Low Boy

‘Twas barely dawn, sunup still hazy behind them gray wispy mists laced ‘cross the river bottoms.  Still, we was at least two awake at this hour, me rubbin’ sleep from my eyes and out to the kitchen, somebody fixin’ to make the family breakfast.  Like as not, Mama.  Doubtful it’d be Livie or Luce, them two big sisters o’ mine.  Wakin’ them before they was ready was like wakin’ the dead.  Besides, they needed all the beauty sleep they could get.  I give you my word on that.

My senses was wakin’ up, though, hearin’ butter jumpin’ and buzzin’ in the cast ‘arn skillet, my mouth a’waterin’,  the aroma smellin’ tangy and sharp.  Mmmmmm mmmmm!  Mornin’ meal begun with nearly anything fried up golden in that black ol’ skillet was so delectable it made you want to reach up and slap your mama!

That there?  That’d be a colloquialism, according to Miss Meadow, my teacher down to the community school for the last, what, six er’ seven years.  Practically growed up together, her and us county kids, she bein’ nearly a child her ownself when she come to teach us.  I’m just turned twelve now, but I have a clear recollection her being only just bigger’n me when she come, and nearly as fearful.  She’s gotten over that, I tell you what!  Not only can she handle them big boys what used to smart off in the back of the class (all eight grades of us landed in the same room, marched height-wise and grade-wise, smallest to largest, front of the classroom to the back.  We saved the smelly, moldy basement for exercise on rainy days.  Seldom did we pray for rain.),  she was teachin’ us new things purtin’ near ever’ day.

“Colloquialism” was in our lessons just last week.   Liked the roll of that word on my tongue.  Colloquialism.  Colloquialism.  Then real fast….colloquialism!

Then on top of that, knowin’ to what it referred made it all the more fun to use.  Reckoned, as I stretched long like a cat under my pile o’ covers, I’d just casual like lay it on ’em at the breakfast table and wake up them sleepyheaded brothers and sisters o’ mine.  I’d show them who was payin’ attention durin’ them long sleepy afternoons when we’d all druther be outside, fishin’ and the like.  Colloquialism!  I allowed myself the most giantest grin I could, near to the point of hurt, right there in the dark where nobody could see and nobody was scared off.

Wudn’t till Miss Meadow that I knew them sayin’s had a name, much less one so tongue-tyin’ and hard to spell.  Miss Meadow, she said it was more the feelin’ behind the sayin’ what held the truth, as opposed to the actual words of the sayin’.   I’d been mullin’ that one over a bit, makin’ a mental list of all them proverbs (that’d be what Grandpap sometimes called ’em, least the nicer ones) I’d spouted and taken for gospel from my younger youth.  They was all colloquialisms, filled with meanin’ and feelin’, but perhaps not action.  I nodded into my pillow.  Miss Meadow was on the right side of this one.

Because, truth be told, and not just in MY house, you slap your mama, under ANY circumstances, you best pack your gear and hightail it down the road right now.   Folks with pitchforks and shotguns’d be takin’ after you ninety to nothin’, lookin’ to put your head on a platter!   Disrespectin’ family was a shameful sin, ever’body knew that, but disrespectin’ your mama was a one way ticket to the Lake of Fire.  Wudn’t no recoverin’ from everlastin’ and eternal damnation.  I personally didn’t know of anybody, not even town roughnecks  Clive Saxon or Butch Ebersol, could conjure up that much evil in their souls.

Now “damnation?”  That’d be a word only allowed by Pastor Mills down to the Unified Gospel Assembly of Christ and Disciples down to town.  I feared even thinkin’ it in its complete and dreadful and ever so desirable form would count against me in Heaven.

Still, damnation….damnation….damnation!

But I digress.

A loud grumble in my tummy was starvin’ for attention.  I hunkered down for just one more cozy snuggle, rubbin’ my nose and face deep into the fluffy pile.  Like as not, we was havin’ scrambled eggs and cheese, a rasher of thick bacon, homemade huckleberry jam and biscuits, same as nearly ever’ other mornin’.  Fine by me.  Anything sizzlin’ in that heavy worn skillet harkened to fried up somethin’ er’ other, crunchy and golden delicious,  and not a big ol’ pot of gray lumpy oatmeal eat with a spoon.

Fine by me.

Now, it wudn’t the spoon so much, although I struggled to think of anything worth eatin’ with a spoon.  No, there just wudn’t nothin’ I’d laid ‘hold of yet could improve the taste of oatmeal.  To look at it, there was nothin’ appetizin’ about it neither, no color, no temptin’ tidbits pokin’ up here and there, no nothin’.    Just a sticky, pasty gelatinous mess.

Gelatinous.  Gelatinous.  Gelatinous!

Why, that pile o’ glop even tasted gray.  Nasty stuff useful for plinkin’ logs together maybe, but certainly not for sustainin’ me until the midday meal, called Dinner on Sundays.  Tried me cinnamon and sugar, tried me more’n my share of butter, tried me Aunt Eululia’s darkest sorghum, still tasted of paste.  Gray paste.

As a younger youngster, I’d pondered it just might be the color what stiffened my back,  or the lack thereof, rather than the paste taste.  Feelin’ experimental one day,  I sneaked me out some of Mama’s Easter Egg colorin’, green, and poured in a teaspoonful,  stirred it up right good, too. Didn’t look half bad.  Nor half good neither.

When it was all said and done, all that got me was green teeth for a month o’ Sundays.  Still tasted of gray, no two ways about it.

No gray today, I reckoned, countin’ my blessin’s.    The wifts and wafts ticklin’ my nose and fillin’ up the room me and my brothers’ shared for sleepin’ boded well for me.  It shore did give me the gumption to at last slide outta my warm bed, out the side to save straightenin’ the covers,  and face the day set before me.

That was when the happy fog lifted and the course of my day laid itself out before me.  I let loose with a loud sigh.  Louder than I expected, as it ‘peared to rouse both Lincoln and Lawrence.

Breakfast waitin’ on the table, oozin’ butter on freshmade biscuits and melty cheese on my eggs, not to mention my six pieces of extra crisped up bacon (seven if I was quick and underhanded) might bode well for me, but the day waitin’ out there like a heavy tornado cloud swirlin’ with evil intent,  it did not bode so well.

Today was the last day of the term.  Speech and Debate Day.  Purty banners and streamers and flowers made of paper.  County kids dressed up to who laid a chunk, hair greased and slicked or curled and twirled.   Never too much an issue before this, before I turned twelve.  Sayin’ little memorized pieces whilst Miss Meadow or even Mr. Darnmuller the principal smiled and nodded encouragin’ly  from the front row (whilst they sat in them baby chairs, knees nearly to their chins.  No that didn’t never get old!), them days was a piece o’ cake compared to this day.

For this day, THIS day, I was twelve and promoted.  Promoted to the Debate part of the equation!  Promoted to debatin’ the likes of Millicent Maidenfern, the fourteen year old wonder kid who could do no wrong, who had a voice of an angel, the creamy countenance of a beauty queen,  and the brains of a professor or a state senator even,  and whose whole life was dedicated to goin’ to Teacher’s College up to Omaha.  Imagine.  College.

And to whom I was wholeheartedly and ever so painfully devoted.

To the point of loosin’ my dinner ever’ time she looked my way.

This may indeed be my last meal.  Glad it’s not oatmeal.

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High Boy

Weren’t but only five of us youngin’s then. The big boys, Lincoln and Lawrence, they was first, and nearly twins at 10 months between ’em. Next was the big girls, Livie and Luce, ‘couple years on. They at least have one whole year betwixt them, and trust me, they like it thataway. No love lost between them two, always bickerin’ and bitin’. Girls can be frightenin’. And confoundin’.

I’ll save that story except to say it ain’t gotten better over time.

Still, with Mama and Daddy, it was an even up household, two by two, Noah’s ark-like. Not countin’ Grandpap. We didn’t never count Grandpap on account he was like the king top dog of us all. He got special consideration, and first pickin’s of the fried chicken come dinner time. It wasn’t like he didn’t count. ‘Twas more like he counted in his own special column, full on total, no debits or takeaways. A gray-whiskered savings account, written in ink, no withdrawals, just accruals.

‘Course, then I come along. Upsettin’ the applecart, as it were.

In fairness, how was I to know I’d be the odd man out? But them others, barely old enough to count themselves they was circlin’ me from the moment ol’ Doc Smoot smacked my be-hind and I let out a bloody wail. Them others, Luce only a year, looked at me sideways and up and down, not knowin’ what to make of this bran’ pankin’ new baby boy.

Without meanin’ to, and I fear I may be too kind, they chose up sides. Them on the one, itty bitty baby me on the other.

And Mama? She loved me best. That was and still continues to be my salvation. And often my downfall.

Namin’ me Liam against Daddy’s wishes to label me “Lester,” Mama bestowed on me her first gift, callin’ me after her beloved and now deceased bless his everlastin’ soul pap, Theodore Liam McVay. That made me purtin’ near untouchable, seein’ as I represented his hallowed and revered memory.

Mama said I had his clear blue eyes and regal and royal forehead.

Never have sorted that out to my satisfaction.

Now, “untouchable” did not mean I wudn’t never poked or punched or pinched or spit upon or sat upon. It also didn’t mean I didn’t get the blame and the stink eye and the heel of the loaf of the bread. What it did mean was none of this happened when Mama was within’ spittin’ distance. Day one and forward, she was my most valuable ally and my most dangerous detriment. I learned early to do my most orneriest mischief with Mama nearby, savin’ me the retaliation I was often due. Or at least posponin’ it. Threats often did turn into painful reality, but weighin’ the cost of a right proper comeupance versus the joy of Mama’s eye a’watchin’ over me whilst I did the Devil’s work, I’ll admit to errin’ on the side of hellfire and brimstone.

Truth be told, I have never been a real Mama’s boy. She’d tan my hide like the rest of ’em if I told me a lie or throwed me a rock at them pesky chickens or took me a cookie before it was offered proper. I bore responsibility for my misbehavin’ like the others. It was the squishy misty lovin’ glances Mama’d throw my way when I wudn’t s’posed to be lookin’. She’d be seein’ her pap in me. Them glances was for me alone, and for that, I was grateful.

It took me some time, and some growin’, and some bruises, but before the next batch of brothers and sisters started makin’ themselves known some five years later, I’d took to leadin’ the pack from the rear, gaining if not the respect, then maybe the regard of them older kids. Lincoln and Lawrence mostly just ignored me, and that was fine by me seein’ as their punches and pulls left the meanest marks. And Livie, she was fine but spent most of her time dancin’ her dolls ’round the designs in the quilt on Mama’s bed. Luce, though, she and me become partners in all sorts of adventures. We’d chase lightnin’ bugs, we’d chase the cats, we’d chase the chickens (savin’ me a whoopin’ from throwin’ rocks at the same), we’d chase each other. We thought similar, me and Luce, and finally, finally, I had me someone I could count on what wasn’t checkin’ behind my ears for things growin’ back there. We was two peas in a pod, Luce and me.

Cowboy

Grandpap passed on his dilly dally artistic ways to Daddy.  Daddy ain’t passed ’em all on to me, not yet, but time’ll tell.  Them two would spend hours come evenin’, in the shed back of the barn at the workbench or sittin’ on ol’ sawhorses underneath the gnarly oaks, lanterns and bare bulbs tucked willynilly in the branches for workin’ light, teeny little tools making magic in their hands.  And ever now and then, growin’ up,  they’d give me my own sawhorse and some leather to braid or some holes to punch.   I’d got right good at them parts I did, seldom ever did they ever have to redo my efforts.  And nowadays, I was durned good, takin’ a good deal of the ever day hohum work off their hands.  I didn’t mind.  I was learnin’ the craft along the way.  Felt good to be part of the process, however I got it.

But them two.  They was the masters.  I’ll not deny it.  A slice of leather here, a sparkle of silver there, and come a week or two, a saddle or harness came to bein’, decorated and punched and molded, fit for a king.  Or a rodeo rider.  Folks from all ’round heard tell of their skills, and truth be told, I longed to be jest like them, makin’ beauty from scraps.  Why, some days, they’d turn out belts and buckles by the bushel basket, meant for some parade or show down to the auction barn.

Afternoons when I was sure they was out tending cattle or doin’ chores, I’d sidle into that shed back of the barn, just to breathe in the soft and soothin’ aroma of fresh cut leather, runnin’  my fingertips across the delicately carved decorations.  These pieces was plumb beautiful, like I said, works of art.  When they was done, shore, but even before them hanks o’ leather even knew what they was goin’ to be. Like the sun risin’ up come Saturday.  You’d just know somehow, feelin’ the creamy light gettin’ stronger, something special was bound to come your way.  I’d long purtended these half done saddles and whatnot was for me,  sittin’ pretty whist bustin’ broncs, wrasslin’ calves, or jest wavin’ at the pretty girls along the Main Street drag in town.

But that sort of glory went to my two bigger brothers.  They was rodeo riders, celebrity bound.  Workin’ the farm was left to me.  Home bound.  I knew my place in the family scheme.  Still, a sigh escaped me ever once in a while.

Round about, hangin’ from rusty nails, there was stained leather buckets filled with findin’s, silver bits and bobs and such.   Folks’d gather them up from old pieces they’d come across, deliverin’ them like an offerin’ at church.  Respectful and neighborly, true, but skeptic I am, I sometime’s figured they was hopin’ for special consideration come time they needed some piece done up right.  There was tin cans holdin’ all sorts of shiny tools, some Grandpap’s grandpap’d passed on down the line.  Pride would pop my chest, these just might be comin’ my way one of these days.  Nobody’d said as much, but like other things in my life, what was unsaid out loud was often shouted in the silence.

I’d give my eye teeth to be an artisan, do this kind o’work sun up to sundown.  I learned quick, Granpap and Daddy both said so, lettin’ me hover over their shoulders from when I was just a speck.  Now, nearly a man , close to thirteen years, it was pertin’near time I struck out on my own project.  I just knew I had it in me.

Trouble was, this weren’t the way it worked with Grandpap and Daddy.  See, while they was truly masters of their art…

… and while true, they was teachin’ me, frustratin’ly slow and sure….

…while them things were for surely true, what they wasn’t was businessmen.  Not by a long shot.  Even I know, at my tender manhood years, these was masterpieces they was turnin’ out.  The love and time and skill and sweat and caressin’  and polishin’ and creatin’ what went into each piece made them worth their weight in riches and gold and then some.

What they often got in return was a sad barter of a couple bags of groceries or some scrawny chickens we had to pay to feed and fatten.  Why once, Grandpap even sent me with the old bays to fetch a beat up pickup truck with no engine and only three bald tires he’d gotten for a silver-laden saddle what took three months to ease into elegant perfection.  Nearly bustin’ his buttons, he was so proud, I hadn’t the heart to question his settlement.  Least not so’s anybody could hear.  I was right good at mumblin’ under the covers, though.

And that’s where the skeptic in stepped in, with righteous indignation for whatever slick Willie took Grandpap fer all he was worth.  Daddy was no better, though a furrowed brow often accompanied his latest trade.  I vowed each time I’d made it right somehow, one of these days.

I’m still workin’ on that.

But I’m workin’ harder on learnin’ the art, makin’ my own pieces of perfection, usin’ my own hands to make a thing then usin’ my head to make folks want it so bad Mama didn’t have to repair the holey floor with tin can lids.  (Them things’ the dickens on barefooted feet.)  I wanted folks to pay me so much we youngins never got rousted durin’ the late night hours to quick pack our things and hustle out, leavin’ behind unpaid rent.  I vowed to pour so much care and effort into my craft folks would pay and arm and a leg and I could buy my sisters new shoes ‘stead of them passin’ down them things till the youngest had barely a cardboard ‘tween her and the gravel.

Determination wadn’t all it would take, I’d no doubt it’d take some ingenuity to get Grandpap and Daddy to ‘low me to set off, but time was tickin’ and I was feelin’ the itch.  My turn was comin’ and I promised my tumblin’insides I’d move this family ahead one day.  Them older brothers of mine, for all the glory they was gleenin’ come rodeo time, they was all about their ownselves.    Proved that over and over, when whatever paltry winnin’s they boasted was busted and gone by the time they reached home sometime the next day or two.

I knew my place in the family order.  That was a fact.

I knew what needed doin’.

I knew I was the one who’d do it.