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Little is right, I thought, thinking about
my father’s business, more famine than feast, trying not to roll my eyes or sigh like my old man—
or I could go to work for my cousin Drake like I’d done the last two summers, digging postholes
in Oak Cliff, laying out orange PVC piping in the hot Texas sun all day, installing gas lights and
grills for the Lone Star Gas Company.
“But who’ll do my chores?”
“Maddie and Nate.”
They were old enough now to mow and edge the lawn and take on the rest of my chores,
he said, reminding me for the third or fourth time in a week that I’d be leaving home soon and
better by god start thinking about paying my way through college, unless, of course, I joined the
Corps at Texas A & M—free tuition, room and board, and all the spending money I needed from
my father every month.
“Jesus, Dad,” I said.
“Don’t you goddamn Jesus me.”
Kicking up the carpeted stairs to my room upstairs without eating supper, my stomach
growling like our Sheltie Reveille sleep-kicking his one back leg under the coffee table, I passed
Maddie in the hallway, growling and wanting to kick her, too.
“Dumbshit,” she hissed as I passed.
“If you’d kept your stupid mouth shut, you wouldn’t’ve been stuck with my chores. Jesus,
you’re such a fucking nark.”
“Am not!” she said and shot me a crooked grin like Allyn’s. “Besides, I like mowing the
“Daddy’s little girl,” I said. “What a weasel.” And I slammed my bedroom door in her
“How’d you like to quit your job with B. S. and come to work for me?” I asked Kenny on
our way to pick up Robbie for practice that Saturday, my seat springs squelching under me as my
truck bumped over ruts on White Rock Trail, ELP’s rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown”
blasting from the eight-track deck under my truck seat.
“Right,” Kenny said. “Hey, can you turn that down a little?”
“I’m not kidding, man,” I said, bobbing my head and banging out beats on my steering
wheel as I down-shifted gears on the steering column. I reached down to pop in my truck’s lighter.
“You got a smoke?”
Kenny sighed and shook his head, pulled the new pack of Marlboros he’d just bought at
the 7-Eleven from his t-shirt pocket and slap-packed it into his palm until the lighter popped back
out, then tore off the cellophane and ripped out a square from the bottom, tapping out and
lighting up a cigarette for each of us hissing against the lighter’s red coil, handing one over to me,
then reaching under my seat to turn the music down.
“Thanks!” I yelled too loud in the sudden quiet and took in a deep, lung-aching drag and
reached under my jouncing seat to turn the music back up again, grinning at Kenny. “We could
skip out from work after lunch on practice days. Come home and work whenever we wanted to,
nobody to boss us around. Just you and me calling the shots.”
“And you could buy your own smokes for a change,” he said.
“I’ll buy you a carton, a whole goddamn case of cartons.”
“Yeah, heard that one before.” Kenny shook his head. “No more dealing for me, Travis.
I’m not ending up like Hunk or Danny. No way.”
“What? I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a job, a real job. It’s good money,
man, I’m telling you.”
“Yeah, right,” he said.
“No kidding, I made a sweet deal with my cousin Drake. You’re not going to believe it.”
And then I told him.
The night before, my father’d handed me our Blue Princess phone from the kitchen wall,
saying I couldn’t put off getting a job in life any more than I could’ve put off signing up for the
draft—duty, God, country—and then he handed me Drake’s phone number on the back of a
liquor store receipt and stood over me with his arms folded as I punched in the beeping numbers,
Drake’s phone ringing in Wylie, Texas, where he’d just moved his wife and newborn.
“Wide Awake Wylie,” the city limits sign read just before the turnoff to Lake Lavon and
Drake’s ramshackle trailer. “Blackest Dirt and Whitest People in Texas.”
Drake didn’t need me, he said on the other end of the line, he and his pretty wife Angie’s
new baby boy Drake Junior screaming in the background like he was being broiled alive. Drake’d
already hired his summer help, he said—his worthless, piece-of-shit brother-in-law Billy—but a
whole slew of Oak Cliff niggers had been buying up grills that summer for their big-ass barbeques
and such, more installation orders than he could ever keep up with, and maybe we could work us
out a freelance deal. At the beginning of spring, he’d bought himself a fancy new trencher—cost
him three thousand bucks! he said—and the damn thing did it all, dug and laid out quarter-inch
orange PVC slick as dick in pussy, he laughed, but he still had that fifteen-year-old Ditch-Witch
we’d used the last two summers in his portable shed, a rattling trencher like a giant lawn edger with
a wobbling yard-wide blade that cut an inch-wide, foot-deep trench through grass and black
gumbo. He’d give it to me for five hundred bucks, he said, that and fifteen percent for all the
orders I installed for him.
“What? No way,” I said, almost shouting into the phone, my father’s arms folded, his
eyes glowing like blue gaslight mantles. “A hundred bucks for the trencher, Drake. Five percent
or nothing, man, or no deal.”
I’d never much cared for Drake, not since I was ten, had always steered clear of him
whenever I saw him at my grandmother Hanny’s big Sunday dinners, laughing and yelling, “Travis,
boy, look at you, all grown up!” slapping me hard on the back and almost knocking me over,
leaving a red hand print across my shoulder blade. I’d never wanted to work with the man either,
but my father’d insisted on it when I’d turned sixteen—either that or work with Kenny at Hardee’s
for $1.50 an hour. Old enough to drive, my father said, old enough to work. A little hard work
never hurt anybody. Builds character, he said. Discipline.
At sixteen, Drake had run away from my aunt and uncle’s farm in Waxahachie when his
Texas Aggie father’d lash him half-naked with a bullwhip for refusing to gather eggs or do the rest
of his farm chores. The whippings had been going on for ten years now, ever since Drake, six, had
put his baby sister into the oven and turned it on. This time, though, the old man got himself
whipped instead, Drake punching him in the nose till it was broken flat against his face and he was
down, bleeding through his nose and ears in their leaning chicken coop, snuffling dust and chicken
shit, Drake snapping up his father’s bullwhip and giving his old man a lashing while he was down
till he was bleeding stripes through his work shirt and overalls.
The summer he ran away, the summer Jesse almost died the first time, I got farmed out to
Drake because all the adults were at Baylor Hospital—my parents and grandparents and aunts and
uncles, my kid brother bleeding from almost every opening in his body, his platelets count down
almost to zero—and I ended up staying that night at Drake’s tiny Wellington Apartments’
efficiency in East Dallas. He got me whisky-drunk the first time ever and I puked Campbell’s
Vegetable Beef soup all over his shag rug and passed out. He let me sleep it off awhile, then woke
me on his Salvation Army couch at two a. m., still drunk himself, sitting on his pillow pressed into
my face and laughing, my screams muffled in cotton, till I promised to clean up my mess, and the
next day when he let me swim in his apartment pool, he dunked me and held my head under till I
came up coughing chlorinated water that burned in my lungs for days.
On the job, his petite wife Angie already pregnant again, Drake was always talking about
getting himself a little nigger skank on the side, all those lonely nappy-haired housewives in their
robes unable to resist a fine-looking white man working with his shirt off in their back yards, his
muscled back scarred as a slave’s, and more than once he just disappeared—Mr. Back Door Man
getting kinky with the kinkies, he called it—leaving me to finished the rest of the work, and when
he came back out an hour or two later, flushed and sweating, I’d complain that we were late for our
next installation, complain about the heat, blisters peeling in the afternoon sun along the back of
my neck, and he’d tell me to stop my fucking whining and help him load his new GMC truck.
“What a pussy,” he always said. “You don’t know nothing about pain.” Then he’d start
in again about his old man, the scars across his back like tiger stripes.
On the phone, Drake said, “That trencher cost me a thousand bucks!”
“Yeah, and that was, what, like a hundred years ago? That thing’s a total piece of crap,
and you know it. Nothing but bailing wire and spit.”
“Take the deal, “my father whispered and gave me a little shoulder shove. “Whatever it is,
I palmed the receiver. “He’s trying to stick it to me, Dad.”
“Yeah? Well, stick it back to him, then.”
“Fifty bucks a month rent for the trencher,” I said into the phone. “No percentage of my
take, take it or leave it. You got ten seconds and then I’m hanging up.”
Drake paused a moment, then whinnied canned laughter like a rerun of Mr. Ed. “Hey, kid,
I was just messing with you, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said. Asshole.
“When can you start?” Drake said, like the whole thing had been his idea all along.
I hung up a minute later, the deal done, and my father grabbed me one armed, pressing me
into his chest in a rib-grating hug.
“Good man,” he said, his eyes wet as a Maddie’s teacup Chihuahua Pearl’s.
“We’ll split the take fifty-fifty,” I told Kenny as I pulled into Robbie Womble’s driveway.
“That’s about twenty bucks a job, gaslights, grills or both, three to five jobs a day, depending, fifty
bucks each on a good day, close to a thousand each a month.”
Kenny’s eyebrows shot up at that.
“But we split expenses, too, okay? Gas and oil for my truck, fifty bucks a month for the
trencher, anything else comes up. Gas company’ll supply all the PVC and fittings we’ll need, and
I’ll buy the tools. Fair enough?”
“Hell, I’ll do it,” Kenny said, then shook his head. “Anything to get free of B. S.”
Two days later, we started working at the Lone Star Gas Company.
Monday morning, a salmon color sky like a watercolor wash along the horizon at 5:30
a.m., chirring crickets singing from the wet grass, steaming from the rain the night before, Kenny
pulled himself up into my truck cab, unshaved and barely awake, sleep creases like razor cuts down
his eyelids and cheeks, his hair flat on one side and tilted out from his skull like a graduation cap,
and he sat, squelching the passenger seat, duct-taped across its split seams, and almost crushed his
new carton of Marlboros.
“Who’s idea was this anyway?” he said, and I snatched away his carton on his seat before
he sat it flat. “Jesus, man, it’s too damn early.”
He slammed his door like a tank turret lid, the whole truck cab shivering, and glanced
down at the carton I’d just dropped into his lap.
“Got one I can bum?” I said.
“Jesus, Travis, you got to start in so early? Sun’s not even up yet.” He groaned and
stretched. “This theory of yours you smoke less if you don’t buy your own, I don’t buy it for a
“Just bear with the bum, okay?” I laughed and unscrewed the thermos of coffee my
mother’d brewed for us and poured some for Kenny. “Just shut up and be my pusher, man.
Here.” And I handed him a steaming cup.
“I said, goddamn!” he sang, his morning voice growling just like Steppenwolf’s John Kay,
singing, “Goddamn the pusher man!”
He sipped his hot coffee and rubbed his eyes and lay the cup on the metal dash, then
cracked open his new carton, packed a red pack in his palm and lit a smoke for us both, handed
mine over to me while I cranked up Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Abaddon’s Bolero,” and we were
burning tread, off to Oak Cliff, smoke trailing out my truck’s windows, from my bald tires and
The drive took an hour through sunup and stalled Central Expressway traffic
downtown—sit and wait, move ten feet, sit and wait—cars honking and cutting in front of us,
diesel fumes and my own truck exhaust choking us through our open windows, and by the time
we’d finally crossed the Trinity River bridge on I-35 and taken the exit to South Polk Street in
Oak Cliff, we’d used up over half a tank of energy-crisis gas and a quart of recycled oil I’d bought
by the case. But Kenny and I laughed the whole way, singing along to Yes’s “Starship Trooper,”
The Whô’s “Going Mobile,” ZZ Top’s “Neighbor, Neighbor” and Jimi Hendrix’s Cry of Love
cranked up so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves laugh and shout. “Freedom,” Kenny sang, banging
the metal dash, “that’s what I want now. Freedom. To live. Freedom. So I can give.” The
morning air, already humid and hot, whipped our long hair into our faces like stinging wasps, but
the two of us were happier than we’d been since we’d first started hanging out together in ‘69, freer
than we’d ever felt and maybe ever would.
As I drove up to the loading dock behind the Lone Star Gas Company, my cousin Drake
shot me a look over his shoulder and shouted at his brother-in-law, Billy, who’d just dropped a big
Arkla gas grill into his truck bed with a rattling clank.
“You break it, you buy it,” Drake shouted at Billy, then shouted at me over his shoulder,
“You’re an hour late. Christ Jesus, can’t get decent help anywhere.”
I pulled up next to his GMC, leaned out my truck window and said, “Got stuck in
“Yeah? Well, I got twice as far to drive as you do, all the way out in Wiley, and I made it
on time. I want your ass here at seven, no excuses, get it?”
His old trencher sat in the loading bay behind his truck, the blade and blade guard held
together with rusty cotter pins and coat hangers, the yard-wide blade half-exposed and spattered
with black oil, pocked with rust and dirt clods.
“Can’t believe I’m spending fifty bucks a month for that piece of crap,” I told Kenny as we
got out of my truck to fill our orders, loading heavy grill boxes up with orange coils of PVC and
pressure fittings and Sacrete, heaving the heavy trencher up on to my tailgate, straining as we
dropped it and rolled it into the truck bed, almost throwing our backs out before the day’d even
“Mark my word,” I said. “Before the day’s over, that damn trencher’s going to end up
getting one of us killed.” And I wasn’t too far from wrong.
It took us an hour just to find the first address, Kenny trying to navigate with my father’s
out-of-date Mapsco splayed out in his lap, one wrong turn after another, until we finally pulled up
to the tract house of an elderly black woman all the way out in Desoto, spine-bent in her dark
living room behind her screened door, smoking a briar pipe and staring out warily at the two long-
haired white guys in knee-frayed jeans on her front porch, holding her screened door open just
wide enough to offer us a paper plate of warm oatmeal cookies.
“You made these for us?” I hesitated and took a bite, a warm cookie melting with butter.
“Wow, thanks. Better than my grandmother Hanny’s. We’ll fix you right up, okay? Have you
cooking with gas by noon.”
But I was wrong. We had five jobs to do that day, but we’d never get the chance of
finishing even the first: a gaslight in the old woman’s front yard facing downtown Dallas,
shimmering in a yellow mirage of summer smog in the far distance, a gas grill along the edge of her
cracked back porch, her back yard fence and alley backed up to the fanning black rows of a cotton
field, so lush and green it was almost blue, like Allyn’s eyes glowing in my bedroom’s black lights.
For two hours, I showed Kenny all the jobs we’d share: how to assemble the gaslight and
grill with Arkla’s lousy owner’s manuals—worse than putting together a kid’s swing set—how to
tie and mount the fragile silk mantle and insert the sharp glass panes into the gaslight frame
without shattering them and cutting our wrists, how to pipe-wrench the stuck valve at the meter to
shut off the gas, how to punch a hole in the gas meter pipe to the old woman’s house behind her
rain-warped pine fence.
I tightened a quarter-inch nut onto the punch’s pipe joint as Kenny stood over the gas
meter right behind me, and just as I was about to swing my hammer into the pipe punch, Kenny
clinked his Zippo open against his thigh and lit up a cigarette.
“Put that damn thing out, will you?” I shouted, making us both jump, turning back to him
with my hammer mid-air like I might just whack him over the head with it. “You want to blow us
“Thought you’d just turned it off,” he said, his eyes fluttering like my kid brother Nate’s
when I shouted at him.
“The pipe’s still full of gas, Kenny. Still under pressure, for chrissakes.”
Flinching again, he flicked his just-lit cigarette sparking into the alley and heeled it out in
his dead brother Ray’s olive-green jungle boots, grinding the butt into frays of yellow filter and ash
and shredded tobacco, then kicked gravel pocking against the gray pine fence like a pistol shot.
At just the moment the punch popped through steel, the rotten-egg stink of natural gas
chuffing and hissing out flakes of silver paint, a grasshopper kicked a click-whizzing arc right past
my nose from the high grass around the gas meter, then across the alley and into the wild
primroses pinking the fringes of the cotton field behind us.
I was showing Kenny how to screw in a pipe plug until we were ready to attach a stub-up
after we’d finished laying PVC, when I noticed he wasn’t paying attention, scuffing his brother’s
boots and flaking mud up and down the alley, his straight black ponytail swinging down to his belt
from his neck like a snapped noose.
“What?” I said. “You going to mope around now like a scolded kid?”
“No,” he said and turned to me. “But, Jesus Christ and hell, Travis, if I’d wanted
somebody to bark orders at me all goddamn day long, I’d’ve just kept working for B. S. Or joined
the fucking army.”
“All right, okay. I’m sorry.” I shook my head, pissed at myself. “Guess I’m starting to
sound too much like my old man. What you say we take us a break?” I stood and grinned,
palmed his shoulder. “Eat us some more of that old lady’s killer cookies.”
“What the hell’s up with you today anyway?” he said, his head down, as we walked to my
truck in the alley and sat on my tailgate, both of us passing the paper plate of cookies and a big
orange plastic Thermos back and forth, icy water spilling down our chins and necks and into our
sweaty t-shirts. “You were in such a good mood, and then all of a sudden you just start in on me.”
“Thinking of something else,” I said, quiet a moment, trying to shake off the thought,
staring off at the high grass grown up around the gas meter. “Remembering something I don’t
much like to remember.”
He stared at me, waiting for me to tell him.
“Not sure I want to talk about it, okay?” I said, thinking how Allyn never wanted to talk
about it either, laughing last night in my bed when I’d tried again to get her to talk about her
father. “It’s got nothing to do with you, Kenny,” I said, then turned up the water jug, spilling icy
water down my neck again and swiping at my mouth.
He just kept staring at me, waiting.
“What?” I said. “All right. Okay. Jesus.”
The whole time I’d been punching the pipe, I told him, I’d been thinking about finding
Beck dead in the alley behind my house on Estate Lane, all bled out like his head-shot dog Garçon.
Thinking about stubbing my big toe when I kicked his service revolver into the high grass along
his gas meter. What the hell’d I do that for? I’d been thinking. Like was trying to hide it for Beck.
Trying to hide what he’d done from Allyn.
Kenny knew the story—he’d heard me tell it more times than he liked—and he listened
one more time, nodding as he glanced out to the frayed white cotton swabs spotting the wide
field’s lush cotton plants, glowing Day-Glo green in the summer sun behind the old woman’s
“I love her too much,” I said without thinking, thumbing away the sweat stinging my eyes.
“Think about her all the time. Can’t stop thinking about her. It scares me, man. And every time I
try to talk to her about her old man or Marilyn, she just laughs. This weird-ass laugh. Gives me
the fucking willies.”
Kenny stared off, stone-faced and silent awhile. “Maybe it’s the only way she can handle
it, you know? Maybe it’s just too much.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, nodding, then shook my head. “Things’ve just been going so good
with her and me lately and, I don’t know, I just can’t help thinking something terrible’s going to
happen.” I squinted up into the sun. “Keep waiting for this big blue sky to come crashing down
on my head.”
“Think it and it’ll happen, sure as shit, Chicken Little.”
“Yeah? So tell me, then. What the hell’s she doing with me anyway? I don’t get it.”
“Me neither.” He shrugged and grinned at me, showing me his cracked front tooth, dark
as an elfin tombstone. “Beats hell out of me, boss man.”
“Look, I’m not your boss, okay? We’re partners, fifty-fifty. That’s what we agreed on,
right? And I’m not fucking around here.” I stared off at the gas meter half-hidden in the high
grass. “Everything good that’s ever happened to me’s just turned to shit. It’s like I’m cursed, man.
Like god’s got it in for me big time.”
“Hey, you getting paranoid on me again? Been smoking something you didn’t tell me
about?” Kenny laughed, a honking little burro snort. “Jesus, Travis, every time something good
happens to you, you expect the worst. Can’t ever just enjoy yourself. Some girl says she’s digging
on you and right off you start digging your own grave.”
“You know what I mean, Kenny,” I said, turning on him, almost spitting out the words.
“First your mom dies, then Ray, and then you get stuck with B. S. Then, just as you’re all set to
marry Debra Darley, you catch her fucking your idiot brother B. J. in Ray’s old bed. You know
what I’m talking about.”
“You leave Ray out of this,” Kenny said, gripping the tailgate where he sat, more hurt than
pissed. He leaned forward and stared down at his dead brother’s boots, palmed his black-stubbled
jaw, jutting out like a bookshelf, and jacked it back and forth like I’d just cracked him with my
elbow. He shook his head and sighed, rubbed the arm where he’d broken it once pitching a
screaming fastball, then stood from the tailgate, the whole back end of my truck creaking up.
“Least our old ladies didn’t turn us in to the pigs like Danny’s did,” Kenny said. “Leave
us to rot in County. Jesus, lighten up, will you? And get off your fucking pity pot, man. It’s not
even noon yet and you’re already bringing me down.” Kenny started up the old woman’s driveway,
black mud waffles peeling from his boot heels.
“Hey, I’m sorry I brought it up, okay? Come on, Kenny. Don’t go walking off on me,
man. Kenny? Shit.” I wanted to kick myself but kicked the tailgate under me instead. “It’s just .
. . I just . . . can’t shake off the feeling something awful’s going to happen to her.”
“Like what?” He turned to me, his brother Ray’s boots scuffing a black arc of rubber
onto the concrete. “You mean, like with Marilyn?”
“No, no, man, not like that.” I shrugged, shook my head. “I don’t think she’d do that.
Hell, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being paranoid like you say. Or maybe she’s just too
goddamn beautiful for me. So beautiful it hurts just to look at her. Like Tippi Hendren in The
Birds, you know?”
“Tippi Hendren?” Kenny snorted. “Give me a break.”
“Isn’t there, like, some big law in the universe that says a girl that looks like Tippi
Hendren should never hook up with a guy like me? Some skinny, freckledy-ass fool with peach-
fuzz on his lip? And if you break that law, then . . . .” I shook my head. “I mean, Jesus, Kenny,
just look at me.”
“You know, I’d rather not.” He palmed his eyes and grinned. “Hurts too damn much.”
“Ah, shut up,” I said and laughed, stood from the tailgate and shoved him in the shoulder.
“And you’re what? Robert fucking Redford? You goofy looking son of a bitch. Let’s get back to
work, man. Christ, this is some cheerful goddamn conversation.”
Kenny started up the alley to the gate by the old woman’s garage, flipped down the thumb
latch and faced me. “Maybe she just doesn’t know how pretty she is yet. Not all uppity and
snooty yet like some Wildcat cheerleader.”
I nodded, shrugged.
He pushed the gate creaking open, then turned to me again. “You ask me, though,
Marilyn was prettier. Like Cher with braces.”
“Cher?” I laughed. “Right.”
“I had it bad for that girl. Real bad.”
“Come on, Kenny. You were just with her that one time.”
“No, man. There were plenty of times you don’t know about. She and Hunk’d get into
some big fight and she’d call me at three in the morning. Crying, asking me to come over to her
apartment. Couldn’t sleep, she said, unless somebody was sleeping with her. Week before our gig
at the Cellar, she up and tells me she’s pregnant. Hey, I’ll marry you, I said, not thinking. But she
just said I was nutso. She’d never get married, never have kids. Why bring a kid into this fucked
up world?” Kenny palmed his eyes. “I guess I just never expected she’d . . . .” He dragged the heel
of his palm down his face like it was a rubber Nixon mask, squeegeeing sweat dripping from his
dark chin stubble. “Hell, Travis. Kid could’ve been mine, you know?”
I stepped up to Kenny, who leaned his forehead against the gate, his face gone gray as the
fence. I started to palm his shoulder, but he held his hand out to stop me.
“See that dent on my bumper?” I said, stepping back. “I kind of went nutso the day she
died. Rammed my truck into trees all day at Pecan Park. Bang, bang, bang.”
“Make you feel any better?”
I shook my head. “Just dinged up a bunch of nice trees. That damn truck’s a tank, man,
and I’m such an idiot.”
Kenny took in a breath and scraped the mud from the side of his brother’s boot against
the gate’s bottom two-by-four railing. “I keep telling myself she was just a girl, you know? But I
can’t stop thinking about her. Can’t get her out of my head.”
I squeezed my eyes against the thought of Marilyn lying on the shoulder of LBJ Freeway,
her head split open like a cantaloupe spilling pink seeds, her pretty face mashed flat like a roadside
“Allyn’s just a girl, too, you know?” Kenny said.
“No, she’s more than that. I’m going to marry that girl, man, if it kills me.”
For an hour, I sat in the blazing sun next to the gas meter trying to get the trencher started,
sweat tracking dirt down my face, stinging my eyes as I pulled the starter rope till my left arm was
sore, the engine coughing and dying a dozen times or more until smoke finally sputtered out
through the rust-pocked muffler, spattering my face and arms with black oil-freckles, the blade
screeching and wobbling like one of my truck wheels gone loose on its lug nuts.
I watched the blade spin into to a blur like a big Skilsaw, shooting a spray of sparks like a
bench grinder against the sides of the wobbly blade guard, jerry-rigged with coat hangers, the
screws holding it on all stripped out, and I killed the engine before the yard-wide blade could come
flying off and decapitate me.
“Drake,” I said and spit, accidentally, on to my own shoe. “Got-damn.”
I’d just tightened the big center nut holding the blade on, trying to keep from stripping
out the bolt even further, pinching a rusty cotter pin through the end of the bolt just in case, when
Kenny walked out through the gate again and down the alley, shaking his head.
“Just hit Oak Cliff chalk,” he said, “not even a foot down.”
“You’ll just have to use my old man’s pick ax,” I said and blinked, sleeve-swiping the sweat
stinging my eyes.
“You’re kidding me, right?” he said. “That’ll take all goddamn day.”
The grill and light poles were supposed to be set and leveled in at least three feet of wet
Sacrete, I told him. He’d have to shoot for two, at least, I said, then, “I’ll help you when I’m
finished trenching, fair enough?”
Kenny squinted up at the white sun like a melted globe of arc welder’s steel. “What’ve I
gotten myself into?” Then he swung my father’s heavy-headed pickax from my truck bed and
through the fence gate, back to work in the back yard, grumbling and cursing.
I trenched hard forward, furrowing a long black inch across the back yard, the blade
binding up against packed black clay, screeching against the rattling blade guard, spitting sparks
and grass roots and chinch bugs and black mud from the rain the night before, my fists at the
trencher handle shaking so hard my teeth buzzed. Behind me, Kenny wheezed and huffed with
each wild swing of the heavy pick axe in the hothouse humidity, a loud clank of steel against
limestone, his shirt soaked with sweat, a wide band of white salt circling his armpits, his face
glowing like a ripe tomato dripping dew.
I stopped a moment and held the trencher handle one-handed, my jowls wobble-jabbering
as I swiped away the salt stinging my eyes, the hot sun prickling my sunburned neck like it was
wrapped in jellyfish tentacles, and I shouted back at Kenny, “Hey, ease up, man, or you’re going to
have yourself a heat stroke!”
He didn’t hear me so I cupped my hand over my mouth and shouted again but stopped
myself dead when I sniffed Allyn’s faint musk on my fingertips from the night before.
I closed my eyes a moment, thinking about kissing her for hours, holding her smooth and
naked in my bed and kissing her, a thousand ways of kissing, our lips red-chapped, then watching
her smooth brown body rise over mine in the black-light dark of my bedroom.
Gravel pinged and sparked from the blade, and I shook my head, blinked away sweat and
swiped at my face with my slick, grass-speckled forearm, then shouted at Kenny one more time, till
he looked up and said, “I heard you!” Then I gripped the trencher handle and pushed on, black
dirt and turf flying.
I’d only trenched another ten yards from the gas grill’s half-dug post hole when I was
daydreaming about her again. Couldn’t stop thinking about her, couldn’t help myself.
I rounded the corner at the side of the old woman’s house, and instead of paying attention
to the trencher, screeching and rattling in my tingling fists like a jet spinning down, all I could
think about was the rain on my father’s copper roof the night before and Allyn’s brown body
rising over mine in my cramped single bed, her hair, fine and white as spun silk, falling straight to
my chest in coils as she swung it across my face and laughed, her tanned skin almost black in my
bedroom’s black lights, the whites of her eyes like Day-Glo moons, her irises cool blue flames like
pilot lights, her small breasts glowing white, too, stark against her dark bikini lines, like two eyes
staring down at me as she straddled me, pressing the hollow of her blond wet pubis into mine, her
slender waist a smoky champagne glass sliding down to its stem, her navel a dark spoon, her wide
hips like an English saddle soft as chamois.
Crosby, Stills and Nash were singing, “Guinnevere had green eyes, like yours, m’lady, like
yours,” as I palmed the soft the curves at her pelvis and sat up with her striding my hips, cupping
her left breast in my palm, the freckles at the back of my hand like a Dalmatian’s spots against my
glow-worm skin, and I kissed the brown oval mole above her nipple as Graham Nash sang:
The brownness of your body in the fireglow
except the places where the sun refused to go.
Our bodies were a perfect fit,
in afterglow we lay.
I shook my head again, lightheaded in the hot sun, thinking it was just a feeling, just a
stupid fluttering joy like the first time I’d ever swallowed one of Hunk’s Black Mollies and lay still
in my bed all night smiling up at the ceiling, not wanting the feeling to go away, ever, a tickling in
my chest like a moth’s wings bumping against the cool lamp of my heart, like the tickling of
Allyn’s long blond hair feathering my face as she giggled and bent to kiss me again, and Graham
Nash sang, “I never want to finish what I’ve just begun with you, my lady of the island.”
At the side of the old woman’s house, the trencher was bucking dirt like a calf in a roping
chute, making a terrible racket as I pushed forward, a daydreaming fool, the blade pitching up and
binding, screeching like the nut holding the blade on had stripped free, and then, just as I was
about to kill the engine to take a look, my shoulder brushed the scalloped fringes of a sun-faded
canvas awning hanging low from the old woman’s kitchen window, and I heard a loud banging
backfire and saw a puff of black smoke from the muffler, then felt a sting and then another sting
and then a bright burning at my neck and shoulder and chest.
At first, I thought a loose bolt or flying gravel had flown from the blade housing and
struck me in the chest like shrapnel, but then, slapping at my sternum like I’d just been heart-shot,
I glanced down, expecting to see my own blood, and instead I felt a sharp sting against my palm
and turned it up, saw a quivering wasp mashed into my Whô’s Next t-shirt. That’s when I glanced
to my left to see a swarm of black tiger stripes buzzing my eyes, then a giant paper nest like a
chrome showerhead hanging, half-hidden, from the awning, seething with yellow jackets that shot
straight at me, spraying my shoulder and chest and face like scalding water, pressing their stingers
into my shirt as I jumped away and shouted, “Got-damn!” slapping at my face and back and chest
and shoulders and neck as they stung me again and again.
Without thinking, I ducked under the awning, my face just inches from the roiling nest,
and I slapped it down and stomped it flat into the grass, smearing white larvae and eggs bubbling
in their combs like tapioca as yellow jackets covered my arms and hands and neck and face.
I caught a toe stumbling once over my own ditch as I bolted off, the trencher blade
jammed and stuck in the dirt while the engine ran full tilt, screaming as it kicked up and toppled
over to its side over without me there to hold onto it, the blade spinning out at my ankles like a
lumber-mill saw as I toe-skipped around it, and I ran as fast as I could around to Kenny in the
back yard, swatting wasps and slapping my body everywhere, the black swarm following me and
falling on me like rain.
I sat in the grass at the edge of the patio, panting hard, wheezing, and when Kenny laid his
hand on my shoulder, I slapped it away like it had just stung me.
“Idiot!” I shouted, slapping at myself even though the wasps were gone.
Kenny shook out his slapped hand and said, “Hey, take it easy, will you?” He leaned over
me and peeled back my t-shirt at the back of my neck. “Man, they got you good.”
I rubbed the scalding welts rising along my neck, my throat tightening up like it was
noosed, but I could still hear the trencher, pitched over onto two wheels at the side of the house,
screeching like a duck sucked into jet engine.
“Cut that thing off, will you, Kenny?” I croaked, wheezing hard now, trying to catch my
breath. Then I saw his eyes, wide and white in the sun, and said, “Forget it. I’ll do it myself.
Don’t want you getting stung, too.” I stood, a little wobbly on my feet, and tried to get my breath,
wheezing like my grandmother Hanny having an asthma attack after smoking Pall Malls day and
night. Then, just as the engine died, I stepped once toward the side of the house and my lungs
seized up and my legs melted under me, and I hit the concrete patio hard as a hundred-pound bag
I woke on the old woman’s green couch, my nose clotted with blood. Still wheezing hard,
I clutched at my throat, swollen as a toad’s, warty with burning welts, and I sat up just long enough
to puke a gruel of the old woman’s oatmeal cookies all over my lap.
“It’s all right,” the old woman said, rubbing my back. “Just a old couch, is all. You get
that poison right on out of your system now, honey, and don’t you worry about it. That’s good.
Now lay back and be still.” My Whô’s Next t-shirt was off, wadded on the hardwood floor, my
chest covered in hot rolling hives like a map of the mountains of Africa, and she pressed me back
with her rubbery palm into a yellow goose-feather pillow at my shoulders. “There you go,” she
said. “Better now, hmm?”
“You all right?” Kenny said, kneeling next to me like I was Dorothy back in Kansas again
in black and white.
“Idiot,” I said and coughed, palmed my hot forehead, then gave it a good knuckle thump
until I saw fireflies. The old woman sponged off the puke across my knees and her couch, then
squeezed tea-colored water into a mixing bowl on her coffee table from a big brown wad like peat
in her palm.
“What the—?” I croaked and I sat up, lightheaded again.
“Just a little tobacco,” she said and pressed me back into the pillow again, smearing the
wad of wet tobacco like a poultice onto to my chest, smoothing it up and around my shoulders,
clumping it around the welts. “Had to let Prince Albert out of his can.” She smiled and laughed a
crooning hmm? “Take the sting right out.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, hoarse as a crow, wheezing until couldn’t get my breath, lying
back like I might pass out again. Then I was hyperventilating, feeling like I might throw up again,
my vision whirling like I was drunk on a water bed, my chest rattling like a tobacco tin full of
pennies, and she rubbed my chest with wads of wet tobacco till I’d calmed down some.
“Don’t talk now,” she said. “And lay still. Blood pressure’s dropped and your throat’s all
swole up. I seen this before. My daddy raised honey bees up in Palestine out East Texas way.
Got stung more times than a old bear. Finally gave up on beekeeping. Too many of them and just
one of me, he’d say. Old Prince Albert’ll draw it out, hmm?”
The old woman smiled, her bony hip pressed like an ax blade into mine on the couch, and
she smoothed back my hair at my forehead, her mouth crinkling at the corners like suede, a long
white wire of hair curling out of her chin like a question mark.
Two hours later, Allyn and Maddie and Kenny all stood around my bed, gawking at my
“Had chicken pox once looked just like that,” Allyn said, hugging herself, her tie-dyed
tube-top nipple-dimpled in the air-condition cold, her knees frowning under her cutoffs, white
strings dangling down her smooth brown calves. She slung her hair back over her shoulders—
Isadora Duncan in a long white headscarf—and I covered myself, embarrassed to have her see my
red-pocked chicken chest in the noon sun angling down through my bedroom windows.
Sitting at my bedside next to me, my mother slapped my hands away from my chest and
said, “Don’t do that, Travis. You’re just making a big mess.” Then she spooned out more
dripping dollops of Arm & Hammer baking soda onto my lumpy stings, the soda crumbling on to
the sheets whenever I moved, gritty under my bare back like wet sand.
“Jesus, Mom, that’s cold,” I said, my stomach flinching in. “I’m all right now, okay?” I
sat up again, shivering, goose pimples rising on wasp stings, but she slapped my wrist again, pushed
me back to my pillow.
“I said stop it.”
Kenny’d called her at Dr. Snitkin’s office from the old woman’s house in Desoto, and my
mother’d taken off the rest of the day from work, rushing home from her office on L. B. J. Freeway
to meet us, feeding me a fistful of Excedrin and Benadryl, giving me a shot of hydrocortisone and
sending me off to bed for the rest of the day.
“Baking soda’s not going to do me any good now, Mom. That old woman already—”
“Shut up,” she said, “and be still.”
“Itched like crazy,” Allyn went on, fine blond hairs standing up along her brown forearms.
“Big old blisters like Bob’s hairy chest pimples. Gross. Mama said not to itch it, but I couldn’t
“It’s not the same thing!” said Maddie, flinging her arms around, getting all dramatic.
“Those bees could’ve killed Travis! And you don’t itch an itch, Allyn. You scratch it. Don’t you
Allyn squinched her face at Maddie and said, “Anything!”
“Leave her alone, will you, Maddie?” I said. “Jesus, what’s your problem today?” She’d
been sniping at Allyn ever since Kenny’d driven me home in my truck. “Anyways, these were
yellow jackets. Bees die when they sting . . .”
“Serves them right!” Maddie said, almost spitting into Allyn’s face.
“. . . and wasps just keep on stinging.”
“Sure did this time,” my mother said. “That old nigra woman probably saved your life.
Anaphylactic shock. Almost had to rush you to Baylor Hospital last time.”
“That was a long time ago, Mom.”
I’d been eleven, playing baseball at McCree Park the summer after Jesse died, when Mike
Waslin knocked a homerun over my glove at the left field fence, and I jumped the rattling chain-
link and run—my father shouting red-faced in the stands me for to stop the goddamn grand
slam—and I belly-crawled under the holly bushes around the tennis courts where the ball had
rolled, red-berried holly leaves prickling my back until I felt a hot sting and then another, and then
my neck and back were on fire, and I’d run, crying like a girl, my father said later, as I swatted at
the yellow jackets swarming me from a nest in the holly.
Maddie frowned at Allyn, then at me. “How come you always take her side?” Then she
bared her teeth, a sparkling light-show of chrome braces, her blue eyes glowing from under her red
eyebrows. “You think I don’t know what you and her’ve been doing? Think I’m stupid or
“Shut up, Maddie.”
Maddie shot me a vicious grin. “Where’s Allyn been sleeping? Not in my room, that’s for
My mother shot me a look, her black eyebrows arched like grackle’s wings. “What’s she
“Nothing, Mom. She’s just jealous. Has to have Allyn to herself all the time. Can’t stand
Allyn being my girlfriend and all.”
“She is not your girlfriend.”
My mother sighed like my father, a loud exhalation of air. “What are you two fighting
I glanced at Allyn to help me out, her arms folded under her breasts, but she just turned
her face left and right and looked bored, like she was watching me beat Maddie at ping pong
downstairs for the hundredth time, her mouth turning up into that same crooked smile she’d worn
when her father’d fallen and broken his back showing off for her.
“Jesus, Maddie, you’re such a nark. You say another word, and I swear to god I’ll tear
your stupid nose off—”
“Knock it off, both of you,” my mother said.
“I better get on home now,” Kenny said a little too loud behind Maddie, looking like he’d
had enough for one day, backing up to my bedroom door and pulling his black pony tail straight
out from his neck like a leash. “Got to tell B. S. I’m going back to work for him.”
“Hold on now, Kenny. The day’s shot—okay, maybe the whole week, stupid damn
trencher—but I don’t need you to go copping out on me right now. I’ll get it fixed, man. Don’t
know how, but I will.”
Kenny glanced down at his brother’s combat boots, tugging his ponytail straight toward
the open door like he was trying to lasso himself out of my room. “I don’t know, man.”
“So we had us a bad first day. No big deal. The work’ll get easier, man, you’ll see. You
can’t just bail on me because—”
“I don’t know.”
“I can do it,” we all heard just then, my brother Nate’s muffled voice coming from behind
the closed closet door, and everyone looked around the room, trying to figure out who’d spoken.
“Do what, Nate?” I said, sitting up again, baking soda crumbling on to the sheets till my
mother pushed me back down.
Nate, thirteen, had spend half his life talking to his G. I. Joe in that bedroom closet,
building plastic models after school on his glue- and paint-spattered dresser between rows of coat
hangers, the oak veneer scored and peeling back where he’d trimmed thousands of plastic parts
with his rusty X-Acto knife.
We all stared at my closet door, waiting.
“Come on out of there, buddy,” I said, “and tell us.”
Nate’d been building a ’69 Shelby Cobra GT on his dresser-top inside for months, but he
hadn’t worked on it much since the summer started, buying up bagfuls of Testors glue that spring
from the White Rock T. G. & Y, careening out of our closet, his eyes and nose runny and red,
whenever I knocked on the closet door and said, “Nate? What you doing in there, buddy?”
worried he was huffing the stuff.
“Nate?” I said again.
The closet door creaked open a crack, and Nate peeked out at Allyn, blushing like he
always did when he sneaked peeks at her, his face red as his ‘fro, which was big around as a Bozo
“I can fix it,” he said, almost a whisper, and he stared down, curling his bare toes in the
shag’s dirty nap.
“You sure?” I said.
He glanced at up Allyn, who was smiling at him now, and he glanced down at his feet and
blushed even redder. Nodded.
My mother was still glaring me—had been ever since Maddie’d asked about where Allyn
had been sleeping—her bleached bouffant ratted and stiff with Breck hairspray, pouffy and round
as a football helmet.
“Everybody out,” she said all of a sudden, swinging her thumb toward Kenny at the
bedroom door. “Travis and I need to have ourselves a little talk, don’t we? Nate, you, too. Out
of that closet. Out, now. All of you, get.”
Maddie grinned at me on her way out, my mother’s back turned to me, and I bared my
teeth at Maddie like a baboon, mouthed the words, Dead meat.
When everyone had rushed out of the room and Maddie’d slammed the door behind
them, my mother stared at me a long time.
“She’s been sleeping in here with you? For how long?”
I stared off at Allyn’s mural over my dresser, mermaids basking in a Day-Glo sun. “Don’t
know what you’re talking about—”
“Don’t you lie to me. Have you two been . . . doing it?”
“Doing . . . what?”
My mother raised her hand to slap me but balled her fingers into her palm and pressed her
fist between her silicone boobs. “Times like these I think your father’s right. Out of control, is
what you are. What’s wrong with you, Travis? She’s just sixteen.”
“Seventeen. She turned seventeen two months ago, okay? And I love her, Mom. I’m
going to marry her.”
“No you’re not. You live at home. You’re not even out of high school yet. How would
you support her? Playing the drums? Installing gas lights and grills?”
“I’m not talking about right now.”
She shook her head, glanced up at the mural of Hercules slaying the hydra over my bed
behind me. “Are you using any . . . protection?”
I shook my head, looked down. “Got me some . . . rubbers from the Shell station last
“Boys.” My mother stood, the mattress on my floor creaking up, and she paced my black-
walled room, shaking her head hard. “I’m not doing this again. I can’t.”
She turned to me, almost shouting. “Think, for once, will you? First, her sister gets
herself knocked up and you expect me to fix everything. Then, when I try to help Marilyn out, she
up and kills herself . . . .” She stopped and sighed hard, a loud chuff, and pressed her fingers into
her eyes. “I can’t do it again, Travis. I won’t.”
“Do what?” I said, but already she’d opened my bedroom door and stepped out into the
hall, glaring at me, slamming the door hard behind her, a cool puff of air from the hallway on my
face as I sat on my bed, rubbing the stings on my neck and chest, shaking my head and thinking,
Your fault. Your own damn fault.
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