Artie - 1980
Yeaah, the bell! No more school stuff, least ‘til Monday. My sneaks squeak, I'm walking so fast. You can hear it, even with everybody laughing and goofing around. Daddy's coming to see me in a coupla minutes. Nobody's watching, so I'm gonna run and get my bike. I can't wait!
Uh oh. Mrs. Winslow. Now I gotta stop, see what she wants. She's the principal, but two years ago she was my first grade teacher. That was when Mama cried all the time, just ‘fore Daddy moved out.
"Are you riding or walking today, Artie?"
She looks me over.
"I rode my bike."
"What's that on your face?"
I don't say ‘cause I don't want her to know Brent gave me some chocolate, and I ate it in class.
"Wait right here," she tells me. She goes to her office. She's got a round mirror, the same size as my face. She smiles when she stoops and says, "Tell me what's wrong with this picture, young man."
Well, first off, my hair is all messed up. Mama calls me a sandy-haired mop-top, but I can't make it stay in place, no matter what. So now I comb it a little with my fingers and push it down in the back where it stands up. My cheeks are a little bit red, but that wouldn't show if I didn't have this white skin, almost like Daddy's. My nose is dripping, but I think it's ‘cause it's too thin to store up much snot. I sniff, real hard. Then I laugh.
I never noticed my ears sticking out like that. And the chocolate gunk around my mouth makes me look weird, like the clown I saw at the circus with Papa Merle last year-the one who snuck up and scared me. I start licking at the chocolate. Mrs. Winslow pushes my hand away, fishes in her pocket for a Kleenex, and wipes off what's left.
She's looking at something outside, so I twist around to see. Huh. Nothing but the same old Weaverville houses. And a bunch of tree branches swooshing around like they're dancing. The sky's real blue with a little cloud scooting along. Mama says that's the way it always is here in the mountains in April. ‘Cept when it rains.
Mrs. Winslow kind of sits on her heels and makes a line with her mouth, the way Mama does when she's looking at me real hard. After that, she pulls my jeans up and buttons my coat all the way. I start squirming ‘cause I gotta go. I can't keep my daddy waiting.
"All right, Artie," she says. "But no more running."
I'm out the door in a blue streak. That's one of Mama's sayings, and it's true, I run pretty fast. There's my bike, the cool one with the high handlebars. Mama says it was a StingRay Krate when she got it, before Papa Merle painted it blue. You can still see where the name used to be.
Now I can't get the key to go in the lock, and I think a bad word I got from Daddy. I don't say it, though, and finally the lock comes off. So I jump on and push hard on the wood blocks Papa Merle fixed on the pedals. It's hard to get started. I almost fall down, I'm wobbling so much. A lady in a van sees me and waves for me to go first. The stickshift won't work, so I push really hard on the pedals. Uhff, it still won't go. The lady smiles and waves at me and goes on by.
Boy, it's Friday, and Daddy's coming! He said he'd take me to the park at Lake Louise. We're gonna play catch. He played in Little League when he was little like me, but he got in some trouble. After that, he quit.
I hit the stickshift real hard, and this time the chain goes clackety-clack. The bike jerks, and all of a sudden it's easy to pedal. The wind's whistling down South Main Street. It makes my eyes water. Now it's in my ears, telling me, wheee, hurry up, Artie!
I pedal really hard. Pretty soon, I'm almost at the top, where you can see between the houses to the Balcrank plant. The mountains look like a big pile of dirty clothes, except they're purple.
Uh oh. I didn't pick up my stuff this morning. Gotta do that ‘fore Daddy comes. It's gonna be cold over at Lake Louise when we play catch. That's all right, though. I'll wear some mittens with my ball glove.
Daddy used to be in the carnival before he married Mama. That was after the bad thing happened in his head and he quit school. In the carnival he threw knives. Mama-her name's Marie-she used to say she was glad she didn't know him then. He'd hear that and say all the other carnies loved him, and she woulda too. Then he'd laugh real loud and hug her.
A coupla weeks ago, I wanted him to teach me to throw knives like that. So the next day he showed up making funny faces, and I think he was drinking some. He borrowed my bicycle pump to blow up this big doll that looked like a lady with a little place between her legs.
I pointed to it. "What's that for, Daddy?"
He laughed real soft. "Walk up to it an say hello," he said. "Say it real loud."
It was dumb, but I did it.
"Now," he said, "put your ear up to it and tell me what you hear."
I didn't hear nothing. I told him so.
"You don't hear no voice coming back? Telling you what to do?" Then he slapped one of his skinny legs and laughed so hard he doubled over.
That was dumb, too.
Then he stopped laughing and told me, "All right, boy, stand it up next to that big oak." While I did that, he went back to his truck and pulled out this big box and set it on the ground. It had all these big, shiny knives inside. He picked out four he said were his favorites. He spread ‘em around in one hand, and pulled one out by the shiny blade part. Then he winked and said, "Watch this."
It went whistling through the air. "Phwhht." It stuck in the tree, right beside the lady doll's head. That was so cool! He did it three more times, and every time the points went thunnng! when they stuck in the tree. It was only a play-lady, but you could tell if it was a real one she wouldn't be worried.
"Let me, Daddy, let me!" I hollered.
Right then, Mama came to the door and walked across the yard to see what I was doing. She started frowning when she saw the doll.
"Casey," she yelled, "are you out of your mind? What if some of the neighbors see that thing?" She was shaking her finger real hard, and that always means she's really, really mad. "Artie," she said, "get away from it."
"Daddy wanted me to say hello to it, Mama, right there." I pointed at the little pocket.
Daddy was laughing to himself with his head down and kinda pawing the ground with one foot.
I thought she was going to make her throat sore, she screamed so hard. Then she pulled out one of the knives and stabbed the doll.
Daddy laughed some more. He made his arms and legs move like the doll did when the air went out. So Mama pulled another knife out and flung it real hard, and it stuck in the ground by his foot. That made him laugh even harder, so she stomped back in the house and slammed the door.
Daddy quit laughing then, but it took a minute. He worked his mouth back and forth. Then he spit some brown gunk. Snuff, I think. "She don't look like her old self. She been sick again?"
"Yessir," I told him. "She's got the cramps. She spends a lotta time in bed."
"Huh. Well, she looks like she's lost some weight too."
He's so skinny himself, and white looking-you can see blue stuff under his skin. And he's tall, not like Mama. She's short and has dark skin. She's pretty, too. But she frowns a lot when he comes around now. She told me he's got lots of problems, and one is he's always been a lady's man. She said they like him, even with that long face and big eyes that look like they're too close together. I guess liking ladies back is okay, though. Mama's a lady, the best one I know.
She says the other big problem is he gets too quiet sometimes. He won't laugh, for days and days. And he won't talk, no matter what. He mashes his lips together so hard you can't tell he's got a mouth. When he does that, he looks like he's maybe gonna cry. Sometimes when you say something to him about it, his face gets red. His Adam's apple goes up and down. But sometimes you can't get him to be quiet. He yells and uses bad words and kicks stuff. When it gets real bad, he scares me and Mama. But he hasn't done that in a long time.
Now my pedals feel mushy. Then they run away from me, they're going so fast. So I lift up my feet and lean over, ‘tween the handlebars, to pick up speed. Going fast makes me laugh. That squawking jaybird thinks I'm like him. Well, I am. I'm flying!
A lady in a big green car just honked for me to get out of the way. She frowned at me, and then she whizzed on by. But I don't care. I'm going as fast as I can, and I'm almost home.
This time I don't drop my bike in the carport like I do sometimes when I'm in a hurry. If Mama sees it in the drive, she'll point at it and frown ‘til I stand it up and chain it to a post.
Daddy's truck's not here. He's late most of the time, though. Mama says he'll be late for his own funeral.
She left me a grape juice in the refrigerator. I punch the straw in and take a big sip and start looking for her. The TV's on, one Daddy got somewhere before he moved out. Mama says it cost a lot. She's not there. Not taking a nap.
Hey, all right! She picked up my clothes and some other junk I left laying around.
But all of a sudden the house feels big, and it's cold. Where'd she go? My heart's beating like crazy, and my breathing's real loud. So I open the back door and peek out. Something makes a clank, off to one side.
"Artie? I'm in the garden, Artie. Come on out here, and please close the door."
Now my hands are all tingly. The tingles run up my arms, and that makes me laugh. Mama's here! She's out back, where Papa Merle built some timbers to hold up dirt for the garden. She's sitting there, mounding up dirt around the little plants so they won't freeze. A plastic cover's all spread out, the way we talked about this morning. ‘Fore it gets dark, I'm gonna help her pull it over the garden. We'll hold it down with a bunch of rocks.
I slip on the grass, put a big stain on my knee. But I don't worry about it, ‘cause I gotta find out about Daddy.
"Mama, did he call? Is he still coming?"
She turns around and smiles, like she always does when I come home. Her hair's long and brown. The wind fluffs it out, and it keeps getting in her eyes. She brushes some of it back over her ears. Then she reaches over and squeezes my arm, kinda hard. She smells wet. She got all sweaty working in the garden, I guess. The blue shirt she has on is real soft. Her breath feels nice. It's warm.
Uh oh. Now she's gonna cry.
I reach up and wipe the tears off. That makes her cry even more. I can't wipe all of it.
"No, honey." She kinda chokes like this when she says something she doesn't want to. "Casey won't be coming to see you."
Something's wrong. I know something's wrong. Feels like a big rock is sitting on my chest. I wanna yell, but I can't get it out. Can't say anything. I must be making noise, though, ‘cause she keeps saying, "Shhh, honey, shhh." Then she takes the grape juice and tips it up for me.
After a minute, I can talk a little. "Not at all, Mama? Is he coming later? It'll be dark soon. We can't play catch then." I still feel like yelling, ‘cause it's gotta be the fits he has, the thing he's got wrong in his head. I don't want him to be sick again.
She picks me up, but she grunts ‘cause I'm pretty big now. Then she sets me on her lap. She's rubbing her eyes with both hands, and I do that to mine, too. She's making me cry. I wanna get even closer, so I lean on her chest. She's real soft there.
"Can he come tomorrow, Mama? Can we play catch tomorrow?"
I bet he won't come, though. I know how Daddy is when he's sick.
She gives me a sad look, but behind it you can tell she's mad. "Artie, listen to me. Casey won't be coming to see you today, and he won't be coming tomorrow. Not ever."
"He's not?" That makes me feel kinda weird. No! I got a dark spot on my jeans. I promised I wouldn't do that again. I'm eight now, but I can't help it. No! The spot's getting bigger, and you can feel it, like sticking your finger under the kitchen faucet.
She picks me up off her lap, makes me stand where she can see my jeans. I start kicking, ‘cause I don't want her to see the spot. Now it's down my leg and my shoe's getting sopped. My foot's cold. Daddy's not coming. Not ever, she said. What's that mean?
"Artie," she says. She squeezes me against her again.
"I'm sorry, Mama, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to." I keep on crying.
"I know, Artie. Go change, please?"
Now I don't care anymore. I just want to hold on to her the way a little baby does. I'm a little baby, peeing in my pants. It's my fault. The peeing, I mean. Daddy's not coming. Did I do something wrong? Mama told me once he didn't act all that bad before I came.
Finally I stop crying and say, "He won't ever come again?" I want to know, just in case.
"I'm so sorry, Artie. He had an opportunity, he said. It's in California, and he's moving there. He stopped by an hour or so ago, and he gave me a little money."
"But why didn't he come by school? Couldn't he leave tomorrow?"
"You know how he is, honey, he doesn't like confrontations."
Conder. Frin. Kayshon. That's what she always called it when she had to tell me or Daddy something we wouldn't like. He didn't want to see me, that's why he didn't come to school. He left me and Mama, and now he's going away, over to California. I start crying, real hard this time. My shoe squishes from the pee.
She stands, starts humming and swings me around. She always says it's dancing when we do that. It makes everything better, she says. Sometimes it does, but this time I can't stop crying. I need to crawl up close. That's the only thing that'll make it better.
"It's going to be okay, honey," she says. "We'll manage somehow. It's okay its okay its okay. Humm hummn humm." Then she puts me down. "Now go change."
A car drives up. A police car. A man gets out. "Mrs. Royal?" he says.
Mama lets go and pats me on the butt. I run for the door, so the man won't see what I did. But I can watch from behind the screen door.
He smiles at Mama. Then he ah-hums to get something clear in his throat. "Is Casey James Royal your husband?"
"He was. We were divorced six months ago." She wipes at her eyes. Then she brushes hair off her face. "What's wrong, officer?"
"Ma'am, your ex robbed a couple of students at the college in Mars Hill just after noon today."
Mama's mouth falls open and her eyes get real big. "Casey? Are you sure?"
"They got the tag number off his pickup. This was the address given."
"Oh, no. He didn't hurt anyone, did he? I know Casey has his problems, but he'd never-"
"No, ma'am, no one was hurt. But he took a sizeable sum from them. In the neighborhood of four hundred dollars."
Mama makes a noise, kind of soft-like. She pushes a hand in her pocket and pulls out some money, all rolled up. I can barely hear it when she says, "He gave me this money, not an hour ago."
The policeman takes it and counts it. "That's about the right amount."
Her head's down. I think she's gonna yell for sure, ‘cause I know she's mad at Daddy now. "Go ahead," she says. "Take it."
"I'm sorry about this, ma'am. I'll give you a receipt, but I expect the judge'll give the money back to the college kids." He puts a hand on her shoulder. I want him to hug her the way Daddy used to when he was sorry he made her cry.
"I hate to ask you this," he says, "but he isn't here, is he?"
She jerks her head up and makes a little wrinkled circle with her mouth. I know she's really mad now. "No," she says. She rubs one foot on the drive, real hard.
"I'm going to have to look around a bit. Mind if I go inside?"
"Go on," she says. "I know it's your job."
He looks at me, inside the screen door. I forgot about my pants. So I run to my room and find a clean pair and some unders. I go to the bathroom and shut the door.
A coupla minutes later, he knocks. "You in there, son?"
My clean jeans were wadded up in the drawer, and I can't get them on.
"You can take care of your business in a minute, young fella, but right now I need to look around."
I have to sit on the toilet to get my jeans straightened out. Now they're on, but I need some socks. And I forgot my other shoes.
The door opens and he peeks in. He takes off his hat and smiles before he comes inside. "It's okay," he says. "I don't bite." He shoos me back to the door so he can look behind the shower curtain.
Then he waves me back some more, and I go in the hall. He smiles again while he's walking by. Then he pushes hard on the door to Mama's room and hurries in. By the time I get my socks and shoes on, he's finished looking around. He goes outside and starts talking to Mama. She slumps a little. He says something and puts his arm around her.
She takes a little card he hands her and puts her shoulders back, like she's trying to stand up tall. I see her do that around men sometimes. I think she likes him. He gets in and drives off.
Daddy really did that stuff? I crawl up on the couch and start watching TV. She comes in and sits beside me. She takes the remote away and pushes MUTE. She's going to tell me something. It's going to be a conder. Frind. She's going to tell me something bad.
"Artie," she says, "do you understand what's happened?"
"Yes'm." I do, kinda, but I don't wanna talk about it. The cartoons are on. They're funny. I wanna watch TV, but I can't, ‘cause she's gonna tell me something bad.
All of a sudden, Daddy's voice is talking in my head. I can see his face. We're at Lake Louise, and he's rolling the ball, the way he did one day last year, the first day we played catch. I was afraid of the ball when he started throwing it, but he kept telling me it's okay, in baseball you gotta catch the ball if you want to throw it. "And throwing it's kinda like the knives," he said. "You have to let go of it, so it can act the way it's s'posed to." I said okay, and I caught on pretty fast after that. Now when it's in the air it don't scare me. We went for ice cream, and he told me he thought I'd be a big league baseball player. He said he was gonna work with me on it. I'd have to work real hard, though.
"You gonna do that?" he said.
"Even if it gets in the way of school?"
"All right," he said. "That school stuff's for the birds, boy. They don't teach you anything. Out here in the world, that's where you learn. Out here, you can do things nobody's ever done before."
Now Mama clicks off the TV. "You understand Casey did something wrong?"
"He took some money."
"You understand that's wrong, don't you?"
I don't, but I nod like I do. He gave the money to us.
"I'm going to have to get a full-time job," she says. "When I do, I won't be here when you come home from school. You're going to have to help out around the house."
"You going to be all right by yourself?"
I want to tell her I will, but I don't know for sure.
"I'll get Mrs. Epperson next door to check on you."
That'll be cool. She makes cookies. But I'll be by myself after she brings the cookies. Now I'm feeling sorta weird, like I did when Daddy left.
She hugs me, then starts giggling. She runs a finger under my arm and tickles me.
"Stop it!" I don't want to play, but now I'm giggling, too, and that makes her laugh.
"That's my big boy," she says.
Causes Bob Mustin Supports
Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.