We wonâ€™t use the calendar to tell when the first day of summer arrives. Itâ€™ll be announced to us by Percyâ€™s stump of a left leg. Heâ€™ll sit, give orders, and make suggestions about getting him comfortable. â€œTurn that fan this way.â€ Doris might move it; otherwise itâ€™ll be his one word directive to me: â€œAlton.â€
Iâ€™ll drop my book or sketch pad or whatever occupies me and go move the damn fan.
The first day of summer is June twenty-first, Summer Solstice; the sun is farthest north. Tell that to these two porch dwellers, and derision will fall all about you. They think scientific knowledge should be avoided like bad meat. Weâ€™ll sit out here, and at some point between the middle of May when the nights warm like melting candle wax until late July when the difference between day and night temperature is the relative humidity, Percy will announce, â€œYep, summerâ€™s here.â€
With her skirt pulled up past her fat knees, her legs separated so that the hem can hang down between them like a drape, Doris will agree. â€œYeah, Daddy, you are right about that.â€
Heâ€™ll undo the safety pins that hold closed the pants leg of his stump, reattach them to his shirt pocket, and roll the hem into a band that tightens and circles that useless piece of leg. â€œAlton.â€ Heâ€™ll nod at the fly swatter just out of his reach.
When I hand him the swatter, heâ€™ll wisp it around the naked stump, fanning it with warm air.
A mo-ped took his leg. A mo-ped he had named Mule. He couldnâ€™t handle a real machine and probably thought that a half-breed motorcycle/bicycle would be safer, but still motorized.Â Heâ€™d start off inside the garage so nobody would see the pedaling frenzy it took for the engine to kick in. There heâ€™d go weaving, leaning, gassing it.Â Doris said it worst after he put it into a tree. â€œDaddy, you got a little too brave with The Mule.â€
â€œAlton,â€ heâ€™ll say when the sun starts cooking the stump. On his first day of summer, it reminds me of soft, paste-colored dough left to rise. By the end of summer, itâ€™ll take on the mottled redness of a sausage. Heâ€™ll struggle out of the lawn chair as he speaks to me, hopping and leaning into his crutches to get his only foot planted to hold him in place.
Iâ€™ll move the chair into the strip of shade near the edge of the porch, and Doris will say, â€œYou ought to put on some sunscreen.â€
â€œMother, youâ€™re probably right. Alton,â€ heâ€™ll say to send me to the back of the house. May be I should appreciate the roof over my head, the meals Doris cooks, and that they took me in. If you ask me, though, itâ€™s all about the checks. Theyâ€™ll be the first to tell what theyâ€™ve done for me, raising me from the age of nine, sending me to school. But, they wonâ€™t say one word about taking my checks and never showing me a penny.
When the weather keeps them inside, depression hits them hard. They donâ€™t talk as much, and when they do, itâ€™ll be something like â€œHigh today, Daddy, is only twenty-two.â€Â Kneading the doughy stump that stays wrapped until temperatures have risen for good, heâ€™ll answer, â€œI know, Mother. Itâ€™s tough out there.â€ Heâ€™ll sit by the window in the dim room and gaze out while Doris plays the gospel station so softly that you canâ€™t make out any thing but unintelligible tones. Yip Yip will even get into the mood of the dismal seasons, climbing out of Dorisâ€™s lap to look up pitifully at Percy until heâ€™ll reach down and let her climb his arm into his lap.
If not reading in my room, Iâ€™ll be googling on the computer for school. Right before Christmas vacation, while preparing a report about the USS Alabama, I noticed an ad on the sidebar of Mobileâ€™s homepage for Felixâ€™s Fish Camp and Seafood Restaurant. I clicked to their web site showing the rusted tin building, their menu, and a sign in front of a mannequin posed inside an old truck. â€œFelix takes all yip-yip dogs for gator bait. Leave â€˜em in the car.â€ I laughed and read it aloud. Doris turned the gospel music off and looked at Percy who stiffened from his mid-winter slump. He put both his hands around Yip Yipâ€™s head and moved her around on his lap like he had to protect her.
Iâ€™ll never know why I expected joviality to occur between the three of us. Perhaps the Christmas tree and lights had built-up a false sense of normalcy.
â€œYou think thatâ€™s funny, huh?â€
â€œWell, itâ€™s just ironic that this place used Yip Yipâ€™s name.â€
â€œYou ought to think itâ€™s sick.â€
â€œThereâ€™s enough crudeness and cruelty in this world without stuff like that being sent out all over the place.â€
â€œIf thatâ€™s all you can find on that thing to entertain you, then itâ€™s time to do without for a while. Shut it down. Donâ€™t get back on it until school starts back in January.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t mean it as a threat or any kind of cruelty,â€ I said. â€œI just read Yip Yipâ€™s name. Itâ€™s an advertisement. Itâ€™s a family restaurant, for Christâ€™s sake.â€
â€œAnd havenâ€™t we been your family? Giving you everything you need?â€
â€œAnd not to mention sacrificing to get you that computer?â€
â€œI didnâ€™t mean anything by it.â€
â€œI donâ€™t appreciate your tone or your sense of humor.â€
â€œNor do I.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve been with us what? Five years? I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever heard the words â€˜Thank youâ€™ cross your lips.â€
â€œAnd weâ€™ve had Yip Yip twice that long. How would you feel if you had a brother who made a remark like that about you?â€
â€œYip Yip is a damn dog,â€ I exploded at them.
â€œWhy you little ingrate. If I could get out of this chair, Iâ€™d show you.â€
â€œWhat is your problem? Weâ€™ve done everything for you, Alton.â€ Doris stood looking weak and pitiful with her arms limp.
â€œMother, itâ€™s ok. Son, you need to apologize to that woman.â€
In a nanosecond, the realization that an apology should be rendered just to bide me time, keep a roof over my head, put nourishment on my plate pulsed like a neon light between my temples. â€œAunt Doris, Iâ€™m sorry. I should have never read that aloud.â€ I shut down the HP, reaching behind it to disconnect the mouse. â€œHere,â€ I said, â€œUncle Percy, I apologize to you, too, sir. I accept my punishment, and I want to say â€˜Thank youâ€™ to both of you for what you do for me. I truly am sorry.â€
â€œWell, weâ€™re a family, and from time to time families have such crisises. The real test is if we weather the crisis or not. I think we passed the test, donâ€™t you, Mother?â€ He rubbed the tip of his stump, all snug and warm inside the hand-tailored, corduroy pants leg.
Doris dried her eyes. â€œYes, Daddy, we have. Your mother would be so proud of you, Alton, to hear you apologize and take responsibility for your misgivings. Letâ€™s forget this.â€
I reached down to give Yip Yip a scratch around her ears and to let her lick my finger tips. â€œYes, letâ€™s forget it.â€
Through the dying winter, I spent as much time as I could in the shed where Percyâ€™s Mule stood propped against the wall, the helmet he had worn still green and scuffed from glancing off the tree and into the kudzu, leaving a lot of leg meat behind on the metal protrusions of the pedals, the kick starter, and foot pegs.
In a few weeks, weâ€™d be out on the porch for Percyâ€™s first day of summer, and Iâ€™ll be fetching his stuff, moving his chair, listening to them call each other Mother and Daddy, bringing him iced tea by the gallon. Iâ€™ll be criticized for spending too much time reading or using the computer. Iâ€™ll not see one penny of the two checks that my mother made sure would come for my care every month. Iâ€™ll have to watch as he fans his stump, molting from ghostly white to angry red, ruining the tranquility and sanity of a good season. Iâ€™ll cringe when Doris kisses Yip Yip in the mouth and offers the dog to Percy like some offspring of theirs. Iâ€™ll sit and wait all summer for him to say â€œAlton.â€
On Easter Sunday when the approach of summer gains momentum, Iâ€™m going into the shed and cranking Percyâ€™s Mule. Pretty much all that Iâ€™ll need will be fresh gas and to clean the plugs and air filter. Since she cashes my checks on Thursday, I should take Dorisâ€™s purse, but Iâ€™ll be back because I have no where else to go. So, I wonâ€™t bother it. Yes, Iâ€™ll be back in just a few hours, and Iâ€™ll swear that I have no clue about what happened to Yip Yip.