Gram had to go back to work at the shoe factory Monday morning. Before she left, she told us that she had a union meeting after work so she wouldn’t be home for supper. Gram didn’t usually go to the union meetings, but this one was a very important meeting about Japanese shoes and how they were hurting the factory workers in Mina Sauk. I had never seen Gram worry about having a job or money, but it seemed that all she did that summer was worry about her job at the shoe factory and money. The immediate repercussion of that was that she quit funding a lot of activities for Jake and I with what Big Daddy called “mad money.” Because Jake and I had our funding cut, we had to resort to guzzling Peach Nehis, collecting other returnable bottles and short changing the collection plate at the Mina Sauk Missionary Baptist Church as a means of survival. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
After Gram went to work, Jake and I decided to ride our bikes up to the state park and go swimming in the quarry. Roundhole was, by far, the best swimming hole in Southeast Missouri, if not the best this side of the hereafter, but it was kind of an intimate spot. No one ever went there except for a handful of kids who lived near us along the Old Mina Sauk Road. The Quarry, on the other hand, was frequented by many of our friends and several “high school babes,” so Jake and I went there as often as Big Daddy would let us. Big Daddy said that he would pick us up at 11:30 so that we could all go down to the shoe factory and eat lunch with Gram. Jake and I bolted out the door, hopped on our bikes and peddled as fast as we could toward the quarry.
As we sped off to the quarry on our bikes, we saw April and Stacy in April’s front yard, just kind of sauntering around doing nothing like girls often do. We stopped in their driveway so that we could talk to them for a while. Jake and I hinted around about going to the skating rink on Friday night and they told us that they were thinking about going as well. We just kind of sloughed off what they said; trying to act like it really didn’t matter very much, even though we were really looking forward to seeing them there. Uncle Jake told us that you have to kind of act covertly when it comes to girls and that it was always best to be ambiguous. It seemed like an awful lot of trouble and a whole lot more complicated than just saying what you meant, but we tried it a couple of times and it seemed to work pretty well, so we just kept on doing it. We figured it was just one of life’s mysteries and it fell into the same category as Gram’s cornbread voodoo. We said our goodbyes to April and Stacy and then sped off for the state park. As we entered the state park and neared the quarry, I noticed that Joey, the third baseman from our Pony League Team, had been there swimming.
“What’s up, ass wipes,” Joey said as he walked over to us and slapped our hands.
“Not much, shitbird,” I responded. Life didn’t get any better than hanging out with the guys, talking the talk that seemed important and humiliating each other with terms of endearment like “ass wipe” and “shitbird.”
“Did you guys try out for the traveling team this summer,” Joey asked as he brushed his long hair back out of his face.
“No, I decided not to this year and Jake didn’t know if he’d be around this late in the summer or not, so he didn’t either,” I replied.
“I didn’t really have that much fun last year,” I continued, “No one was on the team except for the stuck up rich kids.”
“Stupid bastards like Brian Bowden,” Jake chimed in with his favorite cuss word; not wanting to be out cussed by the likes of me in front of Joey.
“That was a hell of a melon shot you gave him at our last game, Billy,” Joey replied.
I swelled up with pride when Joey said that. It was a hell of a melon shot, right in front of God and everybody at the high school ball field. We all laughed for a moment and then Joey looked over at me with deep admiration. For a fleeting moment, I was a hero. Joey, Jake and I splashed around in the water for a while and then perched ourselves up on a tall rock that overlooked the quarry. From this rock, we could see everything that went on at the swimming hole and had a bird’s eye view of all of the high school babes in their bikinis, laying out on the rocks with their little cupcake bottoms glistening in the warm summer sun. Time just seemed to fly by and Big Daddy’s red truck was circling the parking lot before we knew it.
Quickly, Jake and I hopped up and started running toward our bikes. Big Daddy didn’t like it when he had to wait on us. It was nearly July, getting hot and he didn’t have any air conditioning in his truck. Joey rushed out to the truck and said “Hi” to Big Daddy and we told him to try and make it to the skating rink on Friday night, if his mom would let him go. Big Daddy even offered to give him a ride home if he needed it, just before we turned around and took off to meet Gram for lunch. I couldn’t help thinking how much easier it was to tell Joey to go skating on Friday. We didn’t have to hem-haw around or be covert or ambiguous about anything. I guessed that was why Uncle Jake liked to hang around with our cousin Ronzo and his other friends so much; it was kind of liberating to just speak your mind for a change.
Big Daddy took us by Garner’s Store so we could get some sandwiches for lunch. We had been eating lunch at Garner’s Store for years. Jake and I got a ham and cheese sandwich, a bag of Doritos and a Peach Nehi for lunch and set it up on the counter; Big Daddy had his usual: liver cheese and mayo on white. During Spring Break and over Christmas last year, Big Daddy and I stopped by Garner’s Store every day and picked up a loaf of bread and some liver cheese before we went over to Great Grandma’s house and had lunch with her. Great Grandma loved liver cheese. I always thought it was weird how old people ate such weird stuff and they thought it was weird that we didn’t like it. Great Grandma died late last spring, so Big Daddy started going down to the shoe factory to eat lunch with Gram instead. Old habits die hard I guess. Other than hanging out with her at lunchtime, I didn’t see Great Grandma very much, so it seemed almost like she was still around; we just didn’t eat lunch with her anymore. Big Daddy was devastated by her death and a part of him really didn’t seem the same after that; I guessed it was really easy to miss someone that you saw or at least thought about everyday for more than sixty years. Jake and I talked about how Big Daddy used to eat lunch with Great Grandma, but he wasn’t around during the school year and the only thing he really remembered about Great Grandma was the she kind of looked like Vincent Price without the mustache.
While we were heading toward the shoe factory, I told Jake that we shouldn’t ask Gram if we could go skating just yet because it was a bad time. Just this morning she had been talking about the union and worrying about money. We needed to wait until she felt a little more liberal with the purse strings… a little more mad with the mad money. Problem was Jake never listened; Jake had bad timing and he never listened. After Gram finished her lunch, he asked her if we could go skating on Friday night. I elbowed him before I looked out the window and prayed that she didn’t say what I thought she was going to say. I just knew that she was going to say, “Sure, if you boys want to use some of the money you’ve saved up for firecrackers,” but she didn’t. Instead, she said the ugliest four words in the English language: “If you are good.” We were screwed. I felt like someone had just hooked a 12-volt car battery up to my testicles. Asking us to be good was like asking the Devil himself to “repent and accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior,” as the youth leader, “Brother Rayburn” would say. Our trip to the skating rink was about as likely as Beelzebub himself, going to mass and cutting Father Fitzpatrick’s grass. A dark cloud began to form on the horizon and I knew it meant that there was no roller-skating in my future.
It started raining after Gram went back inside to go to work, so Jake and I had to ride up front on the way home. The more I thought about it the madder I got and it took all the strength I had to not say or do anything until after we got home. When Big Daddy got home, he sat down in his chair and tuned in the ballgame on the radio. The rain had stopped and the afternoon sun peeked out from behind a cloud warming the birds perched in the mulberry trees in our backyard. Jake and I went outside to play some Whiffle ball and I couldn’t hold back my anger any longer so I hit him in the arm a couple of times for asking Gram if we could go skating.
“What’d ya do that for,” he pleaded as he blocked my next shot to his arm.
“Because, you numbskull… we’ll never get to go skating now with you and your big mouth,” I replied just as I gave him another shot.
I figured that three shots in the arm was a big enough price to pay for running his mouth and then explained to him that it was Monday and we wanted to go skating on Friday and thanks to him, we had to try and be good all week long. If we had waited until Wednesday or Thursday to ask, I explained, then Gram probably would have said exactly the same thing and we would have to only try to be good for one, two days tops. Now we had to try and be good all week long and we had never, ever been good for an entire week in our whole lives. There would be no trip to the skating rink, there would be no “abracadabra,” and there would be no kiss goodnight.
Friday finally came around and Jake and I quietly sat down in the kitchen and waited for Gram to get home from work. We hadn’t been good all week and didn’t deserve to go skating, but we had prepared to throw ourselves on the mercy of Gram and try it anyway. We decided that the heart of our defense was that everything depended on what the definition of good was. We had only gotten in real trouble twice that week and neither of those two times was really our fault.
Jake and I had been playing sandlot baseball Wednesday afternoon (just before church got started) and were trying to show off for April and Stacy. Brian Bowden had joined in on the game and stole a little bit of our thunder when he showed up wearing a shiny new jersey that he got when he made the traveling team. Not to be outdone, Jake and I tried to turn up the showing off a little bit so that we could outshine Brian Bowden. I hit a ball down the third base line and Jake was on first. Brian Bowden was covering second base when Jake slid into him and tried to break up the double play. He accidentally kicked Brian right square in the sack and Brian folded up like a lawn chair in the middle of the churchyard. It was all a big misunderstanding but, it was the neighborhood equivalent of President Reagan flipping the bird at the Russians for not going to the Olympics. President Reagan probably would like to flip the bird at the Russians and Gram thought that Jake probably would like to kick Brian Bowden in the sack, so there was just no way to talk our way out of it.
After Gram had a long talk with Brian’s mom on the phone, Jake and I got grounded to the yard for the rest of the week and were promptly informed that we could kiss our trip to the skating rink goodbye. After our rendezvous with April and Stacy was all shot to hell, Jake and I kind of let up on “watching our P’s and Q’s,” and just went on about our business. The irony of it all was that nothing really happened all day Thursday and we weren’t even remotely concerned about being good. Even Gram commented about how good we had been at supper Thursday night. Jake and I talked about it later and we decided that sometimes we just couldn’t be good if we tried and even went so far as to say that we probably couldn’t get into trouble if we wanted to. It was all a matter of fate and we had no control over it.
Friday morning proved that hypothesis to be true. It was no longer a postulation… it was natural law. I was sitting on the patio putting some neat’s-foot oil on my ball glove when Jake came running up the driveway with a dead cat. He had snuck out of the yard because it was his turn to walk down the Old Mina Sauk Road and look for RC bottles. Chrome Fender must have gotten up early that morning because there were no RC bottles to be found, only a dead cat. I checked out the dead cat and it was so gross looking that I almost blew chunks right there on the patio. I couldn’t think of anyone besides Jake and I in the immediate neighborhood that could fully appreciate the beauty of a dead cat, so I looked at it one more time and then told Jake to get rid of it. Jake stood out in the front of the driveway and spun around in circles, swinging the dead cat by its tail. Just as he let it go, I looked up and saw Uncle Fred’s Pinto coming over the railroad tracks.
There must be something about a dead cat bouncing off of your windshield that just freaks you out because Uncle Fred had always been a pretty good driver, but when the cat hit the Pinto, Uncle Fred hit the ditch and the shit hit the fan. Big Daddy had to pull him out of the ditch with his truck and after he made sure that Uncle Fred’s car wasn’t broke, he grounded us to the house. That was the first time we had been grounded to the house all summer and if that wasn’t strange enough, Big Daddy had done the grounding and he never grounded us for anything. He said we were lucky that Uncle Fred’s Pinto didn’t explode when it hit the ditch. Jake and I didn’t realize that dead cats were even flammable much less explosive.
After supper on Friday, we asked Gram if we could go to the skating rink, first trying to appeal to her sense of reason by explaining to her that none of the events that took place earlier that week had been our fault, we were just merely victims of happenstance. That didn’t work, so we resorted to begging. Finally, Gram relented and said, “I’m going to let you go, but not because you deserve it. I’m letting you go because you boys can’t get into any trouble here if you’re off down there.” This was a new concept for us: We had acted up so much that we were being rewarded for it. It was like drinking yourself sober or screwing your way to chastity. It was beyond all reason…a mystery, not unlike the mystery of her cornbread voodoo or how you had to be covert and ambiguous when you talked to girls. I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t need to. I was just happy that Jake and I were going skating and the rest could just remain a mystery.
William Matthew McCarter holds a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master's in Liberal Arts. He is currently enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Texas at Arlington. McCarter has published his work in both tradition print magazines and online publications. Some of his most recent creative works have appeared in Wilmington Blues, The Indite Circle, and Ascent. In addition to his creative publications, McCarter has recently been invited to present an academic paper, “Homo Redneckus: Redefining White Trash in American Society,” at the National Center for Teachers of English Conference in San Antonio. McCarter's future plans include publishing his novel and a series of essays about the poor working class and their absence from American letters.
Copyright 2004, William Matthew McCarter. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.