Hidden Treasures

Having just arrived in Georgia, I really didn’t know anything about the flora and fauna. That proved to be a problem immediately.

As a kid of about 12, I was happy about the move. I knew the circumstances surrounding it had to do with my mother’s drinking problem, but not much beyond that. Years later, I got a half-assed version from my father, but it doesn’t make much sense based on who he is and what I’ve seen of him over the years. So rather than try to figure it out, I just don’t care. Anyway, I’m sure most kids would be really upset about being pulled out of school and away from friends at the end of the sixth grade year, but for me, there wasn’t a lot of angst about it. First, I didn’t have many friends. I was sent to “visit” the school one day in fifth grade, and I met some people that I thought were really cool. I even went so far as to think we were “friends.” Well, I didn’t see them again until the following school year. During that time, they’d pretty well forgotten me. Couple that with the fact that the group of them had been friends since kindergarten, and I’m on the outside looking in. Kind of the story of my life.

So when it came time to move, it was no big deal to me. I was going to have to make new friends, but maybe I’d have more success in the south than I did on the left coast.

Anyway, I didn’t know anyone in Georgia except some of my paternal family members. A couple of cousins, to be precise, and my grandmother. No one else. I met Chubs that summer, and his prissy little sister Missy; their dad and mom, who I thought were cool until much later when I realized differently; and that was about it. Some guy named Calvin, who Chubs’ dad called “Cahvin”, helped us move out when we left Georgia nearly two years later, but I don’t remember when I met him. So, for the rest of the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years, I had my brother Ryan and occasionally Chubs and Missy for company.

I didn’t know any of that when I got there, though. My maternal grandmother traveled with us on the plane. She was the “adjustment period” to help us get used to living in a new, unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. She and my father’s mom always seemed to like each other, though the language barrier between them could be a comedy gold mine. My mother’s mom is from El Salvador and has a thick accent; my father’s mom was from the general area where she lived (God only knows exactly where) and she had a thick accent. A simple statement of greeting could last five minutes.

Anyway, I really didn’t know anything about the place. I’d visited before, but only for a week or two at a time on family vacations. Those were small concessions my father received from my mother during their marriage, I guess. So, that bright, sunny day sometime after we moved in, my brother and I were getting the lay of the land and running all over the yard, looking in the new “house” (if you want to call it that) and just being kids, trying to get a feel for the new homestead.

Our parents had gone ahead of us to make ready. My father already had a job by the time we got there. He’s always been lucky like that. There were a couple of cars in place: a gold 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass with a black Landau top, and a baby-blue 1971 Olds Cutlass with a white Landau top. The furniture was all in place; the stuff that didn’t fit in the house, evidently, was discarded somewhere. The only thing for my brother and me to do was get settled with whatever clothes we had with us and start having fun.

The yards were strange to me. Having grown up in California, I wasn’t used to yards without fences. The neighbors where I grew up made sure to mark their territories immediately and often with 6-foot tall wooden walls between their property and the next nearest human being. Interestingly, they’ll wave at each other in the driveway and sometimes visit with one another over the top of the fences, but God forbid we leave the fences down. “Good fences make good neighbors” was always the motto.

Here, there was exactly one fence in sight, and it was between my grandmother’s lot and the lot behind hers. It was a fence of heavy-gauge wire in a mesh pattern, but not chicken wire. The “posts” of the fence were about three feet high, maybe four. It was overgrown with a tangle of greenery thick with leaves and flowers which I later learned was honeysuckle. The shrubbery was so dense, I couldn’t even see the fence wiring beneath it.

And that was the problem. I didn’t know anything about the wildlife in Georgia, and I couldn’t see the fence. See the problem?

So my brother and I were racing around the yard, whooping and yelling like chimps escaped from their keepers, and we get a load of that fence. My grandmother’s there, talking about a section of her yard near it, showing my other grandmother that particular little piece of dirt she called a garden, but I wasn’t really interested in that. There was something on the other side of the fence that got my attention, and so Ryan and I darted over to have a look.

We were excited and wound-up, making a ruckus such as the neighbors probably hadn’t ever seen. Everything was fascinating to us — my grandmother’s gravel driveway (never saw one of those next to a paved road before); the thick greenery in the middle of summer (that doesn’t happen where I grew up); the spacious, rolling lawns (it looked like they just grew wild, as though no one planned and landscaped the yards); the sky that wasn’t quite blue; the ancient, green lean-to and it’s weird, coiled-snake-in-the-wall electric heaters; the fact that the old shack was held up on the back side by a stack of cinder blocks; the huge apple tree and the swing hanging from one of it’s branches. You name it, we were amazed by it.

I ran toward that fence all gangly and awkward with my thick glasses and long, unkempt hair and my ultra-cool desert boots and jeans. I went thundering down the slope of the lot and raced to the honeysuckle, putting my hands out in front of me to stop myself from crashing into the wire beneath, never knowing it was camouflage for a predator waiting to spring on the innocent, unsuspecting children new to their territory.

I was looking over that fence and wondering about the other side, whatever it was, when I felt something between my index and middle fingers on my left hand.

Suddenly my hand burst into flames and the agony shot up my arm and all the way into my brain.

Okay, not literal flames, but the closest description I can give you to the sensation I had was like being burned. It was so intense and hurt so bad the hair on my body stood up immediately. I pulled back my hand, confused and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I stared down at my hand in horror, panic gripping me like the convulsions of a heart attack.

There was a large, winged insect with piercing, black eyes and a yellow-and-red striped abdomen writhing between my fingers, jabbing at me with it’s ass as like it was trying to copulate with my hand. The brownish-red wings beat angrily in the air as it struggled between my digits. My finger, pulsing and red, told me this was obviously some sort of stinging insect, and clearly it wasn’t going to die after stabbing me with its venomous dart.

A shiver twisted up my spine and I felt the adrenaline rush flush my cheeks. I gritted my teeth to keep from screaming and clenched my fist as tightly as I could, crushing the buzzing, creeping, undulating miscreant and severing it at the needle-thin waistline.

I shook the corpse from my hand an
d clenched my wrist; the pain would NOT subside. It just kept pounding and pounding, and my finger was getting really, really big now.

I looked at the fence where I’d put my hand, and all I could see was the dense leaf canopy of the honeysuckle bush. Carefully stepping forward, I moved a couple of leaves aside.

Under that blanket of innocent, cool greenery, was a pulsing, humming network of papery tubes and yellow, buzzing monsters. Just like the one that tried to kill me.

A wasp’s nest. A big one — bigger than the span of my hand. It was alive with motion and sound as the pissed-off inhabitants geared up for a more massive counter-attack on me.

I back-pedaled so fast I almost tripped, and then took off like a bolt of lightning toward the house where my parents were still unpacking sundries. Somewhere there was a sound, a constant wail that sailed like a stream of wind through the air, and it was only after I crashed through the storm door into the tiny green asbestos-coated cabin that I realized it was me, yelling in pain and fear.

There was a few minutes of coddling by my mother, who gasped when she saw my ever-enlarging finger, which eventually swelled so large the folds of skin on the backs of the knuckles actually turned inside-out, becoming ridges. There was a chiding about not bothering wasps from my hayseed, hick-reverting father, despite my protestations that I hadn’t bothered them and didn’t even know the damned nest was there. There was an ice pack, which did nothing, whatsoever, and then the hours of vigilance by both parents to make sure I didn’t have an allergic reaction and go into anaphylactic shock (I didn’t).

That was my first memory of living in Georgia permanently. Welcome to the country, city-boy.

-JDT-

Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet …

Waymond, I decided, was an idiot.

Yes, his name was Waymond, NOT Raymond. I figured his father was Elmer Fudd; that’s why he was such an idiot.

I was never a brilliant chess player, but I was okay. I learned some from my father. One day, when I was probably nine years old, I was being baby-sat by someone, and the man showed me a way to put someone in checkmate in four moves. It was pretty simple, provided the player didn’t know jack about the game. Once you do, of course, it’s an easy strategy to stop, but if you’ve never seen it before and don’t do something instinctively to stop the set-up, it looks amazing.

It’s easy to do; move the pawn out of the way so that the queen and the bishop on the other side of the king can be positioned diagonally in front of the other player’s king. When the time is right, move your queen in front of the opponent’s king and bang! Checkmate. If the king is moved to take the queen, the bishop you’ve positioned is there covering so the game is over.Like I said, it’s a simpleton’s trick, and it’s easy to stop. If you don’t know it’s coming, it looks like voodoo.

So, when my dad came home that night with a guy he worked with at the M&M Mars plant in Cleveland, TN, I was introduced for the first and last time to Waymond, idiot extraordinaire.

He was a tall, dark-haired man with an accent so thick I found myself saying “huh?” almost every time he spoke. Poor bastard must have repeated himself about a hundred times over the course of the night. I couldn’t take my eyes off the tiny stump of bone that poked up through the stubbed off thumb on his right hand. I wanted for all the world to ask him how he lost the first segment of that digit, but I knew it’d be rude. I just couldn’t tear my stare from it for long. The flesh on that finger was drawn back from the bone, exposing about a quarter of an inch of the dark gray skeletal support like a barbequed pork rib.

We talked and my parents laughed with Waymond over dinner, and afterwards. He was, from all appearances, a likeable, funny guy. Like I said, though, I couldn’t understand a word he said. It was no big deal; I could tell from my mother’s laughter that she either wasn’t able to figure out what he was saying, or was only laughing to be polite most of the time. My father seemed to understand him better if not completely. He laughed in all the right places and all the right ways, which only made Waymond talk more. Waymond got louder when my father started laughing, so that told me the story being relayed was intensifying and he’d get a funny smirk on his face as he waited for the appropriate howls from the audience. I just stared at that creepy finger bone and wondered how much it must have hurt to lose it.

I can’t really remember how it came up, because I was like 12 or 13 and wasn’t really interested in the conversation going on at the time. That, and there was that language barrier happening for me. So I started zoning. But, at some point as the evening dragged on painfully, someone mentioned “chess.”

My ears perked up when I heard the word. “You play chess?” I asked him, suddenly sitting upright in my chair. Waymond smiled and drawled something like “A little bit, yeah.”

I smiled too. “Wanna play?”

He grinned deviously. “You bet. Got a board?”

I refrained from making a comment regarding why I’d ask if I didn’t have a board and pieces to play on and went to get mine. It was a magnetic one, with a metal board on the outside of a box lined with foam that had the little cut-out shapes for each of the pieces to go in. The little plastic pieces had a magnet in their bases and the bottoms were felt-covered to keep those magnets inside. It wasn’t nice, it wasn’t fancy, but it had all 32 pieces and I liked it because they wouldn’t get lost. So I darted off to my room to get the set and from behind me I heard my father mutter, “Now, the kid’s pretty good, Waymond.”

As Waymond was saying something unintelligible, I returned to the kitchen with my set in hand. I sat opposite him at a tiny table in our kitchen, and I had the pieces out and set up in just a couple of minutes. I was listening to Waymond turn his r’s into w’s and wondering how he’d do in a spelling bee until I finally looked up and said, “What color do you want to be?”

Waymond patiently looked at me and gently said, “Tell ya what, you go ‘head and be white. I’d rather go second anyway.”

I shrugged. It didn’t matter to me. “You sure?”

“Yep.”

“Okay,” I said, and I popped my king’s pawn forward one space.

Waymond wasn’t paying too much attention as he moved a pawn and continued talking to my father. I moved out my bishop as I always did. He moved a pawn on the other side of the board, trying to flank my positions. None of the power pieces were moved. I wondered what he was up to and went ahead and called out my queen. When I did, he moved a pawn forward, which is exactly what I didn’t want him to do. He’d stopped the maneuver without even paying attention to what he was doing.

I was rattled. Waymond stopped yammering, sensing that I was uncertain of myself. My father and mother were silent. For some reason, everything focused on me at that point. I needed to actually take the time to assess the board and decide what my next move would be.

The quiet in the room was unnerving me a bit. I watch Waymond over the rim of my glasses, trying to casually assess his face and see if he’d betray his next move somehow. All he did was wink at me, which kind of pissed me off.

For a moment, that guy that showed me the four-move maneuver flashed through my mind. He set me up real casual like and seemed very pleased to beat a young boy at an adult’s game. I wondered, just for a moment, if Waymond was like that too and was sandbagging me. I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t like that wink.I moved a pawn just to kill some time, see where he was going. He chuckled. The sound got under my skin and tightened my sphincter. I gritted my teeth and tried to smile. I don’t think it worked. He moved a piece, a bishop I think, out onto the board and I was carefully considering what to do next. Waymond took that opportunity to go back to joking and teasing with my father and laughing.

He had a pawn squarely in my way. If I took the pawn with one of my own, I’d have the board set to pull the maneuver again. It would take more than four moves, but I could still do it. I wondered, briefly, if he knew what I was doing. I decided I couldn’t worry about that and took the pawn with one of my own. Now I was going to have to move that pawn to clear the path I needed.

Something happened. Waymond stopped chuckling and joking around with my dad. He went silent and sloooooowly leaned forward toward the board.

He moved a piece somewhere over to my right. I figured he was moving toward my queen, but it would be a couple of moves before that would be able to happen. I was watching the center of the board carefully. I wanted to make damn sure he didn’t put anything in the way of my next move, which would be the fatal blow. Since he hadn’t, I wondered what else he may have had in mind. I knew what I was going to do, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t have something else to watch for. A surprise now would be unpleasant. If I lost that queen, I lost the game. The instant someone took my queen I was pretty well dead in the water. Like I said, I wasn’t brilliant at the game.

I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye.

Waymond was rubbing his forefinger and stumpy, bone-exposed thumb together.

I was absolutely riveted by that motion. The sight of that dark protrusion rubbing against his finger was fascinating in a groteque, horror-movie sort of way. It was impossible for me to tear my eyes from that motion. He’d rub them together, just over his rook to my left, and then his hand would go sti
ll. Rub-rub-rub, still. Rub-rub-rub, still. I fought a shiver from running up my spine, but I couldn’t take my eyes from his hand.

Slowly, deliberately, I moved my pawn forward.

I jumped out of my skin when he shouted “You fell for that?!?”

I blinked at him, blankly.

“I cain’t buhleeve it,” he drawled thickly. “You fell fer thuh oldest trick inna book!”

I was in a panic. What had I done?? What had I fallen for?? What had I missed?? I was watching the board carefully, but I’d been beaten before by not seeing a move that was as obvious as the nose on my face — AFTER it had been executed. It was what separated me from the really good players; they seemed to be able to see the board from all angles, see every eventuality, cover all their bases. Me, I was lucky when I could see a couple of moves ahead. For the most part, I wasn’t able to do that for some reason. That makes the people that know me best now laugh and scratch their heads. They can’t figure that one out, because that is most decidedly not how I am now … except in chess.

“Man, I got you lookin’ over here on this side,” he said, “so you ain’t lookin’ over here at this side!” He laughed as he moved one of his bishops out to take a pawn from in front of my other bishop, which still hadn’t been moved.

I felt the hot flush of blood that raced up my cheeks when he scared the hell out of me with his outburst subsiding, and my heartbeat was down to about 300 beats per minute by then. I nearly laughed aloud when Waymond sat back in his chair and cackled loud and long to the ceiling, rattling the tiny house’s frame with the audio waves gushing from what I’m sure was a halitosis-laden maw. He put his hands over his gut and I again was staring at that bare-boned thumb, wondering again what had happened but now sure that it had been due to his own stupidity.

I seized my queen and slammed it down in front of his king, knocking the pawn aside roughly and shouting “CHECKMATE!!” as I leaned forward over the board to emphasize the point.

He dropped instantly into silence as he snapped his head down to stare wide-eyed at the board.

I folded my arms across my chest and watched his face as he leaned closer and closer to the board. The room was silent again.

After a moment he leaned back, running his fingers through his hair. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Waymond muttered.

“Like I said, the kid’s pretty good,” my father chuckled at him.

I don’t know if I ever won another game of chess. And frankly, I don’t care.

-JDT

Aerial Attack

“Kee-yum on,” she cooed in her annoying, cloying baby-doll voice, “kee-yum on an’ get some!”

She was holding a handful of shelled walnuts, the kind you get in the baking aisle at the grocery store. She hunched over in what she imagined would be a position of invitation, staring up into the tree with her wide, bug-eyes and toothy smile, and watching intently as the observer above her cocked his head from side to side, measuring up the situation.

“He’s not gonna come down with you standin’ there,” my father drawled lazily. It was interesting, but when my father was doing “country” things, his Georgia drawl got heavier. When he was in our company, he spoke more like we did, with little or no trace of a drawl.

“Oh,” she groaned, “all right. I’ll put it down at the bottom of the tree.”

She, of course, was my mother. I sat on the ancient, tired concrete slab that was our front porch, and watched as she padded over to the huge tree overshadowing our tiny front yard and poured the nuts out onto the ground in a hollow between two tentacles of root matter that webbed throughout the yard just beneath the rich soil. He, being the one to whom my father referred, was a big, fat, well-fed gray squirrel. He was at the top of the trunk of the tree, just beneath the canopy’s umbrella of that great and self-impressed tree, clinging to the bark and skitching his irritating little squirrel screech at us.

My father slowly dragged on his cigarette, and shook his head.

Somewhere up above the squirrel, the blue jays began their ruckus too. “Hush!” my mother admonished them, “You’ll scare him away.”

“They’re not going to scare him,” my dad patronized.

It was an interesting conversation, believe it or not. My mother worked most of that morning to try and coax that squirrel down. She set out the nuts and the squirrel would stare at them until she came back in the house. Then he’d skitter down and snatch one and then scamper back up the trunk of the tree.

And the blue jays would come in and take the rest.

“He doesn’t get any of them!” Mom protested, “They keep taking them!”

I chuckled. The autumn was fading toward winter, and the skies got heavier and heavier as the humidity began to clear the air. Every morning a dense layer of frost settled over everything to warn us of the impending slumber of the earth, caking over grass, rooftops, car windshields and what was left of the leaves on the towering trees. It would vanish with the sizzling caress of the sun every day, but came again at night, silent as a stalking cat, swooping over all the unsuspecting landscape like a bird of prey. It was a busy time for critters like squirrels and blue jays; they were readying for the months of lean to come with scarce food and frigid nights, or were preparing for their long winter’s sleep in a warm, dark den or burrow. So, if there were walnuts left lying around on the ground, everything within striking distance was going to take them.

In this case, they were squirrels and blue jays.

I think it’s funny that my mother hated rats, mice and shrews, wasn’t all that fond of hamsters and guinea pigs, but adored squirrels and rabbits. What the difference was, I can’t tell you. For some reason, the squirrels were “cute” and the mice and rats that occasionally shared our home with us were “ugly” and “creepy”, eliciting violent shudders as the “willies” shook their way down her body. So, she didn’t have a problem feeding the squirrels that took up residence in the tree over our yard. But the blue jays weren’t welcome to what she set out for them.

I think they knew that, because they tormented her relentlessly. Whenever she came out of the house they’d scream at her in their raking, rasping caws like miniature crows disguised as beautifully colored birds. They followed her to the car and crapped on it. They came from all the other yards to harass her, and would settle in what seemed like clouds on the limbs of the great knotty guardian of our house and shouted their bird obscenities at her.

Just like they were doing now.

She came back and sat beside me on the porch to the chorus of yells from the caterwauling jays – which quieted when she sat down – and watched the squirrel.

He eyed her carefully, moving in those jerking, jittery motions that low-on-the-food-chain animals use to make sure nothing’s going to eat them before their next meal. She sat huddled with her balled hands in her lap; any weather below about 70 degrees was cold to my mother. She hunched over her legs and watched the twitchy rodent take a couple of short, rapid half-jumps toward the food.

Then the jays came down in a single-file line and each one picked off a mouthful of nuts in a swooping arc that came down then back up again, vanishing into the leaves of the tree to laugh their midget-crow laugh as my mother wailed at them. The squirrel skittered up the tree again, then turned and twitched his tail a couple of times with his head toward the ground, watching what was left of the nuts.

Every time he moved toward the nuts, the jays would strike, a neat and organized line of fighter pilots performing at an air show, darting at high speed to the ground to gather the walnuts and then swooping gracefully up into the tree, each to their own branch, and burst out laughing in their wicked bird-laugh.

Finally, the squirrel twitched and the jays swooped like a gang of hoodlums, taking what they wanted in their looting raid, a group of airborne Vikings pillaging the walnuts nestled at the bottom of the tree, and my mother couldn’t take it anymore. She charged them, waving her arms at them futilely, moving with all the dexterity of a sand-barred flounder and shouting “Shoo! Stop it! Go ‘way!”

They burst out louder than ever, mocking her, raising a cacophony that actually echoed down the street in their mirth and taunting of her. She stood at the base of the tree and stomped her foot in frustration, putting her hands on her hips.

That’s when the rock came dropping out of the tree and plunked down just inches from her, zipping just past her nose and making her jump back, startled.

She stared at me wide-eyed and incredulous. “Did you see that?? That bird tried to hit me with a rock!”

I was dumb-struck – no easy feat, just ask anyone that knows me well. I was astounded; the birds had launched a counterattack against her, and even gathered weapons to do it. Clearly, these were no ordinary birds; they were the avian mafia, angered over her attempts to cut in on their action. The message was clear: butt out or sleep with the chickadees.

“They’re smarter’n you think they are,” my dad drawled. I had to look and see if he was chewing on a hay stalk and wearing overalls.

“That’s impossible,” I spat. “Birds can’t use w
eapons.”

“They’re smarter’n you think,” he reiterated, and leaned against one arm propped on the front door jamb. “They’re damn smart.”

“Yeah? We’ll see,” I said, and stood up. “Put down some more nuts, Mom.”

I braced myself, straightening my pants and tussling my hair out of my eyes. I watched my mother as she again approached the tree – much more gingerly this time – and set out another handful of the oily bait. I got ready, hunching down in my running back’s stance as she retreated hastily from the tree with the bag of nuts in one hand and the other held over her head.

As soon as that squirrel moved, I knew the birds were going to drop out of the tree, and when they did … I was going to be hard on them and get one of ‘em.

I was tensed and ready, the squirrel assessing the situation, the jays quiet and positioning themselves on the branches above.

The squirrel moved. The jays launched. I sprang.

It was a blur, a flurry of motion and noise. I cried out like an Apache warrior, hurtling myself forward at break-neck speed on a perfect trajectory for the line of jays as they floated down toward the fresh pile of booty. They hadn’t counted on my sneak attack; they were busy watching my mother and didn’t see me coming.

I knew I had them.

As I raised my arm to swat the leader out of flight he turned up his wings, hitting the air brakes, and twisted his deft tail to one side. His body pitched sharply and lightning fast to my left and he arced over my shoulder, leaving me flailing and beating empty air as he casually picked the pile going the opposite direction. He wound up the tree on the other side and vanished into the tree’s canopy above me.

But I wasn’t done yet – I hit the brakes and turned quickly in my black wallabies, charging the other direction, roaring as fiercely as a 13-year-old boy can. As I approached, limbs flailing and beginning to lose what little control I had over my gangly, about-to-hit-a-growth-spurt adolescent body, they banked smoothly as one to my left and arced down just ahead of me. I tried to accelerate and they stayed barely, maddeningly, frustratingly out of the reach of my fingertips as they picked the pile of walnuts cleanly from the ground and spiraled around the massive tree trunk up to the safety of the branches.

I couldn’t adjust.

The smooth bottoms of my shoes slid like I was on ice, and I flailed my arms trying to regain balance. I toppled head-first forward, shouting not with rage but fear now as my feet each went their own individual ways and my head pulled my body over my center of gravity forward. In a panic, I dove, trying like hell to avoid the wild bramble of a rose bush that grew just beside the porch, and fortunately I made it … and smashed the top of my head against the unyielding, immovable asbestos stalwart of the house.

I was jarred immediately backward onto my rump, all the air whooshing from my lungs in a furious rush that left me gripping my ribs in agony and writhing on the dirt, grass and leaves of the lawn.

There was a gasp from my mother, who stood up to see if I was all right, and a burst of hissing, wheezing laughter from my father. As I got up, the uproarious racket of the jays, laughing and teasing louder than ever before, rained down on me for minutes. It died down about the same time I got my breath back.

“Are you okay, son?” my father chuckled.

I nodded, ashamed to meet his eyes.

“I guess they’re smarter’n you think, ain’t they?” He smiled at me. I couldn’t help but smile back.

“Yeah … yeah, I guess they are.”

And then a rock dropped just inches from my face.

-JDT-