I remember that I was trying to be quiet. But the night was dark and sound carried far. Rifling through garbage cans outside the little clubhouse where the Boy Scouts met was not exactly something I wanted others to see.
The sweet/rotting smell of banana peel was strong in the air. I could see inside the cans due to the pale light coming through one high window, and was excited to find an old red Scout neckerchief some boy had probably discarded for a new one. I rose up fast, stepped back and tripped over a garbage can lid on the ground.
My fall into the tin cans announced my presence to everyone within a quarter mile. Within a few seconds, the entire troop was standing around me. I was stunned with embarrassment.
I pulled myself up quickly and tried to walk away with dignity but the laughter and Village boy taunts hurt so much that when I reached the darkness I ran wildly. Then the tears came. I knew boys didn't cry, but I could not stop mine.
I lived in Alabama Village. I knew it was for poor people, but it would be years before I realized it was what people from the north referred to as "The Projects"- a place for the really poor. Primarily single mothers.
When I got to the duplex where my mother and I lived, I sat in the back yard against the house, breathing hard from the humiliation and the hard run in the summer heat. I wanted the tears to disappear without trace. In the darkness lightning bugs lit up the bushy yard like stars lit up the night sky. The air smelled of freshly mowed crabgrass, and the perfume of honeysuckle was strong.
Later, I rose and went inside. Mother was watching television and when she heard me, asked if I was hungry. I told her I wasn't and I could barely hear her say "love you, dahlin" as I walked past her.
My bed was a mattress on the floor. Besides the bed was a wooden box within which I kept my important things. I opened it and fingered the Boy Scout flashlight with broken lens, and then an old mess kit one of the Scouts had discarded. I folded the red neckerchief and placed it in the box.
We couldn't afford for me to join the Scouts, but I loved the uniforms, patches, and gear. During summer months, I would watch them gather at the little Boy Scout building and pack their camping gear, then march high-stepping into the woods like an army of little boys. Many times I could feel the heat of almost formed tears at my aloneness when the last scout disappeared. It took only moments before I was asleep.
I woke up when the sun blazed through a tear in the roll-down window shade. I smelled coffee, so I knew Mother was up. I slipped on my canvas pants and t-shirt and went to the kitchen.
"Mornin', dahlin'. Went to sleep a little early for summa vacation time, huh?"
"Yes ma'am. Guess I was just tired."
"Well, you smell a little ripe, too! Why don't I start more au lait while you take a shower."
I went to shower, but I usually enjoyed watching momma make coffee. She made it the way old-time southerners made it.
Bringing a saucepan of water to boil, then lowering the heat and pouring a cupful of French Market Coffee and Chicory blend into the water. When the water looked like coffee, she dropped large pieces of eggshells into the water. As the shell pieces sank to the bottom it settled the grounds, then you dipped your cup into the coffee. She always added milk when it was a chicory blend, and momma was sipping her's when I returned.
"Sit down darling, I'll get you a cup."
She frequently let me drink a cup. I loved it with a little sugar added.
When she sat back down with my cup of au lait, she put her hand on my forearm.
"Ben, you want to tell me about last night?"
I was startled by the question. But momma always seemed to know when something was wrong. When I looked up at her, the sun streaming through the kitchen window shadowed half her face and yellowed the other half. It was spooky. She had one yellow-brown eye, one gray. Bright yellow-auburn hair on one side, gray on the other. When the yellow eye blinked, it brought me back to the moment.
"Ben, were you over to the Boy Scout hut last night?"
"I was just hangin' around, they were singin' songs, and I, uh, looked around for stuff."
"Oh, I see! You were looking through the garbage again, huh?"
"Yes, ma'am. And I found a..."
The disappointment in her face stopped me. Then she softened, and leaned in farther.
"Ben, why do you keep hangin'around that place? If I could afford to buy the uniform and all the gear those boys have to buy, I would, son. But I can't. You know that."
My eyes glistened, but I would not cry.
"I'm sorry, momma. Last night I tripped on a lid and fell. All the boys came out and laughed at me. I ran home and sat outside for a while."
I saw something in momma's face. Just for an instant. She looked away just for the briefest moment. When she looked back at me she was softer.
"Well, honey boy, y'all go on and play outside today. Be careful in the bayou and watch out for them cottonmouths, they don't take to barefoot boys steppin' on them, you know! I'll make you a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch!"
My friend Bobby and I walked to the other end of Pritchard, where the little store had big stalks of sugar cane for sale in a barrel outside the front door. We each contributed 5 cents we earned from redeeming pop bottles, and purchased a 6 feet tall cane. We broke it at the knuckles and had seven pieces. Bobby took 4 and I took 3. We sat on the curb in front of the store and began shaving the ends of the cane with our penknives. We were after that incredible, sweet core. We chewed and sucked on the cane 'til we had our fill.
As we stood, one of the boys we knew from school walked up.
"Wouldya cut me a round a cane?"
We knew Stubby had the money to buy his own. But Bobby gave him a round, or plug, from his. He pulled his penknife out of his pocket and started cut it into four smaller pieces.
"Saw you at the hut last night."
"Yeah. I was just listening to y'all sing. It sounded like fun. When I stepped on a can to look in the window, I fell."
I lied, and tried to make it sound funny.
"We're going into the woods to build a campfire and roast weenies Saturday. Why don't y'all come go with us?"
"You know I got no uniform or stuff to do that with. I go'n join next summer though." I lied again.
"You old enough?"
"I'm 'leven!" I said defensively.
I could feel sweat drops moving down my face slowly, like little wet bugs. It was hot and, as always, humid.
"You nine, maybe ten!" Stubby said.
"Well, I'll be joinin' next year anyway!" I said a bit too defensively.
Stubby folded his knife. That it had a Boy Scout logo on it didn't for a moment escape me. He put it in his pocket and thanked us for the cane and left.
"Lets go look for snakes, or turd-roller bugs!" Bobby said.
The fun had been taken out of my day.
"Lets head back. Momm'll wonder where I been. Hey, you want to come over tonight?"
"Nah. My dad says I caint stay over anywhere for a week. He punishin' me."
We walked back home together. Bobby was a Village boy, too.
"Hey, momma." "Hey, hon. You hungry?" "A little. I had some cane today, with Bobby."
I laid the last segment on the kitchen counter. "Here's a piece for you."
Momma made cowboy stew for us that evening. It was made from the commodity foods we were allowed to pick up at a warehouse in the Village. The contents were potatoes, onions, and turnips fried up in a pan, with melted Velveeta Cheese over it.
"You want some bread with that, Benny?"
"No thanks, momma."
"Momma, the Scouts going into the woods near Pritchard Saturday. Stubby told me 'bout it. I have an old mess kit, and you know I'm ok in the woods, so I'd like to follow along and cook somethin'"
"Well, I don't think that's a good idea, hon."
"But its only for the day and only for lunch!"
"I don't think its a good idea."
"Please, momma, please!" She looked at me for a couple of minutes. I could tell she was thinking hard about it. "Ok. Just this one time. And if you aren't back before dark, and I mean this house, your ass is mine! Do we understand each other, Mr. Davy Crockett?" She said not angrily, but protectively. "Yes, ma'am, yesum. Thanks, momma." I knew better than to push it right now. I'd wait 'til later to talk more about it with her.
After dinner, momma washed and rinsed, and I dried. We were standing at the kitchen sink. I was drying the last dish. "Momma, do we have any weenies? Mother immediately got the hysterical giggles. I didn't have a clue why; but when she snorted I got them, too. For the next few minutes we bounced around the kitchen laughing like crazy people, barely able to stand. I still didn't understand what got her started "Well, Mr. Ben, I think you mean for the trip Saturday, right?" Wiping tears from her eyes. I nodded. If I spoke, I might snort again. "I have a much better idea. I'll pack you a big pork chop in wax paper, and pack a little Crisco for you to cook it in. How's that sound?"
"That sounds great, mamma, thanks!" Mother thought it sounded great because we had no weenies; no money to buy them, and four pork chops in the freezer. *** The following days went by slowly. All I could think about was the camping trip. But finally it was Friday night. I opened my little box and pulled out all my Scout stuff. I folded the red neckerchief into a triangle, and smoothed it with my hand. Momma had washed my jeans and a light cotton shirt, and left them by my mattress. She also put her Big Ben alarm clock by my bed. It was set for six o'clock. The clock was ringing and when I woke I couldn't even remember my head hitting the pillow last night. I turned it off, jumped off the mattress and showered quickly. It was already hot. The light coming through the tear in the window cover was pale orange. Very pale. Mother had everything packed in a little canvas bag in the refrigerator. I was just about to leave when I handed the neckerchief to her
. "Momma, would you tie this around my neck for me?"
There was that look on her face again. Her eyes were telling me she loved me. And I knew she wished she could afford to buy the Boy Scout clothes. She tied the ends in a knot since I did not have the little wooden slip the Scouts all have.
"You have fun today, Mr. Davy Crockett! Be careful when you make your fire, dig a decent pit and all, ok?"
She bent down and I kissed her on the cheek. She took my face in her hands and kissed me on the lips.
"I love you, Ben. When you come home I expect you to tell me all about your hike."
I smiled at her and left through the kitchen door.
I stood off about 50 yards from the Boy Scout hut. Soon, about a dozen boys and two adults came out. They were all in those beautiful red and tan uniforms, and had little backpacks on. They got in a line and marched nicely into the field that was on the edge of the flat pine woods. When the last boy reached the trees I stood and started off behind them. It was only about two hours later that the group stopped to build a fire pit and sing songs. I was still keeping a distance of about 50 yards between us. I found a clear spot to dig my pit and sat my bag down. I had my old hunting knife on my hip. I dug a pit about 1 foot wide, about eight inches deep. I put in a few dried pine needles, struck a match and when it caught, put some pinecones on to hold the fire while I slowly put on some limbs that were scattered around. It burned nicely. For most of the morning, I could see the scouts doing various things, but I couldn't tell exactly what. I pulled out my penknife and carved interesting little pieces of wood. The pork chop was on my mind. When they finally started building their fire up for the weenies, I did the same. I put about a cup full of Crisco in the little pan and set it over the fire to melt. It didn't take long until it was bubbling over the sides it was so hot. I reached in and grabbed the handle. I didn't realize the handle would be as hot as the pan. When I grasped the handle, it was like sticking your finger into a light socket. The shock. I drew back my hand quickly, but the handle seemed to be stuck to my hand, and the jerking motion spilled the boiling lard onto my right thigh. I opened my mouth to scream but it didn't seem like any sound was coming out. The shock was immediate. I jumped and ran, trying to scream, back to town, or home to mother. The pain was searing, my vision became surreal, and then darkness.
I woke up in the little clinic near the Village. Mother was sitting near me, as were the two Scout leaders I saw on the trip. When I spoke it was like I had cotton in my mouth.
She rose from her chair and sat on the bed next to me. She put her hand on my face, bent down and kissed me.
"Hi, Mr. man. Had a hard day, huh?"
"Well it seems the Scouts heard you screaming and went to help, but you were running so fast they couldn't find you until you passed out. Mr. John here, pointing at one of the two men, carried you back to the clinic. They are all worried about you."
I looked at John.
"Hey, John. Th..thanks."
He smiled and nodded his head. He walked over and put his hand on my arm. I didn't know how to react.The pain was getting worse so they gave me some kind of shot and I went to sleep again.
I woke again early the next morning. The sun was barely up and the room was that beautiful summer color of yellow and orange. I could see mother asleep in the big chair. I looked down at the bottom of my bed. There scattered all over the white cotton cover were various Boy Scout badges, knives, a working flashlight, a pack, a genuine Scout shirt, and other Boy Scout items.
The Fields Beyond Innocence
*"Poet," I replied, "I beseech you by that God unknown to you, help me escape my present state" The Inferno, Cantos I
Bralore was roused early by the yellow of the sun asserting itself into the bedroom beneath the roll down curtain. The warmth felt wonderful on her face, and she smiled even before opening her eyes. Her left hand moved slowly to her left cheek and touched it. The roughness of her fingertips reminded her of the day to come. This was the time of the day she felt happiest.
"Get up, Bralore! Before your daddy comes to get you."
Bralore took a deep breath. Then the ten-year-old pulled the homemade quilt down and stepped quickly on her tiptoes to the back of the door to put on her dressing gown. She walked down the wooden steps and joined her mother and father in the kitchen.
"You look beautiful, Bralore."
"DonÃt give the child a line of crap like that- makes her think of herself instead of her work", her father said in a voice as harsh as his hands.
Both mother and daughter looked down at their plates. Under the table, her mother slid a foot in next to Bralore's.
The disappearance of Addison, her 19-year-old brother, a year ago, was withering for Bralore. They had been home schooled and had very little contact with children their own age. Everything she knew about the woods and the animals was learned from him. He was a dreamer. Shortly before he disappeared, their father had left strop marks on his legs for some punishment or another.
"Either finish the breakfast that God gave you or git out there and do your chores, girl."
Bralore took a bite of the grits and scrambled eggs, and then another until she finished. She glanced at her mother, but was afraid to be caught by her father doing so. She left the table, placed her dishes in the sink, and left the kitchen through the screen door.
The chicken coop was loud and smelled bad. But she walked, slightly bent, between the rows and took the eggs from the nests. The hens no longer cared. When her layered egg tray was full, she took it back to the kitchen for her mother. Her father was in the field.
"Hi, darlin'. Hey, that's a nice bunch a' eggs this morning."
Her mother paused and looked at the child.
"You are such a lovely child, Bralore. I'm sorry I don't have more to give you. Your brother.."
"Momma, I don't need anything."
"Your daddy loves you, you know. He just don't know how to show it."
Her mother was unable to look her in the eyes as she said this.
Her mother thrust her hands into her apron pockets, stepped to the kitchen sink, and started washing dishes. Bralore left without further comment. Her mother winced at the sound of the screen door shutting.
While washing dishes, she saw Bralore walk to the field farthest from where her father was working.
When the child reached the edge of the field, her yellow silk hair was almost lost in the sea of Goldenrod. She stood motionless, and then positioned her hands over her head like a ballerina.
Dancing through the fields, Bralore picked wildflowers. Without a care in the world, she stopped to watch Great Southern Whites and Black Swallowtail butterflies flutter around her feet. In the distance she saw a magnificent flower, a large Stiff Aster, splendid in its purple petals and deep yellow center, and ran towards it. Picking the flower, her mind so absorbed in the moment, she didnÃt see her brother rising from the earth behind a hummock.
Her mother had turned away to put the dishes on the drying rack. When she looked out the window again, Bralore was gone.