(c) Monty J Heying (all rights reserved)
(Fort Worth, Texas, September, 1959)
After supper, Matt leaves the orphanage dining hall and goes up to the Big Boys’ bathroom where Nomilk and Rasor are smoking by the end window overlooking the stoops. They are older and much larger than him and often hostile, but while he’s at the urinal an idea comes to him. It’s risky, but a chance to impress them and maybe even win their friendship. Finishing, he zips up, takes a deep breath and saunters over.
Rasor, muscular and fifteen, is slouched in the corner gazing out toward the Big Girls’ fire escape, his tattooed cigarette hand draped in the window.
“Hey,” Matt says. “Y’all wanna do sump’n’ fun?”
“Like what?” Nomilk says, staring cross-eyed at the smoke rings he’s puffing. He’s sixteen, but sitting on the floor with his elbows propped on his knees, you wouldn’t know he was six feet tall. He hasn’t bullied Matt since their fight last month; so he wouldn’t need much of an excuse about now.
Matt blurts out, “Lovejoy’s been gone for over a year. We should’ve celebrated by now. Remember when that yellow moving van was out in the parking lot, and all we could do was just stand there watching at the windows and nobody said anything ‘cause we just couldn’t believe he was actually gonna be leaving?”
Rasor’s head jerks around, and Nomilk looks up.
“Damn,” Rasor says, combing his fingers through his blonde ducktail. “I’d just as soon forget that motherfucker.”
“We can sneak out,” Matt says, “I know a place where we can build a campfire. We can cook hot dogs or whatever, and nobody can see us. I can jimmy the alarm. I’ve done it before.”
“You’re outta your tree,” Nomilk says, smirking.
Rasor shoots Nomilk a look. “You know, maybe the Birdboy’s got somethin’.” He squints at Matt. “This better be good, punk.”
Matt winces at the “Birdboy” reference to Mrs. Crow, their matron. In the past he’d been accused, unfairly he feels, of being her pet.
“The new superintendent never uses the board,” he says, “and Coach Weber’s a joke compared to Lovejoy. Crow never does a bed check. If we’re caught, we’ll just get extra chores.”
Rasor takes a long drag, flicks ashes, purses his lips and exhales a plume out the window. “Okay. We’ll go tomorrow night,” he glances at Nomilk. “But if we get caught,” he drills knuckle into Matt’s chest, “your puny little ass is grass!” He shoves Matt, and Nomilk snickers as he stumbles away.
Around four o’clock the next afternoon, most of the boys are out on the playground despite the sweltering heat. Upstairs in the Big Boys’ dormitory, Matt checks that Mrs. Crow is in her room, then takes a small can of 3-In-1 Oil from his locker and applies it to the crash bar and hinges of the fire escape door. He works the action until it is soundless, then tapers a matchstick with his pocket knife, jams it into the alarm button and breaks it off.
“What ‘r you doing?” John Nesbitt says.
Matt jumps to his feet. “Man, you scared me!”
Nesbitt is a freckled redhead with thick-rimmed glasses patched in the middle with white athletic tape. He’s fourteen, the same as Matt, and was in the Little Boys’ dorm when Matt came to the Home four years ago.
“How come you oiled the door?” Nesbitt says. “You running away?”
“Rasor an’ Nomilk an’ Cotter an’ me are gonna celebrate Lovejoy being gone. We’re sneakin’ out, tonight. Gonna come?”
“Lovejoy?” Nesbitt’s face goes pale.
“We’ll build a fire an’ stuff. I made a new gar lure. I’m gonna fish.”
Nesbitt nudges his glasses back onto his nose. “You’re crazy! What if you get caught?”
“I don’t care. We’re going. Come. It’ll be fun.”
“You’re crazy.” Nesbitt shakes his head, and a broad smile stretches across his face.
Near midnight, the song of an insomniac mockingbird drifts into the dormitory from a utility pole outside the third floor windows. Moonlight slants across the teenagers sprawled in white jockey shorts on their bunks. Everyone’s asleep except Matt and the four preparing to leave. Flashlights flicker as wooden locker doors are opened and closed with utmost care. A tin mess kit rattles.
“Shh!” comes a chorus of voices.
“Eat me,” Rasor mumbles.
“Eat this.” Cotter flips him off, shining his flashlight beam from below his hand.
Snickering, Matt fastens an Army utility belt with a canteen of water around his waist. They all stuff knapsacks with gear and sneak down the metal stairs of the fire escape.
At ground level, Nomilk finishes taking a leak on a corner of the building as Matt angles his watch toward the moon and squints. “It’s twelve-fifteen,” he whispers. “We gotta be back by four-thirty, ‘fore it gets light.”
“Who put you in charge, Birdboy?” Nomilk says, brushing Matt aside. “Alright y’all, let’s go.” He looks around. “Which way?”
Matt rolls his eyes and motions northward, “That big field where Ben Avenue dead-ends.”
They creep across the playground to the street, where Rasor stops. “I need a wee-eed,” he says and pulls two Luckies from the pack twisted into the shoulder of his shirt. He hands one to Nomilk, and their tanned faces flicker in the Zippo’s flame. As all but Nesbitt light up, Nesbitt yawns and mumbles, “What’r we gonna do?”
“Make a fire, have coffee and beans,” Rasor says. “You guys owe me fifty cents apiece.”
“We can skinny-dip at White Lake.” Cotter says.
“Yeah,” Nomilk says.
“I’m gonna hunt rabbits,” Rasor says.
“I’m gonna fish,” Matt says, rattling a metal tackle box. A landing net and a collapsed rod protrude from his knapsack.
“I don’t care what we do,” Cotter says, his teeth and eyes flashing in the moonlight. “That ugly bastard’s gone forever, and if we get caught, no one’s gonna kill us.” He jumps and comes down with both feet in a puddle, splashing Nomilk and Rasor. They trip him to the ground and take turns pounding his arm and thigh. Cotter laughs throughout the attack, hardly resisting. Neighborhood dogs bark.
“Shh!” Matt whispers. “Let’s beat it!”
Cotter jumps to his feet wiggling his eyebrows and combing his hair. They string out in pairs with Matt in the rear, a pack of young lone wolves ambling through the suburban neighborhood, canteens flopping against their legs.
After rushing through the beam of a street lamp, Matt slows to ponder a white house with a birdbath in front. He knows a kid from school who lives there who has a dog. And parents. It reminds him of when he lived at Aunt Carrie’s and could play with Uncle Mike’s chihuahuas in the back yard.
“Flat tire!” Cotter says as he whacks Matt behind the left knee, buckling his leg.
“Dickhead!” Matt says.
After agreeing to meet later at a ravine below the WBAP transmission tower, the boys have split up. Matt heads toward the Trinity River and the others are on the trail toward White Lake. It bothers him that no one came with him. “There’s only one rod,” Nesbitt had said. “It’s no fun just to watch.”
At the river, Matt sets down his gear and arranges the magnetized flashlight on the top of his tackle box to throw a wide beam across the surface of the lazy current. He casts downstream, and the lure lands well past mid-river. He reels gently, keeping it just below the surface. On the fourth cast, the line suddenly goes taut. He cuts the drag and cranks, bending the rod at a sharp angle and peering intently at the line disappearing into the dark scummy water. With practiced skill he fights the fish, cranking and hauling back on the rod. But the spool whines and spins backward, expelling line. Whatever is on the other end, he knows he’s never hooked anything nearly this big. He steps back from the water, cranking and fighting the rod.
After a short struggle the line goes limp. Matt steps toward the water, confused and slowly cranking the reel. In the yellow flashlight beam, the slack line rides the nearly stagnant surface. Maybe the fish got loose or the line broke. He braces a foot on a tree stump at the waters’ edge and peers into the yellow dimness. It occurs to him that maybe the fish still is on; so he cranks fast, leaning over the stump to see better. Suddenly the line goes taut, and, “Holy shit!” he says as the dark water erupts, and the wide snout of a large alligator gar launches toward him, then dives among the roots at his feet.
The head of the three-foot-long thickly-scaled fish is wedged among the roots, and its rear half is above water, waving a spotted tail fin at him. Matt wants to drop the rod and run, but his legs won’t move. His fingers don’t work. He fumbles with the reel, then manages to tighten the drag and resume cranking, straining on the fiberglass rod. He’s afraid the line will break before he can reach the landing net. He takes in the slack and heaves.
Slowly, the gar’s tail drops, and its head reappears. Matt’s chest is pounding as the gar shudders and seems to stand nearly vertical, staring at him with glowing orange eyes, the lure clamped between the long overlapping pointed teeth. Then, with a barely audible “Urk!” the gar twists, snapping the line, and dives back into the murky depths.
For a moment Matt stares at the fading ripples where the prehistoric creature disappeared. He becomes aware of the weakness in his legs and drops to his knees. With trembling hands, he reels in the empty line, visualizing the steel leader trailing from the gar’s mouth down there somewhere. He takes a deep breath, throws together his gear and climbs the slope on rubbery legs.
By moonlight, Matt takes the trail leading to White Lake. The red lights of the TV tower blink across the roadway. He could go there now, but he’s tired of being alone.
When Matt reaches the top of the earthen dam he sees lights flickering in the trees. He rushes forward, then stops, confused by the scene below—his naked cohorts, all of them running back and forth and shouting and as their flashlight beams bob and jerk among the bushes and trees, “Hah! No! Over there! Get him!”
Matt leaves his gear and scrambles down with his flashlight. He arrives at the bottom just as Rasor boots Nomilk face down into the large shallow puddle where Cotter and Nesbitt are wading, stooped over, shining their lights. Everyone but Nomilk breaks into laughter. On the grassy bank are three small wiggling catfish. Rasor yells, “Eee-Haaa!” and slides through on his butt, throwing out waves of catfish.
“Where’s y’all’s clothes?” Matt says, when the laughter dies.
“Up there on the dam,” Cotter says. “We were swimmin’, an’ Rasor got out to go to the bathroom an’saw this. The dam must‘ve overflowed.”
“I nearly shit!” Rasor says. “I first thought it was water moccasins.”
Matt checks the time. “Hey, y’all, we gotta get outa here! Someone’s gonna call the fuzz!”
“What time is it?” says Rasor.
The boys scramble up the dam’s incline and wade into the warm water of the lake to wash off the mud. As the others laugh and talk in soft voices, Matt pushes into deeper water. He sculls his arms to stay afloat, watching them. He can’t remember when he’s seen them having so much fun, especially Rasor. He smiles at the memory of him sliding through the muddy water on his butt. His smile disappears, though, as he recalls Rasor and Nomilk comparing bruises in the showers after one of Lovejoy’s beatings. Floating there in the glimmering moonlight, those memories seem unreal. Like the disappearing gar.
iater, in the ravine below the pulsing red lights of the WBAP tower, Matt and Nesbitt sit by the campfire. Steam rises from open cans of beans and a large can of coffee.
Nesbitt shines his flashlight toward the sky, then switches it off, and they lie back watching the stars. Matt’s glad Nesbitt decided to come. They watch the stars for a moment; then Nesbitt says, “You think there’s a god?”
Matt sniffs, suddenly sitting up. “I don’t know about god, but I do know when I smell skunk.” He springs to his feet.
“Pee-ew!” Nesbitt gets up, and the sweep of their flashlights reveals Cotter, Nomilk and Rasor, coming rapidly down the trail.
“Y’all get any rabbits?” Matt says as they draw near.
Nomilk and Rasor place the log they’ve been carrying a few feet from the fire. Cotter drops an armload of wood.
“Nah,” Rasor says. “We saw a couple, and I almost hit one, but the flashlight give out. Then that skunk came.” He dips his head, sniffing his shirt.
“You guys stink,” Nesbitt says, moving upwind.
“Let’s have some a’ them beans!” Cotter says, noisily rattling his mess kit. “Beans, beans the musical fruit.” Everyone laughs.
The boys serve themselves and feed the fire. Nomilk and Rasor perch on their log, eating in silence and enjoying the campfire.
“So, d’you catch any fish?” Cotter says, looking at Matt.
Matt’s heart skips a beat. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
They appear interested; so he describes the struggle with the gar just as it happened, including how it stood in the tree roots staring at him.
Nomilk shakes his head. “Bull-shit! You’re lyin’ through your teeth.”
Rasor spits into the coals through the gap in his broken front teeth. “A fish standing on its tail? That is US-DA certified Hereford hocky.”
“It’s true, I swear. Double scout’s honor,” Matt raises the Boy Scout sign.
Cotter says, “Were you scared?”
“You bet. I was shaking in my boots.”
“You aren’t wearing boots, Dipshit,” Rasor says.
“Fine! Shoes!” Matt says.
“It’s a crock of shit,” Nomilk says. “The one that got away is always hu-uge,” A hissing plume rises when he tosses his coffee grounds into the fire.
Matt gets to his feet. “Why do you guys have to be such assholes? That gar stood up in the middle of those roots and looked right at me. But go ahead, don’t believe me. I don’t care, ‘cause I know it’s true.
“I try to be friends with y’all, and you treat me like, …like whatever! Are you just assholes or what?”
The boys look at each other with blank faces. Silence is broken only by the crackling of the fire.
Snickering, Cotter points toward the log. “They’re assholes.”
After a moment Nesbitt says, “You know, there is something. When Lovejoy was here all of us but Matt got beat, bad, for grades.”
Everyone looks at Matt, but he doesn’t know what to say. They all watch the fire. Rasor flicks the lid to his Zippo.
Cotter says, “Yeah, you never got it like we did.”
“Y’all don’t know shit,” Matt says in a quick soft voice. “You just didn’t see it.”
Nomilk and Rasor trade doubting looks.
Nesbitt sits up straight. “Matt’s right,” he says. “I almost forgot. It happened when we were in the Little Boys right when Lovejoy first came.”
A chill runs up between Matt’s shoulders.
Nesbitt adjusts his glasses. “I saw the whole thing. It was the worst beating ever. Mama Gross beat him for stealing a pen his teacher gave him. Then after supper Lovejoy beat him again for the same thing. He just kept on hitting and hitting…”
“Okay!” Matt yells, raising his arms and marching a few paces into the darkness.
For a long moment there’s just the sound of the fire. When he returns, the campfire is shining in his eyes. “You know, we all got beat! And that’s all there is to it.”
On the return trek up the hill and through the pasture, not much is said until the boys arrive at the fence. Rasor twists the top two strands of rusty barbed wire together and goes under while Nomilk lifts them and steps on the bottom strands. Once through, the two keep the wires apart for the others but release them onto Matt.
“Ow! Dang it!” he says, and struggles to untangle his gear as they laugh at him. “Thanks, assholes!”
Rasor boots Matt as he passes, snickering, “Way to go, Bird.”
“Assholes,” Matt mutters and smiles.
At six o’clock the sun is up; the moon is down; and the morning shift mockingbird has taken over the utility pole. Mrs. Crow comes out of her apartment in robe and slippers with her hair in pin curls, singing her usual bad imitation of Minnie Pearl. “Oh what a beoo-tee-ful morr…ninn… .” She slaps the metal headboard of the nearest bunk, Bam! Bam! “Time to get up! Rise and shine, my little songbirds!”
The groans are fewer than usual as bare feet slap the floor and carry their owners toward lockers and the bathroom. Rasor, Nomilk, Cotter and Nesbitt are in their bunks, immovable. Mud-caked clothes and gear, reeking of campfire and skunk, are slung under their bunks.
Mrs. Crow looks out a window and wrinkles her nose. “Phew! I smell a pole-cat. Butch! Billy! Y’all git up and close them winders on this side!”
Matt hears the mockingbird, hugs his pillow, smiles and goes back to sleep.
# # #
Causes Monty Heying Supports