A gritty story of a 12 year olds experience with horror in a small town.
Learning To Roll
Lightning bugs had returned to warm the cool evenings with their intermittent flashing of coded signals out in the yard and across the garden. The ceaseless symphonies of grasshoppers had also made their way back into the world. They entertained during the daylight hours and only yielded the stage at night to the rude and determined insistence of the katydids and frogs. The year was 1966. I had just succeeded in barely squeaking past the sixth grade, setting a precedent that I would repeat for years to come. I blamed the teachers, of course. I had been placed that year with the remedial class; the ones who needed extra help. School had always been a struggle. I went to school mainly to hang out with friends, and of course, because Mom insisted. Mom was tough as nails about things like that. I was about to become a full-fledged teenager that summer, and my not being able to memorize the multiplication table or know a noun from a verb was the last thing on my mind. I was more interested in keeping company with others who had a like opinion of themselves.
My interests that summer were base, lowbrow, and despised by those who regularly polished their shoes and went to bricked-up churches on Sunday. I wanted to learn to smoke a cigarette while holding it with just my lips and not getting smoke in my eyes. Old Man Leon Summers was a master of this, though his fingertips were dark yellow with nicotine-stain. There was so much I didn't know and understand. I wanted to learn to shoot pool with my left index finger hooked over the cue the way the old guys did. I wanted to learn how to make a tight rack and to shoot good English. I wanted the attention of those old men who never seemed to leave the pool hall; the ones who were never in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything. It was the summer I would get my first taste of shop-lifting and sneaking into the high school through the crawl spaces for the dark thrill of challenging the forbidden just to explore the unknown. And it was the time that Shucks Shepherd would introduce me to the world of rolling drunks.
Shucks lived no more than a five minute run from my house. We could walk it in twelve. I was always going to his place but he rarely, if ever, came to mine. Mom did not like him. Shucks was fourteen years old, but because he had failed a couple of grades we wound up in the same blended sixth grade class. I admired him, and for a brief time that year he was my hero. He was bigger, faster, and a whole lot stronger. I always thought he looked like a really white, very pimpled version of Geronimo, the Apache Indian. His face looked like someone had tried to squeeze it flat from the top down. His eyes were small, deep set and his nose spread out across his face.
We had been out of school about a week and a half for summer break one morning when I was expected to arrive early at Shucks' home. But getting away from my home was not to be an all together easy task.
“Bobby, did you get all the eggs in?!” Mom spoke sharply, as she came into the yard letting the garden gate bang and echo against the hill behind her. Setting her big basket of wet laundry on the ground, she turned and addressed me as firmly as a fierce drill sergent. Putting her strong hands on her hips she screwed her face into a stern question mark and waited.
“Yes ma’am. I got all of’em,” I said crossing my heart with my finger as reassurance, “And I got the bugs off the ‘taters and put down fresh manure. So, can I go now that I’m all done?”
“Alright. You can go to the high rocks with Timmy and Phillip, but..” She stooped and put a finger in my face, “…not Shucks Shepherd!” As she always did when she drew the line in the dirt for me, her left eye squinched closed and mouth twisted. “You understand me, Bobby.” She directed. “You need to understand me right now. Shucks aint your friend and he aint never going to be your friend. He….is….not….permitted. Period! Now, I’ve got washing to finish and three squirrels to clean that your brother killed this morning. Go on and get out of here and be back before four o’clock.”
Like a squirrel I was gone; flashing out of the hollow and in no time I was knocking at Shucks’ door. Once inside, I found Backer Hall and his mom were visiting. I never liked Backer. There was something about him that reminded me of hogs. His unchanging daily cycle of activities were eating, watching television, and going to the bathroom. Bathing was not included anywhere in his life or vocabulary. He had dropped out of school when he was fifteen and I'm sure the teachers were glad. I know I was. The fact that Shucks liked him was the first brick pulled from the pedestal's foundation that I had placed him on. As soon as I came in the door Shucks stood up. Others were sprawled about the living room watching television. The window shades were still pulled low. The smell was a nasty mix of fried bacon and Backer’s body odor.
Shucks said, "Let's go Backer."
Backer's and Shucks' Moms both said, at the same time, "Where you all going?”
"For your information dear mother", he said while pulling on his shirt, "we're going to see a man about a dog and we'll tell you all about it when we get back."
If I had said that to my Mom, I would be out back cutting a long switch.
"But your little friend just got here, Shucks, and now you're gonna run off on him?" his mother whined.
"No I'm not", Shucks shot back. He laughed and looked over at me, "He's going with us to hold the dog."
I did a stuttering nervous laugh. The three of us left the house and headed for town.
In the thirty minutes or more that it took us to walk to the corner in town, Shucks laid out our plans for the day as he passed out cigarettes and complained that we were going to have to start buying our own.
Today, he said he would teach me how to roll a drunk. How to kiss up and win their trust. How to pretend you were drinking with them, then as soon as they passed-out turn their pockets inside out and leave them where they lay. He was unusually excited. Apparently someone had come by his home last night, did some drinking with his dad and shown that he had nearly five hundred dollars in his wallet. He wouldn't tell us until we got to town that this certain someone was Harless Slone, a certified criminal and number one meanest man in the whole county if not the entire state. He said he overheard Harless tell his dad that he was going to be on the corner in the morning if he wanted to come down and do some more drinking. Shucks' plan was for us to be there before Harless and become his buddies for the day, or at least until he passed-out. The corner was deserted when we arrived. There was no one around except for a few of the older guys down in the poolroom.
The corner was just that, a town block corner at the main intersection of town. The corner was surrounded by the usual small town enterprises such as hardware, drug, and grocery stores. Train tracks ran the full length of the front street and twice daily carried a transport of coal through town. If you were talking when the train came through you usually wound up in what could appear to be a shouting match. The poolroom served as the main attraction and supplier of occupants for the corner, thus the substantial litter of cigarette butts and pop and beer cans squashed flat and scattered about. The corner had its own odor. It was an ancient musk of wet cigarette tobacco, beer, sweat, and an occasional deposit of liquid bodily excretion. Mothers and the business folk despised the corner as well as those who went to hang out there.
Shucks took a drag on his Winston, leaned his head back, and blew three smoke rings toward the fading morning clouds. He watched without much interest as they drifted away. Hocking up phlegm he spat a solid bullet to his left side. Backer and I watched and waited. The irregular sound of pool balls clicked down in the poolroom. Shucks stuck his cigarette in his mouth, shoved his hands in his blue-jean pockets, rolled his shoulders and walked away a few steps. Backer stared at his dirty converse ball-shoes. I squatted on the corner and began tracing the cracks and pebbles in the concrete with my finger. A little brown bird landed across the street and began scratching through pop can tabs and cigarette butts. Sitting low to the ground it was easier to detect the old smell of beer and urine. The first thumping blast of the morning train coming into the south end of town brought our attention back up the street. Shucks was coming back in a hurry. “He’s on his way, y'all remember I’ll do the talking." he said.
Harless Slone always looked like what I thought to be a Gypsy. He was tall, dark skinned, with dark eyes and ragged coal black hair that hung down around his collar. He had a rolling gait that made me think of a stalking Puma I had seen on television and projected the same characteristic sense of danger. I had never known or heard of anyone that was not afraid of the man. Shucks said Harless was around forty years old, but his face looked older, and still he had a whip-thin muscular body that belonged on a high school football jock.
Shucks looked around at me and hissed, “Stay here and don’t say anything, me and Backer will talk with him." Good for me. I didn’t want to talk with him anyway. I didn’t even want him to know my name. All of a sudden I just wanted to be home. Shucks and Backer walked out to meet Harless, did an about face and matched his stride until they stopped about fifteen feet away. I watched Harless’ eyes. He had dead, mean eyes that looked at you the way a wild animal does when you run up on one in the dark. I kept on tracing cracks in the concrete while watching them out of the corner of my eye. Shucks was talking but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Backer just stood there looking at his feet, Jesus, Backer stank, and on a Sunday morning I could smell him from fifteen feet away. Harless glanced at me once and I froze, not daring to move. I didn’t look up anymore until I heard them moving toward me. When I did dare a quick glance my stomach went sick. Harless was looking straight at me. His eyes were half closed and he looked like he was grinning, if it were possible for him to ever do such a thing. It kind of reminded me of a lizard with its mouth barely cracked open. Shucks stepped up beside me, and as I stood he dropped his arm around my shoulder. He shouted into my ear while pretending to look around at the train, “Don't worry, it’s gonna work. He got paid yesterday, and he’s got a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. All we’re going to do is go over to the Swag until he drinks the rest of it, then he's gonna let us go get him some more. He’ll be passed out before three o’clock.” Shucks squeezed my shoulder and winked, then turned back to Harless. I didn’t say anything. I knew I was nothing but a gnat in a small swarm of dragonflies who all of a sudden just wanted to go home and eat Ma’s Sunday squirrel dinner.
I don’t know why or how the Swag ever came to be called that but it was a name that fit. It was nothing but a dirt path to the creek at a low point on the west Flag road where town drunks and winos could remove themselves from the judging stares of the public. Consequently, the odor of the Swag was about a hundred times what it was on the corner over in town and the resident green flies and mosquitoes were always ready for a picnic. It was not a place I ever went alone.
About 20 minutes after we left the corner, we stepped off west Flag road and started down into the Swag. Harless hadn’t said more than two words that I could hear on the walk over, but he and Shucks whispered nearly the entire time. I had trailed in my usual end of the line position, which was satisfying to me considering Backer was at least five feet away and there were no breezes stirring. I had occupied my walking time by imagining how much my share of the money would be after we rolled Harless; strange that I gave no thought to him ever hunting us down later on. The horseweeds in the Swag were tall and the low hanging tree leaves quickly hid us from view of the road. I could smell the creek as soon as we stepped onto the dirt path; creeks always smelled like mud and worms, and then the Swag added its own unique odors. Just before we got to the creek the path widened out where former visitors had built and resurrected many a campfire. Two dead and rotting logs were lying on either side of the path.
Harless flopped to the ground on the right side of the path and lay back against the log. There were several spots on the ground around the edges of the clearing where some folks had gone to the bathroom. Harless hadn't even looked before sitting; untelling what he sat on. I went to the opposite side and carefully chose a not so dirty place on the log and sat down. Shucks didn't like that and told me to come over and sit with them. The old man reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a brown paper poke that held his bottle of wine. He peeled the paper bag down around the bottle the way you would peel a banana, unscrewed the cap and placed the top against his lips. When he drank he sucked at the bottle the way I recalled seeing Lucy Seller's baby nursing her once when I opened her back door without knocking. For some reason, watching him nurse his wine bottle was just as embarrassing. Harless handed the bottle to Shucks who took a little pull and then handed it on to Backer. Jesus, I was going to have to drink after Backer. I pretended, keeping my lips together in hopes of keeping out any germs
Before the bottle could come back around I stood and said, "I'll be back in a minute." "Where the hell you going?" Shucks demanded. "I gotta piss really bad Shucks", I pleaded, anything to keep from drinking after Backer again. "Just checking," Shucks said with a plastic grin, "put out a fire for me, but hurry right back."
I walked down to the creek bank and stood leaning behind and against an old Willow tree acting like I was peeing. I looked back only once and saw the three of them huddled together, making the deal I hoped. For a couple of minutes I really wanted to take out across the creek and run all the way home.
"Come on damnit," Shucks hollered, “what are you trying to do piss out your guts." I started back up the path being careful not to step in anything and found Shucks coming my way. He put his arm around my shoulder and whispered, “He’s gonna give me and Backer $30.00 to go buy some more wine and he wants some beer too, but he's still got over three hundred dollars in his pocket that we can get when he passes out. The thing is he won't agree to us going unless one of us stays with him." I was starting to feel very scared. "Now Backer's seventeen years old and looks thirty so he has to go," Shucks continued, "and I would stay and let you go with him, but you can't run as fast as I can so I want you to stay here. Me and Backer can run all the way up to Lonzo's, get the stuff, and run all the way back in about thirty minutes."
Shucks had a way of always telling me what I was going to do as if I really had a choice. I knew then that I should have cut that creek wide open. I was going to be left alone in the Swag with a man that had killed and raped and spent time in a prison. I was twelve years old and on the edge of crying. I kept my face down so that Shucks would not call me a coward if he saw my lips start to tremble. He slapped me on the shoulder and said, "We'll be back before you can count to a hundred." He ran back and said something to Harless, who pulled out a wad of money that Shucks took without counting. It looked like a lot more than just thirty dollars. He and Backer took off without even looking back at me. They were out of sight before I took another step.
I walked back, slowly aiming for the opposite side of the path from Harless, and sat down casting a quick glance at him. He looked like he was asleep with his hand half raised and still holding the empty wine bottle. Several minutes passed. I didn't want to breathe while losing myself in the thought of running away as fast as I could. The only thing that kept me there was the knowing I would catch hell from Shucks if I left and caused us to lose three hundred dollars. "Hey!" I believe my heart literally stopped in that first moment when Harless shouted, "Come yherrrr boy!" I looked up and straight into the dead eyes of a very scary man who all of a sudden looked sober as a judge. I don’t know why, but I suddenly noticed his denim jacket sleeves were rolled up and he had these huge blood veins roped around his forearms.
“Wha-wha-what do you want?" I stuttered as I stood and began edging away. My legs didn’t want to work.
“By-Gawd, I told you to get your fucking ass over here and don’t make me say it again!"
At that moment I felt I was hearing a voice straight from the literal hell Ma had so often described for me. Whether it was real or not my mind saw Harless Slone transforming into a demon that I had only known in my nightmares. I walked slowly to him, already disassociating myself from the world. I was aware that his eyes had gone half closed and he was doing that lizard grin again.
From a distance I felt his iron grip close on my smooth, white right arm. He brought his face close to mine. His breath was a rancid mix of wine and outhouse. “You’re a purty little thang aint’cha.” He growled, “Them boys said you was really good at sucking cock, and you’re gonna take care of mine right now." I woke up at that announcement. Something like fire went through my body, starting at the top of my head and traveling straight into the ground through my feet leaving me with the strength of a pissed off bull dog. I jerked my right arm loose from his grip and turned to run, but he held my shirt and was pulling me back.
Just as I was breaking free from my shirt Harless grabbed my hair and yanked me off my feet. It felt like he had torn my head off my shoulders. The sharpness of the pain splashed tears across my face.
As I was falling, in slow motion, I heard the sweetest and most terrifying voice I have ever heard in my life.
“Harless Slone!” She rasped. “My boy, Bobby, came here today to learn an important lesson, but I don’t think I’m gonna let you play teacher anymore. Now, if you wanta keep that nasty-assed hand you better take it off my young’n, right now!”
As I hit the ground, I saw the muzzle of Papaw’s old .22 caliber rifle over by the narrow trail from the road. To his detriment, Harless didn’t let go of my hair. I heard a light thapping noise, as the bullet hit his hand just above my head. Then I heard the crack of the rifle. He let go, but never so much as grunted.
“May Wallen,” he hissed, cradling his bleeding hand inside his shirt. “I should have cut yore throat twenty years ago 'stead of having to do it today.” With his good hand he drew a long heavy knife from the back of his pants.
A loud metallic click sounded as my older brother, Jimmy, walked slowly up from the creek aiming Daddy’s 12 gauge shotgun at Harless.
“I aint got no time fer this Harless. If you wanta die let’s get it over with ‘cause I got a whole basket full of ironing to do. Yore choice.”