3.26.2010

Body and Other Battles

What's worse than waking up sick? How about having someone else wake up sick and reliving it back to you, in full mucus detail. Hearing someone talk about the golf ball in their throat, unless they're your kid or you're a doctor, is about as bad as having to hear my husband talk about the details of his last dump. You could pretty much go your whole life happily oblivious.

So I'll just say I woke up in battle, the details of which I will hold close. Women are familiar with body battles - we start the war against ourselves early; fighting calories, pants sizes, and hair textures until the day we die. You fight sickness to the death only once, and rarely is that battle with a cold. Unless I sneeze, my suffering shall be silent.

Silent suffering is a gift, to a point. My mother-in-law cannot share, to the point that it's a lot of work to find something to break up the dead quiet. It's a lot easier, and this is going to sound awful, now that she has dementia. You find one thing she's interested in, repeat it for half an hour until she's tired, and go home. You learn only one new piece of information but you learn it well and everybody's happy.

Californians are known for over-sharing, having long one-sided conversations with clerks at Starbucks, not about the details of their last dumps, but close. They'll hold up the line, saying, my uncle, who is a cop in New York and should have surgery for his heart problems but won't and I should call him to find out if he'll get that scheduled soon? Anyway, he came out here once to visit and he had this wet cappuccino and it was really good and I asked him what was a wet cappuccino and he said he doesn't like lattes cause they're too milky but regular cappuccinos are too dry, and he asked a rude clerk, not like you, for a suggestion and he was told what you want is a wet cappuccino, so that's what he had, and that's how I learned about wet cappuccinos. Everybody should learn about wet cappuccinos, they're really good, don't you think?

You can learn a lot just by listening, and there's always something better to talk about than body battles. Wet cappuccinos, for example.

3.25.2010

I Dream Of A World Where All Have Access to Kitchens

It's been hard to find contractors who'll work on an 80 year-old apartment building that hasn't seen an abundance of maintenance. I'm being nice. There's an icebox in my kitchen. A real ice box, like a safe with a drawer. The paint in my closet pre-dates lead-based paint - it's some weird stuff that peels if you paint over.

So we're upgrading the vacant apartment but just the functional stuff, like electrical. While getting bids, one electrician came by, noticed all the breakers were forced open, fixed them, and didn't charge us. He got the job and he got the permits to do the work.

The good thing about a detail-oriented electrician is that he'll save your apartment from an electrical fire without charging you. They'll also find the junction boxes plastered over, hidden in walls and above the garage, installed when electricity was the hot new thing and who needed standards, code, and inspections? The bad thing is the same hardship working with anyone detail-oriented: anal people are annoying.

Charlie talked one of his friend's workers into pulling off the old earthquake (yes, the 1989 earthquake) damaged plaster and re-walling the kitchen in this vacant unit while the workers had some down time. Charlie would have had to do it otherwise. It's their first day and they've already done more than Charlie could do in a week (or more - let's be honest. A 55 year-old man isn't a match for two crazy-for-work hungry kids).

The electrician sees they're doing work and says something about permits. The workers don't speak English but they know this word. Charlie gets a call.

All they're doing is tearing out crappy plaster and replacing it with drywall, putting the electrical work inside the walls this time (seriously - our apartment's electricity is stuck in metal tubes against the wall). Nothing's being changed except that instead of having an 80 year-old kitchen with a tiny doorway fit for a tiny housewife like you would build in 1930, there'll be a normal-sized doorway allowing kitchen access to all sizes and genders. It's an exciting day for men in kitchens everywhere.

Now, since the electrician asked, we have to find out: is there a permit for kitchen access equality?

3.24.2010

New May Waht?

Ew, it stinks, the lady says.

Yep.

I move away a little so she knows it's not me. I suspect it's the guy, not the cleanest-looking, hovering over the frozen bun section, stinking up the little piece of ground on which I planned to stand. I stepped off to the side - he smelled like a dead body - and I'm waiting for him to stop touching frozen bun packages and go away.

He won't go, though. He leans over, touches a bag, stares, touches another bag. Am I stupid? I'll just reach over and grab something. Wrong decision. Even a few inches closer and I felt like my nose hairs would burn off. I grabbed a bag anyway but it was nasty bamboo rather than red bean. For a second I thought about keeping it so I could get the hell out of here. Now this lady is standing on the other side of me, pushing me closer toward Mr. Stinky. Why won't he leave?

Durian, the lady says.

Oh yeah. I forgot how nasty durian smells, and New May Wah sells it on the stands outside. It smells like this. Did the guy take a bath in it?

I took another dive into the frozen bun packages, pulled out a red bean, and got the hell out of there. It was weird that I kept smelling durian all the way home, though. I even looked to see if the stinky man was following me. I figured out it was something in my bag. Can stink attach itself to a frozen bun package, just from slight contact?

It got me home fast, as I was wanting to say 'it's not me - it's my package' when I passed by people. I kept trying to outrun that smell. Durian is amazing to eat but it's not allowed on public transportation in Southeast Asia. It smells like dead body and feet.

When I got home nothing in my bag smelled at all. I took it out and put it all away. Still - stinky. Why is my bag, the bag I held against me while shopping and all the way home, full of wet marks? When did I brush up against something wet? The only time I touched something all afternoon was . . . I need a shower.

3.20.2010

Before Revision, as Proof it Gets Better: Growing Up Stupid, Chapter 1 (not)

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson




1.

For being the outcast, George knows more about our history than anybody. He’s like a library of stories for me, my own private Southern storyteller brother. We’ll be sitting at the table, nobody’s talking and he says, did you know? That’s how he starts it: did you know? Did you know dad was wild man, he says.

No.

He was a wild man. He stole a neighbor’s carriage, took it apart and reassembled it on top of the roof of their church. You don’t think the pastor gave our grandparents an earful on that, do you? He did a lot of fooling about and got a girl pregnant, an ugly girl. He himself wasn’t all that pretty to look at, even then. Dad’s dad, he about had enough of that. You can’t marry that girl, his dad tells him. She too ugly. You best get yer ass in the military. We don’t want no ugly babies round here.

Dad did just that and got himself captured the very first battle in North Africa. War’s over, he comes home to find a pretty nurse and marries her. He’s in the Air Force now, moving all over. One day this girl Sue shows up. We’re living way the hell out in Newfoundland. Mom says, who’s this? That’s how she finds out he had whole life before her. Sue moves in, another kid in our house. Do you remember her?

I don’t.

You must have been too young. Being the oldest normal kid, I ask who’s this. Mom says, ask your daddy. She knows I won’t talk to him. I learned it from Aunt Hattie. After a while Sue’s gone. Never saw her again. We were the lucky ones, George says. We have a family ‘cause mom’s not ugly.

The way dad is with George I don’t know how he can call that lucky, particularly once we moved to Florida. We got this crappy apartment above Western Auto on Drew Street and right away mom’s upset. It’s such a run-down place. It’s small, too, and she’s used to living in officer’s quarters, larger houses off base. Here we have a set of outside stairs to get to the front door and once you’re inside the front door it’s still kind of weird. There’s this screened-in enclosure with dirt on the floor, like a patio or an unattended garden upstairs between the front door and the real front door. Mom hates this part the most. There’s dirt and everybody knows she does not like dirt. I’ve never seen her go outside. Dad says this is the only rental I could find until our house is ready. Mom is always crying about the apartment, no matter how temporary. We’re upset at dad for making mom cry. The facts don’t matter. You made mom cry so you’re the bad person. Welcome to retirement, dad, now we hate you.

George goes outside, makes new friends and disappears. He’s gone all the time. He’s the smart one. That leaves me home with my little sister, the twins, mom and dad. At least I’m smart enough to get out of the house too, but I don’t know where to go. What kid is going to go hang out around the Western Auto? I go down the creaky stairs and walk around the aisles at Western Auto looking at bolts and tools. When I can’t stand that any longer, I go outside. Outside, in this case, is a messed up screened-in abandoned garden out back. The bushes are dead and all pulled up so it’s a lot of dry, hot dirt, but it’s in the shade.

I like playing out here so dad gets me a Civil War army set, with blue soldiers and gray soldiers, to set up in the dirt. I build hills and valleys and I facilitate battles for hours. It’s an escape to be outside, even though Florida is so sticky hot. I didn’t think anyplace could be hotter than Mesa, but I’d never heard of humidity. I can feel sweat through my pants and down my legs. I can’t say I miss Arizona, but I’ll be more careful next time I say anyplace is better than Mesa.

This army men set has generals and officers and enlisted men, each with different uniforms. I like the uniforms and I think everybody should have a uniform. They’re neat, professional and they have a purpose. You know who everyone is when people wear uniforms. I learn this from my Civil War experience and I learned this from dad being in the Air Force. I like rank and structure. I like order. You can learn a lot more from army men than real people sometimes.

Other families talk to each other. Why doesn’t our family talk to each other? We move into the house so now everybody has a room to hide in unless we’re watching TV but when we’re watching TV, we aren’t commenting on what we’re watching. We’re just watching. I’m floundering from being shy and moving so many times, and with George gone so much how am I going to learn how to talk?

My family calls me Davey because my middle name is David. I’m done with Davey. I want Davey dead. I want out of my head that badly. There’s nobody else in there to talk to and I’m tired of me. I’m all out of tricks to entertain myself. When I start sixth grade at Skycrest Elementary, the teacher leans over and asks me, do you want to be called Davey, Charles, Charlie or what?

If I have a new name, I will be somebody else without even switching bodies - more like changing clothes than going from caterpillar to butterfly. I can be someone that people will like. I’ll have friends, like George. George has a lot of friends at school he talks to, even girls. He does the things other kids at school do, like talk to people and go places with them. He’s the only one who talks at home, but my dad says you don’t want to be like George. Don’t be like George, Davey.

I want to be Charlie, I say. Davey is officially dead.

She tells the class, we have a new student today. Please welcome Charlie to our class.

Everyone in my class has gone to the same school since the first grade, you can tell. They all look at me like, who is this? They keep talking to each other about the Little League game they had the night before. It’s obvious everyone knows everything you could possibly want to learn about other kids but no one comes over to talk to me.

At P.E. I’m sitting on the bench with the rest of my assigned team, trying to remember I’m Charlie if someone calls my new name. I’ve never played softball before so I’m worried I’m not going to be very good. Kids near me start talking.

What time you coming over?

Are we spending the night at your house?

What time you want my dad to drive me over?

Who else is coming?

The kid closest to me says, Gary and John. And Alan. And everybody. We’re all spending the night.

I’ll ask my mom if I can do a sleepover. We’re supposed to do a family day.

I’m listening. Should I not be? They catch me looking at them so they stop talking.
What are you guys planning? I say. I’m not trying to invite myself. I know enough not to do that.

Nothing, the kid next to me says. He gets up and moves over to the other end of the bench. The rest of the team scoots over closer to him and away from me. I listen to everybody being friends with everybody else and I don’t try to make any more conversation, ever. Now everybody wonders why the new guy doesn’t talk, so they don’t try to talk to me, either. I did the best wrong thing I could possibly do.

We go back to class and it’s time for math. They’re doing long division and I never had that before, either. The teacher has a game she wants to play. She splits the class in half and we line up into two teams. She puts a long division problem on the board and says she’ll see which team can finish the problem first. She has a stop watch to time us.

She puts the first math problem up on the board. I can’t do that. I don’t know what the long division symbol means or what’s divided into what. The kids go up and do these problems like they’re nothing. I’m fifth in line and getting sweatier as I get closer. Can I figure this out? My heart’s pounding and I’m trying not to breathe too hard through my mouth.

It’s my turn. I know long division like I know softball and how to make friends. I pick up my piece of chalk and wait. I’m against another kid and he’s focused, staring at the stupid board with his face tight, ready to try to beat me. If I could talk, I’d tell this kid he should thank me: he’s going to look really good in a minute. He’s going to be good at math, starting right now.

The teacher writes 384 divided by 11 on the board and says, Okay, go. I freeze. Show your work, she says. I don’t even move. The other kid finishes in five or six seconds. It’s official: I’m a moron. I’m so embarrassed. Right in front of the whole class, I prove I’m a retard. I go back to my seat and look down at the floor for the rest of the day.

My walk home begins on Cleveland Street. I cross at Venus. Before I get to Mars where I turn left, I start to cry. I’m walking down Mars Street, a sixth-grader, crying. Why am I so stupid and everybody else is so smart? My chances of making friends now went from very little to zero. Who would ever talk to me now? My heart feels like it weighs five hundred pounds.

When I turn the corner at Rainbow, I make sure my eyes are dry since I have to go inside to quiet as outer space family. I look up enough to watch where I’m going but I keep my head down for the rest of the year, walking to and from school, at school and everywhere.

I told them I want to be called Charlie, I tell my mom.

That was my daddy’s name, Charlie was, she says. I’m glad you decided to do that.
My dad comes home and my mom says Davey wants to be called Charlie. I think it’s wonderful.

My dad gets all huffy, How come you want to be called Charlie? Your name’s Davey.

I don’t like Davey anymore. I want to be called Charlie.

You’ve been called Davey all your life.

Yeah and I don’t like it. It’s a baby name and I don’t like it anymore. I want to be called Charlie.

That’s the end of that. My mom immediately starts to call me Charlie but my dad won’t call me Charlie, no matter what. A couple of days later I ask my mom, Why does he refuse to call me Charlie?

’Cause it was my daddy’s name, she says, and he doesn’t like him.

The kids in class can’t wait for recess but I dread it. It’s when it’s the most obvious that no one likes me. I stand all by myself - far away from anyone so there’s no question no one likes me - waiting for it to be over. It’s torture every day. I watch kids play, walk around, sit under a tree and look around, look at the sky, praying recess will be over soon so I don’t have to keep reminding everyone I have no friends. I never threw a ball or held a mitt before so I’m not going to join the softball game and prove I’m not only friendless but also uncoordinated. All I know how to do is shoot firearms in the Arizona desert and that’s not a skill meant for recess.

George comes around to get something to eat at our new house sometimes. He’s having a sandwich so I make a sandwich and sit down at the table with him. You know mom’s dad died of drinking, he says.

Yeah, mom said he vomited buckets of blood before he died.

I’ll never drink because of that, and because of the way it makes daddy act.

Daddy drinks? I had no idea.

At my first parent teacher conference we all sit down around a little table in the back of class, the teacher, mom and dad, and me. We’re very happy to have Charlie in our class, the teacher says. It’s the first thing she says and she’s already pissed off my dad.

Charlie? my dad says. His name’s Davey.

My mom says, all Southern-like, He wants to be called Charlie.

Why do you want to be called Charlie for? my dad says to me. I continue to look at the teacher, ignoring dad like mom does.

The teacher can see I’m nervous so she looks at my mom and, when that gets uncomfortable, over to my dad. There’s not enough time allotted for this conference if she’s waiting for us to talk. We have the communication skills of zombies, without the personality. She’s going to have to carry the whole conversation: the reason everybody regrets starting a conversation with us.

Anyway, she says, he told us he wants to be called Charlie so we call him Charlie. And we’re happy to have him in our class this year. He’s coming along, he’s at grade level in most of his subjects but he needs a little work on his spelling. Spelling and math, I notice . . .

What problems is Davey having in spelling? my dad says. He won’t let it go. He keeps calling me Davey while the teacher answers calling me Charlie. My mom sits there with the serene little look on her face that she always has. My dad sits there steaming. I don’t know why he’s so pissed. It’s my name. Let me be called what I want to be called. I’m not really worried about your opinion of my name. I don’t know why he’s taking it personally. It’s not like I vanished. I’m here until I can reinvent myself again. Next time I do it right.

3.13.2010

Ever take a road trip with a friend you don't know? Me, too.

Chicken Shit

“I’m taking a trip to North Carolina,” my dad says. “I talked to Ed’s pop and he’d like to go. You and Ed can come.” That sounds uninteresting. I don’t even know that kid and I don’t know how to be friends. How am I going to be friends with him for a whole trip? What if he gets bored? What if he thinks my dad is weird? Or me? I’ll be stuck in a car with some fat-cheeked kid for a couple of days, with my dad and his, too.

“Your aunt Hattie owns a chicken farm.”

Who is aunt Hattie? Why would I want to see her chickens?

“Hattie likes to shoot guns. They have a lot of room to shoot.”

Guns? That’s one thing that’s good. Firecrackers are legal in North Carolina, too. Even if Ed is bored, or boring, neither one of us would be bored with firecrackers. That’s two things, then. “Okay.”

I run over to Ed’s and knock on the door. I’ve never done this before but I’ve never had a reason before. “My dad says you guys are coming with us to North Carolina.”

“Pop’s talking about it,” he says like he’s been sleeping. Is he bored all the time, like me? Neither of us says anything for a minute or two. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “It could be fun.” The more I think about it, the more I want to go. There’s no place to shoot around here and my dad hasn’t taken me anywhere since Camp Waterdog so I think I want to go at least to shoot. It’s something I’m good at and so far that’s the only thing I’m good at. “I heard they have guns. We might be able to shoot guns and do neat stuff like that.”

“Yeah?” Ed says.

“Yeah.” I’m starting to get excited. “My aunt likes to shoot guns. We can stop and get firecrackers and light them and throw them at each other.”

“Okay. If we can shoot guns and mess around with fireworks, at least that will be something to do. Let’s do it.”

My dad has so many cars he buys and sells that it’s hard to remember what’s in the driveway. His latest big tank is a Buick Skylark so that’s what we take to North Carolina, wherever that is. We wake up early in the morning, get in the car and go right back to sleep. We’re trapped in the back of a big hunk of screaming, grinding, airtight metal coffin on wheels. My dad’s over six feet tall so he has the seat all the way back. We’re really cramped and I hardly know this guy. We don’t have anything to read. We have nothing. All we can do is sleep but the more we drive on, the more boring it gets. Get me out of this car. It’s really hot in here and it’s as dull as hell.

“This is boring,” I say.

“Yeah,” Ed says. “It is.”

We brought food: peanut butter sandwiches, bags of potato chips, beef jerky, moon pies and glass bottles of coke. When we can’t sleep anymore, we eat. We eat all this junk we’re not used to eating so we get too full, too sick, go back to sleep, and do it all over again. We’re aching from eating all the disgusting food on the first day so I don’t eat anything on the second, and so neither does Ed. We drive straight through. That’s what you do, you drive until you get there. I don’t know what kind of people stay in hotels, but not our kind. Ed’s pop and my dad took turns driving while the other one sleeps. If they’re talking, we don’t care. They’re not going to talk about anything interesting. All they talk about is grown-up stuff, like work, weather and what they see outside.

We get off the main freeway and onto these long country roads. There are a lot of mountains, a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of curves. I look outside and see a bunch of dirty old houses with dilapidated rusted-out pick-up trucks in the front yards. We keep going along the country roads and progress further until we don’t see anything but trees and dirt roads. It’s trees and mountains, trees and mountains. There are fences all along the dirt roads for the cattle and pig farms. This is livestock farmland. The mountains are so different than flat Florida but I don’t care about scenery and mountains. I would much rather be out of the car blowing up stuff or shooting guns. Scenery isn’t interesting.

“Oh, look at this farmland. Look at all that farmland,” Ed’s pop says. “What do they grow there? What do they grow here in North Carolina? What kind of crops are those?”
“Well, Ed, they grow a lot of tobacco, corn, you know. Crops like that.”
Ed’s pop seems to be expecting more of an answer, judging by the look he gave him. But nothing else comes out of my dad’s mouth. My dad likes to pretend he knows the answer to everything.

“Davey,” my dad says. “Look at that,” trying to change the subject.

“Look at this farmhouse in this little valley,” Ed’s pop says. “Oh will you look at that, isn’t that beautiful? That looks like it could be on a postcard.”

Ed and I aren’t having any of it. We don’t give a care. If it were righteous to look at something, we’d look. We want out of the car. We’ve been here for two, hot, raunchy days, riding in the back for over five hundred miles already. We don’t look and we don’t talk. We’re not even looking out the window. The only things we move are out eyes. We press our heads against the side of the car and leave them there, in extreme lazy boredom.

My dad takes a turn onto another dirt road. It’s really steep going up this mountain. It levels off and we come up to a driveway, a long dirt road with grass growing between the tire tracks. My dad says, “We’re here.”

“Oh,” Ed’s pop says. “Oh. See, that didn’t take long.”

“Thank God,” Ed says.

“Get me out of this car,” I say.

We keep driving through the dirt to this big old brick farmhouse. I don’t care about scenery but even I can tell this place is gnarly. It’s a big old-fashioned ranch-style farmhouse with a big old lawn all up on top of this hill with two gates you have to go through to get to the house. There are bushes and trees covering the sides of the house and the dirt roads, growing kind of out of control. I’m used to seeing suburban neighborhoods and houses with trimmed lawns, all the same. This is untamed and wild.

“Far out,” Ed says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Far out.”

There’s a big, shiny, red tractor parked in front of the house, like it’s on display. Ed and I look at each other. “I want to drive that tractor,” Ed says. “It’s radical.”

“Yeah, me too.” We get out of the car. We don’t know what to expect or what to say.
Here comes Aunt Hattie. She opens the front door and jumps out of the house to greet us. She looks exactly like my dad except she has long hair. She’s tall, like six foot, and an imposing woman. She has these long stork legs, a little bit of a belly like my dad, same small eyes with a big nose like my dad, kind of a weak, double chin, kind of soft. She’s loud, loud and bossy, and I’ll bet Ed’s thinking the same thing I am. Who is this hillbilly?

“Y’all made it, huh?” she says. “Y’all made it!”

“How you doing?” my dad says. They hug and that’s the only time I’ve ever seen my dad embrace anyone, male or female. “There’s Davey and this is Ed, and Ed Junior,” my dad says, pointing.

I look at Ed. “Ed Junior? Ah ha ha!”

“Shut up.”

I’m Davey-Charlie and Ed’s Ed Junior. No wonder no one talks. You can piss someone off just by saying his name.

“Hey, Ed,” my aunt says. “I guess we got two Ed’s now, huh? Well, come on in. Y’all must be hungry.”

We walk into this farmhouse and it’s a throwback to something. It looks like George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon. There is a pile of old antique furniture everywhere, and on top of everything is a doily. All you can see are white snowflake doilies all over the place. She uses them to protect her furniture, I guess. Old people do that: they put crap everywhere so you can’t use your furniture for the reasons you have it because there’s so much shit on it. These bogus doilies are on the coffee tables, end tables, the fireplace mantel, and over all the rest of the place like spider webs. Then she has these two little raunchy dogs; little yappy Chihuahuas, one black and one white. As soon as they see us they run up to us barking and nipping at our feet. “Grrr! Grrr!” they say, showing all three of their old gray teeth.

“Just kick ‘em out of the way,” Aunt Hattie says. “Kick ‘em out of the way if they bother you.”

Ed lifts his foot up to try to move them out of the way. He’s too timid to kick so he just tries to guide them away. “Grrr-ruff!” they say. One of them bites the crap out of Ed’s shoe.

“Queenie!” Aunt Hattie says. “I call her Queenie because she thinks she’s queen of the house. Queenie, don’t you bite him!” She picks them both up, shoves them into another room and shuts the door. Now they’re quiet.

I look at the dining table and there is a ton of food there, just a ton. The table itself is as big as a normal dining room. There are biscuits and gravy, pancakes, huge slabs of bacon, like a mountain of bacon, and so many eggs like I’ve never seen before. There’s a huge ceramic bowl, at least a couple of feet in diameter with a top on it that’s as big as a garbage can lid, full of scrambled eggs. There must be ten pounds of scrambled eggs in this thing. There’s nothing like fruit or vegetables anywhere. We’re really hungry and it’s nice to see all this food but there’s so much of it. My mom doesn’t cook like this. She buys a roast beef or a ham, already cooked, and puts it on the table and we eat in our rooms. She makes tuna salad that I love, with pickle relish and mayonnaise, but you get it out of the refrigerator and help yourself when you’re hungry.

“I’ll go get Bill,” Aunt Hattie says. “Hey Buddy! Buddy! Get over here. Buddy! Buddy! Get over here!” I look out the front window and see some old geezer drive up on an ancient four-wheel Jeep that doesn’t have a body. It has a seat and a steering wheel and a wooden bed somebody built on the back of it, like a prop for a Depression movie. It must be the farm vehicle. “Go get Bill. Go get Bill. Tell Bill family’s here. Get Bill!”

“Okay.” Five minutes later, while we watch, Bill comes up, riding alongside Buddy. He’s a short guy with a cowboy hat, in good shape and tan, with lines on his face. Buddy drops him off and takes off.

Bill comes in, takes off his hat, and Hattie introduces him to everyone. “Nice to meet you,” he says, meekly. “Is breakfast ready?”

“Well Bill of course it’s ready!” Aunt Hattie says. “It’s been on the table for an hour. Sit down now.” She directs us to where each of us is supposed to sit. This is new, too. Bill sits at the head of the table and Hattie sits at the opposite end. “Bill, say the grace. Say the grace, Bill.”

“Lord, um,” Bill says. “Thank you for your bounty that you’ve bestowed upon us. Thank you for the harvest you have given to us. Thank you for our visitors. Amen.”
We’re back in the 1920’s and they way people were when my parents were kids. The way they act, the way they dress: it’s like a different country here. I don’t even know Ed. He must think I’m like this, too.

We start putting food on our plates and pass it around. I scarf down biscuits and gravy, pancakes with maple syrup, and a ton of eggs. I eat quickly and I’m done. I’d get up but it doesn’t seem right. I look around and all the old people keep eating, and putting big hunks of butter on everything. Bill drinks a lot of whole milk and my dad drinks lumpy buttermilk. He seems to like buttermilk. I don’t even want to look at it. Who drinks milk with butter in it?

“Eat,” Hattie says. “You can eat more. Y’all have another serving. Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat.” I can’t eat another bite. I can’t even breathe.

“Eat. Eat. Eat.”

Shut up! I say in my head. I’m full. I’m not used to sitting at a table for a long time. This is the first time I’ve ever had anyone hover over me and force me to eat. What’s wrong with her?

“Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat.”

Eventually I say, “I can’t.”

“You barely made a dent in that meal,” she says. “Are you sure, Davey? Are you sure? There’s plenty more where that come from.”

It’s different, sitting at a table with other people, all at the same time. Nobody says a single word, since half of us are uncommunicative Blevins’ and the other half are freaked out by us Blevins’. There’s a weird kind of silence until Hattie says, “How long did it take you to get up here, George?”

George? That’s strange. Hey, George! What a weird name for my dad. It was his dad’s name, too, and now my brother’s. Who would force that name on a baby, turn around and punish future generations in the same way? Another reason to be thankful George is my older brother. My sister and my mom are both named Martha, after my mom’s grandma. Ed’s pop is Ed, too. I could have easily ended up Obadiah, Homer, or some other cranky old man name, so I’m grateful I’m just Charlie although my dad won’t even call me that. If names are such a big deal to him, he ought to realize his name is the dorkiest of all. I heard him telling Ed’s pop once, ‘I’m George and my wife’s Martha. You know, George and Martha, like George and Martha Washington. America’s first First Couple.’ Do me a favor dad - don’t say that to anyone ever again. George by itself is bad enough.

“A couple of days,” my dad says. “We drove straight through. Almost six hundred miles.” He says it like we’re Lewis and Clark and we just arrived in Astoria. Ed’s pop isn’t saying a word. You can tell all this is weird to him, too. This is probably the first time he’s ever visited a chicken farm, or the 1920’s.

“I’m going to put Ed Junior and Davey to work,” Bill says. Ed and I look at each other. What? “We want you to help us gather eggs. Get eggs from the hens.” He tells us this like it’s an exciting adventure, like he’s doing us a favor.

“Okay,” we say. “I guess.” Work?

“I’m going down for a while,” my dad says.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Ed’s pop says.

“Come back here, y’all can lay down and let the children work. I got clean sheets!” Hattie says.

Buddy comes back in the farm vehicle. Bill gets in the front and we crawl up on the back. Buddy takes off driving down the dirt road, downhill from the ranch house. There are a lot of twists and turns and trees so we can’t see where we’re going. We’re sick from all the eggs and getting sicker from the bumpy ride. The scrambled eggs are up to my neck. I don’t want to see another scrambled egg in my life. The ride is making it worse.

We get to this clearing with six huge buildings and chickens everywhere. I’ve never seen so many chickens before. There are chickens everywhere, in the buildings and all over. “Boys. This is the baby chick house over here. This is the house for the chicks a little older. This is where we keep our roosters. These hen houses are where they lay the eggs and this is where you will get the eggs. You put them in bushel baskets.” Bill’s talking and we’re pretending to be interested. “Let me show you what you boys are going to be doing here,” Bill says.

It reeks. It smells so badly that I can’t breathe. It’s raunchy. “Oh God,” Ed says. “It stinks.”

“It stinks so bad,” I say. “Who died?”

“Take a big, deep breath,” Bill says. “It’s good to be alive.”

Old people are so bogus. Bill leads us into one of the three back buildings with rows and rows of hundreds of hens sitting on their eggs, all lined up on these shelf-like structures. “Lemme show you,” Bill says. He sticks his hand out, reaches under and grabs an egg from a hen and puts it in a basket. “That’s what you’ll be doing. Grab the eggs, put them in a basket. Basket’s full, put them over there, get a new one. Buddy will come and pick them up.” I don’t want to do this. Ed looks at me kind of pissed off, like it’s my fault. “Here’s some leather gloves. Sometimes the hens will pick at you so wear these. Start with one row and remember where you started. Go through the whole place. Ed, you come with me.”

“Okay,” Ed says. He takes Ed out to another building.

The hen Bill demonstrated with didn’t peck at him so I don’t think the hens are really going to peck. The gloves are too big and uncomfortable so I take them off. I start in on the first one. The very first hen I stick my hand under bites the living shit out of me. That bitch put three holes on the top of my hand. It hurts to the bone. I pull my hand back really quick, yell, “Fuck!” really loud, shake my hand and put the gloves on and try again. The hen bites the crap out of my glove. The gloves are thick so it’s better and I move on to the next one, and then the next one. By the tenth chicken, I do it quickly enough so they don’t bite. When you show confidence, they leave you alone.

I start to think about what I’m doing and I start to feel bad. These eggs are their babies. We’re taking their babies from the hens. What a fucked up way to live, ripping chicken babies off from their mothers. I’d hate myself if this is what I ended up doing with my life, kidnapping and eating all these bird babies.

Hens fly all over the place. They’re squawking and peeing, shitting and flapping their wings. They’re above me, and everywhere, all pissed off at me for stealing their babies. I’m about halfway done with this whole building, putting eggs in a basket, filling the basket, setting the basket down in the corner, and grabbing another basket and starting all over again when a chicken flies right over me and shits right on top of my head. It’s like Hershey’s syrup, runny chicken shit is, and it’s all over the top of my head and running down the back of my neck through my shirt. It’s warm and I can feel it dripping. It stinks so sharply, this close up. Oh my God! Why is this my life?

I reach up and feel my hair. It’s like axle grease. It’s sticky and gummy, like tar all over the back of my head. Now I know why Bill wears that cowboy hat. I work faster to finish up the building. It’s the only way I’ll get out of here. I finish just as Buddy comes driving over with Bill. “This chicken shit all over my head,” I say. I turn around to show them. “Look.”

They start laughing their asses off. “Ar har har har,” they snort. “That’ll teach you to wear a hat.”

“But I don’t have a hat.”

“Ar har har har.”

Ed hears us and comes walking out from his hen house. “How’d you do, Ed?” Bill says.

“I almost got done, like halfway done. Maybe almost halfway done. Can we do something else now?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I need to get this shit off my head.”

Ed sees it and starts laughing. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing? What are you doing?”

He’s laughing too hard to talk. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” I say. “What kind of question is that? I didn’t tell the chicken to shit on my head.” I’m not laughing but he can’t stop.

“Hop on,” Bill says. “We got some hands that can take over. Hop on and we’ll go to the house.”

We drive back up to the house on the back of the farm vehicle, nobody saying anything. “I have to take a shower, man,” I tell Bill when we stop.” This is bad.”

“Shower?” Bill says. “We don’t got no showers. Got a bath. You can take a bath.”

Great. No shower. I gotta stick my head in the same water that my ass is in just to get this shit off my head. I hate baths. I say nothing. I don’t want to be disrespectful.

“Hattie,” Bill yells. “Davey got chicken shit all over him. He needs a bath.”

“How come he didn’t wear a hat?”

Bill’s quiet. I’m quiet. Even Ed Junior’s quiet.

Hattie shows me the bathroom. There’s only one and in it is one old claw foot bathtub. I bring in my suitcase, fill the tub and as soon as I submerge, the water’s brown, oily and shitty. I’m soaking in shit and I have a thin, even coat of it all over me. I can’t do anything about it so I get out, dry off, get dressed, and come back out to where Ed is, sitting amongst the doilies.

“I hear you have guns,” I say to Hattie. “Can we shoot some guns?”

“We got guns. We got plenty of guns. Lemme get Bill. I don’t want you shootin’ yourselfs.” She goes outside and starts yelling for Bill. “Bill! Bill get them handguns.”

Bill gets a couple of these weird old small handguns like I’ve never seen before. My dad and Ed’s pop are still sleeping even through all this. We go out to the back yard and Bill gets these old tin cans. There’s a fence all around the back yard. “Set these cans up back here,” Bill says. “Make sure you shoot in this direction ‘cause there’s a hill back behind.” He hands us a big case of ammo and shows us how to load the guns.

We set the cans on the fence post, right where we’re told. We step back about ten yards, start shooting and we can’t hit a thing. We get closer and closer, shooting and missing, shooting and missing. Fifty rounds later, we’re five feet from the cans and finally, finally we start to hit them. “Ping!” my can says. “Ping, ping.” Ed looks over at me, looks back at his can, and shoots. “Ping.” Now we’re both hitting the cans. We move back a little, still hitting, still pinging the cans. We move back a little more, still hitting the cans, scooting back more and more. Ten yards, fifteen yards, we keep shooting. “Ping! Ping! Ping!”

Each magazine has about six rounds. We shoot, reload, put the magazine back in and shoot some more. We’re absolutely silent, focusing on cans and only cans. We’ve shot about a couple of thousand rounds. We shoot all afternoon. Both of us are intensely focused on shooting. Ed’s just as into it as I am and I’m really into it. Even though we don’t talk, we’re connecting with each other. This guy’s okay and I can tell he thinks I’m okay, too.

“This is far fucking out,” Ed says. “Let’s just do this the whole time we’re here.” Ed is so focused that he wants to do this one thing and blocks everything else out. He’s so intense he can’t think of anything but this. Neither can I. I’m happier than I’ve ever been with Danny or at school, or with girls, or anywhere in my life so far. “It’s better than getting shit on, collecting eggs, isn’t it?” he says.

“Yeah, I’d rather do this.” This is rad. I love this shit. We’ve been left alone all afternoon, no old people bothering us, shooting a couple of tin cans. Far fucking out. I am so happy.

“Y’all gonna shoot up all my ammo,” Bill says, appearing from nowhere.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. “You left us here with all these bullets.” We have to stop now, no question. Even I can see that he wants us to stop. We give the guns back. Now what are we going to do? The dads come out back and light up. Both of them smoke. They sit down in these two lawn chairs in the big expanse of a back yard, smoking and talking, smoking and talking. They smoke all the time. All the time.

“George, Ed,” Bill says, showing them the guns, “You wanna take a run at it?” Sure, give the dads an opportunity to have fun while we sit around and watch. What are we supposed to do? Smoke?

“No,” my dad says.

“No,” Ed’s pop says.

What lazy fucks. Why not? Why would you sit around when you can shoot? We watch them smoking and sitting for what seems like hours. “You’re boring,” I tell them. “All you guys want to do is sit around. Let’s do something.”

“Let’s do something,” Ed says. “Let’s go hunting.”

The dads laugh and smoke, and ignore us. All they want to do is take naps and smoke. My dad talks to Ed’s pop the whole time. He doesn’t talk to us. There isn’t a conversation with us, not about farm life or anything. He talks to Ed senior and if I talk to anyone, I talk to Ed junior. We watch them sitting and smoking. What else are we supposed to do? Look through their garbage? I’m too old for that now but it reminds me. “We gotta get firecrackers,” I tell my dad.

He doesn’t say anything but he must have realized we’re not going to let up. He sighs, like he does before he gets up. Now I know I’ve won. What is the cure for bored kids who won’t get out of his hair? Firecrackers.

“I’ll ask Bill where we get firecrackers at,” he says, taking a few steps toward the house. “Bill, where you get firecrackers?”

“Right down the road there’s a store,” he says. “They wanna get firecrackers?”

“Yep.”

Bill goes off to get his truck. Ed’s pop gives Ed $30 so I get $30, too, from my cheap ass dad. This is another good thing about having a friend – my dad won’t be a cheap ass in front of witnesses. We sit in the front of the truck with Bill and drive to the store. My dad sits back and lights up another cigarette. What a big blob.

They have everything. They have ash cans, M-80’s, and I’m surprised they don’t have dynamite. All these fireworks are illegal in Florida. We are pretty freaking stoked. This is quickly making up for kidnapping chicken babies and soaking in shit. We load up. We have bags full of fireworks and matches, and everything we could ever want.
Bill drives up to the house and we race out of the truck. “Where you going?”

“We’re just going to go and walk around the farm,” I say.

“Stay away from the hen houses,” Bill says.

Ed and I walk around the roads. We find these holes in the ground where there are gophers and snakes. We pack fireworks in the holes, cover them back up with dirt and light them off. We throw them at each other when we start getting bored. Soon even that’s boring.

“Man, our dads are lazy,” I say. “They don’t want to do anything.”

“Yeah, all they want to do is sit around,” Ed says. We’ve made these comments before but we’re not responsible for entertaining our own dads. “What can we do?”

“I have an idea. Let’s sneak up on them and surprise them with some firecrackers.”

“Don’t do that to my pop,” Ed says. “He’ll get pissed. Do it to your dad. Do it to your own dad.”

Since the farmhouse is on the top of a hill and since we went down the hill to blow stuff up, we can’t walk up the hill on the road or the dads will see us from the vantage point of their lawn chairs. That is, they’d see us if they had their eyes open. If they aren’t smoking, they’re sleeping. They are so lazy.

We sneak around the perimeter of the house and get behind them. One of the fireworks I bought is a whole pack with all the fuses intertwined and touching each other. If you light one fuse, fifty firecrackers will go off. This is the pack I have in my hand right now.

“I’m not going up to them,” Ed says. He hides behind the corner of the house, watching me. I look over to the dads. They’re about fifty feet away, their lawn chairs halfway between vertical and horizontal. They look so lazy. They deserve this. I sneak up behind them. They’re both snoring loudly, so boring, so asleep. I can see the back of my dad’s bald head. I light the fuse and throw it under my dad’s lawn chair and run. It lands about a foot away from my dad, right under his chair. I don’t even make it back to where Ed’s hiding at the corner of the house when I hear: “Bam! Ba-bam! Ba-bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam!”

I turn around to see my dad leap up from his chair. He jumps up so fast he gets tangled up in his lawn chair. He knocks over the lawn chair with his feet, falls down from tripping and starts to run. He has this scared look on his face like ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I didn’t know then that he’d been a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp and this might have brought back some unpleasant memories. I don’t think about things like that. I only think he’s lazy. I can’t think ahead past that. It takes me another twenty years, at least, to get to the point where I can think things all the way through. This is unfortunate for everyone that happens across my impulsive path, but it makes for more fun for me.

Ed’s pop’s eyes are as big as sunny-side up eggs. He has a look on his face like he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing, as you would if you were napping and you woke up to an air raid. It’s so funny I stop running and start laughing. This is funny! I look over to Ed and he looks like he’s going to cry. What a pussy! You’re not in trouble. This is hilarious! Come on! Have a sense of humor.

I look back over to the dads. They ran about twenty feet away from the lawn chairs and stand there, watching the fireworks. “Bam! Ba-bam! Ba-bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam!” They’re still going off. It seems like they went off for about an hour. It’s a big pack. I’m halfway to Ed and the dads are halfway to me. I’m laughing uncontrollably. They’re looking at me, at the fireworks, and you can tell they’re trying to figure out what happened. They put it together pretty quickly. When they’re not lazy and napping, they’re pretty quick.

“Damn it!” my dad says, the first and last time I ever hear him swear. “That’s not funny! Davey, that’s not funny.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ed’s pop says. “That’s not funny.”

I keep laughing. Hell yeah, it is. I look at Ed and he’s scared. He looks like a scared squirrel, but I’m laughing so he starts laughing. Then his pop starts laughing. “I guess he got you, George,” Ed’s pop says. He laughs harder. My dad won’t laugh. I know he won’t laugh anyway because he never laughs. He doesn’t have a sense of humor. You don’t joke with him but I don’t care. Everybody’s laughing but him.

My dad calms down, we have dinner – steak and gravy, biscuits and butter on everything - and leave early the next morning so Ed’s dad can go home and get back to work.

“I want to show you something,” my dad says on the way back. “It’s not too far out of the way. I’ll tell you when we get there.” Ed’s pop already knows what it is because they talk, but we don’t know. At this point I don’t know what to expect. More chicken shit? See a pig farm? Who knows what my dad thinks is interesting.

We drive up this dirt road in the mountains with overgrown trees and grass, like at Hattie’s farm. There’s a gate open and we drive through. I’m sick of all the trees and mountains. Trees and mountains are everywhere. We pull up to this clearing in the trees and drive onto some grass. We get out of the car and start to walk around a little bit. There’s a wooden sign saying something about a cemetery. I start looking at the gravestones and they’re all “Blevins.” I have to look hard to find one that isn’t “Blevins.”

You can tell where the graves are as they’re indented in the grass lawn. There are at least forty gravestones, mostly rectangle with a rounded top. They all have crosses engraved on them. They’re really old, like creepy old, not interesting old. Dead people are not fascinating to me, no matter what their last names used to be.

“Well Davey,” my dad says. “This is where most of your ancestors are buried.”

Great Dad. My dad and Ed’s pop walk away from the car and toward the tombstones. They bend over looking at them. I think it’s disrespectful to walk on a grave and honestly, the whole thing is starting to freak me out. I’ve never been to a graveyard before and seeing “Blevins” all over the place is scary. I’ve never even met another Blevins anywhere, at school or anyplace else. Now their ghosts surround me. I stay close to the car.

Ed stays close to the car, too. He pulls me aside and says, very seriously, “Why are we here?”

“I don’t know why we’re here, Ed. I don’t know.”

We stand close to each other watching the dads walk around the tombstones, examining them and looking around like they’re at a show. I don’t want to walk around here and it’s clear Ed doesn’t, either. I might fall in and touch a dead person.

The dads notice us standing by the car so they both come back and we take off. Ed and I get in the back and go to sleep. Within a couple of years, Bill is dead. All those eggs gave him a heart attack. Bill was Aunt Hattie’s third husband. Her husbands keep dying on her so she gives up on husbands and on the chicken farm. She gives up on my dad, too, when he keeps reminding her she sold his pony when he went off to war. He won’t let it go so we never saw her again.

3.12.2010

Deleted Chapter 7, or Short Story #7. You Decide.

Wait ‘Till I See

I’m in eighth grade again so in less than a year I’ll be fifteen. I can get my learner’s permit and ride a motorcycle but I need to do something to make this happen. This is really important. I don’t know anyone with a motorcycle and I’ve never ridden on one but I’ve looked at magazines and done a lot of research. I know about Harley and Davidson and how they made a motorcycle. I have a lot of respect for that but I’m not the inventive type. I might be the driving type, though. I think about cars and motorcycles almost as much as I think about guns. More, even, now that I’m older.

Danny’s dad has a rider mower and that gives me an idea. When my dad comes home, he’s in a good mood so I tell him, “I want a motorcycle and I know you’re not going to buy me one. I want to earn my motorcycle so I want to start mowing lawns. I need a lawnmower. Lawn businesses have rider mowers and I need one if I’m going to mow lawns. We could use it for our own lawn.” This is the most I’ve ever said to him all at once like that. It all came out, just like that. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to say. I hate having to try to convince my dad, who doesn’t care about anything interesting, that something’s interesting.

My dad says nothing and walks away, probably to take another nap. We have a fairly large lawn, like a double lot lawn, and it’s a lot of work to mow by hand. I have to do it and I don’t do it right. I sweat a lot, so when I’m mowing with a push mower, I sweat a whole lot. I just want to get it over with as soon as I can.

A lot of the neighbors, those that do their own lawns, have riding mowers. There’s no escape from mowing the lawn and if you put it off, it only gets worse. One way or another, though, it has to be done. Our house is the only house on this side of Rainbow where it dead-ends at Keane, and the only thing semi-growing in it is grass. If I enjoy mowing it, I’ll do it. Next time I see him, I’ll try to remember to tell him these convincing reasons, too. It’s almost a week when I see him again and I can’t figure out the right way to start talking.

“We need to build a shed out back,” he says. “A garden shed.”

“What for?”

“To put our garden tools in.”

“Okay,” I say. What does this have to do with me? Who cares about garden tools? He picks up a metal garden shed kit from the hardware store, brings it home and I help him put it together. We don’t talk when we’re working on it and that’s the end of that. A few days later, I come home from school and he’s home again, which is kind of weird. “Go look out in the garden shed,” he says.

“What?”

“Go out and look in there.” He’s kind of smiling.

I go out back and open the garden shed door. Inside is a brand new Sear’s rider mower. Wow. He got one. I get on it, back it out of the shed and start to mow the lawn. This is neat. It’s like a tractor. I’m on a nifty tractor on our own lawn. I can’t believe my dad got this for me. He is so incredibly cheap.

I mow for a little while and that’s when I figure out why he got it for me. He wants his lawn mowed and I wasn’t doing it a good job with the push mower in this steamy Florida heat. Our lawn is immense and it’s so much work. He wasn’t going to do it and he’s too cheap to pay someone to do it. No way. Not the way he runs around the house turning off lights just to save a few cents.

After I mowed our lawn, I disengaged the blade and drove it over to Danny’s house. I drove right up to his driveway, left it running and knocked on the door. Danny opens the door and stares. “Look at my rider mower,” I say.

“You gotta rider mower?”

“Yeah,” I say, pointing behind me. “Five horse Sears Craftsman. It’s a shiny brand new one.”

“How fast does it go?”

“It doesn’t go as fast as yours.” There are two types of rider mowers: the tractor type with a hood up in front, or the open type with a steering wheel and an open mowing deck. Danny’s dad had a mowing deck and we had the tractor type. Danny didn’t say anything. He went out to his garage and got his rider mower and we both rode down the street.

His was a lot faster than mine so he stopped to let me catch up. As soon as I got beside him, we had a drag race. I saw that as we started racing, he reached around behind where the motor was and disconnected the governor. The governor regulates the rpm of the gas motor so as soon as it was disengaged he went even faster. My motor was up in front so while we were racing, I searched around for my governor. When I found it, I disengaged and went faster, too. This is neat!

Right in the middle of the road, we put the rider mowers in reverse and went as fast as we could backwards. If you cram it in forward gear while pulling up on the steering wheel you can make the mower do a wheelie, so we have wheelie contests out in the street. The tires squeal when we go from reverse to forward gear and we make rubber patches all over the street, too, doing burnouts.

“Danny!” we hear. “What the hell you doin’? What you doin’ with the rider mower?” Danny’s dad comes scuffling closer. Neither of us move. We just stop and sit there. Danny’s dad looks down and sees the rubber marks on the road. “You gonna wear out those goddamn tires. And you gonna break the transmission. Knock it off. Get that mower back home.”

Danny doesn’t say a word, not a goodbye or anything. He put his rider mower in forward gear and heads home. I know Danny is like that so it’s okay. He won’t look at me, or anything. I kind of begin to see why he doesn’t have any friends. He lacks the social pleasantries that develop friendships. So does his dad.

It’s okay. I have a rider mower. This rider mower to me represents something fun to do, something so I don’t have to rely on someone else to entertain myself. I can ride around and focus my attention on it. As small and insignificant as I am, the rider mower opens up the heavens to me. It’s a means to get around and a means to get money to buy a motorcycle. I’m too young for anything else right now so I’ll have to settle for a rider mower.

I drive my rider mower up and down the street to look for business. I do this for hours because I don’t know what to do next. The neighbor kids see me riding so they get on their rider mowers and follow me. “Where the hell you going?”

“I’m just riding around.” I don’t want to tell them I’m starting a lawn service. They might get the idea, too, and then I’d have competition.

“I’m Frank,” one of them says. We ride around in the church parking lot for a while then we go back out on the street. Riding on the street in a rider mower is totally slow. You could pedal faster on a bike. Next time I’m riding around the neighborhood, the neighbor kids follow me over to Danny’s house. It turns out his dad is hardly ever home. Without adults around, we can do burnouts. If my dad ever saw me do burnouts, he’d become unglued so we always meet at Danny’s house. There’s five or six of us with rider mowers showing up in front of Danny’s house on Saturday morning. We all back our mowers up at an angle to the curb, like you see motorcycles do when they’re parking in front of bars. There had to be equal spacing between mowers, so we’d get off and say, “Do this angle here,” and “I’ll go first,” to get it just right.

When one of our neighbor’s rider mowers breaks down, we all go to Danny’s when his dad is home. We bring him our problems so he can tell us what’s wrong. Danny, however, wants to figure out the problem, too, so he starts messing with whatever he thinks is broken while waiting for his dad to come out. When Danny’s dad opens the door and sees Danny, he says, “Wait ‘till I see.” He doesn’t want Danny touching anything. “Wait ‘till I see!” he says. “Don’t touch it until I see. Wait, Danny, ‘till I see.” Danny’s dad doesn’t have a lot of confidence in Danny’s mechanical skills, or in ours, either.

As soon as Danny’s dad fixes the problem and he’s back inside their house, we all start to imitate him. “Wait ‘till I see!” we say. “Danny, don’t touch that. Wait ‘till I see!” We imitate him in an old man’s voice and laugh for a long time, right in front of Danny.

We sit on our mowers, parked at perfect angles and smoke cigarettes we steal from our parents. We sit there and smoke and talk like we’re at a drive-in, showing off our cars.

Our parents know what we’re doing. They even know we’re smoking. They drive by and see us. They never wave. They drive by and stare at us. They’re watching us sitting and smoking, and we stare back at them. We say, “There goes your dad, Frank.” At least they know where we are and that we aren’t getting into trouble. Our parents are so stupid, we think. They don’t know anything. There are all these burnout tire marks in front of Danny’s house, from us abusing our rider mowers, all of our rear tires bald from the burnouts. They can’t figure out that one and they don’t say a thing except, “How’d those tires get so bald?”

A new family moves into the apartment complex across the street on the opposite corner. I watch them unload a rider mower into the garage. This family has the lawn deck variety, like Danny has, the better kind of rider mower. I see this kid my age walking around but I don’t know what to do or how to have the confidence to introduce myself so I just watch. I don’t go over there even though I know they have a rider mower.

My dad has confidence. He walks straight over, introduces himself and becomes friends with the dad. They’re from some weird place like Ohio. My dad says, “You should meet the new neighbor.”

We walk across the street, my dad and me, and I meet Ed. He’s a goofy-looking kid, just goofy. His face looks odd to me. He looks like a frog. He has a wide mouth, he’s pudgy and he has these big old fat cheeks. No one’s going to hang around with this kid. He’s exactly my size but tubbier. Those cheeks! He looks like a baby. This is one goofy-looking kid.

He’s kind of shy like me. We don’t say a word to each other besides hi. We don’t know how to start a conversation with someone our own age, forcefully introduced to each other with our dads standing there, watching us. It’s like an arranged friendship. The dads start talking while we stare at each other. What do we do? They’re talking about work and we’re staring at each other. “So, you have a rider mower?” I say.

Ed looks at me like, what? “Yeah, we have a rider mower.” This kid has never even thought about riding a rider mower for fun, I can tell.

“Me and a friend of mine, and some other kids like to do burnouts on our rider mowers.”

“Oh.”

“Can I see your rider mower?”

He stands there. Is he going to say anything? Probably just to get away from our dads, he says, “Okay.” We walk out to the garage and start to look at the rider mower. Before we can say anything else, before I can tell him about our Saturday morning meetings at Danny’s, the dads follow us in.

“Say,” my dad says, completely fake, “Why don’t Ed and you take this boat over to the lake and go float in it?”

Now? I don’t want to go to the dumb dinky lake in the little park down the street and float on a dumb old boat. It is obviously their way of trying to get us to do something together. It’s stupid. It’s embarrassing.

We walk out of the garage. Leaning on the side of the house is this big wooden skiff of a boat. I’ll talk to Ed about rider mowers later. Maybe he’ll want to start a lawn business with me. Maybe he’s into motorcycles and motorized vehicles like me. Danny’s too unpredictable and I know I can’t rely on him to get work because his dad is so weird. I like Danny but you just never know with Danny.

Our dads grab both of us, put us in the back of my dad’s Chevy Impala station wagon, the boring-mobile, and say, “You boys will have fun!” They load this heavy wooden skiff onto the wagon and we drive the block and a half to the dumb man-made pond in the middle of a city block park. We’re not saying anything. This is the most retarded thing ever. What are we going to do while sitting in this boat in the middle of the Florida sun? We don’t have paddles, we don’t have fishing poles, what are we going to do on this boat? Ed’s quiet, too. He must be thinking the same thing. What the hell are we going to do just floating on this stupid pond? This is something ten year-olds would do. This is the most corniest thing in the world. This is not how I want to meet this guy. It’s embarrassing for him, too, I’m sure.

“We’ll give you boys a ride to the lake, you’ll be on the lake, it’ll be great!” my dad says. What’s he so excited about all of a sudden?

“You boys will have fun,” Ed’s dad agrees.

They drive to the edge of the grass at Crest View Lake where the road dead-ends. There’s a guardrail at the end of the dead end street where they pull over. They drop the boat off, lay it on the grass and take off. “See you later,” they say.

Ed and I look at each other. I guess we gotta do this. We drag the boat across the grass, we’re wrestling with this heavy boat, and we’re struggling. We get it in the water, hop in, push ourselves off, and now we’re floating in this pond. Now what? Now that we’re out here, what the heck are we supposed to do? We’re big kids floating in a little pond.

“I really like motorcycles,” I say. “I’m going to save up to get a Honda 90.”

“I don’t really know anything about motorcycles. It sounds like something I would try.”

“I’m trying to save up to buy one. I want to start a lawn mowing business. That’s why I asked you about your rider mower.”

“Oh.”

If people saw us in this stupid little pond with this stupid boat, they’d think we were stupid, too.

“I wonder if there’s any fish in this pond?” Ed says.

“We don’t have any fishing poles so I guess we won’t know.”

Awkward silence.

“School’s a downer,” I say. “I don’t care much for school.”

“Yeah, I don’t like school, either. How’s the school here?”

“Terrible,” I say. “All schools are terrible.”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t like school. They make you learn stuff you don’t care about.”

“I don’t care about any of it.”

Ed looks directly at me. “You have to learn how to read.”

“I already know how to read. I don’t need to go to school no more.”

We sit in the boat for a minute, looking around.

“This is boring,” Ed says. “Let’s go.”

We had a stick we used to push off from the bottom of the lake. We used it to make it to shore and when we did, we pulled the boat up out of the water as best we could. I’m hot and tired of this boat and this dumb lake.

“I’m not carrying this thing home,” I say.

“I’m not carrying it either.”

“Where’d your dad get this?”

“I don’t know. It was leaning up against the wall when we moved in.”

My dad and the boring-mobile were gone when we got home so I couldn’t tell him about leaving the boat at the lake. It might still be there for all I care.

3.11.2010

Island Estates - Story #5 cut from "Growing Up Stupid"

Island Estates

Now that I have a pal, I want to branch out. I need to diversify. I should get a girlfriend. I notice girls now. I’m not looking at their bodies as much as I’m looking at their faces. Fat faces aren’t attractive to me, so naturally I look at thin faces. Thin faces probably have thin bodies. There are some pretty fat girls in my junior high. They waddle down the hall. They look like squirrels with nuts in their cheeks, with teeth to match. They aren’t fun to look at. Some of them really smell, I can tell from way back as far from them as I can get. A lot of the fat girls have greasy-looking hair. That’s odd. Why is that? Is there a correlation? The pretty girls, none of them have greasy hair. I like to look at black-haired girls with dark brown eyes. The darker the girl, the more interesting they are to look at. They’re cute, better than light girls.

Going from class to class, I notice this dark girl in the halls. She has really white teeth and I like the way she has her hair. It’s straight and dark and she has bangs. I never talk with her. Every day we pass each other going to class, at the same place at the same time, after second period. She looks at me and looks away. I try to flirt with her but I don’t know how to do that so I end up staring at her. Next time I look at her while we pass, turn around and look back at her after taking a few steps. She turns around and looks back at me at the same time. We caught each other! My heart starts beating like I was in trouble or something. I turn back around quickly and she does, too. What is going on?

The next day I know she’ll come by in the hallway. What should I do? Should I look at her? Should I not look at her? I’m getting sweaty and panicky. After second period, I’m breathing hard and my heart’s pounding. I walk down the hall and here she comes. I’m going to look at her and smile and see what she does.

I look and smile. She looks and smiles at me, too. We lock eyes for like ten seconds, walking by and smiling. Should I stop and talk to her? Should I keep going? She stops to talk to me, but I keep on going, smiling at her and walking. I turn around after I pass her and see she’s standing there, still looking at me. Oh you dumb ass! Why didn’t I stop? What an idiot I am. I gotta get brave. You finally have a girl interested in you and you’re messing it up. You must quit being shy.

Next day after class, my heart starts pounding but I’m going to do it. I’m going to stop and say something. I don’t know what - I haven’t thought that part out yet. Here she comes. Wait! What’s this? She’s holding hands with some guy. I keep on walking. This time I don’t even look at her. I don’t know anything about girls.

There’s a sock hop at our school. The school gets cranky if we wear street shoes in the gym because it makes marks, so our dances are called sock hops. I decide to go to check it out. I like music but I don’t know how to dance. I’d never danced in my life. I ask my parents and I’m surprised they say I can go. They ask if it’s going to be chaperoned by teachers and I say yes. I don’t know and they won’t check.
The sock hop is dark with strobe lights, like what I imagine a nightclub would be like. The music is very loud. At my house there is no music. There is only Lawrence Welk on TV. My parents have a stereo but I never saw them use it. Not once, ever. It’s very quiet at my house. I don’t have any music either.

All the girls stand together in a group. I can’t believe I came here by myself. I don’t know what to do so I stand by a wall. This girl, Patty Dalton, comes over to where I’m standing. She has teacher hair, all up on top of her head and terrible-looking glasses. She even talks like a teacher. She’s very academic. She has a friend with her, Lucy, who doesn’t seem as intelligent as Patty. She’s more lower class. Lucy looks like someone who’d end up working in a factory. I think she’s more my type.

Patty talks but I’m not listening. I ask Lucy to dance and she says yes. Patty stops talking but seems okay with being ignored. Now I have to figure out how to dance. I don’t know how so I copy Lucy. I don’t think she knows how to dance, either. I’m sweating a lot. I’m soaked with sweat. We dance some more and then we go back to join Patty. We couldn’t ditch her. I’m desperately trying to figure out when and where I should kiss Lucy. I can’t figure out the timing on that so we just say good-bye. We don’t exchange phone numbers or anything.

Monday morning at school, I’m looking for Lucy everywhere, between every class. I find Patty Dalton and ask her if she’s seen Lucy. “That’s where her last class is,” she says. “Over there.” When class ends, I go over there to find her.

Lucy tells me she doesn’t live far from school so I tell her I’ll walk her home. There’s an orange grove between her house and the school. I can’t figure out how it happened exactly, but somewhere in that orange grove I got my first kiss. We didn’t know what to say to each other after we kissed so we kissed for a while and I walk her home. I’m so excited. I kissed a girl for the first time. I can’t concentrate. I feel light-headed. I walk in my house and it’s like I have this big secret. I have a girlfriend and no one knows. I’m not about to tell anyone, either.

We meet after school the next day and kiss in the orange grove again. We kiss just about every day in the orange grove, talking and laughing and getting comfortable with each other. I ask her to go steady with me and she agrees.

I walk into Eckhardt’s Drug Store and they have these cheap rings with hand-written price tags on them. I’m so cheap that I find the cheapest one and buy it with my saved-up lunch money. I don’t even look at it. I don’t know her size or anything. I give her the ring the next day and say, “Will you go steady with me?”

“Yes!” We kiss because we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I’m horrible at kissing. My teeth keep banging her teeth. “Ow!” she says.

“Sorry,” I say. “I’ve never kissed anybody before.”

“That’s okay. I’d rather you be clumsy than have ever kissed anyone before me.”

“Ohhh!” Every time we kiss, I have to adjust myself, being that I’m a teenaged boy with a boner. I’d throw my hip around or put my hand in my pocket to loosen up. I had to relieve the pressure building in my pants.

“What are you doing?” she says.

“I have an itch,” I say.

It’s Friday and we meet in the orange grove again. I have this idea. I think I’ll bring a new dimension to our relationship. I watch romantic movies on TV when mom watches them to learn how to be a good kisser. Men always put their hands around women’s backs with their arms under the woman’s arms. I’d gotten it wrong until now. I put my arms above hers, like I’m giving hear a bear hug. This time when I kiss her, I move my hands up and down her back under her arms. I don’t want to be stiff and hold my hands in one place. I want to be more like men in the movies.

She’s wearing a thin white shirt through which you can see her bra strap. When I rub my hand up and down her back, my hands catch on her bra strap and sort of tug at it but it’s not intentional. I’m not trying to do anything but be passionate. She doesn’t say anything about how romantic I am. After my hand catches her bra strap a couple of times, she seems kind of stiff. We kiss again and go home.

Monday after school she approaches me and hands me a note. She walks away without saying anything. The note is folded in a small square. Inside the note I can feel something but I don’t know what’s in there. It’s weird she just walks away like that. I open the note. There’s the ring I gave her last week. Is this a joke or what? The note says, “When we kissed yesterday I felt you were trying to take my bra off. That’s not acceptable. I have no choice but to break up with you.”

What a misunderstanding. Why didn’t she say anything at the time? If that’s the way she’s going to be, if she won’t even talk about it, she wouldn’t be a very good girlfriend. I took the ring, put it in my pocket and figured I’d save it for my next girlfriend.

Patty starts flirting with me now. She must have learned that Lucy broke up with me. The story about me trying to take Lucy’s bra off must not bother Patty too much. I never thought about Lucy’s bra or sex or anything. Patty is so nice and she has a more balanced, pleasant personality than Lucy but I can’t get past her looks. I try to imagine kissing Patty and touching her teacher hair but I can’t. How does that work? Do I close my eyes and pretend I’m kissing someone else? I just want to kiss girls that I like.

I tell Patty I don’t want her as a girlfriend and she understands. She is so nice and so gracious. It’s a shame I can’t find her attractive. In a few years Lucy turns into a total slut and Patty ends up being student body president and quite possibly a brain surgeon after that. I don’t have another girlfriend for a long, long time. My parents don’t know any of this. They don’t ask me about girls or about my life or how I’m doing in school. They don’t ask me one question, ever.

I’m thirteen when George leaves for good. “He quit school and moved into a house with four or five other guys,” my dad says. “They’re drinking, that’s all they’re doing,” as if my dad isn’t doing exactly that. My dad drinks a lot, but he thinks no one notices him hiding in the bathroom for twenty minutes, coming out smelling like alcohol.

My dad gets a phone call, which is unusual, and then tells me to get in the car. We drive to this house and he pulls up alongside the curb. “Watch this, Davey,” my dad says. Three police cars pull up to the house. They go in and bring out all these teenage boys, sixteen year-old boys like my brother, in handcuffs. George is one of the boys. He sees us as he is led into the back of the police car. “This is what happens when you do things like George does,” my dad says. “Don’t ever give us a hard time like George did.”

I like George and I don’t know how to respond. George is the first normal kid my mom and dad had. I’m the second. First they had the twins but they’re special needs and you don’t expect rebellion from special needs girls. George has lots of friends and my parents don’t know how to deal with him. They tell him, “George, be home by eleven,” like they need to exercise some kind of parental control over him but he’s his own person. He comes home when he comes home. He’s been doing that his whole life. They don’t have to deal with him anyway since he’s never home. I didn’t even know he moved out until this happened.

A really cute girl comes up to me at school. “Can you come with me to my house at Island Estates?” she says. “My parents will be there to chaperone. We can go out on the boat and we can drop you off at home at night.”

I’ve never been asked to anything like this before. I don’t know what to say. “Yeah,” I say. “Sure.” I’m too embarrassed to say I have to ask permission.
I tell my mom all about the boat and the girl at Island Estates. “Her parents will be there,” I say. My mom doesn’t believe me. “You’re not going,” she says. “You’re not going on a date with a girl.”

Here I’ve been socially hopeless, without a shred of a social life my whole life. Now I’m finally getting people to ask me to go places and I can’t go. George got to do whatever he wanted and he didn’t ask. Here I’m nice enough to ask and I’m getting penalized for it. I don’t have the courage to tell the cute girl I can’t go. I don’t have the guts to call her back, even. I deal with it the only way I know how - I don’t show up where her parents are supposed to pick me up. I avoid her at school and she obviously ignores me, too, since she thinks I stood her up. She’s really cute.

For almost three years I’ve struggled in school but now, at the end of eighth grade, I get to the point where my grades are so bad, so impossible-to-ignore bad, that I stopped caring. I’m happy eighth grade is over and I’m enjoying my first week of summer vacation, sitting at our little table in the kitchen. My dad sees me idle and says, “Do you know if you even passed eighth grade or not?”

“I don’t know.” I really don’t. It’s summer vacation. Why would I be thinking about school?

“I’m going to find out right now,” he says. He’s retired now but he’s selling used cars. He does that in the evening so he’s here during the day sometimes. He picks up the phone and calls my junior high school and asks for the vice principal. “I’m calling about my son, Davey,” he says. “Davey Blevins.”

“Yeah, Charlie. Charles David, that’s right, yeah.” He still won’t call me Charlie, not even to the office. “I want to know if he passed the eighth grade.” It’s silent for a while. I honestly don’t know if I passed. I didn’t think about it until now. Now I’m starting to think about it. This might not be good. “Okay,” my dad says. “Thank you.”

He hangs up and he looks at me with his face all tight like I’m the biggest loser in the world. “Well you did it,” he says. “You failed the eighth grade. You’re going to have to start all over again.”

I must be in a lot of trouble. My heart started pounding. What’s gonna happen? What would repeating the eighth grade be like? Wait a minute. Instead of getting upset and worried, I thought that it wouldn’t be so bad. I’ll make new friends. I’ll reinvent myself. I don’t really like anybody in my class now except for Danny and he doesn’t talk. I’m already an outcast. It’s hard for me to make friends in that grade because I’m shy. Being a year older might be better because I’d be better. I could make friends easier, already doing the eighth grade once I could do it better the second time. I’m pretty happy about it, especially compared to my dad but he doesn’t say another word.

3.10.2010

Comparative Value - Story #5 cut from Growing Up Stupid"

Comparative Value

Our house is like a library without any books. I don’t read books and I don’t remember seeing any books at home. Besides my mom reading the Bible, I never saw anyone reading anything, ever. My mom’s real religious but she doesn’t talk to me about church. She doesn’t talk to anyone about anything – it’s not just me. Same with my dad. If they ever talk to anyone at church or anyplace else, I sure never saw it. My mom writes letters to her sisters but they don’t call. The only time my mom touches the phone is to clean it with so much Lysol your ear’s wet if you use it. We have a TV, at least. One TV. My mom likes to watch her shows and that’s it. If you don’t like what is on TV, you are lost.

I can’t pay attention to anything that isn’t exciting to me. If it doesn’t go fast or blow up or do something, I honestly cannot pay attention. I can’t focus or concentrate long enough to understand anything that doesn’t hold my interest. I’m drifting through school, not in reality at all, ever. You know how everybody has a favorite subject? Mine is P.E. Hard as I try, I can’t get myself to enjoy anything else. I don’t have friends. The way school in Florida is, if you make bad grades, they don’t care. They pass you anyway.

I go out to the garage and sit there for hours, trying to figure out what to do. I don’t want to do anything with explosives anymore. I want to do something more mature, something guys do - something manly. That’s why I’m in the garage. It’s the man room. There’s more that’s interesting in here than in the entire house.
That’s where I get this idea. I‘m obsessed with the concept of having a motor on my bicycle. I’m fascinated with Harley and Davidson because they were interested in the same thing – going somewhere without having to work for it. They wanted to get to their fishing hole quickly and I want to get anywhere quickly. I’m preoccupied with the idea of having power on my bike and letting my feet rest. It’s all I ever think about now. I went from thinking about the Civil War, guns and blowing stuff up to sitting in the garage thinking about how I could put a motor on my bicycle. I want to escape and the idea of a motor on my bike, right now, means escape.

I walk around the neighborhood looking behind peoples’ houses, in lawn sheds, trying to find a motor that I could somehow put on my bicycle. I knock on our neighbors’ doors and ask them if they want their lawnmowers. They look at me funny and shut the door. I keep knocking. A few neighbors have old lawnmowers lying around that they tell me are junk. “It’s of no value to me,” they say. “You can have this one. It doesn’t run, though.”

I push the junk lawnmowers home and bring them into the garage. I get out my dad’s tools and disassemble the motors from the lawnmowers to try to attach them to my bicycle. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no mechanical skills, no welding skills, nothing. I’m pulling junk apart and making a big mess.

Dad notices all the junk motors, lawnmower bodies and the rest of the stuff in the garage. There is old rusty crap everywhere. I left parts, bolts, lawnmower blades and greasy junk wherever they were when I stopped working on them. Dad stands in the kitchen and opens the door to the garage. “What do you think you’re doing with all this garbage?” he says.

“I want to make a mini-bike.”

Dad shuts the door and I can overhear mom talking to him in the kitchen. They don’t talk to each other, ever. I can hear pretty easily through the thin jalousie door. She says, “Why don’t you just get him a mini-bike so he doesn’t get arrested for stealing?” Stealing? Mom thinks I’m stealing? Dad doesn’t say anything back. Maybe he left.

My brother stops by after dad’s car is gone and I hear mom talking to him in the kitchen. He’s curious about all the junk and what I’m doing with it. I don’t communicate with them or announce what I’m doing. I don’t tell them what I am interested in or any of my plans. I get an idea and I try to do it by myself.

“I have a friend who has a bicycle with a motor on it,” my brother says. “Do you think he’d want that?”

“Anything,” mom says. “Anything to get him to stop dragging old lawnmowers home.”

I don’t hear them talking anymore so I go back to my parts. I don’t know what George does or where he goes and I’m pretty sure my mom doesn’t know, either. If she knows what he’s doing all day and night, she doesn’t tell anyone. They’re both very private like that.

In Florida, you don’t go out and play. No one goes outside because it’s too hot. It’s difficult to figure out who lives in your neighborhood and especially difficult when you don’t have the confidence to knock on doors to find friends. The only source of information about people my own age is from my school and from seeing kids getting dropped off at bus stops or being driven home by parents. I’m so unsure of myself I don’t do anything like talk to kids in my class. I’m paralyzed by my insecurity.

Walking home from school I see this kid I recognize. I follow him for a while and find out where he lives. He seems like me, not confident. He’s shunned by some of the white kids. It’s neat he’s different, though. The next day I walk behind him and I walk faster to catch up with him. He hears my footsteps and turns around to look.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m Charlie.”

“Hi,” he says and he keeps on walking. We’re shoulder to shoulder, walking, both of us looking down at the sidewalk. We walk about twenty yards without saying anything.

“I think you live near me,” I say.

“Probably,” he says. “We’re walking the same direction.”

“I live on Rainbow.”

“I live on Mars.” He’s so nervous that he makes me feel pretty good. We don’t say anything else until we get to his house. He turns at his driveway and starts walking up to his garage. “This is my house.” I look in the open garage. This really old man is in there, tinkering with something on a car. “I’m home,” Danny says to the old guy.

“Who’s that?” the old guy says. “Who is that, Danny?”

“That’s Charlie,” Danny says. “He goes to my school.” The old man looks at me. He turns around and goes back to tinkering. I think I’ll go now. I turn around and walk out of the garage back to the driveway. Danny follows me out.

“We should be pals because we live so close,” I say.

“Yeah, pals.”

“Danny, your dad’s really old,” I say, kind of quietly so his dad won’t hear.

“He’s not my dad, I’m adopted. Duh.”

“Oh.”

“I’m Cherokee.”

Cherokee? Oh, he means he’s an Indian. He’s really shy. Are all Indians this shy? They aren’t that shy in the movies. Now I have a friend that no one else has and we walk home from school together. We’re both quiet and when we talk we talk about mechanical things. Mainly we talk about how neat it would be to have a go-cart or a motorcycle. We like things that propel themselves. When you have to rely on bikes to go anywhere, bikes represent effort. When you have to pedal and sweat, it’s easy to see why it’d be better to operate something without having to sweat.

Danny never lets me come into his house. I don’t ever meet his mom since she’s always inside cleaning. Mom doesn’t go outside either so that’s not weird. When we’re outside, though, Danny’s mom talks through the window. That is weird. She hides behind the curtain like there’s something she’s trying to conceal. “Danny, come eat,” she says. “Tell your friend to go away now.”

Danny says, “Gotta go,” and runs inside.

After a few days, when I come home dad says, “Go out into the garage and see what your brother got you.” There it is: a bicycle frame with a motor mounted on it. Someone welded a flat piece of metal to the center bottom of the bicycle frame, just above the pedals, and mounted a lawn edger motor on that piece of steel. There were small lawnmower wheels and tires in the place of bicycle wheels and tires. It’s some kind of a failed attempt at making a mini-bike. Somebody took a bicycle and butchered it. Whoever did it didn’t know what they were doing but it looked kind of like a mini-bike if you were partially blind. It was better than anything I could do.

I took one look at that homemade mini-bike and I was probably the happiest kid on the planet that day. It’s a piece of junk but it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s exactly what I had in mind and what I was trying to build with all these junk lawnmower parts laying all over the garage.

“I don’t know if this thing even runs,” dad said. “Your brother found it from a friend who didn’t want it anymore.” Dad went back inside and took a nap. I open the gas tank, put some fresh lawnmower gas in it and try to start it up. It doesn’t start. I try and I try and it won’t start. I remember dad saying that if a small engine doesn’t start, you check the spark plug first. It could be fouled, he said.

I take the spark plug out of the engine and look at it. It has so much oil and grease on it that there is no way it’d ever generate a spark. Now I’m excited because I figure this is the reason it won’t start. If this is all there is from keeping this motor from starting, I’m going to have it running in no time.

I pour gas on the spark plug and use a wire brush to clean it up. I put the plug back in the motor and tighten it very carefully. I put the ignition wire back on the spark plug and take a deep breath. This is it. If this thing starts I will be riding down the street in five minutes. I will thoroughly enjoy that. I am so excited I can’t even pull the starter cord correctly.

After about the third pull, it starts up. This is the best sound I have ever heard. It sounds like a lawn edger. In fact it is a lawn edger. The wheels wobble because it’s belt-driven and the pulleys on the motor that propel the back wheel aren’t lined up with the front. The clutch is a metal arm with a wooden thread spool. When you put pressure on the metal arm it makes contact with the belt to take the slack out of the belt. That’s how you move forward.

I roll it out to the street, straddle it and start pushing off to get momentum. I put my foot on the metal arm while the bike is moving and I take off. It works. I fly down the street, probably going fifteen miles an hour. The front wheel wobbles, the front forks are loose and it’s a miracle I don’t fly off right there and die. I drive it back to the garage, tighten up the forks and tighten up the front wheel. I took it back out and rode that thing all day. I rode up and down the street, over and over. It was completely illegal but I don’t give a thought to being stopped. It doesn’t cross my mind. Rules and laws aren’t part of my everyday life. I’m a kid with a new toy and I want it all to myself. I found something guy-like to do. I’m not bored.

After school the next day, I go straight home. With all the riding I did the previous day, the belt is starting to shred. Danny’s dad might know how to fix it so I ride over. First I knock on his door and show him my new toy. Next, I give him a ride on the back. Finally, I ask him if his dad can help with the fraying belt. Danny’s dad is home, so he comes out to have a look at it. I don’t know his name; he’s just Danny’s dad. He’s a pretty old white guy, he doesn’t have any teeth but he knows a lot about mechanical stuff.

Danny’s dad takes one look at the belt and says, “Your pulleys aren’t lined up. That’s your problem.” He goes back inside his house and comes back with a yardstick. He places the yardstick down on both pulleys to illustrate that the pulleys don’t line up. “See?” he says. “Crooked.” He stands up, takes his yardstick and walks back inside his house. He doesn’t offer to help fix it or anything.

We forget about the belt and continue to ride the mini-bike until the belt breaks. Danny goes back home and I walk the mini-bike back to mine. I show dad the broken belt. “We need a new belt for this.”

“Go to a gas station or something and get one,” he says and he walks back inside.

I push the mini-bike to a gas station. The gas station attendant comes out to look at the mini-bike. “That’s dangerous,” he says. “Do you ride that thing?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Your parents know you ride that?”

“They got it for me.”

“Oh. Oh.”

“Do you have a belt that’ll fit between the two pulleys?”

“Where’s the old belt?”

“It shredded off.”

“Lemme look.” He measures around both pulleys and goes back inside. I can see him looking at belts on the wall. He takes one down, brings it over and says, “This one should fit.” It does, but the belt is quite expensive for me. I have money saved up and I brought it all so I can buy the belt, but just barely.

From now on if anyone wants a ride on the back, I decide to charge a belt fee. A quarter a ride seems fair. Some neighbor kids want a ride, I tell them my price and they say, “I don’t have any money.”

“That’s okay,” I say and I give them a ride regardless. It’s fun to be able to give rides.

3.09.2010

Civil Wars - Story #4 cut from Growing Up Stupid

Civil Wars

That summer we take our first and only vacation as a complete family, except for George. He’s in the 9th grade so he stays home. My mom’s sisters vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, every year. They all live near there. They’re all hillbillies. We’re hillbillies but we’re not like that. We don’t have southern accents because we lived in Japan, Newfoundland, Arizona, and now Florida while my dad was in the military. We don’t know the southern culture even though both my parents are southern.

Like at home, there’s no structure on vacation. I’m restless and bored. “Go off and play,” the adults tell my cousins and me. The twins and my sister stay close to my mom, like little ducks following their mother around, a couple of steps behind her, they’re always there. The relatives sit around inside a rented beach house and talk. I don’t know what they do inside but they don’t go out to the beach. What could be so interesting about sitting around inside, smoking and talking? For me, there’s nowhere to go except to the beach and it’s only sand and water.

I have no connection to my mom’s family at all. They say ‘hi’ but I’m a kid so I’m not allowed to be around the adults. Kids aren’t involved in adult interaction. Kids and parents are like oil and water. Parents don’t share with kids or even have conversations with us. The only conversation adults have with us starts out with, “Here’s a lesson for you.” “Here’s a lesson for you,” mom says. “Don’t drink because daddy died of drinking.”

“I want firecrackers,” I tell my dad. “We have to have firecrackers. If you don’t want the kids to hang around the adults, get us firecrackers. We don’t have anything to do. Get us firecrackers.” I’ve studied up on firecrackers in preparation for this trip. I know all about them. I’ve done research on what’s legal here in Myrtle Beach, what’s powerful, and what blows up in water, like the beach we’re stuck at.

“You can find something to do without firecrackers.”

“No,” I say. “We need firecrackers.”

“Go outside,” my mom says, so I take a kitchen knife, go outside and jump off sand dunes. I pretend I’m stabbing bad guys. My cousins all know each other so they go off and play on the beach, mostly building sandcastles. They have plastic buckets and little shovels. They must be bored, too. There’s only so long you can do that before it gets old and they’ve been doing this all week. I watch them but I can’t find anyone to play with here, either. When it’s time to eat, my mom makes me a sandwich and I eat it outside, alone with my army men.

“We need firecrackers,” I say. “We’ve got to have firecrackers. Get us firecrackers.” I say this every single day and every day my mom says go play outside and my dad says nothing. At home I wouldn’t ask twice but this place is worse than home. We’re forced to be here and they’re forced to deal with us in front of all their relatives.
“Get us firecrackers.”

“George,” my mom says. “Just go get him what he wants.”

“Fine,” my dad says. “Come on.” Really? He puts me in the car. On Myrtle Beach there’s a fireworks’ stand every mile, so he drives to the closest one, stops the car and says, “Pick out what you want.”

“I got to get a lot,” I say. “I got to get fireworks for all the cousins. They all want firecrackers, too.” I don’t know if they want to play or not. This is my idea, an excuse to get more firecrackers. I’ve never even talked to the other kids.

“Get what you want.”

“I have to get a lot,” I say again. “We have a lot of cousins.”

“I don’t care. Get what you want.”

Well. This is music to my ears. I have this whole idea to have a war game. I know the kids build sand castles and sand walls and I know M-80’s are powerful enough to blow up sand castles. Ash cans have wax fuses to blow up in water. You have to have a navy, so we need ash cans, too.

My dad has no idea. He’s standing around outside. He doesn’t look in and he doesn’t care. I walk up to the register lady and hand her two big shopping bags full of explosives, and go outside to tell my dad. “Okay, I’m ready now,” I tell him. She adds everything up and it comes to a huge amount, like $30. Everything is cheap back then, including my dad. He complains all the time, saying, “Holy crap! It’s too expensive!” What does he say this time? Nothing. I can’t figure him out. He doesn’t complain at all. He got so tired of me asking for firecrackers that he doesn’t care. Finally. After coming here for a week and playing by myself, I get to have a good day.

I come back through the sliding glass door and instantly run into a wall of smoke. There are packs of cigarettes and lighters lying all over the place. I take the first two packs of cigarettes I can see, Camels without filters and Salem menthol. There’s a lighter lying next to them, a stainless steel lighter with a flip top, the kind you refill with lighter fluid. I take that and throw all of it all into one of my bags. I don’t say a word. The old people sit around a table talking and smoking. Nobody’s looking at me until my dad comes in. “Now get out of here,” he says.

I run outside to the beach, near my army men. The cousins are out there standing around. I can tell boredom when I see it. “Okay,” I say. “We’re going to have a real war game now. Look what I got.”

“Oh my gosh!” the cousins say. “Oh my gosh! Look what he got! Fireworks! Oh my gosh!”

There’s an older cousin, I don’t know his name either. He’s like fifteen. He says, “Okay, we’re going to have to be careful with these. We’ll need a designated person to be the lighter.” He’s taking charge here. I don’t mind. I know I’m a little kid.

“I got cigarettes,” I say. “We can light the cigarettes so we don’t have to keep going to the lighter. Everybody can light a cigarette and then light their fireworks.” I’ve thought of everything.

The big kid divides us up into teams and we divide up the fireworks. I feel like I gave the biggest gift to everybody. This is the first time these kids and I have ever had any fun here. Firecrackers bring everyone together, like old people playing cards. It’s a shared activity.

We build forts out of sand. We line up the army men along the walls of the forts and put them in defensive positions. We put snipers on the rooftops of the sand mounds that represented buildings. I know a lot about the Civil War, like who the commanders were on each side, and most of the battles and their strategies. My expertise turns out to be useful for my popularity with the cousins.

We stand behind our respective forts. We’re maybe ten feet from each other, facing each other. Confederates face to face with Union soldiers, Union face to face with Confederates. We say go and everybody throws firecrackers at each other’s forts. Sometimes they land really close to where we‘re standing. “Hey,” we say. “No fair!” We blow the crap out of each other’s forts. We blow them up until the sand is level. It’s a pile of sand with army men feet sticking up.

We keep thinking of new strategies. “We need glue,” we tell the adults. “We need tape.” They don’t ask us what we’re doing with these things. We tape army men to pieces of driftwood. That would be the Navy. We’re close to the water. Sometimes we have to rebuild the fort because we can’t judge the tide. The tide comes in and wipes out the forts before the battle ensues.

The forts need to be near the water for the naval support. Naval support, in this case being pieces of driftwood with army men stuck to them. The ships come in with the waves and they don’t land right. They come in and flip over. The ships get top heavy with all the taped-on army men. They flip over and they drown. Your side gets penalized if your naval ship sinks.

We get the idea to throw firecrackers at the other team’s boats. The ash cans and the M-80s don’t go out when we throw them in the water. They make craters in the beach. They make a huge explosion. They blow the boats to pieces. The army men fly everywhere.

Tourists walk along the beach and walk by our Civil war. They stop and watch. “Now isn’t that something?” they say. Boom! Another huge explosion goes off. People smile and walk by. We may be little kids but we have a war going on here.

Tourists watch us holding cigarettes and throwing firecrackers, blowing up the beach. We’re interesting to them and they watch for a while but we don’t take our eyes off the battle. Using the unfiltered cigarettes, we learn about delayed fuses. We stick the fuse in one end and light the other end. We plant these in each other’s forts on a dry surface. We allow one in each fort. You have a good five to ten minutes before the cigarette burns off and it blows up.

We get bottle rockets and point them at each other’s forts, thinking they’ll go about ten feet. We light them off. They blow out about a hundred yards, landing right in front of tourists. “Isn’t that funny?” they say. We don’t get into trouble. We’re staying out of trouble as far as my family is concerned.

We decide the Civil War would be better if it includes dive-bombers and airplanes. We pick up balsa wood airplanes with wind-up propellers. We hold them in one hand with a firecracker in the other. With a lit cigarette, we light the firecracker and pretend it drops from the plane as if it were a bomb.

The adults stay inside, all of them talking except for my Dad. He’s in his room, taking a nap. My mom’s happy, my sisters are happy, my dad’s well rested, and for at least one day, the Civil War made me some friends.