Tag Archives: storytelling

A Thought About Bullies

Right before choir class began, the school bully came in and sat next to me. It wasn’t his usual seat. He put his arm around my shoulders.
In 1965 Texas that meant I was a homosexual, and he was my—well I don’t know what to call him since he was implying he wasn’t a homosexual, just me. When he had pulled that stunt on other guys, smaller than he, the victim was supposed to jerk away and glare at him, and he would laugh maniacally.
I didn’t do that. I just stared straight ahead, not moving a muscle. After a long moment, he patted my arm and pulled away. That wasn’t the first time he had done something. He liked to make fun of what I wore, threaten to beat me up after school and sing loud in my ear during a choir concert to throw me off key. The usual bully crap. Later one of my friends lectured me for not following the accepted custom of pulling away and glaring at him.
“Don’t you know what that means?”
Yes, I did, and I didn’t care. At that time I had a life-threatening crush on a girl half a year older than me so I knew I wasn’t a homosexual and I was convinced that if the girl didn’t like me as much as I liked her my life would be over.
By the end of the school year, the bully and I came up to the water fountain at the same time.
“You don’t like me, do you?” He looked rather pitiful at that moment.
“No, you’re okay.” I was still too infatuated with the older girl to wax righteous about whether or not he was likeable.
By the end of the next school year my worst fear came true. The older girl did not like me in the same way I liked her. I went to college, and the girl and the bully went on to their own lives. I heard later he became an evangelist.
However, throughout my adult life I have found whenever another man puts his arm around my shoulders, a traditional sign of brotherly affection, I stiffen and slightly pull away, which has short-circuited some friendships. By and large, the incident did not keep me from marrying the right woman, having two wonderful children and enjoying a host of good friends in my older years.
This memory re-emerges briefly when I read in the newspaper another child who kills himself because he was bullied, or he himself becomes the killer. I see bullying become a legitimate campaign tactic. I hear people comment on the Millennial activism, “Those kids have to be given hot chocolate just because an election didn’t go their way.” That statement in itself is a form of bullying. I wonder about official school policies that state a person has to have more than one incident by the same person in order to be considered a bullying victim. Sometimes television situation comedies will show the best way to handle a bully is to be a bully right back at him.
I think about how much one minor incident affected my life and how long-term, vicious harassment can be devastating for anyone who is too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too different. Don’t feel sorry for us. Don’t put your arm around us. Teach your children to respect everyone. Practice compassion yourself.

On the Bench

Two old men sat on a bench at the park, one tall, balding with a pot belly and the other short, bearded and skinny. They both stared at the pond, the ducks floating on it and at the children playing on the jungle gym. From time to time they looked at each other and smiled. When someone parked his small foreign car in front of them, the skinny man tapped the fat man and pointed.
“Audi.”
“Howdy to you.” The big man took his hand and shook it with vigor. “Kinda hard to start up a conversation these days, ain’t it?”
The little man smiled, but wrinkled his brow and pointed to the car again. “Audi. Audi.”
“Well, ain’t you the friendly one. But you can’t speak Amurican, can you?”
He shook his head, keeping the smile on his face.
“No wonder you sat there so long and didn’t say nuthin’. I guess some folks make you scairt ‘cause you can’t speak Amurican, but I’m broad minded, buddy.” He pointed at himself. “Me Billy.” He pointed at the little man. “You?”
He pointed at the car and repeated, “Audi.”
“Bet you watched a bunch of westerns before you come over here and the only word you picked up was howdy. Ain’t that right?”
The little man nodded. “Oui. Audi.”
“Oh, we got us a outhouse right over there if you need to go.” He pointed to the restrooms on the other side of the parking lot. You gotta go wee wee?”
Oui, oui.” He nodded and shook Billy’s hand again.
“You better get on over there then before you wet your pants.”
J’aime Audi.”
“Jim, howdy to you too, but you better go to the outhouse and pee.”
He looked in the sky and shook his head. “Non il plieu.”
“I’m sorry, Jim, I thought you said you had to go pee. Gosh, it’s hard to talk to a foreigner.” Billy thought a moment. “Do you wanna go over there to the stand and get a sody pop? You know, sody pop?” He motioned like he was drinking from a bottle.
Oui, oui.” He made the same motion. “Salut.”
“No, Jim, I don’t think they got salad.”
Pinot, cabernet, champagne?”
“Champagne? Heck no, Jim. The cops’ll throw us in the hoosegow.”
Non champagne?”
“No, Jim, not even a beer.”
Quelle domage.”
“Yeah, you can do a lot damage with that there champagne. What I was talking about was a Coca Cola. You know, Coke?” Billy made shape of a Coca Cola bottle with his hands.
Oui, oui!” The little man said with a twinkle in his eyes. “J’aime les femmes.”
“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. You said Jim’s a what?”
J’aime les femmes.” He pointed at a woman sunbathing in the park.
Billy reached out and put the man’s arm down. “Oh, you better watch that, Jim. You go pointin’ at all the purty gals in the park, and the cops will get you.”
Non femmes? Quelle domage. C’est la vie.”
“Well, Jim, it was right nice talkin’ to you. I gotta get on home to supper.” Billy shook the little man’s hand. “I hope I see you tomorrow. I’m here at this time just about every day.”
Au revoir.”
“No, it ain’t a reservoir. It’s just a little old pond.”

Burly Chapter Twenty-Six

(Previously in the book: For his birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life. As Herman grew up, life was happy–but mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. Tad died during World War II. The years have passed, and Herman was now seventeen years old, and Burly is in the trunk. After Herman left for college, papa took Burly from the trunk.)
The old farmhouse outside of Cumby lapsed into disrepair as the years stretched into decades. An interstate highway drew traffic away from the narrow blacktop road that passed nearby until the only people to see it were neighboring farmers slowly going by on their tractors and their children walking home from school. Tales began to be spun about the mysterious old man who lived in the run-down house and who carried a burlap teddy bear with him everywhere he went. Children believed him to be some sort of evil ghoul who lured unsuspecting strangers into his barn where they met terrible deaths. Other children whispered the old man was simply out of his mind, someone to be teased for the awful crime of living too long.
Of course, their parents stopped them before they did anything harmful to old Mr. Horn. Feel sorry for him, the parents said. Once he had a fine farm but over the years he had to sell off bits and pieces until all he had left was the house, barn and five acres out back.
“But isn’t he mean or crazy or dumb?” two little boys asked their father as they rode past on their tractor.
“No,” Gerald Morgan replied. “I remember when he wasn’t considered a strange old man at all.”
“Really?” the younger boy asked in awe.
“Yes. When I was about your age I remember how he was quite normal. He had a nice looking wife and three children.”
“You mean he smiled and laughed like anybody else?” the other boy asked, not quite believing this yarn their father was spinning.
Gerald Morgan chuckled. “Oh yes. I remember one time seeing him at a Toby show with his children. He had his youngest son on his shoulders, and he was smiling, laughing and eating popcorn.”
“What’s a Toby show, Dad?” the younger boy asked.
He reached over to tousle his son’s hair. “That’s another story.” He paused and became very serious. “In fact, I think that night was the last time I ever saw Mr. Horn smile.”
“What happened to his family?” the older boy continued his questions.
“His wife died soon after that, and the daughter—she was older than me—went off to live with relatives in Houston. The oldest boy died in the war.”
“And the younger boy, what happened to him?”
Gerald Morgan had a faraway look in his eyes. “Herman Horn was one of my best friends in high school.”
“Did he die?”
Shaking his head Gerald just drove on and left the boy’s question unanswered. As the tractor putted on down the road away from the old farmhouse, the brothers looked back at it. They wondered what made it look so fearsome and so lonely. The boys didn’t know it but at that moment inside the old farmhouse, scary, mysterious, sad old Mr. Horn was clutching at his chest with one hand and with the other reaching for Burly Bear on the bed. He crumbled on the floor and lay there for the next three days.
Burly heard Woody collapse and the postman’s knock at the door three days later, but couldn’t do anything about it. He heard muffled whispers of neighbors who peeked in the door as the ambulance attendants carried the body out. He felt shattering numbness which befalls a house when no one will live in it again. A few days later the little bear heard the steps of a weary man enter the house. Burly was aware of a man’s lifting his little body.
“Oh Burly, I’m sorry I did this to you,” a grown Herman whispered. Fingering the worn burlap he confessed, “I should have never put you in that trunk. Forgive me.”
Burly heard Herman’s plea, but he didn’t know this tall, broad-shouldered man who was shaking and crying. At least he didn’t know him until the tears from Herman’s eyes landed on his head and magic happened again. Burly Bear blinked his button eyes at this man holding him and realized who it was.
“Excuse me, but are you Herman?” Burly asked politely.
Herman looked shocked, then smiled. “Yes, I’m Herman, your friend.”
Burly was confused. “But Herman is a little boy. Or he was a little boy. The last time I saw him he was a big teen-ager.”
Sniffing and wiping his eyes, Herman nodded. “That’s right. A very foolish teen-aged boy. But that was many years ago.”
“I remember. Don’t worry,” Burly said soothingly. He looked deep into Herman’s red eyes. “Yes, I can tell now. You are Herman.”
“Well, I’m not exactly the same little boy that you knew.”
Looking at his worn little body, Burly said, “I guess I’m not the bear I once was either.”
“Who cares if you’re a little frayed around the edges,” Herman said, tapping Burly’s arm. “I still love you.”
Burly felt warm inside. “I’m so glad you came back for me.”
“Actually I came back for my father’s funeral,” Herman told him. “I haven’t given you much thought the last few years until I walked in the door and then you were all I could think about.”
“At least we’re together again,” Burly offered.
“I wish I had had you with me all that time,” Herman said. “Without your advice I made a lot of mistakes.”
“Oh, but I’m sure you’ve done a lot of good things too. You were always so smart.”
Herman shrugged. “I did go to college and get a law degree.”
“Just as you said you would.” Burly leaned forward with anticipation. “Did you help the black people like you wanted?”
Herman looked away in shame. “I’m afraid not. Sometimes I forgot about important things like honesty and love along the way. You’re not disappointed in me, are you?”
“I could never be disappointed in you, Herman. You’re my friend.”
“Not a very good one, sticking you in that trunk like that. And I wasn’t a very good friend to Gerald Morgan.”
“He was one of the nicer boys who visited you,” Burly said, trying to remember.
“Yes. We said we would always be friends, even if we didn’t live in the same town. We would visit and write. But I never did. I always meant to but I didn’t.”
“Stop being so hard on yourself,” Burly told him. “Everyone makes mistakes. And mistakes can sometimes be undone.”
Herman smiled. “Yes. Gerald came to papa’s funeral and I apologized. I told him I would keep in touch and I really meant it this time.”
Burly looked down. “You know your father was very sad you never came to visit him.”
“I didn’t think he wanted to see me.”
“You know that wasn’t so,” Burly replied. “I told you many times how much he loved you.”
Herman hung his head. “I guess so.”
“In fact he loved you much more than I realized,” Burly continued.
Herman looked up. “Did he talk to you much? Gerald told me at the funeral papa had gotten into the habit of carrying a teddy bear with him.”
“He talked to me all the time. He didn’t understand why you didn’t answer his letters.”
“Did—did you talk to him?”
Burly shook his burlap head. “No. I didn’t think he’d understand how a teddy bear could talk.”
Herman wiped another tear from his eyes. “So he did love me.”
“And Tad and Callie too,” Burly added. “Look at the table by his bed—Tad’s hunting knife and Callie’s picture. You know, Callie wrote him all the time. She even invited him to visit her in Houston. Of course, he didn’t take me along.”
“Herman! Hurry up!” a woman’s voice called out from the kitchen.
“Who’s that?” Burly asked.
“Why, that’s Callie.”
“Really?” Burly replied. “She doesn’t happen to still have my mother?”
Herman winked. “You’d be surprised.” Herman stood and carried Burly toward the door. “And I have a surprise for you.”
“What?”
“Well, you remember May Beth?”
“Oh, the girl Marvin married,” Burly replied.
“She left Marvin a couple of years after they were married. We met in Austin,” Herman told him.
“That’s where you were going to school.” Burly was so pleased more of his memory was returning.
“Yes, and we started dating again. This time I wasn’t dumb enough to let her slip away.”
“So May Beth is here?”
“Yes,” Herman replied. “And someone else whom I think will become as good a friend to you as I was. Better.”
Herman opened the bedroom door and brought out Burly who looked around the old farmhouse kitchen. He recognized Callie right off because she looked just like her mother. And beside her was a blonde-headed little girl holding Pearly Bear. Then he looked over to see a pretty dark-haired woman he assumed was May Beth since he had never met her. And next to her was a little boy. Burly caught his breath. The child looked just like Herman, maybe his hair was a bit darker. And there wasn’t that terrible sad look in his eyes that Herman had that first night his tears dropped on the burlap bear.
“You’re doing something right,” Burly whispered to Herman. “You’re a good father. I can tell by the happiness on your son’s face.
“Thank you,” Herman whispered back. He walked across the room and held out Burly to his son. “Bobby, I want you to meet an old friend of mine, Burly Bear.”
Bobby grabbed Burly and hugged him. “Thank you, daddy. He’s wonderful.”
Burly shivered with warmth, excitement and love.
Welcome back, Burly Bear.

Don’t Mess With Linda

Linda protected her older sister Anne because Anne, Linda felt, let people run over her. She came to this conclusion after seventy years of watching Anne cave into other people’s demands just to get along.
The Florida sun beaded down as the sisters walked up the steps to the bank to make a deposit. Linda knew the clerk would short-change her sister if she did not watch her every move. Anne lost her footing and fell back down the steps.
“You okay, Sis?” Linda bent over to lightly touch Anne’s arms and legs. “Does this hurt?”
Before Linda knew it a bank clerk hovered over them with a large umbrella.
“Oh you poor thing,” the clerk cooed. “How dreadful. Let me protect you from that awful sun.” In the next breath she stuck a piece of paper and pen under Anne’s nose. “Here, sign this.”
“Okay.” Anne took the paper and pen and signed.
“No!” Linda screamed, but it was too late.
The clerk smiled at Linda in triumph. “There, there, everything will be all right.”
Linda pinched her lips because she knew the paper was a release form, clearing the bank from any responsibility for the accident. Why did Anne always do this to her?
“Yes, everything will be all right as soon as the ambulance gets here. You did call 911, didn’t you?”
The clerk paused. “No, I was concerned about your sister getting heatstroke so I came straight out with the umbrella.”
“My goodness,” Linda said in feigned concern. “We must go immediately inside and call 911, mustn’t we?”
“I’ll do it,” the clerk replied. “You stay here with your sister.”
“No, she’ll be okay. She’s got the umbrella.”
Linda stood and put her arm around the clerk’s waist as they walked into the bank. “Oh, my dear, I don’t know what we’d done without your quick thinking.” She raised her voice. “Someone call 911! My sister needs an ambulance!”
“I’ll do that.” The clerk tried to pull away with the signed paper.
“Oh my sister! Oh my sister! What am I going to do!” Linda wrapped her arms around the clerk. “She’s all I got in life! Help me! Help me!”
“My dear lady! Control yourself.”
“No! No!” Linda sobbed and pawed the clerk. “I need the comfort of your arms. You are so sweet to me!”
A siren cut through the air. Linda pulled away and headed for the door. “Oh good. The ambulance is here. Thank you, my dear.”
Outside she knelt by her sister under the umbrella.
“What was on that piece of paper I signed?” Anne sounded mystified.
“Don’t worry about it, Sis.” Linda extended her hand to show the wadded-up paper. “I robbed the bank.”

July Fourth

July Fourth brings back a time I worked for the Dallas Morning News on its editing desk. After five p.m., calls to the information center downstairs were rerouted to the editing desk. Why, I don’t know. We didn’t have the authority to reply to requests. We were on an assembly line of correcting typos and writing headlines fast so our readers would have their newspapers to skim as they ate breakfast.
One July Fourth night I got stuck with a call from a woman in tears.
“Why don’t children respect holidays anymore?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.” I kept reading for mistakes in an Associated Press story from Indonesia or some such distant location which had undergone a catastrophe.
“We always tried to make holidays special for them, but they didn’t appreciate it.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Nothing means anything to them anymore, except their silly fishing boats and always drinking that beer.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
My mind went back to a July Fourth long ago when I asked my mother if we could do something special for the holiday. My father was a Royal Crown Cola salesman and those grocery stores needed fresh supplies of soda pop whether it was a holiday or not. That meant the rest of us just sat home and ate hot dogs and watermelon. For entertainment my brothers lit firecrackers and threw them at me. I was only seven or eight so I screamed and ran. That’s why I was hoping this July Fourth we could do something different. If dad could take off a little early maybe we could go out to the local lake for a picnic and splashing in the water.
“We’ll have to ask your father,” she said.
“Yeah, sure, if I get done,” he said.
On July Fourth morning I was up early. I knew we couldn’t leave until dad came home, but I wanted to be ready when he did roll his truck in the yard and load us into the car for the lake. But he didn’t show up. Mom fixed the hot dogs for lunch, and we ate watermelon. In the afternoon, my brothers threw firecrackers at me and laughed when I screamed and ran.
Not only did dad not take off early, he worked extra late so he even missed supper. I didn’t say anything to mom because I didn’t want another lecture about how selfish a little boy I was for expecting dad to do anything except work hard. Here he slaved away to pay the bills and buy groceries and all I could think of was having fun.
“The children never show up for holidays,” the woman on the phone said through her tears.
“I wish I could do something to make you feel better.” I was only in my twenties. I didn’t know the right thing to say.
She sniffed. “Oh, that’s all right. Thank you for listening.”
After she hung up, I realized I was working on July Fourth, and my wife and baby boy were home alone. Some things never changed. No, I told myself. The difference was I wanted to be at home with them, and I promised myself to be there with them every holiday I could.
Then it was time to write another headline. After all, the newspaper had to come out on time.

Burly Chapter Twenty-Five

(Previously in the book: For his birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life. As Herman grew up, life was happy–but mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. Tad died during World War II. The years have passed, and Herman is now seventeen years old, and Burly is in the trunk.)
Marvin never visited Herman in the loft again. Burly never knew exactly what happened because Herman didn’t mention Marvin when he talked to himself, and Gerald never talked about Marvin when he visited.
“Gosh, Herman, I never thought one of my friends would be the senior class valedictorian,” Gerald laughed one afternoon.
“Well, it was real close,” Herman said. “You did well in the class standings, too.”
Burly smiled to himself. Evidently Herman was still paying attention to his late night advice.
“Have you decided whether or not to take your Uncle Calvin’s offer to stay with him and go to Rice Institute? That would be nice, being with your sister again.”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? She got married last winter.”
Burly wondered if Pearly Bear still had a shelf of honor in Callie’s home or if she had been relegated to an old trunk.
“Anyway, I still want to go to the University of Texas. If I don’t get drafted, that is.”
“What does May Beth say about all this?”
Herman shifted uneasily on the bed. “What does she have to say about it?”
“Well, I thought you two, you know,” Gerald replied, a little nervous.
“We’ve dated a lot, that’s all.”
“Is that how she looks at it?”
“It doesn’t make any difference how she looks at it,” Herman said.
Again Burly felt worried about some of Herman’s attitudes. That night as Herman tossed and turn in his bed, Burly whispered, “Don’t toss away May Beth’s friendship, or love, so easily. Remember love is as important as school.”
In a few weeks graduation had come and gone. Herman was called for his draft induction physical and passed. That meant he would be leaving the old farmhouse for good soon. Burly was scared again. Another incident scared Burly. One night Herman came home and had trouble climbing the ladder. He was drunk. Pulling a small bottle of some kind of liquor from his pocket Herman took a long swig.
“And here’s to the bride, May Beth Webster,” he slurred. “And here’s to the groom, Marvin Berry, the bum.”
So he had not taken Burly’s advice about May Beth, and she had married his former friend. Burly’s heart broke for Herman. For the first time in more than a year Burly wished he was out of the trunk and in Herman’s arms so Herman could squeeze the bear hard to make his pain go away.
Herman mumbled other things in a drunken stupor, things Burly couldn’t quite make out, and then he passed out on the bed.
Burly worried all night about Herman’s beginning to drink. He whispered, ”Please don’t start drinking, Herman. Remember what happened to Tad’s friend, Leonard.” But he didn’t know if Herman ever heard him.
Within a few days Herman was gone to join the Army and the loft became deathly still. For the first time Burly looked around him to see what he shared the trunk with. There were some of Herman’s mother’s clothes, including her wedding dress. There was the American flag from Tad’s memorial service. Down at the bottom Burly found old baby clothes that belonged to Callie.
One night Burly heard steps coming up the ladder. His little heart leapt, hoping it was Herman. Instead, it was Mr. Horn, who walked across the loft to the trunk. When he opened it, Burly could tell he too was drunk. Woody Horn gently picked up the dress his wife wore on her wedding day and touched it to his cheek. Then he caressed the American flag given in memory of his fallen son. Finally he picked up Burly Bear.
“Well, little bear, I wondered what became of you,” Woody said with a slur. “So he tossed you aside too, like he did me.”
Burly considered trying to speak to him, but decided against it.
Woody sniffled. “I guess I can’t blame him. I didn’t do much to keep him.” He began to put Burly back in the trunk and then stopped. “If I can’t keep my son, then I’ll keep my son’s teddy bear.” And with that he took Burly downstairs to his bedroom where he laid the little bear beside his pillow. After he took his shirt and trousers off and climbed into bed, Woody picked up Burly again. “I guess you won’t mind if I start talking to you.”
Mind? Burly thought; I’d be thrilled. If I had stayed alone in that trunk, in that great nothingness of time and space, I would have surely lost my magic and become just another forgotten toy, ripe for decay and to be gnawed upon by visiting rats.
Woody held Burly closely. “I guess a part of me died when Opal passed on. And I shouldn’t have let that happen.”
But you couldn’t help it, Burly thought.
“I kept telling myself that I couldn’t help it but that’s not true. I could have bucked up and done the right thing.”
There’s still time to do the right thing, Burly thought.
“Maybe there’s still time,” Woody’s eyes became heavy with sleep. “I’ll write Herman and Callie letters. I’ve never written a letter before, but I’m not too old to learn. And maybe they’ll forgive me.”
Of course they will, Burly thought, knowing Woody was somehow catching his advice, just like Herman did.
Meet your new friend, Burly Bear.

How Dare You

Gloria became distracted slicing the roast beef when Dave put his arms around her waist.
“Gee, Honey, that smells great,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck.
She concentrated on the knife going through the meat as Dave kissed her on the cheek.
“You’re going to make me cut myself,” she said, trying not to be curt.
“In that case I’ll sit down and be a good boy,” David replied as he plopped in the kitchen chair closest to her.
Gloria brushed strands of gray hair from of her brown eyes as she finished carving the roast. Looking around the table she saw the vegetables were in place. They glistened in the candlelight. Candles lit by her husband of thirty-five years. She studied them carefully before turning her attention to Dave. His dark hair was still closely cropped. His cheeks were full as always, and his wrinkled face was as fair as it ever was, almost pink. But something was not the same.
“Please sit down, dear,” Dave said. “I can’t enjoy this delicious meal until you join me.” As he smiled, the dimples in his cheeks deepened.
She took a chair across the table from him and began to fill her plate.
“There were a lot of people at your brother’s funeral today,” Gloria said slowly.
“Yes, Ben had a lot of friends.”
“I noticed you didn’t cry.”
Dave kept his head down. “You know me. I don’t show my emotions much.”
“Unlike Ben. I never knew anyone who wore his feelings on his sleeve like he did. No wonder he committed suicide.”
“Yeah, kind of a pansy, wasn’t he?”
“So different, the two of you, to be identical twins.” Her voice was aloof and soft.
“But I got the good-looking wife, and he didn’t.” Dave laughed. “Gosh, this roast beef is great.”
“Thanks.” Gloria folded her hands in her lap. “Poor Ben. He never married.”
“Like I said, he was a pansy.”
“No, that wasn’t it. I don’t think I ever told you this, but Ben proposed to me the same night as you did. I told him no. I said I loved you instead. He told me I’d regret marrying you. He said you were a cold-hearted son of a bitch who would make my life miserable.”
“Who cares what that pansy thought?”
She stood, picked up the carving knife, walked around the table and quickly put the knife to Dave’s throat. “How did you do it?”
He dropped his fork and gasped. “Do what?”
“Kill Dave.”
“But I’m Dave.”
“No, you’re not. You’re Ben.”
“That’s—that’s foolishness,” he mumbled. “You’ve always been a foolish woman,” he added, finding his voice. “I don’t know how I’ve put up with you all these years.”
“Dave said that a lot.”
“Of course, I did—and I still say you’re a foolish woman.”
“Every time Dave said that I noticed you always clinched your jaw and turned a little red. You hated your brother.”
“He was my brother, I didn’t hate him. I didn’t hate Ben. How could anyone hate Ben?”
“That’s right. Nobody hated Ben.” Gloria pushed the blade into his soft, wrinkled skin. “Now tell me the truth, or I’ll slice your throat.”
“All right. All right. I killed the son of a bitch. I hated him for the way he treated you. I wrote my own suicide note and killed him. No need for an autopsy when you got a suicide note written in the hand of the man they think is dead.”
“And you thought you could fool me?”
“No, I thought you’d like having a good husband after all those years with that son of a bitch.”
“Well, he may have been a son of a bitch,” Gloria said as she plunged the knife straight down between his shoulder and collar bone, “but he was my son of a bitch.”

Going to the Store

Sometimes I catch myself trying to remember the way to the old neighborhood store to buy candy or a popsicle. First off, the street was paved, but not really. It was really just patches on top of patches surrounded by hot Texas summer dirt.
By July, the bottoms of my feet had toughed up so the hot asphalt didn’t bother me. I turned right, which was generally north—all of the streets made a lot of slight turns so nothing was due north, south, east or west. Our next door neighbor was a nice old man, Mr. McDaniel who always had some relative living with him. Across the street was a young couple with two little kids who lived in a renovated Army barracks left over from World War II. Eventually they moved out to a nicer house in a nicer neighborhood. They didn’t talk to us much after that. The wife’s mother lived next to them in a regular house. I was kinda scared of her. I don’t know why.
Next to Mr. McDaniels were two houses, and I don’t think I ever met anyone who lived there. At the end of the block was a rambling old farm house with a wrap-around front porch and it needed a coat of paint. The woman who lived there ran the washateria where we took our clothes after my mother died.
Down the intersecting dirt road were a bunch of ramshackle old houses. My parents strictly forbade me to walk down that road because that’s where the black people. Except they didn’t say black people. They didn’t even use the word colored. They said a word I won’t use here. I know what it was. You know what it was. We all know what it was. No need to repeat it here.
We could see the shacks on that road from our backdoor. One morning I watched a black hearse parked out front of one of the houses. A group of men in black suits carried a coffin down the stairs. The people in the yard cried. It struck me that if black people cried in sorrow the same way we did when someone died, why did we have to be afraid of them? And if we weren’t afraid of them, why could I not walk down the street where they lived?
But I was trying to remember the way to the store, where the people on the dirt road could not shop. Beyond the intersection was a big vacant spot with lots of trees. Sometimes there was a tall pile of sand there, but I wasn’t allowed to play in it.
At the next intersection was another patched-over paved road leading to the bridge over Pecan Creek. We went that way when we were going to church or visit my mother’s relatives. If we kept going up the street my house was on, we got to the high school and downtown. On the other side of that intersection was the store. I hardly remember ever going in the older building. It was like all the country stores you’ve ever seen pictures of. I don’t know if it had a cracker barrel or not.
The owner became sick, and his wife panicked, marking up all the prices to pay for the doctor bills. All that did was make the neighbors get in their cars and drive north into town to shop at the fancy new supermarkets. They went out of business even faster. Eventually, he died and the widow moved away.
Someone then bought the land, rented the old building to an upholsterer and build a long, wide building which had a laundromat (I don’t know why this one was called a laundromat and the other one in town was called a washateria). On the other end of the building was a grocery with gas pumps outside. We’d call it a convenience store today.
I remember the owner had a huge selection of plastic flowers for sale in the back. It also had the best selection of candy and ice cream I’d ever seen. Of course, I was just a little barefoot boy in a small Texas town so what did I know?
They also had a bunch of knickknacks which I bought from time to time as birthday and Christmas presents for my parents. In particular I remember saving my nickels and dimes to buy a ceramic vase for my mother’s birthday. She often commented on how cute she thought it was when she came in the store. The surprise was ruined when my mother confronted me because the change in my pocket didn’t match what it should be since it was left over from my lunch allowance. So I had to tell her I was holding back some to buy her a gift. She felt bad, but she pulled the same thing when my brother put aside money from his part-time job to buy her a nice coat from a local woman’s clothing store.
I liked going to the store because there was always time to chat and tell jokes. The ladies working there were like aunts, except they were nicer than my real aunts. By the time I became a teen-ager, they had closed the store and moved to a new convenience store across the Pecan Creek bridge. They didn’t treat me as nice then, but I suppose it’s easier to like little kids than teen-agers.
So, yes. I do remember the way to the store. All the old neighbors are gone. All the stores are empty or torn down. I don’t think I’d like to walk down that street now that I’m old. I’d rather remember the days when I scampered barefoot without a care but with a coin to buy candy.

Burly Chapter Twenty-Four

(Previously in the book: For his birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life. As Herman grew up, life was happy–but mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. Tad died during World War II. The years have passed, and Herman is now seventeen years old, and Burly is in the trunk.)
“No!” Burly shouted as the trunk lid came down on him, covering him in darkness, but it did no good. Herman didn’t open the lid and lift him out. “Please, Herman, please,” the little bear whispered through the night, but Herman didn’t answer him. Finally Burly sat back and began to think about it. Herman will get a good night’s sleep and feel better the next morning, Burly decided. Herman will take him into his arms and beg his forgiveness which, of course, he will give, Burly told himself. So there was nothing left to do but be patient and wait for morning. But when morning came, Herman got up, dressed and went to the kitchen to cook his father’s breakfast, ignoring Burly’s pleas to be let out of the trunk.
“Do you need me after school?” Herman asked his father as they ate the ham, eggs and toast.
Not looking up, his father mumbled, “Could use some help in the barn.”
Herman climbed into the loft to get his books. Burly saw this as his chance to talk him into letting him out.
“Please let me out. I don’t like it in here. It’s scary.”
But Herman acted as though he didn’t hear the little bear and left. Burly began to wonder if Herman could even hear him anymore. Maybe his magical powers went away. Maybe none of his life ever happened. Somewhere in the old rags that filled his head there was a special something that allowed him to pretend he had talked to Herman. Burly was very confused. He tried not to think much about what was happening until that night when Herman came home.
It was very late when Herman finally came to bed; after all, he had to help his father, and then cook, then do is homework. Burly tried to be considerate and not say anything until Herman had slipped in between the covers.
“Herman,” he whispered, “Please let me out.”
There was no reply.
“Herman, I know I can still help you. I just know I can.”
Again no reply. Burly slowly began to believe Herman could no longer hear him until the little bear heard a muffled cry.
“Oh, shut up, Burly. Leave me alone.” And then Herman began to sob.
That made Burly very unhappy. His only reason to be able to talk and think was to be Herman’s friend and to make him happy. This was the first time Burly had made Herman cry. “I’ll never do that again. I’ll listen to what Herman is doing, and whisper advice in the middle of the night. But, I’ll never upset him by asking to be let out again.”
And so the days and months passed with Burly listening in on Herman’s conversations with his friends. And with himself, because for the first time in his life Herman talked to himself. Mostly he said terrible things to himself, like calling himself a dummy because he only made a B in a certain class instead of an A.
“Don’t call yourself names like that,” Burly whispered late at night. “You can’t be perfect in everything. Don’t think bad of yourself or soon you will really believe it and you won’t even make Bs in school.”
Herman didn’t say anything, but Burly noticed Herman stopped calling himself names. The next report card was better. He got all As.
“Hey, genius,” Marvin said one day while visiting Herman in the loft. “With grades like that you ought to go to college.”
“I plan to,” Herman replied with confidence. “I want to be a lawyer.”
“It takes money to be a lawyer,” Marvin said. “Where are you going to get money to go to law school?”
Herman shrugged. “They have scholarships. I’ll get me one of those.”
“Do you think you’re smart enough?” Marvin kidded.
“Yes,” Herman replied, completely serious.
“Yeah, I know you are,” Marvin said in a dark tone. “But that doesn’t mean you’ll get the money.”
”Then I’ll work my way through, even if it takes extra years I’ll get through.”
“And what about the draft?”
“Well, there’s always the G.I. Bill.”
Marvin snickered. “You’ve got all the answers.”
Herman looked at him with wide eyes. “Yes, I do.”
That night Burly whispered, “I don’t want you to call yourself a dummy but don’t go too far the other way. You don’t want to lose your friends.”

They’re Needling Me

I am the worst person in the world about getting shots. My son is almost as bad as I am. We’d make terrible heroin addicts.
My wife and daughter are better. Why is it women are braver patients than men? Most women can give birth in the morning and plow the back forty in the afternoon. One woman in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood had a caesarean section by Saracen sword one day and stormed the castle the next. Of course, that was a movie.
My wife said she wasn’t good about getting shots when she was a child. One time the doctor came by the house to give her an injection, and she jumped around the bed to avoid the needle. He caught her mid-bounce in the buttocks. After that she calmed down. When my daughter got her first inoculation she looked at her arm and said, “Hmph, that hurt.”
My son, on the other hand, shuddered with tears welling in his eyes, pleading with the doctor not to stick him. And that was last week. He’s thirty-eight years old and a prison guard. Just kidding. He shuddered when he was eight. He takes it like a man now. He shudders on the inside, just like me.
Back in the 1950s, the schools gave polio shots regularly to elementary school students. You had no warning. There you were, sitting in the classroom just about ready to doze off, when the next thing you knew the teacher was herding you down the hall to your doom. The needles back then were huge and dull. I could swear that they had been using the same needles that they had used on soldiers in World War II, just to save money.
Of course, getting an inoculation is nothing like having blood drawn. From the time I first discovered the fact that doctors, on a regular basis, stuck dull needles in your veins to extract copious amount of blood, I lived in fear that one day I would have to undergo such torture. When it eventually happened, I had to be placed on a gurney and my mother hovered over my face as the nurse drew the blood. And I’ll never forget her kind words.
“You’re being a big baby over this and embarrassing me to death.”
Over the years I have not gotten much better. At least my wife never told me I was a big baby nor acted like she was embarrassed when I almost passed out on the clinic floor. By the way, women faint and men pass out; at least that’s what my brother told me. He was a Marine so he should know.
Doctors actually have a name for the condition, and it is not cowardice. It’s Latin so I can’t remember it. When your nervous system thinks it’s losing volumes of its life-giving fluid, your blood pressure drops dramatically so the blood won’t flow out so fast. Not surprisingly, mostly men have it.
A few years at the hospital a male nurse couldn’t find the vein. In another aside, I think women draw blood better than men. Call me a sexist. Anyway, by the time he had thumped both arms several times and finally stuck in the needle, I was light headed. They rushed me over to the emergency room because they thought I had a seizure. Nope. It was just manly nervous Nellie disease.
I have discovered if I keep babbling on about something inconsequential the attendant can draw the blood and get me out of the building before my blood pressure drops. Once I quoted “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
I’m memorizing the Gettysburg Address for next time.