David Greg Taylor
An old toad broke the surface of the creek to peak at a boy of nigh on eleven years old, sitting at the edge of a stream in the middle of a pine forest outside Biloxi, Mississippi. The child was staring at a copse of trees across the water. Behind the lad was his back yard, where his sister Lillian was chasing fireflies and holding them in a dungeon designed from a Mason jar. Lillian was three hundred sixty-four days younger than her brother. She was born exactly one year after Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the thirty-fourth president of the United States. She had black shoulder length hair with bangs cut in a straight line above her eyebrows, and wore a yellow dress with grass stains that marked where she fell during her pursuit of glowing insects. She had a little pug nose that resembled her Aunt Polly’s sniffer, which at that time was located on the Seminole reservation at Wewoka, Oklahoma.
Slocum Healy shrugged off the feeling of being watched and got up to take the jar from his sis so he could look at the bugs turning their tailtips on and off. He strained his eyes on the dusky sky above him, where the first stars were coming out. He knew he was looking at the past, at nuclear explosions that happened sometimes thousands or millions of years ago. He read it in a Robert Heinlein science-fiction novel he’d picked up at the library. He could see, though, how his ancestors might have thought the flickering specks were lightning bugs, or a spider woman or some such creature. He handed the jar back to his sister.
“Why don’t you let them go?” he asked.
“I will in a little bit,” Lillian said. “I don’t want to smother them or nothin’.”
Their older brother Arnold stuck his head out the kitchen window. “You two get in here. Ma’s got supper ready,” he said. “And she said get rid of those lightning bugs right now!”
Slocum and Lillian scampered into the house as soon as they let the fireflies go. It took awhile longer than needed. Some of them didn’t catch on they were free.
The frog returned to his world, kicking his legs to submerge and join his kind.
“Ma says to wash up before dinner,” Arnold added. He gave Slocum a shove as he passed him.
“Runt.” Slocum pushed him back.
They sat down to poke salad and fried okra. They’d gone poke hunting that afternoon, finding it growing mostly in roadside ditches. It had to be washed real good and soaked and drained a few times before boiling. Their mother diced onions to go along with it, and threw in some bacon to add to the flavor. The okra was grown in the garden they planted the week they bought the new house. Cornbread and milk were also on the menu. She baked the bread in a cast iron skillet her ma gave her before they’d headed for the wide open yonder.
Violet Healy sat down gingerly after serving her children. She was going downhill from the auto collision that made her a regular patient at Dr. Palmer’s chiropractic medicine clinic. She brought all the young ones with her and got them spinal adjustments at the same time. Dr. Palmer had convinced her their backs were seriously out of alignment. At each visit, his nurse ushered the mother into the examination room, and the doc then put her on a treatment table, and bent her leg way up while she was lying on her side. He would proceed to roll the leg to and fro until he could feel a pop in her back and then she’d have to turn over and do it again. The others got their turn and the same routine. The doctor said energy was being blocked from spreading all over their bodies by having imperfectly positioned vertebra, and he aimed to fix them. As her treatments progressed, Violet’s reliance on her cane did too. No one saw the relationship at the time. Most everyone lives their life going forward blind.
A drop of sweat was about to fall off the tip of Mrs. Healy’s nose, but she caught it before it landed. She led her children in saying grace, thanking the Lord for the blessing of their own home, and this mess of poke salad. Slocum was grateful they had ketchup to go on it all, but he too was thankful for the bigger things, like getting away from Mrs. Mackleroy and the schoolyard bullies that bedeviled him in the fifth grade. He was happy to be out in the boonies, where he could play in the woods during recess at Woolmarket Elementary School and watch tadpoles in the crick behind their new house.
He was at the head of his class, even though he skipped a year in the second grade. His classmates didn’t frown on making good marks, and the teacher was kind and didn’t knock him around. He had three friends named Billy Cooper, and none of them were related. They weren’t even third cousins. They taught him how to play marbles, and he was amassing a collection of shooters.
Life was looking up. He was thinking of joining a Boy Scout troop at school, if he could convince his parents to buy him the manual and the uniform and a tent and a bunch of rope.
The family ate in silence. It was tradition in their home to let the adults do the talking at the table. Their father and mother were full of tales about what it was like when they were young. Their pa told stories of his days as an M.P. in the Army Air Corps, right here at Keesler Air Base over in Gulfport. He swam with dolphins in one of them. In another he was sent to guard a downed airplane in the Louisiana swamps, and spent the night by a campfire, surrounded by wolves, staring into their eyes and daring them to come closer. He said as a boy he owned a black stallion that near killed him when it threw him and wrapped him backwards around a tree. Their mother would recount how she skipped school with Eudora Blankenship and ran around town trying to escape truant officers, or when she saw the Alton Giant at a supermarket when she was eight years old, or saw a bear going after the hogs when she was four.
Arnold broke the quiet. “When’s Pop getting home?” he asked. It was Friday night and everyone was excited on account they might go to town on Saturday. If they went was Parker Bull Healy’s decision. Somewhere along the way, the kids caught on there was a big paycheck that week, but it was more than that. Any time their pa was gone, they missed him something horrible.
“He’ll be here directly. Your father may have an appointment tonight at seven,” the mother said. “Anyone want seconds?”
Everyone said they did, and she piled their plates with more food. There was plenty to go around, since none of it cost much of anything. Slocum and Arnold wolfed theirs down and each put the cornbread in their glass of milk, all crumbled up, and ate the mixture with a spoon. They liked it as much as any dessert.
After eating, the boys went to the living room to watch television, while Lillian helped her mother clean up. Violet sat in a chair and gave instructions to her daughter, while the girl stood on a step stool and washed dishes. There was peace in the house until the boys started fighting over whether to watch Bob Hope or Route 66.
“Frank Sinatra is on Bob Hope this week,” Slocum said. “He’s Chairman of the Board.”
Arnold grabbed his little brother by the shirt collar and told him he had another use for the Board, and it might flatten his face. Swing jazz didn’t seem so important all of a sudden. Slocum slouched down into the sofa and tried to tolerate Arnold’s obsession with Corvettes.
“I’m gonna have three Stingrays when I grow up,” he said.
“I want a Pontiac like Pa’s,” Slocum said. “It’s a Pontiac or nothin’ at all.”
Arnold turned and popped him a good one on his arm for saying that, so Slocum decided to go outside and play with the dog, since returning evil for evil always got him a collection of bruises. He was going through the door when their father turned into the driveway.
“Pa’s home,” he yelled through the screen door.
“You get inside, Slocum,” his mother called from the kitchen. Slocum did what he was told. Arnold had a fit, but turned off the TV. Their pa didn’t like to have a lot of noise in the house when he got off work.
After five minutes, Violet went to the front door to see what was holding up her husband. She looked outside and saw him sitting in the car, smoking a cigarette in the dark.
“Give me my cane, Slocum,” she said. He ran into the kitchen and delivered it to his mother. She opened the front door and walked out and got in on the vehicle’s passenger side, letting her legs dangle. She sat there and waited for the husband to speak.
“My seven o’clock appointment cancelled on me,” he said.
She looked at him sideways and raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you come into the house? The kids have wanted to see you all afternoon since they come in from school.”
Slocum was in the front bedroom with the intent to watch the goings-on through the window. He saw his parents talking for a few minutes and then kiss each other with a long slow smooch. They got out of the car then and Parker helped his hobbled wife into the house. He scrambled into the living room to greet his father’s return from the world. Lillian reached him first, and he bent down and kissed her, then turned to his boys and gave them both a hug, while they planted one on his cheeks. Their father smelled better than anyone even though he smoked like an paper mill stack. His aroma was a musky yet sweet odor that no one else had, maybe on the whole planet. Their pa bathed twice a day, shaved twice a day, and used to make love to their mother more than that if he could manage it.
Everyone retired to the kitchen, where Violet heated up Parker’s dinner and everyone listened to stories of the day and the distant past.
Slocum woke up early, at sun up. He usually got out of bed before everyone else to get a good start on cartoons, and would watch the test pattern Indian until sign-on. He turned on the television to get it warmed up and then went to the kitchen to get a drink of orange juice and let the dog out to do his business. He only had on a pair of blue jeans, the kind whose cuffs rolled up like they did in the westerns, but he was out in the country, and didn’t think much about getting full-dressed this early.
He pulled on some tennis shoes and stepped out onto the back porch and stood there while King rooted around and hiked his hind leg. The beagle came up for some petting, so he sat down on the stoop to scratch his ears. It was starting to get light. The tops of clouds in the distance were beginning to shine with the sun’s reflection. Slocum looked around the lot this house was set on. It was a couple of acres, full of weeds at the beginning, but they spent the summer pulling them. They didn’t have any neighbors close by. It was quiet, peaceful-like, what his pa had been looking for since he left the service and chose the wandering life of a salesman. Most of the trees were southern pine, but there was a huge swamp maple growing beside the stream. The limbs were hard to get to, but Arnold had strung a thick, knotted rope from the second lowest branch to aid in climbing. When that was reached he could go almost all the way to the top, a good sixty-five feet, and see for miles. Slocum was hoping someday to be allowed to climb up there too, but after falling out of the sweetgum tree last spring, his parents said they’d skin him alive if he even thought about tree-climbing.
He got up to go back in when he heard the slightest rustle to his right, whereupon he spied a white-tailed doe and its fawn come around the corner of the house. He froze, not wanting to spook her off. The doe was small, but in the half-light of dawn, she was impressive. Her tail, ears and snout had smatterings of white on them, the latter contrasting with her black nose. Her eyes were ringed in white, everything else a brownish gray. Under the jaw, on her upper neck, was a half oval of white also. She turned and looked at the boy for perhaps a minute, then ambled on. The two crossed the creek after stopping to drink, then twisted around, as if to say “Follow me.”
Slocum did, unprepared for the journey as he was. He moved as stealthily as he could, and then noted that King was still on the porch, dead to the world. King bawled at just about anything that moved. But there he was, dropping off to sleep, oblivious to the game that intersected his path.
He crossed the stream, soaking his jeans up to his thighs, and climbed up the bank in tracks the deer made in the mud, following them at about twenty yards distance. The ground was still blanketed in a thin mist through which they seemed to float. The brambles and thicket underbrush cut at Slocum’s ankles, but he never noticed the scrapes.
Not a quarter mile on the way he came to a canal, deeper than he could cross, but over which someone built a makeshift bridge of fallen timbers. He saw the deer easily leap over the stream. As he was making his way over, he looked down and could swear he saw a gator surfacing, his eyes just piercing the top of the water. Slocum scurried on, his eyes trained on the beady ones below.
When he reached the other side, he couldn’t see where the two deer had gone. There was a column of dust rising around a stand of pines fifty yards distant, and he could hear the sound of hooves beating against the ground, so he started to lope over there, hoping to catch up. Slocum stopped in his tracks when he saw what was causing the dust and the noise. A large, lone stag with a huge rack of antlers was coming at him full speed from the other side of that stand. The boy stood there. There was no place to retreat. The deer came to within twelve or so feet of him and stopped, almost bouncing on his forelegs and rearing up like a horse might do. He began to circle him, raising and lowering his antlers, swinging them side-to-side. He kicked up enough dust to choke Slocum, who turned, matching the pace of the large buck. He kept his attention trained on his eyes gone wide and his head bobbing to and fro.
After several revolutions like that, the buck stopped the circling and stood close to the unusual creature. He breathed deeply the smell of the boy, shook his head, then snorted and backed off. He tore at the ground with his back hoofs, like a dog does when it marks its scent. He slowly turned, and picking up the pace, almost flew away. He left Slocum Healy there, wondering what in Sam Hill had happened. On one level, his heart was running like a racehorse. Never in his wildest dreams did he envision an encounter with a stag out here. On another level, he was watching himself, almost like going to the movies. He saw this beast charging him, and it did not matter. All he saw was the glory of it all, even if it killed him.
It began to dawn on him how strange that was.
Slocum traced his way back to his parents’ home. He crossed the bridge of trees, but whatever he thought he saw in the water was gone. He waded over the frog creek and climbed back up into his own backyard, next to the massive maple tree he was forbidden to climb. The old toad snuck a look at the peculiar critter that took up residence some time back. King was still asleep on the back porch, snoring and passing gas. He opened the kitchen door and snuck into the house. His brother Arnold was lying on his stomach in front of the television, watching Bug Bunny cartoons. That meant he’d been gone but an hour or so and maybe he could avoid a switching if he was lucky.
“Where you been, gimel-butt?” his brother asked, not taking his eyes off of Elmer Fudd.
“I dunno, just out in the woods,” he answered. “I thought I saw some deer over there.”
“Fat chance they’d let you see them,” he said. He rolled over and got up on the sofa. “Me and Pa’s been all back there and all we ever see are deer tracks and cat tracks over those. I ain’t never seen hide nor hair of the real thing, except maybe some dumb coyote skulking around and runnin’ away the minute you catch sight of him.” He looked at Slocum. “You’re a mess.”
“I guess so,” Slocum said.
“You better clean up before Ma and Pa get out of bed, ‘fore you find yourself pullin’ weeds all weekend,” Arnold said, and then picked up the TV listings from the coffee table. “Which channel shows the Three Stooges?”
“None of them. They come on weekdays at four,” Slocum whispered as he tiptoed by his parents’ bedroom on the way to the bath. He closed the door behind him very softly, and ran a tub of steaming hot water. He took off his blue jeans and sneakers and lowered his body into it. It was nearly scalding, but Slocum liked to get it as close to intolerable as he could and almost submerge himself. He dipped to his upper lip, closed his eyes, and gritted his teeth. He stayed like that for a spell, soaking and boiling in the fierce heat. He was jostled out of his cloud by the sound of Lillian banging on the bathroom door.
“Hey Slocum, get outta there,” she shouted. “I gotta pee!”
“Alright, sis,” he said. “Give me a minute to dry off.”
“You better hurry or I’ll do it on the floor.”
He hopped out of the tub and dried off as quickly as he could. He didn’t dawdle like he might any other time, torturing his sister into a war dance that ends up with her crumpled in a heap. He opened the door after wrapping a towel around his waist. Lillian ran past him and pushed him out into the hallway. He could hear her sigh of relief through the thin panel, then turned to look at his reflection in the hallway mirror.
TO BE CONTINUED