A Childhood in Leaksville: Five Short Stories
by Steve Turner
Read more from Steve at his blog, located at http://www.unwonderful.com
I. "The Church On Meadow Road"
Childhood, to me, was being kidnapped and forced to observe life through another person's taste. Had I been able to choose, sleeping through the whole ordeal would've done me better.
Going to church wasn't so bad, at least my mother couldn't scream at me for a whole hour. Our church was very quaint, being 35 feet from a busy road, there were always sounds and reflections and movement, but not inside. Our preacher and his wife were soaked in righteousness, I never saw them get dirty or grunt or fight or be indignant. They were way too calm to have parishioners from Eden.
Their home was a collection of simple furniture, tattered bibles, no television and the silence of restraint. You would never go there to confess a broken window or stolen candy, the nervous echoes would've worsened the sin and stoked the flames of hell. I never asked him outside, because his shoes might have gotten dirty. They were saved and you were not, maybe that made up for the modest church not being a monument to their success.
Once, while he sat in his den, I went up to him to make a private offering. He immediately stood up and drew attention to it. Everything was a thing, there wasn't a time for just me and them. It was I and them, and, my later discussed motives. Why was I there and what am I bothering him for? Steve needs a daddy, ain't that sweet, and God loves you so much.
The service consisted of an opening hymn, drowned out by a piano that cracked and popped and absorbed light. Once everyone was seated (there was this one woman in a green raincoat that never stood up. Had the president walked in, she would've sat tight. I don't recall her coming in or leaving, maybe she did, but I never saw it.) The sermons forced one to entertain their mind, I rearranged a whole junk drawer in my head, even figuring out how the dovetails were carved.
Thoughts can drift out and in during these times, I used to look at my sister's and cousin's feet dangling under the pew. As your feet go, so do you. I knew my cousin Beth would make it to glory because her socks were so clean. Her rounded little heels had trod on shiny floors. You could hear her shoes plop down and all was right with America.
This was not so for some. The wide-footed, neanderthal cousin from Draper was doomed from birth, her shoes never came off. Whatever went on inside those shoes made trucks wreck and gave jobs to social engineers. Demons, death, and the cure for happiness were in there. If mercy is a beatitude, then better done than spoken . . .
Acting up in the back of the church was my specialty, placing a pencil in between my friend's fingers was harmless, squeezing the fingers down like a nutcracker was joy unspeakable. He deserved it for grossing me out in my captivity. He would booger dig and drool and sniff and smell like molded cheese every Sunday. His fingers worked hard to pry loose those boogers, my head had to turn away when he reached his goal. The roll and flick were shameless. It was a sound like a rain drop.
One morning he didn't make it to church. He was killed the night before on Berry Hill road. At the funeral, his sister cried harder than anything I’d ever seen. Maybe she never had to sit with him in church. Maybe had he lived there would have been more discretion, I doubt it . . . the last ten minutes of every sermon seemed the longest, I always wondered how he knew an hour was up. maybe his wife crossed her legs the other way or the light used a part of the back wall like a sundial. We would stand for a closing hymn and all the blood would rush down your legs like an avalanche. The sleepiness would go out of your head, God had been conned for one more week.
Once outside, the pork sucking, quintuple bypass candidates would fire up a Pall-Mall and singe your eyelashes when you walked by. You’d always hear how much they loved you and the Lord, I tried to dodge the embers while I could . . .
II. "The Shift Sisters"
Can you be a redneck and not know it? Is there a day of decision or is it predestination? What happens? Are dogs humping every time you look out the door? Is Hee-Haw on a loop tape? Is it the way your mama looks? Dumpy and hateful, dirt marks on her ankles, wearing a lacquered, scalp-showing hairdo? Is it your daddy? Is he skinny, chain smoking, wiggly veined? A potential murderer who pops out from under your bed on some mechanic’s creeper? Is it your sister? The one who has to be escorted room to room by her mama to keep daddy off her? The one who’s been writing her imprisoned boyfriend for nine years and wears a sand pebble engagement ring? Is it your brother? A mouth breathing, drool slurping, inbreed that showed up at age five and makes you watch his boogers blow out and in at the supper table?
Maybe it’s seeing NASCAR on TV all those years. The sound of a race car coming toward you is the sound of the same car going away from people on the other side. Not everyone hears it the same. Maybe it’s the name you’re given. Nay-nay and Junebug are not hurrying for tee-times, and never will.
It will have to be explained on the Last Day what caused the Shift Sisters to turn out as they did. These two girls cruised Eden day and night. Fashion magazines spontaneously combusted when they drove by. Pasty, frail and fiery, they smacked gum and wore things that caused tire shop boys to leer up from the grease pits. Log-chains--strung belt loop to wallet--bruised their hips. Blue shop rags stuffed their back pockets. Bandanas were worn tight, cutting off the circulation to their brains. This made for a constant expression of pride and confusion. Blood sister pinecone pinky rings were reminders of the time they saw a man get cut in the woods. Dirt impacted choke collars had something to do with Led Zeppelin. Their motion-proof airtight jeans had fry grease stains on both legs. They spoke tersely to hide their teeth. If something was funny, they’d change the subject.
Their identity was in their car, a souped up black Plymouth Fury. Wrapped in heavy chrome and red vinyl, it sat like a cheap casket. Decals of mean woodpeckers and backyard metal shops dotted the back glass. A set of mags stayed stacked on the rear seat to be “put on later.” Crushed Sun-Drop cans and Burger Chef bags littered the floor board.
With a skinny leg pressing the clutch, the Plymouth crept forward, just enough, keeping your feet nervous. The engine idled at a deafening roar, like a rocket on a launchpad. Fuzzy dice, hanging from the rearview, would vibrate and spin. The whole ground shook and you’d just nod your head to whatever they said. The dog in the back window looked traumatized from looking sideways at high speed. You’d be afraid this car was gonna get ya, like a bald man in the woods.
They’d drive up to a group of people they knew and slow down to build drama. Clenched fists popped out the windows. Stomping the clutch hard, they’d stare straight ahead and stiffen their necks. With tires pouring smoke, and bodies pressed into the seats, the back of the car almost grazed the pavement. Bowl-cut mullets swung, as on a hinge, with each gear change. The crowd raised their fists, watching the car getting as small as their thoughts. The exhaust and tire smoke dissipated and normality returned. What did all this mean? Maybe it meant something was going on, like a gig finger to nothing going on. It had to mean something. For all their trouble, I hope, for the Shift Sisters, it did.
III. "The Clod"
How deep will a spoon dig? We’ve got lots of spoons, she’ll never miss just one if I sneak it out. Me and my spoon, finding a place to play. What if I hit something big or an animal? What if I fall in? Go spoon go! Look at the earth move! Oops, it’s bending. Okay, I can hold it at the bottom and it’ll be a scraper! Look at these colors! I thought it would be deeper. Mom yells the day is over, I’ll dig tomorrow. You should see me throw a rock. I can hit the back of the roof across the street and hide really good before it hits. Some of my best throws are for my own use. Looking back, to see if she saw it, is just looking back. Hitting something really small takes a lot of practice. If I bust a pop bottle in ten throws, it’s very lucky. One day I tried to hit a person with a dirt clod. This fat girl would be easy to hit, but she’s a good half a front yard away. WHOCK! , Right in the eye. Uh-oh, I saw she was crying, she ran off. I thought she’d get better. I got back to squishing bug cocoons and getting kool-aid face. That night, there was an important pounding at the door. The kind of knock only a parent should answer.
A man in the house changes things, it makes you sit up straighter and pay attention. This man was yelling at my mother. I’d never seen him before. He was half prison escapee, half football player. His chest hairs popped out like prison wire. He looked like a starved grizzly bear let out of its cage. Mom stepped aside and he came right at me. He stomped across the room and hovered over me like a redwood. I just knew he was going to fist me in the face. That thing that keeps you standing, melted into the floor. "If there's any damage to my daughter’s eye, I'm gonna sue your family for everything they own." Mom walked over, standing beside him and not me. As he yelled, my Adam's apple stretched out like a dry rubber band. As soon as he was gone, mom shot straight out the door to borrow a belt from a neighbor. I prayed a bus would run her over as she came homeward. The whole world seemed to stop as she clacked down the hallway to my room. "TURN OVER!"
Then came the second worst beating of my life. Thirty to forty lashes found every part of my stinging rear. I tried to block it with my hand. "MOVE YOUR HAND!" My first thought was to sheepishly impress her with the latest wall shadows, but that's not what she meant. Our Lord-loved aunt came over the next day. Mom made me pull down my pants to show her the bruises. The girl was okay later. I spent even more time alone.
IV. "The Silence of the Frogs"
Alone in a simple field, I happened upon a small clearing. I laid down and propped my arm under my head. A yellow butterfly landed close by. I pushed my finger under its delicate body. "A new friend!" I thought. He squeezed in his legs a little. A bug hug for me. A puff of my breath released him from my sight. He left me in a random pattern, having nowhere to be.
STEVE! Supper was ready. If I was under water on the moon, I’d still hear her. Three more minutes of freedom! I can pet our puppy, throw a few rocks and jump this mud puddle. It’ll feel different inside the house. This spaghetti kills my stomach. Two bites will have my butt on fire. Mom will make us bathe together again tonight. My little sister’s going to turn yellow if I don’t quit peeing in the water. I don’t want to take a bath, not when the crickets are calling me back.
If the phone rings and mom kicks her door shut, I’m in big trouble. It must be my teacher. Mom’s cigarettes have sat on the kitchen table way too long. Guess I better stare really hard at this television. "STEVE, GET IN HERE!" My legs got heavier than bags of mud. The hallway seemed a quarter mile long, my head drooped and I tried not to poot. I walked in, smoke and fire bellowed out of the bedposts. Her arms were folded as she towered over me. Maybe God and the angels will open the ceiling and intervene. " Margo Wilson’s mom called and said you said you’d show her your fanny if she’d show you hers." I broke our fixed stare by cutting my eyes slightly to the right. In doing this, she may think I’m insane and also, I never can think of a lie looking straight ahead. Things get deathly quiet at times like these. We would discuss this later.
Dad called and said he was going to have us for the weekend. He’ll take us to the farm. I just know it. We spilled out of his car and ate fried fish and all the watermelon we could hold. I knew mom had told him what I’d done. After a few hours of fishing, my father hooked a large turtle. He wrapped a fist around its tail and carried it quickly, like it had been bad, into the barn. The farmer set it up on a stump. Dad had a pair of pliers around its head and the farmer stood ready, a hatchet in hand. The turtle hissed and drew in like it was going to pop. A couple of chops later, the head was off. It hung tough in that shell, requiring a strained jerk to break that one last stubborn ligament. The fish and watermelon raced for my throat. The ground zigzagged under me as I collapsed to it. The earth held me as a kind friend. The farmer’s wife took me inside. I could hear the snickering from behind. Staring into space, a cold washrag was laid on my head. I saw it was getting dark.
The farmer and my father decided to go frog gigging. What on earth was frog gigging? I skipped along and stayed a few paces back. The farmer wore a pair of rubber waders and had a small pitchfork in his hand. My father held the flashlight as we tip-toed around the dark lake’s edge. The farmer yelled, "hold the light on it!" My father, keeping his shoes clean, tried to comply. The prongs of the pitchfork would be poised with dynamic readiness over the frog’s body. The light shone above it like the rapture. The origin of bug and frog sounds held no answer in the dark. Any movement felt like a boo! A thrust of the spear into the body made a terrible sound, like punching a baby in the stomach. The farmer brought the tool up, putting the frog in a canvas bag.
Ten or so frogs later, we headed back to the basement. The bag was laid on a table and would pulse silently, like a puppy breathing under the covers. The farmer reached in and pulled a two-footer out by the legs. Walking over to the brick foundation, he swung the frogs, heads first, against the wall. WHOP! The muscular farmer delayed the hit to create as much lag as possible. That sound made my throat get warm. Bolting up the stairs, I slammed the door of the bathroom behind me, thinking of the butterfly.
V. For My Uncle Joe
I could never understand, at age four, why we moved away without taking dad. Running forty miles away to Leaksville had us all upset. As we drove off, mom was sobbing, which made my two sisters sob. As for me , I dookied my pants, really bad. Four year olds are supposed to have sense enough not to do that. I did have sense enough not to sit down. With both cheeks on fire, my legs stayed far apart. The others had gotten painfully pale and bug-eyed, mouth breathing as seldom as would sustain life. By the time we pulled into my aunt's house, I was doing the jitterbug. My aunt and uncle (joe and betsy chandler) were all hugs when we got there. I quickly crab-walked to their bathroom. They mumbled something about corrective shoes. If Leaksville has a quality apart from other towns, you can knock on any door and get a wet washrag.
For the next two years, my oldest sister and I would write our dad and try to get him to take us back. He never mentioned a word of it, but we wrote anyway. It beat giving up . He did make it to my kindergarten graduation.
Losing my first grade girlfriend (lisa wilson) to a boy with a new minibike was my first Leaksville heartache. Who could've foretold it? She would do without T.V. and ice-cream just to tell me how much she loved me. One day, she and Mr. New Mini-bike (mike whitlow) came sputtering down his driveway. Her tiny legs jutted out like an airplane (hugging him like a pencil as he fake smiled his piano teeth at me). Losing Natalie Wood to a Briggs and Stratton is one thing, but this kid scared his own mother. I felt worse than the bathroom attendant at the Balmar Theater. They spun off. She was his alone. A harpoon in your soul sure helps road pennies to find a pocket. I should have found them all that day. Maybe mom will take us out to eat tonight...
Going out to eat was our only adventure. We piled into our rickety Ford Falcon, arguing over the front seat and the best place to go. My sisters liked "Red and Betty's." Mom's choices were either the "Circle" or the "Sealtest." My favorite was "Dick's Drive-In." "Dick's" was way behind the times. As soon as your car was parked, a freshly beaten, pancake make-upped waitress would strut out of "Dick's" orange door and bark a cigarette-ruined voice through your window. With "Harper Valley P.T.A." and "Pretty Woman" serenading through the horn speaker, the moods changed to whichever song the jukebox played. A George Jones tune would have the place near suicide, putting a song-long, country-washed tone of emotion between you and your waitress. Despite this, they never really listened to your order. It didn't pertain. Pertinence belonged to hustling single guys who made them listen to long, boring descriptions of their lives. "Hey baby, I ain't pushin the broom up the mill anymore, I'm pullin it . . ." Maybe it was their hair that got these girls slapped around. It was teased as high as their arms would go.
A flash of the headlights signaled the waitress to take your tray. Mom had the courtesy to warn us when she was about to start the car. My sisters and I dove to the floorboard as she fired up the little Ford. The screeching fan belt screamed like a scalded pterodactyl stuck under the hood. Our car arrived with four and left with one. After losing sight of "Dick's," we'd pop back up and hoped against hope it would make it home.
Home was a single wide trailer across from the junior high. Life in a mobile home, especially with three females, was tough. Our oil tank was way too small. Mom never did poke a stick to check the level. Our furnace knew this, the duct near the television would listen to a Lee Kinard forecast and shut off when words like "possible accumulation" and "blizzard" were spoken. I was always the patsy for calling the oil company. Bringing my bedcover with me, my teeth chattered so hard, the oilman told me to calm down.
Trailer-life in summer held its own form of torment. If the skies blackened over Martinsville, it was minutes before a storm hit. The first rumble of thunder sent my sisters, like hamsters, to bury themselves in mom's lap. As the bursts of wind rocked our little home, mom, unknowingly, would squeeze my finger as hard as she could. The hammering rain was mixed with booming cracks of thunder and blinding flashbulb lightning. With the defenseless trailer buckling and leaning, we expected the coast guard to row up any minute and toss us the rope. Wide-eyed in fear and finger pain, I feigned dignity. At storm's end, I would yank my deformed finger from her hand and remind her of having the "chickenest" mother in Leaksville.
Small town boredom brought out the worst in some. On a moonless Halloween night, my sisters and I were heading home with heavy bags of candy. A rustling from the creek bed caused us to stop and look back. Three pit-viper bullies (maynard hughes, bruce parker and another one that was hidden by a branch) rose up and started hurling fist-sized rocks at our heads. We ran away as fast as we could. With stones whizzing by our ears, not a single rock ever hit us. I've never thanked my mother for her lifetime of prayers. She had angels wearing baseball gloves that night.
Bullies in school had more time to study your weaknesses. This one particular offspring of Satan (satan) chose lunchtime to ruin my day. Like a snake on tippy-toes, he slithered up and appeared over me with a look of bigger-guy entitlement. His venomous stare drained the autonomy from my soul. When the last muscle of dignity was out of my face, he'd run his hand slowly over the favorite part of my lunch, squishing it between his dirty fingers. Nobody said a word. Nobody could. These days, he's probably hollering "serve you?" at some cafeteria. Maybe he was just broke and hungry.
There were some things that even I don't believe, things that weren't supposed to happen or be seen . This one lady, I'll call her Shirley (because that was her name) . . . Shirley's home was a "Prison Preparatory School" for her unwatched boys. Shirley and her two boys embraced each new day as an opportunity to further regress. Her whole day was spent in a loosely boarded, barren kitchen, sliding eggs through bacon grease to the middle of a filthy, scratched fry pan. She cooked eggs all day, like a man with a paycheck was coming over. The peeling counter was speckled with rusty nail heads and cigarette ashes. Uncrushed, backwash filled beer cans shared space with a grease-stained half gallon bottle of cheap dishwashing liquid. Foil draped television antennas jutted out at eye level, piping in distracting "stories." This smoked up the kitchen really badly, giving the eggs a cover in which to plot their escape. When lunch or dinner was served, Shirley would push a plate of eggs in front of everyone. A basket of buttermilk biscuits was covered with a yearly-washed towel. When removed, a steaming vapor that smelled like a trucker's boot clung to your face and made you feel like part of the family. Shirley's kids weren't competitive. They were pioneers. If a new way to get in trouble was possible, they sat up through the night to devise it. Timmy had a strong resemblance to a tiny Harpo Marx. His speech impediment was a combination of book-less shelves and an eternal cold. The teacher sat him in the front row to lip read his clueless muttering. Her "tilted head of concern" atrophied over time into repetitive, glazed "uh-huhs." By years' end, an unseen force of social selection found him alone, in the back of the room, drawing pictures of naked women. Our church invited him to a party at the home of a sinless relative (betsy chandler). When the discussion turned to hymns, Timmy proudly beamed his favorite song was "My Baby Does the Hanky Panky." Timmy was the first kid to get tattooed. The knuckles of his right hand spelled out the "F" word, the three valleys in between said "YOU." He would have proudly shown it to Billy Graham.
Johnny's crawl through the birth canal should've included land mines and friendly fire. His heroes were the pre-redeemed characters in phone booth pamphlets. This affinity for the dark side must have come from having to stare at an overhead light while crib-bound. Missing more school than he attended, truant officers knew better than to call Shirley, they resorted to yelping bloodhounds and volunteer posses to find him. After a few normal days of "show and tell" and "red rover," the sheriff brought Johnny right over. When the solid oak door of Principal Fred P. Liner's office boomed shut, resonations of the paddling pealed through the hallway like a distant deer hunter's rifle. With each blow, Johnny's legs ran in place, but his feet held their ground. He didn't cry. He didn't know how.
Johnny's life came to an early, unexpected end. He kicked in the door of a respected, yet tough, elderly woman in broad daylight. She leveled a shotgun at his chest, killing him instantly. Timmy still holds in pot smoke until his butt bleeds, calling jail his second home. Maybe Shirley needed a cookbook.
In my teen years, I was riding around Leaksville with a childhood girlfriend (cathy cherry). It was a warm spring day, so we headed out to the country. When we drove past my great-uncle's farm on Garrett Road, I saw a large group of people, maybe fifty, in his front yard. I parked and walked up to join the reunion. My aunt and uncle (lloyd and thelma turner) were sitting at a picnic table atop the dead center of their acreage. Expecting to be spoken to, things got awkwardly quiet. They asked who I was! Trying hard to hide my hurt and astonishment, I explained to them in great detail who I was. It was like trying to yell in a dream. Nobody, hopefully, has a name like my mother's (lovelene, her sisters call her lovalene). Telling them who my parents were surely will do it. It didn't. I looked into the face of a relative I had known seventeen years and gave him the name of two people he had known for forty. I walked away, knowing it must have been a cold night when I was conceived . . .
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About the author... Steve Turner lived in Eden (known as Leaksville from 1797-1967) from 1959 until 1970. "It seems I was whisked away. What a difference a day makes! After 34 years, I live here again. For all those who made my childhood wonderful, Sally Groseclose, Vicki Woodall, Danny Durham, Stevie Amos, Carol James, Lisa Gilley, Lyman Collins, Margaret Wright, Phyllis Cheek, Joanie Edwards, Timmy Martin, Cathy Cherry and Myrna Ball, I love and miss you all. You were children when I left, I certainly miss your camaraderie and the innocence we had together. Special people from a special town."