the iron streets
a short story i wrote in 2003. this was intended to be part of a project that was never completed.
life in 1980 rural east texas wasn't easy if you were a 2nd grader. especially if you were from out of town.
the iron streets
The red, rusty roughness of the re-bar gripped my flesh as I squeezed down on it. Gary glanced at me, and nodded up the hill through the saplings and briars. “I saw him go 'round to the other side just a minute ago,” he told me. Eagerly, he gripped the machete and crept up the small slope quietly while I quietly brushed aside the swarming mosquitoes.
“I'll, umm, cover you back here.”
Gary glanced back at me with a harsh glare and a dirty finger over his lips, and I didn't say anything else. I followed, and we climbed over the top of the mound, down to the other side. There, pissing in the algae-choked pond, stood somebody we'd never seen before. I wasn't sure what to do next, but didn't have to wait long – Gary did something for me.
“Hey KID!” he shouted.
The poor kid wasn't much more than a year younger than us, maybe eight or nine years old. At the shout, he jumped, grabbing at his zipper with one hand and trying to balance himself on the muddy bank with the other. It was no use – startled, he lost his footing on the wet clay, falling, grabbing, into the brown-green water, sliding beneath the clumps of algae leaving a trail of mud on the bank, gasping and splashing.
Gary stood and stared, and I started toward the water, but held out his arm to block me. “Wait,” he said. A long moment passed and I thought about ignoring him. The kid was in only a few feet of water, this was ridiculous. But finally a hand managed to find its way onto a sturdy chinese tallow sapling hanging down low, and he pulled himself back up out of the water.
Without even looking our way, the kid scrambled away down the bank and then over the dirt mound enclosing the old drilling-mud pond, and Gary screamed warnings after him to never set foot on our turf again!
I looked Gary in his red, freckled face and mustered my courage. “I'm going home,” I muttered, and turned and walked out of the briars, onto the rutted iron-ore road, kicking up red dust with my boots, twirling the re-bar in my hand, and tried to forget about it all before I made the long march down our muddy driveway.
The heat at home was more oppressive than the humid mosquito-laden thickets across which dominated our “neighborhood”. The only AC in the metal-roofed 4-bedroom house was in Mom's room, and she had several thick layers of blankets and quilts hanging by 10-penny nails to make sure it didn't get out into the rest of the house. White, smoke-stained, curtains did little to filter out the mid-August sun which sent temperatures broiling in southeast Texas every summer. I couldn't wait until November or December, when the weather would finally break for good and the mosquitoes would disappear for another few months. It was worth the death of all that was green, and the endless grey that would blanket everything, just for that reprieve.
In a blast of cool air, Mom came out of her room, leaving the quilts swinging between the twin worlds of hot and cold. She was wearing new jeans and a light blouse with shoulder-pads and ruffles, so I wasn't surprised when she told me to put my shoes on, we were going somewhere.
“But, I'm watching a show!”
A look of careless indifference. It wasn't worth it. It didn't matter to her what I was doing. It never mattered as long as the chores got done first, I didn't argue with her when she told me something, and I didn't cuss where she could hear it.
One muddy pair of boots later, we were in the station wagon. I sat in the seat with my face up toward the dash so the AC was blowing my hair back like I was in a convertible, and the Dodge flew over the potholes and bumps. My mother's strategy to make dirt roads feel smooth was to drive fast enough that you just bounced over everything instead of taking the time to savor each jolt individually.
She turned left at the end of the road, not right which led toward the highway, and I asked her where we were going down there.
“Going to get some milk from Harriett Bly. She bought a cow a while back and now has more milk than she can handle, so she's giving us some. Want to make cheese?”
I sighed. Harriet was Mom's new friend from up north somewhere. Her husband drove a Frito-Lay truck, and rear ended my mother's old station wagon coming home from work late one night. That's how we got the new station wagon, and how my mother became friends with a yankee. I'd never been to their house.
Then, my stomach turned as I thought of homemade cheese. If it was anything like the homemade root beer my dad had made from a recipe in the back of Mother Earth News or the homemade bread Mom kept trying to make, then I didn't want any of it. But then, there was the fact she could make really good cheesecake. If she could make cheesecake, then she could probably make cheese, I decided.
Harriet lived, it turns out, in a brown double-wide trailer at the very end of the road near the bayou. We got out of the station wagon and walked up through knee-deep weeds to the front door, and Ms. Bly came out to greet us, apologizing about the sorry state of the yard. She'd insisted when I met her the first time at our house the week before that I must call her Ms. Bly, never Harriet. She was strange in lots of ways like that.
The living room of the trailer was ice cold, and a large wood shelving unit held a 23” TV in the corner. I sat down and began to watch Dukes of Hazzard which was already going, and Harriet called out down the hall “Aaron, get out here and be sociable! Rita's son ... Daniel ... is here.”
I didn't realize Harriet had any kids – she didn't seem the type, and the house living room looked way too neat. I stood up and started down the hall when the kid came out of a side room. I halted in my tracks and looked at him wide-eyed, waiting for a scream of accusation to pierce the air. He was clean now, but still his hair was still wet from the bath he'd surely had to take.
He stared at me as if he'd never seen me before, waiting for me to say something. Finally he opened his mouth: “You shy or something?” Every word sounded it, incriminated him as I already knew it. Yankee. The kid was a yank. I leaned around and looked in his room. Chicago Bears and Detroit Tigers posters.
“No, sorry... I ... I was just thinking about the TV show still and you surprised me,” I lied.
He looked into the living room, and smiled as he saw what was on. “That's fine. Let's go into my room and watch it. My mother doesn't like allow me or my sister to play in the living room.” He smiled and ran into his room, bouncing onto the bed, and I walked into the Sears Wish-Book. In his room was every toy imaginable. Hot wheels, train set, racing cars and tracks, and Star Wars action figures. Even a Millennium Falcon, carefully hung from the ceiling.
I found my way through toys and a stuffed Tigger to a chair and watched the rest of the show with him, and we began talking about Star Wars while he showed me all his miniatures, then went out to the tree-house his dad built in the back yard where we played poker with acorns. By dusk, when Mom finally came out and got me, I barely even noticed how his seemingly careful and altogether strange accent made my own natural voice seem somehow uneducated and wrong. I smiled and waved, said we'd talk again later.
People seemed to be moving in all over the place now. Gary had moved in the year before from Houston, bringing with him city ways but becoming country in no time. Now there was Aaron, the boy I first saw pissing in a pond, who fortunately didn't see me before he ran way from Gary's threats. On the bus the first day of school, it seemed like every other stop someone else new got on. Gary told me on the bus about how his dad lost his job to yankees and wetbacks, so they were going to have to move again soon, back to Houston. I thought about how he had tried to bring his city-slicker ways to our woods and prairies with his failed attempt to start a gang to protect our “block” that summer.
It seemed like I was the only one on the bus that had actually lived here my entire life. I knew these woods down by the bayou, knew the prairies miles away where the school sat in the midst of ranches and pasture land. None of these people did, but here they all were now, outnumbering those of us born to be country boys. The ride on the bus seemed eerily quiet as my half considered the other half. It had happened the year before too, and the year before that, but not as many. Of the ones from the last year and before, some had been accepted and others had not. One girl, who had no mother we were told, left during the middle of the day during the third week of classes during first grade. Her father was yelling and shouting about lawsuits and sending her to private school, and the kids in the office who told everyone later laughed at his New York Yankee sound. We never saw Fannie again. I guess her father sent her to private school, or they moved away again. Aaron wasn't on the bus, and I was glad for that. I didn't want him to see that I was with Gary, who had threatened him so loudly that day that he didn't even have time to see who else was there. I was afraid he might recognize me then too.
Aaron was at school though. I saw him at lunch, waving at me from Ms. Dixon's class' table, and I waved back from the lunch line.
“Who ya wavin’ at Danny?”
I shrugged Gary's question away, and gave the cashier my free lunch card to be punched, and took my tray to Mrs. Johnson's table, and tried to pay attention to Louis' excited discovery of a new show on Channel 2. Punky something.
When we went out to the playground, I stayed next to Coach. He always liked to talk to me anyway, kept calling me “Brain”. I watched the girls drawing hopscotch squares on the sidewalk with limestone chalk, and the fat boy from Cleveland trying to see-saw with the skinny girl that never said anything. Coach was talking to me about the different kind of clouds in the sky – cumulonimbus, stratus, and wondering at how I knew about them all. I told him I read about them, and knowing me, he wasn't surprised. Then an excited voice that I recognized called my name the edge of the playground.
Aaron was waving madly at me, trying to get my attention. I sighed and waved back to Coach as I ran to see.
“You've got to see this,” Aaron said, pulling my arm, leading me beside the transformer station at the back of the school.
I asked him what had him so excited that he'd found, but he never got a chance to answer. As he pulled me past the station, a large body flew in front of me from nowhere, blindsiding him and slamming both to the ground as his hand let go of mine.
Jack had him pinned now, and looked up at me with still eyes, then back behind the transformer station. Gary grabbed Aaron and hauled him behind the chain-link camouflage, out of view of the gossiping teachers.
Gary looked at me calmly and asked, “You gonna stand there, or you gonna come in here and help us beat up this Yankee so he knows not to ever come here again?” I sighed and glanced back to the playground, where Coach was now chatting with another teacher I didn't know, and nobody had seemed to notice us. I started to step behind station, and Jack threw the first blow, a hard right punch right into Aaron's balls.
I stopped. Something snapped in me now. Jack, who'd been my friend since Kindergarten. Gary who I'd made friends with last year. They weren't my friends anymore. I couldn't do it – I couldn't. Jack and Gary and me, we were all tough, built out of steel, and could handle anything. Aaron was none of that. He was a thin boy who had nothing but nice things to say about anybody and no way to defend himself. I couldn't.
“No,” I said. “No, you can't. I'll tell Coach!”
I wasn't ready for that moment – didn't expect it. Gary dropped Aaron like a rock, and was on me, and Jack was smiling and cracking his knuckles. I held my own for a moment, with Gary's arms grappling my shoulders, but I didn't even get a single hit before Jack was on me too, and they were pulling me to the ground, punching me in the stomach, and then Jack went for the balls, his trademark move, and I was in agony. I kicked at them, but Jack had my legs and Gary had my arms, and the kicks and blows were coming from all directions. I could feel warmth running across my face and the tangy sweetness of blood dripping into my mouth, but I did not cry. I pushed back, and got my first blow into Gary's arm, but I barely slowed him down before he was on me with a new vengeance. Then I faintly heard Aaron's shrill voice, thick with fear, screaming for help, and he began trying to pull on Jack' shirt, but was kicked away like a horse swats a fly.
I was sure it was over then, when Coach finally came up and pulled us apart, the other teacher he'd been talking to frantic, unsure what she should do, and the kids running from every direction still yelling “Fight! Fight!” in the sing-song schoolyard cheery voice, and I sitting there, holding my white shirt to my nose, trying to stop the flow of blood, and Coach holding Jack in one hand and Gary in the other.
The other teacher finally found her nerve, and shrieked “All three of you! Office! Now!” Neither she nor coach had even noticed Aaron, trying to hide behind the transformer station, his own face wet and dirt plastered.
It was, of course, somehow my fault, when it came down to it. Jack and Gary both told the Principal that I was calling them names, then that I hit them and wouldn't stop, no matter what they tried. Coach was busy watching the 5th graders, and the teacher who'd sent us to the office was too terrified to have even cared what was really happening. It was two-to-one, and the principal told me he was sure they hadn't just attacked me for no good reason. So I took the pops.