07 March 2006

A Child To Those Who Mourn

The year my sister was born, my mother made me promise I would never play in the woods behind our house. So I didn’t, for a while. But five years later when I was twelve and my sister was diagnosed with autism, after Mom had packed up and left and had taken Carrie with her, it wasn’t long before my neighborhood pals--Tuffy and K.P.--and I set out into the dense pine woods to make camp and play war.

After all, Dad had never told me I couldn’t go back there. Whether the woods were a dangerous place or not, he never tried to scare me into avoiding them. But he didn’t just allow me to confront them, either; he forced me to. It became my job, every Saturday--from my tenth birthday until six years later when I drove away--to mow the grass, to establish the boundary of our yard against the encroaching kudzu of passing years.

Since I was just a boy then, cutting back the creeping vines was a chore. They’d get knotted up under the mower’s blade housing and I’d have to choke the throttle and cut the mower out of their grip, then turn it up on its side, knock away the sweet-smelling clumps of grass, and untangle the twisted creepers from the hot metal. I’d usually start on the yard in the morning and by noon the dewy grass would have stained the soles of my Jordans, and I’d be soaked in sweat and have to take a break and go back out after supper, because it was always too hot and humid between the hours of ten and six to do much of anything except sweat.

Not long after Mom left, Dad started pulling graveyard duty because he couldn't sleep. Every morning he'd come home from work smelling like dried sweat and stale cigarette smoke, and when I’d hear the cruiser pull up in the yard outside my window, I'd wake and we'd eat breakfast together before he went to sleep. He’d stand over the stove in his brown uniform shirt, the tail hanging out, beating up four or five eggs in a bowl with a fork, complaining the whole time about the stunts people pull on the highway, explaining to me the reasons behind the rules and regulations of road safety, preparing me for the day I'd turn fifteen so I'd already know how to drive. He never mentioned specifics about his job, no gory details, only general rules and the general idiots who broke them. But I didn’t care about all that. I was into “The General Lee” and Knight Rider by that time, so I guess that’s why he was so anxious to teach me a few things. Or maybe he was looking forward to the day I’d bring home a paycheck of my own to help pay the bills.

"The sooner you get your license," he'd always say, "the sooner you'll get a job."

In the woods behind our house that summer, the summer I turned twelve, my pals and I fought the last great wars of our childhood. We threw pine-cone grenades, shot broken-limb machine guns, and stepped carefully over briars and patches of poison ivy as if they were land-mines waiting to explode. The previous summer we had discovered an abandoned vehicle deep in the jungle, and now we marched out daily with my Dad’s machete to hack away at the overgrowth of cane and kudzu. The car was long and yellow, its chrome tail and fins rusting away like a 1950s version of a futuristic rocket ship that had crash-landed from another planet. When we finally cleared away the twisted briars enough so we could squirm inside, we realized it made a perfect tank or sniper’s den and would double as a clubhouse during peace-time. Inside, in the musty heat, it didn’t take long for the windows to fog up, especially when we lit up the filched cigarettes from our fathers’ packs. A couple weeks later, after we found the titty-mags under the floormats, K.P. and I were down there nearly every day.

By that time, though, Tuffy usually didn’t come around until after lunch because his mom was always enrolling him in Vacation Bible School or etiquette class in the mornings, but one day he showed up wearing school clothes and his good Nikes. We saw him enter the woods and aimed imaginary laser sights at his head. When he was close enough to the car so we could hear him, he stopped, picked up a stick, and started breaking it into tiny pieces that he flicked toward us as he yelled, “My mom says we have to stop playing back here for a while.”

“She’s not my mom,” K.P. said.

“Mine either.”

Tuffy’s voice raised half an octave. “She says there’s a convict loose. He took that girl up in Tupelo and he might be headed this way.”

Since my Dad was a Chukafalaya County Sheriff’s Deputy and I hadn’t heard anything about it, I figured he was crapping it. Besides, Tuffy was always making up stuff just to get us to believe it. This was the same kid who said he was Jimmy Swaggart’s nephew and Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin, the same kid who wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, that or an Elvis impersonator or a time-traveller.

“No crapping it,” he said finally, almost pleading. It was weird, almost scary. “I’m serious as a heart-attack.”

So, of course we had to go home. And when we did, we watched television and movies and played Nintendo. We watched MacGyver and The A-Team and G.I. Joe cartoons, Die Hard, Predator, Commando, First Blood. We played Contra and Renegade and got into fist-fights over whose turn was next. Normally our folks wouldn’t have approved of all this violence, all those wasted summer hours spent indoors, but at least we were out of the woods, safe from all the wackos wandering around on the loose.

One day we rode our bikes to the pool and spent the whole day swimming under the blue sky and hot sun, diving for shiny pennies and braving the high dive. And, of course, K.P. and I were both in love with the lifeguard, Tuffy’s sister, sitting way up there under the pine trees, wearing her green bathing suit, sunlight pinwheeling off that lucky silver whistle dangling between her breasts. Her mirror sunglasses hid her eyes so no one would know she was looking at us, marvelling at what great men we almost were. K.P. and I had watched her once from my backyard fence, our hands stuffed in our pockets, while we waited for Tuffy to finish his homework. She had spread a lawnchair out in the tall weeds of their backyard and was lying down in a lavender bikini, and when she turned over on her stomach and reached behind to unclasp her top, she nearly sucked us through the fence. Eventually, before Tuffy came out, we started up a whiffle-ball game, but K.P. said there was something strange about her hands, like she only had a thumb and a pinkie, and they were closer together than normal, with no fingers in between. I hadn’t noticed, but I didn’t believe him because she was the captain of the varsity cheerleading squad and I’d seen her on the sidelines during home games, shaking her pompoms and holding smaller girls up in the air. But I’d never really looked at her hands before. Whether it was true or not, I never forgot it, and every time we went to the pool, I found myself taking long glances when Tuffy wasn’t around and his sister was looking the other way.

Late that afternoon, the sun was still high over the McBride Quarters as we turned onto Harpole Street. I had just asked Tuffy and K.P. to spend the night when I saw Dad's patrol car backing out of our yard. It was almost seven o'clock, but still very light out. Dad rolled down his window and motioned for me to stop.

"When you get old enough to drive," he said, "don't ever let me catch you stopping in the middle of the street like this. If you really need to talk to somebody, get off the road and out of other people's way."

"But you're stopped in the street,” I said.

"Just this once. To teach you a lesson. That's what I'm trying to tell you, son."

"Yessir."

"I left you a list of chores I want you to take care of." He smiled and rubbed my head.
"You don't have to do it all tonight, but I do want the grass cut before I get home in the morning. You've been putting off that yard-mowing for too long now. I'd get that done first thing if I was you, before it gets too dark."

I stood on my bike pedals and started pumping around the curve toward the house, but Dad called me back and I circled around, bracing myself against the car, hanging on to the rearview mirror. "One other thing," he said. "I talked to Tuffy’s sister. She’s going to come over and check on y’all, maybe cook you a pizza." He winked and I shot Tuffy and K.P. a high-five with my eyes. We were twelve; pizza was a great thing. "I want that work done first, though. Hear?"

I must have whined.

"Straighten up. Get Tuffy and K.P. to help you. It won't take long if y'all work together. I imagine you can get most of it done while you're waiting on the pizza. Got it?"

"Okay."

"Be good, little man."

Besides mowing the grass, Dad also wanted me to take out the trash, unload and load the dishwasher, fold the clothes in the dryer, dry the load in the washer, vaccuum the living room, and clean my room. I didn’t do any of it. Tuffy’s sister came over and made the pizza. I stood in the kitchen, showing her where everything was, trying not to look at her hands. It was hard, though, because she was kneading the dough, forming it into a circle, and she kept asking me if I thought it was big enough and if I liked thin crust or deep-dish. She asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her I’d play football for a while and then retire to become a mercenary.

“I love football,” she said. “Will you get me tickets so I can come see you play?”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

Tuffy came in the kitchen and started smarting off to her, making fun of her, talking about some boy she was interested in.

“He thinks he’s tough,” he said. “He thinks he’s Brian Bosworth, but he’s not. He thinks he can do anything cause his dad’s the mayor.”

Tuffy’s sister rolled her eyes. “You sound just like Dad.”

But then she just ignored him and put the pan in the oven. She set the timer and told us when it would be ready, then she left saying she’d be back around bed-time to make sure we brushed our teeth. When she was gone, we sat down to play Nintendo and eat our pizza, and I forgot all about my list of chores.

The next morning when I heard the car door slam in the yard, I hadn't even been to sleep yet. All around us, on the floor and on the coffee table were empty rootbeer bottles and the paper plates filled with chew-shaped crusts, candy bar wrappers, spilled popcorn, and half-empty cups of cherry Kool-Aid. We'd been playing video games all night and there I was in yesterday's T-shirt and swim trunks, sitting cross-legged in the floor not three feet from the television, wailing away on Super Macho Man with crusty eyes and blistered thumbs. The air smelled like chlorine and old cheese and foot-funk. I could feel Dad’s anger squeezing into the house with him as he entered and stood above us. The screen door banged shut behind him and he said in a tired voice, soft but stern, "What the hell was the last thing I told you before I went to work last night?"

Tuffy and K.P. stared at the television. I shrugged. He twirled his keys around his finger. His hair was graying at the temples.

"You don't know?" he said. "Or you can't remember? Let me tell you something.” He wasn’t even looking at me now, but I wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse. “Ignorance is no excuse for being too lazy to pay attention."

I stood up, but couldn't look at him. His boots were shiny and his pants were wet from walking through the tall grass. My lips felt heavy. I mumbled, "I thought you said I could do it tomorrow. I mean, today."

"Straighten up," he said. "I can't hear you. What did you say?"

"I said--I'm sorry."

"Well, sorry didn't get it done, did it?"

He yanked his shirt-tail out and started down the hall. "I'm gonna take a piss. And then I'm going to sleep. And when I come out of that bathroom, you'd better be out of my sight and out of this house. It's too pretty a day to be inside anyway."

K.P. said he was hungry. We heard the commode flush, water running in the sink. Tuffy said to come on, that his mom would make us pancakes, so I cut off the television and the Nintendo and we went outside, hopped on our bikes, and rode across the street.

In Tuffy's carport, when we were bored of smashing Hot Wheels with claw hammers we rummaged through a metal trunk and found an old pair of boxing gloves, black Everlasts. The gloves were too big for our hands, but we tried them on anyway. They smelled like salty mothballs. Since it was Tuffy’s house, his mom's trunk, and his dad's carport, he took the right-handed glove and gave me the left. We took off our shirts and hung them on our handlebars. K.P. refereed. In the driveway, we wrapped our off-hands in beach towels and bounced on our bare toes. K.P. made fun of Tuffy's titties, calling him Queen Hippo. We needed mouthpieces though, so Tuffy found some newspaper in the carport and we each took half a page of the comics and folded it up and bent it around our top teeth. K.P. walked out of the carport holding a flashlight to his mouth.

"Ladies-adies and-and gentlemen-men.”

"You're a fag," said Tuffy.

K.P. called him an asshole and threw the flashlight down in the yard.

"I'm Mr. T," Tuffy said.

"It's Clubber Lang, stupid," said K.P.

"I know."

"I'm Apollo," I told them.

"You can't be Apollo," said Tuffy. "Apollo died."

"He can be him before he died," said K.P., whose black skin made him look more like
Apollo or Clubber Lang than either of us.

"Nah," I said. "I'll just be the Russian. 'I must break you.'"

K.P. found a rock and drew a square for the ring then he called us to the center to hear the rules: no rabbit punches, fight fair, shake hands and may the best man win. Tuffy tried to ask how many rounds we were going to go, but before he could, K.P. said, "Ding-ding," and backed away. We bounced on our toes, making a little circle inside the chalk square. Then Tuffy stopped and mumbled something. He started gagging on his mouthpiece, so I stepped forward and jabbed him in the stomach.

"Body-blow!" K.P. yelled, and Tuffy fell to his knees, spitting out the newspaper in chunks of vomit and stringy spit, wiping his mouth with the towel wrapped around his hand. His face was red. Tears dropped onto the cement as he stood and stooped over, his hands on his knees, drool dangling from his mouth to the concrete.

He looked up, but he could’ve been talking to either of us. "I said wait, you bastard."

"No you didn't,” we said.

"Yes I did!"

"I didn't hear you," K.P. said. "Did you hear him Quinn?"

"You didn't call it," I said. I looked at Tuffy.

"I did so.”

"No, he's the ref," I said, pointing at K.P.. "And he didn't call it. So it doesn't count."

"You bastards, give me my glove," Tuffy said. "Get off my driveway."

"You’re such a pussy," said K.P..

"There's your glove," I said, and threw it at the carport, but it sailed high and landed on the roof.

"Oh, smooth move, Exlax," Tuffy said. "You better hope my dad doesn't come home, cause if he does and he sees his glove up there he'll kill you."

"Bullshit,” I said. “He ain't gonna kill me. You're the one who said we could play with them."

"I didn't say you could throw them on the roof."

"I didn't."

"Well how'd it get up there, dumbass?"

"I mean, I didn't do it on purpose."

Tuffy walked into the garage. "Well I'm gonna call him at work and tell him you stole his gloves. I hope he comes home and beats you silly." Then he said, "And I'm gonna tell your dad too." He went inside.

"My dad don’t care," I said, trying to convince K.P.. "He could kick Tuffy's dad's ass in his sleep."

A second later, Tuffy came out of the house holding a cordless phone to his ear. "You better get my dad's glove," he said. “It’s ringing.”

I told K.P. to come on. "Let's go play Punch-out."

We picked up our bikes and walked across the street, stopping on the black-top to look back at Tuffy who was thumbing numbers on the phone.

K.P. said, "Look, he's dialing."

"He's faking," I said. “He’s always acting like he’s going to do something.”

At the house, the front door was locked. The carport door was closed and the back door was locked, too. I beat on the walls, rang the door bell ten times, counting out loud, shouting the numbers, but Dad never came. K.P. said he had to go home so I rode down Fifth Avenue with him thinking he’d invite me over, but when he turned off to the McBride Quarters, I turned around and rode back to the house. I looked under the doormat for a key, but there were only a few dead crickets. Then I remembered the half-window in the bathroom. It was pretty high up, but I found a few bricks in the kudzu out back and stacked them up until I was able to pry out the screen and wiggle through the window.

In the kitchen, I unloaded the dishwasher as loud as possible, slamming cabinet doors, clanging pots and pans, throwing silverware in the drawer. It was what Mom used to do when she was angry. I loaded the dishwasher, then mixed up some chocolate milk, gulped it down, threw the spoon in the sink and ran about three gallons of water over it. In the laundry room, I took clothes out of the dryer and folded them, then threw the washer load in the dryer, and slammed the door. But Dad never woke up. He never came out. I even vaccuumed, back and forth, banging into furniture, stubbing my toe, but his door never opened.

So I gave up. I walked down the hall to jiggle the knob and stick my fingers underneath and yell my head off until he would be forced to come out just to get me to shut up, but as I pressed my ear to the door, I heard his voice talking low. He was on the phone.

Back in the kitchen, I picked up the receiver and heard him, mid-sentence: "--should come stay with you for awhile, at least until school starts."

There was a moment of silence. I held my breath so they wouldn’t hear me.

"Rhonda?"

"What?"

"Why don’t you come home?"

"Why? So I can do your laundry? So I can feed you? Iron your uniform? We’ve been over this."

"I need you."

"You don't need me, you need a maid."

"Quinn needs a mother."

"Don’t give me that. And don’t put this off on him. You know how worried I used to get over him. Every second of the day, I had to know where he was and what he was into. I can’t do that again. And if I came back now, I would. We both know--right now, anyway--I’m a better mother to him here than I was when I was there."

I hung up the phone, gathered up the trash, and went out to the carport, locking the door as I went out. I found my tent and set it up in the backyard, away from the house, facing the kudzu. I wasn’t sure what my mother meant. But what it meant to me was that after Dad went to work and I was alone again, I was finally going to go back to the woods and find out why they were so dangerous. I stretched out in the tent and before I knew it, I was waking up.

The sun was setting and Dad was standing outside the tent, telling me he was about to leave for work. "How'd you get in?" he asked.

"Through the bathroom. Did I wake you up?"

Dad shook his head. "The phone did. Your mom called."

I didn’t say anything.

"She said she wished you could come see her this summer but she's going to be so busy with her classes and work, she wouldn't get to spend much time with you."

I shrugged.

"She said to tell you she loves you."

We both looked at the grass for a while. “I’ve got to get to work,” Dad said.

“Tuffy said some guy’s on the loose, is that true?”

Dad sighed heavily. “Yeah, he’s out there somewhere. So I’d better get on up to the station and see what’s going on.” I unzipped the tent and walked with him around to the front.

“Are you going to find him?”

"I don’t know, son. We’re going to try. The house looks good," he said. "You still haven't cut this grass though."

"I know."

"Don't mess with it tonight," he said. "I'll get it tomorrow."

He sat down in the patrol car and started the engine. "Tell you what," he said. "I'll make a deal with you. You wash the truck tonight--the keys are on the counter by the phone--and in the morning I'll bring you something, an early birthday present."

"What is it?"

"I don’t know yet. I’ll have to see what I can find. Run get the keys real quick so I can back the truck out where you can get to it."

I told him I could back it up myself, and he said, "All right. Show me."

I ran inside, found the keys, ran back out and held them up.

"That's them," Dad said. "Go slow. Make sure you check your mirrors and adjust your seat."

I climbed into the cab and slid the seat up so my toes touched the pedals. Fiddling with the mirror, I saw he had gotten out of his car and was waiting in the driveway for me to start the engine. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out.

"You ready?"

He nodded his head and motioned me back. "Yeah," he said. "Come on with it."

The truck jerked with the slightest pressure of my toes on the brake and accelerator. Finally I got it out of the carport, and Dad stood at the window laughing.

"I did it.”

"It takes practice. You'll get there."

"Can I drive it back in when I'm finished?"

"Sure. But take it slow. Don't get in too big a hurry. If you have any trouble, Tuffy’s sister’ll be over later to check on you, so you can ask her to move it."

Tuffy and K.P. rode up as I was finishing the truck.

"Did he let you in?" K.P. said.

“I snuck in.”

"What happened?" said Tuffy.

"His dad locked him out."

"He had to sleep," I said. "He let me drive the truck, though. I backed it out all by myself."

"I want to drive it," Tuffy said. He jumped in the front seat, slammed the door and locked it.

"Get out!” I banged my fist on the door. "You can't drive my dad's truck, he'll kill you."

Tuffy cracked the window enough to where he had to strain his neck to stick his nose out. "Go get my dad's glove off the roof, and I'll get out of the truck."

"You're an asshole," I said.

K.P. said, "Get out of his truck and I'll go get the glove."

"You didn't throw it up there,” Tuffy said and then looked at me. "He has to get it."

"Shut up," I said. "I'm not going to get your stupid glove. Now get out of my truck."

"Your truck?" he said. He started the engine.

"Tuffy, quit being a fat-ass. Get the hell out of there or I'm gonna kill you."

He put the truck in reverse and backed out a few feet. We stepped back.

"Stand behind it and don't let him go anywhere,” I told K.P.. “I'll go get the stupid glove."

I ran across the street to Tuffy's house. Inside the carport was a metal ladder that I set up in the driveway and used to climb up on the roof, taking small pidgeon-toed steps across the scratchy shingles. As soon as I threw the glove down, I saw the truck barrelling around the corner onto Old Highway 15, Tuffy waving his middle finger out the window. He drove to the stop sign and slammed on the brakes, turned right and then he was gone. I hurried carefully down the ladder and picked up the glove, meeting K.P. in the street.

"The first thing I'm gonna do," I said, "is piss and shit all over this glove."

Tuffy showed up a few minutes later, hauling up the street, and slammed on the brakes before gliding back up the driveway. I held up the glove, which was full of dog turds, since I wasn’t able to get my bowels moving on command. Tuffy cut the engine and hopped out.

"That's not a bad ride," he said, kicking the front tire.

"I called my dad and reported his truck stolen," I told him. "He’s going to take you all the way to Parchman."

Tuffy looked at K.P. who was nodding. "I heard him," K.P. said. "You're in big trouble."

Tuffy snatched the glove out of my hand. "Y'all are full of shit," he said. "I didn't steal nothing. If they ask me, I'll tell them you drove it. They'll believe me before they will you."

When Tuffy smelled what was in the glove, he threw it back at me. Then he lunged, but I dodged his fist and punched his head across the top of his nose. As he fell, he grabbed my leg and pulled me down on top of him. I pinned him, but he reached for the glove not far away in the grass and tried to smear it in my face, and when I backed away, he kicked me off and tackled me. We rolled in the grass, trading blows, punching each other in the ribs and stomach. We were both crying hot angry tears, cursing each other through tight lips and grinding teeth. Tuffy's nose bled. My side hurt. K.P. was laughing. He said he was going home, but he didn't. He picked up the water hose and sprayed us down till we both stood up sopping wet, asking him what the hell he was doing.

"Y'all are both gonna be in trouble now," he said.

I told them both to get out of my yard, but Tuffy said if I didn’t tell my dad, he wouldn’t tell his, so I thought about it for a second and it seemed like a good deal, so we shook hands. We both apologized and agreed to the terms. I’d never throw anything on his roof again and he’d never steal my dad’s truck again.

So I took them around to the back yard and showed them my tent. “I’m camping out tonight,” I said.

Tuffy’s sister must’ve heard all the commotion because suddenly she was standing there beside us. She was dressed like Paula Abdul or Madonna, some sexy singer I’d seen in a video on MTV. “Y’all aren’t fighting back here, are you?” she said.

Tuffy scowled at her. “What are you doing here?”

“She’s checking on me,” I said, defending her. “My Dad asked her to.”

“She painted that dot on her cheek. It ain’t real,” Tuffy said, and then he swatted at K.P.’s elbow and ducked under his sister’s purse as he ran into the woods.

“So you’re okay, then,” Tuffy’s sister asked.

“Yeah, I’m okay.”

“Well, your Dad did ask me to stick around and keep an eye on you, but you don’t really need me around, do you?”

“She’s got a date,” I heard Tuffy yell from the edge of the woods. “With that Brian Bosworth punk.” It felt more like a jab at me then at her. “She doesn’t have time to take care of little babies.”

I looked up at Tuffy’s sister. She was so beautiful I didn’t even think about looking at her hands anymore. I wanted her to tell me she was going to cut her date short and come back to be with me, that I was young, but in a few years I’d be old enough and she’d wait for me.

“I won’t be back until around twelve or so,” she said. She bent her knees, her skirt riding up her thighs, and looked me in the eye. “Can you do me a really huge favor?”

“Make her pay you ten dollars,” Tuffy said. He had run back over to stand beside me. “Or fifteen. She promised me fifteen if I don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

I nodded, ignoring Tuffy, glad to show her how grown up I was.

“If your dad calls like he usually does,” Tuffy’s sister said, “around ten or eleven, do you think you could just tell him I’m in the bathroom?”

When she was gone, Tuffy smirked. “You’re a pussy, she would’ve paid you.”

I told him to shut up.

“So you’re camping out in your own back yard,” he said. “But your house is right there. That’s not camping out. Do you even know how to build a fire?” He knew I could. We had been in the same Scout Troop, although I had stopped paying my dues and going to den meetings.

“Yeah,” I said, “But I’m exploring the woods tonight. You guys can come over and go with me if you want, unless you’re too chicken.”

But of course, they weren’t. They both went home to get their sleeping bags, flashlights, and snacks. They said they’d be back in a couple of hours which gave me enough time to rig up a way to scare the hell out of them. There were carcasses all through those woods, possum and raccoon, sometimes cats and dogs, too. All it took was a little surgery. I hammered some tomato stakes into the ground near the old car and shoved the rotting organs down onto them. It was stinky business and I had to stop after the second one I put up, but I also had some leftover fireworks, so I dug holes for the bottle rockets and arranged them in a perimeter aimed at the old car in the center. Knowing Tuffy, he’d be the first to hole up in the sniper’s den, but I’d be ready for him.

As the sun burned out behind the tops of the trees, the tall silhouetted pines draped in kudzu resembled witches huddled around a cauldron of fire. The darkness of late twilight fell in the tent, and we could hardly make out the shapes of each other’s expressionless faces. We had rolled our bags out and were trading our snacks when Tuffy and K.P. seemed to be laughing at some joke I wasn’t in on.

“What’re you girls giggling about,” I said.

Tuffy stood up. He said, “So what’s our mission?”

I didn’t know what he meant.

“We got to have a plan,” he said. “I heard there’s all kinds of dead animals back in there. Coons and possums and deer, maybe.” He started laughing again, looking at K.P.. “We ought to see if we can find some and take their skins.”

“There’s just one problem,” K.P. said. “What’re you going to skin them with?”

Tuffy pulled something out of his pocket and we heard it flick open. “This,” he said, and he raised it to his head and started combing his hair, laughing. “I won it at the carnival.”

“Come on.” I crawled out of the tent. “Let’s go.”

We probably would’ve gotten separated anyway, but a few steps into the woods, I told them I had to go back to the house to take a crap. They called me a wuss for not squatting in the woods, but it worked out for the best because they went on ahead. I went inside the house just in case they were watching and waited long enough for them to get halfway to the old car. Then I grabbed a lighter out of a kitchen drawer and set out. As I neared the perimeter, moving slowly and quietly in the near-dark--my flashlight switched off in my pocket--I started looking for the bottle rockets, feeling around in the leaves and pine straw for the buried bottles. Across the perimeter, on the other side of the car, I could see a flashlight, the beam circling a pink five-gallon bucket in some heavy briars. The bucket had been tipped over and bleached-white animal skulls and bones were spilling out.

“I told you,” I heard Tuffy say, whispering loudly. “Dead animals. Right there.”

“Those are just the bones,” said K.P.. He reached down and lifted a skull from the pile. I couldn’t tell if it was a cat or a possum or what, some small animal bigger than a rat but not as big as a big dog.

“I bet there’s some more around here somewhere,” Tuffy said, and I heard his running footsteps crashing away through the woods.

“Look what I found,” K.P. said as he followed after him, shining his light onto a video tape jacket. The glow of his flashlight receded in the darkness and I was left there to either give up on my plan or wait for them to return and hope they came back the same way they went.

So I waited. I didn’t realize how tired I was till I sat down. Before long, I was backing up against a tree trunk and nodding off.

When I heard voices again, I woke up, unaware of how much time had passed, though the darkness had fallen complete like a heavy curtain.

And then I saw it. The tiny orange circle of flame glowing behind the fogged-over windows of the old car. My eyes were beginning to adjust as I pulled the lighter out of my pocket and scrambled back over to the perimeter, feeling around for the nearest bottle. The cigarette was still glowing in the car. Two vague shadows shifted around inside. Finally, I found a bottle and lit the fuse. The spark caught and ran along the fuse toward the tip as I backed away, but then it just fizzled out. A dud.

And then I heard it. Not Tuffy giggling or K.P. telling him to shut up, but a girl’s voice, a familiar voice. I tried to watch where I was going using the lighter, but my thumb started to burn and I dropped it. I took my flashlight out and held it a few inches off the ground and turned it on so I could watch for sticks in front of me as I moved quietly toward the car. The muffled voices grew louder, and as I knelt by the back tire I could understand what they were saying.

The car rocked to the side a little, and then I heard the girl’s voice.

“Get off me,” she said, her words strained through clenched teeth.

Then I heard the male voice, deep but young-sounding, almost pleading. “Come on, what’s wrong with you?”

“I said I don’t want to.”

“What do you mean you don’t want to? You were the one who said you wanted to come out here.”

The car rocked again and this time the girl repeated in the same strained tone, but louder: “Get off me!”

The driver’s side door cracked open and the girl’s leg stuck out, but then it disappeared back inside the car and the door slammed shut.

“Oh my God,” I heard her say. “What is that? What are you doing? Are you crazy?”

I wanted to stand up and look in, but I was worried they would see me. Still, I turned and tried to peer over the top of the door, but I couldn’t make out anything.

“Yeah, I am,” the guy said. “Unless you do what you said we were going to do.”

“Well, I don’t want to anymore. I changed my mind.” The driver’s side door flung open again and Tuffy’s sister stepped out, already running, moving quickly through the woods in the direction of my back yard. When she was far enough away that her shadow blended with the darkness, I caught a glimpse of a hand grabbing the inside door handle and swinging it violently toward the car. As the door slammed shut, I jumped, even though the sound of the shot was muffled. It was loud enough that I thought a bomb had exploded inside, and beneath it, I heard the heavy thud and glass breaking, the shattered pieces landing in the leaves a few feet away on the other side of the car.

When I reached the clearing at the edge of our back yard, I ran up the hill, lifting my knees high, the kudzu vines breaking around my ankles. The tent was empty. I went in the house and turned on all the lights and the television and locked the doors. It was after eleven-thirty. The local news mentioned the convict and the missing girl from Tupelo, but the breaking news was about a car wreck on Highway 15 in South Adair County. It couldn’t have been more than a few miles away. A helicopter had been called on the scene and there were pictures of medics lifting a stretcher into an ambulance. And then I saw my father, standing off to the side, looking at the wreckage, a styrofoam cup in his hand. He looked tired, worse than he usually looked in the mornings when he came home, worse than I’d ever seen him. His eyes seemed weakened by whatever he was looking at off-camera. The video cut to shots of a broken windshield, the hood of a car crumpled up against a tree, dark stains and glittering broken glass near the white stripe at the edge of the highway. And then there was my father again, in the same picture as before, only later, taking a sip, then flinging the rest of his coffee out of his cup with a disgusted swat at the ground, and crumpling the cup in his fist as he walked out of the frame.

When the phone rang at two-thirty I was still awake, but feeling delirious. I was scared it was the convict calling to see if I was alone in the house before he broke in. The phone rang five times and then the machine picked up and beeped.

“You awake, Little Man?”

“Hey Dad.”

“You are awake.”

“Yeah, I can’t sleep.”

“Did you decide not to camp out?”

“Yeah, Tuffy and K.P. had to go.”

“Well, you can do it some other time. So why can’t you sleep? What have you been doing?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean, ‘nothing’?”

“Nothing. I’ve just been sitting here all night playing Nintendo.” I knew before I said it that he knew it was a lie.

After a pause, he said, “Well, that’s two nights in a row you’ve been up late. You’d better get to bed.”

I wanted to tell him I was scared, that I couldn’t sleep, that I kept seeing Tuffy’s sister running through the woods, that I kept hearing the gunshot and seeing blood splattering the walls of my room.

“Do you need to tell me something,” he asked when I didn’t say anything.

I told him I loved him and he said the same thing and told me to get some sleep.

But I was still awake at four o’clock when the headlights swung around the curve down at the south end of Harpole and turned into Tuffy’s driveway. Dad got out, walked around the back, and opened the door for Tuffy’s sister who was hugged almost immediately by her parents who came rushing out of the carport. I saw Dad lean against the cruiser and light a cigarette. He and Tuffy’s dad shook hands. Tuffy’s mom gave him a big hug and then blew her nose and wiped her eyes. I watched it all through the blinds. Eventually they went inside and Dad toed out his cigarette, staring long and hard at our house, as if he knew I was watching, before getting back into the car and going back to work.

When I was seven, I sent off ten dollars in the mail to join Ranger Troy’s Bible Club for a year, and within a couple of weeks, my badge arrived in a manila package along with my first issue of Ranger Troy’s Gospel Kids magazine. It was loaded with serious stuff, articles about God and Jesus and kids in Kenya, but I quickly found the issue’s greatest appeal--the real reason kids everywhere wanted to join the club--in a super-hero comic strip about a guy called “The Human Mustard Seed.” He was a cross between Jonah, Superman, and the Inch-High Private-Eye. In his normal life (which was actually pretty normal despite the standard guy-who-lives-in-a-matchbox conflict that opened every episode), he wandered around neglecting God’s calling, but when the Spirit finally moved, he transformed from a whiney bible-thumping type into a super strong miniature Billy Graham. He leapt into action like a mutant flea, moving mountains and converting witch doctors.

The first episode I read was about some boys who rode their bikes out to an abandoned construction site at the edge of their subdivision. The boys knew they weren’t supposed to ride their bikes that far, but they went anyway, and one of them ended up breaking a hip (or stepping on a nail, I forget which). Anyway, they were lucky--blessed, actually--that The Human Mustard Seed just happened to be down on his knees at that moment, because the boy who wasn’t strong enough to carry his injured friend remembered his Sunday school lesson and put a prayer in to God who speedily dispatched His faithful superhero. In the end, the boys survived and asked God to forgive them and told their parents they were sorry, but the one boy lived on with the limp (or the scars, whichever) to remind him of The Human Mustard Seed’s admonition to us all: “Always honor your father and mother, and most of all, love God and keep his commandments.”

When I woke the next morning after only three hours of sleep, Dad was sitting beside me on my bed asking me if I knew I’d locked the keys in his truck. It was early, around seven o'clock. A bird chirped outside the window.

I stretched my arms above my pillow. "It was an accident.”

"Good thing I have an extra set," he said. "Are you gonna sleep all day, or do you want to come see what I got you?"

I jumped out of bed so fast Dad had to hold his coffee cup with both hands to keep from spilling it.

"It's in the driveway," he said. "Behind the truck."

Outside, a tow-truck disappeared around the curve. Then I saw the surprise. It was still pale yellow, rusting all over, with a white roof and deflated, cracked tires. A long car, the tailfins hung out of the yard into the street.

“Don’t you like it,” he asked, rubbing my head.

"That's mine?"

"When you're old enough." He sipped his coffee. "It’s a Galaxy 500. It needs work, but in a few years you can get a job and fix it up."

"What's wrong with it?"

"Just about everything. Its missing a window, it stinks, and the engine’s burned out.” He grabbed the chipped chrome handle and the door creaked and knocked as it opened. The interior smelled damp and smoky, like the underside of a rotting log. The floorboard had a hole in it. The dash was dusty. A mud-dobber's nest hung from the steering column and a spider’s web draped across the back glass. All our old butts and magazines were gone. Only a few tiny shards of glass glittered on the floorboards. "But I thought we could work on it together,” he said. “You need to learn about cars anyway, if you're going to be driving one, and I can't think of any better way to learn."

“Where’d you get it?”

“Sheriff. He bought at an auction, but didn’t want it, so I told him I’d take it.”

Three more times that day we went outside to stand in the driveway and look at the old car. We popped the hood, looked for a spare tire, rolled down the windows to let it air out. After lunch Dad took a nap and I cut the grass. When it was time for him to go to work we went outside and he patted the hood of the car. "If you want something to do tonight," he said, "you can start cleaning up the interior. I had them do a little bit at the station, but there’s still a good bit left."

I said, "I want to wait till you're here to help me.”

"Good. I'd like that too."

All day I’d been wanting to ask him about the night before. I wondered who’d been in the car with Tuffy’s sister, and where he had found her. I wanted to tell him I’d seen her and knew about the car, and maybe walk down into the woods with him and show him where she’d been. But something held me back, not the car, and not the fear of getting caught or ratting somebody out, just some understanding that there were things you didn’t talk about, and these were some of those things.

Still, something was welling up inside me, something important I had to say, but was scared to, knowing it was going to come out exactly like it happened. “Dad--”

But he stopped me. “I don’t guess you heard about the accident last night.”

I shook my head. “Was it the bad guy?”

“Well, we caught that bastard, but you know Trevor Stallings? The quarterback on the high school team?”

I nodded.

“Trevor died last night.”

“What happened?” I was beginning to believe what I’d seen in the woods was a nightmare, that I really had been inside playing Nintendo all night long.

“That bastard that was on the loose, that guy that took that girl up in Tupelo, pulled Mayor Stallings’ boy over out on the highway and just shot him in the forehead and ran off in his truck.”

It wasn’t until a decade or so later, after Mayor Stallings was dead, that Tuffy started telling everybody the truth. But by then, his sister was fat, divorced, alcoholic, and working at the grocery store so, of course, nobody believed him.

Four years later, I hated my father, although I never would’ve admitted it, and I didn’t really know why, except now I think it probably had something to do with knowing a lot about road safety and very little about him. When I was sixteen and the Galaxy was driveable, I drove to Little Rock and found my mom and tried to get to know my sister, which turned out to be not so smart because five months after that I was in rehab. But that’s another story.

This one ends with dreams of driving. That night, after Dad had gone to work, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about my mom. About the way she left, how she said she loved us then she told Dad we were too much trouble. I got out of bed and stood at the window for a while looking out into the street, down at Tuffy's house, down the road toward K.P.'s. My eyes settled on the car so I picked up my pillow and a blanket and got into the front seat where I sat behind the wheel pretending to drive to Little Rock and up into my grandparent's driveway where I'd honk the horn and my mom would come out and I'd rev the engine and back out into the street and spin the tires and drive off with a lot of smoke. I'd leave the smell of burned rubber hanging in her air. I made up my mind when I turned fifteen and fixed up the car, I'd drive all the way up there just to see her watch me leave. I'd speed home and when I crossed the state-line a trooper would gun me, but I'd race ahead of the sirens all the way home right up to the front door and we'd both get out and Dad would be there and he'd know the officer and they'd shake hands and then the officer would get back in his car and drive off. I'd ask my dad what the officer said and Dad would say, "He didn't know you were my son."

5 Comments:

Blogger The Damned said...

adam
my first impression is that the first few paragraphs are poorly organized...i think the narrative--getting these boys into the woods--is interupted by paragraphs 2-4...why not get to the pine cone grenades right after the first paragraph and then put the information about the dad before they take their bikes to the pool?
--joy

5:23 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

adam
below are some minor edits and then more general comments that i'm sure you'll have me for later

Paragraph 1:
take out: “for a while”; “it wasn’t long before”;

Paragraph 2:
Take out: “But” at start of 3rd sentence

Paragraph 6:
Awkward repetition of the word “summer”

Paragraph 11:
I resent this jibe at my grandmother: “Jimmy Swaggart’s nephew and Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin”

Paragraph 14:
This sentence is jumbled…not sure if it’s fused or what but there’s definitely something off: “Eventually, before Tuffy came out, we started up a whiffle-ball game, but K.P. said there was something strange about her hands, like she only had a thumb and a pinkie, and they were closer together than normal, with no fingers in between.”

Paragraph 15:
“the McBride Quarters”???

Paragraph 42(?)
Should there me a comma after “hammers”?

When we get this: “Tuffy walked into the garage. "Well I'm gonna call him at work and tell him you stole his gloves. I hope he comes home and beats you silly." Then he said, "And I'm gonna tell your dad too." He went inside”—who is the second dad?

“I hung up the phone, gathered up the trash, and went out to the carport, locking the door as I went out.”: delete the second “out”

“I wasn’t sure what my mother meant. But what it meant to me was that after Dad went to work and I was alone again, I was finally going to go back to the woods and find out why they were so dangerous.”: would he mention something about the convict? It’s been a while since that’s been mentioned and I’m curious if he’d think about it

“"She said she wished you could come see her this summer but she's going to be so busy with her classes and work, she wouldn't get to spend much time with you."”: wouldn’t she also be busy with the sister? If she’s not mentined again, why even have her in here…it seems to complicate things

“I unzipped the tent”:?? How can they be having this converstaion if the tent is zipped up?

“He nodded his head”: what else would he nod?

“I held up the glove, which was full of dog turds, since I wasn’t able to get my bowels moving on command.”: although this is funny, the sentence is awkward and I’d rather see him putting the turds in there than all of the previous description about climbing on the roof.

“I'll tell them you drove it. They'll believe me before they will you."”: why? Wouldn’t they believe Quinn because his dad’s a cop??

“He said he was going home, but he didn't”: so if he didn’t why even have this sentence in there?

“Tuffy’s sister must’ve heard all the commotion”: can’t she just appear? Do we need Quinn rationalizing for us why she’s there? Doesn’t her dialogue sum it up?

“She painted that dot on her cheek”: do you mean she painted a mole on her face? To look like Cindi Crawford?

“The tiny orange circle of flame glowing behind the fogged-over windows of the old car”: I don’t understand that this is a cigarette. It seems like there’s a fire in the car.

“I caught a glimpse of a hand grabbing the inside door handle and swinging it violently toward the car. As the door slammed shut, I jumped, even though the sound of the shot was muffled.”: I don’t “see” what’s going on here

“taking a sip, then flinging the rest of his coffee out of his cup”: how about “taking a sip of coffee, then flinging the rest”?

if the mom left because they were “too much trouble” what does that say about the autistic sister?

Now that I’ve thought about it a while I think what’s really out of place in the beginning is paragraph 4. It would be better to reveal that information, I think, just before they ride to the pool. Should we know that the narrator’s name is Quinn sooner than we do? Should we know that KP is black sooner than we do? Would Tuffy make fun of his sister’s hands at some point (should only one of her hands be malformed)? He seems like such a smart ass that he would make a comment about it. I expect him to and I guess it’s a bit disappointing when he doesn’t (I guess this shows how mean I am).

I don’t think Tuffy or KP should come back to the tent or go into the woods. I think Quinn should just be determined to go to the woods for some reason, out of pure difiance maybe?

I wonder if Quinn’s dad would lie to him about where he really got the car. And does Quinn know he’s lying? Should Quinn acknowledge he knows his dad’s
lying later about the quarterback’s stolen car?

The narrative interuption at the end (that’s another story) seems a bit out of place since we don’t clearly see the narrative voice anywhere else and aren’t quite sure through the whole piece how much time has actually passed between the events and the time it’s being told. I’m jarred at this moment, being sucked out of the story and then thrust back in.

My last thought for the moment is this: do we really need KP or the autistic sister? What are they contributing to the story, really? Isn’t it enough to have Quinn have Tuffy as his friend? To have the mother just leave for no other reason?
--joy

11:49 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Adam:

A few line edits in the opening paragraph:

"...I would never play in the pine woods..." and "...it wasn't long before Tuffy and K.P. and I set out into the trees to make camp and play war."

The paragraph on the good old days of eighties action movies takes me back, man. "Let off some steam, Bennett."

"...she nearly sucked us through the fence." -- Bravo.

When Quinn hangs up the phone while listening to his parents' conversation, how does he do it? Loudly? Quietly? I'm guessing the latter, but we don't know.

The reminder that comes just below this about the escaped criminal ("Yeah, he's out there somewhere...) seems like just that: a reminder. Even a set-up, maybe. It calls attention to itself, and I don't think we even need it. A smart reader will remember the guy's out there when the time comes.

"He was a cross between Jonah, Superman, and Inch-High Private Eye." There isn't a "the" before Inch-High Private Eye, is there? Seems like not.

When the father brings home the car, it's the same one as in the woods, right? It's a bit fuzzy for me. But why, if it is? That seems like a big coincidence.

I agree with Joy about the first few paragraphs, but regarding the so-called "jibe at [her] grandmother," I say, well, Joy should just suck it up because that's a damn funny line.

She also has a point about the autistic sister. Why would the mom take her with her, if indeed the normal males were too much trouble? Also, what's the deal with handicapped sisters in this story? Is that intentional? If so, why?

As for whether KP needs to be there, I say yes, as he sort of fills out the group, gives Quinn someone to vocalize to who isn't Tuffy. I'm not sure what happens with Tuffy's sister in the woods--who the guy in the car is, how they get there. What does this have to do with the wreck? Is it only coincidence?

I like where this story seems to be going, but I'm not sure it quite gets there. Does that make sense?

Andy

3:20 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

That definitely makes sense. I think you're both right that I haven't fully/completely told the story yet.

Adam

11:35 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

i think i definately should suck up the grandmother thing...except that's my detail! i think i should get copywright compensation for that when this gets published

i've changed my mind about KP...i think he should be in the story because--just like in faulkner's tales of whites and blacks--he's the sane one...he's like the janitor in Troy Dent's homecoming...the one who can see all this (fighting, car stealing, deformity) for what it is and come out with rational actions...the story needs this
--joy

1:37 PM  

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