From Screwing the Pooch by J. B. Bergstad

On the Move

It was midsummer, I’m sure of it. I know because I wasn’t cooped up in a hot, crowded schoolroom, itching, scratching and smelling eraser dust. Soon I would be assigned a desk in another new school. I would be the new guy. Again. I would have to adapt and quickly if past experience was any teacher. I yearned for a little more time. If only there were a few more weeks of summer.

I kept telling myself to cool it, I’d been in this jam before. Then again mom and dad said this time things were going to be different. This time my dad built a brand new, permanent home and this new neighborhood would be our last new neighborhood for a long time.

Last or not, new schools were a crapshoot. As if that wasn’t enough, I was only eleven-years-old. Add the final zinger it was my last year of grammar school. It was all enough to superheat a small, prepubescent brain like mine…

 ~ ()()()() ~

One

 Compton, California

Summer – 1949

Nineteen-forty-nine. Looking back it was my banner year. In that magic year I had bigger dirt clods to harvest and bitchin’ throwing rocks to gather. I needed friends and playmates and I was looking for kids who could share kid secrets. I ventured outside that first day looking for someone my own age. Maybe I would find some guys who liked to play guns or catch. Hide and seek and kick the can would be good. Capture the flag would do just fine, I had high hopes.

It was overcast that first day in the new neighborhood, hot and muggy. Right off the bat a kid came out of the house next door. Wonder of wonders he was about my age.

We sniffed around each other. We nodded. We kicked the dirt with our bare feet. We yepped and noed. We did the dance and then got around to names. The kid stuck his finger in his ear and said, “Name’s Quentin Kingman…” His voice trailed off and then he finished with, “I’m ten.”

I didn’t offer my hand, I was afraid I’d come away with earwax. “Jim,” I said. “I’m eleven. Man, that’s the weirdest name I ever heard.”

“Yeah it is,” Quentin said, “I hate it, but what the heck.” That was it. We were friends.

A huge sycamore tree stood on the corner across the street. Thick branches, full of broad leaves, spread a blanket of shade at its base. In the shelter of the shade a little guy crouched in the dust. He looked up a couple of times, but ignored us for the most part. The kid was making mounds out of the thin, powdered dirt at the base of the tree.

“Who’s the shrimp, what’s he doing?” I jerked my thumb in the direction of the corner.

Quentin shrugged. “Come on.”

We tiptoed through the rocks and weeds in the street’s meridian watching for cockleburs. We crossed without incident and surrounded the shrimp, who went on scooping up little mounds of dirt. It looked like he wanted to make mountains, but instead ended up with a few skinny pillars. Quentin nudged the shirtless little guy with his toe. “What’re you doing, Fireball?”

The shrimp looked up and smiled, three front teeth on his lower jaw were missing. “Nothing,” he said. “Making piles.”

Quentin looked at me and pointed. “This is Larry Schmidt, everybody calls him Fireball. You ought to see the little shit run. He’s greased lightning, boy.”

I stuck my hands in my pockets. Fireball looked like skin and bone to me. I wondered if he was goofy or slow in the head or something. “How come you’re making dirt piles?” I asked.

“Nothing better to do.” He grinned at me with a crafty squint to his eye. “Wanna race for a nickel?”

“I ain’t got a nickel, kid. Besides, if you won I’d have to kick your butt.” I said and smirked. When someone up the street yelled, “Hey Quentin, what’re you doing?” I looked up. Several houses away a kid stood in his front yard, hand shading his eyes.

Quentin hollered back, “Hey, Donny, come here a minute. This is Jim, he lives in the new, pink house.”

Donny waved, sort of, and sauntered back to his front porch. The kid started to fiddle with the lace on his tennis shoe. I ignored him. When I glanced up again Donny looked like he made up his mind, he ambled our way. I smiled. Strange kids and strange neighborhoods, I thought, here we go again. Quentin’s voice interrupted my reverie.

“Where you from, Jim?”

I shrugged and hoped I looked as cool as I felt. “Ah, we lived in Downey for a while. Before that we traveled around the country a lot and then my grandma died and we lived in Guttenberg, Iowa.”

Quentin had his finger in his ear again. “What’s a Guttenberg? Never heard of nothing like that.”

“It ain’t a something, dummy, it’s a town named for the guy that printed the first bible. Ain’t you ever heard of the Gutenberg bible?”

Quentin shook his head. “We got a bible, but it ain’t named Guttenberg or Gutenberg or whatever you said.”

“Never mind,” I said and gave Quentin my tired glare. “It ain’t important anyways. Guttenberg’s a farming town on the Mississippi river. You’ve heard of that ain’t you?”

Quentin stared at me. “Course I’ve heard of the Mississippi. M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.” He looked smug, but then his eyes got big. “Have you really seen it? Honest, Jim?”

I looked down the street, making Quentin wait for my answer. The kid named Donny saw me watching him and stopped in the middle of the street. He looked back in the direction of his house as if someone called him. I laughed when he looked back at us. I thought he might be the type that would think I was laughing at him and that made me feel good.

Quentin said, “Jim?”

I clapped Quentin on the shoulder. “Listen buddy. For three years we lived two blocks from the river. My dad used to take me down there twice a week just to swim. Other times we took our fishing poles and caught sunfish for dinner.”

“Nah,” he said. “I think you’re pulling my leg.”

“You come on over if you don’t believe me. Ask my mom, she’ll tell you I ain’t lying. After that, you’d better not call me a liar again or I’ll sock you in the nose, pal.”

I glanced up the street. Donny was fiddling with the limb on a little tree that looked half dead. A woman’s voice cut the silence. “What are you doing to our tree? Get away from there, you little delinquent. Go home and ruin your own trees.”

Donny jumped, but recovered and raised a middle finger in the direction of a house to his left. He continued down the sidewalk in our direction and I thought maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. I felt a pat on my arm. I looked at Quentin. “What?” I asked.

Quentin had his face scrunched up. “Come on, Jim, don’t be mad, okay? I ain’t calling you a liar, honest.”

“Ah, forget it, okay?”I said.

“Did you go to school in Gutterburk?” Fireball squinted at me waiting for my answer. I couldn’t believe he was serious, but he was, sitting on his haunches, eyes cupped around his eyes and that silly smile on his lips.

“It’s Guttenberg,” I said, “and ‘course we went to school. What do you think?”

He stared, a grimace on his face like he caught his toe in a slamming door. “Did you have summer vacation like we do?”

“Geez,” I said. “Sure we had summer vacation. What’s with you? Don’t you know nothing?”

Fireball looked like he was about to bust out crying. “I’m sorry,” he said and hung his head, “I ain’t never been no place besides here and El Segundo.”

“Ah, don’t get excited,” I said, “it’s okay. We traveled all over. I guess I figure… And it’s Guttenberg, remember that, okay? Ya’ got that, Fireball? Okay, forget it.” I felt sorry for the little guy, but I didn’t want to appear soft either.

Fireball said, “What’d you do in the summer, Jim? Did you swim in that river all the time and catch fish?”

“Nah,” I said watching Donny approach the corner. I knew he was within earshot so I added, “I got two uncles back there. They got big old farms with lots of cows and horses and pigs and chickens and stuff. My uncle Bill gave me a horse. His name’s Pal and he’s mine. When we go back there I get to ride him as much as I want.”

Fireball jumped up, but Quentin crowded closer and said, “You got your own horse? Honest to God?”

Fireball’s hand beat a tattoo on my forearm. “What’s he look like? Is he big? What color is he?”

“Whoa. Whoa. Hold it a minute. Pal is a big horse, he’s a white Palomino and he likes crabapples. When we lived in Guttenberg I used to stay with my uncles on their farms for the summer. I got to do all kinds of farm stuff. We got up real early in the morning and worked all day.”

I stepped around Fireball and leaned back against the trunk of the sycamore. “My Uncle Bill said I worked so hard he was going to give me Pal. He said Pal could stay on the farm where he could run free and be with the other horses, but Pal’s mine. That’s what he said.”

A loud voice filled with cigarette phlegm made us all jump. “Larry? I see you. Get over here, I need milk and eggs from the store. Hurry up.”

A scrawny looking woman with a blue kerchief tied around her head leaned from the doorway of a weathered, ramshackle house. Her face was pulled down in a terrible squint, I remember thinking she looked like a witch. She waved her hand once and then again, an impatient gesture, before ducking back into the house. The screen door slapped the doorframe, cracking in the still, muggy air like breaking glass.

Fireball looked at us and said, “Shit.” He smiled his gap-toothed smile, waved and took off running down the sidewalk, heading for the old house sagging at the back of the large corner lot where we stood. The front of the property was fenced. Picket boards, once white, were cracked and faded. Like the house, the elements had cooked and peeled the paint away.

The Donny guy finally made his baby-step way to the corner. I ignored him and touched Quentin’s shoulder. I nodded my head in the direction of the saggy wood frame building. “That Fireball’s house?”

Quentin kicked at the piles of dirt. “Yeah. He’s got a bunch of brothers and sisters. They live on welfare, ain’t got no dad.”

I looked at him. “Welfare? What the heck is that?

“I don’t know for sure,” Quentin said. “I heard my dad say they get a check once a month from the county. All’s they got to do is live there, I guess.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a pretty bitchin’ way to live.”

Donny was giving me the once over and I returned the favor. He was my age, a little shorter than me, but well built. His Levis were worn white and threadbare at the knees and he had on a dirty white tee shirt. My instincts said: This guy thinks he’s the Kingfish around here. My inflated self image said: We’ll see about that.

Donny looked me up and down once more and stuck out his hand. “Hi,” he said.

Our handshake was straight out of a Dead-end Kids movie, Mugs McGinnis giving the new kid the old squeezola. I knew it was coming, I’d been this route before. We stood, braced, squeezing and grinning until Fireball came charging back down the sidewalk. The diversion gave us both a valid excuse to back off.

“Hey, guys. What are you going to do? Wait for me, okay? I’ll be back in no time, okay?”

He took off like his pants were on fire.

Donny said. “So you got a horse, huh.”

I just nodded and stared at him. He heard most of the story, I knew it and he knew it. That day we decided to ignore each other, but I was sure, one day soon, Donny and I would square off. Past experience taught me a few lessons. Being the new kid, it was important to establish a couple of things. First: I had to prove I was a regular guy, but no candy-ass. Second: I needed to show everybody I took no shit. In my brief eleven years I always found a way to impress those points of order on new friends. I’d caught a glimpse of an old broom in the gutter earlier. A brilliant idea came to me. I would show these kids, especially Kingfish, I was a daring and resourceful tough guy. Eleven-year-old logic…don’t ask.

I wandered over and picked up the broom. The bristle end was nothing but a ragged stub worn down to the stitching. I hefted the thing like a lance. “Hey, guys. I got an idea. Watch this.” I laid it on thick adding a big grin of mystery. I stuck the old broom through my belt at the small of my back, and using hand and footholds on the trunk of the sycamore, I climbed. Three smaller trunks branched off at the crotch. I was at least ten feet off the ground. It sure didn’t look that high from the sidewalk.

The trunk was about four feet in diameter. Where the tree divided itself the offshoots were smaller. I considered climbing higher to impress my audience, trunk stems soared another twenty feet in the air. Big branches grew every which way. I decided my audience was thrilled enough.

I pulled the broom from my belt and struck a match from the pack in my pocket and yelled, “Hey guys, you ready?” Sure of my audience’s attention, I set the stubs of straw on fire. Donny and Quentin watched from below. I imagined they were watching me in awe. My intrepid, inventive bravery, probably struck them speechless. In reality, they no doubt thought I was a little brain damaged. The straw broom was just starting to flame when a commanding voice yelled, “Hey you. What the hell you doing? Put that out before you catch the tree on fire.”

I looked down and saw a kid with brilliant red hair scowling up at me. The redhead was bigger than us and he looked pretty tough. I knew he was older, but I was stuck, I couldn’t back down. With cockiness I didn’t feel I said, “Okay, I’ll put it out.”

I let out a shout, a yelp I thought sounded like a fierce war cry, and tried to throw the broom like a spear. All the weight was on the burning end. The broom dropped, flaming end first, heading straight for my new friends. Everybody ducked and jumped back. The broom hit the gutter and exploded in a shower of embers. A few inches to the side and I would have beaned Quentin, Donny and the redhead.

Quentin and Donny took off running for their homes. The redhead yelled, “Get your ass down here, you dumb shit. Put this fire out.”

My audience was gone, but I was compelled to continue my bluster. I hollered down, “You want the fire out? Okay, I’ll put it out.” I unbuttoned my Levis and tried to pee on the burning broom.

The redhead said, “I’m going to get a bucket of water. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll run and hide, you little ass.”

As soon as he left for the water I shinnied down the tree and ran home. I stayed in the house the rest of the day. Not long after the burning broom debacle, I met the redhead. Over the next three years we became good friends. Don, Big Red, Morrison and I learned we had a lot in common. For the past sixty-four years we’ve maintained that close friendship. There’s a macabre twist to this tale of boyish foolishness. Had I not choked back my fear of a meeting with Big Red? Had we not experienced an immediate feeling of simpatico? If those had not’s, had not come to pass, I would not have gained the wherewithal to commit murder.

Don Morrison is ignorant of his contribution to the act that stalks my dreams. It’s right that he is unaware, he only provided the tool. Sixty-four years ago, I, with free will and brash bravado, welcomed a piece of hell into my soul. It huddles there flickering: now bright, now dim. It is a cursed lamp that lights my nightmare kinescope. It casts maddening images of a torturous death I inflicted on another living creature. The images of that atrocity torture me with hellish dreamscapes I cannot escape.

 ~ ()()()() ~

Two

 Compton, California

Summer – 1952

I turned fourteen in March, Don Morrison would turn seventeen in November. My body had undergone changes during the intervening three years. The dumpy broom burner’s body of 1949 now topped out at six feet. I was a slender one-sixty-five and towered over my neighborhood buddies. I liked the new me and pushed my advantage at every opportunity. As for Donny Van Franken, he and I settled into an uneasy Kingfish partnership.

Don Morrison, the most industrious of our group, gave up his paper route. At sixteen, Big Red landed a job with Sears, Roebuck & Co. He got discounts on all kinds of neat stuff. The neatest were Daisy BB guns with minor to moderate damage. Don could buy these beauties for a song. The cheapest model, a single shot, was two bucks. The premium repeater went for seven-fifty. Every kid in the neighborhood wanted one. Don took orders and collected the money. A few days later he would come home with Daisy Air Rifle cartons. They all had Red Ryder and Little Beaver pictured on the top flap.

When I heard about the BB gun deal, I scrambled like a maniac mowing lawns, washing cars and raking leaves. I would do anything to earn a buck or two toward a BB gun. Don Van Franken was smart and thrifty. He had money saved from his allowance. After Morrison himself, he was the first in the neighborhood to get a repeater. Wouldn’t you know, it was in first class condition. Donny showed me a small scratch on the barrel. You needed a magnifying glass to see it.

The rest of the kids, one by one, walked out of Big Red’s yard with their Daisy Air Rifle prize. Only a few remained gun-less like Fireball Schmidt and me of course. Me? I wanted the repeater, naturally. Only the lever action with the wooden stock and rawhide thong hanging from the breech would do. Fireball would have taken a repeater or a single shot. Hell, even a no shot would’ve made him happy, but I was sure that wasn’t going to happen. He was too little to go out and earn money, nobody would hire a little kid like him. His mom? She was on welfare. She was lucky to have enough to buy food. I had learned there was nothing bitchin’ about being on welfare.

Every day Morrison went to work was a day of anticipation. Those who scrounged the money couldn’t wait for him to get home. One day he arrived with two Daisy Air Rifle boxes under his arm. Quentin Kingman and a new kid, Leonard Markus, waited with salivating expectation. Quentin was jumping out of his skin. Morrison came out of the house, but he only carried one box. He handed it to Leonard. Big Red looked at Quentin and said. “Don’t have yours yet. Maybe next week.”

Kingman’s mouth dropped open. “What?” he said. “I don’t get it. I’m getting a single shot, the cheapest one. Other guys got their single shots right away. How come I got to wait? Who’s the other box for, you brought two, right?”

Morrison stepped closer to Quentin. “None of your bee’s wax, buddy. Next week. Got it?” Big Red went back in the house.

Markus ripped his box open and pulled out the gun with all its accessories. Quentin watched for a while then mumbled, “What the hell’s wrong with Morrison? Is he mad at me, anybody know?” When no one spoke up, Quentin ran off, wiping his face with the tail of his tee shirt.

Everyone wondered what was going on. Don Morrison never explained his reasons for penalizing Kingman, the episode has remained a mystery these many years even to me.

***

The day after the Morrison-Kingman confrontation, I wandered around my driveway, bored and disgusted. I was still three bucks and change shy of my repeater. From the Schmidt’s dilapidated, one car garage I heard: POP…POP…POP. It was the unmistakable sound of a Daisy Air Rifle.

The pathetic old garage sagged at the back of the Schmidt property. Teetering amid gouged asphalt and waist-high weeds, it looked like it would only take one good push to collapse it. I followed the sounds and jogged across the street. Someone was shooting inside the listing garage. One of the doors hung at an angle, ready to drop off its rusted hinges. I peeked around the edge of the dry, cracked wood. In the dark, musty smelling interior, Fireball looked like a lump of shadow crouched on the dirt floor.

He was on one knee, a Daisy repeater, wooden stock, leather thong and all, hugged to his cheek. He was drawing a bead on a row of empty cans perched on bowed fire blocks. He pulled the trigger and missed the cans. Again and again he missed every shot. The cans rocked now and then, but a warm breeze, blowing through gaps in the warped wood siding, caused the movement. The tin containers seemed to mock Fireball’s errant eye.

“Hey,” I hollered louder than necessary. Fireball had a Daisy and I couldn’t believe it. Worse yet, he had a repeater and I was still gun-less. He jumped and looked around. When he saw me he gave me his Fireball smile and held up the rifle. “Look what I got, Jim,” he said and laughed.

I walked in the garage sporting the deepest shade of green the sin of Envy ever produced, but I had to be cool. “That’s pretty neat, Fireball,” I drawled.

“Ain’t it the bitchin’est thing you ever saw?” He held it out, offering to let me hold it. I ran my hand over its surface. There wasn’t a scratch on it. It was brand new. There was nothing wrong with this one. I handed it back and he grinned with the damnedest look on his face. Ever see a little boy cradle a baby in his arms or maybe a puppy?

“Where’d you get the gun, Fireball? I asked. “Did your mom buy it for you? Is it your birthday?”

His grin got bigger. He shook his head no like little boys do, their whole body in motion. “I can’t tell you, Jim. I promised I wouldn’t and I won’t, okay?”

I gave his shoulder a pat. “That’s okay, Fireball. You should keep your promises. Keep practicing and when you get better we’ll let you in on the BB gun fights. We’re gonna have some good ones soon as everybody has their guns.”

Fireball took his rifle back. “Aw, they won’t let me. They all think I’m a shrimp, but I ain’t so little.”

I put my hand on his boney shoulder. “Listen. If I tell the guys you’re in? Well, you’re in, little buddy, but you got to promise not to tell your sisters or brothers. If they tell your mom, she’ll blab to our moms. You know what’ll happen then, right?”

He looked at me, his eyes all big and solemn. “If you tell the guys I can play, I swear. I won’t tell nobody nothing.”

I stuck my nose in his face. “You’re gonna get shot a few times. You get hurt you gotta promise you’ll tell your mom it was an accident. Nothing about BB gun fights. Promise?”

Fireball shook his head yes like little boys do, his whole body in motion. Then he cocked his head. ” Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said.

“You ever write a letter to your horse?”

I started to laugh, but realized he was serious. “Hey, come on Fireball, you know horses can’t read letters.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. Fireball leaned the Daisy against the splintered two by fours holding that flimsy garage together. It was hard not to grab the BB gun and rub it against my Levis to get the dirt off.

He picked at his dirty fingernails. “I really wanted to ask you something else about the farm. Is it okay?”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“What did you have to do to earn a horse?”

I was surprised by the question. Fireball didn’t strike me as someone who did a lot of thinking. I wondered if I was underestimating the little guy.

“I did all kinds of stuff,” I said and kicked at a dirt clod, one of many that pockmarked the garage floor. “I helped fix fences. I killed chickens for dinner. I helped slaughter pigs at harvest time. Let’s see. I plowed once, drove a tractor and disked a field. All kinds of stuff, why?”

“Ah, I just wondered is all. I’ve never been on a farm. I didn’t know what you do there.” Fireball’s face brightened and he pulled at my arm. “Hey Jim, Sharon’s in the bathtub. Wanna do a peekie?” He giggled, his toothless lower jaw jutting forward. He looked like a baby about to scream in delight.

~ ()()()() ~

Three

The Simple Request

Summer – 1952

Over the next few weeks I played best buddy and big brother to Fireball. I was able to wheedle the Daisy BB gun secret out of him. The gun the little guy had was brand new and I had a hunch where it came from, but it was fun to know for sure. Don Morrison buying a new Daisy repeater for Fireball would’ve been a juicy tidbit to pass around. Stature increased in direct proportion to the nature and amount of hot neighborhood gossip a guy possessed. I was sorely tempted at times, but I kept Fireball’s confidence and respected Don Morrison’s secret. I don’t know why I did, I had a selfish streak in those days. I was desperate to prove how strong, tough, and hip I’d become…how Kingfish-like.

Morrison delivered the Daisy of my dreams a few days later, “like new” almost. It had one small dent and a scratch I hardly noticed. I spent the rest of the afternoon shooting in my backyard. I learned the air rifle had one major flaw. The dent had damaged the air chamber. At random times air pressure would fail. I stomped in the house that night disgusted with my bad luck, but Morrison had warned us about flawed merchandise. No buyer’s remorse. No returns. No refunds. I remember closing my bedroom door, throwing the Daisy on the bed and crying like a child in frustration.

The next morning I sat at the breakfast table one sullen camper. Dad was long gone to work and mom didn’t pay attention to my attitudes. Mom and I didn’t get along too well and most mornings I got out of the house as soon as I could. I had no doubt she was as relieved as me when I disappeared after breakfast.

That morning, I rinsed my cereal bowl in the sink and someone rapped on the backdoor. Through the blinds I could see Fireball standing on the back porch. My black mood was still there when I opened the door. “What do you want?” I said giving him a nasty glare.

Fireball backed away. “Hi Jim,” he smiled and rubbed at his nose. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Geez,” I said and heaved a big sigh. I pulled the door closed and followed him down the steps. “What do you want, Fireball? Shit, I ain’t even awake yet.”

He looked down at his bare feet and mumbled something.

“What did you say?” I swatted at his shoulder and he backed away.

“My mom wants to talk to you,” he said. His eyes were still on his dirty feet.

I watched his facial expressions and mentally paged through the last couple of days. I stepped closer to him and said, “I didn’t do nothing.”

Fireball brought both hands up to his head and scrubbed his buzz cut, giving the stiff bristles a Dutch rub. “She ain’t mad at you. It’s… See, I told her you could help, you know? You’re my best friend and I told her you’d know what to do.”

My chest swelled up and so did my head. My black mood vanished, but I stalled, I didn’t want to appear eager and fall all over the compliment. I rubbed the back of my neck and paced a little. I finally sat on the porch step and leaned on my knees as if in deep thought. “Okay. What’s up?” I said.

Fireball grinned before saying, “You gotta see. Can you come over? I don’t mean right now if you can’t, you know? Later, maybe? Okay?”

I stood up. “I got a few things to do,” I said all business, “I’ll be over later.”

The old Fireball smile split his face. “Thanks, Jim. Thanks. I’ll tell mom… You going to come right now?”

I frowned and Fireball turned and ran across the street. I finished up in the kitchen and then fooled around in the bathroom until mom started getting suspicious. I messed around my bedroom for a few minutes, I even straightened my bed. When mom saw what I did it would shock the hell out of her. I couldn’t think of any other reasons to stay in the house so I went out the door yelling, “I’ll be outside.”

I took my time crossing the street. Fireball had left the gate open and I could hear their dog, Lucy, barking somewhere in the house. I walked around to the back door and knocked. Lucy barked louder and then I heard a commotion. The ruckus was followed by Fireball busting through the kitchen with Butch, Ronnie and Brenda trailing along behind. The only member of the family missing was Sharon, Fireball’s older sister.

He pulled me inside, the screen door banging shut behind me. The kids all stared at me. Brenda’s mouth sagged open her finger hooked over her lower teeth. Her tongue flicked back and forth over a dirty fingernail. Fireball cranked his arm in the air calling, “In here. This way, Jim, in here.”

I was three steps into the kitchen when Mrs. Schmidt appeared in a doorway to my left. Her right eye was squinted shut against the curling smoke of a cigarette. She cradled an old, rolled up towel against her left breast. She waved her hand at the children. “You kids get in the living room. Go on. Clean up that damn room. Hurry up.”

All four Schmidt siblings turned and scampered away. Grace Schmidt focused her attention on me. “Jim, you seen Lucy’s litter yet?”

I shook my head. “No ma’am I haven’t,” I said. “Fireball said you wanted to talk to me.”

She drew hard on the cigarette and held the smoke for a long time before it flowed in twin streams from her nostrils. I was mesmerized, I couldn’t remember seeing anyone smoke like that before. Her hoarse, phlegmy voice got my attention. “He said that, did he?” Her grin was more of a scowl.

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

Her hair was wrapped in its usual kerchief. This one green with little yellow flowers all over it. She jerked her head in the direction of the room behind her. “Come here,” she said, turned and disappeared through the doorway. My mouth went dry and my heart was thumping and jumping like crazy. I don’t know what I expected, but whatever waited on the backside of that doorway made me nervous. Despite my fear, I obeyed and crossed the room. Mrs. Schmidt was standing in her service porch next to a big box. Lucy, the Schmidt’s mixed breed bitch, lay in a bundle of old rags suckling five pups. The room stank of wet dog fur and canine birthing.

Mrs. Schmidt dropped a fold from the old towel in the crook of her arm. A scrawny pup lay feet up, its head lolling off to one side. It let out a squeak, its stumpy legs pawing at the air, once or twice. Lucy barked and started to get up, but Mrs. Schmidt shouted, “Stay.”

Lucy settled back down with a growl.

The pup squealed again. Its little ribs stood out, straining against a hairless hide. The pup’s eyes were closed, but bulged from the tiny skull like two peas in a dry pod. Lucy barked some more and Fireball’s mom dropped her cigarette on the cracked cement floor. That broke the spell and I looked at Mrs. Schmidt’s stern face.

“Well, can you do something or not?” She said staring at me as if I knew what she wanted.

My face must have telegraphed incomprehension. Mrs. Schmidt coughed, her frustration obvious in the sound of her voice. “Jesus Christ. Larry didn’t say a word to you, did he?”

I shrugged. “He said you wanted to talk to me, that’s it.”

Mrs. Schmidt stared for a beat at the pup and then covered it with the fold of the towel. “Larry told me you were raised on a farm. That you know all about sick animals.”

My eyes must have bugged out of my head. “What?” I said, my disbelieving voice soft. I felt like finding Fireball and giving him a smack.

She shook her head. “Damn kid lied to me, I had a hunch, damnit.” She rapped her knuckles against her forehead. The cigarette hanging from her mouth lost its ash on her housedress and she brushed at the embers.

I was scared. I didn’t want Mrs. Schmidt to start yelling. I didn’t know how this could be my fault, but it had to be. I must’ve messed up or answered wrong or done something, I was sure. Mom was never bashful about telling me I couldn’t do anything right. I reached out and touched her arm. “Fireball didn’t lie, Mrs. Schmidt. I wasn’t raised on a farm, but we lived near two of my uncles in Iowa. They both had farms and I spent a lot of time with them.”

She looked at me. Her face had a high cheekbone hard look with sunken skin and a small, square chin, deeply lined. I’d never noticed her bright, cornflower blue eyes before, but they were easy to miss, their brilliance effectively hidden by deep eye sockets and the shadow of her brow. Fireball’s mom had the hollow look of the Okie’s who fled the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

“So,” she said. “You can take care of this? You’ve put down animals on your uncle’s farm, right?”

I didn’t know what she was asking. I was scared and I knew my voice was going to come out weak. I looked over my shoulder to make sure Fireball hadn’t slipped up behind us.

“Mrs. Schmidt,” my voice trembled, “I don’t know what you mean. I’m only fourteen. I…”

The woman I made fun of and thought of as a witch seemed to shrink before my eyes. The look on her face scared me. I remember thinking, that’s what defeat looks like. The tiny pup in her arm squeaked and then bawled. Her eyes glittered with moisture.”Lucy will kill this pup if I put it back with the rest. It’s weak, been so since it got born. It couldn’t get around the other pups to feed. Now it’s sickly and Lucy won’t let it suckle. She’ll kill it and eat it if I let her.”

I looked at the dog and her litter. I felt cold all over. I’d never heard of such a thing. “Your dog will eat its own puppy?” Thinking back I must’ve sounded stupid as well as incredulous to Mrs. Schmidt.

She reached for the cigarettes in the pocket of her housedress. “Jesus Christ, boy. You lied didn’t you? You didn’t kill nothing on those farms, did you? Your uncles didn’t teach you nothing on those farms, did they?”

She mumbled to herself and walked in a tight circle. When she stopped, she looked me in the face but her sunken eyes were now filled with merciless pity. “Animals kill their weak and eat them. If they don’t the predators will. This pup is suffering and it’s going to die.” To this day, I’ve yet to hear a voice as flat or cold as the one she used that day.

She looked down then, seeming to deflate. Her shoulders quivered and her flat, cold voice went soft. “I can’t kill it. When Larry said you grew up on a farm, I thought maybe you could…”

She shook her head and her voice trailed off. Mrs. Schmidt’s emotional makeup that day bordered on schizophrenic, although at the time I wouldn’t have known the meaning of the term. Comprehension finally slapped the back of my head. She wanted me to kill the pup. I risked a look at her eyes. I know she saw fear on my face. I was too young to understand the implications of the word desperation, but I saw its definition written on every line marking Grace Schmidt’s lean, weathered cheeks.

I’ve really pulled a good one this time, me and my big, stupid mouth, I thought. Those words kept running back and forth like a chicken will in front of a wire fence.

Big Red Morrison’s face leaped into my mind. He wasn’t that much older than me, but he was the breadwinner in his family. He knew how to stand up and be a man. I had grown tall and big shouldered. I looked like a man, but I wasn’t a man. I acted like some kind of bad-ass big shot, but I lied about the time spent on my uncle’s farms. I lied about helping to kill chickens and pigs. The biggest thing I ever killed was a potato bug. Now I would have to stand up. It was that or never look into a mirror again. Never look into Fireball’s eyes again. Mrs. Schmidt had no one to turn to but me. Yeah, no one to turn to but me. I let that mantra run around in my head a few times. In the silence of my mind I bragged in a vain attempt to build up my shaky confidence.

I took a deep breath. I can do this. I must do this, but how? I’d watched dad kill chickens for Sunday supper by wringing their necks. I could wring its neck, I thought, but dismissed that idea when the visual image made my skin crawl. I could drown it, all I needed was a bucket of water. Simple. I felt like grinning. Then, a picture of the blind pup struggling, sinking, choking on water, filled my mind. My stomach lurched and I ruled that one out.

Mrs. Schmidt struggled to hold the pup and light her cigarette. I was running out of ideas. I took the packet of matches from her hand and struck a light for her cigarette. In that brief span of time my quick, brilliant mind formulated a solution. I was amazed I hadn’t thought of it sooner. I’d shoot it.

***

Fireball’s mom met me behind the garage fifteen minutes later. It took me that long to run home and load my Daisy full of BB’s. Two shots at most would do the trick, I figured. The pup would be dead, quick and clean.

I met her in the high weeds on the side of the garage away from the house. She laid the pup in a small area clear of the tallest weeds. She left it on the old towel and backed away. “You don’t have to do this, Jim,” she said. “I shouldn’t have asked you. Maybe you’d better go on home.”

I looked at the helpless little pup. Its sparse white coat had the beginnings of little black spots. It lay on its back, tiny legs flailing at the air. It tried to cry, but its mouth only produced a tiny squeak. I swallowed something about the size of a pillow. “It’s okay, Mrs. Schmidt, I can take care of this.” I gave her what I thought might be a confident smile. “You can go in the house if you want.” My voice shook like it did after a winter night’s visit to the outhouse in Guttenberg.

BB gun poised, it dawned on me I was about to do something irrevocable. This was foolish, a stupid mistake driven by nothing but ego. Myself proclaimed brilliance was a foul taste at the back of my throat. I felt cold and shaky. Could I shoot and kill. Could I? I couldn’t chicken out, not now. Once, twice and it’s over, I told myself. I’ll be a man, I told myself. I can do this, I lied to myself and I pulled the trigger.

I had aimed for the chest, a heart shot, but I flinched. The first BB hit the pup in the throat. It cried out and kicked with renewed strength. I levered another BB into the air chamber and shot again. This time I hit the mark. The pup jerked. A small bubble of blood turned into a rivulet and stained the pup’s short, white hair. It wreathed, twisting it’s little body in pain. I imagined I could feel the agony of the animal. Its mouth opened and closed as if in silent pleas for mercy, but I was merciless.

I levered for another shot and the Daisy chose that moment to lose air pressure. The BB bounced off the pup and disappeared in the weeds. Tears blurred my vision. I tried again, but the damn gun wouldn’t fire. I raised the stock, but I knew one strike would break it. Without any conscious thought I stepped forward and stomped on the pup’s head. I heard and felt the cranial bones burst under the sole of my sneaker. I let out a howl, the sound of which I’m not likely to forget and ran for home.

Several weeks passed before I could again sleep through the night without nightmares. A lot about me changed after that day in 1952. My personality changed and I found myself seeking out a different group of “friends.”

Don Morrison and I drifted away from each other and I began to hang around with some bad guys I thought of as cool. After all I was a killer, right? Quentin and Donny Van Franken steered clear of me for a while and so did most of my other friends in the neighborhood. Fireball on the other hand looked up to me like I was some kind of James Dean, like the anti-hero character he played in the film, Rebel Without a Cause. Fireball might’ve seen himself as my sidekick, my Sal Mineo, who knows? When I felt like being in a good mood, I let Fireball hang around. I used him as a gofer, but I treated him okay and didn’t pull any shit on him. I was Mr. Big Hearted Guy, a legend in my own fantasy world.

~ ()()()() ~

Four

Over My Shoulder From South Carolina

The metamorphosis from boy to man, girl to woman is not completed by a progression of years. Growth, coupled with the maturity of the body, does not necessarily accomplish maturity of the mind as well. I believe the lessons we learn in childhood become guideposts as we mature. The need to adapt to new places, playmates, friends and environments inured my personality. Ego driven braggadocio will birth a willingness to lie. Lying to enhance a position with others will lead to the inevitable: Put up or shut up.

The murder perpetrated on the Schmidt’s defenseless pup played an important role in my life. I learned a great deal from the experience and eventually took several giants strides forward on the road to manhood. I learned life, weak or strong, is precious and should be preserved if possible. I learned lying to friends and those you love will only lead to more lies until all is lost.

I learned that becoming a man or woman is a lifelong task. It is a labor of love and hate and lust and lies and disappointments and failure and on and on. Nineteen-forty-nine is a heaven of wonderful memories that included a new permanent home for my family, new friends and new adventures for me. Nineteen-fifty-two saw my sel absorption and thoughtless bravado lead me into Hell. I survived that first visit and vowed I would never return.

Though many years have passed, my memories of that time and that act remain vivid. Crushing that poor pup’s head, however, pales in the face of other images. In the Technicolor nightscape that plagues my dreams, I envision the spotted pup. I see his silent screams. I see the tiny holes created by the BBs. I see the pellets bounce on the pup’s bloodstained coat. Over and over the BBs rebound and roll away. Over and over the shiny copper winks in the sunlight before disappearing into the blood soaked grass. The spotted pup’s paws flail the air as its silent mouth cries. The pup screams in agony, so much agony that God in His Heaven surely must have winced.

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