old, I began walking on water. My parents watched me walk back and forth across the pond a few times. “Angie,” Dad said, “this looks like a miracle.”

“Sure does,” Mom said. “Good job, Michael.” Then they went back to the house and sat down to figure out the profit angle. Mom and Dad were always looking for ways to make money on the farm. The hills made the place picturesque, but the soil was worthless.

Dad went into Clearfield and got three hundred dollars in change while my mom called KTVO and all the neighbors. The neighbors came right over, watched me walk on the water, and said they’d tell everyone they knew. Then Dad mowed half the hayfield north of the pond lot.

While Dad was still in the hayfield, a guy with a KTVO television camera and a woman with a microphone got set up to interview me. I walked slowly on the water along the pond bank while the woman asked questions. Then the guy with the camera tripped on something and fell into the pond. The woman and the camera guy started yelling at each other, and the redwings in the cattails flew off into the cottonwood trees. Finally, the guy found another camera and we started over again.

“How long have you been doing this?” the woman said.

“Just since this morning,” I said. I glanced at the woman when I answered her questions. She was kind of cute for an adult, with blue eyes and curly blond hair.

She wasn’t as cute as Katie, though. No one was. Katie was my secret girlfriend. She had to be a secret because her parents said she was too young to have a boyfriend and go out on dates. I couldn’t go out on dates anyway. Katie lived in town, and I lived on the farm. It was too far to walk, and I wasn’t old enough to drive anything but our John Deere tractor. Katie said her parents wouldn’t like it if I parked a tractor on the driveway.

So we just hung out together at Fox County High School, where we were both freshmen, and where most of the other kids soon discovered our secret. Katie had brown eyes, long black hair with a natural wave, and a nose like one you’d see on the statue of a Greek goddess. Her face was so beautiful that I thought about her all the time. Walking on water was kind of fun, but merely holding hands with Katie was my idea of what heaven should be like. And when she opened her locker, hid behind the door, and let me kiss her, I had feelings I still can’t describe.

Anyway, I talked to the woman from KTVO, and that night Mom, Dad, my little sister, and I all watched the ten o’clock news. The cameraman hadn’t fallen into the pond again, so we all got a good look at my walking skills. My sister, whose name is Thelma, got jealous because I was famous and she wasn’t. I told her you had to be fourteen before you could walk on water, and that she could barely walk on dry land. Mom said, “Pipe down, you two. Your father and I have to sit down again and make plans.”

Thelma went into her room and slammed the door, and I went outside and walked around the yard in the darkness, thinking about Katie. Off in the distance to the south, I could see the illuminated clock tower of the Fox County Courthouse in Clearfield. The bell would ring eleven times at eleven o’clock. It was time to do my homework for freshman algebra, but all I could think about was Katie.

The next day, Thelma had to catch the school bus, but the folks kept me home, even though I’d stayed up late to do my algebra assignment. “Today’s Friday,” Dad said. “It won’t hurt you to miss one day.”

After getting Thelma onto the school bus, Mom set up a card table on the lawn, right beside the gravel lane that connected our house to the county’s blacktop road. Then she put a cashbox on the table and sat down on a lawn chair. Thanks to the KTVO news story, the cars started coming down the lane at about nine o’clock, and Mom collected the money while Dad directed traffic into the hayfield, which he now called the parking lot. Traffic on the county road at the other end of the lane got so heavy that two deputy sheriffs came out, waved their arms, and pointed first one direction then another.

Mom charged five dollars per car plus two dollars for adults and one dollar for children. Some people tried to park along the blacktop road so they wouldn’t have to pay to park the car, but the deputies told them the road wasn’t a parking lot and get moving.

I had a pretty good time. I walked awhile. Then I did some somersaults and cartwheels. I tried to walk on my hands, but I wasn’t any good at it. One little kid said this was boring, but his mom slapped the side of his head and told him to shut up and pay attention.

One of the deputies came down the lane about four o’clock that afternoon and said they couldn’t stay all night, so the folks stuck a “Closed” sign on the mailbox, and I walked away from the pond.


The next day, which was Saturday, we had everything better organized. Aunt Mary and Uncle Floyd came over with hotdogs, buns, potato chips, ice tea, and beer. One of the deputies said they’d better have a liquor license, which they didn’t. So Uncle Floyd started drinking the beer himself, and by two o’clock Aunt Mary told him he was no help at all and get out of the way.

Uncle Floyd was my mom’s brother. He was six-four, had a bulbous nose, and always wore his pants about five inches too short. When anyone asked why his pants were so short, he said, “To keep my ankles cool.”

Aunt Mary was a foot shorter than Uncle Floyd and had a florid complexion that made everyone say she had great circulation and would live forever. After I started walking on water, Aunt Mary said one miracle in the family was enough and she didn’t need to live forever.

My parents had been good-looking when their wedding pictures were taken, but they hadn’t aged well. My dad had too much belly, and my mom had too many chins.

By the middle of the afternoon, I started to get tired of everything. The little kids kept telling me to do stupid things I couldn’t do, and I finally said, “Why don’t you little farts go drown yourselves.”

I got a few laughs from that, but one of the mothers went and complained to Aunt Mary. This woke up Uncle Floyd, who told the woman to stop talking about his nephew and get her little brat away from the pond if he didn’t like the show. Then the kid’s dad came over and said, “Don’t talk that way to my wife.”

Uncle Floyd was big and strong, and could handle himself pretty well, even when he was drunk, which was most of the time. “I’ll talk anyway I want,” he said.

Then Dad came over and gave the man back his money and told him to go home and teach his kid some manners. So the man and woman left with their brat, and Uncle Floyd said, “Good work, Lester,” and went back to sleep.

The next day, Uncle Floyd bribed someone in Des Moines and got a liquor license in record time, even though it was Sunday and the state offices were supposed to be closed. Mom said that it was a bigger miracle than walking on water. “Now all you have to do is stay sober and don’t drink up all the profits,” she said to Uncle Floyd. She was his older sister, and he always did what she said. He sold so much beer that the tavern owners in town complained about it, even though they weren’t open on Sunday.

At five o’clock that afternoon, the sheriff drove down the lane and said the board of supervisors was griping about paying the deputies when all they did was direct traffic for our little field of dreams. He said he only had three deputies and the folks would have to hire some off-duty police from Ottumwa or call off the show. He gave them some phone numbers, and they got two young guys for Monday. Aunt Mary said she’d give them free hotdogs, but Uncle Floyd said they’d have to buy their own beer.

The folks kept me home again on Monday. I liked making money for them. We never had enough because the only thing that would grow on our hills was livestock, which in our case was hogs and beef cattle. I didn’t care if I missed school, but I really wanted to see Katie more than I wanted the money.

By this time, there were so many people coming to see the show that the traffic was backed up all the way to Highway 63. The old people said there hadn’t been that much traffic in Iowa since Roswell Garst brought Nikita Khrushchev over from Russia to buy Garst’s hybrid seed corn.

About one o’clock that afternoon, Mom said she had so much money that she was afraid to take it to the bank by herself. So one of the policemen from Ottumwa drove her to the bank in Clearfield, and she gave him an apple pie to take home with him. Uncle Floyd gave him all the free beer he could drink, and about two hours later, the policeman went to sleep in the haymow.

Dad said, “Now look here, Floyd. Am I supposed to pay that man for sleeping all afternoon? And now we got only one guy to direct traffic the rest of the day.”

“All right, all right, Lester,” Uncle Floyd said. “Mary can sell the hotdogs and beer, and I’ll direct traffic.” This worked okay until Uncle Floyd got drunk on the twelve-pack he carried around with him. Then he started directing people into the hog lot instead of the hayfield, and they all got their cars stuck in the mud. Then the women complained about getting mud on their shoes, and Dad said he’d get the tractor and pull their cars out, and we wouldn’t charge them anything to see the show.

By Tuesday, Dad had mowed the rest of the hayfield, and the parking lot had grown to about twenty acres. We had eight off-duty policemen to direct traffic and keep order. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad was delivering carloads of hotdogs to Ottumwa, where Uncle Floyd picked them up with his cattle truck. He always got drunk while driving the twenty miles back to the farm, but Mom didn’t know about it. She was too busy taking care of the money.

The weather turned hot, and the Fox County Hospital set up an infirmary in the barn to take care of the folks who got sick. People from all over were saying that I was destined for sainthood. Father Rossi said he would definitely talk to the bishop of the Davenport Diocese, but he reminded everyone that it usually took the Church a long time to beatify anyone, and besides that I was a Methodist.

“What if we all convert?” Dad said.

“That would be fine with me, Lester,” Father Rossi said, “but it won’t guarantee sainthood for anyone.”

Mom said it might be good for business if we all converted, but we’d have to keep it a secret from the Methodists.

All the adults in the family thought they had come up with some real good ways to improve the business, but I was starting to get sick of the whole thing. I felt like a monkey, walking back and forth on the water all day, with people pointing at me and taking pictures. Then the high-school principal called one night to ask why I wasn’t going to school. “We’re converting to a new religion,” Dad said, “and we’re spending all our time in prayer and meditation.”

My dad hadn’t spent a minute of time in prayer and meditation in his whole life, and the principal, like everyone else in the state, knew exactly what was going on at our pond. The speaker phone was turned on, so all of us could hear Mrs. Fleming’s voice. “Mister Hudgens,” she said, “the laws of Iowa say that all children must attend school until they reach the age of sixteen. There are exceptions, of course, for children with medical problems or other relevant conditions, but converting to a new religion doesn’t qualify for one of those exceptions. If Michael isn’t back in school by Monday at the latest, I’ll have no choice but to initiate the appropriate legal proceedings. Goodbye.”

Dad’s body slumped a little as he hung up the phone. “Lester,” Aunt Mary said, “that business about prayer and meditation is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. An average chipmunk could’ve thought of something better.”

“It’s not easy explaining things to high-school principals,” Dad said. “All they ever talk about is school and students.”

Mom said that Dad did the best he could, and Aunt Mary said that wasn’t much.

“We’ll just have to do the show on weekends from now on,” Dad said, but he was wrong again. The next morning, I started walking across the pond and quickly noticed that my shoes were filling up with water. I was walking in the pond, not on it. The miracle had ended.

“That does it,” Mom said. “Floyd, go down to the other end of the lane and put the ‘Closed’ sign on the mailbox. Michael, go get ready for school.”


I’ve never been as happy to go back to school as I was that day. The teachers pretended that nothing unusual had happened as they piled on all the homework I had to do.

The boys were all as bad as I knew they’d be. They called me “Saint Michael,” “Your Sainthood,” and other things they thought were so funny. But the girls were interested in a different subject. “Katie has a new boyfriend,” one of them said. “She never wants to see you again.” Every girl I saw started giggling as if I was a new life form from Comedy Central.

But when I finally caught sight of Katie, she broke all kinds of rules and ran the length of the hallway and would have knocked me down if I hadn’t bent forward and braced myself. She kissed me as she never had before, and I didn’t care who saw us. I didn’t ever want to let go of her, and now, twenty years later, I never have.

But before all those years passed, another miracle happened. I was sixteen years old at the time. The folks had about twenty feeder calves on the farm, and I fed those calves their ground corn twice each day, yelling barnyard vulgarities at them as you have to do to make the big ones stop pushing the little ones away from the feedbunk. When yelling didn’t work, I hit them with a stick. The stick didn’t hurt them, but it held their attention for five or ten seconds. Then they started pushing the little calves again.

During the day, the calves went out to graze in one of the bluegrass pastures. At night, they slept wherever they wanted. But when winter came, I spread straw on the dirt floor of the barn every night so the calves could lie down and sleep while the collective heat from their bodies raised the temperature in the barn.

When summer arrived and the weather improved, I gave the farm the same treatment I gave it every year. I hitched the manure spreader to the tractor and parked it beside the door to the barn. Then I began doing what all cattle farmers used to do. Using a five-tine manure fork, I loaded the layers of straw and manure into the spreader until it was full. Then I drove the tractor out to the field, put the spreader in gear, and rode along the side of a hill as the spikes on the steel wheels at the back of the machine threw the nitrogen-rich mixture out to the rear.

Every once in a while, one of the rotating wheels didn’t operate exactly right and tossed a clod of manure toward the front instead of the rear. Whenever one of those clods hit me in the back of the head, I said the sort of things that candidates for sainthood should never say.

Then one day I was driving the tractor along a hillside, looking back occasionally to see how the load was progressing. The machine was about half empty when I glanced back and saw something impossible. The steel wheels were catching the manure in the usual way and throwing out something transformed. Thousands of flower petals had flown from the back of the spreader and landed on the hillside, creating a magic pasture unlike anything that anyone had ever seen.

I stopped the tractor right there, turned off the engine, and climbed down. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. The flower petals were everywhere the spreader had traveled on that hillside. They included every color I had ever imagined, and they were absolutely real. I picked one up and looked at it carefully. I could still tell the difference between a flower petal and a clod of manure, and this was a flower petal. I held onto it as I turned and walked back to the house.

I didn’t have to convince the folks to go out to the field to have a look. “Lester,” Mom shouted, “Michael’s done it again.”

Dad was out front, digging a posthole for the fence between our yard and the neighbor’s pasture. “I always have to fix my fences and the neighbor’s,” he said as he came through the door. “I wish the old fool would let me buy those forty acres like I’ve been offering for years.” The “old fool” in this case was a man who lived in Des Moines and never did anything with his land but rent it to a sheep farmer.

“Well, Michael,” Dad said, “What miracle have you done this time? Now that we’ve become Catholics, we need a steady supply to increase your chances for sainthood.”

I handed him the flower petal, which happened to be orange in color. Then I told him the history of that petal. “Well, well,” he said. “It doesn’t look like cow shit. How does it smell?” He put the petal under his nose and took a deep breath. “Doesn’t smell like cow shit. Angie, we’d better go take a look at this. Looks like another money maker to me.”

“I’ll be damned,” Dad said when he saw his flower-strewn hayfield. “What do you think, Angie?”

“I’ll go in and call KTVO,” she said. “Then I’ll call Mary. It’s almost four o’clock, and Floyd won’t be fit to do much of anything this late in the afternoon, but he’s probably still awake.”

Aunt Mary drove them right over. Just to give them the full effect of the thing, I started the tractor and pulled the spreader about twenty yards. “Son of a bitch,” Uncle Floyd said several times as he followed the manure spreader. “Better not try to bale this, Lester,” he said.

“Floyd,” Mom said, “why don’t you put that six-pack back in the car and try to sober up for once in your life. We know enough not to bale a field of flower petals. Mary,” she said, turning in Aunt Mary’s direction, “I don’t know how you put up with him.”

“He gets a lot of work done in the morning,” Aunt Mary said.

“All right, all right,” Dad said. “Let’s call off the AA meeting and decide what to do with this new miracle.”

“KTVO said they’d send someone right over,” Mom said, and fifteen minutes later, a van loaded with people and equipment came down the lane, leaving a trail of gravel dust behind it.

The station ran the story that night, and everything proceeded as it had with my water-walking act, with certain differences. Early every morning, Dad, Uncle Floyd, and I had to get up and load the manure spreader. If Uncle Floyd had brought any beer along, Mom took it away from him and hid it. Once the spreader was loaded, she returned the beer, which motivated Uncle Floyd to work faster.

Then there was another important difference between the two miracles. The number of people who arrived to see the show was much smaller. Mom said it was because of a Methodist boycott, but Dad said he hadn’t seen all that many Catholics. The parking lot was only half the size of the previous one, and the folks had to hire only four off-duty cops to direct traffic and keep order. “You know what I think?” Aunt Mary said.

“What?” Mom said.

“People are stupid, and they’ve already seen one miracle. They think if they’ve seen one, they’ve seen them all. They’d rather stay at home and watch TV instead of coming out here to see another miracle performed by a boy destined for sainthood.”

Neither Mom nor Dad could think of anything to say about that. And the next morning, after only three weeks of business, the manure stopped turning into flower petals. From crap it came, and to crap it had returned.

When Katie and I were both eighteen, she got pregnant. And there was nothing immaculate about it. Father Rossi hurried things along for us. Katie was already a Catholic and didn’t have to convert.

“Every birth is a miracle,” Father Rossi told us, “and you don’t have to walk on water to create a baby. Millions of people do it every year all over the world. And if your child grows into a healthy and happy adult, she’ll be a saint. Love and care for your little miracle.”

When I got home that afternoon, Aunt Mary and Uncle Floyd were there. I told everyone what Father Rossi had said. Mom, Dad, and Aunt Mary nodded in agreement.

“I don’t believe a baby’s a miracle,” Uncle Floyd said. “It’s just another baby.”

“Shut up, Floyd,” Mom said. “You’re as drunk as always. If you’re sober at your own funeral, it’ll be a miracle.”


Defenestration-Patrick IrelanPatrick Irelan says: “My short stories have appeared in Opium Magazine, Kansas Quarterly, Iowa City Magazine, Skive, and many other worthy publications. In 2009, the Ice Cube Press published Reruns, my collection of comic short stories.”

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