Southern Legitimacy Statement: Generations of men in my family proudly have the middle name Leroy, including myself. And all of us have had home-cooked meals of squirrel or frog legs or venison and never turn down a slice of vinegar pie.
It seemed normal, growing up, that my grandparents had a 45rpm jukebox in their living room with Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, Elvis and John Lee Hooker on regular rotation. Dancing and carousing five nights a week at the Cain’s Ballroom wasn’t enough for them.
As kids, during the deep, hot, shoeless and shirtless summertime, rather than go in the house for a cool drink from the kitchen faucet, we’d stretch our tongues out under condensation tube on the window air conditioning unit that always dripped a mud hole below it.
And as the evening rolled in, after supper, we’d catch fireflies and dob their green, luminous butts on our ring fingers, make our childlike proposals of forever to cousins—well, at least the brief forever that was until the glow faded into the gloam.
I’ll just tell this the way I remember it, using the words I used back then and some that I still do, because I was there and you wasn’t. I know you didn’t grow up here. But maybe you know the simple things from here, like calling your parents Daddy and Momma when you’re little and calling them that again when they are old, because you want to be young again, and if you’re young again, then so are they. You don’t know the color of the sky here, mid to late summer, near twilight, the stray clouds lit up warm and orange underneath. You don’t know that there are two colors of dirt in Oklahoma: black and red. The color is determined by the soil’s make-up, which is pretty much the mineral content. I learned that from my dad. He came home every day from his job at Big Heart Oil with the dirt staining the knees of his Big Smith overalls, caking the tread of his Red Wing boots. He’d spend five and a half days a week working from one well site to another, checking the pump rigs that were scattered across the pastures of the southern Osage and northern Tulsa counties.
Thirty odd years ago, when I was ten years old, back when I still young enough to call him Daddy, he carried me along with him to his work once that summer, on a Saturday half day. It was a military holiday weekend, but that don’t stop the oil, Daddy had told Momma before we drove off. Outside of town, from a distance, in the heat shimmer, those rigs looked like broncs in a constant complaint, bucking to break their reins from a hitching post, never able to loose themselves.
Daddy always carried a slug-loaded shotgun to work. It was slicked wood and oiled steel. He tucked it in behind the seat of the ’69 Ford truck that Big Heart Oil gave him to make his rounds. He said it was for shooting rattlers or spooking banditos, as he called them, who might be trying to pilfer from the rig site.
At the last lone rig of the day, when he was done checking fittings and replacing a hose, daddy spun the top off the Igloo water cooler mounted behind the cab of the truck and pulled out a cold can of Jax beer. It was a still quiet out there with Daddy, just the rhythmic clack of the pump and the occasional creak of grasshoppers.
He dragged the pull-tab off, flicked it to the ground and took a long drink, paused, belched and finished the beer in another long drink.
“That’s the drink of friendship,” Daddy said before he twisted and crushed the can.
I stood by the open truck door, eyeing the stock of the shotgun poking from behind the seat.
“Wanna shoot it?” Daddy asked.
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “It might hurt.”
By that age, I’d seen cowboy westerns on TV and soldiers on the news from Vietnam shooting rifles, shotguns and machine guns. Nothing good seemed to be happening on either end of their firearms.
“Rabbit, don’t be afraid, boy,” Daddy said. “That thing hurts outward, not inward.”
He folded the seat forward, took aholt of the gunstock and drew the 12 gauge from the coveralls it had been wrapped in. He flicked the crushed Jax can ten feet out into the scrub grass that clumped along the edge of the gravel circling the pump site.
“Go on,” Daddy said. He held the shotgun toward me.
I shook my head and secretly prayed to God that Daddy wouldn’t make me shoot.
“I’ll shoot first then,” Daddy said. “Plug your fingers in your ears.”
The crosshatched oak handgrip ran underneath half the length of the blued gun barrel and Daddy pumped it, cha-chink, out and back.
I watched the barrel and traced a line from the end of it to the can. I heard the shotgun boom and the can ripped upward into the air then down to the dirt, its aluminum body splayed open.
“Hold this,” Daddy said. He put the shotgun in my hands, fished another Jax from the Igloo, polished it off, and tossed the empty can out near the ruined one. In a quick move, he took the shotgun up, shucked another slug into the chamber and handed it back to me. We’d had talks about being a man, about toughening up, not being afraid, since I was in the fourth grade and I knew there was no saying no a second time.
Daddy lined me up in front of him, my back to his belly, and helped me draw the shotgun up to my shoulder, right hand at the trigger guard, left hand holding it level. I was familiar with my Daisy Red Rider, from plinking pop cans and my sister’s old naked Barbie dolls, but this was much heavier and carried the weight of finality.
“Rest your cheek light on the stock,” Daddy said. “Make the can line up with the end of the barrel.”
“Um-huh,” I said, so he’d know I understood.
“Take a breath in, let it out slow and then gently squeeze the trigger.”
Daddy plugged his fingers into my ears. I took in a short breath, closed my eyes, pulled the trigger, and knocked backward into Daddy as the gunstock whacked me in the cheek. When I opened my eyes, the Jax can still laid there, out in front of us, unharmed.
“There’s always a first time, boy,” Daddy said. “Just gets easier.”
Jammed into the Big Heart truck radio was a blue 8-track tape. The label read Freddy Fender in big white letters. Below it, in smaller white letters, read Before The Next Teardrop Falls. Daddy started carping along with the 8-track as he drove, something in Spanish. In front of the Mexican polka-sounding music, Daddy and Freddy sang. When they sang it sounded like they we saying, “All in the rancho grandee, all of us have a ranch-uh-rita.” Singers from behind Freddy Fender trilled their tongues, aye-yai-yai’d, wee-hee’d and wah-haw’d. I didn’t know what the hell the song really meant, but I was kinda sure Daddy did.
Back then, Daddy occasionally had made the short drive south from our little town of Sperry over Cincinnati hill, to check out LP record albums from the library in Tulsa. They were the kind you listen to, so as to learn a foreign language. He’d tried to get me to listen along, telling me that I’d need to know how to speak Spanish to the Mexicans I’d be working with and such when I was a grown man. It all sounded like beautiful gibberish to me then. Still does. Should’ve taken his advice about that, though, about the Mexicans. He knew.
The song faded halfway through, the player switched from track one to track two. I hoped the song was over, but it wasn’t. Freddy Fender’s voice rose back up, going on again about the rancho grandee. Thinking about it, I reckon that if there was a place to have the 8-track switch tracks in the middle of a song, the best place was in the middle of a song that wasn’t in English.
We were winding our way south down Highway 11, past Avant, Oklahoma. Daddy had once said there wasn’t a damn thing good came from that shit town of Avant, but your momma. I remember his words then and now. Ahead was Skiatook and when we got to Highway 20, Daddy cut a right turn and a quick left turn into the Tastee-Freez parking lot, that sat at the east end of town. Draped across the front of the burger shack were red, white and blue banners. Taped on the windows and door were signs showing an official looking white five-point star inside a 70s stylized star of red, white and blue. The inscription American Revolution Bicentennial 1776-1976, cast in black block letters, encircled the patriotic star. I’d seen the same star logo on a white flag that was flown below the stars and stripes from the flagpole in front of the Sperry Post Office that whole year. Variations of the banners displaying the Bicentennial logo were hanging off the front of the firecracker stands across the street. American flags hung like patriotic curtains from flagpoles that angled out from low city street lampposts.
“Let’s us get us a burger and a shake, Rabbit,” Daddy said. “Man’s work was done today. Time for a reward lunch.”
“Can we get some firecrackers?” I pointed to the firecracker stand.
“You know it.”
Daddy and I got out and walked to the order window. A teenaged employee girl slid the window open and took down our order.
A neighbor girl walked out the door of the Tastee-Freez, her parents leading the way. Her name was Angie Delancy. We were in the same grade and the girls our age had been privy to a day apart from the boys in Health class during the fall of our fifth grade year where they were showed a film on human reproduction. When the film was over, the girls received little pink pamphlets, summarizing what they had learned. I guess the school board decided what was acceptable to teach kids in the matters of sexual information within the school district and put that in the pamphlet, which also included drawings of penises and scrotums and vaginas and fallopian tubes. We lived along the same street in Sperry and Angie had shown me the pamphlet while we walked home. When curiosity had the both of us a few days later, we met in her Daddy’s storage shed, pulled down the fronts of our pants and showed each other the flesh of what the drawings hadn’t. We both made our blushing comments, realizing that neither one of us had sprouted hair, but everything else looked in order. Angie said that we probably wouldn’t grow any pubics for a year or so. At least for the girls, anyways, she said. Now, it was July and school started next month and the pamphlet had said girls develop before boys. Angie had repeated that part, in case I missed it. As she walked toward me, I thought about seeing her nakedness, the pamphlet pictures and how far ahead of me she might have grown since then.
I felt my ears go red-hot.
She passed by me without a word or a glance. I watched as her family loaded into their wood laminate paneled Pinto wagon. Her Daddy backed the car out and the engine died. He pumped the gas, making the whole car sway as he did and tried the key again. The Pinto engine turned over and backfired a shot of flame and smoke from the tailpipe. This got everyone’s attention in the Tastee-Freez parking lot and especially over at the firecracker stand.
As they pulled away, I waved, and Angie waved back to me. I got hot again.
“Found on road dead,” Daddy said. “Couldn’t pay me to drive a Ford. Well, ‘cept for Big Heart’s truck.”
Ed McMahon was on the boob tube when we got home that afternoon. He was just finishing up introducing the acts that would be starring in a 12-hour marathon Bicentennial extravaganza he was hosting called The Great American Celebration. From his recliner, Daddy had me twist the channel knob from 2 to 6 to 8 to 11 and then through the channels again back to 2. Same kind of patriotic stuff was on every channel I paused on. My little sister Lena came into the living room carrying her naked, dented Barbie’s and stood in front of the TV. Daddy didn’t seem to mind like he usually did, when he’d holler that she made a good door, but not a window. He just got up and walked the ten feet across the carpet to where the kitchen linoleum started and then stepped farther, to the refrigerator. Nothing else separated the coolness of the kitchen from the warmth of the living room. Daddy looked in the refrigerator for a moment, took nothing out and closed the fridge door.
Momma was at the kitchen table rolling dough out flat for sugar cookies. Once she’d rolled it to the right thickness, she’d take a jelly glass and mash the lip of the glass into the dough, cutting out circles that she’d drop onto the greased cookie sheet.
“I’m gonna run over to Otasco,” Daddy said. “Get a fresh roller and a new brush for the trim.”
“Wondered if you’d get to that this weekend,” Momma said.
“Can’t watch The Jeffersons, Starsky & Hutch or The Carol Burnett Show tonight,” Daddy said. “All this crap on the TV.”
“Carol Burnett will be on that show with Ed McMahon,” Momma said. “Harvey Korman too.”
“Won’t be the same.”
I walked to the kitchen table and leaned on Momma’s shoulder.
“Can we shoot some bottle rockets instead?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” Daddy said. That meant he didn’t want to say no, but couldn’t say yes.
He took his car keys off the hook in the kitchen. He’d be driving the Vega.
“Wanna go, boy?”
I shook my head. I didn’t have the option of saying we’ll see to him. Daddy’s driving in the Big Heart truck was fine, except for the singing. The Vega was different. Daddy had a fast motor he’d put in that car. When he floored it, the rear end of the car went squirrelly until it caught a holt of the pavement, launching the Vega forward and pressing everyone inside the car hard into the vinyl seats. The safety of a seatbelt buckled across my lap didn’t offer me any relief in that car.
The screen door slapped behind Daddy. Outside, the neighbor’s dog Francis started barking at the hot July air and I heard Daddy’s Vega jump to life in the driveway, then motor down the street. With nothing to do, I stepped out onto the front porch and spied the boy next door, Carroll Gene, throwing a tennis ball onto the roof of his house and trying to catch it as it rolled off. Being an only child forced Carroll Gene to have to entertain himself most times, and he was always looking for someone to play with. He saw me watching and waved me over. When I got to the grass of his yard, he under-handed the ball to me. We took turns bouncing the ball off the roof to each other until I heard my Momma call for me. I made it up the concrete steps and she met me at the screen door.
“I need to run by your grandma’s and then to the store,” she said. “I need red and blue sugar for the cookies.”
She already had her purse on her arm, keys in hand and Lena close behind her.
“Do I hafta go? Me and Carroll Gene were playing catch.”
“Not if you stay here and don’t wander off,” Momma said. “I mean it.”
We had kin on my Daddy’s side that lived up the street that liked to be in everybody’s business. I knew I couldn’t do anything that didn’t get repeated back to her.
I nodded and she loaded my sister into the front seat of the mid 60s Impala, where Lena promptly crawled to the passenger floorboard, her preferred spot for car rides. I watched as they drove to the end of the block and left-turned towards my grandma’s house. Carroll Gene’s Daddy called for him to come in. His Daddy always kept him close by after a drunk driver in Needles, California, ran over Carroll Gene’s Momma, killing her as she changed a flat tire along the shoulder of I-40 two years before. She’d gone alone to Needles for the funeral of her aunt, I’d heard my Momma whisper to her sisters gathered up around the kitchen table. Thinking of their loss made me feel awful for them, so I went inside our house, closed the front door behind me, and left all that awfulness outside.
Now back on the TV, Ed McMahon told the audience to stay tuned, that he would return after the commercial break with a performance by The Rockettes. I watched as the names and songs of twenty performers on this year’s K-Tel blockbuster original hits scrolled by, accompanied by snips of their music. There was all kinds of music on the album, from disco to funk to pop, and all kinds of things being said by the bands. War wanted to know why can’t we be friends, which was immediately followed by Leon Haywood declaring that he wanted to do something freaky to you and K.C. & The Sunshine Band said that’s the way, uh-huh uh-huh, they liked it, uh-huh uh-huh. For those interested, the LP could be had for $5.99; tapes were $6.99. Next came a commercial asking everyone to flash ‘em your Coppertone, which featured tan girls with bikinis and feathered hair throwing open their beach towels. I remembered the plastic bottle of Coppertone QT in the hall closet and that you didn’t actually have to go outside in the sun to get a tan if you used it. After you spread it on, your tan would miraculously appear within three to five hours.
Five minutes later, I sat on the Herculon-covered couch, naked; I had rubbed the tanning lotion everywhere I could reach. The couch’s fabric was a rough weave of base colors that were yellows with a plaid of tans and greys over the top and not comfortable on the bare skin.
Ed McMahon reappeared, promising The Boston Pops later in the program, but now on the stage were The Rockettes from Radio City. They were dancing, twisting and kicking their long legs high to Yankee Doodle Dandy, while their breasts scarcely moved, perfectly trapped inside their shiny patriotic costumes. I imagined what The Rockettes might look like kicking around like that, without anything on, butt naked also.
It was about that time I heard the spring on the screen door stretch and the handle on the front door twist. I leapt up, took two large steps from the couch and realized that I left the Coppertone bottle on the couch, turned back and grabbed the bottle up as Momma swung the front door open.
“Why are you?” Momma started. She looked like she did some quick calculations and reached some bad conclusions. “On the couch with no pants on?”
I had never seen my Momma embarrassed in her own home, until then.
“Go to your room and put some clothes on.”
An hour later, Daddy was in my room, sitting on my desk chair, asking me if I knew anything about sex. Momma had sent him in as soon as he got home, a paper grocery sack from Safeway still cradled in one arm. During the talk, which didn’t last a half hour, he drank three full Jax beers from the paper sack and was part way into the fourth when we finished.
Dinner was Hamburger Helper Italian, the flavor featuring the wagon wheel pasta, which was my favorite. Momma had even toasted and buttered some white bread slices in the toaster oven, sprinkling just a bit of garlic salt on them, to make the dinner complete. Even though I was happy about the box meal selection that night, I kept my eyes cast down at my plate until I finished and waited to be excused.
I stayed in my room the rest of the evening, remembering what Daddy had said, that he figured what I had done was normal, but if I was gonna be doing what he thought I had been doing, to keep it to myself, and not be doing that on the couch.
The next morning, I heard Momma yell at Daddy. “I can see where he was sitting.”
An orange tinted outline, the shape of my backside, had miraculously appeared overnight on the couch cushion.
“Just flip it over and hush up,” Daddy said.
I slunk around the house all morning, giving Momma a wide berth. She stood at the kitchen counter cutting up a fryer chicken, laying each piece one at a time in a glass dish of milk, turning the pieces over and repeating the process in a old pie pan with flour in it. A pot of diced potatoes simmered slow on the stove, waiting their turn to be blended into a mustard potato salad.
Lena was play cooking with her Easy-Bake oven. The bulb inside the oven had been burned out for God knows how long. She had baked up the two unfortunate brownie-tasting cakes that came with the oven at Christmas. All an Easy-Bake cake required was some water mixed with what looked to be a packet of dry brown dirt. Didn’t taste much different.
Daddy ignored us all, watching Mid-South Wrestling on the TV from his place on the couch. Four channels didn’t offer much on Sunday morning but church shows for late risers, a broadcast of Saturday night’s wrestling match for those that couldn’t make it to whatever convention center was hosting the matches and educational shows on public broadcast OETA. Daddy couldn’t much stomach the first and didn’t much care for the last.
I took a seat on the floor, at the other end of the couch from Daddy, leaning against the flipped over cushion, not wanting to sit on the Herculon again, not yet. On the tube, fat men in tights threw each other into the turnbuckle corners and clobbered each other with folding chairs. The audience roared at the displays of aggression. Daddy and me sat and watched in silence. The only other sounds made were the hum of the attic fan, pulling in the cool morning air through the front and back screen doors and Francis barking from inside the neighbor’s chain link fence, likely protesting the dirt conditions he lived in.
“Do a good thing, boy,” Daddy said. “Ask your Momma if she needs help.”
I pulled myself up and did what I was told, asking her if I could help with lunch.
“This is all for the park picnic later,” Momma said. “There’s baloney and cheese for lunch.”
I stood there, trapped, with nothing to do but wonder what Momma thought of me.
“Fetch that colander, put it in the sink,” she said. “Dump those taters into it.”
I took the cook pot by the handle, poured the chunks into the strainer, set the pot back on the stove and returned to shake any left over potato water loose from the spuds.
“What’s on your hands?” Momma said.
I looked down at the backs of my hands, spreading my fingers. Between my fingers, in wrinkles of my knuckles and around my fingernails was the damned orange tint of the suntan lotion. I turned my hands over and my palms were tanned the same shade. I felt my ears go hot.
“Get out of here and go wash your hands.”
No amount of soap or scrubbing with the brush Daddy used to clean his hands after every day of work would take the color off. I worried that I’d carry that color with me always and that everyone would have to be told about the shameful way it came to happen.
“It’ll wear off,” Daddy said, watching me from the bathroom door. “Nothing bad sticks forever.”
I dried my hands on an old towel, went back to my room and took Evel Knievel, along with his motorcycle, out of the toy box in the closet. The real Evel Knievel had made a career of jumping his motorcycle over cars and buses and grand canyons. I lined up all the toy trucks I could find and launched him over them, always crashing him, always putting him back together, back in the saddle of his motorcycle.
Evel needed more obstacles. He needed more space that what I had in the bedroom.
One armload at a time I carried cars and trucks, not the size of a matchbox, but more the size of a cracker box, out to the back yard.
Beside the house was an old piece of plywood, wide up to my waist and twice as tall as I was. Along with that there were couple of cinderblocks. I hefted one cinderblock up on top the other and laid the plywood long ways up over them to make a ramp. Francis started barking, probably at the fence this time.
I parked the toy cars one next to another for Evel Knievel and jumped him over them. Evel cleared them easily. I spaced the cars farther apart. He cleared them another ten times. Evel needed more cars. I cut a path back into the house, into my room, check the closet, check underneath the bed, check behind the bedroom door. Nothing. Maybe there were some toys in Momma and Daddy’s room.
I opened their door slowly, looked around, on the floors, underneath bed. Nothing. I spied two aftershave decanters on Daddy’s dresser from Avon. Momma sold Avon from time to time, saving the money for school clothes and Christmas presents, as well as saving S&H Green stamps from the grocery store, to buy things out of catalogs.
The two decanters were shaped like cars: one looked like an old roadster from the 20s, made of dark black glass. The other was the same dark black glass and but was a Volkswagen Beetle. I quickly made my way down the hallway and out the backdoor with the two cars in hand.
I parked the cars at the end of the line of cars. The VW would be the last car for Evel to clear.
I latched Evel Knievel and his motorcycle to the little hand crank the came with the motorcycle and cranked that thing up to the highest speed I could possibly get to. In a quick move, I hit the latch with the heel of my hand and Evil Knievel took that ramp better than he had before, flying out over the cars and trucks. Then, just as in real life, his front wheel turned, slowing him down. There was a short smack as he crashed down on decanter lid of the Volkswagen Beetle. On a real Volkswagen, this would be where the engine is located. I went to see if I had broken it, but the lid to the decanter of Avon aftershave had just been knocked off. Inside the lid was a small plastic sandwich bag with ground-up leaves inside of it. I opened the edge of the bag and stuck my nose in to sniff it.
“Rabbit,” Momma said, “come to lunch.”
I looked at her and she looked at me and then at the baggie. She came off the back porch and snatched the sandwich bag out of my hand.
“Where did you get this?” she said.
She was back in the house hollering at Daddy before the screen door had time to close. This went on for little while, Momma telling Daddy that she didn’t want that in the house, you said you’d quit it, giving him seven kinds of hell.
Daddy was trying to talk to her calm. His voice didn’t raise up, and there was no anger in it.
“Rabbit, get in here and eat lunch,” she said, coming back into the kitchen. I just stood there, watching and listening. Lena sat in her booster seat, halfway through a boloney and cheese sandwich when Momma came in a collected her in one arm, saying to herself that she was going to her Momma’s.
“Rabbit, get that grocery sack out of the fridge,” she said. “Take it to the car.”
I did as I was told, praying silently to God that I wouldn’t have to go. I knew something I did started this fight, which Momma would be telling grandma about. Then she’d set to tell her about the couch cushion having my shadow permanently on it and me being naked and I’d have to sit and listen to all this. Grandma would want to ask me questions that I didn’t think I could answer.
I opened the passenger side door of the Impala and put the paper sack full of picnic chicken, potato salad, rolls, paper plates and patriotic sugar cookies on the front seat.
“Can I stay?”
Momma looked at me from behind the wheel and then looked at Lena already on the floorboard. I think a lot of the steam was already out of her.
“Take care of your Daddy today,” she said. “When y’all get hungry for supper, come to the park.”
The bologna sandwich and Fritos didn’t last long and by three that afternoon I was hungry again. Like the day before, the TV had nothing but patriotic programming. I heard the far off pops and crackles of fireworks outside the house. Everyone was at the park. No one was outside on our block. In our neighborhood of little clapboard houses, you either had a detached garage, set kind of in your backyard or a shed, kind of in your back yard or the big shed that doubled as a garage, back there toward the backyard. Hardly any of the houses had central air conditioning either, rather relying on big, noisy window units to cool one or two rooms in the house during the hot afternoons and early evenings in the summertime.
I stood on the back porch. Daddy was out back, inside the one car garage, the pivot garage door open. Francis was barking, probably at the asbestos shingle siding on the neighbor’s house. Scattered around the workbench were plenty of empty Jax beer cans. He had collected the roadster and the Volkswagen decanters from the yard and stashed them on the shelf above the tool bench. I walked to the garage door
Daddy looked at me standing in the doorway garage; his eyes looked tired.
“It’s all right,” he said. “If it were up to your Momma, nobody would ever get high and nobody would ever jack off.”
I nodded. I didn’t plan to do either of those things.
“Well, ev’n if you don’t understand, you will,” he said. “Let’s paint trim.”
Probably because he was drunk, Daddy had a mind to get the trim painted no matter what and pried the lid off the primer can. There wasn’t lots of trim to do, just paint up around the back door and the back windows. I brushed on the white primer, the color of the house. Daddy followed behind with the final coat of hunter green.
Our yard, front or back, wasn’t fenced. Daddy didn’t care much for fences, especially if they didn’t do their job. Across the weak chain link fence separating the neighbor’s back yard from ours, was Francis. The neighbor’s fence was missing the wire that run along the bottom, woven through the links, which left it easy to push out at the bottom. Francis did this from time to time, pushing his way out into our yard.
While Daddy rolled paint around the kitchen window, I watched as Francis pushed his head under the chain link fencing. The yard that he was escaping had been beaten down to nothing but dirt and a few islands of clumped grass here and there from his constant running and barking in all directions. As he clawed under it, the chain link fence pulled Francis’ ears back, giving him a dirty dog grin. His front paws found purchase in the grass of our yard and with a last hard pull, he sprang from under the fence in a dead run at me.
Francis leapt at my face and I pushed him away as I backpedaled over the paint cans, spilling them into the grass. The dog took a holt of my hand for a split second before the blur that was Daddy kicked him in the chest. Francis rolled over and Daddy grabbed his collar tight behind his head, giving it a twist, cutting off the dog’s wind while he was dragged to and pitched over the fence. Francis started a raspy barking as soon as he hit the ground.
The neighbor’s back door opened to the dirt yard.
Irl Silky stepped out, flung a baseball with a busted cover as hard as he could at the dog, hitting him smooth in the ribs. Francis didn’t yelp, but he stopped barking.
“Go get him, Curtiss,” Mr. Silky said. “Chain ‘im in tha front yard tree.”
I’d seen that tree in their front yard. It was a sorry Mimosa that Francis had beat a path around as far as the length of the chain would stretch.
Francis had slunk over and laid in one of the holes in the dirt he’s pawed out for himself. Just inside the back door, Mr. Silky’s wife Joyce sat in her wheelchair, one sock foot on the floor, one sock nub knee pointing at me. I’m sure I saw her nub knee wiggle.
Curtiss Silky came out with a length of chain and two padlocks and whacked the ground beside Francis with the chain as a warning. Curtiss was a few years older than me, but just as skinny, no shirt and cutoff jeans.
Daddy stood at the back fence, watching the boy as he wrapped the end of the chain around its neck, snapped the padlock and dragged Francis through the gate to the front yard. Mr. Silky stood on his back porch.
“That dog of yours tried to bite my boy,” Daddy said.
“Saw that,” Silky said. “And you kicked my dog. There’s a law against that.”
“More to be done if the dog tries that again,” Daddy said. “And not just for the dog.”
Mr. Silky turned and edged past his crippled wife, into the house. She looked at us for a minute until she rolled herself back with her one foot and slammed the door.
Daddy walked back to me.
“Go wash that paint off you with the water hose.”
From where we stood at the water tap, we watched as the Silkys got into their old van, pulled out and motored away.
He walked to the garage and came back with another Jax.
“Last one,” Daddy said. He tipped his can. “Need to go to the store.”
Francis started barking again, probably this time at the chain.
Parked in the parking lot of Ray’s Thrift-t-Wise was the van that belonged to the Silkys. Daddy parked the Vega right next to them. A quick glance confirmed that Curtiss and Mrs. Silky had stayed in the van. Daddy and me cut a path back to the cold beer case, where he picked up a fresh six-pack. The air was cool in the store and the floor turning the bottom of my feet black was even cooler. Mr. Silky stood in line at the only checkout that was open. We stood behind him as he paid for a pack of boloney and a cheap loaf of store brand bread. The girl at the checkout asked if he was going to the park picnic. Silky nodded his mean head, thumbing two dollars at her. The bag boy stuffed their supper in a paper sack and Silky took it as he walked past him.
The checkout girl rang up the beer and Daddy handed her a dollar and two quarters. The beer was in a sack already and as we turned to walk out with the purchase, Silky honked his horn at us. When he was sure we were looking, Mr. Silky flipped Daddy the bird and drove away.
“Sonofabitch,” Daddy said.
Now I’m not sure how many of those Jax beers Daddy had drank that day, but he added one more on the drive home. He cut the Vega into the driveway and stopped.
“Remember how to drive?” he said. “How I taught you up at the school parking lot?”
“Get behind the wheel.”
Daddy got out, pulled the door open to the Big Heart truck and drew the shotgun from behind the seat. He looked around, up and down the street as he got in the passenger side. A fear I had never known worked into me.
“Drive around the block,” Daddy said. “Don’t be too slow about it.”
Daddy put the car in reverse from his side and I pressed lightly on the gas pedal.
We jagged up the street. I turned left.
“Give it the gas, boy.”
We rounded their corner; the balded tires on the Vega chirped and Daddy’s face took on the look of a happy idiot, crazy with expectation. He poked his head, body and shotgun out the window. The shotgun was first. I hid behind the steering wheel, trying to disappear. My ears went hot, again.
Daddy was whistling that damn Mexican song about the rancho grande.
I prayed to God that if he saved that stupid dog Francis, I’d never get high, I’d never jack off. As we roared up the street, I promised God that I’d be a good boy from now on. Daddy shucked a slug, took aim over the car. From the corner of my eye, I could see Francis stretched out towards us, jumping as the flash and bang erupted from the shotgun.
Daddy dropped back into the car seat, the shotgun poking up between his legs from the floorboard.
In the rearview, I saw Francis in a dead run going the opposite direction, a length of chain dragging behind him. I silently thanked God for the dog’s independence.
“Take me to the Tastee-Freez,” Daddy said. “I want to have a shake.”
He laid the shotgun in the backseat and covered it with some old work shirts.
I pulled in to the Tastee-Freez parking lot. Daddy put the car in park and we walked to the order window. When the shakes came, Daddy and me walked to the picnic table in the grass, sat and looked out at the drainage pond.
“Promise not to tell your Momma.” Daddy hadn’t seen Francis run away.
I nodded, sipping the shake. I wouldn’t tell her anything. I didn’t tell Daddy that Francis was alive, either.
I knew about promises. You kept the important ones. Others, made too fast, you let get away.
I’d be a good boy from now on.