“Don’t sugar coat it honey,” Aunt Francis said when I walked in the house holding my T-shirt up to my face, a stream of profanity spilling from my mouth like Sugar Creek in April.
Francis was dabbing at the split in my lip with a wash cloth–avoiding eye contact. I think she was afraid I’d start crying if she looked at me. She knows how much I hate to cry. Whenever I do, all kinds of old stuff I try really hard not to think about comes bubbling up inside my brain. Before you know it, I’m bawling like some cry baby on the playground that dropped his milk money in the sewer drain, or lost the ice cream scoop on his cone to a stray dog.
I knew this day was going to be weird from the moment I opened my eyes and saw Henry, the Turd Wrangler, staring directly at me from a few inches away. He was breathing his dinosaur death breath in my face and licking my nose. I cussed him, but at the same time I was scratching his smelly old ears, so I doubt it had much effect. As I was getting dressed, I caught the smell of Uncle Fred’s coffee coming up the stairs and figured he must have sent Henry to wake me. No late sleepers in my Uncle’s house.
Anyway, after a quiet bacon and egg breakfast with Uncle Fred, I decided to ride my bike into town. The road there is completely flat and surrounded by farmland the whole way. Unless you find endless rows of corn and soybeans scenic, it’s a pretty uninspiring trip. But it sure beats the hell out of sitting around the house with Uncle Fred and Frannie when they are having one of their annoying (and thankfully rare) grump-a-thons. When my uncle and aunt aren’t getting along, they both start talking to Henry the dog instead of one another. Complaining to him about what the other forgot to do, or did. They try to act like everything is normal and I guess they expect me not to notice this peculiar behavior. It’s weird–like some sort of messed up little game. Sometimes I think they just do it because they get such a kick out of making up when it’s all over. They’re both so nuts about one another they aren’t fooling anyone, not even their nephew. At least, I don’t think they are. Hell! I don’t know how this marriage stuff is supposed to work.
Guess that now is as good a time as there will ever be to tell you why I hate to cry so much (I’ll tell you why I had that split lip later). When I was seven, my mom was killed in a car wreck. No one else was involved. She was coming home from Aunt Francis’ around 10:00 at night (probably singing along to America’s top 40 on the AM radio) when a deer ran right out in front of her car. She was so crazy about animals, that she swerved to avoid hitting the damned thing and hit an uneven patch on the shoulder, flipping the Oldsmobile several times down an embankment. She was thrown from the car and died on impact. At least that was what the state trooper told us–maybe just to make us feel better. Dad and I were having a camp out in the backyard on the night it happened. We were already asleep in our make shift tent of blankets thrown over the clothesline, when the trooper knocked at our front door. He woke up our neighbor Don, who showed him where we were. Don was calling our names and scared the crap out of both of us–the flashlight shining in our blanket tent. I can still feel that kick to my stomach when the trooper explained what had happened. My Dad pulled me to him, tears streaming down both our faces. It is still the only time I’ve seen him cry. There are few things as unsettling as seeing your very own Dad break down sobbing–especially when you’re not even in second grade. You still have no idea that your Dad isn’t indestructible. You’ve yet to realize that there are many things even he can’t do.
It was over a year before we went to Aunt Francis’ again after that and to this day, we take the long way to her place every time. Dad was mad at the whole entire world after mom died. He didn’t mean to be mad at me too. I know he didn’t–though he was pretty touchy for weeks and quick to lose his temper. I was just sad, sad, sad. I started sleeping with my old security blanket again. I still get it out of my closet sometimes and put it to my cheek. I don’t know how, but when I smell that tattered old thing, it’s like Mom is still kind of with me somehow. It sounds just idiotic to say out loud, but when I’ve had a rough day of it, that old blanket is like a good friend. I’ve never told anyone about it, not even Dad. Besides, it’s too embarrassing to admit it anyway. If the guys found out, I would never hear the end of their crap.
Mom was like a smaller, quieter version of Francis–as pretty, though less interested in being the center of attention. She would never be caught dead in a bikini at the lake, doing swan dives–or putting bourbon in her sweet tea.
She gave up smoking when she found out I was on the way. Francis said she gave up a lot of things when I came along. Mom used to cuss like a sailor too and the four of them would go out dancing and drinking together. When mom learned she was going to be a mother, she lost interest in almost everything else. I think she was trying to undo all the hurt and trouble she and Frannie went through with their folks.
It makes me happy to think that I got my love of profanity from my sweet well-mannered mom. I’d never heard her even curse under her breath. The worst thing I ever heard her say was, “Damn” once. She made me extra bacon for breakfast that morning. As I wolfed down the fourth slice, I promised not to tell dad. Everybody in the family always tells me I’ve got her eyes. I don’t know what exotic bird I got my nose from, but it sure wasn’t my parents. They looked like old movie stars in their high school year books. Mom in those kooky black and white shoes–with her pant legs rolled up to make sure everyone could see them, I guess. In her prom picture, her hair was in this flip thing at the sides and she wore bright red lipstick. Dad was in a tux that looked about two sizes small. Somehow he still looked pretty good.
If you haven’t already forgotten about my split lip and are still curious how I got it….As I mentioned earlier, I rode my bike into town that morning, just looking for something to do. It was summer time and there are usually a few kids I know in town playing baseball, or just hanging around the mostly vacant downtown trying to entertain themselves. Just kids doing bored kid stuff like throwing rocks, having spitting contests, or following girls around in hopes of pissing them off somehow, just because it’s kind of fun to see what they’re capable of. I don’t normally get involved with bothering girls, but on this particular day, everything was particularly screwed up. Most kids understand that there is a pecking order and that the bigger the kid, the more likely it is he/she is going to have their say so. I’m well aware of the laws of the land and survival of the fittest and stuff. Unfortunately, Mickey Sullivan was either too naive or just plain stupid and unaware of these untold rules of adolescence. So when he decided that it would be a fine idea to crash the Finley sisters’ backyard tea party with water balloons, and since I had no idea who the Finley sisters were, I was only slightly reluctant to join in on the insanity. We stowed our bikes behind some bushes and Mickey tried to wheel his kid sister’s red wagon as quietly as he could down the alley behind the Finley’s. It was filled to the top with our ammunition. My index finger had a blister later that day from knotting all those stinkin’ balloons. We crouched down behind this old clunker and peeked in at our targets through a knot hole in their fence. They were just a bunch of giggling girls with dolls and a tea set on this worn out picnic table. They seemed a little old to be playing with dolls, but what the hell do I know about girls? Mickey opened their unlocked gate, looked over at me and said, “Are you ready? Aim. FIRE!” He was a mad bomber, firing half a dozen to my one. Guess I was a little hesitant after all, when the screaming began. I was about to toss my second balloon when a giant girl, at least a foot taller than me, suckered punched me right in the mouth. Mickey took off running without a peep and left me to defend myself. Why he didn’t suspect that the Finley’s much older and 6 foot tall sister would be supervising the girls during the summer, I’ll never know. I was bleeding and blubbering apologies and she let me go, but not before promising to find out just who in the hell I belonged to. Humiliated, I tucked my tail between my legs and rode the two miles back to my Aunt’s.
Turns out, Uncle Fred is good friends with Hunter Finley, the girls’ father. It probably won’t be surprising either when I tell you that I had to take a ride into town that evening with him and found myself in the Finley living room apologizing to all of the girls and their parents. The girls were giggling at my swollen lip and really didn’t seem too upset about the situation. Mr. and Mrs. Finley were pretty pissed off, however. They said we broke a couple of tea cups that were valuable. Why you would carry expensive dishes out into the yard, of course I didn’t get to ask. I had to send my allowance to them for what seemed an eternity to pay for the cups. Mickey, of course, got off without so much as a tongue lashing. He’s like a free range chicken, not a lot of parental supervision, or concern.
Aunt Francis liked Miller High Life in the summer, or sweet tea with a big old splash of Kentucky bourbon and ice to the top of the glass. She’d strut around barefoot in cutoff Levis and her favorite T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. It was Uncle Fred’s old UAW tee–faded navy blue with tiny holes eaten away by some splash of battery acid or bleach. Francis would rub the glass across her forehead and let out a whistle through her front teeth as she flopped down in the glider on the porch. We’d all gather there on Saturday afternoons when I’d visit–me with a ridiculous mountain of ice cream, Uncle Fred chomping on the stinky old stub of a Swisher Sweet, while Henry the dog licked himself silly over a flea he just couldn’t reach. When I saw Henry’s ears stand up, I knew he was about to lose his mind over something. Then I heard it too–that pathetic excuse for a car horn on Ernie the mailman’s car, which meant he was headed this way.
One time Henry, the absolute worst dog in the whole impossible world, nearly caught the west bound by way of Ernie’s white wall tire. Henry hates that guy’s little car (something about those brakes makes the dog raise his hackles and howl like a beastly hound from hell). The second he hears them squeaking, he becomes a madman, without fear and even less sense. He seems to think he can grab one of the tires or bumper like he would one of those unfortunate squirrels I’ve seen him disembowel in Francis’ backyard. Ernie must have been in an awful hurry, because he just kept on going as he flipped Henry the bird and I didn’t need to be a lip reader to know which choice words Ernie mouthed as he made his way past the house.
Henry doesn’t mind Ernie once he’s out of that evil car of his–maybe Henry just doesn’t like Japanese cars. Ernie’s little orange Datsun is a two-door, gas-saving, penny-pincher’s dream. Auntie says, “Well it’s practical, but I’d rather drive my god forsaken station wagon, then that tangerine-colored nightmare.”
Francis couldn’t care less about pinching pennies. She’s not exactly fancy, just unconcerned about saving a nickel per gallon on gas, 20 cents on corn niblets at the grocery, or clipping that coupon out of the Sunday paper to get half off of whatever the hell it is they’re trying to con you into the store with in the first place.
Uncle Fred has a good job at Allison’s Transmissions that he hates, but he will do it until he’s dead (that’s what he always says anyway). He lets Frannie control the checkbook, but not without some snooping through the statements each month. Their farmhouse is over 100 years old and Uncle Fred paid cash for the thing outright in 1957. “I didn’t need a god damned bank then and dammit Frannie, let’s keep it that way! I don’t want you setting foot in JCPenney’s again for at least another month.”
Like I said, she ain’t fancy, but she does have a thing for giving crazy gifts–ones your own Mom and Dad would NEVER EVER get you in a million years, even if they hit the lottery. This one time she bought me the best catcher’s mitt that the Crawfordsville Sportsman Shop had in the store. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I ripped off the newspaper wrapping (see, not fancy). I stuck that sucker up to my nose and breathed in the newly stitched cowhide, nearing what can only be described as prepubescent ecstasy. My Dad was so worried I’d lose the thing, that he made me write my name all over it and he even had Francis sew it on the label. The guys still give me shit about it. “Hey man, does your Auntie sew your name in your undies too?” “Gee, is that MY glove you’re using, Reggie.” I don’t care though, because I have the best mitt on the team.
For my 11th birthday, Aunt Francis went about nuts and gave me this new Schwinn bicycle, with a blue, bass-boat-sparkle paint job, wheelie bar and matching banana seat. I thought I was dreaming when she rode it up the sidewalk and said, “Happy Stinkin’ Birthday, Kid! Here ya go.” Uncle Fred had parked a couple of blocks down so they could surprise me. They had it all planned out with dad. To make sure I was out front when they showed up, Dad had me trimming the hedges ON MY BIRTHDAY. I should have known he was up to something, even he isn’t that much of a hard ass. I had only been at it about 10 minutes when Francis rolled up all smiles and long legs. Dad and Uncle Fred couldn’t stop laughing at the wreck I’d made of the hedge–I was kind of having an internal temper tantrum as I hacked at the already crooked row of yews lining the front porch. “How in the hell did you make such a mess of that in 10 minutes flat, son?” At least I never had to do that chore again, just help clean up after dad finished it.
Do I need to mention just how much I loved THAT BICYCLE, though? I made more enemies that summer from nothing more than bicycle envy, than I have in all my years since. Most of the fellas got over it eventually. Most of them. I think Robby Reisert would have, if the following summer I hadn’t given his girlfriend a ride home from school on it. She was giggling the whole way there and was about to swoop in for a kiss when I gently brushed her away, but not before Robby looked out his front porch window (they were next door neighbors). His version of the story was completely different and there’s still a little scar under my left eye to prove it. Robby just couldn’t believe that the prettiest girl in school–his girl–had gone temporarily mental over some weirdo and a stinkin’ bicycle. He knew it had to be all of MY doing. “Come on man, there is no way in hell TINA JACKSON wanted to kiss YOUR scrawny bird beak of a face.” Robby just didn’t understand the powers that bicycle possessed. Believe me, I was just as shocked as he was when she puckered her lips and leaned in.
Aunt Francis parked the station wagon in the drive and ran back inside. She didn’t say what she’d forgotten this time. The front seat was loaded already–beach towels, a thermos of sweet tea, magazines she planned to read on the beach and a bottle of her homemade tanning lotion (iodine and Baby Oil)–that stuff makes her smell like old Doc Richard’s white coat. When he leans over to stuff the tongue depressor down your throat, you get a whiff of medicine, rubbing alcohol and all things awkward. She had already run in for the peanut butter sandwiches she left in the kitchen. Henry, her beagle/basset mix, had somehow managed to wrangle the bag off the counter and wolf down two sandwiches before she could scoop up the others off the floor. The second time she had to double-check the pot roast she’d put in the Crock-Pot for Uncle Fred’s supper. He refuses to face another work week without his “Sunday Meat.”
OK, she’s back. Finally, we can get a breeze rolling through this beast of a car. My legs are melting into the vinyl seat, which still stinks of Henry the dog, even though she just cleaned out the car this morning. That dog is the worst dog in the world. He once tried to bite me, stole my candy bar and took half my hotdog right out of my hand, destroyed my baseball cleats and chewed holes in my tube socks (my favorite ones with the school color stripes). He wakes me up way too early every time I sleep over. He took a pee on my sleeping bag and chased the cutest girl I ever saw down the block—I haven’t seen her since. The worst part is, I’m his favorite, damn it! Henry follows me everywhere and he tries to sleep with his stinky old head ON my pillow.
Uncle Fred says “Damn it, Henry” at least a million times a day. I thought “Damn It Henry” was the dog’s full name, till mom explained it to me. At least Henry knows where to poop. I stepped in it three times before I remembered. He also tries to do his part to help clean up the yard—sometimes I see him out there snacking on old piles. That dog ain’t right!
“What’d you have to get this time, Aunt Francis?“
“Oh Honey, I forgot my tampons, but you’ll have to ask your
mother what they’re for.”
“Well, um, it’s grown up lady stuff, OK?”
Tampons? I’ve seen that word in the bathroom cabinet. T-a-m-p-o-n. Hmm. I opened the end of a wrapper one time, but that just made me more confused. “Just forget about it hon. You can talk to your mom when you get home.”
Aunt Francis was backing down the drive and absent-mindedly rear ended the poor defenseless mailbox, for what must be the 100th time. That thing’s so smashed in, the mailman has to hand deliver anything bigger than a stamped envelope. He gets so shitty every time and starts harping at Francis to make Uncle Fred get a new one. “He’ll get around to it one of these days. I’m sorry, Ernie.” And with a smile all is forgiven. Aunt Francis can still catch a fella’s eye. She always says, “I might be pushing 40, but with the help of a good bra and Clairol’s Day at the Beach Blonde, I’m still getting the job done.” She is pretty. My friend Billy loves to sit next to her. His nose wiggles and works just like his pet rabbit’s, trying to hold onto my Aunt’s perfume.
Good Lord. I thought we’d never make it to the highway. She even had to stop to get gas AND run in for cigarettes. Uncle Fred gets so pissed at her for smoking. Not so much cause it’s bad for her health, he’s just so worried she’ll burn the house down. “Hell Frannie, you never take more than a few puffs and then you’re side-tracked again—curling your hair, scratchin’ the dog—there are more burn marks in that kitchen countertop than the Silver Dollar Bar has drunks.” Once again, a smile and a smoke ring and Fred caves just like he did when they first met. The whole damned town knows that story. I’ll save it for another day.
We make it over to Billy’s house without further incident, though we’re nearly forty-five minutes late. Billy has been pacing a rut in the carpet in front of the picture window, watching for us. I’m sure he was happy to see me. I hadn’t seen him since Easter, but I could tell he was more excited about the chance to press himself up against Aunt Francis
once again–hoping her signature scent (Shalimar) would stick to his Florida sunset tank top. I was kind and got in the backseat, even though his lusting after my Aunt gives me the creeps. My own obsession with the check out woman at the IGA (Renee) makes us just about even, I guess.
IGA Renee works weekday afternoons as a checkout clerk. Her wavy red hair and that little bit of cleavage peeking out from under her burgundy smock gets me every time. I stop by after school. Depending on whether or not I got my allowance that week, l buy a YooHoo and/or Snicker’s Bar. Sometimes, I’ll skip lunch so I have money to buy something. Heck, I even go in there when I don’t have a nickel, just to mosey around the store. I just can’t help myself. Uncle Fred says, “It don’t hurt a fella my age to dream big.” He caught me gawking at her one time when he was in town for my birthday. We drove down to get ice cream and beer for my party. She bent to pick up the quarter Fred purposely dropped and my eyes nearly leaped from their sockets. My 12 year molars clanked together when Fred finally grabbed my chin and shut my gaping mouth for me. Despite all of Uncle Fred’s teasing, I can’t quit my fantasy land crush from kicking in every time I near that corner. The IGA is at 3rd and Elm–about two blocks away, my pace quickens, my blood pressure too. I get to thinking something must be wrong with me. Why do I dream about her, but don’t give a second thought to Abbie, the freckled blonde in my sister’s class? Abbie keeps putting notes in my—everywhere—locker, bicycle spokes, mailbox—even my catcher’s mitt at practice (I was humiliated). She is one year ahead of me, but she looks really young for her age. Maybe she skipped a grade, or two—something. I guess she is kind of cute, but in that kid sister way that seems more like how you might feel about looking at a puppy, or a baby chick.
When Billy got in the car, Francis leaned over and gave him a big hug. I even saw his eyes close—that weirdo. He kept smelling his arm hoping for Shalimar traces as Francis hit the gas again. There’s the sign for 47, thank God. It’s a short drive—fifteen minutes, or so and we’ll be out on the dock diving into the murky water. It’s a little fishy at times there. “It is a lake after all, Billy!” I always have to remind him why swimming at the lake is superior to Turkey Run swimming pool. “Come on Billy, don’t be a baby! Pools are for sissies.” You can’t run, wrestle or horse around. You’ve gotta be all civilized—it’s like swimming at school, or worse—CHURCH!
Lucky for me, my family rarely attends church. With all of my impure thoughts about Renee and my love of profanity, I would be racked with guilt daily. We only go there for a wedding, funeral, or some kind of holiday event—my cousins in the Christmas Pageant, singing in some choir thing, that kinda stuff.
After 20-some cannon balls, as many dives, attempted back flips and belly flops, we stopped for a rest and ice cream cones. On our way back to the water, we spotted what might have been the cure-all for both Billy’s and my obsession with the over thirty set. This red-haired college girl and her younger sister were taking turns diving off the platform. We walked over to join them and Billy made some comment about red heads. In less than 5 minutes, they were back on their beach towels—pissed off and pointing at us so their mother could give us both the stink eye too. Those girls were the only ones all afternoon who had even looked at us, let alone conversed. Billy ain’t much to look at and I’m no kind of prize. I’ve got a bird beak and my ears are so over-sized I could probably fly if I gave it half a try. On the bright side—at least my nose and ears are an impossibly matched set. I actually thought the younger sister was pretty—the funny thing is—it’s only the second time any girl near my age even caught my eye. I’m always so busy day dreaming about Renee, I don’t usually notice other girls. Maybe there is hope for my lost soul after all. If nothing else, she provided a much-needed distraction from my usual daydreams….
After hours in the IGA office—I’m suddenly a high school senior working afternoons as a bag boy, in swift route to checker. I have to stay late so Renee can teach me how to use the cash register. Soon after, the burgundy smock comes off. Rattling that wrist full of bangles, she offers me a ride home and instead she heads straight to her little trailer….
Aunt Francis is calling us—something about Uncle Fred’s supper and wilting from the heat. One more dive and we head in, though not before Francis makes her grand finale dive of the day. She does it every time. I’m always surprised Billy’s eyes don’t quit on him as he watches her come up the ladder and do one more dive off the platform, just to tease the onlookers. The two beer-gutted fathers lurking on oversized lawn chairs are guilty of gawking as well—all greasy and covered in what looks to be pork rind crumbs (I recognize the wrapper from all of my IGA stalking). She probably enjoys getting them all worked up before she leaves—barely waving as she walks by.
To be continued….
with Russell and Otis