Bill vs. the Wetter

When my brother Ryan was 5 or 6, and still relatively normal, he had a friend named Timmy who lived across the street from the cul-de-sac where our house was before we moved to Georgia.  Timmy’s family was a nice one; he had a baby sister, his dad drove a big Lincoln Mark IV and his mom was a nice, blond lady named Nancy who stayed home just like our mother did.  Nancy and my mom became fast friends, and that’s how Timmy and Ryan got to be best friends too.

So, when my best friend Bill came for his summer visit with us that year, he not only had to put up with Ryan’s pestering parasitic presence, but he had to deal with Timmy tagging along from time to time too.

The neighborhood was relatively new and more and more houses were crowding around our pie-piece shaped tract lot.  Saplings were desperately struggling to take root and neighbors desperate to keep up with the Joneses were dropping in sod and sprinkler systems every weekend it seemed.  We lost access to a lot of the places we used to play as those open areas transformed into frames for houses and fences began springing up like ragweed on the sides of the rolling hills surrounding the sun-baked suburb.  We had to go farther away from home to find open areas to play in, and my parents were in an ugly battle with a Frenchman who bought the house behind them over the fence that needed to go up and the property line.

That summer Bill brought his bike with him, so we could take bike rides and get away from Ryan and Timmy from time to time.  Other times my mother left us “in charge” to watch Ryan while she was shopping or getting drunk.  We’d stay in the cool of the central air conditioning and play inside when she was busy, and the most fun game we had was torture Ryan.

We got back from my grandmother’s house late the night before, so the next day was the first day that Bill and I were able to start enjoying his stay.  We had long, hot days to enjoy and it was always okay for us to stay up late when Bill was there.  We had to be quiet, of course, but we could stay up late.  So it was going to be fun.

First on the agenda was a trip to a tiny little candy shop positioned behind the Stop-N-Go just a short bike ride from the new development.  It was in one of the older parts of town, but the roads had been extended and wound up the steep hill to where our new houses were, so there was a line on the street where the old pavement stopped and the new pavement had been added just a couple of years before.  The old streets were pock-marked and pot-holed with years of abuse and disrepair, and the tinier houses from the past era were swarmed by large, mature trees that shaded the yards and made the sidewalks buckle from beneath as the roots pushed under them.  The steep hills that led down to Railroad Avenue from the side streets were a fun bike trip and we’d peddle down as fast as we could through the quiet neighborhood, whooping and yelling and being kids.

We’d be given an allowance for Bill’s visit.  It was generally five dollars, which in the middle ’70s was a lot of money for two kids under 12.  Naturally, we’d blow it all on candy, but it wasn’t as easy to do then as it is now.  The miniature grocery store nestled in the bottom of an ancient two-storey stucco building had one of the best candy selections in town.  We bought a lunch-bag full of stuff and had spent less than a dollar.  Bill took those opportunities to tell me about all the new candy brands and types he’d tried since he last came, and pointed and said “Those are great, get some o’ those,” or “Aw, these are so damned good!”  It was always so cool when Bill swore.  I have no idea why.

So, the next trick was getting ourselves back to the house — it was uphill all the way — with our booty in hand.  Boys didn’t have baskets on their bikes, of course.  And, to make it worse, the bike my parents had purchased for me had shock absorbers on the front and a dense, heavy metal frame.  It weighed about 10,000 pounds and scrawny, geeky-assed me had to peddle that son of a gun up hill for what felt like 10 miles.

By the time we got back home, I was exhausted, hot and sweaty.  We walked into my room and were greeted by Ryan and Timmy.

I knew by the look on Ryan’s face that this was going to be his chance to show off in front of Timmy.  He had that little brother sneer that tells you right away he’s going to try and push buttons and say things to tick you off, so that when you retaliate the scream for mom could be sounded.  And my mother, overly protective of Ryan since he’d been run over by a truck at two years old, would rush in and get in the faces of the older kids to leave him and his friend alone.  It never mattered who started it; it only mattered who was loudest.  That was Ryan every time, all the time, bar none.

“Hey, who’s this?” Bill said, thrusting his chin at Timmy in greeting.  Timmy shied away, and Bill got a quizzical look on his face, looking to me for cues.

“It’s Ryan’s friend Timmy,” I intoned heavily.  “He lives across the street.  What are you guys doing here, Ryan?”

“I live here too, JD!” Ryan said, his voice dripping with contempt.

“Yeah, not my choice.  Bill, let’s get out of here,” I said quickly.

“Why?” Bill said casually, dropping onto my bed and bouncing.  Ryan and I shared a room, and always had to my memory.  But when Bill came to stay, he and I would stay out in the living room in sleeping bags.  My mother always left the “spare” room for “guests” that never came.  She never once considered separating Ryan and me, and when Bill came, he didn’t want to sleep there by himself.

Ryan was on his bed with Timmy standing next to him.  Timmy was a nerdy little kid at five or so; he had what seemed like a big head, with his platinum blond locks and ice blue eyes peering out of his milky white skin.  He had a mealy-mouse little voice that almost always whined, and a mono-toned laugh that was more squeal than giggle.  He was pretty well-spoken and a hell of a lot quieter than Ryan, but he had a pants-wetting problem that his mother was trying to figure out and solve.

“Because we don’t want to be around these turkeys,” I said, staring right at Ryan, knowing what he was up to.  “Turkey” was vernacular for jerk at the time, and Ryan was still sneering at me.

“Nah, they’re cool,” Bill said.  “Want some candy?”  He held out his open bag to Ryan and Timmy, and they hesitated only a second before diving in.

“Hey, just one!” he snapped, trying to close the bag as they tore into his stash like vultures.

“Mom says you have to share,” Ryan snapped, getting snippy.  Here it comes, I thought.  Not even 24 hours and it’s starting already.  I knew the shout for my mother wasn’t far away now.

“I did share, you little prick,” Bill snapped back, and I instinctively blushed at his foul language in front of Timmy.  I still thought it was cool, though.  It made Bill seem more “bad” when he swore, and his use of words forbidden from our own vocabulary always attracted me.

“Mom –” Ryan started.

Bill stood up quickly, menacing Ryan with one fist clenched over his candy sack.  “Shut up you little ass!  I did share with you, butterball.”

Timmy was cowering between Bill and Ryan, who were squared off  between the beds in the room.  Mine was against one wall, with the foot of the bed pointing toward the door, and Ryan’s was against the opposite wall, on the other side of the room with a window between them and the closet at the foot of his.  There were two nightstands between them and the ventilation register set into the floor. Other than that, the only thing separating the two was Timmy.

“I’m gonna tell my mom if you don’t get out of here and give me s
ome candy,” Ryan threatened, sitting forward on the bed in defiance of Bill.  I don’t think Bill was used to being defied by little kids, or even kids his own age.  Bill was used to getting what he wanted when he threatened other kids, and when he didn’t, he followed through on his threats.  He’d grown up in a much more urban setting, in a much larger town, full of very different, city-smart and street-toughened kids.  White-bread suburbia was different for him, and Ryan was a spoiled little snot with a mouth like a foghorn who knew that his mother was going to intervene every time he mouthed off and got into trouble.

“I did give you some, you little shit,” Bill spat, getting angry now.  “You didn’t even say ‘thank you’ either, butterball.”  He always called portly Ryan butterball.  He said he looked like one of those Thanksgiving turkeys you get at the store with his waddling girth and double-chin.

“I don’t have to say ‘thank you’ — my mom says you have to share, so you have to give it to me.”

“Oh, I’ll give it to you all right, you fat little punk — right up your ass I’ll give it to you!”

Bill had lost his temper, and he moved forward and gave Ryan a firm stiff-arm shove to the shoulder, sending him backwards onto the bed.

Unfortunately, timid Timmy didn’t have the brains to get out of the way, and Bill’s body pushed the twiggy little whelp aside and down onto his butt, hard on the floor.

“Oh, sorry, kid,” Bill started, but it was too late.  Timmy wailed and tears gushed down his cheeks as he made the loudest sounds I’d ever heard him make.

Bill’s face drained of color as he reached for Timmy’s hand, but Timmy was sitting square on the floor with his head hung and his eyes closed, with that siren sound vibrating our eardrums and bouncing off the walls, rattling the window in its frame.

“Hey!” Bill yelled, trying to be heard, “Hey, it’s okay!  You’re okay, it’s no big deal!  Calm down!”

“Here, Timmy, have some candy!” I shouted, holding out my open candy bag and trying to see down the hall, looking for that inevitable shadow of my mother rushing to murder us for making a child cry.

“Stop!  Stop crying!  It’s okay!” Bill said, then looked at me helplessly.  “Is this guy some kind of sissy or something?” he asked.

“Well … yeah, but …” I stammered.

Bill had an idea.  He dropped his bag on my bed and picked Timmy up quickly and put him over his shoulders behind his neck.

Timmy was startled into silence.  “How about a ride in a helicopter, Timmy?” Bill said happily, trying to inject lightness in his tone to brighten Timmy more.

“Hey, put me down!” Timmy laughed, starting to giggle.

I started to warn him, “Bill, you don’t want to do that, he has a prob–“

Too late.  Bill started spinning, with Timmy extended and stiff out on either side of his head, spinning like a helicopter’s propeller.

“Here we go, gettin’ ready for take off!” Bill said, and he spun a bit faster.  Timmy was laughing uncontrollably, loudly, and Bill started making what he imagined were helicopter sounds.

“Bill, I don’t think you should –“

“Okay, let’s get up some speed and really move now!” Bill continued, and Ryan was laughing and squealing loudly along with Timmy, who was absolutely shrieking and turning red with mirth.

“Bill, I really think this isn’t a good idea, he’s –“

“Look out, JD!” Bill said, “here it comes for a landing!”

I closed my eyes and shook my head, brushing my long, unruly hair out of my eyes and sat on the foot of my bed, trying to stay out of the way.  Gradually, slowly, Bill slowed the momentum of the boy and began to wind to a stop.  Then he bent down and flipped Timmy over his shoulders to set the little tow head down on his feet between the beds again.

“There!” he beamed proudly, “wasn’t that more fun than …”

He stopped mid-sentence, looking at me.  I had my hand on my forehead, a pained expression clearly stamped on my face, not looking at Timmy.

Bill’s face sank out of his broad smile, and he turned to look at Timmy.

There was a large, dark wet spot between Timmy’s legs, spread in almost a perfect circle out from the crotch.  In the exact spot where Bill had him perched on his shoulders.

Bill’s eyes widened in horror.  “Oh my God!” he whispered.  “You pissed?? You pissed on me??”  He was completely incredulous.

Timmy looked calmly at Bill.

“Well, you were spinning me and spinning me and …”  Then he shrugged with his hands outstretched as though there were nothing more to say, no more explanation than that needed.

Silently, jaw slightly agape, Bill strode out of the room and past the linen closet just outside our bedroom door, into the bathroom beyond.  The door closed and the lock clicked.

I looked over at  Ryan and Timmy.  They stood and moved quickly.

“Timmy’s gotta go home and change now,” Ryan said hurriedly.  “Tell mom I went to his house.”

They raced down the hall and I watched behind them as they vanished into the foyer.  Directly down the hall, I could see my mother through the sliding glass door of the dining nook, puttering in the garden.  She’d never heard any of it.

A second later, the front door slammed shut.  An instant after that, I heard the shower running in the bathroom.

-JDT-

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The Cyclone Fence Incident

When you’re a kid, and a stranger in a strange land, it is absolutely, vitally important that you be cool.

It wasn’t always possible to be “bad.” “Bad” was a special kind of cool that carried other sort of things. To be “bad”, you had to be really great at something, or a lot of things. But most of all, you had to be tough to be “bad”. That was the keystone, the foundation, of all badness — being tough.

One of my problems was, I was a dork. I had thick glasses and bad teeth, and my thick torso and long limbs made me look funky and weird even though I was more athletic than I knew. That led to the second of my problems: lack of confidence. So, for the most part, I didn’t compete with other kids in physical activities, because I was convinced it would lead to embarrassment and not being able to be “cool” any more. Being cool was crucial; it was the difference between being an outcast and being a punching bag.

With all that going for me, my first exposure to physical education in Georgia was horrible. It meant being in shorts — decidedly uncool — in front of a lot of kids that were looking for reasons not to like you. It meant being forced to participate in sweaty, stinky games with and against other kids, putting my cool facade at risk repeatedly. In fact, every day. And it meant that I was likely to be the subject of a lot of whispering, laughing and pointing — all favorite activities of kids with a stranger in their midst.

I didn’t have any choice either. This is part of school — they don’t ask you if you want to do it or not. You just do it. I decided then, that hot, first early autumn school year, that I’d try. I’d really try to be less than a dork, and see if I could do it. If I couldn’t, well … I always had the asthma card I could pull out and use.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, while I wasn’t an exceptional athlete, I was able to keep up with other kids my age, and was actually superior to some of them. There was big John Magnussen, an overweight smart kid that did everything he could to avoid PE. He brought in a note every year that pretty much excused him from PE, and sat in the bleachers of the gym or on the grass on the field, watching it all happen. There was Johnny Hunter, too, and while he wasn’t overweight or anything, he was a nerdy kid, and didn’t do very well. They ended up being friends of mine, as you can imagine, because we were all outcasts. It was band together or be isolated and mistreated. There was at least a little safety in numbers.

Scott Bianca was, I was pretty sure, well on his way to being gay. He and another kid — whose name I can’t remember to save my soul — hung around together. The term “gay” wasn’t popular in that age group at that time, and it certainly wasn’t accepted. So there we were, trying to survive the schoolyard and the humiliation of PE, the four of us being scorned, picked last or not at all until the teacher had to assign us a team, or just ignored. We liked that best.

But in the end, I did all right. Not a lot of kids were superior, but there were a few. After a couple of months of getting used to trying and not taking anything too seriously, I didn’t dread PE quite so much. I still dreaded it, but not as much.

So, that gray and soggy day in October, in the heart of football season, it was time to play flag football on the practice field where the school team ran their routines.

Flag football was something I’d done in California for PE too. I was at least familiar with the game. So when the sides were divvied up and I was left standing there with my four nerdy friends, I decided I was going to go for broke and really try to play well. Not just keep up — outshine.

It was a bold move. I had to be great or I’d spend the rest of the school year as the butt of every joke by every kid on the football team. There was no room for error. Any screw-up would be certain kid rep death.

John opted out, and Johnny was gangly and awkward. Scott just did his best to hang out with his other femme friend and stay out of the melee. But I dove in head first.

At first, I was reserved. I was being careful and not making mistakes. After about 10 minutes of that, I was really opening up the floodgates. I made catches — a new thing for me then — and made plays, ripping flags free from ball carriers, rushing the quarterback, doing whatever was asked of me and doing it really well. It was all going great.

Then my big moment came. I’d been so cool, I was sent to cover a receiver. That was huge for nerds. You’re always asked to stay back, stay out of the way, play deep, make sure you don’t get in the way of the “good” players. But I was being asked to be one of the good players.

I was in my glory.

I stood there, watching the kid as he flanked out wide toward the fence. That side of the field was mucky and wet from all the heavy autumn rains. The field, belonging to a Catholic school, wasn’t the top priority for school funding, so it was bad. Mud holes, thin grass, and one side lined with viney, climbing plants of some kind that grew up over the cyclone fence separating the school from whatever was beyond it. I never knew, and still don’t.

He was nothing special and I figured it wouldn’t take much to cover him. He was out there alone — no one else lined up near him — so I figured he wouldn’t be getting the ball. He was just there, but I had been assigned to him and I wasn’t going to let him be open on my watch. When the ball was snapped, I was ready.

He did a little fake that didn’t fool me a bit. Then he backed up, shuffling toward the fence. He was really close to the edge of the field, and I thought he might go out of bounds, but I had my “cool” on, and I was covering him anyway.

I laid off a couple of yards, and watched the quarterback’s eyes. When they locked on my guy, my heart palpitated audibly. Seriously, I could hear the beating of my heart outside my chest. When the ball came racing in at me, on a line, I freaked.

I stepped up and sort of shut my eyes, putting my hands out in front of me to swat the ball away. I felt the pigskin slap on my palms and suddenly I was holding it.

I’d intercepted the pass.

It took me a second to realize what’d happened. I almost screamed, staring at the ball, but something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and I looked up, my limelight short-lived.

Everyone and their uncle was running right at me, full-speed.

I almost yelped, but I had to be “cool”. I bit my lip and started my gawky, slower-than-molasses-in-January run down the field. I didn’t know what happened to the kid behind me, the one I’d been covering. The waves of shouting voices coming from my right drown out any footfalls coming my way and I just ran. I got up to speed like a Peterbilt truck, but I ran as fast as my hormonally-enhanced body would carry me.

I’d gone maybe 10 yards when the tide of kids came in from the right in front of me, cutting me off. I twisted my body, trying to keep my flag out of their reach, and swerved heavily to my left, trying to get around the swell of bodies in front of me. I was caught up in the moment, running like the wind, my long black hair whipping out from my face as I hurtled headlong forward and to the left farther.

That’s when I noticed the immovable object coming up on me fast and merciless.

The fence.

I noticed for a moment that it was weird. Most cyclone fences had cylindrical posts, poles that held up the chain link portions. This one had I-beam posts, with the flat sides pointing toward the field — right at me.

I shut my eyes and held out my free hand, determined not to let go of the ball. A split second later my vision exploded into white and yellow sparks as my forehead careened off something, snapping back my head and causing a deafening ringing in my ears.

My weight shifted from the force of the blow, my head pulling back over the top of my body and sending me onto my back into the sloppy, gooey brown and red mud of the Georgia field. There was a splashy sort of plop! as I landed hard, full onto my back, my hair immediately sopping up water and flotsam from the turf, my clothes soaking through to underwear, jock strap and finally skin.

When I looked up, I was surrounded by kids, all looking somewhat concerned for me. My glasses were crooked on my face and I could only partially see the crowd, all of them murmuring and staring wide-mouthed at me. The PE teacher was bent over me, his hand resting on one knee.

“You okay?” he said, and I knew no matter how I answered, my “cool” was all gone, washed away by that muddy puddle in the middle of the practice field and swept away into the leaden sky.

“Yeah,” I lied, “I … I think so.”

“Can you move okay?”

I checked; all my limbs seemed responsive to my mental commands. “I think so.”

This brought a relieved bit of quiet laughter from everyone.

“Tell you what — that was one hell of a hit on the noggin. Why don’t you call it a day? Go get showered up.”

He lent me a hand and helped pull me out of the quagmire, and quickly whipped his hand down my back and legs to knock as much mud off as possible. I was glad my socks weren’t too bad — just a few spots from the splash. But I’d have to go without underwear the rest of the day.

As I handed him the ball and walked across the field, trying to knock more crap off my head and the backs of my arms, I was about three quarters of the way off the field when the teacher came up behind me, the game having resumed.

“Hey, hold up,” he said. “Why don’t you go ahead and call your parents when you’re done showering. Go on home for the day.”

I looked up quizzically. “Really? I mean, I’m okay, I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine.” Secretly, I wanted to go home. My head was ringing and throbbing and all my cool was long, long gone. I had no idea how I was going to face the rest of the day. And without a hair dryer to control my long locks, I knew I was in for even more uncool.

“You’re gonna end up with one hell of a headache, JD,” he said gently. “I don’t think you’ve got a concussion, but you should probably just rest for today.”

I shrugged. “Okay,” I said. I continued on toward the gym.

“Hey JD,” he called once again, and I turned around to look at him, still trying to knock the thick, gooey gunk from my skin.

“Great game, man,” he said, and smiled broadly. “Why don’t you think about playing next year?”

I smiled and went on my way.

I joined the team the next autumn, too.

-JDT-

Grizzled Old Warrior

This is an updated version of this story; if it appears in your reader or notifier, please take the time to read and let me know if it’s better now. Thanks! -jdt-

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I pushed the ancient, creaking wood-slat doors aside and stared into the saloon from the threshold. Every eye in the place fell on me while mine adjusted to the dimness of the interior. The heavy unfinished floor planks were gray and worn from years of boots dragging over ‘em, but the bar shined like glassy still water. The great mirror on the wall behind it reflected my backlit silhouette in the doorframe.

Click here to read the rest of this action-packed adventure

Dingle Balls and Outhouse Walls

Sometimes revenge is the sweetest dessert.

My parents were always the type of people that never had a good thing to say about their own kids, and didn’t mind insulting us in front of our friends. They also liked to embarrass us whenever they could. My dad would say how great this kid was at soccer, or how tough that kid on my 8th grade football team was, or how smart that kid over there seemed. He never had a kind word to say about me that I can recall. My mother, on the other hand, was the one that would take the thing you were most embarrassed about and bring it up in front of your friends. You know, like how much your ears stuck out, how bad your teeth were, your hair was a mess … stuff like that. Whatever the weak spot happened to be. That was her thing. She would say insulting things about you and if you dared mouth off back, you got slapped — or punched — in the mouth.

A long time ago she had some kind of surgery. I don’t remember if it was gall bladder surgery or what, but she couldn’t hold a bowel movement to save her life. Everything was a diarrhea attack. It meant rushing home at break-neck speeds and having to listen to her inhale sharply in fear and pain as each successive wave of Hershey squirts pressed against her very weak sphincter. She’d sprint into the bathroom and lock the door and be in there for what seemed like forever. It was a regular occurrence in our lives.

When we lived on Bell Avenue in Georgia, things got real interesting, because there was only ONE bathroom. That meant if she tied it up taking a big splasher, we all had to hold it … whatever “it” might’ve been. There were times I felt like I was going to wet myself before I got to go in there and whiz, and of course, there was always that charming aroma lingering behind her when she finally did give someone else a chance.

During our time there in Georgia, my parents bought a boat. I have no idea what make of boat it was anymore, but it was a 20 foot inboard ski boat. I think I found out about it one day when they showed up at school with it hitched to the back of the baby blue Oldsmobile Cutlass, pressing that poor old car’s rear end toward the street under its enormous weight. It was blue, too — kind of a sky blue from the bottom of the gunwale down. The top of it was white, like a lot of boats are. It had blue seats and a deep blue carpet inside, and the hold held all of our vests and bumpers for docking. In the deck there was a storage cabin for my mother’s water skis and of course all the other boat cubby holes were in place too.

When we lived in California, we lived along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, at the wide, dirty delta where they joined to dump into the San Francisco Bay. In Georgia, though, we were close to Lake Chicamauga. It was a huge lake that runs near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is chock full of fish, especially large-mouth bass. So it was a boon for both parents; my mother liked to fancy herself a “skier”, and my old man liked to fish. After my mother got enough skiing, or got too drunk to safely continue, the old man would fish. We’d spend the days out there and usually end up back home after dark sometime, exhausted and sun-dried.

Out on the water, the smothering wet plastic sheet of the humid southern air wasn’t as bad. We had to watch for summer storms, but they were usually pretty evident in a short time. We’d be able to get to a safe pier somewhere along the lake and dock, find a restaurant and eat, and wait it out. You could fold out the seats in the boat and make little beds if you really needed to sleep a night on the water. It was pretty cool, but it didn’t have a lot of amenities. It was essentially a ski boat, a boat you’d spend a day in, and then head back for the night.

So anyway, we’d spend a lot of time out on the water during the days when my father didn’t have to work. He worked in shifts for the M&M/Mars plant in Cleveland, Tennessee, and every once in a while he’d end up with a string of time off, and we’d go boating. Mom would ski, Dad would fish, and the kids either did their homework or sat there trying to figure out what to do with ourselves. If it got really hot, we’d swim for a while. My mother always wore a light windbreaker jacket and jeans with those ridiculous tennis socks that just barely cover the foot in the shoe and have that stupid fuzzy dingle-ball hanging off the back over the mouth of the white tennis sneakers she had.

We were out once, cruising the lake, just doing the weekender thing. It was summer, so we didn’t have homework, and my brother Ryan and I spent our time annoying each other and trying to see if we could reach down into the water from our seats and let the lake drag against our arms. We were out near the middle of the water when suddenly my mother inhaled sharply, making a loud hissing noise, and sat bolt upright in her chair, hands clutched to her chest, face drawn and gaunt.

My father looked over at her. “What?” he said, concerned. I didn’t even know why he had to ask after so many years of marriage. She just looked worriedly back at him.

“Oh, diah?” he said, turning back to watch what the hell he was doing.

She looked away, then inhaled hissing again, stiffening her body. “Oh … please … ” she pleaded with him.

“All right, hold on,” he said, and punched the speed control of the boat full-throttle.

The boat’s plane rose then flattened out again as it accelerated over the smooth water. My brother and I sighed in the back of the vessel; now it was a race to see if we could find a bathroom or a restaurant.

“OH!” my mother shouted suddenly, “OH MY GOD! I’MNOTGOINGTOMAKEIT! OHMYGODI’MNOTGOINGTOMAKEIT!!”

This drama wasn’t unusual, but we took her more seriously when she suddenly stiffened her body rigidly, tightening her ass cheeks to try and help her rectum hold the flood in. My father swung the boat desperately to the port, heading into a cove, and didn’t slow as he plowed through the bay toward the far end. It bent around and there was a tiny, naked dock ahead … and standing a few yards back from the water’s edge was a Port-a-Potty. An outhouse.

Any old Port-a-Potty in a storm, though. He cut the engine and let it glide into toward the dock, my mother whimpering and making gasping little desperation noises, squeaking about not being able to stand. My dad stood on the boat’s gunwale and grabbed the cleats of the dock as the boat pushed forward, fighting hard not to let the boat slam into the dock. Me and Ryan were ordered to throw the bumpers over the side to cushion the blow, and finally my mother scrabbled over the top of the deck and jumped onto the silver-wood dock.

“Mom, I have to go too!” Ryan whined. “I need to go bad! Can I come with you??” He was whiny like her.

She rushed forward, just waving him on, and he waddled after her, jerking and twisting his life jacket as he ran. My mother pounded into the tiny plastic coffin and slammed the door behind her, leaving Ryan standing outside doing the crotch-pinch potty kid-dance.

My father sighed heavily and slumped down in his seat. It wouldn’t behoove him to speak to me, so I stared off into the woods, the water and the sky alternately. Minutes rolled by. My brother began calling to my mother to please hurry, please hurry, he really had to go, please hurry. More minutes went by. Even though we were some distance from them, he could clearly be heard begging her again to hurry up, hurry up, he’s gonna pee his pants, hurry. I shook my head, wondering why he didn’t just go behind a bush somewhere, but Ryan was too stupid for that.

Finally, the door creaked open, and my mother came out, her face twisted into a grimace of disgust. I figured the outhouse was nasty, full of fecal-urine stink and hotter than an oven out in the naked spot of the lake shore. She walked away from the little latrine, and Ryan smashed in. I heard him yell “OOOOOHHHHHHH …” in relief right through the building, then my mother’s harsh “whisper” to be quiet. In a couple of seconds, he came out and was laughing hysterically.

“Somebody threw their SOCKS in there!” he bellowed, his voice booming and echoing over the surface of the water and being amplified. “It was GROSS, man!! There’s poo all over ‘em!!”

My mother, her mouth tight and drawn, grabbed his arm viciously and spoke into his ear, dragging him along with her as she headed back to the boat.  She pushed him forward angrily and he clambered in, and she stepped up onto the gunwale to climb aboard, my dad reaching for her hand to help her.

And I noticed she wasn’t wearing those stupid tennis socks.

“What happened?” my dad said, looking at her face.

“Nothing,” she said tersely. “Let’s get going, please.”

“What is the matter?” he pressed.

“Nothing, I said!”

“What’re you so pissed about?”

“There wasn’t any toilet paper and it was disgusting, okay? Can we leave please?” she snapped.

I struggled with all of my might not to burst out laughing. Ryan was sitting on the other side of the inboard motor housing from me, staring at his lap. He never said another word, but I knew what’d happened. We all did.

She used her socks to wipe her diarrheic ass in a public outhouse. Ryan saw them in the putrid septic pool when he pissed on them, and bellowed her shame to the entire lake. Of course, no one was around to hear, and I never brought it up.

We motored on as though nothing ever happened, and I’m sure my mother thought that her secret was safe with her and my father. But, like I said, revenge is the sweetest dish sometimes. Now EVERYONE knows.

-JDT-

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Night Fishing

“Night fishing” is a euphemism from the south.

I don’t know what the heck it means; my father used to laugh about it with his cousin Gerry, who was Chubs’s dad. Gerry’d come over, kind of on a regular basis, and he’d sit out in the yard with my dad and mom and laugh, joke, and drink beer. My mother, of course, wouldn’t be outdone. She’d keep pace beer for beer with ol’ Gerry, and pretty soon she’d be hammered and slurring. Swaying and sloshing her way inside, she’d finally pass out on the bed or something. I don’t remember directly, but I guess this usually took place on weekends, because my father would stay up with Gerry after my mother lost consciousness and they’d laugh some more. Eventually, somehow, Gerry drove home.

Sometimes, Chubs would come with him. He’d hang out with my brother and me, and we’d try to find things to do to keep ourselves occupied. It was harder when it got too dark to stay outside. We had to find something we could do in the dark or in the house, and it was never any fun to be in the house with my slushy drunk of a mother. You never knew what she’d do when a few beers were in her.

One time Chubs and Gerry came early in the afternoon. His nasally little whining sister Missy didn’t come with them, usually. Ryan, Chubs and I spent our day getting around Bell Avenue’s surrounding neighborhood, heading south and across Greene Lake Road, just before it became Oak Avenue, and into an empty lot on the far side.

It was a hot day — all of them in the south are. The Cicadas buzzing in the thick, lush trees rimming the area only made it feel hotter. My brother Ryan and I, not knowing what they were actually called, just called them “heat bugs.” It seemed like the more they screamed, the hotter it got. The lot bordering Greene Lake Road was overgrown with tall grass, bramble bushes and dense, malicious undergrowth that tore at your pants and feet as you tried to plod through. It left burrs, seeds and insects deposited all over your denim, and I could only feel sorry for anyone dumb enough to wear shorts. They might’ve been cut to the bone.

Twigs snapped beneath our feet as we pushed through, me leading the way with Chubs close behind and Ryan on his heels. It felt like I was exploring the African savanna, and the thick, wet air, dense with humidity falling from the Cadet-gray sky and dripping over everything like molasses, refused to let the sweat evaporate that pooled out of our skin. The sun, never clearly visible to my eye in the southern sky, hid behind his vaporous veil and taunted us as we tried to reach the point of our journey: a tiny, green pond in the middle of that empty lot.

It was tucked carefully behind brush and scrubby little trees, but I’d spotted it from the car one day on the way home from somewhere. So that day, after Chubs, Ryan and I couldn’t figure out what else to do with our times, we decided to go check out the pond.

At least it was a way for me to get away from home.

As we approached the pond, swatting at buzzing invisible insects and debris from the dusty lot, we heard a distinct sound. It was one that made all of us stop and stare at that murky green water.

A splash.

We watched the ripples roll away from the center of that little body of water where a single white patch of froth was dying, and we knew.

“A fish!” Chubs called out, grinning. “There’s a dad-dang ol’ fish in that pond!”

“Let’s catch it!” Ryan said merrily.

I nodded. “It’s too hot right now though. He’ll stay deep. We have to wait until later.”

“Yeah,” Chubs said, “let’s go night fishin’!” His thick Georgian accent made it sound like “naht fishin’.”

“Yeah!” Ryan bellowed, and just as he did, the water broke again and a new set of ringlets gradually moved apart on the water.

“Okay, let’s get our gear together. We have to wait until the moon’s high,” I said authoritatively.

I have no idea who made me an authority on night fishing. At that point in my life I’d probably caught a grand total of three fish, and none of them had been large enough to keep. And I’d absolutely never been night fishing before.

But, both of the others nodded in firm agreement.

A final pop of the water and a silent ring testified to the idea, and we were bound for home.

Ryan was about seven at that time. Have you ever tried to make a 7-year-old wait for something? It’s a nightmare. He whined, he complained, he made me want to smack him. The sun wouldn’t set fast enough for him. My mom and Chubs’s dad, meanwhile, were getting happily stupid as the hours rolled away. My mother was always easier to be around while drunk if someone else was there; just make sure you stay out of her way so you don’t piss her off. And God only knew what was going to piss her off, because my brother and I sure didn’t. So we stayed as far away from her as we could, but no matter where we went we could hear her cackling, loud-mouth laugh and we watched the sun sink on the horizon.

Eventually, we needed to eat. Still the sun hovered, seeming to grip the sky like a man hanging from a cliff, refusing to fall over the horizon. We played outside some more. We tried to watch TV, but in the days before cable, there wasn’t jack on during the summer and early evening. We tried to read comic books, but I only had a couple, and they were boring to me. I’d read them a thousand times. We played with our dolls — I mean “action figures”. We drew pictures. Nothing worked, though. The earth had stopped spinning and it felt like the damned sun wouldn’t ever set.

We were chatting in our room about something when Ryan suddenly blurted, “Hey, it’s dark out!!”

We all bolted to Ryan’s bed, positioned just under the window facing north out of our bedroom. There was one facing west, too, but that one was buried beneath the smothering tendrils of a monster bush intent on world conquest.

Outside, the tiny bulb in the lonely streetlight cast a yellowish ring of warmth on the asphalt beneath it a few houses down the road. Houses had glowing amber patches set against the frames of pitch dark to mark their presence along the street, and the Cicadas had given way the to feverish chirping of crickets.

Night had fallen when we weren’t looking, and it was time to go fishing. After hours of tortured agony enduring endless strands of time waiting for this moment, we had enough time to prepare and then make our way through the thicket of the lot to that shiny, stagnant mega-puddle.

We raced out of the room and charged the kitchen. I quickly checked, as cabinet doors and the refrigerator banged open and closed, whether anyone was in the house.

My mother had passed out, nude from the waist up, face-first on her bed. She was loudly and wetly snoring so I opened the bathroom door wide, which meant I was closing the door to her room. Shaking my head, I watched as Chubs and Ryan were slapping bologna sandwiches together at a fever pitch.

“How many you want, JD?” Ryan asked as Chubs passed him another slice of bread. He slathered a load of mayonnaise on it and then set it beside him.

“I guess two,” I said, and joined the assembly line by slapping a slice of bologna on each set of sandwiches. I closed them all one by one as I did, and soon we had food for the three of us to go long into the night.

“Okay, that’s good, get some drinks,” I told Ryan. He was only too happy to obey instructions when it meant something for him, so he hurried back to the fridge and grabbed a few more cans of soda pop, one for each of us.

Chubs was putting everything into a grocery bag, which at that time were all paper. The loud rustling of the heavy brown bag was noisy and I put my finger to my lips to silence him.

“Quiet!” I said softly. “C’mon, let’s get our stuff and get going.”

My brother and I each had a pole, and we found a clunky old spare for Chubs among the others stored in the “spare room,” which was really a storage locker full of boxes and sundries that hadn’t been unpacked, weren’t able to find a place for, or simply weren’t needed in the rest of the tiny green asbestos-armored house. Without really thinking about it, I grabbed the tackle box, too — a collection of fishing equipment and supplies my father had from when I was a little boy.

With Chubs carrying the bag of food, Ryan carrying the bag of drinks, me carrying the tackle box, and all of us armed with our fishing rods, we set off toward that mysterious pond on the far side of Greene Lake Road. As we crossed the yard, the glow from the fire at the end of the cigarettes our fathers were smoking turned our way.

“Where y’all goin’?” I heard Gerry ask.

“Night fishin’,” Chubs said. “Up the road here a piece.”

That brought a round of wheezing, uproarious laughter from both men. “Oh, night fishin’, huh? Well, good luck then.” I could tell by the way my father spoke he was being facetious and condescending. I decided not to retort.

“We’ll be back before morning,” I called over my shoulder.

“I’m sure you will,” he said, and more laughter chased us up the street as we set off for the pond.

We headed up the hill south and crossed Greene Lake Road for the second time that day, and as we watched the full moon crest over the trees in the distance, we started across that empty lot.

We’d had to work hard for it in the light. At night it was downright hazardous.

Ryan kept shouting “Ah! Ah!” every time his foot fell farther that he expected into holes or divots. Chubs and I kept shushing him, but he’d just whine that he couldn’t help it. Big clods of dirt reached out of the black and tripped us, making us stumble. The tangles of dense, malevolent undergrowth that had slashed at us during the day slithered around our ankles and bound us at night. We fought for every inch, scanning every so many steps for the reflection of the moon in the pond, listening for the splash of the fish in its cooling muck-filled waters.

I saw a clearing ahead, and I whispered that it was probably the pond. The water would be the only place where the thicket would be clear. Chubs craned his neck and Ryan stood on tip-toes, trying to follow my pointing finger into the blackness.

Finally they said they could see it, and they moved off ahead of me toward the clearing.

Distances are deceptive in the dark, though.

Ryan was ahead of Chubs and had taken about 10 steps when he screamed and flailed. I heard a slick, slopping sound and his grunts of disgust before he started screaming for help, he was falling, help, catch him, helphelphelp!

Chubs burst out laughing his hyena’s lilting laugh, but Ryan caught his wrist as he toppled, and the next sound I heard was a series of splashing into ever-deepening water. There was a wailing screech as Ryan sputtered and spat slimy pond water out of his mouth, and a split-second later I heard the water’s surface break again followed by more sloppy, mucking footfalls and rushing water as it pours off a wet body, then the wails of Ryan mixed with Chubs’s laugh.

“What happened?” I said.

“The dad-danged pond’s right here,” Chubs told me, trying to stop laughing. “We were past it before, I reckon, so me ‘n Ryan walked right into it.”

“I need to go home,” Ryan whined, fighting back tears, “I got mud in my socks and I’m all wet. I need to change clothes and get dry underwear.”

Chubs couldn’t stop laughing. “I cain’t change!” he giggled. “This is all I brought with me!”

The slip-slop, slip-slop, slip-slop of their footsteps all the way back home marked our passage back to tiny green house. When we got to the yard, the two men started laughing.

“Hey, you’re back,” Gerry spoke through his wheezing laughter. “An’ jus’ in time; c’mon, Chubs, we got to go.”

“Catch anything?” my father said, wheezing his laugh right along with Gerry. I guess the way you laugh in Georgia is just like Muttley in the cartoons.

I didn’t say anything as I put the tackle box and my rod away. Ryan made a B-line for the bathroom and closed the door behind him to get out of his sopping clothes.

I sat down on my bed and just laughed. I laughed and laughed for hours, until I finally drifted off to sleep.

I’ve never been night fishing again. And I still don’t get the joke.

-JDT-

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Bill vs. the Carp

Lake Berryessa is a big lake formed by the Monticello dam just east of California’s Napa Valley. When I was a kid, my parents used to spend time with Bill’s parents boating and fishing on Lake Berryessa, in an area known at the time as Spanish Flats. It had a dock, a bait shop and general store with a pier for boat fueling, a gravel road that led to those things, and I’ll be damned if I can remember anything else about it.

When I was a kid, summers usually meant at least one extended trip to Lake Berryessa. It probably wasn’t more than a few days, a week tops, but it always felt like a really long time. And the ride up there seemed long and boring too. We took long, winding roads up through the Napa Valley, passing under tree-canopy covered roads lined with ancient oaks and other deciduous trees. It was up and down hills all the time, my father towing our red Caravelle ski boat behind us with the big V-8 engine of the Bel Air station wagon laboring over the meandering blacktops.

I don’t remember the sweltering heat, but I know it was there. The lake can get warm in summer — like, 75 degrees, so you know the sun just bakes the water. That was a drought time for California, complete with water conservation mandates and penalties. We were even asked to recycle bath water, if you can believe that, and to avoid showering whenever possible in favor of baths. The legislature also wanted us to bathe less frequently, but most folks just flat ignored those stupid things.

I wasn’t more than 8 or 9 at the time. I didn’t know how to swim yet, so the summers were spent in either a Mae West style, bright-orange choker of a life vest, or, if I could convince my parents to allow it, in one of Bill’s ski vests. The foamy interior was covered with a thick, paint-like covering to keep it water tight, and the pressing of the non-breathable surface on my skin made me sweat and itch. My swim trunks were usually not well-fitting either, so every time I stood up or sat down there was a ceremony of adjustment that had to take place.

During that time, there were still rumors and discussions about the specter of the Zodiac killer, who murdered a young couple on the lake a few years earlier. He’d never been caught, and many of the trips to the lake were tainted for me by the fear that my overly-paranoid mother exuded. She was particularly afraid of the prospect of sleeping on the boat, but the lake offered no other alternative. It wasn’t like there were 5-star hotels rimming the area or anything. So many a night I drifted off to sleep with every sound shooting a startled burst of adrenaline through my veins. The pitch black and deathly quiet finally would overtake me and I’d sleep. In the morning, I’d awake, still alive and with both parents whole and intact.

Most of the time on the lake was pretty enjoyable, though. My mother’s alcoholism hadn’t really started to be a problem for me yet. At least, I can’t remember it being one. Maybe she was less of a raging lush when she was there, or something. All I know is, Bill and I would do things and hang out there and have a good time.

Fishing was a major thing for my dad. He would go off by himself, either to the end of the dock where the boats were moored, or by the shore somewhere in a relatively secluded area. The Spanish Flats area was in a lagoon off the main lake, so you could wander past the dock and get to a little bay where the road didn’t run. Sometimes he went there to fish. My mother was more of a skier, though, so he didn’t get tons of time to fish. He had to drag her around behind the ass of the boat and watch to make sure the idiot didn’t drown or lose a leg on a log.

One day, Bill and I spent our afternoon fishing too. We went to the bait shop, got some worms or nightcrawlers, and headed off to a quiet place to cast our Zebco-equipped rods out into the stillness of the no-wake area of the resort. Of course, neither of us knew a lot about fishing. Bill was mostly a city kid, from the urban sprawl that is supposed to be San Francisco’s southwest suburb area. I was a goofy, unathletic dork who couldn’t manage to hook a fish even when I did get a bite. So needless to say, we didn’t catch much but the blistering rays of that blazing sun. We ended up coming back to the dock with a styrofoam container full of dead worms and a better tan, Bill with his well-muscled bare chest and me pulling and adjusting the sweaty life jacket and tugging endlessly on my shorts.

Bill was complaining about it to my father, parroting things he’d heard from his father — the water level was too low in the cove, the pollution was up from all the boats, the fish population was down due to whatever … stuff like that. The dusty, dry wood of the dock kind of echoed his sentiments under his bare foot while he tapped his toes impatiently, sort of ticked that we got nothing.

My father just chuckled at him. “You want to catch a fish, Sweet William?”

My father called Bill “Sweet William” as long as I could remember. I have no idea why, and I don’t think Bill did either. Most everyone else called him “Billy”, but my dad always had to be different. They teased each other and Bill would play practical jokes on them — that’s probably where the nickname came from now that I think about it. Bill was always doing something shifty and mischievous.

“Well, yeah, that’s why I fish,” he said, being ever the smart-aleck.

“Well, I can get you a fish, then,” my dad said. Bill looked at him suspiciously.

“How? I told you nothing bit. Nothing.”

“Need the right bait,” my dad said wryly.

“Worms aren’t the right bait?” Bill said, even more suspicious. “Don’t all fish eat worms?”

“Not all of ‘em,” my dad said. He was sitting on one of those aluminum framed chairs with the nylon webbing that you saw at picnics and beaches, the ones that folded down into a small footprint to fit into the car, and pinched the hell out of your fingers on their way. Beside him was the cooler full of our food for the trip. Just a short car ride away was a general store, so for extended visits you could go get more supplies, but we usually lived out of the coolers when we were there. He was rummaging around in there for something, and when his hands emerged, wet from the melting ice inside, he held a piece of white bread and a can of 7-Up.

“What’s that for?” Bill said, his attitude becoming curious and inquisitive. My dad had his attention now. Mine too.

“This is your bait, boy,” he said patiently. As he spoke, he took the bread and mashed it violently into a tiny ball of dough that was so compressed and mushy it held its spherical shape in his palm. Bill leaned over to watch as my dad took his rod, found the hook, and poked it through the doughy glob. Holding the hook over the water, he pulled the tab of the can of pop off the 7-Up and poured the fizzy, clear syrup over the ball of bread. When the bubbles died he did it again, and finally a third time. The little doughy ball was wet and sticky with the soda.

“There ya go, Sweet William,” he said. “Take this and cast it off the dock just about anywhere, and I guaran-damn-tee ya you’ll catch somethin’.”

Bill looked at him sideways. “You sure? With this?

My dad nodded slowly. “With that.”

Bill shook his head incredulously. “Okay … if you say so.”

My dad settled his bulk into the tiny chair more fully and it complained about it while Bill strode down the dock a few paces to an empty berth. He looked at me, and I shrugged. He shrugged back, then he pressed the line release button on the Zebco and the little ball of dough dropped into the water and vanished into the murky, aquamarine water. Just a few feet below the surface it vanished from view.

Bill sighed and sat down at the edge of the berth, plopping his chin in his palm with an I-feel-like-a-complete-idiot-for-fishing-with-a-dough-ball look on his face. “This is so dumb. How can you catch a fish with a –“

He never finished his sentence because his line snapped violently taut and the Zebco screamed as line was torn viciously out of its spool.

Quick as a wink, Bill jumped up and took the rod in both hands to steady his grip. “HOLY SHIT!” he burst out, “I’ve got a BITE!” I stood with him, eyes wide through my thick, horn-rimmed glasses, adjusting my ski vest over my skinny torso and fixing my swim trunks again.

He tugged on the line, firmly but not too hard, trying to set the hook. The instant he did, whatever was on the other end fought violently back, bending the tiny rod into a parabolic U-shape that dipped sharply toward the still surface of the water.

“Damn!” he cried, “it’s heavy! Doyle, help! Help, Dad!” he was calling for the men to assist him. I knew then that, whatever he’d caught, it must surely have been the size of a Buick. If Bill couldn’t handle it alone, it was Monstro the Whale.

His father poked his head up from the deck of their boat, and watched. “Whatcha got there, Will?” he said, smiling.

My father sauntered over with his hands in his pockets, laughing. “Got a bite, Sweet William?”

“Holy crap, what IS this thing?” Bill said, “I can’t even reel it in!!”

My dad reached for the fishing pole. “Here, give it here,” he said. Bill obediently passed him the rod, and he watched as the line swirled and zig-zagged over the surface while whatever was hooked frantically swirled about to escape.

Slowly, patiently, my dad began to draw the line up. He would allow the pole to dip toward the surface, then draw the pole back up and simultaneously wind the reel and retract some line. He’d repeat the process, and tell Bill and I to let the fish get some slack, then tighten it so he can’t go back toward the bottom, then do it again. Some kind of redneck crap like that. We weren’t really listening. We just wanted to know what the hell it was.

Finally, with a dramatic and heart-stopping splash, the mysterious captive breeched the surface of the water and showered us all with spray. Bill was shouting excitedly as my father handed him the pole again.

“You bring ‘im in, Willie,” he said, smiling. “He’s a big ‘un.”

Bill was all grins as he struggled with the beast, its flashing scales and spiny fins breaking the water’s surface as it fought to dive to the safety of the deep again. Bill pulled heavily, grunting with the effort as the big fish rolled over on its side as it tried to sound, its brass-coloring gleaming in the midday light. He called to his dad who was bringing a net, saying to hurry, his arms straining against the struggling giant that would not surrender.

His dad got on one knee, laughing and shaking his head, and my father was rolling in hilarity next to him. Bill’s dad scooped down with the fishing net, and when he tried to gather the monster in, he stopped laughing.

It wouldn’t fit in the net.

It was too big. Bill was panicking, his body leaning back as he struggled to hold the pole, still bent over and occasionally touching the water’s surface.

“Dad, Doyle, what do I do? What do I do?” he said urgently. “I can’t hold it up much longer!”

I put my hands next to his on the pole and offered whatever pathetic measure of strength I had in his effort to keep the fish from ripping the pole out of his hands. I could see the sweat dripping from his hairline in exertion, and he smiled briefly at me, grateful for the help.

My father and Bill’s dad reached down together, and with one of them holding the end of the rod and the other clutching the line tightly, they grunted and heaved.

And Monstro finally cleared the surface of the water.

As they lifted it free, Bill wound the line in, making it possible for them to set the huge fish on the dock’s shaded surface. It arched its body frantically, its empty, staring doll’s eyes staring blankly as it bent into a C-shape and then suddenly contracted into a U-shape, slapping the slimy, spiny fins and tail on the dry wood.

A monster carp, lurking just below the dock the whole while. Not an eating fish, but certainly fun for sport.

Bill was ecstatic! He shouted victoriously as he stared at the leviathan. It was three feet long if it was an inch, and was so thick the body breadth came nearly halfway up Bill’s shin. The scales were the size of thumb nails, and the sharp fin splines could puncture skin. The raw-meat red gills fanned out then collapsed as the fish gasped for oxygen and from exertion. My dad bent down and somehow managed to remove the hook from the fish’s lip. Its tiny mouth worked opened and closed as if in relief from the pain.

“There ya go, Sweet William,” my dad said, patting him on the shoulder.

“Thanks, man!” Bill said, “I’ll never doubt ya again! You really know your fish!”

My father laughed. Bill’s dad rumpled his hair affectionately. “Good work, son. Let me get the camera and we’ll take a picture of you with it.”

It was only a moment before he was back with an old camera (even at that time) in his hands. He fussed with it for a moment, the fish continuing to pound against the dock angrily with its arching, straining body.

“Okay, Will, hold the fish up so we can have a look at it,” his dad said.

“I can’t,” Bill said disappointed. “It’s too heavy.”

“All right, then put your foot on it instead. That’ll help give it some scale.”

“Okay,” Bill said happily, and he dropped the pole on the dock next to him. I moved aside so the shot could be just Bill. I was always camera shy anyway.

Bill balanced on one leg, lifting his right foot off the ground gingerly over the fish. He slowly and gently lowered the sole of his bare foot onto the slimy skin of the hefty fish.

The fish didn’t like the victory celebration.

It slapped faster than ever before, faster than lightning, and when it did, the spiny, sharp tail poked Bill’s foot hard. He yelped as blood oozed from the tiny wound, and the fish lashed out again. He wailed in fear and jumped aside.

The fish twisted its huge body in mid-air, in an amazing display of strength and athleticism, and with an effort that cannot be defined in earthly terms, it literally danced on the dock, flipping back and forth from one side of its body onto the other …

… and managed to get off the dock and back into the water before any of us could react.

There was a huge splash, a whipping of the water into a frothy foam, and then silence. Bill watched, his face fixed in horror and shock, mouth agape.

We stood there watching for a long time before my dad came back over.

“There are other fish, Sweet William,” he said.

Bill just nodded, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye.

-JDT-

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Common Trauma

It happens to us all at some point in our childhoods. That just doesn’t make it any less traumatic.

In case you haven’t gotten the picture yet, my mother’s a real piece of work. My father moved us all to Georgia, and she let him know about how unhappy she was every chance she got. When she got a little lubed with liquor, which was pretty often, she’d let loose even more. He’d hang his head and suffer through it for some reason, and go on his merry way being spinelessly ignorant of his options. To get even for being forced to live in Georgia, she’d make him send us back to “visit” her family in California as often as they could scrape the money together. That wasn’t often, but I don’t think he saw his family more than a handful of times in my memory. If we made it back to California two or three times during our time in Georgia, that was a lot more than he got back to see his family, before we got there or after we returned.

One of those trips at least was during the summer. My brother and I weren’t in school and the oppressive, thick heat of Georgia was dripping over everything like hot syrup. You’d sweat and never dry off. Our lean-to little shanty of a house didn’t have any way to cool down except box fans, and those did a lousy job of it. When we got back, I don’t think we were even unpacked completely that night. It was just too hot to do anything except spend time with our dad and go to bed.

Bell Avenue is dark at night. Really dark. There was only one street lamp that I can recall, and it was far enough away from the house not to do anything helpful. Even if it could, there was a terror of a bush standing higher than the roof of the little crackerbox house that sprawled like a Kraken threatening to drag down a ship, and it was positioned between that pathetic, weak light and the front of our house. We lived in its shadow in the day, and at night it shrouded the house in a blanket of pitch that was impenetrable. Add to that the pea-soup humidity that moistened everything, and the light had no hope of making a dent in the blackness.

Waking up in the night, then, got pretty interesting. The room my brother and I shared had two windows in it: one that faced into the belly of that beast of a bush — and we couldn’t see any light through it in strong sunshine — and was shielded by it; the other was on the wall adjacent and looked down the gradual slope of Bell Avenue to the north, toward the Tennessee border of State Line Road. There were lower, less dense bushes around that one, but if you looked out the window, you could see the dim candle of a lamp standing in the street a few houses down. It did nothing to light up the inside of the room, but you could see it.

Waking up at night is something I’ve always done. I have no idea why to this day. I wake up probably two or three times a night on a regular basis, and I always have. At 12 years old, waking up in the night meant one of three things. Either I had to go to the bathroom, I was having an asthma attack, or I was hungry.

Having to get out of bed for two of those three things became something of a chore living in that tiny asbestos block. The first thing you have to do is let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Even though your eyes have been closed, I guarantee whatever backlighting your brain uses to show you your dreams was brighter than the light that managed to pick its way through the murk of the Georgia night. It was like living in a black hole. Whatever light there was got sucked into a void and couldn’t escape.

That first night back from California, with its brightly illuminated San Franciscan suburbs and busy streets, took some getting used to. It was quieter on Bell Avenue than anywhere I think I’ve ever slept before. When you grow up with the background noise of a more urban area, the quiet’s unnerving a bit. Waking up to the soot blackness and the morgue quiet made you sit up straight in bed, afraid you’ve died.

When I woke up that night, I had to figure out what woke me up. Instantly, I knew it wasn’t asthma. I was breathing fine, and was getting stronger every year in my resistance to it. I listened quietly in the stillness for that familiar rumbling that would let me know if my stomach, seemingly always empty regardless of how much I threw down my gullet as my teen metabolism began to fire up and burn calories faster than an American V8 burns Arabian oil, was the culprit.

Nope. Not the gut. But I could’ve used something to eat, I noted.

That only left one cause for my bout of consciousness: my bladder. I waited for the signal … and there it was. Gotta pee.

So now, adjusting to the darkness and the stillness of the cemetery-creepy night, I drew a heavy sigh and resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to plod over the leaning house and into the single bathroom between my parents’ room and the dining room.

I waited quietly, hoping to go back to sleep and that my urinary tract would forget what it wanted. No suck luck.

I had to pee and it wasn’t going to wait until morning.

For some reason, I had the covers on. Normally, I wore the standard kid uniform of sweatpants and a T-shirt to bed. But at 12 years old, I also still slept under my covers. I can’t recall now whether those constituted a blanket or not, but it seems goofy to me now. It was so hot, I really didn’t need anything. I had to kick them off me, though, and then I lay still for another couple of minutes to muster the energy to make the walk to the bathroom.

It was a real problem. When I got there, I’d have to turn on the light to see the damned toilet so I didn’t whiz all over the floor or whatever else was around the commode. That meant burning my retinas, and turning the light off would leave me next to blind for a few minutes. Throw in the fact that rhinos have better eyesight than I do, and getting back to the room to bed usually meant a bunch of stubbed toes, wall-bumping and walking around like Frankenstein’s monster, arms outstretched and lumbering to avoid breaking a foot or nose crashing into stuff.

I heaved myself out of bed, dreading the walk. I could finally make out the dim shapes and shadows that constituted my world at night without my glasses, and started to make my way toward the bathroom.

That tiny house was too small to house all of us and all our crap. I don’t remember if the room my parents had never had a door, or if my genius old man took it off. Either way, the decision was made that they’d open the bathroom door all the way and it would block their room, acting as a door of sorts. That’s how small the house was — one door, two rooms. The tiny bit of light that spilled from the bathroom window behind the chipped, ancient tub and shower gave me something to aim for as I shuffled through the abysmal dark to relieve myself. My room was adjoined to the living room, and those windows faced away from the light, so the biggest hazard was getting through there without breaking a bone or falling. Once you made it to the kitchen, abutting the living room through a narrow doorway, it was relatively smooth sailing.

When I got through the living room without getting hurt, and got onto the cool linoleum floor of the kitchen, I figured I was home free — at least until the way back.

I was dead wrong.

I felt my way through the opening that led to the hallway with the bathroom straight ahead of me. I took hold of the door to my left … and I heard an unfamiliar sound.

I thought my parents were awake. But it was the middle of the night, and I was sure my father had to work the following day. What would they be doing awake?

I poked my head around the door.

I bit my tongue to keep from screaming, my eyes bulging so wide they nearly fell out of my skull. I wish they had.

My mother’s legs were wrapped around my father’s torso and the bed clothes were strewn all over the place. What I thought were words being spoken were guttural, carnal grunts and moans.

I couldn’t move fast enough. I slammed the door shut behind me and never turned the light on. I ripped my pants down furiously and the urine stream began to flow, far too slowly, so I pushed it with all my might, trying to force it out of my body like I was giving birth. I made as much noise as I could to alert everyone to my presence — I turned on the faucet behind me and rinsed one hand while I pulled my pants up with the other, and then flushed. While the toilet was still sucking water loudly down its throat, antique pipes slurping and clanging with the effort, I crashed through the door like a charging bull, and banged it back into place, bolting like a chased gazelle through the kitchen and living room, recklessly ignoring any potential for injury, running with my feet pounding hard against the floor boards as I sprinted for my room. I dove, crashing the bed springs and bouncing, clutching the bedding for dear life. When I landed I pulled the covers over my head, eyes squeezed shut as tight as I could, weather and humidity forgotten. I waited for someone to come up and check on me, to make sure I was all right. I jumped at every creak and groan the old house made as gravity tried to pull it to pieces. Thankfully, no one ever followed up.

No matter how I tried, though, that image was seared into my brain like a brand on a cattle’s hindquarters. I couldn’t clear it from my memory no matter how I tried to distract myself with thoughts of sports, girls, food … nothing worked.

It still doesn’t, frankly.

-JDT-

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