Willie Smith: One Handful
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Greenbelt, Maryland and left that Yankee-leaning state at age 3 to spend the next 15 of my formative years in Fairfax County, Virginia. In public school I studied Virginia History in the 4th, 7th and 9th Grades. I turned 12 in 1961 and had to fight hard not to get swept up in the Civil War Centennial, as the Gray Ghost kept knocking on my door and attempting to dragoon me into his partisan cavalry to raise hell in the nearby Shenandoah Valley. The first “poem” I ever memorized was Patrick Henry’s GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH! And if this be treason, then let us make the most of it, for sic semper tyrannus! But fear not: I’ve never owned or shot a firearm in my life and I cut my tofurky with a butterknife. At my funeral I should like my name to be writ in lightning bugs, while the bullfrogs croak and the whippoorwill echoes. Please sow the grave with pokeberries and poison ivy.
I’m one handful. One finger for each of my five years…
Sally and I explore the vacant lot behind my backyard. We pick through the brambles to the rusted-out hulk. Crawl in through the doorless opening. Occupy the exposed springs – she on her side, me under the wheel.
The dust settles. The creaking ceases. Struggling to raise my eyes enough to see over the rim, I ask where do we go?
“To the store,” she pronounces. “For dog food, mayonnaise, Briggs hot dogs, and Daddy needs a pack of Chesterfields.”
I sit there thinking. Thinking about thinking. Thinking about signs. Last night on TV Indians signed to tell what they thought. My hands feel like they, too, should be doing something.
“Don’t you know how to start?”
“Yes.” The word drowns thought out. “But I think maybe you better take the wheel.”
We grapple over and under each other. She reaches both hands up onto the wheel. I lounge against the porcupine of buckling springs.
“We’re married now. My feet won’t reach. This isn’t a good car. You need to get down on the floor and push the pedal.”
I stare out the windowless window. Blackberry branches outside the sagging chassis tangle the view. ARE the view. Except for an emerald spider at the center of a web. Plus a dozen flies that worry the hard green fruit.
Her barefeet dangle above the floorboard. My hand might break through, even if I could find the accelerator under the debris accumulated in over fifteen more years than I have so far lived. Fifteen rattles around inside my skull – larger than two, taller than three (the youngest I can recall being), wider than five.
A crumb of glass still in the frame of the vent catches the sun.
“We need,” I say to the sunsquint, “gas.”
“BRUM! BRUM!” she says. “We can make a station on the fumes.”
A robin from inside the thicket chirps. A fly grazes the web. Bounces off. The spider jitters like a teen snapped up in Elvis blared on American Bandstand. Sis – seven years my senior, addicted to Dick Clark. Frenzies in her socks before the tube when she thinks nobody can see; but I’m under a table or otherwise like right now dreaming.
“Okay. We’re at the pump. Get out. Stick the nozzle in the tank. Fill ‘er up.”
I climb out the window. Amble around to the hole where the gas used to go. A spider lives there, too – black, fat; scarlet patch.
“Don’t take all day, Bill,” her little voice ekes out of the ruined car. “Gotta get back out on the road. The baby comes home early from the doctor. I need to be home for the baby.”
Bill is what Sally’s mom calls Mr. Sally’s-mom. The spider is called a widow; because one day she ate her husband.
I forget where we are, what we are doing. But onto one fact I latch: we are too young for a baby.
“Let’s go,” I yell at the widow, who scrambles deep down inside the jagged hole, “see a movie!”
I’m squeezing back up into the front seat, as she’s mumbling, “What – a drive-in?” She clears her throat, frowns at the hub of the corroded wheel, “That depends. What’s playing – do you even know?”
Titles like The Hideous Sun Demon, The Mole People, Tarantula, run through my mind, the way a sword runs through a thief. But they are too long and complicated to say. And why do swords and movies both run through? Not to mention why a naked person and a bear both run through the woods. Would it matter if “run through” reflected always the same energy?
Are we in the car, or in the brambles, or in the vacant lot? Does it make, what we are in, of difference a lot?
“You sure are stupid sometimes, Bill. You just sit there and stare into space. Is there even ANYTHING inside your head?”
“I’m not Bill.”
“Of course you are. We’re married. Don’t be stupid.”
At the drive-in we get more married than ever. We cross back over so I am once again behind the wheel. She says only that way is it right to kiss. Insists we wait till right before the guy boards the train to go off to war.
“This is a monster movie.”
“Then we wait till the girl screams.”
Time passes. Long, fat, gooey minutes; when a minute is still a significant slice of life so far lived. The robin flits across the warped frame where a windshield once separated the inside of the Ford from the outside world. Disappears into the brambles. I wonder why nothing is happening, why we are sitting here, why we are we: Sally and me, two kids, both quiet, neither moving. The robin, muffled and invisible inside the blackberries, chirps.
“Is there something…”
“Hush!” she cuts me off. “We’re waiting for the girl to scream. The monster is peeking through her window. It’s after dark. She just took off her dress. When she starts to unroll her undies, that’s when she’ll spot the slobbery monster and she’ll scream and we can…”
“This is boring.” Not really. I’m actually getting excited. But kissing is for the birds. I’m a boy, a real boy. Only sissies kiss… I think.
“Penny for your thoughts?” she smiles up at me, her little hand dropping onto my shoulder, claiming me for hers, boxing me in for the smacker.
I leap out of the hulk, shoving her back as I leap. The girl screams. I tumble into the thorns. The robin shrieks, darts over my head, over the car roof, into the oblong of blue above the bushes.
I scream. Start to bawl and yowl, thrashing around, screaming louder.
When my older sister finds us, following all the noise into the heart of the vacant lot, Sally is standing over me, hands on hips, shaking her head.
“What did you do to him?” Sis blurts; grinning in spite of herself at her baby brother caught helplessly in the stickers – sticking himself more and more with each angry, frustrated, terrified thrash.
“We got married.” Sally shrugs up at Sis. “You know how men are – he didn’t like it.”