True to his word, after our disastrous session with fractions, Patrick produced books on communication systems and we pored over them by solar lantern on the patio. Lee found us, and when Patrick explained what we were doing, he was intrigued. So for a week it was three of us, educating ourselves out of books each night.
Lee was the smartest, understanding communication principles like he had been born knowing how such systems worked. I suppose in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised, since he’s the best mechanic in the county. And Patrick figured it out quickly too, in spite of his young age, because he’s so good with math and science.
I was the one who felt stupid. It took all my willpower to remember that I was smart in other ways. It wasn’t my fault I had never been to school. But I was catching up fast, in spite of everything. Or so I told myself.
When the day for the mail run came, we were ready. Lee couldn’t come with us, but he had given me some cash and a piece of paper he called a “check” that would allow Sam to collect money from a bank in Frankfort. Patrick had a pretty good stash of coins and bills from summer jobs, and I had my most recent month’s pay and the last of my Kentucky Derby winnings. Sam was going to front me the rest of my investment and I would pay him back out of my salary and profits.
It made me nervous to be on the road with so much money and no one but an untrained kid to help me defend it. But I rode armed, and I was a familiar sight on the turnpike by now. Everyone knew I was just doing the mail run. I was a poor target for thieves.
When we got to Lexington, we went straight to Sam’s shop. He was pleased to see us and thought it was hilarious that I had gotten two other investors for him.
“I can see where your real talent is going to be. Marketing.”
I’m happy to say I’m not as dumb as I used to be. “I know what that word means,” I said. “You think I’d be good at spreading the word and getting other investors on board.”
“You already got me two. Maybe I should give you a commission.”
I pretended to think about it, embarrassed that I was once again feeling ignorant.
“What about me?” Patrick asked. “If I get my friends to invest, do I get a commission, too? What’s the percent? Would it be off the principle or the profit?”
By the time he got done asking questions and Sam finished answering, I understood exactly what was going on. I was fascinated. I could get money just for getting other people to spend money! It wouldn’t be much, but as Sam had reminded me once before, if you plant your corn instead of eating it, you get more corn. If I put my commission back into the telephone company, it would mean more profit for me, if it did well.
If it did well. That was the part that still scared me. Everything in my life had indicated that one should grab what one could and hold on. Trust no one, and especially don’t trust what tomorrow may bring. And now here I was giving my money away based on a vague promise. It was like throwing myself off a cliff on a dare, expecting the air to hold me up.
It was crazy. But I was doing it, just the same. Was it really so different from leaving Auntie’s comfortable home last December, expecting that I could somehow find my way?
Since Patrick was curious about Sam’s radio operations, I left him at the shop while I went to get Northwind’s mail. While I was at the post office, I mailed a letter to Robert. Stupid, I know. But I couldn’t help myself. I cheered myself up afterwards by going to a shop and buying some colored pencils with the last of my money.
When I got back to Sam’s shop, Patrick was helping with the customers. He was having so much fun I hated to tear him away, and all the way home, he chattered about radios and telephones and other ways of sending information without the need of pen and paper. He was so absorbed in his own talk it was a miracle he didn’t fall off his horse. But I must be a good teacher, because we made it safely back to Northwind. And when he trotted off down the road, I watched him critically, thinking that maybe there really was hope for him as a horseman, yet.
Tonight I had no lessons, and sat out on the patio playing with my new colored pencils, instead. It distracted me and kept me from having to think too much about the risk I was taking with my money.
Lee came over while I was finishing up. “That’s pretty good.”
“It’s just a butterfly. They’re easy enough to draw.”
“Well, I couldn’t have done it.”
“You ever tried?”
“No. Not much point.” He sat down. “So how’d it go in town? Are we capitalists now?”
I set the pencils aside. “Entrepreneurs is the right word, I think.”
“Heroes of the new American economy.”
“Or just fools.”
“Don’t say that. We’ve been needing something like this for a long time. Your friend seems to have a good sense of the market, and we’ll do fine.” He paused and played with a button on his cuff. “He is just a friend, right?”
I tried not to laugh. “He’s old enough to be my father. And yes, he’s just a friend.”
He nodded and looked away, as if he wasn’t sure what to say next. The evening was hot, and I was glad for the occasional breeze against my damp skin, although I was less pleased by the mosquitoes that seemed to find me so tempting. One of the annoying creatures landed on my wrist and I slapped at it. “How much longer before these things all die?”
“Another couple months. But at least there hasn’t been an outbreak yet this year. Yellow fever, malaria, encephalitis. . . you know. Usually it would be pretty bad by now.”
“That family up the road got sick,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, but that was something else. It wasn’t a mosquito disease.”
We sat in silence for awhile before I spoke again. “Do you believe it will ever be like it was before? You know, like in our grandparents’ time, with schools and medicines, sprays to kill the bugs, and food from all over the world in the stores? Do you really think we can build it all again without the oil?”
“I don’t see why not. We’re building a phone company.”
I nodded in the darkness, not sure why his answer didn’t satisfy me. I stood up, collecting my pencils and paper. “Well, I’m tired. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Want me to walk you to your room?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got a date with the mosquitoes. They’d be jealous.”
When I got to the barn, I checked that everything was in order for the night—all the windows open, half-doors shut and locked, the animals bedded down and secure. Then I moved my cot and mosquito netting to a spot where I could enjoy the summer breeze. The room with the sleeping porch at Julia’s would’ve been so nice! But I’m an entrepreneur now, no longer a hero of the civil war, but a hero of the economy. And heroes have to suffer.
At least in terms of sleeping quarters, being an entrepreneur is not an improvement.