Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in backwoods Mississippi, and spent my youth bouncing between my homestate, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia. I also spent some time in Florida, but many consider it to be a lost corner of the North, so I won’t list it as one of my Southern roots.
I currently reside in the Pacific Northwest, but am moving to Virginia because Northerners are unbearable.
I was eight years old when my brother died, and though I told myself it wasn’t my fault, it was. The guilt dragged me down throughout my growing up years, almost drowning me once.
I was alone, you see. Our momma died of a broken heart, and I didn’t know my daddy. After Momma was gone, I was taken by the State, but when I turned eighteen, they let me go.
I found a job milking heifers for this fair that went all over. It wasn’t something a lot of people thought about—milking heifers. But they were brought to the fair to be sold or to compete with other heifers, you know, and they were without their calves, so they got no relief. So my job was just to sit beside them, reach for their privates, and squeeze. I poured the milk out, or gave it to their owners at the end of the day. I got paid well enough, and I got room and board, and I got to go to all kind of places with the fair people—circus and rodeo people, and the folks who ran the arcade games. They were nice. And people tended to ignore me, so I was never bothered too much.
Well, we were in Florida, in the fairgrounds near a big city, but there were lots of country people that had driven in to sell and buy. The day had been good—one of the heifers I had milked won a blue ribbon. 2nd place. I liked to think it was because of me, you know, that she hadn’t been distracted by her milk, so she could look pretty enough to win.
From my stool where I milked the heifers, I could only see people’s shoes. They dashed across the stall or meandered by real slow. I saw lots of different kinds. One pair caught my eye—they were boy’s shoes, blue, with the Velcro that trains you for laces. They had some kind of cartoon animal on them, too, a kind of dog: big-eyed, with a cheesy grin. I wondered if Fred—that was my brother—would have liked that cartoon. We spent every Saturday morning watching cartoons, when he was still here.
Well, I started noticing that these cartoon shoes weren’t just walking. They were going real slow, right behind a stroller and some women sandals. I heard a woman voice snap at him—snap in the way my brother and I always hated, you know, like everything was your fault—and the boy’s shoes got even slower until they stopped in front of my stall.
I heard the boy talking to the heifer. He didn’t see me. They never do. I didn’t want to scare him or nothing, so I stayed quiet and stopped milking. I grew up on a farm, I knew sometimes all a boy needed was to talk to an animal.
I was wondering if I should wave to his momma or something so she’d know where he was. I scanned the shoes for the sandals and was getting ready to stand so I could look for her, when some business loafers came up to the cartoon shoes. They were real close to me, but the barn was loud, and I couldn’t hear what the man was saying to the boy.
I figured he was his daddy when the loafers led the cartoon shoes away. I started milking again, but something wasn’t right—I kept watching them, and the cartoon shoes couldn’t keep up with the loafers. I heard a small voice protest, and the man spat something short and mean. The boy got real quiet.
A new rush of shoes made the cartoon shoes disappear. I tried to keep milking, but the boy’s voice bothered me. There was fear in it. A boy shouldn’t be that scared of his daddy.
I finished with the heifer and stood up. I had to follow them—just to make sure that boy was alright. I could see the crowd, but I couldn’t find the cartoon shoes. I bent back down beneath the heifer, and looked again. I saw them near the arena, where everyone was heading—the rodeo was starting soon.
I scrambled up, knocking over the bucket I had just filled. The milk spread, staining the hay.
I didn’t have time to worry about it or clean it up, I just left the stall. The crowd was bad, but I found the cartoon shoes again. They were on a boy with hair colored like coffee. He had chubby arms. His T-shirt had the same cartoon face as his shoes, and his shorts had grass and mud on him, like he had just rolled around on the ground.
His face kinda turned towards me. I had never seen eyes so wide. He looked like he was meeting the Grim Reaper. I looked for his momma, the women sandals, but couldn’t find her.
The man leading him, the man with the loafers, was regular-looking. He had that pale hair that made people look bald, and his eyebrows were low on his face, like he was angry. And he was clean. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on him.
And he was gripping the boy’s wrist so hard his knuckles were white.
I followed all the people, keeping my eyes on the boy. The man was moving fast. The boy couldn’t keep up—sometimes he was completely dragged along the dirt floor.
I didn’t know why no one else saw what I did. Why no one noticed.
Something ran into my heels—I jerked back and then got hit again. It was a stroller. It was pushed by a girl near-screaming with laughter. The baby inside it was screaming, too, but not happily. Way back in the crowd, a woman called, “Annie! Annie!”
My God, I thought. The whole fair has gone mad.
I grabbed the stroller, yanking it and the girl to a stop. The woman managed to catch up to us, puffing and gasping for breath.
“Thank you,” she said to me, then yanked the girl’s hands off the stroller handlebars. “How dare you, I’ve told you…”
When I turned around, the man and boy were gone. The mass of people had swallowed them.
I scrambled up a stall to look over the crowd. They couldn’t have disappeared—I couldn’t have lost the boy—
More and more people were coming. Groups of them gathered in front of stalls to inspect the heifers and bulls inside who had won contests. Already people were fighting over the cows, yanking out wallets and waving them in the air, some shoving others aside.
I had an idea. I jumped down. I let myself into one of the stalls and scooted past the heifer. I crawled under the slats of the stall and went into the next one. I scanned shoes as I went along, crawling and looking. My knees got sore, and my fingers were full of dung and hay. My head pounded, and sweat dripped into my eyes, but I still couldn’t find the cartoon shoes.
An angry sound made me look up. It came from a bull. A very mad bull.
I knew the last stall on this row was a bull’s—but I thought—well, I must have counted wrong. The bull moved its horns up and down. I was on my hands and knees before it. I felt like an ant staring up at a boy about to stomp on it.
As far as I could figure, the least crazy thing to do was to stand and jump over the stall. I would land in the hallway, scaring the crowd, but I would be okay. But the time it would take me to do that might be time enough for those horns to get me.
I looked at where the stall ended, two feet away.
The bull huffed, grunted, like he was impatient.
I scooted across the stall, my hands sliding in mud and dung. I heard the bull behind me. It was moving towards me. I threw myself under the slats, and my middle hit the concrete of the walkway. I thought I was good until something heavy and sharp landed on my leg.
When it let up, I shoved my legs out. The bull charged against the stall, making the slats shake.
My leg looked bad. The bull had stomped on the shin. Blood spread over my jeans. It felt like it was about to burst. I opened my mouth to shout in pain, and reached toward my leg like I could do anything to help—when I spotted tiny cartoon shoes. They were being dragged toward the side exit door that led to the docking area.
I grabbed the slats of the stall so I could stand. The bull, seeing me, snorted in anger, and I felt his breath on my knuckles.
I pushed away the tears of pain streaming down my cheeks. The man shoved the boy outside, the door banging shut behind them.
People stared at me as I passed, as I limped towards the door. The heat and stench of the barn was too much. Sweat burned my eyes—I reached the door and shoved it open.
A rush of wind hit me, hot as an open oven. I was blind for a minute in the sheer white of the sunlight.
The rest of the fair was on the other side of the barn. Laughter, arcade game sounds, and the smell of frying food drifted over. They were all so far away, it was like a dream, one you couldn’t really remember.
The docking lot was dry and bare. It was where all the behind-the-scenes of the fair were kept. Eighteen-wheelers and trailers stood in nice rows along the edge. A wire fence was wrapped around the whole thing, and past it were just trees—endless trees. And there was nothing else except the white noise of cicadas and the buzz of mosquitos and the occasional heartbeat of a frog croak, sounds of the swamp, sounds of home.
A yard or so in front of me, the man dragged the boy. They were headed towards a car in the middle of the lot. They must not have heard the door reopen, because the man just kept walking. The boy was crying now. Each sob of his hurt me, hurt more than my leg, which felt like it was likely to fall off.
“Stop,” I said. My voice sounded eerie. “Stop. Stop!”
The man stopped. He turned, but relaxed when he saw me.
“Who are you?” He laughed. “The stable boy?”
The boy’s eyes held mine like they were the only good things in the world.
“Let go of him,” I said.
A grin flashed across the man’s face. He fumbled with his waistband before pulling out a gun. He pointed it at me.
“Let him go,” I said. The boy was pulling away from the man, trying to get to me.
“This boy’s my son,” the man said, but the boy cried, “He’s not, my mom was going to the rodeo and he said—“
The man yanked the boy’s arm to make him stop and the boy fell but he kept going, “He said he’d hurt me and I don’t—“
The man shook the boy hard, so hard he fell quiet. But his eyes bore into mine, as wide and hopeful and scared as the stars.
The man said, “Go back inside before you get hurt.”
The gun was still pointed at me, but I walked forward. My leg raged.
“Let him go.”
And there I was again, eight years old with the whole world around me. Fred was running across our field, towards the hole our potter had put in just the other day. I knew it, but Fred must have forgotten—I yelled at him to stop. But since I was the one chasing him and he was the one running, he just laughed. You can’t get me, Jimmy!
I screamed. I swear to God, I screamed. And that boy, my brother, he just looked back at me and laughed.
I fell to my knees, when it happened, when he fell. He was there in front of me, then he was gone. I watched my brother drop, disappear. I heard the crunch of his tiny body as it landed in the bottom of the pit. And I kept hearing, like an echo, all through the police investigation and my momma’s sickness and my strange foster families—all I heard was that laugh. Fred, forever trusting of his big brother to keep him from evil. Never knowing until the very last minute that I had been chasing him towards it.
Before me, the boy’s features blurred, morphing until he was Fred, exactly the way he had been that last afternoon: playful, brash, teasing.
The boy was my Fred and my Fred was in danger. Again, in danger. My funny Fred, always in danger…I ran. My leg screamed, but I pretended not to hear, I just kept going. The gun went off, but it was aimed at where I had been, not where I was now, halfway to the man, that man, that monster-man who held Fred like an oath.
The man’s eyes were wide. He was not expecting a big brother to come to the rescue. Fred struggled against his loosening grip.
The man squinted and moved his arm and I looked down the barrel of the gun.
I was five steps away. Five steps from him. My shoes slipping on the concrete, on the blood that poured from my left shin—I lunged and I fell onto him.
He fell on his back. The gun went off. I shoved myself up and straddled him. I slammed my shaking fists into his face.
“You hurt my brother! You hurt my brother!”
Fred yelled something. The man was gasping and his left hand searched for his gun. I screamed until I lost all words. The man grabbed his gun, he had it.
I felt a sharp something in my side, heard the firecracker of a shot. Fire leapt across my middle, and my hands stilled, I crumpled to the ground, my head knocking against the concrete.
I looked up. Everything was vibrating, like God couldn’t decide what he wanted to happen. I saw Fred tackle the man, I saw the man push him away. And I could see, far away, a dozen versions of the side exit door opened. People came out, people were in the lot. People were grabbing the man, people were yanking his gun away. People were pulling at Fred, checking on him, but Fred ran to me. And somewhere in the distance, a small voice.
“Are you okay?”
Fred touched my shoulder softly, like he was afraid of breaking me.
“I’m alright, Fred.” I wanted to say it, but I’m not sure I did—breathing was getting hard, and there was a roar that was coming like drums from an incoming army, a rush of water as the tide came in.
“You’re bleeding,” Fred said, and I nodded, and he touched my forehead and said, “I’ll make it better,” and I think I said, “Yeah, you will.”
I felt dark hands wrestling with me; I was so tired and weak. But I had to keep awake, I had to say: “Fred, I want to tell you—“
“I love you,” Fred said. “I know, and I love you.”
My brother was leaning over me, running his small, sweet hands over my face.
“Jimmy,” he smiled, and I was gone.