Paper or Plastic? - A short story.
The front door of my cousin’s house flew open. Tom Letcher came running out wearing nothing more than a paper sack and a pair of tennis shoes. Glancing over at us with a frantic look on his face he waved and ran down the dirt road. Tom stood about 5’ 10” and was skinny as a bean pole. At most he must have weighed 145 pounds wet. He was pasty white except from his elbows down which was darkly tan. Most people would think this sight strange, however when visiting my cousins, this type of behavior was common. As I got out of the car I turned, looking down the road just as Tom disappeared around the corner, running as fast as possible. I noticed that he was wearing an old pair of untied, torn tennis shoes, without any socks. The strings trailed behind him, threatening at any moment to trip him.
Walking up the broken sidewalk to the front door of my cousins’ house, I reached through, what was the frame of a now empty, screen door and knocked. A few moments passed. I could hear activity inside the house, until Billy finally opened the door. He just stood there with a big goofy grin on his face, as if he were waiting for me to ask a question. Billy was in his early twenties with dark hair brown eyes. He was also the only one of my cousins who was part Indian, and due to that fact could never grow facial hair. I had started shaving when I was 13 years old and he held a permanent grudge against me for that. I, on the other hand, envied him not having to nick his face in the morning, using pieces of toilet paper or a styptic pencil to staunch the blood from the cuts. Billy had a twinkle of mischief in his eye as he cocked his head to one side waiting for me.
“Was that Tom who just ran out of here?”
“Was he only wearing a paper bag and tennis shoes?”
It has to be mentioned that my cousins were masters in the art of brevity when it came to answering questions. Years of answering to one form of authority or another, led to this skill. It had saved them from getting into trouble on more than one occasion. There were times that it could also be very aggravating.
“Where are his clothes?”
I stepped back and looked up above the front porch. Sure enough there was a pair of old, faded and slightly torn, blue jeans, a T shirt and two gray socks on the roof.
Billy stepped back from the door and motioned for me to come inside. I stepped into the cool interior looking to my right. Mike, Matt, and Jimmy were all sitting in the living room, on the plastic covered furniture, with big grins on their faces. After a few moments they burst into laughter. Nadine and Marty were sitting at the dining room table both shaking their heads. Marty looked like he was rolling up a batch of cigarettes from his can of tobacco, and Nadine was sewing up a rip in one of the boys shirts.
Uncle Marty was short, partly bald, in his fifties with a pot belly. He was a welder for the railroad and always had the attitude he was right and you were wrong - unless of course you agreed with him. He liked to think he had a good set of standing rules for his house.
The Phone – Not for you to use, unless you can cough up a quarter, because as he says, “These things don’t come free and everyone wants to use it, all the damn time, to talk about a bunch of stupid crap that I don’t care about.”
The Toilet - I’m positive that there existed, back in those days, the original “Brown Water” order of water guardians. “If it’s yellow then it’s mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”. Marty was not 100% convinced that brown was a bad color, considering it as just a darker shade of yellow. If there was a society, Marty would have been the Grand Master.
The Bath – Never, ever, allow yourself the luxury of putting more than 3 to 4 inches of water in the tub. Even if the tub contained myself, Billy and Mike. One wash cloth, a very tiny bar of soap that typically melted away, or fell into smaller chunks, that we wrapped in the cloth and used. If you overfilled the tub, he would come in, stand there for a moment glaring at you, then quickly reach down and pull the plug until the water went down to the correct level. I tried once to explain to him that the damage was done, and if you pull the plug you’re throwing away good water. I was informed that I could have this discussion when I was out of the tub, thus guaranteeing, I would not be welcome to bath there any time soon.
The Bathroom Doorknob – To be honest I don’t remember there ever being one. Toilet paper was stuffed into the hole where the knob should be, to keep out prying eyes while you did your business. Mischievous boys are always drawn to holes that look into forbidden areas.
The telephone stand stood back against the wall as you walked in the front door and turned left to go to the bathroom or kitchen. There was a tiny chair next to the stand so you could sit and talk. Not that Marty looked kindly on you using the phone long enough to have to sit. From the phone it was easy to reach out and yank the toilet paper plug out of the bathroom door. Since there was no knob, the door had no latch; it would spring open. When I needed to use the bathroom, I prayed nobody would call, or be on the phone. Sometimes this resulted in having to switch to plan “B”. That meant going out that back door in the bushes and hoping that Nadine wouldn’t walk into the kitchen, look out her window, and catch me. Unfortunately that happened quite often.
Marty also had some odd ideas when it came to the art of interior decorating. He had developed ways of protecting new things in an effort to keep them looking that way. The first sign of this was when you walked in the front door. There covering the entire living room floor, were dirty, faded and shredded newspaper, several layers deep, covered the entire living room floor. Under the papers was mysterious unseen linoleum. I wasn’t sure what it actually looked like, because I never saw it. My uncle believed that a thick layer of newspapers, over the linoleum would prevent it from getting worn out. I’m positive that he read this in one of the many magazines he was always buying.
If we were watching TV and an expert animal trainer came on and talked about why, and how, elephants used their trunks. Marty would sit at the kitchen table mumbling, “No, that guy’s an idiot. Anybody with any knowledge at all knows that’s not the reason. If he was smart he would tell it the right way, not this crap he’s saying!!”
When Marty finished ranting you would realize that he actually knew nothing about the correct way it was done. His place in life was to complain that he always knew the right way, and everyone else was an idiot, and that was that. I’m not sure how he ever came to that conclusion, but nobody could convince him otherwise.
One year they bought some new furniture, which they promptly covered with plastic, to protect it from wear and tear. On hot, sweaty days, you had to peel yourself loose to stand up. Sunday nights we would go over, huddle around a 13 inch black and white TV, watching “The Ed Sullivan show”. During commercials, when everyone got up, it sounded a bit like a Tupperware party.
Aunt Nadine also in her fifties, with a slight build. She would often stand, or sit, off to one side of the room, biting her fingernails or wringing her hands nervously. She had a strong conviction, that pretty damn near everything, was going to kill her. During lightning storms she would run out, start her car and sit in it until the storm passed. If I left to walk home during a storm, she would roll her window down a crack, and yell, “If you walk home now you could get killed!!”
I always thought if she was that concerned, she could back her running car out of her driveway, and give me a ride. I must also mention that she was never hit by lightning, so maybe she was on to something. Several times she had mental breakdowns and would be gone for weeks. When she came home, frail and nervous, my cousins would make bets on how long it would be until she had to go back. (Where did she go?)
Jimmy was the gear head of the family. He was in his early thirties, and could be found the majority of the time, with his head buried under a car hood. Usually wearing a shirt with the sleeves ripped off, which made it easy to see that he was great physical shape from the constant work he did on cars. Standing six foot two, he was an imposing figure in person. He had an old Camero he dropped a Corvette engine into, and was a card carrying member of “The Gents” auto club. Jimmy lived two houses down from his mom. His car was so fast, when the local sheriff saw him speeding he didn’t bother trying to catch him, he would just wait until he saw the car parked in front of Jimmie’s house, and he’d casually walk over and give him a ticket. The only thing he was better at than fixing cars was fighting. One day while he was trying to tune up his car, Billy came over, trying to get Jimmy to slap box with him. For some reason my cousins loved to slap box. I guess back in those days it was the equivalent to video games, at least to them.
The game typically went like this:
“POW!!” somebody would get one in the jaw.
Jimmy has his hands inside the engine compartment, busy trying to take out some spark plugs. Billy, who was next to the car, kept hopping back and forth saying, “I’m Billy Bun-Skito!! The fastest hands in town!!”
Then he’d jump forward and slap Jimmy’s face, each time a little harder than the last.
“C’mon Jimmy, Let’s slap box!!”
“No, I’m trying to work on my car.”
“C’mon, I’m Billy….”
Jimmy stood, quickly and with one swift punch gave Billy two black eyes, a broken nose, and knocked him out cold. Calmly, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck dragged him to his mom’s house, leaning him up by the front door. Then he walked back to his car and continued working on it. He didn’t see Billy the rest of that day or the next.
Billy had never graduated from high school. He was kicked out twice during his senior year for fighting, and ended up getting drafted and going to Viet Nam. When he returned he filed a disability claim with the VA, claiming that Viet Nam caused his violent tendencies. For this they gave him periodic therapy and a monthly check. Billy and the truth were not often in the same room together.
Mike was my age with brown hair and an average build. He was the prankster of the group. His mom loved to ask him to make sandwiches for Matt when they were younger. Mike would run out back, catch a few juicy grasshoppers and place them into the crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He would always tell Matt he did that after he’d eaten the sandwich. I remember one day as Matt was eating he looked down, quickly ran into the bathroom, and threw up. Looking over I could see the back half of a grasshopper sticking out of his sandwich. The other thing he loved to do was eat chocolate, and then get into a spitting match with Matt. They would come home with dark spit stains all over them and Nadine would be furious. I don’t suppose I can blame her though, because she hand washed all of their clothes.
Matt was the baby of the group, his nickname was “Swamp Pants”, because he had the unusual habit of sitting and soiling himself, no matter where he was, until he was 14 years old. One day he missed school bus and came home telling his mom, “I was waiting for the bus, when a rabid dog ran up, and scared me so bad I fainted. When I came to the bus had left”
She believed him, letting him stay home from school. He, being the youngest, was the constant scapegoat for his brothers’ antics, so it’s no wonder he behaved the way he did. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when he gave as good as he got. Like the time he used a can of hairspray like a blowtorch to remove Billy’s eyebrows and eye lashes.
“How did his clothes get up on the roof?”
“We pantsed him and threw his cloths up there as a joke.”
“So, why was Tom in so much of a hurry that he didn’t try to get his pants down from the roof?”
“Did you hear the fire alarm?”
“How could I miss it” In the background the alarm was still going off.
The fire department nearest to my cousins was all volunteer firemen, so it took a while for them to respond to an alarm.
“Tom’s a volunteer fireman, so when he heard the alarm, he was running home to get dressed, so he could respond to the fire.”
So if you lived out near my cousins, and one hot summer day your house caught fire and the fire department seemed a tad slow responding; now you know why.
© Copyright 2010 Neil Leckman