Racing down the hill at top speed, he struggled to maintain control of the bike. Sweat poured from his brow. The hot, humid air scorched his lungs with every breath.
God, it felt good to be free.
Free from the confines of that stupid desk.
Who needed straight A’s anyway?
Dorks and brain surgeons.
He pumped the pedals faster. The scenery was a blur. If only he could ride right out of this dump, he’d make his mark. All he needed was a chance. He knew a lot. More than they ever gave him credit for.
The breeze blew a lock of sweaty brown hair across his forehead. It tickled. He reached up to brush the hair away. At the same instant, a hawk swooped down low and zeroed in on some small prey in the grass in the field ahead.
His bike wheel sank into a hole in the dirt road, and he grabbed the handle bar, overcorrecting and heading straight for the side ditch. Flipping head first over the front wheel, the bike veered left, and he flew to the right.
It was a bad spill.
There was a tear in his jeans, and his knee was skinned and bleeding. He sat in the grass until the stars in front of his eyes faded. His tee shirt was dirty and torn. The tears welled up, but he rubbed his eyes hard before they had a chance to fall.
“Crap,” he said, staring down at his bloody jeans.
He was already grounded for bad grades. Now this. He’d have to lie and say he’d gotten into a fight at school.
That was where he was supposed to be, instead of out here enjoying himself. The last week of class before summer break. Still, his mom insisted he attend.
How could a few more days make any difference?
His teacher had already told her he was failing. He glanced over at his bike. It seemed to have weathered the wreck better than he had.
“Dang,” he said to no one.
He moved his arms and legs. Nothing seemed broken. Standing up, he brushed off the dirt from the seat of his jeans.
“What the heck?”
It was lying on top of the matted grass, not two feet away from where he’d crashed. Blinding in its glory, the sun shown on it like the mirrored reflection of a meteor.
He looked up and down the road. Not a soul within miles. Exactly the reason he’d picked this deserted stretch to ride his bike on a school day.
He edged closer, squatted down, and picked it up.
A lady’s diamond wedding ring.
He carefully inspected it.
No name engraved on the inside.
Nothing to identify its owner.
The stone was huge.
Not like the tiny speck on his mother’s, he thought. He glanced around again.
“Jeez,” he muttered.
He looked around once more, just to make sure, then he stuffed the ring deep inside the pocket of his jeans. Picking the bike up, he hopped on and began peddling as fast as possible.
School should be out by now, and he had a 3:30 deadline to be at home. If luck was on his side, his mother would still be at the grocery store.
Today was meatloaf Monday.
Rich and meatloaf.
Life couldn’t get any better.
He rounded the corner at the end of the dirt lane. Their ’62 Falcon was not in the driveway. He coasted to a stop and climbed into his tree house. Nothing had been touched since the last time he’d ventured in.
Dead leaves rattled in the corners, shifted by the breezes that filtered through the spaces in the boards. An old comic book lay tossed aside on the floor. The rain and sun were doing a number on it, but he didn’t have time to notice how faded and crinkled it looked. He went straight for the ancient footlocker that sat along a side wall.
Bubba had taken him to a pawn shop when he was eight or nine. The owner saw Matt repeatedly wander over to it while Bubba seemed to take an eternity to decide which handgun he could afford. As the two were leaving, the owner called Bubba back and handed him the box.
“The boy’s got a hankering for this,” the old man said. “Let him have it. It’s been doing nothing but collecting dust for years.”
Matt could not believe his good fortune. Even now, it remained his favorite place to hide stuff. He opened the old combination lock and flipped the lid.
He’d forgotten about the three cigarettes he’d stashed there. Life had gotten so busy. He grabbed the smokes and hid the ring under his prize collection of two Playboy magazines his friend Steven had stolen from under his older brother’s mattress. Those things had cost him his grandfather’s pocketknife and thirty-three baseball cards.
They seemed worthless now that he had such found the mother lode in the grassy ditch.
It was his mother. Why did she still call him that? Mattie was a girl’s name.
“Coming,” he called from up in the tree house.
“Mattie,” she said as he entered the trailer, “what happened to you?”
“Fight,” he said, avoiding her eyes.
“Matthew,” she said, shaking her head. “What am I going to do with you? And Bubba’s not going to be happy if he sees you looking like this. Go to your room and change pants and put on a clean tee shirt. Hurry up. He’s due home any minute. It’s a good thing the dime store had a sale last week. Otherwise, you’d be toting stripes, young man.”
Matt took off the dirty clothes and stuffed them in the bottom of the dirty clothes basket.
“I have to go to the laundry mat after supper. You clean up the table for me, and I won’t tell him. Okay?”
Matt hated kitchen duty. He loved his mother’s cooking, but the scum left over in those dirty pans was murder to clean out.
The rumble of the old pickup could be heard inside the trailer’s thin walls. Both Matt and his mother looked toward the front door. It flew open, and Bubba’s tall frame filled the entrance. Another seven-to-three shift at the mill completed.
Bubba took off his wraparound Richard Petty-style sunglasses and smoothed his greased hair back in place with the palm of his hand. His sideburns were long like the King’s, and the cigarette he held loosely in the side of his mouth dangled down with an inch-long piece of ash that threatened to sprinkle all over the front of his white tee shirt. The large muscles of his left upper arm looked as if they might shove the pack of cigarettes rolled up in his short sleeve out of its cotton straitjacket at any second.
“Hey, hon,” Matt’s mother said.
Matt could always tell what kind of night they were going to have by the way Bubba answered.
He didn’t even have to wait that long.
The dark clouds in the man’s eyes told Matt it was not going to be a pleasant evening at lot 28 in Haymore’s Trailer Park.
“Gimme a beer,” Bubba said, making his way to his corner of the sofa. He flipped the box fan on that sat on the table nearby. Turning on the black-and-white television, he drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch.
Matt’s mother quickly went to the refrigerator and opened a cold bottle of Brewer’s. Without a word, she handed him the bottle and went straight back to the oven. Matt tried to disappear into the corner.
“I could die of old age,” Bubba said, grabbing the bottle from his wife’s hand. Beer sloshed onto the dirty olive green and gold shag carpet, but Bubba didn’t notice.
He turned the bottle up and chugged half of its contents down. He belched loudly.
“What are you staring at?” Bubba asked Matt.
Matt remained mute and looked down at his shoes.
“Git over here.”
“Bubba,” said Matt’s mother.
“Shut the hell up, bitch. I’ll do the talkin’ ‘cause I bring home the bacon.”
Matt’s mother turned back to the stove.
Matt walked over beside Bubba’s chair.
“What did they learn you?”
Bubba’s beefy hand swung at the boy. When it met the side of Matt’s head, the boy fell to the floor.
“Get up. Git me another beer, worthless little dipshit.”
Matt went to the refrigerator, opened the bottle, and handed it to him.
“Now, get outta my sight before I knock your teeth out the back of your throat.”
Matt walked outside. He jumped at the sound of glass breaking. Screaming voices got louder and louder. Matt knew better than to try to come between them. He’d tried that once and ended up in the hospital with three broken ribs and a concussion. His mother had made the boy swear he’d never do that again.
Matt got on his bike and rode through the trailer park to the hard surface road. The echoes of his parent’s words still rang in his ears. He looked down the long winding stretch of asphalt. Tears streamed down his face. For two cents, he’d ride off and never come back. His old tennis shoe patted the top of the stilled bike pedal.
“Crap,” he said.
He saw the car flick on the signal light to turn into the park. It was the sheriff. Matt knew the car.
Turning around, he pedaled passed the ‘You Can Pay More But Not at Haymore’s’ sign and took a hard left. Lot 28 was at the end of this dirt lane.
Too bad he didn’t have the guts, he thought, and climbed the old boards nailed to the trunk of the tree at the edge of the lot.
He looked down at the littered yard toward the foothills of the Appalachians that broke the horizon across the wide fields of weeds and stubble grass. Gray clouds were falling from the heavens, blanketing the ridges.
It was the perfect perch to watch the show. Too bad it wasn’t the Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet.
Sheriff Jim Cline got out of the car and knocked on the door. Bubba threw it open.
“What the hell you want … oh,” he said. “Hey, Jim. Didn’t hear you drive up.”
“Howdy, Bubba. Evon.”
“Sheriff,” said Evon.
“Bubba, could you step outside a minute?”
Bubba stumbled out the trailer door.
“What do ya’ need, Jim?”
“I know you have to blow off steam sometime, Bubba. But can you do me a favor and keep the noise level down? Some folks don’t take too kindly to all the ruckus.”
“Me ‘n Evon do get a little carried away, I guess. But it makes the makin’ up that much better.”
Both men laughed.
“I know exactly what you’re saying,” the Sheriff said. “Whatever this is, it’s between you and Evon. Just keep it inside those trailer walls, Bubba, so’s I don’t get a call from your neighbors.”
The sheriff was in street clothes. The budget didn’t provide a stipend for uniforms. He drove his own car, the only 1941 Plymouth two-door fastback with a gold star painted on the side.
“Give your wife my regards.”
“You bet,” said Bubba.
The sheriff got into his car and backed the car out of the little yard.
It all felt like a dream he’d had before. Matt ducked down under the cutout window of the tree house. The car’s headlights lit the inside of the little hideout. He watched the light swing around the walls. Then, the little room grew dark. Peeking out, he was mesmerized by the red glow from the little taillights like two Atomic penny Fire Balls.
He looked back at the long, rusting single-wide trailer. It sounded as if the storm had truly passed inside. Maybe, the sheriff’s visit had put a damper on Bubba’s anger, but you never knew.
Matt shrugged his shoulders and decided to stay put. He’d gone without supper before. It wouldn’t kill him to go without it again. It was still warm, but dusk was falling fast. Matt shivered. There was something spooky about his old tree house once the sun set.
Did rats come up here to sleep?
Raccoons surely might.
As old as he was, Matt knew he’d wet his pants if he woke up staring at that smiling gray grimace from hell. The slimy way possums looked at you always reminded him of Otis Grimes, the town’s undertaker.
All gray and creepy.
He looked about the grim tree house. This was no place to be spending the night. But it couldn’t be helped.
There was no way he was going to go back into the trailer, tonight. Let Godzilla and his mom kiss and make up or whatever the hell they did after World War 3.
Why did she ever marry the jerk, anyway?
Bubba was no prize, he thought, biting his bottom lip.
If only his dad was around.
Matt crawled into a dark corner of the tiny room, brushed the leaves away, and curled up into a ball. From the sound of things, it seemed like the tempest was blowing in again. He put both hands over his ears and tried to escape the noise.
Above their yells, a lone dog barked incessantly. Chained up, no doubt, he thought, drifting off to sleep.
“You skippin’ school again?”
Matt braked to a sudden stop.
“How’d you know?”
“Son, it’s written all over your face. I’ve sat on this porch and watched you ride back and forth for a long time. Weekends, you got a bright, sunny look on your face. Rain or shine. School days, you look like you’ve been ordered to shovel out Noah’s ark with a teaspoon. It’s Tuesday. School ain’t let out yet. You look like a Cheshire cat.”
Rigsby Meriwether was a grizzled old man who claimed to be the original ‘white trash’ of Haymore’s. He had a tiny little trailer that had sat on Lot 27 for years. There was a tin-roof porch with several rusty, metal lawn chairs, and two plastic pink flamigoes that decorated his little patch of paradise.
Across the front, Rigsby had made beer can wind chimes with twine and old boards. Two wooden poles guarded the entrance to his place. On one was nailed a large handpainted sign that read ‘Private Property.’ The other held another sign that read ‘No Trespassing.’
Rigsby got the message across. Even the local Jevohah’s Witnesses left him alone.
“Betty’s lookin’ mighty fine. You wanna see her?”
“Sure,” said Matt.
The old man had a Betty Grable-like pinup painted on the side of his trailer. Some women in the park had complained, so Rigsby built his porch addition to hide her.
The old man got some boards and made louvers to quash the complaints. The light on the porch was cut, but Rigsby claimed Betty was more beautiful now than she had been in the glaring sun. The ambiance does the old gal good,’ he’d say.
“Birthday party,” said Rigsby.
“You didn’t tell me it was your birthday.”
“It ain’t,” he said. “But I’m sure it’s somebody’s. Sit down. I can’t have a party all by myself. Here. Take the seat in front of Betty.”
Matt sat down.
“We’re having sardines and potted meat on saltines,” Rigsby said. “Hey. Don’t look like I said I was serving you a grilled cow pie. There’s beer, too. But for you, just a taste and mostly water.”
Matt laughed out loud.
“Nothing,” he said. “Is that a roll of toilet paper you got holding up the forks and knives?”
“Stroke of pure genius, don’t you think? I didn’t want to just throw them on the table, you know. Too much bird poop for that.”
“Rigsby, I think it’s swell.”
“Let’s chow down.”
Matt had never eaten sardines and potted meat for breakfast, but he was ravenous.
“This is great,” he said, washing down the feast with watered-down beer.”
“Yeah. Beats caviar and a two-minute boiled egg any day. Go light on the Brewer’s, kid. I don’t want the sheriff arresting me.”
Matt hopped on his bike.
“Now that your gullet’s packed, maybe you should think about giving school another chance.”
The boy smiled.
“Don’t skip, today. Don’t take my word for it, but education’s a good thing.”
“I’m flunking out.”
“So, what,” said the old man. “I seem to remember spinning my wheels in the same grade more than one year, myself. Ain’t like it’s the end of the world.”
Matt said nothing.
“You think about it. Okay. And here.”
“Go to school today and warm the seat. Just think about it, okay? Here’s a dime. Buy some candy or an ice cream cone this afternoon. Treat yourself. But only if you go. Skip today and bring this back to me. I only pay to get my money’s worth.”
“If I bring this back, do I get chewed out?”
“Course not. It’s your decision. If you skip, I’m ten cents richer.”
“Hurry up, Mattie. Wash your face and hands. We’re running late. Hon, there’s hot dogs in the fridge. Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”
Matthew screwed up his face, but Evon ignored her son.
“Naw, babe,” said Bubba. “I’m good right here.”
The couch would be squished the whole time Matt and his mother were gone. Matt was certain.
“There’s plenty of beer. Love you.”
Evon blew a kiss Bubba’s way. Bubba ignored her, concentrating instead on singer belting out the country song on the AM radio.
“Mama, why can’t I just stay home? I hate church dinners.”
“Bubba likes his alone time, Mattie. You know that. Besides, I need a handsome fella to take me out once in awhile.”
“Won’t he be jealous?”
“Who? Bubba? Well, let him. If you’re that good-lookin’ hunk on my arm, I don’t care if he is or not.”
Evon laughed and kissed Matt on the forehead.
“Oh, hon. I know. But if I can’t plant a quick peck on my honey-bunny once in a blue moon, I’ll go nuts.”
“I hope Preacher Dan ain’t too long-winded,” Evon said.
Matt looked surprised.
“Oh, I mean, I like his sermons. It’s just that once pintos get cold, they tend to clabber.”
“They do not,” said Matt.
“Well, you know what I mean. They get all, I dunno. Clammy and thick. They’re like trying to swallow glue.”
When they arrived, the service had already started. Preacher Dan welcomed them all and after a short message, blessed the meal, and told everyone to file down to the church basement to eat.
“No charge for gas,” yelled Nicky Benson, filing down the tight little staircase with the rest.
A long line formed and inched toward the beans.
“Hey, Dan,” said Milo Hivers.
“Sheriff Cline,” said his wife, Hilda. “Where’s Margie?”
“Oh,” said the sheriff, “she’s feeling under the weather.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. You tell her I’ll be over first thing in the morning to visit her. I never mind lending a hand when someone’s feeling poorly. It’s my God-given calling, you know. My ministry. Done it for all the church folk for years.”
Matt, who had found himself squeezed between Hilda Hivers and Sheriff Cline, could only wish the line would move a little faster. That was the problem with this type of gathering. They called it a church supper, but Matt thought it might be more truthful to rename it church-socializing-and-catch-up-on-news-and-gossip gathering.
“Thanks, Hilda,” said the sheriff. “It’s an awful nice gesture, but I’m afraid you mustn’t put yourself out.”
“Why, it’s no bother at all. I like Margie. Bless her heart.”
“Well, uh,” the sheriff stammered, looking for the right words.
He cleared his throat.
Here it comes, thought Matt, closing his eyes so the adults couldn’t see his rolling eyes. It was a trick he’d learned when Bubba said something incredibly stupid. Bubba swore Matt was an epileptic and had made Evon take her son to the doctor.
“Clean bill of health,” said Evon.
“Then what’s up with the eyes?”
“Doc says he might have scratchy eyeballs. Closing the lids washes them so they don’t scratch so much.”
“Oh. Well, that beats havin’ fits, I guess.”
Matt waited for the sheriff to confess some horrible secret female disorder like Margie Cline was on the rag. Bubba had all kinds of sickening descriptions to describe his mother’s time of the month. Or maybe it was worse a female calamity. He wasn’t stupid. He was fourteen. He knew stuff.
Matt held his breath. Here it comes. Here it comes.
“Well,” said Sheriff Cline, “I’m afraid she’s not home.”
Matt opened his eyes. Hilda Hivers’ mouth was a perfectly round ‘o’ of surprise.
“Uh, well. Margie’s visiting her aunt.”
“Oh, Jim. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. Well, I’ll surely be praying for her. You know that. And you, too.”
Jim Cline looked across the room.
“If you’ll ‘cuse me,” he said, “I think I see Lindy over there. I need to speak to him for a moment.”
“Nice goin’, Hildie,” said Milo Hivers.
“Milo, how could I have known?”
Matt could not help it. His face brightened. Since the sheriff’s departure, the line was moving forward much faster. He suddenly felt elated. The food was within seconds of filling his plate.
“You owe me, kid.”
It was the next afternoon and hot as a witch’s cauldron. The sweat made Matt’s tee shirt stick to his torso. His hair was plastered to his head.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Matt.
“Sure you do. We had a deal. Remember? I want the dime back.”
“I went to school,” he said. “I spent it. Like you said.”
“You rode by the school, alright. Right by that sucker and made a beeline for the fairgrounds.”
“No, I …”
“Don’t lie to me, kid. Just gimme the dime.”
“I don’t have it.”
“Okay,” said Rigsby. “I knew that. We’ll have to work out something, then. I’ll be get back with you, soon’s I figure it out.”
Matt shook his head.
“You follow me?” the boy asked.
“You bet I did. I had a whole ten cents ridin’ on you, boy. But you let me down.”
Matt squirmed on the seat of his bike.
“You gonna tell Bubba?”
“Course I ain’t gonna tell that lint head. This is between you and me. Now, get home. I’ve got to figure out how you’re going to make good on that debt.”
“It’s just a measly dime.”
“Yeah. It is. But it was mine, and we had a deal.”
“Cripes,” muttered Matt.