Friday, September 29, 2006

The Other Boy With Brown Hair.

My dad was always running from something. When I look back on it, that’s what growing up with him was like. He hated the government, religion, politicians, Society, people. He really hated people.

In my sophomore year of high school we had moved to Gilmer County where my dad had purchased 120 isolated acres of dense woodland and had put in a driveway. In fact, our “driveway” was a mile-long road leading down to where he’d built our three-bedroom house in the bottom of a valley. And this valley had been so isolated that a bear had lived in it until we drove him out with our noise. Our nearest human neighbor was two-and-a-half miles away; the nearest paved road was four miles distant; the nearest phone was five miles from our door. All of this is true although people scarcely believe me when I tell them these facts in the day of town-homes and apartments and sprawling neighborhoods with houses and shopping centers cheek by jowl.

So, my mom and dad had opened a used bookstore in Chattanooga, which was not too far across the Georgia/Tennessee border and which took about an hour and some change to drive to. My dad had weighed his options and had decided that Chattanooga was a good place to open a bookshop. He’d already opened such stores in Atlanta, Macon, Columbus, and Athens. Those stores were all gone, tribute to how he could screw up a good thing as easily as he could set up a successful business. I guess he just didn’t know how to leave well enough alone.

In the beginning, in the summer months when there wasn’t any school, or on weekends, we’d all ride to the shop and back together: my parents, my younger brother Cliff, and me. We had a big, heavy, four-wheel drive Chevy Blazer with singing mud-tires and a huge V-8 engine. I remember the roads between our house and Chattanooga were surprisingly level, passing between huge, wide valleys and along low plateaus rather than over the mountains that seemed to rise all around us. In the summertime, the woods that stretched on and on were unbelievably green and when the sun was shining bright and golden these flatlands between the peaks would get dreadfully hot. I was always glad for the air-conditioning.

We had made the trip so many times that we now followed it pretty much by rote, and we knew each intersection, each road, and each bend. There were also our favorite places to stop and gas up and buy a soda or a snack if our parents felt like it.

I recall one particularly warm summer day when we pulled in to buy gas at the station where my father liked to stop. The sun was very bright; the air was very heavy, and the breeze nowhere to be felt. Our Blazer had hardly come to a halt before my brother and I were tumbling out to head into the store where we could find our favorite soft drink. As I got out of the SUV (in the days before they were called such) I looked at a kid not much younger than myself who had come to the pump to ask my dad what grade of fuel he wanted and how many gallons or dollars worth he needed. “Fill it up,” my dad told him. A fair boy with light brown hair. To me, at the time, and seeing him just so briefly, he looked sad.

My brother and I picked out our drinks, showed them at the counter, and we quickly retreated to the Blazer. The kid who had pumped the gas was done with that job and was headed back into the store. Cliff and I chattered, fifteen-year-old me, and thirteen-year-old he. We waited for our parents to pay. It was getting hot. As our drink bottles got emptier and the Blazer got hotter, we continued to wait. Outside, a dragonfly buzzed along on the thick, humid air and I could almost hear his wings through the glass. Or I imagined I could.

Finally, our sodas all vanished, the two of us holding empty pop bottles, our parents emerged from the station and they walked toward the vehicle. I looked at them. Born as the seventh and eighth children (the last who were still at home), my brother and I were almost, but not quite, accustomed to having parents who were far older than those of our friends. Watching them walk toward the Blazer, I was reminded again of their mortality. My mom was very fat and completely white-headed. My dad, over six feet tall and still dark-haired possessed an enormous potbelly, and his face was creased with weathered skin that told of each hard day of his years on Earth. Sitting there, looking at them, something seemed wrong.

They climbed into the SUV and my father fired up the engine. Quickly, with a crunching of gravel beneath those huge mud tires, we pulled out of the gas station and onto the highway, headed back toward home again. Still, my parents were silent. I looked at them; Cliff looked at them. My parents were generally full of commentary and conversation. We rode along silently, the tires rolling atop the road, the woods scrolling along endlessly. From the angle I had in the back seat, my mom looked upset, a frown of concern marking her brow.

She turned to me.

“Those people tried to give us that little boy,” she said.

“WHAT?” I blurted it. That made no sense to me. “What do you mean?”

“That little boy who filled up our gas tank wasn’t their son. He’s a foster child.”

“What?” I still didn’t understand. “Aren’t they supposed to take care of him? Who takes care of him?”

“They thought, because your father and I are old, that we had adopted you two. And that we would adopt another kid. They thought we’d want to take that little boy as our own.”

Goddamn, I thought. But I didn’t say it, still not old enough at fifteen to swear in front of my parents. The thoughts running through me then were so many and so varied that I couldn’t voice them. I could not understand how a little boy of twelve could be left with no parents to care for him. I could not understand how he could have no family to love him. I could not understand how he could be in the company of someone who wanted to give him away. I couldn’t understand this at all, except that it seemed to confirm much of my father’s sentiments toward society as a whole, and toward human beings.

We made that trip to Chattanooga and back many more times before that little used bookstore failed and my parents were left with no way to support themselves in their old age. We made that trip over and over until it was obvious the store was not ever going to turn a profit and my parents closed it down for good and retreated to their last redoubt before they faded.

But in the hundreds of times we took that drive, we never again stopped at that particular gas station or went into that particular store or laid eyes upon that particular child. And I was glad for that, because I didn’t want to see the expressions I saw on my parent’s faces on that summer day. The one that now passes over my own as I think back, recalling that other little boy with brown hair, doing his best, I’m sure, to make certain someone might keep him around.


Lawrence Roy Aiken said...

This is one of the best things you've ever written, hands down. Not one note wasted, yet nothing omitted. Brimming full of the sadness that is human existence, and how so much of the misery is just goddamned unnecessary. Respect.

James Robert Smith said...

Thanks. It came out of the period when I had decided to abandon pulp writing. I should probably have stuck with that decision.

Vicki said...

Powerful. Talk about tugging at the emotions.

James Robert Smith said...

Never could find a market for that story. So I just posted it here while I keep looking for a suitable paying home for it.